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Way Down We Go

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*******

“Follow the light.”

Andrew remained quiet as he did as he’d been told, at least until the pin light dropped. “Well, any signs of life?”

“Certainly no signs of a conscience,” Alvarez snapped at him as she stood up beside his bed, the frown on her face accentuating the faint lines around her mouth and aging her prematurely; he wanted to point that out to her, but he figured he had less chance of getting the good meds if he pissed her off.

“Aw, you wound me you do,” he complained in a flat tone as he cradled his bandaged left arm to his chest in an exaggerated manner.

“No, that was Cheng, and because you deliberately set him off.” When all Andrew did was give her a blank stare in response, she let out a slow breath and shook her head, which caused more strands to slip from the messy bun she’d pulled it back in earlier in the day. “Yeah, I know, you’re innocent as always.”

“At least until proven otherwise. Now, about my ouchies.” He tapped his bandaged left arm and then his forehead. “Don’t you have a Hippocratic oath to honor?”

For the first time since Andrew had come to the Medical department, there was a hint of a smile on Janet Alvarez’s lips while she tucked the pin light into the front pocket of her disgustingly brightly patterned scrubs. “Sorry, just a nurse practitioner. You should have timed your little instigation or whatever a bit better, when Dr. Mitchell’s on duty.” When he continued to give her a blank stare, she sighed and flipped her gloved right hand back and forth. “Let me make a call, and it won’t be too strong, not with that concussion.”

“You’re a regular Florence Nightingale, you are.”

The comment earned him the middle finger as the middle-aged nurse left the room, which Andrew ignored in favor of settling a bit more comfortably in the bed and gaging the severity of his injuries, such as they were; he’d chosen Pete Cheng because the boy was easy to goad but didn’t know how to do any serious damage. Andrew’s injuries were more from being knocked down onto a concrete half-wall than anything, and he’d have to remember to pick a better area for a ‘fight’ next time.

Still, he was here in Medical, in a room to himself with the promise of some sort of drugs to come and should have a few days to himself with no stupid roommates, no stupid classes or mandatory therapy. Nobody to bother him. Well, Alvarez and Mitchell and the rest could be somewhat annoying, but they had too much work to do to focus on him for long.

So that meant he should have a couple of days to figure out what to do about the letter that had arrived that morning, the annoying bit of spam for which he probably had Pig Higgins to blame. Somehow he had a feeling that this Luther Hemmick wouldn’t be so quick to turn away as his own dear mother had been three years ago when guilt and interference had driven her to… whatever. Andrew’s fingers tightened around his strained wrist as he let out a sudden breath. No, there was too much righteous meddling in Luther, if he was any judge, so a simple ‘fuck off’ wouldn’t do.

Lost in his thoughts of why a stranger was driven to track down an unknown person across the country – and in a juvenile detention facility at that – just because of some pathetic connection by blood – Andrew jerked back to awareness when the door swung open. Expecting to see Alvarez arriving with his pain pills, he was surprised instead with the sight of an officer in an Alemeda County Sheriff uniform pushing some kid in a wheelchair into the room while a harried Alvarez held open the door. “Put him on the bed by the window,” she called out, as if it wasn’t already obvious.

“I thought I asked for a private room,” Andrew drawled, and managed an offended expression when Alvarez sent a narrowed look his way.

The officer ignored them as he continued to push the wheelchair into the room, and Andrew noticed with interest that the kid, dressed in hospital scrubs too big for his scrawny frame, was handcuffed. He was hunched over with shaggy dark brown hair hiding his pale face as if in pain or from sullenness or both, and Andrew thought he caught the sight of a shiny scar on the kid’s right shoulder from where the too-big top gapped open.

“Keep an eye on him, he’s a runner,” the cop warned as he hauled the kid out of the wheelchair; Alvarez hissed at him to be gentle while Andrew caught sight of the kid biting his bottom lip as if to keep from crying out.

“Yeah, I got it the first time you said that, now be careful, dammit!” Alvarez insisted as she shoved the cop aside to help the kid stretch out on the bed; when she gave his long legs a gentle tug to straighten them out then brushed her hands along one of his worn out sneakers, he jerked his feet away in a clear sign for her to leave on the ratty shoes. “All right,” she soothed as she held up her hands for a moment, then grabbed the folded blanket on the bottom of the bed to pull it up a little to cover the kid’s legs.

While she did that, the cop unlocked the handcuff from the kid’s left wrist so he could cuff it to the right metal railing of the bed instead. At Alvarez’s displeased look, he shrugged. “I told you, he’s a runner, and he’s not answering any questions. We’re hoping he’ll be a bit more talkative tomorrow when they come to formally process him.”

“I put him in here because this room is closest to the station and we’ll be able to keep an eye on him all night. There’s no need for that.”

“Yeah, the nurse at the hospital where they patched him up said the same thing, and he still almost got away. The cuffs stay on.” The office tipped his head at Alvarez before he picked up the duffel bag that had been looped over one of the handles on the back of the wheelchair then tossed it onto the foot of the kid’s bed. “His stuff, since it looks like he’ll be staying with you guys at least until we figure out what’s his deal. Nothing much else in there but some old clothes – trust me, we checked.”

“What if he has to use the bathroom?”

“That’s what bedpans are for, right? That or put a catheter in, I don’t care, he’s your problem now.”

The lines were back on Alvarez’s face, but this time they weren’t from exhaustion or displeasure, they were from when she was a hair away from punching someone – Andrew had only seen her that angry a time or two during his three years here and was disappointed that she always managed to rein in the temper rather than just let it go. “Fine, then let’s get the paperwork done so you can leave,” she informed the cop as her small hands clenched into fists. “These boys need their rest.”

The cop tipped his head again as he preceded Alvarez out the door, then the room became quiet; Andrew lay on the bed with his arms folded on top of his chest while the kid was still for at least a minute before he gave the handcuff an experimental tug or two. Then the kid began to shift about, to pull his arms and legs in closer in such a slow manner that Andrew knew he was checking the damage, was seeing what was working, was testing bruises and cuts and stitches – Andrew had seen it with others in the past, had *done* it himself.

Well, time to introduce themselves to each other, no? For once he was bored enough to talk.

“How rude of Alvarez, to bring me a buddy and not do any proper introductions.” As soon as he spoke, the kid went still on the bed, especially when Andrew kicked back his own covers and swung his legs over so he could sit up on the bed; there was a slight dizziness at the sudden movement, but the concussion was mild, the damage minimal so it could be ignored. “Let me be the first to welcome you to the lovely Wayward Burns Juvenile Detention Facilities – emphasis on the ‘wayward’. I am Andrew, and no, I will not be your guide, your mentor, your anything, during your delightful stay here.” He summoned an apathetic smile and sat with his hands in his lap while he regarded his temporary roommate. “Questions? Comments? You’ll soon learn that I don’t give a fuck, and it’s best you don’t, either.”

The kid, whom upon closer inspection looked at least a year younger than Andrew, maybe two, stared back with wide dark brown eyes for several seconds in an otherwise blank face before his gaze flickered toward the closed door. “She coming back?”

He noticed that the kid didn’t bother to introduce himself, how rude.  “Do you take me to be psychic?” When all the kid did was to stare back, Andrew shrugged and continued with the fake smile. “You’ll find out, won’t you?”

The kid’s expression became even more shuttered and his shoulders hunched forward, which caused the too-large top to gap open even more. He realized that after a few seconds, but not before Andrew caught a glimpse of scarred flesh and new bandages quickly covered by a cheap cotton blanket. While he pondered that, the door opened once more to admit Alvarez, who carried two small cups in her left hand with a practiced ease. “You better be behaving yourself,” she chided Andrew as she handed him what appeared to be some low dose Tylenol with codeine and some water to wash them down. Ah well, beggars couldn’t be too choosy, he supposed.

While he took his meds, she went over to the kid’s bed, but came to a stop when he tensed up at her approach like a spooked cat. “Is there anything I can get for you? Do you need anything changed or…?” When he shook his head, she waved her right hand about a couple of times. “What about food? Did they feed you anything while they were patching you up?”

“I’m fine,” the kid gritted out as he tugged up the blanket with his left hand as if it were a shield.

“*I* could use something to eat,” Andrew called out, and wasn’t surprised when Alvarez waved aside his comment.

“I’m on shift for another half an hour, and I’ll leave a note for Martin in case you change your mind, okay? If you want anything or if this one gives you any trouble, just ping one of us.” She grabbed the call button from the small nightstand and set it closer to the kid.

“You make me sound like a menace,” Andrew complained as he stretched back out on the bed.

Alvarez gave him another narrow stare while she gathered up the cup and left the room. “You *are* a menace, but do me a favor and behave tonight, all right?”

“No promises.” Those lines really were going to be permanent if she didn’t stop with all that frowning.

Now that the room was quiet again, Andrew closed his eyes and let the drugs  - such as they were – work into his system a little while he pondered the mystery stretched out beside him. It didn’t take long before there was more of that careful rustling, the slight metallic clicking to indicate that the kid was checking out the handcuff.

“Okay, let’s get this little tête-à-tête started, shall we?” Andrew held out his hand with his forefinger held out. “You know, you at least need to wait until Alvarez leaves because she will be paying attention to the monitors.” Then he added a second finger. “Now Cowan? Yeah, all he cares about is getting through his first and last rounds on shift, giving out the meds that’ll knock out the troublemakers for the night and then being left in peace to sleep or watch tv. So just chill for another hour, assuming you can figure out those handcuffs.”

There was more silence, save for the kid’s quickened breathing, and then the sheets rustled again. “I don’t, you… that’s-“

Andrew sighed as he opened his eyes and sat up to face the kid, pleased to note that there was less dizziness this time. “It’s not difficult to figure out, even if the pig hadn’t called you a ‘runner’. You’ve got ‘desperate’ all but tattooed across your forehead.” He raked his gaze over his new roomie, over the too-pretty face that would make staying here a nightmare for the kid, the lips raw as if they’d been bitten too much lately, the handcuffed wrist and the defensive posture. Most of all he noticed how the kid’s annoying eyes were focused on him – no, not so much on him but on his hands, on the core of his body as if to see if he planned to lunge forward or reach out to strike and hurt.

The kid was quiet for a few seconds after that, and then he scoffed. “You an expert or something?”

All Andrew did was shrug. “I’m an expert on this place, at the least, and I’m telling you to sit there for right now. But hey, maybe I’m just jerking your chain. Go on, show me what you’ve got and see how far you make it so I can have a good laugh.”

The kid managed to straighten up and scowl for about two seconds before he winced then sank back against the thin pillows piled up against the fake wood headboard. “It’s not good, me sticking around for too long.” The words were spoken in a faint voice, but Andrew’s ears were no longer ringing and the room was quiet.

Part of him knew he shouldn’t bother, but he was bored and looking for a distraction from his own issues. “And why is that? Got a hot date out there waiting for you?”

As if the question had been a flag of some sort, the kid’s expression became even more shuttered and he merely shook his head as he tugged the blanket as far up he could with his left hand. The room grew quiet again, the shadows lengthening as the sun went down and darkness replaced the faint light. Andrew didn’t bother with turning on the light, not with the faint glow permeating the room from the outdoor lights.

He had taken to unwrapping and rewrapping the bandages around his left wrist as a means to fight the urge to sneak out for a cigarette when Cowan opened the door and turned on the overhead light, startling an abrupt motion from the kid and a displeased look from Andrew. “Two counted for,” Cowan muttered as he gave the room a visual check, a slow grin forming on his bearded face as he lingered on Andrew. “Hey, Doe, you’ll like this. Maybe this kid’s your brother or something, cause he’s a Doe, too.” He jerked his right thumb in the kid’s direction. “Funny, no? Enjoy the family reunion,” he teased before he turned off the light and closed the door behind him.

Andrew stared at the door and thought about how good it would feel to slam the man’s head between it and the frame for a few minutes, and then let out a slow breath. “Really, why don’t you want to stay at such a lovely place like this?” As he spoke, he turned around to face the kid once more, and wasn’t surprised to find him studying the handcuffs in the dark. After a moment’s pause, Andrew reached up to turn on one of the small lamps above their beds.

The kid jumped a little at the sound of the lamp clicking on but didn’t stop what he was doing. “Is he done bothering us?”

“As long as we don’t make any noise, yeah. He’s an asshole, but he’s a lazy one. And now that’s three you owe me for.” Andrew once more sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the bed so he could watch what the kid was doing. “Hate to break it to you, but unlike what you see in the movies, those things aren’t that easy to pick unless you have the right tools.” Not that he knew that from first-hand experience or anything.

The kid stopped what he was doing and turned to face Andrew, his teeth gnawing at his bottom lip and his brow furrowed as if he was trying to figure Andrew out; Andrew kept his expression blank and turned his arms slightly inward, unwilling to give anything away. After what had to be a minute, the kid twitched and jerked on his captured right wrist. “Okay, what do you want?”

Andrew arched his eyebrows at the question. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” There was a tiny thrill of amusement over the kid’s scowl just then, but he kept his expression blank. “There’s nothing that I want.”

“You… I mean-“ The kid huffed a little as he went to run his hands through his hair, and cursed beneath his breath in something guttural when his right hand was arrested by the handcuff. “Why are you helping me, such as it is? Why are you telling me about the best time to run?”

Andrew raised his right hand, his four fingers extended, and waggled them about. “Ah ah, I’ve already given you some information, now it’s your turn. Why are you so desperate to get out of here?” He figured the kid was too adamant about hiding his name to start there, but might be willing to give up something else if it got him what he needed.

“Look, it’s important, I don’t have time to play any stupid games!”

All Andrew did was sit there and give the kid a bland smile in return.

Something harsh and guttural was muttered while those ugly brown eyes darted back and forth between Andrew and the door a couple of times before the narrow shoulders hunched forward even more. “I have to get out of here, and soon. Some-someone’s going to be looking for me, and if they find me here-“ he choked off the words and shook his head. “It’ll be better for everyone if I’m gone.” He avoided Andrew’s intent stare and went back to the studying the handcuffs.

Andrew tapped the fingers of his left hand against his thigh a few times while he looked over the kid. “They the ones responsible for cutting you up?” As the shoulders stiffened again, he sighed and waved his right hand at the idiot, three fingers still held up. “The marks kind of difficult to miss, and I’m willing to bet it’s what the cops want to talk to you about, them and Social Services.”

The kid was quiet again for a few heartbeats before he pulled away from the bedframe. “Among other things.” He flipped the blanket aside and reached for his left shoe, which he tugged off while wincing in evident pain from bending over. “The ones coming for me are responsible for the latest ones,” he admitted as he tugged about in the bottom of the shoe, and while Andrew watched in begrudging amazement, pulled out two thin lock picks.

“Well, someone’s a Boy Scout, aren’t they?” He got off of his bed and went over to the foot of the kid’s, and noticed the way the other teen flinched at his proximity; he offered a baring of teeth and sat as far away as possible but could still watch while the handcuffs were picked. “And talented.”

He didn’t expect an answer, so was once again amused when the kid resumed talking. “I was out of… well, I needed bandages, stuff like that. Guess the ones I had on were leaking and some nosy bastard noticed and raised a fuss in the store.” The kid grimaced, probably over the do-gooder asshole butting in since he managed to undo the right cuff with his left hand, then set about to unlock the other cuff. “Managed to get into the family bathroom and lock the door, but it didn’t take them too long to drag me out of there.”

“Let me guess, long enough for you to hide a set of picks on you and to ditch whatever ID you had, right?”

“Something like that.” The cuffs now off, the kid dropped them onto the bed and took a couple of seconds to rub his wrists, the right one a bit red from where the metal had dug in while he’d been trapped to the bed. Then he reached for his bag, dragged it toward him and rustled through it for what turned out to be a change of clothes – the little glimpse that Andrew caught, everything looked plain and worn. “So, is that enough? You gonna tell me what you want now? And don’t tell me ‘nothing’ because everyone wants something.” That sounded like bitter experience at the end there.

Andrew scooted back enough to rest against the footboard of the bed and folded his arms over his chest, despite the slight ache in his left wrist. When the kid paused in grabbing onto the bottom of the pale blue top, Andrew nodded as if to indicate for him to go on; there wasn’t anywhere in the room for the kid to find any privacy, unless he went into the bathroom or Andrew turned his head. There was a slight tightening of the jaw and a flash of anger in those brown eyes before the kid jerked the top over his head, unruly hair tangled even more, and Andrew’s hands clenched despite himself at the impressive amount of damage laid bare on the kid’s scrawny torso. Only the fresh bandages hid what were some of the most impressive scars he’d seen in a lifetime spent in the system.

The kid wasn’t as quick to pull on the long-sleeved t-shirt, since it was obvious that sudden movement wasn’t his friend. He choked back on a sound of pain and his fingers trembled as he tugged the shirt down, teeth once more tearing into his bottom lip. Andrew watched on in passive silence as the kid had to take several shallow breaths before he could attempt to pull on a pair of baggy jeans, shaking hand trembling to remove the right sneaker, and earned a virulent glare when he gave a slow clap once the entire ordeal was done. “Wow, I’m impressed. How far are you going to make it if you’re collapsing on the bed after just getting dressed?”

It took the kid a couple of tries to push himself upright, and it looked as if he managed that more from sheer determination than anything else. “I *have* to get out of here,” he ground out, his left arm wrapped around his ribs as if the wounds were bothering him.

“What did you do to piss off someone so much?” Andrew didn’t expect an answer so he waved off the scowl directed his way for the question. “You really think they’re going to bother coming after you here?”

Anger was replaced by a quick flash of fear, followed by a terrible blankness Andrew knew all too well. “To finally have me pinned down? Yes.” The kid rubbed at his sweaty face for a moment then shook his head. “If I can’t get out of here, you need to leave, you don’t want to be here with me.” Groaning a little as if in pain or from the effort, he managed to step away from the bed. “You probably shouldn’t be in here at all, they’re not going to be happy to find me gone.” His hands shook as he grabbed the straps of his duffel bag.

Such a dramatic little shit, even if the kid had about an inch on Andrew. Glancing at the closed door, at the mostly comfortable bed he’d abandoned and then at the kid who looked about ready to pass out any second now, Andrew weighed his options; he still had two more years stuck here, unless a miracle happened and they gave him early parole. Early parole meant that someone had to take him in, and there was no way in hell he was going back into the system, was dealing with another family. The only ones who wanted him was Cass – whom he wasn’t going to think about now - and some busybody uncle whom he also wasn’t willing to think about just then. What he did have just then was a beat up kid with too much attitude who wasn’t going to make it more than ten feet without him.

“Ask me the question again.” He reached out to tug on the bag, and nearly pulled the kid off of his feet.

“What?” The kid glared at him, surprise, surprise, the expression soon turning to confusion. “Question?”

“Yeah, you’re really going to get far, aren’t you?” Andrew sighed when the kid didn’t even snark back. “The question, idiot.”

“Oh for-“ The kid tugged on the bag before he seemed to realize that Andrew wasn’t about to let go. “Do you mean ‘what do you want’?”

“Maybe there’s some hope for you yet.” Andrew ignored the dirty look and shoved the kid back onto the bed, and only felt a little bad at the muffled sound of pain as the kid sunk down onto the mattress. “I still don’t want anything, but I could use a pack of cigarettes, and I think it would be fun to have a car. I could also do without people telling me what to do all the time. It would be nice to get out of here. I’m also craving a candy bar.” He just rattled stuff off the top of his head as he loomed over the younger teen, close enough to notice that the kid was wearing contacts but careful not to touch. “Think you can manage that?”

The kid stared at him for a few seconds, body tense as if waiting for a punch, a hit, and then let out a shuddering breath. “Get me out of here and… and help me out a little,” the words sounded as if they hurt him more than the bandaged wounds, “and I think I can manage a good bit of that, yeah.”

“All right, then we have a deal.” Andrew nodded, and waited for the kid to nod as well, unwilling to shake hands but counting on that to be just as good. “Now, let me see that bag.” When the kid pulled the duffel bag onto his lap, he sighed and rolled his eyes. “I can’t get out of here looking like this.”

The kid frowned for a few seconds as he looked Andrew up and down, his expression unreadable, and when Andrew was about to tell him to fuck off if he was that unwilling to share his shitty clothes, handed over the bag. “I think they’ll fit you, all of my stuff is pretty big. There’s a spare pair of shoes in there, too. I had to fight to keep these ones at the hospital because of them.”

“Great, I can’t wait to wear your smelly hand-me downs.” It was almost amusing, the way the kid glared as if he had any strength left to him to back it up; Andrew managed an amused smile as he snatched up the bag and went back to his bed. Grateful to find several long-sleeved shirts from which to take his pick, he grabbed whatever looked the largest, along with a hooded sweatshirt, and the loosest pair of jeans. Despite the kid having a slight height advantage on him, the worn sneakers were a size too small and the jeans a bit tight in the waist, but it would do for now. He rolled up and shoved the faculty t-shirt and sweats he’d been wearing into the bag so they could get rid of them later.

He noticed that there were some crumbled bills among the clothes and was surprised that Alvarez hadn’t confiscated that yet, along with some saline for the kid’s contacts. “Eighty bucks or so isn’t going to get you far.”

“Let me worry about that once we’re out of here.” The kid held out his hands for the bag. “How soon can we leave?”

Andrew tugged down his sleeves as far as they could go, the left ones caught on his bandages, and checked the clock affixed to the wall. “Give Cowan another thirty minutes to get settled in and it should be all right.”

The kid fussed with the contents of his bag as if he had some fancy packing system. “Will it be difficult to get out of here?”

“Hmm, it helps that no one’s tried lately, and I’ve been here long enough to know the best way how to go about it.” Andrew had thought about it more than once, he just hadn’t had any motivation to run away before now. It would be a bit tricky… but it was better than just sitting here, waiting for Higgins and Hemmick to interfere with his life. He could see just how fucked up things were for this kid and always come back if things got boring.

The kid was quiet while he shuffled things about in his bag, and then he got up from the bed and held out something to Andrew, careful to stay just out of arm’s reach. “Okay then. We’ll get out of here, go fetch something of mine and get somewhere safe, and work on that list of yours. Until then, take some of this, just in case.” He held out a few of the dollar bills with a guarded expression. “We’ll need to catch a bus once we get out of here, and, well… just in case.”

Andrew doubted that it was even half of the money he’d seen inside the bag, but still, it meant that if something happened and if they got separated or the kid took off, he at least had enough money to get away. It was more money than he’d hand over, if their situation was reversed, to be honest. He reached out and grasped the money by the edge and pulled it away slowly. “Hey, what’s your name? I need something to call you other than ‘kid’ or ‘it’.”

The kid took to frowning again as he retreated back to the other bed and seemed to think about the request. “You can call me Alex,” he offered after a couple of minutes.

“Be ready in twenty-five minutes,” Andrew warned ‘Alex’.  

Alex didn’t say anything, he just went over to the window and took up watch by it, as if looking for something. Andrew let him be, and wondered how long it would take for them to find a place where he could buy a pack of cigarettes once they got out of here.

He definitely wasn’t bored right now.

*******

Nathaniel stared across the almost empty parking lot of the Walmart store and felt as if he was going to throw up; his mother’s furious voice echoed inside of his head and raved at him for being so stupid, so foolish, for making so many mistakes that would end up with him dead. He could still smell the smoke and the gasoline as her body burned, feel the sand beneath his nails and the scrapes on his hands from digging to bury her body-

“So it’s in there?”

“Oui.”

“That a yes?”

He took a shuddering breath when he realized that he’d slipped back into French and shook his head. “Yeah, it’s a ‘yes’.” Just a couple of months ago they’d been up in Montreal, before that had been France, had been Switzerland and Germany and- he was tired. He was so tired and in pain and he just wanted to stop and sleep forever. He wanted to leave California and never come back, but first he had to fetch his binder. No, he had to have Andrew fetch his binder for him, because if he stepped back into that store after this morning….

Aware of the other teenager staring at him, he let out another slow breath and nodded. “It’s in the family bathroom by customer service – when I realized that the asshole had flagged security and they were covering the entrance, I went in there to hide anything that might be considered incriminating. Look for the ceiling tile by the vent, there’s a black binder tucked up in there.” He reached into his front pocket to pull out the rest of his money and only paused for a moment before handing over everything but a five dollar bill. “Buy yourself some new shoes and one or two other small things, but don’t get too much, we can hit another store later.”

Andrew’s expression remained blank as he accepted the money. “That’s not going to be a problem?”

Nathaniel wanted to laugh at the question. “Just get me the binder, and bring me *everything* inside of it.” He went to reach for Andrew’s arm and stopped; even with only knowing the other teenager for a couple of hours, he’d noticed how Andrew had made sure not to initiate any contact between them – between anyone once they’d left the detention center and made their way here on foot and by bus. “Look, you’ve helped me out so far and I appreciate it, I do.” It felt as if shards of glass were in his throat just then, as if he could feel his mother yanking on his hair, hitting him on his back and head as she screamed at him to walk away, to get as far away from Andrew and his ‘help’ as possible. Unfortunately, he couldn’t because he *did* need Andrew, dammit. “Get me the binder and you’ll see. Just… just know that if you run off with it… I do have someone I can call.” Nathaniel attempted to summon a scowl for the other boy and hoped that the threat didn’t sound weak just then, didn’t sound like something that was a last resort, which it was. “It won’t be good when he finds you.”

He’d memorized Uncle Stuart’s number, between his mother gasping it out to him – between that awful night and this morning. It really was a matter of last resort, and he’d been terrified that he’d have to call it once he got himself free of the handcuffs, but if Andrew would just bring him the damn binder then maybe… maybe….

Andrew clicked his tongue and batted Nathaniel’s hand aside before tucking away the money. “I think you’d have called that number already if you wanted to, but whatever. I’m getting a pair of shoes that aren’t two seconds away from falling to pieces and a pack of cigarettes. Don’t pass out while I’m gone.” He gave Nathaniel a two-finger salute as he sauntered away, hands lifting to tug up the hood of the borrowed hoodie to cover his pale blond hair as he crossed the parking lot.

Nathaniel watched him go, body tense with the need to follow, to make sure that he wasn’t betrayed, until the stitched wounds began to ache even more and he had to relax. Dammit, he would have to see about stealing some alcohol soon, since pain meds were out of the question – at least until he got to Reno and met up with his mother’s contact there. Obviously there was no way he’d manage to find anyone here or in LA, not with his father’s men hard on his trail. He shuddered as his right hand slid beneath the layers of clothes he wore to press against the bandages wrapped around his chest, at the fresh wounds the bastard had inflicted on him in San Francisco before he’d managed to slip away. He felt sorry for the poor guy that had made the mistake of walking into that restroom… but he’d been able to do nothing but grab his bag and flee after smashing the bathroom door into man’s face, to react on pure instinct.

That was part of the problem, ever since his mother, ever since – he needed to stop, to gather his thoughts, to *think* instead of just react. He needed breathing space, but his father’s hounds were too close, his mother’s death too fresh. Nathaniel pressed his fingers against the bandaged stitches in an effort to clear his head and tried not to think about how long Andrew had been, at how foolish it was to trust someone he’d just met with what was his most important possessions. If the teen did run off with it, he had no choice but to make the call to Uncle Stuart and hope he lived long enough for his uncle to reach him.

Why was he trusting Andrew? Utter desperation? The exhaustion? Because Andrew hadn’t called him crazy or looked at him with pity? Something wasn’t all there with that one, even with the obvious fact that he was a juvie, but there was that flat stare and the scars on his wrists that he mostly kept hidden and the fact that he didn’t seem to care that Nathaniel was dragging him into danger.

At least four people had come out of the store by now, and considering that it was the middle of the night, Nathaniel had a sinking feeling that maybe Andrew had found the binder, looked inside and decided to run off with the money and bonds. Cursing himself for all kinds of a fool in every language he knew, he’d resigned himself to a fruitless wait until daybreak and began to sink down to the cold concrete when a short figure left the store with a bag in each hand. He stared on in amazement as the figure made a beeline toward him, sore body tensing in anticipation of the need to get up and run, and didn’t realize it was Andrew until the boy was about twenty feet away.

“I got us some snacks.” Andrew dropped one of the bags by Nathaniel before he reached back beneath his shirts to pull out the binder. “So, where to next?” He handed over the binder as he sat down as well, then kicked off Nathaniel’s borrowed shoes so he could pull on the new ones he had bought.

“I… we need to pick up a few more things before we can leave town.” Nathaniel flipped open the binder and as relief flooded through him, gave its contents a quick check to make sure the money, fake IDs, bonds and information was still there; from what he could tell, Andrew hadn’t touched anything. “We can get some more clothes for you and some hair dye. I’m thinking it’ll be best to grab a bus in Berkeley, where it won’t be too odd for a couple of teenagers to be traveling.”

“Whatever.” Andrew had also picked up a small backpack, into which he put some of the snacks he’d bought, along with the new pack of cigarettes after he lit one of them by using a plastic lighter. “I saw the contacts you hid as well, but figured you wouldn’t need them. They know you have brown eyes so time to do something new.” He drew in a deep drag on the cigarette then blew it out in Nathaniel’s face.

Furious at the other boy for deciding that on his own, Nathaniel opened his mouth to say something… and found Andrew giving him that blank look. “I… it’ll take some time to get new ones,” he argued. “These ones are fine for now.”

“Whatever. But the police here know you as having brown hair and eyes. You going to keep that up?” Andrew waved his right hand about, the tip of his cigarette bright in the night’s darkness even with the weak parking lot lights around them. “Seems to me there’s no sense in being all half-assed if you’re serious about losing the people who’re after you, but what do I know?”

He wanted to say ‘nothing’, because his father’s men and the Feds knew what he really looked like, but maybe, just maybe, it would throw them off a little if he did something unexpected. Dammit, he hated the thought of removing them, of baring his eyes after so long, but ever since Seattle…. Nathaniel gritted his teeth as he nodded once and forced his hands to rise up, forced himself to ignore his mother’s voice and remove the lenses. At least he didn’t have to look at himself once they were out and on the ground. “Come on, we need to get the stuff and be out of town by morning,” he told Andrew as he forced his battered body to move.

“What did I say about the whole ‘not doing what people tell me’ thing?”

Nathaniel sighed as he rubbed his hands along his face and began counting down the hours until he could leave California behind. Now that he had his binder back, they just needed to get the stuff to change their appearances enough to fool anyone looking for them and then catch a bus out of state. With Andrew to watch his back, he could get enough rest that he wasn’t falling apart by the time they reached Reno, and once they each had a new set of IDs, he could finish off the promised list and send Andrew safely on his own way.

After that… Nathaniel pushed any thoughts of what happened past Reno out of his mind. Get to Reno, get the IDs, get Andrew his car and then move on. Just run, and keep running.

He nearly hit Andrew with his duffel bag when the other teen held out something in front of his face, and glared at the slight smirk curled around a burning cigarette when he realized it was a can of expresso drink. “Yeah, killer reaction there. I see now how you earned all those battle scars and can only imagine how bad the others fared.”

“You’re an asshole,” Nathaniel shot back, too tired to come up with anything else or even to make it sound that angry as he accepted the drink.

“Yep, and all you got.” Andrew dug out another can and tapped it against Nathaniel’s. “Cheers.”

For a moment Nathaniel felt the urge to retort that if Andrew was all he had then he was truly fucked, but the words couldn’t make it out of his mouth. Instead, all he did was pop open the can and tilt back his head to let the bitter, cold drink wash down his dry throat as he moved forward, no longer alone.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Andrew lit a cigarette and inhaled, then paused a moment to enjoy the warm burn in his lungs while he waited for the strangers to disperse in the Sacramento Greyhound parking lot. Waited for ‘Alex’ to eventually pick a direction and gave the kid a few seconds lead before he followed.

They ended up at a diner just down the street, some non-descript grease-pit with the inventive name of ‘Alice’s’ that had faded red vinyl booths and red and white checkered tables. Alex was tucked into the back corner, away from the few other people seated that late in the morning, his head downturned as if he was paying attention to the menu; Andrew caught a flash of icy blue which let him know that his traveling companion had noticed his arrival.

He ignored the server and went straight to the back booth, dropped his backpack onto the opposite seat and sank down. “You’re buying.”

Alex sighed and shoved a laminated menu across the table, which Andrew gave a quick glance. “Of course.” It was the first that they’d spoken to each other since getting on the bus back at Berkeley, having decided that it was safest to sit apart in case anyone was looking for the pair of them. Andrew had made certain to sit behind Alex to keep him in his sights, and had noticed how the younger teen had struggled not to sleep even though he appeared exhausted. The dark circles beneath his eyes only accentuated the pale blue color of his eyes, which looked much better than those ugly brown contacts – it was a shame that for some reason Alex hated them. Hated them and the auburn shade Andrew had picked to dye his hair at first, instead of the plain brown Alex had shoved at him in almost a panic as an alternative. Hmm, someone was a rather interesting bundle of issues, weren’t they? Wouldn’t even look in the mirror to see if Andrew had done a decent job in lightening his hair color….

“What can I get you boys?”

The arrival of their server, a late middle-aged woman who appeared way too chipper with her lot in life and to be stuck wearing that awful checkered uniform, actually *beamed* at them as she waited for a response. Andrew loathed her on sight and fought back a sneer while Alex mumbled out an order for coffee and the number two special, over easy.

“Coffee as well, Belgium waffles, extra whip cream and syrup, and a side of bacon,” he told the annoyance as he flicked aside the menu.

“Okay,” she drawled as she picked up the menus. “I’ll be back with your drinks.”

The table was quiet until she came back with their two coffees and a large carafe of the hot beverage, and Alex watched on with what looked to be bemusement as Andrew added several sugar packets and creamers to his mug. “Why bother?”

“Indeed, a question I ask myself about many a thing.” Andrew took a sip of his drink while he fetched the newspaper he’d picked up on the bus from out of his backpack then dropped it onto the table, folded to show the article of interest. “Such as, ‘why bother to go to such lengths over one individual’?”

Alex’s hands clenched around his own mug when he caught sight of the paper, but Andrew had to give him credit for having a decent poker face. Those riveting blue eyes scanned the article for a few seconds before staring into the mug. “There’s no mention of us.”

Ah, way to dodge the question; Andrew assumed that he must have already seen the article or heard someone mention it on the bus. “No, which is rather interesting in and of itself, just mentioned that there was a fire at a certain facility we recently vacated and a couple of injuries, one of which was serious. I do hope Cowan doesn’t recover soon,” he said in a flat voice. When Alex remained still, he tapped the fingers of his left hand against the table in annoyance. “Why?”

Alex flinched, either at the sound or the question, and glanced around as if to make sure that they weren’t being overheard. “Not… not here, okay?”

“’Not here’ implies that there will be a discussion somewhere else, understood?” He waited until he received a nod, and had some more coffee.

Part of what kept him at Alex’s side – other than the huge enigma the kid represented – was that so far, ‘Alex’ had held up his end of the bargain. Here Andrew sat with a pack of cigarettes in his bag with no one telling him what to do, on his way to get a new ID and presumably a car of some sort. He could still change his mind at any point, could go back to Oakland and say that he’d been dragged along for fear of his life, could turn Alex in at the next opportunity… but he wasn’t bored, and he was with someone who needed his help. There was something… something….

The server, ‘Anita’, according to her name tag, arrived with their food just then and spared him from any more useless analysis. Of course Alex had chosen some bland, simple platter of eggs, bacon and toast; the kid seemed unable to do anything that didn’t help him fade into the woodwork. At least Andrew’s breakfast appeared to have enough flavor for the both of them, the syrup and whipped cream threatening to overflow from the plate, the canned blueberries gleaming beneath the diner’s fluorescent lights as much as Anita’s bottled black and shellacked hair.

“Can I get you anything else?”

“Some anti-acids for him,” Alex muttered as he stared at Andrew’s breakfast.

“Some of us don’t need them, Grandpa.” He swiped his fork through the mountain of whipped cream then popped it into his mouth.

“Okay,” Anita drawled again before walking away, and Andrew’s left eye twitched from the impulse of throwing his mug after her. Alex must have sensed something, because he waved his left hand in the air as a distraction.

“So we’ll give it another hour or two then get on the next bus to Reno.” He kept his voice down low as he snatched up the newspaper to shove into his own bag, and then began to cut into his eggs.

“I can’t hardly wait, I hear it’s such a lovely city.” Andrew had never been outside of California in his life, it was rather depressing that his first trip anywhere was to Reno even if that was where Alex said they had to go to get the new IDs.  “You take me to the nicest of places.”

For a moment there was a far-away look on Alex’s face, one that made him appear much younger than the fifteen years he claimed and haunted on top of it, and then he shook his head as he lifted his mug. “Can’t be any worse than where we met, can it?” There was a hint of a smile to his lips as he stared at Andrew.

“Touché.” Andrew gave him a two-fingered salute with his left hand then resumed eating his breakfast in silence.

*******

As soon as they stepped out of the diner, Andrew lit up a cigarette; Nathaniel found himself reaching for it before he could stop and think about what he was doing or how close his fingers came to brushing against the other teen’s hand. Andrew started at the theft, his body tense, and then quirked an eyebrow as he watched Nathaniel cup the cigarette close to his face. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I… I don’t.” Nathaniel swallowed past a throat gone dry as he breathed in the fumes, the scent of smoke taking him back to barely a week ago, to that awful night on the coast. He shuddered as he shook his head, as he attempted to push aside the memory even as he inhaled again and again. “I… it just….”

“Keep walking,” Andrew ordered, the words blunt but tone oddly gently. “And you owe me an explanation as well as another pack of cigarettes.”

Figuring that there was no sense in arguing over the absurd payback, Nathaniel reached into his pocket to pull out a fifty dollar bill. “They stunt your growth, you know.” Somehow he dredged up a smile in the face of Andrew’s affronted expression even as the other teenager snatched away the money.

“Yeah, like I haven’t heard that before.”

Nathaniel was sure he had, and thought it was nice for once to not be the shortest kid around; he had inherited his mo- the Stuart’s lack of height, apparently, unless he hit a growth spurt soon, but Andrew was an inch shorter than him at five foot. At least the other teen wasn’t as scrawny, though, having filled out Nathaniel’s clothes to the point of stretching them with his broader shoulders and solid build. The chestnut brown hair dye suited him, added a bit of warmth to his complexion that had been lacking with the pale blond hair, but he still was an imposing figure with the cold gleam to his hazel eyes.

“I’m waiting for that explanation.”

“Ah, yeah.” Nathaniel winced at the bite of impatience in Andrew’s voice and inhaled once more before he shook off the ash gathering on the tip of his own cigarette, then glanced around to make certain that no one was close enough to listen to them. Still, he nodded for them to duck into a small alley between a dollar store and a Chinese restaurant. “So, I told you the basics already, that my mom stole some money from some very nasty people and they’ve been chasing us ever since to get it back.” He inhaled again to center himself before he continued. “They got to her eventually,” he forced back the pain, the turbulent emotions, “and I’ve been trying to shake them off my tail ever since. A few nights ago, they found it again.”

“Yes, yes, second verse, same as the first.” Andrew flicked his own cigarette, only burned half-way through, down onto the ground and stomped on it. “Tell me why our faces weren’t in the article, and why they risked doing that to a juvie facility.”

“I’m getting there,” Nathaniel snapped, then shuddered as he forced his temper back down; dammit, did Andrew think it was *easy* for him to talk about this stuff? If his mother was- but no, she wasn’t, and if there was anything that he’d learned the last few days was that he was terrible running by himself while so messed up, so he would take Andrew’s odd form of help for another day or two while he pulled himself together and then part ways before something bad happened to the other teen. “Because the man my mother stole the money from had… well, he had ties to organized crime, and I’m willing to bet that the Feds must have made the connection somehow from me to him when the police got involved at the hospital.” He dropped his own cigarette and clutched the duffel bag hard against his stomach, even if it made his healing wounds ache. “If they did, then they know splashing my face on the news will only make it that much easier for *his* people to track me down, and I can’t be a witness for them if I’m dead.”

Andrew gave him that flat, assessing look of his while he fished out another cigarette and lit it, the flame from the lighter giving a false spark of life to his hazel eyes for a second or two. After a slow drag, he removed the cigarette from his lips and blew smoke toward Nathaniel. “I figured out the organized crime thing by myself – didn’t think some simple gang member or criminal had the resources to do that damage to you and freak you out if you were already locked up. But if the Feds are involved, it’s serious.” He took another drag on the cigarette and continued to stare at Nathaniel, making it clear that he was waiting for something.

Nathaniel shook his head in a hasty denial. “You’re already in this more than I’d like – let’s get to Reno where I can buy you a new ID and a car, and we can go our separate ways. If by some chance the Feds track you down, I want you to be able to say that you’ve no clue who I was or who was chasing me, which is better for you.”

The look took on a cold edge as Andrew jabbed the cigarette toward Nathaniel’s face, which caused him to flinch. “You trying to *protect* me or something?” The other teen sounded incredulous at the mere idea of it.

Nathaniel shrugged as he turned around and headed back toward the sidewalk. “Someone has to, right?” There had to be a reason why Andrew had ended up in that facility, why he had those scars on his inner arms that he tried to hide, why he appeared to dislike being touched and why he was so apathetic most of the time; Nathaniel knew he was a lost cause, that he was living on borrowed time now that his mother was gone, so he might as well do what he could to limit the damage to someone else. As much as his mother’s voice in his head screamed at him to run away from Andrew, the teen was the first person other than Nathaniel’s mother whom Nathaniel had spoken more than ten words to in… in much too long. Well, other than ‘fuck you’, and ‘I’ve nothing to say’.

With another hour to kill before they left the city, Nathaniel allowed Andrew to lead them about the streets as a way to kill time, only vetoing one or two stores when he noticed the security cameras; even with the hood  of the long-sleeved t-shirt pulled up and Andrew wearing a cap, he didn’t want to chance leaving behind any recorded footage of them. It was bad enough that the Feds would be able to access the footage from the hospital back in Oakland, he had to at least be thankful that he hadn’t been officially processed at Wayward Burns because of his injuries and the late time of his arrival.

They spent some time in a second-hand bookstore, then wandered about the street leading back to the bus station. About half an hour before they had to return for their bus, Andrew led them to a souvenir shop. Nathaniel had never found such things interesting before, as he’d always traveled light in the past and mementos such as the shop sold could become incriminating depending on the current cover story. Still, it was cool in the shop and a way to waste time, so he glanced at the shelves as if interested – he forced himself past the display of goods for Sacramento’s Exy teams – while trailing along at Andrew’s back, at least until the older teen stopped in front of a display case filled with knives.

They weren’t professional grade, not with the stupid fake bone handles and various ‘Sacramento’ logos, but they were stainless steel and some of them possessed a decent edge. Nathaniel could only watch on in silence, his bag once more clutched against him, as Andrew gestured to two of them to be brought out and then spent a couple of minutes testing them, twisting them about in his right hand as if checking their weight and the feel of their grip. Eventually he settled for the one with the less elaborate handle and gave the young guy behind the counter the fifty dollar bill Nathaniel had handed over earlier.

Nathaniel waited until they were outside to speak, his throat dry even as he wiped his damp palms against the outer thighs of his jeans. “Why?” It hurt to even force out that one word as memories of his father staring down at him with that awful smile while lines of pain bloomed across his chest pushed to the forefront of his mind.

Andrew glanced over at him and frowned for some reason. “This?” He held up the bag and cocked his head to the side when Nathaniel flinched away from it. “Seems to me that we need something other than two bags and a binder to throw at them if they find us, right?”

“Co-could always flick lit cigarettes at them,” Nathaniel managed to croak out.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work just as well as everything else you’ve done so far,” Andrew huffed in a rare show of amusement. “Why does it bother you?”

Why did it seem that they had a tit-for-tat thing going on? Why did Nathaniel allow it to continue? Was it because it seemed the easiest way to give something up, if he knew that Andrew would do so as well? “I… I never understood why he liked them so much…” he settled on eventually, as he raised his right hand to rub not at the new wounds, but an older scar lower down on his abdomen.

Either the answer or the action chased away the faint amusement in Andrew’s glass-like eyes. “Hmm, maybe we’ll see about changing that.”

As if it were that easy, and as if Nathaniel ever wanted to get that close to his father again in this lifetime. He would be having nightmares of the latest encounter for months, if not years to come. “I wish you luck with that one.”

Andrew gave a non-committal hum in response, and led them into the men’s room once they reached the bus station. Nathaniel cringed a little as they entered, recalling what had happened back in San Francisco, but this one was busy so he figured it was safe. Still, he didn’t linger, and was waiting outside when Andrew finally joined him without the bag from the souvenir shop. If he tried, he was sure he could probably figure out where the teen had hidden the knife, but Andrew had a tendency to give him a cold look if he stared for too long so it wasn’t worth the effort.

Fortunately Sacramento had automatic ticket dispensers, so once he gave Andrew some money, they both were able to purchase their own, they just made sure that their hoods or hats were pulled forward enough, respectively. Once their way to Reno was in hand, Andrew wandered off toward the small convenience store for what appeared to be yet another sugar rush; Nathaniel didn’t understand how anyone who could be so apathetic most of the time ingested so much sugar and caffeine without any reaction whatsoever.

However, they were going to be stuck on a bus for several hours, so might as well grab a few snacks while he could – that and he hadn’t seen the guy back at the souvenir store give Andrew much change. Nathaniel picked up a coupe of bottles of water and some energy bars… and was unable to resist the urge to grab an Exy magazine when he caught a glimpse of Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama on the cover. When he reached the register, it wasn’t a surprise to find Andrew waiting for him with an armful of sugary snacks and drinks as well as an impatient expression on his face, the first of which were dropped onto the counter and the second which changed into something resembling disgust when he noticed the magazine. Nathaniel waited, but nothing was said until they headed outside to wait for the bus.

Andrew was quiet until they found a spot in the shade, away from everyone else, to lean against the wall and wait for the bus to arrive. Once there, he snatched the bag from Nathaniel and fished out one of his energy drinks and a candy bar. “So what’s with you and those guys?” He shoved the bag back at Nathaniel while he popped the lid off of the drink. “You got a hard on for them or what?”

Something cold ran down Nathaniel’s spine despite the growing heat of the day. “You looked through the binder.”

Andrew clicked his tongue before he took a sip of the sugary drink. “Of course I did, wanted to know if you could live up to your promises.” He paused for another sip and rolled his eyes at Nathaniel’s furious expression. “You said not to take anything, which I didn’t.”

“Semantics,” Nathaniel hissed before he forced back his temper. He did his best to count to ten, first in English, then in German, and let out a slow breath as he reached for a bottle of water. “No, I don’t have a ‘hard on’ for them.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t!” Nathaniel counted in French as well. “I don’t… I don’t swing, okay?”

“That way?”

“At all,” he insisted. Andrew didn’t appear dubious at his response – he had the same bland expression on his face that he did most of the time, so why was he even bothering with the line of question? Why was Nathaniel answering him? “I like Exy, okay? And they’re the best at it.”

That admission earned him another eye roll as Andrew finished his drink, crumbled the can and dropped it to the ground. “There’s ‘like’ and there’s ‘obsession’, and what I saw was ‘obsession’. I played Exy back at my dearly beloved former residence, and you didn’t see me pasting up pictures of those Raven assholes.”

Nathaniel perked up upon hearing that, despite the exhaustion wearing upon him and the constant ache from his wounds. “You played Exy? What position?”

The look Andrew gave him just then was nothing short of withering. “My point, proven.” He poked Nathaniel in the ribs with his candy bar like the asshole he was before unwrapping it. “It wasn’t my idea, they considered sports as some sort of therapy – controlled output for aggression and energy, shit like that, and I was *told* I was going to play Exy.” Nathaniel winced upon hearing that, already well acquainted with how much Andrew detested following orders. “I played goalie.”

“Are you any good?” Nathaniel sighed when Andrew held up his left hand, forefinger extended, while he munched on the candy bar, also acquainted with the teen’s weird point system by now. “I played in the little leagues when I was a kid, back when things… well, back before,” he explained, his right hand clenched around the handle of his duffel bag and his left, still holding the bag from the store, pressed against his sore ribs. “Was a backliner, and I did pretty good. Haven’t had a chance to play since because of… well, you know, and I guess I look to Kevin and Riko as a ‘what if’,” he embellished as he refused to think about that bloody, hellish day before everything became one endless nightmare.

Finished with his candy bar as well, Andrew made a show of letting the wrapper fall to the ground. “Poor little Alex,” the stress he put on Nathaniel’s latest alias made it clear that he knew it was a false identity. “Still a dreamer after all these years.”

“Better than being an asshole,” Nathaniel snapped.

“I think we’ll agree to differ on that one. So, why Reno? Wouldn’t Las Vegas be better?”

He did a quick check to make sure no one was loitering around them and decided to answer since Andrew seemed in both a talkative – for him – mood and willing to move off of the Exy topic. Off of the Kevin and Riko topic. “Sometimes the less obvious choice is the better one, and Reno was established before Las Vegas. It’s also situated closer to San Francisco and the upper West Coast.” He shrugged when his- when the other teen continued to give him that blank look. “I don’t have all of the answers, but I know location is key for these guys, as is not sticking out like a sore thumb. I’m sure there are people in Las Vegas who can do that stuff, but not anyone I can trust, and not anyone I can reach with the names I have.”

Andrew appeared to consider that as he lit a cigarette and inhaled several slow drags. “Ah.”

When he made to leave, perhaps to use the bathroom again, Nathaniel held up his left hand, forefinger extended. “Not so fast.” When he received a cool look in return, he found himself flummoxed on what he wanted to ask in return – it had been on the tip of his tongue to ask what Andrew had been doing at the detention center, but the longer he looked at the other teen, that he thought about the hidden scars, at the way that Andrew always stayed just out of reach as much as Nathaniel did himself…. “Uhm, have you given any thought about what you’re going to do once we reach Reno?”

The smile he received in return was a bit mocking. “Stay alive. Can you say the same?” He reached out, the gesture slow, and pressed the tips of his fingers against the long-healed scar that snaked its way across Nathaniel’s abdomen, just a quick brush of pressure. “Worry about yourself for once.” Then he walked away from Nathaniel before anything else could be said.

*******

Andrew finished with one of his paperbacks, a halfway decent mystery novel, and set it on his lap for a moment before he fished in his backpack for another book and a snack. Seated beside him, separated by the ever-present duffel bag, Alex had finally taken his advice – more like a whispered threat – and gotten some sleep; not that the kid had much choice in the matter since he’d been running on fumes yesterday and had only been staying awake due to coffee and sheer determination. Kid might not be the brightest, but he was stubborn as hell, Andrew acknowledged as he shuffled a little more into the corner of his seat, which gave him a better view of ‘Alex’ and seats around them; Alex’s eyes were so darkened by exhaustion that it looked as if he’d been punched a few days ago and the black eyes had slowly healed, the rest of his face that wasn’t hidden by golden brown hair or the shadows cast by the shirt’s hood gaunt from exhaustion and pain.

He was braced between his seat and the back of the seat in front, right arm looped through the handles of duffel bag and body curled up as if to present as small of a target as possible; Andrew had the impression that he was used to traveling long hours on a bus, that he often spent time surrounded by potential enemies and so rarely let his guard down. One of those myriad scars had been a bullet wound, and a lot of them had looked to have healed years ago. Andrew knew well enough that there were more types of scars than just the physical ones, and was willing to bet that ‘Alex’ had his fair share of those, too.

Alex had barely spoken much about his mother in the past day or so, other than to say she’d gotten him into this mess, living on the run, and left him to flounder on his own by getting herself killed. Andrew didn’t think much of a woman who allowed her son to look like a walking Frankenstein, at least from the neck down, so figured she was better off dead. Now what to do with a desperate runaway who had over half a million dollars from Andrew’s quick count, eight ratty outfits and two pairs of even rattier shoes, a mobile shrine to two teenage Exy players, a list of criminal contacts and a ‘get out of jail free’ number he was too terrified or unwilling to call long past the point of when he should have?

Part of Andrew was growing annoyed with ‘Alex’ because the longer he spent with the kid, the less the pieces added up – who was that weak when they had that much money? What was he really running from? Why did he studiously refuse to look at his own image, not only in mirrors but any reflective surface? Andrew didn’t expect to be told the truth by anyone, let alone someone he had just met, but he had a feeling that he’d heard only the bare bones of it in regards to his traveling companion. That ‘Alex’ was running from someone dangerous? Yes. His mother was dead? Yes. He could be of use to the Feds? Most likely. But add it all up? Something was off, and he wanted to know what in the worst way… and he wasn’t used to *wanting*, dammit.

What had started as a diversion from boredom and a distraction from an unwelcome problem was growing into… into something he couldn’t figure out, and that perturbed him. He didn’t like things he couldn’t figure out. Alex should have been just another abused runaway, albeit a bit more delusional than the rest, and humoring him for a day or two would get Andrew out of some noisome therapy sessions and being shouted at to ‘show some spirit’ at Exy practice. It would also ensure that, upon his return, he would be blocked from any visitors as a punishment for a couple of months at least – oh what a shame.

So why was it when, on his way to the bathroom that one of the other passengers lingered a bit too long in the narrow aisle to stare at a sleeping Alex with an assessing gaze, Andrew shifted forward with a loaded gaze of his own until the man got the hint and hurried along?  He hadn’t gotten much sleep last night either, and he was safely tucked into the corner. Yet he fetched another energy drink along with the new book and sipped it while keeping one eye out for what went on around them, and allowed the kid to sleep.

*******

Nathaniel sighed as he looked out at the darkening sky as they left the bus depot the hefted the duffel bag higher up on his left shoulder, and bit his chapped lips at the sharp twinge of pain which resulted from the motion. “We need to find a place for the night, since the guy I need to see isn’t going to be available until morning.”

Andrew shrugged, his hands tucked into his pockets and his gaze on the street in front on him. “It’s your money.”

