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Neil suspected always sleeping with one eye open all those years was what had kept the nightmares at bay.

After their victory over the Ravens, after Riko's life was snuffed out for good, the Foxes caught a few hours of sleep in a hotel and then hightailed it back to South Carolina in the late morning with friends and family following in rental cars. Kevin stayed behind in West Virginia for the funeral and Wymack stayed with him to try to hold him together. Even after a night in the hotel and some short naps on the ride home, the Foxes were exhausted by the time they dragged themselves back into the Tower. Neil fell face-first onto his mattress and sank like a stone into a heavy, numbing sleep. The feeling of warm relief, the fresh possibility of a real future rolled out before him, unlocked the tension that had hummed in his veins for as long as he could remember.

Neil's father was dead. Riko was dead. All the people Neil had ever pretended to be were dead too. They rose like vengeful ghosts in Neil's vulnerable subconscious. Bloodstained, agonizing memories were dragged out into the forefront of his dream, one after another. Knives. A hot iron. The weight of an ax on his throat. His father's eyes. Andrew's fingers digging into a headboard. The awful last gasp his mother took. “4” on his face. “0” on the screen of his phone. Handcuffs. Cruel hands dragging him away from the Foxes. Fear. Pain. Fire. I didn't get to say good-bye.

Neil startled awake, panting and soaked in cold sweat. The memory of his own screams rang in his ears for a few long moments before giving way to the sound of Nicky and Erik's light snoring on the other side of the room. His heart slammed furiously against the wall of ice in his chest.

Going back to sleep in sweaty sheets and lingering terror sounded less appealing than moving his aching body. As usual, his first thought was of the pint-sized goalkeeper in the loft above, who was just as exhausted as he was. Disturbing him was an unfortunate inevitability, but Neil knew if Andrew didn't want to get up he wouldn't. Once his breathing was even and his heart no longer felt like it was going to punch out of his chest, Neil peeled back the blankets and put his feet over the edge. His whole body throbbed like one giant bruise as he moved. He held his breath. Pain shot from the soles of his feet to his hips and then splintered in white-hot lines up his back as he stole across the carpet.

He didn't breathe again until he was out in the living room. He found his way to the kitchenette in the dark and turned on the light, hoping it wouldn't shine through the cracks around the bedroom door and disturb the others. His head felt stuffy from too many hours of fitful sleep. The clock said it was two in the morning and he wasn't sure if staying awake to avoid his nightmares was really worth ruining his sleep schedule even further.

Neil's hands shook as he filled a glass with water and gulped it down to try to ease the tightness in his throat. He could almost still feel the heavy press of a dull blade against his neck and a hard shudder ran through him at the thought.

It's over, he reminded himself. All the lies, all the desperate running to stay alive, was behind him for good. He had a home now- he had the Foxes and Andrew and a real name. He felt like he finally made it onto the ledge he'd been dangling off of for years.

The adrenaline that had kept him sharp enough to survive was leeching out of his system, though, and that meant trouble for his half-crumbled psyche. He knew he would have to deal with the psychological fallout of all he'd been through. He just hoped he could do it quietly.

It shouldn't have been a surprise when Andrew appeared in the doorway, sleep-rumpled and squinting against the light. His long-sleeved shirt fit him enough to hint at the shape of his arms and chest; his legs were vague ideas lost in the bagginess of his sweatpants and the hems pooled around his feet enough that only his bare toes poked out. There were still pillow lines in his cheek and a few tufts of hair were sticking straight up. The sight of him was enough to loosen some of the knots in Neil's chest.

An apology perched at the tip of Neil's tongue, but before it could tumble out of his mouth Andrew turned and padded out into the main room. Neil abandoned his water and followed. The television was on, the volume set almost too low to hear, and Andrew was slumped into a beanbag. He stared blearily at whatever show was playing and didn't spare Neil a glance as he sank into the beanbag next to him. As Neil fell asleep to the low drone of TV chatter, he didn't focus on all the unfairness, torment, and fear of his past, but of how right it felt having Andrew by his side and the surreal happiness of still being alive. The warmth of it couldn't chase away all the nasty shadows lurking in his skull, but it was enough to allow him some peace.

When Neil woke again it was eight and he could smell coffee brewing. A blanket he didn't remember grabbing covered his body neatly and the beanbag Andrew had slept in was pulled up against his. Andrew wasn't beside him anymore, but Neil could hear him shuffling around in the kitchen. Smiling softly, Neil pulled the blanket higher over his shoulders and closed his eyes, allowing himself a few more moments of rest.

Chapter Text

The school year ended and Neil's life didn't. The Foxes set off in their different directions with unspoken agreements to text and call often. Even Andrew's lot broke apart instead of staying together at Abby's. Aaron went home with Katelyn to spend a few weeks with her family in her hometown. Nicky went to Germany to enjoy some well-deserved quality time with Erik. When Neil saw him last, Nicky had hugged him so tight it took him almost a full minute to get his lungs to properly inflate again. Neil tried to squash the stab of loneliness when he thought of the others with their families. He did his best to focus on finals instead of on memories of his mother that came bubbling to the surface unbidden and shaded by the sting of loss that would never really go away.

Kevin stayed at Abby's and, though he tried to hide it, he was still struggling with Riko's death. The others still didn't understand his mourning- Aaron was openly resentful and Nicky wasn't shy about voicing his opinions. Neil and Andrew, however, were silently satisfied with his death and both were ready to put it past them. Neil replayed the memory of the bullet punching a hole through Riko's sadistic brain like it was his favorite movie, but he never mentioned this out loud to anyone.

Neil didn't have a plan in mind for the few weeks of summer vacation. All he was certain of was that wherever Andrew went that's where he'd go as well. Maybe it was the other way around. At some point an unspoken agreement had solidified between them; they would never be apart, not if they could help it. Outside of classes and Andrew's appointments with Bee, they were attached at the hip much like Andrew and Kevin had been the previous year.

A few days before the dorms were set to close, Andrew and Neil stood together on the roof of Fox Tower. Andrew's cigarette was propped between his lips. Neil's was held between his fingers. The campus below buzzed with activity as the students prepared to leave.

Andrew plucked his cigarette from his mouth and simply stated, “I'm thinking of going to Columbia for a bit.” He studied the cigarette for a moment before dropping it. There was no obvious invitation in his words, but Neil heard it anyway.

“Columbia sounds good,” he said. “How long is a bit?”

Andrew shrugged, stamped out his cigarette, and went back inside. Neil put out his own cigarette and followed him. It wasn't long before they'd packed up Andrew's car and put Palmetto State behind them.

“You know any good places to run near the house?” Neil asked. They would be away from the court, but Neil didn't mind it as much as he thought he would. He had Andrew and all the time in the world.

“Running is your specialty, not mine,” Andrew replied.

“You can come with me if you want.”

“The fuck makes you think I'd want to do that?”

Neil smirked. “You could stare at my ass.”

“I could push your ass into traffic.”

Neil turned to the window to hide his smile. He rested his head against the glass and felt the vibration rattle in his teeth as he watched the scenery blur past. It was such a bizarre thing to have a forever rolled out before him, a forever with a family and a home and Andrew, a forever that he could fall into headlong without worrying about his father or the other demons that had always been nipping at his heels as he ran. He could stay, he could go, but he'd never have to run, hide, fight like hell, run again.

“Hey, Dopey, what's the sigh for?”

Neil lifted his head to look over at Andrew, who still looked bored and detached. The fact that he was asking at all gave away his curiosity, though.

“Just thinking,” Neil answered vaguely, just so Andrew would have to ask again.

Andrew's jaw clenched and Neil's eyes zeroed in on the muscle working beneath Andrew's clean-shaven cheek. He was struck with the urge to kiss him there. He briefly weighed the pros and cons of just leaning over and pressing his lips to that spot, but decided against it.

“About?” Andrew's voice was rough around the edges, irritated.

Neil was very tempted to just answer, “Stuff.” Instead, he said, “The future. It's kind of weird not having to worry about my time running out.”

“Yeah, you can play Exy until your little junkie heart gives out.”

“I can do all sorts of things,” Neil replied, somewhat suggestively.

Andrew's eyebrow twitched, but that was the only sign he gave that he heard him at all. Neil didn't push the issue. He settled against his seat and looked back out the window.

Andrew pulled the car into the parking lot of a strip mall that extended from the sides of a Walmart and Neil's phone began to ring. He flipped it open and frowned at Kevin's name as Andrew nosed the car in between a pick-up truck and a minivan.

“Yeah?”

“Where the hell are you? Did you guys leave?”

Unfortunately, Kevin's grieving for Riko only sharpened his drive to play Exy. Neil wondered if he was determined to run himself ragged on the court until he could play without seeing Riko's ghost.

“We're in Columbia.” Andrew looked over at him as he turned off the ignition. Neil mouthed Kevin's name and Andrew responded by making a show of getting comfortable in his seat.

“Why?”

Neil sighed and studied the line of Andrew's jaw. “Because we want to be in Columbia.”

“Well, how long are you going to be there?”

“I don't know. A bit.”

Andrew snorted at Neil's petulant tone. Neil tilted his head and dragged his eyes down Andrew's neck before Andrew forcibly turned his face away with fingers digging into his scarred cheek.

“What the hell, Neil. If you think you're going to slack off just because-”

Irritation spiked hard and fast in Neil's throat. “Yeah, Kevin, that's what I'm doing. I'm slacking off. Jesus, relax, would you? We'll be back soon.”

“When?” Kevin demanded.

“Soon,” Neil bit out. He disconnected the call and snapped his phone shut, muttering, “Asshole.”

“Are you going to burn your fanboy binder now?”

Neil flipped him off before they climbed out of the car and headed inside. They bought the basics: pasta, rice- “Do you know how to cook, Andrew? Because-” “Shut up. A monkey could do it.”- bags of pretzels and chips, a box of instant mashed potatoes, a couple frozen meals with deceptively appetizing pictures, some fresh fruit at Neil's request, and a few pints of ice cream- “Have you ever had cavities? You should've had tons of cavities by now.” “I will run you over with the car, Neil.”- before heading to the liquor aisle and picking up a few bottles of vodka. Neil tried not to laugh when the cashier scoffed and demanded ID from Andrew, whose glare might've frozen hell. The cashier gave up after a minute of frigid silence.

At the house, Neil carried in the groceries and Andrew carried in their duffel bags. With a warm swell of intrigue, Neil noted that Andrew took both bags to his bedroom. He smiled to himself as he split the food between the cupboard and the freezer. The vodka was left out on the counter beside the half-finished bottle of whiskey.

Andrew appeared in the doorway of the kitchen and for a moment the two men were silent, staring at one another. He'd taken off his jacket and his armbands, which left his arms looking curiously vulnerable and bare. Neil, too, had foregone his armbands. Both were simply dressed, comfortably unarmed and unguarded. The house was quiet, but this quiet was a sigh of relief, safe seclusion, instead of the tense silence before hell broke loose. There were no enemies hiding in the shadows.

The thrilling strangeness gnawed at his gut. Suddenly, Neil could see a lifetime of this- standing in the kitchen putting away groceries, wondering what to make for dinner, shoes side by side at the door. A house with two names on the mortgage, two sets of keys, two cars in the driveway, two pillows on the bed. A home. A home with Andrew. His heartbeat quickened as the possibility of it sank in. I'm home, I'm home, I'm home.

“Stop staring at me like that,” Andrew growled with a little scowl digging in between his fair eyebrows.

He felt too tender, too exposed to make a smart comment. Neil jerked his head to the side to stare at the empty sink instead and asked, “Are you hungry?”

Instead of answering, Andrew crossed the kitchen and brushed against Neil's chest as he reached around him to grab a bag of chips and a bottle of vodka. Neil failed at hiding his shiver, which earned him an arched eyebrow. He followed Andrew out to the couch. Chips and vodka seemed like an all right snack all of a sudden.

A sitcom that neither would laugh at played on the television. Andrew sat on the left side of the couch with the remotes and vodka on the little table at his side. In a single burst of panicked thinking, Neil decided to sit on the right side and left the middle cushion open between them. Letting Andrew take the lead seemed the better option. He stole a few chips and settled against the armrest, tucking his legs up beside him. Peripherally, he saw Andrew turn to stare at him.

It felt awkward and for a few minutes Neil panicked quietly. He rubbed his sweaty palms against his worn jeans, wondering if he'd made a mistake in sitting apart from Andrew. Feeling unsure of himself around the other man wasn't really new- he was always stopping to take measure of invisible boundaries while they were together- but now he was downright nervous. They were alone for however long Andrew wished to stay in the city. They would kiss, surely, but what else?

Now that he no longer had to bother with constantly planning escape routes, checking and rechecking his possessions, and taking account of potential threats, Neil's mind ran wild with thoughts of teeth biting down on his bottom lip and a warm tongue against his and the sudden tightness in his jeans. Calm the fuck down, he told himself sternly.

The laughter of a studio audience spilled out of the speakers. A blonde woman on the screen waited with arms folded over her chest until it quieted to say her next line to the smirking man at her side.

Andrew moved first. He shifted closer and leaned to hook his fingers in Neil's collar, silently saying come here. Neil's feet fell to the floor. He was eager to obey. Andrew drew him in close enough to press their lips together, still twisting his fingers in the collar of Neil's t-shirt. Neil put one forearm against the back of the couch behind Andrew's head, sliding his fingers into Andrew's soft hair, and braced his other hand against the armrest to preserve the customary few inches of safe space between their bodies.

Andrew tasted like vodka and salty chips and he kissed Neil with a dim shade of his usual urgency. His other hand slid under Neil's shirt to trace the fat, raised lines cutting across Neil's stomach. Neil groaned into Andrew's mouth and kissed him harder, gripped his hair tighter. Andrew's hand slid higher, over bumps torn into Neil's chest by gravel, and Neil tore away from Andrew's mouth to drag kisses up one side of his neck. Andrew shuddered and yanked sharply at his collar.

He pulled away and tugged on the hem of Neil's t-shirt. “Off,” he ordered gruffly.

Neil let go of Andrew's hair. His eyes locked onto Andrew's as he reached behind his head to take a fistful of his shirt and pull it off in one smooth motion. Andrew's expression didn't change, but he reached up to cup the side of Neil's neck and pulled him back in for another heated kiss. Neil opened his mouth to him immediately and sucked Andrew's tongue briefly. Andrew responded by withdrawing and sinking his teeth into Neil's lip.

“Back,” Andrew mumbled against his mouth, pushing at his shoulders until Neil leaned back to lay on the couch. Andrew followed, keeping himself raised just enough above Neil's body so that they weren't fully pressed together. One of Neil's knees was bent awkwardly, but moving it meant touching Andrew so he kept still and welcomed the ache that would soon follow.

Andrew pressed hot kisses along Neil's jaw until he got to his ear. He scraped his teeth over his earlobe before asking, “Yes or no?”

Neil pressed his head back into the cushion, exposing his throat to Andrew's teeth and lips, and groaned, “Yes.”

Andrew sucked a bruise into the side of Neil's neck before sliding one hand down the scarred plains of his chest and abdomen to the buckle of his belt. Neil was lost in dizzying pleasure before Andrew slipped his clever fingers beneath the elastic band of his underwear and pulled his aching erection into the open. Briefly, Neil remembered all the windows, looked at all the open space around them in the living room, and felt incredibly exposed. His panic only lasted until Andrew's teeth scraped over his nipple and Neil had to stifle a moan with a couple knuckles stuffed into his mouth. He bit down on his fingers as Andrew's hand worked him quickly. Andrew licked and kissed and bit at the edges of scars and the few patches of unmarred flesh until his chest was a blooming field of crimson bruises, marks left by desire instead of anger. The thought of it tore another whimper from Neil's shuddering lungs.

Andrew lifted his head to flick a heated look up at him and slowed his hand for a moment. “We're alone, dumbass. You can make noise.”

Neil released a gusty, shattered breath. “Okay,” he whispered. Andrew squeezed the swollen tip of his cock and Neil let out a rough, “Ugh, fuck yes.”

Andrew bit the sharp ridge of Neil's hip bone. Pain and pleasure flickered together in a confusing, but deliriously pleasant way and Neil let another moan scrape through his throat and out into the empty air. To his own ears, it sounded breathy and strange, thin and weak, and he wondered if Andrew could hear how wrecked with want he was. He wondered if Andrew liked it.

“Andrew,” he sighed, testing his voice. It was rewarded with a bite to his other hipbone. It seemed like Andrew appreciated the sounds he was making, so he abandoned his control for good and moaned, “Andrew.” The syllables stretched like taffy in his mouth, long and sweet.

Andrew took Neil into his mouth, sucking his tip while his hand frantically pumped the rest of his length. It knocked the air out of Neil's lungs.

“Fuck, Andrew,” Neil grunted. He buried his fingers in Andrew's hair and scratched his scalp with blunt fingernails. The pleasure swelled rapidly, unfurling like a white hot wave and suddenly Neil was babbling, “Your mouth- your mouth is amazing. You're amazing. Oh, my god. Andrew, I'm close. I'm so close. Andrew!”

Every muscle in his body snapped deliciously taut and his vision burned white. Pain flared through his bent knee. His back arched, his head dug back into the cushion, and a sharp, keening wail broke in his throat as he came hard into the wet heat of Andrew's mouth. For a few moments after, he was frozen and gasping until slowly he floated down from his high. Andrew sucked softly at him until he whimpered quietly in pain. Then, he pulled off, swallowed, and crawled back up Neil's body to kiss him deeply. Neil returned the kiss sloppily, licking the taste of himself out of Andrew's mouth and not minding the bitterness a bit. He hummed in lazy happiness and pulled Andrew closer by his hair. He wanted to sleep like that with Andrew almost flush against him. He wanted to stay awake and kiss Andrew for hours. He wanted to return the favor and see if he could pull the same sort of noises out of Andrew.

His head dropped back, breaking the kiss, and he sighed heavily. He blinked a few times to clear his bleary vision and tried to focus on the look in Andrew's eyes. Neil waited for Andrew to scold him for staring at him “like that” but he never did. Instead, he leaned down to catch his lips in a slow, dragging kiss before sitting upright, straddling Neil's hips. Neil didn't care that his jeans and underwear were still tugged halfway down his ass or that the television was still on. All other thoughts were wiped away by the sight of Andrew undoing his belt, button, and zipper.

Neil was gaping, but he couldn't help it because Andrew was pulling his cock out and stroking it. It occurred to him then that he'd never seen Andrew's dick and he was fascinated by the glimpses he caught here and there around Andrew's moving hand. He stared unblinkingly at the glistening tip while his mind desperately gathered all the details it could. Words fell into a heap at the back of his skull. Andrew's cock: thick, pale, circumcized, surrounded by dark golden hair. Andrew sank down and the weight of him was grounding. This is real. This isn't a dream. Neil could feel the quiver in Andrew's thighs against his sides.

Neil glanced up at Andrew's face, which was almost as passive as it always was except for the glazed look in his eyes. Andrew bit his bottom lip and hissed through his teeth- even in this moment of vulnerability he looked ready for violence.

“Holy shit,” Neil whispered reverently. He dug his hands into his own hair to keep himself from reaching out as Andrew began to undulate his hips a little, rocking into the quick motion of his hand. Neil wanted to move with him. Keep still, he commanded himself. “You're amazing.”

“Shut up,” Andrew grunted.

“There might be a way to keep my mouth occupied, you know.” Neil couldn't believe he said that- he practically purred it. He thought that maybe the orgasm shook a few screws loose in his head.

“Remind me to kill you later,” replied Andrew. Instead of strangling him, though, he leaned over and roughly slid two fingers into Neil's mouth. Neil blinked in surprise, but quickly closed his lips around them and sucked lightly. Andrew seemed to like that and pressed his fingertips into Neil's tongue. His stare was heavy and burning. Neil curled his tongue around the fingers, feeling the calluses and scars, and imagined sucking on another part of the man currently on top of him.

Andrew's breath hitched sharply and soon enough Neil felt something warm and wet splatter across his belly. He playfully dug his teeth into Andrew's fingertips as he withdrew from his mouth. Andrew quickly replaced his fingers with his lips again, kissing Neil with the usual rough urgency.

The kisses tapered off into lazy brushes of lips and languid sighs mixing in the sliver of space between their mouths. After Neil noticed the exhausted shiver in Andrew's arms, he shifted as far over as he could so that Andrew could slot his body between Neil's side and the back of the couch. A drop of cum threatened to slide down over his hip, but Neil caught it with his fingers, smearing it across his ribs to keep it from dripping onto the carpet. Andrew's eyes slid shut and Neil took the opportunity to stare at his features up close. The angle of Andrew's neck made Neil wish there was a pillow to shove under his head. It couldn't be comfortable.

He was about to say something, but before he could his stomach growled. Andrew's eyes opened slowly and flicked down to Neil's bare abdomen where the evidence of his orgasm was drying in thick lines above his navel.

“Go shower,” he ordered, sounding perfectly bored. “I'll figure out dinner.”

“Wash your hands,” Neil teased as he clumsily got to his feet.

“Shut up.”

Chapter Text

Neil quietly admitted to himself that he liked the weight of Andrew's body on the mattress, his warmth beneath the blankets, his soft breaths against his pillow. He liked opening his eyes to see Andrew's face, bleary-eyed and pillow-creased. He liked knowing just how Andrew always slept: on his side, back against the wall and arm curled beneath his pillow. He liked looking at the valley of Andrew's side and the hill of his hip beneath the blanket. Neil still slept facing the wall even though he didn't need to quickly pop in his contacts first thing any more. Perhaps that habit would fade with time as well, perhaps one day he'd sleep with Andrew curled up at his back.

What he didn't like was the flinch that inevitably came when Andrew's vigilant survival instincts sensed another person in the room. Andrew fell asleep watching Neil, knowing Neil was at his side, but slumber made him forget. If Neil shifted or sighed, Andrew would startle awake with hard, flat eyes that didn't recognize Neil at first. Neil didn't know if there was a knife or not under his pillow.

Neil hadn't worked out yet how to avoid the flinch other than waking up second.

On their first morning in Columbia, Neil woke up first and kept as still as he could. There was enough light seeping through the plastic blinds to see by, but not enough to disturb. It set everything in a pleasant glow and made Andrew's pale hair look golden. Neil's mind was already at work, wondering what they would do that day. He wanted to go for a run. He wanted to run with Andrew. He wanted to wander around Exites, too, but he knew what Andrew would say. If he asked Andrew to practice Exy with him there was a very large chance Andrew would agree just to stand completely still in the goalkeeper's box until Neil was thoroughly irritated. Asking to go to a gym for a workout was the safer option.

Andrew inhaled sharply, tensed, opened his eyes, and relaxed again in a single breath. Sleepy hazel eyes watched him for a long moment after that before Andrew grumbled, “Staring again.”

Neil made a dismissive noise and rolled onto his back.

After a small breakfast, Neil went for a run through the neighborhood. Andrew was annoyed, but he came with him anyway. Afterward, they took a shower together. Andrew remained clothed until Neil had washed and stepped out. Neil put on a fresh pot of coffee while Andrew finished.

It would have been a rather unremarkable day for the average person, but it was the sluggish, peaceful, normalcy that made it memorable for Neil. They drank coffee, watched television, ate lunch, went for a drive around the city. They ate dinner together. They drank together. They washed dishes together. Andrew pressed Neil up against the wet edge of the sink with hard kisses and a strong hand curled around his neck. Neil kept his soapy hands to himself. Afterward they ate ice cream together on the porch and Neil struggled to remember what he knew about stars until Andrew heaved a bored sigh and rattled off a list of constellations.

The next morning, Andrew wandered out from his shower and flopped onto the couch next to Neil as the local news channel played on the television. Instead of making a derisive comment about Neil's choice in entertainment, Andrew turned sideways and put his bare feet in Neil's lap as he lay back against the cushions.

“I hate running,” was all he said.

“The way you smoke, I'm not surprised,” Neil retorted even though they both knew Andrew was in good shape. He stared down at the feet in his lap, momentarily distracted by the small amount of bare skin. There was nothing particularly arousing about Andrew's feet, that wasn't what made his thoughts trip. Neil had spent years fearful of injuries, of bullets and blades, and he'd always been particularly paranoid about his feet. He could run with a bloody gash in his side, bruised ribs, a pounding head, but he knew he would not be able to run if something happened to his feet. Before he could squash it down, the memory of his father threatening to ruin Neil's feet and legs flashed behind his eyes. Neil swallowed hard against the surge of bile and asked Andrew, “Foot rub. Yes or no?”

Andrew didn't look at him and answered, “Yes.”

Neil wrapped his hands around one of Andrew's feet, squeezing and massaging the sole with his thumbs. He'd never given a foot massage- he hadn't spent any time paying attention to feet before- but this was Andrew and this was a small bit of trust being offered and this was a chance to touch him so he did his best. New details were silently noted and filed away in Neil's mind- his thin, bony ankles, the light dusting of blond hair across the bridges, the freckle on the inner arch of his left foot, the crooked little toe on his right, the roughened skin of his heels.

The tension in Andrew's legs slowly disappeared as Neil attempted his first foot rub. When Neil peeked up at Andrew, his head was resting against the armrest and he watched the television with hooded eyes. He looked relaxed and Neil decided he didn't mind giving foot rubs if they made Andrew look like this.

“Any other fetishes I should know about?” Andrew drawled without looking at him.

Neil pursed his lips, weighing two retorts in his mind before replying, “I guess we'll find out.”

“Will we now?”

“Will we?”

Andrew hummed noncommittally. Neil playfully dug his thumb into Andrew's instep, but then Andrew growled, “Don't.” and Neil dropped his foot like it burned him.

A dark, hateful expression flickered over Andrew's face for a brief moment. Neil watched his face carefully and kept perfectly still until Andrew seemed to return to himself. Then, Andrew dug his toes into Neil's groin and warned, “I don't like being tickled.”

Neil didn't want to respond to the foot pushing against his dick, but he felt that familiar tightening under his navel that Andrew had gotten so good at provoking.

“Sorry,” Neil exhaled. “Can I keep rubbing your feet or do you want me to go away?”

“You can touch my feet, you kinky fuck.”

When Neil continued the clumsy foot massage, he made sure each touch was carefully slow and just hard enough to make Andrew relax again. Even after Andrew's body melted into the cushions, Neil's mind buzzed with the sharp warning he'd received.

Without Exy and classes, without danger of any kind, the pace of their days seemed sluggish. They didn't do anything meaningful. Their conversations were rather simple- musings about a hypothetical apocalypse or suggestions for movies or meals. Neil received text messages from various Foxes and he told Andrew everything- “Matt went bungee jumping.” “Renee says hi.” “Dan's thinking about getting a tattoo with one of her stage sisters.”- even though Andrew reacted with only a disinterested “hmm.” Neil received a couple texts from Wymack about the new offensive dealer who had arrived and was staying at Abby's place.

Of course, there were more angry phone calls from Kevin as well- “Get your lazy asses back here.” On the fourth day, Andrew snatched Neil's phone and said, “Every call adds another day of practice Neil misses. Fuck off.” And then he snapped the phone shut and tossed it onto the couch. Neil watched it bounce to the carpet with odd delight before Andrew dragged him by his wrist to the bedroom, where he proceeded to strip Neil bare and take him apart until Exy and Kevin were the furthest things from his mind.

Chapter Text

It was obvious the first time the Foxes gathered together, the old and the new, that the road ahead was going to be rough. It took all of a week for two new additions in particular, Jack and Sheena, to get completely under Neil's skin and wreak havoc on his nerves. He struggled to keep hold of his already short temper, tried to be better than the loud-mouthed asshole he was the previous year, but all it did was turn his blood to gasoline and every beat of his heart threw off sparks.

Jack looked at Neil with contempt and made it known to everyone in earshot that he didn't think Neil had any right to be on the court. Of course, Jack worshiped Keven like a god that had just stepped down from heaven and Kevin didn't care about Jack's terrible attitude so long as he showed potential. Sheena was more than happy to back Jack up with crude, twisted words flung at Neil like shrapnel. He bit back his temper and put more force behind every swing of his racquet. Neil took longer runs and even longer walks trying to clear his head.

It hadn't even been a month and he felt like he was losing his mind.

“It's always hard with newbies,” Dan told him quietly. “Give them time to adjust. You're doing good. Just keep at it.”

Matt, Renee, and Nicky showed their support by deferring to Neil on the court. If they had any disagreements or concerns they addressed it in private, which Neil appreciated immensely. Aaron told him once, “Quit sulking like a little bitch.” even though Neil hadn't asked for his input. Allison shrugged and asked if he really expected anything different.

Neil made the mistake of voicing his feelings in front of Kevin once and was met with a scathing look. “If you can't handle this much you'll fail miserably as a captain.” Neil walked away feeling like an idiot for wishing something could be simple for once. The team had just begun to function as a real team should at the end of the last season and now he felt like he'd been thrown back to square one. How the hell had he managed to get everyone behind him the first time around? How the hell was he going to do it again?

Andrew said nothing. He didn't even seem to notice that there were more people on the court than usual.

Neil hated questioning himself. He didn't survive his father and the Moriyamas to sit in the corner, after all, but sometimes the comments made by Jack and the others stung hard enough to linger after practice was over. Maybe he'd been high on adrenaline or the excitement of finally having a real shot at life when he thought this was all a good idea.

His doubt brewed thickly in his mind until there was a constant anger buzzing at the back of his mind. He felt like a thunderhead growing darker by the day, threatening to break at any time.

“You're moody,” Andrew told him one Friday afternoon while Neil sat hunched over his desk, waiting for the aspirin to soothe the jagged edges of his headache.

“Problem?” Neil snapped without sparing him a glance.

“We're going to Columbia tonight.” Andrew dropped a plastic bag beside Neil's chair and left. Neil didn't have to look inside to know it contained a new outfit. His irritation flared suddenly. He clenched his fists, digging his fingernails into his palms, and counted to ten in every language he knew. The last thing he wanted to do at the moment was go out and watch the others get wasted at a crowded club, but he knew arguing with Andrew would be pointless.

A few hours later, when it was time to leave, Neil stood in the bathroom feeling as if he could catch fire at any moment. His lungs were hot and too stiff to breathe properly. There were acidic words bubbling at the tip of his tongue. When he looked in the mirror, he saw his father.

He didn't meet the others' eyes when he met everyone out in the hallway. He followed Andrew silently and ignored Nicky's exuberant attempts to make conversation. Kevin was at his other side, talking over Nicky's excitement about Neil's various errors the previous week.

“Jack's just gonna walk all over you if you don't grow a pair,” Kevin said as they piled into Andrew's car. Neil was riding shotgun, which seemed to put Kevin in an even fouler mood. Aaron snorted from the backseat. At least Aaron and Kevin weren't at each other's throats that night. Neil tried to think of it as a blessing- listening to the pair of them tear each other apart would only have worsened his already throbbing headache.

Nicky jumped to Neil's defense. “The only reason you can stand him, Kevin, is because he's constantly kissing your ass. I might bitch-slap him myself soon if he doesn't pipe down. Neil, you're doing fine. Don't let the haters get you down.”

Neil sucked in a thin breath that got trapped in his lungs. His chest ached, hot and tight, and it was nearly thirty seconds before he could push the air back out. He wanted to put his fist through the window. The team was off-kilter and horribly unbalanced, which made Neil's anxiety spike viciously when he thought of the first game. There was still time, but he didn't see them pulling their shit together before then. How the hell had they ever pulled it together to beat the Ravens? How had they pulled this off last year? Neil couldn't remember and he was beginning to suspect the “leadership potential” Wymack saw in him was nothing more than an illusion.

His real fear was rearing its ugly head by the time they pulled up to Sweetie's, but he didn't want to think about that. He practically fell out of the car in the parking lot and stuffed his hands into his pockets while he stalked inside ahead of the others. At the hostess stand, he stood off to the side so that Andrew could tell the woman they needed a table for five.

“Neil, aren't you eating?” Nicky asked gently.

Neil was staring blankly at his ice cream. He'd taken two bites and his stomach rolled at the first taste of the sickly-sweetness of it. “I'm not hungry,” he said.

“Christ, we didn't come down here for a pity party,” Kevin spat.

“At least he's not running his fucking mouth,” Aaron grumbled.

“Guys, come on,” pleaded Nicky. “Neil, you okay?”

“He's fine,” mocked Kevin and Aaron in unison.

Neil lifted his eyes to Andrew's across the table. Andrew stared blankly back as he took small bites of the chocolate monstrosity before him. He regretted coming out with them tonight. Surely, he could have just told Andrew “no” and enjoyed a night alone at the dorm.

They moved on to Eden's Twilight without procuring any cracker dust. The music seemed too loud tonight and it was more crowded than Neil remembered it ever being. Roland's friendly smiles and cheery voice grated on his nerves. Someone knocked Neil hard into the edge of the bar and he simultaneously welcomed the distracting physical pain and mentally cursed whoever was responsible. How did anyone enjoy this? He couldn't remember liking this place.

He helped Andrew carry their drinks to the table and stared into the shot glasses. The rum in his throat was thick and hot; it made his body feel uncomfortably warm and buzzing after the third shot. Kevin drank like he was trying to win something and Neil thought it was obnoxious, but at least it shut him up for a while. Nicky sucked down some colorful concoctions while Aaron stared sullenly out at the crowd, waiting for his own buzz to kick in. He was still bitter about the lack of dust in their lives lately and Neil was half-tempted to rub salt in the wound.

After the fourth shot, he'd had enough rum to admit to himself that he was annoyed at Andrew's silence. Usually, Neil wasn't bothered by the other male's cold apathy, but he wanted... something. He wanted words or actions or some sign that Andrew noticed. Andrew had to have noticed what was going on with Neil. He was easily the most perceptive person Neil had ever met. It's what made him a capable protector and a deadly enemy. Neil didn't expect or want sympathy nor did he expect Andrew to back him up on the court, but Neil felt like he was slipping and he desperately needed something to steady him. He wanted Andrew to steady him.

It wasn't long before Andrew noticed Neil's eyes lingering on him. He got to his feet and leaned in close to Neil's ear to ask, “Yes or no?”

Desire ignited his bones and for a moment Neil thought he'd actually burst into flames right there. “Yes,” he answered, jumping to his feet as well. Andrew dragged him through the crowd, past the bar, and through a door marked “employees only” that required a four-digit code punched into a faded keypad, which Andrew knew. Neil guessed that Roland was the reason.

They entered a short hallway with storage shelves lining the walls and as soon as the door closed behind them, the throbbing music of the club was smothered into a vague, muffled pulse that was quiet enough that Neil could hear the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead. His ears rang sharply for a few moments while he followed Andrew to the end of the hall and through another door marked “office.” The office was a small room made even smaller by shelves, a small couch, and a messy desk crowding in from the walls. Andrew flicked on the lights and shut the door before shoving Neil against it.

“What-” Neil began.

Andrew pulled his face down to his with a rough hand on the back of his neck and said, “I've seen enough of your self-pity. Stop it.”

Neil's temper roared to life. “Fuck you,” he bit out, shaking and furious. “If you dragged me back here to get off, get off, but don't give me that shit.”

“It doesn't fucking matter if those little shitheads respect you or not.” Andrew's nose was practically pressed against Neil's. His words were hot puffs of air spilling over Neil's lips. “You've been stuffing your rotten attitude down to try to be more like Coach or Kevin or Dan. Next time one of those fuckers gives you shit, knock them on their ass and show them who Neil Josten is. We both know you want to.”

Some of the fury in Neil's chest eased. He pressed his forehead to Andrew's and felt himself burn in a different way. This, he thought, this is what I need.

He was finally able to pin his fear down and find the words for it. He spoke them into the thin space between their mouths.

“I always thought the fake names and the lies and the running made me into nothing. I thought that my shitty luck robbed me of what I could've been.” He swallowed thickly before continuing, “But lately I've been thinking that maybe I would've been nothing either way. Maybe I was delusional to think I could have this, to think I could be captain someday. Maybe- maybe I won't even get drafted after I graduate and the Moriyamas will just kill me. I feel like I'm losing myself, Andrew, and I don't know what to do.”

Andrew's eyes bore into his. “You're not usually this pathetic.”

“That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me,” Neil whispered. He felt so much lighter now that the poison was out of his lungs.

“Shut up.”

“Make me.”

Andrew kissed him hard, roughly shoving his tongue into Neil's mouth. Neil inhaled sharply through his nose and grunted. His hands reached instinctively for Andrew's hair, but Andrew grabbed his wrists and pinned Neil's arms back against the door. The force of the kiss, the strength of Andrew's body against his, made Neil's cock twitch and stiffen. His belly clenched hotly when Andrew bit his lip hard enough to break the skin. Even with their mouths fused together, Neil felt like it was easier to breathe than it had been in weeks.

“Touch me,” Neil begged against Andrew's mouth.

Andrew drew back enough to give him a bored look. He released one of Neil's hands and replied, “Touch yourself.”

Neil blinked in surprise and sagged back against the door. “What?”

“You heard me.” There was an irritated edge in his voice- he really had seen enough of Neil's self-pity and this was his form of punishment. Not that Neil minded. His groin tightened and lust foamed over his thoughts. Andrew's hands were braced on either side of Neil's head, caging him in with his body. He flicked an expectant look down to the zipper of Neil's new jeans.

With shaking hands, Neil undid his pants and shoved them down enough to take out his swelling erection, feeling oddly thrilled by Andrew's heavy stare upon him. Andrew watched Neil touch himself with the same apathy he wore through games and classes and life and Neil wanted nothing more than to see the mask crack a little.

He groaned Andrew's name and rolled his hips into the motion of his hand in an attempt to get something from Andrew- a lip worried between his teeth, a hitch in his breath, anything. His chest heaved and burned hotter while Andrew watched, unimpressed. The only reaction Neil received for his little show was the tell-tale bulge in Andrew's jeans.

His cold attitude had irritated him earlier in the evening, but now it soothed his white-hot edges. It was like sticking burning hands into snow and Neil sighed with the relief of it. He could explode and fuck up and whine and Andrew would still be there. It didn't matter to Andrew if Neil put his fist through a wall or Jack's face. Neil remembered then with a flicker of shame that he hadn't been thrown back to square one. He was starting this school year off with so much more than he'd had last summer. His hand worked faster and his eyes slipped closed. It didn't matter that the team was off to a rocky start. They would pull through somehow because they were Foxes and that's what Foxes did. Even if the world went to hell again, Andrew would still be beside him. He'd lost sight of that and he felt foolish for it. He had exactly what he needed. He still had a home and a future and Andrew. And Andrew was right, it didn't matter if those shitheads respected him or not. He'd earned his place there and no one would take that away.

With a stuttering moan that sounded somewhat like Andrew's name, Neil came into his hands and pleasure burned away all the stress of the past week. His knees quivered, threatening to fail him, and he slumped heavily against the door. Slowly, he peeled his eyes open and looked at Andrew.

“Are you hard?” he croaked.

“Yes.” Andrew pushed away from the door and went to the desk to fetch a few tissues from the box by the lamp. Once Neil had cleaned his hands off, Andrew balled the tissues up and threw them into the wastebasket.

Neil was confused. His eyes dropped back down to the bulge in Andrew's pants and wondered why Andrew wasn't doing anything. For a moment they stood a breath apart, breathing together quietly and looking. “Want a hand?” he joked.

Then, Andrew said lowly, “On your knees. Don't touch me, I'm still annoyed.”

Neil dropped to his knees and meekly put his slightly sticky hands in his lap, looking up through his lashes at Andrew for further instruction. Andrew didn't say anything. Instead, he simply pushed his jeans and underwear down and palmed himself until he was fully hard. Neil alternated between watching his hand work and watching his face. Andrew bit his lip as he stared down at Neil, trying to hide his quickening breath.

“I want to cum in your mouth,” Andrew stated. “Yes or no?”

“Fuck, yes.”

Andrew grabbed his chin with his free hand and tilted his face upward so that it was in line with his swollen, leaking tip. He put his thumb and first finger between Neil's teeth and held his mouth open as wide as he could, shifting his cock closer as he grunted and spilled warm cum onto Neil's tongue. Neil gagged a bit at first. The taste was more bitter than he was expecting, but he fought to keep still until Andrew was finished and had released his hold on Neil's mouth. Andrew panted and tucked himself back into his pants while Neil swallowed and licked his lips.

“We should get back,” Andrew said as Neil stood up.

“Do I have anything on my face?” Neil grinned and Andrew shoved his arm.

The others were too drunk to notice that Neil came back in a much better mood. Andrew and Neil herded Kevin, Aaron, and Nicky to the car and then into the house. Kevin fell face-first into the couch, groaning about the tilt of the earth. Nicky had to grip the walls to keep on his feet as he toddled to his bedroom. Aaron took a sloppy swing at Neil when he offered to tuck him in. Neil left him to find his way to his bed on his own. Once Andrew had brushed his teeth and changed, Neil went into the bathroom to clean up and change for bed.

Neil paused in the hallway outside Andrew's closed bedroom door, wondering if Andrew expected him to sleep there or not. They'd shared a bed several times, but Andrew had been annoyed earlier. Neil hung his head and scrubbed a hand over his face, embarrassed at his own behavior. It must have been bad if even Andrew called him out on it.

The door swung open before he could make a decision and there stood Andrew in a loose t-shirt and basketball shorts. Neil stared at his calves.

“Are you going to sleep standing up?” Andrew asked quietly.

“Do you want me to sleep with you?”

Andrew turned and walked back into his room, leaving the door open in a silent invitation. He was already in bed, pressed against the wall, when Neil entered and flicked off the lights. Slowly, he padded across the dark room and slid into bed.

“Thank you,” he murmured into the shadows.

Andrew grunted something and then shifted closer to press his lips to Neil's. He kissed him slowly, tasted him deeply, and left Neil breathless but not burning. Still sated, they kissed purely for the sake of kissing without escalating into the usual frantic pace that sent them careening toward orgasm. Andrew had somehow unfolded Neil's explosive rage with hard kisses and harsh words and left him quivering and quiet. Neil was so overwhelmingly thankful for Andrew that he was relieved the darkness hid whatever might have showed on his face. There was a word for the warmth growing in Neil's chest, but he wasn't ready to face it so he focused instead on the silky tufts of Andrew's hair between his fingers, the softness of his lips, and the shallow sighs shared between their lungs.

After a few minutes, Andrew slid his hand down Neil's arm and pulled his wrist towards his body. He guided Neil's hand to lay flat against the center of his chest. This time, Andrew didn't tense beneath his touch.

“Yes or no?” Neil whispered. He needed to hear it. “Andrew, is it yes or no?”

“Yes for now.” Andrew punctuated it with a single, hard kiss. “Just over my shirt.”

Neil's heart quickened as he propped himself up on one elbow while Andrew flopped onto his back. In the darkness, Neil couldn't see much of the man beneath his hand, so he listened to Andrew's quiet, slow breathing and carefully learned the feel of his hard and warm chest beneath soft, worn cotton. Andrew shivered when Neil's fingertips brushed over his nipples, his breath hitched when Neil's hand curved around his side and slid upward, and his belly tightened beneath the press of Neil's palm. He didn't linger on these spots, though, and he didn't seek to provoke any further reactions because he was still intent on keeping this first exploration of Andrew's body as chaste as he could. There was no surge of lust or stirring in his groin, there was only a deep awe, too vast to truly identify, settled in the pit of his belly. His hand traveled down to the bottom of his hem where the shirt overlapped the waistband of Andrew's shorts, then up to the curve of Andrew's collar, and then over Andrew's shoulders within the boundaries of his baggy sleeves. He gently squeezed Andrew's biceps and resisted the urge to kiss his neck.

For a long while there was only the sound of their quiet breathing and the soft rustling of Neil's palm and fingertips tracing over cotton. As Neil made his third journey down the center of Andrew's abdomen, Andrew let out a low, strangled noise and one of his hands clapped over Neil's ruined cheek, roughly groping at the scar tissue there.

“It's me. I'm here,” Neil blurted out without thinking, yanking his hand off of Andrew's stomach. “Do you want me to turn on the light?”

Of course, in the dark, in a bed, in Columbia, there was the thick memory of horror hanging over Andrew. His body reacted with fear even if his mind was numb to it. Neil cursed himself for not leaving the light on.

“You're okay,” he promised. “You're safe. I've got you. It's just me. It's just Neil.”

“Shut up,” Andrew hissed, breathing hard and fast. A cold pang of sorrow went through Neil's chest while he listened and waited for Andrew's panic to ebb. He felt completely useless- especially after Andrew's skillful dismantling of Neil's turmoil earlier that evening. He wished he could offer reassurance somehow. He wanted to turn on the lights so that Andrew could see for himself that there was nothing in the room that would harm him, but as Andrew pressed his fingers into Neil's scars, he realized that Andrew didn't need to see or hear him. The scars made him unique and recognizable under Andrew's fingertips and he was suddenly very glad to bear them. If the feel of them helped ground Andrew after a wave of panic then he didn't care how many other people gawked at him or how many times the words “plastic surgery” were tossed at his feet.

Neil nuzzled his cheek against Andrew's clammy palm and brushed his lips over Andrew's wrist, waiting for Andrew's breathing to slow. The fingers on his cheeks traced down his neck and then lifted off him entirely before reappearing at his hips to slip under his shirt and feel the older scars there. He pressed his hand to Neil's stomach and let out a shaky breath that seemed louder and more fragile than it should have.

Wordlessly, Neil sat up just enough to pull his shirt off before settling back down beside Andrew and guiding his hand over the scars on his chest and shoulders. Andrew kissed Neil again, hard and almost angry, until Neil's lips felt bruised and buzzing. The fragile tenderness between them was replaced by a more familiar heat, one that left pink lines scratched down Neil's chest and a new bruise bitten into his shoulder, and Andrew's mind gradually settled.

When sleep finally took them, they were still facing each other with one of Andrew's hands tucked under Neil's cheek.

Chapter Text

The Foxes lost their first game of the season. It was close- two points- but that was little consolation when everyone understood on some level it would have been an easy win if not for the simmering tension between the various pieces of the team. They were brittle and at their breaking point by the time they shuffled off to the showers. Neil was just thankful that it had been a home game; had they climbed into the close quarters of the bus together there might have been blood spilled.

Kevin seethed and spit criticism at Neil in French in front of the lockers. Jack sneered and shrugged off Wymack's reprimand- “You're not playing alone out there, Jack. Get your shit together.” Aaron and Nicky bickered in the doorway in fast, angry German. Matt shouted at everyone to calm the hell down, which only worsened Neil's headache. Allison's voice carried over everyone's as she stepped into the hallway just outside, tossing insults like grenades and walking away before the subsequent damage could touch her. Andrew was the eye of the storm, as usual; he moved silently between his seething teammates to gather his things and head to the showers.

The others cleared out of the room slowly, leaving Kevin and Neil to hiss at each other like feral cats. Wymack finally clapped his hands on their shoulders and shoved them apart, snarling, “That's enough. You both stink. Go shower. We'll deal with this shit tomorrow.”

“Yes, Coach,” Neil said dully, wrenching out of his grasp.

“This isn't over,” Kevin called in French.

“Go fuck yourself,” Neil replied in English as he walked away fast.

The night was pleasantly cool and there were stars poking out between ash-purple wisps of clouds in the sky when Neil caught up to Andrew out on the sidewalk. They headed out into the parking lot silently without waiting for Aaron or Kevin, who were still inside. The new Ravens coach had given Kevin a sleek black car, which everyone suspected had once belonged to Riko, and called it a gesture of “good will” to the press. The Foxes knew it was a sick way to mess with Kevin's head, but Kevin insisted on driving it just to prove it didn't bother him. Neil thought it was stupid at first- he had offered to torch it- but now he was thankful that he wouldn't be stuck with riding to and from the court with the other striker. Aaron rode to the court with Katelyn and would most likely be spending the night with her.

Nicky was half-asleep in the backseat of the Maserati. When Neil and Andrew climbed in he opened his bleary eyes and said, “We need some serious team-building exercises.”

“We could take turns punching Kevin in his fat mouth,” Neil snapped.

Andrew lifted an eyebrow as he started the ignition, but said nothing.

“We could go camping?” Nicky suggested weakly. Andrew reversed out of the parking space and guided the car out of the lot.

“You hate nature, Nicky,” Neil said.

“Oh, right,” mumbled the older man. “Maybe a movie night? Die Hard marathon, anyone?”

“Have fun with that,” Andrew said.

Nicky groaned. “Come on, Andrew. We haven't done something together in forever.”

“We just played a whole game together.”

“Oh my god. Neil, help.” Nicky waved his hand at him. “Make him come to movie night.”

Neil shot him a tired look over his shoulder. “I can't make Andrew do anything.”

Once they were parked at Fox Tower and Nicky had trudged inside, Neil turned to Andrew and said, “I could make it worth your while.”

“Oh?” Andrew's voice was flat, uninterested. He undid his seat belt without so much as glancing Neil's way.

“I could think of something.”

Andrew scoffed and climbed out.

Neil clenched his jaw and climbed out as well, wincing at the soreness already digging deep into his thighs. His body begged for a horizontal surface to fall across and fatigue pressed heavily against his mind. Slowly, he followed Andrew into the building and up to the roof.

Neil didn't bother stifling his pained groan as he lowered himself to sit beside Andrew's feet on the concrete. He didn't know how the goalkeeper was still standing, but he wasn't exactly surprised either. Andrew lit two cigarettes and handed one down to Neil.

He was just starting to relax when his phone vibrated in his pocket. Fishing it out, he flipped it open and breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw Matt's name on the screen.

“Yeah?” he answered.

“Hey, man, you good? I don't know what Kevin was saying to you in there, but it didn't look encouraging.”

Neil scoffed. “Kevin got his racquet stuck up his ass again, that's all.”

“Losing tonight isn't going to cripple us. We'll bounce back.”

“Yeah,” Neil agreed. He knew the Foxes would recover, but hearing it out loud was like a salve on his wounded pride. “How's Dan?”

“Disappointed, but dealing,” Matt said. Neil could hear the fondness in his tone. “She's out in the hallway giving some of the freshmen more advice.”

“We'll get them into shape.”

“Hell yeah. We still on for lunch tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I'll see you then. Later, man.”

“Night.”

Neil pocketed the phone and fixed his eyes on the thin ribbon of smoke curling off the cigarette's cherry. He stared until his vision went fuzzy and his thoughts blurred into a fog of fading anger, bitterness, and the beginnings of contentment and calm brought out by Andrew's steady, silent presence at his side.

“I'm tired,” he mumbled. Breathing was difficult around the weight in his chest.

Andrew didn't say anything. He simply put his hand on Neil's head and guided him to lean against his leg. Neil put the cigarette in his right hand and curled his left arm around Andrew's calf. He wasn't yet at the point where he could touch Andrew with sexual intent, but they were slowly easing into casual touches like this. Andrew was gradually relaxing into whatever this was and Neil's heart sped up whenever he thought of it. He could touch Andrew's hands, press kisses into his split knuckles after his sessions with Renee, and he could cup his sharp jawline when they kissed. He could put his hand on his arm without Andrew tensing or throwing a punch. Sometimes, after they'd both gotten off, Andrew guided Neil's hands to his chest and let him trace patterns over his t-shirt.

It was this progress that Neil liked to focus on. There was too little progress everywhere else for his liking and it made him anxious. He was better at letting go of his rage before it turned to poison in his veins, but his temper still flared hotter than he'd like it to. Sometimes it burned a little too close to Nathaniel.

Without promises to keep, without the driving need to protect and provide, Andrew seemed to be drifting out of orbit. He rarely spoke to his bubbly cousin or his surly twin. He appeared less and less at Kevin's side. In fact, Neil hadn't seen Kevin and Andrew interact much other than at late-night practices. Nicky tried to hide his worry, but Neil could tell he was still desperately afraid of losing his family. Aaron spent time with Katelyn and Neil was as happy as he could be for them, but he was still desperate to see the twins reach some sort of middle ground.

Andrew's relationship with Aaron was still fraught with simmering tension, a rubber band pulled too far and ready to snap at the slightest provocation. Both twins knew that whoever let go first would inflict immeasurable damage upon the other even if neither would openly admit that to anyone or themselves. They were getting better, though, even if no one could really tell. The fact that they both still attended weekly sessions together was proof enough that some potential for healing was there. Even if most of the team didn't think they had a chance to rebuild their bond, Neil still held onto a fragile hope that they would work it out somehow.

Kevin's relationship with the team and Wymack was still turbulent at best. Earlier in the week, Allison had caught Kevin, drunk and slumped in the hallway, slowly tracing a “2” into his wrist in black ink. The others were drawn out of their dorms by the shouting. Andrew put himself between Kevin and Aaron, who was seething and ready to start swinging, while Neil hauled Kevin into their suite. “Grief is messy. He and Riko were together all their lives,” Renee had said sweetly. Neil heard her through the door. “Let's be patient with him. He needs time.” Neil silently guided Kevin into his bed before sitting with Andrew by the windows in the main room, smoking and not speaking. Dan warned the freshmen to keep their mouths shut about what they'd witnessed. No one mentioned the incident again.

Neil nuzzled the side of Andrew's knee and sighed against the scrape of the denim on his cheek. He sensed Andrew's eyes on him, but he didn't look away from the cigarette. Leaning on Andrew wasn't a habit he meant to form, but he was too far gone to attempt to work it out of his system. Eventually, Andrew sat down behind him and they stayed like that, back to back, as long as their cigarettes lasted. Neil melted, arching slightly to fit against Andrew's hunched back, and let his head fall back on Andrew's shoulder so he could look up at the stars.

“Things aren't okay,” Andrew stated quietly as he ground his cigarette into the concrete.

“No, they're not,” Neil agreed.

“The team made it through last year... well, most of the team, anyway.”

Neil couldn't really remember what Seth looked like, couldn't remember what it was about Seth that grated on his nerves. All that was left was a vague memory, the shape of a person with a name attached. Neil frowned at the sky. A small stone of guilt sank in his gut.

“We wouldn't be Foxes if we weren't used to living in shit,” Andrew continued. “Stop worrying about it.”

Neil sighed and tried to shift closer to Andrew even though he was already pressed flush against him. Moments like this made his greedy heart beg closer, closer, closer. Need coursed hotly in his veins. Neil reached up and ran his fingers through Andrew's hair.

“Sometimes being a real person is more work than being a lie,” he confessed. He hated it, but it was true. “I always had some sort of script worked out and I never really stayed long enough or got involved enough to have these sorts of problems.”

“Do you want to run?”

“No,” Neil answered quickly, turning to press a kiss to the fragile shell of Andrew's ear. “I'm staying. I want to stay. I just... it's a big adjustment, being permanent, being real.” He swallowed hard against the burning knot in his throat. He'd said the words back in Baltimore, chosen to stay and chosen Neil over Nathaniel, but now he was left with building his new life. Piece by piece. Growing was a beautiful sort of pain.

“Go ahead and leave,” Andrew muttered. “It'd be nice to have some peace and quiet around here without your dumb ass causing trouble.”

Neil smiled slowly and bit down on his earlobe before he whispered, “If I left, I'd take you with me. I would show you all the places I've been and then we could settle on a beach somewhere warm.”

“Not California.”

“No, not California.” Neil licked the soft skin just under his ear. “Maybe Italy or Greece. We could drink wine and lay out in the sand. You'd look so good.”

“I'm not a fan of sunburns or wine or swimming.”

Neil shifted so that he could kiss the side of Andrew's neck and Andrew shivered, gritting his teeth. “If I was naked, would you come swimming with me? You seem to be a fan of my ass. Admit it, you'd like watching me run around the beach naked.”

“I'd drown you in the ocean. Let the sharks have your ass.”

“Yeah, but before that you could fuck me on the shore,” Neil murmured, letting his breath wash over the damp skin he'd just finished kissing. Andrew shivered again. This was the closest thing to a discussion about sex they'd ever had. Neil was happy with their pace, slowly learning Andrew's body and following his lead. He was inexperienced, after all, but the thought of Andrew, naked and bathed in dying sunlight, thrusting into him while warm waves stretched just enough to slide around their joined bodies was very appealing. Neil spent a few quiet moments lost in his fantasy until Andrew spoke again.

“You'd get sand stuck up your ass-crack and you'd probably do something stupid like get bitten by a crab or whatever shit they've got over there.”

Neil laughed.

“Also the Moriyamas would murder you.”

“You'd let them?”

“They'd murder me first. None of that matters, though, because you'd never quit Exy.” Andrew turned to press his nose into Neil's hair. “Junkie.”

Neil hummed in agreement. “Seems like I've got a second addiction.”

“Ugh.” Andrew sat up and turned to bite Neil's lip. “One hundred and three.”

Neil didn't resist when Andrew climbed over him to pin his back against the concrete. He massaged the back of Andrew's neck with his fingertips while they kissed with frustrated and bruising need. Neil was out of breath and dizzy with bliss in a matter of minutes, but in spite of his exhaustion his strength felt renewed. He felt like he could play another game that night and win. Andrew's hands dug under his shirt, groping his heated skin and gripping his hips like he was anchoring himself.

Kevin was already fast asleep by the time they stumbled into their beds.

Chapter Text

In typical Fox fashion, everything went to hell at once. Neil's grades were sinking dangerously low in spite of his tutor's best efforts. Matt's mother slipped from a ladder while doing some home improvement and broke her leg. Erik had come down with a nasty strain of the flu and was bedridden in Germany. Kevin and Thea had two screaming matches over the phone in as many days. A freshman named Brian started having particularly horrible night terrors and kept Jack and Colby, his roommates, from sleeping properly. It seemed like only half the team could focus during practice and there was a game fast approaching.

A game against Edgar Allan.

For two weeks, Neil spent nearly every free moment of his time running between dorms, checking on teammates, and heading to the court for extra practice with the freshmen and Kevin. He and Dan could barely keep up with everything. Dan had to be there for Matt, who was rightfully stressed because he couldn't afford to skip classes in order to visit his mother. Matt video-called her as often as he could and spent the rest of the time worried. Nicky loudly and repeatedly threatened to fly over to Germany to take care of Erik until Aaron reminded him that Erik had his own family and ordered him to pipe down.

Neil still wasn't a fan of psychiatry, but he dragged Brian to Betsy's office more than once and encouraged him to talk to her.

Kevin shoved Neil against a wall when Neil said night practices needed to stop until everyone recovered a little.

“We can't afford to slip! We play the Ravens in a fucking week, Neil, and we're sloppier than we've ever been!”

Neil shoved back, snarling, “Running them into the ground isn't helping, Kevin. Not everyone runs on obsession like you do. Some of them need some fucking sleep.”

A few days later, Lizzy, the new backliner, cracked under the pressure. Once death threats began rolling in from the Ravens' bitter fans, the younger girl had started withdrawing into herself. The freshmen were all shaken by the mess they'd walked into- it was no secret the Ravens had crumbled a bit after they lost the championship, their master, and their king all in one fell swoop. The fact that they all blamed Kevin and Neil wasn't a secret either. It didn't matter much to Neil- he was perfectly fine with how things turned out and he wasn't shy about expressing his opinions when reporters asked, but Kevin was still struggling to hold his head up. The thought of heading up to the Ravens' territory to play them again turned everyone's stomachs cold.

Lizzy had disappeared from campus late Monday afternoon and the whole team went out in search of her. With the recent threats, all the Foxes were ordered to travel in groups and to stay out of trouble. They didn't go out to bars or movies. They didn't even have take-out delivered for fear of inviting a stranger too close to the Tower. The freshmen didn't know what happened to Seth, but the older Foxes remembered and they all began to fear the worst.

Luckily, Neil and Andrew found the girl trying to hitch a ride on the side of the interstate. “A dumb freshman trying to hitchhike. Who does that remind me of?” Andrew had drawled as they pulled over to get her.

She'd agreed to sleep at Abby's that night so that Abby and Wymack could keep an eye on her. Neil had stayed for a few hours as well- he wasn't exactly comfortable with having a heart-to-heart, but he gave it his best effort. Lizzy seemed comforted when Neil didn't flinch away from the harsh bits of truth she gave him. In turn, he offered her a little of the story behind the Ravens, trying to explain why things had progressed to such hostility to help her understand what they were up against.

“Edgar Allan will have to learn how to lose,” Neil had told her, “because we're not going anywhere. Friday is going to be a mess, but we'll deal with it as a team.”

Well after midnight, Neil dragged himself into the elevator at Fox Tower. As the doors closed, Neil's phone buzzed. He flipped it open and found a text from Andrew.

Where r u?

Elevator, Neil answered. He and Andrew hadn't had time alone together in weeks. It was depressing to think of how long had passed since the last time Neil had felt Andrew's mouth against his. At first, they'd shoved each other into shadowy corners to steal moments and muttered things in German when they were out of earshot of Aaron and Nicky. As Neil's exhaustion got worse, their efforts to steal kisses had stopped.

Neil missed feeling Andrew's hands and lips on him. He wondered if Andrew was aching for release as badly as he was. He'd tried masturbating in the shower a few times after waking from feverish dreams of Andrew's mouth, but it still felt like a chore when he was alone. He wanted Andrew.

The phone buzzed again. The elevator passed the third floor.

Yes or no?

Neil's cock responded immediately and suddenly he was feeling less tired than he had been a few moments ago.

Always yes. Roof?

The doors slid open and Neil stepped out into the hallway, waiting Andrew's reply.

Dorm. K's with N.

Neil shoved his phone into his pocket and rushed to the door, fumbling with his keys. He tripped over his own shoes as he stumbled across the threshold and locked the door behind him. Andrew was waiting in the main room, slumped into a beanbag with a can of beer in his hand. He turned when he heard Neil enter and for a moment the two stared at one another, frozen.

“Hi,” Neil said quietly, unsure of himself.

Andrew got to his feet. If Neil didn't know better he'd mistake the slight curl in his upper lip as a snarl. He stalked toward the bedroom, saying, “Take your fucking clothes off, Josten.”

Neil left a trail of clothes behind him as he followed Andrew to his bed. Andrew pulled off of his hoodie and gestured for Neil to lay down on his rumpled sheets. Neil's cock was painfully hard and it bobbed against his stomach as he stepped around Andrew to fall onto his mattress. He didn't have it in him to be embarrassed as Andrew swept his eyes over his naked form.

“I haven't even touched you,” Andrew said, raising an eyebrow at Neil's erection.

“You haven't touched me in weeks,” Neil huffed, propping himself up on his elbows.

“It's only been twelve days, drama queen.” Andrew slipped off his armbands and his socks and crawled on top of Neil in his undershirt and sweatpants, pressing a trail of hot kisses up Neil's stomach and chest as he went. He rested his weight lightly against Neil's body as his lips finally found Neil's. The initial kiss was sloppy, over-eager, and full of tongues and teeth. Andrew leaned on Neil until he fell flat on his back. He shoved his fingers into Andrew's hair and pulled him down for another rough kiss that left him panting. Andrew's clothes brushed against Neil's skin and every nerve-ending burned with need. He wanted Andrew's hands and mouth everywhere at once.

“Junkie,” hissed Andrew.

“Yeah,” Neil agreed on a shaky sigh.

Andrew kissed and bit Neil's neck while Neil tried to stifle his moans by dragging one corner of his pillow over his mouth and holding it there. He hoped Andrew was keeping an ear out for Kevin's return because his pulse was roaring in his ears too loudly for him to hear anything else. His heart throbbed with excitement and it took all of his willpower not to buck his hips up into Andrew's.