Yeah, Nathaniel had figured he’d say something along that line. Stepping a little further out into the sidewalk, he got his bearings and mentally consulted the map of the city he’d memorized that he’d picked up when the bus had stopped at the one rest station; they were by the Amtrak station near Commercial Row, so the East Fourth Street District shouldn’t be too far away. The distance was walkable, and they should be able to find a cheap hotel on the fringes, someplace where no one asked questions about two teenagers spending the night – especially since Nathaniel wasn’t certain how much scrutiny his current ID could withstand.

Walking close to each other but careful not to touch, the two of them headed in the right direction, with him giving Andrew small gestures here or there to indicate when to turn; they stopped a couple of times, once when Andrew wanted to pick up a magazine advertising cars for sale, and another time at a small store selling electronics. Nathaniel followed Andrew inside with some trepidation, and found himself digging the fingers of his right hand into the healing cuts along his chest while the teen bought a burner phone and a card with prepaid minutes. He could still remember holding his phone while standing beside the ocean, that one last link to her, before he had gotten of it along with everything else that had tied him to his mother, everything but what was in the binder and bonded to blood and bones – the scars, the memories, the inevitable death inching forward with every beat of his heart.

The feel of something light pressed against the back of his neck made him gasp and jerk away, only to find Andrew standing there, a bright yellow bag in his left hand while his right hand fell back to his side. “It’s rude to have a panic attack in a public place,” he murmured while he motioned with a toss of his head toward the door leading out of the store.

“I-“ It was difficult to deny, so Nathanial settled for a weak glare and hurried outside. “Why a phone?” Andrew wasn’t exactly the most talkative soul, other than to poke at Nathaniel, and hadn’t mentioned anyone friends or family as of yet.

“Because I need something to call about cars,” was all Andrew said as they resumed their search for a place to stay.

Once they reached the East Fourth Street District with its bars and restaurants, they looked for somewhere to grab something to eat and to stay; Nathaniel was tempted to crash at the homeless shelter, but something about the tense set to Andrew’s shoulders while he contemplated the place made him sigh and walk away after a few seconds. No, whatever they were, Andrew’s issues wouldn’t lend well to sharing a room with strangers, he supposed. It wouldn’t be ideal for Nathaniel either, but it would save money and provide a place with plenty of witnesses, meaning that his father’s people couldn’t do anything to them during their stay. Feeling bone-deep exhausted despite the couple of hours of sleep he’d caught on the bus, Nathaniel forced his battered body onward.

They got something to eat at a fast food Mexican place, and then, *thankfully*, they came across a motel a couple blocks later. The ‘Hi-Life’ motel was much like the ones Nathaniel had stayed at with his mother while crossing the US – non-descript, two levels, external doors and a swimming pool that looked as if it was hosting some sort of algae lifeform. All that mattered was that there was a ‘vacancy’ sign lit up and not many cars parked in the parking lot. He was willing to bet that they charged by the hour as well as by the night, but as long as he didn’t find any bedbugs, he didn’t care.

There was a guy in his late twenties or early thirties behind the counter, sunburned and apathetic and barely willing to take his eyes off of the television screen he was watching while Nathaniel paid for two nights up front. Two keycards were slid across the counter toward him with the comment ‘room one-twenty-five, and keep the noise down’, and then the guy turned up the volume on his tv, attention back to what sounded to be a boxing match.

Nathaniel shrugged as he handed the spare key to Andrew, who accepted it with the tips of his fingers as if it would bite him. Nothing was said until they were outside and realized that ‘one-twenty-five’ put them at the far end of the motel. “I’m half-tempted to throw an obnoxious party just for the hell of it.”

Andrew’s comment wrung a tired smile from Nathaniel. “Why am I not surprised?” He’d figured out by now that the teen could be contrary like that. “At least it’s just one night, right? Tomorrow you’ll get what you need and be on your way.”

Andrew made a non-committal sound and keyed open the door to their room, which turned out to be much as Nathaniel had expected; two full-sized beds with horrible polyester bedspreads that would be removed, at least from his bed, worn orangish carpet, beige walls with an air conditioner unit blasting away, a desk set on one wall along with a dresser on which an old tv was probably nailed down, a nightstand between the beds with a phone and a clock, and a bathroom and closet. “All that money, and this is the best you can do?”

“I still have some money because this is the best I do.” Nathaniel went over to yank off the bedspread from the nearest bed and then pulled back the sheets as well to inspect the mattress, while Andrew made sure the door was locked and security bolted. “Most of the money goes to more important things, like that new driver’s license you’ll have tomorrow which’ll let you buy a car.” He didn’t see any tell-tale signs of bugs, so he checked the other bed, which was also clean. “Okay, we should be all right here.” He grimaced as he pushed the spread beneath the bed. “Well, it’ll do.” It had to do, because there was no way he could go back out there and search for more than another block or two before falling over.

Now that he was off of the bus and somewhere… well, he did his best not to wince as sank down on the bed and set aside his duffel bag, then realized that Andrew was staring at him. “What?”

“Why two nights? I would think you’d want to leave as soon as you got the new ID.”

Nathaniel checked the pillows before he stacked them behind him so he could rest against them. “Because I haven’t had a proper shower in a couple of days, or slept on a real bed even longer than that,” he admitted as he forced himself not to cradle his sore ribs. “I’ll get the ID and then spend tomorrow night figuring out where I’ll go with it.” He would give himself that much time to recover from Seattle, from California, to put behind him his mother’s death and hope to get enough rest to hit the ground running. For however much longer he could.

He thought that he had kept his face blank, his thoughts hidden, except that Andrew’s upper lip curled in disgust as he set his backpack down on the other bed. “You think two nights is going to be enough? You look ready to pass out and you could barely eat anything tonight, probably because of the pain you’re in.”

They weren’t going there – after tomorrow, after Andrew got the money for a car and his new ID, he was out of Nathaniel’s life. “No, you already got your answers, it’s my turn,” he snapped. “What are *you* going to do once I complete our deal? That’s all you should be concerned about right now.” Because it wouldn’t do Andrew any good to think beyond that – Nathaniel had already risked too much by involving the other teen this far, he wouldn’t put Andrew in any more danger than he already had.

Andrew clenched his fists as he glared at Nathaniel for several seconds, a rare show of anger sparking in his hazel eyes and bringing a hint of color to his face. Then he sighed and shook his head as he snatched up his backpack. “I’ve a couple of ideas, one or two places I might go, but I don’t… dammit.” He turned around and stalked into the bathroom, the door slammed shut behind him. Nathaniel heard the ‘click’ of the lock a moment later, and didn’t take the sign of distrust personally – he’d be doing the same when it came his turn to shower.

He sat there for a few minutes until the sound of running water started, then forced himself to move, body complaining the entire time, so he could set the alarm. Once Andrew was finished, it would be his turn to shower or something, to wash up as much he could with the stitches and sore ribs, and then get some rest. To sleep in a bed by himself, without his mother pressed against his back like she’d been these past five years, her way of ensuring he was still there and safe. Once morning came, they’d go see her contact, Morris, and then….

Well, he never should have dragged Andrew into this mess in the first place. Andrew had helped him out of a tight spot, and he had to cut him loose before that… whatever, he was loathe to say ‘kindness’ because that didn’t seem to suit the other teen, earned Andrew hurt or worse. The reality of it all was that for the past five years it had just been Nathaniel and his mother, and now that she was gone, it was just him moving forward. He had no one to count on but himself, so best stop denying that fact sooner rather than later.

*******

Feeling better at being clean for the first time in over day, Andrew left the bathroom and wasn’t surprised to find Alex passed out on the bed; the kid was propped up against the headboard as if he’d been lounging there while waiting for Andrew to finish his shower, left hand looped through the handles of that damn duffel bag and the other draped over his chest as if to cradle his sore ribs. In the dim light of the motel room, he looked so damn young, his face shadowed by long bangs and exhaustion.

Andrew’s fists clenched as anger and… and… fuck, why did this one person make him want to… make him *want* in the first place? Want to hit him, want to smack him for being so stupid, so oblivious, so foolish to worry about anyone else when it was clear he had no fucking clue how to look after himself at all. How *dare* he worry about Andrew when he was battered and losing ground on whoever the hell it was who was chasing him down?

For all of Andrew’s life, it had just been him, had been hard enough for Andrew to look after himself. The one time he’d done anything for another person…. He traced his fingers along the scars of his left inner arm and had to push back the rage burning inside of him before he punched the wall, before he started smashing things and didn’t stop until everything was broken shards around him.

This was nothing but an agreed upon deal, a simple transaction between two people who needed something from each other, and he’d come through on his end. ‘Alex’ was close to coming through as well, and so what if the kid was going above and beyond in comparison to Andrew? Life wasn’t fair, that was something the both of them clearly knew very well. The kid seemed more than happy to let Andrew walk away with all the shit he’d paid for and call things square.

As Andrew went over to the spare bed, mindful of being quiet so as not to disturb Alex, he still tried to figure out why he was so upset over everything. Turned on his right side so his back was to the wall and he faced the kid with the knife in easy reach, he could only suppose that it was the unbalanced part of their bargain that bothered him. He didn’t like feeling as if he owed anybody anything, and Alex paying for more than the initial agreed upon stuff – albeit stuff Andrew needed - as well as clearly being determined to make sure that Andrew got away before any trouble tracked them down… felt just like that. Felt as if Alex was helping out Andrew.

Andrew refused to be treated like some hopeless case, dammit. If anyone needed help, it was Alex or whatever the hell his real name was, if the kid even remembered it anymore. As he lay there, eyes focused on the sleeping figure a few feet away, Andrew went through his options for the next day until exhaustion finally dragged him off to sleep.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Someone was in a pissy mood, weren’t they?

Andrew was torn between amusement and annoyance over that fact, as he sat in one of the most uncomfortable chairs he’d had the ill-luck to experience and smoked a cigarette while a T. Morris, Notary, worked on his new ID. The forger – balding, jaundice-skinned and thin enough to come across as emaciated – flashed him a reproachful look yet didn’t say anything about not smoking. Alex closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, at least until the motion seemed to set off his sore ribs and then he opened them again so he could focus his attention back on the ‘notary’ sitting across from them.

The day had gotten off to a ‘lovely’ start, with an alarm blaring which startled Andrew awake and jolted a frantic Alex from unconsciousness; the kid had all but fallen out of bed while scrambling for something, probably a weapon. Andrew would have found it comical if not for the fact that he’d been clutching the knife in his own hand and the look of stark terror on Alex’s face, soon overcome by pain when Alex realized that he’d been the one to set the alarm, where they were and that he’d fallen asleep without taking a shower. He’d bitched at Andrew for the latter part, not that Andrew had given a shit, and then had taken forever to wash off and clean his wounds. Andrew had gotten some satisfaction in helping him with retaping the worst of the cuts, and had to admit that the kid was a stubborn shit to be able to stay on his feet for so long with what were some seriously bruised ribs and what looked to have been a decent attempt to carve out his lungs.

Once that was all done, they’d headed downtown, stopping along the way for some coffee and a breakfast of fast food – which Alex once again barely ate. Andrew muttered about foolish martyrs as he finished first his egg sandwich then Alex’s, and made them catch a bus the rest of the way.

The non-descript notary office turned out to be located on a side street a couple of blocks away from the Sands casino, small enough that you’d overlook it if you didn’t know where it was. Andrew had figured that was the whole point of it, and wasn’t surprised to find no one in there besides the sickly looking man who could be anywhere from his early fifties to mid-sixties. The guy, dressed in dark blue slacks and a white short-sleeved button down shirt, had given them a disapproving stare until Alex mentioned something about family sending him there for an affirmation. Then the guy’s expression had smoothed out once he motioned Alex closer, close enough that Andrew couldn’t hear what it was that Alex whispered to him. Whatever it was, it got ‘T. Morris’ to switch the ‘open’ sign on his door to ‘close’ and to ask Alex what it was that he needed.

“Two new identities, one for each of us. Do his first, and make mine old enough so I can drive a car.”

Andrew had thought that was pushing things a bit, but he wasn’t the one who’d be in trouble if he got pulled over; Morris had nodded as he sat behind his desk and started doing something on what looked to be an ancient pc. “Good idea. What about passports? That’s going to take a while if you need them.”

Alex had hesitated for a moment then shook his head. “No, we don’t have the time. Just give us the licenses and whatever paperwork you can in a couple of hours.” At Morris’ blank look, the kid had sighed and reached into his duffel bag, and didn’t blink an eye at handing over a wad of cash.

Morris had swept the cash off of the desk and nodded, then turned his attention to Andrew. “Come over here so I can take your picture.” He’d pointed out where he wanted Andrew to stand for it and pulled out a digital camera to take the picture, and then gone back to ignoring him while he’d done the same with Alex and typed away on his computer. Andrew had wanted to ask that what, didn’t he get a say in his new ID, but Alex had given him a heated scowl and motioned for him to sit back down, and for once he decided to behave.

Besides, he’d had better things to do, such as start calling to check up on some cars, and it had taken about six to find one that sounded promising – a guy who was barely coherent due to either drugs or alcohol and whose address, after checking with Alex, should be within range of an affordable cab ride. So that left him to wait until Morris was done with whatever, which he killed the time by either smoking or reading one of his books since it was clear that Alex wasn’t in the mood to chat.

No, the kid seemed lost in his own little world, arms wrapped around that damn duffel bag and eyes distant as they stared off at some point past Morris working at his cluttered desk. Andrew would ask him about his thoughts except that he didn’t really care and he had a feeling that they weren’t about anything good just then, not with the kid was holding on to the bag as if it was a lifeline and the darkness that crept into those pale eyes.

Not with the way Alex nearly jumped a foot out of the chair when there was a sudden screech of the printer going off, which made Andrew snort in response and Morris cast the kid an apologetic look. “Should just be a little longer,” the man said as he scooted back in his wheeled chair. “Hope you don’t mind the name ‘Thomas’,” he directed at Andrew.

“I’ve known worse,” Andrew admitted. Meanwhile, Alex got up and asked where the bathroom was, and hurried in the direction which Morris pointed out with a skeletal hand.

As soon as the kid was gone, Morris fixed Andrew with a bloodshot gaze as he fussed with the paper that had come off of the printer. “I do good work, but this stuff only holds up so much if the wrong people take an interest in you, understood?”

Andrew gave the man a fake grin as he flicked ashes onto the work linoleum floor. “What, you think I’ll be trouble or something?”

Morris gave him that flat look for a few more seconds before he glanced in the direction in which Alex had gone, something flickering across his face. “I think you should be careful, is all I’m saying.” Then he typed on the computer again, and another machine whirred to life. “That’ll be your new driver’s license. Come over here and take a look.”

By the time Alex came back, Andrew had called a cab to come pick him up and held in his possession a copy of a birth’s certificate and a driver’s license for one Thomas James Nelson of Boulder City, Nevada. Ah, he was a Cancer now, how interesting. “I’m not sure he caught my good side,” he complained to Alex as he held out the new ID.

“I don’t think you have a good side,” Alex shot back, not even bothering to glance at it. “So you’re all set now?” He motioned toward the front door without waiting for an answer. “Let’s go outside.”

Hmm, someone was in a hurry to get rid of him, wasn’t he? Andrew glanced back at Morris, who gave a nod while busy typing away at his computer. “Remember, don’t muck up my hard work, now get out of here.”

“And goodbye to you, too.” Andrew folded the birth certificate in half and slipped it along with the driver’s license into his backpack. “I need one more thing from you,” he told Alex as they stepped onto the sidewalk.

“I know.” Alex handed over a folded bit of paper, something that he must have swiped from Morris’ office at some point without Andrew noticing; when Andrew unfolded it, he spied a wad of hundred dollars bills and even a few thousand dollar bills, enough for there to be at least ten thousand. “That should be enough for you to get a used car and cover expenses for a while, right?”

Andrew stared at Alex for several seconds while he clutched the money in his right hand, at the shadows that even a night’s worth of sleep hadn’t chased away, at the chapped and bitten lips, at the weak smile that wasn’t reflected in those blue eyes. After a lifetime in foster homes and juvie, he knew what it looked like when someone was at the end of their rope, when they were putting up the good fight just because they knew the end was near, and the barely there light in Alex’s pale eyes set off warning bells in his head.

He opened his mouth to… to what? Tell the kid to not be so stupid, to lie and say that things would be better now, to… to…. It didn’t matter, because at that point Andrew’s cab pulled up in front of the notary shop and Alex smiled, the expression just as wan as it had been moments ago. “Go on, get out of here before… well, thank you for everything, okay?” The expression slipped as something finally sparked in the kid’s eyes. “You helped me out a lot, and I appreciate it.”

Andrew wasn’t used to hearing those words, wasn’t used to hearing anything good spoken about himself, and for some reason they felt like a blow to his chest. “Don’t you fucking give in, all right?” he hissed as he stepped away, eyes downcast so he didn’t have to see Alex’s expression, to see that almost total hopelessness return. So he didn’t have to see the kid give him that fake smile again. “Run and don’t stop.”

“What else do I know how to do?”

He flinched from the solemnity of Alex’s response and was the first to turn away, to scramble for the cab so he didn’t have to be near Alex anymore. He’d done his part, he told himself. The deal was over, he’d gotten Alex to Reno in one piece – more or less – and each of them had their new IDs. Well, Alex would have a new one shortly, just like Andrew would soon have his new car, and would be told to be careful, too, for all the good it would do him. Wait, had there been something odd back there? When the cabbie, a Hispanic guy in bad need of a mouthwash and a shave, barked out a request for their destination, Andrew forced his thoughts away from Alex and Morris, and on getting himself a car without committing homicide in the process.

Much as he had suspected, there was a strong aroma of weed wafting out of the house when the door opened at 2015 Aiken Street. “You Williamson?” And if so, had the guy never heard of pants?

“Eh?” The guy, probably in his thirties and looking as if he hadn’t bathed in a couple of days, squinted at Andrew. “You the one who called about the car, right? You’re a bit short for a cop, at least, and I didn’t order a pizza.”

No homicide, Andrew reminded himself as he let out a slow breath. “Yeah, I called about the car. 2004 Miata, right?”

A smile broke out on the guy’s face as he scratched at the scruff covering his jaw. “Yeah! It’s a sweet car, my roomie’s a mechanic so it… uh it goes, right? And I wouldn’t let it go except, you know, court fees and all that.” He grimaced as he waved his left hand in the air. “DUI’s are a bitch.”

“Right. Where is it?”

The guy stared at him for a couple of seconds and then laughed. “Yeah, the car.” He turned around and left the door open, which Andrew did not take for an invitation since there was no way in hell he was going inside a stranger’s house – especially one filled with drugs. Fortunately, Williamson returned in about a minute with car keys and sandals on his feet, though he was still dressed in pale blue boxer shorts and a Phish t-shirt. “It’s out back, come on.” He waved Andrew to follow him as he went out the front door – still leaving it open – down the porch and then along a dirt path to a garage lacking any doors.

Beside a customized Jeep covered with way too much chrome was a red convertible Miata that had a small dent in the right front fender and a few scratches here and there, but other than that, appeared in decent shape. Andrew didn’t see any leaks beneath it, and when Williamson started the engine, it sounded fine. The stoner popped the hood, not that Andrew knew anything about cars, but everything looked clean and a lot the parts new.

“Like I said, Robbie takes care of it for me for a discount in the rent,” Williamson explained as he turned off the engine. “Hate getting rid of her, but don’t see the point in letting her sit for a year. He took care of the timing belt last year so she should be good for a few more years at least.”

Andrew gave the car a once over to make sure it was clean and looked in good shape. “Okay.”

“Really?” The stoner grinned as he tossed the keys in the air. “Wait, you wanna go on a test drive?”

There was no way Andrew was going to ride in the car with that guy. “No, looks good. So, five thousand?”

“Uhm, ad said seven.”

“Five thousand cash, right now.”

Williamson tossed him the keys. “Works for me! She even has a full tank of gas.”

“Wonderful.” Andrew reached into his front right pocket for the wad of bills he’d split off from the money Alex had given him on the way here and handed them over. As soon as the stoner was done counting them, he nodded at the car. “Then it’s mine.”

“Yeah, she’s all yours.” He frowned as he stepped out of the way so Andrew could get in the car. “Uhm… think I’m forgetting something?”

“Only if there’s something in here you want,” Andrew told him, and waited to see if he needed to clean out the car.

“Nah, it’s good. Got everything out of there after they towed her back here from the impound lot. Nice doing business with you… uh… mister!” He waved to Andrew, who didn’t bother to wave back as he started the car, shifted it into first gear and pulled out of the garage. His left wrist hurt a little from turning the steering wheel, but it was an ignorable pain and he wouldn’t have to shift too much once he got on the highway.

The car handled rather well and only smelled a little like pot, which could be fixed with an air freshener; once out on the street, Andrew pulled over to check inside the glove compartment for the registration slip, which was probably what the guy had been trying to recall before he left. If by some chance Andrew got stopped by the police, he would figure out what to do about it, if he would lie and say that the car was borrowed or something. Or he could go back to the motel and have Alex arrange something with Morris.

He went a couple of blocks and pulled over again as he debated what to do, if he should return to Alex or not, when he finally recalled about what Morris had said to him when handing over the documents. He’d been annoyed at that crack about not messing things up and being careful. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he needed the old guy, that Alex-

Wait, Alex. Andrew cursed as he remembered the look which Morris had sent in Alex’s direction when the kid hadn’t been in the room, along with the comment to be careful – it had been one of pity, as if he’d known something. Then he’d told Andrew to get out of there. Why?  Was it just a case of old man grouchiness, or was it something more? Did he know something?

For a moment Andrew wanted to tell himself that he was done with it, that it was best to just turn to the left and get on the highway… he actually pulled out and started to go that way, but he found himself turning right instead. Shit, and he called Alex a damn martyr….

*******

Nathaniel accepted the new documents from Morris with a grateful nod of his head. “Thanks.” Too bad Morris hadn’t been able to give him a fake pain script or a contact for some new lenses, but at least he should be able to use the new ID to stop by a clinic or something. Well, once he healed up enough.

The man frowned as he turned his attention back to the monitor of his computer screen. “I hope they help.” He was quiet for a few seconds while Nathaniel stashed them away. “You may… well, just be careful. I’ve heard… well, be careful.”

Nathaniel felt a painful tightening in his chest at the awkward warning and nodded once again. “Yeah.” There wasn’t much more to say than that, so he turned away and left the man’s office.

Despite it being late October, it was still warm enough to make the long sleeves he wore feel uncomfortable, and he debated taking a bus back to the motel. Despite still feeling tired and his injuries bothering him, he slung the handles of the duffel bag over his left shoulder and started walking, figuring that it wasn’t worth standing around and waiting. Best to just get back there, rinse off in a cool shower and get some rest, then get on the first bus… well, anywhere, tomorrow morning. Somewhere north would be good, where it would be cold. Close to the border, where he could sneak back into Canada if need be – perhaps it would throw off his pursuers if he crossed his tracks a little.

He knew he should eat at some point, that it was always best to grab a meal when he could, but he was tired and sore and just not hungry. Too bad that asshole sheriff had turned over the pain meds from the hospital to the nurse at the detention facility, because Nathaniel could really use them right about now. He should have stolen some alcohol when he had Andrew around to work as a decoy, and had to settle for some over the counter meds when he passed a pharmacy on the way to the motel. Stocked with those, some more bottled water and more energy bars that would do for dinner, he headed toward his abode for the night.

The ‘do not disturb’ sign was still there, like he had put it that morning, so he didn’t think of anything as he removed it and slid in his keycard to unlock the door. He opened it and got two steps inside before something registered as ‘wrong’, but it was right about then that intense pain flared along the side of his head as he was knocked to the ground by a strong blow from a dark shape, followed by a strong kick to his back, around his right kidneys.

Biting down on a yelp of pain, he struggled to move, to roll away before another blow landed, but before he could, something wrapped around his neck and pulled him up onto his knees. Even as he choked, he lashed out, fists flying as he allowed himself to be yanked backward, to go into the motion in an attempt to lessen the noose around his neck, and even got a kick in to the person looming in front of him. Terror imploded as he caught sight of the long dark hair, heard the feminine screech of pain, and then there was another blow to the other side of his head that made his vision grow dark.

When he could see again, the rope was now wrapped around his hands, which were crossed in front of him. As if waiting for him to regain consciousness, Lola slapped him across the face, the open-handed blow splitting his bottom lip open. “You shitty little brat,” she hissed, her pretty face already bruising from the hit Nathaniel had landed on her. “Oh, I am going to *love* carving you into pieces!”

He tried to roll off of the bed, but large hands shoved him back down – he should have known that Romero, Lola’s brother, would be there as well. A punch to his stomach punished him for the pathetic escape attempt, and then he was pulled upright and shoved against the headboard of the bed Andrew had slept on last night with his bound hands hooked over the now shadeless light attached to the wall while Romero got out of his sister’s way.

Lola, dressed in a simple black dress that probably cost half as much as what Nathaniel had given Andrew earlier, smiled a too wide shark’s smile as she fetched a folded leather bundle that Nathaniel had recognized even after all these years from when she had been ordered by his father to teach him how to use knives. He attempted to scramble away, but another lazy hit to his head from Romero, one that made it bounce off of the headboard, left him dizzy enough that he couldn’t focus on much of anything while she unfolded the bundle and picked out a knife from the assortment.

“You can go ahead and scream if it makes you feel any better, we stopped by to have a chat with the manager and he agreed to be very cooperative to any noise you make or mess we leave behind,” she explained as she tested the edge of the small knife; unlike his father, renowned for his skill with a cleaver and an ax, Lola preferred smaller blades which she could use to flay and dig in to remove certain parts like eyeballs and tongues so as to prolong the torture. “After all the trouble you and that whore put us through, we want to be able to enjoy ourselves.”

He wanted to say that she was lying, that by yelling he could expect some help, but she had the money and the connections for it to be true. No, there would be no rescue coming no matter how much of a ruckus he raised, no maid interrupting to check the linens much like that poor guy had done back in San Francisco. For a moment, Nathaniel felt some relief in the fact that at least they hadn’t tracked him down before Andrew had gotten away and then forced aside every emotion that he could until all that was left was a weary resignation; he’d known this was coming, he just thought he’d have a few more days. At least he wasn’t dying in California, too.

“My heart bleeds for you,” he sneered as he refused to look at the weapon in her hand, at the way the gleam of the light reflecting off of the sharp blade. It almost seemed so small to cause him what he knew would be so much pain.

Lola’s smile took on an even more sadistic edge as she motioned to her brother, who punched Nathaniel once more and, while he was hunched over in pain, grabbed the neck of his t-shirt and ripped it open. “That won’t be the only thing bleeding soon, Junior. Now, where is the whore?”

“Fu-fuck you.” It hurt, it hurt so much, the latest punch setting fire to Nathaniel’s already sore ribs.

“Hmm, you’re a little young for me.” Lola straddled his lap, which pinned him to the bed, and cut off the rest of the shirt before removing the bandages. She appeared delighted to see the healing wounds from San Francisco and trailed a fresh cut up the center of his chest, her smile brightening as he hissed from the pain. “You’re such a pretty thing, you definitely take after your father, you know that? Is that how you got that boy to help you out? That Andrew Doe?” Her eyes narrowed as she trailed the knife along the side of his face, leaving a hint of fire behind. “Where is he?”

“Gone,” Nathaniel stuttered out. “I know enough not to keep him around for long.”

Lola appeared to consider that for a moment, and then the blade dug into Nathaniel’s right eyebrow. “Yes, such a pretty face, just like your father. He won’t be happy to know that you’ve lowered yourself to associate with filth like Doe. Tell me, did he help you out because of this face?” He had to bite his bottom lip to keep from crying out as the blade dug in deeper. “Did he bend over for you like he has for all those guys he lived with, or you for him?” She flicked the knife upward, cutting a line of agony toward his temple. “He probably would enjoy having someone bend over for him for once.”

“Ah!” Nathaniel jerked his hands in an attempt to pull them free despite the sharp sting of the rope biting into his wrists and attempted to buck Lola off, while she laughed at his reaction. “You… sick bitch!”

“Was that a yes? The latter, hmm? Oh Junior, be thankful it’s us and not Daddy Dearest right now.” The knife once more trailed down his face, but it didn’t sink in as deep as before. He panted as blood poured down his face and into his right eye.

“Fu-“

“Ah, ah, behave,” Lola chided as she flicked the knife in front of his left eye. “Back to the important topic – the whore.” When Nathaniel bared his teeth at the insult, she brought the knife closer until he closed his eye. “Where is she?” When he didn’t answer, she made a humming sound right before agony once more flared up, this time along his left arm. “Junior,” she called out in a sing-song voice. “Tell me about that whore of your mother.”

“She’s dead,” he gritted out as his eyes flew open, seeing no sense in hiding the truth. Despite not wanting to see it, he glanced down and found Lola dragging the knife through the flesh of his inner arm in a random pattern and choked back on a gag at the mess left behind.

The answer made Lola pause in wrecking more damage for a moment while she glanced over at Romero, who leaned over to thread his fingers through Nathaniel’s hair to jerk back his head. “You better not be lying,” he said, his voice deep and ominous.

“I’m not,” he gritted out, his voice weak due to how his throat was extended from Romero’s hold. “Se-seattle. Da- he did something to her, busted up something inside. We made it to the cu-coast an’ I buried her there.” He didn’t flinch this time when Lola once more threatened to blind him.

“What do you think?” She continued to hold the blade to his left eye while Romero’s fingers tightened in Nathaniel’s hair to the point that he was losing strands.

“She’s never left him alone before. I believe him.”

“Too bad, I wanted to gut her and make her eat her own liver,” Lola spat out. As soon as Romero let go of Nathaniel’s hair, the knife was once more digging into his flesh, this time his right arm. “Do you know what that whore did?” She didn’t pause long enough for him to answer, other than to cry out from the pain. “It was bad enough, her running off with you and the cash, but no, she had to fucking reach out to the Feds and give them some evidence.” Nathaniel cried out again, not only from the blade digging in deep but from the shocking news. “Your father was going to kill her himself, the traitorous bitch, and he’ll be happy to know he did, but she got him in the end. Between what she sent in and them catching the fight on camera, your father and Jackson are locked up.” Lola’s face twisted with rage as she gave up on Nathaniel’s arms so she could run the knife along his chest instead. “Fucking son of a whore!”

Despite the pain, Nathaniel laughed; so what if he died, at least he knew now that there had been some meaning to Seattle, that his mother hadn’t died entirely for nothing. “Better a… whore than… than a cu-cunt,” he managed to spit out, knowing now that his best hope was to enrage Lola to the point that her anger drove her to do something hasty.

The pain of the cut across his healing wounds made Nathaniel jerk, once again pulling on his bound hands; this time he thought that there was some give in the lamp shade. Lola swung her hand back and twisted the knife as if to stab him, but Romero called out her name as he reached out to stop her. Nathaniel struggled to breathe through the agony and hunched forward, hands still jerking against the lamp, while Romero fought with his sister.

“Not yet,” the large man argued. “We need more answers, about that other kid and the money.”

“Shitty, smart-mouth brat. He’s the damn whore’s spawn, through and through.” Lola glared at Nathaniel with blatant hatred, and he bared his teeth at her with gleeful contempt to feed that out of control rage while he felt plaster rain down on his head.

“Fuck you, bitch” he managed to grit out through the pain, and while Lola shrieked in rage, the door to the motel room burst open; Romero was too busy holding Lola back and Lola focused on trying to gut Nathaniel for either of them to react immediately, which was how Andrew had those precious few seconds to dive across the room and drive the knife in his right hand into Romero’s lower back, around where his kidneys were.

While Romero hollered in pain and shock, Nathaniel gave the lamp one final tug then rolled to the side when it finally came free, his half-numb hands scrambling for anything and latching onto the phone. He swung it with a desperate strength and hit Lola with more blind luck than anything, smashing her in the back of the head as she lunged toward Andrew. While she shrieked again, this time in pain, and stumbled, Andrew finished with her brother and spun around to lash out with the souvenir knife, his face a blank mask, and sliced it across her throat. The shriek sputtered off as she crumbled to the floor as if an abandoned doll, leaving Nathaniel to stand there facing a now blood-splattered Andrew.

*******

Sticky with warm blood splashed across his face and dripping from his right hand which ached from the impact of the knife sinking into flesh, Andrew stared at an even bloodier and battered Alex who wavered on his feet before dropping the busted phone held in his tied hands. “You… you came back,” Alex whispered before he sunk down on the far bed.

“I told you to run,” Andrew snapped as he tossed the knife onto the woman’s crumpled body then took a step toward Alex; he stopped just out of arm’s reach and waited for… he didn’t know what, exactly. Waited for Alex to yell at him? To shudder in horror at what he’d just done? There were two dead bodies around them yet Andrew couldn’t find it within himself to care, not when he could see the damage they’d done to his- to Alex. “You stupid little martyr, why didn’t you run?”

Alex shook his head and nearly tumbled onto the floor from the abrupt motion, his pupils blown in a clear sign of a concussion which wasn’t a surprise with the darkening bruises on his face. “I… I couldn’t. They were waiting for me here.” He reached out for Andrew with his bound hands but stopped short, as if unwilling to touch him. When Andrew glared at the fact, Alex shrunk back and gathered his hands to his bare and bleeding chest.

About to tell the kid that it was time to call that emergency number and even reaching for his phone to hand it over so he could then get out of there, could forget the sign of a flinching Alex, Andrew was shocked by what Alex said next.

“Th-thank you.” Alex closed his eyes as he took to swaying on the bed as if caught in a cross wind. “You were… it was amazing, you coming in here like that.”

Andrew stared at Alex in something he suspected as close to shock and needed a moment to process what had just been said. “You’re thanking me.” No one thanked him, no one, let alone for – no one thanked him.

“Yeah.” Alex frowned and moved his hands as if to gesture about the room, which caused him to wince. “I’d… I’d be dead otherwise.”

That was true, but still, it was probably the blood loss and the pain and the shock and all, Alex thanking Andrew for killing two people. “Just so we’re clear, there are two bodies here, which I’m responsible for. Most people freak out over that part.” It had to be the head injury.

Alex sighed and opened his eyes. “You think I haven’t seen dead people before?” He stared at the woman lying by his feet and frowned as if consulted with something as simple as a dirty carpet. “Only problem is maybe things were a bit too quick.”

Yeah, way too much blood loss. “Okay, just how many times did they smack you around?” Andrew bridged the space between them again and hesitated only a moment before reaching for Alex; the problem was trying to find a bit of flesh that wasn’t cut up or bruised at this point. “What the hell are we going to do with you?” Then, thinking of what was all around them, he added as an afterthought, “and this mess?”

Alex hissed as he was more or less lifted up by a hold to his right elbow. “Supplies in my bag, we can patch me up in the bathroom. And Lola – that’s her on the floor – said they paid off the management to look the other way for the mess and all.” A disturbing smile Andrew had never seen before crossed over Alex’s multi-colored face as he was half carried to the bathroom. “Check Romero’s pocket for car keys, they had to come here in something. We can use that to-“ he hissed in pain as he sank down on the toilet seat once Andrew flipped down the cover and had to breathe for a few seconds. “Check the car and bring me my bag. Please,” he added after a moment’s pause.

Having the shaky suspicion that Alex may have helped hide a few bodies before, Andrew gave him a narrowed look. “Don’t move.” That earned him a quiet laugh that immediately turned into a low moan of pain.

The room was beginning to stink when Andrew stepped back in it, from the stench of blood and voided bowels. He grimaced in disgust as he patted down the body of the large man sprawled across the one bed, and was happy to relieve it of a wallet filled with cash, a set of keys and a Glock – all of which he intended to keep. Once that was done, he took a moment to fetch the one bedspread from beneath the bed and rolled the body within it, both to hide the corpse and because he figured they’d need to cover them up with something before leaving. The woman on the floor would require some more effort, so he’d wait until Alex could help him.

Once outside, all it took was clicking the button to unlock the car’s door a couple of times to figure out that the keys belonged to the very nice Cadillac parked on the far end of the parking lot. Andrew went over to it and drove it closer to the room, and checked out the trunk; not only did it have plenty of room to hold two bodies, but there were two suitcases in there as well. The designer clothes should fetch a nice price at some consignment shops, and he smiled when he found the bottle of high-end vodka.

Taking the vodka, he returned to the room and picked up Alex’s abandoned bag along with his abandoned backpack, both of which were near the door, and went right to the bathroom. He found Alex dabbing at the blood on his face with one of the towels and internally winced once more at the damage that had been inflicted upon the kid. “They really hated you.”

“No kidding.” Alex hissed as he touched his face and dropped the towel. “A lot of these need stitches.”

“No kidding,” Andrew repeated, just because it was funny to him. “You want me to take you to the emergency room?” When all Alex did was stare back at him, he huffed. “Seriously?”

“My mother and I did it ourselves all the time. I can do some of them, and can talk you through the rest.” He noticed the vodka in Andrew’s hand and some of the tension in his shoulders seemed to relax. “Oh thank god, that’ll help a lot.”

“Somehow I figured that.” Andrew threw the duffel bag near Alex’s feet then sighed when the kid nearly toppled over when he tried to bend down. “What do I need to do?” He left his backpack near the door and approached the idiot.

“There’s some silk thread in there, rubber gloves, a needle, scissors, some betadine and bottled water. Grab some glasses and pour in some water and betadine, just follow the instructions on the back. Soak the thread and the needle in one, and we’ll need the others to clean the gloves and to flush out the wounds.” Oh yeah, this wasn’t the first time Alex had been through this procedure, which made Andrew consider some of the scars snaking their way across that scrawny chest.

Still, he nodded to show that he was following along and grabbed back the bag so he could get the stuff ready. “When do you want the alcohol?”

Alex’s lips pressed into a grim line. “Not until after you flush out the wounds.”

For once doing as he’d been told without stirring up any shit since he figured Alex had lost enough blood, Andrew got everything ready, first mixing up some solution to prep a sterile area on the sink counter and then getting some ready so he could clean the wounds. When he had enough prepared, Alex went to stand in the tub so Andrew could pour the solution on the wounds there and not get it and blood everywhere.

As if the kid’s poor lips weren’t cut up enough, he bit into them some more as Andrew poured the disinfectant on his face and then his chest, but couldn’t help letting out a low scream when he got to the sliced up arms. As soon as Andrew was done, Alex leaned forward and threw up, just a bit of water and some dry-heaving, his left hand braced against the tiled wall of the shower.

“You done being a baby?” Andrew asked after about a minute, not about to show some sympathy when Alex obviously was doing his best to hold it all together.

“Fu—fuck you.” Alex’s voice was as ragged as his arms just then, but he summoned up a glare and held out his right hand for the bottle of vodka as he stepped out of the shower.

Andrew let him drink while he rinsed down the mess. “Leave me some, you inconsiderate little shit. Besides, you probably shouldn’t drink too much with a concussion, and you have to help me get rid of that mess out there.”

Alex had about a third of the alcohol before he lowered the bottle and gave a weak laugh. “How could I forget that part?” His hand trembled a little as he set the vodka aside. “You any idea on how to do this?”

“I’m a bright guy, just talk me through it.” Andrew snapped on the gloves that had been soaking in the disinfecting solution, along with the needle and some of the thread, and then sat on the edge of the tub. “Good thing you’re not worried about scars, right?”

“Such an asshole,” Alex muttered, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips and his eyes were no longer filled with nothing but shadows.

It wasn’t as easy as they made it look in the movies, and the first few cuts weren’t going to heal very pretty, but Andrew soon got the hang of it while Alex’s voice grew even scratchier, his eyes sunken and his skin took on an awful pallor. Once or twice Andrew thought the kid was going to pass out, yet all it took was for Andrew to dig in his fingers to one of the wounds and Alex would snap back, his pale blue eyes wide and breath coming in uneven pants.

“So that guy, Morris.” Andrew noticed that talking to Alex helped to keep him conscious.

“Wha-what about him?”

“You think he ratted you out?” He paused to tie off a suture. “I came back because I realized that he had basically told me to get my ass out of here.”

Alex made to shake his head and then moaned, the sound low and anxious as if he was struggling not to throw up again. “No, guys like him… like him can only survive if they’re neutral.” He swallowed, the action loud and painful to hear. “He probably heard about-“ His gaze at Andrew just then was significant, and then he let out a slow breath. “Probably heard about my father and put two and two together.”

That was the first time that Andrew had heard anything about Alex’s father. “Your dad have anything to do with those bastards out there?”

That wrung an almost hysterical laugh from the kid. “Could say that.”

“Hmm.” Andrew finished the last of the cuts on Alex’s arms and rocked back; all that was left that really needed sewed up were two cuts on Alex’s chest and the one on his face. “I heard a little of it, you know. Heard that guy say that they wanted to know about ‘the kid’ and the money.”

Alex swallowed again and nodded, the motion curt as if it hurt too much to move, which it probably did. “They… they knew about you. Knew your name.”

Andrew wondered if they knew more than that, but it could wait, especially since Alex still looked him in the eye. “So, it seems to me that we completed our previous deal, right?”

“Yes.” Alex took to frowning again, as if he didn’t know where Andrew was going with all of this. Good, because Andrew hated being the only one a bit confused at the moment.

But what he hated worse was how he couldn’t get Alex out of his thoughts, couldn’t shake that awful longing for someone who dared to help him out when everyone else wrote him off as a lost cause, who was the only one willing to give up anything for him without asking for Andrew’s soul in return. “So, it’s time for a new deal.”

“But… what could you want?”

“The truth.” Andrew threaded the needle with ease by now and reached out to touch the cut above Alex’s heart. “I want the entire truth – your real name, why you ran, who really is after you, *everything*.”

Instead of flinching, Alex went still for a moment before he let out a slow breath. “And what do I get in return?” It was all right to ask such a thing from Alex, because Alex knew better, knew that nothing came without a price and had proven to Andrew that he could be trusted in paying back his end.

“You get me.” Andrew glared over the way that had come out, blaming it on the shocking events of the night. “I’ll stick around and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. No one will hurt you again, I promise.”

Alex’s eyes went wide with surprise. “But that’s – you can’t! That’s too much!” Then he winced as Andrew dug in his fingers.

“Do you doubt me? Do you think I can’t protect you?”

“I….” Alex went to move his right arm as if to run his hand through his hair and winced again, probably from the pull of the new stitches. “No, I don’t doubt you, but it’s dangerous.” Then he stared out past Andrew, toward the room and the mess which waited for them, and something cold, something much too old and hard for someone his age settled on his face for a few seconds. “But… Lola said….” He seemed to think about something for about a minute while that disturbing expression remained.

“Tick tock,” Andrew warned with a tap against the wound when he grew impatient; he could really, really use a cigarette right now, but it would have to wait until this was all finished.

“Asshole,” Alex hissed while he shook his head, which caused him to waver a little and that uncomfortable expression to change into something Andrew much better preferred. “Fine, but it’s an open ended agreement, okay?” When Andrew dug in his fingers again, he scowled some more. “If things get too dangerous, we renegotiate!”

“We’ll see. And no, you shut up now,” he warned as he held up the threaded curved needle. “You shut up and sit there, or else the next thing I stitch closed are going to be your lips.” Now Alex’s expression was wary, as if he had already learned in their short time together that Andrew didn’t make idle threats, yet he didn’t flinch away as the needle neared his head. Instead, he closed his eyes and worried even more at his gnawed and split bottom lip while Andrew patched together his cut eyebrow.

And that, *that* was in large part why Andrew was here. “No damn sense of preservation,” Andrew grumbled as he held the split skin together with his gloved left fingers and got to work. “How you’ve lived this long, is one of the wonders of the world.”

“I-“

“What did I say about shutting up?” He felt as well as heard Alex’s sigh. “Save it for while we’re getting rid of that mess out there.”

“Okay.” Despite the needle piercing through his skin again and again, some of the tension left Alex’s battered body as Andrew dealt with the head wound that had been leaking a thin trail of blood down Alex’s bruised and swollen face.

Andrew was going to be an expert at stitches by the time this was all done, and he paused so Alex could have a bit more vodka before he finished with the chest wounds. Alex was going to be in a world of hurt - *more* of a world of hurt – in a few hours, but it didn’t look like anything was broken. Through it all he sat there, bottom lip worried ragged and palms scoured by fingernails, but he allowed Andrew to treat him like a damn pincushion again and again. The amount of trust behind the act would have taken Andrew’s breath away if they had the time or if he was one to give in to such sentimentality.

As it was, he’d given in enough, had allowed himself to return to the motel and to make another deal, to extend a promise to another person. Maybe he’d regret it when another set of bastards like the ones rotting in the other room tracked them down… but in his sixteen miserable years of existence, only one other person had claimed that she wanted Andrew, and she hadn’t really *seen* him, had she?

“Ah!”

He realized that he was pressing a little too hard against Alex’s chest while he thought about Cass and- well, while he thought about Cass and shook his head. “Was checking your ribs, wanted to make sure they weren’t broken,” he lied and gave the bruised skin another pat.

“Thanks,” Alex mumbled as he hunched over a little more. “Least they weren’t.”

“So what are we going to do with the bodies?”

Alex shuddered a little when Andrew began to stitch up the cut across his chest. “We… we put them in the car and drive… drive out, either east or west. Maybe east. Lot of nothing out east. Get off the main road and… and dump ‘em. Set fire, bury, something.” He sounded to be fading fast, which wasn’t a surprise.

“And the room?”

That wrung a weak laugh from Alex, which was quickly arrested, probably from the pain of his wounds and Andrew jabbing a needled through his torn flesh. “Lola handled it for us, remember? We just need to get out of here before anyone sees us.”

“Still, think I’ll use those handy picks of yours and grab some bleach from cleaning closet before we go, see if we can’t muddle things up here a little first.” Andrew didn’t like leaving matters in the hands of others if he could take care of things on his own. “You gonna be able to help me out any? Follow me in my car?” It wouldn’t be a good idea to drive around too long in a shiny sedan that belonged to someone else, not if friends of those bastards came looking for them, and not when it had been carrying bodies. Still, it was a shame because the Cadillac was much nicer than the Miata.

It took Alex a moment to answer. “Gu-get me some coffee and yeah.” There was a stubborn set to the kid’s jaw just then, which reminded Andrew of how he’d stayed awake on the bus ride to Sacramento, of how he’d fought sleeping at first on the ride to Reno until Andrew had threatened to punch him out.

“It’s a stick shift.” Wasn’t someone going to have fun with all those cuts to his arms? Andrew would offer to switch, but if anyone was going to drive a car stuffed with dead bodies, it would be the person who didn’t look suspicious as fuck, could at least pass as sixteen and wouldn’t pass out behind the wheel at any moment.

“I’ll be fine, I learned to drive in Germany.”

Ah, and now the guttural cursing made sense. “I foresee an interesting story, when we finally have that chat.” Andrew was now down to the last cut, so it looked like he’d get some of that vodka after all – the night was looking up, wasn’t it? “It’ll give us something to do once we leave a nice meal for the coyotes and head… hmm, where will we go next?” He waited for Alex’s response as a mini test of sorts, to see if he’d be told or given a say in the matter.

Alex – and he was also waiting for the truth behind the name, but that would be a little longer at his own insistence – took a few ragged breaths while Andrew worked on the last cut. “I don’t… Lola said *he’s* in jail.” There was so much hatred and pain and fear in that one word that Andrew knew that Alex was talking about blood, was talking about his father. “That… that changes things.” He closed his eyes again, and for a moment it was as if all the weight of his years of running weighed Alex down, pressed upon him as his shoulders slumped and his expression fell, as water welled up in his thick eyelashes. Then he shook it off, which made Andrew hiss out a warning since Alex pulled away as he attempted to tie off a suture, and that disturbing smile flashed once more across Alex’s battered face. “But maybe it gives us options. Maybe some breathing room.”

Andrew considered that as he finished with the stitches, his fingers sore from all the knot tying and his left wrist aching as well. “So where does that ‘maybe’ leave us?” He motioned to the disinfectant and grinned when Alex both nodded and cringed; he grabbed some cotton pads and began to wipe down the new sutures while Alex did his best not to throw up again, then did as decent a job he could wrapping up the wounds.

“That leaves us – oh *hell*… we don’t….” Alex paused to gag for a few seconds. “Don’t know… what they… they found here. Don’t know what they told the others. So… so new IDs.”

“Well, it’s your money.” Andrew shrugged at that and continued wrapping up the kid, who now looked more like the Mummy than Frankenstein. “So another contact, right?”

“Yeah.” Alex took several deep breaths – or as deep as he could with those ribs and stitches – before he continued. “I’m thinking… Chicago or New York.”

It took a moment for Andrew to realize that he was being asked a question there, not being told two possible destinations. In the process of taping up the cut over Alex’s right eye, which was going to leave a rakish scar, he paused to think about the two options and what he had been considering last night. Then he went over to remove the gloves and wash his hands. “Chicago.”

All bandaged up, Alex groaned as he got up from the toilet seat, moving about as if he was an old man and not a fifteen-year old teenager. “Chicago. Probably the better of the two choices, since it’s farther from *his* territory and puts us closer to the border if something goes wrong.” He attempted to reach for his bag, and would have fallen flat on his face if it wasn’t for Andrew’s intervention.

“What the hell are you trying to do now?” It was going to be like babysitting, Andrew knew it.

“Want some meds,” the kid ground out. “And clean clothes."

“Oh for-“ Andrew snatched up the bag and set it on top of the toilet, then fished out a bottle of pain relievers, which he made sure wouldn’t interact negatively with the alcohol before he slapped it into Alex’s hand. “Take those with this.” He grabbed his backpack and handed over an energy drink. “You’re going to need something to stay awake.”

Alex did what he’d been told, and had to be helped into a shirt because of the wounds once the drink was finished. Andrew allowed himself a few swallows of the vodka and then motioned for Alex to follow him into the other room so they could get to work cleaning up; the sooner it was done, the sooner they would be on the road to Chicago.

*******

 

Chapter Text

*******

Andrew handed over an energy drink to Alex and, after seeing how much the kid’s hands shook around it, clicked his tongue in disgust and snatched it back so he could open it. “You going to need a straw or something?”

“No, I’m fine.”

He was learning to hate those last two words, and had to suppress the urge to smack Alex every time he heard them – it was a common litany ever since they had left the motel in Reno; any popped stitches? ‘I’m fine’. Able to drive? ‘Yeah, I’m fine’. Going to pass out? ‘No, I’m fine’. Still got a few working brain cells in that addled head? ‘I’m fine, fuck off.’ Andrew had promised to put those words on the kid’s tombstone, and had gotten a different response for once, an obscene gesture.

He made a point of watching Alex choke down the sugary drink before he fetched his own then set the bag from the convenience store in Alex’s foot well of the car yet within easy reach before opening the can to take a quick sip. That taken care of, he placed it in the nearest drink holder and finally pulled out onto the highway; at that time of the morning, there wasn’t another car in sight.

“Okay, so we’re gassed up, have a destination in mind and enough food to last us a few hours. Start talking. Tell me about that little bonfire we’ve left behind us and your father.” Andrew wanted to know what he had in store for him, what he had to stand between in order to keep – “oh, and what’s your real name?”

In the process of pulling up the bag, probably to get something to eat, Alex sighed and let it drop back to the floor. “It’s… it’s Nathaniel. Nathaniel Wesninski.” He twisted about in the small seat of the sports car, the motion making him wince, and waited as if expecting some sort of reaction from Andrew.

“And that’s supposed to mean something?” Andrew finished his drink, tossed it out the open crack of the window then reached for his pack of cigarettes; while he tapped one out, Alex – no, *Nathaniel*, attempted to chew on his bottom lip and winced again because of its rawness. Andrew made a mental note to get the kid some chapstick or something at their next stop.

“It would if you were from the East Coast, and I’m surprised it hasn’t made the news here yet. My father,” again with the loathing and fear when he mentioned the man, “is Nathan Wesninski, otherwise known as the Butcher. He’s in charge of a good bit of the underworld on the mid-Atlantic East Coast.” His eyes, even more bruised and shadowed than hours ago, glazed over as he ran his right hand along his abdomen.

Andrew was beginning to get a sense of where this was going. “So your mother didn’t know what she was getting into when she married him?”

Or maybe not, judging from the bitter laugh that question wrung from Nathaniel despite all of those awful injuries. “Mother? Oh no, she knew, or at least she had a good idea.” He gave a cautious rub to the bandages that covered the abraded flesh of his left wrist, where the rope had rubbed the skin raw. “She’s from another mob family – the Hatfords. They’re big in the UK.” He finally looked up from his wrist to give Andrew a slight smile. “That’s who I was going to call if you ran off with the binder, you know. She told me to call Uncle Stuart if things… well, he’s a last resort.”

“Because you don’t know him? Or is he like your father?” This was a lot more complex than Andrew had assumed, but what else was new? He took a drag on the cigarette and wished that there was still some vodka left.

“No, I’ve met him a couple of times, and we spent a week in the UK when we left the US.” Nathaniel frowned as if remembering something. “But unless I committed to that life… it’s a cage, you know.”

“So what, die young and free instead?” Andrew scoffed a little, and waved aside Nathaniel’s furious look. “Hey, it’s your life, do what you want.”

“I will,” the kid spit out, and then his expression crumbled as he once more took to rubbing his wrist despite the fact that it had to hurt. “I don’t want to turn out like… like *him*,” he explained in a quiet yet affected voice. “Before she grabbed the money and me and ran away… he was having Lola teach me to use knives.”

Andrew remembered the look Nathaniel had given him as he’d gathered up the knife kit from the bed and tucked it into his backpack; he hadn’t seen the point in tossing aside what were perfectly good weapons, not when there were powerful people after them. Yet despite Nathaniel appearing two seconds away from throwing up again, he’d just nodded and went on with sprinkling bleach around the room, then helped Andrew carry a dead body out to the car as if it was nothing. Bodies that he’d help to set fire out in the middle of nowhere a couple of hours later without any remorse at all. Yeah, the kid was messed up.

But who wasn’t?

“So your mother stole some money and ran because your dad was raising you up to be a mini-mobster?” Andrew had to force himself to mostly obey the speed limit, at least until they got out of Nevada.

“Yeah. I guess.” Nathaniel closed his eyes for a couple of seconds and then jerked in the seat, his hand once more twisting on his left wrist; Andrew had the impression he was doing that in an effort to stay awake and focused. “All I know is that one day I was at Castle Evermore playing Exy with Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama and everything was great, that I was having fun and… and….” His eyes grew glassy again and his teeth once more worried at his torn lip as if the pain was nothing.

Ah, the obsession. Andrew tapped the ash off of his cigarette and blared the car radio when the silence dragged on, which startled his companion back to reality. “Stay with me, or I will make you chug three of those drinks, one right after the other, even if you puke.”

This time the look of loathing was for him, and he smiled in the face of it.

“You….” Nathaniel went to rub at his face this time, and stopped with a painful moan when his fingers touched the bruised and swollen flesh. “Evermore,” he groaned after a moment. “I was there and it was fine. My mom had enrolled me in Exy under an alias, no one knew I was the son of the Butcher. But Kevin and Riko knew who I was.” He paused to glance over his shoulder at where the duffel bag was stashed despite what twisting his torso like that had to do to all those stitches and his ribs. “And then we went up in the Tower, the three of us, and watched my father chop up some guy into all these bloody bits of pieces.” For a moment Andrew thought that Nathaniel was going to throw up in his car and prepared to pull over to the side of the road, then Nathaniel shuddered and once more rubbed his abused left wrist. “The next day, my mom stole five million and we… well, I haven’t stopped running since.”

That raised at least three questions in Andrew’s mind, and he asked the most important one first. “I saw half a million or so.”

Nathaniel’s lips quirked as he resettled in the seat. “That’s what we – well, I carry on me, between cash and bonds. There’s another half a million or more stashed away that I can access, but it’ll take a little time.” At Andrew’s raised eyebrow, he sighed and shook his head, which caused the grey hoodie he was wearing to slip down a little. “It costs money to buy good passports and the like.”

That made sense, considering that Nathaniel had put down at least twenty-five grand on their last IDs. “So you’re a millionaire, you sure don’t look like it,” Andrew drawled as he passed some idiot in a Civic. He reached over to tug on the kid’s simple long-sleeved t-shirt to illustrate his point.

There was silence for about a minute before Nathaniel answered. “We’re millionaires.” He summoned a weak smile when Andrew swerved into the other lane for a moment in reaction to that. “How does it feel to be rich?”

Andrew’s response was to roll down the window some more and flick out the remains of his cigarette; there was a thousand snarky retorts to a comment like that, yet all he did was give Nathaniel an assessing look instead. He wasn’t here for the money, hadn’t gone back to that crappy motel room and killed two people for the chance at what was in that binder. Yet he also knew that Nathaniel wasn’t trying to bribe him or anything, which was why he kept his mouth shut for a mile or two. “What really happened to your mother?”

He suspected that the latest wince of pain had nothing to do with all those fresh wounds. “It’s tied to why my father’s in jail.” For a moment Nathaniel stared at the fresh bandages around his left wrist instead of adding to the damage – at least for a few seconds. “He caught up to us in Seattle, had a couple of people waiting. She shot two of them, but then he got his hands on her. Well, more like he beat her with a lead pipe, bad enough that even though we managed to get away, she could only hold out until we made it to the coast.” His face slowly grew devoid of emotion as he stared out the window to the flat stretch of road in front of them, at the sun rising in the cloudy sky. “Lola told me that she had turned in some evidence to the Feds, and there must have been some security cameras around… I’m amazed that he hadn’t spotted them. Probably too caught up in a rage, too happy at the chance of taking out the stain on his name and reputation.” There was a spot of blood on the bandages now. “Between whatever my mom gave them and the footage, it was enough to press charges, though I’m sure the Feds are hoping to get their hands on me so I can tie up a lot of loose ends.”

Which meant that the Butcher’s people would want to make sure that Nathaniel couldn’t testify. Andrew didn’t point that out, though, instead he reached over to grasp onto the kid’s left arm, well aware of how his fingers dug into the fresh wounds. “Stop that or I’ll cut off the damn hand for you,” he warned, no longer willing to put up with the self-mutilation.

Nathaniel wheezed in pain and attempted to jerk away, only to stop when Andrew gave another warning squeeze. “I said I’d protect you, even if it’s just from yourself,” he explained when Nathaniel stared at him with blue eyes gone wide, daring to look away from the road for a precious few seconds. “Don’t make my job harder than it has to be.”

He received a jerky nod in response, so decided it was fine to let go; it hurt his left wrist to drive one-handed for too long, especially after everything they’d done during the night. “Now, back to the Exy crap – why would your father do something like that at Evermore?”

Nathaniel went to touch his left wrist then stopped, the motion arrested, and cradled his hands against his chest instead. “I don’t know.” He shook his head when Andrew made a scoffing sound. “No, honestly, I don’t, and I’ve been trying to puzzle it out all these years. Did he have some business there? Are the Moriyamas involved somehow? I just don’t know, and my mother never said anything. She’d….” He shook his head again as his expression grew closed off. “She didn’t like that topic.”

Andrew had the suspicion that Nathan Wesninski hadn’t been the only abusive parent but wasn’t about to get into it right now, not when the woman was dead and there was no changing the past.

Things were quiet after that for a few miles, with Nathaniel huddled over as if a wounded animal and Andrew driving with his fingers tapping against the steering wheel. “Should we stop at some point?” he asked, well aware of how exhausted Nathaniel was and feeling tired himself.

There was no answer at first, just Nathaniel reaching for another energy drink. “I’d rather put more distance between us and… more distance first,” he said as he handed over one to Andrew then fetched another for himself. “I can drive for a while if you want.” Andrew’s derisive sneer was enough of an answer at that, and he thought that Nathaniel flushed in response but the kid’s face was too many colors just then to truly tell. “No, I’m fi-“ Andrew’s right hand covered his raw lips to cut off the rest of that annoying answer.

“No, don’t say it, I’m putting a moratorium on that word for the rest of the day, do you understand? Blink once for yes.”

Those pale blue eyes, made even more startling due to the vivid dark blue and purple mottling around them, narrowed at first then eventually blinked closed. “Good. So, no shit-hole motel for now?” He removed his hand, mindful of how chapped and warm Nathaniel’s lips had felt against his palm. Definitely some lip balm at the next stop, he told himself as his fingers curled inward for a few seconds before he forced them to wrap around the steering wheel instead.

“No, not for tonight.” Nathaniel didn’t look happy at the moment as he gazed at his bandaged wrists. “Best to just pull over somewhere out of the way and crash in the car.”

Andrew considered that before he nodded. “I hate you right now.” He felt that should be known as he pondered a night spent sleeping in the tiny car.

As usual, someone seemed to take delight in his suffering as a slight smile curved those abused lips. “To make it up to you, how about a real hotel tomorrow? It should help confuse anyone following us.”

For a peace offering, it was semi-decent. “I hate you five percent less right now. Throw in a decent restaurant, and it might, just might, creep up to ten percent.”

“That depends on how far east you can get us,” Nathaniel had to shoot back. Andrew’s amusement went up when the kid once more attempted to rub at his face and stopped at the reminder of all the bruises. “Dammit.” He glared at nothing in particular while he sipped the drink instead.

“Yeah, impressive learning curve there,” Andrew taunted while he opened his own drink, and ignored the trembling middle finger that was held up in his direction. He had just thrown the empty can out the window when Nathaniel spoke up once more.

“They… they looked you up, you know.” He had taken to fussing over the empty can held between his hands, turning it around and around between his fingertips as he stared into it as if it held something important. “They know about you – at least Lola and Romero did. Not sure if they had the time to report back to anyone.”

Andrew had wondered when they were going to get into this. “I heard them mention ‘the other kid’. So what did they say?” When Nathaniel was quiet, he purposely swerved the car into the oncoming lane. “Are you going to tell me now?”

“What the hell?” Nathaniel reached for the wheel, but it was easy to bat his arm away with it all cut up like that. “Dammit, they asked me who was doing the fucking, you or me!”

“And?” There was a truck in the distance coming toward them, but Andrew was going to stay in the lane until he got his answers.

“And nothing else! I told them to fuck off, and they were more interested in finding out about my mother at that point, enough to do all of this to me.” Nathaniel glanced through the windshield and did that guttural cursing before looking at the steering wheel again with his fingers twitching, but he didn’t go for it again. That convinced Andrew that he was telling the truth so he swerved back into the right lane while the truck took to blaring its horn.

“And?”

“What now?” Nathaniel slumped against the passenger door as if the last minute had been one thing too much for him, face sweaty and body limp, voice drained of emotions and eyes once more shadowed. “I told you everything.”

“No, what about them asking you that?” Andrew focused his eyes on the road ahead while his hands griped the steering wheel hard enough to hurt; why was it that no matter where he went, no matter how many new starts, some things were never left behind?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nathaniel curl up a little more in the seat. “It doesn’t matter to me.” He didn’t sound like he was lying or talking out of pity, he just sounded drained and done with the world. “You asked me for the truth and I gave it to you – not the other way around. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, and Lola wouldn’t tell me something unless she thought it would it make someone, preferably me, bleed a dozen different ways. Now, unless there’s anything else or you want me to drive, I just… I just want to sleep.”

Andrew wasn’t sure that it was that easy, that Nathaniel would just dismiss his past like that… but Nathaniel was good at running away from things, wasn’t he? Had sparked the flame to light the gasoline pooled around the bodies of his torturers and walked away without a second glance only after making sure that the flames had taken, had been able to leave his own mother’s body behind. Maybe he could teach Andrew how to walk away, too.

“Go ahead, obviously you’re the whiny type when you’re sleep deprived,” he chided as he turned up the radio a little more, certain that at this point, Nathaniel would crash hard if given the chance. Nathaniel made an odd choking sound and tugged the hood of his shirt a little more over his face, then curled up as much as his abused body could manage before going still.

Andrew wanted to be out of Nevada before he stopped for his own nap, so he sped up as much as he dared and focused on the road ahead instead of everything they were leaving behind.

*******

They’d left the motel in Rockford at… Nathaniel didn’t want to think how early they’d left the motel, and he was going to be sick if he drank much more of Andrew’s sugary caffeine drinks. All that mattered was beating the morning traffic in to Chicago and finding parking near the Chicago French Market, where the Miata wouldn’t stick out too much even with its Nevada parking plates, and they could walk the few blocks to where his mother’s contact had a small office.

It hadn’t been ideal, driving across country in a small convertible during late October, but they hadn’t run across any snow and Nathaniel’s injuries had time to heal over the last few days even while sitting cramped in a car most of the time; by some rare bout of good luck none of them had gotten infected and he’d soon be able to remove the rest of the stitches if they continued to improve. Andrew had refused to let him drive the first two days which meant that he’d caught up on some much needed sleep, albeit interrupted by several nightmares of his father tracking him down or him burying his mother’s body in the sand only to have her drag him down with her.

Now at least people didn’t give him too much of a glance as he walked along side of Andrew, huddled in several layers and resolved to buy some warmer clothes when they had a chance. Durand’s office should be around here somewhere….

“If you tell me we’re headed to a thrift shop after this, I will slit your throat myself,” Andrew threatened, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans and a murderous expression on his face which ensured that everyone else on the sidewalk kept a safe distance away. “I’m not wearing hand-me downs, I don’t care about your Puritanical money ethic.”

Nathaniel sometimes wondered just how masochistic he really was, to have agreed to keep the other teen on as his personal bodyguard – and how long it would take for Andrew to do his father one big favor by getting rid of him in a fit of pique. “There should be an Army surplus store around here somewhere.” He derived some satisfaction out of the angry shake of the cigarette pack. “Did I claw back that five percent yet?”

“I didn’t think it possible, but you’re in the negatives.” Andrew sounded churlish just then, which was so much better than that bland tone of his even if Nathaniel’s life was in danger. So what – he was used to his life being in danger.

Fortunately – well, maybe not for Durand – they reached the office, which wiped the slight smile off of Nathaniel’s face. “Look… this guy is… well, he deals with….” He gestured around them and pointed toward the skyscrapers looming in the distance. “Please, be careful what you say and do, all right?”

Andrew’s upper lip curled a little as he removed the cigarette from his mouth. “I don’t like that word.”

“What, ‘careful’?”

“No, ‘please’,” he snapped before he tossed the half-finished cigarette aside and sidled past Nathaniel and through the door only marked ‘Durand’ and the office’s business hours.

Didn’t that just figure? Nathaniel tamped down the annoyance and curiosity that he felt, since he was keeping to the decision he’d made back in Nevada to leave Andrew’s past alone, to not dig into it unless Andrew offered anything up – and his new friend definitely wasn’t doing that. After glancing around the nearly empty street, he followed Andrew inside.

Durand was about the same age as Morris, maybe a little younger, and in much better health. He also was eying Andrew with obvious suspicion, and Nathaniel was willing to bet that the left hand beneath the desk rested on a weapon of some sort, probably a gun. Taking a guess on the man’s name and where he chose to do business, Nathaniel took a gamble and nodded to the saturnine gentleman. “I’m here to request an affirmation. Mary Hatford told me I could come to you if I needed anything,” he said in French.

The glum look on the man’s face smoothed out while he studied Nathaniel for a few seconds, while Andrew’s full lips twisted in obvious annoyance. “Mary has a son,” Durand observed in the same language. “He’d be about your age, if I remember correctly. Is she your only family?”

“May I just say that I am rather displeased by this turn of events,” Andrew remarked in an almost bored sounding tone; one could believe him, except for that gleam in his hazel eyes and that twist to his lips.

Nathaniel shot him an apologetic look yet continued, well out of reach of the man even if he came across as cultured and calm. “I have an uncle as well, Stuart.” He paused and brushed the first two fingers of his right hand along the cut through his eyebrow. “I think you know my father, too.”

Durand nodded. “I believe he’s probably why you’re here.” Durand placed both hands on the desk, his office also much nicer and less cluttered than Morris’, and glanced over at a fuming Andrew. “What I don’t understand is why you’re here with this one and not your mother.”

Nathaniel had figured that Durand, being tied into the Chicago underworld, might know his mother since the Hatfords had more interaction there than they did on the East Coast; from the little he had figured out, his mother had in part married his father to expand the family’s network, and hadn’t been able to put up with his brutality. He weighed the long-ingrained habit of staying quiet, of not sharing personal business but didn’t see where it hurt him to speak up now, not when Durand could get a message to his uncle, who deserved to know what had happened. “She’s dead,” he told Durand, whose only reaction was a slight arch of an elegant dark eyebrow. “If you could find a way to inform my uncle, it would be appreciated. It was shortly after that last… discussion with her husband in Seattle.” Durand should understand what that meant and pass that on to Uncle Stuart.

“Of course, consider it a courtesy.” He bowed his head again, and then switched into English. “So, two IDs, yes?”

“Finally,” Andrew ground out. “Yes.”

There was a hint of amusement in Durand’s dark brown eyes at Andrew’s answer. “Your appearances, do I need to enhance them?”

They had taken the time to re-dye their hair two days ago; Nathaniel had never lightened his to this extent and started every time he caught a glimpse of his now almost blond hair, which never failed to amuse Andrew – who had gone a bit darker in return. “We took care of it, but we need a script for contacts, if you can manage it.”

“That’s doable.” Durand studied them for a moment as he pulled the keyboard to his computer closer. “What are you hoping to achieve with these new identities? Will you be together or going your separate ways?”

“Together,” Andrew snapped out before Nathaniel could say anything, and his eyes narrowed when Durand looked to Nathaniel for confirmation. When Nathaniel nodded, the forger appeared thoughtful and typed for several seconds.

“Then it would be best to make you relatives of some sort, less likely for anyone to question two underage boys living together that way. Cousins, half-brothers, I leave the back story to you.” He waved off Nathaniel’s startled reaction while Andrew was the one to nod that time. “I won’t have to match up the names exactly, but ages and birth certificates… yes?”

“Half-brothers,” Andrew told him.

“Yes.” Durand continued to type. “Father or mother, whatever I can manage, about a year apart, it’s doable.” He nodded in what seemed to be satisfaction. “I would suggest similar color contacts – you are close in height and skin tone, add another common denominator so people overlook the differences.” He glanced away from the monitor to squint at them for just a second or two. “Green, that’ll work.”

Nathaniel waited for Andrew to blow up over the way Durand was taking control of things, but since the forger was working more with the older teen than him at the moment, he figured that soothed Andrew’s contrary nature just enough. “We’re also going to need a new license plate and a registration for a 2004 Miata,” Andrew informed him while he fished the old one for the car out of his backpack. “It’s not registered as stolen, but I never got it transferred from the old owner when I bought it.”

Durand gave the paper a cursory glance when Andrew slid it across the table then sniffed. “Doable. Now, this will take a couple of hours, so you two go and get something to eat.” He once more looked Nathaniel up and down before turning to Andrew. “Feed him some croissants or something. Terrible.” He sniffed again, but this time, Nathaniel had a feeling it was as an insult.

Andrew perked up upon hearing mention of sweets and grabbed onto the sleeve of Nathaniel’s hoodie. “You heard the man.”

Nathaniel grit his teeth together as he was dragged out of the office. “If you try to order me another white chocolate mocha frap-whatever, I will throw up on you, I swear it.”

Judging from the evil gleam in Andrew’s eyes just then, he had a feeling he had best be very careful if they came across a coffee shop.

*******

Andrew rolled his eyes as he watched Nathaniel tear into a croissant with obvious suspicion. “I thought you said you lived in France.”

“Yes, with my mother, who wasn’t trying to poison me.” As if convinced that there wasn’t anything inside of the pastry but flaky dough, Nathaniel picked up a piece of it and popped it inside of his mouth, all the while casting a baleful look Andrew’s way.

For his part, Andrew managed a melodramatic gasp and clutched his hands to his heart while meeting Nathaniel’s heat with a cool look of his own. “Like a little fat and sugar will hurt you.” The kid could stand to put on some weight.

“I’m not overly fond of sweets, unlike a certain person who seems to live on them.” He jabbed a finger toward the two chocolate croissants in front of Andrew, one of which was already halfway gone. “Why aren’t you like, diabetic already or something?”

“Superior genes,” Andrew quipped as he tore off another piece and then ate it.

“Well, being half Oompa-Loompa would explain a lot,” Nathaniel quipped, and smiled despite having a piece of his own snack thrown at him. “Aw come on, I thought that was good.”

“You’ve got a smart mouth, and I foresee that causing a lot of trouble for the both of us.” Andrew’s eyes narrowed while he took a sip of his double chocolate mocha cappuccino. “You’ve barely healed from the last fight you got in, don’t go starting a new one.”

“Hmm.” Nathaniel’s good mood seemed to fade away as he picked at the croissant; there was still some lingering bruising to his face and of course there was the new scar slicing through his right eyebrow and along his forehead to his temple, mostly covered by the thick pale brown bangs. The scabs had fallen off of the cuts on the sides of his face, leaving just thin red lines which would eventually fade away, but he still had some angry red scabs and rashes on his wrists that he did his best to keep covered by the long sleeves of his sweatshirt. Just another day or two for the stitches hidden beneath his sleeves and a few more for the ones on his chest… but Andrew had a feeling that his friend wasn’t going to want to walk around topless anytime soon – or ever again.

Still, he looked good enough that Andrew had noticed more than a few lingering glances sent his way, not that Nathaniel had picked up on them. Right now there was a couple of teenage girls who probably should be in class sitting back a couple of tables who kept looking their way, heads close together as they gestured with their hands in his and Nathaniel’s direction.

“Someone’s paying a lot of attention to us,” Andrew drawled, and the reaction was immediate – Nathaniel stilled, his body tense beneath the baggy clothes while his blue eyes began to dart around.

“Where? Who are they?” How many?” He kept his voice quiet, yet there was an underlying tension to the words that matched his body as he slowly began to lean back a little, his left hand falling down to the damn duffel bag he refused to go anywhere without.

Yeah, someone was more than a little paranoid, but Andrew couldn’t blame him, not after Reno. “It’s not what you think.” He refused to feel guilty just then – it was a horrible, useless emotion, after all – and let out a slow breath. “It’s just a couple of girls who are probably skipping school or something.

“What?” For a few seconds it looked as if Nathaniel didn’t believe him, and then the tension gradually left his body. “Seriously?” He didn’t even bother to look around, he just shook his head and grabbed his cup of coffee for another sip. “Don’t scare me like that over nothing.”

“Whatever.” Perhaps the kid hadn’t been lying when he had claimed that he didn’t ‘swing’ any way. “Next time I’ll put it in code so you’ll know the difference between someone checking out your ass and someone about to gut you, does that make you feel better?”

Moron that he was, Nathaniel actually paused to consider the comment for a moment. “Yeah, that would be a good idea.”

This. Was. His. Life. Andrew really needed a drink just then, but settled for a cigarette instead, screw the no smoking sign, and jabbed the lit stick in a certain pain in the ass’ direction. “110%.”

Nathaniel at least had the grace to grimace before he finished off his drink. “We’re still stuck with the Army Surplus store – I’ve a feeling that Durand won’t be cheap and I want to get an idea of how much our living expenses are going to be.”

Andrew leaned across the table and smiled as he swiped up the last bite of Nathaniel’s croissant. “115%,” he half-sang, then stood up while he wrapped his second croissant in a napkin to save for later.

A weary sigh let him know that Nathaniel wasn’t going to argue with the new percentage or the theft, and the kid scurried to grab his bag and fall in step beside Andrew. On a sort of whim after checking to find that the girls were still watching them and had even grabbed their purses as if to follow, Andrew cast a cold look in their direction and deliberately placed his left hand in the small of Nathaniel’s back; he could feel his friend tense at the contact and knew it was uncomfortable for both of them, but it made the girls stop in their tracks with expressions of surprise on their faces.

That taken care of, Andrew let his hand fall back to his side and waited for the usual unpleasant tingling from touching another person like that, but all that remained was a lingering sense of warmth from Nathaniel’s body. He supposed that after spending all that time patching up Nathaniel in Reno had given him some familiarity in touching him, some desensitization, has had the past several days spent together in the tiny Miata.

Things were quiet between them as they walked around the market to kill some more time, with him picking up some more snacks and Nathaniel, the junkie, some Exy magazines in French, and both of them some scarves and gloves. Andrew would just stand there the few times when Nathaniel talked to the vendors in French, his eyes lighting up and hands moving about – at least until he remembered about his wrists and then he would be careful to let his arms drop and to tug at the edges of his sleeves with the tips of his fingers.

They were leaving the market when Nathaniel handed over a bag of salted caramels he’d picked up, probably to help knock down the percentage a point or two, and sighed when Andrew didn’t accept it. “Oh come on, these are at least half sugar. I thought you’d love them.”

They looked delicious, but Andrew wasn’t so easily bought. “Last I checked this was America – where we talk English and Spanish.”

“Eh?” Nathaniel stated at him in confusion for a couple of seconds, right hand still outstretched with the bag of sweets. “What, are you upset with the French back there? It is called the French Market for a reason.”

“No, back with Durand.” Fine, Andrew snatched at the bag and shoved it into his backpack. “What did he say to you?”

“Durand?” Nathaniel ran his right hand through his hair, throwing the thick bangs into disarray. “He asked about my family, a way to make sure I was who I claimed to be. I was just letting him know I was my mother’s – Mary Hatford’s – son, and… I asked him to pass on to my uncle the news about her.” His expression just then was so very earnest that Andrew wanted to gag, and it was true that Andrew hadn’t caught him out in a lie since their new agreement back in Reno.

He considered that and other things for about half a block, then gave a slight nod. “I don’t like it when you talk like that in a language I don’t understand.”

“It was just a way to make Durand accept me, honest,” Nathaniel insisted. “I’m not going to betray you, not after-“ he motioned away from the city, toward Rockford, toward west, and then at himself. “Besides, betraying you would be like hurting myself, right? You said you’d protect me.” He offered Andrew a slight, shy smile as he spoke.

There was only one answer to that – Andrew scoffed, the sound disdainful and quiet as he reached over for the idiot’s left wrist and tugged back the thick sleeve of the sweatshirt. “Not the most convincing argument, you know.” His right forefinger tapped on the healing wounds that wrapped around the bony wrist like an angry, coiled snake. “Try a better one next time, and stop making me work so hard. 118%, and that’s *with* the caramels.” That said, he dropped the idiot’s wrist and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and stalked ahead.

After a moment, the sound of Nathaniel’s laughter followed him, for the first time sounding truly amused and free of pain or darkness. Andrew don’t know what he hated himself for more – that he wanted to smile upon hearing it or that he felt warm despite the lack of a proper coat.

*******

Nathaniel tried not to wince when he handed over the money to Durand, at the thought of being another forty grand poorer, but the documents sitting on the forger’s desk did look good. “Congratulations,” Durand told him, his tone dry and elegant with that faint French accent. “You’re now Neil Josten.” He picked up the larger stack of documents, including the photo ID of Nathaniel, and handed it over. Nathaniel – no, Neil now, he’d have to get used to it, and as always was grateful to shed the name that tied him to his father – studied the card and noted that his birthday was now March 31st instead of January 19th

Beside the learner’s permit for the state of Illinois – he was still under age, but he supposed that he couldn’t complain too much, not as long as Andrew was able to drive – was a birth certificate, a debit and credit card, a check book, a forged doctor’s scripts for pain medication and antibiotics, an official looking school transcript and a card for a local optometrist. When Durand noticed that Nathaniel was studying the address, he reached over to tap the business card. “Go see him today – everything is arranged. He’ll measure your eyes and write you a prescription that’ll be good for two years, and he should have some contacts in stock that you can leave with as well. It’s already paid for, no questions will be asked and nothing will be said.”

Nathaniel nodded to show that he understood, then watched as Andrew picked up his stack of documents and cards, as well as a new license plate for the car. “So now I’m Aidan Hennon? That should be easy to remember.” He frowned at the birth certificate then looked over at Nathaniel. “Which one is it, mom or dad?”

“The mother,” Durand answered for Nathaniel. “Work out whatever story is best, the rest is up to you.” He tapped the fingers of his left hand on top of the pile of money that Nathaniel had given him, his dark gaze resting first on Andrew and then on Nathaniel. When he spoke again, it was in French. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, except contact your uncle. That will take a few days, since I will go through the proper channels.”

Beside Nathaniel, Andrew shifted about; he could feel his friend’s anger even though he was certain that the expression on Andrew’s face was the usual blank look. “That’s okay,” he answered back in English, which earned him an arched eyebrow in response. “It can wait that long, my uncle finding out about… well, you telling him about his sister. There’s not much he can do to change the situation, anyway.”

“No, I suppose not,” Durand murmured in English while he bowed his head. He was quiet for a couple of seconds, and just when Nathaniel was about to say ‘goodbye’, he looked up, his eyes focused on Andrew. “Just be aware, young man, that the Hatfords look after their own.” Nathaniel stood there in amazement while Andrew returned Durand’s intent gaze with a cool one of his own.

“He’s a, well, no, he’s not a particularly bright young man,” Andrew ignored Nathaniel’s hiss of anger, “but he does what he wants. And he knows enough about the real world to make an informed choice about his future.”

Durand tilted his head to the side as if accepting what Andrew had said. “Fair enough. Bon chance to you both, then.”

Taking that as a cue to leave, Nathaniel nodded then motioned for Andrew to join him as he turned toward the door, and barely waited until they were outside to speak. “I think I’m feeling a bit of that ‘hate you’ thing myself right now,” he spat out, too angry just then to feel the cold.

All Andrew did was shrug in response while he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, a perfect pint-sized poster child of apathy if Nathaniel had ever seen one. “You know, the wonderful thing about hating your guts is, I don’t give a shit. Hate me back all you want.” He flicked his cheap disposable lighter in Nathaniel’s face once then focused on lighting the cigarette.

Nathaniel counted to ten in all three languages that he knew, then reversed the count order so he didn’t do something he *might* regret, like shoving Andrew out into the street – it would be a waste of perfectly good forged paperwork.

“I think I can see smoke coming out of those ears of yours – don’t hurt yourself over there,” Andrew drawled after about half a block.

“Oh, just wondering where I can find another foul-tempered, short, sugar-addicted sadist so your paperwork doesn’t go to waste when I shove you under the next passing bus.”

He thought he caught a flash of grudging respect on Andrew’s face before the half-smoked cigarette was flicked at his chest. “Yeah, good luck with that one. 120%.”

“Ask me if I care,” Nathaniel gritted out while he brushed aside the ash clinging to his sweatshirt and eyed the small hole that had burned through before the cigarette had been knocked aside.

“Oh Nathaniel, haven’t you learned yet?” Andrew stared straight ahead as a strange smile twisted his full lips. “It’s always best to never care.”

Yet for some reason, there was a sense of hollowness to the older teen’s words which Nathaniel felt best not to point out just then.

*******

Andrew was used to getting by without nice things, but seriously – a million dollars. A *million* dollars, at least. If he could, he’d go back to Nevada, find where they burned those bastards in the middle of some desert and then grind them to dust beneath a pair of twenty-five dollar discounted military boots because obviously there had been way too many blows to a certain idiot’s head in that Reno motel room – just how long did concussions last? At least the boots were heavy enough that when he was finished with the dead bastards, he could deliver a swift and decisive kick to said idiot’s ass. As he picked up another thick sweater as well, he shot a narrowed look at the source of his ire, who of course was oblivious to the waves of hate that Andrew did his best to send across the store. 125%, the bastard.

Still, he kept his eye on Nathaniel, since the kid seemed a magnet for trouble and Andrew wouldn’t put it past him to be attacked in a store of all places. It was while he was trailing after the walking disaster that he noticed them, around the outdoor section – a shelf of various colored arm guards, some made out of leather, some of cloth, some reinforced to protect against sharp objects and some for archery. Making sure that Nathaniel was occupied with checking out the coats for the time being, he set down his pile of clothes and the boots so he could go through the guards, and eventually settled on two of the smaller black cloth sets after making sure that the one was thick enough for what he needed.

Maybe idiotic martyrs could have decent ideas from time to time.

*******

Chapter Text

*******
Neil looked at the row of duplexes across the street from where they were parked and then glanced back at And- at Aidan. Dammit, he had to get used to the new names or else risk a dangerous slip-up, especially since this looked to be their new home. “Are you sure she’ll help out?”

Aidan thumped his fingers against the steering wheel a couple of times and then shrugged. “She should.”

Well, that was reassuring, wasn’t it? However, Neil didn’t want to push, not after Aidan had been in a bad mood ever since they’d gotten up early again so as to be the first people to hit up the public library a couple of miles away – he didn’t know what Aidan had against libraries, but his friend had only spent the bare minimum of time it had taken to track down the address of this Anna Janowski inside the place, while Neil barely had been able to double-check their list of potential apartments.

Aidan stared at the non-descript duplex for another minute with its peeling beige paint and dirt-smudged windows blocked with blinds before he sighed and opened the car door; Neil took a deep breath of smoke-tinged air for courage and exited the car as well, his duffel bag in hand.

They had to wait for a passing car before they could cross the street, and during that time Aidan rubbed at his eyes; Neil was willing to bet that his friend had never worn contacts before and had a little trouble adjusting to them, especially with all the smoking he did. Once the street was clear, they crossed together and went up the steps of 56a Elm.

As could be expected of someone with the charm of an annoyed sadist, Aidan kept his right forefinger pressed against the doorbell and didn’t let up until about two minutes later, when there was a muttered curse on the other side of the door and it opened up with a loud creak to reveal an extremely disgruntled young woman wearing a faded red robe, her plain face flushed and dark brown hair in disarray. “What the fuck do you- wait, do I know you?” Her scowl turned into a confused expression as she stood in the doorway, the storm door still between them and her hands busy with the belt of the robe. “You look… Andrew?”

“You always were a sharp one, Anna,” Aidan remarked as he motioned toward the door. “Now are you going to let us in?”

“Uhm, okay.” She gave Neil a quick once-over as she opened the storm door, then turned her attention back on Aidan. “I thought you were stuck until you turned eighteen.”

“I got out on early parole.” There was a hint of a mocking edge to Aidan’s smile, and either Anna caught that or she was very smart – probably both – since she took a hasty step back even as she waved them into the small living room of the duplex.

“Right, that explains why you’ve shown up on my doorstep halfway across the country two years early, no longer looking like the Aryan poster child you used to be, with some kid I’ve never seen before.” She leaned against the doorway rather than sit down on the old yet comfortable loveseat or the equally old looking recliner chair.

Neil was surprised when Aidan sat down on the loveseat next to him, but they were small enough that they could set at either end and not touch. “This is Neil, consider him a project of mine.” Aidan turned his fake smile on Anna, and she must have seen it before because she jerked her hands through her shoulder-length hair and mumbled something about needing coffee.

“Look, just tell me why you tracked me down and if I should expect the cops at any minute, all right?”

“No cops, and I’m here with a business proposition for you.” Aidan lost the flaky smile and reached for his backpack, which he’d set down between his feet; Anna tensed up but didn’t run away or move to tackle him, just tracked his movements with her dark brown eyes. “How’s things going with school and waiting tables?”

She seemed to relax a little when she saw him pull out a piece of paper, which Neil knew to be the forged registration to the Miata outside. “Let me guess, Gaby told you what I’m doing, right?”

Aidan shrugged a little. “She is quite the gossip, and always so fond of sharing whatever news she receives via mail or calls.” He paused for a moment to look around the bare room, his gaze heavy with significance. “From what she’s said, you’re struggling to make ends meet.”

Anna’s back went rigid at the comment. “Yeah, well I’m doing the best I can, paying for this place by myself and for college, too. Not like they did much more than kick me out once I turned eighteen.”

“I thought you came out here because of family.” Aidan didn’t appear to be rather sympathetic to her plight, but Neil had learned in the past week or so that Aidan didn’t seem to care about much in the first place.

“I did, and they helped me find a cheap place to rent and a job – it’s not like they’re much better off than me. If they were, my mom never would have ended up in California in the first place, you know that.”

“Hmm.” Aidan’s slight hum of agreement didn’t appear to appease Anna much.

“Okay, you little shit, what do you want? I didn’t get my ass out of bed early to have you insult me. You’ve got five minutes before I kick you out so I can go back to sleep.” Neil noticed that she didn’t threaten Aidan with anything other than that, though.

Aidan smiled as he held up the registration slip. “Oh, it’s rather simple – or maybe not quite so simple, but we just need a little effort on your part and you’ll benefit from it in the end.” When Anna’s expression changed from angry to confused, he waved the slip of paper about in the air a couple of times. “In exchange for you signing off on a couple of things, I’ll give you this piece of paper.”

“Wait, is that what I think it is?” She stepped into the small room, but Neil noticed that she didn’t get too close to Andrew. “A registration paper for a car?”

“I always thought of you as a bright individual,” Aidan intoned in that flat, annoying tone of his, which Anna seemed able to ignore. “Yes indeed – if you look outside, you’ll see a mostly shiny Mazda Miata that I’m willing to transfer over to you.”

Anna tugged on the belt of her robe as she considered that, and this close up, Neil realized that she wasn’t so plain looking, just that she appeared tired and washed out. “A Miata? Not the most practical car for this region, but I suppose if it had snow tires on it, it would handle all right.”

“I’ll also throw in some money for them, and a little left over to take care of insurance and any maintenance for the first year.” Aidan was being awfully free with their cash, but they’d discussed this last night and agreed to everything, including that he’d handle the negotiations since he knew Anna best.

“Huh.” Anna seemed to be thinking it over, but Neil could tell she was excited as she once more craned her neck to look out through the window behind them. “It could work.” Then her features twisted with suspicion as she folded her arms over her chest. “What’s in it for you?”

Aidan mock-gasped as he pressed his left hand against his chest, over his heart. “Really? Do you think-“

“I *know* you, Andrew.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Aidan dropped the act and waved the paper once again, as if it were a red flag in front of a charging bull. “It’s two-fold, mostly. First, we need you to head with us to sign a lease for an apartment and then to register for school. We’re both underage and we need someone who’s considered an adult for those things, so pretend you’re our cousin.”

“Me?” Anna took to studying Neil for a few seconds. “Who is he supposed to be again?”

“My half-brother – that’s all you need to know.” Aidan leaned forward and gave Anna a smile that was nothing more than bared teeth. “Just sign a couple of documents and answer your phone if anyone calls looking for our legal guardian, all right? And the car and cash will be yours.”

Anna gave a nervous tug to the belt. “I don’t know, I don’t want to be on the hook if you break some kid’s jaw or send a guy to the hospital… or worse.”

Aidan brushed aside her concern with a casual flick of his left hand. “It won’t happen, we’re staying below the radar while we’re here. Our intent is for there never to be a reason for you to get a call, but you’ll answer just in case.”

“Oh, I will?” Anna appeared a bit more confident now, which Neil could tell was a big mistake.

“Yes, you will.” Aidan’s voice took on a too-sharp edge. “I never told anyone about how those cigarettes and drugs got smuggled in to our Wayward home, now did I?”

Anna’s face lost even more color, which Neil hadn’t thought possible. “You… you know I didn’t have a choice in that.”

“Yes.” Aidan was quiet for a moment, and when he spoke next, he sounded back to normal. “Yes, which was why I never said anything before. Just remember that they’re using Gaby now, and that things can go bad for her if I end up back there.”

Now Anna tugged on the belt in obvious anger. “Okay, I get it, I don’t turn on you and you don’t turn on me, so to speak.”

“And we’re all happy in the end – well, as much as we can be.” There was a slight curl to Aidan’s lips as he sat back on the loveseat, the slip of paper held out to Anna. “So, it’ll be a bit of a tight fit, but want to try out your new car? How about on the way to an apartment we want to check out?”

Anna heaved a rather exaggerated sigh as she pushed back the hair falling onto her face. “Just give me about fifteen minutes to call a friend to ask her to take some notes for me today and then to get dressed.”

*******

Andrew paid more attention to the potential landlord than the apartment itself as they were shown around the second one on their list; as agreed yesterday, he was leaving all the talking when it came to the apartment and school to Nathaniel – or ‘Neil’, as he insisted on being called now – since the kid had more experience in such matters, just as ‘Neil’ had let him handle Anna. The other two were looking around and nodding at various things the landlord, an older guy Polish who apparently had an eye for the ladies, was pointing out.

“Like I said, it doesn’t look like much but these old buildings, they were built right.” He patted the white-painted walls and smiled at Anna, who managed a demure smile back; after her time on the streets, she had the act down pat… and could do him some serious harm if he went beyond the wide grins and flirty banter. At least this one was better behaved, unlike the last landlord, who had set off warning bells in Andrew’s head and made him grit out a ‘thanks, but we’re just looking around, we’ll get back to you’ and hustle Neil and Anna out of there in under five minutes flat. To give him credit, Neil hadn’t blinked an eye and had followed Andrew’s lead without any questions.

“So it’s six hundred a month, utilities included?” Neil went over to inspect the windows, and maybe a less oblivious soul would think he was glancing outside for the view or seeing if they were air-tight, but Andrew knew he was checking out if they were secure and looking for a possible escape route. It was a third floor apartment, but Neil must have liked what he’d seen because he nodded a moment later.

The landlord, Andrew had caught the last name Semovoski, nodded. “Rent is due on the first, and don’t let the news fool you, it’s a quiet neighborhood.” He flapped his hefty left hand about. “We mind our business here.” There was a warning note in his voice as he stared down at Andrew.

Anna stepped closer to the man. “Oh, if you’re worried about my cousins, don’t be.” She gave him a placating smile and reached out to pat him on the arm. “They’re good boys, and will be busy with school. Plus, my grandmother will be here to watch over them. She’s just….” Anna paused as she pulled back her hand. “Well, she’s not in the best of health, you know, so I’m helping her out today.”

Semovoski appeared a bit upset when he found out that Anna wouldn’t be living here, but the next look he directed toward Andrew was a lot less guarded. “Family is good, they keep you in line.”

Neil turned away from the window and spoke up before Andrew could disillusion the man. “We make sure to watch out for each other.” He shared a significant look with Andrew then gestured to the apartment. “Can you give us a minute?”

“Sure, I’ll be down in the office while you make up your mind.” He gave Anna one more grin, the expression a bit more subdued this time, and left the apartment.

They were quiet to make sure that he wasn’t waiting outside, then Anna spoke first. “He’s right, you know. It’s not the best area, hence why you’re getting a deal on the rent, but it’s not bad.” She huffed a little as she glanced at Andrew. “I know you can take care of yourself.”

Andrew fiddled with the new black arm guard which covered his left forearm, still adjusting to the feel of the material and the weight of the knives he’d hidden inside of them as he switched his gaze over to Na- to Neil. “Well?”

“I’ve lived in worse places,” the kid admitted, which didn’t come as a surprise. “It’s mostly clean, not too far from the highway and bus lines, and the benefit to a neighborhood like this is that people tend to mind their own business. As long as we don’t cause any problems, all anyone will care about is that we pay our rent on time and don’t bring the cops around.”

Someone had interesting criteria for an apartment, didn’t they? Still, Andrew had lived in way too many homes in his sixteen years, and he had to agree with Neil that this wasn’t too bad; it wasn’t that big, especially for a two bedroom apartment, but it didn’t appear infested with vermin, it came with an equipped if outdated kitchen, should keep them relatively warm during the winter, and keep out most people. “All right, we’ll take it.” He didn’t feel like spending half the day looking at apartments, not when the others on their list weren’t going to be any better.

Anna appeared relieved to hear that, especially since the sooner they crossed finding a place to live off of their list, she was partway through her obligation to them and that much closer to owning a car. “Great, let’s get the paperwork out of the way and then get you two registered for school.

Andrew motioned for them to precede him out of the small apartment, and when Neil hesitated, he pulled out his phone. “I’ll call the store about our furniture.”

That provoked a grimace from his new roommate, probably recalling how much precious money had been spent yesterday at the IKEA near Chicago, but Andrew had won that battle and even granted a few points in Neil’s favor as a result; there was no way he was dealing with second-hand furniture, end of story. Now just to tell the store where to deliver it.

“Okay. Guess we can just sleep on the floor or something, if he lets us in tonight.”

After a night spent in the Miata and some of the motels on the way to Chicago, a night on the hardwood floor wouldn’t be that bad, in Andrew’s opinion. Still, he took a modicum of delight in arranging for the furniture to be delivered tomorrow afternoon, certain that Anna could sweet-talk the landlord into handing over the keys as soon as possible.

That taken care of, Andrew lingered in the apartment a little longer, an odd sense of… an odd sense of something in his chest as he thought of what it would be like to have a bedroom with a door he could lock and *know* that it would be secure, that he could sleep through the night in peace. To have a place that was his, where he wouldn’t have to leave until he grew tired of it, until he wanted to leave. It was… yeah, it was odd. Any other place before that he’d been in was someplace where he’d been told to go, had been dropped off at against his will. But here… this was his choice. For some reason the new contacts bothered him a little, but he forced himself not to rub at his eyes since he had to get used to the damn things.

He only allowed himself another minute or two before he left, careful to close the door behind him. By the time he reached the office at the front of the building on the first floor, he found Anna and Neil waiting for them, Anna with a smile on her face and Neil huddled in the too-big light grey coat he’d bought yesterday.

She threw a set of keys to him. “You’ll have to get some copies made, but it’s yours now. Neil paid the rent for the rest of this month and the next, along with the deposit.”

The keys felt oddly heavy in Andrew’s hand, too much for just a couple of pieces of metal. He frowned as he held them out to Neil. “Don’t you want them?”

There was a strange expression on the kid’s face as he looked at them. “Not… you hold on to them for now, until we get some copies made.” His voice sounded just as strange, leaving Andrew to wonder if Neil – if *Nathaniel* - was as unused to belonging anywhere as him.

The apartment taken care of, they went back outside to pile into the Miata – Andrew had no problem letting Neil, who was smaller if not shorter, climb into the tiny space behind the seats since the car was a two seater. “Bob said that there’s a small lot in the back, so stop by the office when you get the new car,” she informed them as they pulled back onto the highway.

“Oh, so it’s ‘Bob’ now, is it?” Andrew drawled as he pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his inner pocket, only for Anna to bat them away.

“Not before we get you registered for class, don’t go in reeking of smoke,” she chided. “And yes, *Bob*. It got you the apartment without a credit check and the rest, so be thankful.” She flashed him a too-cheerful smile for just a couple of seconds, one he’d seen a few times when she’d deliberately charmed the staff back at old Wayward, and he had wondered why she’d bothered with all the makeup and the tight sweater for just running them around. Still, he had to say that he appreciated the dedication.

The ride to their soon to be new high school was quiet after that, not that Andrew was in a talkative mood, especially when all he wanted was a cigarette. Neil appeared happy to be able to breathe once he got out of the car but didn’t complain, though he had a faraway look in his eyes as they entered the school; they’d discussed their options on the drive to Chicago, whether it was better to keep running or not, and the fact was, two teenagers on the run stood out more than a woman with her son. It was time to try something new, to pick a spot where they could blend in, someplace out of the way but not so much that they stood out, and let Nathan Wesninski’s people race right past them.

They had some of the best paperwork money could buy, and now they had someone to sign off for them, something that Mary Hatford Wesninski would never have allowed to happen in a thousand years. If this didn’t work… well, Andrew had no other clue what the hell to do, other than tell Nathaniel to call his uncle.

Anna checked the directory board near the door then motioned for them to follow her; the main office for Washington Park High School was a bit down a hallway decorated in blue and orange with lots of panther images scattered about – Andrew was sensing a poorly colored theme. “It’s a bit loud, isn’t it,” she whispered, as if she had picked up on his thoughts.

“I was thinking more along the lines of obnoxious, but that works, too.”

“All that matters is that it’s big,” Neil said. “No one should care about us here.”

Andrew glanced over at his friend, at the face which wasn’t marred in the least with the new scar, the now green eyes which seemed to glow due to the pale blue lurking beneath the contacts, the way that no matter how much ‘Neil’ tried to hide behind too big coats and clothes and long bangs that he just wasn’t plain enough to be ignored for long.

“Yeah, sure,” was all Andrew said as he tested the fit of his new arm guards, as he made sure that beneath his own overlarge sweater that he could access the knives quickly if needed.

Neil shot him a flat look but since they had reached the office, nothing more was said. Anna pasted on a cheerful grin as she opened the door, and after a couple of exchanges with the people inside, they soon found themselves crowded into the tiny office of a woman only a few years older than Anna, her black hair cut close to her scalp and pale blue eyeshadow in stark contrast to her clear, dark complexion. “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Linda Mullen. So I understand that you’re here to transfer to Racine Park?” She gestured for them to sit down, but there were only two chairs. Anna sat in one of them, and Andrew was quick to place his hand on the back of Neil’s neck to force the idiot to sit in the other one then stood behind him.

Anna sent a warning look his way before she offered Linda a friendly grin. “Yes, we are – well, my cousins are.” She waved at him and Neil. “I’m afraid their mother… well, you know how things are these days, and her job and all.” She gave a bit of a nervous laugh. “Oh my, I’m not explaining things well, am I?”

Linda shook her head as a slight, sympathetic smile curled on her glossy lips and she reached for the computer mouse on the cluttered desk. “From the little I’ve heard, it’s a familiar story, I’m afraid. So you’re helping out for the time being?”

“Yes, me and some other family members. I’m just the lucky one who had the day off, and we didn’t want them to lose any more time from school so we we’re here today,” Anna agreed; they had worked on the story earlier, and all of them knew that the less that was said, the better.

“Oh yes, in transitions like this it’s best just to dive back in, especially when the school year has already started.” Linda gave Andrew and Neil a bright smile then returned her attention to Anna. “Do you have any information on their previous school?”

Anna reached into her purse for the transcripts Durand had prepared for them. “It was a small school so they sent the boys along with these.” She handed them over without any sign of nervousness.

“We usually prefer digital transcripts.”

“Oh really? Well, I think they included an email address,” Anna added as if an afterthought. “I’m sure if you email them, they’ll send you a copy that way.”

Linda frowned a little as she looked through the paperwork, but seemed relieved at the sight of the ‘official’ seals. “If there’s a problem, I’ll do that.” Judging from the numerous stacks of folders on her desk and the size of the school, Andrew was willing to bet she’d never get around to doing it – if so, Neil had paid Durand more than enough for the forger to fire off an email or two.

If she found anything odd about them having two different last names, she didn’t say anything, but in a school this big, she probably saw a lot of unusual things. She asked for some personal information such as address and emergency contacts, which Anna provided, then they got down to planning their class schedules. As a junior, Andrew had a little more leeway than Neil, a sophomore, but they were both given an option of choosing a language.

“German for me, French for him,” he insisted, his right hand creeping out once more to press against the back of Neil’s neck for a couple of seconds; that had been another ‘discussion’ he had won, at his insistence that Neil was no longer going to be able to carry on private conversations around him. Andrew would study German at school, and use Neil’s French textbooks and lesson plans to learn the other language while at home.

Linda gave him an appraising stare for a moment, even though she shouldn’t have been able to see his hand, then directed it at Neil. “Neil, is that fine with you?”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s fine.”

Andrew twitched upon hearing the detested ‘F’ word, but since it hadn’t been preceded by ‘I’m’, he let it slip for once.

“Well, I’m sure the girls will love having someone like you in the class – usually the boys go for Spanish or German, like your brother,” Linda remarked, which for some reason irked Andrew. She typed away for minute or two and then smiled again. “Now we have some great extra-curricular groups for you to join, especially our sports. I’m sure you’ve heard about the football, baseball and basketball teams, right? There’s track as well, wrestling and gymnastics, or you can join the drama club or some of the honor societies.” She tapped a stack of folders to her left. “We encourage it for new students to help you integrate.”

Just having to play devil’s advocate, Andrew plastered on a mild smile before he spoke up. “What about Exy?” In front of him, the little junkie’s shoulders grew tense.

Linda tapped twice on the stack of folders then brushed her long fingers against them as if wiping away a speck of dust. “I’m afraid to say that team hasn’t done as well as some of our other ones – it’s not as popular up here as football and basketball.” She shrugged as if to imply what was one to do. “But Coach Beal is doing his best and can always use a few players, especially since poor Carl Heber broke his ankle earlier this month.”

“We’ll look into that,” Andrew murmured, making no promises, while he was certain that Neil was only a breath or two away from a panic attack. “So, anything else? We have a lot to do if we’re going to start school tomorrow.”

Linda directed a wry smile Anna’s way, who shrugged in response. “Eldest child, what can I say? He’s used to taking care of things.”

“Yes, we have a few of – well, a lot of them like that here.” Linda stared at the stacks of folders around her for a couple of seconds, her expression almost mournful, then resumed smiling at Anna. “It’s a good thing he has family here now.” She quickly included Andrew and Neil in it as well. “Please, let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your time at Park a good one.”

As if Andrew would trust simple things like a smile and hollow words. “Yeah,” he mumbled while Neil scrambled to get out of the chair as if it was comprised of rusted nails, leaving Anna to play nice with the lady. She gave them a disapproving look while she stuck around long enough to collect their schedules and the rest of the information that they’d need for tomorrow.

“I’d say that could have gone better… but I know one of you so yeah, it went great.” She sounded a little sour as she handed over the documents to Andrew as soon as they got back into the car. “Do me a favor and don’t maim anyone for at least a month, all right?”

Andrew pointedly shook out a cigarette in front of her while Neil made a groaning sound as he contorted his body behind them. “No promises.”

“Yeah, thought you might say that.” She sighed as she ran her fingers through her artfully tousled brown hair then clenched them around the steering wheel. “All right, so I’ve lived up to my end of the deal, barring any phone calls from you being the psychotic little bastard you can be when the mood strikes. What now?”

Andrew handed over a slip of paper with an address he had written down last night. “You drive us here so we can get another car, hopefully before Neil breaks those poor ribs of his-“

“Maybe too late,” Neil wheezed.

“Suck it up,” Andrew told him, then paused to light the cigarette. “As I was saying, we get our new car, go deal with the registrations, and then part ways.”

“Thank god,” Anna drawled. “I’d like to have a couple of hours to de-stress from after dealing with you before my shift starts tonight.”

“This is me caring.” Andrew waved his left hand around to indicate the blank expression on his face. “The sooner you get us there, the sooner we’re done with each other.”

“The sooner I can breathe again,” Neil complained.

Andrew reached over his shoulder to flick ash on the whiny bastard.

*******

Neil put the last of the bags down on the floor of the small living room, everything they’d thought to buy for the apartment after getting the used Nissan 370z Aidan had insisted upon; he was sensing a pattern here, a pattern of not the most practical cars that could go fast as if Aidan hoped to outrun his demons in one way or another. They would definitely need snow tires in the next couple of weeks, even more money going out at a rate that made Neil want to cry… though he supposed that he should remember that Lola and Romero were picking up some of the recent expenses thanks to the money Aidan had found hidden in their car when he’d searched it one last time before they’d torched it along with the bodies.

Thoughts of Lola and Romero reminded Neil of his father, which reminded him of… too many things, really. Of how his ribs still hurt somewhat, especially after half a day spent crammed into a too-small car, of the stitches that probably should come tonight before people asked embarrassing questions, about-

“What, don’t tell me you’re still freaking out over how much we spent today. You’re just finally back in the black, *Josten*, don’t fuck things up so soon.”

Aidan’s voice jostled Neil out of his thoughts, and judging from the emphasis on his new last name, ‘Aidan’ was still resisting fully embracing his own new identity.

“No, I agree that we needed the stuff.” Well, maybe not a rear wheel drive sports car when they lived in the snow belt, but he was learning that living with Aidan meant carefully choosing one’s battles – and still losing half of them. Maybe if he was by himself he could have found some place to squat for a few months, but there was no way the two of them could manage that so an apartment was a necessity, along with everything that went with it. “It’s just… why did you bring up Exy?” That’s what had bothered him ever since they had registered earlier at the high school.