His whole world shrank down to the wet suction of Andrew's mouth biting down on his chest, the hot slide of his tongue between his teeth. The sound that was punched out of Neil's lungs was more animal than man. Andrew rolled his hips down hard, grinding the bulge in his pants against Neil's cock. Neil's chest heaved, his body quaked.

“Andrew,” he groaned lowly.

“Look at me.”

Neil pulled his face away from the pillow to look up at Andrew. The blinds were open and the moonlight was bright enough to make out Andrew's features. Andrew's lips were glistening, his pupils were blown wide. His hair was in disarray thanks to Neil dragging his fingers through it.

“Andrew?”

“Put your hands on my shoulders.”

Neil hesitated. He'd touched Andrew's shoulders and chest over his shirt several times, but he'd never held onto Andrew in heated, frenzied moments like this. He forced himself to breathe slowly, to pull back from the passionate need burning in his gut, and slowly rested his hands on Andrew's shoulders.

They were quiet while Neil rubbed his thumbs over the soft skin of Andrew's collar bone and massaged the muscles of his shoulders experimentally.

“Is this okay?” he whispered, brushing his nose against Andrew's.

Andrew rolled his hips down again and the delicious pressure made Neil shudder and clutch his shoulders harder.

“It's yes tonight,” Andrew murmured against Neil's lips. “Over the shirt.”

“Your back?”

Andrew nodded and bit down on Neil's bottom lip. Neil sighed into his mouth and slipped his arms around Andrew's middle, reaching up to feel the strong planes of his back, trace the sharp lines of his shoulder blades, and rub his fingers over the hard ridges of his spine. While he tried to memorize the feeling of Andrew's muscled back through his thin shirt, Andrew smoothly changed their positions so that he was laying between Neil's legs instead. He wedged one hand under Neil's knee and hooked his leg around his waist as he ground their hips together. His breath hitched quietly as the friction increased, burning them both from the inside out. Neil let out a small moan and clutched at Andrew's waist, lost in the surging rush of an oncoming orgasm.

“I'm close,” he whispered into Andrew's damp neck.

Andrew let go of Neil's knee in order to pull himself out of his sweats and underwear. He wrapped his hand around both of their cocks and quickly pulled them off together. Neil came first with a choked whimper.

“Neil,” Andrew grunted, biting down on his shoulder as he rode out his own orgasm. Their cum fell together on Neil's bare stomach. Neil was still coherent enough to keep Andrew's shirt pulled up and away from it.

Neil was panting hard and his eyelids were too heavy to keep open. “Oh my god,” he murmured.

Andrew dropped his head onto Neil's shoulder while he shivered and caught his breath.

“Let's not go twelve days again,” Neil said.

“Let's not,” Andrew agreed, pulling himself up to kiss Neil's lips.

Just as Neil's heart was settling into a calmer rhythm, they heard the door to the suite shut. Neil's eyes flew open and Andrew reeled back off the bed. Kevin had returned to the dorm and he was heading for the bedroom. The door opened a centimeter before Andrew was there to slam it shut in Kevin's face.

“What the fuck?” Kevin's voice sounded annoyed. “Guys, come on.”

“Give us a minute,” Andrew bit out.

Neil scrambled to wipe himself off with the first shirt he could find and then he raced to pull on underwear, sweatpants, and the large t-shirt he slept in. Once Neil was dressed Andrew released the door, strolled across the room like nothing had happened, and climbed into his loft.

Kevin came in and flicked on the light, scowling. “You left your clothes all over the dorm,” he told Neil before wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Were you guys fucking? It smells like jizz in here.”

“You just answered your own question,” Neil retorted. “Do you need the bathroom? I need to wash all this jizz off me.”

“Ugh, go ahead. Fuck's sake, Neil, don't you have any shame?”

Neil strode past him and answered, “I lost it somewhere on the I-20. I'll let you know if I find it.”

Chapter Text

After the Foxes beat the Ravens by two points, the storm passed. Matt's mother recovered from her infection and was staying with friends while her leg healed. Erik kicked whatever strain of flu had kept him bedridden. Betsy helped Brian find a sleeping aid to help him through the night and they began weekly sessions. The win against Edgar Allan boosted the team's moral enough for them to fall into some semblance of order. Kevin and Thea stopped fighting over the phone; Neil didn't know she'd sneaked into town until one day Kevin returned to the dorm looking freshly fucked and more relaxed than he'd ever seen him.

Neil switched from calling out the Ravens to bragging about the Foxes in front of the cameras, which earned him more backlash from Riko's mourners and the unspoken respect of a few of the freshmen. The change in attitudes was subtle, but Neil could feel them stitching together into a real team finally. The only piece left to sort out was Jack.

Talk of Thanksgiving was in the air and mentions of the holiday dredged up ugly memories in the minds of the five men who had gone to that house in Columbia the year before. On top of that, Aaron's trial was quickly approaching and the closer it got the more Aaron seemed to shut down. He went silent and hollow-eyed for days at a time. The Minyard twins were truly identical with their blank faces and disinterested eyes and the freshmen could only tell them apart when one of them was guarding the goal.

Kevin made no mention of Columbia or Thanksgiving or the trial and neither did Neil. They both tried to hide the fact that they were worried, but the rest of the team noticed how distracted they both seemed at practices. Wymack sent Neil a knowing look when he noticed he was sticking closer to Andrew's side these days, but the older man said nothing.

Nicky, who had struggled for so long to hold onto his parents in hopes of winning back their love, quietly let go of the fraying tether between them. He was unable to forgive Luther, unable to see past such an enormous and ugly betrayal, and unwilling to try any longer. All of this he confessed to Neil one night after Nicky visited their dorm drunk on tequila. He fought through his gloom with his usual exuberance. His jokes were louder, more frequent, and often more inappropriate and he had more booze on hand than usual. Allison visited Matt and Nicky's dorm just to drink with him on the nights Andrew was too annoyed to be in his company.

One night the team was sitting in the foyer, waiting for Wymack, when Jack smelled blood in the water and bared his ugly teeth.

“So, Lizzy, you ready to take over for Aaron full-time when he gets shipped off to prison?”

The air was sucked out of the room and for a while no one except Andrew could breathe. Aaron looked like he was ready to vomit. Matt and Dan looked worriedly over Andrew's lot. Lizzy kept her eyes on her own hands, refusing to look up at anyone.

Neil was the first to recover. “Jack, we've put up with a lot of your shit this semester, but you are out of line. Don't you ever fucking joke like that again.”

“Who said I was joking, vice-cap?” Jack taunted.

“Watch it, Jack,” Dan warned. Matt's fists were clenched on his knees, his knuckles were completely white.

“He's not going to go to prison,” Renee said softly, though her smile had melted away by that point.

“No, he's not,” Neil agreed.

Jack rolled his eyes. “He killed a dude. People generally go to prison for that sort of thing. Did you forget that, Nathaniel?”

“Oh, my god,” Nicky whispered. His face was in his hands.

“Motherfucker,” hissed Dan.

Neil felt like someone dumped cold water over his head. Andrew was sitting close enough that Neil could tell his whole body stiffened. Kevin pressed his fingertips together and stared at Jack hard over them- almost like he was prematurely reconciling himself with the loss of the newest striker.

“Wow, you must be really desperate for attention,” Neil replied when his tongue unstuck from the roof of his mouth. There was ice in his voice and fire in his chest. “What made you like this? Did your parents not love you or something? I can understand if they didn't.”

Jack barked out a sharp laugh. “You don't know shit about my folks, man, but I've heard all about yours.”

“Jack, I will cut your balls off myself,” Allison snapped.

“I'm surprised,” Neil said. “I didn't think you could hear much of anything with your head so far up your ass.”

Jack folded his arms and leaned back with lofty arrogance. “Oh, I've heard plenty about your daddy and what happened up in Baltimore.”

“You can't believe everything you hear.” Neil was wearing a smile as sharp as his father's cleaver. “If you'd like, I could take you out somewhere quiet and show you. Maybe we could match.” He gestured to one of his scarred cheeks.

Andrew casually offered Neil one of his knives, tilting it just right for the fluorescent light to flash off it.

Jack laughed harshly. “I'm not scared of you.”

“I know how to hurt you whether you're scared or not. Kevin, you got anything to say? It's your fault we're stuck with this sack of shit.”

Kevin inhaled deeply through his nose, nostrils flaring. “Jack, pissing off your future captain and the rest of the team is a dumb move.”

Jack scoffed and threw a dismissive gesture at Neil. “Fuck that. He's just some random asshole who got lucky and a little bit famous. He shouldn't be captain! I mean, are you seriously backing him up?” Kevin said nothing, which meant yes. Jack sprang to his feet, rage coming off him in waves. “Well, fuck you, too! I'm not going to kiss up to him just because Coach took pity on his sorry ass. He doesn't score nearly enough to make up for the shit he's always saying to the press.”

Neil rose to his feet slowly, still ignoring Andrew's blade. “You're right. I don't score as much as Kevin. I do have an attitude problem. But you know what? I'm still going to be your captain. If you don't like it you can leave. I'll burn your contract myself. In fact, maybe I'll do that anyway. You're starting to get on my nerves.”

Jack took the first swing, but every fiber in Neil's being was ready for a fight. Neil blocked the sloppy right hook and returned it with one of his own, landing his fist right in Jack's cheek. The younger man toppled backward from the force and Neil stood over him, still smiling. “Learn to live with me or leave. I'm not going anywhere.”

“What the fuck is going on in here?” Wymack asked from the doorway.

“Team bonding,” Neil quipped as he sat back down.

“Neil's fist bonded with Jack's face,” Nicky said, giggling into his hand.

Matt was grinning as well while Jack climbed to his feet, rubbing his sore cheek.

“This was fun, guys,” Dan said brightly.

Allison nodded. “We should do this again sometime. Andrew, maybe you could take Jack to Columbia for more team bonding.”

Andrew looked at her, affecting confusion. “Who's Jack?”

Matt snorted.

“Right,” Wymack huffed. “Well, if you Looney Toons are finished fuckin' around we do have some things to talk about. Just Exy, you know, that thing your scholarships depend on. Nothing important.”

“We're waiting on you, Coach,” said Neil.

“Shut it, Josten.”

“Yes, Coach.”

That night, Andrew and Neil bundled up in their coats and shared cigarettes and beer on the roof. Neil stared past the ribbon of smoke curling up from between his fingers at the illuminated campus rolled out before them. The late-evening crowd was still milling about; some laughter and loud voices drifted up from the sidewalk below.

Andrew blew out a long stream of smoke through pursed lips. “You finally punched him,” he said dryly. It was the closest Andrew came to sounding amused.

“It's a shame he went down so easily. I wanted to hit him a few more times.”

“You could've taken the knife.”

Neil shrugged. “I'm good with my hands.” He grinned over at him with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “I can show you how good I am with my hands if you want.”

Andrew gave him a bored stare. “The only dick you've touched is yours and you don't even like getting yourself off. Doesn't inspire much confidence.”

“It's just boring when I'm on my own.” He bumped his shoulder against Andrew's. “I like looking at your pretty face.”

“Shut up.”

“You thought I was pretty, too, when I first got here. Admit it. You thought I was pretty.”

Andrew scowled. “You've always been hideous. Why do you think I try so hard to dress you up?”

Neil snorted and dropped the subject, looking back out at the campus lights for a moment. He flicked ash off onto the concrete beside him and flinched when Jack's voice echoed in his head. “Nathaniel.” His past would always be there, coded in his scars and shining in his eyes, but hearing that name out loud had rattled him down to the core. There was no running from the horror burrowed deep in his head. “Nathaniel.” Jack's voice sharpened into Nathan's. How many others would call him that? “Nathaniel.” The truth was out and now plenty of people were armed with the right tool to hurt him. It wouldn't kill him, wouldn't break him, but it tore open the old wound in his head and it was hard to think past the burning ache of it.

“Neil,” Andrew called, curling a cold hand around the back of Neil's neck. "Neil."

Neil blinked, startled, and snapped his head over to look at Andrew. “Sorry. Were you saying something?”

“Just your name,” Andrew answered. He tilted his head, searching Neil's face. “Yes or no?”

After Neil nodded, Andrew tossed aside both of their cigarettes and pushed Neil back to lay on the concrete. Andrew traced a finger over a scar on his cheek and bit his name into his jaw. Heat burned behind his eyes and his throat constricted. Neil kept his fists clenched at his sides, not trusting his fraying mind to keep his greedy body in check. Andrew didn't comment on it as he licked and bit at the exposed skin above Neil's collar. Neil shivered and tilted his chin down to catch Andrew's lips against his. Andrew kissed him back, slow and hot, and didn't stop kissing him until he forgot about the world that existed beyond the two of them.

Chapter Text

After Aaron's trial and the silent drive back to campus, Andrew disappeared with Bee and Neil returned to Fox Tower with the others. The air between Neil and Aaron and the others boiled with shared rage and ugly things left unsaid. “I'd kill Drake again,” said the set of Aaron's shoulders. “I wish I could've killed him myself,” shouted the gleam in Kevin's eyes.

The rest of the team was waiting in the hallway. The older Foxes wore their worry in different ways. Matt looked lost, Dan stood with her jaw set fiercely and her shoulders squared, Allison leaned against the wall and scrutinized the four men coming out of the elevator. Renee was the only one who looked openly concerned. Nicky started sniffling again and went right for Renee, folding his larger frame around hers and letting her hold him. Katelyn had waited with Matt and Dan in the dorm and threw herself into Aaron's waiting arms. Neil could hear her murmuring soothing words.

The younger Foxes watched the older ones with obvious curiosity, but they flinched away from Neil when he scraped his heavy stare over them; it wasn't their vice-captain they saw in that moment, but the Butcher's son. Neil pierced Jack with a venomous look, daring him silently to say something. For once the younger striker kept his mouth shut.

Neil didn't care if the violence in his chest showed on his face. All he wanted then was to break everyone who broke Andrew, left fracture lines in his soul with the weight of their selfishness. If he could have, he would have raised the dead offenders and given them the slow deaths they deserved. He wanted to drive back to Columbia and disassemble Luther with a blade. Walking away from him in the courtroom was only possible because of Kevin's warning voice at his ear and Neil's overwhelming need to keep his eyes on Andrew as long as he could.

Matt stepped up to Neil as Kevin threw the door open and stormed inside their suite.

“We're here if you need it.”

Neil nodded numbly and Matt squeezed his shoulder before letting him go inside alone. Remembering that his family was there made it slightly easier to breathe around the hurricane in his heart. The door clicked shut behind him and muffled the conversations starting in the hallway. Neil stood in the shadowy main room, staring at the wall without seeing it. Kevin emerged from the bedroom in jeans and a t-shirt and threw himself down at his desk to open his laptop.

Neil couldn't move.

Andrew's past had been ripped open and laid bare for a courtroom to see and speculate over. Aaron was forced to justify his act of violence to a room full of people that had never known horror, couldn't understand what it took to murder a monster to protect family. Nicky had been a weeping mess in the first row while his cousins were questioned and gawked at and judged. Abby and Bee held his hands while his parents sat on the other side of the room. Neil watched Andrew switch between fidgeting with a pen in his hand and going eerily still. All the words, all the horrible truths, dug into Neil's brain and he was struggling to see anything around them. It was all too much.

Cass and Richard had been there as well, trying to look as small as they could. The thought of Cass had driven Neil into Betsy's office the day before. He'd made an appointment just to make sure she would be there at the trial, that she would be there to fill the awful gap Andrew had carved out for Cass all those years ago. Afterward, out on the sidewalk, Neil held a cigarette between his fingers and allowed himself a few moments to miss his own mother.

Neil had spent the trial alternating between staring at Andrew and watching Cass. He hadn't bothered to disguise the fact that he was watching her, but neither she nor her husband noticed. Cass was puffy-eyed, hunched over, fighting tears the whole time, and she didn't look up at Andrew or Aaron once. She'd worn a black dress with a little black hat over her short, mousy hair with a bit of mesh pulled down over her eyes. She looked fit for a funeral and Neil knew it was her son she was thinking of- her own flesh-and-blood son, not the boy who was almost her son, not the boy who'd nearly killed himself trying to keep her. Neil's heart ached so viciously he thought it would give out from the pain. Andrew deserved a mother. Andrew deserved a mother who loved him, who protected him, who killed anyone who dared lay a violent hand on him. The thought that someone like Drake was cried over and mourned by a loving mother while Andrew was ignored made Neil furious.

He wanted to crack open his sternum and let the inferno in his heart burn the goddamn world down.

Restlessly, he waited for Andrew to get back. He itched to be near him again, to look in his eyes. He didn't know how to help him, though, and he knew that Bee was the better person for Andrew to be with at the moment.

So he paced the length of the suite a few times before stopping in the bedroom to pack an overnight bag. He filled a cooler borrowed from Dan with ice and ice cream and a bottle of vodka Wymack had given to him that morning. He collected every carton of cigarettes in the dorm and put them in a pile on the desk. He ignored Kevin when he told him to sit the hell down. Eventually, Kevin got annoyed and left, slamming the door behind him.

It seemed like an eternity before the lock clicked open and the door creaked. Neil stood up from the desk chair so fast he got lightheaded while Andrew entered the suite quietly, still wearing the suit Bee had talked him into wearing, and toed off his dress shoes by the door. His tie was gone, probably ditched in a trash can somewhere. He noticed the cooler sitting on the floor and poked at it with his toe.

“What's this?”

“I thought we could go somewhere.”

Andrew's hazel eyes were bored. His head tilted to the side mechanically. “You think I want to go somewhere with you?”

Neil flinched and dropped his eyes to the carpet. Andrew's cold tone knocked the wind out of him. Shame burned through him, wildfire catching quickly on his raw need and desperation. Every idea he had scraped together of how to be someone Andrew could lean on in went up in smoke.

“You look like a fish with your mouth hanging open like that.”

Neil's mouth snapped shut and his jaw clenched so hard his teeth hurt. I am not enough, hissed his self-loathing mind. Someone like me can't hold anyone up. I'm nothing.

“Sorry,” he croaked once he worked enough air back into his lungs. “Do you want me to go? I don't want- I'll leave if you want me to. I'll- I could ask Matt to let me crash on the couch or-”

“You have a bag packed already?”

Neil nodded and his stomach sank coldly, certain that Andrew was asking him to leave. “I'll get it and-”

“Give me ten minutes.” And then Andrew padded into the bedroom, shutting the door gently behind him and leaving Neil to stew in his confusion.

In his pocket, his phone chimed. Neil fished it out with stiff fingers and flipped it open to see it was a text from Nicky.

Saw him in the hall. U guys ok?

He texted back, Idk I'll keep u posted.

He closed his phone for a moment before cursing himself and reopening it to send, U ok?

A few seconds later, the reply came: im all cried out. watching movies with the others and drinking if u want to join.

I don't think so, but thanks.

Sure sure.

While he waited for Andrew, he sent matching texts to Dan, Renee, and Wymack, figuring those three would get the message out to all the others: andrew is back @ the tower.

The replies came immediately.

Thank you for letting me know. I'm glad he has you, Neil. You both are in my prayers as always.

Good 2 know. I'm in Matt's room if u need us.

Keep your phone on. You know where I am if you need anything. Don't worry about practice tomorrow.

The door opened and Neil's heart leaped into his throat like a salmon headed upriver. He stared as Andrew stepped out in jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. His eyes lifted to Neil's, still cold and empty as untouched marbles.

“Where?” he asked, barely above a whisper.

Neil's heart raced. This was escaping. This, he knew how to do. “We'll head north,” he said without really thinking about it. “We'll stop at the first gas station we find for a map and some supplies.”

Andrew nodded and went to grab the cooler while Neil darted into the bedroom to get his bag. They stuffed their feet into their sneakers and left the Tower together. Andrew threw his stuff into the back seat of the Maserati and fell behind the wheel, shoving the key into the ignition. In the passenger seat, Neil sent out a mass text to his Foxes: we r leaving 4 the night. Then, he tucked the phone away in the pocket of his hoodie and turned his attention to Andrew.

The growl of the engine played at the edges of the thick silence that stuffed the inside of the car. Andrew seemed content to watch the cars around them while they waited at the light. Neil was content to watch Andrew. They turned west instead of east on the highway, taking them away from the familiar route leading to Columbia, and they drove for twenty minutes before stopping at a gas station like Neil suggested. Andrew topped off the tank with gas while Neil went inside to buy a map, some water bottles, and an armful of snacks. When he slid back into his seat, Andrew was behind the wheel already with his thumbs hooked over the bottom of the steering wheel.

“Where?” Andrew asked again, staring out the windshield at a mother herding her three young sons toward a beige sedan at the adjacent pump.

Neil unfolded the map and scanned the cities that lay to the north. It didn't matter where they went. He doubted their destination would even make an impression on them. Andrew seemed too zoned out and Neil's mind was folded inside out, all the focus turned inward. His mother's old advice echoed faintly in his ears.

Neil shook his head and stared harder at the lines and words before him. They weren't hiding or running. They were just putting a few hours between themselves and the places stained with bad memories.

“Gatlinburg?” he suggested. “Looks like it's about three hours away.”

Andrew started the ignition and pulled away from the gas station. Neil rattled off a few directions and soon they were headed toward Tennessee.

The highway was winding and walled with crowded pines. It led higher into the mountains, which Neil noticed only when his ears popped from the pressure. Dusk floated down around them after a while, dimming the air into blue-gray before snuffing out the sun in the west. Clouds blotted out the stars, and the trees became a dark blur set vaguely against the darkening sky. Neil stared out his window without really seeing much. Andrew said nothing.

Three hours passed slowly. The only words spoken were Neil's quiet directions and nothing more. Eventually, the car pulled into the city limits of Gatlinburg and Neil scanned the signs and side streets for possible hotels to spend the night in. Streetlamps glowed brightly on either side of the road, casting light on the pairs and trios of tourists and locals walking on the sidewalks. Soon, Andrew turned right into the small, uneven parking lot for an inn called the Quiet Cub. Neil went inside alone and found a plump, middle-aged woman in a shapeless floral dress sitting behind an ornately carved desk. The interior smelled like cedar and cloves and perfume. It looked like a nice enough place without being too pricey. The carpet was a deep maroon with a faded pattern of cream-colored vines with sharp leaves. The green wallpaper was faded and peeling in peeling in some places.

“Hi, there,” the woman greeted with a pleasant Tennessee twang. “You need a room, honey?”

“Yes, ma'am. Just one room, please.” said Neil, mimicking her accent without really meaning to. It was an old habit learned early on to help him fit in.

“We have one with a queen bed and two with twins. Which would like?”

Neil's heart thudded heavily. He didn't know if Andrew would want to share a bed with him or not. Quickly, he weighed the risks of assuming Andrew wanted him close and unintentionally putting distance between them by asking for separate beds. Fuck it, I'll sleep on the floor if he doesn't want to sleep with me.

“The queen bed sounds perfect. Thank you, ma'am.”

She nodded her head once, which made her drooping earrings swing and catch the light, and jotted some words down in a ledger. Neil paid cash for the room and took the key, smiling and thanking the woman again.

“Your room is just up those stairs and to the right. Breakfast is served from six to eight down the hall there in the parlor,” she called at Neil's retreating figure. “If you need something, holler at me or Jared, all right?”

Neil turned to smile politely at her when he reached the door. “Yes, ma'am.”

Andrew stood against the car with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his hands shoved deep in his pockets. There was just enough light to see that Andrew was shivering and Neil almost scolded him for not bringing his coat before remembering that he forgot his too.

“We're in Room 7,” Neil said quietly. Andrew put out his cigarette and they collected their bags and the cooler before heading inside. The woman frowned at the sight of the pair of them walking upstairs together, but didn't open her mouth to say anything. Neil was silently grateful; he wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy yelling at someone.

Their room was small, but it was enough. Immediately to their right was a bathroom fitted with a narrow bathtub; a row of bare light bulbs hummed loudly above the mirror when Neil flicked the switch. The bed seemed to take up most of the floor space with small nightstands on either side set up with matching lamps, clocks, and “Welcome to Gatlinburg” brochures. On the bed was a heavy patchwork quilt, showing mostly greens and browns, pulled taut over the sheets and pillows. An old television sat on a wide, chipped dresser facing the bed. Sliding glass doors behind thick, green curtains opened up onto a small balcony with flaking blue paint.

Andrew set his bag down on one side of the bed without looking at Neil, who stood in the little entryway shifting his weight and trying to keep his breathing steady.

“Um, I didn't know if you wanted to sleep together or not. I'll sleep on the floor if you want me to- or I could, uh, ask her to change rooms. They have some with separate beds. Whatever you want.”

Andrew dragged his eyes up to Neil's. “We'll share the bed.”

Neil nodded. “Okay.”

Andrew bobbed his head once and took the cooler out to the balcony. He left the door open and sat beside the cooler on the painted boards. Neil grabbed a carton of cigarettes, a lighter, the bag of gas station snacks, and dragged the quilt off the bed. Cold air was already pouring into the room through the open door and Andrew was taking his ice cream out to eat it. Neil figured the blanket would be necessary if they didn't plan on freezing to death out there.

“Here,” he said, tossing the cigarettes and lighter into Andrew's lap. He wrapped one half of the quilt around Andrew's shivering shoulders and sat down next to him, pulling the other half around his own body. They sat close enough to share body heat without actually touching. Neil pulled the vodka out of its icy bed and took a swig of it, while Andrew lit two cigarettes.

They went through a container of chocolate ice cream, a bag of peanut butter M&Ms, two bars of Hershey chocolate, half a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels, and a quarter of the bottle of vodka before Andrew spoke.

“Cass was there.” His tone was flat and Neil knew there was nothing beneath it.

“Yeah,” Neil answered, tucking the corner of the quilt tighter across his body. His stomach was protesting all the sugary junk food he'd eaten. “I kind of wanted to say something to her.”

“What would you have said?”

“Nothing pleasant.” He'd wanted to shake her, ask her how she lived in that house without knowing what her son was doing, shout and scream at her until his molten rage poured out and burned everyone in the room. “I probably would have made her look at you.”

“There's no point getting yourself worked up about this,” Andrew said before taking a long drink of vodka. “I don't care.”

“Well, I care. I wanted Cass to look at you, say something to you. I wanted to go after Luther, too. The things I've thought about doing to him would've made my father proud. I've thought about it a lot- where I would cut him first, what sort of blades I would use,” Neil admitted. “I'd take him where no one would hear him scream and I'd make it last for hours.”

It was like reaching into his lungs and ripping out long, thorny strands of hideous honesty, dripping blood and oily hatred. The thoughts came from deep within him where he caged up the monster his father made. It was chilling to set these awful words free, but he knew Andrew wouldn't run from him.

Andrew rolled his eyes, which seemed to nearly expend all the energy he had left. He swayed a little, knocking his shoulder against Neil's. “There's no point.”

Andrew saw violence as strictly a preventative measure and revenge as a waste of time. Tilda would have hit Aaron again. Those guys would have hurt Nicky. As far as Neil knew, Luther was out of rapists to put in the path of his nephews, so Andrew didn't see the point in hurting him. Neil still wanted him to suffer, though. He dimly considered taking up religion just so he could comfort himself with the thought of Luther and the others burning in hell.

“I didn't expect anything from her,” Andrew mumbled, squinting against the chilly wind that was picking up.

Neil's stomach churned. He thought back to what he'd gone through, giving himself over to Riko and holding his ground when Lola came for him, and how he'd known the Foxes were worth every drop of blood, every bruise, every burn. He held onto them with a strength he didn't know he had and they had held onto him in return. Choosing to stay was the best decision he'd ever made. Choosing to stay with Cass nearly killed Andrew and she couldn't even spare him a glance after everything he did to be part of her family.

“Pipe dream,” Andrew scoffed. His words were wobbly at the edges, blurred by the alcohol working into his system. He took another swig of vodka.

“I'm not-” Neil stopped when Andrew gave him with a pointed look and he realized Andrew wasn't talking about him. Quietly, he told him, “You'll always have me. You can choose to believe that or not, but that's the truth.”

“Always, always, it's always 'always.'” Andrew sighed. “I hate you.”

“Are you cold?” Neil screwed the cap back onto the vodka and set it aside. Andrew didn't answer, but he turned and scooted closer to Neil so that he could wrap the quilt around them entirely, forming a sort of patchwork cocoon that trapped warmth between them. Andrew hooked chilly fingers in Neil's collar and tugged him forward into a kiss. Neil shivered as Andrew's tongue slid into his mouth and his fingers brushed his neck.

They stayed out on the balcony, pressed close and kissing until they felt warm again. Then, they packed all their candy wrappers and trash into the cooler and brought it inside, dragging the quilt behind them. After they took their turns in the bathroom, they crawled into bed and fell asleep with only a few inches of quiet space between them.

Chapter Text

A beginner's guide to Russian appeared on Neil's pillow in the middle of the first Wednesday in December. Neil noticed it when he returned to the dorm for a fresh pair of socks after walking through a puddle that was deeper than it looked. Andrew and Kevin were both at class, but it didn't take much thought to work out who was responsible for the odd gift.

Neil pulled out his phone and texted Andrew.

Russian?

As he was pulling his dry socks on, the reply came: A & N speak German.

Neil was still confused. He stuffed his feet back into his sneakers and typed back, So?

I have shit to say sometimes.

That u don't want them hearing?

Our business is ours.

Neil stopped in the doorway of the bedroom, looking down at the words on his screen without being able to absorb them properly at first. He stared at the word “ours” without blinking until his eyes burned. Andrew wanted something that would connect him to Neil, something that his brother and cousin weren't privy to. For someone who had spent so much time denying that the relationship meant anything, this felt like a large step in a wonderfully terrifying direction. Andrew didn't speak much to Neil in front of the others, hadn't had much of anything to say to anyone else since he returned to them sober. Would he speak more if he was speaking to Neil alone?

It would annoy the others, just like it annoyed them when the cousins threw German around and when Neil and Kevin fought in French, but Neil couldn't find it in himself to care. Being able to have a small bubble of privacy with Andrew at all times was something he wanted too.

Chewing his lip, he sent, Wanna study together?

Try 2 keep up.

Neil smiled to himself and headed off to his next class.

Chapter Text

Compared to Neil's first Christmas banquet, his second was practically tame. There was the expected animosity between the Foxes and the Ravens, but they'd lost their claws when they lost their master and king. Ravens were Ravens, though, and they still tried their hardest to intimidate and harass. Neil tossed back sharp retorts to all their threats and insults, while Andrew stood by and dragged his cold stare over them. Neil and Andrew had hung around Allison and Renee in a loose sort of agreement to keep each other company since neither of the girls felt like bringing dates. The ladies danced with each other instead of the men, though. Neil and Andrew had nursed drinks off to the side and watched out for signs of violence. Most of the Foxes had a decent time, it seemed. The freshmen found ways to acquire drinks. Matt and Dan spent a good half hour making out on the dance floor. Kevin treated his anxiety and anger with copious amounts of alcohol, leaving Neil and Andrew responsible for lugging his body back up to their suite when they finally returned to Fox Tower in the small hours of the morning. None of the Foxes had wanted to spend the night at the hosting school a few hours away, but after half of them ended up almost too drunk to walk Neil wished they'd chosen differently.

They dumped Kevin into his bed and Andrew removed his tie so he wouldn't strangle himself. Then, the pair went back out into the main room to slump into the beanbag chairs. Their suits were hopelessly rumpled and Neil's hair was sticking up in wild tufts thanks to drunken ruffling from Matt and Dan. Allison's lipstick was smeared across Neil's cheek where she clumsily pressed a kiss that smelled strongly of tequila sunrises. Andrew was still fairly tidy in appearance except for his loosened collar and wrinkled jacket. In spite of the late hour, neither seemed willing to go to bed just yet. Neil struggled out of his jacket and pulled his shirt free from his pants.

“Want to watch a movie or something?” Neil asked.

Andrew gave a noncommittal hum and looked around the darkened room. “Kevin packed away quite a bit of booze.”

“I think his body stores it for later. Like a vodka camel.”

Andrew nodded. “We could set off a bomb in here without waking him up.”

Neil kicked off his dress shoes. “That's one way to get out of practice.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and crawled over to Neil. With fingers hooked in the waistline of his pants, Andrew tugged him out of the beanbag chair onto the carpet and leaned over him. “Since you're oblivious, I'll spell it out for you: I could do all sorts of things to you and you could make all sorts of noises without waking up Kevin.”

Neil stared up at Andrew, eyes wide and jaw slackened. “Oh,” he said dumbly. He swallowed hard; his throat was suddenly sticky and dry. “That's- that's, yeah, let's do that.”

Andrew shook his head and growled, “Moron.” Then, he swooped down to catch Neil's mouth with his and his nimble fingers made quick work of the buttons on Neil's shirt. He pulled it open to lick a firm line across Neil's shivering stomach. Neil clutched at Andrew's hair, nearly overwhelmed with relief at having a chance to fool around. Finally, his mind sighed. They hadn't gone twelve days between kisses again, but they'd come close. Neil didn't want to make that a habit.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes, Andrew. God, yes.”

Andrew yanked Neil's tie up over his chin. He tightened the knot in-between Neil's teeth and stuffed some of the extra material into his mouth, gagging him. “I don't want the rest of campus hearing what I'm going to do to you,” he murmured, gently biting a section of Neil's cheek. “You can take the tie out of your mouth if you need to, okay? I'll stop if you want me to stop. Don't roll your eyes at me. Nod if you understand.”

Neil nodded, eager for whatever Andrew had in mind, and Andrew stared into Neil's eyes for a long moment until he found whatever he was searching for. Then, he moved down to pull off Neil's pants, underwear, and socks. The carpet scratched his bare ass and lower back as he shifted to open his legs so that Andrew could kneel between them. He propped himself up on one elbow so that he could watch as Andrew began to stroke his hardening cock. The amount of open space around them made Neil feel vulnerable and Neil hoped they'd remembered to lock the door. Then, Andrew flattened his tongue against the underside of Neil's balls and effectively stifled his thoughts.

Andrew began with a quick pace, taking Neil entirely into his mouth and sucking so hard it made Neil's eyes roll back and water. His head dropped back and he let out a long moan. The pleasure built quickly and Neil was worried he'd finish far too soon, but then Andrew slowed. He pulled his mouth off of Neil's cock and pressed a slow, firm kiss to his tip, looking up at him through his pale lashes. Neil was trembling all over and was vaguely aware of a line of drool slipping out of the corner of his mouth. Andrew dragged his hands up and down the tender insides of Neil's thighs, drawing out muffled moans and whimpers, and Andrew watched him closely.

Neil groaned again and bucked up towards Andrew, desperate for more, but Andrew gently pushed his hips down and held them there.

“Neil, look at me,” Andrew said quietly. Neil somehow found the strength to lift his head. “I want to finger you. Nod your head if you're okay with that.”

Neil nodded furiously and ran his fingers through Andrew's hair. Andrew bit down gently on Neil's inner thigh.

“I'll be right back.” Andrew stood and padded down to the bathroom. Neil felt cold and exposed in his absence. He looked over at the bedroom door and shuddered when he imagined the view Kevin would have stumbled out to see if he woke up then. He didn't think Kevin would ever look him in the eye again if he saw him like that.

A few moments later, Andrew returned with a dark plastic bottle and settled back between his legs. He studied Neil's face while he spread some of the lube onto his fingers and asked, “Still yes?”

Neil nodded and took a deep breath through his nose. A shiver of nervousness went through him, but he wasn't afraid. Laying beneath Andrew was the safest place in the world for him. Nothing could harm him there. He rested on both elbows, ignoring the ache burning in his arms, and watched intently. Andrew leaned forward and kissed Neil's belly before wrapping one hand around his dick and slowly rubbing his tight hole with the tip of his finger.

“Spread your legs a little wider for me,” Andrew said lowly.

Neil swallowed nervously as he lifted his knees and let them fall open as wide as they could. Andrew's finger gently pushed inside and stopped when Neil's body went tense. He waited until Neil relaxed before he started to work his ass open with shallow, experimental thrusts of his finger. Andrew kept stroking his dick, soothing the discomfort away with pleasure, until Neil's head fell back again and he grunted loudly against the damp fabric in his mouth. Andrew worked another finger inside him and thrust deeper, scissoring his fingers and prodding. Neil bit down hard on his tie and inhaled deeply through his nose. Andrew shifted closer and lowered his head to suck on the tip of Neil's cock as he curled his fingers. Neil's mind was blurry and washed out with pleasure, but his body knew what it wanted and that was deeper, harder, more. He lay back against the carpet and lifted his hips to encourage Andrew's fingers to sink deeper. His hands buried themselves in Andrew's hair and scratched at the back of his scalp while he tried to push his cock into Andrew's mouth. Andrew complied. He sank his mouth down on Neil's cock as he added a third finger and curled them, curled them just right, and hit a spot inside Neil that sent a hot bolt of ecstasy through his entire body. The surprised shout of Andrew's name that tore out of his lungs made him thankful for the gag afterward. Andrew gradually found the perfect balance of sucking, stroking, and fingering that had Neil writhing and coming apart at the seams. His hips rolled in a primal rhythm, thrusting up into Andrew's mouth before jerking back against his fingers, while his fingers clutched at Andrew's hair. Neil's eyes watered and leaked from the intensity of it and unintelligible sounds shattered in his throat while the pleasure went rushing through him.

Neil came harder than he ever had, arching and sobbing and fucking Andrew's mouth mindlessly while his orgasm blew out his senses. His toes curled and his legs tensed so hard a flash of pain pierced his thigh. He quivered and gasped for breath as he gently cooled down, relaxing his tight muscles gradually, and then he lifted his head to look down at Andrew. Andrew held perfectly still for a few more moments before letting Neil's waning cock slip from his mouth. Neil whimpered when Andrew's fingers withdrew, leaving him feeling stretched and empty and incomplete.

“Fuck,” Andrew whispered, more to himself than to Neil as he watched Neil's thighs shiver. He met Neil's eyes again and asked, “Are you okay?”

Neil nodded drowsily and reached up to drag his sodden necktie out of his mouth. He swallowed thickly. “I'm- I'm fine.”

Andrew looked at him, not buying it. “Neil.”

“You might have to help me walk,” he chuckled weakly. His legs were still trembling like he'd just finished a marathon.

“Give me a minute.” Andrew hunched over and undid his pants so that he could pull himself off. Neil stared at Andrew's face and fought to stay awake. It didn't take long for Andrew to finish. His free hand grasped Neil's knee and he bit down hard on his lip when he spilled into his palm.

Neil was weighed down by a delicious, bone-deep exhaustion and he almost wanted to sleep there, half-naked on the carpet of the main room. Moving seemed like too much effort until Andrew reminded him about Kevin.

“You look like porn,” Andrew commented. He hauled Neil onto his feet and caught him when he swayed. “You're a mess.”

“Ugh, my legs- the last time I felt this weak was the championship game.”

Andrew helped him into the shower and went into the dark bedroom to gather their sweatpants, clean shirts, and fresh underwear while Neil cleaned himself up. Neil dressed and waited outside while Andrew quickly took his turn and when Andrew stepped out of the steamy bathroom, Neil pressed him against the wall with heavy, grateful kisses and reverent hands cupped around his jaw.

“That was amazing,” he murmured, sucking Andrew's lip into his mouth.

“You sound drunk.”

“I feel like I ate the sun.” Neil sighed and kissed the corner of his mouth. “Best orgasm ever.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “I'm never touching you again.”

“You like touching me,” Neil teased, smiling against his lips.

Andrew's fingers dug into Neil's hips. “I hate you.”

“Liar.”

“Junkie.”

Chapter Text

The Foxes spent the first week of Christmas break apart. Aaron went home with Katelyn for a festive, traditional Christmas with her family and Kevin flew to Mexico with Thea. After dropping Nicky off at the airport on Saturday morning, Neil and Andrew headed off to Columbia alone.

While they drove in silence, Neil struggled against a surge of memories of Riko and Christmas at Evermore. “Do you have my ticket, Kevin?” He scrubbed a hand over his face. I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine. Neil turned to Andrew and stared at his profile. Pale stubble covered his jaw and his eyes were red, tell-tale signs of a restless night. Neil wondered if Andrew was having nightmares about Christmas as well. He was endlessly thankful that they were together, safe, alive, and given a whole week to spend alone together.

After picking up some groceries for the week- “Whipped cream?” “Get your mind out of the gutter, Josten. It's for the hot chocolate.”- they returned the house and settled on the sofa without turning the television on. Neil curled up around one of Nicky's throw pillows and stared at the wall.

“Cass bought me a stocking for my first Christmas with them,” Andrew said. “It had my name on it and everything.”

Neil didn't know what to say to that. He pictured a fireplace with stockings hanging from the mantle; he wondered if Drake's used to hang next to Andrew's and the thought nearly brought up the granola bar he ate for breakfast. He tried to imagine a younger, softer Andrew tentatively celebrating Christmas with Cass and Richard, opening presents before a huge tree adorned with tinsel and lights, feeling like part of a family for perhaps the first time. His chest felt like it was going to cave in.

“Your turn,” said Andrew.

Neil's head lolled against the back of the couch to face Andrew. He raked over his memories for a minute before deciding on one. “The first two years we were on the road, my mom would buy a couple candy canes on Christmas Eve and we'd stick them in cups of hot chocolate at shitty diners.”

“Not a bad idea,” Andrew commented.

“It was nice.” Neil rubbed over his scarred wrist, tracing the curved lines bitten into his flesh by handcuffs.

They distracted themselves with reruns of old game shows, trips to the local mall where Neil bought small gifts for the team and Andrew convinced Neil to invest a little more in his wardrobe- “These jeans are obscenely tight. Are you sure I should get them?” “You need to give me something to stick around for, Josten.” “What, you'll stick around to stare at my ass?” “I'm sure as fuck not sticking around for that attitude.”- and chilly walks through the neighborhood with cigarettes in hand. They cooked dinner and drank hot chocolate piled high with fluffy whipped cream. Andrew ate it off with a spoon while Neil let it smear across his nose and cheeks whenever took a sip. Andrew insisted he didn't like eating messy things, but he lapped whipped cream from Neil's cock anyway after a few shots of whiskey. Afterward, he fingered Neil in the shower and Neil's cries of “Fuck me! Andrew, just fuck me!” echoed so loudly off the tiles his face burned all evening.

At night they fell into bed, sated and warm. Neil had an entirely pleasant day filling his mind like soft feathers, but once he was asleep the claws came. His subconscious mind fell into a dorm bed at Evermore while Riko leaned over him, leering and wielding a blade. He could feel the cold metal digging into the corner of his lips, he could taste the slimy saliva Riko spat into his mouth. When his eyes flew open, he saw Riko instead of Andrew beside him and he recoiled so hard he fell to the floor with a startled shout.

Andrew pulled him back onto the mattress and clamped one hand around his neck, growling, “Breathe, Neil. You're fine.”

Neil nodded and wrapped his hand loosely around Andrew's bare wrist while he caught his breath. Andrew held onto him firmly, tethering him to the present. The brush of Andrew's fingers on the back of his neck and the heat of his palm was enough to chase away the lingering flickers of horror playing behind his eyelids.

“Riko's dead,” Andrew reminded him.

Neil thought of couch cushions and a wall painted with Riko's blood and brains. “That bastard didn't suffer as much as he deserved.”

“They never do.”

Riko, Drake, his father, all were given mercifully quick deaths and Neil's heart boiled at how unfair it all was.

Andrew gave Neil's shoulder a little shove and together they climbed out of bed and headed to the kitchen. They shared decaf coffee, a couple cigarettes, and a few hot kisses against the wall before attempting sleep again.

In spite of the restless nights, the week was a blissful change of pace. On the last day, Andrew kept his touches light and tame to allow Neil's body much needed rest even though Neil protested, “I'm fine, Andrew.”

Andrew ran a disdainful look over Neil's slumped body. “If you show up to the lodge like that I'll never hear the end of it and I don't want to deal with those asshats more than I already do.”

Neil tried to sit up properly in the plastic chair. “I'm fine, though. We could fool around today. It's our last day alone for awhile.”

“You look like a zombie. You look like I literally fucked your brains out.”

“You could've, you know.”

Andrew stared at him coolly, taking a long drag off his cigarette and blowing smoke into the pleasantly warm breeze sweeping over the porch. They hadn't progressed to penetrative sex yet, but after several intense orgasms around Andrew's fingers Neil was more than ready for it. He supposed it did feel a bit out of order, though. Andrew still hadn't given him permission to get him off and he still hadn't gotten to the point where he was comfortable undressing in front of Neil.

“I'm fine with waiting,” Neil added for good measure, “but I want you to know that the answer is yes whenever you're ready.”

“Noted,” Andrew said flatly.

The next day they picked Nicky, Kevin, and Aaron up at the airport and they listened to stories about Germany and Mexico all the way to the ski resort. Kevin was wise enough to keep quiet about the furious crimson bruise peeking out of Neil's collar, but Nicky wasn't. It was fortunate for him that Andrew was driving and couldn't reach back far enough to swipe at him with his knife. Aaron only made a noise of revulsion.

The ski lodge was a massive log cabin with huge windows lit from within by glittering chandeliers. It was the sort of place that Allison looked right at home in with her fur coat and designer boots. In the foyer, the team assembled and reunited with tight hugs and teasing- “Goddamn, Neil, did Andrew try to eat you?”- before they headed inside to the main desk to collect their room keys. Matt put a hand on Neil's shoulder and gently pulled him aside to ask, “You good? I know this time of year must be rough for you two.”

Neil gave him a small smile. “We're doing all right. How are you and Dan?”

Matt usually answered with a simple “We're good” or “She's amazing” but instead of that, an odd vulnerability shone in the older man's eyes and he whispered, “I think I want to marry her.” He looked like it scared him to say it out loud.

Neil froze. “Oh, wow. That's- that's great, man. Congratulations.”

“We haven't talked about it. I haven't even looked at rings or anything,” Matt babbled. “Keep that between us, okay? Please? Shit. I didn't mean to say that.”

“It's fine. I won't say anything. I think we should get back to the others, though. They look suspicious.”

Matt nodded and tried to rub the astonished look off his face before they rejoined the rest of the group. Andrew narrowed his eyes at Neil, waiting for an explanation, but Neil said nothing.

Matt paid extra money on one of the larger rooms designed for a romantic couples' getaway for himself and Dan. Neil covered the cost for Andrew's lot, so he got a room for himself and Andrew and a larger room for the other three men to share. Allison and Renee ended up sharing a suite with a fully stocked kitchenette on Allison's dime. Before dinner, they agreed to put their bags away in the rooms and freshen up a bit before meeting in the spacious lounge.

Andrew and Neil's room was furnished with a king-sized bed covered with plush pillows and a thick duvet that looked more like a cloud, two armchairs by a stone hearth, a heavy wooden armoire with two doors that opened to reveal a large television set and a few drawers below. The bathroom came with a large bathtub and an expensive-looking shower head. An assortment of small bottles filled with body wash and shampoos stood in formation on the marble counter beside the deep sink. Neil looked at himself in the mirror and cringed. There were dark circles under his eyes from a couple weeks of plagued sleep and the hickey Andrew left on his neck looked worse under the bright lights. At least his attire wasn't as shabby as it usually was. He had thought to put on a thick long-sleeve shirt that clung to his torso and a pair of dark cargos Andrew had bought for him long ago.

Andrew appeared in the doorway of the bathroom. “Ogling yourself?”

“Trying to figure out why you like my ass so much.”

Stepping closer, Andrew curved his hand around Neil's ass cheek and squeezed lightly before shrugging and walking away again. Neil washed his hands and tried to tame his hair before flicking the light off and heading out to join Andrew.

The team pulled a few leather armchairs up to one of the sofas in the lounge by the windows and got comfortable to exchange stories of their holidays. Neil and Andrew listened quietly and Neil threw out a comment or a question here and there just to participate in the conversation. Being there with his Foxes was calming and Neil's heart got stuck in his throat when he thought of them graduating and going their separate ways. He tried to focus on the fact that they were all together for the time being and they were more relaxed and happy than he'd seen them in months. Without the freshmen there to gawk or sneer or try to trip them up, the coming week promised to be a good one.

When they went to the dining room for dinner, the snowy slopes outside the windows turned indigo as night fell. The pine trees were jagged black shapes on the crests of the hills and a few lights clicked on outside to help those still out and about find their way. The Foxes stayed together until eleven and then decided to call it a night. They agreed to have breakfast at eight the next morning and start ski lessons at ten as they stumbled off in their different ways.

Neil went to bed feeling at peace, but it was not the same for Andrew.

Going to bed had been the same as always- Andrew pressed Neil down into the thick duvet with strong hands on his shoulders and chest and hard, hot kisses for a few minutes or maybe an hour. Then they crawled under the covers and lay facing one another in the dark, gently drifting apart into separate dreamworlds.

Neil dreamed with all his senses: he heard Dan's laughter bubbling over a friendly argument between Matt and Nicky, he saw Renee's serene smile as a sunbeam curved over her smooth cheek, he felt warm metal keys pressed into his palm, he smelled his mother's cigarette, he tasted salty beads of sweat on Andrew's neck after the game against the Ravens. The shifting dream poured over his mind like honey, golden and warm with trapped sunlight. He couldn't form the words with his clumsy tongue in the dream, but his heart beat steadily: I'm home, I'm home, I'm home.

Something shook the bed beneath him and Neil was wrenched awake by old instincts. His arm jerked under the pillow in search of a gun before he remembered where he was. Andrew flinched hard against the mattress. Neil quickly realized that was what had woken him up.

“Andrew?” he murmured without reaching out to the man beside him.

Andrew sucked in a sharp hiss of air through his teeth.

“Andrew.” Panic surged high in Neil's chest. “Andrew, are you okay? Andrew, talk to me.”

He slowly reached into the darkness where he knew Andrew's head would be, intending to touch Andrew's hair, but as soon as his fingertips brushed Andrew's temple a fist came up hard into Neil's gut.

“Get off me.”

Andrew's voice was a mangled thing, fearful and furious. Neil scrambled away and smacked at the lamp on the bedside table until light blinded him. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he turned and squinted at Andrew. Empty hazel eyes stared back at him and Andrew's body was completely limp under the covers.

“Andrew?” Neil's voice was high and strangled. “Andrew, it's me. It's Neil.”

Andrew stared through him, unblinking, as if his soul had leeched out of his body and into the mattress. When Neil put his feet on the carpet, he almost expected to find Andrew's spirit puddled there. He stood by the bed and called to Andrew again, “You're safe, Andrew. It's just me. Andrew, Andrew, look at me.”

There was still no response. Neil's heart felt like someone's hand was wringing the life out of it. His stomach throbbed from the force of Andrew's punch and he struggled to breathe. After a few moments of sheer panic, Neil rounded the bed to Andrew's bedside table and swiped his phone from it. He took the phone into the bathroom and shut the door. With shaking hands, he flipped it open and found Betsy's number.

“Andrew?” the woman's sleepy voice answered after a few rings.

“Betsy, it's Neil.”

There was a long pause and the sound of mattress springs creaking. “Neil? What's wrong? Where's Andrew?”

“He's, um,” he swallowed thickly. “I think he had or is having a nightmare and I can't get him to... he's not answering me. I can't even tell if he's really awake. I don't know what to do.”

“Deep breaths, Neil. It's going to be okay. Give Andrew some time and some space, okay? He'll come out of it. It'll be okay.”

It didn't feel like it would be okay. Cold chills ran down his arms and his back. Neil felt like he might vomit and he didn't know if that was the hit he took or his fear.

“Okay. Sorry for calling so late.” He checked the time on the screen. It was barely past two. “Erm, early, that is. Sorry.”

“You can call any time, Neil. I'm here if you need me.”

“Thanks,” Neil said quietly before disconnecting. He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw stars and tried to convince his body to stop trembling. After a few moments, he opened the bathroom door and nearly bumped into Andrew.

Andrew squinted blearily up into his eyes and gruffly demanded, “Why the fuck are all the lights on?”

“You had a nightmare,” Neil breathed out, too stunned to come up with anything else.

“You're a nightmare,” Andrew retorted, rubbing at his eye. “Come back to bed.” He snatched his phone out of Neil's hand and ambled away.

Neil carefully kept close to the edge of the large bed and tried to steady his frightened heart. It was hours before Neil's body and mind relaxed enough for him to burrow back into sleep. Still alarmed, he drifted in shallow sleep until the alarm went off.

Andrew gave no indication that he remembered what had happened and Neil didn't want to bring it up either, feeling queasy at the thought that he had made an enormous mistake. He touched Andrew without thinking. He told Betsy what happened. Neil feared Andrew would see that as a betrayal of his trust. He wanted to apologize or ask how he could fix it, but his tongue was dead in his mouth. They never strayed far from one another, but Andrew never met Neil's eyes. He seemed absent, mentally checked-out of every conversation, which the others didn't see as odd. None of them asked questions, which Neil was thankful for. Neil wondered if Andrew had heard much of his conversation with Betsy; he saw him check his call log at breakfast with his phone half-hidden in his lap. He wondered if he should come clean about calling her. After their first round of ski lessons with a bubbly instructor named Erica, Neil noticed Andrew tugged off his gloves every ten minutes or so to send a text. Neil couldn't think of a reason for Andrew to text Wymack, so that left Betsy. He wanted to ask questions, but didn't. He hoped Betsy was able to help Andrew and mentally berated himself for not knowing what to do.

His worry grew over his body like weeds all throughout the day and by the time the team went in for dinner, he was too numb to speak and too hollow to eat more than a few bites. He brushed off the concerned looks he received, hating that the team showed more worry for his sake than for Andrew's.

When he and Andrew were finally alone together in their room, Neil was ready to run. He vividly imagined packing his bag and going off somewhere for the night. He could afford another room for himself. Before he could convince his body to move toward his duffel bag, though, Andrew stepped up to him and lifted the hem of his shirt up to his ribs. He tilted his head to eye the violet bruise blossoming there and then he met Neil's stare for the first time that day.

“I couldn't see you,” Andrew stated.

It was dark, but that wasn't what Andrew meant and Neil knew it. Andrew had been thrown into a pocket of old trauma still present in his mind and locked there. It was a place Neil didn't exist and even if the light had been on, Andrew would've seen another's face over his. The memory had too firm a grip on him.

Neil nodded and murmured, “I shouldn't have touched you. I won't next time.”

“I know.” Andrew grabbed the back of Neil's neck and dragged him forward into a bruising, mind-numbing kiss. Neil kept his hands at his sides and let Andrew kiss and bite and lick until their lips were cherry-red and slightly swollen. His fingers trailed lightly over Neil's bruise before Andrew pulled him to bed.

Chapter Text

The Foxes were, in Neil's generous opinion, pretty good at skiing considering only Matt knew how before going there. Once Neil and Kevin pushed past their fears of getting injured, they took to racing each other down one of the more difficult slopes. Andrew glared at the ski lift like it personally offended him, but he never backed down from going up. Each time he landed on his feet with a scowl pulling at his face under his plastic goggles and proceeded to speed down to the bottom like a man with something to prove. He never admitted to racing Neil and Kevin and the two strikers were so sore at being soundly beaten by the goalkeeper that they didn't admit they were secretly trying to race him as well.

Nicky nearly snuffed out their fun when he asked, “Hey, what if Kevin actually broke his hand skiing?” Andrew promptly shoved Nicky into a nearby snowbank while Matt lectured him on what was and wasn't appropriate to say out loud.

Renee went down the slopes a few times each morning before wandering off and making snowmen under the cover of pine trees. Andrew sat with her sometimes to smoke and stuck cigarettes into the snowmen's pebble smiles when Renee was distracted with texting Jean. Allison didn't venture close to them after getting a glob of pine sap stuck in her hair.

On Tuesday, Dan took a hard fall and got some nasty bruising on her thigh. She sat inside the rest of the day to ice her leg and Matt stayed by her side, of course, curled up with her in a quilt by the fireplace in the lounge.

Aaron had tried to hide the fact that he texted and called Katelyn every morning before breakfast and every night before bed, but Nicky announced it Tuesday evening at dinner after a few beers, and proclaimed, “I'd like to make a toast to hetero love!” Aaron shoved him off his chair.

Nicky spent Wednesday morning looking for opportunities to stuff snow down Neil's collar and by one o'clock Neil was unpleasantly damp and shivering. Kevin scolded him for trying to stay outside like that and risking getting sick right before the start of spring championships. Irritated, Neil returned to the room and decided to take the afternoon off. He peeled off his wet, heavy clothing and went into the bathroom to shower. He stood under the powerful spray of hot water until the aching numbness in his fingers and cheeks ebbed. As he was toweling off and pulling on dry clothes, he heard the bedroom door slam shut.

Neil padded out of the steamy bathroom, scrubbing at his wet hair with a towel, to find Andrew nudging the pile of discarded clothes with his boot. Andrew's cheeks and nose were splotched red from the cold and there were a few clumps of snow melting in his hair and on his shoulders.

Andrew explained, “Kevin kept trying to get me to race.”

“I think I'm done for the day. Kevin's too annoying to deal with today,” Neil said. “Dan says the hot chocolate here is really good. You want some?”

Andrew tilted his head, considering. “Later. I want a shower.”

Neil nodded and stepped aside. “Bathroom's all yours.”

“Clean your mess up, Josten,” Andrew said as he walked into the bathroom.

Neil hung his coat up to dry and stuffed his wet clothes into the plastic bag for laundry and lay across the bed on his stomach. He picked up a pen with the name of the lodge emblazoned across it and a pad of stationary to doodle aimlessly while he waited for Andrew to come back out. He drew a few fox paw prints and a small doodle of the back of his jersey with “JOSTEN” spelled in uneven blocky letters above the number “10.”

The shower cut off and a minute later the door opened. Neil didn't look up from the pad of paper until Andrew crawled onto the mattress to lay face up beside him. Everything in Neil went still when his eyes fell on Andrew's bare chest and stomach. There was a sparse patch of white-blond hair in the middle of his chest between two dusty-pink nipples that were hardened in the cool air and more hair trailing down from his navel. Neil vividly remembered the nest of golden hair around Andrew's cock he'd caught glimpses of a couple times. He was finely sculpted by years spent in the gym and on the court with only a few scars here and there. Neil's eyes snagged on the shadows pooling in the hollows of Andrew's strong shoulders and collar bone. His mouth watered as he imagined leaving marks there.

His heartbeat grew heavier in his chest the longer he looked and he wondered if Andrew had ever voluntarily lain half-naked beside someone before. Neil felt humbled and awed and horribly unworthy.

“My eyes are up here,” Andrew said dryly after letting Neil look for a few minutes.

Neil's eyes flew up to his face and he caught what almost looked like amusement in Andrew's eyes. “Hi,” he said lightly.

Andrew's expression shifted subtly. “Don't look at me like that.”

Neil ignored him and swept his eyes over Andrew's torso again. His fingers itched with the desire to touch, but the thought of all the hands placed on Andrew in every wrong way made him hesitate. Neil didn't want to burn Andrew with his desire; he wanted to replace the ghosts on Andrew's skin with something kind and simple. Holding up his pen, he asked, “Yes or no?”

Andrew narrowed his eyes at the pen for a long moment. “Do I look like a coloring book?”

Neil shrugged one shoulder. “Blank canvas.”

“Can't say the same about you,” Andrew said.

“Rude.”

“Am I wrong?”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Can I draw on you or not? It'll wash off.”

Andrew stared at him. “I just showered. It'll have to stay until morning.”

“Is that a yes or no?”

“Yes,” sighed Andrew. “No drawing dicks on my face, though.”

Neil smirked and pressed the tip of the pen above Andrew's navel. Andrew sucked in his stomach and grumbled, “Feels weird.”

“Want me to stop?”

Andrew lifted his head to eye the blue spot marring his skin dubiously. “Carry on, Picasso.”

Neil gently pressed his hand flat against Andrew's stomach and prayed the pen wouldn't tickle him while he began to draw the outline of a small fox paw. It would annoy Andrew when he saw it. Neil could almost hear his insulting hiss of, “Junkie.” That didn't stop him from beginning a winding trail of blue paw prints up Andrew's belly, though.

Andrew's eyes had drifted closed by the time Neil was coloring in the paw print under his right nipple. Neil held his breath and bit down a horribly pleased smile that pulled at his lips. He couldn't resist lightly dragging the end of the pen over Andrew's nipple. Andrew shivered and peeled his eyes open, but he didn't complain. Neil didn't fail to notice the goosebumps that spread down his arms and over his chest after that. He made a mental note of the reaction to remember later.

Neil ended the trail of paw prints with a little doodle of a fox curled up over Andrew's heart. Once he was finished, he sat back and looked over his work, nodding appreciatively. “Maybe I'll be a tattoo artist instead.”

Andrew pushed himself up on his elbows to look down at Neil's drawings. His damp hair stuck to his forehead and his fair skin was slightly flushed and covered in raised patches of goosebumps. Even with blue paw prints all over him, the sight did awful things to Neil's pulse.

Andrew said, “You are worse than Kevin. You are the worst. I'm surprised you haven't humped your racquet yet.”

“The racquet doesn't really do anything for me,” quipped Neil. “The goalkeeper, however...”

“I heard that he's going to murder you.”

Neil shook his head. “Nah, he just says that 'cause he's shy about how badly he wants me.”

“You're going to wake up to that pen shoved into your brain.”

“If I wake up it means you did it wrong.”

Andrew lunged and had Neil pinned on his back before Neil could process that he moved at all. “That fucking mouth,” Andrew growled, crushing his lips to Neil's. Neil grinned and couldn't help chuckling into the kiss, but it changed to a deep groan when Andrew used the chance to push his tongue deep into Neil's mouth. He dug his fingers into Andrew's hair and held on as hazy euphoria took his senses apart. Andrew slotted his hips between Neil's legs and rutted against him until they found their relief. Andrew's sweat smeared the ink across his skin and stained Neil's white t-shirt, but neither of them paid it any mind.

Chapter Text

The Foxes rang in the new year in Allison and Renee's suite with the booze Nicky and Allison brought and a mountain of snacks Matt and Neil picked out at a nearby convenience store. Neil suspected Matt asked for his input specifically just to get a chance to talk to him alone. “So how's it going with-?” He'd filled in the name with a vague wave of his hand. “Everything's good, man,” Neil had responded with a smile that came a lot easier than it used to.

Those that were drinking were reasonably tipsy by eleven and those that planned on getting drunk accomplished that by midnight. Andrew and Neil each did a few shots of whiskey but stopped there. They sat together in front of Renee's bed on the carpet, watching the fireworks broadcasted on television. Matt and Dan were slow-dancing in a wobbly sort of way to the Katy Perry song Nicky was singing. It was mostly slurred and a bit off-tune, which seemed to irritate Kevin the most.

“Nicky you're in the wrong key,” Kevin complained. “Those aren't even the right words. If you sat up instead of slumped over-”

Aaron threw a sock at Kevin and missed. “We get enough of you bossing us around on the court, dickbag.”

“What'd you call me?”

“A dickbag!” Aaron shouted back. “As in: a human-shaped bag of dicks!”

“Say that to my face, motherfucker!”

Aaron drunkenly clambered across Renee's bed to get closer to Kevin, who was seated on the strip of carpet between the beds. Neil grunted when Aaron's foot smacked into the back of his head and Andrew shoved his brother's foot away.

“Guys, guys, stop,” Dan laughed.

“Let them murder each other,” Allison groaned. “That's the only way we'll ever be free.”

Dan flailed an arm out in her direction. “Aaron, get off Kevin.”

“Aaron, get Kevin off!” cheered Nicky.