Done putting the groceries away, Aidan came to join him in the small living room, mindful as always to stay just out of reach. “Because I know you better than you think, and a junkie like you would have been stalking the team within a week.” He cast a baleful glance over at Neil’s duffel bag and the binder stashed inside of it. “You’d be the kid hanging out at the practices and the games but never saying a word to anyone, and that would attract more attention than if you just join the team.” He gave Neil a scathing look before he shook out two cigarettes, lit both of them then handed over one.

Accepting it with a trembling hand, Neil shook his head. “But I can’t join it – they know I played-“

“You played what, five or six years ago? How many kids play the game now?” Aidan blew out a lungful of smoke while Neil inhaled the tainted air to calm himself down. “Ignore what I said in Reno, okay? It’s time to break the rules.” He gestured to the mostly empty apartment around them, then to himself, to the green contacts in his eyes and the dark brown hair. “No more running, no more being afraid because of *them*.” He glared as he reached out for Neil, and only Neil’s faith in Aidan kept him still as fingers grasped the sleeve of his overlarge grey sweater to pull it back; beneath it was the black arm band that Aidan had given him yesterday, the solid swathe of material that covered the wounds Lola had left in Reno. “You can consider what’s under here as brands of failure or marks of how they tried to break you and couldn’t, but choose soon. The longer it’s in there,” he jabbed the fingers holding onto the cigarette toward Neil’s head, “the harder it is to undo.”

Neil wanted to ask Aidan how he viewed his own scars, why he had chosen to keep them covered most of the time they’d known each other… but he also had watched while Aidan had crafted his own bands to hold Lola’s knives. Maybe part of the intent was to cover a weakness, but somehow it seemed like such an ‘Andrew’ thing to do in it such a manner that would also allow him to strike back.

So Neil took in a deep breath of tobacco-laden air, his own cigarette held cupped in his right hand, and nodded. “Fine, no more running, no more playing by their rules. But what about you?”

That earned him a rather displeased look. “I am not following, which is not a good thing for you,” Aidan warned.

Neil summoned a weak grin as he pulled his left arm free. “It’ll look less suspicious if both of us join up, instead of just me.” When Aidan’s displeasure turned into outright disgust, Neil knew that he had him. “I mean, that woman said that they push for *all* new students to join group activities. But I suppose you can join the football team instead. Oh, wait, *basketball*. I’m sure the team will love you… as a mascot.” Years of facing down his father’s men enabled him to smile in the face of the blatant loathing evident in Aidan’s newly green eyes just then.

“Fuck the black, you are so far into the red right now that it would be unbelievable if one didn’t know the amount of hatred and homicidal urges you can inspire in people.” As if to prove his point, Aidan tugged down on the collar of Neil’s sweater to revel the edge of some stitches before turning away.

Neil watched on in bemusement while his friend stomped back into the kitchen. “So… back to 125%?”

“One-fucking-fifty,” Aidan snarled while he slammed about the cupboard doors as if searching for something, probably one of the bottles of whiskey they’d shoplifted back in Chicago.

Wow, he’d never jumped so many points at a time, Neil thought to himself as he smiled and raised the cigarette to his face.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Andrew had been through several schools over the years because of all the foster homes, and he had to admit that it never got better over time. Still, he knew what to expect and he knew how to handle himself, and there was nothing any of these assholes at Park could throw at him to break him – him or Neil. The same couldn’t be said for them.

“We’re getting you a phone after school today,” he warned Neil as they pulled into the school parking lot.

“Eh?” Neil paused in undoing the seat belt to give him a displeased look.  “Why?”

“Because I want a way to reach you.” Remembering the near panic attack back in Sacramento, Andrew slashed his right hand through the air. “No, *no*, I’m going along with that Exy bullshit of yours, you *owe* me. One phone, which I pick out, and if I find out that you’re not carrying it on you or letting the charge die down on purpose, I will break your damn leg so you can’t play.”

Neil glared as he snatched up the plain light blue demin backpack he’d bought to carry around the abridged version of his precious binder and any schoolwork before he opened the car door. “Fine!” Despite the huffiness, he waited near the car for Andrew to grab his stuff as well, and walked beside him in clear disgruntlement until they found his locker.

The school was large and noisy as fuck, and they drew more attention than Andrew liked – than Neil liked, judging from the way he hunched forward and ducked his head. Andrew thought he heard someone say something along the lines of ‘hey, look at the midgets’, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before.

Once they found Neil’s assigned locker, Andrew waited for him to open it and figured out that his own had to be in the west wing. “Wait for me here at the end of the day, all right?”

Despite his lingering resentment over the phone, Neil nodded. “Okay.” He might be a suicidal shit and could work on Andrew’s last nerve like no one else, but the kid knew when to listen; Andrew figured it had been drilled into him by his mother or something.

“What, no snark for once? Try not to get yourself killed for a few hours and I’ll see you at lunch. Ta.” Andrew waved goodbye as he headed for his own locker, and couldn’t help but noticed that there were already a couple of people looking over at Neil with interest. He bared his teeth in a parody of a smile at one of the girls, and had to resist shoving another one into a locker when he walked past.

It didn’t take him long to find his own, and he was busy shoving his coat into it when the person on the right to it, a girl with ombré dyed brown hair, cleared her throat. “So, you must be new since I’ve never seen you before.”

“Killer observation skills you have there.” He gave her a scant look-over, figured she was probably on the pep-squad or something, and went back to affixing the new padlock onto the locker’s handle.

“Ah, okay. So, I’m Heather. You are?” She held out her right hand.

“Not interested.” Locker taken care of, Andrew turned away, adjusted himself to the direction of where his first class of the day should be, and left her behind so he could make it to Calculus on time.

There was the usual ‘oh look, we have a new student joining us, let’s have him stand up and introduce himself to us’ spiel that got real old, real fast, to which Andrew mumbled his name and gave everyone an apathetic look. A few people attempted to approach him, but a cold shoulder and silence in return soon discouraged them to the point that he was left alone; he was here to keep some stupid social worker from raising a fuss, not to make friends.

Third period every other day was that wonderful mandatory torture known as ‘gym’, and as he changed out, he wondered how Neil was going to fair when it came to his own fifth period that day; last night they’d removed the stitches in his arms, but the ones in his chest still needed a little longer. Andrew could hide his scars by leaving the black arm guards on even after he changed into the mandatory shorts and t-shirt, though he hoped there was enough room in the showers that he could take them off in there while he washed up.

As if Neil had cursed him last night, the bastard, today’s sport was basketball. There were several amused glances directed his way when the class gathered out in the gym, and everyone was made to line up in alphabetical order so they could split up into two teams as every other person. Andrew’s team wasn’t so happy to have him on it, and immediately set him aside as a reserve player.

It was while he was standing along the wall that one of the coaches, an older guy with balding grey hair, came over to him. “Hey, new kid! You’re out of uniform.” He gestured to the arm guards. “You need to take those off.”

Andrew sighed and waited for the old guy to approach him, away from everyone else. “I would, except….” As soon as the guy was close enough, he slid the left guard down about an inch or two, mindful of the thin knives inside. The guy blanched when he saw the scars.

“What the he-ah. Heck.” His frown deepened as he looked up from the scars to Andrew’s blank face. “You okay, kid? Need to see a couns-“

Mindful of the other students around them, Andrew slid the guard back in place and gave the man a cold smile. “There’s a reason my mother isn’t married anymore,” he lied. “It’s old news, however, and keep in mind that my brother has this class in two more periods, so I’d appreciate you remembering this and making an exception for him as well – his name is Neil Josten. No need for putting the both of us through some unnecessary trauma, yes?”

The coach’s face became flushed as he nodded. “Josten, got it.” He worked his jaw a little as he once more looked at Andrew’s now covered arm. “But seriously, talk to-“

“Thank you,” Andrew insisted in his most chilling tone. “Now you might want to talk to the kid with the blond undercut, since that was one of the most blatant fouls I’ve seen in months.”

“What?” The coach spun around and watched the game for a couple of seconds, where the blond kid once more jammed his left elbow into some poor kid’s liver. “Bridge! What have I told you about that? Get the heck off that court, this isn’t football, you idiot!”

It was toward the end of the period that some other assistant coach came running over to Andrew, after he had spent a few minutes in the game and then quickly been subbed out after he made a few lazy passes with the ball. “Hey, you’re, uh, Hennon, right? The older brother?” This one was younger than the nosy guy from before, still all shiny and eager and probably stared at his degree each morning as if it meant something. People like him annoyed Andrew on the principle of it alone.

“Yeah, something wrong?” If he heard the word ‘counselor’, Andrew was going to end up in detention on his first day – or worse.

A huge smile spread over the guy’s ruddy face. “Li- ah, Ms. Mullen told me about you, you and your brother. Said you were interested in Exy, eh? I’m Coach Beal.” He held out his hand and didn’t appear to take it personally when Andrew didn’t shake it. “We could really use some fresh blood on the team.”

Oh there would be blood if he had to put up with this over-eager puppy on a daily basis, but Andrew supposed that it was better than Sanchez’s smug attitude and insistence that it was for his ‘own good’, followed by allusions of blackmail. Still, Neil would *owe* him.

“Yeah, we were going to show up in a day or two to check out the team,” he said while behind him, he heard the other coach yell at Bridge again.

“Great!” Beal really did look like an excited puppy. “Have you played before?”

They’d decided that it would be best to downplay the experience they’d had, just in case word did get out about them. Andrew shook his head while he tugged at the edge of his left arm guard. “I’ve played goalie for hockey a lot, and Neil and I played a little lacrosse.”

Beal didn’t appear disappointed with their ‘lack’ of experience. “Well, if you can defend a goal while skating on ice, you should be great on a more solid surface! We practice every afternoon in gym E, so come see us when you can.” He waved goodbye before running off.

That would make a certain junkie happy to hear, and Andrew looked up to find that everyone else was headed to the showers now. Since he had barely done anything at all, he went straight to his locker to change, not bothering to wash off.

The next class was a free period, supposedly to encourage the students to spend time in the libraries or the computer labs, but Andrew figured he’d use the ‘I don’t where I’m going’ excuse and slipped outside so he could have a cigarette. It didn’t matter how big the school was or how small, there always were a few secluded spots where one could sneak away to and steal a smoke or two.

Of course, it was time to get another thing out of the way, so when he found a couple of people already there, he mentally shrugged as he fished out the pack of cigarettes out of his backpack and lit it up.

“Hey, you’re that new kid, right? Henson or something?” A kid who had at least half a foot on Andrew and much more expensive clothes frowned as he spoke around an already lit cigarette.

“No, it’s Hennon.” Andrew wasn’t surprised when Bridge, from gym class, came to join the small group. He was wearing expensive athletic sneakers but clothes that looked as generic and cheap as Neil’s. “I just had gym class with him. Thanks for costing us the game, asshole.”

Andrew flicked his lit cigarette in the kid’s direction even though it didn’t have any ash on it yet. “You didn’t need me for that, not when you were fouling out every two seconds. Anger issues much?”

 

Bridge’s dark blue eyes flashed for a moment, and then he smiled. “Maybe. What was it that you said that made Swenson back off from you, eh? You have some issues of your own?”

“More than you can possibly imagine.” Andrew took a slow drag on his cigarette while he kept a careful mental note of where all four of the other teens were, mindful of their reach and pretty certain that they weren’t carrying any weapons.

The tallest one, over by the rich kid’s left, scowled at Andrew as he dropped the butt of his cigarette to the ground. “You certainly have a problem being civil, you little shit. Tessa said she and Jovita tried to welcome you and you flat out ignored them.”

Andrew positioned his back a little better to the wall while he gave these annoyances a bored look. “I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m not suffering through institutionalized education so I can make friends. A helpful hint – leave me and mine alone and we’ll get along fine.”

Of course it was Bridge who smiled as he took a step forward. “And if we don’t?”

Andrew was mindful of where he dropped his cigarette before he lashed out with his left foot – hmm, the thick-soled military boots were a good buy after all – and knocked Bridge into the wall. Tallest guy stood there with mouth agape and dark skin shocked an ashen color, which gave him time to punch Rich kid in the kidneys, which always took the fight out of someone unless they were really determined. Bridge’s buddy tried to hit him back, but he was too slow and being short did have a few advantages; Andrew kept his hits below the shoulders, so the evidence wouldn’t be that noticeable, and his knives sheathed even if that meant it wasn’t as fun. A couple of hits to the stomach, a nasty kick to the side of the knee and that one was down, right before a blur to the side warned him to turn in time to take the hit to the left side of the head.

His ear rang with the blow, but it had been glancing enough that he could shake it off and get his fists up in time to deflect Bridge’s next hit, then return it with an undercut that left Bridge on his knees trying not to throw up. Seeing the other two still down and Tallest guy still shell-shocked – yeah, so not a fighter – Andrew snatched up the still smoldering cigarette and grabbed Bridge’s chin as he held the stick near the guy’s right eye.

“So, I’m going to repeat myself,” he said, probably a bit loud because of the ear. “Leave me and mine alone, I’ll leave you alone. Understand?” He moved the cigarette close enough to make Tallest guy gasp and Bridge’s eyes begin to tear up.

“Yes, yes, fuck yes!” Bridge insisted, his voice hoarse and eyes wide with panic.

For a moment there was the so very strong impulse to just shove the cigarette forward, to make Bridge scream… and then Andrew let go, let go and stepped back as he dropped the cigarette to the ground and wiped his left hand against his jeans to put an end to the crawling sensation from touching someone. “Great, nice chat with you guys. Let’s not do it again.” He waved them off as he went back inside.

Dammit, he hadn’t finished that cigarette, he realized once he was back inside.

*******

“So we usually sit over there,” Bethany explained as she waved to a round table where at least four other girls and two guys were already seated, “if you want to join us.” She smiled at Neil, her light brown eyes bright as she leaned in a little too close. “Everyone’s really nice.”

“Thanks, but I’m supposed to meet up with my brother.” He didn’t get it, all he had done was tell her his name when she’d introduced herself as they’d been partnered up in French class, and she wouldn’t leave him alone despite the many hints he’d given. Was this some sort of hazing? His skin was crawling with all of the attention she was paying him, with the need to pull up the hood of his white t-shirt, to tug on his bangs to make sure that the new scar was covered and-

“Oh, well, there’s enough seats left, he can join us.” Bethany waved aside his latest attempt to turn her down and reached for his arm as if to drag him over by force, and before Neil could flinch away, another hand beat her to her goal.

“There you are.” Aidan’s large, square hand was firm around Neil’s upper arm, and despite that fact, Neil felt relieved, felt a sense of peace for the first time since stepping inside of school that day. “We need to put a flag on you or something, couldn’t see you in this crowd.”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Neil shot back with a hint of a smile; he found it amusing that the boots Aidan had bought the other day had added an inch to his height, so they were even right now.

Bethany had recoiled somewhat with Aidan’s sudden arrival, though now she seemed to rally. “Ah, Neil, is this your brother?” She summoned up a smile and held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Bethany. Neil was just coming over to join us for-“

“Nope, sorry, he has other plans.” Aidan didn’t even look at the girl as he pulled Neil away, toward the nearest exit. Neil gave her a slight wave ‘goodbye’ as he allowed himself to be dragged out of the noisy lunchroom.

Several students stared at them as Aidan pulled him through the hallways, probably because they made such a contrasting sight, Aidan in his black sweater and dark jeans, and Neil with his light colored jeans and tops. And, well, the whole pulling thing.

As soon as they stepped outside of the building, Aidan let go, his expression confused as if he had just realized that he had still been holding on to Neil’s arm. “Found a fangirl, did you? Hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”

It was cold outside, but they were sheltered from the wind by a wall so it wasn’t too bad; Neil reached into his backpack while Aidan predictably lit up a cigarette. “I wouldn’t go that far – she’s in my French class,” a class he was taking because of Aidan, when he could be picking up another language, “and wouldn’t leave me alone for some reason.” He pulled out two energy bars, a peanut butter one for himself and a dark chocolate caramel one for the sugar addict.

Aidan gave him an odd look for a moment, which only intensified when he realized the other bar was for him; he accepted it as if he thought it might bite him. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?” Why was he upset? If anyone should be angry, it was Neil because of the whole phone thing – he had been fighting getting a new one for himself for the past week, not wanting a reminder of what he’d left behind on the West Coast.

“I detest dealing with the mentally deficient. 152%,” Aidan snapped before he used his teeth to tear into the bar’s wrapping. Once it was open, he alternated between bites of the energy – well, more of a supped-up candy bar, and drags of his cigarette. Neil watched on in bemusement, deciding that it was in his best interest to remain quiet until Aidan’s temper settled and content to breathe in the exhaled smoke.

It was when Aidan turned to look at some people crossing the grounds – probably to make sure they weren’t teachers – that Neil noticed that his left ear appeared red. “Hey, did something happen?” He gestured to Aidan’s head but was careful to not touch.

Aidan went still for a moment at the question then flicked the ash from his cigarette. “I’m fine.” There was a contemptuous look on his face as he said the two words in a mocking tone.

“You’re an asshole, is what you are.” Still, Neil couldn’t say too much more, not with Aidan throwing those words back in his face so he began to eat his own energy bar instead.

“Hmm, but an asshole who talked to the Exy coach during gym today.” Aidan finished his own lunch and dropped the wrapper to the ground, as usual unconcerned about social niceties or leaving a mess behind.

Neil felt his chest seize upon hearing that, still conflicted at the possibility of playing the sport once again. He knew his mother would be furious about it, would drag him by the hair from the school and shove him into the first car she found to drive him far away…. But she wasn’t here and Aidan was, and his father…. “What did he say?” He hated how his voice cracked on the words.

Aidan gave him a condescending look and dropped the cigarette butt onto the ground as well. “Eager to have two newbies on the team – it must be worse than we heard.”

“Good. If it’s bad, no one will pay us any attention.” The last thing they needed was anyone paying them any attention.

“Hmm, I don’t know, looks like you’ve already got the start of a fan club.” When Neil stared at Aidan in confusion, his friend motioned toward the door. “You could have joined *Bethany* for lunch.”

It took him a moment to remember the girl. “What? But I didn’t want to.” Besides, he didn’t remember being given a choice, not that it mattered. “She was just being nice to the new kid, I’m sure.”

For some reason, Aidan appeared furious just then. “You really think that?”

“What else would it be?”

Aidan’s right hand, fingers calloused and reeking of smoke, spread out in front of Neil’s face as if to smother it but stopped just shy of touching. “Shh, what did I say about telling me the truth?”

“But I am!” Neil closed his eyes and stood still, willing to let Aidan do whatever he needed to get past this weird spell. “Sometimes the kids get like that, all intrusive and curious and… and… but they’ll back off when I don’t talk much. When they figure out that I want to be left alone.”

“And do you want to be left alone? To have Bethany leave you alone?”

He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes.” Maybe it would have been different a couple of years ago when he had found girls interesting, but when he looked at her with her light brown curls and bright pink lips, all he could think about was his mother pulling on his hair and beating him on the head, on her yelling at him about how girls weren’t to be trusted, how affection was a trap for the unwary. “There’s nothing interesting about her, and she’d consider everything about the real me to be a nightmare.” Not that she’d get a chance to find it out.

There was a sense of heat for a moment, and then it was gone, followed by the soft tread of feet on concrete as if Aidan moved a few steps.

Then Neil felt a tug at his backpack, and he opened his eyes to watch Aidan pull it from his left shoulder. “Well what do you expect, the sheltered little sheep that she is.” Aidan grimaced in disgust as he dug about in the bag but appeared pleased when he unearthed the other two sugary energy bars that Neil had packed for him. “Hmm, 147%. Keep quiet about the phone and maybe you’ll get below 145 by the end of the day.” Then he cocked his head to the side as if he had just considered what he’d said. “Maybe.”

Neil wondered if it would be more amusing or disturbing to figure out Aidan’s ‘hate’ percentage system, then figured he probably didn’t want to know. “No promises,” he said, figuring that if his friend could steal his line, he should return the favor.

“Ha, ha, very funny.” Still, it didn’t seem to cost him any more percentage, at least not while Aidan had something half-sugar to eat.

Aidan had finished one of the new bars and tossed him his backpack before anything else was said. “You should be fine to wear the guards during gym.”

“Eh?” That was a bit off-topic, so it took Neil a moment to figure out that Aidan was referring to the new black bands around his lower arms. “Oh, these.” He held up his left forearm after he shrugged the backpack onto his shoulder. “That’ll be… helpful.”

“Won’t it?” Aidan’s tone was too dry for words just then, his eyes focused on Neil’s chest – more likely on the mostly healed wounds hidden beneath the t-shirt and sweatshirt. “I wonder what little Bethany would make out of your ouchies.”

Why was he so obsessed with the girl? “I don’t intend for her to ever find out.” Neil ran his right hand through his hair, his fingers tangled in the strands above the nape so he could give them a harsh tug. “Seriously, are you all right? Did someone start some shit or something?” For all of Bethany’s cheerfulness, there had been several other people who had commented on his short stature and cheap clothes; it was the same thing as always, people picking on the new kid because they could, and eventually they’d leave him alone when they figured out that he wouldn’t provide them with any reaction yet wouldn’t cower away, either – they wanted fear or respect or *something*, an easy target, not indifference.

Aidan gave him an indiscernible look for a couple of seconds before glancing aside and reaching for the pack of cigarettes again. “Just be at your locker as soon as the final bell rings, since we won’t have too much time to get the phone and then back home before the furniture arrives. I refuse to sleep on the floor again.”

Neil almost said they could put off buying the phone for another day, but had been warned not to bring it up. Besides, for some reason it bothered him, this strange mood, and if he could do something to put Aidan at ease…. “Okay. My last class is only down the hall so I’ll be there waiting for you.”

All Aidan did was huff upon hearing that, and they spent the rest of their lunch break standing next to each other in silence. Still, it was the highlight of Neil’s first day back in school.

*******

Gym E turned out to be a half-sized court for indoor Exy practice. “We’ve a full indoor stadium that we share with the soccer team, but this is it for practice,” Coach Beal explained as he showed Andrew and Neil around, the team, such as it was, already warming up. “We can practice on the full court when it’s set up for games, but this is it until then.”

The Racine Panthers was comprised of two goalkeepers, three backliners, three dealers, and two stikers now that the one kid had broken his ankle; Andrew had a feeling he knew where the puppy coach was going to place them, especially since he had already claimed some ‘goalie’ experience. “Aidan, Frank and Chris can bring you up to speed, while Neil, we can really use another striker with Carl being out for the rest of the season.”

Andrew could see Neil hesitate since he’d played as a backliner before, but in the end, the junkie part of him won out. “I’ll do my best,” Neil murmured as he watched the other students run around in their garish blue and orange gear.

“Great!” Beal went to pat Neil on the shoulder, but Neil managed to sidestep away just in time and not appear too obvious about it. “Uhm, how about you two just sit in on the practice today, get to know the rest of the team while I scrounge up some gear for you? You’ll have your official jerseys before our next game!”

“I so can’t wait,” Andrew said, his voice as dead as he could make it. Beal gave him a puzzled look, but his enthusiasm didn’t flag for long.

“Hey! We just got two more Panthers!” he called out to everyone.

“155%,” Andrew murmured as the damn pack came running toward them.

Neil sighed, his eyes a bit wild as if he hadn’t factored in the whole ‘teammates’ thing. “We can go and pick up a new tv this weekend.”

As bribery went, it wasn’t that bad. “Would rather get a new pc first.” They didn’t have time for anything else before they were swarmed by the idiots.

It took a rather virulent look to get the point across that no, no group hug as a ‘welcome to the team’, and no handshakes, but then things settled down – Andrew wondered if word about him and Neil had spread already, especially since he recognized Brennen, one of the backliners, as Drew Bridge’s buddy. Chris came across as annoying but Frank bearable, Kathy – the only girl on the team and a striker – rather happy about Neil but more focused on how fast he thought he could pick up the position, and the team’s captain, Ed, rather blasé about everything. The rest were what Andrew considered typical jocks, and yes, Neil would be buying him a very nice computer for putting up with all of this shit.

Still, he felt something other than boredom as he sat on the bleachers beside the idiot and glanced over to see a slight smile on Neil’s face while he watched the rather pathetic team practice. “No wonder they get their asses kicked,” Andrew remarked as he tried to figure out what the strange emotion was and why this one person brought it out in him.

“Why do you care? It’s not like you’re playing to win, right?”

“No, I’ll be playing because it’ll be mildly amusing, stopping those balls and firing them back at your head.” Andrew bared his teeth when Neil stopped paying attention to the losers running around in front of them and looked at him instead. “Consider yourself warned.”

Neil’s smile strengthened, and that weird feeling intensified; maybe Andrew should cut back on the cigarettes or something. “It’s a good thing that I’ve got a pretty tough head then, yeah?”

“More like you’ve taken so many blows to it, I doubt a few more will make any difference.”

There it was again, that laugh which Andrew both hated and… and something. “And another good thing that I’m getting a helmet. Maybe I should just wear it all of the time.”

“It would spare the rest of us the sight of your ugly face,” Andrew agreed.

Something in what he said wiped the smile from Neil’s face and made him look forward, facing the team but eyes focused on something else – something that wasn’t there, if Andrew had to guess. “Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.” He sounded almost wistful just then.

It was on the tip of Andrew’s tongue to comment that such a thing would make all of the Bethanys in the world so upset, being deprived of their Neil fix, but.... He looked forward and glared as well, upset at all of these emotions churning inside of him when for so long, there had been so few. When he had pushed away everything he could, because he couldn’t exist in constant fear and pain and hopelessness anymore.

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He’d taken a chance on this insane, equally messed up kid beside him, and now there were all these new emotions, new situations, and-

“Did I just see a kid trip over his own racquet?”

“Uhm, yeah.” Even Neil sounded incredulous by the pathetic show in front of them.

“175%, Josten.  If you don’t want it to be 200%, we’ll be getting a laptop *and* a tv.”

Neil made an odd whining sound in the back of his throat, but considering that two players just ran into each other, he wisely chose to otherwise remain silent.

******

Exhausted from two days of school and grateful that tomorrow was Friday, Neil brushed his teeth and finished getting ready for bed, all the while barely glancing at the bathroom mirror; he hated how with each passing year he grew to look more and more like his father, save for his lack of height, and hearing Lola comment on that fact back in Reno hadn’t helped. The stares from all of his new classmates hadn’t helped either, as he kept waiting for the words ‘Butcher of Baltimore’ to follow him down the halls….

Fear and hatred twisting his guts, he had to lean over the sink and take several deep breaths to calm down. It was a new beginning, he reminded himself. He’d done everything he could to leave ‘Nathaniel Wesninski’ behind, so there was no reason to believe these people would connect that person to Neil Josten – not unless he fucked things up. And he wouldn’t – Aidan wouldn’t let him. For some reason, that outrageous thought comforted him enough to allow a small smile to curve his lips; maybe it was the sight of the tube of lip balm on the glass shelf above the sink, or the vivid pink contact case which Aidan had picked out for him, the asshole.

Tired and wanting to go to bed, Neil finished up for the night by removing his contacts and swiping some of the balm over his healed lips before leaving the small bathroom. He noticed that Aidan was already in his own bedroom, the door closed and probably locked; Aidan had installed a new door knob the other night, one that locked from the inside and would take more than a few seconds to break into – not that Neil was inclined to try. He didn’t take the action as anything against him personally, not after what Lola had said back in that motel room, and hoped that Aidan found some peace here in Racine.

Neil went into the smaller of the two bedrooms, and spent a couple of minutes staring at the practice striker racquet that Coach Beal had sent him home with that afternoon; he couldn’t believe that he’d be playing Exy again after all of these years, and a new position at that. He’d always played defense, not offense… but he’d be playing. For a moment he was so excited that he felt skittish, felt the urge to pull on his sneakers and go running… but Aidan would probably kill him for doing such a thing this late at night, in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

He couldn’t wait to get out there on the field, to feel the weight of the gear on him and to face down the other team. He missed it, missed it so much… all he’d had these last few years had been running, an outlet for nervous energy around bland tracks while his mother had sat in the bleachers, cups of tea in her hands while she’d watched over him like a nervous hawk until he’d done his best to wear himself out, to numb his mind.

Exy was more than that, was a challenge, a thrill, a way to push himself to his limits.

He gave an experimental tug to the net for a moment before he set it aside, next to the simple nightstand near his bed. As he did so, he caught sight of the set of keys and the phone on top of the wooden surface, and some of his anxiety from earlier returned; the phone wasn’t anything fancy, though Aidan had insisted on something that allowed him to text back and forth and had programmed it with some ridiculous ringtone as soon as it was activated. At the moment it had two numbers programmed in it, Aidan’s and Anna’s… but that was one number more than Neil’s old phone ever had. He brushed the tips of his fingers over it before they skimmed across the set of keys, shiny copies to the apartment, the mailbox and the car. Keys to somewhere he belonged, to something that wasn’t a motel or a hostel or… or….

This was a first time in how many years that he had a proper bedroom, a bed that was all his own with the sheets he’d picked out, a duvet that was so comfortable and warm after what seemed an eternity of thin and scratchy bedding. Keys that weren’t keycards or worn copies expected to be turned in after a few days or weeks, or something to be tossed away while on the run. This… this was a home, something that couldn’t ever be said for that place back in Baltimore.

Neil sat down on his simple twin bed and took it all in, took in the Exy racquet and the blue backpack, at the coat hung on the back of the door and the plain white walls where Aidan slept behind… and he turned off the light to curl up alone in his own bed to sleep. Maybe there would be nightmares… probably there would be nightmares, but he would wake up and touch the duvet, would reach out to grab the phone and see Aidan’s name in it, would sit up and see the shadow of the racquet and know where he was and when, and it would be okay. Maybe not for long, but he would hold on to it for as long as possible.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

“For fu-ah, for crying out loud, Bridge, how many times do I have to tell you, this isn’t football! Just… just go sit out for a few minutes, okay?”

“But he was-“

“Sit out!”

Some things never changed, Andrew thought to himself, bored to the point of tears and counting down the remaining minutes of his gym class.

“I see you’re still holding up the wall, Hennon.”

“And I see you still have those anger issues, Bridge.” Andrew stood along the sidelines with his arms folded across his chest while Drew, a cocky grin on his face, joined him; despite how they had started out, the hotheaded jock had taken a mild sort of liking to him. As far as he could figure out it, Drew Bridge came from a single-parent home and was helping to raise two younger siblings, and was bound and determined to make it to college on a sports’ scholarship – talk was he’d most likely make it, since he was really good at football and baseball – as long as he kept his temper in check. Hence why he had taken offense at Andrew last week, for ‘slacking off’ during class/the game, but once the idiot had figured out that Andrew’s comment about ‘me and mine’ had pertained to his ‘younger brother’ and that he had joined another sport’s team…. Yeah, all was forgiven. And having the grudging approval of one of the school’s top athletes meant that he was more or less being left alone by a good bit of the other students. That was high school for you.

There was a reason Andrew loathed humanity on general principle. Well, several to be exact, but this wasn’t helping things any.

Still, he grimaced in exaggerated disgust when Drew grinned at him while he wiped at the sweat dotting his face with the bottom of his blue t-shirt. “So, is there any reason you’re over here infecting my air space with the smell of your nauseating sweat?”

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re a real people person, hmm?”

“All the time, right before they rave about my charm and outgoing nature.”

That prompted a laugh from Drew, though his attention wandered back to the game. “Yeah, sounds just like you.”

Andrew’s skin twitched at the proximity of the other teen. “Seriously, if you’re just going to stand there-“

“Seen Neil lately?”

The question cut short Andrew’s tirade and made him shift about to better face Drew as his right hand slid along his left arm guard. “This morning, at his locker. Why?” He didn’t make a habit of talking about Neil to Drew – or to anyone here at school.

Drew glared when their team gave up a point, then seemed to notice that he had Andrew’s attention. “Hmm, I figured that you hadn’t, because you’re much too calm.” He smiled a little, the expression fading when Andrew let sign of the anger he was feeling slip. “Yeah, okay, you definitely don’t know.”

“Know what?” He fought to keep his voice calm and quiet, mindful of the two coaches not so far away. “What did the impetuous idiot do now?”

“I don’t know about ‘impetuous’, but from what I heard, he was sticking up for himself.” Drew let out a breath while he swiped back the blond bangs clinging to his sweaty forehead. “Look, Peters has a history of being a bully, and Marquis,” Andrew associated the name with Tallest guy from the fight, “said he got in Neil’s face because he’s annoyed with how the girls are fussing over him. Thinks he’s putting on the shy act to make ‘em more interested and all that.”

“He’s not,” Andrew gritted out. “He’s just not interested, period.”

“Really?” Drew seemed surprised to hear that, but something in Andrew’s expression made him hold his hands up in the air. “Whatever, it’s good, I’m not one to judge, honest. More for the rest of us, right?”

“Peters,” Andrew spat out. “What did the asshole do to my brother?” This was taking much too long when there was a body waiting to be broken.

“Yeah.” Drew shot a nervous glance over to where Swenson was yelling at the guys on the court to stop hoarding the ball and dribble the darn thing. “Anyway, he pushed, Neil brushed him off at first, he pushed a little more, your brother mouthed off, and that made him even angrier. Long story short, a couple of punches were exchanged and your brother didn’t fare so well, especially since Peters has about fifty pounds and half a foot on him, not to mention two buddies. I hear he’s telling Neil to hand over his phone by the end of the day if he doesn’t want to lose all of his teeth, and he’ll probably start shaking him down for money after that. All of this happened around homeroom.”

Neil could have texted him, but maybe the idiot was waiting until lunch to talk to him in person. Maybe. Either way, it was going to be handled by then. “Where do I find this Peters?”

“Yeah, I figured you’d want to know that.” Drew smiled, the expression similar to that day outside when they’d met. “Right now? Try the bathroom by the Chem lab on the third floor – he likes to smoke there. Usually sneaks out a few minutes before class so....” His expression sharpened. “I’ll tell Swenson that you have a headache or something,” he called out as Andrew headed to the locker room to change.

It felt as if he owed the teen for all of this, but Andrew had the suspicion that if he pointed it out, Drew would come back with something as asinine as ‘you’d do the same if it was my sister/brother’ (unlikely since Andrew didn’t even know them) or ‘just win a damn game, you slacker’. The second was more probable, even if it made him want to lose an Exy game just to annoy Drew. However, he had more important matters at the moment, such as getting to the bathroom on the third floor without being caught and then dealing with Peters.

It was only their first full week at school, and Andrew was already hearing them referred to as ‘*those* brothers’. The ones who took their lunches together, away from everyone else, who drove to and from school together, who had joined the same sport’s team, who didn’t really socialize with anyone else. Drew’s friend Stef had made a comment once about him having a brother complex, but he had a feeling that it was something that had been directed at Drew a time or two since the other teen had told the boy to shut the fuck up.

At least those annoying girls had taken to gawking at Neil from a distance as opposed to hanging all over him, so it was an improvement in Andrew’s mind. He didn’t know if Drew was going to say anything after their talk in the gym and didn’t care, and doubted that Neil would even notice – he’d never known someone to be so oblivious to things in his entire life. Notice that someone was tailing him? Yeah, Neil could pick up on that. That half of the shitty French Club had a crush on him? No fucking clue, and for some unknown reason, that made Andrew furious enough that he wanted to grab someone and not stop punching until his knuckles bled.

Lucky for him, he would soon have someone to vent upon in a few minutes. He began to play with the arm guards, until he forced himself to stop; he couldn’t risk getting expelled or worse, brought up on charges.

He hefted himself up onto one of the white sinks set along the right side of the wall while he waited, and after about five minutes, the door opened to admit a pair of laughing idiots: judging from the fat lip on the shorter kid’s face and the bruised right cheek on the other’s, he’d say these were the two he’d been waiting for to show up.

It took them a few seconds to realize that they didn’t have the place to themselves – they paused in pulling packs of cigarettes out of their over-sized jeans and glared; Andrew had seen their type before, desperate to appear tough by wearing what they thought were ‘street clothes’ and hair-cuts that they took from music videos, when those who did grow up on the streets would have nothing to do with them. Posers. Misfits who were probably ignored by their parents or felt they had it rough because they didn’t get enough attention. These were the type of kids he detested even more than others, who made him want to break out the knives and show them *real* pain. Wanted to make them catch a glimpse of what it felt like to be truly abandoned, to never know what it felt like to have a home, to have a safe place to return to each night, to never know what it felt like to be loved and protected.

These assholes had so much, and all he had… all he had was Neil, was a promise he’d made in a motel room in Reno, surrounded by blood and gore, and now he was going to honor that promise.

“Who the fuck are you?” the taller kid asked with a sneer; he must be Peters.

“Chad, I think he’s Josten’s brother – Dan or something,” the other told him while tugging on the oversized football jersey Peters wore. “Heard he was just as short, too.”

Andrew jumped down, the sound his boots made as they hit the tiled floor loud and echoing in the bathroom. “Hello.” He gave them the smile that always made the therapists nervous and watched how the smaller kid flinched and Peters’ brown eyes widen. “Fancy running into you here.”

“What do you want?” Peters was probably going for indignant but it came across as whiny. “This about your brother? He go running to you or something?”

“Neil? Oh no, Neil’s the quiet type, which I’m sure you know.” Andrew stalked closer to the two boys. “I’m sure he’s planning on dealing with you on his own.”

Peters scoffed and shoved the other kid away. “As if, he’ll just get his ass handed to him again, just like you will, too.” He tilted up his chin as if to illustrate how he was able to look down on Andrew – as if Andrew hadn’t learned from a young age how to take down kids bigger than him.

“You think? Tell me, aren’t you wondering why I’m here by myself?”

“Probably to beg me to leave your baby brother alone,” Peters sneered again, “or to-“

Andrew was finished talking – surprise was such a wonderful advantage, and he wouldn’t be able to hold on to his temper if he listened to much more of this shit. Lashing out with his left foot, he drove it with as much force and momentum as possible into Peter’s stomach, causing the pompous airbag to double over in pain while at the same time he swung his fist at the other kid’s head.

The other kid smashed into the metal wall between the two stalls hard enough to dent it, wailing in pain all the while, but Andrew merely took the opportunity to slam one of the stall doors on the hand braced on the edge of the divider before he focused his attention and ire on Peters first; he kicked Peters on the chin to make him sprawl back onto the floor then stomped him hard twice, once on the stomach and once on the chest. As Peters struggled to breathe, he grabbed onto the asshole’s hair and yanked him upright and only then slid one of the knives free.

By that point the other kid had stumbled around, his back against the metal wall, and his eyes went wide when he saw Andrew hold the knife to Peters’ throat.

“What the he-“

“Go lock the door,” Andrew ordered, mindful that classes would let out soon and unwilling to have anyone walk in.

“But-“

“Now.” He gave him a cold look and pressed the knife a little closer to a wheezing Peters’ throat.

Finally getting it, the kid nodded and staggered forward, his swollen left hand held clutched to his chest. As soon as it was locked, Andrew shook Peters’ head to make sure the asshole was paying attention. “You still there?”

Peters made a louder wheezing sound, his eyes bloodshot and face covered with snot.

“Good, because you do *not* want me to have to wake you up,” Andrew warned, before he glanced up at the other teen. “You paying attention, too?”

“Yuh-yes!” He tried to nod his head, before wincing in pain.

“You better, because I’m not going to repeat myself.” Andrew bared his teeth before he pulled back the knife a little, the temptation too much to make Peters bleed just then. “I thought I’d done a good job of getting the word out that Neil wasn’t to be touched, but it seems I have to work a little harder at it. Now the two of you are going to help me, right?” He yanked on Peters’ hair until the asshole yelped, then glared at the other teen who nodded back despite the obvious pain. “You’re not going to touch him again, you’re not going to even talk to him, and if I find out that you’ve even looked at him, we’ll have another little ‘talk’.” Andrew allowed the hate and anger he felt just then show in his eyes, which caused the teen by the door to flinch and look aside. “Make sure everyone else knows that he’s off-limits, got it?” When there was nothing but silence at first, he held up the knife. “*Got* *it*?”

“Yuh-yes,” the other teen stuttered, while Peters attempted to nod even with his hair caught in Andrew’s hand.

“Good. Nice chat, let’s not do it again unless you’re willing to lose a few fingers and other body parts.” He let go of Peters’ hair, the asshole falling onto the floor afterward, went back for his backpack then headed to the door while putting away the knife and wiping his hand along the side of his jeans. “And if I get called in to discuss this with a teacher or any other staff, I will be very upset with you two,” he warned while the other teen scrambled to get out of his way. “Just saying.”

“Uh-okay.” The kid looked ready to shit his pants, so it was a good thing there were plenty of toilets for him to use.

Now that he’d dealt with that little issue, he checked the time and realized that classes would be out any minute now – perfect time to head outside for a cigarette or two. Drew probably would want to know how things had turned out, maybe that would be adequate payback for the information he’d given Andrew, and then it would be lunchtime. Should be interesting to see what a certain idiot had to say then.

*******

Neil picked up several sandwiches and a milk for himself, chocolate milk for Aidan then went out into the hallway to wait for his friend; there were still some energy bars in his backpack, but they needed something a bit more substantial since they’d be staying after class for Exy practice. He noticed a few odd looks because of the black eye and fat lip he’d gotten earlier in the day – why did it seem that his lips had finally healed and then this had happened – and he wasn’t looking forward to when-

“So what, is it pheromones? Ingrained habit? Can you just not go more than two weeks without encouraging someone to smack you around?”

Yeah, wasn’t looking forward to Aidan’s reaction. Neil sighed as he tossed the carton of chocolate milk at the asshole. “Just what are you implying?”

“Masochistic tendencies, most likely, but it’s just a working hypothesis. Give it a couple of months of more data and I’ll know better.” Aidan appeared rather pleased with himself for some reason, which never was a good sign for Neil. “Though if it is that, let me know and I can figure out a way for us to make a fortune and for you to get your rocks off.”

Neil gave the asshole the finger while they made their way outside; he’d learned to grab his coat before getting lunch, since Aidan never wanted to stay inside during the ‘free’ period. Things should get interesting when winter truly hit, along with the snow and sleet, but for now it wasn’t bad. “How about I start keeping track of how much I hate *you*?”

“Hate me all you want, just text me next time a couple of guys hold you down and beat up your face.” Aidan sounded as if he was talking about telling Neil to text him that they were running out of that sugary crap he considered cereal, but his eyes were blazing with potent emotions… and the knuckles of his right hand were red, as if they’d hit something.

“Wait – what did you do?” Neil made to grab that hand before he realized that Aidan hated to be touched, his fingers stopping just short while Aidan stilled. “Can… may I?” he asked, the words forced past a throat gone tight.

It took a few seconds, but Aidan finally nodded. “Yes.”

Neil’s fingers trembled as he touched his friend’s hand, the skin so warm and a bit rough, as he twisted it about so he could see the reddened flesh. “You could have broken something.”

“I doubt it, his head isn’t solid bone, like yours,” Aidan sneered as he gave a gentle tug to free his hand so he could resume shaking free a smoke. “Now that would be a challenge.”

Why did he put up with this abuse? Neil huffed as he snatched away the pack once Aidan had his own cigarette. “I’d say that I’d like to see you try, but then you would.” He caught the slight smirk hidden behind the flicker of flame and sighed. “I was going to handle it, you know.”

Aidan tossed him the lighter, and as he fumbled to catch it, went still as that warm, rough hand weighed heavy upon the back of his neck, right where the skin was left bare between the collar of his shirts and the edges of his hair. “Yes, but it’s *my* job to deal with it, remember?” That strange light was back in Aidan’s eyes, and for a moment Neil missed their hazel color. “You tell me the truth, and I take care of the assholes.”

“All right,” he admitted with some reluctance after a few seconds, “though-“

“No,” Aidan insisted. “Just stand there quiet for once, and see if you can’t get through the day without making me hate you more. It’ll be a novel thing, but who knows, miracles happen, they say.” He didn’t look like he believed in them, though.

For someone who claimed to hate him so much, he sure went through a lot of effort on Neil’s behalf, hunting down a few bullies, learning two languages, and suffering – Aidan’s word -  Exy practice. Still, Neil knew by now that there were indeed times when it was best to shut up so he lit the cigarette and stood there inhaling the thin streams of smoke it emitted, eyed by Aidan the entire time as if he was a ticking bomb, and then crushed it out against the concrete platform when it was done. After that, he reached into his backpack so they could have their lunch.

*******

Covered with sweat from practice, Andrew removed his goalkeeper helmet and watched on with apathy as the rest of the Panthers gathered around Beal – well, Neil held back a little, as did Ryan, one of the backliners, who hovered by Andrew. “So I want all of you here as soon as class lets out on Friday so we can play Freeport, okay?” They all cheered and waved their rackets in the air.

“We’re going to get our asses kicked by Pretzels, how exciting is that?” Ryan remarked with a sarcastic air. “I can’t hardly wait.”

“Are they that good?” Not that Andrew really cared, but Neil would want to know.

Ryan shrugged as he began to loosen the protective guard around his neck. “They’re not bad, but they’ve got it together better than us.” Then he shrugged again as he looked Andrew up and down. “Maybe if you and your brother had joined up at the start of the school year, or better yet, last year, we’d have a fighting chance.”

Andrew was doing his best not to play at his optimal level, but even at 80%, he was better than Chris and Frank, which had made Coach Beal’s day. And for all that Neil was learning a new position and a new racquet, he was quick as lightning on his feet, agile and driven, so he was picking up being a striker rather fast – Coach Beal was doing an awful lot of gushing about answered prayers, while Andrew muttered under his breath about lousy teammates.

“So in other words, no one’s expecting a win.”

Ryan shrugged again. “Nope, but then, no one ever does with us. However, Beal’s been singing praises high and low about the two of you so I think we may have a few more people show up at the game just to check you out.” Ryan’s lazy smile changed into something a bit more interested as he once more looked Andrew up and down. “They’ll probably like what they see.” With that said, he waved goodbye. “Have fun with the extra practice session.”

Huh, that was interesting; Andrew knew that he was gay but also knew that he didn’t make it obvious – well, there was the fact that he didn’t give any of the girls who’d tried to talk to him a moment of his time, but he hadn’t thought he’d paid any particular attention to any of the guys at school, either.

Between the whole Hemmick mess and then Neil barreling into his life, he hadn’t had much time to sit back and breathe, so it had been a month or two since he’d even toyed with the idea of finding someone compatible, someone who would fit his requirements, who would follow orders and provide a bit of relief. There had been a few like that back at Wayward, enough like Andrew in that they were just looking for someone to experiment with, to figure out a few things and find acceptable boundaries, and it had worked out. Watching Ryan leave the gym for the showers, he had to wonder if maybe a similar arrangement couldn’t work out here since he was beginning to get restless. Living with someone, living with Neil… it was both more and less difficult than he had thought.

He was still staring off in the direction of the gym when Neil approached, helmet in place yet mask raised and racquet in hand. “So, ready?” He was a little flushed from the earlier practice, cheeks reddened and bangs pulled back from his face by an orange bandana, which brought out the startling color of his eyes and highlighted just how thick and long his eyelashes were without the light brown hair always falling onto them. Andrew looked at him and wanted… wanted… dammit, he hated how Neil being by him anymore could twist him up so much inside, yet instead of that emotion driving him away, it just made him want - *want* of all awful things – to be near him even more.

And the worst part? Neil appeared utterly unaffected.

Andrew bared his teeth as he shoved the helmet back on. “Come on, let’s see if you can get any inside the net today.” Even if he did, Andrew intended to send all of them back at the idiot’s head.

Neil flushed at that as he flipped down his mask and began to back up. “Hey, you try learning a new position!”

“No excuses, they’re beneath you.” Andrew began to back up as well. “And pick up where we left off in German.” They’d practice that for a while, then switch to French later.

“Are you going to help me with my English paper tonight?” Neil griped as he went to fetch a basket of balls.

“We can go home now to work on it,” Andrew called out in a sweet tone of voice, and knew he won when the idiot shut up. Some people were just so easy to play. Then he considered the fact here he was, spending his free time practicing Exy, and decided that he wasn’t going to pull his punches when he returned the balls back at said idiot.

*******

Neil had never seen a group of people so happy to lose a game. “Did you see that?! Did you see that score?” Tony, one of the dealers, crowed as he waved his racquet around in the already crowded locker room. “Two more points and we would have had them!”

“I’m more impressed by the fact that we kept them under ten points for the entire game myself.” Stuart made as if to reach over to pat Aidan on the back and then seemed to think better of it. “You were incredible, Aidan.”

“Yes you were!” It didn’t seem as if Ed had Stuart’s restraint, but fortunately, Kathy swept in to give their captain a high-five while he had his arm up.

Aidan frowned as if puzzled by the praise, then shrugged. “Thought a goalkeeper was supposed to guard the damn goal. Maybe if you losers did a better job at defense and offense, we wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

Instead of being offended at Aidan’s harsh words, everyone laughed. “Yeah, we’re working on that,” Brad insisted. “Give us a little more time to polish up your brother, and he’ll be a big help.” He gave Neil’s damp hair a quick tousle, his smile fading as Aidan’s frown deepened and Neil found himself tugged closer to the grouch. “Though I have to admit, all that extra practicing the two of you have been putting in has been paying off.”

“It better, I’m getting tired of being hit all the time,” Neil admitted; Aidan’s aim was dead-on and his arm very powerful.

The comment seemed to improve his friend’s good mood. “Yes, but it’s a great learning incentive, isn’t it?” A slight smile tugged at the corner of his full lips.

“No comment.” Neil smiled back a little, feeling a slight bubble of happiness despite the noise and the crowd and the frantic people around them. Mindful of the looks Coach Beal was giving everyone, Neil shook himself and pushed away from the locker he was leaning on. “I’m going to run a couple of laps, burn off a little energy before calling it a night.” By now everyone was used to how he always stuck around for extra practice or something while they left to shower and go home.

Busy talking to Sam, Ryan paused to look over at Neil and then at Aidan, who was following him out to the gym with the track. “Wait, aren’t you two coming? We’re heading to Mineo’s for pizza to celebrate.”

Aidan waved him off. “This one has a thing about pizza, traumatic experience with his fifth birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese and all that.”

“Oh, okay. I’m sure we can figure out something different another time.”

“Don’t count on it, there were an awful lot of horrible birthday parties. Our mother isn’t big on learning from experience – hence why I have a little brother.” Aidan smiled at the stunned faces of their teammates while Neil just shook his head and left the now quiet gym.

Neil waited until they were at the other gym before he spoke. “Well, guess I won’t be eating pizza in front of anyone. Are you going to take any hits or is it going to be me who has his diet restricted by those ‘horrible parties’?” Somehow, he had a feeling he already knew the answer.

Aidan flicked his fingers in Neil’s direction. “You wanted this, you pay the price.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” Neil sighed as he began to stretch his legs. “Was it so awful, tonight? To play a game, to be part of something?” He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “You said we had to do something different, to break the rules. What about you? Why don’t you try something different and give a shit for once? To let yourself want something, to have some fun?” Knowing that he had probably said enough just then, he spun around and began to run, to leave Aidan, *Andrew*, think about what he’d said.

*******

Andrew sat up on the bleachers while Neil ran around in circles – was that a fitting metaphor or what for the kid – and wished that he’d thought to grab his cigarettes. Everyone would be gone by now, so Neil should only be a few more laps; they only needed to do this long enough for the locker room to clear out so Neil could shower in private, thanks to his scars.

He thought about what his friend had said, about allowing himself to want something, to take that chance and reach for it. All his life, he had been told that he was nothing, a nobody, was Andrew Doe. He didn’t even have a name. Then he had found out that he had belonged to someone, but she hadn’t wanted him – but she had wanted his brother. His *twin* brother. Identical to him in every way, yet he was the one tossed aside. Wasn’t that something to make you feel good about yourself?

Then had come… well, people had wanted him for *something*, but never for long. Not until Cass, Cass and Drake. He let out a shaky breath as he ran his right hand over the black arm guard hiding the scars that lined his left forearm, the scars and the knives. No, he wasn’t going to think about that.

So why was he here? Because some insane, broken boy way in over his head had cared enough about a stranger to give him a warning? Had dared to trust Andrew – not like he had much of a choice at the time – when no one who knew Andrew did? Had kept his word when everyone else had broken theirs to him?

Andrew didn’t get Neil/Alex/Nathaniel, had a feeling that he would struggle with the kid even if he had years with him, there were just that many facets… but he wanted to. There it was, that awful *want*. Something that Andrew had thought he’d broken himself of doing years ago, had carved out of himself when he’d taken those knives to his own flesh.

And now he was being told that it was okay to want again. Being *dared* to want again. Outright taunted by the person who was dredging up that very same emotion in the first place.

But he wasn’t just Andrew now, was he? He was also Aidan Hennon, and maybe that was the important part in all of this. All the pain, all the nightmares and the taint and… and enough.

Maybe it was time to listen to his own advice. He’d listened to so many others in the past and it had gotten him nowhere, after all.

Aidan watched Neil run around the track with that unfamiliar sense of want building in his chest.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Before Thanksgiving break the Exy team had an away game up around Green Bay, and even though they lost again, the team was energized by the fact that the Trojans had only beaten them by three points. “Last year it was by twelve!” Sam claimed as they headed to the showers.

“Yeah, they’re one of the better teams in the league,” Ryan insisted as he began to remove his gear. “If we keep playing like this, we might win a game yet!”

Aidan, who had been busy checking his racquet at the moment, scoffed at that declaration. “First try to get through a game without someone getting a red card or the defense falling apart.”

Brennan, who’d been the player to collect a red card this time, flushed and paused in removing his chest guard. “Come on, that one striker was insulting me! What was I supposed to do?”

“You’re not supposed to swipe their feet out from under them when the ball’s halfway across the court, that’s what,” Coach Beal chided the backliner. When everyone else started commenting on what had gone wrong, Neil loosened his neck guard then went outside to get a breath of fresh air despite the night’s chill, needing a moment to focus his thoughts and a bit of quiet.

The parking lot was beginning to thin out, the fans probably eager to head home for the night since there was a chance for snow. Neil shivered a little as the cold air hit the sweat drying on his skin, but it still felt nice to be outside, to be away from everyone – that and he needed to give them a few minutes to wash off so when he returned, they would be mostly finished getting ready and he would have the showers to himself.

“For someone who’s an Exy junkie, you sure don’t seem happy right now.”

He didn’t start at the sound of Aidan’s voice, just reached out his hand and smiled when a lit cigarette was placed into between his fingers. “Maybe because we’re not playing right now.”

“Bullshit.” Aidan settled against the wall next to Neil, his own cigarette between his lips, stripped of the bulky goalkeeper armor so the breadth of his shoulders was evident beneath the tight orange shirt. “You know how this team shit goes – you play the game only a fraction of the time.”

“That’s not-“ He stopped when he caught Andrew’s assessing gaze and took a deep breath of smoke-laden air. “Yes, it’s great to be playing again, it’s just… it’s wearisome, dealing with them when….” With his left hand, the one not holding the cigarette, he motioned to his hair, his eyes, the black band covering his right forearm. “There’s an advantage to constantly moving.”

Aidan seemed to consider that as he took a long drag on his cigarette then dropped it to the ground, only to reach for Neil’s. “Do you think all of this isn’t worth it?”

Neil tried to glare at the theft of his cigarette and ended up shaking his head instead. “I said it was wearisome, not worthless.” He closed his eyes for a moment and shifted closer to Aidan, until they were only scant millimeters apart; it felt warmer, being this close together, and he could breathe in the smoke from the cigarette. “There’s the actual games themselves, the times when it’s just you and me practicing, and our apartment together.” Those were all things he wouldn’t have if he’d kept on running, if he hadn’t made any deals with back in California.

For about a minute he rested against the wall, content to put up with the cold when he could hear Aidan breathe in and then exhale, the air scented with tobacco and their drying sweat, and then there was the harsh sound of the door slamming. “Hey! What are you two doing out here? Hurry up if you want to wash off before we leave,” Ryan called out to them.

Startled out of a half-doze, Neil jerk away from the wall while he opened his eyes, and found Aidan glaring at Ryan harsh enough for the backliner to hold up his hands in a defensive manner. “Hey, just trying to be a nice guy here!”

They didn’t say anything as they went back inside; Neil shivered a little as it sunk in how cold it had been out there, but they were soon in the humid shower room, which was empty save for the two of them. Aidan took up a position closer to the entrance while Neil grabbed the stall farthest back, and made sure to dress as soon as he was clean. He felt his skin crawl the entire time he was in there, felt as if people were watching him and waited for someone to yell out something, to comment on his scars. As soon as his clothes were back on, the oversized sweater, baggy jeans and the black bands, he felt a sense of security. It only intensified as he grabbed the bag containing his gear and fell in step beside his friend, so they could go out to join the others already on the bus.

Everyone was still hyped up from the game, laughing and shouting back and forth, so they nabbed a pair of seats toward the back; Aidan to the very last one, and Neil slid in the one in front of it. To his surprise, Ryan came back and sat in the one opposite of his, though his attention seemed more focused on Aidan; Neil had noticed that the two of them seemed to have a sort of friendship going on, at least one where Ryan talked to Aidan and Aidan tolerated him enough to talk back sometimes.

“So, you two have any plans for tomorrow? Think we’re going to get back too late to do much of anything tonight.”

Neil shrugged a little as he settled back into the seat, the large bag a barrier between him and any teammates who might think to join him. “Sleep in, take a certain grouch out to breakfast since he did such a good job tonight, then practice a little.” He only winced a little when he felt the back of his head be smacked since he’d been expecting it.

“It’s breakfast and lunch now,” Aidan informed him.

Ryan laughed at their antics. “Yeah, Aidan did a great job in keeping the score down – if there was a way to have him play the whole game, we might have a shot at winning!” He smiled at Aidan for a couple of seconds before turning back to Neil. “You’re coming along really well, guess if you’re practicing on weekends, too, that explain things.”

“He has added incentive,” Andrew explained. “Learn to handle the ball or take the hits.”

Neil winced again, this time at the thought of all the wonderful bruises he sported from those ‘hits’; Aidan had taken to alternating aiming at his head and his legs, so yes, Neil had every incentive to improve his ability to catch the ball in midair. Since Aidan would only give him a break if he managed to get a goal, he also was desperate to improve his aim with the new – to him – racquet. As trainings went, it was probably among the more sadistic… but it was indeed effective.

“Ah well, I was going to see if you wanted to join a few of us who are going to the movies, but sounds like your day is already planned out.” Ryan waved to them as he got up and returned to the more crowded front of the bus.

About halfway back to Racine, Coach Beal started a singalong, with everyone laughing and shouting out lyrics to some songs that Neil had never heard before while they bounced around in their seats and waved their hands about. He didn’t even need to turn around to confirm Aidan’s displeasure just then as he eyed their ridiculous antics, instead he reached for the phone tucked inside of his jacket and sent a short text.

**Dinner too?

The response was instant, as if a certain someone was about to text him, probably with a percentage.

**Both nights. It won’t be cheap.

Yeah, that wasn’t a good sign. Neil bit into his bottom lip as he wondered if they could stop on the way back to the apartment for some ice cream or something else sugary enough to calm Aidan’s homicidal urges for the night.

*******

“Ah hell, I can’t wait, a break from this place! Just another day,” Drew complained as he changed into his gym outfit.

“Yeah, and then you’ll be back here complaining about your grandmother’s lousy cooking,” Jorge pointed out with a huge grin. “Too bad you can’t come to my family’s dinner – my mother and aunts pull out all the stops!”

“Each year you torment us by telling us all about how much they cook, and each year after the break we don’t see no love, bro.” Tommy slammed the gym locker shut as he gave a friendly glare to the shorter kid. “How about actual proof this year? And I’m talking leftovers, not pictures.”

“Aw, man, you’ve seen my uncles eat! You were there for my cousin’s birthday party this summer!”

“Yeah, yeah, always the cheap excuses with you. I think to make it up, you’re gonna let me look at your Physics homework-“

Aidan was grateful when they left the locker room, his ears sore from their loud voices. Done changing into his own clothes, he adjusted the black guards on his arms and went to turn around to head out into the gym for another day of holding up the wall – word was that they’d switch to something other than basketball after the Christmas break – when he noticed that Drew appeared to be waiting for him.

“What, you’re not getting in on Jorge’s Physics homework, too?” His eyes narrowed when the other teen fell into step beside him. “Or did some moron fail to listen to my rather simple warning and take another swing at Neil?”

Drew laughed at that as they entered the already noisy gym. “No, no, not after what you did with Peters. I was just wondering what you’re doing for Thanksgiving – everyone’s talking about it but you.” His face became a little flushed as he rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, you got that grandmother, right? Your mom will be back in town and all?”

“If you’re about to invite me and Neil to what I’ve already heard a couple of people mention will be a horrible dinner of you own, *don’t*.” Aidan didn’t know why Drew was bothering with this, except the guy seemed to think they were friends – maybe he should have burned his eye out or something. Still, staying on Drew’s good side was logical, since it kept the assholes away from Aidan which meant he was less likely to get into fights and henceforth in trouble, and the teen knew things like if someone was going after Neil. “There’s a few other relatives here in town, it’s the reason why our mom dumped us here,” he lied. “We’ll be meeting up with them, and I bet they can cook better than yours.”

That wrung a surprisingly deep laugh from Drew. “What can I say, Gram Jones can’t cook worth shit, but she tries at least. Mom’s too tired from working to do much other than help out, and it’s nice just for all of us to be together.” His blue eyes flashed with something as he stared out over the court. “One day I’ll have enough to pay for someone to cook the meal for us, or for us to go out. Just gotta keep working on it.”

Seeing that Swenson was calling for the teams to form up, Aidan scoffed as he motioned for Drew to get on the court. “Try not to get fouled for an entire game for once, that’ll be a good start.”

That seemed to break Drew’s odd mood. “Yeah, well at least my team wins their damn games, you shitty dwarf.” He gave Aidan the finger as he ran to join the others.

“As if I care,” Aidan shouted back, just to piss him off.

Still, as he stood there and watched the idiots race around after a stupid ball, he had to wonder what he and Neil were going to do – this was the first Thanksgiving that he wasn’t at old Wayward or stuck in a foster home. A first proper holiday when he wasn’t stuck with a bunch of people he loathed – he refused to think about Cass, of how she had tried to make an effort and then *he* had been home.

No, it had been odd enough over Halloween, when he had realized that he could do anything he wanted, that there was no curfew or asshole telling him to dress up or not dress up. Neil had been a bit perplexed, seeing as how he had spent the last few years in Europe, over the fuss everyone had made for the day, and had just been pleased that he could stock up on bags of candy for Aidan while they were on discount. Bags of candy not for other children, candy that Aidan would have been denied because he wasn’t special enough, because some asshole foster parent didn’t believe in spoiling children or some ‘pagan’ holiday or just was that much of an asshole. Bags because a certain idiot thought it was great to get them while on sale and knew that Aidan loved chocolate.

So what if they had just spent the night inside of their apartment, exhausted from Exy practice and busy with schoolwork? Aidan had worked on a History paper stretched out on the couch, a bag of candy open beside him, while Neil was sprawled out on the floor with his Math homework. It had been… it had been the best Halloween.

The thought of the upcoming holiday gnawed at the back of his mind until he met up with Neil at lunch, his friend handing over a carton of chocolate milk which Aidan shoved into the pocket of his coat so he could drink it once he finished a cigarette. “So, everyone’s talking about Thanksgiving.”

“Hmm, I’d forgotten all about it,” Neil admitted as he pulled out one of the sandwiches from his backpack for him to eat. “It gets confusing, keeping track of all the holidays. There’s a lot more over in Europe, we had to focus on the ones which would shut down the stores or restrict the public transportation, stuff like that.”

“So, it’s been a while since you celebrated it, yeah?” Aidan watched him while he drew on the cigarette.

For a moment, it looked as if Neil lost his appetite, his complexion washing out and his eyes growing shadowed, and then he shook his head. “I’d say we never really celebrated it.” He stared at the turkey sandwich in his hand as if it was an odd thing. “My… well, he’d have people over, people like… well, you met them.” A slight smile curved his lips, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. “I wasn’t allowed there for the whole dinner, but I sat through some of it. Had to be on my best behavior and all of that or else.”

It sounded as if Neil had loved the holiday as much as Aidan had. “Did you manage it?” He didn’t know why he asked the question, other than to see if Neil was still willing to tell him the truth.

“Of course not, I was a kid.” Neil’s voice was so bitter just then that even Aidan could taste it, could feel the pain and the unfairness of it all, what Nathan Wesninski had put his young son through. “Never could be still enough, never quiet enough, never….” He let out a shuddering breath and shook his head. “So, Thanksgiving.”

“Yeah, Thanksgiving.” Aidan dropped the cigarette to the ground and grabbed the rest of the sandwich, since it seemed Neil no longer had a taste for it. “I’m thinking to hell with turkey and all that shit, especially since it’s just the two of us.”

Neil watched on as he had a couple of bites, and managed a smile after a few seconds. “It would almost be amusing, to see the two of us try. To cook it, you know.”

“What ‘two of us’?” Aidan asked after he swallowed a mouthful of sandwich. Even though they were able to manage some simple meals on their own, neither of them were experts in the kitchen. “It would be me watching you make a spectacular ass out of yourself.”

“Ah yes, one of your favorite past times.” Neil’s smile strengthened and he reached into the bag for another sandwich, one that looked to be tuna salad. “So, take-out? There has to be something open that day, right?”

“You’re pathetic,” Aidan felt it should be known. “Yes, there is indeed something open, it’s called ‘Chinese’ and you will be buying us some.” Even though Neil was living up to that whole ‘our’ money thing and Aidan had access to it with his own debit card, he still enjoyed making Neil pay for stuff.

“Good thing we both like Chinese, then.” Neil appeared at peace as he ate his sandwich. “Since we have the day off-“

“Mention Exy practice to me and I will shove the rest of that sandwich down your throat all at once,” Aidan warned.

“What?” Neil gave him an innocent look that Aidan wasn’t buying at the least, then laughed a little. “What do we do, then?” There was a hint of that darkness back in his eyes, probably as he thought about all those other holidays spent in Baltimore.

Like Aidan had much of a clue himself. “We’ll figure it out. Watch some movies or something. Sleep. Just no Exy – it’s a holiday, so no damn Exy.”

“Okay,” Neil agreed. “Just the two of us and enough Chinese food to make us sick.”

Now that sounded like a plan. “We’ll hit a store on the way home.” Aidan made a swiping motion with his right hand, now that the sandwich was gone. “See if we can’t pick up some liquor to make it a real celebration,” he said as he reached into Neil’s backpack for another sandwich, and hummed when he snagged a roast beef.

“Just make sure that we leave the one bottle of vodka,” Neil warned.

“I know, for ‘medicinal purposes’. You’re paranoid.”

“Hmm.” Neil didn’t argue over the accusation, but all one had to do was look at the scar on his face and the hint of a black arm guard peeking out of the sleeve of his coat to remember that he had good cause for it.

Still, all dark thoughts pushed aside for the moment, Aidan focused on having a few days away from school, away from the annoying people, when he could rest and laze about as much as possible between Neil’s precious Exy practices.

*******

Neil groaned as he set the carton of Singapore-style noodles aside on the floor beside him. “I’m full. Isn’t the point of this day to be full? Well I’m full.” He tilted his bead backwards to look at Aidan, who was curled up on the couch behind him. His friend sneered and bit into an egg roll as if to prove a point or something.

Once it was half gone, Aidan sneered some more and set the remainder of the roll into his own carton of Sweet and Sour chicken. “You suck at life, Josten.”

“No, I just can’t eat two cartons of Chinese food. Guess that just means more for you.” Neil made a show of licking one of his chopsticks before he threw it back at the asshole, and began a mental countdown before he felt a foot hit into the back of his head. “Ow.”

“You got off lucky after inflicting your germs on me. I should stick it in your ear or something, except then I’d have to take you to the hospital.”

“Yeah, not sure I can figure out how to manage stitches for that,” Neil joked. “Now, ready for the movies? Maybe we can start with ‘Run Lola Run’.”

“In a minute.” Andrew fussed with something on the couch then swung his legs around next to Neil. “Have some of this.” He handed over one of the bottles of vodka that they had ‘picked up’ the other day.

Neil eyed it with some trepidation; before, he had mainly drank whenever he needed to dull the pain when injured, when his mother and then when Aidan had stitched up his wounds since going to the hospital was out of the question. There had been the one time back in Austria when he’d had a few shots to warm himself back up, after he and his mother had spent the day trudging through the cold rain in an effort to evade the person following them. Other than that….

“We said we’d have something to drink,” Aidan reminded him. “Holiday cheer and all that.” As if sensing his doubts, Aidan clicked his tongue and shook the bottle. “What are you worried about? You’re safe here, right?”

“I wouldn’t put it past you to shave my eyebrows or something if I pass out, I have to admit.” Still, he reached for the bottle.

“Juvenile antics, Josten. More like I’d write ‘I’m an Exy whore’ all over your face in permanent marker.” Still, Aidan seemed pleased when Neil unscrewed the lid and lifted the bottle to his lips.

The strong scent of alcohol and the sharp bite of it as it flowed into his mouth brought back memories – first of that night in Reno, of the fire along his arms and chest and face, and of that time in Germany. Still, it was preferable to the cheap whisky his mother usually bought….

“Don’t hog it all to yourself,” Aidan chided after Neil had managed several swallows.

“Right, speak for yourself.” Neil shook his head while Aidan managed a good third of the bottle without any difficulty. “Now, are we going to watch this movie or not?”

“Whatever.” Aidan leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, the bottle still held in his hands, while Neil put on the DVD. “Wait, does this have subtitles?”

“Come on, I thought you wanted to improve your German,” Neil told him with a smile.

“Someone’s determined to work their way through the emergency stash today, aren’t they? 205%,” Aidan informed him while he reached for his pack of cigarettes, though he appeared a bit mollified when Neil sat down near him in his spot on the floor once more and reached for the bottle of vodka. “You better not be one of those talkative drunks.”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Neil gave him a salute with the bottle then had another swallow.

*******

Tipsy from the alcohol, Aidan wavered a little when he stood up after leaning down to fetch Neil’s neglected carton of food; the room was beginning to stink from the leftovers, and it was clear that his friend wasn’t going to eat anything more, not when he was curled up on the floor asleep.

Damn lightweight.

It had been a good day – being able to order what he wanted for food, to eat as much as he wanted, then the alcohol and the movies. To spend it with someone bearable, to joke and tease without any stress or fear. Aidan supposed that it was similar to how most people spent the holiday, only they managed with a lot more assholes around and crappy food, and thought that today was a better way to do it.

He returned to the living room after throwing away the food and stared down at Neil, who was still curled up on the floor, seemingly uncaring at always about the hard wood as long as he had a pillow for his head. The light grey sweatshirt he was wearing had pulled up a little, revealing a toned abdomen marred by those long, snaking scars, and a jutting hipbone since his jeans were loose as always. His hair was a tousled mess falling onto his face, and Aidan felt such a strong, sudden urge to kneel down beside him, to push back that wavy hair and skim his fingers along that exposed skin while he leaned in to-

His breath came in a sharp gasp as his fingernails bit into the palms of his hands, his fists clenched so tightly as he forced himself not to reach out, not to *touch*. Dammit, he refused to be like *them*, to *take*, to see the fear and disgust and hatred on Neil’s face when he woke up to Aidan looming over him.

But would those emotions be there? a niggling little voice asked inside of Aidan’s head as he stormed toward the bathroom, *away* from Neil. He had Neil’s trust, knew that the other teen didn’t let anyone else as close as he did Aidan…. But he also didn’t have a fucking clue when someone wanted him, didn’t spare a lingering glance at either a girl or a guy in any way other than to see if they were a potential threat of some kind.

Aidan didn’t know what was worse, to have these feelings for someone who was straight, who at least had a reason to not want him, or for someone who was gay but didn’t want him back. Neil… Neil was just this nebulous unknown, this great big taunting uncertainty, and it was driving Aidan slowly insane. He wasn’t used to wanting anyone – not really, not for more than a temporary relief – so of fucking course Fate would arrange it that when he did, the guy would be… he didn’t know, Ace or something like that.

Aidan already knew that the powers that be or whatever hated him, that they reveled in his misery, but he figured that they at least owed him Neil remaining passed out long enough for him to take a fucking shower in peace for a desperate jerk-off session.

*******

“Do you want the last sandwich?”

“No.”

Neil waited a moment to see if Aidan would change his mind before he let the chicken salad sandwich fall back into his bag; he wasn’t hungry anymore and Aidan had only eaten two so far for lunch, maybe Aidan would want it before the period was over. Instead, he pulled his copy of The Grapes of Wrath out of the bag and flipped to the bookmarked page, leaned a little more against the wall and resumed reading the book for his English class.

He didn’t know what it was that he’d done over Thanksgiving break to make Aidan so upset with him, to drive this wedge between them. He didn’t remember anything odd, had thought that they’d had a fun time that Thursday with their Chinese food and watching the movies while tipsy with alcohol. But looking back, Aidan had been a bit quiet the next day when they’d practiced Exy, a quiet that had stretched onward.

They still took their lunches together, still did their extra practices, still studied French and German… but Aidan was a bit more scathing with his verbal jabs, put a touch more force behind his returned volleys in Exy, and was a lot more quiet unless he was answering a direct question or cutting into Neil for being some sort of idiot. Neil had tried to apologize for whatever it was that he’d done, but apparently, Aidan didn’t care for the word ‘sorry’, either.

Neil didn’t know what he was going to do; he’d found a home here against the odds, had finally stopped looking over his shoulder all of the time. Yet it was because of Aidan that it was possible, and if he was making his friend so miserable… then it was upon him to be the one to leave. Aidan had Anna here to help him out, so Neil should go back to Chicago, hit Durand up for a new ID and… well, maybe give Canada one more try since it was such a big country.

“I don’t like you staring at me,” Aidan informed him, his voice almost as cold as the winter itself. He didn’t look at Neil, just continued to gaze out onto the snow-covered campus while he smoked yet another cigarette.

“So-ah, yeah.” Neil forced himself to focus on the book instead, even if it was a bit ridiculous to stand outside to read when he could be warm inside of the library. However, Aidan still collected him each day for them to have ‘lunch’ together, so he would come out here for however much longer it lasted.

He’d give it until the end of the year, whatever was going on with Aidan. If it didn’t get better by then….

Chicago. Durand. Another name to the already too-long list. His next stop wouldn’t be anything like Racine… but maybe there was a lesson to be found here. Maybe his mother had been right, after all.

Or maybe it was time to face the truth and call his uncle. To realize that running never really got him anywhere in the first place, and while he refused to be his father… what other options did he have?

He started when something landed onto the open book, and blinked when he realized that it was an unlit cigarette. Aidan’s lighter followed a moment later. “Light the damn thing,” his friend ordered, voice still cold, eyes still focused onto the campus.

Neil didn’t say anything as he did as he’d been told, but he pushed away the dark thoughts as best he could and concentrated on the now, figuring that the new year would come soon enough and he’d deal with it all then.

*******

After receiving a text from Neil that he’d meet him at practice, Aidan went straight there after class; he was in a bad mood both from the disruption to his schedule, the uncertainty of why Neil hadn’t wanted them to go together, and the fact that since they’d actually come close to winning their last game before losing in overtime, Coach Beal was becoming unbearable. It wasn’t that the man was shouting at them to try harder or put in more practice time, just that he was even more of a fucking puppy, all enthusiastic about their chances to win a damn game this season. Aidan wanted to punch him.

He was almost finished with changing into his gear when Neil did show up, a bit harried but without any bruises and in possession of his backpack; maybe it wasn’t a case of him trying to avoid Aidan because of some assholes picking on him. “What’s going on?” Perhaps Aidan had put a bit too much heat into that, because Neil’s frown turned into confusion, while Ryan and Frank paused in getting ready as well as if to listen in.

“Ah, I have to go back and talk to my English teacher after class, something about my paper.” Neil waved his right hand about before he jerked it through his hair.

“Wait, you have Timsdale, right?” Frank laughed, the sound sympathetic as he fixed his shoulder pads. “Yeah, I dealt with him last year – barely made it out of that class alive. I’ve a few sophomore friends who are meeting with him this week to discuss the papers due this quarter.”

Neil nodded as he opened his locker to fetch his gear. “Something about I need more sources, so….” He looked back at Aidan. “I don’t know if you want to wait for me, or I can just grab a bus.” He sounded uncertain, as if it was a lot to ask.

Before Aidan could speak, Ryan broke in. “How about I give Aidan a ride home, okay? I mean, you can drive, right Neil? I’ve seen you drive the car before, so you can go home by yourself.”

Technically Neil was still on a learner’s permit, but it wasn’t as if they weren’t already breaking how many other laws. There was also the fact that Ryan was giving Aidan a slight smile, as if daring him to be alone with the other teen for once.

For himself, Aidan wasn’t sure about leaving *Neil* alone… but he was getting awfully tired of rushed jerk-off sessions in the shower as ways to deal with his growing frustration. If Ryan was bi or gay, he kept things quiet, and Aidan didn’t get the impression that Ryan was looking for a boyfriend or any type of commitment. No, why not take the opportunity presented here, have a little alone time in the apartment and see if the teen was good at following orders?

“Sounds good to me.” He glanced over at Neil, who had begun the complicated process of changing out in front of people without revealing any skin. “You know the way home by now, right?”

“Yes.” Neil glared at him for the sarcasm, then turned away so he could go about getting ready for practice.

Everyone was as excited as usual, and Beal should probably go coach the damn pep squad he was that damn hyper, but Aidan found himself a little less annoyed now that he knew there wasn’t another practice session afterward and that there might be some fun, too. Neil was quiet – well, quieter – during it all, focused on improving his game as always, and didn’t even react when Beal enthused over his passing ability.

Once the practice was done for the day, Neil started running laps around the half-court, answering Kathy that he wanted to work out a tender calf muscle a little before he showered and went to his meeting with the English teacher. Aidan only paused for a moment to watch him run, at how he looked with his flushed face and hair pulled back by the sweat-darkened bandana before he forced himself onward to the showers.

It felt weird, showering without Neil, and even odder to follow Ryan out to the parking lot, to walk past the Nissan and get into a vehicle with someone else. He had to tell Ryan how to get to the apartment, gritting his teeth when the teen took a couple of wrong turns, and fortunately there was parking on the street in front of it for once.

“Don’t think I’ve ever been in this neighborhood,” Ryan remarked as they climbed the steps to the third floor. “Think my car will be safe?” It was only a Civic, but it was brand new.

“You’ll have to go over a few more blocks if you’re worried about them stripping the thing before midnight.”

“Good to know.” Ryan flashed him a smile, his teeth bright against the almost caramel-like color of his skin. “So, I didn’t ask but I assume your grandmother isn’t home? If she is, this might be embarrassing.”

“What, having a friend from school over?” Aidan scoffed as they reached the third floor. “Relax, she’s out visiting some friends.”

“Oh, good.”

Ryan was quiet after that, until they got inside of the small apartment; one thing Aidan insisted upon was that it was kept clean, after some of the foster homes where he’d lived in the past. It wasn’t much to look at, since they hadn’t decorated anything, but there was a nice table with two chairs in the kitchen, the red couch with numerous pillows, the end table and entertainment center in the living room, and both bedroom doors were closed.

“Ah, I see that you don’t believe in much clutter,” Ryan remarked as he glanced around.

“We don’t believe in a lot of stuff.” Aidan shrugged as he removed his jacket and hung it up behind the door, then dropped his backpack near the couch. “So, back to that whole ‘embarrassing’ thing.” He stood in the living room as he folded his arms over his chest and waited for Ryan to make the first move.

“Shit, you don’t make this easy, do you?” Ryan flushed a little as he set his messenger bag down then unbuttoned his coat, which he hung up as well when Aidan pointed to the hooks. “Look, I notice how you don’t check out any of the girls at our games, not the girls on the cheering squad, none of our fans, such as they are, no one.” He took a step closer but stopped when Aidan held up his right hand. “And everyone knows how you don’t give any of them at school the time of day – I’ve heard more than a few complaints about that. Yet you’re friends with Drew Bridge and his gang, and you get along with the team.”

Aidan wouldn’t exactly say ‘friends’ with Drew Bridge, but yes, he did talk to the guy and a few others. “So that makes you think I’ll be fine with this?”

Ryan smiled a little as he toyed with the hem of his shirt. “Well, there is the fact that I’ve dropped more than a few hints to you, and you still let me come up here, right? I figured that yeah, you’ll be fine with this.”

Bastard. Still, Aidan could feel a low simmer of anticipation build in his gut as he looked on at Ryan, at the stocky build, the smiling face that wasn’t pale and fine-featured, the eyes that were a light golden brown instead of pale blue or green, the short, black hair gelled into spikes. Ryan was everything Neil wasn’t, and right now that was what Aidan needed. “If we do this, we follow my rules.”

“Hmm, okay. Should be interesting.” Ryan stepped forward again. “So, which room is yours?”

“Neither,” Aidan informed him; there was no way he was letting a casual hook-up into his bedroom, and of course Neil’s room was out. “We do this out here.”

“Uh, okay.” Ryan seemed a little surprised by that, but regained his smile when Aidan approached and tugged at the hem of his dark blue jersey. “What else?”

“No touching, and no kissing.” Aidan watched while Ryan got the hint and began to pull up the shirt; the teen had at least seven inches on him, which made it difficult for him to pull it all the way up, yet as soon as Ryan’s arms were in the air, he reached up to tug them back down behind his back, the shirt now twisted around them to help serve as impromptu restraints.

“Wait, what?” Ryan looked down at his bared chest and restrained arms, then back at Aidan. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Aidan gave him a blank look in return. “You don’t touch me unless I say so, and no kissing. You don’t like it, you can leave.”

There was a loud huff while Ryan shook his head. “A bit kinky, but okay, let’s see where this goes. Long as I don’t end up in a gimp suit or something.”

Someone talked too much; Aidan wasn’t sure how well this would work out past today, but he was in this far, might as well get what he could from out of it. “No promises,” he taunted Ryan as he pushed the other teen back against the wall.

“Very funny. Still, I don’t see what we’re going to… ooh.” He laughed a little when Aidan began to unbuckle his jeans. “All right, this has suddenly gotten a whole lot better.”

“Another rule, try shutting up now,” Aidan snapped as he tugged down on the zipper to the jeans.

“Fuck, you’re bossy. Do you-“ A harsh glare from Aidan as he pulled his hands away from Ryan’s crotch seemed to get the point across. “Okay, shutting up.”

Waiting a few seconds to make sure that the order took this time, Aidan then reached back to continue what he’d been doing. Part of him still felt a bit of revulsion at being so near another person, to someone he didn’t trust, but another part of him thrilled at having someone tied up before him, eager to be the one to obey for once. *He* was the one in charge here, the one who could walk away at any moment, and that was the most exhilarating thing about it all.

Ryan moaned as the jeans were pushed down and Aidan fished his stiffening cock out of the black boxer-briefs; he was circumcised and a decent size, nothing unusual in Aidan’s experience. Aidan gave his cock a couple of strokes to bring him to full erection, while Ryan worked his bound arms behind his back and cursed beneath his breath.

Aidan only paused a moment before going to his knees, and he got more of a rush from the sound of Ryan’s head smacking back against the wall and the choked off ‘fuck’ than in the fact that he was giving someone else pleasure. His own cock began to stir, the sensation slightly uncomfortable because of his position and the pull of his jeans, but he could ignore it as he slid his mouth back and forth along Ryan’s length. When the teen attempted to jerk his hips forward, he let Ryan’s cock slip free from his mouth and rocked back enough to glare up at the asshole.

“Don’t,” he warned. “Or this ends now.” Ryan whined in frustration when Aidan braced his left hand against the teen’s hips, then he took his time before licking along the hard length in front of him. He chose to ignore the whispered chants of ‘yes’ as he alternated sucking and licking, as he did his best to keep the image of it being Neil pressed to the wall in front of him instead of Ryan out of his head.

Aidan’s left hand dropped down into his lap for a moment at the glimpse of that mental image, to squeeze against his hard cock, and he forced it to return back to Ryan’s hip, for his mind to focus on *who* he was breaking down at the moment with his mouth and his hand. Dammit.

“Oh god, going to come.”

Aidan gave the base of Ryan’s cock a warning squeeze, not ready to hand over control just yet, and as the teen choked out his name, there was the scraping sound of the lock being turned in the front door. He froze at the sound of it, body unwilling to move, while Ryan gave a slight thrust of his hips just as the door opened.

“Aidan? Do you and Ryan want some take-out? I was tried to text but I-“ The door closed behind Neil as he stood there, green eyes huge and mouth open as he stared at Aidan down on his knees in front of a half-naked Ryan, Ryan’s cock in front of his face and his jeans stiff from his own now flagging erection.

“What the hell?” Ryan jerked away from Aidan’s left hand as if he could press back any further into the wall.

“Aa-aidan?” Neil looked as if he was going to throw up or something, his eyes still wide and his face ashen. “What-“

“Get out.”

Neil flinched at the amount of anger in his voice, and Ryan went still.

“But-“

“*Get* *out*,” Aidan snarled as he lunged to his feet, unwilling to see that look on Neil’s face any longer. “Get the fuck out of here, I don’t want to *see* you!” Even as he shouted, he reached for Neil, for- for *something*, but Neil was too good at running away. Aidan didn’t even get within a few feet of him before he had spun around and was out the door.

Rage. Rage and… and… dammit, it wasn’t shame, it wasn’t guilt, Aidan refused to feel such useless, terrible things. He screamed as he punched the wall with his left fist, pain a welcome distraction as he tried to push the image of Neil’s face out of his head.

There was something moving off to the side, so he swung around, fists ready to do more damage, only to find Ryan stumbling backward. “Hey! Hey, it’s me, okay! It’s just me. I, ah, think I should leave, yeah?”

“I’m not stopping you,” Aidan told him as he began to search for his cigarettes.

Ryan’s laugh just then was far from amused. “No, you’re not, but I sorta have my dick hanging out here and I can’t use my hands.” When all Aidan did was shake out a cigarette, he made a whining sound. “Come on, please?”

He almost snapped about how he hated that word, but it was Neil who knew that, who was careful not to bring it up. Feeling the black rage skittering inside his head, Aidan bared his teeth as he slid a knife free and approached a now wary Ryan.

“Whoa, whoa, I won’t tell anyone, I swear, I- wait!”

Aidan grabbed onto Ryan’s bound arms and used the knife to slice through the fabric, no longer willing to touch the other teen or have anything to do with him. “There, you’re free, now get the hell out of here.”

“Ah, for fuck’s… I liked that shirt.” The sight of Aidan flipping the knife a couple of times made Ryan back up even more while he tucked himself back into his briefs. “You know what, I can get another one.” He grabbed his coat from the wall rack, seemed to pause to look at the cracked dent near it and shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry for what happened. I’m sure if you just give him some time, he’ll be fine with it. I mean, he adores you, everyone knows that.”

Not about to have this conversation with Ryan of all people, Aidan flipped the knife again while he stared pointedly at the door.

“Okay, I get it. See you tomorrow.” Ryan gave a weak wave as he left, and then the apartment was quiet.

Aidan’s left hand hurt from where he had punched the wall, his chest ached for some unknown reason and his head felt as if it would explode, he was so full of rage and the need to vent it somehow. What he did was grab his keys and cigarettes, then his coat, before he left the apartment as well.

Since renting the place, he had discovered the stairwell leading to the roof after a few days and devised a way to jimmy the lock. No one else bothered to go up there, not during winter, and he doubted they would during the summer since there wasn’t much of a view at all. But it still gave him a place where he could find some privacy when the apartment got too small for both him and Neil, when he just wanted to have a place to smoke and be alone. It also gave him a place to clear his head when the nightmares got too bad, a way to replace one type of fear with another since he would go over to the edge of the roof and look down, to see the ground from seven stories up and imagine what it would feel like to fall. Didn’t do anything for his fear of heights, but it did help to clear his head.

He hoped for some of that clarity right now, some way to dampen the rage that wouldn’t lead him to destroy the home he’d built for himself or to end up back at a detention facility. That wouldn’t make him have to leave Neil, if he hadn’t driven his friend away already. His fingers dug into the black guards on his arms, against the old scars as he thought about what had happened to the last place he thought might be a home.

No, he wasn’t giving this one up without a fight, dammit. That time had already cost him way too much of himself, he didn’t know if there would be anything left if he walked away from Neil. From the one person who believed in a fucked up mess like himself.

They’d talk, and they’d figure it out, somehow. So what if Aidan had to lock up that side of him, had to put up with always wanting something he could never have? He was used to it by now. Some of nothing was better than nothing at all, he’d come to find out. What a fucking joke.

When he felt as if he’d calmed down enough, he went back downstairs, back to the apartment. It was quiet, but Neil was probably in his room, mindful of Aidan’s temper. “Neil? Neil, come the fuck out, okay? We need to talk.”

There was no answer, which wasn’t like Neil; he might get angry at Aidan from time to time, but he always responded even if it was just to be snarky. Aidan went over to Neil’s bedroom and knocked on the door. When he didn’t hear anything after several seconds he opened it up, only to find the room empty.

Feeling even more uneasy at the sight, Aidan went to fetch his phone, but there wasn’t any texts or messages from Neil, not since before practice. He dialed his friend’s number, only for it to go straight into voicemail – either the phone was dead or Neil had shut it off, the idiot. Grabbing his keys and coat once again, Aidan went running down the stairs and into the back parking lot, but he could see the Nissan parked in the usual spot they favored, so Neil hadn’t taken off in it after returning home.

Where could he be? He didn’t hang out at many places other than school during the day, the one field where they practiced Exy on the weekend, and the apartment. Aidan was almost tempted to go drive around to look for him, but he didn’t want to miss out on Neil returning home, either.

He did the only other thing he could think of, he dialed Anna. It took a few rings before she answered.

“Andrew?” It was obvious that she wasn’t too happy about him calling. “What did you do now?”

“I’m not in the mood,” he snapped as he headed back to the apartment. “Did Neil call you?”

“What, Neil?” There was noise in the background as if Anna was telling someone to be quiet. “Why would Neil call me? Are you in trouble? I thought you were trying to be good – I mean, I’m amazed you made it this long without needing me for something.”

“What part of ‘not in the mood’ don’t you get, dammit! I misplaced Neil and now I’m trying to find him.” Nope, no chance of Neil sneaking back in while Aidan had been outside.

“How do you misplace someone?” Anna’s voice rose in disbelief, and there was a banging sound in the background. “Dammit, Andrew, I like that kid, he’s nice. And you’re telling me you lost him or something? Why do you always have to fuck things up?”

“I don’t need this shit, I just want you to tell me if he shows up, okay?”

“No, not okay. Listen to me, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve got something here, all right? And I’m thinking it has to do with Neil because you were all types of fucked up back in California. So you find him, and you stop fucking things up, okay?”

“I don’t-“

“No, you tell me ‘okay’ and you go find him,” Anna yelled. “And then call me when you do.” There was a few seconds of silence while Aidan did his best not to hang up and throw his phone against the wall, and the next she spoke, Anna’s voice was a lot softer. “I’ll look out for him, and I’ll call you if I see or hear from him, but I’m serious, Andrew. He’s good for you. People like us need something good in our lives, so don’t misplace him or whatever such shit again.”

“Okay,” he managed to ground out before he did hang up, now that she’d promised to call him about Neil.

Still holding the phone in his hand after the call was ended, Aidan looked around the apartment for a minute or two before he went to fetch his backpack. Once he was done writing ‘stay here and call me you little shit’ on a piece of paper, which he then taped to Neil’s door, he grabbed his coat and went back outside again to start looking.

*******

Neil huddled in the locker room in Gym E, stretched out on a bench and wrapped in his coat; he always carried his lock picks in his abridged binder, and it hadn’t taken much to break into the school. As places to crash went, it wasn’t that bad – even if the heat wasn’t that great during the night, he had access to a bathroom and a shower, and water to drink. There was still an energy bar or two in his backpack, and he should have a sweater in his other locker. Might still look a little rough tomorrow, but he doubted anyone would notice.

As he tried to get some sleep, mindful that he needed to wake up before anyone started to arrive in the morning and wishing that he’d brought his charger so he could have programmed his phone for an alarm, his thoughts kept circling back to Aidan and what he’d seen in their apartment. He hadn’t known that Aidan was gay – Lola had said that the men in Aidan’s – in *Andrew’s* - foster homes had abused him. Did he still want anything to do with sex after all of that? Had what Neil walked into been consensual? But Aidan hadn’t been the one tied up, hadn’t appeared forced in any way – he’d still had on all of his clothes, and Neil had noticed that his friend had been aroused. So if it was consensual….

Why was Aidan so furious with him? Because he’d seen it? Or because he’d interrupted it? Timsdale had only needed to give Neil a document about resources and have a few words with him, so their discussion hadn’t lasted very long. Had Aidan expected more time with Ryan? For some reason, that thought bothered Neil.

So if Aidan wanted to be with Ryan… was he upset because Neil was around too much? Did he feel like he couldn’t be himself with Neil there? Neil thought about the distance between them the last week or two and concluded that maybe that was it – maybe Aidan and Ryan had been together longer than he suspected, and he was in the way.

Again, that thought bothered him. Confused and angry and…. He wished that he could run, that he could go around the track until he was too exhausted to think any more, Neil forced his eyes closed so he could at least get a couple of hours of sleep. Tomorrow, he would see if Aidan still wanted anything to do with him, or if he should leave for Chicago now instead of in January.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Aidan pulled into the school parking lot a little early, and sat behind the steering wheel for several seconds while he gathered his thoughts; he’d driven around for several hours last night and hadn’t caught any sight of Neil. His friend hadn’t returned to the apartment, at least not that he could tell – he’d taken the time to search Neil’s room and hadn’t found anything missing. It was only the fact that he’d come across the charger to Neil’s phone lying on the floor, as if it had fallen there, that gave him hope that the idiot had forgotten to take it with him and so there was a reason why Neil’s phone wasn’t accepting calls.

So if Neil’s phone was turned off by accident and he hadn’t taken anything with him except his school books – Aidan was doing his best to not think about that damn binder with its access to contacts and bonds and everything Neil needed to start a new life – then there was a chance that Neil would return to school today. Perhaps he had gone to a motel last night, or a classmate’s… fuck, but Neil was too good at running away.

Aidan took a deep breath and got out of the car, uncertain what he would do next if Neil wasn’t here today. Go back to Chicago to see if he had hit up Durand for a new ID? Call Neil’s uncle? There hadn’t been an exact number in there to pinpoint the guy’s phone, but Aidan remembered seeing a few things that could be possible codes. He had the time and incentive to figure them out right now.

Having entered the school, he was struck by how much quieter it was this early in the morning, before the majority of people arrived. There was some staff roaming the halls, and a few students he assumed were there for certain duties and clubs. With the halls being so empty, it didn’t take him long to spot the huddled form curled up on the floor near Neil’s locker.

They were still as if asleep, but the sound of Aidan’s heavy boots on the linoleum floor preceded him, causing the figure to lift its head and look about; Neil recognized him from halfway down the hall and slowly began to stand up.

A tightness that had been wrapped around Aidan’s chest ever since yesterday afternoon finally began to loosen, even if he noticed the way that Neil didn’t look him in the face when he finally came within arm’s reach of the idiot. He also noticed the bags underneath Neil’s eyes, the ashen tone to his skin, the faint hint of auburn stubble on his chin. Neil was still wearing the same jeans and shoes as yesterday, but now sported a wrinkled light green sweater.

“Come on,” Aidan ordered, not about to get into it out in public. He waited a moment, and when Neil hesitated, huffed and grabbed onto the right sleeve of the sweater. “I brought along some stuff since you didn’t come home last night.”

“Eh?” Neil stumbled to keep up with him; Andrew took him to the men’s bathroom in the north wing on the third floor, since it was old and situated near labs which weren’t used until later in the day. “Lu-look, I’m sorry about-“

“Just shut up until we get there.” Aidan thought he saw Neil flinch at the sharp words and mentally cursed himself and his temper; this wasn’t how he wanted things to go, but he’d barely gotten any sleep and he wanted some privacy.

Once they were in the bathroom, Aidan made sure to lock the door behind them, then all but tossed the small bag he’d brought along at Neil. “Where the hell were you last night?” He wasn’t sure he could stand to hear that Neil had spent the night with Bethany or Thomas or anyone else from the French Club.

“Ah, here.” Some of the stress left Neil’s face when he found the change of clothes inside. “Thanks so much – I had my travel kit in the gym locker, but not much in the way of clothes.”

“You really spent the night here?” Aidan wasn’t sure he believed that.

“Yeah, the gym.” Neil motioned toward the blue backpack he’d set down on the ground so he could pull off his shirt. “Picked the locks.”

The junkie had spent the night in the gym – Aidan had lost sleep thinking that maybe the kid had been caught by his father’s people or picked up by some pervert, and he had slept on the damn Exy court or something. Aidan wanted to strangle him… at least until he caught the sight of Neil’s naked chest, of his abs, and then his thoughts got derailed for a moment.

“And the reason you couldn’t let me know that?” he snapped, temper already fraying despite his best efforts to remain calm.

Neil paused in pulling the clean long-sleeved t-shirt on to give him a sheepish look. “Uhm, yeah, my phone died. I was trying to tell you that when….” His cheeks turned a bright red and he focused his attention on fussing with the hem of the shirt.

“When you walked in on me blowing Ryan,” Aidan finished for him, seeing no point in dragging this out. “What, does that disgust you?” His hands clenched into fists as he waited for Neil to say ‘yes’, to reject him.

“What? No!” Neil’s eyes were once more huge as he shook his head; he was a decent liar when it came to talking about his past, but he didn’t have a perfect poker face when prodded on the spot like this, Aidan had learned. “I was just – I didn’t think you liked that stuff. After what Lola had said….” He shook his head again.

“After Lola said that I wanted to fuck you?” Aidan stalked closer to what appeared to be a panicked Neil. “What all exactly did she say about my past?”

Neil’s hands twisted in the hem of the shirt. “That you… the men where you lived….” He grimaced even as he kept his eyes trained on Aidan. “They abused you, okay? So yes, I didn’t think you’d want to do anything like that.”

“And what if I do want to do something like that?” All the stress and frustration and anger Aidan felt rushed to the fore. “What the hell are you going to do if I keep wanting to do it?”

Now the idiot appeared surprised to be asked such a question. “What do you want me to do?” Before Aidan could figure out a suitable answer, Neil shook his head again. “Look, if I’m the way, I’ll go, all right? If Ryan makes you happy, you deserve it.” There was such an odd note in his voice just then, yet he smiled at Aidan, the expression a little off. “You deserve whatever makes you happy.”

He sounded so fucking earnest just then, his smile so tremulous and eyes lacking any malice or duplicity, that something inside of Aidan finally snapped; before he knew what he was doing, before he could stop himself, he was reaching for Neil, had his hands buried in that sleep-tousled hair and pulled him forward for a kiss.

After a couple of seconds, it registered that Neil’s eyes remained just as wide, if not even wider, that his lips remained closed even though he didn’t struggle to pull away. Disgusted with himself, Aidan made a growling sound as he let go. “Fuck this shit, just forget everything!”

“Wait!” Before he could turn around, Neil latched on to his left arm, his fingers tangling in the sleeves of Aidan’s coat as if even then still mindful of touching him.

“For what?” Aidan couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice even as he stopped as he’d been asked.

Neil’s breath was ragged as he stepped closer, as if to bridge the space between them that Aidan had put there. “But… Ryan?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, there is no Ryan,” Aidan shouted. “It was just a one-off thing! *You’re* the one I can’t get out of my head!” How stupid could one person be?

“Oh.” Neil frowned as if it took a moment for the words to sink in. “Oh!”

Aidan had never wanted to kill someone and kiss them at the same time. “’Oh’? Really?” He turned around to better face the idiot, and something in his expression made Neil shake his head and hold up his hands.

“Give me a minute, this is a lot to take in.”

“Because I disgust you.” He knew it, knew it was too much to ask for, as always.

“No!” That came out fast and furious, came out as if Neil had no doubt at all. When Aidan arched an eyebrow at the denial, Neil took a shuddering breath and shook his head. “No, you don’t disgust me at all, it’s just… you hate me, you always say that-“

“Because I do, with every fiber of my being,” Aidan insisted. “I just also want to push you down to the floor and do some very interesting things to you as well.” He could all too easily imagine those things right now, which didn’t do him any favors.

“Oh, wow.”  Neil’s cheeks became flushed and he licked his lips, which again, *no* *favors*; Aidan wondered if Neil would notice him adjusting himself in his jeans right then. “Yeah… you… I….”

“It’s fine,” Aidan ground out. “I know you don’t care for that kind of stuff.”

That seemed to unfrazzle Neil a bit, since he frowned and cocked his head to the side. “What makes you say that?”

Maybe because half of the sophomore class had tried to hit on the idiot, all for nothing? “Do you think Bethany is just being friendly because you’re a good study partner?” he pointed out in his most scathing tone yet.

“Why are you so hung up on the girl, she’s just… oh.”

Yeah, *now* he got it. “My point exactly. So if you don’t even care for her, why should you-“

“Because it’s not the same thing?” Neil dared to reach out again for Aidan’s arm. “Could you try it again?”

“Try what again?” Aidan wasn’t sure they were speaking the same language anymore.

Neil gave him a look as if *he* was the idiot. “The kiss.” When Aidan sighed in annoyance, he tugged on Aidan’s coat. “You took me by surprise – one moment you’re saying I disgust you and the next you’re kissing me. Let’s try it now, when I’m not being screamed at and trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“It’s not a damn test.” Still, Aidan felt a faint flutter of… something as he leaned in again, and noticed that this time Neil closed his eyes. Idiot still kept his lips shut, but he wasn’t as tense as before, and he sighed into the kiss after a couple of seconds. When Aidan found himself stepping closer and sliding his right hand down Neil’s back – yeah, time to stop.

“Oh,” Neil repeated. “That was good.”

The idiot was trying to kill him. “I really hate you now.” All of that, and ‘it was good’? What did it even mean?

Neil glared as he was the one to step back. “What, for saying the truth? I’ve been kissed by one other person before, a girl up in Quebec, and that time felt nothing like this one. With her, it was just, uhm, her lips on mine. With you….” He shrugged as he tapped the fingers of his right hand against his lip. “I want to do it again.”

One other person… Aidan didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “That’s not going to happen any time soon.” Now that he knew that Neil didn’t hate him or feel disgusted with him…an almost sense of panic set in. What the hell were they doing? What if he messed this up? This wasn’t one of his experiments, wasn’t a fling.

“Eh? Why not?” Neil frowned and might have approached Aidan again, except that the homeroom bell rang just then.

“Because now isn’t the time or place for it,” Aidan reminded him. “Finish getting ready – looks like you’re going to have to skip homeroom today. And charge your damn phone as soon as possible!” As he yelled, he pulled out his own phone so he could text Anna to let her know he’d found Neil and that the idiot was fine.

“Yeah, yeah.” Neil hurried up to finish getting dressed, then dug through the bag so he could give himself a quick shave. “But we are going to talk about it, right? Whenever we have the time.”

Aidan hesitated just for a few seconds, but part of him wanted to see if Neil weaseled out of this or if he was still ‘interested’ after he had some time to think things through.

What was going to drive him crazy all day was waiting to find out for sure, and what he would do if Neil was telling him the truth.

*******

 

Neil followed Aidan up the stairs to their apartment, feeling excited and uncertain at the same time. They had barely spoken to each other since that time in the bathroom; lunch had been a quiet affair, with Aidan insisting that Neil eat his damn sandwiches and keep quiet. But it had been better than it had been for the past several days, without all of the anxious tension between them. Aidan had eaten as well, had complained about Neil grabbing too many tuna salads and thrown the crust from one of the sandwiches at him while ordering him to get something with real meat in it next time. Practice… practice had been a mixed bag, with Aidan being in an obvious bad mood; when Ryan had come up to Neil to ask if things were all right, Aidan had all but shoved the teen aside and then given him a cold shoulder during the entire session, and seemed to target him with his rebound shots.

Ryan had gotten the hint and avoided both Neil and Aidan after that.

At least Aidan’s temper had appeared to cool down a little when it was time for Neil and Aidan to practice by themselves – or at least Aidan had complained that Neil was getting good enough with his racquet skills that he was catching enough of Aidan’s rebound shots to ‘take the fun out of it’. Tired from the lack of sleep and still reeling a little from the morning’s revelation, Neil counted it a victory of sorts that he got through the practice without a broken ankle or concussion, and didn’t care that he hadn’t managed to score against his friend.

Still they were home now, so Neil hoped that they would at some point talk about what happened – though he was all for leaving behind the fact that Aidan had brought Ryan home to… yeah, willing to move past that. Slipping through the open door, he left it to Aidan to close and lock it and went to hang up his coat when he noticed the rather large dent in the wall. “Uhm, that’s new.”

Aidan gave him a sour look as he hung up his own coat.

“Ah, maybe we can patch it up or something before we move out.”

“Maybe you can stop talking about it before there’s another one, about the size of your head.”

Neil winced and mentally added the dent to the list of things not to bring up around Aidan, which seemed to grow all of the time. “All right then.” He was home, he was tired and he was a bit hungry. He also had no idea what to do next, with someone who seemed a bit on edge. “Uhm, what do you want for dinner? Should we order out, or do you want me to make something?” He could manage spaghetti, if they still had some meatballs in the freezer.

He got about two steps toward the kitchen when Aidan’s hand appeared in front of him, held up in front of his chest. “So you’re just going to ignore it?”

It took him a moment to figure out what ‘it’ was, considering how tired he was. “No,” he admitted as he turned a little to face his friend. “But you’ve told me all day to be quiet about it, so I figured I’d leave it up to you to bring it up when you were ready.”

Aidan stood in the middle of their living room, dressed in the dark clothes he seemed to favor, green eyes shadowed with circles as if he hadn’t sleep much last night, too, and handsome face marred with what appeared to be consternation. It wasn’t often when he expressed emotion so openly, and normally it was something along the lines of displeasure, mocking amusement or exasperation. Yet just then he seemed to care about what Neil had to say, and Neil had the feeling that he wasn’t happy about that… yes, Aidan would consider it a weakness.

So in light of that, Neil took a deep breath and did his best to organize his exhausted, jumbled thoughts. “I’ll admit, I was shocked yesterday. I didn’t know you… well, I didn’t expect to walk in on anything like that. But it doesn’t bother or disgust me, you liking someone that way.” He took another deep breath as he clarified that partial truth. “I mean, you liking me that way.”

Some of Aidan’s defenses came back up as his expression changed into that mock amusement. “Right, says the guy who ‘doesn’t swing’.”

Neil was confused for a moment, until he remembered telling Aidan that back when they started school. “I don’t,” he insisted. “I don’t care about girls or guys.” When he saw Aidan’s expression become that awful blank one, he shook his head and closed the distance between them, his right hand hovering near Aidan’s chest. “But I do… I do care about you.” His throat went tight as he forced the words out, and in the back of his mind he could hear his mother screaming at him, telling him that it was suicide to let anyone in, to like anyone. “You… she….” He hung his head as he tried to drown out her voice.