Neil's shoulders shook with silent laughter. He covered his face with his hands while his teammates bickered. Andrew poured himself another shot of whiskey and muttered, “I'm going to burn this room down with everyone inside it.”

“Aw, I wanna get off, too,” whined Matt before dissolving into laughter himself. “Dan, let's go make those babies we talked about.”

“Matt!” shrieked Dan.

Renee came around to sit beside Andrew. She grinned at the pair of them and hugged her knees to her chest. She was dressed in a pale pink dress that fell at her knees and stockings with cream and gray stripes. She wore a sage green ribbon in her pastel-dyed hair. She looked like a rainbow leaning toward the thundercloud that was Andrew Minyard.

“I'm going to call Coach and put him on speakerphone,” she said.

Andrew pulled out his own phone and sent a quick text to Betsy. Renee pushed a few buttons and then held the phone up in the palm of her slender hand. Three rings later, Wymack's voice came through. “You better be calling to wish me a happy new year and not calling to tell me one of you fuckers is in peril again.”

“Hi, Coach!” Renee sang. “You're on speakerphone. Andrew and Neil are with me. The others are- well, they're a bit drunk, but they're here too. Everyone's safe and sound.”

“Aaron, I would murder you right here and now if that freshman wasn't shit!” Kevin shouted behind them.

“Go fuck yourself, dickbag!”

“So I hear. Neil, Andrew, are you two keeping out of trouble?”

“Yes, Coach,” Neil replied.

“Keep it that way. Oh, hey, Abby. Renee, Neil, and Andrew are on the phone. Guys, here's Abby.”

Abby sounded much happier to hear from them. “Hello, all! Happy New Year!”

“Hi, Abby! Happy New Year!” Renee said, beaming. “Are you and Coach having a nice time?”

“Oh, Renee, I tried to make that pie I told you about, but I botched it. We're doing all right, though. It's awful quiet here without you all.”

“It's fucking heavenly without you all,” Wymack said just loud enough for the phone to pick up.

“Good because I'm going to murder your team,” Andrew retorted.

“Please don't, Andrew,” Abby chuckled.

“Leave me a couple, Minyard. I didn't sign on enough freshmen.”

“You're both horrible. I don't know why I put up with you.”

“Don't pull on that thread, Abby,” Neil teased.

“Got something to say, Josten?” Wymack snapped.

“Nothing, Coach.”

“That's what I thought.”

“We're having a lovely time,” Renee said. “The lodge is so pretty and there's snow everywhere.”

“No mysterious skiing accidents,” Andrew mumbled.

“I got the pictures you sent me, Renee. It looks gorgeous out there,” said Abby.

“We'll bring you back some souvenirs,” Renee promised.

“Bring back better attitudes,” said Wymack. “Especially you, Josten.”

“Yes, Coach.”

“Well, we'll let you guys go,” Renee said. “It was nice talking to you! See you soon!”

“See you soon,” answered Abby and Wymack together. Renee smiled to herself and disconnected the call.

Meanwhile, Nicky had scooted himself to hang upside down off the side of Allison's bed and was singing “Hey, Mickey” with his own name inserted into the lyrics and clapping off-beat. Kevin and Aaron were seeing who could drink the most vodka the fastest- a race that ended with Kevin victorious and no longer able to sit upright. Matt and Dan were curled up together against the door with Dan nestled between Matt's legs and wrapped in his strong arms. Allison was lounging in one of the armchairs taking selfies on her phone.

Neil slipped his hand into Andrew's and Andrew let him.

Chapter Text

A few days before Nathaniel Wesninski's birthday, Neil woke up in a cold sweat with his father's voice clogging his ears. He stumbled into the bathroom to retch into the toilet, shaking all over and struggling to remember where he actually was. After he'd calmed down enough to stand up, he showered even though he would be showering again after practice. He scrubbed his entire body with soap and enough force to turn his skin pink, hoping to wash away the stained feeling leftover from his nightmare. When he stepped out of the bathroom, Andrew was waiting for him in the kitchen with two cups of coffee in his hands and no questions on his tongue.

They were up fifteen minutes before Kevin's alarm was set to go off, so they ate breakfast in silence. Neil felt like he was fraying at the edges and he didn't want to start kissing Andrew when he felt wrong and rough. Andrew seemed to understand and kept his distance.

Practice went wrong in just about every way. Neil's head was full of static and Kevin's patience ran dry even faster than it usually did. The team played a horrible scrimmage that made them all feel like strangers. Andrew's nonchalance grated on everyone except Neil, who couldn't be bothered to care when it felt like his body was two sizes too large. He couldn't put his thoughts together and his words were clumsy things that snagged on his teeth and stumbled on his tongue. Renee stood in the other goalkeeper's box, distracted by an upsetting text she'd received from Jean the night before. Jack spewed vicious words whenever he was in earshot of Neil- “Hey, Nathaniel, I bet you can't score off the court either.” Neil didn't have to try to imagine what sort of things Jack would say if he ever noticed Neil's relationship with Andrew because Sheena had taken to slinging bigoted insults at Brook- apparently she'd walked in on Brook kissing a cheerleader in their dorm the previous afternoon.

Practice ended early when Brian boldly slammed Aaron into the wall in an attempt to make a goal against Renee and it took four upperclassmen to break up the brawl that ensued.

Wymack called the team back to the foyer and he was furious. Everyone shuffled in after their showers, sullen and silent, and sat down for their scolding like petulant children caught throwing mud at recess. Neil was wedged between the armrest of the new couch and Andrew's body. Heat from Andrew's hard thigh seeped through their jeans and burned Neil's skin while Wymack stormed up and down the length of the room, tearing apart the shitty attitude of his team and the sloppy display he'd just witnessed.

“Personal shit is for your personal time!” Wymack bellowed. “When you're here, I expect you to be here! Don't open that mouth, Kevin. I couldn't give less of a fuck about what any of you have to say if I caught amnesia and forgot every one of your dumb faces. We play against Blackwell in a few days. Championships are underway and I will not have you fuckers embarrassing me or this school on television, understand?”

Neil's ears were ringing. It's just Coach, he reminded himself, but his eyes saw his father's towering form. Panic turned his muscles to stone and blanked out his mind. He struggled to school his face into a neutral expression and refused to look anywhere near his teammates. Hide it. Hide it. Hide it. When Wymack turned toward him again, Neil knew he could see the dead-eyed horror on his face because he stopped talking for a second. The others didn't catch it, but Neil could hear the sawed-off edges of Wymack's anger when he continued. “Tonight I expect you all to do whatever you need to do to pull your heads out of your asses and come back tomorrow ready to play like you're supposed to.”

Neil could feel Andrew's eyes on him. He silently prayed for the floor to open up and swallow him whole.

“Josten,” Wymack said, crossing the room toward him, “take this to Abby.” He tore a blank sheet of paper from his clipboard, folded it once, and shoved it at Neil.

Neil took it with numb fingers and bolted out the door.

As the door swung shut behind him, Neil heard Wymack snarl, “Sit down, Andrew! I have not excused you yet.”

Neil's vision was white and watery around the edges. He leaned against the cold wall while he struggled to suck in shallow breaths. His chest was collapsing, his heart was shutting down. His pulse pounded in his temples. The world was tilting dangerously, threatening to tip him right off the edge.

Somehow he ended up wedged into a shadowy, hollow space under a set of stairs located near the security offices of the Foxhole Court, tucked out of sight. He couldn't remember how he found that space or how long he'd been there. He knew Andrew must have been looking for him by now- his phone had vibrated in his pocket more than once- but he stayed there with his forehead glued to his knee anyway. Everything was too loud, too large, too much. He dug his fingers into his hair and pulled until it hurt.

He didn't notice the approaching footsteps until the squeak of a sneaker against tile pierced the hazy fog in his mind. Neil jerked back and smacked his head on the stair just behind him.

“Ow,” he groaned pitifully, clutching his head.

Andrew crawled forward and casually inserted himself between Neil and the rest of the world, kneeling between Neil's legs and pulling Neil's head to his chest. His arms went around Neil's back and his fingers dug into the muscles there fiercely. Neil knew it wasn't an embrace or a sign of warm affection as much as it was Andrew's way of shielding his body since he couldn't shield his mind. Andrew's chin rested on top of Neil's sore scalp and he waited until Neil's stiff arms relaxed enough to encircle his waist.

“The others won't ask questions,” Andrew said quietly.

Neil could feel the low rumble of Andrew's voice with his face pressed against his chest. He closed his eyes and nuzzled harder into Andrew's sweatshirt; it smelled like smoke and the laundry detergent they shared. His arms tightened around Andrew's middle before he paused, unsure of himself.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

Andrew shifted to rest his cheek on Neil's hair. “Yes.”

“Thank you.”

A door opened somewhere above them and two men came down the stairs. Andrew looked up to watch through the spaces in the stairs and curved one hand protectively around the back of Neil's head. Once the guards reached the floor and their voices disappeared down the hallway, Neil was able to breathe properly again. Andrew carded his fingers through his hair and the ice in Neil's chest broke apart. They stayed wrapped around each other, two broken boys knotted together, until Neil felt his jagged pieces slowly shift back into place.

“I don't know what's wrong with me,” he mumbled against Andrew's shoulder.

“You're having a bad day,” Andrew explained simply. “Come on. Nicky took the others back in my car. We'll have to walk.”

“I'm okay with walking,” Neil mumbled. Andrew moved away from him, but Neil could still smell him and feel his warmth. His joints protested after being locked in the same position for so long. He stretched until his spine popped and then looked to Andrew for direction.

Andrew wrapped a hand around Neil's wrist and led him down the hallways to the front door. Neil allowed himself to be led, focusing on the feeling of Andrew's fingers digging into his pulse point, as they walked across the parking lot and headed toward the Tower. Neil swept his eyes over the faces of the other PSU students milling about the sidewalks along Perimeter Road. Most were in pairs or groups, laughing and talking and clutching textbooks. Some were alone, wearing weary smudges under their eyes and clutching cups of coffee from one of the nearby coffee shops. Neil wondered what they saw when they glanced toward Andrew and him. Two men in matching hoodies, one blank and one marked, one a fixed point and one trying to drag himself back into orbit.

When they reached the Tower, Matt was coming out of the elevator and a look of surprise and concern bloomed across his face when he saw the two of them. “Hey, Neil. You okay?”

Neil gave him a jerky nod and a twitchy smile, but Matt didn't press the issue. He squeezed Neil's shoulder as he passed, ignoring the warning in Andrew's eyes.

Kevin was in the main room of the dorm watching an Exy game on his laptop with giant, sound-canceling headphones over his ears. He gave them a bored look over his shoulder when they entered, but turned back to the screen without a word. Andrew found his car keys on the kitchen counter where Nicky left them and gave Neil a minute to grab a water bottle and an apple out of the fridge before they left the Tower again.

They drove for half an hour- eastbound, “Fuck it. Let's just drive right into the ocean.”- before Andrew said, “You can use my phone if you want to call Bee.”

“Your phone?”

“Figured you didn't have her number anymore.”

Neil frowned.

“You called her from my phone at the lodge to ask for help,” Andrew explained, sliding his eyes from the road to lock onto Neil's. Neil swallowed hard, unsure if he should have felt embarrassed or not. He wondered if this was Andrew's roundabout way of acknowledging that Neil tried to take care of him. Andrew would never thank him, never really need anyone the same way others needed him, and maybe he was amused in his deadened way at Neil's clumsy attempt to help him. But maybe deep down he saw it for what it was and accepted that Neil cared for him even if it was just a blip in Andrew's abyss.

“I don't need to call her,” Neil said finally.

“Because you're fine?” Andrew guessed with a scornful arch of his eyebrow.

“I'm not fine,” Neil admitted, “but I already have what I need.”

Chapter Text

When the Foxes finally had a Friday night off, they scattered in all directions, desperate for ways to take the edge off the stress of spring championships. With more people and experience, they were better at keeping their heads above water this year, but the stress was wearing away at everyone's nerves. Matt and Dan kicked Nicky out of the room for some alone time, Aaron disappeared with Katelyn, and Kevin insisted on a trip to Columbia. Nicky loudly and repeatedly begged Andrew to take them all to Eden's Twilight for a night of fun. Neil had exhausted himself with private suicide drills, extra practices during the day with the freshmen, and late-night practices with the whole team on top of the regularly scheduled practices and work-outs. He didn't have much of an opinion on going to Columbia as long as he didn't have to stand upright for very long.

They agreed to leave at seven and at seven Neil was still struggling to pull on his clothes. He suspected that the black jeans he'd decided to wear that night had shrunk in the wash, but he didn't have the mental energy to find something else. After forcing the stiff material up over his ass, he tugged the sides together hard enough that he could do up the zipper and button it closed. His eyelids were drooping as he pulled on a long-sleeved black shirt made of light material that clung to him like a second skin. It was still chilly outside at night, but he knew the inside of the club would be boiling. The mere thought of the noisy club was enough to start a headache at Neil's temples.

“Neil, move your ass!” Kevin called from the main room.

Neil rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath.

“Neeeil!” sang Nicky. “Enough primping! Bring that hot ass out here- ouch! Andrew, damn.”

Wincing, Neil risked a glance in the mirror, quickly checking just enough of his appearance to get a general idea of what he looked like. His clothes were tight, Allison had cut his hair but left it a bit longer and unruly on the top, shadows curved under his eyes and hung in the hollows of his cheeks. It's not that bad, he thought. It's just another night in Columbia.

He stepped out of the bathroom and padded out to the main room where the others were waiting. Nicky had smudged a bit of dark eyeliner at the outer corners of his eyes and Neil thought he spied a bit of glitter brushed over his cheekbones. Nicky wore his dark clothing like sin while Kevin wore it like a life sentence. He looked tense and twitchy; his jaw was clenched and his hands were shoved deep into his coat pockets. Andrew was clad in more expensive clothes than he usually chose for himself and, as always, he looked like the darkness had leeched out of his soul and into the fabric.

Neil shook his head and shoved away his thoughts.

“It's about damn time,” Kevin complained. “I was starting to think you fell asleep in there.”

Nicky pouted. “Poor Neil. Maybe we should let him sleep instead.”

Neil stuffed his feet into the heavy boots he usually wore to Columbia and glanced up at Andrew through his eyelashes in time to see the other man raking his eyes down his body. The uncomfortable fit of his jeans suddenly mattered less. Andrew's eyes snapped up to his and Neil swallowed hard.

“Here,” Andrew said, throwing Neil his coat. Neil caught it and pulled it on.

“Fucking finally,” grumbled Kevin. Nicky opened the door and flicked his eyebrows up at Neil before Kevin shoved him out into the hallway. Andrew followed Neil out and locked up behind them.

“Are you worried about them running out of vodka or something, Kevin?” Neil asked sharply.

Kevin sent him a dark scowl over his shoulder. “We agreed on seven. It's like seven-ten, now.”

“There goes the whole night,” Neil deadpanned. Kevin stalked away from him just as Andrew stepped closer.

“Yes or no?” he mumbled, watching his cousin and the other striker.

“Yes,” Neil answered and then a hand wedged into the back pocket of his jeans. Neil jerked and looked down at Andrew, who was casually staring ahead as if he wasn't groping Neil's ass. The pressure was only there for a moment before Andrew slipped his hand free and walked ahead to rejoin the others. It took Neil a moment to remember to walk.

Nicky pressed the button for the elevator and sighed theatrically. “Kevin, are you going to be like this all night?”

“Just until I'm drunk enough to handle Neil's attitude.”

Andrew somberly commented, “Not enough vodka in the world.”

“I don't know what either of you are talking about. I'm a delight,” Neil said. A door opened down the hall and Neil looked back to see Matt's head poke out of his door.

“Thought I heard you out here,” Matt called. “You guys heading down to Columbia?”

“Yeah,” Neil answered. “You need something?”

“Aaron going with you?”

Nicky huffed. “No, that asshole is staying with his lover. Don't worry, Matt, I doubt he'll show his face around here until like Monday. You and Dan are free to sin all you like! Use protection, though. I'm not raising any babies!”

Matt rolled his eyes.

Another door flung open and Allison stepped out with her phone pressed to her ear and a scowl on her face, obviously irritated at all the noise. “Do you fuckers mind?”

“Not really!” Nicky answered, grinning.

Allison stabbed him with a cold glare before disappearing back inside her room. Matt's door shut as well just as Dan's voice carried down to them. “Have fun, boys!”

The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Lizzy and Brook stepped out and eyed the four black-clad men standing there.

“Who died?” Brook laughed.

“My sex life,” Nicky shot back.

Lizzy snorted.

“Don't corrupt the children, Nicky,” said Kevin at the same moment that Lizzy said, “Has Princess Kevin heard of sex yet?”

Lizzy matched Kevin's scowl with one of her own. Andrew put a hand to Neil's back and shoved him into the elevator. Nicky tried to smother his laughter in his hand.

“Shut the fuck up, freshman,” snapped Kevin.

“Make me, Your Highness.”

Brook's sharp laugh bounced off the walls. Lizzy walked backwards with her arms spread in an invitation to fight and a taunt in her eyes.

“Waiting on you, Kevin,” Neil said. For a moment it looked as if Kevin would pass up the chance to get hammered just to pick a fight with Lizzy, who'd grown bolder on and off the court as her skills as a backliner improved. Kevin stalked into the elevator and Andrew pulled his hand inside so the doors could close. They rode down in silence- Nicky was trying too hard not to laugh at Kevin to speak until they were all piled in the Maserati. Neil felt he had prodded at Kevin's temper enough so he slid into the back before Kevin could even demand the passenger seat. Nicky ruffled Neil's hair before Andrew was in view.

“Your hair looks nice, Neil,” he said.

Neil nodded and covered a yawn with his hand. “Allison cut it.”

“I should get her to do mine.”

“Do what?” Kevin asked.

“My hair,” Nicky answered.

Andrew started the car and reversed out of the spot. Neil leaned his head against the window while Nicky prattled on about hairstyles and what would and wouldn't look good on Neil. Kevin advised something simple and short, but Neil wasn't paying attention any longer.

Neil slept lightly and before he knew it the car went still and the engine cut off. He peeled his eyes open and saw they were parked outside Sweetie's. Nicky's hand on his arm made him flinch.

“Sorry,” Nicky said quietly.

Andrew glanced back and flicked a look between the two.

Neil shook his head. “It's fine. I'm just a little out of it.” He undid his seat belt and stepped out into the cold parking lot.

“You have no reason to be this tired,” Kevin said as they walked to the front door.

Irritation crackled up Neil's spine. “I've been going over strategies with Brian and practicing with Brook on top of extra tutoring sessions and night practice.”

“Brook? Why isn't she coming to practices at night?”

Kevin rarely acknowledged Brian, the other freshman striker, because he didn't think he was worth the attention yet. Whatever potential they'd seen in Brian's file the previous year seemed to have disappeared and Kevin was either fuming at him or pretending he didn't exist.

“Because she thinks you're a dick,” Neil answered honestly.

Nicky's laugh spilled out before he could stop it.

Kevin looked mildly annoyed. “That doesn't matter. She needs to practice with the rest of us.”

Neil nodded. “I told her the rest of us think you're a dick, too, but we still manage. Apparently you remind her of someone or something- I don't know, it was a weird conversation. I can't really remember.”

Andrew exchanged a few words with the hostess and soon they were led to a booth. It was less crowded and slightly more pleasant without Aaron there, but it was obvious that Nicky was feeling his absence keenly. Neil sat on one end with Kevin at his right while Nicky sat at the other end with Andrew beside him. Neil barely resisted the urge to fall asleep on the table and tried to keep his fatigue at bay by chewing on ice cubes he fished out of his water glass.

“It's just wrong with the four of us.” Nicky folded his arms over his chest and managed to look like a child in spite of his size and age. “I can't believe he's choosing a cheerleader over us.”

Andrew said nothing, but Neil knew he wasn't surprised in the slightest that Aaron was spending most of his free time with Katelyn.

“You're lucky he's not here,” said Kevin. “All that glittery shit on your face would just piss him off and we'd never hear the end of it.”

“Matt and I barely see him in our room anymore. I'm surprised they didn't just get an apartment together.”

Kevin replied, “Being together all the time can be a bit stifling.”

“Wouldn't know,” Nicky grumbled darkly before perking up, “Andrew, can we get dust tonight? Please. I could really use a pick-me-up.”

Andrew didn't give any sign that he was even listening.

“You'll be getting high alone,” said Kevin. “That's just sad.”

Nicky turned wide, imploring eyes on Neil. “Neil? Wanna join me? Come on, it'll be fun. It won't be like last time, I swear. I'll keep my hands and everything to myself.”

Neil didn't notice Nicky's mistake until Andrew's razor-sharp voice sliced through the air. “What is that supposed to mean, Nicky?”

Neil's eyes flew up to see Nicky leaning away from his cousin. Tension thickened in the air over the table. Kevin looked between Nicky and Neil, his question written plainly on his face. Andrew looked ready to hurt someone.

“Nicky,” Andrew said. His voice was dangerously low.

“Neil? Help?” Nicky's voice was panicked.

Even if they'd moved on from that night, the memory left a bitter aftertaste in Neil's mouth that made him less than sympathetic. He'd forgotten until that moment that Andrew hadn't been there when Nicky forced drug-laced kisses on Neil in the middle of a crowded dance floor. It was an old memory to Neil, but fresh news to Andrew.

Andrew kept his eyes pinned on his squirming cousin, though. “I'm asking you, Nicky.”

“What happened?” Kevin whispered to Neil in French, but Neil swatted him away.

The waitress arrived with their bowls of ice cream and they all waited in painful silence until she left them alone again.

“Neil's first trip to Columbia,” Nicky began slowly, “you told me to get him into the crowd and keep him there until you got back.”

“Yes, I said to keep him there,” Andrew confirmed. “It sounds like you did something else.”

Nicky refused to meet anyone's eyes. He stared down at his lap and Neil guessed he was staring down at the knife Andrew was undoubtedly threatening him with under the tablecloth.

“He was struggling- like, really struggling- and I was high, so,” he swallowed thickly, “I had some dust in my mouth and I-I kissed him to get him to take it.”

Andrew hissed. “How many times?”

“A few times,” Nicky confessed quietly.

Andrew turned to Neil, eyes burning with an anger he hadn't seen in some time. “Anything else I should know about?”

There was no point in lying and no point in protecting Nicky either. Both men had made their choices- Andrew had orchestrated that horrible evening and Nicky had taken advantage. Neil had put it all behind him, though, and he was more annoyed at the fact that it was all getting dragged out again when he had just wanted an easy evening. He didn't want to open old wounds unless there was a point and he couldn't see one.

“I don't know, Andrew,” he said flippantly. “The drugs you put in my system made everything a bit blurry. Why does it matter anyway? It was almost two years ago.”

Andrew looked furious, but Neil didn't really care. In his mind, Andrew had no right getting so upset. Andrew knew what Nicky had been saying about Neil when he first arrived, he knew how he felt, and he still left Neil in his hands that night.

“I didn't do anything else,” Nicky said, struggling to keep his voice down. “Neil, I swear, nothing else happened. We took you back to the house after that waiter knocked you out and we just fell asleep. That's it.”

Neil kept his eyes on Andrew's as he replied sarcastically, “Southern hospitality at work.”

“You know why I did it,” Andrew snapped in Russian.

Nicky and Kevin both looked taken aback by that. It was the first time Russian came out of one of their mouths. Neither of them were fluent enough to have a full conversation, but they knew enough to say a little.

“Yes,” Neil answered back in Russian. “I know why.”

Back then, Andrew was hellbent on protecting Kevin and Neil had unintentionally raised red flags. Riko fought dirty, used underhanded tactics, and crossed his own family's lines just to hurt Kevin and Kevin's new team. Neil hadn't thought Riko was capable of inflicting real harm until Seth was murdered. Neil understood why Andrew had done it, but it didn't make it okay. There was no point in telling Andrew what he did was wrong. Andrew knew and he didn't care. He would've done whatever it took to protect his family.

“He promised not to,” said Andrew.

Neil shrugged, affecting nonchalance to hide his ire. “I guess he forgot. It's over. Leave it.”

“You guys speak Russian now?” Kevin asked.

“We're not getting dust,” Andrew said in English, shooting another dark look at Nicky.

Nicky nodded and that was the end of the conversation. Neil ate one spoonful of ice cream and puzzled over why Andrew reacted so viciously. Neil hadn't been under his protection then, so he figured Andrew was more upset about Nicky's broken promise and the fact that an assault had occurred on Andrew's watch. He figured it didn't really have much to do with him personally so he tried to put it out of his mind.

Neil left most of his ice cream to melt in the bowl while the others finished theirs. After they were done, they left and Andrew practically threw Neil into the passenger seat. Nicky tried to climb in behind him, obviously not wanting to sit directly behind Andrew, but he moved over when Andrew threw him another warning look.

The car was silent as they drove to Eden's Twilight. Neil watched Andrew out of the corner of his eye even though he didn't need to look to notice the palpable waves of rage rolling off his body. He gripped the steering wheel as if he was trying to strangle it and his jaw was clenched so hard it was a wonder his teeth didn't shatter under the force. Behind him, Nicky looked small and pensive.

Roland was happy to see them, but his smile dimmed when he picked up on the hostility radiating off Andrew. He was smart enough not to ask questions as he made up a tray for them. When Neil shouted over the thumping bass of whatever song was punishing the air that he wasn't drinking that night, Roland protested, “Aw, you sure? You deserve a-” Whatever he saw in Andrew's eyes stopped him cold. Roland looked visibly shaken. “Okay. Whatever you want.”

A bottle of water was added to the tray while Neil stared at the back of Andrew's head. His anger could have had any number of sources and Neil was too tired to play guessing games. When the tray was full, Neil helped clear a path while Andrew carried it back to the table Nicky and Kevin had found for them. Some whiskey sloshed over the edge of a glass when Andrew set the tray down a little too hard. Nicky didn't look up at the rest of them before he started drinking. His pace would've seemed a bit desperate if it didn't match Kevin's normal one. The two of them went through their portions of the drinks in no time at all.

When the tray was empty, Neil and Andrew returned to Roland for refills. After a few more shots, Nicky somehow managed to convince Kevin with half-formed pleas and incoherent flattery to dance with him and the two disappeared into the crowd.

“I didn't think Kevin danced,” Neil said.

“He doesn't,” replied Andrew.

Neil turned toward him and leaned close, studying his eyes. “Hey, can I take a turn?”

Their truth-for-truth game had almost been put entirely behind them, but Neil wanted to see if Andrew would let him play.

When Andrew nodded, Neil asked, “That whole thing with Nicky- why are you so angry about it?”

“I'm angry because I'm angry,” Andrew answered simply.

It was simple and evasive and Neil was suddenly too frustrated by the whole evening to try to get anything more out of him, so he stared at the fractured light caught in the half-empty water bottle between his hands. They sat in silence like that for hours. Nicky and Kevin returned every now and then to drink before flitting away again. Nicky was still aware enough of his cousin to be afraid even in his drunken haze. Kevin was too blissfully divorced from reality to care about the awkward energy of his group; he celebrated his freedom loudly, shouting that he was never going back. Neil didn't know if he meant back to Palmetto or back to sobriety, but he did know Kevin would wake up cursing himself.

The thick music vibrated in Neil's bones and turned his heart fuzzy. Eventually the shouts and boozy cackling and music all blurred together into one thick blanket of sound and Neil began to doze off beneath it with his head pillowed on his arms on top of the sticky table. A whisper of warm air brushed over his lower back where his shirt had ridden up before Andrew reached over and firmly tugged it down.

Neil didn't know how much time had passed before Andrew slid his hand down his spine and leaned in to his ear, saying, “Time to leave.”

“Hm?” Neil groaned and let Andrew pull him to his feet. He stumbled behind Andrew as he was towed by his wrist through the crowd to where Nicky and Kevin were practically grinding with gleeful strangers. Andrew got their attention and pulled Neil away before they could protest or refuse. When they were outside and Neil's ears stopped ringing, he could hear Kevin's slurred complaints.

“It's barely midnight,” whined Kevin. “Andrew, why are you so pissy tonight?”

Nicky swayed dangerously on his feet, but somehow they all made it to the car without Kevin or Nicky face-planting onto the pavement. Neil curled up in the passenger seat and tuned out Kevin's voice while Andrew drove.

When they finally reached the darkened house, Neil sat up and rubbed at his watering eyes. Slowly, he pulled himself out of the car and shuffled to the door behind Nicky and Kevin, who were leaning on each other for support. Andrew unlocked the door and pulled Kevin inside, steering him toward Aaron's bedroom.

“You all right, Nicky?” Neil asked through another yawn.

Nicky nodded and looked at him with unfocused eyes for a moment before patting his hair and heading off to the bathroom. Neil watched him disappear behind the door and then ambled over to the couch to collapse into the cushions. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of water rushing through hidden pipes and Kevin's drunken laughter followed by Andrew's low murmuring. His breathing slowed and eventually his mind drifted off into a light sleep.

“Neil.”

His eyes popped open to see that Andrew was standing over him.

“Hm?” Neil mumbled. “Sorry. You need something?”

“Come on.” Andrew tugged on a spiky tuft of Neil's hair and then grabbed around his arms to help him to his feet. “Why are you so tired?”

Neil shrugged. “Everything's catching up to me at once, I guess,” he said as they headed down the hall.

Andrew ushered Neil into the bathroom and left him alone to wash up for bed. When Neil was finished, he wandered through Andrew's open door to find him sitting up and waiting for him.

“Sleep?” Neil asked.

Andrew nodded and lay down, pulling the blankets over himself. Neil locked the door and flicked off the lights. He curled up under the covers and nuzzled into the pillow, which smelled like Andrew. His dreams were nothing more than flickers of light and muffled sound; it was like watching a dream from underwater.

Movement on the mattress startled him awake again some time later. Andrew was nimbly crawling over him to get out of bed. The window was too dark for it to be morning and Neil's body felt too heavy with sleep to move.

“Andrew?”

Andrew leaned over him and kissed him soundly on the mouth. “Nothing's wrong. Go back to sleep.”

Neil hummed against the second kiss and fell back against his warm pillow. The door opened and closed and sleep took his mind before he could wonder what Andrew was up to.

The next time he woke he was alone and the clock on his phone told him it was nine-thirty. The house felt oddly still around him, but he figured that was because Kevin and Nicky were still sleeping. Neil sat up and stretched his arms over his head, sighing at the satisfying pop of his spine. His head ached like it always did after a night at Eden's Twilight and he felt like he'd swallowed a mouthful of sand in the night.

It was then that he noticed the granola bar, a glass of water, a bottle of aspirin, and a PSU thermos sitting on the bedside table. Neil blinked a few times as if blinking would somehow change what was there before reaching out for the thermos. The coffee inside it was still fairly warm and it helped push away the sleep playing at the edges of his mind.

Neil finished the coffee, ate the granola bar, and washed two aspirin down with water before getting out of bed and venturing out into the house in search of his teammates. The coffeepot in the kitchen was empty and cleaned out. There were signs that Nicky had made toast- he always left crumbs on the counter as well as a knife covered in butter and jam in the sink. The mess was always significantly worse when Nicky was hungover.

“Guys?” Neil called.

There was no answer. Neil went to the front window and peeked around the blinds. The Maserati was gone. They were all gone, but why? Neil knew Andrew wouldn't have left him there without a reason. Neil stopped trying to figure out his endlessly confusing friends and went to take a shower instead. As far as he knew there was no cause to be concerned yet.

He shed his clothes and turned the water on as hot as he could stand it before getting in and putting his head under the spray. For a moment he stood still, shivering slightly as his body adjusted to the temperature. The knots in his shoulders slowly melted as he massaged Andrew's shampoo into his scalp. As he was rinsing his hair, there was a knock at the bathroom door.

Neil poked his head out of the curtain to hear better. “Yeah?” he called, confused.

“It's me,” Andrew answered. “Can I come in?”

“Come on in. The water's great,” Neil joked, pulling the curtain back against the wall. He finished rinsing the suds out of his hair and felt a cold draft as Andrew entered the small room. A few moments later, Andrew stepped into the shower behind him and Neil almost choked on his tongue when he turned and saw that Andrew was completely naked. Neil was so used to seeing him covered in dark clothing that the endless amount of pale skin shocked his mind into stupid silence. His gaze slid over Andrew's strong body for a few seconds before he regained some of his senses.

Neil ripped his eyes away from Andrew's groin and fixed his stare on his face instead. Andrew watched him calmly, arms limp at his sides. The anger from the previous night was gone. Neil kept his eyes on Andrew's face while hot water beat at his back and for awhile the two only stared at each other. This moment was too heavy, too big, to handle carelessly. Neil wanted to look and touch and kiss, but what he wanted even more was for Andrew to know that Neil didn't see a means to a selfish end when he looked at him, he didn't see something to be taken and used and discarded, he didn't see prey to be devoured. He didn't know how to express it in words, though, so Neil turned back around and picked up the bottle of body wash. He chewed his bottom lip, trying to convince his heart to slow down, as he proceeded to wash his chest and arms before rubbing the suds down over his hips and thighs.

"Yes or no, Neil?"

Neil swallowed hard. "Yes."

Andrew reached around him to take the bottle from the shelf and Neil stepped further into the spray to give Andrew room. Andrew rubbed the cold gel into Neil's shoulder blades with hard, strong fingers. Neil froze as Andrew's hands went lower, massaging rough circles into the tense muscles of his back before sliding down over his ass. Neil leaned into the water to let it wash the soap away and Andrew slowly dug his thumbs into the dimples at the base of Neil's spine.

“Um,” Neil squeaked. “Where are the others?”

Andrew put his mouth against the back of Neil's shoulder and scraped his teeth over the damp skin there before answering, “They're back at the Tower.”

Neil squinted at the tiled wall in front of him, mentally calculating what hour they had to have left at. “How did you even get them out of bed? You must've left at like four or five.”

“I didn't want them here anymore,” Andrew said simply before biting another spot on Neil's back. “Nicky was pissing me off.”

Neil thought of what he'd said- “I'm angry because I'm angry.”- and the words clicked in a different way than they had before. He assumed Andrew was avoiding the question, but now he felt like Andrew might have just been telling the honest truth in his unusually simple way. Andrew, who rarely felt anything anymore, had been angry when he learned what Nicky had done and the fact that he was affected at all only enraged him more. He was angered by his own reaction. Neil didn't know what to do with that.

“I brought you some more clothes.” Andrew tugged Neil back against him and Neil's mind was shorted out by the feeling of bare skin pressed against his. He could feel Andrew's erection hardening against his ass.

Neil let out a weak laugh. “How long are we going to be here? We both have class on Monday.”

“We'll see,” Andrew said vaguely. His hands slid up Neil's stomach and groped the defined muscles of his chest.

Neil struggled to breathe. “Uh, hey, I can... I can get out if you want the shower to yourself.”

Andrew gripped his arms and turned him around just so Neil could see the annoyed look on his face. “I'm naked.”

“Yes. I noticed.”

“And I'm hard.”

Neil's eyes slipped downward to glance at Andrew's cock for a second. “Okay.”

“I want you to touch me.”

Neil swallowed nervously. “I need things spelled out, remember?”

Andrew grabbed the back of his neck and smashed their mouths together in a hard, angry kiss. He sucked Neil's lip into his mouth and bit down on it until Neil groaned loudly. “I want you to get me off, dumbass.”

Neil smiled against his lips and buried his hands in Andrew's damp hair. Andrew reached around to grab Neil's ass and tug him closer. Neil grunted and smacked a hand out to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. Andrew pulled Neil's other hand down to the middle of his chest.

Neil sighed his question into Andrew's mouth. “Yes or no?”

Andrew bit Neil's jaw and growled, “Yes.”

“Okay.” Neil put his hands on Andrew's shoulders and squeezed gently. “Tell me to stop and I'll stop.”

“Mhm,” Andrew hummed while he sucked and bit an aching bruise into the skin under Neil's ear. The throb of pain there echoed hotly in Neil's dick. He didn't care that everyone would be able to see it when they got back to campus. These were the sort of bruises he didn't mind showing off.

Andrew stood back and kept his arms at his sides while he allowed Neil time to slide his hands down his arms and across the hard lines of his chest and abdomen. Andrew shivered when Neil experimentally tweaked his nipples and he bit down on his lip when Neil dragged his hands from his hips up to his ribs. His eyes narrowed, heated, when Neil cautiously reached back to trace the sharp lines of his shoulder blades. He tilted his head to give Neil room to trace lines down the side of his sensitive neck. A pink flush spread from Andrew's neck down over his chest and his breathing hitched when Neil felt along the sculpted V of his hips and brushed against the trail of coarse hair leading down between his legs.

Neil paused to kiss Andrew's lips once and ask, “Still yes?”

“Still yes.”

Neil swallowed hard and looked down at Andrew's flushed cock brushing against his own. His inexperience trembled in his fingertips and knotted in his stomach.

“Show me how to make you feel good,” he said lowly against Andrew's ear.

Andrew didn't mock him like Neil expected. He took Neil's hand in his own and guided it down to wrap around the thick shaft of his dick. “Like this,” he said as he worked Neil's hand up and down a few times. Neil began to move on his own and Andrew let go to clutch Neil's biceps with an iron grip. He shuddered when Neil gripped him harder and struggled to hide how hard he was breathing.

Neil pressed kisses across Andrew's cheek as he began stroking Andrew faster and rougher, trying to imitate what Andrew had done to him countless times. Andrew grunted and bit down hard on Neil's collar bone and Neil took that as encouragement.

“You look amazing,” Neil mumbled against Andrew's jaw. “Let me see you cum, Andrew.”

Andrew growled something that might have been a threat before he clutched at Neil's biceps and shuddered hard against him as he came. Neil stroked him through his orgasm, humming appreciatively against his flushed throat while he gasped for breath. Andrew shivered and looked down. Neil followed his gaze and saw the thick stripes of cum sliding down his own hip to his thigh. The sight sent a bolt of pride through his chest. I did this.

Andrew's lips were bitten and red, parted around shallow gasps for air, his cheeks were splotched with pink, and his eyes were distant. Andrew's hands were shaking hard against Neil's arms and before Neil could say anything he pushed his mouth against Neil's in a hard, frantic kiss. His fingers dug into Neil's biceps hard enough that Neil knew purple bruises would remain, but he didn't mind. He stood still and kissed Andrew back until the water went cold against his back.

When Neil tried to subtly shift away from the rapidly cooling spray, Andrew broke the kiss and quickly cleaned the mess off of Neil's hip. Then he turned the shower off and climbed out without a backward glance. Neil stood behind the curtain, stunned, while Andrew quickly dressed and left the bathroom. A sick feeling curled inside Neil's stomach when the door slammed shut.

Numbly, Neil dried himself off and got dressed before slowly creeping out into the hallway and standing there for what felt like forever. He couldn't hear or see Andrew and tried to push down the panic that jumped up into his throat. Chewing his lip, Neil wandered into the kitchen to put on another pot of coffee. His phone vibrated in the pocket of his sweatpants as he filled the machine with water.

“Yeah?” he answered, pinning the phone to his ear with his shoulder.

“Neil?” It was Matt. “I just saw Nicky and Kevin. They said Andrew pulled them out of bed in the middle of the night and drove them here. Are you still in Columbia? Did he come back or do you need a ride?”

Neil put a filter into the basket and shook a generous amount of grounds into it. “Andrew's back now. We might stay here another night.”

“Did something happen? Nicky looked pretty spooked when he came in.”

“Usual drama. Everything's fine.”

“You're not back to lying, are you? I thought you kicked the habit.” Matt's tone was light and teasing, but Neil could hear the undercurrent of worry.

“Everything's all right on my end. Nicky might feel differently, though, so ask him.”

“Got it. Wait, I think he's- oh, he's definitely crying in the shower now. Jesus. I'm too hungover for this. Call me later, okay?”

Neil chuckled. “Will do. Good luck with Nicky.”

Matt's laugh sounded low and rough in his ear before there was a click followed by the dial tone. Neil closed his phone and stuffed it back in his pocket. He braced his hands against the counter and hung his head, sighing heavily. The coffeepot gurgled in reply.

He stood there like that, waiting for the coffee to brew, and tried not to panic about the fact that he didn't know where Andrew was or if he was okay. He indulged a little in remembering the weight of Andrew's cock in his hand for a few guilty moments, but he stopped thinking about it once his pants started to feel a bit tight.

Fear hollowed out his chest, scraped him clean of all the warmth and adoration he'd felt toward Andrew when he first stepped into the shower. His terror clawed icy lines down his back while he tried to recall every moment leading up to the first moment he put his hand around Andrew. He said yes, didn't he? His heart seized and his eyes flew open. Oh, God, what if he changed his mind?

He needed to find Andrew. The coffeepot hissed and sputtered to a stop as Neil whirled around and started across the kitchen. He didn't make it very far before Andrew stepped into the doorway and all of Neil's thoughts ground to a halt. Neil swept his eyes over Andrew as if any mental damage he might've inflicted would appear on his body. Andrew stared back, calm and blank as ever. Silently, he stepped around Neil to pull a mug out of the cabinet and pour a cup of coffee. Neil could smell the cigarette smoke clinging to his hair and t-shirt.

“Andrew.”

The other man turned and leaned his hip against the counter, raising his eyebrow in a wordless question.

“Do you want me to go?” Neil asked, trying to swallow hard enough to knock his heart back down into its place. “If you don't want me here, I'll go.”

Andrew sipped carefully before asking, “Are you planning to hitchhike back to campus again?”

“You want me to?”

“You're even dumber than I told Bee you are.”

Neil scowled and he counted to ten in his head before softly admitting, “I was worried about- about the-”

“I said yes and I meant it.”

And just like that Neil could breathe again. He nodded once and felt all the tension in his body slowly dissolve.

Andrew stared at him over the rim of his mug while he took another drink. “This is too strong. You need to learn how to measure grounds like a fucking adult.”

“I was kind of distracted,” Neil muttered as he went to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Were you distracted by that thing in your pants?”

Neil turned his body away from Andrew's pointed stare and said, “I can't help it.”

“Keep your mind out of the gutter next time you make coffee or you'll kill us all.”

“I can't help it,” he repeated defensively.

Before Neil could retreat to the living room, Andrew hooked two fingers in the waistband of Neil's sweatpants and tugged him toward the counter. “Come back here, moron. Yes or no?”

Neil relented and slumped back against the counter with a petulant look on his face. "Yes."

Andrew set both of their mugs aside and sank to his knees, dragging Neil's sweats and underwear down around his thighs. Andrew stroked him until he was fully hard again and took him into his mouth. Neil's fingers were clamped, white-knuckled, on the edge of the counter as he moaned and trembled. Andrew's mouth and hands worked quickly to stoke Neil's pleasure until he was shuddering and releasing onto Andrew's clever tongue.

Andrew let go of him when he was spent and weak in the knees. He stood up and pulled Neil's pants and briefs back up around his hips before kissing him lazily. Neil sighed and slid his hands around Andrew's neck, pressing his thumbs against the soft skin just under Andrew's ears. After a few moments, they pulled apart and took their coffee out to the couch to watch the news, both too drowsy to do much else.

Chapter Text

Neil sat alone in the library with two textbooks and several sheets of paper spread out before him on the table. He chewed the end of his pen, staring blankly down at the words on the page without absorbing any of the information. He switched the pen to the other side of his mouth and sighed around it. A late night with Andrew on the roof and an early morning practice left him with only a few hours of sleep and he'd already suffered through two midterm exams. Focus, he told himself. For fuck's sake, focus. The two midterm exams he'd taken that day had left his brain full of static and fragmented thoughts, none of which had to do with Statistics.

It was a few days before Palmetto's spring break began and the Foxes had all made separate plans. Matt and Dan were going to spend the week with Dan's stage sisters. Jack, Brian, and Lizzy were staying at the dorms- Neil didn't ask why- and Kevin was staying with them to run extra drills. Erik had gotten a few days off work and was flying in from Germany to spend time with Nicky in Columbia, so Neil figured he and Andrew would be going somewhere else for the week.

A hand snatched the pen out of his mouth and Andrew's breath puffed against his ear. “People are staring.”

He twisted in his chair to look up at the other man. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” Andrew said it like it was obvious. He yanked out the chair beside Neil's and fell into it. His eyes swept over the rest of the room before returning to Neil's face.

“We said we'd meet up at five. It's only like four-thirty now.”

“I finished my exam early and Kevin won't stop pestering me to run drills with Johnny tonight.”

Neil snorted. Andrew had discovered calling Jack by the wrong name was a surprising effective way to get under his skin, so naturally it was all he did.

“Jack needs all the extra practice he can get. I don't think the Trojans are going to make it easy on us again.”

“You say that like you think I care.”

“Nah, I just like hearing myself talk,” Neil said wryly.

“Typical jock.”

Neil nodded and rubbed at the stubble growing along his jaw. “What are we doing for spring break? You want to go somewhere or do you want to stay here with Kevin?”

“You want to stay here with Kevin?”

“Fuck no.”

Andrew shrugged. “What are you thinking for break?”

“Well, if you want to go somewhere, I'll go with you. If you're staying here with our prima-donna, I'll see if Nicky will let me come to Columbia.”

“Nicky won't take you.”

“And why not?”

“He knows that if he so much as looks at you too long I'll slit his throat.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “You know what? You and Kevin can stay together for spring break and see which one of you can be the bigger drama queen. Text me the results.”

“You're not going anywhere without me.” It wasn't a threat, just a simple statement. Andrew and Neil both knew that wherever they went they'd go together.

It didn't stop Neil from taunting, “Maybe I'll hitchhike up to Evermore and hang out with the Ravens. It'd be less stressful than spending the week with Kevin.”

Andrew twisted his hand in the back of Neil's collar and pulled just enough to lightly choke him. “Don't even fucking joke about that. Get your books. We're going.”

Neil collected his things and stuffed everything into his bag. Andrew was already halfway to the door by the time he caught up. They headed back to the Tower and found Kevin half-buried in a beanbag chair with his laptop open on his lap.

Kevin tugged one side of his headphones away from his ear and asked, “You guys are staying here for spring break, right? Andrew, I need you to practice with Jack. He needs to improve before our game against Edgar Allan.”

Andrew stuffed his hands into his pockets and said, “Make it worth my time.”

Kevin didn't even pause before he looked to Neil with eyebrows raised expectantly.

Neil rolled his eyes and passed Kevin to drop his things on the desk. “Why are you looking at me, Kevin?”

“Neil, you care about championships just as much as I do. Do something to convince Andrew to help us.”

“Stop trying to pimp my ass out to get Andrew to do things.”

Kevin scowled. “Drop the attitude. You're both staying.”

Andrew lowered himself into the beanbag beside Kevin's and put his hands behind his head. In Russian, he asked, “Are you willing to give me something?”

Kevin looked between them, obviously curious.

“Anything,” Neil answered easily. “What do you want?”

Andrew squinted his eyes and hummed a little, thinking it over. Then, he said to Kevin, “We'll stay on two conditions.”

“Conditions?” Kevin repeated.

“You will drive the children to and from the court and you will sleep in Nicky's room.”

Kevin ripped his headphones all the way off his head and tossed them aside. “You're not serious.”

“I am serious.”

“Why don't you guys borrow Nicky's dorm? You're the ones who want privacy to fool around.”

“You're right,” Andrew intoned somberly. “I guess we'll just find a hotel somewhere instead. Maybe Florida.”

“Fine! Fine. I'll stay in Nicky's dorm, but do not have sex on my bed.” He pointed a warning finger at Neil, who scoffed and turned back to his homework.

“Don't worry, Kevin,” said Neil. “No one will be having any sex on that bed until you graduate and someone with better luck moves in.”

“Fuck you.”

“Not in your bed, though, right?” Neil retorted. He could feel Kevin's glare burning into the back of his head.

“I'm going to strangle you one of these days,” growled Kevin.

“Get in line,” said Andrew.

On Friday, they won against Belmonte. On Saturday, they celebrated with card games, booze, and Chinese take-out. On Sunday, the Foxes parted ways. Matt, Dan, and Renee all had early flights, so Nicky rode with them to the airport in order to borrow Matt's truck. Wymack shuttled Sheena and Brook to the airport closer to eleven, while Allison drove herself and left her car in long-term parking. Just before one, Nicky and Erik stopped by the dorms to say hello to the remaining team members, but Nicky made sure to steer his boyfriend out of Andrew's path. Neil was still slightly amazed by how calm and genuinely happy Nicky was when he was with Erik; it was as if all his cares slipped right off his shoulders when Erik was near. He wondered how hard Nicky had to try to be in good cheer the rest of the time. After they left, Aaron poked his head into Neil's dorm to say a quick good-bye to the three men lounging in the main room. Aaron and Katelyn were spending their break at a cottage Katelyn's parents rented for them on Tybee Island.

“Have fun,” Neil told him.

“Don't forget to exercise. Do not come back here out of shape!” Kevin called.

“Yeah, I think they've got that covered,” Neil said after the door was shut.

They stayed in their dorm watching footage from last year's championships while outside the majority of the student body cleared out of campus. Andrew slowly worked his way through a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels and stared at the ceiling. Neil sat on the carpet beside Andrew's beanbag chair and ate blueberries with his eyes glued to the screen of Kevin's laptop. Last year's semifinal game between the Ravens and the Trojans was on and Neil wanted to pin down exactly what went wrong that cost the Trojans the game.

A text from Wymack came in an hour later: don't get blood on my court this week.

Neil typed back, yes coach.

After the Trojans on the screen lost, Kevin paused before playing the next video file. It was a toss up between watching their team defeat the Ravens or watching the most recent game between the Ravens and the Jackrabbits. Neil thought it was interesting when Kevin chose the latter. It made him wonder if Kevin had ever watched the footage from the Foxes victory last spring, if he relived the last game Riko ever played, if Kevin was really coping as well as he had the rest of them believe.

The extent of Andrew's boredom became apparent when he started bouncing pretzels off the back of Neil's head. It took Neil a few moments to realize that Andrew was trying to land the pretzels in the hood of his sweatshirt.

His phone went off again after the Ravens made their third goal against the Jackrabbits. Neil stuffed the last few blueberries into his mouth and flipped his phone open. It was one word from Lizzy.

Bored.

Another pretzel hit his head as he typed back, if u say that 2 loud K will give u extra drills to do.

J & B r trying 2 blow up stuff in the microwave.

Neil grimaced. injury will not save them from K. trust me

Wat about death?

Don't count on it.

Neil still didn't see the point in trying to get close to the new Foxes when he already had all the family he needed, but he didn't mind some of them. Lizzy and Brook were fairly easy to get along with most of the time. Brook was content to do all the talking when she and Neil practiced together alone. Sometimes when she talked about her girlfriend Riley it seemed like she was trying to get Neil to open up about his relationship with Andrew, but he never gave her much in return. Lizzy didn't talk to Neil often- usually they only traded smart comments about Kevin or their opponents at games- and sometimes they went on runs together if they were out at the same time. Neil didn't ask her about the thick scar that curved halfway around her neck or the lines down her left forearm or the three circular burn marks on her right cheek. Lizzy didn't ask about Neil's scars either.

A pretzel landed in his hood and it jolted him out of his thoughts. Neil turned and another bounced off his cheek. Andrew held a third in an aborted throw and challenged Neil to say something with a quirk of his eyebrow.

“Wasteful,” Neil said.

“You waste time. I waste pretzels.”

Shifting around to face him fully, Neil challenged, “Try to get one in my mouth.”

Andrew closed one eye and aimed and Neil opened his mouth as wide he could. When the pretzel sailed through the air toward him, he leaned over to catch it and grinned victoriously as he chewed.

Kevin looked at them moodily. “If you two are going to fuck around you can leave.”

“Thanks for the permission,” Neil deadpanned, climbing to his feet. “I'm going to go make sure the freshmen aren't setting fires.”

Andrew fluidly rose to his feet and followed, leaving Kevin to watch old Exy games alone. Instead of checking on Jack and Brian, though, they went up to the roof. Andrew picked the pretzels out of Neil's hood and ate them while they smoked.

They ate a light dinner an hour before getting the freshmen and heading over to the court. The campus seemed eerie and lifeless now that it was mostly empty. They parked close to the court doors and Neil let them inside the building with the newest code and his keys.

Kevin seemed distracted as they geared up and barely said anything as they gathered equipment to take down onto the court. Andrew didn't change out. Instead, he went up into the stands to watch in spite of his agreement to help them practice.

“Hey, asshole, you're supposed to be practicing with us!” Jack shouted as Lizzy and Brian walked onto the court. Neil stopped at the door and turned back to face Jack, who was still glaring up at Andrew.

Neil said, “Hey, get your ass on the court.”

“But we need someone in the goal, dumbass.”

“Your job is to aim for the goal, not the goalkeeper.”

“Sometime today would be nice, Jack,” said Kevin as he carried a basket of balls past Neil through the doors. Jack rolled his eyes and followed. Neil stepped onto the court last and bolted the door shut behind him. Kevin stood silently on the center line, staring into the away side goal. Lizzy met Neil's eyes and shrugged.

“We're going to start with a few warm-up laps,” Neil said, taking the lead.

Kevin came back to himself during the game of keep-away Neil and Lizzy were playing against Jack and Brian after they had run laps and stretched out. He allowed Neil to take them all through the standard drills that Kevin had taught Neil the previous year, but he grew louder in his criticism, which told Neil he'd woken out of his stupor. Andrew stayed up in the bleachers until they were finished two hours later and only came down to follow them into the changing room.

Neil picked up his clothes and headed off to a shower room to clean up, but Jack's voice stopped him.

“Vice-cap never changes out with us, Brian, did you notice? I can't imagine what the rest of him looks like if his face is that fucked up.”

“Jack, stop being a dick. I'm too tired for this,” Brian complained.

“No, but, like, if you can change out with the rest of us looking all nasty like you do then he must be really fucked up if he has to hide it.”

Neil had never stuck around that long in the changing room. He turned as Brian pulled off his shirt and saw what Jack meant- the majority of Brian's torso was shriveled and darkened with massive burn scars.

Brian caught him looking and explained, “My mom thought the government bugged our house so she burned it down. I was six. She and my dad died. I didn't.”

Neil nodded in acknowledgment and met Andrew's eyes across the room before he reached a decision. He set his bundle of clothing down and tried to hide the shaking in his hands as he began changing out with the others. Andrew shook his head slowly and Neil knew he was annoyed that Neil was doing this for another person's sake. Kevin flinched away from the sight of his mangled flesh, but the two freshmen looked on with varying degrees of interest.

“The fuck happened to you?” asked Jack with disgust lacing his words.

“Life.”

“You are one fucked up dude, you know that?”

“I hadn't noticed,” Neil deadpanned before heading off to the showers.

He stood under the spray a bit longer than necessary to cool his head and by the time he stepped out again, Kevin and the freshmen were gone. Andrew was waiting for him against the sink, washed out by the dingy fluorescent lights overhead. They looked at each other for a minute before Neil crossed the few feet between them to press a lingering kiss into Andrew's lips. Andrew's hands twisted in the front of Neil's damp t-shirt and his tongue pushed into his mouth.

Neil whispered, “We could leave town if you're just going to sit on your ass during practice.”

“Kevin's going to raid Nicky's emergency stash of booze and have a meltdown,” Andrew answered and sounded perfectly bored by the thought. He scraped his teeth over Neil's kiss-swollen lip and tugged him forward until Neil's hips rested against his.

Neil was distracted a bit by his words, though. He'd noticed Kevin was acting weirdly, but he hadn't been able to simplify the situation as neatly as Andrew had. He leaned more his weight against Andrew's body, pinning him to the counter, and lightly cupped his hands around Andrew's neck. His fingers stroked the back of his neck and his thumbs brushed against the corners of his strong jaw. Andrew's arms fell around his waist and his hands went down to grab Neil's ass.

“That's why you made him get Nicky's key,” Neil said.

“Better to get it over with now.”

Neil nodded. All year Kevin had tried to deal with his problems on his own, but their next game against the Ravens was approaching and Kevin's mind was unraveling. Since Riko's death, Andrew had purposefully left Kevin behind in order to let him figure out how to be on his own without being surrounded constantly by Ravens or Foxes. Something was going to break soon, though, and Kevin had never been particularly adept at coping. Andrew hadn't agreed to stay on campus to help Kevin run drills with the freshmen, he stayed so that he and Neil could pick up the pieces when Kevin fell apart.

“We could make out in my bed until Kevin shows up drunk,” Neil suggested.

“I'm aware of my options.” He put his hands on Neil's hips and shoved him backward. “Let's go.”

They had just gotten settled on Neil's mattress- Neil sprawled on his back with Andrew laying on top of him- when the door to the suite slammed open and someone fell to the floor with a pained whine. Neil opened his eyes without breaking away from Andrew's mouth and let out a little whine of his own. Andrew bit his lip once more and slid out of the bunk.

“Just give me a minute,” Neil said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. Andrew cleared his throat and stood still. The thought of Andrew sporting an erection as well did not help Neil's body calm down.

A few minutes later, Neil pulled his hands away from his face and blinked away spots. Andrew was still watching him, waiting for him. They could hear Kevin grumbling something down the hall.

“All right. Let's go get him,” Neil sighed, climbing to his feet.

Kevin was laying on the carpet where he'd fallen in the entryway. One hand was strangling the neck of a mostly empty vodka bottle and the other was clutching a crumpled photograph. His unblinking eyes were fixed on the ceiling above, as empty and dull as the cheap ceramic bowls in the cupboard. If not for the steady rise and fall of his chest Neil might have assumed he was dead. Andrew hooked his thumbs in his pockets and nudged Kevin's side with his toes.

Neil leaned over him to catch his eyes. “Kevin, have you been drawing numbers on yourself again?”

“No,” croaked Kevin. His voice sounded like he'd screamed himself raw. “There was something in the glove box of the Lexus when they gave it to me.”

“What was it?”

Kevin held up the crumpled photograph and let Neil take it from him. Neil unfolded it and grimaced when he saw the image of a young Kevin standing beside an equally young Riko, dressed in matching black pants and child-sized Ravens windbreakers with numbers drawn on their cheeks. They weren't smiling, they were probably broken of that habit by that age, but the childish roundness of their faces and the light in their eyes made them look softer, maybe happier, for the camera. Neil didn't have to ask to know Kevin had been carrying this photo around in his pocket since the summer. It was smudged with fingerprints and worn at the edges. There were creases upon creases down the center, so much so that white fibers showed through in some places.

Neil handed it to Andrew, who crumbled it back up and dropped it on Kevin's stomach.

“They made him what he was,” Kevin said, voice watery and thick. “It wasn't his fault.”

Neil crouched by Kevin's shoulder and scratched at the back of his neck. “I didn't know him like you did, Kevin, but I saw his face when he was cutting me open. He enjoyed it. I bet he enjoyed hurting you and Jean, too.”

Neil didn't need to mention that Riko gloated over the horror he inflicted upon Andrew.

“It wasn't always bad.” Kevin sniffed hard. He wasn't quite crying yet but his eyes were beginning to look glassy and red at the corners. “We actually had fun together when we were younger. He was... he was the only family I had left.”

“Wymack is your dad,” Neil reminded him, pushing hard against the rising burn of anger. Getting irritated at Kevin when he was drunk and grieving wouldn't do anyone any good.

Kevin's laugh was unraveled at the edges, bordering on hysterical. “I don't know what that fucking means, man. Nothing's changed between us. What the fuck am I supposed to do with a father?”

“Fuck if I know,” Neil said, glancing over at Andrew. The concept of a father was an ugly, distorted thing in Neil's mind. His father was his biggest fear. The memory of a hot iron burned on his shoulder. He tried to imagine having Wymack as a father and couldn't.

“Riko was my brother,” Kevin mumbled. A tear finally slipped from the corner of his eye, slipping down into his hair. “We- I thought we were in it together until... he changed one day. He just wanted to be noticed. All he wanted was for his father to look at him once, make him feel real or worth something. Not having a father seemed easier than having one out of reach.”

Neil's skin crawled with discomfort. He was used to seeing Kevin as a fierce and unrelenting machine built for Exy, not as a grief-stricken man. Andrew bent over to take the vodka out of Kevin's hand. He sat beside Neil and took a swig from the bottle.

“I still feel like I belong to them,” Kevin whispered, closing his eyes. His eyebrows pinched together as if he was in physical pain admitting to this. “The only time I don't feel like something of theirs is when I'm wearing orange on the court. They gave me Riko's car, Neil.”

“Yeah, they did that to fuck with your head, Kevin. All your life they've been fucking with your head, making you into whatever they wanted you to be. You're not theirs anymore.”

Kevin rubbed at his damp eyes and choked out another weak laugh. “I'm so tired of feeling like shit.”

Neil sighed heavily and stood. “Get him on his feet, Andrew. We're going to the roof.”

Andrew took another drink of vodka before setting the bottle aside. Neil padded into the bedroom to grab Andrew's lighter and retrieve his old binder out of his safe. He dug out Kevin's team windbreaker as well. It was hideously, gloriously orange even in the shadows of the dark bedroom. He slipped on his shoes and followed the other two out the door.

They took Kevin up onto the roof and sat him in the center of the concrete. The three of them sat in a loose circle and Neil put the photograph and the binder between them before throwing the windbreaker in Kevin's lap. Kevin hastily pulled it on and clutched the sides of it together over his chest.

The night was vast and filled with stars. The spring sighed softly over new beginnings. The three men were enveloped by the inky, quiet sea of midnight, speckled with lights both above and below. In the dark, on the roof, only the heavens could see the open wounds on their hearts and the scars on their minds.

“You're going to burn this,” Neil told Kevin, waving his hand at the pile of papers, “and you're going to let the Ravens go. It's going to suck and you're still going to feel like shit from time to time, but this isn't something you should hold onto.”

“But the Ravens are-”

“You are a Fox,” Neil said, staring hard at him. These words had once been spoken to him by Andrew and he knew Andrew remembered even if he didn't show it. These words had once been an anchor for Neil's lost heart.

“I was supposed to be a Raven.”

“I was supposed to be a Wesninski. Fuck everybody. We choose what we are.”

Kevin took the lighter from Neil's palm and the three of them stayed until the memories were nothing more than ash. Watching the flames eat away at the paper in slithering orange lines, Neil thought dimly of his mother and the car that was her makeshift pyre. He thought of her bones hidden in the sand, her ashes given to the wind.

He thought of how sometimes fire could be cleansing instead of devastating, a new beginning instead of an end. As he watched the ashes rise, glowing briefly, in the hot column of smoke Neil felt achingly grateful for what he'd found and what he'd chosen to keep.

They didn't speak when they went back to their dorm, smelling like smoke and spring air. Andrew steered Kevin down to their bedroom and hauled his larger frame into his bed. Neil stood out in the hallway for a moment, feeling raw and unclean after the emotional upheaval. His mind was too full to sleep, so he went into the bathroom to shower. He left the door unlocked in case Andrew wanted to brush his teeth and stripped off his clothes to climb into the shower. Steam rose around him as the hot spray stung his chest. He welcomed the distracting, needling heat of it against his scarred body. After a few moments of collecting his thoughts, he slathered himself in the cheap minty body wash he and Andrew shared and rinsed off again. The door opened quietly and cool air slipped in around the edges of the curtain, sending a hard shiver down his spine. He paused and listened for the sound of Andrew washing up for bed, but instead he heard a zipper sliding open and the rustling sound of clothing falling on the rug.