Things were quiet between them for what felt too long, and then there was that warm touch to the back of his neck. “They’re called ‘words’, and you move your mouth so they come out.”

“Asshole.” Neil’s voice was weak, but he found that he could speak again, could lift up his head and see Aidan looking at him with a thoughtful expression on his face. “She….”

“Your mother?”

“Yes.” Neil shuddered as he took a breath, his chest still tight. “She would….” He shook his head, not wanting to go there just now. “Never trust anyone, she said. It’s bad to like someone, to let them in because they’ll just use you.”  But he had promised Aidan the truth, so he tried to explain.

“So you never liked anyone,” Aidan finished for him.

“No… until you.”

There was almost no reaction from the other teen, save for a slight widening of his eyes. Then he let out a slow, hissing breath and pointed at Neil, his right forefinger stabbing as if to strike but stopping just short of Neil’s face. “You. *You*. You’re like a… like a pipe dream or something. You can’t be real, yet there you are. I think you’re here to torment me or something, a punishment for all the shit I’ve done.”

Okay, that was a bit contradictory, but Neil had a feeling he really would be stabbed if he pointed that out just then. “I don’t know what you want me to say, I’m just telling you the truth.”

“Which is the worst part of this - *I* must have been the one with the concussion when I made that deal.” Then Aidan seemed to think about something. “Oh, wait, I did have one… it explains a lot.”

That was news to Neil. “When did that happen?”

“Hush, let the grown-ups talk now.” Aidan waved him quiet and appeared to think about something. “I don’t know,” he admitted after about a minute. “You’ve been honest these last few weeks, from what I can tell. But this is too good to be true. Shit like this doesn’t happen to me.” His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke that last part.

“Then isn’t it about time that it did?” Despite everything that had happened to him, Neil felt so angry for Aidan just then, for everything that had been denied to his friend.

“Hush,” Aidan reminded him, his fingers a quick brush against Neil’s lips. He studied Neil’s face as if looking for something, and then Neil found himself spun around and pushed across the small living room until he was pressed against the wall.

“If we do this,” Aidan said, his arms braced on either side of Neil’s head, “you will listen to what I tell you, understand? If I tell you not to do a thing, you don’t it.”

Neil swallowed hard as he nodded, then managed to squeak out a weak “yes.”

“And you can tell me to stop at any time. You *will* tell me to stop if you don’t want it, if I think you don’t like it this will end right here.”

“Okay.” That came out better, and when Aidan gave Neil a narrowed look, he nodded. “Okay, I promise.”

“I must be losing my mind for doing this,” Aidan muttered as he shook his lowered head.

“You’re not,” Neil insisted. “You... you’ll see.” He wanted to touch Aidan just then, to do something to take away that look of confusion, that tone of self-castigation, but he stopped before his fingers touched Aidan’s cheek, mindful of pushing too far.

Still, Aidan noticed the gesture and raised his head to look at Neil, and after a couple of seconds, leaned in until their faces were scant centimeters apart. “Yes or no?”

“Eh?” It took Neil a moment to get it. “Yuh-yes.” A moment later he was kissed again, but unlike that morning, this one was more insistent, was more… more passionate. His hands began to reach for Aidan as his lips parted, but he remembered in time and pressed them back against the wall just as Aidan’s tongue slipped into his mouth.

Aidan tasted of cigarettes and something sweet, as if he’d snuck a candy bar before training. His mouth moved over Neil’s, his lips rough and hard, and Neil felt dizzy as he struggled to keep up, as new emotions burned inside of him. A slight moan escaped him when he felt Aidan’s hand skim down to his waist, and his hips gave a slight buck forward into Aidan’s.

As sudden as it began, the kiss ended as Aidan pulled away; Neil made another faint moan in complaint and made to reach for him, but again stopped just short. Aidan looked at him, eyes intent for a few seconds as if to confirm something then nodded. “So, dinner?”

Neil wanted to strangle the asshole just then. “Wuh- what about it?” He struggled to get his brain up to speed when he still needed the wall for support.

Something made Aidan smirk, just a little, just then. “You said you were going to make us dinner. I’m hungry, so hurry it up.”

“Ah, yeah, I was thinking spaghetti.” Neil was giving serious consideration to starting his own hate percentage against a certain person right about then.

“That’s fine, should be quick.” Aidan shrugged as he turned to leave.

“Wait!” Neil reached for Aidan but stopped short from grabbing on to his sleeve; either the command or the motion got his friend’s attention. “Uhm, why me?” That was one of the things that had puzzled him ever since that morning – why did Aidan want him, when he could have Ryan or, well, anyone else?

Fortunately – or maybe not – Aidan seemed better at picking up on things than him. “Why?” He waved to Neil’s right hand, which still hovered by Aidan’s elbow. “Because of this. Because I know you’ll stop when I tell you.” When all Neil did was stare at him while he thought about that statement, Aidan clicked his tongue. “I don’t see you making dinner.”

“Ah! Yeah, right on it.” Neil darted around a now glowering Aidan and into the kitchen, and hoped that they did indeed have everything they needed for dinner or else he’d have to put up with a lot of bitching.

*******

Aidan glared at the laughing idiots around him and gave Neil a nudge. “How’s the shoulder, and don’t you dare tell me it’s ‘fine’.”

The idiot blinked a few times, apparently still dazed despite what the nurse had assured them was ‘most likely not’ a concussion – there had been an offer to go get it checked out at a hospital, which Neil had staunchly refused, of course - and seemed to think about it for a moment. “Sore. But it’s… bearable.”

Considering that Aidan had spent over an hour stitching up the idiot the one time, ‘bearable’ could probably mean it was broken but still attached so Neil wasn’t about to complain. “Put it this way, how much of the good stuff are you going to need when we get home?” He braced himself for what was coming next and shoved a shoulder beneath Neil’s good arm so he could get the idiot onto his feet; he felt Neil tense up at first, probably in surprise, then slump against him.

Leaving the morons he had to call teammates to celebrate their first victory of the season, Aidan half-carried Neil off to the locker room so they could hurry up and get home – he had a feeling that this stupidity would drag on. Someone, a coach from the cheering squad from the looks of it, opened the door to the locker room for them, and Neil let out a soft grunt when he was set down on a bench in the room.

Memorial was similar to Park in size and in that they were trying to build up their Exy team, albeit they were so far having a bit more success. They had also been the victor in any games with Park up to this point, so when the Panthers had taken the lead after half-time, the Spartans had *not* been pleased with the prospect of losing to one of the worst-ranked teams in the district and so had decided to vent their frustrations out on court. One of the strikers in particular had targeted Neil, and considering that the asshole had almost a foot on him and over seventy pounds – why he wasn’t playing football, Aidan had no fucking clue – Neil had taken quite the beating. Neil and the walls and the floor, into which he had been repeatedly slammed. Two times, Ryan and Brennan had to restrain Aidan from going after him, and Aidan had been on the bench when Neil had been slammed hard enough to earn the asshole a red card and Neil being helped off the court.

Ewing. Aidan was going to remember that name and that face, even though it might take him some time to get around to it and make that asshole regret ever walking onto an Exy court.

Still, right now he had enough of a mess on his hands. “I’m beginning to reconsider that masochist theory,” he remarked as he helped Neil out of his uniform.

“Oh god, don’t make me laugh,” Neil wheezed. “Everything… just don’t.” He winced when he had to raise his left arm high enough for Aidan to pull off his jersey.

“No practice this weekend.” Upon seeing the idiot’s crestfallen expression, Aidan applied a bit of pressure to the injured shoulder. “Fight me on this, and there will be no practice for a week.”

Neil winced again, but had enough working brain cells left to keep his mouth shut. It was around then that the rest of the team gave up on celebrating with the crowd and chose to join them in the locker room – such a shame, as it was quieter without the moron squad.

“Hey, that’s where you two went off to!” Brad came charging forward as if to clap either of them on the back, but stopped abruptly when Aidan leveled an evil glare at him. “Uhm, so how is Neil doing?”

“Just fine, there’s nothing in his head to be affected by all those hits.”

Several of the team seemed to be taken back by the comment, but Neil just sighed and continued to allow Aidan to finish removing the rest of the protective gear. “I’ll survive,” he assured them.

“I can’t figure the two of you out,” Ed remarked as he went past them to his own locker. “But thanks for the great work tonight! Who wants to come back to my place to celebrate us kicking the Spartan’s asses?”

Aidan wouldn’t consider winning by one point ‘kicking ass’, but by that point everyone was cheering so much he doubted they’d hear him over the ruckus; Coach Beal showed up, but instead of telling them to calm down, the stupid puppy joined in. Since he couldn’t kill them, Aidan just shook his head and hurried to remove his own uniform, stripping down to the form-fitting pants and sweat-soaked shirt worn beneath the jersey and protective armor.

Frank noticed that him and Neil weren’t joining in and broke off from the chaos to hold out a hand. “Hey, you two going to come or what? You really should, for once.”

Aidan shook his head again as he gathered his and Neil’s coats from their lockers. “No, I’m taking him home, maybe even calling an aunt who’s a nurse to check on him just in case,” he lied as he tossed Neil his stuff. “She might not be around much, but I think Mom will be ticked off if I tell her that I broke her youngest and she has to get a new one.”

“You’ll have more fun without us there,” Neil said as he stood up, a little unsteady on his feet. “Can we leave now?”

“Just waiting for your whiny ass to get going,” Aidan reminded him. This time Neil didn’t flinch when Aidan offered him support, and didn’t manage to drag them down when they reached the snow-covered parking lot.

Aidan took his time getting home because of the roads, and Neil waited for his help to get inside and up the stairs; normally, being this close to a person, having them draped over him and their weight – such as it was – pressed against him would be unbearable, yet he didn’t mind. Well, that wasn’t true, he was furious at that Ewing bastard for targeting Neil, and at Neil for insisting on playing Exy. But he also knew that somehow, Neil had gotten past his defenses, that for whatever reason his mind didn’t see Neil as the enemy.

Of course, it might help that he’d spent the last couple of weeks making out with the idiot. It still amazed him, being able to approach Neil and ask ‘yes or no’ and to always be told ‘yes’ in return, to feel Neil respond to him. To feel Neil’s yearning and even frustration when Aidan set boundaries such as no touching in return or no moving his hands past Aidan’s shoulders, yet never once had Neil pushed beyond them.

Even Aidan was getting a little frustrated with the slow pace that he was setting, but part of him wanted to be certain, to know that this wasn’t going to backfire on him in some way. So little in his life had ever gone right before, and only once before had he wanted something like he wanted Neil.

Once in the apartment, he dumped Neil on the couch. “Are you going to be able to take a shower or do I have to put up with your stink all night?”

“Yeah, I feel a little better now.” Neil managed to stand up on his own and let his coat slip onto the couch after he unzipped it, then wavered a little on his feet on his way to the bathroom. Aidan dealt with both of their coats and their backpacks, then went to fetch the ‘medicinal’ vodka while Neil showered, waiting all the while for the sound of a loud ‘thud’.

Neil didn’t take long in there, but it seemed that he managed to wash off without falling down; he came out of the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around his waist and his wet hair slicked back from his face, the contacts gone from his eyes. Aidan felt a strong spike of desire upon seeing that lean body on display, the muscles honed from constant Exy practice, the long runner’s legs. Not even the numerous scars and the new bruises could detract from Neil’s beauty, they just defined it in Aidan’s opinion, illustrated the inner spirit that drove the teen on to keep fighting, to not give up when so many would have in order to escape the pain.

“Neil,” he called out, and hated himself for how hoarse he sounded.

“Yeah?” Neil motioned toward his bedroom, as if to ask if whatever it was that Aidan wanted, could it wait?

“Come here,” Aidan told him, and it only took a moment for Neil to get the picture.

He was a bit more certain on his feet as he crossed the room, and Aidan was mindful of the possible concussion and other injuries as he spun Neil around so that the teen’s back pressed against the wall. “Yes or no?”

Neil smiled at the question. “Yes, of course.”

“Don’t ‘of course’ me,” Aidan snapped, right before he leaned in for a kiss. Neil was quick to part his lips, and the taste of mint greeted Aidan when his tongue slipped inside.

Hmm, someone was a fast learner, and a responsive little shit. Aidan enjoyed how Neil arched his back as Aidan’s hands skimmed down his sides, and the breathless moan once he loosened the towel enough so it fell to the floor. Breaking off the kiss again, he pulled back enough to gaze at Neil’s now flushed face. “Yes or no?”

“Ye-yes,” Neil stuttered out while his nails scratched along the wall.

This time Aidan didn’t say anything as he grasped Neil’s wrists so he could rest the idiot’s hands on his shoulders, other than “keep them there.” Neil nodded twice, quick jerks of his head, and then moaned when Aidan kissed him again.

Neil was already beginning to grow hard by the time Aidan took him in hand, flesh warm and smooth beneath his calloused fingers. He wasn’t circumcised, and Aidan enjoyed the gasp he wrung from out from the teen as his fingers pulled back the loose collar of skin and rubbed over the sensitive skin.

“Oh… oh hell,” Neil stuttered out, his fingers digging into Aidan’s shoulders and his head hitting into the wall.

“Don’t break anything,” Aidan murmured as his mouth skimmed down the neck stretched taut before him, enjoying the taste of clean skin and water, the way Neil continued to shiver against him; he was growing so damn hard just hearing Neil gasp out his ‘name’, just feeling the way he jerked against him.

He bent his head a little more and sucked hard on one of Neil’s prominent collarbones, right next to an old scar, determined to leave a mark of his own. His right hand moving faster along Neil’s cock, his left teased along the teen’s arched back, down the prominent spine bump by bump until it rested on the firm curve of Neil’s ass.

“Ah, An-Aidan!” Feeling Neil’s body tense up, Aidan sped up the jerks of his hand and raised his head so he could watch Neil come, could see the flush on his cheeks and pupils blown wide with desire. A sudden thrill ran through him as Neil came, a sharp almost pain at the knowledge that he had done this to the teen, had brought him to release and made him want something in return.

Neil trembled as if from aftershocks of pleasure, and then slowly began to slide down the wall; Aidan held on to him long enough to make sure that he didn’t fall onto his face, then reached down to pick up the discarded towel so he could wipe clean his hand.

“How’s the shoulder and everything else now?”

“Eh?” Neil blinked his eyes a few time as if he didn’t understand what Aidan had just said.

“Yeah, thought so.” Aidan took a trembling step back, his pants tight as hell thanks to his own erection, and nudged at the now dirty towel lying next to Neil while he grabbed the bottle of vodka. “Cover yourself,” he snapped while he unscrewed the lid, and took several swallows straight from the bottle.

Neil fumbled for the towel and managed to drape it over his lap after two tries. “But… what about you?” He glanced at Aidan’s crotch for a moment, then looked up at his face, cheeks still flushed and expression dazed.

Aidan leaned over to tap the bottle against the idiot’s head and waited until Neil grab it. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, then spun around to retreat to the bathroom to clean up and jerk off, not necessarily in that order.

He wasn’t sure if he was happy or not about now having the mental image of a naked Neil to help speed things up.

*******

“Man, two wins! Two wins! We’ve never gone into winter break with two wins before,” Tony told Neil as they headed through the hall – Neil on his way to his French class, Tony to Biology. “We’re on a roll!”

Neil thought that was pushing things, considering that they were near the bottom of the district and would be facing higher-ranked teams next year, but he wasn’t about to argue with his teammate, not when he sensed it wasn’t worth the effort. They had barely beaten the Lumberjacks last week as it was, and two close wins weren’t exactly the stuff of legends.

Still, it was shaping up to be the best season so far for the Panthers – Aidan had quite a bit of derisive things to say about that fact – so Neil figured he’d allow the rest of the team to enjoy the moment while it lasted. There was no way they’d win their division or even make it to the play-offs, not without one hell of a miracle, but they would be ecstatic to not end up at the bottom for once.

“So, you guys doing anything special over the break? Your mom coming home and all that?”

It took a moment for Neil to catch up with the change of topic, considering that Tony normally just talked to him about Exy. “Uhm, yeah, she should be able to manage a few days in town,” he lied as he hitched his bag a little higher over his right shoulder. “How about you?”

Tony grimaced as he paused near the stairwell. “My dad says we have to go hang out with my grandparents in Green Bay, so we’ll be heading up there for most of it. I’m sure you’ll have a better time than I will, what with my granddad on me to quit Exy and play football instead.”

Neil made a sympathetic noise and waved as Tony went up the stairs, then thought about the holidays as he continued onward to his French class. He hadn’t really celebrated Christmas in years, not when he and his mother had been too busy running from his father’s men. There had been the one year his mother had tried, had wrapped up a new sweater in newspaper… but yeah, that had been something he needed, something to replace the one ruined by blood and a bullet hole. He shivered as his hand crept to the old wound on his chest, and he did his best to shove the memory away. Before that… there had been presents at the house in Baltimore, but most of them had been nothing but prettily wrapped empty boxes, as his father refused to let him be ‘spoiled’. Only a few of them had been for him, and again, they had been practical things, had been everyday stuff he needed. Then there would be an awful dinner to suffer through, to suffer *afterwards*.

He had to pause outside of the classroom and take a few breaths, to force aside the memories once more. It wasn’t the same anymore. His mother was gone, and his father was locked up in a Seattle prison. Neil was here in Racine with Aidan, and they could do whatever they wanted, just like they had for Thanksgiving. Could do anything… or nothing.

He reached into his backpack to pull out the keys to the apartment he shared with Aidan, a physical reminder of their home, and held on to them to help center him before he went into the classroom.

*******

Aidan saw the number on his phone and debated answering it, but he knew Anna well enough that if she was bothering to call him, she would do just that - *bother* him – until he answered. “What do you want? I told you, Neil’s fine.”

“Yeah, you texted me when I told you to call, but whatever.” Anna let out a slow breath as if to calm down. “All that matters is he’s fine and the two of you aren’t in some type of shit.”

“Which he is and we’re not so goodbye.”

“Not helping, Andrew,” she snapped.

“Why the hell are you calling me?”

“To see if you have any plans for New Year’s Eve, you little shit.”

Aidan was confused enough by the question that he pulled the phone away from his ear and checked the number again, just to make sure that it was Anna who had called. “What? You’re inviting me to something? He and Anna tolerated each other, and yeah, she was doing him a favor – sorta, but they had never really been friends.

“I’m inviting you and Neil to a party.” She huffed a little as if she realized how ridiculous that sounded. “Look, someone I know, his parents rent this big fancy lodge each year and stock it with food and alcohol so him and a bunch of friends can party out of the way and not get into trouble. I went last year, so I know it’s safe. Somehow I figured maybe the two of you could come, take advantage of getting drunk without getting busted or… well, you know.”

Or Aidan getting in trouble somehow, was what she implied. There was only so many times he could risk shoplifting alcohol, after all. “And what do you get out of it?”

“Not having to worry about having to leave the party to bail your ass out of jail?”

That actually made sense.

“Place better not be stocked with bottom shelf shit,” he told her. “Text me details when it’s closer to the date,” he told her before he hung up.

As he put away his phone and pulled out his pack of cigarettes, he wondered how well Neil was going to take the news that they now had party plans.

*******

For their winter break, Neil and Aidan had planned much the same that they had for the Thanksgiving one, to grab some Chinese food for the actual holiday, watch some movies (French this time), take a couple of days off from Exy (Aidan had stressed that if he so much as saw a racquet that he would break it, preferably over Neil’s thick head) and enjoy being lazy. Well, Aidan would enjoy being lazy. Neil figured he’d catch up on some homework and find a place to run, but it would be a nice break for them both.

Finishing off the quarter with another win for the Panthers and passing his classes – some of them with more effort than others – meant that Neil was more than looking forward to some time away from school. Still, he was a little nervous when Christmas arrived, even though it started out as a normal day; he woke up and went into the kitchen dressed in pajama bottoms and an old t-shirt to start a pot of coffee. While that brewed, he fixed himself a bowl of cereal, a simple granola mix he favored, and left out the chocolate milk for Aidan as well as the sugary junk that passed for his friend’s breakfast.

He was halfway through his cereal and the coffee had just finished brewing when Aidan stumbled into the room, eyes half-shut and dark brown hair sticking up in all different directions, dressed similar to Neil but with the black arm bands in place for the day. He ignored Neil as he shuffled about, fixing his coffee first and standing at the counter to drink some of it, before he finally sat down with his own breakfast.

Things were quiet until Aidan had finished his second cup of coffee and his sugar fix, finally appearing semi-awake. For his part, Neil had gotten up to put things away, wash his bowl and pour himself some coffee as well, then went back to sit in his chair. “So, dare I wish you a Merry Christmas?”

Aidan grunted in return, but didn’t throw a spoon or mug at him – or worse, a knife.

“Okay then, since that went so well….” Neil debated things just for a few more seconds before he went off to his room to fetch the bag he’d shoved into his closet the other day, and returned to the kitchen to find Aidan waiting for him with narrowed eyes and arms folded over his chest. “Ah, I know we didn’t agree to anything,” or even talk about it, “but….” He shrugged, suddenly uncertain about his decision, but figured it was too late to back out now. “Merry Christmas,” he repeated as he set down the simple red bag in front of his friend.

Aidan eyed the thing as if it was going to bite him or explode or something. “You got me a present.” His tone was the flat one Neil hated, since it left him unable to figure out what Aidan was thinking – other than it probably wasn’t good for Neil.

“I… yeah, I decided why not,” he admitted with a shrug. After hearing the team and his classmates go on and on about what they were getting for their friends and family, and what they hoped to get in return… Neil had wondered when the last time Aidan had been given anything. Had wondered if his Christmases had been anything like Neil’s, and hadn’t liked that thought.

“Don’t think you’re going to bribe your way into an Exy practice any time soon,” Aidan huffed as he reached for the bag, and Neil felt the tension inside of him slowly uncoil as he smiled. “If it’s some stupid, awful sweater, I will gut you, I swear it.”

“No, I know better than that,” Neil promised as he picked up his mug. “Though, uhm, hope you don’t have the one thing.” He waited with growing apprehension as Aidan pulled out the bigger present first, which was a new hardback that the woman at the bookstore had sworn was really good; he knew that Aidan enjoyed reading, especially on the bus rides to their away games.

Aidan inspected it and nodded. “No, not yet.” He was quick to set it aside, yet Neil noticed the way his fingers lingered over the cover for a moment. “There’s something else?” He shook the bag and arched an eyebrow at the way it rattled, then reached in to pull out a small box. “Let’s mark this day down, Neil spending money all on his own.”

“Keep it up, and I’ll be spouting percentages back at you before you know it.”

That earned him a mocking glance before Aidan opened the box to reveal a stainless steel, refillable Zippo lighter. Aidan paused a moment to stare at it, his lips twitching at the embellished ‘A’ carved into it. “For ‘Aidan’?”

“For you.” Neil frowned a little, not sure how to explain it exactly. “It’s… well, it stands for you.” For Andrew and Aidan, for the person who had promised to stand by Neil and to protect him, who had dared him to believe in a life other than running.

The room grew quiet again, for about a minute, and then there was a scratching sound when Aidan tried the lighter; a flame appeared after a couple of times, and he huffed again while he flicked the lid closed. “Good thing I wasn’t called Dave or Bill or something like that.”

Neil laughed a little. “Somehow I can’t see that.”

“Hmm.” Aidan stared at the lighter a little longer then got up from the table; Neil assumed to go get his cigarettes, and was only partially right – he returned with the pack but also with a bag from a clothing store at the local mall, one that was popular with a lot of the other students. “Here. I was going to give this to you later, before we meet up with Anna.”

“Huh?” Neil wasn’t following, but that wasn’t new when it came to Aidan. “What about Anna?”

“She texted me to let me know there’ll be a party over the break and we’re invited, and I refuse to be seen with you while you’re wearing the same shitty clothes as always. So consider it your present, too.” Aidan gave him a disapproving look while he used the new gift to light a cigarette. “You’re welcome.”

“But-“ The look became a glare, so Neil gave up and reached into the bag, to pull out a pair of black skinny jeans and a long-sleeved jersey made of some slinky black material. It would cover his scars from what he could tell… but it would also be as form fitting as the jeans. There were also a pair of black ankle boots at the bottom, and he had a feeling that everything would fit; Aidan had certainly been taking off – not going there, he told himself as he felt his face grow warm.

“When’s the party?”

“New Year’s Eve, at some lodge being rented out by a friend.”

“Great,” Neil said without much enthusiasm.

“Isn’t it?” Aidan smirked around his cigarette for a moment, then blew out the smoke in Neil’s direction. “Looks like we’re doing the holidays up right this year.”

“So does that mean we’re going to wait until New Year’s to drink again?” Aidan’s scoff just then let Neil know just how delusional the question had been. “Now I know what to get you next year – a flask.” He shook his head as he gathered up the clothes and went to put them in his bedroom.

He had barely gotten into the living room when he felt a soft touch to his neck and turned around to find Aidan nearly pressed against him. “What?” He blinked in surprise to find his friend that close.

“Yes or no?”

Used to the question by now and how Aidan would often ask it out the blue like that, Neil smiled as he hugged the bag against his chest. “Yes.” He barely got the word out before he found himself kissed, a little more than a gentle press of the lips while fingers tangled in the hair along the nape of his neck, and then Aidan was stalking back to the kitchen as if nothing had happened.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Neil eyed the people gathered in the large, open space of the first floor of the biggest lodge he’d ever seen and wished that he’d kept his coat; they’d been greeted by some young guy at the door who’d given them an once-over then asked ‘Anna’s friends?’, and as soon as Aidan had said ‘yes’, invited them in and taken their coats from them. Now they stood on the outskirts of what appeared to be a cavernous living room while about twenty-five people laughed, drank, danced and over-all appeared to be having a good time.

“Andrew! So you showed up after all!” Anna left a small group of people with a taller redheaded girl in tow, both of them wearing short but fancy dresses that glittered in the room’s dim light. “And you didn’t lose Neil along the way, go you!” She gave Aidan a smile but swooped in to hug Neil, much to his surprise; as soon as he stiffened at the unexpected embrace, she was quick to let him go. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”

“Fuck off,” Aidan snarled as he pushed her away, though with less force than Neil had seen him with other people. “How much have you been drinking?”

“Hmm, a little?” Anna tilted her right hand back and forth in the air as she squinted; Neil noticed that she was all made up and her hair pulled back with shiny barrettes. “But it’s okay, because Kelci’s here.”

Kelci must be the other girl, because she gave them a tired grin as she draped her arms around Anna’s neck. “I’m taking care of her tonight, aren’t I lucky?” Despite the slight bite of sarcasm, her smile grew brighter as Anna hugged the arms tighter to her chest. “Come on, babe, I think you need some water.”

“Oh, just a moment.” Anna smiled up at her then turned back to Aidan and Neil and dug through the tiny purse hung over her left shoulder for what turned out to be a key on a small blue keychain. “I saved a room for you two, it’s next to ours – look for the, uhm… what’s the bird?”

“Seagull.”

“Yeah, seagull on the door,” she told Aidan as she handed him the key. “Drinks in the kitchen, so’s the food. Don’t worry, Doug doesn’t pull any shit at his parties.” For a moment, Anna’s smile slipped and she looked a lot older than the nineteen or so years Aidan said she was supposed to be. “It’s the only reason I come to ‘em.”

Kelci nodded as her arms fell from Anna’s upper chest and she entwined their fingers together instead. “Yeah, there’s a lot of alcohol around, but no drugs, and no funny stuff. Have fun.” She waved at them while she tugged Anna off behind her.

Neil tugged on the sleeves of his new shirt while he watched them leave. “So… Anna’s got a girlfriend? She seems nice.”

“First I’ve heard of it.” Aidan shrugged while he looked around, then seemed to find what he was looking for since he latched on to Neil’s wrist and pulled him along. “She’s bi, so I don’t keep track.”

“Ah.” Neil wasn’t surprised to find out that they ended up in the kitchen, where there was indeed a ‘lot of alcohol’ – an island was covered with bottles of it, with a couple of kegs on the floor, and there were coolers of soda and water as well. Aidan paused as if to take it all in, then snatched up a bottle of flavored vodka and two shot glasses from the counter, ignoring the platters of food. Once that was done, they went back out into the large social area, ignoring the small groups of people, and managed to find a couple of empty chairs near the huge fireplace that was away from the noise.

“Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” Aidan said as soon as they sat down, his voice pitched enough to be heard over the music and background noise. “You’re going to drink, and for each shot, we both tell the truth.”

“But I already tell you the truth.”

“Which is why you’re going to drink.” Aidan sounded as if he was talking to a small child as he handed over a full shot, which smelled like vanilla cake.

Neil hesitated for a moment with the shot in his hand. “For how long?” He didn’t have Aidan’s tolerance for alcohol.

“Until you say stop.” Aidan held his gaze even as he poured another shot.

Tossing back the shot before he could really think this through, Neil shivered a little at the too-sweet taste and the burn down his throat. “That’s… wow, yeah, you’ll like it.”

Aidan gave a slight smile before he had a shot as well. “All right then, one question each. You can go first.”

Neil paused in wiping his lips as he tried to think of what to ask, having the feeling that catching up on how Aidan had done at school wasn’t the point to this. So instead, he asked the first thing that came into his mind. “Why do you hate the word ‘please’?”

“And we’re off to such a great start.” Despite the sarcasm just then, Aidan didn’t appear upset. “Because I was told that if I said it enough, he would stop.” As he spoke, he took the shot glass from Neil so it could be refilled. “My turn. You said that Lola taught you to use knives. What did she teach you to use them on?”

Neil had to swallow past the sudden burn in his throat that had nothing to do with alcohol. “Pieces of meat, at first. But once… once it was pigs.” He had to swallow again to keep down the fast food they’d eaten on the way here. “To know how it felt to… oh god, to cut into something living.” He snatched up the refilled glass and tossed it back as fast as he could.

Aidan’s face was blank upon hearing that, but his fingers lingered against Neil’s as he took the glass back and set it aside so he could refill his own. “Go ahead, you want to know more about what I said. Continue asking.”

Neil wasn’t sure he did, but…. “Did the guy stop, like he promised?”

Now Aidan’s expression was mocking. “Of course he didn’t.” He tossed back his shot, then refilled both glasses. “Isn’t this such fun?”

“I’m not sure I’d go that far.” Neil grimaced as he accepted his glass, aware that he owed Aidan a question. “Well?”

“If you had the opportunity to kill your father, would you?”

He didn’t have to think about the answer, he knew it. “Yes. Though with all of his people… it would be difficult.” Still, he dreamed about it some nights.

“So bloodthirsty, I approve.” A slight smile curved Aidan’s full lips before he had his third shot. “Hmm, this stuff is growing on me.”

“Anything alcoholic grows on you,” Neil felt it was necessary to point out before he downed his own shot. “At least it’s better than whisky,” he admitted. “Do you know anything about your family?” He was curious about that – Andrew’s last name had been ‘Doe’, but had he really been abandoned with no information whatsoever?

“Ah, now that’s a good one.” Aidan once more collected the glasses to refill them. “I used to know nothing, until my thirteenth birthday. Then I found out that I’m an identical twin and that my mother put me in the system but not my precious brother.”

The answer stunned Neil, who couldn’t imagine someone willing subjugating a child to the abuse that Aidan – that *Andrew* had obviously endured. When he went to ask for more details, Aidan handed over the shot glass. “Ah, ah, my turn. Why did you have Durand tell your uncle about your mother?”

Neil thought that he was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol already and rubbed at his eyes with his left hand. “Because while I’ve only spent a little time with the man, I know some things about my uncle. I know he loves his sister and he hates my father. While my mother was alive, there wasn’t much he could do about him… but with her dead?” He gave Aidan a grim smile. “It may be impossible for me to kill the bastard, but not so much for my uncle.”

There was a look of grudging respect on Aidan’s face just then. “Color me impressed. I think you’ve managed to knock yourself back down to 145%.”

“Huh.” Neil knew that he’d been – mostly – reversing the direction of the percentages in the last couple of weeks, barring a few flare-ups here and there. But that was quite the jump in his favor. “Nice to know what it takes to get on your good side.”

“I’m so easy to please.” Aidan handed over the shot glass, then clinked his against it.

“You’re psychotic,” Neil argued before he drank some more too-sweet vodka.

“Pot, kettle, black,” Aidan sang out after he downed his.

Figuring that he didn’t have the best leg to stand on just then, Neil shook his head and handed over the empty glass. “What did you do when you found out about your mother and your brother?”

“Nothing.” Aidan smiled again, that too-sharp grin, when Neil stared at him disbelief. “Well, I told them to fuck off, so basically nothing. I stayed where I was, they stayed where they were, and we’re all so much happier for it.”

The… well, could Neil call him an idiot? What would he have done in Aidan’s place? “Okay, so what do you want to know now?”

“What do you think will happen next year? Do you really see us playing high school kids forever?” The grin was gone, replaced by the familiar blank look as Aidan stared at him from only a couple of feet away.

Neil frowned as he considered the question. “As long as we don’t fuck up, we should be good for the school year. Then we can… I don’t know, figure it out over the summer. When does your ID turn eighteen again? Do you want to go somewhere else?”

Aidan continued to stare for several seconds until he scoffed. “At least you didn’t say any shit about Exy,” he remarked for some odd reason as he handed over the refilled shot.

Neil downed it and then held the glass in his hand. “I don’t know why you hate the sport when you do it so well – wait, that’ll be my next question. I mean, after this one. The one I’m going to ask now.” He frowned as he tried to make sense of what he had just said. “Tell me about the family thing first. Don’t you want to be with them?”

Aidan pried the glass from his hand. “You have an uncle you can call at any time. Why don’t you do that? Is family that important to you?”

“Family….” Neil pressed his left hand against his chest and could feel the scar tissue through the thin material of the black shirt Aidan had given him. “All family’s ever done really is tear me apart,” he admitted in a quiet voice.

Despite the background noise, he thought that Aidan must have heard him, because his friend handed him another shot. “Exactly.”

Neil drank it without thinking, then let out a low moan as the room began to feel too warm. “Oh, I think I should stop now.”

“Then you stop.” Aidan took away the glass and dropped it to the floor, off to the side of the chairs. “I told you that you could.”

“But... are we even now?” Had there been enough answers to all of the questions?

“I think we’re good,” Aidan told him as he screwed the lid back onto the bottle then grabbed onto Neil’s left arm. “Now how about we get something that’s not alcoholic into you?”

“Hmm, fine.” Neil allowed himself to be pulled onto his feet and led away from the nice comfy chair by a nice, comfy Aidan.

*******

A drowsy Neil held in his arms as he leaned against the wall near the fireplace, Aidan sighed when he spied Anna and her girlfriend headed their way and raised the bottle of cake batter flavored vodka to his lips to brace himself for their inanity.

“Aw, you two look so cute! But you could, you know, be a bit more social.” Anna held out a couple of bottles of water toward them, and after a moment, Neil reached out to grab them.

“Uhm, we’re fine,” he told her, sounding a bit better now that Aidan had gotten some water and food into him after the shots from earlier. From what Aidan could tell from peering over his friend’s shoulder, Neil was inspecting the bottles to make sure they were still sealed; yeah, he had definitely sobered up enough.

“Like he said, we’re fine.” Aidan set the liquor down on the nearby mantle and accepted one of the water bottles, since he had a nice buzz going on and didn’t want to get too trashed while surrounded by a bunch of strange people. “And I thought you said that there weren’t any drugs here.”

“Hmm?” Anna must have been doing her best to sober up as well, since she seemed a bit more lucid than when Aidan and Neil had shown up at the party; she frowned at Aidan as she fussed with her hair, which was slipping free from the fancy clips she’d pulled it back in. “There shouldn’t be, Doug doesn’t do that stuff.”

“Some girl came up to us a little while ago and offered some ‘pixie’ shit.” She had been interested in ‘joining’ them, and offered the drugs as an enticement of some sort. Aidan had been more than happy to tell her to fuck off while Neil had flinched away from the girl.

Anna’s girlfriend, Kelci, laughed for some reason. “Oh, pixie dust. Yeah, it’s pretty new.” When even Anna looked at her in confusion, she rolled her eyes. “That stuff they were doing at Mina’s party last month.”

“Oooooh.” Okay, maybe Anna still was a bit drunk. “Yeah, don’t think it’s got to California yet,” she explained to Aidan, “since it’s still really new out this way. Hear some guy on the East Coast developed it – it’s not the biggest high, it’s like a light hit of E and it works best with alcohol, but it won’t leave you addicted.”

Kelci nodded. “So yes, no roofie effect, no hangover, no addiction – that’s probably why Doug doesn’t care if it’s here tonight.”

It sounded interesting, but again, not something to test out when Aidan was surrounded by a bunch of strangers. “What will they think up next?”

Neil gave a little sigh as he twisted off the lid of his water. “Are any of these people gonna be conscious come midnight?”

The question prompted a laugh from Kelci. “Probably less than half. If you’re not gonna hang out and dance or stuff, you might want to hit the room early, before someone breaks into it and passes out.”

“Not a bad idea. Stay here.” Aidan gave Neil’s ribs a warning squeeze before he let him go – the idiot was able to stand on his own now, at least – so he could head out to the car and fetch their overnight bag. It was cold as fuck out, but at least it wasn’t snowing, and no one was fucking with the cars. Some idiot a lodge or two down was setting off fireworks, but Aidan was more interested in getting back inside before he froze his ass off.

Once inside, he grabbed another bottle of vodka and slipped it into the bag – waste not, want not – as well as a couple bottles of water, then went to fetch Neil, who was still chatting with Anna and Kelci. Aidan noticed some strange guy hovering around the three of them and gave him a nasty look, then collected his idiot and what remained in his other bottle of vodka. “Anna, you don’t suck so much after tonight.”

“Fuck off, you little shit. Neil, I hope *you* have a happy New Year.” Bitch that she was, she blew Neil a kiss then gave Aidan the finger while a laughing Kelci dragged her away.

Neil sighed as he tugged on Aidan’s left arm. “No bloodshed tonight, okay? It’s, uhm, a bad way to start the new year?” He sounded a little uncertain as he said that.

“She’s not worth the effort,” Aidan complained as he allowed himself to be led toward the large staircase. “You have any idea where the hell we’re going?”

“Uhm, room with the seagull.”

“Door with a seagull,” Aidan reminded him as he took the lead. “And if anyone’s in there, so much for your murder-free new year.”

They had to step around a couple making out on the landing, and their room was about four doors down. The lock wasn’t exactly the most secure, but Aidan figured if anyone tried to break in, a knife to the throat would work wonders on calming them the fuck down. Once in the room, they found it to have a horrid blue on blue on blue decoration theme – probably supposed to be something ocean-like – and contain one queen-sized bed.

“Have I said enough times yet that Anna’s a bitch?” Aidan set the bag on the bed while he started checking to make sure that no one was hiding anywhere in the room – while he looked in the closet and the small attached bathroom, Neil checked beneath the bed.

“Once or twice.” Neil smiled a little as he sat down on the bed, hair tousled from all the times he’d ran his hands through it and expression a little sleepy.

“She is,” Aidan insisted. “I feel like I’m inside a smurf or something.”

“Isn’t that a relative of yours?”

Aidan’s eyes narrowed as he stalked over to stand in front of the idiot. “If you’ve just made another Oompa-Loompa reference, I *will* kick your ass this time.” Bastard thought that just because he’d grown another inch, he could get all shitty about it.

“I would never,” Neil insisted as he reached out to give a gentle tug to one of the belt loops on Aidan’s black jeans.

“Never my ass. Such a smart mouth you have.”

“And what are you going to do about it?” The sleepy expression was gone from Neil’s face, replaced by something almost predatory.

“Whatever I want.” Aidan latched onto the forearm of the hand holding onto his belt loop and pulled Neil up from the bed; he could feel the arm guard beneath the black shirt as he pushed Neil toward the wall.

“Are you still drunk?” he asked as he watched how Neil moved, as he studied those pale green eyes and how they tracked his face – no, his lips.

“Not… not anymore,” Neil insisted as he let go of Aidan’s jeans and pushed his hands flat against the wall as if knowing what would come next.

“Yes or no?”

“Hell yes,” Neil breathed out with a slight, pleased smile. When Aidan stepped closer, he laughed a little. “Though why do we usually end up against a wall?”

“Because I’m not about to make a mess on our bed,” Aidan explained as he tugged up the hem of the idiot’s new shirt, “while I make a mess of you.”

“Clever.”

“There’s that mouth again. 150%,” Aidan insisted before he leaned in to wipe away that smile. Neil’s lips parted for him, a faint groan slipping free as his hands skimmed along Neil’s ribs. As the kiss deepened and he found himself rocking his hips forward, he forced himself to pull back enough so he could tug the shirt up and over Neil’s head. “Too many clothes.”

“Uh-huh.” Neil tossed aside the long bangs falling onto his face while Aidan dropped the shirt to the floor, his hands rising from the wall a little as if to reach for Aidan before they fell back down. “And yours?” At Aidan’s cool look, he sighed and shook his head. “Okay.”

As with every other time, Neil backed down without pushing, without asking for an explanation – even when he could have earlier. So Aidan dove in for another kiss, savored the way that Neil always opened up for him, always responded, and grasped both of Neil’s hands as he pulled away once again. “Keep them there,” he instructed as he raised them to his head, Neil’s fingers threading through his hair.

“Oh-okay,” Neil repeated, appearing a bit confused, especially when Aidan began to kiss down his neck. “Uhm, what-“

“Messing you up, like I said,” Aidan answered. “Now hush.” He undid the button and then the zipper of Neil’s tight jeans, for a moment regretting that he’d bought the skinny style even if they’d looked so damn good on the teen. It took a little effort to work them and the grey boxer-briefs that Neil wore beneath them down his muscular thighs, but by that point, Neil was hard and shivering beneath Aidan’s hands. Aidan gave a light nip to his left nipple and smirked at the groan that produced, then dropped down to his knees.

“Aidan!”

“Shush,” Aidan admonished, aware that the walls were thin enough that he could hear the faint thump of the music downstairs, while his hands ran down Neil’s abdomen. He palmed a bony hip with his left while circling the base of Neil’s cock with the fingers of his right hand to hold it steady, then swiped his tongue along its underside.

Neil gave a shuddering breath at that, his fingers clenching in Aidan’s hair but not forcing his head to move. Bobbing forward, Aidan took the cock in his mouth, amusement and desire sparking inside of him when Neil groaned out his name. As he’d twice alluded to, he did his best to wreak Neil, to break him down, alternating sucking hard and then giving swiping licks, taking Neil’s cock in all the way and then letting his lips slip along to its flared tip. The entire time Neil shivered and gasped, the sounds sweet enough to make him so fucking hard, but there was also the sight of his gorgeous face flushed with pleasure, the way he bit into his bottom lip to try to remain quiet and his eyes blown dark.

“Fu-fuck, Aidann… I’m going to-“ Neil’s fingers tightened even more as he gave a full body shudder, and then he was coming in Aidan’s mouth. Aidan focused on Neil’s face, on the feel of Neil’s bony hip as he swallowed several times, his own pleasure slightly diminished as he pulled back, and then Neil was sliding down the wall in a beautiful, crumpled heap.

Somewhat hampered because of his jeans trapped around his knees, Neil ended up with his legs bent in front of Aidan, his arms loose around Aidan’s shoulders. “That… that was….”

“Yeah, I can tell,” Aidan huffed as he rocked back on his heels, his own jeans a bit more uncomfortable at the moment.

Neil glanced down and then back up at his face. “What about you?”

For a moment, Aidan thought about getting up and going to the bathroom, just like always, and then before he could rethink what he was doing, he reached down to undo his own pants with his right hand while he grabbed onto the back of Neil’s neck. “Don’t move.”

“What?”

“*Don’t*,” he repeated while he pulled the idiot in for a kiss.

Neil blinked as if surprised, but he didn’t resist and he opened his mouth to Aidan’s, like always, as Aidan thrust his tongue in deep even as he slid his hand inside his jeans to stroke himself. Hearing Neil’s happy little moan sent one of those damn thrills of pleasure through him when he was already so close to the edge, and the feel of Neil’s tongue sliding against his own along with a couple of rough strokes was enough to bring himself off.

He buried his face in the crook of Neil’s neck as he came, warmth spurting over his hand, and allowed himself only a couple of seconds of weary enjoyment before he forced himself to stand up. When Neil stirred as well, he pushed him back down with his left hand. “Stay.” Neil gave a quick nod and remained huddled by the wall while Aidan snatched up the bag with his clean hand and went to the bathroom.

It had a sink, a toilet and a shower stall, which was enough for him to wash off and change into a clean pair of underwear and t-shirt to wear to bed, as well as to remove the contact lenses and brush his teeth. Once that was done, he left the bag for Neil and returned to the bed, where he picked up the mostly empty bottle of vodka so he could have the rest of it before bed. “Go get ready.”

Neil had pulled up his pants while waiting for Aidan, and he paused by the bed long enough to snatch the bottle of vodka away so he could take a quick sip, which earned him a very displeased look. “Not sure what time it is, but Happy New Year,” he murmured as he handed it back, then leaned in close in a very deliberate manner. When Aidan didn’t pull away, he brushed their lips together in a gentle kiss before heading off to clean up.

Aidan huffed to himself as he finished off the rest of the vodka; their phones were in the bag, so he could check the time if he wanted, but it was too much effort. Instead, he turned down the bed and waited for Neil to return in a couple of minutes, dressed in a similar manner and also lacking the green contacts. When Neil climbed in bed next to him, he gave him a gentle flick to the forehead. “Happy New Year, too. Let’s see if you can get through it without anyone trying to kill you.”

That prompted a laugh from Neil as he lay down. “No promises.”

“Yeah, I thought you might say that.” Aidan got up to check the door one last time then turn out the light; he thought he heard some people cheering downstairs, but was content to welcome in the new year up here.

*******

 

Chapter Text

*******

With the Panthers focused on the upcoming game that night, one of the last couple remaining where they had the chance of a win and so the hope of finishing the season near an even balance of a win/loss record, Neil was a bit confused when, during homeroom, Ashley shoved a small red box at him. “Here,” she told him, a hint of pink shading her cheeks. “Uhm, you don’t have to… just take it.”

“Thanks.” He accepted the item with some trepidation, his confusion clearing up just a little when he noticed the red hearts on the box.

Oh. *Oh*. It was the fourteenth, wasn’t it? Valentine’s Day? But why was Ashley giving him what looked to be chocolates?

Much to his growing horror, the scene was repeated several more times over the next few class periods, sometimes the girls stammering as they handed over the chocolates, sometimes them wishing him good luck with the upcoming game, sometimes them just smiling. He even got chocolates from two guys. Neil felt as if there was a permanent burn to his cheeks by fourth period, and his backpack was growing full of the boxes; he shared American History with Kathy, and she wouldn’t stop laughing at him over the whole ordeal. However, it wasn’t until they were leaving class and she patted him on the back that he really began to panic. “You think Aidan got as many chocolates as you did? With that sour face of his?”

Oh shit, *Aidan*.

*******

“I still don’t get how you can play Exy but you have a doctor’s excuse for wrestling.”

Aidan gave Drew a pointed stare until the guy got a hint and sat a few more inches away. “I already told you, bad neck. I don’t block the goal with my neck.”

“Whatever. At least I hear Neil spends the period doing laps around the gym, not sitting on his ass.” A slight smile hovered on Drew’s lips as he watched two of their classmates flop about on the mats in front of them. “But then again, Neil’s not as much of an asshole as you.”

“Is there a point to this? I think the baseball team is counting on having their star player being alive when the season starts up.” Aidan bared his teeth in warning.

Drew laughed and leaned his elbows back onto the bleacher seats behind them. “Just commenting on how much more popular your younger brother is – from what I hear, he’s raking in quite the haul today.” At Aidan’s continued dirty look, Drew shook his head. “Right, you two don’t cross paths until lunch. Marquis told me earlier that that at least eight girls and one guy have given him stuff for today.”

For Valentine’s Day, Aidan assumed, the fake, bullshit day when people professed their ‘undying’ love and all that other crap, just to sell candy and flowers and a chance to screw you over, literally and figuratively. He glared out at nothing as he remembered the idiots bringing single red roses and chocolates and stupid teddy bears into homeroom to surprise their girlfriends. “They’re wasting good candy on him – he doesn’t even care that much for sweets.”

“Hmm, doesn’t seem to care for much at all, from what you tell me.”

“Not unless it’s Exy,” Aidan said with a bit of venom. “Morons should try wooing him with a new racquet or something.”

“Ah man, I would *love* it if Maura would surprise me with a new glove or those sneakers I’ve been saving up for! Now you’re talking!” Drew laughed for a minute, until Swenson yelled at them to keep the noise down.

It seemed to take forever to reach lunch period, during that time which Aidan seemed hyper-aware of all the gift exchanges and signs of the awful holiday around him; it had never been one he paid much attention to before, unless to mock. As the perpetual new kid and one with anti-social tendencies at that, not to mention his past history, he had never encouraged close bonds with people, so the most he’d ever celebrated it in the past was those stupid cheap little cards a teacher or two had insisted he’d fill out and give to barely-known classmates, and them to him, back when he’d been a child.

Neil greeted him the same as usual, and Aidan was disgusted to notice that there were stupid hearts on the carton of chocolate milk. “Fucking holiday,” he muttered as they headed outside.

“Ah, yeah.” Oh yes, there was a definite blush to Neil’s cheeks just then, one that couldn’t be attributed to the cold air so quickly. “It’s… yeah, weird day.” He ducked his head as he dug into his backpack to hand over two chicken salad sandwiches to Aidan.

“So I hear that someone has been popular.” Aidan narrowed his eyes at the idiot while he sank his teeth into one of the sandwiches.

“Eh… I got some stuff.” Neil stared at his own tuna salad sandwich as if he’d never seen one before. “People… I don’t get it. Stuff from strangers?”

No, Aidan supposed he didn’t, not the whole ‘I like you’ part nor the buying affection thing, and definitely not that Neil could believe that anyone would look at him and see something so attractive – Aidan had come to understand that last part recently. “So, where is it? You hiding the stash in your locker?” He hadn’t seen anything in the backpack when Neil had been digging through it for their lunch.

Neil shrugged and tore off a piece of his sandwich. “Well, at first I thought about giving them to you,” Aidan went still at that, “but then I remembered how you didn’t like any hand-me-downs. So I just left them all in the bathroom on the first floor. Figured maybe some other guys would like them.” Neil shrugged again and gave Aidan a slight smile. “I don’t know, seemed a waste to just throw them away.”

“You better hope no one snuck a love note or confession in there somewhere,” Aidan teased as he unwrapped the second sandwich.

“What do I care? Doesn’t mean anything to me,” Neil said with a careless shrug before he popped the bit of sandwich into his mouth.

“’Oh Neil, how I lay awake at night, dreaming of your scrawny ass,” Aidan intoned in a flat voice. “If only you would stroke me like you do your Exy racquet, if you would-“

“Stop it,” Neil laughed as he tossed another sandwich, this one a roast beef, at him. “You’re such an ass.”

“Hmm, so I’ve been told.” Still, Neil put up with him – not that the idiot was without his own faults. Such as, Aidan was stuck with yet another Exy game tonight. “So, should only be a few more games left to go in the season.”

“Yeah.” Neil sounded a little forlorn about that. “How are you going to get your abuse in when they’re done?” He motioned down toward his right calf, which sported a bruise from their last practice session – he was getting good enough that Aidan rarely nailed him these days.

“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something. You inspire it from me,” Aidan promised.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.” Still, Neil smiled as he ate his lunch.

*******

Neil had to kick the door closed behind him, his hands were so full with bags and the coffee carrier, then set some of the bags down so he could make sure it was locked before he picked them up and headed into the kitchen. He had just set the coffee and the bags down on the counters when he heard Aidan’s annoyed voice.

“What the hell are you doing? It’s how early?”

“Ah, yeah, sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up.” He winced as he turned around; they had gotten back late last night since the away game was a fair distance away, and the ride back had been rather noisy since they had won. Neither of them could sleep on the bus, so they hadn’t crashed until returning home, but Neil had been determined to hit the store early after hearing Tony talk about how he had plans to go out tonight with his girlfriend for a belated Valentine’s Day and so take advantage of the day after sale to get her some presents.

“What the hell did you do?” Aidan seemed to realize that Neil had bought some stuff and shuffled into the room, his eyes squinty as if from the light and hair tousled from sleep. “Buy out the store or something? Couldn’t it have waited?”

“Ah, not really.” Neil reached into one of the bags to pull out a box of chocolates. “Tony said the good stuff goes fast – seems they mark it all down during the night, so I figured why not stock up while we could, right? You go through it like crazy, but this’ll last a while at least… okay, uhm, it’ll last a little while.” Was he an enabler or something? Oh god, he was Aidan’s sugar enabler, it was all on him when his friend came down with diabetes, but Aidan seemed happy to munch on chocolates after practice or while he studied or just… whenever, and Neil liked it when Aidan was happy. It was better than when Aidan was pissed off or shut him out, that was certain.

Like right now, when Aidan just stared at him with that flat look for several seconds, and then came forward to dig through one of the bags. “You bought out the store of all the leftover Valentine’s Day chocolates.”

“Well, not all of them,” Neil admitted. “They had a lot leftover. But yeah, I got what I could. It was a good sale.” He’d seen how fast Aidan had gone through the Halloween candy so….

“All of this?” Aidan peeled off the plastic wrapping, opened the lid and then studied the contents before selecting a particular piece of chocolate. Something flashed across his face as he chewed it, but his expression soon went back to the blank default.

“Uhm, there’s still a couple more down in the car.” Neil waved to the two take-out cups of coffee on the counter. “I couldn’t bring them all up with these at the same time. They had a special for the weekend, some dark chocolate mocha thing that sounded like you.” Sounded disgusting, personally, but yeah, he bet that Aidan would love it; for himself, he just got a plain coffee.