Andrew pulled back the curtain and stepped in behind Neil.

Neil's eyes fell to Andrew's naked hips. “Is the baby asleep?” he asked dryly.

“You can have full custody of that idiot.”

Neil snorted. “Maybe Nicky and Erik want to adopt.”

Andrew stepped forward and placed his fingers over the raised holes of Neil's hot iron scar. Then he said, “I think there's ash in my hair.”

“Yes or no?” Neil asked quietly.

“Yes.”

Neil viciously bit down his smile and guided Andrew under the spray. The narrow space made it impossible to shift around without brushing against each other. Neil caught himself against the wall when he started to slip and Andrew's hand shot out to grab his hip to help steady him.

Andrew tilted his head back into the water, keeping his hooded stare on Neil's face while Neil watched the rivulets of water run down Andrew's strong chest. He cleared his throat and blinked away his fantasies of sinking to his knees and taking Andrew into his mouth. He picked up the bottle of shampoo and squeezed a generous amount into his palm, focusing on the task at hand.

Stepping closer, he started working it into Andrew's wet hair until thick bluish bubbles oozed between his scarred knuckles. Andrew kept his eyes on his face while Neil reached around to massage the shampoo into the back of his head. Only a few inches remained between their bodies and Neil did his best to keep his arousal at bay, knowing if he got hard Andrew would feel it immediately. Andrew's eyes slipped close and a little hum of pleasure rumbled in his throat as Neil massaged his scalp. Neil watched with fascination as tension melted from the other man's shoulders. It was difficult to breathe and Neil wanted more than anything to prolong this moment, so he slid his hands down to rub small, firm circles into the back of Andrew's neck in the way that Andrew always seemed to like. Another contented hum was pulled from Andrew's lungs and Neil felt secretly proud of it. He guided Andrew's head back under the spray to rinse the shampoo out of his hair. Andrew drowsily looked at him as he attentively stroked sliding globs of suds away from his eyes.

For a long, heavy moment they stared at one another. Neil waited for Andrew to turn him away with two fingers pushing at his cheek, to sharply tell him to stop looking at him like that, to do something that would distract him from the golden warmth swelling in his chest that he stubbornly wouldn't put a name to. It felt like a dream, like home, like forever and to a former runaway that was a startlingly new and frightening concept. He'd already lived a year longer than he thought he would. How many more years would he get? How much larger would this feeling in his chest grow? Was he really allowed to keep this?

Neil moved forward to press their mouths together and the warm slide of Andrew's tongue against his soothed away his fear.

“Ask me,” Andrew murmured against him.

“Yes or no?”

Andrew guided Neil's hand between his legs and answered, “Yes.”

Once Neil began stroking him, the kisses turned hot and hard. Andrew pinned him back against the cool tiles and took Neil's cock into his hand, setting a rough pace that knocked the breath out of Neil's lungs. He tried to match Andrew's movements and found that when he twisted his wrist in a certain way it made Andrew's breath catch. Neil buried his own sounds against Andrew's neck, tightened his grip, and quickened his pace. The competitive streak in him wanted to make Andrew cum first, but his enthusiasm was no match for Andrew's experience. His hands knew just how to work Neil into a frenzy and the pleasure built quickly. A few moments later Neil came with a strangled cry. While he shuddered through his orgasm, Andrew wrapped his hand around Neil's fist to hold it steady and fucked up into it until he came with a broken sigh of relief. They traded hard, breathless kisses while they slowly calmed down together.

When Andrew's hands stopped shaking and Neil's legs stopped quivering, they washed quickly and then got out of the shower. Neil rubbed a towel over Andrew's hair until Andrew shoved him away, annoyed, and dried himself off.

“Do you think Kevin heard that?” Neil asked as he tied the drawstring of his sweatpants around his hips.

Andrew pulled his shirt over his head and gave Neil a look. “You used to be quieter.”

“Feel free to put something in my mouth next time.”

“Shut up.”

Chapter Text

Andrew watched with thinly veiled disgust as Neil bit into a peach and sucked the juice off his lips before it could dribble onto his chin. They stood in the kitchenette debating over what to make for lunch since Andrew had decided they would spend Friday in their dorm until Kevin was ready for practice in the evening. All week they'd relied on nearby diners and fast food for their meals since the dining hall was closed for spring break and Andrew refused to go to Abby's since that's where the freshmen went in search of food.

Neil took another bite of his peach, eyes locked defiantly with Andrew's, and let the juice slide down his chin this time. “Problem?” Neil challenged after he swallowed. He wiped the back of his hand across his sticky chin.

“If you're going to be an animal about it you can eat outside.” Andrew turned back to the cupboard to look at the meager ingredients there. They'd been trying to decide on what to make for the past half-hour without any luck. Neil's peach-eating seemed to annoy Andrew into a decision at last. He snapped the fridge door open and yanked out a bag of ravioli before crouching down in front of a low cupboard to hunt for the pot.

“We've been standing here for ages. I'm starving.” Neil took another obnoxious, slurping bite of peach and grinned when Andrew glared at him over his shoulder.

“You could've cooked something.”

“Why cook when there's peaches?” He watched Andrew fill the pot with water and set it on the burner. He tossed in a bit of salt and turned up the heat.

“I hope you choke on it.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “You can have one if you want.”

“I hate peaches.”

“Have you ever tried one or are you just being stubborn?”

Andrew's silence meant no to the first question and yes to the second. Neil didn't have time to wipe the smug smirk off his face before Andrew turned and saw it. Holding his stare, Neil slowly took another bite and Andrew's lips twitched. Andrew crossed the kitchen, clamped his hand around Neil's jaw, and dragged him down so he could lick some of the juice from Neil's chin.

“Disgusting,” Andrew said before shoving him away again and returning to the stove.

The lock clicked and the door to the suite swung open. Neil wiped his mouth of on a towel and threw the last bite of peach away as Kevin shuffled into the kitchen. He stood in the doorway and watched Neil wash his hands with weary disinterest until finally he explained, “I don't know when Father's Day is.”

Neil and Andrew traded a dull look. They didn't know either.

“I think it's in the summer,” Neil guessed.

Kevin looked hollow-eyed. “Was I supposed to expect things to be different?”

“Do you want things to be different?”

“I don't know what I want.”

“I don't know what to tell you.”

Kevin scoffed. “Thanks, asswipe.”

“Anytime, dickface.”

Kevin's sour mood didn't prevent him from sitting with Andrew and Neil while they ate their bowls of plain ravioli in front of the television. Kevin flipped through the channels, hungry for any Exy-related news, before Andrew snatched the remote and settled on a quiz show. He didn't say anything, but Neil could tell by the way Andrew's eyes narrowed slightly after each question that he was guessing the answers in his head and was most likely getting each of them right.

At two-thirty, the sound of three tentative knocks on the door caught their attention. Neil and Kevin looked at each other, eyes narrowed at each other in a silent command- “No, you go get it.” Finally, Kevin scoffed and shot to his feet to answer the door. Neil nestled back into his beanbag, triumphant.

A few moments later, Kevin returned to flop back into his seat and Nicky hovered nervously in the entryway with his hands twisted in the hem of his t-shirt, which was larger than what he usually wore and had something written in German across the front. When Andrew didn't look at him or spew out a threat, Nicky gave Neil a shaky smile and said, “Hey.”

“Hi,” Neil returned, confused, “did Erik leave already?”

It was the wrong thing to say if the answering tremble in Nicky's lower lip was anything to go by. Neil pressed his lips together tightly as if that could prevent another misstep.

Nicky sniffled a little. “Yeah, um, he has a couple layovers so he won't get home for another, like, billion years. We thought it'd be best if he had a whole day to rest before going to work on Monday.”

Neil nodded.

“I was wondering if you guys wanted to go out drinking tonight.” Nicky tried his best to smile. “Aaron's back, too. He said he'd come with us this time.”

They all looked to Andrew, knowing the final word was his. Andrew was still staring at the television screen and gave no indication that he was even listening until at last he tilted his head toward Neil.

“Sounds like a plan,” Neil answered.

“Let's leave at nine,” Kevin suggested. “We can still get in a light practice after dinner.”

Nicky was visibly relieved and the smile he gave this time was more genuine. He slowly stepped closer to the three of them. “Have the kids been behaving this week?”

“Brian is making progress,” Neil said.

“Too little, too late,” grumbled Kevin.

“Is Jack still breathing?”

Neil rolled his eyes. “He's not worth killing.”

Behind Nicky the door pushed open and Lizzy shuffled a few feet into the men's dorm with a tired look in her eyes. Her chin-length black hair was unwashed and messy and her narrow shoulders sagged. “You guys got any rum?”

Kevin stared at her as if he expected her to vanish like a mirage. Neil couldn't remember what liquor was hidden around the suite- he couldn't imagine there was much left after the week Kevin had.

Nicky was the one who spoke first. “Something wrong, kid?”

“Facebook is the devil,” Lizzy intoned somberly.

“We're still having practice tonight. You can't play drunk,” Kevin said.

“If I can deal with you sober, I can do anything,” Lizzy shot back.

Nicky went to her, put an arm around her shoulders, and led her out into the hall, saying, “We'll get you something. You like Malibu?” The door clicked shut behind them and Kevin scoffed loudly.

At five, they went to the court for practice and found Aaron and Nicky waiting in the parking lot. Aaron said nothing to his brother, but there was no hostility in the air between them as they all changed out. After they stretched and ran laps to warm up, the older strikers stood on the sidelines while Aaron, Nicky, and Lizzy guarded Andrew's goal against the freshmen strikers. Lizzy was only slightly tipsy and whatever had gotten under her skin earlier drove her to run faster and swing harder. Andrew stood in his goal, but there wasn't much for him to do because neither Jack nor Brian could get the ball past the furious freshman or the two juniors. Lizzy went after both of the boys as if they were the ones responsible for her foul mood and if they got past her then the other two prevented them from lining up a shot. It seemed impossible for Jack and Brian, but Kevin had intended it to be.

“We should get her drunk and angry more often,” he said.

Neil shoved his elbow into Kevin's ribs.

Eventually Neil traded places with Lizzy so that Kevin could talk to her in the inner court. The freshmen strikers had no better luck against him and Nicky. At one point Andrew decided to sit cross-legged with his racquet across his lap. Aaron stood off to the side, leaning on his racquet and watching the others fight over the ball. Any shot fired toward the goal missed it by at least a foot.

Practice came to a screeching halt when Jack turned on Neil suddenly and smashed his racquet directly into Neil's thigh. Neil stumbled. Pain exploded through muscles and tendons and nerves. Then a fuzzy numbness washed coldly down to his foot. Nicky caught Neil with an arm around his side a second before the twins were there. Aaron didn't slow down- he threw his body against Jack's with enough force to knock Jack onto his back with a horrible crack of his helmet against the glossy wood. Andrew instantly put himself between his cousin and Neil, supporting his weight while Neil tried to shake awareness back into his numb leg. Kevin sprinted onto the court, seething.

“What the fuck was that?” he shouted. He went straight over Jack where he was still sprawled back on the floor and towered over him.

“I'm fine,” Neil ground out. It didn't make a difference.

“You could've broken his fucking leg,” Aaron growled.

Neil put his hand on Andrew's shoulder and gently pushed away from him to stand on his own. Feeling was returning to his limb and the pain was a welcome change from the static. Andrew watched him blankly, but there was a tension in his posture that was dangerous for everyone else.

“This is serious, Jack. You can kill someone with a racquet,” Nicky said.

“Only if your name is Aaron Minyard,” snapped Jack.

Aaron's whole body jerked with surprise. Everyone seemed to speak at once after that.

“What the fuck-”

“Jack, that's so-”

“Injuring a teammate is-”

“Enough!” shouted Neil. His voice rebounded off the walls.

Andrew turned himself to face the rest of them fully, fury rolling off him like heat.

“It's just a bruise,” Neil continued, “which is lucky for you, Jack. Injuring me isn't going to do you any good. You pull shit like that again and I'll fucking bench you until I graduate and you turn into someone else's problem. I promise you, no one- not even Wymack- would give a shit. If you're going to attack your own teammates, then you're too volatile to have on the court.”

Jack began, “If they let Andrew-”

“Andrew isn't violent without a reason. You are a dumb child throwing a tantrum.”

“You can't permanently bench me.”

“Kevin and I held the line on our own last year. Don't make the mistake of thinking we need you out there.”

“We don't need you either,” Jack spat. “Kevin, you're always ragging on him-”

Kevin bristled. “If you worked twice as hard, you still wouldn't be worth half as much to this court as Neil.”

“Just kill him already,” Aaron said to Andrew in German.

Andrew looked to Neil.

Neil shook his head and, in Russian, replied, “Not yet.”

Kevin announced that practice was over and they all headed to the locker rooms. Neil chomped down on the inside of his cheek and fought to hide his limp. Andrew didn't touch him, but he walked close enough that he'd be able to catch Neil if his leg gave out. Kevin came up on his other side and whispered in French, “Are you sure it's just a bruise? Don't downplay it.”

“I'm sure,” Neil answered. “I'm too sore to dance, though, so don't bother asking.”

“Fuck off.”

“You and Nicky looked like you were having fun last time-”

“Fuck off.”

Neil changed out by himself in the shower stall and took a few extra minutes to prod at the blackening line cutting across the outside of his thigh. He'd be sore for a few days, which annoyed him more than anything. Privately, he was thankful that Jack didn't use a heavier racquet and for a moment he could almost hear strings whistling through the air.

When he stepped out of the shower, still damp and dressed in loose sweats, Andrew was waiting with his arms folded over his chest. There was no sign of the others around.

“How bad is it?” Andrew asked.

“If I say it's bad will you carry me out to the car?”

“You know what they do to lame horses?”

“Don't worry, you can still ride me.”

Andrew scowled and a muscle in his cheek twitched.

Neil grinned and stepped forward, wanting a kiss, but the soreness in his leg stopped him short. Andrew met him halfway and put a hand to his chest. He arched an eyebrow, questioning.

“It'll hurt for a few days, but I'm really okay,” Neil answered.

Andrew slid his hand up to grip Neil's chin and pinned him with a grave stare. “A broken leg could ruin your career.”

He didn't need to say that a ruined career meant a death sentence. Neil swallowed hard and nodded. After a quiet, heavy moment, Andrew pulled him down for a hard kiss that was full of a promise of protection. Andrew was finished with watching Jack antagonize Neil from the sidelines.

On the drive to Columbia, Neil feigned sleep in the passenger seat just so Nicky and Kevin would leave him alone. Andrew's anger showed in his driving- the harsh acceleration that made the engine growl in protest, the way he snapped into the left lane to speed around cars that had the audacity to drive the speed limit- and Aaron brooded silently in the backseat between the other two.

Fifteen minutes away from the club, Lizzy texted Neil.

Open season on J?

Neil sent back, behave.

Aye aye cap'n.

Inside the club, Andrew took a moment to decide between keeping Neil at his side and letting him sit down at the table with the others to rest his leg. He chose the latter. He made Nicky accompany him to the bar for drinks. Kevin spotted a clear table first and Aaron stole chairs until there were five. None of them spoke as they sat down and looked out over the writhing crowd of darkly dressed dancers. Colored lights flickered and swept over them as the music shook the air.

Andrew and Nicky returned eventually with a full tray of drinks. It was mostly shots of vodka or whiskey or tequila with a few mixed drinks- Nicky had taken a liking to Long Island Iced Tea, apparently- and a couple cans of soda. Neil took a shot of vodka and chased it with soda.

It took Nicky four shots of tequila to ask Aaron about his spring break and, surprisingly, Aaron answered. He told them a little about Katelyn's parents and the cottage they'd stayed at. Katelyn had spent an entire day shopping for necklaces to give to the other Vixens, but Aaron didn't sound like he minded following her around from shop to shop.

“I might never eat seafood again,” Aaron said after he finished talking about the lavish dinners they'd had.

Nicky nodded his head and the movement made him sway drunkenly in his seat. “I got food poisoned by a lobster, once.”

“'Food poisoning,' Nicky,” corrected Kevin, slurring his words as well by that point.

“What?” Nicky shouted over the music.

“Food poisoning!”

“Do you need to go to the bathroom? Are you going to throw up?” Nicky called back, leaning over the table toward Kevin with his eyebrows scrunched together in confusion.

“No!” Kevin groaned. “You- oh, fuck, never mind.”

“Nooo,” Nicky whined, “tell me your problems, Kevin. We never talk anymore.”

Kevin put his head in his hands. “Jesus, Nicky.”

Aaron shook his head slowly at the two of them and downed another shot. Nicky drank until his confusion at Kevin's behavior wore off and Kevin drank until he was no longer frustrated with Nicky. They both ended up drunk enough to think dancing was a smart idea. Kevin brushed off Aaron's scathing insult and followed Nicky out into the crowd.

Aaron looked at the empty tray and asked, “Another round?”

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “Neil, stay here.”

Neil tapped two fingers to his temple and the twins stood up to take the tray to the bar. From his seat, Neil couldn't see any of them. There was only a rolling sea of strangers. He worked the metal tab of the soda can back and forth until it broke off and then he fiddled with it in his hands, desperate to keep his mind off of Jack and broken legs and the sickening notion of his life ending because his career did. Nausea churned in his stomach and cold sweat beaded along his hairline.

“Neil!” Nicky's voice crashed into his ear and startled him. The older man fell into Andrew's seat and dragged his hands through his sweaty hair.

Kevin slumped into a seat across the table and put his head down between two empty shot glasses.

“Neil, someone dumped their drink all over me,” Nicky complained. The alcohol turned his words runny. “I can't find the bathroom. I think they moved it.”

Nicky sounded close to tears. Neil looked out into the crowd again, searching for a glimpse of familiar blond hair. Kevin was too far gone to accompany him, so Neil climbed to his feet and tugged Nicky's wrist until he followed him. They kept to the edge of the crowd and eventually Neil managed to navigate to the men's room. There were three others in the bathroom- one at the urinal and two at the sink. One was tugging at his hair with wet hands and frowning at his reflection.

Neil stood by the paper towel dispenser and studied the dark tiles of the floor while Nicky peed and then ambled to the sink to wash his hands. His movements were slow and clumsy and by the time he was done rubbing soap between his palms the other men had left.

Neil wet a few paper towels in the sink and tried to wipe the sticky booze off of Nicky's bare arms, while Nicky's unfocused stare wandered over his shoulder.

“I think drinking was a mistake tonight.” Nicky's voice wavered and tears welled in his eyes.

Neil caught him when he swayed backward and led him over to lean against the sink. “Are you okay?”

Nicky heaved a massive sigh and shook his head. “Erik went home.”

The three words weighed enough to break him. Nicky slid to the floor and hugged his knees, shaking all over. He didn't sob or wail or complain like Neil would have expected him to. In his despair, Nicky shrank and turned quiet. Somehow it was worse. Neil crouched beside him even though pain flared from his bruise when he did. He didn't touch Nicky or say anything. He simply waited until Nicky was ready to speak.

“We agreed to the distance, you know?” Nicky hiccuped and scrubbed a hand over his face. “I thought it'd be worth it to be close to my cousins, but sometimes I feel like graduation can't come fast enough. I'm so sick of being so far away from him.”

Nicky wasn't looking at Neil, so he didn't see the panic explode across Neil's features. Suddenly his head was full of countdowns- the girls were graduating in May, Matt was graduating in a year, Andrew's group would graduate in two. Neil would spend his fifth year at Palmetto State alone. He would have Wymack and Abby, but all of his Foxes would be in separate places, living separate lives. Would anyone beside Kevin continue to play Exy? Terror seized him. Would he see them again?

“It always hurts. I feel so homesick when he's not around. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Neil said weakly. “That's how I felt when I was away from you guys.”

Nicky looked up at him, puffy-eyed and sobering. “That's really sweet, Neil. We love you, too.”

“It's going to suck being here without everyone.”

“Yeah, but we'll still visit and stuff.” Nicky patted Neil's hair. “We're family, right?”

Neil nodded. “Right.”

The door slammed open and Nicky's eyes bulged. Andrew stormed in and hauled Neil to his feet and away from Nicky. Aaron hovered curiously in the doorway.

“Calm down,” Neil hissed in Russian. “I don't need more bruises.”

Andrew released him immediately, but he didn't step away until Nicky had scurried past Aaron. The other Minyard lifted an eyebrow at Neil and asked, “Russian? When did that happen?”

Neil shrugged. Aaron flicked a cool look between Neil and Andrew before he left them alone. Two men passed him on their way in and went to the urinals, laughing about something. Andrew and Neil exited the bathroom and headed back to the table, where Kevin was working his way through more shots of vodka like it was his job.

They stayed at the club until three. Nicky had to drive to the airport at one to pick up Matt and Dan since he still had Matt's truck and Aaron wanted to be back at the campus at ten-thirty to meet Katelyn for a late breakfast. Aaron was still too drunk when they reached the house to comment when Neil disappeared into Andrew's bedroom after his turn in the bathroom.

Neil left the light on and stared up at the ceiling while he listened to the others stumbled and laugh and shout incoherently at one another. Andrew came in later and flicked off the lights before finding his way to the bed in the dark. He climbed over Neil's body to get to his side by the wall and accidentally kneed Neil in the ribs. Neil clutched his side, groaning.

Andrew's hand found his elbow in the dark and followed the line of his forearm to where his hand was rubbing at the newest sore spot. His fingers slid between Neil's and pressed down. It was as close to an apology as he would get. Neil brushed his thumb over Andrew's wrist and asked the question that had been tugging on his mind all night.

“What's going to happen when you graduate?”

“I'm going to leave and you're going to stay.”

Neil's heart ached hard and an uncomfortable chill spread through his chest. There was nothing but simple truth in Andrew's words.

But he continued, still prodding at Neil's ribs, “You will buy your own car. We'll meet halfway when we have time.”

Neil breathed deeply and felt foolish for worrying.

Chapter Text

Neil's leg was stiff and aching when he woke. Andrew pulled him into the shower since the others were still fast asleep and they had half an hour before they needed to be on the road. They traded a few hard kisses while they washed up together, but it didn't go further than that. Andrew got out first and told Neil to stay under the hot spray while he went to wake the others. The heat of the shower soothed enough pain away so that he could walk without limping. By the time he was dried and dressed, the others were shuffling toward the front door, groggy and grumpy at being woken so early.

By eight o'clock, they were all piled into the Maserati and pulling out of the driveway so they could make it back to the campus by ten. Andrew stopped at the first fast food place they came across to let the three hungover men in the backseat get greasy breakfasts and large iced coffees in a desperate attempt to feel human again. Andrew ordered iced coffee for himself and Neil as well and as they waited for their food at the second window, Andrew pulled a bottle of aspirin out of the glove box. He tossed it into Neil's lap with an order to take two.

“He will regret it,” Andrew said lowly and Neil knew who he meant.

Jack hadn't had enough room to hit Neil with the force of a full swing and Jack couldn't know that killing Neil's career would literally kill Neil, but Andrew didn't care. Jack would either learn his place or disappear. Neil didn't enjoy the idea of employing physical violence as a means to subdue an unruly teammate- his mind supplied memories of Riko doing just that- but the thought of an Exy racquet's deadly potential and the memory of bottomless hatred in Jack's eyes kept Neil quiet.

At ten-fifteen, they reached the Tower and went their separate ways- Aaron went off to meet Katelyn at a diner, Nicky went to take a nap before he had to go to the airport with Matt's truck, and Kevin climbed into his own bed and fell back asleep. Neil and Andrew quietly packed overnight bags, used the restroom, and put together a quick breakfast before they left campus again.

Andrew took them southwest on the 285 with no destination in mind. The day was bright, the sun fully seated on its midday perch, and in the sky there were a few white puffs of cloud. They squinted out at the road ahead through sunglasses Nicky had bought for them on his last trip to Germany. Traffic was congested near the larger towns and cities, as one could only expect on the weekend after spring break. After the second time traffic slowed to a crawl, Andrew exited the interstate and they began to weave a complicated, but relatively clear route toward Atlanta using smaller highways and cutting through towns. Neil unfolded the map across the dashboard and gave Andrew enough guidance to keep them heading in the general direction Andrew had picked.

When they stopped at a gas station, Neil got out of his seat to stretch his legs and ventured into the small store to pay cash for enough gas to fill the Maserati's tank. Then, he wandered around and eventually purchased bottles of water, snacks, and a carton of cigarettes before stepping back outside. Humidity hung in the air, sticky and stifling, and shimmering heat rolled off the sun-soaked blacktop. Neil fell back into the car and sighed gratefully when Andrew started the engine and cool air spilled through the vents, drying the thin sheen of sweat on his arms and face. Neil tugged his t-shirt away from his damp chest and caught Andrew's stare on him. Neil scanned the parking lot for any potential witnesses and, finding none, he leaned across the center console to plant a firm kiss on Andrew's lips. When he sank back into his seat, Andrew shifted the car into drive and they were off again.

They muddled through the traffic clotting the highway near Atlanta, skirted around the edge of the city, and ended up in a little town called Powder Springs. Andrew found the main drag and followed it until they came across the Second Helping Buffet, which seemed as good a place as any to stop for lunch. Nearly every table was occupied and the air was buzzing with excited chatter of the locals. Neil paid and headed to the buffet in the back first while Andrew secured them a table near the windows. When Neil sat down, Andrew went to fill a plate. A few people turned to stare at the scarred man who was obviously from out of town and Neil tried not to fidget under the weight of their curiosity. He tugged at his armbands to make sure his forearm was covered and only looked up again when Andrew slid into his seat across from him. A sweep of Andrew's icy eyes frightened off the curious stares of the others.

Neil quickly ate his roast beef and cornbread while Andrew picked at a piece of chicken and took a few small bites of macaroni and cheese casserole. Halfway through the meal, Neil checked his phone to find a few texts from the girls.

Movie night tomorrow Y/y? asked Dan. Neil guessed no one had told them about Jack's violent outburst yet.

Hope you two are having a lovely time! said Renee.

Get a fucking smartphone, dumbass, said Allison.

Neil texted “yes” back to Dan and “thank you” to Renee. He took another bite of roast beef before texting Allison, What for?

My selfies are a gift. You need to show appreciation, fucko, she replied immediately.

“Who's that?” Andrew asked, gesturing to the phone with his fork.

“Allison wants us to get better phones.”

“Who cares?”

Neil shrugged. “We're having a movie night tomorrow. Dan's orders.”

Andrew nodded instead of dismissing it, which Neil thought was a bit odd. Neil finished his food quickly and then they headed back outside.

Pausing near the hood of the Maserati, Neil asked, “Hey, do you want me to drive for a bit?”

“Not really.” Andrew unhooked his sunglasses from his collar and put them on before getting back behind the wheel.

Neil climbed in beside him while Andrew turned up the air conditioner. Once the interior was a comfortably cool, they reversed out of the spot and Andrew took main drag out of Powder Springs. They drove south on the 278 for a long time and when they happened upon a little blip of a town named Palmetto, Neil wished for the first time that his phone had a camera so that he could send a picture of the sign to the team.

Eventually, Andrew found the 85 and turned back toward Atlanta. When they hit a nasty bit of traffic again, Andrew quietly said, “I never learned how to swim.”

His was deceptively calm, evenly measured, like this admission was a simple thing, but Neil knew how much it meant. He knew it was a weak spot that Andrew was voluntarily exposing for Neil to look at and consider and do with it what he would.

Carefully, Neil said, “I don't know how to fight. I mean, I never learned how to really box or anything beyond basic self-defense.”

Andrew looked over at him. “How do you not know how to box?”

“Mom and I always had guns or... something, but she tried to keep me out of the way when we ran into trouble.”

“She fought, you fled,” Andrew assumed.

“She used to say that knowing when and how to get the hell out was the best defense.” Neil cleared his throat and said, “I'll let you teach me how to fight if you let me teach you how to swim. There's a pool at the gym. I could pick the locks or you could steal Coach's keys. It'd be fun.”

Andrew looked at him for a long moment, studying him, before taking an exit to merge onto the 285, taking them east. They curved around the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport before darting south on the 75. Neil watched a plane take off into the sky through Andrew's window.

“Would your mother be proud?”

It felt like a kick to the chest. “She'd beat the shit out of me. I promised I'd keep running.”

Andrew's hands tightened on the steering wheel. “It was dumb of you to sign with the Foxes.”

“I know, but I don't regret it. Even in Baltimore, I never once regretted choosing to stay.”

“Idiot,” Andrew hissed.

Betsy had asked about his mother as well the day before Aaron's trial. Neil still felt his cold confession sitting like a stone in his stomach. He was glad she was dead, he was relieved she couldn't see the risks he'd taken. He was thankful for the events that led him to Palmetto State and the Foxes. If she'd lived that wouldn't have happened and where would he be? A runaway with a name written in pencil, waiting to be erased and rewritten. A rabbit in a world of wolves.

“These have been the best years of my life,” Neil said softly, leaning his back against the headrest and staring out at passing bits of wooded areas and buildings and half-empty parking lots.

“Glad you're having a good time. I'm sick of you,” Andrew told him.

“Obviously,” Neil deadpanned. “Let me guess: this whole road trip was just to get me alone out in the middle of nowhere so you can finally murder me.”

“Gold star for Josten.”

Neil rolled his eyes and shifted around in his seat until he could curl up somewhat comfortably. Traveling by car always made his head feel stuffy and sitting still for hours made his joints stiff. The bruise was starting to throb again. He didn't want to ask Andrew to pull over so he could shake the tightness out of his legs, though.

When signs began mentioning Macon, Neil drifted off into an uncomfortable sleep. The darkness of sleep surrounded by the rumbling of a car played too close to the darkness of a trunk, and when he woke his mind expected cold metal around his wrists and fresh pain eating away at his knuckles. It took his mind a few moments to process his surroundings. The car was parked at a gas station and the engine was quiet. Andrew was already stepping out of the car so he didn't notice Neil rubbing at the scars there and frowning dazedly at the dashboard.

Neil had no idea where they were. This gas station looked just like all the others with dusty trucks and dented minivans parked sparsely around it. The road stretched out in either direction from the entrance, lined with run down grocery stores, banks, fast food restaurants, and small shops hoping for tourists. The sun was sinking into the west, streetlights were flickering on, and the clock read seven-thirty-two.

Neil unbuckled himself and got out of the car to stretch his arms over his head. Over the roof, he asked, “Where are we?”

“Just outside Augusta,” Andrew answered.

“We were headed toward Macon last time I checked.”

Andrew nodded his head once. “We made it to Macon and then I made up my mind.”

“About what?”

“We're going to Columbia.”

Neil blinked twice, not understanding. “Back to Columbia? We could stop anywhere.”

“The house is empty. I don't really feel like staying in a motel. Nicky probably left some food and booze there.”

“Do you want me to drive?” Neil asked around an ill-timed yawn.

Andrew looked up at him and quirked at eyebrow. “Not really. Go walk around to stretch your legs.”

Neil grumbled under his breath about being fine to drive, but did as he was told anyway. The rush of air conditioning made him shiver and fold his arms over his stomach. Goosebumps prickled his arms and neck. He passed a father with a teenage daughter in the snack aisle; he avoided the man's eyes when they swept over him. He headed straight back to the refrigerated section to look at iced coffees and energy drinks. Three teenage boys in baggy cargo shorts and snapbacks were loading up on Red Bull and Gatorade. Neil stood a few feet away from them and pretended to look at the selection of Starbucks drinks until they left. He hated energy drinks, but he picked out a large can of Monster anyway. Coffee would only hurt his stomach since they'd yet to eat dinner and he didn't want to fall asleep again in case Andrew really did need him to drive. As he was paying, Andrew came through the doors and picked up a bag of pretzels before sidling up Neil.

They climbed back into the car. Neil felt like his brain had melted to the side of his skull and his throat felt like he'd eaten cotton balls in his sleep. Everything felt weird and dreamlike. He opened the can of Monster and downed half of it as quickly as he could. It tasted like gasoline and sugar.

“Don't drink that shit just to prove a point. I'm fine to drive.”

Neil glared at him. “We've been on the road since eleven-thirty. You're probably more exhausted than I am.”

Andrew started the engine and drove. Neil curled up against the door and rested his head on the window. Vibrations from the car buzzed in his teeth, but he didn't mind. The sky was dark and he was halfway to hypnotized by the periodic passing of streetlights by the time they reached Columbia. He wanted to know what Andrew had made up his mind about, why he needed an eight hour drive to a city that would have only taken a couple hours to reach by their normal route.

Neil's eyes watered with the force of his yawn as they pulled into the driveway of the house. Shivering, he dragged himself out of the car and pulled his bag out of the backseat. He reached the door first, so he dug out his keys from his pocket and opened the door. Andrew silently came up beside him and gave him a nudge before stealing his bag to take it to their bedroom. Neil rubbed at his eyes and toed off his shoes. He stripped off his armbands, dropped them on top of his sneakers, and went to the couch to lay down. A memory of a voice played at the edge of his awareness, not pronounced enough for him to recognize whose voice it was, but present enough to set him slightly on edge. Old instincts whispered, Watch out.

Neil stared up at the ceiling, his distracted brain finding unintentional patterns in the texture, and he didn't notice he was shivering until a blanket fell over his torso. His eyes darted over to Andrew's face and his intent stare.

“Dinner?” Andrew asked.

Neil's stomach still felt a bit queasy after the energy drink. “I might just have some toast.”

Andrew jerked his head, beckoning for Neil to follow. Wrapping the blanket around his shoulders, Neil stood and walked into the messy kitchen behind him. They hadn't set foot in there since they hadn't had the time or energy that morning and they both paused to take in the mess. Dishes were piled in the sink and crumbs littered the counter. In the refrigerator there were a few styrofoam boxes filled with leftovers from restaurants Nicky and Erik had been to during the week along with a half-empty box of okay-looking strawberries and a grease-stained pizza box with four stale slices of pizza with pepperoni and olives. Andrew wrinkled his nose a bit at that and dumped the whole thing in the garbage. There wasn't bread that didn't have blue-green spots sprouting on the corners, so Neil settled for a frozen single-serving of lasagna cooked in the microwave. Andrew baked a heap of frozen fries and chicken nuggets for himself.

While waiting for them to finish baking, Andrew called Nicky to say one sentence, “Don't leave food rotting here next time.”

They ate their meals standing up on opposite sides of the kitchen. Andrew took a few sips of whiskey while Neil only drank water. Neil finished eating first, so he began washing the dishes left in the sink and Andrew soon joined him to dry them and put them back in the cupboard.

Once the kitchen was tidied, they went out onto the porch to sit and share cigarettes. A few fireflies winked in the balmy, indigo air and there was a cool breeze passing gently through that soothed away the lingering heat. The glow of the cigarette's cherry made Neil's stomach twist and for the first few seconds the smoke smelled like burning flesh. Neil shook his head to clear it and held the cigarette away from his face until the wave of nausea passed.

Andrew blew out a thin stream of smoke before asking, “Something wrong?”

“No, I just feel a little off. I shouldn't have slept in the car.”

“Go to bed if you're tired.”

Neil dropped the cigarette and snuffed it out beneath his shoe. “I'm not tired.”

Andrew nodded and put out his own cigarette out against the rubber sole of his sneaker, pocketing the rest for later. He stood and looked down at Neil. “Yes or no?”

Neil was out of his chair before Andrew could finish the question. “Yes.”

In the bedroom, Andrew pulled Neil's shirt off and tossed it aside before pushing Neil back on the bed with forceful hands against his chest. Neil's fingers went into Andrew's hair as he climbed over him to straddle his hips and lean down to crush their mouths together. The weight of his mouth and the firm slide of his tongue against Neil's quickly ignited a fire that burned through Neil's body and set his heart racing. He forgot about his bruised leg and the cotton-stuffed feeling in his head. All that existed in his mind was Andrew and yes, yes, yes. Andrew dragged his fingers down Neil's bare chest, scratching hard enough to leave pink lines behind. Neil groaned into Andrew's mouth and tried to pull him closer with a hard pull of his hair.

Andrew gripped both of Neil's wrists and shoved them up over Neil's head, smashing them into the pillow. He bit down on Neil's lip hard enough to draw out a drop of blood. Suddenly the whole world tilted sideways and dumped Neil off the edge. Being restrained on a bed, the metallic taste of blood, the fatigue, the wisps of terror lingering from his forgotten dream in the car- were all ingredients in a bomb that devastated Neil's senses. His body locked with panic and he couldn't see Andrew anymore. He saw a cruel sneer and the number “1” and the glowing end of a dashboard lighter.

“No,” he gasped.

The weight on top of him disappeared in an instant. Andrew ripped himself away from the bed and stumbled halfway across the room. Neil struggled to breathe. His lungs were frozen solid and his heart stuttered like an ember fighting against a suffocating wind. His hands groped at the pillows and the headboard, trying to pull himself up.

“Help.”

Andrew surged forward to clamp his hands around Neil's shoulders and pull him upright. “Stop it,” Andrew commanded, holding Neil's head down between his knees. Neil's hands clamped around Andrew's wrists, holding his hands against his neck, silently pleading with him to stay.

“Neil, breathe.”

“I can't-” he wheezed.

Andrew gave him a hard nudge. “Neil.”

Neil choked on a deranged noise and hiccuped sharply before he could get any air into his lungs. Andrew sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Neil's face against his shoulder.

“You're fine,” he said against Neil's ear. He pressed Neil's hand against his ribs. “Breathe with me.”

Neil focused on the feeling of Andrew's ribs expanding and contracting with steady breaths and tried his best to mimic them. Once Neil sucked in a few proper breaths, Andrew released him and stepped away again. His fists were clenched at his sides and fury darkened his face. For a moment it looked as if Andrew might leave and Neil hated the thought.

“Don't go,” croaked Neil. “I'm- I'm sorry, I-”

Andrew stared at him hard as if doing so would give him insight into Neil's mind. A conflicted look played briefly over his face before he sat beside Neil again, silently refusing to touch him. His anger was like heat waves shimmering in the air between them, but Neil knew, even in his crumbling state, that he wasn't the target of Andrew's rage.

Neil was upset with himself, though. He'd never wanted to say no to this, to Andrew. He never wanted to deny Andrew anything, but he was startlingly relieved that Andrew stopped when Neil said to and he was all the more anguished to imagine what it was like for Andrew when those other men hadn't. He hiccuped and shuddered, fisting his hands in his hair and resting his forehead on his knee. “Sorry. I don't know what-”

“Shut up,” growled Andrew. “Stop apologizing.”

Neil curled tighter in on himself, fighting against Lola's taunts and Riko's laugh and his father's orders. The terror had come unbidden, unexpected, and Neil felt like he was thrown overboard into the stormy sea of his troubled subconscious. He'd never imagined that it could steal him from under Andrew's hands.

Andrew's hand on the back of his neck reeled him back in again. “Just breathe.”

“It came out of nowhere,” Neil whispered. “Fuck. Fuck, I'm so tired of this.”

“What do you need?” Andrew's voice was a rumble of thunder scraping across Neil's sky.

“Stay. Just... just give me a minute. I can- we can keep-”

“You said no. It's no.”

“No! I didn't mean to-” Neil lifted his head and struggled for words. “I didn't mean to ruin this. I just-”

Andrew cut him off. “Do you want a drink?”

Neil nodded and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. Andrew's weight disappeared and his footsteps carried down the hall. A minute later he returned with the bottle of whiskey and handed it over to Neil. The thick burn of it sliding down his throat and pooling in his belly helped distract him, bring him back to the present.

“Thank you.” Neil stared down into the bottle. “I want to do whatever you had in mind. I really do. Can we go back to that?”

“You're still shaking.”

Neil risked a glance over at him. There was still a dangerous tension in Andrew's shoulders and a simmering look in his eyes that wasn't all anger. He looked like he was turning a problem over in his head and Neil wished he could see what it was.

Andrew's jaw clenched hard and he stared down at his fist. “I'm not like them.”

“I never thought you were. I knew that you'd stop if I told you to."

Andrew glared at him. “You kept giving me that 'always yes' bullshit.”

“I'd say no if I didn't want it.”

“Now we know.”

Neil took another deep, shivering breath and scratched at the back of his neck while Andrew stood up and fetched his discarded t-shirt. Neil traded him the bottle of whiskey for it and slipped the shirt back on.

“Come on,” Andrew said on his way out of the room.

Neil unfolded himself and padded out to the living room where Andrew was curled up tightly on one end of the couch. He picked up the remote and turned the television on as Neil carefully sat down on the middle cushion, leaving a few inches of space between them. Andrew kept his eyes on the screen while he snagged the blanket off the floor and threw it onto Neil's lap. Neil's fingers were numb, his heart felt cold. He muttered a soft “thank you” and wrapped the blanket around himself.

For two hours they sat in silence while infomercials about blenders and vacuum cleaners played, one after another. Gradually, the floodwater of panic receded and left Neil feeling waterlogged and mushy around his usually rough edges. By the time a third infomercial began, Neil's recovering mind began to crave a closer proximity to Andrew again. The desire that had been trampled under his terror reared its head and soon he couldn't keep his eyes off Andrew.

Andrew asked, “Do you want to sleep?”

“I don't want to sleep,” Neil said. “I want to change it back to yes. Can I do that?”

Andrew's eyes finally slid over to him, searching Neil's face for signs of a lie. He didn't find any. His jaw worked for a moment and Neil could see the war in his heart before he finally said, “Yes.”

Neil's breath left him in one big rush. He leaned in and met Andrew halfway, relieved to feel his lips on his again. He cupped Andrew's jaw as the kiss deepened slowly with gentle sighs and lingering presses of lips. Neil hummed appreciatively and slid his fingers into Andrew's hair. Andrew pulled him forward by his shoulders and Neil obediently followed until he was lying on top of Andrew, propped up on knees digging into the cushions around Andrew's hips and elbows braced against the armrest. Andrew took the opportunity to drag his hands down Neil's chest and lean up to meet him halfway for long, heated kisses.

In spite of the heavy weight of his mouth, Andrew was being careful and Neil knew it was to test his boundaries in case the panic was lurking somewhere. These kisses had the usual maddening pressure, but no bite, no anger or frustration. It was a series of silent questions and answers traded between them. The intensity of it, the renewed reminder that they were safe, they were home, left Neil breathless and molten at his core.

Andrew's lips went slack as he panted against Neil's. Then, he murmured, “I want you to blow me.”

Neil's eyes flew open. “What?”

“Suck me off.” Andrew breathed the words into Neil's gaping mouth and his tongue followed them to lick along his teeth. Neil's heart throbbed heavily and his thoughts skidded and crashed into one another.

Swallowing thickly, he asked, “You're not letting me take the lead because I had a panic attack earlier, are you?”

Annoyance flashed in his eyes. “Don't be an idiot. I made up my mind hours ago.”

Oh. He felt dizzy with astonishment. He remembered Andrew saying something about making up his mind when they drove through Macon. He wondered if Andrew had been thinking about this the whole drive. Neil swallowed hard and dropped his eyes to Andrew's chest, not knowing how he would ever deserve this.

“We can sleep if you don't want to,” Andrew said.

Neil shook his head. “No, I want to. I really, really want to. I just... what if-”

“You'll stop if I tell you to stop.” The words weren't threatening, but trusting.

“Yeah,” Neil agreed. He was overwhelmed. “Okay. Do you want to keep your clothes on?”

Andrew nodded and guided Neil back so the he was kneeling on the floor instead. Andrew turned and scooted to the edge of the couch. He hooked his feet around Neil's ass and said, “You can take my pants off.”

Andrew was giving him trust, giving him control. With trembling fingers, Neil undid the button and zipper of Andrew's jeans. Andrew lifted his hips so he could tug them down around Andrew's thighs. Neil looked up at and waited until Andrew nodded again to pull the waistband of the black briefs up and over his swelling erection. Neil pulled them down just enough to give him access to Andrew's cock and he took a moment to stare at it up close. Dimly, he thought, I should've googled this.

Andrew's hand curved over the top of Neil's head and his quickened breathing sounded almost nervous.

Neil met his eyes and admitted quietly, “I don't know how to do this.”

“Give me your hand.” Neil lifted his hand and Andrew took it in his own to wrap Neil's fingers around the base of his cock. “Don't use your teeth. Remember to breathe.”

Neil nodded and licked his lips. “So it's still yes?”

“Still yes.”

“Okay,” Neil exhaled shakily. Andrew's other hand gripped Neil's shoulder as Neil pressed a slow kiss to his leaking tip. Andrew's breath hitched and his fingers dug into his shoulder harder, but he didn't say no. Neil tightened his hand around him and stroked up and down a few times before taking his tip into his mouth. It was bigger than he expected and it was a bit awkward keeping his teeth away from the sensitive skin. The taste was sharper, stronger, and it almost made him gag, but he stubbornly stifled the urge. For a moment he stayed still, suckling at the tip to get used to it, and let saliva pool around it to make moving easier. Some dribbled out the corner of his mouth, but he didn't bother wiping it away.

Andrew sighed loudly and Neil took that as encouragement. Slowly, he tried to take a few more inches into his mouth. Andrew's fingers twisted in his hair and clutched at the side of his neck hard enough that Neil suspected there would be bruises left behind.

Neil inhaled deeply through his nose. He sank down until suddenly he gagged hard and made a strangled noise.

Andrew yanked his hair roughly. “Easy,” he hissed.

Neil hummed in response and the vibration made Andrew's thighs clench under him so he pushed more of his cock back into his mouth and moaned lowly. Andrew let out a hiss and scratched his upper back through his shirt.

As Neil gained confidence, he picked up his pace and found a clumsy rhythm of stroking and sucking. Andrew didn't moan or cry out like Neil did, but his wrung out, uneven breaths and the rough grip of his fingers made Neil's cock ache in the confines of his jeans. He hummed a little around Andrew's cock again and secretly delighted in the way it shattered Andrew's sigh of pleasure.

Andrew curled his upper body forward the closer he came to his orgasm and held Neil's head in his arms. His hot and heavy gasps sent a thrilled shiver down Neil's spine, and his fingers clawed at the hard muscles of his back. Neil pushed more of his cock into his mouth and stroked him faster until at last he swelled and his body snapped taut. Andrew stopped breathing altogether as he came thickly onto Neil's eager tongue, which lapped at his tip until the orgasm had run its course. Andrew let out an exhausted grunt and his whole body relaxed. Neil released him, swallowing, and sat back to catch his breath. He wiped the stray drops of saliva or cum off of his chin with the inside of his shirt and looked up. Andrew slumped back against the couch, glassy-eyed and flushed and heaving, and stared down at Neil.

“I hate you so fucking much,” he croaked.

Neil massaged the sore hinge of his jaw. “I know.”

“I need a cigarette.” Andrew shivered and tugged his underwear and jeans back up.

“Coffee?” Neil asked.

“Decaf,” Andrew said.

Neil nodded and moved away so Andrew could stand up. He stayed in place until he heard the front door shut. Then, he headed to the kitchen. Neil's stomach knotted with anxiety, but he tried to push it away- his desire for reassurance wasn't an important as Andrew's need for time to process. After washing his hands and rinsing his mouth, he pulled out his phone and hit the speed dial button attached to Matt's number.

“Hey, Neil!” Matt called over some loud pop music. “Everything okay?”

Neil pinned his phone to his ear with his shoulder and rifled through the cupboard for filters. “Hey, Matt. Everything's fine. Just checking in. Did you guys make it back all right?”

“Yeah! We're hanging out in the girls' room now.” Dan's laughter bubbled in the background, which made Neil's lips twitch up into a small smile. He popped a filter into the basket and dug around for the bag of decaf hidden behind the regular coffee and the bag of sugar.

“Sorry I wasn't there to see you when you guys got back,” he said.

“No worries, man. We'll see you at the movie night, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Will Andrew be there? Aaron said he's coming.”

Neil narrowed his eyes at the bag of coffee in his hand. Andrew not dismissing the idea of a team movie night was odd, but Aaron willingly attending as well was equally unexpected. “That's... cool. Yeah, I think Andrew will come, too.”

“Dan will be happy to hear it. Nicky got all the freshmen to agree. I don't know how we're going to fit the whole team in the girls' dorm, though.”

Neil smiled wryly as he carefully measured out the grounds into the basket. “They'll make it work.”

“What's Andrew up to now?”

“He's just outside smoking. Have you picked out that certain piece of jewelry for Dan yet?”

“Hold on,” Matt said. Neil could hear him say a few words to the others before he left whatever room they were in. The music faded away and Matt whispered, “Okay, so I've been thinking and I'm not really sure it's a good idea just yet. I mean things are really, really good, but I've still got another year left at Palmetto.”

“Yeah,” Neil said just to let Matt know he was still listening. He filled a pitcher with water in the sink and poured enough to make six cups into the back of the coffeepot while Matt talked.

“I think I'll wait until after I graduate. That'll give Dan a year out on her own- you know she's already got an offer to be an assistant coach up in Maryland? Can you believe that?”

“Dan would make an amazing coach.”

“She's going to be the fucking best. Anyway, yeah, I'm going to give it a year and propose when we're both out of school.”

Neil nodded even though Matt couldn't see it and agreed, “That sounds smart. That'll give you plenty of time to pick out a ring.”

“Oh my god, I made the mistake of asking Allison and Renee for advice last night. I think Allison's got the entire wedding planned by now.”

Neil snorted and turned the coffeepot on. “Hopefully Renee can reel her back in.”

“Yeah, right. You should've seen the look in that girl's eyes. I haven't even proposed and I'm probably already looking at the most expensive wedding this century.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Oh, please, you're going to be there to help me deal with it.”

“Oh, am I invited?” Neil asked playfully.

“You little shit,” Matt laughed. “I should get back in there. You sure everything's good?”

“I'm sure. We'll be back tomorrow. Have a good night.”

“You too, man.”

Neil tucked the phone back into his pocket and blew out a long breath. The clock on the wall ticked loudly and Neil began to count. Ten minutes until the coffeepot gurgled and wheezed to a stop. Forty-five seconds to fix himself a cup of coffee. Eight minutes until it was cool enough for him to drink.

The clock chipped thirty-three minutes away until the front door opened again. Neil's body snapped into awareness. Andrew kicked off his shoes in the entryway with enough force that they smacked against the wall and then he padded into the kitchen. While he stood in the doorway, Neil got out a second mug and poured Andrew a cup of coffee. He handed it to him before retreating back to lean against the fridge.

Andrew's eyes dropped meaningfully to his crotch. “You took care of it?”

“No,” Neil replied.

Andrew set the mug aside and crossed the kitchen to hook his fingers in Neil's belt loops. He tugged Neil's hips forward and leaned in to kiss him hungrily.

Neil kissed him back for a few moments, relieved that he came back, before he pulled away just enough to say, “We can just go to bed if you want. I don't need it.”

“Are you saying no?”

Neil shook his head. “I just don't want you to feel obligated or-”

Andrew kissed him hard and bit down on his lip sharply before snarling, “You're a fucking moron. Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil mumbled against Andrew's lips. He gasped loudly when Andrew ground the heel of his hand against the front of Neil's pants. Andrew didn't hesitate to pull Neil's shirt off and throw it toward the doorway. Neil's fingers clutched at Andrew's hair and he sagged, breathless, against the cool door of the refrigerator while Andrew dragged heavy, frantic hands over every inch of his scarred torso, following the touches with hot, bruising scrapes of teeth and wet, sucking kisses. Neil moaned his appreciation loudly, stroking and scratching at Andrew's head, while Andrew expertly dismantled his mind. When he took Neil into his hand it was rough and quick and Neil fell over the edge in no time at all, too euphoric to be embarrassed at how quickly he came.

While he caught his breath, Andrew licked up one side of his neck and bit down on his earlobe. “I don't owe anybody anything and I never touch anyone I don't want to. Don't ever fucking forget that,” he growled hotly against Neil's ear.

Neil nodded helplessly.

Andrew straightened and smeared the cum on his hand across Neil's chest. His eyes bore into Neil's, burning and almost angry. “You need a shower.”

Neil had enough presence of mind to turn the coffeepot off before he followed Andrew to the bathroom.

Chapter Text

Neil and Andrew returned to Fox Tower late Sunday afternoon to find the door to Dan's room open and overflowing with blankets. They dropped their bags off in their own suite before Neil went to investigate with Andrew trailing indifferently behind him.

Dan, Renee, and Allison were seated on the back of the couch, leaning against the wall, like three queens overlooking a continent of pillow-mountains, plains of fleece blankets, and small villages of snack food and booze bottles. Their subjects were finding comfortable spots around the living room. Matt was sitting on the couch with Dan's legs draped over his shoulders. Kevin was sitting on a beanbag on the floor beside Matt's feet. Aaron was sulking on the couch between Allison and Renee's legs. Nicky was perched on the armrest at Renee's side, playing a game on his phone. Brook and Lizzy were stretched out on their stomachs in front of the television. Colby and Brian were sitting cross-legged on either side of a beer-can pyramid in the corner. Jack was nursing a glass of whiskey not too far away from his roommates, but obviously set apart from them. Sheena was laying with her head pillowed on Jack's thigh, though neither looked particularly happy about it.

“Wow,” was all Neil said and that was enough to draw Dan and Matt's attention.

Their cheerful shout of his name alerted the rest of the team to their arrival.

“You guys are here! Aww,” Nicky slurred, clutching his phone over his heart.

Neil shook his head. “You're drunk pretty early, Nicky.”

“He's still drunk from last night,” Allison said. Neil couldn't tell if she was serious or not.

Neil managed to lower himself to sit beside Kevin without wincing at the pulse of pain in his thigh. Andrew sat at his other side and snagged a nearby bottle of vodka. For a moment, everything seemed quiet and normal. Dan and Renee were laughing. Brook giggling at a stopwatch on her phone as she timed Lizzy to see how many pieces of popcorn she could eat in a minute. Aaron was texting someone, but he seemed more mellow than he usually did around the team.

Matt was talking to Neil about the upcoming game against Vermont when they were interrupted.

“Is your leg going to be okay, Neil?” Nicky asked loudly, rubbing at one of his eyes.

Most of the team went quiet and turned to look at Neil, searching for signs of injury.

Dan's eyes snapped to him. “What happened to your leg?”

“Johnny decided to take a swing at him with his racquet on Friday,” answered Aaron with a voice as bored as his brother's without looking up from the phone in his lap. “Heard it's a nasty bruise.”

Neil narrowed his eyes. Aaron had never called Jack that before.

Colby, who was usually silent around the older Foxes, said, “Dude, what the hell?”

Brook threw a handful of chips at him.

The freshmen didn't notice that the older Foxes had gone dangerously tense. Neil met Matt's stony look and didn't even bother with his customary “I'm fine.” They wouldn't hear it anyway. They'd watched him walk in, not even noticeably limping, but they all saw the disaster Neil had narrowly avoided. They knew what could have happened, what could still happen. Dan's fists were clenched on her knees and there was hell-fire in Allison's eyes. Renee traded a somber look with Dan and then Dan looked down to Kevin, whose expression Neil couldn't see.

“Don't bother,” said Aaron. “Nicky told Coach already. We're having a little meeting tomorrow about on-court violence and 'racquets are weapons' and blah blah blah.”

Jack rolled his eyes. Neil stared at Aaron. Something seemed off. He felt like it was just in his periphery but he couldn't turn to look at it properly just yet. The simple fact that Aaron was there at all was enough to raise his suspicion, but his casual announcement of what had happened and the equally casual dismissal of it was jarring.

“I'm surprised you let him live, Andrew,” Allison said. It was almost a challenge.

Jack scoffed. “Why would he give a shit?”

Dan and Matt looked at him with pity.

“Isn't it obvious?” Allison asked, looking down on him in more ways than one.

Lizzy rolled onto her back and then sat up, squinting at the two of them. Colby tilted his head, puzzled. Neil looked back blankly.

“They're in love,” sighed Nicky dreamily before he lifted his phone into the air triumphantly. “Ha! Beat the level! And you bitches said I couldn't play Candy Crush wasted.”

Aaron wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“You two are fucking?” cried Jack.

Sheena bolted upright, gaping at them with obvious disgust. Brook shoved a few more M&M's into her mouth and sat up beside Lizzy, who was still squinting.

“Dumbass freshmen,” Allison muttered.

“Ugh, where does Coach find all these homos?” Sheena sneered.

“Ebay,” Nicky answered flatly.

“The farm,” said Brook.

Lizzy lifted her pointer finger in a drunkenly grandiose way and explained, “See, Sheena, if you collect enough gay people-” she made a sweeping gesture to the rest of the room, “-you get a special edition bisexual.” She gestured to herself with both hands and would have toppled over if Brook hadn't caught her shoulder.

Brian scoffed. “Bitch, please, you are garden variety. I am the special edition bisexual.”

Lizzy nailed him in the forehead with a Cheeto with surprisingly good aim for how much booze was in her system. A spot of orange powder was left behind above his eyebrow.

Nicky gasped theatrically and whispered, “Bi one, get one free.”

“They swing both ways. Neil doesn't swing,” Matt said as if he were doing mental math. “It balances out sort of.” He looked up to Dan for approval and she leaned down to pat his chest.

“Colby doesn't swing,” Brian volunteered, patting the quiet boy on the back. “If he played Exy the way he played life nobody would ever score.” Colby looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded.

Sheena made a gagging noise, still focused on her roommates. “I can't believe I sleep in the same room as you two. I'm going to keep pepper spray under my pillow or something.”

“Your personality is repulsive enough,” Lizzy said, “but that face on top of it? I wouldn't sleep with you if I was blindfolded and paid a mountain of cash.”

Brook snickered and popped open another bright red wine cooler.

“Shut up, whore,” Sheena snarled.

Jack's glinting eyes were still fixed on Neil and Andrew. He waited until the room had settled until he said, “I wonder how the media would like finding out Neil Josten is a fag.”

“All right, cut the homophobic shit, the both of you,” snapped Dan. “We don't tolerate that garbage and you're already in deep enough shit, Jack. I mean, what the fuck were you thinking?”

Andrew's head tilted and his low, honey-smooth voice stopped everyone else cold. “Are you going to call the press, Johnny Boy?”

Jack's lip curled. “Stop fucking calling me that.”

“'Cause if you're going to call the press down here, I've got a fun story to tell too,” Andrew continued. “Poor Johnny, only twelve years old, found locked in a closet after Mommy went off her meds and offed herself. How many days were you in there, Johnny? Two days? Three? How much time did you spend sitting in your own piss while your mother's body swung from the ceiling fan just outside? It's no wonder you got hooked on your foster dad's pills later.”

Matt flinched. “Jesus.”

“Speaking of pills,” Andrew went on. “How high were you when you got behind the wheel at sixteen and ran over that little kid in your neighborhood?”

“They never charged me with-”

Andrew cut him off, “I wonder if you still hear a little crunch now and then when you get in a car.”

“Andrew, rein it in,” Dan warned.

“I think I might be sick,” Brook whispered. Lizzy was too drunk to do anything other than pat her consolingly on top of her head.

“Did you steal my fucking file?” Jack asked, voice raw.

“Simple internet search,” Andrew answered. “Nice try changing your name, but I know every trick in the book thanks to Neil.”

Jack's face looked ashen and his eyes were wild with panic. Neil looked over at Andrew. Everything about him was calm, controlled, and it didn't take long for Neil to figure out why the twins agreed to movie night without any protest, why Aaron was suddenly using Andrew's nickname for him, and why Nicky had been drinking so heavily after rounding up all the freshmen for movie night. He was beginning to the see the trip-wires and metal teeth of a well-orchestrated trap and he knew this was only the prelude to whatever horror show Andrew had planned.

“Media loves players with tragic pasts, you know,” Aaron pointed out. “Neil and Kevin really gave them a taste for it last year.”

“Poor Johnny.” Nicky scrubbed his hands miserably over his face and clenched his eyes shut. “Maybe you- you should talk to Bee about that stuff, man. We don't want you to end up like Riko, you know?”

Jack shot to his feet and bolted out the door. Andrew let him leave without another word.

The rest of the Foxes reached for whatever alcohol was closest to them and drank until they felt better about what they'd just witnessed. Nicky drank more than most as if he could sterilize his tongue after the things he said. Neil took two swigs of vodka, but it didn't touch the hollowed out feeling in the pit of his stomach. This animosity wasn't what he wanted for his team. He didn't want to threaten and torment the other players into submission. He didn't want to turn into Riko and lose his common sense to the high that came with power.

Andrew knew this, of course, but Andrew never minded getting his hands dirty to protect what was his.

The silence was broken ten minutes later when Renee said, “How about we watch something funny? Matt, why don't you put something in.”

Matt nodded stiffly and crossed the room to put a DVD in the player. Sheena hugged her knees to her chest and picked at her thumbnail, avoiding the eyes of the others. All year Jack had been her counterpart, her partner when she decided to go on a rampage. Now she was all alone in less than friendly territory and leaving would show weakness.

Allison twisted a glossy tendril of hair around her finger and studied the way the light caught on the strands. “Hey, Brook, saw your Facebook pics, by the way. You and what's-her-face are adorable.”

Brook beamed suddenly and splayed her fingers over her face shyly. “Thanks. Riley and I had such a great time in Florida. We practically lived on the beach all week.”

Lizzy fell onto her back and dragged a bottle of rum to her lips.

“You posted pictures?” Nicky slurred, blinking sleepily at her.

Allison pushed some buttons on her phone and shoved it in his direction.

“Aww,” he cooed, jabbing a finger at the screen.

“Riley's eyeliner is always on point,” Allison commented. “Too bad Sheena's too much of a bitch for you to bring her around more.”

“I'm still right here,” snapped Sheena nastily.

“I know, but why?” Allison shot back, unfazed.

Kevin got up and turned off the lights as the movie began playing on the large television. The Foxes welcomed the distraction, but Neil couldn't focus. He was too distracted by what had happened and what Andrew could possibly have in store.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Jack didn't show up for practice and no one was surprised.

Wymack pulled Neil aside on their way into the court and asked him what happened. There was an angry twitch in his jaw when Neil relayed what had transpired at Friday's practice. He told Wymack it was only a bruise and that Jack hadn't put that much power behind it, but it didn't do much to calm the older man down.

Before they were allowed on the court, Wymack gathered them together and announced, “Jack texted me earlier and said he was sick or something. We'll deal with him tomorrow. I will remind the rest of you,” he shook his finger at the freshmen, “that swinging a racquet at someone can be deadly and I'll have none of that bullshit, all right? I'm benching Jack until I fucking feel like letting him back on my court. I don't give a shit that it's championships. We're not going to risk someone getting seriously injured just because Jack can't control his fucking temper like an adult.”

Across the room, Colby pulled out his phone and typed a quick message. After he hit send, Neil felt two staccato vibrations where his thigh was pressed against Andrew's. The timing of the alert and the wrong shape of the phone in Andrew's pocket made Neil sure it was Jack's. Andrew's face betrayed nothing.

Practice went on as usual and Neil did his best to ignore the knot in his stomach and the resignation on Kevin's face. It was unlikely that Kevin was involved in Andrew's scheme, but he had to have some inkling as to why Jack was missing. Aaron mirrored his twin's detached boredom, while his cousin's smile looked forced and wobbling around the edges. Lizzy's hangover made her cranky and after the third time she slammed Sheena into the wall, Wymack stopped thinking it might be accidental.

He pounded on the plexi-glass to stop practice and pushed the door open to bellow, “Hey, what did I say about injuring teammates?”

After the door was bolted shut again, practice continued in a disorderly way. Neil stopped and sighed near the center line. Aaron and Nicky were talking near Andrew's goal instead of doing their drills. Lizzy and Sheena were trading insults. Kevin was firing mercilessly at Colby in the away goal, demonstrating for Brian. Matt was trying shout something encouraging to Colby, while Allison shook her head.

Dan sidled up to Neil and bumped her hip against his. “Cheer up, vice-cap, this shit happens. At least these shitheads actually show up to games.”

Neil snorted and watched Kevin storm over to Colby in the away goal to yell at him for letting him score so easily. “You know, looking at us now you wouldn't know we had an important game this Friday.”

Dan snorted. “We can take the Catamounts. We'll be back to normal tomorrow. Hopefully Jack will stop sulking by then. I can't believe that little fucker skipped practice.”

“He was humiliated,” Neil mumbled.

“He dug himself into a giant hole. Have fun with that next year.” She clapped him on the shoulder and jogged away to shout orders at the others to get them back into focus.

The last half hour of practice seemed to stretch on for days.

From there, the morning progressed normally. There was no sign of trouble, nothing out of the ordinary, but no sign of Jack either. Brian and Colby didn't seem worried when Neil passed them on his way to the Tower after his first class. Sheena seemed mildly annoyed as usual when he saw her across the dining hall. Andrew's face remained blank and he didn't say anything as he slowly ate his lunch. When Neil made it to his seat at the back of his two-thirty lecture, he pulled out his phone and texted Brian, have you seen Jack?

He txted 10 mins ago. Said he's skipping class.

It would have put him at ease if he didn't know Andrew had stolen Jack's phone. He didn't really care if Jack showed up the next day or not, but he worried about the very real possibility of Andrew getting arrested for whatever he was doing. Tension rippled through his gut. He hated not knowing what was going on, but he knew Andrew wouldn't tell him the details until he was ready to.

He tried and failed to focus.

The lecture ended early and Neil quickly made his way back toward the Tower. On an empty stretch of the sidewalk along Perimeter Road, Aaron nearly collided with him and shoved a bundle into Neil's chest. Neil grabbed the balled up cloth instinctively. Aaron was dressed in a baggy black t-shirt and black jeans with his hair uncombed and messy. Neil watched him walk away, confused. Aaron reached into his bag and pulled out his team hoodie- the one that had “MINYARD” printed above the number “05”- and slipped it on just as a group of football players came out of the Tower.

Neil looked down and saw that in his hand was a little tape recorder wrapped in black armbands that matched the ones covering his own scarred forearm.

Coach's ringtone sang from his pocket. He took out his phone and answered, “What's up, Coach?”

“Have you seen Andrew?”

Neil could tell something was wrong by the sound of his voice. “No, I'm just heading back from class. I haven't seen him since lunch. Is he okay?”

“Nicky just found Jack outside the Powell building.”

Neil's stomach turned cold. The northwestern corner of the building was still being remodeled. The area was fairly secluded and Andrew had mentioned once that he considered hiding Neil's body in the wet concrete there. Nicky and Allison both had a marketing class in that building, so it was reasonable to believe that Nicky had simply stumbled across the freshman. Neil didn't believe in coincidences, though.

“Is he dead?”

“No, he'll be all right. Sounds like he had a nervous breakdown and tried to hurt himself. Betsy's taking him to the hospital now. Listen, if Andrew had anything to do with this-”

He tightened his grip around Andrew's armbands. “He had class. You can ask his professor if he was there.”

Neil knew what Andrew's professor would say, what the dozens of people in that class would say. As far as they knew, they had all seen Andrew that afternoon.

“All right. Don't get your panties in a twist. It sounds like Jack will be kept at the hospital on suicide watch for a while. I'll keep you posted.”

“Thanks,” Neil mumbled before ending the call.

Neil didn't know how to feel.

He found Andrew on the roof, stretched out on his back with a cigarette in his mouth. Sunlight glared off his bare forearms and pale face. The black t-shirt and black jeans he wore made Neil feel overheated just looking at them. Neil crossed the roof to stand beside Andrew's head and he waited from Andrew's eyes to peel open.

Andrew plucked the cigarette from his lips and gazed up at him silently. Neil dropped the armbands and tape recorder on Andrew's stomach. The recorder slid off and clacked against the concrete, but Andrew didn't care.

“Are you going to tell me what you did to Jack?” Neil asked.

“Are you asking?” Andrew challenged.

Neil sat cross-legged by Andrew's shoulder and lit a cigarette for himself before saying, “Tell me.”

“He goes out for a jog around campus every morning,” Andrew began. “I caught him near the Powell building. There's an empty janitor's closet near the construction site in a hallway nobody goes in anymore.”

“You locked him in a closet,” Neil said mildly. He remembered what Andrew had said about Jack's past. Being locked in a dark closet all day explained the nervous breakdown Wymack mentioned. “You stole his phone so people wouldn't feel the need to go looking for him.”

Andrew confirmed this with an elegant wave of his hand. “His phone had a password, but it was boring. Zero-one-zero-two. Typical fucking Ravens fan.”

That was why Nicky mentioned Riko. Andrew had probably told his brother and cousin just what to say on Sunday night to hit Jack where it hurt.

“You cut his wrists?”

Andrew shrugged. “A little.”

“So Aaron went to your class to help your alibi and Nicky called Betsy in after you were done.”

“You didn't need to ask if you knew everything.” Andrew took another drag off his cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs for a moment before letting it out slowly. He turned his head to look at Neil fully, still squinting a little even though Neil cast a shadow over his face. Then, he asked, “Pop quiz: what's worse than being hated?”

“Being pitied.”

And suddenly everything clicked into place. Killing Jack had never been Andrew's intention, though that would have probably been simpler. Wymack would take the loss of another player hard and Neil didn't want Jack's death on his conscience, so Andrew had gone a different route.

Jack had painted himself as a villain since the first time he met Neil. Jack thrived off the hatred he received, found it thrilling to antagonize and taunt and jeer. He made himself larger than he really was with his arrogance and his smart mouth. Andrew had whittled him down into a small, pathetic thing.

Everyone would look at him as a victim, a wounded child. If the media got wind of his supposed nervous breakdown, which they most likely would, they would chalk it up to Jack being unable to handle the stress of spring championships and they would discuss at length whether or not Jack Porter could really cut it as an Exy player. Instead of proving how well he could play, he'd spend years trying to prove he could play at all.

Neil wasn't sure Jack would survive that.

“Poor Johnny,” he murmured, feeling slightly impressed.

Andrew hummed in agreement and tossed his cigarette away. He propped himself up on one elbow and grabbed Neil's hair to drag him into a rough kiss. Neil tilted his head to get a better angle and licked the taste of smoke out of Andrew's mouth.

Chapter Text

On Friday morning, the Foxes stuffed themselves and their luggage into various vehicles as best they could and headed to Upstate Regional to catch their twelve-thirty flight to Vermont. Andrew's hands gripped the steering wheel like he wanted to strangle it and Neil knew he was thinking about the long journey ahead of them. To get to Vermont, they had two layovers, which meant three short flights total. It was going to be a long day for everyone, but for Andrew it was going to be hell.

The three men in the backseat didn't seem to notice the dark shift in Andrew's mood. Nicky had kept his distance ever since he played his part in Jack's breakdown and subsequent hospitalization. Jack had returned to campus the day before, but he only showed up for a brief team meeting in the foyer before shuffling off with Dan to see Betsy. He was staying at Palmetto that weekend since he wasn't playing and still required the supervision of a mental health professional. Neil almost hadn't recognized the dull-eyed, slouched version of Jack. He looked like someone had put him through the wash and scrubbed the aggressive hostility right out of him, leaving him faded and threadbare. Nicky couldn't look at him at all.

Aaron was the only one who had openly stared at Jack on Thursday morning. He hadn't said anything, but anyone who knew how to read Aaron knew he was a bit pleased to have played a part in his downfall. Jack had known to not go after Andrew directly, but he'd severely underestimated the “normal” Minyard twin.

Andrew pressed down on the acceleration and the Maserati snarled as they whipped around Matt's truck. At the speed he was going, they probably could have driven the thousand miles to Vermont in no time at all.

When they reached the airport, they parked in the overnight lot and headed inside. Andrew had a white-knuckled grip on the strap of his bag and he scowled at everything that moved. Neil didn't know how to take the edge off of Andrew's fear of flying, so he kept close to his side as they made their way through the airport and tried to distract him with idle chatter. When the team reached the back of the long line for check-in counter, Andrew and Neil stood at the back with a few feet between themselves and the others.

“You could pick out two figurines for Bee since we're stopping in two places,” he suggested without expecting a response. “Maybe I'll dye my hair orange to match our jerseys. I haven't dyed my hair in forever. The FBI is probably watching, though. I doubt they'd like that.”

The line moved forward and the Foxes shuffled forward with it.

“Maybe I'll get a tattoo,” Neil said, tilting his head back to look up at the arcing metal beams sweeping gracefully across the high ceiling. “I don't really remember much about the first one, but I think I'd like to have a mark that I picked out myself.”

Andrew's eyes flicked up to his face and darted away just as quickly.

“Dan suggested I cover my scars with tattoos, but that'd probably burn through the rest of my money.” Neil looked thoughtfully down at his t-shirt and tried to picture his torso covered in inked patterns and colors instead of scar tissue. Andrew was staring at the wall of windows.

After their bags were checked and out of the way, the team went through security and made it to the gate twenty minutes before boarding began. Andrew and Neil stood by the windows and Andrew tracked the trajectories of planes with his eyes while Neil studied the way the light curved across Andrew's cheekbone and caught in his fair eyelashes like gold dust.

Fear wound Andrew's body tight as they boarded the plane and found their seats. Neil, Andrew, and Kevin were put in the same row together near the back of the plane. Neil fell into the window seat and shifted to pull the seat belt out from under him as Andrew fluidly lowered himself into the middle. Kevin sat on the end and immediately took out his iPod and earphones. Ever since Sunday Kevin hadn't spoken much to either of them, undoubtedly upset that they were down a striker halfway through championships. It was obvious to everyone that Kevin considered their season as good as over even though there were still three strikers on the line-up. Kevin didn't even seem to care that Wymack had managed to sign the striker he'd chosen.

“I can't believe there's going to be eighteen of us next year,” Neil said, just loud enough to hear over the sound of the engines.

Andrew kept his eyes on the pen he was fiddling with.

“Coach is going to give the new striker Seth's old number. Yvonne Harris- the girl from Buffalo. I told you about her. I watched the tapes her coach sent in- her aim could use some work, but she's fast and she can take a hit.”

A stewardess strode purposefully down the aisle, checking the overhead compartments and seat belts. When she passed them, Neil turned his head toward the window, pretending to study the men in reflective vests and protective gear out on the tarmac. The last time they'd flown Neil had found himself the target of a middle-aged stewardess's concern. The woman hadn't even paid Andrew's murderous glare any mind while she went on about Neil's “poor pretty face.”

When the stewardess was gone, Neil tucked his elbow down against his side and shifted as close as he could to Andrew. He told him all about the six incoming freshmen for the upcoming school year. There was Tara Edwards from Tampa, Tommy Vasquez from Colorado Springs, Eddie Stevens from a small town in Utah called Alpine, Holly Gray from Cincinnati, and Joel Dunn from Jasper, Arkansas. He talked about an impossible shot Tara blocked during her junior year and how Eddie had broken his leg when he was fourteen, according to Coach, but he'd made a full recovery. Kevin had seen Eddie as a worthless investment until Neil shut him up by pointing at Kevin's scarred hand.

A loud ping called everyone's attention to the stewardess at the front of the plane, smiling and holding up a pamphlet like the ones in all the seat pockets. The other steward picked up the little phone and began rambling through the usual spiel about safety and seat belts and emergency oxygen supplies. Andrew's fingers turned ghostly white as he clenched the pen. The hum of the engines changed to a higher pitch and Andrew's breath caught when the plane began rolling smoothly backward away from the gate.

As Neil began to ramble about the Catamounts and the upcoming game, he tried to think of a more diverting topic of conversation. Andrew didn't care about Exy, but it was one of the only things Neil felt comfortable talking about within earshot of others. Aaron and Nicky were sitting in the row in front of theirs with Lizzy, so German was a risk as well.

The plane aligned with the runway. Hidden mechanisms whirred. The sound of the engine changed again. Andrew seemed like he stopped breathing altogether.

Desperate, Neil decided to try out the new Russian phrases he'd been practicing on his own.

“Remember when I had you in my mouth?” he asked lowly.

Andrew's eyes flew up to his, understanding and incredulous and slightly angry. The plane pulled forward. Inertia pushed them back into their seats harder and harder as the plane quickly gained speed.

Neil trembled with embarrassment as he spoke louder to be heard over the roar. “Sometimes I can still taste you.”

Andrew's nostrils flared a little and he swallowed. His hand clamped down on the armrest between them. They were almost going fast enough to take off.

Just as the plane's nose lifted and led the craft off the ground, Neil said, “I want you to fuck my mouth, Andrew.”

Just saying the words made Neil's groin tighten. His embarrassment left him when he saw how dark Andrew's eyes were. His pupils were blown wide with hunger and his throat jerked as he swallowed hard.

Neil couldn't help himself. “I want you so bad.”

Andrew dropped the pen to put his hand around Neil's throat. He dragged Neil closer and snarled, “Shut the fuck up.”

Andrew's English made Aaron turn around to look at them through the space between his seat and Nicky's. “You finally killing him, Andrew? Took you long enough.”

Neil kept staring into Andrew's angry hazel eyes and whispered in Russian, “Will you let me blow you again?”

Andrew's hand tightened and Neil could feel his own pulse throb against Andrew's fingers. He didn't let go of Neil until the plane finally leveled off at cruising altitude. Neil worked his jaw a little to get his ears to pop.

“I hate you,” Andrew muttered.

Neil shrugged one shoulder. “Distracted you for a bit, though.”

“Stop talking.”

“Still waiting on an answer, by the way.”

“One hundred and four.”

Chapter Text

The stadium at Castle Evermore was filled with a raging sea of fans dressed in black, interrupted by a small section of jubilant orange. The game had lasted an eternity, devoured every last ounce of strength the Foxes had to give. The crumbling hierarchy of the Ravens shaped them into an unstable, furious machine hellbent on destroying everything in their path in their miserable grief. Even with the five more people on their line-up and another year of experience, the Foxes still had to fight hard for every point and pass.

The world came to a delirious, dizzying halt when the final buzzer sounded. All eyes flew to the scoreboard but Neil let out a hysterical laugh when he saw it. It was 8-7 in the Foxes' favor. It was just enough to take them into the semi-finals. It was just enough to end the Ravens' season.

Neil heard Dan's victorious shriek above the roaring of his pulse. Shaking, he pried off his helmet and turned toward the away goal where Andrew stood. Through a gap in the clusters of exhausted players, even from three quarters across the court, Neil could see a tremble in the goalkeeper's knees. Matt was the first to scoop him into a fierce hug. Nicky threw himself at them and nearly knocked them over as Dan sprinted over to them. Neil laughed and shouted back to them- “We're going to semifinals!”- as he wriggled out of their grasp. Lizzy appeared just in time to bump her hip against his before wriggled out of their celebratory huddle to head for the away goal. His knees quaked under him as he crossed the empty stretch of court. The fire in his legs filled his lungs with smoke, smothering his weak attempts at breathing. Everything in him felt raw and ready to bleed.

Andrew's shift in body language alerted Neil to danger a second before a body slammed into his back and sent him crashing to the shiny court floor. One hand clutched the front of his jersey and the other slammed into his cheek. Pain exploded across the side of his face and his vision flashed white. Andrew was there in a single heartbeat and in a flurry of orange the two Ravens were thrown off of Neil, leaving him gasping for air. The doors of the court banged open, allowing the din of the shrieking, bloodthirsty crowd to leak inside. Saliva dripped from his mouth as he coughed violently. Andrew yanked him to his feet and Neil saw that the other Foxes were engaged in an all-out brawl across the court.

Andrew dragged Neil around the edge of the fight and out into the inner court, where Wymack caught him and shoved him down to sit on the bench beside Aaron so that Abby could check on him. Neil watched as the goalkeeper darted back onto the court to secure his cousin and Kevin as well. The screams of the crowd in the stadiums made the air tremble and set Neil on edge. They were surrounded by people who desperately wanted to see them bleed.

It took the referees and the security guards at least five minutes to break the opposing teams apart. While Abby was checking Neil for signs of broken bones or a concussion, Lizzy stumbled off the court, holding her helmet under her arm, and gave him a grin that was manic and blood-stained. One corner of her mouth was surrounded by the angry red beginning of a bruise and there was a small cut through one of her dark eyebrows.

“So that was fun!” she said cheerily.

“I hope the other guy looks worse than you,” Aaron said.

“Naturally,” Lizzy replied.

Abby determined that Neil was fine other than his swelling cheek and a few bruises on his ribs, so she moved on to check on Lizzy and the others. It wasn't long before Andrew was back with Nicky and Kevin in tow. He shoved them off to the side and stalked over to Neil to inspect his face.

“I'm fine,” Neil said.

Andrew let go of his face and glared coldly down at him. The rest of the team collected there in the inner court, some bruised but none broken, and Abby declared that no one was seriously injured. As a team, they moved off the inner court and headed for the locker rooms. The cries of Ravens fans chased them all the way to the doors.

Wymack sent Brook and Dan off to talk to the press since he didn't trust Neil to keep his temper within the walls of Evermore and he wasn't cruel enough to send Kevin out to the cameras. As much as he tried to hide it, Kevin looked pale and shaken just by being on this court again. Being attacked by his old teammates probably hadn't done his mental stability any favors either. Luckily, Kevin had been between Matt and Nicky and the only evidence of the violence was a single bruise wrapped around his arm.

Andrew stayed by Neil's side while he changed out of his gear. His eyes traced the new bruises spreading across Neil's ribs and his whole body radiated quiet rage. All in all, the night had gone just as Neil had expected it to ever since Wymack told them their final death-match would be against the Ravens in their own territory. For a team that had never failed to go all the way to finals, Neil could imagine the toll this game would take on the Ravens and it made him grin to himself a little.

The team left Castle Evermore surrounded by a team of security guards. Andrew was quiet, but anyone who looked him in the eye saw the threat of violence smoldering there. The night air was cool and the parking lot was packed with disgruntled fans dressed in black. Neil couldn't hear himself think over the shouting and his exhausted, panic-soaked mind jumped back to the riot that tore him from his team the year before. He swayed on his feet and stumbled into Andrew's side. Andrew caught him with an iron arm and steadied him, scowling.

“You okay, man?” Kevin asked, lifting his voice to be heard.

Neil nodded and tugged at the strap of his bag on his shoulder. Andrew kept his hand twisted in the back of Neil's hoodie, guiding him forward and keeping him close. The team loaded up their bags and then Andrew wasted no time in pushing Neil to the back of the bus. With a firm shove, he put Neil in the seat by the window and sat down beside him, pressed against him from shoulder to thigh even though there was plenty of room to spread out. Kevin sat with the upperclassmen halfway up the bus while the freshmen sat up front near the small television screen. Wymack handed out snacks and bottles of Gatorade to the team along with ice packs for those that sustained the worst bruising. Abby maneuvered the bus out of the lot and the team settled in for the long drive back to South Carolina, happy to be leaving the Raven's territory.

Neil slumped in the seat and slowly persuaded his lungs to breathe again. Andrew glanced at him every couple of minutes before getting annoyed. He snatched the ice pack from Neil's hand and stuffed it under his shirt to hold it against the place he remembered had the worst bruising. Neil hissed against the shock of cold on his heated flesh and tried to squirm away until Andrew had him fully pinned into the corner with nowhere to go.

“It hurts,” Neil complained.

“You've had worse.” Andrew stared at his bruised cheek and shook his head. “Why the fuck did you take your helmet off?”

“Well, obviously because I knew they were going to fucking jump me out of nowhere,” Neil deadpanned.

“I thought you were done being stupid.”

Neil sighed. “I can't fight my true nature.”

“One of these days I'm going to kill you myself,” Andrew growled.

Neil winced as he pressed the ice pack a little too hard. “Is that not what you're doing right now?”

“Shut up.”

Neil tried to relax under Andrew's firm hands and let him hold the ice to his ribs without any further complaint. His adrenaline and panic gave way to hunger, so he unwrapped his granola bar. He broke a small piece off the end and held it up to Andrew's mouth, offering him a bite since he was most likely starving as well. Andrew glared at him for a moment before leaning in to take it from between Neil's fingertips with his mouth. Neil took the next bite and winced as he chewed.

Neil watched the yellow light from streetlamps on the highway slip over Andrew's face as they sped south. Andrew's hazel eyes glinted gold when the light caught in his irises just right and Neil found himself oddly fascinated by this in his semi-delirious state.

Kevin's head appeared over the back of the seat in front of them and he wore a grave expression. His eyes dropped to where Andrew's hand was tucked under Neil's shirt, but neither of them cared enough to move.

“Wymack just told me the ERC is thinking of disbanding the Ravens,” Kevin said. “Apparently they have been for some time.”

The ERC had been investigating the Ravens all year, keeping a close eye on all the movements of the new coach, snooping around Edgar Allan's campus. Neil couldn't imagine they found anything good. The Ravens were psychologically conditioned, isolated from their peers, and tortured by their late king. Jean wouldn't speak out against the Ravens, but the state he'd left the nest in the previous year spoke for itself.

“You don't think they will, do you?” Neil asked quietly. Ichirou never seemed to care about Exy itself, but the income generated by the Ravens and Castle Evermore was too much for him to disregard entirely.

Kevin looked lost. “I wish they would, but the boss has too many people in his pocket. I don't think anything will come of it.”

“It has nothing to do with us,” Neil pointed out.

“I know, but we should be careful in case he thinks we need reminding.” His glance toward Andrew was brief, but significant. Neil's heart iced over.

Andrew looked bored. “As long as you two don't give them a reason, they won't do anything. There's too much money to be made off your careers.”

Kevin nodded and turned around to sit in front of them instead of returning to the others. They were safe, yes, but sometimes it seemed like their heads were resting on the chopping block. The ax could fall at any moment. What was worse was the thought of anything happening to Andrew or the Foxes because of Neil's misstep. He swallowed back the burning urge to vomit.

“I won't give them a reason,” Neil said resolutely in German.

“I don't give a shit what you do. Either way, they can't have you.”

It was comforting, even if it made him ache. Andrew stayed by Neil because they were bound by some large, unknowable thing that weakened Neil's knees but strengthened his heart. He wanted to tell Andrew to run, to keep himself safe, if things turned bad. He wanted to ask Andrew to stay no matter what. In the end, he said nothing because he knew Andrew had already made up his mind and it was pointless to try to change it. Whether they lived or died, they would be together.

Neil shifted to sit up a bit more and took the ice pack from Andrew to hold it against himself. Andrew's eyes watched Neil's hand move under his shirt.

“Can I kiss you?” Neil asked quietly.

Andrew reached up and rubbed at the flaky patch of dried blood near the corner of Neil's mouth where his lip had cracked. “Get some sleep, dumbass. It's a long drive back to campus.”

Neil nodded and yawned. He was exhausted and Kevin was right in front of them anyway. If he caught them engaging in anything remotely close to affection he'd break out his well-rehearsed lecture on the hardships of being a gay athlete, which Neil didn't care to hear again. He took a few more painful bites of granola bar before sagging back into the corner between the seat and the metal frame of the window to catch some sleep.

A few hours later, the deceleration of the bus woke him up. His throat was dry and the swollen bruising on his cheek throbbed painfully. Groaning quietly, he turned his face into the hard pillow under his head. His eyes popped open and his vision was filled with the thick gray material of Andrew's sweatpants. He'd been sleeping on Andrew's thigh with one arm crooked under his knee, but he couldn't remember falling asleep that way. He lifted his head and saw that Andrew had scooted over enough to give Neil room to lay sideways and one of his hands was resting on Neil's shoulder. Andrew was sleeping upright with his chin resting on his chest and a little wrinkle digging in between his eyebrows. As Neil tried to sit up, Andrew woke and blinked blearily down at him.

“Sorry,” Neil said hoarsely as he moved back into his own seat. Every muscle flared with pain in protest. Andrew stretched his arms out in front of him, popping his shoulder and his spine.

The bus followed a narrow road leading to an empty rest stop, which was little more than a small building made up of restrooms with three vending machines and a few metal benches out front. Beyond the paved walkways stretched a grassy area dotted with a few wooden picnic tables, drinking fountains, and trash cans. A shadowy forest stood behind it all, forming an ominous wall untouched by the streetlamps.

Abby parked the bus in one of the longer, slanting spaces in the lot designated for larger vehicles. The engine's rumbling went quiet and the sudden silence woke most of the entire team.

“We're taking a break,” Wymack announced quietly. “Abby's going to nap, so everybody better keep quiet.”

Andrew caught Neil's eyes and tilted his head toward the front of the bus in a silent question. Neil nodded and they stood to shuffle up the aisle and follow Wymack outside. They crossed the empty parking lot and sat on the sidewalk beside their coach with Neil in the middle. Andrew lit two cigarettes and handed one over to Neil while Wymack lit his own.

“How're you feeling, kid?” Wymack asked.

“Like someone punched me in the face.”

“Oh, good, for a minute I was worried they broke that smart mouth of yours. What a relief.”

Andrew tilted his head back and opened his mouth, letting the smoke pour out in a lazy, shapeless cloud. Neil bit his lip and forced himself to look away from Andrew's pale throat and the sharp jut of his Adam's apple.

Clearing his throat, Neil asked, “What have you heard about the ERC and the Ravens?”

Wymack made a grumbling noise that meant he didn't want to talk about it, but he answered anyway. “They're not thrilled about what they're finding, but they're not going to take any serious action against Edgar Allan. You can't take a piss there without hitting money. They're getting a new coach, though. Don't tell anyone that. It's supposed to be kept quiet for awhile.”

Neil snorted. “Let me guess, another former Raven?”

“Nah, an outsider this time. The ERC isn't budging on that one.”

Even Andrew looked somewhat intrigued.

“Ravens will eat them alive,” Neil muttered.

“Not our problem.” Wymack flicked his cigarette down onto the blacktop, scattering crumbs of glowing orange. The older man got to his feet, groaning as his knees popped, and said, “Oh, here. Andrew said you wanted these this weekend.” He dropped a set of keys beside Neil's shoe and left them alone.

Neil plucked up the keys and looked to Andrew, who shrugged, and replied, “You wanted to go swimming.”

“You're not going to threaten me into taking it easy?”

“You've never listened to anyone before, I highly doubt you're going to start now.”

Neil smirked. “My ribs aren't that bad. They barely got one good kick in.”

Andrew heaved a smoky sigh. From where they sat, they could see some of the other Foxes climbing out of the bus to stretch their legs; the bright color of their team hoodies made them easy to spot. A few headed over to the restrooms while the others hung around the bus.

Andrew dragged his fingertip softly across the crosshatched scars on the back of Neil's right hand. Neil switched his cigarette to his left to let Andrew study the marks better.

“When's her trial?” he asked.

Neil couldn't hide his shudder. “I don't know yet.”

Andrew hummed thoughtfully before pushing Neil's hand away. After their cigarettes burned down to the filters, they tossed them aside and rejoined their teammates. After everyone had a chance to use the restroom and buy a snack from the machines, Wymack climbed behind the wheel and they continued on their way.

Chapter Text

The Foxes spent Saturday sleeping and stretching out sore muscles and gloating. Dan and Kevin watched the news in the girls' dorm and Dan sent out updates to everyone via text to let everyone know what the media was saying about the Ravens.

Neil and Andrew grabbed a late breakfast at Georgie's diner before returning to their dorm and lazing around in the beanbag chairs watching television. Neil obediently took aspirin for the soreness and kept ice packs pressed to his ribs and his jaw without a word of protest. Andrew never said that he would change his mind about going to the pool in the middle of the night if Neil misbehaved, but Neil wasn't about to take chances. They spent the afternoon alternating between watching whatever movies were playing on TV and studying for upcoming exams.

By dinnertime Neil was more bored than he could ever remember being. They joined the team in the dining hall for dinner at six and afterward Neil sat with Kevin and Dan to go over strategies for the game against Penn State. Andrew stayed in his beanbag chair, nursing a can of beer and staring at the wall.

Neil's veins were humming with excitement by the time Kevin was finally ready to go to bed. If he noticed the half-wild look in Neil's eyes he didn't mention it. Andrew and Neil waited in the kitchen until one o'clock before leaving the dorm as quietly as they could. They took the stairs down to the ground floor and walked out into the warm night. A few groups of drunken students were cackling and falling over each other on the sidewalks and streets as they struggled to get to their dorms or their next party. Neil and Andrew kept to the shadows as they strode across the campus to the fitness center. It was Andrew that insisted on walking instead of driving. A car parked outside would draw attention and Andrew didn't want to risk the smell of chlorine setting into the car's interior.

Andrew had barely said two words to Neil all day, but when they had successfully avoided the security guards milling around and made it safely inside the building, he said, “This is dumb.”

Neil pretended he didn't hear and strode off toward the direction of the pool, sliding his hand against the painted cement blocks of the wall to find his way in the dark. The team had used the gym there countless times, but this was the first time Neil had been swimming there. Andrew's quiet footsteps followed him to the doors of the shower rooms. They flicked on the lights and wove through the maze of lockers, benches, and communal showers until they stepped out into the cavernous pool room. Andrew wrinkled his nose at the smell of chemicals in the air. The ceiling was three stories high above a large lap pool and a diving well with three diving boards fixed high above it. Underwater lights illuminated the still water of the pool and Andrew went right to the edge to stare down into it.

Neil toed out of his shoes and stuffed his socks into them before peeling off his armbands and t-shirt. After a moment's consideration, he tugged off his sweatpants and folded them on top of his shoes. The cool temperature and the thrill of sneaking around after dark made his skin prickle with goosebumps.

“You going to swim in all that?” he asked quietly, sidling up to the other man's side.

Andrew turned and ran his eyes down his mostly-naked form. “I'm still deciding.”

“Your choice.” Neil sat down on the edge and dipped his feet in the water, wiggling his toes. The lights gave his skin an eerie greenish tint. After he gave himself a few moment to adjust to the temperature, he pushed off the ledge and let the cool water envelope his body. He held his breath and let himself sink into the peaceful stillness before kicking off the bottom of the pool and swimming back up for air. When he broke through the surface and wiped the water out of his eyes, Andrew was still standing there at the edge.

“We can go back if you don't want to do this,” Neil said.

Andrew stared at him blankly. Neil ducked underwater again and kicked away from the wall, gliding easily through the water with powerful strokes of his arms. The twinge in his ribs was easy enough to ignore after a day of ice packs and aspirin. Neil had never enjoyed swimming as a younger teen- his mother made him practice in cold rivers or chilly neighborhood pools they'd broken into after dark. Her frantic, hissed instructions were less than soothing. Neil learned to keep himself afloat and to cut through the water with as much speed as his lean body would allow as quickly as he could just so her lessons would stop.

Without gunfire and his mother's screams at his back- “Swim! Get out of here, Stefan!”- swimming was actually pleasant. Underwater it was calm and quiet and his body felt pleasantly weightless. Halfway down the lane, he paused and let himself float on his back for a minute or two. Water lapped at his ears while he stared up at the ceiling and inhaled deeply. Suspended on the surface, Neil felt relaxed in a way he was unaccustomed to.

After a while, he swam back to Andrew and by the time he reached the concrete ledge, Andrew had removed his shoes and socks. Taking that as a positive sign, Neil began giving him pointers on how to move his arms and legs. He demonstrated how to tread water as Andrew peeled off his armbands. While Neil went through the motions of the few types of strokes his mother taught him, Andrew removed his sweatshirt, t-shirt, and sweatpants. In just his briefs, he sat down on the ledge and poked at the water's rippling surface with his toes, grimacing. Neil hoisted himself out of the water just enough to prop his elbows up on the ledge and look into Andrew's eyes.

“I really hate you,” Andrew grumbled.

“I know,” Neil said.

Andrew kept one hand clamped on the ledge while he slid into the water. Neil pushed away from the ledge and kept close enough to catch Andrew if he sank. Reluctantly, Andrew let go of the concrete in favor of clutching Neil's shoulder as he submerged himself fully. His hair was plastered to his forehead and he gasped a little when he came back up. Andrew wiped his eyes and scowled at him from under his wet lashes while Neil kept both of them afloat.

“Yes or no?” Neil whispered, brushing his nose against Andrew's.

“Yes,” Andrew answered quietly.

Neil tilted his head and pressed a firm kiss to Andrew's pulse point and felt his fear fluttering there.

“I'm going to kill you,” Andrew reminded him. Neil nodded and kissed down the hard slope of his shoulder. Andrew couldn't hide the shiver that wracked through him, so he pushed Neil away and said, “Just teach me how to do this so we can leave.”

Neil let him grab onto the ledge again before releasing Andrew's arm and kicking off the wall to put a few feet of space between them.

Perfect recall and stubborn pride made for a shockingly steep learning curve. Neil was surprised Andrew hadn't ever tried swimming before because it only took him ten minutes to get a solid grip on the concept. It took thirty minutes for Andrew to silently challenge Neil to a race down the lanes toward the other end of the pool. It took forty-five minutes for Andrew to feel comfortable enough under the water to dive down and pull Neil under by his ankle. By three o'clock, the two were entwined against a metal ladder on the far side of the pool, trading kisses. Andrew hooked one arm around the curved pole and Neil kept himself up with one hand on the first step.

The heat had leeched from their skin in the cool water, but the weight of Andrew's mouth on his kept him warm. They traded drowsy kisses in the dark, bathed in greenish light from below and blanketed by the shadows above. Andrew's wrinkled fingers traced his scars beneath the surface and when Neil pressed his cool lips to Andrew's pulse point again, he felt the calm rhythm of Andrew's heart.

“It's not so bad, right?” he murmured, dipping to kiss across Andrew's collar bone.

Andrew squeezed Neil's shoulders. “It's not the worst thing in the world.”

“Something you'd do again?”

“Only to drown you.” Andrew's voice was quiet and his breath whispered across Neil's lips, which blotted out any malice the words might've held under different circumstances. Andrew opened his mouth to Neil when he leaned in for another kiss and brushed his tongue along his lip while he pulled one of Neil's hands to his stomach.

Neil whispered, “Is this a yes?”

“Yeah.”

He couldn't find any hesitation in Andrew's eyes, so he flattened his hand against Andrew's abdomen and slowly slid it up to his chest. Andrew shivered a little when Neil purposefully brushed his fingers over the hardened bud of his nipple. In spite of all they'd done, Neil hadn't had many chances to touch him like this, unhurried and unhindered by clothing, since the first time Neil had been allowed to bring Andrew to orgasm in Columbia. He knew this wouldn't turn into anything sexual there in a public, open place where they could be caught, so he focused on simply feeling and memorizing Andrew's body. Eventually, Andrew broke off their kiss to watch Neil's hand move slowly across his ribs.

“Can I touch your back?” Neil asked, pausing with his hand curved against Andrew's side.

When Andrew nodded his consent, Neil slid his hand up to relearn the line of his shoulder blade. Slowly, he began massaging hard lines down the sides of Andrew's spine, pressing down more firmly when he found knots of tension here and there. Andrew shivered again and Neil could see the goosebumps flood his neck and upper arms. As Neil's hand sank lower toward his hips, Andrew shifted slightly away from the ladder to allow him more room. Neil hooked his knee around the lower half of one of the ladder's poles to keep himself from sinking as he took both hands and squeezed Andrew's hips. There was a subtle change in Andrew's expression. His eyes darkened with something distant before he blinked and it was gone again. It was enough to make Neil stop, though.

“Is it still yes?”

Silently, Andrew took one of Neil's hands and moved it down to press against the curve of his ass over his briefs. Neil's eyes tracked the movement through the shifting water.

“I need an actual yes, Andrew,” he murmured. “Otherwise, it's no.”

Andrew said nothing, so Neil pulled his hands off of Andrew's body entirely.

“I've never been in a pool,” Andrew said suddenly, looking out at the expanse of water around them. Neil understood what he meant: nothing bad had ever happened to him in the water.

Neil kissed the corner of his mouth and offered, “We can come back next weekend if you want.”

“I'm tired.”

Neil nodded and they climbed out of the water onto the rough concrete. They left trails of dark wet footprints across the concrete to their piles of clothing and began the struggle of pulling dry clothes over wet skin.

“Want to shower together when we get back?” Neil asked. “I think I'm getting better at hand jobs.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“Your face the last time we tried it.”

Andrew gave him a bored look after pulling his hoodie on. His wet hair stood up in spikes in some places and stayed plastered to his skin in others. Neil rubbed his feet dry on his sweatshirt before pulling his socks on while Andrew didn't seem to care about shoving his wet feet into his socks and shoes. Andrew pulled on his armbands last while Neil stuffed them into his pocket.

They locked up on their way out and headed back across campus, which was noticeably quieter now that most of the drunk students had made it home or passed out on benches. Andrew led Neil away from roaming security guards and eventually they made it back to the Tower without incident.

Once they were inside their dorm, Neil peeled off his damp hoodie and dropped the keys on the floor by his shoes. Andrew went into the dark bedroom to find clothing for them both to wear while Neil stepped into the bathroom and undressed. He was shivering and trying to adjust to the heat of the shower, when Andrew stepped in behind him. Andrew's shoulders were hunched and his arms were crossed tightly over his chest. He was clearly pissed at being cold and stinking of chlorine. Neil bit back a smile and let him step around him to stand under the shower head to warm himself. Andrew's teeth chattered as the hot water burned away the chill settled into his skin. Neil took the opportunity to run his eyes down Andrew's back. He noticed for the first time three freckles forming a triangle just under his left shoulder blade and a plump scar slashed above the back of his right hip. His gaze drifted down to the curve of Andrew's ass for a moment before Andrew said, “Stop staring,” over his shoulder.

Neil kept his eyes up near Andrew's head the rest of the time. They took turns washing their hair and then they helped each other scrub the smell of pool water away with soap before cleaning gave way to more kissing. It didn't escape Neil's attention that all night Andrew's kisses had been slightly off-center, aimed away from the sore side of his mouth.

“So about that hand job-” Neil began before his own yawn interrupted him.

Andrew shook his head and softly bit Neil's jaw. “Too tired.”

Neil's own exhaustion was weighing down on him. It was nearing four in the morning and they'd both be up again in a few hours because of Kevin's alarm. They lingered for a few more minutes, pressing earnest kisses against throats and drinking in each other's sighs, before they shut the water off. They rubbed themselves dry, dressed, and then climbed into bed as quietly as they could so as not to wake Kevin.

Chapter Text

The Foxes lost to Penn State in the semifinals and a week later they lost to USC. Both losses were disappointing, but the Foxes had played too well and the scores were too close for them to feel like failures. Even in defeat, no one could deny the impossible progress the Foxes had made over the course of just two years.

After the final buzzer, the Foxes and the Trojans gathered together in the center of the Foxhole Court- a weary group of red and gold and orange and white to celebrate and congratulate and laugh through their exhaustion. Renee had been in the goal for the last quarter instead of Andrew. Neil couldn't see him through the plexi-glass walls as he was jostled and patted by Jeremy and Dan and Matt and Laila. Beaming, Jeremy threw his arm around Jean's neck and subtly moved him out of the crush of their teammates. To Neil's complete surprise, the ex-Raven didn't flinch away from his new captain's touch and he actually smiled a little at whatever Jeremy was laughing about. Renee found her way through the others and soon Jean and Renee were engaged in a private conversation, smiling gently at one another, in the middle of the crowd. Jeremy clapped Neil on the shoulder before before stepping away to talk to Kevin and Dan immediately caught Neil in a fierce hug.

“You'll get 'em next year, kid,” she said, grinning at him behind the grate of her helmet, and suddenly Neil remembered that this was the girls' last game. His smile vanished as a hard pang of sorrow struck his chest harder than any punch could have.

He couldn't think of anything to say, but he didn't have to because Matt gathered Dan up in his arms, lifting her off her feet.

“You played great, baby!” Matt shouted over the noise around them.

Dan laughed and swatted at his back. “Put me down, Boyd!”

“Yes, captain!”

Neil was still trying to swallow the lump in his throat when Matt and Dan turned back to him.

“Neil?” Matt asked, stepping a bit closer.

“That was Dan's last game,” Neil blurted out. It was her last game and it was already over.

Dan laughed and thumped her gloved fist gently on top of Neil's helmet. “Figured that out, did you?”

“It was a fun game, though, right?” Matt nudged Dan with his elbow, still grinning as if they'd won.

It had been fun. Both teams came to the court with a mutual respect for each other and a shared passion for the game. There were no dirty tactics or on-court brawling or barbed insults. Both teams played their hearts out and there was only a few points between them at the end. Neil couldn't say he felt too badly about the loss- the Trojans were an amazing team and he would be rooting for them in the final game next week- but he still wished they could've made it to the end again for the girls' sake. They deserved another win after everything they'd been through.

Gradually, the teams broke apart to head to their separate locker rooms. Neil and Brian went to speak to the press, though most of the questions were directed at Neil. Andrew stayed near the doorway, arms folded and eyes hooded, while the reporters peppered the two strikers with questions. Neil tried to affect confidence as he told them that, yes, he was ready to captain the Foxes in the upcoming year and, no, they wouldn't take tonight's loss too hard. He spoke of the Trojans' merits as a team and wished them luck in the finals. He kept his answers civil when the controversy concerning the Ravens was inevitability raised.

“It's not my place to say, but I don't think it'd be fair to shut them down when there's still a chance for recovery and improvement,” he said. He thought of Jean's smile. He thought of Kevin holding a photograph over a flame. If they could survive, perhaps there was hope for the rest of the Ravens as well.

The male reporter looked surprised. “You really think the Ravens deserve a second chance after everything that's happened?”

“I think they deserve a whole team of psychiatrists,” Neil said, meeting Andrew's eyes for a moment. “But I wouldn't be a Fox if I didn't believe in second chances.”

After a few more questions, the interview ended and the strikers followed Andrew into the men's locker room to change out and shower.

Back at the Tower, the Foxes were gathering bottles of booze and whatever snack food was on hand for an impromptu consolation party in one of the basement rooms. Neil and Kevin immediately joined in to help carry boxes of food and bottles down while Andrew went off to their suite. In spite of their loss, the girls were smiling, Matt and Nicky were laughing, and Lizzy and Brian were at the end of the hall trying to rebound a rubber ball off the walls into a large bowl Colby held up to his chest as if it were a normal weeknight. Brook was with Riley, a petite cheerleader with a fluffy ponytail of golden curls and blushing cheeks dusted with glitter. Neil hadn't recognized the name, but he remembered seeing her at games. The two were tangled together against a wall, giggling into each other's mouths. Katelyn was glued to Aaron's side, grinning and glittery like the other cheerleader.

Andrew didn't appear in the basement as the Foxes and the Vixens gathered together to drink and eat and celebrate the end of another exciting season. The room was clouded thickly with perfume, but Neil took shallow breaths and put up with it to sit with Renee and Dan for almost an hour. After Dan's third beer, she suggested the team take a trip and Renee agreed enthusiastically, which caught Allison's attention from across the room.

Instead of approaching them, Allison shouted over the rest of the conversations, “Hey! What are you guys talking about?”

“Summer vacation!” Dan yelled back, cupping one hand around her mouth. “Neil wants to go to the beach!”

Neil blinked away visions of a car on fire and reminded himself, They're not coming back next year. Get as much time as you can.

Allison's exaggerated gasp of delight sealed the decision. “Let's go to the fucking beach, man!” she cheered.

Kevin looked up from his phone long enough to say, “Not for very long, though. Some of us need to be back to start practicing for next year.”

Allison picked up a mostly empty bag of corn chips and threw it at Kevin's head. “Don't be a bitch, Kevin. No one's going to make you come this time.”

Renee smiled angelically and patted Neil's arm, leaning in to speak at a reasonable volume. “How does that sound? You can say no if you don't feel like going to the beach.”

Allison and Dan were still shouting at each other and Matt and Nicky's excitement fueled theirs. The plans snowballed before anyone could hope to stop them. In a matter of minutes, Allison was shouting at everyone to quiet down while she called her travel agent.

Neil sighed and smiled a little at his drunken teammates. “The beach sounds fine.”

As long as they were all together, Neil was sure he could deal with whatever ghosts would be waiting for him on the shore. As long as Andrew was there to reel him back in, he didn't mind venturing into potentially unpleasant territory. Renee wrapped her arm around his shoulders and squeezed him briefly as if she could see the anxiety he tried to keep hidden.

“Can girlfriends come?” Katelyn asked, leaning her head against Aaron's.

“My boyfriend's gonna be there, so I don't see why not,” Dan answered, winking at Matt. “We'll bring the freshmen along, too! Hey, freshmen, wanna go to the beach?”

Brook and Riley let out unintelligible cheers, which meant yes. Lizzy stood in the corner with Brian and Colby. The three of them traded looks over the rims of their plastic red cups and then shrugged.

“Wait, wait, what about Jack and Sheena?” Matt asked.

Neither of them were present, Neil noticed. Jack hadn't been to any practices or games since he got out of the hospital. He watched old tapes with Wymack in the lounge while the rest of the team was on the court and he was meeting with Betsy at least twice a week. Sheena was trying her best to stay off the team's radar as well and Neil guessed it was because she was trying to avoid incurring Andrew's wrath accidentally.

Dan said, “We'll invite them.”

“And feed them to sharks,” added Allison.

“Moment of silence for the sharks,” Lizzy said just loud enough to be heard and Allison lifted her bottle of tequila toward her in agreement.

As much as Neil wanted to stay with his teammates, he could no longer ignore the thought of Andrew sitting in their dorm alone. He said his good-byes to the drunken room, snagged a half-empty bottle of vodka, and headed upstairs.

The main room of the suite was dark except for the light slanting out of the kitchen. Andrew was sitting on the desk by the open window with a cigarette hanging from his mouth leaking smoke into the cool night air. Neil shut and locked the door behind him, kicked off his shoes, and went to Andrew's side to offer him the vodka. The booze was meant as an apology for leaving him alone for so long, but he knew Andrew didn't really care one way or another. He took the bottle and set in on the desk beside him.

Neil sat in the desk chair and studied the seam of Andrew's jeans down the outside of his thigh. He broke the silence by quietly saying, “The team wants to go to the beach after the girls' graduation.”

Andrew plucked the cigarette from his lips and blew out a long stream of smoke. “That seems ill-advised.”

“I want to go.”

“And they say I'm self-destructive,” muttered Andrew. He finally turned to fix Neil with a scrutinizing stare. “You told me a little about your mother's DIY cremation. You think your mind will stay in one piece as soon as they get a bonfire going?”

Neil swallowed hard and looked away. “I don't know.”

“And you still want to go?”

“Yes.”

Andrew studied him for a long while before he said, “You can duct tape yourself back together if you fall apart. I'm sure as fuck not going to do it.”

“Will you come? Do I need to bribe you?”

“Do you want to bribe me?”

Neil's eyes fell to the zipper of Andrew's jeans for a moment. “Definitely.”

Andrew put out his cigarette against the window sill and swiped the ash off into the carpet. “What are you willing to give me?”

“Whatever you want.”

Andrew shifted on the desk to face him a little better. “The last two years of my life back.”

“I was going to offer you a blow job or something, but if that's what you want-”

“How much have you had to drink?”

Neil replied, “Just a shot of whiskey.”

“Bedroom,” Andrew said as he pushed off the desk.

Neil stood and followed him into the other room, shutting the door behind them. Andrew didn't bother turning on the light. Instead he went to the window and opened the blinds to let light from the outside in. It was just enough to make out the shapes of the furniture and each other by.

Neil stood in front of the ladder to Andrew's bed and asked, “How do you want me?” They hadn't even touched and his heart was racing. Not having to play a full game that night left him with enough energy to be painfully aroused.

Andrew replied lowly, “On your knees.”

Neil licked his lips and dropped to his knees, ignoring the burn in his thighs. He stared at Andrew's shadowy figure, waiting patiently for him to make the next move. Andrew went over to the hooks on the back of the door and dug through his jacket pocket. Neil's ears caught the sound of keys jingling and he frowned as Andrew brought his key ring over to Neil.

“What's that for?”

Andrew offered the keys to Neil. “Hold these. If you want to stop at any point, drop them.”

“Okay.” Neil plucked the keys from Andrew's palm with his right hand and held them tight enough their teeth dug into his skin. Satisfied, Andrew undid his jeans and shoved them down to his knees before pulling his hardening dick out of his briefs. Neil's throat swallowed convulsively, vividly remembering the weight of Andrew's cock on his tongue.

Andrew stroked himself until he was fully hard and then he carded his fingers through Neil's hair, looking down into his eyes. “I want to fuck your mouth,” he said in low, husky Russian.

“Yes,” Neil said before Andrew could ask.

“Give me your hands.”

Tightening his hold on the keys, Neil lifted his hands over his head. He expected Andrew's grip to be rough and hot, but instead Andrew's fingers slowly wrapped around his wrists and held them against the rung of the ladder with a careful firmness. Neil knew he could break free with minimal effort if he wanted to. Andrew put his feet on either side of Neil's bent legs and moved closer. Neil's eyes were drawn to the sliver of moonlight glinting in the drop of pre-cum on the tip of his cock. His shoulders ached in a way that felt pleasurable, like a much-needed stretch after a long day, and he could feel the blood pulling downward from his hands.

“Open your mouth.”

Neil wet his lips again before he parted them. After a moment, Andrew's hips pushed forward and Neil adjusted the angle of his head to guide Andrew's cock inside his mouth. He groaned softly around the intrusion and slid his tongue against the underside of the head, searching for the ridge of the swollen vein that began near there. Andrew slid just a couple inches inside Neil's mouth and paused, breathing shakily above him, while they both adjusted. Neil inhaled through his nose and tried to curl his tongue around Andrew, wetting his soft skin with his saliva. With another sharp exhale, Andrew let go of Neil's left wrist and dug his fingers tightly into Neil's unruly auburn hair as he began to slowly move in and out of Neil's mouth.

Since he hadn't gotten permission to touch and he wasn't about to stop this to ask, Neil dropped his hand to the crotch of his sweatpants where his own cock was aching for relief. While Andrew fucked his mouth with shallow, controlled thrusts, Neil palmed himself through the thick fabric of his pants and held tight to the keys in his other hand. Neil's eyes fell shut and he moaned as Andrew's pace stuttered. He focused on keeping his own breathing even, stifling the urge to gag when Andrew accidentally pushed in a bit too far, and rubbing himself just enough to keep himself distracted from the ache in his jaw and the wooden ladder digging into his back. Andrew was panting and his control was slipping- Neil could tell by the way he squeezed Neil's wrist and tugged on his hair. Neil clenched his hand around the keys so hard he was sure he broke skin.

Andrew was close and Neil felt it in the way he grew heavier, swelling just slightly, against his tongue. He sucked harder, hollowing his cheeks, and forgot all about keeping his breathing even. He dragged his tongue roughly against Andrew's slit whenever he pulled back and gave soft, little moans when he thrust forward. With a sharp grunt, Andrew let go of Neil's wrist, pulled out of Neil's mouth with a soft pop, and stroked himself hard once, twice, before he came. Neil shut his eyes and gasped for breath while Andrew's cum striped his cheeks and lips, dripping from the tip of his nose and sliding warmly down his neck. Some drops landed on Neil's tongue, a couple caught in his eyelashes. Neil held perfectly still until Andrew's fingers released their merciless grip on his hair. His scalp burned. His arm ached as he lowered it to his side. With shaking hands, he wiped the drops of cum away from his eyes with the inside of his collar before looking up at Andrew with a self-satisfied smile.

While they caught their breath, they studied each other in the dim light shining weakly through their bedroom window. Neil could feel the cum slowly drying in tacky lines on his skin, his heartbeat pounding in his chest, his arousal singing in his veins. Andrew tucked himself back into his underwear and pulled his jeans back on. Neil's eyes followed his fingers as they pulled the zipper up and deftly slid the button back into its slot. Then, Neil met Andrew's gaze again and slowly reached up to hand him back his keys, unfolding his cramped fist to release the warm metal. Andrew took the keys in one hand and turned Neil's hand palm up with the other to inspect the angry pink indentations left behind.

Then Andrew ran his indifferent eyes over his sodden face and said, “Go wash up.”

He held onto the ladder to pull himself up. His blood-deprived feet tingled sharply and his legs burned. Straightening, he winced as his knees popped. Andrew stayed behind while Neil shook the feeling back into feet and hobbled to the bathroom. Squinting against the harsh fluorescent lights, Neil cupped his hands under the faucet and rubbed soapy water over his face and neck until he was clean. For good measure, he brushed his teeth and rinsed with mouthwash until the bitter taste of Andrew's cum was a faint memory at the back of his tongue. Sniffing at the collar of his t-shirt, he stripped it off and carried it back to the bedroom.

Andrew was standing in the middle of the room with his phone to his ear when Neil returned. He'd turned the lights on and changed into the sweats he usually slept it. He watched Neil toss his shirt into the hamper and stared at Neil's bare chest as he said into the receiver, “Half an hour, yes. Fine. Sleep in the stairwell if you want, Kevin. I don't give a shit.”

Neil was surprised he'd stayed in the room instead of going off to smoke alone like he usually did. He quickly dug out a clean shirt and tugged it on as Andrew snapped his phone shut.

“Kevin?” Neil asked before he yawned into his hand.

There was hunger in Andrew's eyes as he stared at him. “I told him to stay away from the dorm a bit longer.”

“What for?”

“Don't be stupid. Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Andrew stepped on the edge of Neil's mattress to reach up into his own bed and retrieve his pillow. He took Neil's pillow as well and told him, “Lay down.”

Confused, Neil moved around him to climb into his bed and lay on his back. Andrew untied the knot in the drawstring of Neil's sweatpants and tugged them off before removing his underwear as well. Neil's erection twitched under Andrew's scrutiny.

“Lift your hips.”

Neil obeyed and Andrew stuffed the two pillows under his lower back. Andrew crawled onto the mattress and pushed Neil's knees up toward his chest. With the pillows propping him up, his body folded easily. His bent legs fell open and the breath was squeezed from his lungs. His pulse thudded in his temples.

Andrew's warm, rough palms slid up the insides of Neil's thighs and he shivered. He was relieved to notice that Andrew's hands weren't trembling. His unfocused eyes stared up at the bottom of Andrew's bunk as Andrew's teeth slowly sank into the soft, thin skin beside the hard ridge of his hipbone.

Neil's arms were bent and boneless above his head, resting on the cool sheet where his pillow should have been. Slumber called to his relaxed body, but the arousal pooling thickly in his belly kept him alert enough to focus on the feeling of Andrew's fingers dragging over his sensitive skin, venturing closer and closer to where he wanted them most. Andrew ducked his head to lick a line from the base of Neil's cock to his tip, sending a hot jolt through Neil's groin.

His breathing quickened as Andrew began stroking him at last. Fatigue filled his eyes with water and melted the tension in his legs. Without realizing it, his eyes drifted shut as Andrew worked his cock faster and rougher. Heat licked through his body, burning away his senses and the memories of the day. The familiar snap of a plastic bottle popping open brought his attention back to the present. He lifted his head enough to see Andrew squeezing lube onto his fingers.

“Yes or no, Neil?”

Neil's head fell back as he answered, “Yes.”

There was no embarrassment in the dreamy margin between exhaustion and pleasure. He didn't care how exposed he was or that his body was on display and harshly illuminated by the bedroom light. His eyes were unfocused and staring up at the bottom of Andrew's bunk as Andrew prodded at his asshole with the tip of his finger. Neil's body remembered this and eagerly anticipated the pleasure Andrew would give him.

“Andrew,” Neil sighed. “Andrew, fuck, yes.”

The words spilled easily from his mouth as Andrew slid a second finger in, crooking it to stretch him open. Neil moaned at how tight he felt around Andrew's fingers. His body clenched greedily, wanting more. Andrew bowed his head and swallowed Neil whole while he coaxed a third finger inside him. Neil's eyes squeezed shut as Andrew curled his fingers and brushed against the spot that unraveled Neil's mind. A tear leaked from the corner of his eye and his vocabulary narrowed down to one word. “Andrew.”

He could barely hear his own voice over his pulse beating in his ears. The entire world was an inky haze of rapidly building pleasure, an ocean wave swelling as it neared the shore. Andrew thrust his fingers into him faster, harder and sank down on his length before he swallowed, letting his throat clench hotly around him. White light bloomed behind his eyelids. Neil's orgasm crashed over his body, washing away his mind and leaving him full of sea-foam. Shuddering, he released into Andrew's welcoming mouth and gasped out his name.

Broken breaths tripped over his lips as he floated down from his high and Andrew gently continued his ministrations until the last of the aftershocks faded away. Another soft groan curled in his throat as Andrew withdrew his fingers and the empty, stretched feeling left behind made him tremble.

Neil managed to crack his watery eyes open to see Andrew wipe his hands off on a towel. He struggled to sit up, but the way his hips were raised made it infinitely harder. When Andrew noticed, he pulled the pillows out from under him and hauled him upright by his elbow.

“So tired,” he murmured. He wanted to kiss Andrew, wanted to taste himself there on Andrew's tongue, but he couldn't make his body cooperate.

“It's late,” Andrew agreed.

Andrew guided Neil's legs back into his sweatpants and replaced his pillow at the head of his bed before pushing him back down again. The blanket, the mattress, the pillow- everything felt infinitely softer as if Neil hadn't slept in a bed in months.

Andrew left the room to brush his teeth and, stubbornly, Neil fought off sleep's pull until Andrew had returned.

“Andrew,” Neil mumbled when the door opened. There was something important he needed to tell him. Andrew turned off the lights, casting the room in darkness, before he climbed into his loft.

“Andrew,” Neil tried again.

“Hm?” was Andrew's reply.

That word he still couldn't understand got stuck in his throat. Swallowing it down again, he said, “That was- that was really-”

“Go to sleep, Neil.”

Chapter Text

The Foxes gathered together in the lounge of the Foxhole Court to watch the championship game between Penn State and USC. Kevin wore his favorite Trojans t-shirt and haughtily dismissed his teammate's mocking remarks. He sat on one end of the new sofa, leaning forward with his elbows digging into his knees and his eyes glued to the screen while the pre-game interviews began. Andrew sat on the other end with Neil in the middle. Nicky and Aaron sat together on the floor in a semi-circle of beer cans. Allison, Renee, and Matt sat on the other sofa with Dan sitting sideways in Matt's lap. Renee also wore a Trojans t-shirt that was a few sizes too large on her frame and she didn't seem to mind having Dan's feet resting in her lap.

The freshmen were seated on the floor, some sitting on cushions they'd thought to bring with them and some sprawling out on the hard floor. Brian and Colby sat on either side of Lizzy, who was fiddling with her phone. Every so often, one of the boys would murmur something in her ear and she'd laugh. Brook lay on her stomach with her chin in her hands and her ankles crossed lazily in the air. Jack and Sheena sat as far away as they could without making it seem obvious they didn't want to be there. Jack looked more like his old self, but his mouth was sealed shut. Sheena twisted a brunette curl around her finger and drank from a bottle of wine she'd talked one of her classmates into buying for her.

Abby brought sub sandwiches and enough snack food to feed the hungry athletes twice over. Before the first serve, Wymack stood in front of the television, waving off Kevin's cry of protest, and said, “I know you all are disappointed that we didn't make it to the end like last year, but in comparison to years past we still did pretty damn well for ourselves. Don't get started on 'could've' and 'should've.' Save that shit to use as motivation for next year. Now, three of you will be graduating soon and the rest of your sorry asses better be in the crowd when these ladies walk across that stage, you hear? Yes, I mean you, Sheena. Don't give me that face. We're a team. 'Bout time you started acting like it. Dan, Renee, Allison, you guys kicked ass these last five years and I'm damn proud to have been your coach. Yes, Kevin, I see what time it is. Simmer down, I'm done. Don't get too drunk tonight and clean up your fuckin' mess before you leave, you hear?”

“Yes, Coach,” everyone droned in unison.

Wymack sat down next to Abby just in time for them to see the Trojans serve and start the game. Bowls of chips and candy were passed around and everyone ended up with a plastic cup full of booze or soda in their hands. Kevin struggled to contain his excitement. Neil could see how hard his hands were clenched together from where he sat. On his other side, Andrew was at the opposite end of the spectrum. He stared at the screen as if it were blank, completely still with his hands wrapped loosely around his drink.

Allison and Matt bet for USC while Nicky and Aaron bet against, although Neil suspected they only bet that way to provoke Kevin and it worked. Kevin launched into a lecture on the history of the Trojans and their merits as a team, but he stopped talking once Nicky started miming a blow job and giggling.

Neil followed the movement on the screen with interest, trying to figure out each team's strategy. Both teams functioned like a well-oiled machine and Neil couldn't stamp down the yearning that burned in his chest. He wanted that for the Foxes. He wanted them to be known as one of the best. He just didn't know if he could lead them there. In a matter of weeks, he would return to the Foxhole Court as team captain and once again he wondered if he was really suited for that role.

Whatever excitement he'd had for the game was quickly leeching out of his system, though. He couldn't forget that his time with the Foxes had an expiration date and soon his focus turned from the television to his team.

Wymack left after the first quarter to finish up some paperwork. Abby left soon after, mumbling something about leaving the kids to themselves. Sheena and Jack were talking quietly between themselves. Lizzy was looking between her phone and the television while the boys on either side of her chewed lazily on candy, making idle observations here and there.

Dan was toying with Matt's hair, which was free of gel for once, and murmuring something in his ear. Matt was looking up at her with open adoration and his teeth pulling at the corner of his shy smile. Renee was clutching her phone in her hands, but she was focused intently on the game in silent support of a certain backliner. Allison nudged her side and smiled slyly whenever Jean pulled off a clever move and successfully defended the away goal.

The thought of saying good-bye to them made Neil want to vomit. They made it sound like such a casual, everyday thing- “We'll keep in touch! We'll visit when we get the chance.”- but he'd never known a good-bye that wasn't tainted by death. After graduation, they would empty their suite and go off in different directions to live separate lives. He wondered if he'd ever stop being afraid for them, afraid that one of his stray demons would find them once they left the safety of the Tower.

He wasn't ready to let go. He didn't think he'd ever be ready.

Andrew shifted so that their thighs were pressed together and the bruise Neil had gotten during the previous night's boxing lesson throbbed dully. He leaned into the pain and used it to anchor his mind to the present. Every night that week they'd let Kevin go to the court alone while they stole across campus to the fitness center with Coach's keys. For an hour each night, Andrew taught Neil how to hold himself- “Keep your hands up. Elbows in. Head down.”- and how to attack- “Put your whole body into it. Don't throw a hard punch unless you're sure it'll land. Don't just go for the head, either.” Even though Andrew took it easy on Neil, he still walked away from each lesson with a couple new bruises. There were a few shapeless patches of yellow-green stamped onto his ribs and a purple splotch on his thigh from a fall. His forearms were splashed with brownish-purple as well. Neil didn't mind- the season was over and practices wouldn't start again until June, so it didn't matter if he was sore. However, he couldn't help noticing that Andrew had descended into a silence that grew more tense each day and Neil couldn't piece together any possible reason for it.

Kevin elbowed him in the ribs and hissed, “Pay attention. You just missed an amazing goal.”