Aidan stood there with that inscrutable look on his face again for a few seconds, and then he placed the opened box of chocolates down on the counter. While Neil braced himself to get yelled at or a scathing comment, his friend approached him and placed both hands on the counter by Neil’s hips, effectively pinning him in place.

“Yes or no?”

“Huh?” Neil blinked twice before he recognized the question. “Ah, yes.” So… Aidan was happy?

Judging from the way that the front of his sweater was grabbed and he was hauled toward Aidan’s room… yeah, he’d go out on a limb and say that Aidan was happy.

*******

“Remember, I want at least a page from all of you,” Prufer called out as everyone jumped from their seats; Aidan wasn’t in as much of a hurry as everyone else since German was his last class of the day and all he had to look forward to now was Exy practice – at least for another couple of weeks.

“Hey, Aidan, can I speak to you?”

He slung his backpack over his left shoulder and frowned at Paul, whom he had worked with on a couple of small projects through the year. “What?”

“Out in the hall.” The tall kid motioned for them to go outside, and then waited for the hall to clear a little; during the time, Paul reached into his own bag to pull out his phone, an older model iPhone. “Look, are you on Facebook?”

“No,” Aidan said, with as much scorn as possible in the one syllable.

Paul winced and bobbed his head, the lights above reflecting off of his scalp, which shone through the short crop of his hair cut. “Okay, I didn’t think so. Anyway, my older brother took German, too, and there’s this thing my family does, this study abroad program.” As he spoke, he thumbed through something on his phone.

Aidan remembered Paul mentioning that his family was religious and into stupid projects, the one or two times he had gotten up in front of class to speak; it was reason enough for him to avoid the kid whenever possible. “So?”

“Well, there’s this one online community for kids like him who go over to Germany, and I joined it, too.” Paul smiled as he continued to scroll. “I mean, I’m going to go over there, too, so I figured….”

This was taking too long – Neil would be waiting for him. “I have to get to practice, is there a point to this?”

Paul flinched at his tone and held up the phone. “Yeah, I found it. There’s this other guy over there right now, and he put up this post, something about his cousin. Well, cousins, really. Said that they’re twins but one of them got adopted or something?” Paul’s thick eyebrows became furrowed as he handed Aidan the phone. “Anyway, the guy, Nicky, put up a post saying that his family’s looking for the one cousin now, wants to see if anyone might have information on him. And I… well, the kid looks a bit like you. Was wondering if maybe you’re related.”

Aidan stared at the phone, his expression impassive despite the fact that yes, if one stripped away the hair dye and the contacts, took some scissors and a razor to his hair and plastered a smile – albeit a rather sullen one – on his face, the image on the screen would look just like him. It wasn’t him, he had never worn an Atlanta Braves shirt in his entire life, and he had never before seen the woman hovering behind whom he assumed was Aaron – but he could guess, judging from the similar blonde hair and hazel eyes.

“Nope, no clue,” he lied as he handed over the phone. “Doesn’t look like any cousin that I know. Just a weird coincidence.”

“Huh.” Paul looked at the phone and frowned. “If you say so. I had thought maybe-“

“I *do*,” Aidan insisted. “And now I’m late for practice, so let it go.” He shoved past Paul on his way to meet Neil before they went off together to the gym.

Along the way, he thought about the Facebook profile of the person who had posted the picture of Aaron and the ‘plea’ for help – Nicky Hemmick. So it wasn’t just the old man who was annoying….

*******

Neil eyed Coach Beal with the terrible suspicion that the man might start crying at some point. “I just… I just want all of you to know that you did an excellent job,” Beal told them while sniffing. “An amazing job. This was our best season yet, and I know that next season will be even better!” He sniffed again while he wiped at his left eye, and then grabbed a stunned Ed so he could hug him.

“And we’re out of here,” Aidan muttered as their last practice soon dissolved into something much too touchy-feely for Neil and what looked to be murder-inducing for Aidan. “I don’t care, if someone touches me, I’m breaking their hand.”

“I think they’ve realized that by now.” Neil winced when Tony picked Brad up off the ground in a bear hug and hurried up to get away before anyone noticed that they were leaving; they had already packed up the few things in their lockers. “Well, that was fun.” At Aidan’s incredulous look, he shook his head. “Oh come on, you’re telling me that it wasn’t? What about that guy you got to knock out two games ago? You only got a yellow card for it.”

“Hmm, that was mildly amusing.” Aidan gave a slight, pleased smile – probably over the lethalness of his rebound throws, which had been honed at Neil’s expense. “But alas, now it’s come to an end.”

“Yeah.” Maybe they could find some second-hand equipment or something, so Neil could practice over the summer. “What is it going to cost me to keep up on the one on one with you?” At Aidan’s arch look, he sighed. “For Exy.”

Aidan’s look just then could only be described as pure evil. “I’m sure I can think of something, and that you won’t like it.”

No, most likely Neil wouldn’t, but he’d suffer through it somehow – with Aidan’s help he’d become a mostly decent player over the course of the season despite the new position, he’d like to see how much farther he could go if he kept it up. “Yeah, well, figure it out and maybe we’ll see after school’s out.” He knew he’d have a better chance talking Aidan into it if he gave his friend a few weeks off.

“Ever the hopeful one, aren’t you? I tell you what, you can start working on how to get on my good side right now, by treating me to something to eat.” Aidan led the way as they headed to the car, and drove them to one of his favorite restaurants which served huge burgers, steak fries and disgustingly sweet milkshakes.

As always, Neil was amazed at how much food his friend could put away, easily eating a double bacon cheeseburger, two orders of fries and half of Neil’s as well, and a huge Oreo flavored milkshake. “One of these days, that metabolism is going to quit on you,” he warned as he took a sip from his glass of water.

Aidan gave him the finger and didn’t stop until the shake was gone. “Jealous much?”

“No, just trying to figure out which is going to give out first, your kidneys or your liver.” Neil shook his head as he pulled some money out of his wallet to pay for the bill.

“Who wants to live forever?”

There wasn’t much Neil could say to that, not when there had been some days when he hadn’t expected to live past the next morning, so all he did was stand up from the booth and wave for Aidan to join him. A slight smile lingered on his lips when his friend stood up right in front of him and had to look up; over the last few months, Neil had managed to grow an extra inch or so.

“Come on, Josten,” Aidan growled as he pulled Neil forward by the collar of his green t-shirt, almost yanking him into an Asian man dressed in a dark business suit who was hovering near the next table. Neil stammered out an apology, but Aidan seemed intent on leaving the place so he gave in and followed.

*******

Something was wrong; Aidan had noticed how distracted Neil had been all day, how quiet he was and the shadowed look to his eyes. He’d barely said anything during breakfast, and the jerky way he’d moved around the kitchen along with the dark circles beneath his eyes meant that he’d suffered through nightmares the night before – Aidan recognized the signs after over six months of them living together. He’d given Neil some time to recover, but when it dragged on during lunch, with Neil handing over several sandwiches without eating any himself, Aidan had enough.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he demanded to know as he lit a cigarette with the engraved lighter then almost shoved it onto his friend. Neil started at the question, but accepted the cigarette with a grateful smile.

“Today’s date… it’s her birthday.”

“Her?” When Neil continued to smile at him, the expression now sad, Aidan hazarded a guess. “Your mother.”

“Yeah.” Neil shuddered as he held the cigarette near to his face, cupped between his fingers. “I don’t even know how old she’d be – too many false passports, too many IDs.” He breathed in deep and held it for a few seconds. “As much as I hate it, I keep remembering her from that awful night, the look of pain on her face… after I-“ He shook his head as if to dispel the memories. “How do you let go, when everything is a nightmare?”

That was something Aidan himself wondered all of the time. “Try a few more blows to the head, maybe?”

To his surprise, Neil laughed, the sound faint but not entirely marred by darkness. “Yeah, maybe. There’s hope for me yet.” He stood there with that half-smile on his lips and the cigarette held cupped between his hands, and the sight of it all made something go tight in Aidan’s chest. “At one point in the night, all I could think about was how much she’d hate it, where I am right now.”

“And?”

Neil’s smile strengthened as he dropped the cigarette, half of it burnt to ash, onto the ground and snubbed it out with his toe, even though the darkness lingered in his eyes. “I remind myself that she’s not here, and all her way of doing things got her was an unmarked grave. She did what she could, but….”

But Aidan could remember how close to the edge Neil had been back then, when he’d been Alex. How he would have kept on running, kept fighting, but he probably wouldn’t have cared when his father’s people finally tracked him down. “You’re such an idiot,” he breathed out as his fingers reached for and curled around the warm skin of Neil’s nape.

“Yeah, so you keep telling me.” Now the darkness left Neil’s pale eyes. “Anyway, guess that’s what bothering me today.”

“An idiot,” Aidan repeated as he gave Neil’s neck a rough shake. What did it feel like, caring about the woman who gave birth to you? That Neil still did after everything she’d done to him, after everything she hadn’t done for him… an image of Cass appeared in Aidan’s mind, causing him to inhale sharply as his fingers tightened on Neil’s skin. His friend shifted under the touch but didn’t pull away, so Aidan shook his head and forced his hand to return to his side.

“I’m thinking pizza for dinner,” he said to change the topic, to move it onto something that was… safer. As he spoke, he reached around to dig into Neil’s backpack and found a couple of energy bars around the bottom; they were a bit old, probably leftovers from practice. “We’ll pick it up on the way home.” He found a plain one and shoved it at the masochist.

Neil frowned at it but when he made to tuck it into the back pocket of his jeans, Aidan gave a painful squeeze to his wrist until the idiot got the point and unwrapped it. “You’re going to choose the toppings, aren’t you?” Neil sighed before taking a bite.

Aidan’s answer was a mocking smile as he leaned against the wall next to his friend and lit his own cigarette; it was so amusing to watch Neil pick off all of the vegetables one by one. “Maybe not quite so much an idiot.”

There was a bit too much force to the next bite to the energy bar just then.

*******

Neil sighed as he set the large pizza box on the kitchen table, then went to fetch some plates and a couple of bottles of water from the fridge; while he did that, Aidan went off to his bedroom, only to return a minute later with his laptop. The pizza – veggie with meatballs – was set between them while they ate in a comfortable silence, with Neil picking off all of the onions, peppers and olives with grim determination and Aidan eating with an almost absentmindedness while he checked… whatever on his laptop.

Something seemed to make him upset at first, his eyebrows drawing together and his eyes flashing with ire, and then he clicked a couple of times; Neil was careful to focus on his pizza until his friend’s expression smoothed out. By the time Aidan was on his second slice things seemed better, and he even hummed a little over whatever it was that he was reading.

Aidan was on his fourth slice and Neil his second – removing the damn vegetables Aidan insisted on torturing him with took some effort – when Aidan’s shoulders stiffened and he looked up over the rim of the laptop at Neil. “You said that today was your mother’s birthday, correct?”

“Yes.” Neil could still remember the elaborate parties his father had thrown for her, back in Baltimore, the need for them to pretend to be a happy smiling family in front of the guests, how he had to dress up and behave… the painful warnings beforehand and the inevitable punishments afterwards for whatever imagined mishaps from his father. It had been a relief when there had been no more birthday parties, no more celebrations when they had been on the run.

Aidan motioned him over with a wave of a half-eaten slice of pizza. “I think someone other than you remembered.”

Confused by that statement, Neil got up and went over to stand by his friend, and stared at the screen when Aidan tapped it.

He still was confused for a moment, until the title of the article Aidan had clicked on finally registered. ‘Butcher of Baltimore Found Dead in Seattle Prison Cell.’ Those words hit him with an almost physical force, leaving him feel numb from their impact.

It took him a few seconds to realize that Aidan was now standing beside him, one hand on the back of his neck as he bent over the table panting, the other clasped on top of his hand as he clutched the lid of the laptop screen. “If you break it, I’ll break you,” Aidan warned, his tone mild as if he was asking Neil about another slice of pizza.

“Is that… is that true?” After so long… so many dreams, so much wishful thinking… could it have really happened?

Aidan shoved him into the abandoned chair. “As far as I can tell, yes, it’s a real article. Said that they found him dead in his cell this morning, no one’s talking.” Aidan’s eyes flickered to the screen. “I get the impression that the authorities aren’t happy.”

Neil laughed at that. “Yeah, I would think so, if they were hoping he’d give up some information on his territory.” He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe, and realized that Aidan’s hand still rested on his neck; it felt good. “I can’t believe it… have you ever wanted something for so long and then for it to finally happen? It doesn’t seem real.”

Aidan’s fingers tightened on his neck for a second or two and then they were gone. “You told me that you had Durand pass on about your mother to your uncle because you were hoping he’d do something.” Aidan hitched his left hip up onto the table and picked up his neglected slice of pizza. “Seems to me that’s a message of sorts, killing the bastard on his sister’s birthday, no?”

Neil studied the screen again, but couldn’t take the blaring headline, the words ‘Butcher of Baltimore’ for much longer and had to look away. “Yeah, it is.” His uncle must have pulled some serious strings, to reach his father in prison.

“That’s a lot to do for family.” He looked up, curious to see where Aidan was going with this. “You sure he’s going to be happy with his sister’s son running around out there on his own?”

“I don’t care,” Neil told him. “I have no plan on calling him.”

“Good.” Aidan leaned in for a soft, lingering kiss that left Neil hoping he’d ask ‘yes or no’. Instead, he got a growled “now get out of my seat, and go finish your pizza.”

“I should just make some grilled cheese, it would be quicker,” Neil grumbled as he went back to picking the toppings off of the damn thing.

“But not half as much fun.” Aidan smiled as he watched Neil for a few seconds, then made a show out of biting into his veggie-laden slice.

“For *you*,” Neil pointed out.

“For me,” Aidan agreed.

*******

Aidan had just settled into homeroom when he felt a nudge to his left foot from Carl, one of Drew’s friend, who sat to the right of him. “Uhm, isn’t that your coach? I think he’s looking for you?”

He glanced up to find Coach Beal waving to him from the doorway before the puppy went over to say something to Shanley, the homeroom teacher. “He’s not my anything,” Aidan informed Carl. What the hell did Beal want? Exy was over for the season, at least for Park. He watched the coach approach his desk with growing suspicion, especially since the man had an excited grin on his face.

“Hennon, I need you to come with me for a little bit.” He motioned for Aidan to stand up with an impatient wave of his hand.

Definitely suspicious now but having the feeling that there was little he could do about it, not with the way that Beal had cleared it with Shanley, Aidan sighed as he gathered up his things and followed the pain in his ass out of the room. “What is this about?” He gave the coach a cold look as they headed off toward the south wing, which held the gyms.

“You’ll see – they asked for me not to say anything. It’s supposed to be a surprise.” Beal beamed at him and made as if to clap Aidan on the back, but one scathing look from Aidan had him reconsider. “But it’s good, it’s good!”

In Aidan’s experience, surprises were rarely ever ‘good’ for him, and to be avoided at all costs. There was a strong urge to run in the other direction – Neil was a very bad influence on him. It was in part because of Neil that he continued onward, to find out what Beal was up to and what this latest surprise meant to his life here.

He wasn’t led to the gym where they practiced Exy but to a smaller one, he thought it might be where the pep squads practiced or something. At the moment it was empty, but Coach Beal motioned him inside and told him to wait, that ‘they’ would be joining him shortly.

Yeah, that wasn’t disturbing at all.

Aidan surveyed the room, the door at the far end and the one he just came through, the lack of windows, the lack of pretty much anything but a mirrored wall… yeah, Neil would be going up the proverbial wall, right about now. As for himself, he went over to the other door to test it and found it to be locked, and promised himself to hit his friend up for a set of his own lock picks very soon.

Figuring that he would only wait here for a few minutes and then leave – he would use the excuse that he had classes to attend, what with finals right around the corner, he had turned around and was close to the door leading back to the hallway when the inner door opened up. Whirling back around, he tensed up when two Asian men in black suits entered the room, and had to twist around a little when another two entered from the outer door as well; even without hanging around a runner like Neil these last several months, he recognized when his exits were being cut off. “What the hell is going on here?” They didn’t look like police, was the first thing that came to mind.

“Ah, it’s just you so far.”

Aidan’s head whipped back toward the inner door when he heard that voice, familiar from the few times he’d been forced to listen to it on the television. Riko Moriyama was dressed in black jeans and a black sports coat over a red shirt – Aidan wanted to sneer at the color scheme just then, but he was trying to wrap his head around the fact that Riko Moriyama was standing a few dozen feet or so away. Not only Riko Moriyama, but Kevin Day as well, also decked out in black jeans and a sports coat, albeit with a white t-shirt, and appearing rather unhappy at the moment.

He might be stunned, but Aidan refused to show it; he crossed his arms over his chest, his fingers skimming along the edges of his arm guards, and narrowed his eyes at the two famous teens. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” There was enough sarcasm placed on the last word to make it known he felt that it was anything but in his mind.

One of the guards – and it was also clear that the four other men in the room were bodyguards – lurched forward after he spoke, but Riko waved him aside with a negligent movement of his right hand. “Oh no, not just yet. We’re still waiting for one more of you. I’m not going to waste my breath before then.” He sounded as if he was bored, but there was a dangerous glimmer in his eyes that belied that impression.

Aidan felt a chill run down his back; ‘just you so far’ Riko had said when he walked into the room. ‘One more’. He wasn’t the one who had known Riko and Kevin in the past, who had a connection to them. He wasn’t someone who had a reason to bring them all the way to Racine. As he spun around and calculated how he could get through the two guards standing by the exit door, it opened up as a grinning Beal led a stone-faced Neil inside. “Ah, I see you’re all here now!”

Aidan saw it, the moment Neil realized who all was in the room; it was slight, but Neil’s jaw tensed just so, his right hand tightened on the strap of his backpack and his gaze immediately jerked back to Aidan as if in reassurance.

“Yes, we’re all here now,” Riko repeated, his tone mocking. “Thank you so much for your assistance, Mr. Beal. You may leave.”

“Ah, yes, sure. Glad to be, uhm, let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” The disgusting, traitorous puppy gave Riko such an open look of admiration that Aidan wanted to gut him on the spot while one of the guards all but slammed the door in his face. Aidan used that time to bridge the distance between him and Neil, to stand beside his friend. This close, he could feel the tension in Neil’s lean body, could only imagine how much stronger the impulse to run was for the teen, but noticed how Neil struggled to keep his face impassive, to remain calm.

He also noticed how Kevin Day stared at Neil, his expression at first one of disbelief and then remorse, and knew, just *knew* that this wasn’t going to end well – especially when Riko took to smirking in delight. He had to fight to not go for his knives then and there, and only managed to control his temper when one of the guards stepped closer to the arrogant bastard in an obvious sign of protection.

“*Now* we’re all here.”

“Good for you,” Aidan sneered as he fought with the overwhelming impulse to maim, to lash out. “Maybe you have time to fly around and impress people, but we’ve exams to prepare for, so yeah, nice to meet you but fuck off. Come on,” he urged Neil. As soon as they made for the door, the two other guards stepped in front of it.

“I see the reports didn’t exaggerate when they came to you, Andrew Doe. Or should I say, Andrew Minyard? Do you have a preference either way?”

It felt as if a wave of ice had been poured over Aidan just then. Shit. *Shit*, they knew about him. Neil clutched at Aidan’s arm as they turned around to face a smiling Riko and a visibly sweating Kevin. “I’ve no clue who you’re talking about,” Aidan gritted out as he struggled to remain calm, to remain in control and not give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing him lose it. “Now let us go.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so. After all, we’ve come so far to talk to you, you and our long lost Nathaniel,” Riko insisted, his dark eyes glittering as he stared hard at Neil as if looking at something precious to break.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

“Oh no, I don’t think so. After all, we’ve come so far to talk to you, you and our long lost Nathaniel.”

Neil felt as if someone had punched a knife hard into his chest with those words, as if they had twisted the blade in an effort to carve out his heart; he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but feel an intense agony as he stared at Riko. Stared at the face he had known when it had been younger, rounder, less cruel. When the ‘1’ on the left cheek had been from a marker and not tattoo ink, when those dark eyes had sparkled with amusement and enthusiasm, not malice.

“I’m… I’m not,” he attempted to choke out, his right hand locked onto Aidan’s left arm; he knew he was holding on too tight, that he shouldn’t… but Aidan allowed it. “I’m Neil Jos-“

Riko cut him off with a sharp wave of his right hand. “You are Nathaniel Wesninski, the son of Nathan Wesninski. Do *not* try to lie to me,” he hissed. “I have spent a great deal of effort and money verifying that, and the more you deny, the more you will have to make it up to me.”

In an instant, Aidan was in front of Neil, and judging from the way that the bodyguards rushed in front of Riko as well, Aidan must have pulled one of his knives. “You do *not* threaten us,” Aidan insisted, his voice that blank *nothingness* that Neil knew was never a good thing.

“Don’t,” Neil urged him, careful not to touch when Aidan was like this. “Pl- Aidan, just… don’t.” He didn’t like the odds, didn’t like what he knew from long experience were guns hidden beneath those black suit coats; how Riko’s men had gotten them into the school, he had no clue, but he supposed that money and fame could buy a lot of things.

“Listen to your master, Doe,” Riko called out. “He knows how these things go. Put away your little toy before my men break you… or would it hurt more if they break Nathaniel? Yes, I think the latter.”

“Riko.” Kevin sounded hoarse, and the name came out like a plea. “You… you can’t! We’re in… please!”

“Shut up.” As for Riko, his voice sounded like pure ice just then, and Neil wished that he could see what was happening but needed to keep his attention focused on Aidan; Kevin and Riko had been friends, back… back then. That didn’t sound like friendship now.

“Aidan,” he repeated, and *his* friend let out a shuddering breath as he put away the knife with obvious reluctance, his expression one of extreme displeasure.

“175%,” he informed Neil as he kept his attention on Riko.

“Thank you,” Neil breathed, willing to take the brunt of Aidan’s anger if it meant his friend wouldn’t be hurt. His hand hovered over Aidan’s left arm again, and when Aidan gave a slight nod, he rested it upon the firm upper arm, light enough for Aidan to shake off, before he took a deep breath and once more faced Riko.

The older teen’s expression was sour as he regarded the two of them. “You need to train him better, Nathaniel.”

“I haven’t trained him at all,” Neil snapped, refusing to let Aidan be insulted like that. “Why are you here?”

“To take back what belongs to me.” The sourness became replaced by something dark and possessive as he studied Neil, and Kevin took to staring the floor as if it held the answers to something he desperately wanted to know – that or he was trying to disassociate himself from what was happening.

“There’s nothing here for you,” Aidan insisted, “other than a knife to the throat.”

Riko smiled at that, a baring of the teeth that Neil recognized after years spent with his father. “Oh it will be fun teaching you how to heel, since Nathaniel has been so remiss. What do you think, Kevin? Having the others hold him back while I make Nathaniel bleed? Will that work best?”

“Aidan,” Neil rushed out, desperate for his friend to remain calm before this escalated into… before it escalated. “It’s just words.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Riko insisted, having heard what he said. “You forget, I know who you two really are. I know about how *that* one,” he motioned toward Andrew with a dismissive wave of his fingers, “should be locked up like the mutt he is. And I know that you’re not where you’re supposed to be, either, Nathaniel.”

Neil shook his head; this wasn’t making any sense, Riko being here, Riko *caring* that Neil was here, or anything else about what Riko was saying. “So what? We’re just two runaways, completely beneath your notice. We’re not worth your attention, not worth you leaving Edgar Allan.”

Riko stared at him as if he was insane, while Kevin gave him an incredulous look for several seconds before reaching out a tremulous hand to touch Riko’s right shoulder. “Riko… I don’t think he knows.”

Riko shrugged off the touch while he continued to study Neil. “I would hope not, because I refuse to believe that such an asset could be so stupid.”

“What the fuck are you two talking about?” Aidan ground out, his body tense as if he was barely holding back the urge to lash out, his fingers once more at the edges of the black arm bands.

Riko continued to study Neil a little longer and then laughed. “Perhaps you’re right, Kevin.” There was a bitter bite to his amusement just then, and Neil knew he wasn’t going to like how this turned out. “Let me tell you a little story.” He went over to the mirrored wall and leaned against it, as if making himself comfortable. “Not so long ago, Kevin came to me, as he does now and then, to tell me about prospective recruits for the Ravens.” He directed a mocking smile at Kevin, whose face became flushed and gaze once more was directed toward the floor. “They’re a little young, he said. They don’t look like much on the surface, he said. But look at the stats. Look at what they’ve accomplished – dragging a bottom level team up so far in less than one season, and coming out of nowhere to do it at that. Promise, he told me. Great promise, something he could work with and refine. So I told him to look into them, as it would give him something to do.” Riko directed a fond look at Kevin – much like one would direct toward their pet.

Neil felt a growing horror inside of his chest. “How….”

Beside him, Aidan shifted about. “Fucking Beal.”

“Yeah,” Kevin mumbled as he avoided looking at them directly. “Your coach put out videos of your games. Your team wasn’t that great on average, but to improve so much… that stood out.”

Neil had only thought about not making the play-offs, to not make any splashy wins. He hadn’t thought that dragging the Panthers out of the gutter would come back to haunt them. “No,” he moaned.

“Oh yes.” Riko’s shark-like grin returned. “And you know what happened? That search? It came up curiously empty. It was as if the two of you didn’t exist, not really. No social security numbers, no hospital records, no paper trail. My men were quick to recognize fake identifications soon enough, though I must commend you, it took them a little longer than normal.”

‘His men’. Neil didn’t like the sound of it, didn’t like that at all; he looked at the bodyguards with new eyes, and got the impression that the ones here… they weren’t the type hired to protect a celebrity.

“So I sent one of them to check up on you here,” Riko continued, “and after following you around a little, he got what I needed. A couple of fingerprints later, and I had my answers.” The smile slipped away. “I must admit, the mutt was a surprise, but you, Nathaniel?” The maniacal gleam returned to Riko’s dark eyes, and Neil had the impression that it would not be good for him, to be caught alone with the older teen. Aidan must have had the same impression, because he once more stepped forward until he partially blocked Riko’s view of Neil.

Riko glared at Aidan as if offended by that action. “The mutt can’t protect you, Nathaniel, not when I *own* you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, no one owns me,” Neil insisted.

“Then your father did you a grave injustice,” Riko spat out, his face flushed with anger and his hands clenched into fists – all this sudden change of emotion was *not* a good sign, was not the hallmark of a mentally stable person. “Why do you think you were at Castle Evermore all those years ago? Why do you think your poor, delusional mother took you and ran?”

Neil stared at the other teen in confusion for a couple of seconds and then at Kevin, who still refused to look at him. “I… I was there to play Exy,” he managed after a few seconds, his voice weak.

“You were there to prove to my uncle that you *could* play Exy.” Riko stepped forward, his eyes glittering with that same dark, possessive emotion from before and his fingers flexing, as if he wanted to latch on to something – to tear it apart. He began to circle Neil and Aidan, but Aidan kept positioning himself between Riko and Neil. “Your father sent you there as a gift, a *tribute* to my uncle, and if you passed, you would belong to him, to *me*. If you failed, you would be nothing and as such, killed. Apparently, your mother didn’t want to risk it and stole you away - stole you from *me*.”

“No.” Neil shook his head and tried to deny the words, to deny the sense of them; it had always confused and at some level bothered him, why his mother had chosen to run *then*, to wait all those years before leaving his abusive father. But if there was a kernel of truth to what Riko said….

He could have gotten away from his father, could have played Exy at Castle Evermore, could have been a Raven….

Then Aidan’s voice shook him back to reality, to what it would have meant to be at *Riko’s* side. “He’s *not* yours.” There was so much fury and hate in those words, it almost didn’t sound like his friend.

Riko laughed at that, even though he stayed just out of Aidan’s reach. “But he is, you see. The Butcher works – well, worked for the Moriyamas, belonged to them, and as such, his son belongs to them, too. Doubly so since the money his mother stole was Moriyama money in the end. That means Nathaniel is mine twice-over.”

This was a nightmare, that was the only explanation. Neil wrapped his arms around his chest, around the awful pain that wouldn’t go away, and shook his head. “No, that’s….” All these years he’d been so terrified of his father, and he’d never thought that the monster had answered to anyone higher up. Had never thought that there was a reason for him to be at Evermore, other than as yet another way for the man to ruin anything good in his life.

A gloating smile spread across Riko’s lips. “You know it, don’t you? You know it’s the truth, and that’s why once the school year is over, you will come back where you belong and take your place with the Ravens.” Cruelty crept into the expression as he stared at Neil in an almost hungry manner. “You would have been my number three, but it’s too late now. Considering that you’re a Wesninski, four will suit you, though. Kevin says you still have the promise you showed years ago, and I look forward to beating it out of you.”

Neil couldn’t speak, couldn’t do anything but shake his head. Still, Aidan spoke up for him again.

“Try it, and you’ll lose your hand.”

“You *will* be on that plane,” Riko insisted as if Aidan hadn’t said a word, yet his eyes glittered with that insane rage. “There are still many people loyal to your father, don’t make me have them flush you out,” he threatened. He sent an annoyed look Aidan’s way before he stared at Neil. “Bring your mutt along if you must, since Kevin said he could prove useful, but know that if you can’t muzzle him, you will pay for his misbehavior.”

“We’re not going anywhere with you, you sick fuck.”

Rage flushed Riko’s face a mottled red, and when he made a move against Aidan, to strike him or something, Aidan was faster, was able to pull a knife out from one of his bands and brandish it in the teen’s face. Neil had never seen Riko so startled in his life, not the self-assured kid, not the polished celebrity or Exy champion, but right now there was pure panic in his expression as one of his guards just managed to yank him back to safety.

That panic quickly turned to loathing. “You will regret that,” Riko vowed as he smoothed his hands along the front of his black coat, his eyes flashing with the strong emotion and lips pressed thin. “Only it won’t be you who pays, Doe, it’ll be Nathaniel. I’ll enjoy hearing you beg while he bleeds.”

Aidan flipped him off, knife still held in his hand.

It looked as if Riko would try again, but this time, Kevin stood in his way, hands help up. “They know now,” he said, voice almost pleading. “Nathaniel knows. Please, leave it for now – Nathaniel knows to come… to come home.” He continued on for a few more seconds in what sounded to be Japanese.

Riko raised his right hand in a fist, and for a moment Neil thought that he would strike Kevin, and then he patted Kevin on the shoulder much like one would pat a dog. “You’re right.” He looked over Kevin’s shoulder at Neil, and the meaning in it was clear – he expected to be obeyed, and he was counting down the days until ‘Nathaniel’ returned to Charleston. “Tickets will be sent to you, and you will be given a few days after classes finish to tidy up any loose ends here. Don’t make me regret that kindness.”

Neil bit his tongue before he could remark about that ‘kindness’, and tugged on Aidan’s arm before his friend did the same; Riko watched them for a few more seconds as if waiting for their reaction, then scoffed while he turned away, Kevin and the four guards falling in step behind him as they left through the door on the far side of the room.

The room was quiet after their departure, and Neil slumped against Aidan’s back after several seconds, drained and aching as if he’d just been in physical fight. “Tell me that didn’t happen,” he murmured as he hid his face against Aidan’s neck, risking his friend’s anger at the contact for the moment of comfort.

For once, Aidan didn’t seem to mind. “I’m going to kill him,” he said after a slight pause, his voice calm and his fingers sliding through Neil’s hair; they massaged his scalp a little before they gave the strands a sharp tug. “Come on, we’re getting out of here.”

“What?” Neil let go of Aidan and took a step back. “Now? Go where?”

Aidan frowned as he stepped toward the door. “You’re kidding me, right? I figured you’d be out the door the moment they left.”

Neil shook his head. “I would, but… it’s not that simple.” He shrugged his backpack higher up on his shoulder as he tried to put it all into words. “They know about us now, they managed to find out our real ID’s, that means they must have followed us without us noticing.” Without *Neil* noticing. “You think Riko left without some of his men still around? We run without thinking it through, and they’ll either tell my father’s people or the police, or drag us back to Riko by force.” As much as he hated it, as much as he really did want to run right now and run hard… he couldn’t. *They* couldn’t. Not with a probable warrant out for Andrew that Riko would only be too happy to use to hurt Neil and bring him to heel.

The intense anger from before flared up. “So you’re giving up?” Aidan got in his face, his eyes bright and handsome face raw with the emotion. “You’re saying that the bastard’s won?”

“No.” The simple answer gave Aidan pause and seemed to bank some of that anger. “I’m saying we just don’t run *now* and we think things through before we do.” If there was one thing that Neil had learned from Aidan – from Andrew, it was that just running, running without thinking, wasn’t always the answer.

“Okay then.” Aidan nodded as he continued toward the door. “But we’re still leaving – if I see that bastard Beal today, I will gut him. I declare today a skip day.”

Yeah, Neil wasn’t about to argue with that – there was no way he could concentrate after the past… however long it had been. “Then we go home and start planning.”

“We go home and start drinking, planning can wait until tonight.”

That worked as well.

*******

Aidan called Anna on their way home so she could cover for them with the school in case anyone called asking where they were, to give some bullshit story about a ‘family emergency’ – he wasn’t sure what Riko had pulled to get them out of class, and at that point didn’t care. She wasn’t pleased with being woken up early but something in his voice kept her bitching to a minimum, and she swore she’d handle it. Aidan wasn’t even sure anyone would mind that they disappeared, not when two famous Exy players had come to the school on what had probably been billed as a potential recruiting run.

Neil made him stop by a store so he could pick up a couple of burner phones, and then they were home. Once they were inside, Aidan broke out the ‘medicinal’ vodka, and Neil didn’t complain at all, just tossed back a few shots in quick succession as if in a desperate need to get drunk as quickly as possible. The alcohol kicked in fast, so soon after that Aidan handed him a bottle of water, sat down on the couch with the rest of the vodka and watched while Neil paced back and forth. As Neil stumbled about, he began to look behind the couch and the table, to check the plugs and the various light fixtures, to dig around in things and generally just keep poking and prodding – it took Aidan about five minutes to figure out that his friend was checking the place for bugs. He watched on in amazement as Neil spent about half an hour searching the apartment to his satisfaction.

He then spent the next hour ranting and raving in English, French and German; Aidan was able to follow a good bit of it after several months of studying the languages with his friend, and got the gist of the rest. Neil was basically trying to figure out their options and cursing out his father and mother for keeping him in the dark, his thoughts disjointed because of the alcohol. His father being dead helped in some ways, and complicated it in others – was there anything that Neil stood to inherit with the man dead? Did that make him more valuable or less? Nathan Wesninski might be dead, along with Lola and Romano Malcom, but Jackson Plank and Patrick DiMaccio were still out there, and Neil didn’t seem to want to run into them any time soon.

And just how powerful were the Moriyamas? For Neil to never have heard of them was *not* a good thing, especially if Riko had felt secure enough to bring armed men into a school and make threats. Aidan had to give him that one, as he nursed what was left of the vodka, and wished that he’d been able to take a clear shot of that Japanese bastard without the risk of both of them being shot three seconds later. Did their power extend to Canada? To Europe? Was there a safe country for them to run to at all? Any other major players who could be used as a buffer? What all were their options?

Then Neil babbled a while about passports and bonds and setting up some offshore accounts for the rest of the money and… he seemed to run out of steam about then and went to stand in front of the large living room window for a little while. Aidan left him alone and powered on his laptop, pulled up the fake Facebook account he’d created a while back and scrolled through Nicky Hemmick’s most recent posts since it was already a shitty day. Even with the fading buzz of alcohol in him, he could only take about ten minutes of that, so he closed the browser window and powered off the device, then got up and went to fetch some more water, before standing behind Neil.

“You still drunk?” He handed his friend one of the bottles.

“I wish I was,” Neil admitted as he accepted the water. “It would make all of this more bearable.” He stared out at the street below them, the cars driving past and the people walking. “The house back in Baltimore… it was like my father was trying to prove something, to impress people with his wealth. I never cared about it, though, never missed any of it while we were on the run. Never missed it here, either.”

“I couldn’t tell, what with the way you take advantage of every fucking sale,” Aidan teased as he pressed against Neil’s back. “With how you pinch every penny and have a heart attack when you have to spend any money.”

“I want the money to last us a long time.” Neil closed his eyes and took several swallows of water, while Aidan hooked his left arm around Neil’s narrow hips; he didn’t know why with anyone else, this closeness would be suffocating, would drive him across the room in a heartbeat, but with Neil… right now he wanted to make sure that Neil didn’t vanish. “Though I’d give it all up if it would make Riko leave us alone.”

“Yeah, somehow I doubt that’ll happen.” Riko had looked much too eager about the prospect of having a new ‘toy’ in his possession – a new toy he could break.

“Me too.” Neil sighed and leaned back against Aidan; despite the slight difference in their heights, Neil weighed less than Aidan, was more slender with his runner’s build when compared to Aidan’s muscular body and broad shoulders. “But it’ll come in handy now.” He reached into the front right pocket of his jeans and pulled out one of the burner phones.

Aidan had a terrible fear that Neil was calling his uncle – at least until he started speaking French. Neil twisted back to give him an apologetic look, probably because he knew that Aidan’s French wasn’t good enough to entirely follow the conversation, but Aidan caught most of it – that and Neil wasn’t doing most of the talking, Durand was. At least, Aidan assumed that Durand was, from what he overheard. Neil apologized for calling out of the blue and told the forger that all he wanted was some information, information that was not going to be used for any reasons other than… Aidan thought he said something like to update or along those lines, and for that, Neil would allow Durand to take ten thousand dollars from the accounts the forger had set up for them. After that, Neil mentioned the name ‘Moriyama’ and then became quiet for a few minutes.

Neil might have become quiet, but there was a faint murmur over the phone while Neil’s expression grew more and more blank with each passing minute. Finally he thanked Durand for his time and hung up. He stared at the phone in his hand and then shuddered.

“Just how bad is it?”

There’s a weak laugh from Neil as he twisted around so he could sit in the windowsill and face Aidan, the bottle of water set aside. “Well, the good news, if you want to call it that, is that Riko didn’t exactly tell the truth.”

Aidan pulled out his cigarettes, having the feeling he’d need something to calm his nerves for what was to come. “And the bad news?”

“He didn’t exaggerate by much.” Neil’s white teeth bit into his bottom lip for a moment as his left hand smoothed over his abdomen – over the scars hidden by his grey t-shirt. “My father did indeed work for the Moriyamas, but not so much for Tetsuji, his uncle, but for Kengo, Riko’s father. It seems that there’s really two branches of the family, the main branch and the side branch. Kengo heads the main branch and his firstborn son, Ichiro, will inherit.”

Aidan blew out a plume of smoke. “Why do I get the feeling this is complicated?”

“It is and it isn’t.” Neil gave a half-smile at Aidan’s dirty look. “The main branch is in charge of everything, and you only run the main branch if you’re the firstborn. If you’re not the firstborn, you’re shuffled off to the side, you’re considered not as important. Durand told me that Riko was handed over to Tetsuji as soon as he was born.”

Huh, that had to sting, Aidan was willing to bet. “So his father has had nothing to do with him?”

“Nothing, from what Durand told me,” Neil agreed. “Tetsuji’s raised him his entire life. Tetsuji’s main use to Kengo is using Castle Evermore and the Ravens as a front – there’s a lot of important people who come and go to the Towers during the Ravens games since it’s the US national stadium. The Moriyamas can conduct their business there with no one the wiser.”

Aidan considered that as he drew a few puffs from the cigarette. “So if we run, it’s more Kengo we have to fear than Riko.”

“Yes. He’s who we have to factor into everything.” The slight smile vanished from Neil’s face. “We need to worry about the main branch, not Riko.”

What were the odds that this Kengo wasn’t a crazed little shit like Riko, eh? Still, one problem at a time. “So any idea just how powerful these Moriyamas are?”

Neil shook his head. “Durand wouldn’t say, and the fact that he wouldn’t?” He rubbed at his eyes with the phone still clutched in his right hand. “Not good. My father was powerful enough as it was, and he reported to Kengo.”

Another strike against them running, then. “So what do we do then? Call your uncle?”

“I’m not sure he’s powerful enough to take them on. For all I know, he works for them, too.”

Aidan was beginning to regret drinking all of the vodka. “So what the fuck do we do, then?”

Neil was quiet for a few seconds, then looked at the phone in his hand. “There’s still one party that might have a use for me – they sure seemed to want me back in California.” He stared at Aidan as if waiting for him to figure it out.

Back in California…. “Fuck, you’ve got to be crazy!” Aidan flicked the cigarette aside and jumped forward so he could grab the idiot by the front of his t-shirt.

“It’s the only thing I can think of right now – I have something they want, and they don’t get it without taking care of the main threats that Riko’s holding over both of our heads.”

Both of *their* heads, that was the only thing that calmed Aidan down just then. “And what about Kengo?”

Something twisted on Neil’s face at the question. “First we negate as much we can the hold Riko has on us, and then I’ll deal with Kengo.” When Aidan’s hold on his shirt tightened, Neil shook his head. “No, I have an idea that might work with him, something that’ll appease him, but we need to deal with Riko’s threat first.”

“And you think *they’ll* buy into it?” It was official, the idiot was insane – but so was Aidan, if he was going to go along with it.

“I think it’s our best chance – that or I give you half of the money and we split up. Riko may forget about you and focus everything on me.”

“Fuck that,” Aidan snarled as he yanked Neil in close. “I don’t go back on my promises,” he ground out before he mashed their lips together. Not when he’d finally found someone worthy of keeping it.

Neil made a faint, needy sound and parted his lips the same time his hands hovered around Aidan’s shoulders. When Aidan deepened the kiss, they settled on his upper arms, the pressure light, and Aidan took that as a sign to walk backwards, with Neil rising up to follow him.

“Yes or no?” he asked as he headed toward Neil’s room.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Neil chanted, eager as always to follow him. He made no complaints when Aidan came to a halt in front of his bed and yanked off the blue duvet, then pulled Neil’s t-shirt over his head before pushing him down onto the bed.

Aidan paused just a moment before removing his shirt as well, then joined Neil on the bed; it was a bit of a tight fit, being a twin, but part of him wanted to feel Neil’s lean, tone body against his, to feel the way it shivered and hitched as his hands stroked along skin smooth and scarred, when his fingers twisted in thick strands of hair. Neil had taken to kissing like with Exy, with too much fucking enthusiasm and a frightening amount of skill, and Aidan only allowed his friend’s lips to skim along his neck for a few seconds because it felt too good. When a small moan escaped him, he tugged those smiling lips away and set out to return the favor, his own mouth intent on Neil’s arched neck, licking his way down to a prominent collarbone so he could suck and bite with impudence.

“Ah! Fuck, Aidan,” Neil groaned, his fingers biting into Aidan’s upper arm and hips rocking forward.

Feeling pleased with himself just then, Aidan thrust forward as well and smiled at the low moan it produced from Neil, at the way the teen’s eyes fluttered closed. His hands skimmed downward, his right one cupping Neil through the denim material of his shorts for a moment before he undid the button and zipper, and soon the shorts and underwear were shoved down and kicked aside. Neil had long ago lost any shyness from being naked in front of Aidan, of any sorts of reservation to what they did together, and Aidan relished the trust between them. He closed his eyes as he pulled Neil closer to him for a moment, just to drink in the feel of Neil’s body so pliant against his own, and refused to imagine Riko touching his friend in any way, to harm or-

He grasped Neil’s face between his hands for a kiss that was almost painful from the way he mashed their mouths together, yet Neil didn’t push him away, just kept holding on to Aidan’s arm and tangled their legs together as it slowly gentled into something better. Aidan let out a shaky breath when they broke apart and bowed his head until their foreheads touched.

“You okay?” Neil asked, his right hand moving as if to touch Aidan’s cheek but hesitating.

“Yeah.” Aidan grasped the hand and gave it a slight squeeze before he worked up the courage to place it on his side and work on removing the rest of his clothes. Once he was naked as well, he shifted a little closer until their hard cocks pressed together, which provoked a slight gasp from Neil.

“Look at me,” he ordered Neil, who had glanced down for a moment.

“Okay.” Neil appeared a bit surprised at Aidan’s actions, but as always at moments like these he followed Aidan’s commands. He once more took to biting into that full bottom lip when Aidan wrapped his hand around both of their cocks; it was a little dry at first, but soon there was enough pre-come to slick up the motion so Aidan didn’t bother to get up for any lube. “Put your hand on top of mine.”

Neil’s eyes widened at that, but he hurried to do what he’d been told, his palm smaller than Aidan’s but fingers longer, the skin just as calloused from all the Exy practice.

Aidan set the pace of the strokes as the pleasure steadily built inside of him; the slick slide of skin, the tightness and pressure growing with each passing second sparking a tightening coil of ecstasy inside of him that was only enflamed by the sight of Neil’s flushed face so close, by the hitched breaths and low moans. He reached over to thread the fingers of his free hand into Neil’s hair, felt the dampness of sweat at the roots and clenched hard, felt Neil’s breath catch just then and saw the flutter of those thick lashes. There was such a wave of possessiveness just then, of something so powerful inside of Aidan that all he could think of was how he couldn’t allow anyone to take this away from him.

Neil let out another low moan and leaned forward to kiss him, lips fervent on Aidan’s, and his body gave a couple of small, stuttered jerks before he gasped into Aidan’s mouth, before warmth spurted across Aidan’s fingers. Yet his hand kept moving with Aidan’s, and the feel of Neil’s mouth shifting along his chin and then down his neck was enough to send Aidan tumbling across that precipice himself. He choked on something that sounded too much like Neil’s name as he came, as he pulled Neil’s head toward his shoulder.

Things were quiet after that, the two of them curled up on the bed together, but the need to clean up got to Aidan after a couple of minutes and he grimaced. “Come on, let’s go.” He tugged Neil up off the bed so they could wash off. “We still need to figure some shit out.” They could order some take-out afterward as they worked on their plans… and he would tell Neil about Luther and Nicky Hemmick, just in case they could factor into things. Maybe there would be a use for the pains in the asses, after all.

*******

They started the next day, putting into motion their plan to slip Riko’s leash; when they went to school that morning, they packed an additional change of clothes in their backpacks and left them in the back of the Nissan. They didn’t have anything other than clothes and Aidan’s laptop that they planned on taking with them, it would look suspicious if they packed up any of the furniture and Neil had long learned to leave behind possessions when he moved on. Still, since now he had something other than just a duffel bag… it was odd, having more than just seven or eight pairs of outfits, even if it wasn’t much more than that, but the point of running this time was not to *just* run, so Aidan argued that there was no sense in doing a total salt the earth when they left.

It was difficult, walking back into the school after what happened, knowing that it was compromised, knowing that Riko had been there, doubly so when Couch Beal came up to Neil in gym class. “So, yesterday.” The man looked as if he was about to burst from the excitement. “I know, I know, not supposed to say anything, but, uhm, yeah, it’s good?”

Neil hoped that enough people had been around when he had approached Aidan, to help calm his friend’s homicidal nature. “It’s good,” Neil lied as he forced himself to look the man in the face. “It’s definitely made my brother and I think of the future.”

“Great!” Beal boomed and he made to pat Neil on the shoulder, but Neil stepped back. “Next year should be great, just see!”

“I have to get back to,” Neil motioned around the gym, “don’t want to cramp up.”

“We wouldn’t want that. You have a great summer, if I don’t see you again. Maybe do something fun, help your brother find a sense of humor and all that.”

Yeah, allowing Aidan to carve out Beal’s liver would go a long way toward that, but Neil merely nodded and went back to running his laps, while the rest of the class finished their little wrestling tournament. Two more weeks, he reminded himself. Two more weeks of pretending, of going through the motions – with exams on top of that – of fighting the urge to run and not looking over his shoulder every day to figure out where Riko had placed his men. He could do it, he had survived worse. He had Aidan, this time.

It didn’t help that they arrived home to find a note that there was a package waiting for them in the apartment’s office, only for Semovoski to hand over an overnighted letter that he’d signed for in their absence. “Something important?” he asked as he gave it to Aidan.

“Just some software I ordered, the laptop is acting up and I need it fixed if I’m going to complete a paper in time to hand it in,” Aidan lied.

Semovoski laughed at that. “Please, kids your age, you’re looking at porn. I know how it is.” Still, he laughed again and seemed to forget about the envelope, especially after Neil stepped up to pay the next’s month rent ahead of time, since they were already down there.

The envelope was from Riko, of course, containing two tickets – one first class in Neil’s name, and the other coach in Aidan’s name, to Charleston in three weeks’ time. “Oh isn’t he funny,” Aidan drawled as he held them up for a moment, only to tear them to shreds a second later.

“He does seem to like games,” Neil agreed as he swept up the mess to throw out.

“What did Durand say? That his father handed him off as a child? I think he has issues, great big daddy issues.” A cruel look came over Aidan’s face as he slipped a knife free. “No, what’s going to be *fun* is picking at them, in showing him that one should be careful about the dog one choses to taunt.”

Yeah, Neil had figured that Aidan wasn’t going to let those insults the other day just lie. “He has a criminal organization at his beck and call,” he reminded his friend.

Aidan reached out to tap the flat of the blade against Neil’s bottom lip, during which Neil just stood there and stared back at him. “No, his father and brother have the criminal organization under their control, from what Durand told you. We just have to make sure that we’re on the right side of the family.” There was a slight smile on his face as if he was contemplating something.

He made it sound so easy. “Do me a favor, and don’t unduly antagonize the psycho who seems to think he owns me.”

That made Aidan’s half-smile fade. “Do you doubt my promise?” The knife pressed against Neil’s lip for a moment before pulling away.

“No,” Neil assured him, “I’m just familiar with how much effort it takes to bury a body. It’s a pain in the ass, quite frankly, and I can only imagine the nightmare it would be for a bunch of them.”

Aidan’s half-smile returned as he sheathed the knife. “Wuss. You can spend hours practicing your precious Exy, but you’re afraid of a little honest work?”

“How many bodies have you buried?”

“Oh, we have the most delightful conversations, don’t we?” He then draped his arms over Neil’s shoulders.

Neil narrowed his eyes but didn’t shrug off those arms. “That’s an evasion – don’t think I’m going to do all of the digging,” he warned. “There’s not always a nice desert around to leave them in, you know.”

Aidan made a growling sound as he pushed Neil down onto the couch. “Then be a good boy, keep that smart mouth of yours under control and don’t put me in a position which will result in bodies.”

Neil thought about the possibility of that happening as he laid out on the couch. “Ah….”

“Exactly.” The knowing smirk on Aidan’s face just then meant that he knew he’d won. “Now tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then shut up.”

There was only one answer to that, wasn’t there?

*******

Neil finished cleaning out his locker and was surprised to find Ryan approaching while he closed it. “Uhm, hi?” He hadn’t seen the other teen since the last Exy practice, and hadn’t really talked much to him since… well, since that day back in December; Aidan had made it clear that he hadn’t wanted anything to do with Ryan after that, and that it extended to Neil as well.

“Hi.” Ryan gave him a nervous wave and glanced around, as if looking for Aidan. “This won’t take long, but I just… I just wanted to wish you a nice summer, okay?” He gave a slight laugh and rubbed at the back of his head. “Never really got a chance to say goodbye to you and Aidan, what with the way you guys hightailed it out of the last Exy practice and all.”

“Yeah, we’re not… well, goodbyes aren’t exactly our things, and group stuff.”

“I noticed that.” There was a wry twist to Ryan’s lips there. “But still, I just wanted to say goodbye, wish you guys a good summer and hope that… well, maybe when we’re all back here next year, we can start fresh?” He looked a bit hopeful then. “I mean, we were friends first, and I like Aidan as a friend.” His face became a little flushed as with embarrassment. “I always thought of him as a friend, and I’d like it if we could pick that back up.”

Neil felt a little sorry for the guy, for what he was trying to do and for what would never happen. “I’ll tell him that.” He would, not that it would do Ryan any good. “And have a nice summer yourself.”

After Ryan waved goodbye and left, presumably toward his own locker, Neil headed outside to meet up with Aidan. “What took you so long?”

Neil tossed his backpack into the back seat of the Nissan and, after Aidan waved to it, slid into the driver’s seat. “Ran into Ryan.” When Aidan didn’t say anything, he began to explain. “He wanted to wish us a nice summer.” Neil managed a sardonic smile as he pulled out of the school’s parking lot, narrowly avoiding some moron running around screaming about a ‘party about to start’. “And… he was hoping that you would… I don’t know, forgive him and be friends with him again.”

Aidan scoffed at that, pausing in the process of lighting a cigarette. “My heart, it bleeds.”

About to say that he didn’t need to be an asshole about things, Neil just decided to drop the matter; it wasn’t as if they would ever see Ryan again, and part of him… part of him was happy about that. Happy that Aidan didn’t care about the other teen and was fine with avoiding him. Besides, they had more important things to worry about then.

They returned home, aware that if Riko’s men were watching them, they would be paying special attention to them now that school was finished and they had little to tie them to Racine at the moment. They fetched their school bags and went up to their apartment, where they stayed in for the night. Neil made dinner with what was left in the kitchen, just some soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, while Aidan did a final sweep to make sure that nothing important was being left behind or that they hadn’t missed anything. After they ate, Aidan got on the phone and called Anna.

“We’re all set,” he told her. “The rent’s paid up for another couple of weeks, so just wait another day before you come for the stuff.” He was quiet for a minute while his fingers tapped against the table. “We’re sure. Just do that dumb act of yours if anyone shows up asking for us, and use what we’ll send you if you don’t hear from us in a few days.” Contempt twisted his face a few seconds later. “Whatever, just do what I asked, all right? Don’t put more into it than that.” He huffed as he hung up the phone. “She’s not only a bitch, but she’s a sappy bitch at that,” he insisted as he set the phone down on the table.

“Imagine that, you knowing anyone who’s sappy,” Neil remarked as he began to clear the table.

“Yeah, well, I figured she’d be excited to get her hands on all this stuff.” Aidan appeared annoyed at the moment. “And to see the last of me.”