Neil looked up at the television. The score was 3-2 in the Trojans' favor, but Neil's focus was still stuck elsewhere. The bruise heightened his awareness of the hard line of Andrew's thigh against his own. He risked a glance over at Andrew, but he was still staring indifferently ahead.

The Lions pulled ahead by a few points by halftime and Kevin was practically vibrating with tension. The cameras panned over the roaring stadium at Pride Court while two commentators reviewed the game thus far. Kevin scoffed when one of them wondered aloud if Jean Moreau was really a good fit for the Trojans after a fight nearly broke out shortly after he came onto the court. It had been a favored topic of discussion almost all year. The Trojans were known for their excellent sportsmanship and the ex-Raven seemed to have trouble adjusting to the attitudes of his new teammates. Tonight hadn't been the first time Jeremy had to pull Jean back.

“You know what they say about old habits,” joked the first commentator.

“Indeed, John. I'm interested to see if those habits damage the Trojans' chances of winning the Day Spirit Award this year.”

“Motherfuckers,” Kevin spat.

Renee was frowning and worrying her lip between her teeth. One of her fingernails tapped impatiently against the screen of her phone. It would be over an hour still before she could call Jean.

“They should let the winners punch the commentators in the face,” Lizzy mumbled around the Twizzler hanging out of her mouth.

Colby nodded while Brian said, “That's better motivation than a trophy.”

Brook sat up and dragged a bag of tortilla chips into her lap. “They're just trying to be entertaining by stirring up drama.” Then she looked around at the quiet upperclassmen and asked, “Do you guys know what happened to Jean last year? I heard he was recovering here for awhile.”

Kevin noticeably tensed. Neil met Renee's eyes briefly and then he looked to Dan for a sign of what to do, who only quirked an eyebrow as if to say, “You're the captain now.”

Clearing his throat, Neil answered, “We were just helping out a fellow player.” It wasn't a real answer, but it seemed to satisfy the younger woman's curiosity.

“I think it's good that he's out in SoCal,” Brook sighed as she turned back to the screen. “That's about as far away from Edgar Allan as you can get.”

“He'll be okay,” Renee said softly. “He's doing much better already.”

When the second half began, the team returned their focus to the television and Neil and Kevin both relaxed, relieved that that conversation was over.

Forty-five minutes later, the final buzzer sounded and the Trojans had won 10-8. Kevin's face was transformed by a rare genuine smile. Nicky and Aaron both pretended to be disappointed, but nothing could put a dent in Kevin's delight. Neil was happy as well for the Trojans, though their victory didn't breathe life into him like it did Kevin. Dan, Matt, and Allison cheered and did shots of tequila while Renee beamed down at her phone and typed out a lengthy text message. Andrew didn't even acknowledge that the game had ended. Lizzy thrust her fists up into the air and then proceeded to let Brian try to dump a bowl of red and yellow M&M's that Colby had sorted into her mouth. Most them spilled to the floor and Lizzy was laughing so hard that Neil was half-worried she'd choke. Brook covered her mouth with her hand and giggled before crawling over them and picking some of the fallen candies from the folds in Lizzy's baggy sweatpants to eat.

“You guys are disgusting,” complained Sheena.

“Yeah, you'd think you'd fit in better,” Lizzy fired back.

Neil accepted a shot of whiskey from Nicky and he could feel Andrew's eyes boring into the side of his skull while he tipped it into his mouth. Nicky retreated back to Aaron's side and didn't offer Neil any more alcohol after that.

Dan kissed Matt soundly on the mouth before climbing to her feet and declaring, “We're taking this party back to the dorms. Kiddies get to clean up! Kevin, you good to lock up after them?”

“Why can't the new captain stay behind?” Kevin asked.

“Because that means Andrew will stay behind and I don't think we want that, do you?” Dan shot a significant look toward Jack, who pretended he didn't notice.

Matt added, “We've got more vodka back in the girls' room and we'd be willing to share.”

Kevin sighed. “Fine.”

Dan patted him on the head as she stumbled past him and laughed as he tried to smack her hand away. Matt, Allison, and Renee followed Dan out. Renee wished everyone a cheerful goodnight.

Nicky and Aaron climbed to their feet, leaning on each other a little because of their inebriation, and headed for the door. Neil and Andrew followed them out. They drove back to the Tower in the Maserati in total silence, rode up to their floor together, and parted ways. Nicky gave Neil a shaky smile, but didn't attempt to say anything. Andrew hadn't been actively warning him off Neil, but it was obvious Nicky wasn't ready to test his luck just yet. Andrew searched slowly for his keys while his brother and his cousin went to their dorm.

Once Nicky and Aaron's door shut behind them, Andrew pivoted and strode down the hall to the stairwell. Neil followed him up to the roof and stood with him at the center, looking up at the sky. The stars were covered by long, jagged clouds like scars and the moon was a slim, white sliver. Andrew handed him a cigarette and put his own between his lips.

Neil asked, “Do you want to go to the gym later?”

He wasn't expecting Andrew to say, “Let me teach you how to use knives.”

Everything in him recoiled at once. “No. No, I don't want-”

“Then buy a gun,” Andrew said harshly.

“I don't need a gun.”

Andrew took a long pull off his cigarette and scratched between his eyebrows, agitated. “You're shit at defending yourself.”

“I know enough to get by,” Neil said, shrugging one shoulder. “I've got time to learn the rest before you graduate.”

Before Neil could blink, Andrew tossed his cigarette aside and knocked Neil flat on his back, head spinning and pain bursting from his skull and shoulders. He pinned Neil's wrists to the gritty concrete with iron in his grip and one of his knees dug into Neil's gut. Both cigarettes rolled uselessly away.

Blinking owlishly, Neil said, “This is less fun without the mat.”

“Defend yourself.”

“What?”

“You said you know enough to get by,” Andrew spat. “Prove it. Defend yourself.”

Even in the dark, Neil could see something lurking just under the surface of Andrew's glare. Something wasn't right and he suspected it was what lowered Andrew's volume all week until he'd gone silent completely. The truth was Neil knew how to get out of it. His mother had taught him to escape, to break free. Andrew's fingers tightened around Neil's wrists, but instead of flipping him over and running, Neil relaxed. His hands uncurled, surrendering, and this only served to enrage Andrew further.

“Fight back.” Andrew's voice was rough, guttural, colored by a dark and dangerous anger that usually slept at the bottom of Andrew's ocean.

Neil kept his voice even and quiet as he asked, “Why are you doing this?”

“You're unarmed and defenseless, Neil. Do you have any idea what I could do to you?”

Neil's hands were turning fuzzy from lack of circulation and anger was frothing hotly in his chest now that he began to understand the source of Andrew's agitation. All week, he'd been leaving bruises painted across Neil's body while Neil had only managed to leave one mark on Andrew's bicep from a lucky hit. The imbalance bothered him, made him doubt his own control now that he saw how easy it was to overpower Neil in a fight.

“I'm not afraid of you,” Neil said and he meant it.

Andrew scoffed. It was the closest thing to a laugh Neil had heard since Andrew came back sober and it was a broken, brittle thing. He leaned closer, sneering and livid, until his breath washed over Neil's lips. “I could fuck you right here, right now. I could destroy you. Why won't you take the goddamn knives?”

Neil shot out his left arm, shredding his skin against the concrete, and shoved his hips up against Andrew's to throw him off balance. A second later, Neil was on top, straddling Andrew's legs and holding him down. After a few heavy heartbeats, Neil let go of Andrew's wrists and pressed his palms flat against the concrete around Andrew's head, keeping his body off of him entirely. Beads of blood oozed from the burning scrape on his forearm.

“You could do a lot things to me,” he agreed. “You have done a lot of things to me, but you stopped when I said no.”

“Neil-”

“You're not a monster. I don't need to be protected from you.”

Andrew was silent for a long time and Neil waited. His arms began to tremble as his blood flashed hot with anger and then cold with anxiety. He hated that Andrew doubted himself. He feared that Andrew would never trust himself enough to fully settle into whatever they had, that he'd always keep himself apart from Neil in order to protect him from his potential. Neil was suddenly furious at everyone who ever looked at Andrew like a wild animal let out of its cage. Andrew wasn't a weapon, he was a shield.

Eventually, Andrew said, “You're not a butcher. You don't need to be afraid of what you'll do with a knife.”

Neil didn't realize how much he needed to hear those words until he felt something come loose in his chest. They were more than the men who hurt them.

His frustration was washed away by something warm and slow-blooming. It tingled across his skin and flooded his stomach. It shook him down to his core and suddenly the air between them changed.

He swallowed hard and asked, “Yes or no?”

Andrew blinked slowly. “Yes.”

Neil dropped down onto his forearms, ignoring the bite of his bruises and scrapes, and crushed their mouths together. He kissed Andrew fiercely, deeply, and Andrew responded in kind. Andrew's hands tugged Neil's hips down against his before slipping his cold fingers under the hem of Neil's t-shirt. He scratched hot lines up his back and swallowed his rough moan of approval. Neil couldn't help grinding his hips down, desperate for friction, and Andrew encouraged him by grabbing his ass and thrusting up against him. They grew hard against each other as they moved together. Their lips broke apart and they gasped for breath. Neil was dizzy with arousal.

“Someone's excited to be on top,” Andrew mumbled against Neil's mouth.

“Shut up,” Neil grunted before dragging kisses across Andrew's jaw and moving down over his neck. Andrew shivered and dug his fingers down the middle of Neil's ass, as if he was trying to find his entrance through his thick sweatpants. The rough friction of the fabric coupled with Andrew's bruising grip made him whimper and shove back against Andrew's hands.

He licked and kissed down the column of Andrew's throat while Andrew's fingers drove him into a heated frenzy. He nudged the collar of Andrew's t-shirt down and mouthed at the ridge of his collarbone.

“Can I leave a mark?” he whispered.

“Yes.” Andrew yanked him down harder, grinding their erections together through their pants. Both needed more, wanted more, but both were too stubborn to move apart just yet to take what they needed. Andrew's fingers slipped underneath the waistband of Neil's briefs to grip his bare ass while Neil sank his teeth into the base of Andrew's neck and sucked a bruise into the skin, laving his tongue over it afterward to soothe the sting. When Andrew teased Neil's asshole with the tip of his finger, it finally got to be too much.

Neil pushed himself up on his hands so that he could roll his hips down with more force. “Andrew,” he gasped. “Andrew, I need-”

Andrew bucked against him and Neil shifted to give him room to move. Quickly, Andrew pushed their pants down enough to take them both in his hand and jerked them off together. Neil bowed his head as he shook and fucked into Andrew's hand, sliding roughly against Andrew's cock.

“Get my shirt,” Andrew ordered breathlessly.

Neil shoved Andrew's shirt up to his neck just moments before his orgasm wracked through him. They came within moments of each other, spilling onto Andrew's shivering stomach in overlapping stripes and spots of thick white. The grit of the concrete dug into Neil's palms and he knew he was still resting most of his weight against Andrew's thighs, but he couldn't force himself to move while he shivered and panted for breath. Andrew didn't seem to mind. His eyes slipped closed and his jaw was slackened in the hazy afterglow of his orgasm. It was the most relaxed Neil had ever seen him.

“Fuck,” Neil muttered.

Andrew heaved a large sigh and cracked his eyes open. “We should keep a towel up here.”

Neil looked down at the mess they'd made across his skin. Andrew couldn't walk down to the dorm like that. Perhaps his mind was still foggy from pleasure, but Neil could only see one solution. He shuffled back a little bit and dipped his head down to lick their mixed cum from Andrew's abs. Andrew jolted and dug both hands into Neil's hair, but his fingers pulled him closer instead of pushing him off.

“Jesus,” Andrew swore. “Fucking animal.”

“Sorry,” Neil breathed as he chased a sliding drop across his ribs. Once he caught it on his tongue, he swallowed and lifted his head to look up into Andrew's eyes. “Was that okay?”

“I would've told you to stop if it wasn't.”

Neil nodded, relieved. Seeing that Andrew was reasonably clean, he moved off of him to lay on the concrete at his side. Quietly, they both righted their clothing and watched the purple-gray clouds slowly break apart overhead.

Chapter Text

The graduation ceremony took place on a sunny Saturday in the assembly hall. The graduating class sat in a section together in the center, buzzing with nervous anticipation and relief, and their friends and families filtered into the rows around them. The stage was festooned with white and orange and there were three rows of important-looking people decked out in their academic regalia. According to the bulletin, the ceremony would last much longer than Neil had expected and he regretted not eating a larger breakfast that morning.

The Foxes, minus three, sat together with Wymack, Abby, and Bee within a reasonably good distance of the stage. Wymack hadn't been serious about forcing the freshmen to come, but all six were in attendance anyway on Allison's orders. Neil suspected she was compensating since her parents weren't going to be there. Wymack tried to look like his usual gruff self, but Neil noticed his eyes looked a little misty. Abby patted the coach's arm and smiled at Neil when she saw he was looking at them. Andrew hadn't complained about coming along, but it was clear his mind was a million miles away. Kevin was on his phone, looking at Exy-related news articles and checking his email. Matt looked proud and happy and slightly nauseated all at once, which was how Neil felt. He hadn't heard Matt say he was dreading Dan's leaving Palmetto for good, but it wasn't difficult to figure out.

Charles Whittier, the president of the university, stepped up to the podium and began the ceremony by welcoming everyone to the campus. There were three keynote speakers and four student speakers, whose long-winded speeches all carried the same hopeful message about looking to one's future and staying true to one's self, and then the choir stood to sing Palmetto State's anthem. Neil's mind was numb with boredom by the time names were read and diplomas were handed out.

It was an eternity before they made it to the R's and Neil's mind snapped back into focus just in time to hear Allison's name. His eyes found her just as she climbed the steps and sauntered proudly across the stage. Even in the shapeless gown and the hat squashing her hair, she looked as glamorous as ever. They'd been instructed to save their applause until the end, so Neil could hear Wymack's quiet but proud “atta girl” from a few seats down.

Neil felt like someone was trying to wring his heart out like a sponge. He was selfishly upset by the thought of them leaving and he wanted nothing more than to keep his family with him wherever he went. But he knew of their lives, their broken childhoods, how they'd struggled to survive to this point, and he was achingly grateful that they were moving forward. They would always bear their scars, but they were headed toward better things.

So Neil swallowed the burning knot in his throat and smiled.

He tried not to think about how it would feel to be back here in two years' time, surrounded by younger Foxes that would always probably feel like strangers and watching the cousins graduate. At least Andrew would save him the pain of seeing him walking across that stage- he'd probably be on the roof smoking instead.

Renee's name was called. Her pastel hair floated around her shoulders and her gown billowed around her legs as she glided across the stage with an angelic smile on her face. Somewhere in the audience was Stephanie Walker and Neil knew she was desperately proud. When Dan's name was read out, Dan grinned out to the crowd, first at her stage sisters, then at her Foxes, and she marched across the stage like she marched out onto the court, fearless and ready for whatever lay ahead.

These three women were tenacious and unshakable. They would be just fine.

Afterward, they headed out to the amphitheater and the clear blue day to take pictures. For the most part, Neil stood off to the side with Andrew, but eventually the girls roped him into a round of photos. Andrew watched indifferently from a spot of shade with a cigarette between his lips until it came time for a group photo with the whole team. He stood at Neil's side, expressionless and arms folded. Neil tried to commit every memory to detail so that he could clearly remember this day when they were all huddled close like this, when they were all together at Palmetto for what might be the last time.

They ordered pizzas and ate a late lunch together in the Foxhole Court lounge with Stephanie and Dan's stage sisters while the freshmen sneaked away from the group to go off by themselves. No one really seemed to mind their absence. Neil left the crusts of his pizza on his plate and Andrew methodically tore them into bite-sized pieces to eat. While the others were listening to one of Dan's sisters tell a story, Renee flitted over to where Andrew was sitting. He shifted over on the metal folding chair and allowed her to perch on the edge. Neil watched out of the corner of his eye while pretending to focus on the story about Dan as Renee murmured something sweetly to Andrew before taking out her phone and snapping a picture of the two of them. Andrew didn't say anything, but he leaned toward her slightly and that was the most enthusiastic response anyone could have hoped for from the man.

Neil hadn't looked directly at them, but Renee seemed to notice his interest. “I'll send you a copy of that one,” she said, smiling at him.

“He doesn't need it,” Andrew told her. “He stares enough.”

“It's nice to have pictures of loved ones,” Renee replied serenely. “It helps when they're away.”

Neil returned her smile even though it felt like a kick in the chest. She waltzed back to the other side of the room, settling back down besides Stephanie, and didn't see Neil's smile fall.

That afternoon, the Foxes packed their things and moved out of the dorms all at once. Matt and Allison loaded their things into their cars along with Dan's belongings and headed up to Maryland. Allison had picked out an apartment near Dan's new job and Matt had paid for the security deposit and the first few months' rent. They would get her settled in before they returned on Monday for the team's vacation. Renee flew home to North Dakota with Stephanie in the evening. Allison secured Renee another plane ticket back to South Carolina early Monday morning and would be picking her up on their way to the coast. The freshmen took their bags over to Abby's house where they would all be staying until Monday. Lizzy, Brian, Colby, and Jack were all planning on staying in town for the summer, but Brook and Sheena were only staying for the beach trip before going home to their families.

Andrew's group was the last to move out. The five of them were heading down to Columbia together and Neil couldn't help but wonder if that was really a good idea. Aaron hadn't given him any grief about his relationship with Andrew lately, but Neil would be spending every night in Andrew's bed and Aaron was bound to have something to say about that eventually. He hoped that at the cottage Allison had secured for them Aaron would be too preoccupied with Katelyn to pay attention to him.

Neil filled his duffel quickly, efficiently folding his clothing and tucking his other possessions around the sides, and he was more than a little disturbed to discover that there was no longer enough room to fit everything. He stared at a pile of shirts on his bare mattress with his hands hanging uselessly at his sides. He couldn't remember ever needing a second bag before. It was such a small thing, but it felt monumental to him then. “Stuff weighs you down. We keep only what's absolutely necessary.”

Neil swallowed thickly as shame crept up his neck. Sorry, Mom.

Andrew appeared at his side, silent as ever, and calmly scooped the stack of shirts into his own bag. “Too many issues,” he muttered, walking away again.

Neil blinked and zipped up his duffel.

In the hallway he found Nicky staring down at a pile of bags, scratching the back of his head and twisting his lips in a wry smile. When he noticed Neil, he laughed and said, “Typical Fox, right? Too much baggage.”

Aaron stepped out of their dorm at the moment and flicked a cool look at Neil. Neil waited for Aaron to disappear into the stairwell before offering Nicky a hand with some of his bags. Together they rode the elevator down to the lobby and headed out to the Lexus and the Maserati. Nicky and Aaron decided to ride down to Columbia with Kevin, for which Neil was grateful. He didn't feel like conversation just yet and the only one that promised silence was Andrew. Soon enough they were merging onto the interstate while the last slashes of orange light died away on the horizon.

First, they went to the house so that they could drop off their bags and ride together in Andrew's car. They took their time at Sweetie's and Neil was so thoroughly soaked in gloom that he managed to eat an entire bowl of espresso-flavored ice cream while Nicky spoke to no one in particular about how excited he was that Erik would be in town for two whole weeks. He managed to get a response out of Kevin when he asked about Thea- no one was surprised to hear the ex-Raven wasn't joining the Foxes on their vacation.

Since it was a Saturday night, Eden's Twilight wasn't as packed as it usually was. Neil and Andrew waited for Roland at the bar while the others secured a table and enough chairs for the group. Roland's eyebrows shot up when Neil asked for a few shots of his own. Andrew didn't say anything.

When they arrived back at the table and began drinking, Nicky watched with round eyes as Neil quickly knocked back two shots of whiskey with barely a breath between them. Aaron looked a bit curious as well. Kevin was too focused on saturating his insides with alcohol as quickly as humanly possible to notice that Neil was drinking with them for a change.

Neil's lips tingled as the whiskey and rum began to burn through his system. He knocked back a fourth shot and then blinked down at the empty shot glass, chewing on his fuzzy lower lip. He couldn't think of the last time he'd been properly drunk. He began to weigh the pros and cons of getting drunk that night, but Nicky interrupted his thoughts by sliding over one of his own drinks with an encouraging smile.

Andrew put his hand flat over the glass and leveled Nicky with an icy look. “He's had enough.”

Nicky held his hands up in meek surrender. Neil looked up at Andrew's shadowy profile and forgot all the pros of drinking more. His tipsy mind remembered where he would sleeping later and who he would be sleeping beside. He took Andrew's interference as an indirect order to stay in control of himself.

Andrew noticed him staring and told him in Russian, “There's more at the house.”

Neil frowned because that didn't fit with what he assumed Andrew had wanted. “You said I had enough,” he replied, speaking Russian as well.

“I don't trust him with you.”

“I trust him,” Neil said, turning in his seat to face Andrew fully, “but I won't drink with him if it bothers you.”

“Nothing bothers me.”

“Am I still nothing?” Neil grinned smugly when Andrew scowled at him. “I can get you really nice and bothered later if you're in the mood.”

Andrew shook his head and took another gulp of whiskey. “You can sleep on the floor.”

Neil snorted and rubbed at his eyes. The alcohol had gone to his head.

Aaron rolled his eyes and tipped another shot of vodka into his mouth. “You guys better not be using Russian to be gross.”

Kevin swayed in his seat and looked at Neil, scandalized. “You wouldn't- oh, God, what have you guys been talking about?”

“None of your business,” Neil retorted, slurring his words a little. “And, Aaron, you've got no fucking room to talk. The rest of us have to put up with you eye-fucking Katelyn during games and shoving your tongue down the poor girl's throat after 'em. One of these days you two are gonna conceive at halftime.”

Nicky laughed so hard he snorted and nearly fell out of his chair.

“You got a problem, motherfucker?” Aaron snapped.

“I wouldn't have a problem if you would just pull your head out of your ass already.”

“I just wanted to drink and have a good time. I don't want to be around all that gay shit.”

Neil wagged his hand between Andrew and Nicky. “Your cousin and your brother are gay, man. Get the fuck over it.”

“Look at Mr. I-Don't-Swing waving the fuckin' rainbow flag,” Aaron sneered. “Just 'cause you settled for the first person willing to kiss that train wreck you call a face...”

The alcohol in Neil's veins caught fire. “Andrew wasn't the first person to kiss me, for your information, and it's not any of your business, so shut the fuck up.”

“It is my business when you're talking nasty right in front of me.”

“You don't know what we were saying. You don't speak Russian.” Neil wished he was sober. His tongue felt clumsy and his thoughts were unsteady. He had a feeling this argument would have gone better for him if he hadn't done any shots.

Nicky waved his arms to get their attention. “Wait, wait, Andrew wasn't the first- oh, God, you don't mean me, do you? I wasn't- that wasn't-”

“You and Neil made out?” Aaron shouted. “Jesus, fuck, your ass sure gets around, doesn't it, Josten?”

Neil was more focused on trying to calm Nicky down. There were tears glimmering along the other man's lower lashes in the flickering lights of the club and his hands were clamped over his mouth.

“Nicky, I wasn't talking about- God, I kissed girls before. I mean, not a lot- I didn't have time and- and my mom nearly killed me when she found out, but I kissed a few girls when I was younger. Stop- come on, don't cry, man.”

Kevin was squinting at Neil intently and pointing between him and Andrew. “I don't get you two. How the fuck does that work?”

“You liked girls?” Nicky asked.

Someone shouted, “Last call!”

Neil groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. The whole night felt like a huge mess. “Can we just go?”

No one said anything on the journey back to the house and no one said anything when they walked through the door and went off in their separate directions. Kevin took a bottle of vodka to the couch with him. Nicky and Aaron took turns in the bathroom before heading off to their rooms. Andrew and Neil stood in the kitchen, silently waiting until they heard doors slam shut. Then, Andrew pulled a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard and pulled Neil to their bedroom.

“Sit,” he ordered as he shut and locked the door behind them.

Neil sat on the edge of the bed and a moment later Andrew joined him, handing him the bottle.

“Drink.”

Neil removed the cap and set it on the bedside table before taking a swig and wincing. The buzzing in his blood had died down during the spat at the club, but it stirred back to life as the alcohol warmed his belly.

“Drink,” Andrew repeated when Neil stopped after one mouthful.

“I don't want to get drunk. I don't want to risk losing control of myself and-”

“If you tried anything, which you wouldn't, it'd be like fighting a baby moth. It's fine. Drink as much as you want.”

Neil shook his head. “I don't need it. I hate being hungover anyway.”

Andrew nodded and took the bottle from his hands. He put the cap back on and set it on the floor before settling down beside Neil again, folding his hands between his legs. “I'm taking a turn,” he announced quietly.

“Okay.”

“You said your mom nearly killed you for kissing girls. Is that why you don't swing?”

Neil struggled for a moment before answering, “I don't know, honestly. I can't remember if I wanted to kiss those girls because I was attracted to them or if it was just kissing for the sake of kissing.”

“How did your mom find out?”

“It was like it was written on my forehead. I could never hide anything from her.” Neil scoffed and struggled to keep the memory from surfacing and hurting him. “I'd be sore for like a week afterward. She ripped some of my hair out one time- I had this little bald spot for awhile.” Neil tapped the side of his head to indicate where and for a second he could feel the scalding pain of it all over again. He felt it was necessary to add, “She was just trying to keep me alive, though. I don't think- I mean, I don't think it really-”

“She beat you,” Andrew said firmly. “I don't care why.”

Neil didn't know what to say, so he shrugged.

“You haven't told Bee,” he assumed.

“I don't talk to Bee.”

“Right.”

Neil chewed his lip and met Andrew's eyes. The idea that Andrew might compare his mother to Tilda rankled him, but he knew there was no use in trying to defend her further. His mother had loved him in her way, whether Andrew believed that or not. He didn't feel the need to talk to Bee about it or feel sorry for himself. It was over. It was behind him. As long as he didn't think about it too much it wouldn't hurt him.

“Can I have a kiss?” Neil asked.

“You don't want to try it with a girl to see if you swing after all?”

Neil rolled his eyes. “You're not getting rid of me.”

“I could still murder you, you know.”

Neil laughed and lay back on the bed, arms open in an invitation. “You like kissing me too much to kill me.”

“You say a lot of stupid shit,” Andrew said flatly. “I wouldn't miss that.”

“I like kissing you, too, by the way, and it's not just because kissing feels nice. You're the only one I want to put my mouth on.”

Andrew grimaced and shook his head. “Shut up.”

“Shut me up,” Neil dared.

Andrew rolled on top of him and kissed him until his mind went pleasantly numb. Neil twisted his fingers into the blanket, holding himself back because of the alcohol muddling his thoughts, and Andrew dug his fingers into Neil's hair. He prodded at the spot Neil had pointed to during his story and rubbed at his scalp as if he might find a scar. They kissed until they were both sober and drowsy. Then they crawled under the covers together and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

On Monday, Andrew dropped Nicky off at the rental car place near the airport in Columbia before returning to the house to load up the car and drive toward the coast. Kevin had the directions on his phone, so Andrew followed the Lexus southeast and grumbled under his breath about Kevin's careful driving.

The Isle of Palms was a piece of South Carolina's crumbling coast that had earned the title of island because of a river slicing across the would-be peninsula. They followed the 517 across the water to Palm Boulevard and both cars stopped at a liquor store on the corner to stock up on more booze.

When they pulled into the smooth, flat drive of their vacation house, Neil suddenly understood why Allison had asked for so much money. Calling it a “house” was a severe and almost cruel understatement. A wide staircase led up to the second story and on either side were parking spaces tucked safely beneath the wide deck. The mansion looked like it was propped up on stilts and it rose four stories into the air, regal and elegant.

Allison's convertible was parked beneath the house. Kevin pulled into the other covered parking space, so Andrew parked beside Matt's truck in the open air.

Andrew killed the ignition and asked, “How much money did Allison ask you to chip in?”

“Fifteen grand,” Neil answered.

Andrew scoffed. “Your sentimentality sure did loosen your wallet.”

Allison had seen them pull up and was standing at the top of the stairs with her arms folded. “Took you long enough! Kevin, Aaron, get your asses in here and pick your rooms. Neil, Andrew, you two are on the top floor.”

To either side of the glass double-doors was a deep deck furnished with wicker chairs and tables. The interior of the house was all butter yellows and creamy whites, soft and inviting and comfortable. The main floor was tiled in rustic-looking golden stone with understated floral mosaics every five squares. Straight ahead, a narrow hallway led to a large, sunny living room with a low tables and overstuffed chairs in front of a wall of windows. Sliding glass doors in the center led out onto the back deck. To the left of the entryway was a cream-colored lounge with a massive flat screen television mounted on the wall above another fireplace and through an archway looked to be the main dining room. To the right was a glossy staircase that swept upward to the higher levels.

Dan leaned over the railing on the second floor landing and shouted, “Neil, this place is kickass!”

The second and third levels each had five bedrooms off of wide hallways. Matt and Dan had snagged a room with a king bed on the second floor, while Allison and Renee had their own rooms with queen beds on the third. Lizzy and Sheena, who had caught a ride with Allison, were sharing a room with two twins on the third floor between the older girls' rooms.

The mansion narrowed at the top so the fourth floor only boasted two massive bedrooms that shared a deck between them at the back, offering a view of the ocean. Neil and Andrew's room was the larger of the two with a king bed and an alcove furnished with a sofa, a television set, and a mini-fridge. The room itself was almost as large as their suite at the Tower. The bed was covered in a plush white duvet with large white pillows behind an arrangement of smaller, sea-foam green accent pillows. Andrew promptly knocked them to the floor, declaring them ridiculous, before he went to the sitting area to put the bottles of whiskey he'd purchased for Neil and himself into the mini-fridge.

Their bathroom was done in dark blue-green tiles with a large shower room of crystal-clear glass at the far end. A deep, claw-foot tub sat outside of the shower beneath a window with gauzy white curtains over a shade and two potted ferns on wiry stands at either end.

“Fifteen grand,” Andrew muttered to himself as he pulled the balcony doors open and stepped out into the harsh sunlight that shone brightly off his hair.

Neil followed him and leaned against the doorway. He could smell salty seawater on the breeze and a lone gull cried out somewhere. Past the wooden railing, he could see the ocean rolling darkly out to the horizon, vast and blue and unknowable. Neil watched the wind ruffle Andrew's fair hair and tried unsuccessfully to keep his mind away from the night of his mother's death. Andrew looked over his shoulder, squinting against the light glaring off the white paint, and noticed his queasy expression.

“Did you bring your duct tape?” he joked dryly.

Neil retreated away from the door and left the room to find the others downstairs.

Lizzy and Sheena were sitting together on the back deck, which stretched across the length of the house and was lined with lounge chairs and small tables. Neil found Matt and Dan with Allison in the kitchen, a modern wonder of stainless steel and white marble. The kitchen was tucked under the stairs, just off the main hallway leading in from the entryway, with a long breakfast bar and an island. Dan was sitting on one of the shiny counters with her bare heels knocking against the cupboard doors, eating strawberries out of a bowl while Allison and Matt took bets on whether or not Aaron would get Katelyn pregnant before graduation.

“There's the captain!” Dan called, grinning and throwing her arms out as if she expected Neil to jump up and give her a hug.

Matt shot him a toothy grin as well. “Hey, man! Long time no see.”

Neil gave a gruff laugh. “Yeah, a lifetime.”

Allison leaned her hip against the edge of the counter and folded her arms over her chest. “What do you think of your room?”

“It's really nice.” Neil opened the refrigerator and found a small army of water bottles, plastic cartons of fresh fruit, and several bottles of beer and liquor lining the shelves on the door.

“I made Lizzy and Sheena bunk together so the room next to yours will be empty. You paid half, so you and your pet monster get privacy.”

Neil bristled at her nickname for Andrew, but decided against starting a fight on the first day of their vacation. “Where are the others?” he asked as he pulled out a water bottle and cracked the seal.

Allison answered, “Aaron is sitting on the front steps waiting for the love of his life to appear. I hope she remembered to scoop up Brook and Riley. By the way, how are the boys getting down here?”

Neil shrugged. “I think Colby has a car.”

Dan hummed in agreement. “He's got some shitty little sedan, I think. Kevin's checking out the pool with Renee. Have you seen it?”

“There's a pool?”

Allison scoffed. “Of course there's a pool.”

“Why do we need a pool? There's a whole ocean out there.”

Allison blinked in a way that made him feel like he was missing something obvious and she was pitying him for it.

“The pool's heated, clean, and private,” Matt explained. “There's a hot tub, too.”

Dan popped another piece of strawberry into her mouth and smiled widely. “This is going to be the best vacation ever.”

The front door swung open and Katelyn's cheery “Hello, hello!” rang out from the entryway.

“Katelyn!” Dan sang. “How are you, babe?”

“I'm good, darling! How are you?” Katelyn called back.

“I'm fantastic!”

Brook appeared at the entrance of the kitchen, eyes wide. “This place is amazing.”

Neil could hear Aaron and Katelyn talking to one another as they headed upstairs to their room. Riley came crashing into Brook and threw her arms around her waist, looking over her shoulder at the spacious rooms.

Allison made a shooing motion her hand. “Go find your room, you two. The good ones are going fast.”

“For the amount of money we paid there better be only good rooms,” Matt said, laughing. Dan nodded enthusiastically.

Neil drank half of the water bottle before heading out to the deck and, sure enough, there was a pool below. Kevin and Renee were in their swimsuits already. Renee was sitting on the edge with her feet in the water and Kevin was swimming laps, no doubt anxious already about the lack of a gym within a reasonable distance. Neil went down the stairs and discovered that underneath the main deck was a ping-pong table, a grill, a covered hot tub, and more lounge chairs. On the other side of the pool were more steps that led down to a grassy lawn and beyond that was a wooden walkway that cut down to the beach.

The freshmen boys arrived an hour later; Nicky and Erik arrived half an hour after them, and then all the Foxes gathered in the living room to discuss what to do about food. Andrew perched on the arm of Neil's chair and contributed nothing to the conversation. Nicky suggested burgers and hot dogs- to give Erik the “all-American culinary experience”- but Kevin protested and suggested healthier options instead.

After a ten minute bout of bickering, Matt shouted over the both of them, “Hey, hey, let the new captain decide. Captain? What'll it be?”

Neil's stomach churned when all eyes looked to him. Even the non-Foxes looked expectant.

“I don't know. Matt, why don't you and Kevin go pick stuff out together. There's a grocery store around here somewhere. Matt, get some burgers and whatever and, Kevin, you get some vegetables. There's fruit already in the fridge.”

“Riley and I could take care of dessert,” Katelyn suggested sweetly.

“Sure,” Neil said. “Nicky, Andrew, can you guys start on drinks?”

Nicky gave him a salute and spoke lowly to Erik, translating the pieces of the conversation he hadn't been able to understand. The group split up soon after that and Neil followed Andrew to the kitchen. He sat on the counter while Andrew and Nicky began mixing drinks in the blenders. Erik hovered in the doorway, watching his boyfriend and radiating contentment.

“So, Erik, how's your job going?” Neil asked in German. He hadn't spoken to Erik much during the few times he'd seen him, but he felt sympathetic, knowing how awkward it could be hanging out with the Foxes as an outsider.

Erik blinked and looked as if he hadn't noticed Neil there before a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth and he began telling Neil about his career. Neil knew all this from Nicky, of course, but he pretended it was his first time hearing it. Once Andrew and Nicky had filled a few glasses, Neil and Erik began taking the drinks out to the others.

It was hectic, more so after the alcohol started flowing, and the laughter and loud conversations seemed to fill every corner of the massive house. It almost felt cozy. Lizzy and Brian both drank two beers each and then raced each other from the front door all the way down to the shore. Aaron seemed to follow Katelyn around and Neil saw him smiling at her in a way he never did around his teammates. Nicky and Erik spent the last few hours of the afternoon in the pool while Matt taught Kevin how to use the grill. Dan leaned against Matt's side and had a conversation with Renee, who was curled up in a lounge chair in the shade beneath the main deck. Brook and Riley were curled up on a sofa, fiddling the television remote with Colby sitting on the floor in front of them.

Andrew went up to the balcony for a cigarette after awhile, but Neil stayed in the kitchen alone. The cupcakes Katelyn, Riley, and Brook made were still baking in the oven and Neil had offered to take them out when the timer went off. He was content to sip his water and listen to the sounds of his family bouncing off the walls and sweeping in on the breeze through open windows and doors.

To his surprise, Jack wandered in and leaned against the doorway, looking sullen and hesitant. There were shadows hanging under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks, his clothes were baggy on his thin frame. Some of the team suspected he'd lost some weight and Brian had said he hadn't been eating with the rest of them lately. His miserable state brought out no pity in Neil's chest, though.

“You gonna call off your dog?” Jack asked after a long silence.

Neil drummed his fingertips against the marble. “I don't have a dog.”

“That freak you call a boyfriend?”

“He has a name.”

Jack scowled and almost looked like his old self. He tugged his long sleeves down to hold the ends in his fists, looking over his shoulder for signs of the more violent Minyard twin. “Can't you tell him to back off?”

“Don't expect me to do you any favors after all the shit you pulled this year. No one's going to have your back if you're constantly trying to knock them on their ass.”

“That's it? I fucked up once so you're gonna just let him kill me?”

Neil lifted a shoulder and took another drink of water. “If you want forgiveness for free, find a church. If you want my help you're going to have to get your shit together and act like you know what being part of a team means.”

Jack sniffed hard and scowled at the wall. “Kevin's the better player. His whole life has been Exy. How the hell did Coach decide that your inexperienced ass deserved to be captain?”

“Kevin's the best striker I've seen, but he pisses everyone off. He thinks everyone needs what he does and he'd end up running everybody right past their breaking points. Being captain isn't about being the better player, it's about whether or not you can get people to listen to you and cooperate with each other.”

“I still think you're worthless.”

“I still think you're a petulant child. When we get back on the court in June, though, we're on the same team, understand?”

“Fine.”

“Great.”

Andrew stepped around Jack and flicked him a warning look before pulling open the refrigerator to get himself a beer. Jack paled and left the kitchen without another word. When the timer beeped, Neil hopped off the counter and slipped on oven mitts before removing the baking tins from the oven. He set them aside on cooling racks and then went to Andrew's side to steal a kiss while they still had a moment to themselves.

They pulled lounge chairs together into a messy cluster around the shallow end of the pool to eat dinner with plates on laps and drinks sitting between bare feet. As the sky darkened, Dan told them all about her new apartment and Allison talked about New York. Renee spoke a little of how she was considering going into the Peace Corps. Nicky didn't last long before he gave up on his half-eaten burger to crawl into Erik's lap, which Erik didn't seem to mind at all. They spoke quietly in German while the others ignored them and kept talking about which country Renee might enjoy the most.

As long as they were talking, Neil found he could ignore the smell of the ocean and the shadows steadily falling. Listening to the girls make plans for their new lives away from Palmetto hurt, but that ache was preferable to memories of gasoline and bones burned clean.

After dinner, the two cheerleaders passed out the cupcakes they'd decorated. They'd mixed a strange shade of orange with red and yellow food coloring and used a plastic sandwich bag with a snipped corner to pipe fox paws on top of the white frosting. Andrew didn't look at Katelyn when she offered him one, so Neil politely told her Andrew didn't want dessert. As Neil slowly ate his own, he caught Andrew eyeing the spot of frosting at the corner of his mouth and his mind went in a mischievous direction. Aaron was too close for him to even consider acting on his lewd thoughts, however. Nicky and Erik were still happily wrapped up in each other and Neil didn't want to risk ruining it by provoking Aaron's temper.

Neil was just starting to think that maybe the trip to the beach would be all right after all when someone suggested they have a bonfire now that it was dark. Allison had ordered plenty of firewood when she booked the house and Matt had thought to buy supplies to make s'mores when he was out with Kevin, so everyone agreed that a bonfire was a great idea. When Andrew's knee bumped against his, Neil knew that Andrew wouldn't say anything on his behalf. It was up to him to decide if they would go down to the beach or up to their room.

Stubbornly, Neil ignored the warning bells in his head and helped carry an armful of wood across the lawn, down the wooden walkway, and onto the sand. Matt and Brian arranged the wood in an uneven sort of pyramid and stuck some kindling in the spaces at the bottom. Apparently the freshmen were well-acquainted with Brian's fascination with fire, so Lizzy and Colby ran barefoot into the waves to fill a couple buckets with water just to be on the safe side.

Neil stared at his shoes, half-buried in powdery gold, but all he could see was a backpack full of bones and black sand. “Why are we stopping here, Mom?” Neil looked up at the flames tangling around the logs and instead he saw an angry gas-fed inferno devouring the innards of an old car, the metal frame a spindly black silhouette against the hellish orange fire. “Remember what I taught you. Say it. Don't look back. Don't slow down. Don't-” Vomit rolled in his stomach. His throat squeezed shut. He could feel the strength leave his mother's hand, see the life fading from her eyes. A log popped and an ember swirled upward into the air. He could smell his mother burning. He was heartbroken and all alone.

Andrew elbowed Neil's ribs and the burst of pain rang through Neil's mental prison. His stare was heavy and hard. “Go inside,” he growled.

Neil stumbled away from the bonfire and the haunting scrape of the waves. He moved on autopilot, striding across the lawn and up the steps to the concrete. He climbed the stairs and darted into the house. “Don't look back. Don't slow down.”

He didn't stop until he was up in the bedroom he and Andrew were going to share. The balcony doors were thankfully shut and the room smelled like the lavender candles that were on the bedside tables rather than ocean air and cigarette smoke. Andrew had seen this coming, prepared for it. Tremors shuddered through Neil's dizzy frame and he barely made it halfway into the room before he collapsed to his knees, hyperventilating. He folded over his knees, pulling at his hair and pressing his forehead into the soft carpet. His mind was caught in a riptide that roared with his mother's anger and filled his mouth with the taste of blood and smoke.

“Don't look back. Don't slow down.”

“Don't trust anyone,” he whispered, finishing the mantra out loud. A strangled sob tore out of his chest as he continued repeating the promises he made to his mother, the promises that he'd broken.

Two hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him upright into an embrace that smelled like laundry detergent, cologne, and campfire smoke. The shoulders were too broad, the torso too long, the voice too gentle to be the only other person Neil could think of through his panic.

“Neil, it's okay. You're okay. I got you, man.”

It was Matt, Neil realized belatedly. His eyes burned and his chest felt like it was caved in, but he was too unraveled to feel embarrassed. He clutched at the back of Matt's t-shirt and held on for dear life.

Matt petted the back of Neil's head and kept murmuring reassurances. “It'll be okay. Just breathe. You're fine. You're gonna be fine.”

Neil gulped down huge breaths against Matt's shoulder and blinked rapidly until the room around them came back into focus. Slowly, all of his pieces settled back in a haphazard heap in the present. Matt didn't let him go until Neil pulled back and even then he kept one steadying hand on his shoulder. Matt ducked his head to look into Neil's eyes.

“You with me?”

Neil nodded and shivered. “My- it's the beach. My mother died on the beach.” The story spilled out of his mouth before he could stuff it back down and he wondered when his secrets got so loose.

Matt listened and did his best to mask his shock when Neil told him how his mother's body was glued to the vinyl front seat with her own blood, how he'd quickly decided to burn everything except what he absolutely needed.

When Neil finished telling him of the backpack stuffed with bones, Matt blinked away tears and quietly said, “We never would've brought you here if we'd known. We can- shit, we can pack up and leave tomorrow if you want. If you're worried about the money, Allison and I will-”

“No,” Neil croaked. “No, I don't want to leave. I wanted us all to have a good- the girls are leaving and I don't know when I'll see them again and I just wanted one last trip as a team.”

Matt pulled him into another embrace, one that was less desperate than the first. “You're going to see them all the time, Neil. We're a family. We can go visit Dan on weekends if you want. You can video chat with Renee on my phone. Allison will probably call you like every day to bitch about your shitty clothes.”

Neil laughed roughly into Matt's shoulder. “I'm still figuring this stuff out, I guess.”

“It's all right,” Matt chuckled.

Neil looked to the door, half-expecting the others to be there as well, and he was relieved to see that the doorway was still empty.

Matt noticed him looking and said, “Andrew told me to come up here.”

“He did?”

“Well, not in so many words- he kinda just gave me a look, you know? I don't think the others noticed. Nicky smeared a marshmallow on Aaron's shirt, so war's probably broken out down there.”

Neil rubbed a hand over his face. “You should get back down there. Sorry, I-”

“It's all good. You gonna be okay?”

Neil nodded and managed a small, shaky smile. “Yeah, thanks.”

“All right. Offer's still on the table, by the way. Say the word and we'll get the hell away from the beach. And don't worry about the others- I'll tell them you're drunk or tired or something.”

Neil thanked him again and Matt ruffled his hair before leaving him alone. When he rounded the corner, Neil heard him quietly say, “Jesus, Andrew! Wear a bell or something.”

A moment later, Andrew appeared there in the shadowy doorway with his hands stuffed in his pockets.

Neil swallowed hard and said, “Thank you.”

“I didn't do anything,” Andrew replied dismissively. It wasn't true and they both knew it.

Andrew went to the mini-fridge and retrieved a bottle of whiskey. He sat down in front of Neil, their knees pressed together, and they passed the whiskey back and forth until Neil's jagged edges were smooth enough to touch. Andrew hooked his fingers in Neil's collar to drag him up to his feet and push him back onto the bed. Neil gave himself over to Andrew's hot hands and deep kisses, his quick and rough form of comfort. Andrew stripped Neil of his clothes and burned away any lingering thoughts of his past as he kissed and licked across Neil's body. Once Neil was hard and gasping for him, Andrew crawled down to swallow him whole. He didn't let go until Neil was shuddering and completely undone.

Chapter Text

No one asked why Neil avoided the beach after the first night. The younger Foxes wouldn't risk toeing the line with Andrew lurking constantly at Neil's side. The older Foxes knew Neil well enough to know something was wrong and they respected his privacy enough to keep quiet about it. After a day or so Neil found it was easier to breathe.

In the mornings they shuffled down into the kitchen, some more hungover than others, and assembled separate breakfasts of granola bars or cereal. Erik and Nicky cooked for each other every other day and sometimes Katelyn made pancakes for the early risers. The two cheerleaders and Brook went out to the beach at sunrise to do pilates or yoga, according to Dan, who had only been awake because tequila made it difficult for her to stay asleep. Neil and Kevin started meeting out front at eight-thirty for morning runs, using the GPS on Kevin's phone to navigate different routes through town. Sometimes they stopped to check out small diners to determine which ones they would go to for lunch or dinner.

As long as Neil stayed off the sand, he could keep his demons at bay.

Andrew and Neil spent their time quietly. When the rest of the people in the house grated on Andrew's nerves, they'd go on drives through town or back onto the mainland. They shared cigarettes on their balcony after dinner and watched the stars blink awake in the evening sky before returning downstairs to drink with the team.

Lizzy and Brian took it upon themselves to start daily ping-pong tournaments and for the most part their opponents were Brook and Riley or Nicky and Erik. Once Neil and Kevin teamed up and, after a particularly grueling match, Lizzy threw down her paddle and announced that she'd never play them again. Colby watched the ping-pong matches and kept score for the most part, but sometimes he took Lizzy's place at Brian's side and once they managed to soundly defeat Allison and Dan. None of the older Foxes had heard much out of Colby all year, but he laughed brightly when Brian caught him up in a victorious hug after they won together. Dan was so surprised by it that she didn't even seem to mind losing to the quiet nineteen-year-old.

Sheena started collecting shells by herself before Renee eventually joined her. Over lunch on Wednesday, Neil heard them discussing maybe making jewelry out of some of the pieces they'd found. Jack kept to his room most days, only coming out when Sheena called for him or when Kevin invited him on a quick jog in the afternoon. Neil did not go with them.

Allison lived in bikinis- it seemed she had a new one for every day. She dedicated her mornings to recovering from hangovers and then spent the afternoons outdoors in the sunshine, swimming in the ocean with Matt and Dan or laying out on a lounge chair to tan. When the air turned cool after sunset, she either sat in the hot tub or swam in the comfortably heated pool with the others.

Neil wouldn't have paid Allison's new wardrobe much attention if Andrew hadn't hooked his fingers under Neil's chin to turn his head toward her, testing for a reaction. Neil swatted his hand away and told him he didn't need, or want, to look. The second time Andrew tried it they were alone on the main deck and out of everyone's sight, so Neil gave him a hard kiss and pressed Andrew's hand firmly enough against his groin that he could feel the unmistakable twitch of arousal there. They pulled apart just in time to avoid being seen by Kevin.

On Friday night, the team headed out to the beach for a second bonfire and Neil quietly excused himself while they gathered supplies. Dan was coming down the stairs with a blanket bundled up in her arms and stopped him as he tried to dart around her.

“Hey, Neil, you okay? You look a little spooked.”

“I'm fine.” He couldn't help saying it and he winced as soon as it was out in the air between them.

Dan dropped the blanket and put her hands on her hips. “Spill.”

Neil scratched at the back of his neck and looked down at the stair he stood on. “I just... I'm not a huge fan of fire.” He gestured vaguely as if the story of his mother could be seen hanging in the air behind him.

Understanding dawned across Dan's face. “Do you want to go out? Matt and I could take you to a movie or something.”

“Nah, it's fine. I'm just gonna watch some TV up in my room for awhile. Maybe this weekend we could go to the theater or something.”

Dan grinned at him. “Let's go out just the two of us. I can give you all my wisdom.”

“Sure,” Neil laughed. “How about Sunday?”

Dan pulled him into a one-armed hug and said, “Sunday.” Then she picked up the balled-up blanket and continued on her way down the stairs. Neil waited until she was gone before sprinting the rest of the way up to the fourth floor, taking two steps at a time. He shut himself in his and Andrew's room and leaned against the door, catching his breath.

He crossed the room and ripped the balcony doors open before he could think better of it, letting the smell of the ocean wash over him. Determination coursed through his veins, electrifying his blood. He would pile memories of his family's life over his mother's death and maybe someday he could stand on a beach without shattering. His eyes followed the others as they trekked across the lawn, laughing loudly together, and forced himself to memorize everything about this moment. Neil leaned over and could make out Lizzy in her light gray t-shirt by the fading light of dusk, gesturing theatrically at whatever Allison was shouting at them. Nicky and Erik's laughter cut above the others.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Flipping it open, he found a text from Andrew.

Yes or no?

Neil didn't hesitate in typing back, Yes.

A few moments later the phone buzzed again. Shower. Be thorough.

Neil chewed his lip nervously as he pocketed the phone and went into the bathroom to do as he was told. He left his clothes in a heap and stepped into the glass shower room to turn the water on. The water pressure in the house was stronger than it was at the house in Columbia or at the Tower, so Neil took a few extra moments to enjoy the way it pounded against his shoulders and knocked the air out of his lungs a bit when he let it hit his back. He scrubbed his entire body with soap twice, thoroughly washing around his groin and his ass, before cutting the water off and wrapping a towel around his waist.

He found Andrew on the balcony standing beside one of the wicker chairs, thrown in sharp relief against the black sky by the bright exterior light shining from the eaves over the open doors. A gentle night breeze softly toyed with his hair and swept away the smoke that wove into the air around his head.

When Andrew noticed him standing there in only his towel, he raked his eyes over Neil's dripping body and said, “Turn out the lights and come here.”

Neil tightened the towel and walked to the wall to switch off all the lights. The sudden and complete darkness was a shock, but his eyes adjusted quickly as he padded out to the balcony to join Andrew. They were shielded from the bright lights of the main deck, but the moonlight shone softly, unhindered, and cast Andrew in a strange blue glow.

Andrew took a long pull off his cigarette before plucking it out of his mouth and stepping closer to Neil. He tilted his chin up and looked at Neil through hooded eyes, silently offering a kiss. Neil closed the distance between them and groaned at the taste of spicy ash on Andrew's tongue. Slowly, Andrew sighed into his mouth. Smoke leaked from their kiss and Neil inhaled greedily, filling his lungs with Andrew's offering and savoring the rough burn of it in his chest. Andrew stubbed the cigarette out in the small ashtray on the railing and grabbed Neil's hips to pull him closer.

The sharp smell of campfire smoke slowly carried over to them, mixing with the salty ocean air and the acrid scent of cigarettes, but Neil couldn't remember gasoline and bones with Andrew's tongue pushing into his mouth and Andrew's fingers digging bruises into the small of his back. Neil's eyes fell shut as Andrew began kissing down his chest. His teeth dragged over one of Neil's scars and his hands slid beneath his towel. Andrew slowly lowered himself to his knees and then he sat back on his heels and waited for Neil to open his eyes again.

When he did, Andrew watched his face as he continued to teasingly stroke his thighs in the way that always drove Neil quickly toward insanity. Desire unfurled hotly in his belly and rolled across his skin, igniting every nerve-ending and quickening his heart. Neil was almost embarrassed that just this, the feeling of Andrew's fingertips lightly traveling closer and closer to his balls, was enough to make him want to beg.

Andrew asked, “Do you know what rimming is?”

Neil nodded once. Andrew tilted his head inquisitively and Neil admitted, “I, uh, looked some stuff up on the internet.”

“Did you seriously type 'rimming' into Google?” Andrew almost sounded amused.

Neil fidgeted. Andrew's fingers were terribly distracting. “I sort of stumbled across it when I was... looking up other stuff. I just wanted to be prepared in case we did...”

“Stuff?” Andrew finished, mocking.

Neil sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. “Yeah, stuff.”

Andrew nodded. Then, he cupped Neil's balls before reaching back to slide one finger over his asshole causing Neil to jolt and swear under his breath.

“So you know what it is. Is your answer yes or no?”

Neil was speechless. Even though Andrew had brought it up he hadn't thought he was offering to actually do that to him. He tried to fit himself and Andrew into the images he'd accidentally brought up onto the computer screen in the library and the mental image made his cock throb.

“Yes,” Neil breathed.

Andrew dropped his hands and said, “Turn around and put your knee up on the arm of the chair.”

When Neil turned he could see the bright red glow of the bonfire between the slim trunks of the palm trees around the lawn. His teammates were dark shadows moving around it. He gulped down his nervousness and put his knee up on the arm of the chair. Andrew stood and wrapped a strong arm around his waist while he guided his other leg outward to spread him further. Then he guided Neil's hands to the railing, bending him forward enough so that his weight wasn't all on his legs.

“Keep your eyes on the fire,” Andrew ordered. His fingers undid Neil's towel and tossed it aside. “The others are all out there now, but they could come back so keep your voice down.”

Neil nodded. He didn't think he'd be able to speak anyway. It was strangely thrilling, being completely naked and bent over with Andrew kneeling behind him and a warm breeze brushing between his legs. He felt vulnerable and horribly aroused all at once.

Andrew ran his hands over his ass and the anticipation of what Andrew was planning made Neil dizzy. His hands squeezed the railing and his breath stuttered in his chest when Andrew's thumb nudged at his tight hole.

“Watch the fire, Neil,” Andrew reminded him.

His arms shook. His cock twitched painfully. It took all his willpower to look back at the fire and focus on it with Andrew's breath on the back of his balls. He forced himself to remember the way it looked on Monday night, the flames writhing as they grew. He remembered the car, blackened and broken and full of ash. The memories were weak, distant pictures to Neil now.

His knee almost gave out when something warm and wet brushed lightly over his hole. Neil gasped when Andrew repeated the motion, harder and more sure of himself this time. Andrew's callused palms spread his ass apart further and he prodded at Neil's entrance with his tongue. For a few agonizing minutes, Andrew alternated between soft licks and firm, exploratory prodding and the only fire Neil was even remotely aware of was the one in his gut.

“Fuck,” he whispered weakly, dropping his head between his arms.

Andrew pushed inside him with one finger and licked roughly around the edge before he began thrusting his finger in and out, but never going past his knuckle. Neil let out a sharp, keening sound before clamping his lips shut and biting down on them. Andrew gradually worked two fingers inside him to loosen his hole for the longest three minutes of Neil's life. Once he was satisfied, he held Neil open with two fingertips and dipped his tongue inside. Startled, Neil choked on Andrew's name. His tongue curled and massaged just inside his entrance while Neil panted and hot sweat rose in small beads across his skin. The desire scorching his blood was eating away at his senses, turning him into a desperate and needy thing, but he didn't care. He arched his back and leaned against Andrew's mouth and fingers.

“Andrew,” he moaned. “Andrew, let me touch myself.”

Andrew tilted his head to bite the soft crease between Neil's ass and his thigh. “Look at the fire and the beach and the ocean, Neil. Next time you're out there, you're going to think of my tongue in your ass.”

“Fuck, yes,” Neil whimpered, shivering. Andrew removed his fingers, reached up between Neil's legs to stroke his leaking cock, and pressed his tongue past the slightly loosened ring of muscle.

Neil wanted to thrust into Andrew's fist, wanted to push back to coax his tongue deeper, but he knew that if he moved he might very well collapse. So he kept still and held himself upright while Andrew drove him over the brink with his rough grip and his tongue. The orgasm was slow and all-consuming. Neil's body curled forward and snapped taut as he released thickly onto the painted wood below him. His mouth fell open, but his cries died in his lungs. His eyes were wet and blurry. Andrew bit the back of his thigh as the last tremors faded away and Neil grunted from the shocking pain of it.

He stayed like that, bent over and too numbed by the intensity of his orgasm to move, while Andrew got to his feet. His hands clamped down on Neil's shoulders and pulled him up before holding his waist so that he could ease himself off the chair. Andrew dragged the towel over with his foot and let Neil sink onto it before he lit two cigarettes. Crouching beside him, he put one between his lips and gave Neil the other to hold.

After a long silence, Neil looked up and blinked as if he'd never seen the night sky before. He felt like he hadn't. In the wake of what Andrew had just done to him, everything felt remade and slightly different.

“Fuck,” was all he could think of to say.

Andrew nodded once in agreement and pulled a bottle of whiskey out from beneath the chair. Neil chuckled at Andrew's preparedness and shifted his sore and still-tingling body around so that he could stretch out his legs in front of him. The muscles along his inner thighs ached and quivered from standing with his legs spread for so long. His shoulders felt stretched and pleasantly sore as well.

Neil caught Andrew staring at his thighs.

“Any pain?” Andrew asked quietly.

“Only the good kind.” He covered his eyes with one hand and muttered, “Fuck.”

Andrew hummed something before he took a swig of whiskey and handed the bottle over. After Neil took a drink, Andrew said, “You seemed like you enjoyed that.”

“If I ever set foot on that beach again I'll cum in my pants.”

“Drama queen.”

Neil took a deep breath, waiting for the smell of smoke and salt in the air to rip his mind away from the moment. Nothing happened, though. There was nothing strong enough to reach him through the afterglow.

“Hey, Andrew?”

“What?”

“Yes or no?”

Andrew blew out a thin stream of smoke before replying, “Be specific.”

Neil rose onto his knees and moved in front of Andrew, peering into his eyes in the dark. “Can I kiss you?”

Andrew lifted one brow, unimpressed. “Yes.”

Neil braced his hands on either side of Andrew's legs and kissed him fiercely, deeply, as if he could convey all the words crammed in the forefront of his mind by running his teeth over Andrew's lip and sucking his tongue into his mouth. When they were both out of breath, Neil slid his hand over Andrew's and fingered the edge of his armbands. “Can these come off?”

Andrew nodded and set his cigarette down in the ashtray beside the whiskey while Neil gently stripped one set of bands off him. Then, he removed the others and held Andrew's wrists, turning his scarred forearms upward in the blue moonlight. He brushed his thumbs over the plump, raised lines reverently, knowing these pale lines represented the blood Andrew sacrificed to cope with his pain and stay alive.

“Can I kiss you here?” Neil asked, pressing his thumb into Andrew's pulse point.

When Andrew nodded again, he lowered his mouth and ghosted kisses across the rows of scars. He kissed from Andrew's wrist to the crease of his elbow before moving over to give the other arm the same attention. When he found a large freckle, half-ruined by a blade, he paused to flick his tongue over the mark.

“Bite me,” Andrew hissed.

Neil jerked his head up and it took him a moment to understand that it wasn't a taunt, but a genuine request. Blinking in surprise, Neil returned to the freckle and bit down, sucking on the patch of scarred flesh. Andrew's body went rigid.

“Stop. Stop.”

Neil recoiled and raised his hands where Andrew could see them. Andrew shook and breathed hard through his nose for a few minutes, staring at Neil with a twisted scowl meant for someone else.

The tension paralyzed Neil and prevented him from moving while Andrew's mind slowly found its way back to the moment at hand. Neil relaxed gradually as Andrew's features smoothed into his usual neutral expression.

“I-” Andrew began, before stopping to collect his thoughts. “I thought-”

“You don't owe me an explanation,” Neil assured him.

“Proust ruined them,” said Andrew, running his thumb over the faint indentations left by Neil's teeth.

Neil's mind went as blank as an untouched canvas before red wrath dripped down from his head to his heart, painting him with a hideous and violent hue. His mouth felt like it was lined with scum and suddenly his nudity seemed vulgar. Stiffly, he reached for the towel and laid it across his thighs. He couldn't think of a single word that was strong enough to stand against the heaviness of what Andrew had told him. Like Neil, he had tried to cover an old wound with something new, but he had failed and Neil didn't know how to help him.

Andrew was the one who broke the silence in the end.

“You can kiss my scars, but don't use your teeth.”

Neil nodded, but he'd lost his desire to kiss and taste and explore. He regretted his attempt to uncover Andrew. Now all he wanted to do was shield him from everything and everyone.

“I'm not going to beg,” Andrew hissed and Neil's head snapped up. There was still a bulge in Andrew's sweatpants, there was still a hunger in his eyes. Neil's sympathy was unwanted.

“Inside,” Neil said, nodding toward the open doors behind Andrew.

Andrew rose to his feet fluidly and went over to the bed. He sat on the edge and watched Neil struggle to stand on his weakened legs, clutching the towel over his groin in a pitiful attempt at modesty. He gave up when he was standing in front of Andrew and let the towel fall to the floor.

The goalkeeper leaned back on his hands and arched a brow up at him in challenge. “What'll it be, captain?” His voice was soaked with scorn, but Neil liked the sound of it anyway.

“I want to blow you,” he stated plainly.

Andrew hummed, pretending to consider it.

“Yes or no?” Neil prompted.

The answer was immediate. “Yes.”

Neil stepped closer and ran his fingers down the sides of Andrew's neck, hooking them just inside the collar of his t-shirt. “Can I take this off?”

“Yes.”

Neil carefully took the bottom hem and lifted the shirt off him without touching Andrew's skin. Then he set it within Andrew's reach on the bed and took a moment to look at his toned chest and stomach. Andrew leaned back again on his hands and let Neil stare without comment.

When he'd looked his fill, he knelt at Andrew's feet and gently tapped a finger against the bow in the drawstring of Andrew's sweatpants. “Can I take these off, too?”

“Yes.”

Neil tugged one of the ends until the bow came undone. “Lift your hips.” Andrew pushed himself up so that Neil could drag his sweats and underwear down. He looked up at Andrew's face to watch for the moment his yes turned into a no as he pulled the garments all the way down to his ankles. Andrew's eyes remained calm, his yes didn't change. He kicked his feet free of his pants and Neil felt his groin tighten again now that he was faced with Andrew's naked body. He put his hands on the edge of the bed around Andrew's hips and took a deep, steadying breath.

“Can I suck you off?”

“Can you?” Andrew taunted. “You're taking forever. I could've gotten myself off twice by now.”

Neil pressed his lips into a tight, annoyed line for a moment before asking, “Is it yes or no?”

“Yes.” Andrew shifted closer to the edge to give Neil an easier angle as he moved between his legs and took Andrew's cock into his hand. Neil laved his tongue over the salty head while he stroked the rest of Andrew's length roughly, the way Andrew seemed to prefer. As he began moving his head up and down in time with his hand, Andrew clutched at his hair hard enough to rip a few strands out. Neil didn't mind the tingling pain skittering across his scalp, he took it as encouragement. Andrew sucked in deep breaths to keep in control of himself, but he lost his rhythm when Neil took him deeper than he had before. He pulled back just before he gagged and delighted in Andrew's soft grunt.

Andrew's hands moved from Neil's hair to his scarred cheeks, tracing the lines and shapeless burn scar and Neil looked up at him through his lashes as he paused to massage the tip of his cock with his tongue. His heart tumbled helplessly in his chest when he saw how Andrew was panting and trying to hide it just like he did after a particularly grueling game. The glazed look in Andrew's eyes made Neil moan as he sank back down on him. Soon the room was filled with the sound of Andrew's harsh breathing. Neil wrapped his free hand around his own erection and stroked himself while he gradually coaxed Andrew toward his orgasm.

“Are you touching yourself?” Andrew asked breathlessly. “You've gotten so goddamn greedy.”

Neil only hummed and squeezed the base of Andrew's cock a bit harder in retaliation for his teasing. When Andrew's breathing turned ragged and he grew just slightly thicker in Neil's hand, Neil knew he was close. Neil rubbed at his slit with his tongue and stroked him faster until Andrew was shaking and pulling at his hair. Neil held him and continued suckling his tip while he came, trying to prolong the pleasure as much as he could, until finally Andrew hissed at him to let go. Neil sat back and pulled himself off quickly, spilling weakly into his hand.

Instead of mocking him, Andrew pulled him up by his hair and kissed him like he wanted to wage a war. The kiss tasted like smoke and whiskey and sex. Neil felt drunk and exhausted and exhilarated all at once. Andrew stood, forcing Neil onto his feet, and scratched down his chest while Neil gasped into his mouth. Neil's mind was bleary and disoriented, and his fingers were still covered in his cum, so he let his hands hang limp at his sides while Andrew kissed him senseless.

“I think I need another shower,” Neil mumbled.

Andrew bit Neil's bottom lip before towing him to the bathroom by his wrist.

The shower room was large enough to fit several people and Neil was too spent to bother with standing so, while Andrew rubbed a new bar of soap into a lather between his palms, Neil sat down and rested against the cold tile wall. He watched the muscles roll and relax beneath Andrew's smooth, pale skin and thought that the steamy cocoon of the shower room wouldn't be the worst place to fall asleep.

He dozed off soon after the thought crossed his mind and the harsh spray of water startled him back into alertness a few minutes later. Andrew was holding the shower head with just a faint flicker of mischief in his eyes. He pointed the spray at Neil's feet and said, “You're the one that needed a shower. Get up.”

“Ugh, I should've just taken a bath,” Neil grumbled as he climbed to his feet. His knees popped and his legs protested as he stretched.

“I would've let you drown,” Andrew said.

“Yeah, sure.”

Chapter Text

Neil woke on Saturday feeling pleasurably sore. Sunlight poured in through the open balcony doors and the fresh air smelled faintly of rain. His body felt too heavy to move and the bed was much too comfortable to leave, so he texted Kevin to go running without him and allowed himself the luxury of sleeping in. Andrew's eyes cracked open when Neil changed positions, but he quickly fell back asleep as well.

At ten-fifteen, Neil's phone buzzed with a concerned text from Matt asking if he was okay and if he wanted any breakfast. He and Dan had woken up with awful hangovers, according to the text, and they were going to a local diner to get food. Neil typed back that he was fine and asked them to bring back pancakes for him and Andrew.

By the time Matt and Dan returned to the house, Neil had showered and dressed and stumbled down the stairs to the main floor. At least half of the team looked hungover as they stumbled around the living room and grumbled about what to watch on television. Neil poured himself a cup of coffee and said a quiet good morning to Erik, who was supporting a half-asleep Nicky. Lizzy was curled up in the pantry with her arms folded over her head and Brian standing over her trying to decide on which cereal sounded the best for his hungover state.

“Hey, how was your night?” Dan asked as she sidled up to Neil with a stack of styrofoam take-out containers in her arms.

Neil shrugged. “It was fine. We just smoked on the balcony for a bit.”

“That sounds smarter than what we did.” She set the containers on the counter and opened a few to find the ones for Neil and Andrew and handed them over. They still felt warm. Neil quickly drank the rest of his coffee, grabbed a couple forks, and filled another mug before taking the breakfast upstairs to the man he'd left in his bed.

Andrew's eyes were open when Neil sank down on the edge of the mattress. The sound of the door had probably woken him. Neil set one of the take-out boxes and a fork on the blanket between them while Andrew sat up and yawned. When Andrew held his hand out for the coffee, Neil gave it to him. Andrew took a small sip, grimacing a little at the temperature, before setting it aside on the bedside table to cool. They ate their breakfast in silence. Neil ate quickly with large forkfuls of buttered and fluffy cake while Andrew took his time with slower, smaller bites. Neil set the empty box and his fork aside and lay on his stomach, warm and full and satisfied, within Andrew's reach while he waited for him to finish eating.

Andrew turned to sit facing him and set his box of pancakes on Neil's back. “You're finally useful.”

“What, as a table?”

“Mm,” Andrew hummed around his fork.

Neil held still until Andrew ate every last bite. He only rolled over when Andrew set aside the box and picked up his coffee. The buzz of his phone under his pillow distracted him from Andrew's face. Digging it out, Neil saw it was from Allison.

Movie later. Your asses better be in the lounge at 7 or I will find you.

Neil asked, Wat r we watching?

The rest of us will watch a movie and you'll watch your boy like you usually do.

Neil's face felt warm. He sent back, ???

Don't play dumb. I've seen you, Josten.

“The team's watching a movie later. I have to be there, apparently.”

Andrew put his empty mug on top the box on the table. “Dan?” he guessed.

“Allison. Do you want to join?”

“Not really.”

Neil nodded and sat up. “What do you want to do until seven?”

“Noth-” Andrew stopped when he saw Neil's smirk. “I don't want to do anything.”

Neil looked around the room and shifted his hips. He could still feel the phantom sensations of Andrew's tongue and fingers and his body stirred with renewed wanting. Not now, he told himself. Andrew had followed him to the brink of his trigger, anchored him, and diluted the bad with something just as powerfully good. When Andrew had given Neil his scars and a painful secret, Neil had been unable to think of how to help him in return. Now, though, there was something else he wanted to try, an idea that had washed up on the shore of his mind when he woke. He hoped with everything in him that it would be a success.

He climbed out of bed and padded over to his bag to retrieve a black ballpoint pen. Turning, he lifted it with an eyebrow raised in question.

Andrew looked from the pen to his face and sighed. “Fine.”

Neil bit down a smile as he crawled across the mattress to sit close to Andrew's legs. When he was settled, cross-legged and comfortable, he asked, “Can I draw on your arms?”

There was a moment of tense silence. Asking was like dropping a penny down a well and waiting for the eventual splash at the bottom. This penny seemed to fall forever.

Andrew inhaled sharply through his nose and fixed Neil with a hard stare. “Yes,” he said slowly. Neil heard the warning in his tone.

Neil gently held Andrew's arm still with one hand while the other dragged the pen across his skin. He turned the raised lines of scar tissue into overlapping keys with smooth lines and jagged teeth, thinking of all the times he'd pressed Andrew's key into his palm and wished its shape would be forever imprinted there. He could feel Andrew's eyes on his face while he focused intently. Every so often he bowed his head to blow across the ink, encouraging it to dry quickly, and Andrew tried to hide his shivers.

When Neil put the finishing touches on the last one, Andrew pulled his arm away and removed his t-shirt. Wrapping the shirt around his inked forearm, he turned and lay on his stomach with his head pillowed on his folded arms.

“Is this okay?” Neil asked quietly.

“At least I won't be able to see your shitty drawings there,” Andrew muttered.

Neil stared at the expanse of Andrew's skin, transfixed by how relaxed and soft he looked surrounded by the comforter and rumpled pillows.

Instead he asked, “Can I kiss your back?”

Andrew shifted, tensing up and relaxing again just as quickly. “No.”

Neil dragged his teeth over his lip, pushing aside his disappointment. “Okay.”

He didn't know what to draw. For a moment, he lightly rested his hand over the warm, smooth skin of Andrew's lower back and enjoyed simply being allowed to touch him like this at all. Swallowing hard, he put the pen to Andrew's skin and drew whatever came to mind- a racquet, a carton of cigarettes, a water tower in a small Minnesota town he once watched through a window while he lay in bed nursing bruises, the sign of a French village that was half-covered by snow, the crumpled license plate of a Swiss car. When he ran out of things to draw, he wrote out his secrets- his old names, the name of the park his nanny took him sledding at one winter when he was eight, his mother's favorite song, the name of the first person he watched bleed to death. Lastly, beneath the tangled web of words, he wrote: I want this forever.

Neil sat back and looked at the mess of ink across Andrew's back. For a moment, Andrew kept so still Neil nearly thought he'd fallen asleep, but then he unfolded his arms and pushed himself up to sit on his knees. His eyes were glazed and drowsy and there as an imprint of his arm left on his cheek.

“I'm going to shower,” he mumbled. “I want more coffee.”

Andrew ambled into the bathroom and Neil took his mug downstairs to refill it. He took his time down in the kitchen, speaking to Allison and learning what the rest of the team was planning for the day, and when he returned to their room Andrew was dressed and sitting on the sofa with the television on. Neil handed him his coffee and settled down beside him to watch the local news channel.

Something was different, Neil could feel it in the air. Something had changed, gone wrong, in the time it'd taken Andrew to shower and dress. Andrew was leaning forward with his elbows digging into his knees and one hand curled loosely around his coffee mug, dull eyes stuck on the screen ahead. His back and shoulders were tight and he was wearing his armbands again.

Neil fidgeted on his side of the sofa and picked at his thumbnail as anxiety knotted his stomach. He risked a glance at Andrew and swept his eyes over him as if he could find a clue. There was a smear of ink at the base of his thumb and another smudge just above the back of his collar. He'd scrubbed away at the drawings and words Neil left on him, which wasn't a surprise, but then it occurred to him that Andrew might have taken a peek at his back in a rare moment of curiosity. Neil's heart dropped. I want this forever. He'd never intended on admitting it to Andrew. For a man who just barely managed to dodge his expiration date and a man who could barely bring himself to bother with the present, 'forever' was much too big a word. Neil liked the sound of it, the dreamy security of it, but he didn't understand what it really meant.

Neil hurried out of the room. Andrew didn't follow. I fucked up. He passed Riley and Brook on the third floor landing. I fucked up. He ignored Nicky in the main hallway when he asked if Neil wanted to join him and Erik in the pool. I fucked up. He tied his shoelaces too tight and barely registered Dan asking if he had his phone. He didn't hear Matt ask if he was okay.

Neil slammed the front door behind him and ran.

A strong wind pushed against the treetops, carrying with it the damp promise of a storm. Gray clouds knit together overhead as Neil stopped to stretch his legs at the end of the drive. His pockets were empty, his head was too full. Once his muscles were loosened enough, he jogged down Ocean Boulevard, a thin two-lane road cutting between palatial beach houses on sparse, sandy lawns with glimpses of the slate-gray ocean between them. At the first crossroad, he cut over to Palm Boulevard and sprinted down the empty bike lane.

The storm moved in quickly, rolling off the water with the strong cold winds and bunching into a heavy thunderhead. Neil was running onto the bridge over the water when the clouds unleashed a torrential downpour, pelting his face and bare arms and plastering his hair and clothing to his skin in a matter of a minute. All around him stretched the pockmarked ocean with a few unlucky boats bobbing on the choppy surface.

He stopped halfway across and stood for a moment, squinting as fat drops splashed against his face and rolled coldly down his temples and cheeks, dripping off his nose and chin. His clothing was heavy on his frame and the burn in his legs quickly gave way to the chill of the wind and rain.

Thunder rolled across the sky, reverberating in his heart.

Andrew wants this, he reminded himself. Andrew had told him to stay and given him countless reasons to. Andrew had burned hot with fury when Neil went missing. Andrew had let his brother go to hold onto Neil and whatever this was. He thought of fingers hooked in his collar and yes or no and the weight of keys in his hand and you're not going anywhere.

But Andrew was going to leave, just like the girls were leaving, just like the others would leave and Neil wondered if he would dissolve back into nothing once he was alone again. Andrew had said they would meet halfway, but neither of them really knew what commitment was without death or danger crowding them into a corner. With so many new choices out in the world beyond Palmetto, would Andrew still choose him?

Why would he choose me?

The question had no answer that he could find. What was he? A patchwork man, uneven and stained and straining at the seams. A rabbit in a fox's clothing. Was he worth keeping? Neil stared helplessly out into the storm, finding a bittersweet symmetry between the disruption in the ocean's surface and the turmoil in his heart.

Neil turned and kept running. The rain blinded him, numbed him. He ran until his legs ached more than his heart and all his bones felt like they'd turned to jelly. He ran until thick trees crowded the road and the houses looked nondescript and normal with pick-up trucks parked crookedly on gravel driveways.

Eventually, he slowed to a walk and admitted to himself that he was a bit lost in more ways than one. Leaving the house was a mistake, he concluded as he continued walking. He had a knack for spiraling too far and it always took him twice as long to get back if he was on his own. He folded his wet arms over his wet-shirt and shivered, but there was no warmth to be gained. His teeth chattered as he walked through the shady patches beneath old, wide trees. Even in the cold rain with lightning forking overhead and wind bending the trees, he couldn't force himself to turn around. What would he say when he got back? How could he explain that he felt like a figment, an idea of a person, instead of a solid being? How would he explain to Andrew that he felt like too much and not enough all at once? How could he admit, after all this time, after the previous night, that he was afraid that Andrew's stay would grow stale one day?

He stopped and braced his hands on his knees halfway across an abandoned intersection while the rain pounded down against his back. He was so tired of feeling like the world beneath his feet was crumbling away. He hated that sometimes knowing a full life lay ahead of him was overwhelming and too much instead of a relief. He loathed himself for doubting Andrew and the Foxes. He wished his past would stop gnawing on his peace of mind.

Straightening, he shielded his eyes from the heavy rain with his hand and tried to figure out just where he was. He didn't recognize the street names and he couldn't remember what route he'd taken in his desperation to get as far away from the house as possible. He reached into his pocket, wanting to call for help, but then he remembered that he'd left his phone in the room with Andrew.

Neil dug his fists into his eyes and let out a weak, crumpled laugh.

And then something crashed into his side and sent him sprawling across the gritty pavement. Gravel bit into his palms, not enough to break skin, and scraped his bare forearms. Pain flared along his side where he'd been hit down his stomach from his rough landing. He blinked rapidly at the nearness of the ground, struggling to process what had happened, when he heard a voice.

“Oh my god, are you okay?”

Wincing, Neil pushed himself up onto his knees and looked over his shoulder. First he saw the bike, tipped over with one wheel still spinning, and then he saw the middle-aged man in a bright yellow windbreaker, black shorts, and a helmet. He'd been hit by a bike. Worrying about his future suddenly seemed pointless when he realized how easily it could have been a car, could have been fatal. The shock and the pain knocked the last of his anxiety loose and it washed away with the rain as blood oozed from the fresh cuts on his hands.

“I'm fine,” Neil answered dryly, lifting his voice to be heard over the roar of the rain and climbing to his feet. The man didn't look injured at all. He reached for Neil, but Neil pulled away.

“Are you sure? God, I wasn't looking. The rain- you can't see shit out here.”

Neil nodded and began walking away, ignoring the man as he called, “My house is just this way! I could get you some bandages!”

By the time he made it back to the house, he was out of breath and numb. He felt like the panic had scraped his heart clean, scooped out his mind, and left him empty. Whatever had driven him from the house was a distant memory.

When he stepped through the door, he was hit first with the prickling burn of warm air on his cold, soaked skin and then Nicky's voice.

“Neil! Where the hell- is that blood? Are you hurt?”

Neil blinked at him dumbly and then looked at his forearms where tiny beads of blood were rising from the scrapes. Erik wandered out of the lounge and put a hand on Nicky's shoulder. Lizzy, Brian, and Katelyn filtered into the main hallway from the living room, curious.

“I fell. It's nothing,” he said.

“Is that Neil?” shouted Matt from the kitchen.

Footsteps pounded down the stairs and Dan appeared on the landing a moment before Allison crashed past her.

“What the fuck, Neil?” Allison snapped.

“I went out for a run,” Neil said. Matt and Renee came out of the kitchen and it didn't escape Neil's attention that they were both wearing shoes and jackets. Their shoulders were spotted with rain. They'd gone out looking for him, which made Neil feel queasy with guilt.

Allison rolled her eyes. “You forgot your fucking phone, asshole.”

Nicky anxiously rubbed his palms together. “Well, we figured since Andrew hasn't- well, he-”

“This one-” she jerked her thumb toward Nicky, “tried to convince us nothing was wrong just because your monster stayed up in his cage.”

“Stop calling him that,” Neil snapped, causing both Nicky and Dan to jump at his sudden dark tone. “I'm sick of hearing that shit.”

Allison's eyebrow lifted haughtily, but she said nothing.

Dan turned to shout up the stairs, “Kevin! Neil's back!”

Kevin came thundering down the stairs two seconds and shouldered past Nicky and Renee to shove his finger in Neil's face. “Do you think pneumonia is a fucking joke, Neil? You were out there for hours! Jesus, what the fuck were you thinking?”

Neil batted his finger away and said, “Calm down, Kevin. I just- I needed to clear my head.”

“You need a hot shower,” Dan told him sternly.

“I'll make tea,” said Renee.

Nicky said, “We have a first-aid kit in our bathroom and you can use our shower. Come here.” He stepped forward to grab Neil's wrist and pull him up the stairs.

Allison elbowed Kevin. “Go tell Neil's boyfriend that he's back and get him some clean clothes.”

“Trouble in paradise, Neil?” Aaron asked snidely from the lounge, just loud enough for Neil to hear it halfway up to the second floor. Neil bristled and Nicky gave him a sympathetic smile over his shoulder.

“Aaron,” scolded Katelyn.

Nicky took him up to the third floor and into the bedroom he and Erik were sharing. Nicky's suitcase was open and his clothes were strewn across the carpet, while the other bag was neatly tucked out of sight somewhere. He guessed Erik's clothes were put away in drawers and the closet. The bottle of lube next to the box of condoms on the nightstand made Neil blink in surprise. He figured Nicky and Erik would be having sex, but seeing the evidence of it out in the open was a bit startling.

Their bathroom counter was a mess of soap bottles and cans of shaving cream and other products Nicky was always trying to get Neil to put in his hair. The air smelled faintly of Erik's spicy aftershave and Nicky's cologne. Nicky closed the toilet lid and guided Neil to sit down while he pulled out the first-aid kit.

“Nicky?” Kevin called from out in the bedroom.

“In here!” Nicky replied.

Kevin appeared in the doorway with a bundle of Neil's clothing. “Here,” he said Kevin, setting the clothes on a small patch of space near the edge. “Andrew's on the phone with Bee, but I told him you were back in one piece.”

“Thanks, Kev,” Nicky said as Kevin left them. Neil thought of why Andrew felt the need to call Betsy and his stomach heaved. Nicky carefully wiped antiseptic over his forearms and hands and examined the minor damage to his skin. He chewed the corner of his mouth before asking, “Are you okay?”

“I don't know,” Neil sighed. “How do you... how do you make yourself be okay with things changing?”

“Is this about the girls leaving or is something going on with Andrew?”

Neil rubbed the corner of his eye with his knuckle. “It never really occurred to me that we wouldn't always be together and I feel like I'm losing my goddamn mind.”

“You know, Erik and I agreed that I should be here for Aaron and Andrew and I was fine with it until I was here and it finally sank in. I was a wreck for like a fucking month at least- crying every night and barely able to eat anything that wasn't chocolate or booze. You can't force yourself to just be okay with shit, Neil. You take it one day at a time and eventually it sucks less.”

Neil sighed and hung his head, cursing his unraveled and nervous heart.

Nicky slid his fingers through Neil's hair and said, “As for Andrew- I mean, you're one of the only things on his radar. I don't think you need to worry about whatever you guys have.”

“I know,” Neil croaked. “I do know, really. Just... sometimes it's like only half of me actually believes it.”

“It's normal to freak out about stuff every now and then,” Nicky assured him. Then he stood up and said, “You must be hungry. You want a sandwich or something?”

“That sounds good,” Neil replied and when Nicky reached for the doorknob, he added, “Thanks for... everything.”

“Anytime, kid. Now take a shower. You're a mess.”

After he was clean and warm and fed, Neil sat sideways on the sofa in front of the television with his knees drawn up to his chest and a cup of tea cradled in his tender hands against his stomach. Andrew didn't come downstairs and Neil didn't feel pressed to go looking for a confrontation just yet. His teammates gathered around him, bickering over whether to watch television or one of the movies Matt brought. Dan perched on the armrest behind Neil's back while Allison sat by his feet, reclining against his shins and toying with her silky hair. Matt sat on the other end of the couch with Allison's calves resting across his lap. Renee sat on the floor in front of the sofa with a bowl of her sea shells that she'd put small holes into. She was stringing together shells and beads with fishing line to make necklaces with Sheena at her side trying to figure out how she did it so easily.

Erik sat on the floor against the armchair Kevin was sitting cross-legged on and Nicky sat between Erik's legs, resting against his chest looking perfectly content and comfortable. Aaron sat across the room in a loveseat with his arm around Katelyn and his eyes pointedly looking away from his cousin. Brook and Riley were sitting on pillows with a blanket wrapped around them, whispering about something, while the freshmen boys sat together on the smaller sofa with Lizzy squished between Brian and Colby.

Surrounded by them, Neil felt like he'd been glued back together and the few hours he'd spent lost in the storm felt surreal and distant.

Eventually, they decided to watch some reality show that Katelyn and Allison liked until it was time for dinner. They agreed on Chinese and a few of them chipped in money to cover the cost. Dan called to order it and Matt left to pick it up not long later. As they ate, Allison bickered with Matt and Nicky about what they were going to watch that night.

The long run and the explosive panic left Neil sluggish, so he stayed on the sofa and dozed off while the movies played on the screen and the group around him talked and laughed. He was vaguely aware of Allison calling him a “quitter” for falling asleep and Dan's hand patting his hair and Brook asking if Neil was all right when she thought he couldn't hear. Matt's voice was watery in his ears as he explained that Neil was fine and that they shouldn't worry.

After that Neil slept and lost track of time.

A soft touch on his arm startled him awake at half-past two in the morning. The light in the main hallway seeped into the room through the wide archway. Renee was perched by his side, leaning over and speaking to him.

“Neil, hi,” she said, laughing gently. “Sorry for disturbing you, I just wanted to let you know we're all going to bed now. Do you want to sleep down here? I can grab you a blanket from the cupboard.”

Neil rubbed at his eyes and tried to swallow a few times to wet his dry throat. “Um, no, I'll go up in a bit. Thanks.” Sitting up, he saw that they were alone. “Sorry, I didn't mean to-”

“It's all right. You were tired.”

“Yeah.”

Renee clasped her hands together over her lap. “Andrew came down for some food a few hours ago.”

“Oh.”

“You can talk to me if something's going on, Neil. Even when we're apart, I hope you know you can always text or call me.”

Neil's throat burned. “Thanks, Renee.”

Renee wrapped him in her arms and held him for a moment before she said, “Good night, Neil. I hope you sleep well.”

“You, too.” He watched her leave the room and then turned to put his feet on the carpet, sighing wearily. The thought of going upstairs to Andrew felt like a bigger deal than it should have. After avoiding him all day, after he ran from him, what could he possibly say? He didn't even feel certain that Andrew would want to see him. Perhaps Andrew was asleep already and going to bed now would only disturb him.

“One hundred and five.”

Andrew's voice was low, smooth, and it sent chills up Neil's spine. He couldn't hide anymore.

“I ran,” Neil confessed, squeezing his eyes shut and bracing himself against the runny, cold guilt trickling down his back. He didn't hear Andrew move closer, but he felt the weight of him sink into the cushion beside him.

“You went for a run,” Andrew corrected.

Neil opened his eyes and looked over at him, but he didn't find the censure he was expecting.

“You're not a stray anymore. I figured you'd come home when you felt like it.” Andrew wasn't talking about the house and Neil's troubled heart finally settled. He felt foolish for not knowing how to take those last few steps back to Andrew's side, felt foolish for thinking Andrew's presence would make him feel worse when he only ever made Neil feel stable. Already he could feel the deep-seated fear unwinding in his chest and dissipating.

Neil swallowed the lump in his throat. “I needed to work through some things. I was trying to decide if I should go upstairs or not.”

“Yeah, I got tired of waiting.”

“Junkie,” Neil teased, lips curving upward into an easy smile.

“Shut up.”

“You like it,” he laughed.

“I hate you.”

Neil turned to him with a retort poised on his tongue, but Andrew killed it with a hard kiss and licked his mouth clean of all arrogance. One hand clutched his collar, twisted it around his knuckles so much it squeezed Neil's throat a little, and the other dug into his hair to pull him closer. Home, his heart whispered and the word was enough to light up the dark and doubtful corners in his chest. Neil carefully rested on hand on Andrew's shoulder and the other on his knee to steady himself as he leaned into the kiss.

Just as his hand was sliding up Andrew's neck toward his hair, a startled noise came from several feet behind them.

Andrew broke the kiss and whipped his head to the look. Matt was standing there in the archway, frozen in mid-step with his eyes wide and unblinking. Neil swallowed thickly, trying to get his mind working properly again. Andrew's iron grip on Neil's shirt and hair tightened almost possessively and his mouth was somehow dismissive, indifferent, in spite of his lips being reddened and damp with Neil's saliva.

To his credit, Matt tried to speak. His mouth opened, shut, opened again but no sound came out and after a minute Andrew lost whatever little patience he had.

“You look lost, Boyd.”

Matt's jaw snapped shut and he pivoted on his heel, hurrying back toward the stairs. Andrew stared at his retreating figure while Neil studied his profile, watched the way his jaw worked. Once Andrew was satisfied that they were truly alone again, he met Neil's eyes for a moment before leaning back in to kiss him.

“Upstairs,” Andrew said, giving his hair a sharp tug. “Unless you're planning on sleeping down here.”

Neil felt like someone poured concrete over his lower half, but he wasn't about to spend the night alone after the day he had. “I'm a mess,” he mumbled against Andrew's mouth.

“What else is new?” Andrew shot back.

With a dry chuckle, Neil pulled away and rested his head against the back of the sofa, pinning Andrew's hand behind him. He could feel his body imploring for sleep, he could feel everything start slowing down whether he liked it or not.

“Can it be just kissing tonight?” he asked quietly. “I'm so tired. I could make coffee or-”

Andrew silenced him with his lips pressed to his. “Just kissing,” he agreed.

“I don't suppose there's any chance of you carrying me up all those stairs, hm?”

“Not a chance in hell,” Andrew replied before he stood and headed toward the stairs.

Neil smiled faintly before slowly getting to his feet. His chest felt heavy as he stumbled after Andrew through the darkened house. Andrew was already out of view by the time he reached the first step. By the time he reached the second floor landing he regretted not going for one last cup of coffee. Making it to the fourth floor was nothing short of a miracle.

Neil shut and locked their bedroom door behind him and took a moment to catch his breath. Andrew was standing near the bed, stripping off his armbands and setting them on the bedside table. He watched as Neil shuffled to the bed and crawled to the middle of it, lying on his back and sighing heavily with relief.

“Some athlete you turned out to be.”

Neil found the strength to lift his head and arch an eyebrow at him. “I can think of a few things we can do to improve my stamina.”

“You can walk back to Palmetto.”

“You're hilarious.”

Andrew climbed onto the mattress and crawled up Neil's body, bracing himself on his hands and knees above him. “Yes or no, Neil?”

Neil slid his hands up onto the cool pillows, palms up and fingers open, and said, “Yes.”

Andrew reached up with one hand to hold onto Neil's wrist before rethinking it. Instead, he slid their palms together and interlocked their fingers. The other hand soon followed. Andrew rested his elbows just above Neil's shoulders and leaned down to kiss him. Andrew's hips lowered next, resting lightly against his without seeking anything further than simple contact. There was something deliriously intoxicating about having Andrew's body resting on top of his like this, connected from hips to their hands. Neil was covered, pressed into the mattress, but not trapped. There was a new intimacy in this that he found dangerously addictive.

Neil shivered as Andrew's lips dragged over his. His tongue brushed lightly over his bottom lip and then flicked just under the top one. Neil was a photograph dipped in the flame of a candle, curling and melting and slowly devoured. His heartbeat fluttered weakly- I want, I want, I want- when Andrew traced the roof of his mouth with his tongue. After kissing him thoroughly, Andrew bit the corner of Neil's jaw and flattened his tongue against the subtle dusting of stubble growing. Neil tilted his chip up to give Andrew easier access to his neck, craving more, and Andrew didn't disappoint. Andrew kissed roughly down the column of his throat before licking up the other side to his ear. Neil shivered and sighed brokenly at the feeling of the wet glide of his tongue. Andrew's arousal was evident in the way he squeezed Neil's hands harder, pushed them deeper into the pillows, and the way his hips lifted so that Neil couldn't feel his cock hardening in his sweatpants.

He nipped at Neil's earlobe and his voice was rough as gravel when he said, “I want to fuck you.”

Both of them went completely still while the words hung in the air. Andrew had gone tense and Neil could feel his breath stutter against his ear. His mouth felt dry. Andrew wouldn't bring something like this up if he was less than absolutely certain and Neil could feel his exhausted lower half stirring just at the suggestion of it.

Neil turned his face against Andrew's hair. “Let me get some coffee and I'll be good to go.”

Andrew released his hands and sat up fluidly, lightly resting on top of Neil's thighs. “I'm not asking for it tonight.”

“I want you to fuck me, too.” Neil struggled to sit up, eager to close the distance between them again.

“I want you to think about it,” Andrew said sternly, pushing him back down, “so you're ready when I ask.”

Neil had been thinking about it, was already sure of what he wanted, but he knew this was important to Andrew so he nodded and replied, “I'll think about it.”

The tension in Andrew's shoulders softened a little. Neil's eyes dropped to the bulge in his pants. Outside, rain began to fall, spattering softly against the glass doors and whispering across the roof.

“I'll be back in a few minutes,” Andrew said, shifting to climb off of Neil's body.

“Can I jerk you off?” Neil asked.

Andrew froze, mouth set in a hard line. “You're tired.”

“I can still get you off. I want to.” Neil rose up on his elbows and Andrew watched the t-shirt stretch over his chest. “Stay?”

Slowly, Andrew moved up Neil's body so he was straddling his waist and his groin was comfortably within Neil's reach. He undid the drawstring of his sweatpants and pulled himself out before leaning forward, his hands on either side of Neil's head. His eyes were molten gold in the low lamplight as they watched Neil turn and brush his lips lightly against one scarred, ink-smudged wrist.

Neil murmured his question into Andrew's skin. “Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Andrew said, eyes fixated on Neil's mouth.

Neil ghosted another kiss over the place where two thick scars overlapped as he carefully wrapped his hand around Andrew's cock and stroked him lightly. Andrew shifted his weight back on his legs, and slid one hand under Neil's head, putting just enough pressure there to guide Neil's mouth closer to his wrist. Neil felt the shiver that went through Andrew's body when he kissed the scars again and he couldn't help smiling. He tightened his grip close to the head of Andrew's cock and began pulling him off with short, hard strokes. Andrew twitched and swelled in his hand. In an instant, Andrew's mouth was on Neil's neck, kissing just under his hairline in an attempt to smother his quiet groan of pleasure. Neil hummed and tilted his mouth up to kiss at a different pair of scars higher up Andrew's forearm. He could feel Andrew's lips parting below his ear, could almost sense Andrew warring with his desire to leave a bruise there.

“Mark me,” Neil whispered into Andrew's forearm. “I don't give a fuck if they see it.”

Andrew let out a slow, controlled breath against Neil's neck before biting down. The pain of it was different when it wasn't coupled with pleasure, but Neil wasn't about to complain. He rubbed Andrew faster and took deep breaths while Andrew sucked three new bruises into his skin. Andrew's hips jerked forward, signaling that he was close, and Neil sped up. He pressed kisses into Andrew's wrist, taking care to keep his mouth firmly closed and the pressure gentle. Andrew shoved Neil's t-shirt up to his neck a mere moment before grunting and spilling onto Neil's scars and the dark bruises he'd gotten earlier.

He stayed curled over Neil for a minute, breathing hard into the curve of Neil's shoulder as he shivered and came back down from his high. Neil stroked him for a few more seconds, drawing out the last few weak drops of cum, before uncurling his cramped hand and waiting patiently.

Andrew sat up and blinked down at Neil, looking from the bruises darkening on his neck to the cum glistening on his chest. Tucking himself back into his pants, he said, “Wait.”

Neil stayed put while Andrew crawled over the side of the bed to snag the tissue box off the bedside table. He pulled three or four out and carefully wiped his cum off of Neil's chest, leaving him still sticky but dry enough. When he was satisfied, he balled the tissues up and tossed them into the wastebasket. Before Neil pulled his shirt back down, Andrew traced his fingers across Neil's bruised side.

“Who did this?” he demanded, voice quiet but tight.

“I got hit by a bike,” Neil answered sullenly. “He couldn't see me because of the rain and I wasn't paying attention.”

Andrew gave him a long, unimpressed look and tugged Neil's shirt down to cover him. He climbed off the bed and Neil followed him to the bathroom to wash up for bed.

As the rain continued to patter softly against the roof and windows, they slid under the covers together and fell asleep.

Chapter Text

On Sunday morning, Neil showered first and traipsed down to the kitchen to scrounge up some breakfast while Andrew took his turn in the shower. He pulled his armbands on over his scarred and scraped arms, but he did nothing to hide the marks on his neck. There were three crimson splotches just above the collar of his shirt and Neil found that if he pressed on them hard enough he could almost feel Andrew's teeth and tongue there.

The only other people in the kitchen when Neil came down were Aaron and Katelyn, who were standing at the kitchen island having a late breakfast together, and Nicky, who was drinking his second or third cup of coffee while waiting for Erik to get back from his morning swim. Neil said good morning to the three of them as he shuffled over to the cabinet to pull down a pair of mugs.

“Are those hickeys?” Aaron asked with venom in his voice.

Neil looked over his shoulder at Andrew's twin and answered, “Yes.”

Katelyn ruffled Aaron's hair and smiled teasingly at him. “You know what those are, babe.”

Aaron's attention seemed to be successfully diverted away from the marks. Katelyn giggled and whispered something to Aaron while Neil filled both mugs with coffee and tried to ignore them. He added some sugar to one and reached into the fridge for some milk.

Nicky rounded the long breakfast bar and leaned against the closed half of the stainless steel refrigerator, grinning mischievously. “Care to share with the class, Mr. Josten?”

“I saw the condoms in your room, Nicky,” Neil said lowly, pouring in just enough milk to get Andrew's coffee to the proper shade medium-brown. “I don't think I have to explain these things to you.”

Aaron couldn't have heard what they said, but he still called over to them in German, “Hey, take that gay shit outside, would you? Some of us are trying to eat.”

Nicky's flinch was barely visible- Neil wouldn't have caught it if they hadn't been standing so close. Before Neil could open his mouth to give Aaron a piece of his mind, though, Erik was there on the other side of the breakfast bar with a towel hanging from his tanned shoulders and a quiet wrath building in his eyes.

“What did you just say?” Erik asked, speaking in German as well.

Katelyn frowned, not understanding what was being said but clearly picking up on the tension building in the room. She looked between her boyfriend and Erik and Neil. Aaron stared at Erik, jaw frozen mid-bite. Nicky had put up with Aaron's bad attitude for years. Neil squabbled with Aaron regularly, but was accustomed to it as well. Andrew barely acknowledged him anymore. Erik, on the other hand, was a different story and none of them knew just how he would react.

Nicky plastered a desperately bright smile to his face that fell short of his eyes. “It's okay, baby! He's joking. It's not a big deal.”

Aaron looked slightly relieved at Nicky's interference. Erik might not have been raised on violence like the Foxes, but he was still plenty intimidating with his towering height and muscular physique. It was possible that Aaron had more experience, but Erik's size and raw power would give him an advantage.

He walked slowly into the kitchen to stand at Nicky's side, dripping water on the stone tiles, and his eyes stayed fixed on Aaron. “It is a big deal.”

Nicky's smile wavered. “It's really fine, Erik. Don't worry about it.”

Aaron resumed chewing and Neil could practically see him choosing his next words. Katelyn put her hand on his arm and asked him if everything was all right.

“Why don't you explain it to her, Aaron?” Neil challenged in German.

“Stay the fuck out of my business,” Aaron warned.

“You should've stayed out of mine.”

“You brought the fag convention into the kitchen-”

“That's enough,” Erik seethed, fists clenching.

Aaron scoffed, brushing aside Katelyn's concern. “Fucking Nicky doesn't give you the right to butt in like this. You're making a big deal out of nothing, so why don't you just go calm down.”

“Nicky and I are in a long-term, committed relationship. We have been for years. Don't you dare try to trivialize that,” Erik said. “I've heard enough about you, Aaron, to know that you understand what it's like to be rejected and beaten down by your own family. When Nicky decided to come back to South Carolina for your sake, I supported him because I thought he would be able to strengthen his bond with his family like he always wanted. I see now that I overestimated your humanity.”

Neil put the milk back in the fridge and leaned back against the counter. Nicky's smiling mask finally crumbled away and his pain was laid bare for all of them to see. With his mirth stripped away, he looked older than he was and wearier than Neil had ever seen him. Neil knew how exhausting it was to hide all the time. Nicky made it seem almost effortless most of the time.

“Can we speak in English, please?” Katelyn asked with a weak laugh.

The men ignored her.

Aaron straightened and his hands balled into fists at his sides. “You don't know shit about me,” he spat. “It's bad enough that-”

Erik shifted forward slightly, tensing in preparation for a fight. “I will not warn you again.”

“I didn't do single fucking thing to you. What is your problem?”

“You're hurting him,” Erik growled, eyes flashing.

Nicky's hands were shaking when he put them around his boyfriend's arm. “Baby, please, let's just go- we can go out for brunch or something. Let's just go.”

Erik stared at him for a moment and Neil felt like he was intruding on something intensely intimate. He took a step away from the couple as if to give them some more privacy. Unfortunately, that put him a step closer to Aaron.

“Come home, Nicky,” Erik murmured, curling his fingers under Nicky's chin. “I can't bear to watch your family break you again. You can drop out of school or transfer. Just come home with me.”

Aaron's lip curled back into an ugly snarl. “He's not going to just pick up and leave.”

“You treat him like shit,” Neil cut in. “He'd be happier in Germany.”

Nicky was shaken and speechless. Dan and Matt came in from the main deck then, wrapped in towels and dripping with pool water, and their smiles dropped from their faces when they noticed the scene in the kitchen.

“What's going on?” Dan asked.

Neil looked at her and shook his head, warning her to stay out of it. If anymore people from outside Aaron's tiny social circle got involved Aaron's anger would only escalate. She frowned, but she still let Matt guide her down the main hallway to the stairs.

Since the stairs were just above the kitchen, Neil could hear Matt and Dan's footfalls heading up to the second floor and he could also make out a third pair of feet, quietly descending. No one else noticed, but Neil recognized Andrew's rhythm. He also recognized the violent fury brewing in Aaron's eyes. His rage was different from twin's- Aaron was a stray spark catching on a drought-stricken field whereas Andrew was a match held over a purposefully poured trail of gasoline.

By Neil's estimation, Andrew had already stepped off the bottom stair when Aaron turned to him and said, “You're nothing but my brother's whore. You should learn your place and keep your mouth shut.”

Nicky gaped at Aaron and Erik looked offended on Neil's behalf.

“Aaron,” Nicky said imploringly. “Just stop.”

Andrew was silent in the hallway, but Neil could see him stop at the corner of the wall to listen.

Katelyn wrung her hands together anxiously. “Aaron, what's going on? What are you guys saying?”

Neil knew why Aaron switched to German. Katelyn was sweet and good and Aaron wanted keep the ugliness in his heart hidden from her since he couldn't snuff it out.

“Katelyn, your boyfriend is a homophobic asshole,” Neil said. “That's what's going on.”

Andrew stepped into plain view and Neil saw Aaron's furious reaction out of the corner of his eye. He knew the punch was coming, knew how to throw up his arms to defend himself, but in the split-second before Aaron's fist flew he decided on something much crueler: he let Aaron hit him.

Everything went dark for the second between the fist landing against the side of his nose and his head cracking back into the corner of the refrigerator. The world bloomed white, then exploded into red, then his eyes snapped open to see the kitchen, blurry and tilting and underwater.

No one noticed Andrew until he'd slammed Aaron against the counter with a knife to his throat. Katelyn's shriek was distant and drowning in Neil's stunned mind. Nicky stepped forward, either to try to steady Neil or get to his warring cousins, but Erik pulled him back. Blinking away the water in his eyes, Neil clutched his bleeding nose and sagged against the refrigerator.

The shouts of the others as they came running to see what the commotion was stung Neil's ringing ears. He cringed away from the overwhelming light and sound.

Neil's body felt weightless and detached. He could taste his own blood oozing between the seam of his lips and at the back of his throat, where his pulse was thick and pounding. When he tried to move too soon, the room pitched sharply to one side and he had to grab onto the counter beside the twins for support.

“You know better than to touch what's mine,” Andrew crooned sweetly, pressing the sharp blade harder into Aaron's neck. Blood seeped out from where the knife had slid against his skin.

“And-” Neil clamped his mouth shut when his stomach clenched.

“What the fuck is going on?” Dan demanded.

“Andrew, get off him!” shouted Matt.

“Stop it! Let him go!” screamed Katelyn.

Kevin's voice rang out from up the stairs. “Guys? What's with all the noise?”

Neil waved his hand to try to catch Andrew's attention, but then he saw the upward quirk of his lips and the terror in Aaron's eyes. He'd managed to climb higher in the black abyss of his mind today and that spelled trouble for his brother.

“Renee!” Dan called. “Renee! We need you down here!”

“Neil, fuck, you're bleeding.” Matt started for him immediately, but Neil held up his hand to stop him.

“Just stay back,” Neil managed to say through the pressure pounding in his skull. “Everyone, just leave.”

“Oh my god,” sobbed Katelyn. “Please, just make him stop.”

A furious shiver rolled through Andrew's shoulders.

Nicky tried to pull away from Erik as he was ushered away from the kitchen. “Andrew,” Nicky called. “Neil's hurt. Andrew, Neil is bleeding. He needs help.”

It was the wrong thing to remind Andrew of. His lips stretched into a cold and cruel smile and he leaned all his weight on his brother, bending him backward over the sink as if he was planning on opening Aaron's artery over the drain. Neil focused all his energy on sucking in a deep breath to steady himself and put his hands flat on the counter to stabilize his dizzy head.

“Andrew,” he whispered before he switched to Russian. “Take me upstairs.”

“He hurt you,” Andrew said slowly. “He looks so surprised.”

“You've hurt him back. You're even. I want to go upstairs now.”

“Are they speaking Russian?” Dan asked. “What the fuck?”

Andrew dug his thumb into the hollow of Aaron's throat, keeping his eyes on his brother's ashen face. “How bad is it?”

Neil took a moment to assess himself. He felt like his head was filled with water, everything was distant and too bright and too loud all at once. Pain was screaming from the side of his head and pulsing in his nose. He didn't black out or vomit, though. He quickly ran through the usual questions in his head- the date, the address of the house, the name of the current president- and still had answers for all of them.

“I have a minor concussion,” he replied finally, resorting to English for lack of a better Russian vocabulary. “It's not serious.”

Kevin stepped around Matt, seething. “What the fuck? Neil, what's going on?”

“Aaron punched him,” Nicky answered. “He hit his head pretty hard.”

Renee showed up at the edge of the kitchen with the others and looked between Neil and Andrew. “Andrew, can you tell me what's wrong?”

Andrew ignored her.

Neil leaned closer and said, “Take me upstairs or I'll ask your cousin to help me.”

Andrew shoved away from Aaron, slid the knife back into its sheath beneath his armbands, and turned his furious eyes onto Neil. Aaron slid to the floor, coughing and clutching the shallow cut on his neck, before he scrambled to Katelyn and dragged her from the room. Andrew grabbed Neil's chin and looked into his eyes, checking to make sure his pupils were even. Neil couldn't bring himself to care that the others were still staring at them.

“How bad is it?” Kevin asked.

“I have a minor concussion,” Neil repeated.

“A concussion?”

“He said it was a small one, Kevin,” said Renee. “Neil's still standing and he didn't throw up. That's good.”

“Christ, Neil,” Nicky sighed. “I'm sorry. It's my-”

“It's not your fault,” Erik interrupted.

Matt cleared his throat just as Andrew began prodding at Neil's nose to see if it was broken. Neil flinched away from the pain, but Andrew caught the back of his neck with his other hand to keep him still.

“Does he need to go to the hospital?” Matt asked. “I'll drive him or- or Andrew would, I guess. Neil?”

“He doesn't need a hospital,” Andrew answered. His eyes locked onto Nicky. “Get ice and aspirin and bring it up to our room.”

“Andrew, he needs to go the fucking hospital. A concussion is serious,” Kevin said.

“You don't need a tongue to play Exy, Kevin,” Andrew hissed. Kevin snapped his mouth shut, scowling.

Andrew wrapped his hand around Neil's wrist and pulled him out of the kitchen. Neil pinched his nose shut and tried not to drip blood on the stairs or the carpet of their bedroom. His fuzzy thoughts lagged behind him as Andrew led him through the bedroom to the bathroom. He sat Neil down on the cold tile floor against the wall and kept the lights off, leaving the door open to let light slant in without touching Neil directly. Neil was silently grateful. His head was throbbing and burning and he felt like his skull was ready to pop like an over-inflated balloon.

He watched Andrew wet a washcloth in the sink and then crouch down beside him, balancing easily on the balls of his feet. Andrew's movements were quick and agitated. His anger was still simmering in his tight shoulders, twitching in his cheek, and sharpening his gaze, but his hand was careful as it cupped Neil's jaw. The other hand wiped the blood away from his lips and chin with the cold cloth. Dazed, Neil leaned into the subtle pressure of Andrew's palm and let his eyes slip shut. The soft brush of Andrew's fingertips under his ear made his pulse jump. Goosebumps rolled down his arms.

Opening his eyes, he was struck by the intensity of Andrew's eyes as he cleaned Neil's face and inspected the bruise developing down the side of his nose and spreading under his eye. The taste of blood was still hanging on his tongue, but he still wanted to lean forward and kiss him.

“No,” he grunted before his disoriented mind could process it.

Andrew froze. “No?”

Neil struggled to think of why he'd said that, who he'd meant to say it to. Frowning, he mumbled, “I don't... I don't know.”

He was aware enough to remember that this, the distance stretching between his thoughts, was what he hated most about head injuries. The gaps left him weak and vulnerable.

“Do you want me to stop touching you?” Andrew asked, tilting Neil's chin up to catch his gaze.

“I like it,” Neil replied. “I need to keep my hands to myself.”

Andrew's fingers tightened around his chin. “You said it was a minor concussion. Were you lying to me?”

“I wasn't lying. I'll be fine. I'm just... I can't think straight.”

Nicky's soft voice came from the doorway. “I know how that is,” he joked quietly.

Andrew's eyes flicked over to his cousin. Neil watched his jaw clench and barely suppressed the desire to press his lips there.

“Erm, here,” Nicky said awkwardly, stepping into the room to hand Andrew an ice pack and a bottle of aspirin. When Andrew didn't immediately threaten him to get out, he asked, “How's Neil doing?”

“You heard him,” Andrew said tightly.

“Right. Um, oh!” He stepped out of the bathroom and Neil could hear him talking quietly to Erik before he came back in and set two mugs on the floor beside their feet. “Here's your coffee. Neil left it down there. I don't know if he wants it, but, yeah. There it is. You can text me if you guys need anything else, okay?”

He had one foot out the door when Neil said, “Wait.”

“Yeah?” Nicky asked quietly.

Neil squinted up at him. “You're not going to leave, too, are you?”

Nicky's smile fell. “Oh, right. Erik kind of sprung that on me. I don't... I don't know if I should. Maybe it'd be better if I left.”

He didn't look at Andrew, but Neil knew at the back of his mind that Nicky was desperate for Andrew to give him some sort of acknowledgment that things weren't completely shattered between them. Neil nudged Andrew's ankle with his foot and gave him a look.

With his eyes fixed on Neil's face, Andrew grit out, “Your five years aren't up yet, Nicky.”

“That's true,” Nicky said softly, but he sounded relieved. “Text me if you need me, okay?”

“Okay,” Neil answered.

Once Nicky was gone, Andrew pulled Neil forward to hold the ice pack to the side of his head and Neil slumped against him, resting his forehead on Andrew's shoulder. His hands fell limply on top of his thighs and for a moment he just breathed in the scent of their shower gel on Andrew's skin, willing the pressure in his head to subside.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “My head is so heavy.”

Andrew gave no reply, but he didn't push him off either.

“I let him hit me.”

“I know.”

Neil lifted his head and pressed his forehead to Andrew's, sighing against his cheek. “I provoked him.”

“I know,” Andrew murmured. “I'm going to have to sew your mouth shut for your fifth year.”

Groaning, Neil replied, “I don't want to think about that.”

“I know.”

Chapter Text

Since he wasn't about to let Neil out of his sight while he was vulnerable and dazed, Andrew told Dan that her plans to go out with Neil had to wait. Neil spent Sunday sprawled across the sofa in his bedroom, staring at the muted television while he waited for his mind to clear. Nicky and Renee brought food or tea up every few hours at Andrew's request, but they didn't stick around long to visit. Kevin wisely kept away from the fourth floor and kept his lectures to himself. Andrew only left Neil's side to use the bathroom or smoke out on the balcony and when he was in the sitting area he sat on the floor out of Neil's reach. No matter how earnestly Neil assured him that his mind was present enough to consent to kissing, Andrew ignored him.

On Monday morning, Neil's face was splashed with a dark, ugly bruise down the side of his nose and his head still ached dully, but the fog of his concussion had lifted. Andrew said nothing when Neil said that he and Dan were going out for lunch, but Neil could see the tension in his jaw.

On the stairs, he passed Kevin, who had his phone pressed to his ear. Neil answered Kevin's questioning look with a small smile and a thumbs-up. Satisfied, Kevin continued on his way, speaking lowly in French. Brook and Riley eyed Neil curiously when he wandered into the lounge and Brian asked if his head was all right. Matt patted Neil's shoulder and said, “Seeing you all banged up isn't something I missed. You good?”

“I'm good,” Neil replied before looking to Dan. “You ready?”

Dan put down her magazine and rose from the armchair. “Yup. Matt, make sure the kids behave. We'll be back later.”

Matt kissed her cheek and returned to the younger Foxes, saying, “All right, who's ready to get their ass kicked at ping-pong?”

The day was overcast and cooler thanks to the large storm that rolled through on Saturday and Neil was privately relieved that the sun was tucked away where it couldn't make his headache worse. They climbed into Matt's truck with Dan behind the wheel since she didn't want to risk Neil driving. Soon they were driving slowly through town in search of the restaurant Dan had chosen. Dan squinted at street signs and chewed her lip as she tried to remember where the restaurant was supposed to be, humming in displeasure every now and then when she made a wrong turn.

“We can just stop anywhere,” Neil said.

“Hush, Neil.”

Neil didn't mind driving aimlessly around the island and watching the scenery, so he kept his mouth shut after that. Twenty minutes later, Dan finally managed to find the Rusty Anchor, a small seafood restaurant near a marina full of sleek sailboats and squarish ferries. The parking lot was uneven and small and only half-filled. Above the door hung a wooden anchor with the name of the restaurant painted across it.

Inside, the restaurant was decorated just as Neil expected- a pair of oars were crossed over a faded life preserver just behind the host's stand and a halved rowboat was fixed just above the double-doors leading into the main dining room. Framed charts of saltwater fish and photographs of famous fishing boats hung on the walls between the windows and fishing nets decorated with feathered fishhooks were draped across the rafters. The air smelled like fried batter, malt vinegar, and beer and the floor stuck to Neil's sneakers in some places, but overall he didn't mind it.

They were seated quickly and given menus that were worn at the corners. The waitress brought them glasses of water with lemon wedges stuffed between the square cubes of ice before flitting off to attend to another table. Dan's eyes darted around the menu, quickly taking in her options, before she decided on something and put the menu down, folding her arms on top of it with an eager smile on her face.

“So,” she started, pulling Neil's attention away from the list of soups, “how're things?”

“'Things?'”

“Things,” Dan repeated emphatically. “How are things going with the boy who gave you those hickeys?”

Neil's hand reached for them automatically before he could stop himself. “Oh, uh, things are fine.”

“Matt said he caught you two making out the other night.” Her grin was pleased and bracketed with deep dimples. “I wanted to get the details from you yesterday but then the Minyard Meltdown happened and Andrew locked you away in your tower.”

“There aren't many details to get,” Neil said evenly, returning his attention to the menu. “I mean, you and Matt make out all the time. You know how it goes.”

“Come on, it's Andrew. You can't blame us for being curious.”

“It's not like he's a different species,” Neil said quietly. He knew the others didn't understand Andrew, but he still found it irritating when they talked about him like he was a machine or a sociopath.

“All right.” Dan lifted her hands in surrender. “Tell me, though, are you happy with him?”

When Neil looked at her again there was genuine concern shining in her eyes. “Yeah,” he answered. “Can we change the subject now?”

“Sure, kid,” she laughed. “How 'bout them Trojans?”

The waitress appeared a moment later and took their order. Dan ordered beer-battered shrimp with cornbread and fries and Neil ordered a bowl of clam chowder. In spite of Dan not being serious about her question, they did discuss the Trojans and the Lions while they waited for their food to show up.

Once the food arrived, the subject switched over to the incoming Foxes and the year Neil was facing. Dan reminded him that Wymack never expected anything to go smoothly with the Foxes and that she would only be a phone call away if he needed advice. Neil swallowed a bite of chowder thickly and tried to keep to his expression neutral, but Dan caught the downward tug of his lips.

“Is everything okay, Neil?” she asked quietly. “I've noticed you looking a little green around the gills lately.”

Neil scratched at his neck. “I don't know what I'm going to do without you guys.”

“You know, I was really happy to leave my hometown after Wymack signed me,” Dan said quietly. “Like, I was really, really happy to get out of there and get a fresh start in a new place. I was terrified that I'd be stuck in a trailer park for the rest of my life.”

Neil stopped eating and listened intently, not understanding why she was telling him this.

“But, in spite of how good it was to be away from that place, I had a really hard time leaving my stage sisters behind.” She smiled sadly and took a drink of her water before continuing, “I was shocked at how homesick I felt. Things were already shitty because of the assholes I had to put up with and the team was a total mess and I just felt... lost without my sisters around. I finally broke down and called them to tell them how bad things were and just having them listen and knowing that they cared about me was enough to take the edge off the homesickness. It's tough, being far away from family, but there's a big difference between being by yourself and being completely alone.”

Neil's heart was full and heavy.

“You won't be alone, Neil, because the rest of us won't let you be. Everything will be okay. And besides,” Dan laughed, “you're going to have your hands full with the rest of those jackasses. You'll be too busy to mope.”

Neil cracked a small smile. “Will you come watch us win finals next year?”

“Ha! Of fucking course I will. I'll dye my hair orange and everything.”

After lunch, they drove around the island for awhile longer, talking about Dan's new job and Neil's strategies for summer training, and then they returned to the house. Dan parked the truck next to the Maserati and, when they climbed out onto the pavement, they noticed Nicky sitting halfway down the front stairs with a mug of coffee in his hands.

Dan exchanged a light-hearted greeting with Nicky before she headed inside to find Matt. Neil stuffed his hands into his jean pockets and sat down beside the older backliner. His silence was enough to prompt Nicky to explain.

“Erik and Aaron went out to buy booze together,” he said flatly. “Like an hour ago.”

“Oh.”

“I told Erik I wasn't going to go back with him, so he wanted to have a chat with Aaron about... well, you know.”

Neil nodded. He couldn't remember if he'd seen any sign of remorse on Aaron's face when Erik exposed Nicky's pain, but Neil knew the horror of learning a loved one was suffering from unseen injuries. Aaron had a sharp tongue and, whether he meant to inflict real harm or not, he'd reopened the worst of Nicky's old wounds- wounds that Erik had stitched up and soothed after Nicky first went to Germany. It was hard to tell, though, with Nicky's easygoing temperament and bright smiles that he'd ever suffered at all. Neil didn't know if Nicky was a better actor than he got credit for or if Erik's love and devotion had given him enough strength to keep smiling over the years.

“I thought Aaron was getting better with everything,” said Neil. “I'm surprised he went after you like that yesterday.”

“All Aaron wants is to build a good life for himself and move on from his past, but it's messier than he expected. In his mind, he's not making progress fast enough and Andrew's still shutting him out. He was just spoiling for a fight, so he took aim at what he saw was the easiest target and fired. He's always had trouble quitting his bad habits.”

Neil nodded, understanding. “Did he leave Katelyn behind in the house with Andrew?”

“Fuck no,” Nicky laughed. “She and Allison are out shopping.”

“Probably for the best. Did they fight or anything yesterday?”

“Oh, yeah.” Nicky sipped his coffee and smirked. “I eavesdropped a little. She told him she's disappointed and that she wants him to make an effort to be closer to the rest of the team.”

“Can't wait,” Neil grumbled.

Nicky snorted and shook his head, but he forgot whatever he meant to say next when soft footsteps came from behind them. Andrew was walking down the steps with a pack of cigarettes in his hand, sliding a dull look between the two of them. Neil turned to sit sideways as Andrew lowered himself to sit a couple steps above him. Nicky stared at his cousin with wide, waiting eyes as Andrew calmly lit two cigarettes and handed one down to Neil. He took a few quick puffs and squinted at the driveway, but he said nothing.

Slowly, Nicky relaxed and continued drinking his coffee. They didn't have to wait long for Nicky's rental car to pull into view and park off to the side behind the Lexus. Aaron was driving and he took his time shutting off the engine and climbing out. By the time he was out of the car, Erik was halfway to Nicky with the bags from the liquor store in his hands.

Aaron watched Erik climb the steps to where Nicky was sitting and bend down to kiss his cheek. His expression was blank, but his silence was as loud as his brother's. Neil could tell that it was acceptance and that alone was a promising start.

Chapter Text

At three o'clock on Wednesday morning, Neil was still wide awake even after laying in bed for an hour listening to Andrew's quiet breathing. Earlier, he'd finally managed to convince Andrew that the minor concussion he'd sustained on Sunday was over and done with, but Andrew had still refused to put his hands on him. It wasn't just the unsatisfied arousal leeching out of his body that kept him awake, however.

The beach seemed to grow louder each day, more difficult to ignore, and memories of his mother swelled with it. The Foxes had only half a week left at the beach house before splitting up for the rest of their short summer vacation. The next time Neil stepped onto the court he would be doing so as their captain.

At three-fifteen, Neil decided he was too restless to stay there. As quietly as he could, he eased himself out of the bed and stole across the dark room. He didn't close the door all the way for fear of disturbing Andrew more than he probably already had. With his fingertips trailing lightly across the smooth walls, he made his way down the stairs, through the house, and outside without stumbling in the shadows or bumping into anything.

The sky was an endless stretch of black velvet strewn with crumbs of white starlight and a bright half-moon. The water was a whispering, rolling mass with broken light dancing across the surface. The scent of saltwater and dew-soaked grass washed over him as he walked barefoot through the cool lawn. The wooden planks of the walkway were rough against the soles of his feet, but soon he was stepping onto rocky sand and prickly grass. Neil sucked in deep breaths of the ocean air as his feet carried him forward onto the hard, damp sand. He stopped just out of reach of the tide to roll his sweatpants up to his knees, tightly enough that they wouldn't fall back down, and then walked to meet the next wave washing ashore. The water was refreshingly cold and gentle as it enveloped his feet for a brief, soothing moment before dragging away.

Instinctive fear rattled in his chest while he blinked at the shards of moonlight on the far-off waves. Don't look back. Don't slow down. Don't trust anyone. His mother's voice was frantic in his ears, but he couldn't feel the ferocity of her fingers gripping his arm any longer. For once, his feet didn't itch with the terrible, trained desire to run and another's voice echoed in his mind, telling him to stay.

He'd been caught by an offered contract, stopped by a racquet to the ribs. He'd been lured in by a shiny set of keys and hypnotized by the most beautiful court he'd ever seen. He'd been coaxed into bargains and then anchored by his burning desire to stay, to win, to have something real for once.

“Sorry, Mom.” His whisper was louder than his memory of her.

He could remember how small he felt, how lost, when he carried on to San Francisco without her. He remembered the crushing hopelessness as he wandered with no one to care for him. His body could recall the ache of sleeping on a hard floor in an empty house. His tongue could still taste all the unspoken thoughts that rusted behind sealed lips.

He could also feel Andrew's mouth on his, ready to catch even the smallest sighs. He remembered the raindrops on Matt and Renee's shoulders, the worry in their eyes. He could still feel Wymack holding him up, stitching him together. He had an entire family that noticed when he went missing, listened when he spoke, and stood at his side when his demons came calling.

Neil was years away from his mother's unmarked grave and the smell of gasoline mixed with burning flesh. He was standing on the opposite coast, all by himself but not alone. Inhaling deeply, he put away his mother's warnings and his broken promises for good. He looked toward his future as captain of the Foxes and another year at Palmetto State University.

Soft footsteps dug into the sand behind him. Neil didn't have to look to know who it was.

“Pretty sure you're supposed to fill your pockets with rocks or something.” Andrew paused as he took a long drag off his cigarette. “Although you probably have enough issues to weigh you down.”

Neil rolled his eyes and tilted his head back to look up at the stars. “You wouldn't let me drown.”

“Try me.”

His newfound peace swept through his chest like a fresh spring breeze and made him feel lighter, bolder. Neil took a few steps out of the water's reach and pulled his t-shirt off in one smooth motion. Andrew's cigarette sagged in his mouth, the only sign that Neil had surprised him. Wordlessly, he watched Neil toss his shirt onto the sand and strip off his sweatpants and briefs as well.

He paused under Andrew's heavy stare. The cool night air and hazy moonlight caressed his naked skin and, though he was hidden from the rest of the world, Andrew could see all of him. The blond remained a few feet away, neither advancing nor retreating, while Neil walked back into the water. The chill of it flooded his skin with goosebumps as he walked deeper, deeper, until one wave was high enough to wash up against his mouth and nose. He stayed there in the comfortable depth, where he could touch sand between waves, treading water and trying to get used to the odd feeling of being completely bare. Drifting in the cold ocean water, in the tranquil darkness, Neil felt childlike and reckless.

A hiss from behind him broke him from his quiet stargazing. He whipped his head back and saw Andrew, stripped down to his underwear and half-submerged with a hateful scowl painted on his face. Neil could see his shoulders shaking as he struggled to adjust to the cooler temperature of the water.

“Coming for a swim?” Neil teased.

“Only to f-fucking drown you.”

Neil heard Andrew's teeth chattering as he came closer.

“It's c-colder than a ghost's asshole out here,” Andrew continued sourly.

When he was within reach, Neil put his hand around Andrew's neck and pulled him closer, murmuring, “I can keep you warm.”

Andrew shoved him away. “I thought you said your head wasn't fucked up anymore.” He hissed sharply again when a wave passed over his shoulders, brushing just under his chin. Neil laughed and leaned into the next one, letting it lift him just off the sandy floor.

“You'll get used to it,” Neil said before pulling his legs up and swimming into deeper water. It was colder than he'd like it to be, but with most of his body submerged the chill felt normal and almost comfortable. Several yards away from Andrew, he floated on his back, trusting his buoyancy, and stared up at starry clusters in the sky. The universe was closer than it had ever been, perpetually indifferent but beautiful anyhow.

He felt the water shift before he felt Andrew's hand slid across his stomach. Neil lifted his head and tucked his body, turning so that he was upright and treading water with Andrew, who had stopped shivering.

“There might be sharks out here,” Neil said.

Andrew slid a passive look across the shadowy surface. “Are you worried about swimming with deadly things?”

“I was raised by deadly things.”

“Yeah, well, you still grew up to be prey.”

Neil hummed and tilted his chin down into the water for a moment. “I'm not being hunted anymore.”

“You struck a deal with the Moriyamas, not the sharks.”

“They probably won't bite if there's no blood in the water.”

Andrew reached up to tap the healing bruise on Neil's face. “I don't have to remind you how good you are at bleeding.”

“I have you to patch me up.” Neil leaned forward and kissed him.

“You're stupid,” Andrew mumbled against his mouth before deepening the kiss. His tongue was hot against Neil's cold lips and Neil opened up to him immediately, craving more of his heat. Andrew curved one hand around Neil's neck and put some of his weight on his shoulder. Neil's fingers went into Andrew's hair, wetting the soft and smooth strands. Andrew pushed his tongue against Neil's, grunting into his mouth. Their bodies slid together under the surface and their legs threatened to tangle together. A wave washed up over their faces, spilling saltwater between their lips, and Neil held his breath just in time to avoid the sting of water in his nose. Maybe they would become so entwined that they couldn't stay afloat, maybe they'd drag each other down- Neil knew no one would be surprised. Mutual assured destruction was what most people expected of Andrew. Just in time, though, Andrew let go of Neil's neck and pulled Neil's legs around his hips, supporting his weight. They adjusted and they survived.

Neil crossed his ankles behind Andrew's body, carefully keeping himself from clinging too tightly, and his hands buried themselves in damp blond hair. Perhaps it was the added danger, thoughts of sinking or swimming predators, that turned the kiss desperate. Andrew kissed him like he had only minutes left instead of a lifetime, like his only hope of oxygen came from Neil's lungs. In turn, Neil's mind went blank and he pulled Andrew closer out of pure, well-founded survival instinct. Their tongues and lips pushed harder, teeth met harshly, fingers grasped shoulders and hips and hair. Neil burned with want. He wanted Andrew closer, surrounding him, inside of him. There was no doubt in his mind what his answer would be when Andrew was finally ready to ask for that last piece of him. His yes poured through his chest like honey, sweet and slow.

Andrew gasped for breath and dragged one hand down Neil's back, looking up into Neil's eyes. “It's really fucking cold out here,” he whispered.

Neil's lips tugged upward into a small smile. “Coffee?”

Andrew shook his head. “Shower.”

“Mm, too tired to stand up in the shower.” He pressed into Andrew for another brief kiss.

Andrew tilted his head back, annoyed. “If you're too tired to shower, you shouldn't be out here swimming, dumbass.”

“I'll wise up eventually.”

“You have two years to get your head out of your ass.”

Neil's smile widened. “If I can't, will you stay?”

“Ugh.” Andrew shoved him away and started swimming toward the shore.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Neil called after him, chuckling.

Back on the beach, they shivered and dressed as quickly as they could. Sand stuck to their feet and fell from the folds of their sweatpants and it clung stubbornly to their wet hands as they tried to brush it off. They followed the wooden walkway back to the lawn and the concrete area around the pool. Hidden beside the covered hot tub was a couple of outdoor shower stalls, which they used to wash the sand off of their feet before toweling themselves as dry as they could.

The cold had burrowed deep into Neil's body. He was still shivering when they arrived back in their bedroom, so he headed straight for the bathroom and stood for a moment in the middle of the tiled floor. Neil looked from the shower to the bath, debating for a few moments before deciding on trying out the bathtub. He hadn't taken the time for one in years. On the run, getting clean had always been about simplicity and efficiency and he'd never really taken the time to soak in the bathtub in their dorm. As a child, though, baths had been something he enjoyed. He could remember his nanny carefully rubbing shampoo into his hair and letting him have an extra ten minutes to play with his toy submarine.

It was after four o'clock and he was beginning to feel the scummy, hollowed out feeling that always filled his mouth and stomach when he skipped sleep, but he was still buzzing from the weird thrill of swimming naked in the ocean. As long as I'm trying out new things, he thought as he turned the copper taps and unleashed a pounding stream from the curved faucet. He held his fingers under the water and adjusted the taps until he found a temperature hot enough to thaw out his cold body but not hot enough to cook him.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Andrew grumbled from the doorway just as Neil was putting the stopper in the drain.

“I'm taking a bath.”

“Didn't realize you were so amphibious.”

Neil stood up and began taking off his damp clothing. His skin prickled in the open air. To his surprise, Andrew stepped inside and shut the door. He flicked on the fan before he leaned against the wall and watched Neil strip.

“Stop staring at me like that,” Neil teased, trying to imitate Andrew's tone.

Andrew tilted his head and leveled Neil with a flat, unimpressed stare even though his eyes had been studying Neil's sculpted thighs unabashedly only a moment before.

Neil climbed into the tub and sat with his arms folded across his knees. The porcelain was too cold to lean against and the water was just high enough to seep over his hips. He tried to hide his shiver, but goosebumps broke out in patches across his back and arms. Andrew remained against the wall, either too disinterested or too stubborn to move.

“I can't remember the last time I took a bath,” Andrew revealed when the water was at Neil's waist.

Neil tried not to show that he was relieved. “I used to like them when I was a kid,” he said quietly. “Thought I'd give it another shot.”

“Since you're sleep-deprived and stupid?”

“Since I'm sleep-deprived and stupid,” Neil confirmed, turning to rest his temple on his knee so he could look at Andrew. “Do you want to join me?”

“I wanted to sleep.”

He was good at deflecting. Neil should have expected as much from a goalkeeper.

“It's a big tub,” Neil tried, aiming from a different angle.

“It is a big tub,” Andrew agreed neutrally.

Neil reached his arms out in front of him, curving his back until he felt the pleasurable burn of well-stretched muscles. The water was just under his arms now. He was done trying to lure Andrew in to join him in the hot water, so he leaned back. He sucked in a quiet breath when the sore spot on the back of his head met with the hard wall of the tub, but he tried to hide his pain by slouching further down into the water. Only the top half of his head was visible above the high wall of the tub and being mostly hidden helped him to keep from looking back at Andrew. Instead, his eyes studied the thick column of water falling from the faucet. He had to point his toes and strain his legs to reach the other end of the tub.

Just as the water was swelling over his chin and brushing over his lower lip, Andrew was there at the side of the tub, shutting the water off. Neil watched as Andrew pulled off his shirt and dropped his underwear and sweats.

“Move,” Andrew commanded.

Neil sat up and scooted forward to give Andrew room behind him.

“I'm not sitting with the fucking faucet digging into my head,” Andrew explained even though Neil hadn't asked, hadn't even thought to wonder.

He kept his eyes forward as Andrew slowly climbed into the tub. Andrew bent his legs around Neil's hips and, shivering, tugged Neil back against his chest. Neil's head fell back on Andrew's shoulder until he sat up a bit more to fix the awkward angle of his neck. A powerful tremor wracked through Andrew's frame.

“I'm only doing this because I almost froze my balls off out there,” Andrew growled.

“Okay.”

“Swimming was a dumb idea.”

Neil's lips twitched. “You didn't have to come in.”

“You looked like you were having a nervous breakdown.”

“I was okay.”

“Sure.”

“I was.” Neil turned his head to look up at Andrew. “I am okay.”

Andrew poked the fading bruises along Neil's side before sliding up his chest and curling his fingers around Neil's throat. His thumb pushed Neil's chin up until his throat was elongated and exposed, incredibly fragile beneath Andrew's strong hand. Neil's gaze traveled along the ceiling while Andrew slowly bit down on his ear and traced Neil's carotid until his fingertips found his calm pulse. A drop fell from the faucet and the bathwater shivered. With his back pressed to Andrew's chest, Neil could feel the beat of Andrew's heart between his shoulder blades, could feel him expand and contract with deep breaths. He could sense the question swelling in Andrew's lungs before Andrew's mouth opened against his neck to ask.

Neil spoke first. “I'll tell you no if I need to.”

After an agonizing pause, Andrew reached between Neil's legs with his other hand and pushed a biting, bruising kiss into crook of his neck without the customary yes or no. Neil needed him to know that he didn't have to knock when he had a key. His advances were welcome and wanted.

Andrew's fair stubble scratched the damp skin of his neck. Neil swallowed hard, his throat jerking under the press of Andrew's palm, and let out a shaky sigh. His pulse quickened, his desire tightened heavily in his groin. Andrew's mouth replaced the marks that had faded.

Andrew dug his thumb under Neil's jaw, squeezed the head of his cock, and said, “I could kill you.”

Neil's breaths were thin under Andrew's hand. “I know,” he answered. He made no move to free himself and thought of no plan to escape.

Andrew nudged the chain of the plug with his foot until the drain was open and water flooded the pipes. As the water level sank, Andrew stroked Neil faster and kept just enough pressure around the delicate column of his throat for him to feel the potential for harm in it. The potential was always there, though. Neil was raised, trained, to see the potential for danger in everything. Every blade could draw blood. Every hand could hurt.

But potential without intention, without motivation, was harmless. Neil was safe.

Andrew bit down on Neil's shoulder and worked him harder.

“Yes,” Neil gasped with voice strange and stretched. He pushed against Andrew's chest, bucked up into his hand. Cold air washed over his skin as the warm water lowered and left him exposed. His burning, blooming pleasure battled against the chill.

By the time the water was shallow and gurgling around the drain, Neil was falling over the edge of his orgasm and releasing thickly into Andrew's palm. Fingers stroked his hammering pulse while he caught his breath and recovered. After a few moments, Andrew leaned them forward to wash his hand off in the few inches of water that was left at the bottom of the tub. Neil stayed slouched over his knees, breathing hard and shivering, while Andrew climbed out of the tub and found a towel to dry himself off with.

Neil heaved himself out of the tub as well, light-headed and determined, just as Andrew was wrapping the towel around his waist.

“Yes or no?”

Andrew paused with his shirt in his hands, narrowing his eyes at Neil. “Yes.”

Water dripped from Neil's body onto the cold tile as he knelt in front of Andrew and pressed a row of kisses across his stomach. Andrew's fingers opened the towel and let it pool around his feet. Sleep was calling. Neil could see the exhaustion in the way Andrew sagged against the counter, so he inhaled deeply and took as much of Andrew's stiff cock into his mouth and set a rough, desperate pace. Andrew let out a strangled sound and grabbed at Neil's head, pulling him closer. Unsure of where he was allowed to touch, Neil placed his hands over Andrew's and tangled their fingers together in his hair as he took Andrew deeper. The fuzzy exhaustion playing around the edges of his mind and the sting of his own hand brushing against his sore skull helped distract him from the urge to gag as he swallowed Andrew whole.

Andrew grunted something that sounded like Neil's name as he shook and spilled into Neil's mouth a couple minutes later. Neil kept still until Andrew's orgasm had played out fully and then he pulled off slowly, swallowing. Andrew scratched Neil's scalp with his dull fingernails and let out a huge sigh.

“Fuck.”

Neil wiped his mouth with his hand. “Good?”

“It's late,” Andrew said, scowling down at him. “Brush your teeth and come to bed.”

Chapter Text

Neil woke with a bittersweet melancholy pooled in his stomach like syrup on Saturday morning. The sun had already risen and the light seeping in through the curtains was a soft, dim orange. Neil's shoulder cast a faint shadow across the short space between his body and Andrew's. The sleeping blond had his nose turned into the pillow with his lips parted, jaw slackened, and pale golden lashes fluttering subtly as he continued to dream. A few fingers of his outstretched hand twitched and Neil tucked his own hands between his thighs to keep from reaching out to trace them. There was only a few more moments of peace for Andrew before Neil would have to get out of bed to meet Kevin downstairs for their morning run.

It was their last full day at the house. On Sunday morning, they would pack up their vehicles to go their separate ways and only some of the Foxes would return to the Tower in June. Neil was no longer dreading it, but he couldn't help wishing he could dig his heels in and linger in this last day as long as he could. He struggled to keep from counting down the hours and minutes until their inevitable departure.

On the bedside table, Neil's phone buzzed with Kevin's “wake up” text and Andrew's eyes cracked open, disturbed by the small noise.

“Staring,” he grumbled before turning his face into the pillow.

Neil hummed in acknowledgment and slid out from under the covers. He stretched, sighing at the deep pops of his joints, and shook out the stiffness in the arm he'd slept on. After he used the bathroom, he changed into a faded gray t-shirt and running shorts and then he pulled on his armbands and socks. Hooking his fingers into the backs of his running shoes, he took one last look at Andrew, who appeared to be fast asleep again, and then he headed downstairs to meet Kevin.

Kevin was fiddling with his new watch that would keep track of his heart rate and steps taken and calculate the calories burned. Neil thought it was ridiculous, but his remarks didn't dent Kevin's resolution to keep wearing it.

Neil sat on the bottom stair and pulled on his shoes, listening to the quiet chatter floating down the hallway from the kitchen.

“Ready?” Kevin asked as Neil stood.

“Let's go.”

They stretched their legs in the driveway, shivering slightly in the damp morning shadows, before they started down Ocean Boulevard in a slow jog. They sped up when they reached Palm and, for once, the two strikers were content to simply run side by side instead of race. Kevin usually started talking once they reached the bridge to Sullivan's Island- either about Exy or their teammates- but on this day he was oddly quiet. Neil could tell that something was on Kevin's mind and he guessed it had something to do with all the muttered French Neil had been hearing all week.

An glittering aisle of sunlight split the ocean from the horizon halfway to the harbor. The mist burned away and the temperature rose as the sun climbed higher. After they reached Sullivan's Island, Kevin swerved to the left without warning and Neil's feet turned to follow instinctively, cutting across the 703 onto Middle Street. Houses stood back from the narrow road with sandy, dried lawns littered with stout palm trees and short, rounded trees. Neil increased his pace and Kevin sped up to match him. They ran into wilder, greener territory with a prickly walls of trees on either side interrupted here and there with glimpses of houses. Sweat rolled down Neil's back and beaded along his hairline as they sprinted toward wherever Kevin was leading them.

Neil supposed he shouldn't have been surprised when Kevin slowed to a walk and turned down the red brick path leading to the entrance of Fort Moultrie. They had passed it a few times during the two weeks they'd been there and, even though Kevin had never mentioned it, Neil figured he'd want to look around at some point.

Kevin covered the entrance fee for both of them with a swipe of his credit card and Neil nodded in thanks to the attendant, who pursed his lips at their sweaty appearances. Kevin marched ahead like he owned the place with the confidence he'd been trained to have. For a while they wandered, reading plaques detailing the fort's role in defending the harbor through the years and standing beside cannons at the parapets. They followed a slithering sidewalk all the way to the original palmetto log fort built in 1776 and there Kevin finally spoke.

“You know, this fort was incomplete when it was attacked by British warships,” he said, running his eyes over the structure thoughtfully. “It wasn't ready to fight, but it survived anyway.”

It was oddly fitting, Neil supposed, that Kevin would be drawn to it.

Kevin sucked in a shaky breath and quietly revealed, “Kathy Ferdinand wants to have Jean and me on her show.”

Neil barked out a bitter laugh. He had nothing but unpleasant memories of Kathy and her talk show. It was the first battle in a bloody war.

“I told Jean to say yes.”

The smile on Neil's face withered. “Are you serious? Are you going to go on with him?”

“It's not like she can surprise us with Riko again,” Kevin said wryly, stepping closer to read a plaque about that first battle with the British. “Unless she figured out necromancy. With my luck, she probably has.”

“How does Jean feel about it?”

Kevin lifted a shoulder. “It doesn't matter how he feels.”

“Kevin-”

“The media has been calling Jean the 'black smudge on Jeremy's golden reputation.' He needs to do this.”

Neil sighed heavily and ran a hand through his damp hair. “Jean's a good player. The Trojans just won finals. That should-”

Kevin cut him off with a dismissive flick of his hand. “Watching him play isn't the same as hearing him speak. He has to change the public's opinion of him.”

“You know she's going to bring up Riko. You laid low last summer and she's been dying to pick at that wound.”

“She wants to get you on the show, too. I think you should stay at the dorms to play it safe.”

“Fine.” Neil looked around at the other people milling around them, making sure no one noticed his agitation. Stepping closer to Kevin, he said, “You don't need to risk having a panic attack on national television to help Jean.”

“I won't leave him behind again,” Kevin said lowly.

He wanted to say guilt and regret were slippery slopes. He wanted to remind Kevin that he wasn't responsible for whatever horror Riko inflicted upon Jean. He wanted to tell him that Jean was being looked after out in California.

But he remembered the look in Jean's eyes, remembered how broken Jean was when Renee finally took him away from Evermore, and suddenly he couldn't speak.

Thankfully, Kevin didn't need him to.

“Jean won't talk about his future,” Kevin said, his calm composure unraveling. That sentence was loaded with things Kevin was terrified of and Neil could only guess at a few. “They're trying to help him out there, but... but they don't know. They can't get through to him like I can. I have to be the one to show him.”

“Show him what?” Neil asked.

“That it gets easier.” Kevin exhaled and turned away from Neil as if saying it was divulging some great and terrible secret. For a brief moment he looked wild with excitement and he slowly repeated, “It gets easier.”

Neil nodded and bit the inside of his cheek. The truth of those three words had surprised him as well, had probably surprised them all.

“I'll fly out and get him when the time comes,” Kevin continued. He was like a child running down a hill with too much momentum to stop. “I'll fly out to California alone.”

Neil opened his mouth to speak, but Kevin cut him off again.

“Maybe- maybe I'll-” Kevin frowned, doubting himself. “I don't know. Maybe I should ask my... ask Wymack or- or Andrew.”

“You have time to think about it,” Neil said. “You should probably get the Lexus repainted if you're bringing Jean out here, though.”

Kevin gave him a slanted, disdainful look. “I'm not painting it orange.”

Neil clucked his tongue and turned back toward where he remembered the entrance was. “I'll race you back to the house. Winner chooses the color.”

“Fuck you, Josten.”

“Catch me first, Day.” And Neil took off running.

Kevin was taller and stronger, but Neil still made it to the glass doors of the beach house first. He collapsed onto the deck, wheezing with deranged laughter and completely exhausted. His lungs were on fire and his throat felt like it was filled with cold ash. Sweat poured down his face and darkened his t-shirt in horrible, growing splotches, but he didn't care. Kevin arrived a few minutes later in a similar condition. He braced his hands on his knees and dry heaved at the bottom of the stairs.

Neil mustered his last bit of strength to call down to Kevin, “Orange!”

“Ugh,” Kevin groaned.

Chapter Text

Eventually, someone noticed the team captain laying just outside the front door. Matt rapped his knuckles against the glass and Neil moved out of the way of the door to let Matt step outside.

He stood over Neil with a deep frown scrunching his face. “What happened?”

“We might've overdone it,” Neil mumbled. His whole body felt like wet concrete and he didn't need to look to know that Kevin was still sitting the bottom step trying to recover feeling in his legs.

Lizzy peered around Matt's arm and Neil heard her yell back into the house, “It's just Captain Crunch and Count Jock-ula! Yes, Mom, they appear to be fine.”

Matt crouched down to pull Neil's arm over his shoulders. “Right. Let's get you upstairs. Kevin, you need help?”

“Like I would ever need help from you, Boyd,” Kevin returned.

Matt muttered something under his breath as he hauled Neil to his feet. He held Neil upright while he hobbled inside and together they managed to stumble all the way up to the fourth floor.

“Is Andrew up here?” Neil panted as they neared the bedroom door.

Matt turned the knob and let the door swing open. “No, he's out by the pool with Renee. Want me to go get him?”

Neil waved him off and leaned against the doorjamb. “Nah, don't bother him. Thanks, man.”

“Sure thing. You good?”

Neil nodded. After Matt had disappeared down the stairs, he headed to the bathroom to clean himself up. His entire body trembled from the exertion, but eventually he managed to undress and climb into the tub. The cold tub floor stung his naked skin while he waited for the hot water to envelope him. The longer he lay there, the deeper the ache settled into his muscles. The rising steam and the heat lulled him into a drowsy haze, threatening to send him off to sleep. The minutes ticked lazily by until finally the water was covering most of his body. Groaning, he leaned forward to shut off the taps. He held his nose and ducked under the water to rinse the sweat from his hair before sitting up and going for the bar of soap. Somewhere on his arduous quest to get clean, he fell asleep with his head lolling back against the tub wall.

Fingers snapping in front of his face woke him up. The water was lukewarm and his body had turned to stone. Andrew was on his knees beside the tub with his arms folded over the wall and scorn in his eyes. He handed Neil a water bottle, which Neil accepted with gratitude. His head was fuzzy from dehydration.

“Kevin told me you raced five miles.”

“I won,” Neil said weakly.

“And what did you win? Besides fucked up legs, I mean.”

Neil yawned loudly before he answered, “I get to choose what color he paints his car.”

“Orange,” Andrew guessed.

“Orange,” Neil confirmed.

Andrew's lip curled with disgust. “Jocks.”

Neil nodded, too sleepy to sift through his mind for a retort, and grasped the sides of the tub to pull himself up. Andrew didn't help him out of the tub, didn't help him dry off and get dressed, but he stayed nearby. Luckily, Neil kept his balance and dressed himself without incident.

Down at the breakfast bar, Lizzy and Brian were trying to guess Colby's favorite movie. Aaron and Katelyn were sitting out on the main deck; their quiet conversation floated in through the open doors on the breeze. Allison stood at the stove, looking over Renee's shoulder at whatever she was cooking. It smelled sweet and buttery and Kevin called from one of the sofas in the other room that they better not fatten up the remaining members of the team.

Neil slumped into a chair at the bar and thanked Renee when she brought him a cup of coffee. Andrew settled on the seat next to him and calmly folded his hands on the cold marble.

“You want cereal or something?” she asked kindly.

Lizzy and Brian stifled their giggling in their hands.

Neil ignored them, remembering Lizzy's nickname for him from earlier, and said yes to cereal. A bowl of something that Kevin had bought appeared in front of him two minutes later. While he ate, he noticed Allison's eyes on him and he returned her pensive look with a questioning one of his own. In spite of the fine weather, Allison wasn't wearing a bikini, but a loose t-shirt that hung slanted from her thin shoulders and a pair of denim shorts that showed off her tan legs. Neil figured she had something planned.

She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at him before she said, “You need another haircut, Josten.”

“I do?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

Andrew rubbed a thumb over his lower lip and said in German, “Have fun getting back up those stairs.”

Neil sighed heavily and quickly finished his breakfast, wanting to get the haircut over with. Once his empty bowl was in the sink, Allison dragged him to her room on his weak and wobbly legs and sat him down on a wiry chair next to her bathtub. She bent his head over the side and picked up the hand held shower head that was connected to the faucet to wet his hair. In silence, she scrubbed some fruity-smelling shampoo and conditioner through his hair. Neil bit back a grunt of pain when she scraped over the still-sore spot on the back of his head.

After she rinsed the bubbles from his hair, she pulled him upright and squeezed his shoulder to keep him from tipping over when he swayed sharply to one side. She retrieved her scissors and comb from the counter by the sink and began her work.

“I was going to say that a fresh look might get you some action, but according to Dan and Matt you're doing well in that department.”

“What?” Neil asked.

Allison tilted his head forward with a hard shove. “I don't appreciate you and Andrew going at it on the couch, by the way. The rest of us have to sit there. It's just fucking rude.”

“We didn't-” Neil sputtered, “we didn't go at it. It was just some kissing.”

“Intense stuff from what I heard.”

Neil rolled his eyes and tilted his head back up when Allison gave a wet clump of hair a commanding tug. “Why the sudden interest? Are you guys betting on whether or not he actually touches me or something?”

Allison snorted. “There would've been a bet if any of us thought we could win it.”

“Right.”

“Sooo?”

Neil refused to give in to her prodding even if she did have a pair of scissors dangerously close to his ear. “So you should've taken the bet.”

“Fucker.”

“Actually-”

“Ugh, stop. I don't want to know anymore.” She lightly smacked the side of his head. “Tell Andrew to stab me if I ever start missing that smart mouth of yours.”

Neil chuckled.

“Knock, knock!” Dan sang as she leaned into the open doorway. “Ooh, looking good, Neil.”

Allison scratched over the top of Neil's head, dragging his shaggy bangs back. “The team's going to go straight to shit now that we're gone, but at least the Foxes' captain will be the hottest piece of ass on the court.”

“That was always at the top of my priority list as captain,” Dan said dryly.

“He'll keep up your legacy if he can stick to the appointments I've booked for him.”

“Appointments?” Neil repeated.

“Yup,” Allison said, smacking her lips to make the p pop. “I've left Nicky with the schedule. He's responsible for making you go to the barber shop. I have left instructions for them as well since you won't know what to ask for.”

“I don't know why I expected anything different from you, Allison.”

“I don't know why you did either, Neil.”

Dan leaned against the counter and grinned at him. “I'm glad we came out here. It's been fun.”

“Don't get sappy on me, Wilds,” Allison warned, pointing her scissors at their former captain. “Take that bullshit outside.”

The other woman rolled her eyes. “Fuck off, Reynolds. The last five years were crazy, but... we've come a long way.”

“I will cut you. I'm serious.”

“We have! We could barely stand to be on the same court five years ago and now... I mean, we went from being the shittiest team around to winning finals last year. We kicked ass.”

Allison was quiet for a few moments and Neil wondered if her thoughts were with Seth.

“We did kick ass,” Allison said at last, combing through another section of Neil's hair. “We'll continue kicking ass while Neil and the rest of those losers try to be half as awesome as we were.”

“Don't talk shit. Kevin will sense it and come bitch at us.”

“Oh, let him,” Allison cooed. “I'm quickly running out of opportunities to cut his balls off.”

Allison moved in front of Neil, blocking almost his entire field of vision, and ran the comb through his bangs. She began snipping away just as Renee's voice floated in from the bedroom.

“You guys in here?”

“Come on in, darling!” Dan called. “We're just reminiscing a bit while Allison finishes the captain's hair.”

Renee's voice was closer this time. “Oh, it looks good, Allison! Neil, you're going to look so handsome for when you meet the new Foxes.”

“Fifty bucks says Andrew stabs someone in the eye for ogling,” Allison said and Neil could hear the wicked grin in her voice.

“You're on,” laughed Dan. “I bet the poor soul has an unlucky fall at practice and gets sidelined with a sprained ankle instead.”

Neil sighed.

“Andrew wouldn't hurt them unless they tried to hurt Neil,” said Renee.

“I don't know about that,” Allison countered. “He looked like he wanted to slice Brian open a couple times earlier in the year.”

“What?” Neil asked, startled. “Why?”

Allison's hands stopped moving in his hair. “Are you serious? Last summer Brian focused more on your ass than anything else at practice.”

“You're making that up.”

“Oh my god, Neil,” Dan giggled.

Renee's voice was pitying when she said, “Allison's right, I'm afraid. Brian seemed rather... taken with you at first.”

“I'd buy you a second pair of eyes if I thought it would help,” Allison said seriously. “Dan, tell your boyfriend to help Neil get a clue next year.”

Allison stepped away from him to admire her work, tapping the closed scissors against her lips. Renee gave Neil a sweet smile over the rim of her mug. Then, Allison went to her bag and took out an electric hair trimmer. The next few minutes were filled with the buzzing of the battery-powered device as Allison touched up Neil's haircut. When she was finished, she turned to the other two and swept out her arm like a magician.

“The Amazing Allison does it again,” Dan said, flashing a toothy grin.

Allison tossed her hair and strutted back to the counter to put away the trimmer.

“You done?” Neil asked.

“With you? Never,” Allison quipped, tucking her scissors back in their protective sleeve.

Dan beckoned him over to her. “Come here, kid. Take a look.”

Neil stood, shooting Allison another look, and walked over to stand by Dan facing the mirror. His hair looked shorter than it had been except for the top, which Allison left shaggy again. He didn't know shit about fashion or what was supposed to look good, but Dan and Renee both reached up to ruffle his damp hair and told him he looked sharp. Neil accidentally met his own eyes in the mirror and turned away.

“Thanks, Allison,” he mumbled, rubbing at the back of his neck.

Allison threw an arm around his shoulder and tugged him into her side sharply so she could press a quick, hard kiss to his burn scar. “You're going to miss me, you little menace, and you're going to come to New York this Christmas.”

“Ooh,” Dan cooed. “Christmas in New York again? Sounds like a party.”

“Thanksgiving in Maryland?” Allison's voice lilted upward like it was a question, but her tone was commanding.

Dan bobbed her head once. “Of course, of course. Maybe you guys can meet my new team.”

Renee sipped her tea and then added, “I think that'll be lovely. I can come early to help you bake, if you'd like.”

“Angel,” Dan said, pulling Renee into a one-armed hug. “Neil, you're responsible for getting Andrew and his lot to come along. My apartment is barely bigger than a mouse's ass, so hotel rooms will be necessary.”

Allison kept a firm grip on Neil's shoulder as they continued to make plans for the far-off holidays. Neil tried to add input here and there, but he was happy to just lean against the counter and listen to them talk. Soon they had plans stretching all the way to Neil's next summer vacation. Allison and Dan bickered about whether or not they should crash the Foxes' team trip. Dan thought it would be better to let the new team vacation together and try to bond, which Allison thought was bullshit. Renee, ever the voice of reason, reminded them that they had a year to think on it and the Foxes could decide later, but the other two were determined to reach a decision right there.

Finally, Allison said, “You know what? I'm too sober to win this argument. Let's make some margaritas and then you'll agree to my brilliant idea.”

“We're not spending a month in Hawaii, Allison,” Dan replied as they followed her out of her bedroom. Neil trailed behind them, lost in his own thoughts.

“Why not?” Allison scoffed. “What do you have against a good time, Wilds? Think of all the romantic shit you and your boy could get up to.”

Renee hooked her arm through Neil's while they walked back down to the main floor. Dan and Allison's bickering got louder as they swept into the kitchen. Matt looked from the two of them to Neil and Renee with a question on his face. Andrew was still at the breakfast bar, looking mildly annoyed because Riley and Katelyn were trying to teach Brook a cheer routine in the living room. Lizzy and Brian were attempting to follow along, but the two had clearly gotten into the beer and were mostly just trying to hold each other up. Kevin was on one of the couches speaking French into his phone again. Nicky's laughter rang out from the pool area outside and, from what Neil could hear, it sounded like Erik and Aaron were arguing about soccer.

Neil sat down beside Andrew, wincing at the soreness in his legs, and put his head down on the marble bar. When no one was looking their way, Andrew reached over and gave Neil's hair a tug.

Chapter Text

The words “last” and “bonfire” were tossed around the dinner table over grilled burgers and plates full of vegetables. Dan had squeezed his shoulder and quietly reassured him that no one would ask questions if he turned in early that night, but Neil wasn't sure he wanted to.

After dinner, Neil went up to the fourth floor balcony with Andrew for a cigarette. Leaning over the railing, Neil could see Matt, Kevin, and Brian carrying armfuls of firewood across the lawn toward the beach. Andrew plucked the cigarette from his mouth and tilted his head back to blow smoke up toward the cornflower blue sky.

“You've got that weird look on your face,” said Andrew. “You're thinking of doing something stupid.”

Neil held his own cigarette up and inspected the glow of the cherry. “Maybe.”

Andrew scoffed and picked up the bottle of whiskey from the small table between them to take a drink. “Stop ripping open old wounds for everyone else. It's pathetic.”

“I don't do it for them.”

“You started changing out with the team just so what's-his-face isn't the most scarred boy in the locker room.”

One side of Neil's mouth tugged upward. “You know his name.”

“Whose name?”

“I bet you have a whole file on Brian Hathaway.”

Andrew took another drink and he didn't deny it. “So are you going down there or are you going to be smart for once?”

The sun was setting, leaving the sky painted with rows of soft orange and pink in its wake, and long blue shadows were stretching. Neil looked down at the lawn where Lizzy was jumping around, waving her arms and shouting something to whoever was on the main deck. Brook stood next to her, bent over and laughing. Kevin's voice cut through the air a moment later and Neil figured Lizzy was antagonizing him again. Dan and Renee came into view shortly after, carrying plates, plastic sacks, and bundles of long metal roasting forks. Renee looked up toward their balcony, her pale hair looking almost blue in the dimming light, and she waved to them.

“I think I can do this,” Neil said quietly, waving back.

Andrew mumbled something in response around his cigarette, which Neil didn't quite hear but he could guess at what it was. He thought Neil was being foolish for throwing himself headlong into his triggers and hoping for a new outcome. How many times would he burn himself on the scorching pieces of his past before he finally gave up trying to make it across to the other side? One more time, he always told himself. Just one more time. He wasn't a lie anymore, but he was still a liar. Perhaps he really was a junkie and he just didn't know when to quit.

Neil didn't bother reminding Andrew that he didn't have to come along if he didn't want to. Andrew didn't do things unless he wanted to. He didn't smile at people, he didn't answer curious questions, he didn't guard the goal unless he could ruin someone's day. Whether it was a way of reclaiming his autonomy or simply being too exhausted by the effort it took to live, no one knew.

When Neil went downstairs, Andrew followed.

Allison spared them a glance over her shoulder as she sauntered out to the deck. Her hair was piled and pinned on top of her head and she wore something that would've left her chilly in a couple hours if there wasn't going to be a bonfire to keep her warm. Jack and Sheena sat together at the breakfast bar. Their quiet conversation stopped once Jack caught sight of the two men walking down the hallway toward the open back doors.

Kevin was standing at the railing of the main deck, staring out into the falling shadows and the shrinking figures of Allison, Lizzy, and Brook. Riley's laughter bubbled through the house behind them, chased by Katelyn's voice. The older cheerleader was explaining how her older brother met his new girlfriend during a night of drunken karaoke. Neil and Andrew paused by Kevin's side and waited until the two giggling girls passed them, followed by a silent Aaron. The twins barely looked at each other, but Neil could tell the level of hostility between them was relatively low that night.

Kevin sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. “Do you smell that?”

Neil had been distracted by Andrew and thoughts of the fire, but now that Kevin mentioned it there was the distinct smell of skunk in the air.

“One of the cheerleaders brought weed,” Andrew said flatly.

Neil looked down at the trio advancing across the lawn. He still didn't know Katelyn well, but he knew that it was unlikely that she would partake in anything stronger than aspirin around her boyfriend.

He knew even less about the other couple. Brook had offered a few pieces of her past in hopes of Neil reciprocating during a few one-on-one practices together. Being the sole survivor of a car accident left Brook fractured with grief and she'd slipped into the world of mind-altering substances in high school a few years after moving in with her aunt.

“It's the louder one,” said Andrew, which meant Riley.

Kevin hummed in disapproval.

“Weed isn't any worse than dust,” Neil pointed out, keeping his voice low so that Jack and Sheena wouldn't hear. “And Riley isn't on the team.”

Both men looked at him, cool and uncaring. If Riley had decided to get high, odds were that Brook joined her. There was no way to know if Riley was into anything stronger than weed, but giving her the benefit of the doubt would be too great a risk when she was dating a former addict- a former addict that was a Fox.

Kevin said, “Maybe the captain should have a talk with Brook about how fucking stupid it would be to bring shit like that around the team. I won't have us blowing this year because a bunch of Foxes fell off the wagon and if I were you, Josten, I'd be especially concerned seeing as how this is your first year in charge. If the team fucks up it'll fall back on you.”

“I am aware,” Neil grumbled, bristling at the unpleasant reminder. For the first time he doubted his decision to keep the younger woman at arms' length all year. He didn't know what she would do if Riley tried to lead her astray.

“Come on,” said Kevin. “I don't want to stand up here all night.”

Neil and Andrew followed the older striker down the stairs and down to the beach. Brian was lighting matches and strategically tossing them into the gaps between the logs. Towels and blankets were laid out in a circle around the pile of firewood. Allison was seated on a bright pink towel with a glass of champagne in her hand. Renee sat beside her, wearing some of her seashell jewelry and drinking a can of orange soda. Matt was pouring a glass of champagne for Dan, who was curled up against his side and staring dreamily at the waves. Kevin opened the cooler and pulled out two cans of beer. He handed one to Andrew before he sat down on an old quilt. On the other side of the circle sat Aaron and Katelyn, cuddled together with a blanket around their shoulders. Brook and Riley sat beside Katelyn, swaying and singing something too quietly for Neil to really hear them.

As Neil was getting settled between Kevin and Andrew, Nicky and Erik came stumbling off the wooden walkway toward the rest of them. Erik was carrying Nicky on his back with his arms hooked under Nicky's knees. Nicky was holding two bottles of beer and laughing into Erik's neck. Erik grinned at the rest of them as he tried to keep from jostling his boyfriend too badly. He kept walking, though, and didn't stop until the water was halfway up his bare calves. Lizzy and Colby were wading into the water as well. Colby held up a digital camera and snapped pictures of Lizzy while she crouched in the shallow water and tried to catch small, darting fish.

Nicky gasped loudly. “Are you fishing?”

Lizzy's head snapped up and a wide, drunken grin played across her face. “I'm just trying to be their friend, man!”

“Aww,” Nicky cooed. “Erik, we should get a pet fish!”

Erik only laughed in response.

“Here, drink more and then you'll give in,” Nicky said, trying to put one of the bottles up to Erik's smiling mouth. Most of the beer spilled down Erik's front, but he managed to gulp some of it down.

Neil's attention was drawn back to the fire when the smell of smoke washed over him. He froze and braced himself for a wave of panic, but it never came. His mind remained firmly anchored to the present. Andrew reached over and dug two fingers into his wrist, feeling his pulse.

“I'm okay,” he said quietly. If Kevin heard him as well, he gave no indication of it.

Andrew retracted his hand, seemingly satisfied that Neil wasn't about to fall to pieces.

Brian stood for a moment, looking down into the rising flames before pumping his fists into the air triumphantly and shouting, “I'm the motherfucking phoenix!”

Allison snorted and shook her head, while Renee smiled lazily. The flames climbed higher, twisting brightly around the thick wedges of oak. As the last of the day's light went out, Erik carried Nicky to the ring of blankets and deposited him carefully on a quilt. He sat beside him, taking one of the half-empty beer bottles from Nicky's hands, and ruffled his hair. Brian sat on one of the only unoccupied blankets left and soon Colby and Lizzy wandered over to sit with him, shivering and half-drenched.

Kevin sipped his beer slowly and gave all his attention to his phone, which pinged with increasing frequency. Brook and Riley's singing tapered off into laughing. At some point, Jack and Sheena wandered down to the rest of them as well and sat with their backs to the ocean, completing the ring.

Nicky was still coherent enough to demand s'mores. Renee and Dan had brought the supplies, so they began passing around roasting forks and plates piled high with chocolate bars, graham crackers, and marshmallows. Neil accepted a plate from Renee and stared at the ingredients, bemused. He'd never made s'mores in his life and he wasn't keen on sweets, but he was willing to give it a try.

Nicky caught on to Neil's hesitation and flapped his hand in Neil's direction to get his attention. He stage-whispered, “I'll teach you, Neil. Watch. You do it like- oh, shit.” Nicky dropped a marshmallow into his lap and nearly sank the sharp prongs of the fork into his arm while he fumbled around.

Erik took the metal stick away from him before he could hurt himself. He kissed Nicky's nose and gently stuck the marshmallow onto the sharp prongs before scooting forward to hold the marshmallow close to the flames. Nicky gestured to his boyfriend, drunk and proud, before scooting up to wrap his arms around Erik's waist and mumble something in German about Erik's “heroic side.”

“Have you ever had s'mores, Neil?” Dan asked gently. She was comfortably tucked under Matt's arm while Matt held two marshmallows in the fire for them.

Neil shook his head and Allison clucked her tongue in disapproval.

“God, Neil, you make me sad,” Allison said with a long-suffering sigh. “Next you'll have me cutting the crusts off your PB and J and reading you 'Goodnight, Moon.'”

“Huh?”

Dan giggled and Matt rested his cheek against her head, giving Neil a soft and almost sympathetic smile.

“Even by our standards, he's fucking sad,” Allison muttered before taking another sip of champagne. Then, she shoved her glass into Renee's hand and crawled over to where he and Andrew were sitting. “Here, fucko. Break up the chocolate and put it on a fucking cracker. Good. Now, you put the fucking marshmallow on the fucking thing. Yeah. Okay, stick it into the motherfucking fire. When it's all burned to shit, take it out.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and took a long drink of beer while Neil followed her instructions. The marshmallow caught flame, shifting quickly from toasted brown to black ash. Neil pulled it back and Allison rose up on her knees to blow it out with a sharp puff of air. Then, she showed him how to squash it between two crackers and slide the fork out.

“There!” she cried, flinging one hand up. “You made a fucking s'more. Welcome to normal life.”

Dan lifted her glass of champagne and said, “I'd like to propose a toast to Allison's maternal instincts.”

Matt laughed and lifted the bottle in salute before taking a swig.

“Fuck off,” Allison replied primly, settling back into her spot. “You two won't be laughing when your kids love me more than you.”

Renee hid her smile in the crook of her elbow. Nicky cheered weakly for Neil's first s'more or maybe Allison's questionable maternal instincts before nuzzling his face into Erik's t-shirt.

Neil pressed the two crackers closer together, wrinkling his nose at the hot marshmallow oozing from all sides. He took a bite of overhanging marshmallow to keep it from getting on his hands and grimaced at the burnt sweetness of it. Neil took a proper bite of the snack next and chewed, trying to find something about the taste that he liked. By the end of it, he decided that one was enough. Graham cracker crumbs pooled in the folds on his cargo shorts and marshmallow was smeared over his lips and fingers. Andrew's eyes watched his tongue swipe a sticky bit of marshmallow from the corner of his mouth. When Neil noticed Andrew's hooded stare, he sucked some marshmallow off of his thumb and Andrew's lip twitched into a snarl.

Brian and Lizzy were competing to see who could burn their marshmallow the most without it falling into the fire while Colby took pictures of them, the fire, and the others. Allison and Renee made a few s'mores and managed to eat them without making a mess like Neil had. Kevin continued to stare at his phone and drink quietly. Jack and Sheena shared a bottle of rum and a bag of pretzels.

Neil gave up on s'mores, content with his one and only, and set to breaking the rest of the chocolate bar into individual pieces. By the time Andrew finished his beer, the chocolate bar was reduced to rows of small rectangles and the marshmallows were ripped into fourths. Neil sucked some of the sticky sugar from his finger while Andrew snagged a few pieces of chocolate and popped them into his mouth.

Nicky made the biggest mess of his s'mores. Neil watched as Nicky laughed and unsuccessfully tried to rub marshmallow and melted chocolate off of his face. Erik scrunched his nose and mumbled something about American chocolate, but he still kissed away a smudge of it from Nicky's chin. Neil looked away from their private moment and his eyes fell on Lizzy and Brian. Lizzy was trying to balance a chocolate bar on her small, round nose while Brian was holding a graham cracker close to the fire in an attempt to melt the chocolate on top of it.

“Yo, fryin' Brian,” Jack called before Neil could open his mouth. “You're going to burn your fucking hand off.”

Brian didn't look fazed by the nickname or the potential harm that could befall him. “Colby likes it better with the chocolate melted and shit. I've got this under control.”

Kevin looked up from his phone at last. “Hathaway, get your hands out of the fire. You have a hard enough time playing without third degree burns.”

“Captain?” Brian looked to Neil with wide eyes.

Neil shook his head. “If you hold the fork flat, you could balance the graham cracker on the prongs.”

Colby nodded approvingly. “Smart.”

Lizzy lifted her head and caught the chocolate bar in her hand when it fell. “You can't balance for shit, though. Better let me do it.”

“Fuck off, Cho.”

“Fight me, Hathaway.”

Colby rolled his eyes and set aside his camera to try Neil's graham cracker-balancing trick on his own.

“Can't believe I have to room with you again this year,” Jack grumbled before taking another drink of rum.

“I can really feel the love, jackass. Thanks,” Brian retorted.

Dan laughed. “You've got your work cut out for you, Neil. Tell Wymack you're going to need more fire extinguishers.”

Matt grinned and kissed the top of her head.

“Neil will do a great job as captain,” said Renee quietly. “He's been doing a good job bringing the team together since he first came to Palmetto.”

Allison groaned. “Jesus, we spent so long at rock-bottom, we had to get better eventually.”

“Will we ever hear that whole story?” Brook asked drowsily.

“No,” the older Foxes all seemed to answer at once.

For a long while, Neil watched his family as they relaxed and enjoyed the easy evening. Matt opened another bottle of champagne and, with the foam running down his forearm, he refilled Dan and Allison's glasses. Renee tilted her head back and quietly pointed out constellations to Allison. Kevin went back to texting and drinking. Aaron and Katelyn traded small kisses, which Neil only caught a glimpse of before averting his eyes. Nicky and Erik cuddled up together in the warmth of the fire. Jack and Sheena's smiles grew larger the more rum they drank and at one point they managed to hold a pleasant conversation with Lizzy and the two boys at her side.

Neil's hands and mouth were sticky, his mind was still pleasantly at ease from the whiskey on the balcony and sips of Andrew's beer. He felt filled with that word again, the one he wouldn't name, the one with four letters he could fathom alone but not together. He felt so filled with it he was sure it was shining in his eyes, like a candle held behind stained glass.

Neil turned his focus back to Andrew, who was watching him with sharp eyes. Andrew was almost split in two by shadow and firelight. One of his flat hazel eyes caught the light, one cheek was sharpened by the trick of light and shadow playing across the ridge of his cheekbone. Half of his hair was glinting and golden.

Andrew saw the word swelling inside Neil, but he didn't look away. He only tilted his head and gave him a knowing, scornful look that said, “I hate you.”

Neil's lips tugged upward into a small, knowing smile.

Later, in the privacy of their room, Andrew kissed and licked both the smile and the lingering smears of marshmallow from Neil's mouth. Their clothes and hair still smelled like smoke, but when Neil buried his nose in Andrew's neck and inhaled he smelled only campfire instead of gasoline. Relieved, Neil pressed a hard, wet kiss there under Andrew's ear. Andrew promptly pulled away, trying to look annoyed even as he peeled off Neil's shirt and surged forward to kiss him again.

They traded a yes for a yes, a sigh for a gasp, as they undressed each other and traced bare skin as if it were uncharted territory. Andrew ground his hips down against Neil's while Neil slid his warm palms up Andrew's ribs. Their mouths met in a fierce kiss as Andrew took them both in his hand, expertly guiding them to the brink. Neil dug his nails into Andrew's shoulders and moaned his appreciation against Andrew's damp lips. When they were both shaking and close, Andrew's free hand buried itself into Neil's hair and dragged his head back so Andrew could bury a grunt against Neil's flushed skin. The scrape of his teeth and the harsh, cut-off sound was enough to tip Neil over the edge and, shuddering, he dragged Andrew with him.

Chapter Text

On a muggy day in June, Neil waited for twenty minutes outside of Terminal A at Upstate Regional Airport before he spotted the new freshman he was supposed to pick up. Holly Gray was a few inches taller than he was, but the way she hunched her shoulders and tilted her face down to hide in her mousy brown hair made it possible to overlook that fact. She clutched the strap of her large backpack and watched the crowd around her as if she was expecting someone to pull a knife.

It was a look Neil knew all too well.

When she spotted him with her dark eyes, she cut between two small families and came to a halt two feet in front of him.

Awkwardly, Neil stuck out his hand and said, “Holly Gray? I'm-”

“I know who you are,” she answered, ignoring his proffered hand.

Just a few years ago those words would've sent Neil running for the door. It was strange now to hear those words without feeling like the walls were closing in.

“Baggage claim?”

“This is it,” Holly answered, tugging the strap of her bag.

Neil nodded and turned to walk back to the parking garage, knowing the younger woman didn't have much of a choice but to follow him. As they climbed into the Maserati and Neil stuck his key into the ignition, he wondered if Wymack ever grew weary of starting over each year with new Foxes with deep-rooted issues packed under layers of distrust and scar tissue. They were all misshapen puzzle pieces with clashing colors and crumpled edges, but Wymack saw a bigger picture that somehow included them all. Neil wasn't sure he'd ever be capable of that kind of faith or optimism or whatever Wymack called it.

Neil couldn't think of anything to say as they drove toward campus- he didn't feel any better at making conversation than he was when he himself was new to Palmetto. Holly was the third freshman he'd met that day and she was by far the quietest. Joel Dunn and Tommy Vasquez had both rattled off Neil and Kevin's Exy stats when Neil had picked them up from the airport at nine that morning. Neil hadn't needed to think of anything to say to them since they did all the talking. Holly didn't seem keen on speaking any time soon, so the pair rode in silence.

It'd been almost a month since the Foxes parted ways at the beach house and though they'd all kept in contact with each other Neil's world still felt off-kilter. Matt had arrived at the Tower at eight-thirty, just after Andrew's lot showed up to move in, and Neil was almost embarrassed at how relieved he was to see him again. Matt promised to show Neil all the pictures of Dan's new apartment and her new town without being asked.

It was difficult to turn his attention toward the incoming freshmen when his phone was full of updates from the girls.

After Neil parked at the Tower, Holly followed him up to their floor. He showed her to her new dorm and introduced her to Lizzy and Brook, who were already setting up the main room of their suite. Once Holly was in their hands, he returned to his own suite to relax for a bit. Wymack would be picking up two more freshmen in three hours and the last one was driving up from Tampa, set to arrive around eight or nine that night.

Nicky was laying on the floor of the main room between the beanbag chairs and once he heard Neil come in, he groaned, “I hate moving day. My materialistic ass isn't meant to live like a nomad.”

“You barely did anything,” called Kevin from the kitchen.

Nicky whined, “I carried stuff, Kevin! That's something!”

Neil toed off his shoes and headed into the bedroom where Andrew was sitting on a desk with a cigarette in his mouth. Warm summer air pushed in through the open window, but Andrew didn't seem to mind it even in his dark jeans and long sleeves. Neil lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe away the thin layer of sweat from his forehead, aware of Andrew's eyes on him.

In spite of the June heat, Neil went to window to lean against the frame, just within Andrew's reach. Andrew took a long drag off his cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs while he passed the stick to Neil, who flicked a bit of ash into the ashtray sitting on the windowsill.

His phone buzzed before he could think of anything worth saying, so he handed the cigarette back and checked his messages.

There was one from Dan, which he hadn't seen earlier, which said, show em whos boss, kid. lots o luck!

The most recent message was from Brian. New kid Joel is def dealing some offense over here.

Neil texted a sincere “thank you” to Dan before addressing Brian's message with a simple, What?

Brian didn't have to explain, though, because a moment later Nicky called, “Neil!” just as Kevin shouted, “What the actual fuck?”

Andrew blew out a puff of smoke and tilted his head, murmuring, “Duty calls.”

Neil sighed quietly and went out to the hallway where Jack was shoving Joel Dunn, the new offensive dealer, and shouting something about the dorm assignments and what would happen if Joel opened his mouth again. Matt was already dragging Jack away from the younger man and Neil gently pushed past Lizzy and Holly to ask what the hell happened.

Neil couldn't say he was surprised. Foxes would be Foxes, after all.

That fight on moving day set the tone for the first few weeks of practice, which was as unfortunate as it was unsurprising. As the team's captain, Neil suddenly found himself in the middle of everything. On the first day of practice, he was tasked with explaining to the newest Foxes how things ran and what they could expect over the summer. When he announced what time practices would start once the school year began, he found out just how much of morning person Yvonne Harris was not. Most of the following questions directed at Neil were along the lines of “Is it true you were in a gang?” and “Have you ever murdered anyone?” and these questions were all met with a blank stare from Neil and Wymack telling them all to mind their own damn business.

On the fourth day of practice, a freshman named Eddie came to Neil asking if he had any advice for long-distance relationships. Neil didn't. Eddie took Neil's silence as an invitation to talk about his girlfriend, who was going to Ohio State this year, and how they were determined to make things work. Eddie, apparently, spent a couple years in juvie and didn't mind sharing the details of it at all. Neil could tell Eddie wanted Neil to open up about his own alleged criminal history in return, but Neil only thanked him for his honesty and finished changing out. Andrew stood by during the whole of the exchange in the locker room, annoyed and unimpressed.

On the sixth day of practice, Neil pulled Brook aside and invited her out for a quick cup of coffee. She was confused, but delighted enough to agree and the whole way to the coffee shop she prattled on about her aunt and everything she'd done since the last time the Foxes were together at the beach. Once they were sitting at a table with their drinks, Neil cut to the chase.

“Brook, I need to know what drugs Riley is using and I need to know if you're using, too.”

Brook's excitement went cold faster than her latte did.

In the end, he learned that Riley was using her free time to experiment with all sorts of drugs- apparently, she'd found some rather adventurous friends at Palmetto- and he gave Brook a short, but stern lecture about being aware of her own vulnerabilities as a former addict and how she needed to remember that there were other former addicts on the team. Brook nodded, said she understood while refusing to meet his eyes, and threw her entire latte in the garbage on her way out. Later, Neil lay awake in his bunk wondering if maybe his approach had been too direct, but he couldn't bring himself to feel remorse for his blunt manner. After all, his job as captain was to keep the team afloat.

Allison sent Neil a text the next morning that simply read, Matt told us you had to give Brook the Just Say No talk. Let me know if I need to come down there to knock some skulls together.

He wasn't sure what to make of that. It's fine.

Ha. Famous last words.

That Friday, Andrew's lot went to Columbia and when Aaron brought up cracker dust Neil wanted to snap his ice cream spoon in half. Andrew cast a heavy look at Nicky before reminding his brother that they weren't getting dust anymore.

Joel and Jack's relationship only seemed to worsen, but Jack was still too frightened of Andrew to misbehave on the court. Joel, as it turned out, was a fan of the Foxes and knew Neil and Andrew's reputations well enough to keep his mouth shut and stay focused on Exy while he was with the team. Whatever spats they had in their suite was none of Neil's business as long as it didn't affect their playing.

Neil tried to cope with the stress of his new position on the team, but it was impossible to keep his stomach from winding into tight knots when he thought of what it might mean for his reputation and value as an Exy player if the team crashed and burned during his first year as captain. He tried to limit himself to only calling Dan on the weekends for advice since she was busy with her new team. Sometimes he texted Allison, but her suggestions always seemed a bit extreme. Mostly, he followed Andrew up to the roof in the middle of the night and either drank vodka until his thoughts were just slightly hazy or let Andrew kiss him senseless. This routine seemed to help keep his worries at bay for the most part.

On Sundays, Wymack took him out to a diner that served breakfast all day. No matter what time they went, Neil always ordered blueberry waffles and Wymack ordered hashbrowns and scrambled eggs. Sometimes they didn't say anything, other times Neil allowed himself to vent about how stubborn Holly was or how he didn't know if Brook was heeding his advice about Riley and her recreational activities or how Eddie couldn't communicate on the court to save his life. Wymack nodded along while Neil rambled and, when he finished talking or ran out of steam, he would simply say, “Keep your chin up and eyes forward. Those little fuckers will fall in line eventually.”

When they didn't eat dinner over at Abby's or at the dorms, Andrew's lot went out to the diner that served the best ice cream sundaes. Most nights Matt joined them and he spent most of the time gossiping with Nicky about the freshmen and the sophomores. Kevin would chime in here and there with criticism about their performance on the court, but Neil was happy to just listen. Aaron and Andrew stared at the walls, not caring about the younger players at all. Matt thought Tara Edwards had the worst car in existence and said it was “a legitimate miracle” that it survived the drive up from Tampa. Nicky had overheard Brook and Tommy speaking to one another in Spanish during laps one day and was giving some serious thought to learning the language. Neil didn't think much of it until Matt asked him if he was just looking for something to fill his time so he wouldn't think about Erik. When Nicky sputtered out an awkward “I'm doing fine” Matt raised an eyebrow at him and said, “I was going to go to the library anyway. I'll pick you up some books if you want.”

At late-night practices, Kevin and Neil discussed the team's weaknesses and came up with strategies for improvement. Yvonne, the new striker, was shaping up well, which almost kept Kevin's spirits up in spite of the fact that Jack wasn't quite back to where he was before his so-called “breakdown.” Kevin didn't hold back when he criticized Neil, but after two full years of playing at Kevin's side, Neil was accustomed to it. It was still unpleasant to hear all his faults recited like a grocery list, but Kevin never once said that Neil was less than deserving of the captaincy and that was enough to be considered a compliment.

Andrew was a silent, almost ever-present shadow at Neil's side, but he never pressed for attention or tried to take Neil away from campus. There wasn't much privacy to be had in their suite. Kevin's anxiety was brewing into a magnificent storm as the date of his interview with Kathy Ferdinand growing closer and closer. Nicky was practically bubbling over with a cheeriness that bordered on desperation, trying to fill the Erik-shaped void at his side with rambling conversation, an endless supply of vodka, and new interests that were obsessed over for a few days before they were abandoned.

Andrew kept Kevin from getting sucked into a downward spiral of panic while Neil tried to keep Nicky's spending under control. It seemed like he wanted to learn how to do everything that could be done indoors- crocheting and yoga and cooking gourmet meals as well as learning to speak Spanish. On more than one occasion Neil had to hide Nicky's shoes to prevent him from running off to a 24-hour grocery store for more baking supplies in the middle of the night. For two weeks, the suite was full of tangled yarn and the smell of burned cheese and garlic until Aaron started showing up at their dorm regularly with video games and movies he borrowed from Matt's extensive collection.

Without much time to themselves, Neil and Andrew stole moments together whenever they could in shadowy corners or the roof or the kitchen when their roommates were passed out drunk in the bedroom. Once or twice, Andrew accompanied Neil on his early morning run and used it as an excuse to shower with him when they got back to the dorm.

Before Neil knew it, a whole month had passed and he felt like he was running on fumes. He was exhausted mentally and physically. Eddie, Yvonne, and Joel always seemed to be asking him for advice or trying to get him to come out for coffee while Tara, Holly, and Tommy refused to take the advice he willingly gave. Brook was withdrawn. Lizzy was fidgety in a way Neil hadn't seen since she'd tried to run away the previous winter. Jack was anxious on the court whenever Andrew was in the goal. According to Brian, Sheena was trying to convince the freshmen that Neil was a joke.

It didn't bother him until he borrowed Kevin's laptop and found a headline that read: “Neil Josten: Real Deal or One Hit Wonder?”

Dan had warned him to stay away from the internet as much as he could because most of what he saw would only discourage him. Neil regretted looking.

Once he saw it, all the stress he'd been bottling up exploded messily all over his ribs, flooding his lungs and clogging up his heart. What if he couldn't do this? What if he fucked everything up and destroyed his worth as a player? What if the Foxes became a laughingstock again?

What if Ichirou decided to put a bullet in his skull as soon as he graduated?

Once the question was formed in his mind it stuck there. It cut into his sleep and left him breathless and shaking at three in the morning. July was half over. August was coming, bringing the start of the school year and the new season with it. He'd only been captain for a month, but he felt like time was slipping through his fingers.

Unable to sleep, he decided to go for a run.

All was dark and quiet on Perimeter Road, but instead of feeling at peace like he usually did Neil felt unsettled. Watched. Hunted. Something's coming. He slowed to a walk and looked around, hating himself for being paranoid. There was no one around, no sound other than his harsh breathing and a few birds singing to each other in the trees. Run, whispered that old voice in his head and the word bounced from his skull all the way down to his toes like a cold marble. He'd gotten better at recognizing the signs of a storm building in his own skull- the tremble in his hands, the shortness of his breath, the headache swelling behind his eyes. In the middle of Perimeter Road, Neil turned on his heel and sprinted back to the Tower like someone who'd just seen a funnel cloud start to rotate.

No matter how silent Neil was during his morning routine, Andrew always woke up as soon as he reached the door, so he was already in the kitchen making coffee when Neil made it back to the dorm. Neil paused in the doorway of the kitchen and stared at Andrew in the harsh light. He was still wearing the baggy sweatpants and huge t-shirt he slept in, but his armbands were on. Whatever he'd dreamed about had made him reach for his knives.

Andrew watched him with dull eyes and hands hanging limply at his sides. His calm was deceptive, as much of a warning as Neil's quick pulse. They could smell the threat of trouble on each other just like anyone could smell rain on the wind and feel the skitter of electricity across their arms before the heavens unleashed hell.

Something's coming.

Run run run.

Andrew could have destroyed himself. Neil could have stuffed his life into a bag and slipped into oblivion. But instead of giving into old habits, Andrew opened his mouth and softly asked, “Where?”

Neil ran through the list in his head. “Birmingham.”

Andrew nodded his head once and Neil knew he'd spent all his words for the day, so he picked up the slack.

“We could leave after lunch on Friday and come back on Sunday?”

Andrew took a slow, deep breath and his shoulders relaxed.

“Okay,” Neil said breathlessly. The knot around his heart was coming loose. “I'll look up hotels so you don't have to drive around forever like last time.”

The coffeepot gurgled and wheezed as it finished. Andrew pulled two mugs out of the cabinet, one red and one gray, and filled them both with steaming coffee. Neil moved around him to get himself a glass of water. He gulped down half of it while Andrew added sugar and cream to the red mug. When Neil turned, Andrew handed the gray mug to him.

“Thanks,” Neil murmured, setting his glass of water on the counter. Andrew leaned against the counter beside him and sipped quietly. Checking the fuzzy, twitching digital clock above the stove, Neil saw it was only four and he knew Kevin's alarm wouldn't go off until six. He also knew there was no way Nicky would be awake before then.

The promise of Friday had softened the edges of his anxiety, but the feeling was still gnawing at his spine. He didn't know where Andrew was on his emotional scale, but he didn't seem to hate having Neil beside him. Neil took a careful sip of coffee and quietly asked, “Yes or no?”

Andrew put his coffee mug on the counter and reached for Neil's collar. His yes was a whisper of air against Neil's mouth before Andrew's lips crushed his. Neil set his mug next to Andrew's so that he could bury both hands in blond hair that was rough and still a bit damp with sleep-sweat. Andrew kissed him hard and hooked his fingers fiercely in his collar as if Neil might slip away if he didn't hold on tight enough. If Neil could have found the willpower to pull his tongue out of Andrew's mouth, break the magnetic force keeping their lips pressed together, he would have reassured Andrew that he wasn't going anywhere.

Friday couldn't come fast enough.

Chapter Text

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.