“It’s not easy to predict people.” Neil stared into the sink for a while before he started the water. “Would make life a lot simpler if you could.”

“I don’t know, some people aren’t so difficult.” Aidan joined him over by the sink. “At least in some ways.”

His presence made Neil smile as he began to wash up the dishes. “Such as being contrary just to annoy people?”

“Or being too stubborn to give in?”

“Hmm, imagine that.” Neil studied the bowl in his hands with more scrutiny than was needed as he took a deep breath and said what he needed to in order to have as clean a conscience as possible. “You know, you can still stay here. Riko said that I *could* bring you, not that you had-“

There was a pinching pressure on the back of his neck, one that forced him to lean toward the sink. “Continue to talk like that and you’ll be licking the dishes clean, understand?” Aidan’s voice was almost cheerful, except for the pressure on Neil’s neck and the low thrum of anger in his tone. “We’re leaving tomorrow, *together*, and if at any point you try to run off alone, I will track you down and break your fucking legs. If I figure out that you’re running to *him*, I’ll break your hands, too.”

“Okay.” Neil didn’t attempt to fight against the hold, to lash out against it or the threats or Aidan, he just relaxed and waited for Aidan to realize that he wasn’t lying or resisting. “But then you’ll be stuck hauling me around.”

There was a snort of derision as Aidan let go. “It’ll be worth it, if it gets the damn point into that thick head of yours.” He waited until Neil straightened up to jab a hard finger into his left shoulder. “No running, and no noble shit. We’re in this together.”

“Okay,” Neil repeated, then resumed doing the dishes. “Your pep talks suck,” he added after a few seconds.

“I don’t want to hear it from the idiot who thinks being a fucking martyr is the solution to everything,” Aidan seethed as he shoved the towel for drying dishes into Neil’s face. “For that, you’re on your own in here.” He stomped off to the living room while Neil caught the towel before it fell to the ground.

Well, that was one way to get out of drying, wasn’t it?

*******

Aidan checked in the mirror yet again to make sure that no one was following them, only slightly relieved to see an unfamiliar set of cars behind them; they had woken up the same time as usual that morning and gone about the same routine that they’d done since Exy practice had ended for their ‘off’ days. Aidan had slept in while Neil had gotten up and done some running, and once he’d returned home and showered, they’d gone out for breakfast. Once done, they’d run a few errands, done some window shopping, made a couple of small purchases, and when they had finally been certain that they were no longer being tailed by one of Riko’s men, they got in the car and drove around a little until they reached the highway. Once on it, they headed east.

They were now past Chicago, so Aidan glanced over at Neil, who nodded and motioned at the upcoming exit for Gary, Indiana. Once off the exit, they pulled into the first gas station so Aidan could top off the gas tank and Neil could place a call on one of the burner phones.

It took a few minutes since it wasn’t that easy to get through to a person, but he kept repeating the name ‘Nathan Wesninski’ and ‘Nathaniel Wesninski’, growing more impatient each time. Aidan stood beside him so he could somewhat hear what was going on, and had to applaud the ineptitude of the federal government.

“No, I will say this one more time and then I’m hanging up. If someone wants to find out what Nathaniel Wesninski knows about Nathan Wesninski and his organization, I suppose you’ll have someone waiting for me the next time I call, yes?” Then he hung up, frustration evident on his face and from the way he clutched at the phone. “Okay, let’s give them an hour.”

“You can drive this time,” Aidan told him before turning back to the car; it would allow him to concentrate better on if they were being followed or not.

“Okay.”

They drove along 90 a bit farther, and then they stopped again, got some caffeine and a bite to eat before Neil once again called. Only this time, as soon as he said the ‘magic’ name, he was routed through to someone. “Okay, so, Detective Browning? Have you been waiting long?” There was a slight smile on Neil’s face as he shared a look with Aidan. “I see. Well, depending on how this call goes, you’ll find out soon if I’m really Nathaniel Wesninski, but I would say that it’s in part thanks to your men that my mother died after running into my father in Seattle.” The smile faded away as his gaze became distant, as if he was thinking back to that night. “My understanding is that she handed over information to you there, after all. And you certainly seemed eager to catch up to me in Oakland, yes?” He became quiet after that, and Aidan heard a deep voice ramble on over the other end of the line for a couple of minutes.

Neil let him talk for a bit, then shook his head. “No, this is all you need to know right now, that I’m willing to come in, but there are conditions. I want immunity for myself and one other. No charges will be brought up on us for any past crimes, understand? *Nothing*. I’ll call back in another hour to see if you’re ready to go on record with that agreement.” Then he hung up again. “Ready?”

“This is almost becoming amusing.” Aidan shook his head and took over the driving duties for the next leg of the trip. Since they were now encountering the less populated part of Indiana, it took a little more than an hour for them to make the next call – not a bad thing in Aidan’s mind, since it gave Browning some time to stew.

They found a quiet parking lot to stop in while Neil made the call, this time on speakerphone while Aidan used another phone to record the conversation. As soon as Browning picked up, his annoyance was clear. “Don’t go jerking my chain, Wesninski.”

“I’m not,” Neil told him. “I’m sure you have an idea of how much of a risk it is, me contacting you, me stepping forward. My mother didn’t survive it, so I’m not going to commit until you give me what I want.”

“You’re a kid,” Browning snapped. “Come in and we’ll put you in protective custody.”

“No,” Neil insisted. “Give me the two immunities I want.”

There was a pause on the end of the line for a few seconds. “Is Andrew Doe still with you? He hasn’t been sighted since the two of you went missing from Wayward Burns. Come in and we’ll put both of you in witness protection.”

“You’re not listening to me,” Neil repeated. “Give me what I want and I’ll tell you everything I know about my father’s business. If you don’t, I hang up and vanish.”

“This is ridiculous, it’s not a damn game!”

“Thirty seconds,” Neil insisted, a cold look on his face as he stared off into the distance.

“Listen, Nathaniel, you have to-“

“Twenty-five, now.”

“All right! Just get your asses here and you’ll have your immunity, all right? But you will tell us *everything*.”

“Of course,” Neil lied as his gaze flickered over to Aidan’s. “Now, swear to me about the immunity. I want your word that Andrew and I will not be charged with any crimes.”

It wasn’t airtight, the recording, but it was enough to cause the FBI no little consternation if word got out that one of their agents had made a deal with two under-aged civilians under false pretenses in order to coerce information out of them. It took them a little while to find a UPS store, and just in time before it closed for the day, but they got the phone out to Kelci and then could get back to driving – only this time, taking the back roads and smaller highways that would lead them to 75 and south, in case the FBI had managed to figure out where they were calling from. In case Riko’s men had noticed yet that they were gone and managed to track them any.

It was a long night, driving south, with the two of them alternating behind the wheel and stopping for breaks when they grew too tired; Aidan was reminded of how they had crisscrossed the west when driving from Reno, doing their best to throw off anyone who might be following them. At least this time Neil was in one piece and the car a little bigger, and they had an idea of what awaited them at the end.

They reached Columbia, South Carolina in the early morning, too early to head to the Federal Burea of Investigation building located off of 76 near the armory – one of the many things that they’d spent the last two weeks researching whenever they had any spare time. So they stopped at a small diner for a breakfast that Neil was too nervous to eat, his face pale and shoulders tense, while Aidan drank coffee and enjoyed his blueberry waffles. “Either they honor the agreement or lock us up,” he told the idiot in German.

Neil gave him a look that translated into ‘not helping’, as if Aidan cared. “Well, I suppose either of those will annoy Riko so you’re fine.”

“Hmm, that is true.” Aidan made a point to reach over to steal the bacon from Neil’s neglected plate. “But it’ll be much more fun to annoy him if it’s the first.”

“Then do me a favor and don’t stab anyone today.” Neil shoved his plate toward Aidan and went back to nursing his coffee, so Aidan helped himself to the rest of the bacon and even an egg before they left.

As soon as the FBI offices opened up for the day, the two of them – Aidan minus his knives, someone had no sense of fun at all – entered the building. They were given a couple of odd looks, probably because of their age and casual appearance, while they approached what looked to be an information desk. A young man dressed in a dark suit gave them a cool smile. “Can I help the two of you? Are you looking for someone?”

Neil nodded once, his expression serious; he had taken out the green contacts, so the blue of his eyes were even more evident with the slight dark circles from the lack of sleep and stress. “You can tell that Agent Browning that Nathaniel Wesninski is here.”

“I’m sorry, there’s no Agent Browning- wait, did you say Wesninski?” When Neil nodded again, the man immediately reached for the phone. “Wuh-wait right here.” His frantic action had two agents step forward in an obvious flanking maneuver, and it wasn’t long that Neil and Aiden found themselves sequestered in an empty conference room.

“I expected these guys to have their act together a bit better.” Aidan sneered as he spun around in the chair, his arms folded against his chest.

Meanwhile, Neil rested with his arms folded on top of the table and his chin resting on them. “I think I can figure out how we managed to slip past them so easily in Oakland.”

“You think?” Aidan was about to say something else, except the door to the room opened just then, to admit a woman who looked to be in her early thirties, her dark blonde hair cut in a wavy bob and dressed in a navy blue pant suit. She held a couple of folders in her hand which she ignored as she looked them over and then sighed. “Hello, I’m Sonja Wolfe and you two aren’t where you’re supposed to be.”

Aidan shrugged as he continued to spin around. “Funny, I don’t feel out of place. Neil, did you forget to put me back in the box when you were done with me?” His comment earned him a wry smile from Neil and an unamused frown from Sonja.

“No, what I mean is, after speaking with Agent Browning, you’re supposed to be in Baltimore, not Columbia,” she explained as she joined them at the table and sat down on the opposite side, the folders spread out in front of her.

“We never told him we’d meet up with him there,” Neil said. “Just that I’d come in.”

Sonja let out a slow breath as she tucked back a strand of hair that fell forward; she wasn’t bad looking, especially once she stopped acting like she had a headache or something. “Well you see, when you make a deal with someone from the Baltimore office about one of their cases, they assume you’re coming to talk to them.”

“Assumptions are *your* problem,” Aidan told her as he stopped spinning, “not ours.”

She eyed him for a few seconds, then squinted as if the headache had gone up a notch. “So I’m beginning to figure out. Look, this is what’s going to happen. Agent Browning and his partner are on their way down here, because yes, they’re in charge of everything Nathan Wesninski related and they have seniority. So sorry, you’re going to have to wait a while.” The smile she gave them was somewhat forced. “Nathaniel is going to have to stay with us, but we can make arrangements for Andrew while-“

“No,” Aidan insisted. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“But-“

“He’s staying with me,” Neil agreed. “You want me to talk, we’re a matched set.” He lifted up his head and leaned back into the chair. “No separation.”

Sonja sighed and rubbed at her temples. “You couldn’t have just gone to Baltimore, could you? All right, fine, the two of you have a nice break for a couple of hours, until Browning’s flight arrives.” The dirty look she gave them lasted about twenty seconds. “Can I get you anything? Something to drink? Are you hungry?”

Aidan looked over at Neil, who shrugged. “Water and coffee,” he told her; it wasn’t like they could do much if the Feds tried to slip them something, considering that they were effectively locked up for the time being.

“Okay.” She smiled a little as she gathered up the folders then stood up. “Look, I don’t know what’s been going on in the last few months, but I’m glad that you two are here now. We’ll work things out.” She tapped the folders against the table before she left the room, and Aidan caught sight of a tall, burly man standing guard outside before it closed.

Yeah, they would work things out, because there wasn’t much of a choice otherwise.

*******

Neil and Aidan switched off taking naps before Browning and Town arrived, so he didn’t feel too tired to deal with the agents, which was a good thing. Browning was what his mother would call ‘old school’, a gruff, stocky man who seemed to like playing ‘hard ball’, while Town was a bit more laconic and tended to follow Browning’s lead. Browning thought that he could intimidate Neil by being blunt and making threats, as if Neil hadn’t lived under a threat of constant pain his entire life, and death for a majority of it. As if Browning and the FBI could hold candle to any of the monsters that Aidan had faced over the years. So no, all Neil did was stare the man down and repeat what he wanted, repeated the need for the immunity from any past crimes for him and Aidan, and refused to tell anything until that was taken care of.

Browning wanted him to agree to go into the witness protection program, and again, Neil refused. It was pointed out that he was still a minor and had no legal guardians, so Neil insisted that he be declared an emancipated minor – he had enough money to support himself and he had more than proven that he would be fine on his own, hadn’t he? Browning wanted some guarantee that Neil wouldn’t just run after he gave his testimony, and that’s when Aidan spoke up – the reason they had come to Columbia and not Baltimore was that he had family here, and had every intention to return to them once their legal troubles were cleared up. Wolfe confirmed that was true, so there was one less hurdle for them to clear.

Browning still wasn’t pleased with Neil refusing to cooperate with the witness protection program… but Neil noticed that the agent didn’t fight it too hard, not when he knew that Neil had a reason to stay in one place now. He had a feeling that the fear of running had been the main reason for the government wanting to ‘protect’ him, and knowing that he had every intention of remaining with Aidan – with Andrew Minyard – took a lot of heat out of Browning’s argument. Since Neil wasn’t related to Andrew, though, he didn’t count on Andrew’s family taking him in and so would support himself. Browning finally agreed to everything when Wolfe volunteered to keep an eye on Neil, if needed.

With the details of their new life settled – Town put some agents to work wiping clean Andrew’s record and making Neil’s identity official - Browning dragged Neil and Andrew, along with Wolfe, into a small room set up with video recording equipment and over a period of two days barring short breaks to eat, rest and go to the bathroom, interrogated him for every detail about his father’s ‘business’ that Neil knew about, as well as what he and his mother had done while in the run. Neil talked himself hoarse and spared nothing, no matter how painful or trivial, except for a couple of things. He didn’t give up any of his mother’s contacts, and he never mentioned the Moriyamas in any way. He also lied about what had happened to Lola and Romano back in Reno, altering things to say that Aidan – no, Andrew, he had to think of him as Andrew again – had broken into the motel room while Romano had stepped out to take a call, managed to knock Lola out and then drag Neil out of there. Years of lying and hours of practicing it in the car meant that Neil could say it with ease and not change a single detail no matter how many times Browning quizzed him about the story, until the agent seemed satisfied.

On the third day, Browning finally told Neil and Andrew that they were finished and handed them each an envelope filled with documents – in Neil’s case, it contained a new birth certificate, passport, social security card and driver’s license with his now official name. “Don’t even think of ever using another pseudonym as long as you live,” Browning warned him. “If you so much as use a nickname for an online account, I will find out and I will have you up on charges so fast your head will spin.”

Behind him, Wolfe rolled her eyes as if unimpressed by the sense of drama. “Don’t worry, this is the last one for me,” Neil said.

Browning scoffed but then seemed to lose some of the attitude. “And watch your back – the information you gave us will help, but there’s still a lot of your father’s people out there. If you won’t go for protective custody, you’re on your own.”

No, he wasn’t, he thought as he caught sight of Andrew waiting impatiently by the door, but all he said was “I know.” He also had the impression that Browning was sort of hoping that some of his father’s people might come for him, hence the giving up on the witness protection issue once he was certain that Neil wouldn’t run anymore.

“Fine then.” Browning shook his head. “Well, I have a flight to catch.” He nodded to Wolfe. “You got this from here?”

“Yes.” She gave him a cool nod, as if happy to see him go, then motioned to Neil and Andrew while Browning went off with Town. “If you’ll come this way, we have some people waiting to see you.”

“Oh, joy,” Andrew remarked in a bland tone as he tucked his own envelope, which should hold his new IDs as ‘Andrew Minyard’, into the back pockets of his jeans. “Time for my long-awaited reunion.”

Sonja gave him an odd look, which wasn’t anything new; she had been given them both odd looks over the last few days, as she had listened in on Neil’s stories, at their refusal to be separated, and when she had stopped by to update them on what was going on with contacting Andrew’s family. “Look, if you’re tired, this can wait a little longer.”

“No, best to just get it out of the way now.”

“All right.” As they rode the elevator down to the lobby, she handed Neil a business card that had her work number and another written in ink. “Keep that, okay? Be sure to check in with me every couple of weeks. I’m not your guardian, but I’d like to know that you haven’t run off or ended up in a ditch somewhere.” She gave him a wry smile as she spoke.

“It sounds as if you have an inkling about this one,” Andrew commented, tone still bland, as he stared at the display of the floors counting down; Neil shot him a dirty look for it.

“Hmm, maybe after listening to what he’s been caught up in these last few years,” Sonja agreed.

All too soon, the elevator reached the lobby and its doors opened up; Sonja motioned for Andrew and Neil to step out first, then for them to follow her. They went past the section that was for those with clearance only, out into the main area, and Neil could tell when Andrew spotted them, followed by Sonja. The agent’s breath caught, probably because of the teenager standing beside the tall, thin man with the grim looking face framed by a trimmed greying beard and thinning salt and pepper hair – Neil flashed back to when he first had met Andrew, with his blond hair and hazel eyes. The teen… Aaron, he knew it was Aaron, but it was disorienting, seeing the spitting image of Andrew like that, save for the different hair color after so long of dyeing Ai-Andrew’s hair, and then for that awful sullen, almost bratty expression to be on the face Neil had seen every day for the past seven months.

He glanced aside at Andrew, and noticed the tension in his friend’s broad shoulders, the blank expression on the face that was in some ways more familiar to him than his own. He brushed the fingers of his left hand against Andrew’s, and caught a quick flash of cool hazel and a slight quirk of pressed flat lips.

“Come on, let’s get this over with,” Andrew said as they approached Luther Hemmick and Aaron Minyard while walking side by side.

*******

 

Chapter Text

*******

Andrew sat inside the Nissan and thrummed his fingers against the steering wheel as he stared out through the windshield at the small, pale blue house which belonged to Luther Hemmick; they’d followed the man from the FBI building to what some people would probably consider a quiet, ‘quaint’ suburb but what he found to be so bland and boring. “Doesn’t look like much.”

Neil stared at the house as if he’d never seen such a thing, his brow furrowed and hands clenched on his jean-clad thighs. “I guess… I guess it’s normal?”

Andrew remembered him talking about the house back in Baltimore, about its large size and elaborate decoration; he supposed that the unassuming two-story single family home in front of them with its small, immaculately tended yard and all the similar homes tucked around it might seem strange to someone raised in such extremes as Neil. “Yeah, well, time to get used to ‘normal’, now,” he warned as he went to open the car door. They’d stalled enough, time to go meet the rest of the ‘family’.

Neil shot him a wry grin as he got out of the car as well. “Somehow I don’t think ‘normal’ is going to cut it, not if they’re related to you.”

Probably not, but this was what they had to work with for the time being, so time to get it over with; Luther had been stiff and formal when Agent Wolfe introduced him to Andrew and Neil, and Aaron sullen as fuck even while he had stared at Andrew as if terrified he’d vanish if the other teen so much as blinked. From what Andrew could tell, the FBI had basically called up his uncle, told the man that Andrew had been found, had been of some help in a case that was confidential, and if Luther wanted him to come and get him. Oh, and he wasn’t alone.

Maybe the shock and the confusion would teach the man that sometimes, it was better not to go poking his nose into where it didn’t belong.

Luther was waiting for them at the front door of the house, that sour look on his face seeming to be a default or something. “Welcome,” he told them in his deep voice and motioned them inside. “This is my wife, Maria.”

The woman, taller than Andrew and Neil and appearing to be Hispanic with her long dark hair and dark complexion, gave them a polite nod. “Hello, it’s… it’s nice to meet you. Can I offer you a drink?” The front area was a living room and very neat, with a couch and a television set and a cross on the wall. Andrew felt the urge to start messing things up, but they were led into the kitchen before he could do anything.

“We’re fine,” Neil said, his voice quiet and expression guarded, much like it had been back with the FBI agents.

“Oh.” Maria looked at him, clearly confused at his presence, but all it took was Luther shaking his head and she gave a slight shrug and fussed with the long skirt of her plain, dark blue dress. “Well, everyone is gathered….” She made a motion at the back door of the kitchen, which seemed to lead to a deck of sorts.

“Yes, they’re waiting for you,” Luther added. “We’ll bring the food out there, shortly.”

“Great,” Andrew enthused with evident false cheer. “I can’t wait to eat out in the hot sun and all.” He stepped outside with Neil on his heels, and the rush of his entrance enabled him to catch his beloved mother unaware as she sat at a long table prepared with several place settings.

Tilda Minyard nearly choked on whatever it was that she’d just swallowed, her hazel eyes going wide as she held a hand in front of her face to keep from spraying the mouthful of iced tea across the table. She stared at Andrew as if he was a ghost, as if she’d just seen something terrible, and in a way he supposed that she had – she’d given him away almost seventeen years ago and he wasn’t meant to come back into her life. Yet here he was, bouncing back if not exactly in mint condition, like the proverbial bad penny.

He’d seen photos of her on Nicky Hemmick’s Facebook page, but up close, it was easy to spot the resemblance, the blonde hair and hazel eyes, the lack of height, the full lips. But the years hadn’t been kind to Tilda, not with the worn lines around her mouth, the dark circles beneath her bloodshot eyes, the brittle dullness to her hair. “You… ah,” she swallowed hard and gave a weak wave toward him, “what happened to your hair?”

Over sixteen years, and the first thing she asked him about was his hair? Andrew gave a slight sneer as he ran his fingers through it. “I was going through a goth phase,” he lied. “Well, Mother, am I everything you imagined I’d be?” He held out his arms as if on display. “Or should I go away for a few more years and we can try it again?” Behind him, Neil stirred but didn’t do anything but step closer, as if to guard his back.

“Oh my god,” he heard Aaron mumble as his ‘brother’s’ face became flushed and he hunched over in the chair, yet he continued to eye Andrew with that almost hungry, desperate gaze. Meanwhile, Tilda blanched at the response and clutched at her glass of iced tea as if she wished it were something stronger.

“I… that….”

“Lunch is served.” Luther didn’t sound happy at the moment, and the look he gave Andrew made it clear where his displeasure was aimed. Andrew merely smiled in response and sat down across from Tilda and Aaron while Luther and Maria set down what looked to be some sort of casserole and salad before grabbing the end chairs at the table. Lucky Neil, he got the prime spot next to Andrew and seemed to have decided to keep his mouth shut and head down.

“Now, let us pray in thanks for the safe return of Andrew,” Luther intoned, and immediately Maria, Tilda and Aaron bowed their heads while Andrew sat there with a smirk on his face and Neil just looked at him as if to say ‘WTF’? There was an awful, boring intoning about prodigal sons and family giving thanks, most of which Andrew ignored as he tried to figure out what type of casserole they’d be eating – was it beef? Something pork? Aw, it was some type of enchilada thing, so no vegetables. He’d so been looking forward to seeing Neil pick out stuff for the next twenty minutes or so.

When Luther finally finished, he raised his head and gave Andrew a cool look but wisely said nothing while Maria began to serve some of the casserole to everyone – Neil was quick to refuse the salad. “I understand that this is a time of transition for all of us, a time of new beginnings, but it is proper for a son to show his mother respect.”

Yeah, he was going to get along so well with his uncle, wasn’t he? “Maybe if she hadn’t abandoned me I’d be a bit more amenable to that, yeah?” He smiled at Luther while his mother dropped the fork she’d been holding onto the table. “I mean, give me something to work with here.” He turned his attention on to Tilda and ‘smiled’, a baring of teeth which held all of the affection he felt for her – nothing.

She took a shuddering breath as she picked up the fork. “Look, I know I messed up-“

“You *think*?”

“I did,” she agreed. “But we’re together now, so let’s… let’s just make the best of it,” she finished in a weak manner as she stared at her brother and not Andrew. Oh yes, that was a great sign there, wasn’t it?

Meanwhile, Aaron ignored the food on his plate and finally looked away from Andrew to glare at Neil, who sat through everything while sipping his iced tea as if family squabbles like this happened every day; knowing what he’d grown up with back in Baltimore, this probably was nothing. He’d barely flinch unless Luther got up to slit someone’s throat, and then only criticize how the asshole had done it, Andrew suspected. “Why is *he* here?” Aaron pointed at Neil, and Andrew caught a flash of faded purple and green on his twin’s right wrist before the long-sleeved white t-shirt slipped back into place. “He’s not family.”

“He’s something better,” Andrew answered, and smiled at how the vitriol on Aaron’s face increased and how Luther frowned as well. “He doesn’t abandon me at the drop of a hat.”

“Andrew, your behavior is unacceptable!” Luther slammed his right fist down onto the table. “We are trying to welcome you back into the family, and all you’re being is insulting!”

Andrew pushed his plate of food aside. “Well I’m sorry, maybe I’d have a better idea of ‘family’ if my darling mother over there hadn’t given me up on the day I was born. Gee, why am I the slightest bit bitter, hmm? Maybe because of the endless succession of shitty homes I ended up in?” His fingers wrapped around the guards which hid the scars on his left arm – he hadn’t put the knives back in yet, not after taking them out for the FBI office, because he wasn’t certain he could control himself with his ‘family’. Beside him, Neil twisted just enough to look at Andrew, as if to take his cues on what to do next from him.

“But… I just, I couldn’t,” Tilda tried to explain, her face growing more haggard with each passing moment. “Two of you were too much. It was hard enough… I did my best.”

Somehow, judging from the way Aaron sat hunched over next to her, Andrew doubted that her ‘best’ was worth much at all.

“She’s making amends now,” Luther insisted, and Andrew had to wonder if it really was Tilda’s idea at all, reaching out to him. “All that matters is that you’re here now, albeit in… rather odd circumstances.” His frown deepened as he took in Andrew’s dark hair and then Neil. “We were anxious for you, when we found out that you had gone missing, and then all those months without hearing anything. All that agent would tell us was that you had helped them with something and there are no more charges against you, that your record has been sealed.”

“And that’s all you need to know for right now,” Andrew told him, his voice flat and his eyes narrowed. “Say, how come I haven’t seen any pictures of your son, hmm? Nicky, right?”

Luther gave him that sour look for a few more seconds before bowing his head. “The food is getting cold.”

Everyone seemed to relish the chance to focus on their meal after that, though Neil only picked at his as he seemed lost in thought and Aaron continued to alternate glares at Neil and heavy stares at Andrew from across the table. Andrew managed a few bites – it wasn’t the worst that he’d eaten, but it wasn’t the best – while he studied his dear mother and brother and stored away the careful observations.

Once everyone’s plates were more or less clean, Maria cleared her throat. “There’s dessert, if anyone still has room.”

Andrew summoned a fake smile and shook his head. “Sorry, but Neil and I need to look into finding a hotel for the night.” He noticed how Luther’s light brown eyes narrowed upon hearing that and flickered back and forth between him and Neil. “It’s been a long day.” A long couple of days, really.

Tilda managed a nervous laugh as she glanced at her brother. “But… I thought you’d be….”

“We need to get Neil situated first,” Andrew said as he stood up from the table. “And I wasn’t sure if you had everything ready for me just yet.” Even if he had come to Columbia with the intention of staying with his family, he wouldn’t mind another night before he had to suffer with them – that and there was still something that needed to be done.

Tilda appeared relieved. “Oh yes, it’ll give us a little longer to get Aaron’s room set up for the two of you, right Aaron?” She laughed again as she nudged her other son, who continued to look at Neil as if he was the enemy.

“You’re staying?” Aaron didn’t sound too happy to hear that.

Neil spoke up for the first time since they had begun to eat. “Yes, I don’t have any family and the FBI arranged to have someone from the local office watch over me.”

Luther didn’t appear happy just then, either. “So you’re going to be living on your own? Perhaps you should-“

“I have enough money to support myself,” Neil insisted as he stood up as well. “Along with full legal responsibility. I’ll be fine.”

“A young man your age needs family to keep you from getting into trouble,” Luther insisted as he rose from the table.

“I’m much better off without my family,” Neil told him with a chilling smile that made Luther recoil. “And all they did was cause me trouble.”

“Hmm, food for thought, no?” Andrew motioned for Neil to precede him back into the kitchen. “On that cheerful note, we’ll be going.”

“One moment,” Luther said as he moved around the table to follow them. “I would like to speak with you, Andrew.”

Andrew shared a look with Neil, who grimaced at the delay but didn’t argue. “Head out to the car, this’ll just be a minute,” Andrew told him; he refused to be held back any longer than that and would use the excuse of Neil waiting for him to avoid a delay.

“Okay.” Neil mumbled something about it being nice to meet everyone and then left, liar that he was, heading straight for the front door, while Andrew waited in the kitchen for Luther. The man fished a small notepad out from one of the drawers and a pen, and wrote something down on a sheet of paper which he handed over to Andrew. “Here are my and your mother’s phone numbers so you can call us tomorrow. If Tilda doesn’t have the room ready for you by then, you can stay here.”

Yeah, like that would happen; one hour with the man and Andrew was ready to kill him. “It won’t be a problem to stay with Neil until Tilda’s ready.”

“Neil.” Luther’s expression was once more sour as he glanced toward the front door. “He is your… friend.”

Andrew had noticed Nicky Hemmick’s recent posts about his German boyfriend, Erik, and how there were no comments from his family, and no photos of Nicky in the house; considering all the crosses and Bible quotes on the walls, he had a feeling where the ‘friend’ thing was going. “Yes, a good friend.” It was the truth, just not all of the truth. “We’ve helped each other out over the last several months, and since Neil doesn’t have any family left or anyone to rely on, he’s going to stick around.” When Luther continued to look at him in a searching manner, Andrew met his eyes and kept his expression blank. “You could say that he’s responsible for helping to straighten me out.” To the effect that he’d gotten the assault charges on Andrew’s record sealed up and virtually wiped away, that was.

That seemed to soften Luther’s mood and lessen his suspicions. “Then he is welcome in this house.” Luther toyed with the pen in his hand for a moment as if thinking of something. “You have some other good friends as well.”

“I do?” Funny, how Andrew couldn’t think of any at the moment.

“Yes.” Luther went over to the kitchen counter to return the pen and notepad. “I spoke to a couple of them a few months ago, a Cass and Drake Spear.”

Andrew felt as if he was going to throw up the semi-decent casserole when he heard mention of that last name. “Spear? Why did you talk to them?” He struggled to keep his voice even, to not dig his fingers into the scars on his inner arms.

“We were trying to find out where you had gone, after the incident at Wayward Burns.” Luther appeared to be digging in the drawer for something. “The one police officer, Officer Higgins, thought you might return to an old foster home since you stayed there so long.”

“I would *never* go back there,” Andrew ground out. Not after giving up so much. Not as long as Drake might return.

Something must have been in his voice just then, because Luther stopped with the search and looked at him. “But… I spoke with Cass Spear, and she asked me to let her know if we ever found you, to tell her that you were all right. I also spoke with her son, Drake, a fine young man. He’s in the Marines-“

“Don’t tell them *anything*,” he hissed out. “I don’t want them to have anything to do with my life.” Not even Cass. Not if it meant that Drake might find him, or find *Aaron*.

Luther blinked, as if shocked by Andrew’s vehemence. “But-“

“*No*,” he repeated. “That ‘fine young man? He molested me for several years.” Andrew could still feel it, could feel Drake’s hands on him as he shoved him down onto the bed, could feel his breath on the back of his neck. Could hear him talk about how amazing it would be, to have Aaron join them…. “Tell them *nothing*!”

“Molested?” Luther shook his head. “That’s… I don’t believe it, it has to be some sort of misunderstanding. Drake is a Marine, a good man, you probably just misconstrued something that he did as overly affectionate.”

Andrew stood there and stared at Luther Hemmick, at a man tied to him by blood, and dug his fingers into the scars he’d sliced into his own flesh in an effort to hold on to the home Cass Spear had offered him, the only home he’d wanted at that point in his life – a home that Drake Spear had then made into a hell for him. And it had been a ‘misunderstanding’? Oh yes, it was a good thing that his knives were out in the car with Neil, with the only other person who had ever given him a home, and a true one at that. “I’m leaving,” he told the man, and only the thought of Aaron, the person who was part of the reason he had turned his back on Cass, who sat on the deck wearing long-sleeves in June to hide bruises, kept him from dropping the slip of paper Andrew held clutched in his hand just then.

“We’ll talk more tomorrow,” Luther told him, which Andrew ignored; he was done talking to Luther, too much more and there would be new assault charges on his record.

Neil had the car running, just waiting for him to come out and get in before he put it in reverse and pulled out of the driveway. He glanced at Andrew and then focused on the road, on finding their way back to the highway so they could get a hotel room for the night.

Nothing was said until they were on the highway. “Uhm… anything to talk about?” Neil asked, his voice quiet and passive, making it clear that he wasn’t pressing for answers.

“No.” Andrew just said the one word, but without any anger or force; he didn’t want to talk about it, at least now.

“Okay.” Neil just nodded and accepted that, didn’t get pissy or upset, didn’t take it personally. He knew that there were times when talking didn’t help or when the topic was too personal, and he was fine – honestly, truly, not a bullshit ‘fine’ – with it. Times like these were among the many reasons Andrew put up with him, found himself trusting Neil and relaxing around him.

And he also pulled into a real hotel for once, a Homewood Suites, in case it took a couple of days for him to figure out where he would live once Andrew settled in with Tilda and Aaron. They got a room with two queen sized beds and checked in under Neil’s now official name, and they enjoyed their first proper showers in a couple of days. Andrew also took the time to place a follow-up call to Anna, just to make sure she didn’t do anything foolish with the phone that had been sent to Kelci, and let her know that they were all right and making plans to stay in Columbia.

It was a little bit after that when they were debating on whether or not to take a nap or go out to eat when Neil’s phone rang.

*******

Neil had been waiting for something to happen ever since leaving the FBI’s office that morning, though he had to admit, receiving a phone call where he was told to go outside of the hotel and wait in the parking lot by a man with a faint accent… well, he wasn’t sure if that was it. He hung up the phone and gave Andrew what he hoped was a reassuring smile as he tucked his phone into the front pocket of his jeans and grabbed the keycard to the room. “I’ll be back soon.” He hoped that he would be back soon.

Andrew got off of the bed as if to join him. “Let me-“

“No,” Neil insisted as he held up his right hand. “They told *me* to come.” These weren’t the type of people you surprised for the hell of it.

His friend didn’t look happy at that, his jaw clenched tight and hands curled into fists, yet all he did was pull Neil in for a fast, bruising kiss before letting him go. “Don’t take too long.”

Neil had to laugh at that. “I’ll do my best.” Then he turned around to leave the room before he chickened out, wanting to get this over with as quickly as possible.

It was sunny and hot outside, or at least that is what he told himself when he felt a trickle of sweat run down his back as he waited in the large, half-full parking lot of the hotel. Fortunately for his nerves, it only took about a minute before a large, shiny black Lexus sedan pulled up in front of him, and the back door opened.

Right, not ominous at all, Neil told himself as he climbed inside, to find an Asian man in a black suit already seated in the back, and another behind the wheel of the car. Neither spoke to him as he closed the door and the car drove off, everything quiet save for the low hum of its motor. They drove for a couple of minutes, into what looked to be an empty gravel lot.

There was a black limo waiting there, and another Asian man in a black suit was standing beside it; he opened the door to the Lexus once it stopped and motioned for Neil to step out, then opened the door to the limo and waved Neil inside.

There were two people seated inside of the limo, an older Asian man in a suit and a younger one in the seat facing forward; his suit was of a more expensive and elegant cut, and he had a bored air about him. Neil assumed that this was the more important person of the two, and he took a guess as to whom it might be. He bowed his head as he slid into the seat.

It was quiet for several seconds, save for the almost inaudible hum of the air conditioner and the running motor. “Do you know who I am?” the younger Asian – no, Japanese man asked.

“Ichiro Moriyama, sir,” Neil answered, his head still bowed and his tone as reverent as he could make it.

“Ah, and here I’ve been told that you were ignorant.” Ichiro didn’t sound displeased, and he didn’t seem quite as bored as before.

“Sir.” Neil dared to raise his head the slightest amount. “I’ll admit I was, until your… until Riko Moriyama enlightened me about several things. Then I made it a point to correct the failings of my knowledge.”

“So you acknowledge that you are Moriyama property.”

Neil did his best not to wince upon hearing that. “I acknowledge that my father worked for your father and intended to give me to Tetsuji Moriyama. I also acknowledge that my mother stole five million dollars from my father, which means that she stole from the Moriyamas.” He was mindful to keep his tone level and respectful as he talked, and his eyes cast downward.

“I see.” Ichiro tapped the fingers of his right hand against his wool-clad thigh. “Yet knowing these things, you are here, in Columbia instead of Charleston, where Riko has ordered you to be, and you have spoken to the FBI. Those are not what I would consider actions of a loyal asset.”

This time Neil did dare to raise his head and hoped that what came out next didn’t sound like a lie. “Sir, those are indeed actions of a loyal asset.” When Ichiro continued to look at him in a calm, level manner, Neil forced a swallow past his tight throat and continued without looking away but still in a calm, reverent manner. “I accept that I belong to the Moriyamas, and I would like nothing better than to spend my life as my father had intended it, by playing Exy for your family. It’s true, I had no idea until a couple of weeks ago that this was the plan for me, and I’m not fighting it.”

“That isn’t what I’m seeing,” Ichiro argued, his demeanor still calm – yet even without raising his voice, there was a power to it.

“I know,” Neil agreed. “But Riko… he would have me go straight to Charleston, to Castle Evermore, and….” He shook his head. “My father’s death is too recent, and too many people were still looking for me, Nathaniel Wesninski. They still are, even now. So I did what I could to bury the past, to remove those hurdles. When it comes to the FBI, I’ve given them what they’ve wanted and I’m no more use to them. My past can’t be used against me as far as the government is concerned, because I *am* Neil Josten now.”

He continued on before he lost Ichiro’s attention and patience. “I never said a thing about the Moriyamas, I never betrayed your family. The FBI pushed several times, asking if my father worked for someone, if there was any organization above his.” He noticed the way that Ichiro’s fingers twitched a little at that, how the older man sitting next shifted about. “I told them that he didn’t report to anyone – it’s up to them if they believe that or not, but I didn’t betray you.”

“Good, because you would be dead if you did,” Ichiro informed him.

“I know that as well. But that’s just it,” Neil paused a moment before he went on with what he hoped would win Ichiro over and keep him out of Riko’s hands, “if Nathan Wesninski’s son were to appear out of nowhere, even bearing a new name, and at Castle Evermore at that… don’t you see? It’s better if I don’t go to Charleston, at least not now. It’s less suspicious that way.”

There was a hint of a smile on Ichiro’s face; he was young, just a couple of years older than Riko, and came across as much more capable, much more stable. Neil didn’t know why he was here instead of Kengo, but he had the impression that Ichiro’s youth didn’t mean that he was a pushover. “I see, so you’re doing it for our benefit. Do you think that we can’t pacify the government?”

“No,” Neil admitted. “But it would cost you, and I’ve already cost you enough. And I’m doing it for my good as well. I want the best possible career for myself, and the fact is, while the Ravens are ranked as the number one Class I team, their players don’t have the best track record of making Court.” Part of what Neil and Andrew had researched over the last two weeks had been any weaknesses of the Ravens, just so Neil could argue with Kengo – now Ichiro. “I can make more money for the Moriyamas if I have a shot of making it to Court one day, once I go pro.”

“And do you?” Now that amusement was more evident. “Do you really think that you can? After playing one season in high school?”

“I know that Kevin Day thought highly enough of me to consider me Raven material after one season.” It might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Neil could lie with the best of them if it kept him alive long enough to make it a reality. “The things about investments is you give them time enough to mature. It costs you nothing to leave me out here on my own, to find my own scholarship, and you can reap millions starting in another seven years. I don’t care about the money I make playing.”

Ichiro studied him for several seconds before he turned to the man sitting quietly near Neil and spoke in Japanese. The man replied and then pulled out his phone, before calling someone and talking for a couple of minutes in the same language. During that time, Ichiro continued to study Neil, who began to feel like a bug or some sort of exotic creature.

Once the call ended, the man nodded to Ichiro and spoke for about another minute. Ichiro’s lips pressed together once he fell quiet again, and he flicked his fingers before he resumed studying Neil, who had taken to sweating once again.

“My father sent me down here to handle what was supposed to be a loose end. I’ll admit, I was willing to listen to you because of the excellent work your father did for us over the years, but it would have only been for that.” His lips twitched a little. “Now I find something more.” He spoke to the other man again for a few seconds. “You said that you have acknowledged your status as a Moriyama asset, which is good, because as of now, you belong to the main branch. We are investing in you and your career as an Exy player, and as such you will turn over eighty percent of all future income to us, be it from salary or endorsements. If you fail to secure a place on a suitable Class I team, you are of no value to us. If you fail to be recruited by a professional team upon graduation, you are of no value to us. Do you understand what I mean when I say ‘no value’?”

Yes, it meant that Neil’s life was over. “Yes, sir, I do. I’ll sign with the Ravens or another team my senior year, and in five more years I’ll make pro,” he vowed; he had no other choice now, he would just have to do his best to make sure he didn’t end up with the Ravens in the next year or two.

“Ah yes, there is that Wesninski resolve.” Ichiro nodded as in approval. “Then you understand your objectives. If you do indeed survive to make it to the professional level, my people will be in contact with you to arrange for the money transfers, or for any endorsements before then.” With that, he nodded to the other man and then pulled out his own phone and began to swipe through the screen.

Neil assumed that meant the… whatever it was, was over, which was confirmed when the door near him opened a moment later. He all but stumbled out of the limo, his heart thumping in his chest, and barely walked under his own power back to the Lexus waiting a few feet away. The limo pulled away before he closed the door to the sedan, and even with Ichiro’s ‘assurance’, he could barely breathe until he was returned to the hotel.

It was done; the main thing, the most important thing, was done. The main Moriyama branch had accepted him, had agreed to terms that Neil could live with – what did he care about money? – and he was free of Riko’s leash. At least, he was free of Riko’s leash for now. He had two years, a little less, to manage a scholarship to a university that had a Class I Exy team since it was his best chance to be recruited to a professional team. Maybe if he’d grown up beside Kevin Day it would be another story… but then he’d already be a Raven, wouldn’t he? The circular logic of it all would drive him insane.

His dream growing up had been to play Exy, to make it to Court one day, and on one nightmare day he’d found out that his life had been torn apart *because* he was supposed to grow up and play Exy. Now, in order for him to live, to have some sort of life that didn’t mean running and hiding and never, ever stopping, not with enemies like the Moriyamas after him….

He wanted to laugh, to just start laughing at the irony of it all, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop if he did, and he couldn’t risk it while riding in a car with Ichiro’s men. All that mattered was that his gamble had paid off, appearing penitent and mindful of his value to the Moriyamas. Of being honest enough to confess that he didn’t want to cripple himself with the Ravens when he just might be able to aim higher.

Now… now he had to live up to the promise he’d made Ichiro, because there was no way he’d allow himself to be sent to Riko, to the Ravens, in two years’ time. Riko would be furious when he found out that it wasn’t him who held Neil’s leash but Ichiro and Kengo, and if no other university came through with an offer… Neil might as well kill himself to save Ichiro’s men the effort, because he doubted that he’d survive what Riko had in store for him.

*******

Andrew took to pacing around in the hotel room while he waited for Neil to return – and the idiot would return, there was no other acceptable option – a knife held in his right hand that he flipped over and over and over. He judged that about ten minutes had passed when there was a knock at the door to the room, the sound so unexpected that he almost sliced his thumb from the surprise.

Staring at the door for a moment as he debated what to do, he slid the knife back in place and went to look out the peephole, and frowned when he noticed a middle-aged man dressed in a grey suit standing on the other side of the door. Decisions, decisions. Ah, well, he could always catch up to Neil on the whole burying bodies thing if this went bad.

Opening the door, he scowled at the man and blocked his entrance into the room. “What the fuck do you want?”

“I want to talk to you, Andrew Minyard. May I come in?” The man only had a few inches on Andrew and a British accent, and it was those two things, along with a certain quirk to his lips just then which was oddly familiar, that made Andrew grunt and step aside.

“You’re Stuart Hatford.” The man didn’t look like much, he had light brown hair shot with a few grey strands and lines of stress or worry on his face, and grey-ish blue eyes. After seeing a picture in the news after Nathan Wesninski’s death, Andrew knew that Neil took a lot after his father, but had to wonder if he’d gotten his lack of height and slim build from his mother’s side of the family.

“I see they’re right about you being a sharp one,” Stuart remarked as he sauntered into the room, his eyes flickering around as if to take in the details.

‘They’, huh? Andrew almost asked but he had more important questions that needed answers first. “If you’re looking for your nephew, you just missed him.”

“I know.” Stuart pulled a sleek phone out from an inner pocket of his coat. “The boy is currently having a chat with the little lord.” Something dark crossed across his face. “Let’s hope he’s as clever as always, for both our sakes.”

“You’re working for the Moriyamas,” Andrew accused as he took a step back and let his arms hang by his side, hands ready for the hidden knives.

“Of course.” Stuart gave him a sardonic grin for a moment before he focused on the dark screen of his phone. “You think it’s easy, arranging a hit on someone when they’re in a federal prison? But I owed that bastard for Mary, and it was a chance to consolidate our power, as well.” He gave a casual shrug, but somehow Andrew doubted that it was as simple as all of that.

“So you won’t care if your new boss kills your nephew?”

Ah, that made the bastard look away from the screen and over at him. “Nathaniel is clever, like his mother.”

“Didn’t stop her from being killed,” Andrew pointed out, and enjoyed the flash of pain across the man’s face.

“You little shit,” Stuart ground out. “I don’t get it, why he didn’t call after she died, why he played house with you and all that.” He clutched the phone as if he wanted to throw it at Andrew. “All it got him was Riko’s attention and one hell of a mess.” Then he let out a slow breath. “At least he knew not to say anything to the bloody Feds.”

“Why are you here?” Was there a point to all of this, other than the guy being a whiny prick?

Stuart gave him a cold smile. “If Ichiro decides that Nathaniel is a threat, then I get to deal with you. If he’s still of value….” Stuart let out a slow breath. “Then I want to see my nephew.”

“Nice, you think he’ll be happy to see you after you threaten his friend?” Andrew brushed the tips of his fingers against the hilt of a knife.

“I think Nathaniel knows this life and its costs. You’re the one-“ Stuart paused as his phone lit up, and an expression of relief brightened his face. “Looks like you get to bitch about me to him, Minyard.”

“My lucky day.” Andrew let out a breath he hadn’t been aware that he’d been holding and uncurled his fingers. “So, what does it mean for him, Ichiro finding him valuable?”

Stuart shrugged. “Ask Nathaniel for the details, but just know that he can’t come running to the Hatfords for protection now, not against the Moriyamas.” An expression resembling exhaustion aged Stuart a few more years. “I wish he’d just kept his fool head down, but it’s too late now.” He gave Andrew a hard look. “You better be worth it, whatever you are to him.”

All Andrew did was give him a cold smile in return, which caused Stuart to shake his head.

“This isn’t what Mary wanted for him, but the kid couldn’t run his whole life, either. At least that bastard isn’t alive anymore.” After that, Stuart fell quiet and took to typing on his phone.

Andrew found that he agreed with the mobster, and took to pacing again as he waited for Neil’s return. It seemed like forever, but probably was only about five minutes or so until there was a clicking sound and the door opened.

“Andrew? I’m – what?” Neil noticed that they had company right away, his eyes going wide as he took in Stuart’s presence. “Uncle Stuart?”

“Fuck, but you’ve grown.” Stuart made an arrested motion, then seemed to force himself to tousle Neil’s hair; for himself, Neil went perfectly still as if doing his best not to jerk away. “You look good.”

“I… thank you. You look good, too.” Some of the stiffness left Neil’s face after a few seconds. “Thank you, for uhm….” He bit into his bottom lip and shook his head. “For Mum.”

Stuart gave Neil an odd look and then pulled him in for a very brief, very awkward hug. “She deserved better,” was all he said, then he let go of Neil. “So, good talk with the little lord?”

At Neil’s confused look, Andrew spoke up. “He works for them. Was kind enough to come here to give my death a personal touch just in case you fucked things up.”

Stuart sighed while Neil’s face went blank and he stepped away, toward Andrew. “I wanted to check up on you and to meet your friend,” Stuart tried to explain, “though yes, if things went wrong….” He shrugged, as if it was no big deal. “Fortunately that’s not the case, so now I can give you this.” He handed Neil what appeared to be a business card. “As I explained to Andrew, you being here now means that Ichiro has accepted you as part of the main branch, so if you need anything, the family can do something but we can’t take you in like we could have before.”

Neil nodded as he accepted the card. “I understand, just small things. I’ll be staying here for the time being.” Andrew found it interesting that as Neil spoke, a hint of a British accent crept into his voice.

“Good, maybe me and the others will swing by now and then to check up on you.” He gave Neil a quick pat on the shoulder. “I’ll see myself out.”

“Ta ta,” Andrew called out as the man left, more than happy to see him leave, and watched as Neil tucked the card away in his wallet. “Lovely man, can we invite him over to dinner at Luther’s and hope they kill each other?”

“Hmm, my money’s on Uncle Stuart, but then again, it’s his job.” Neil went over to the door and made sure it was locked, then approached Andrew. “Yes or no?” he asked as he stopped just about a foot away.

Andrew eyed him for a moment, the evident strain on his friend’s face, the darker strands of hair framing his face due to sweat. “Yes.”

Neil was slow to reach for him, just in case he changed his mind, and pulled him in for a kiss that had less to do with passion than a need for reassurance; Andrew threaded his fingers through the long strands of light brown hair and held on tight while they breathed into each other, Neil’s arms wrapped around his shoulders.

After about a minute, Neil pulled away. “Thank you.”

“So what the fuck happened?” Andrew asked as he maneuvered them down onto the nearest bed, Neil’s arms now around his waist and their legs entwined, his right hand still in Neil’s hair and his left pressed against Neil’s chest.

“Ichiro showed up to talk to me.” Neil’s blue eyes grew vacant for a couple of seconds as if he was thinking back to the conversation. “He said he was there to take care of a loose end – of me – but he changed his mind. As long as I can make it to a pro team, I get to live, and in return I’ll give the Moriyamas eighty percent of any money I make during my career.”

Andrew could tell from the calm beating of Neil’s heart beneath his palm that Neil didn’t care about the money, he was more worried about Andrew’s reaction judging from the way his eyes had focused on Andrew’s face while he talked. “So what, you’ve basically been ordered to play a damn sport you’re obsessed with – congratulations, it’s your dream come true. So what if you’ll be doing it for chump change after selling out to a mobster.” His eyes narrowed as his fingers clutched at the soft, worn t-shirt Neil was wearing. “Now, tell me where the fuck you’ll be playing it.” If Neil had come back here to pack up and head to Charleston, then there were some Japanese assholes Andrew had to kill.

“No, he accepted the arguments we lined up.” Neil let out a tired sigh and closed his eyes. “I’ve got two years to get good enough for some other university besides Edgar Allan to want me.”

Did the idiot just hear what he’d said? Kevin Day had thought they were good enough for the damn Ravens in the first place, so Andrew didn’t think it was a problem. “Ichiro said you could go anywhere you wanted?”

“He said I would have to play for a Class I team and get into the pros,” Neil murmured.

Not exactly a sworn statement that Neil wouldn’t be forced to go to Edgar Allan in two years’ time, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. “Great, more fucking Exy practice and another shitty team to join come fall,” Andrew complained as he tugged Neil closer.

Neil opened his eyes and frowned. “But – yeah, I’ll have to join up, I have to make sure that I play well and will get the scholarship. But that doesn’t mean you have-“

Andrew shut him up with a quick kiss. “You learn best when someone’s throwing shit at your head. I’m not going to let someone else take away my fun.”

A quiet but warm chuckle slipped free from Neil as he tucked into Andrew. “Of course, how could I forget?”

“Idiot,” Andrew chided as he tugged on Neil’s hair, which needed a haircut – a haircut and a dye job…but was there a point to the later now? Maybe when Andrew went to get his own hair bleached back to blond, he could talk his friend into going back to his natural color, which was some sort of auburn from the looks of it.

They were quiet for a couple of minutes, just comfortable being with each other after the stress and terrible uncertainty of the last few days. Then Neil gave a sleepy little murmur and rubbed his cheek against the bedspread. “So… not dead.”

“Nope, not dead, not about to be tortured by Riko or charged with his murder any time soon.” Though Andrew could dream of the latter one – not so much the murder charge part, but the fun stuff leading up to it.

“Hmm, what’s next?” Neil looked about twenty seconds from falling asleep, and Andrew couldn’t say that he was much better, either.

“Well, think that whole nap thing won out.” He glared when Neil gave him a weak kick and tugged on the idiot’s hair. “Try not to kill my family, get our asses on the Exy team come fall and… fuck, I don’t know.” They had been confused enough back in Racine, and now they had to keep going at this ‘normalcy’ thing?

“Hmm, okay, try not to kill your family. Let’s aim for that right now. Exy team. ‘N not get killed.”

“That’s you, the last part,” Andrew reminded his idiot, who had his eyes closed and seemed half out of it. “But yeah, guess we’ll start small.”

Neil made a faint mumbling noise as he fell asleep, and Andrew let the sense of exhaustion drag him down as well.

*******

 

 

Chapter Text

*******

The day didn’t get off to the best start; after having fallen asleep together on the same bed in a strange place, when Andrew was startled awake by the sound of slamming doors and people talking in the hallway, he jerked awake swinging, which ended up with Neil landing on the floor with a sore ass and sore ribs. After Neil insisting that he was all right, that he was *fine*, the idiot, they went out for breakfast and found a walk-in place to get their hair done.

At first it was just supposed to be Andrew, but he figured ‘what the hell’, might as well continue with the shitty theme and so argued that while Neil was there, why not? He needed a trim as well unless he wanted to go blind soon, and something better than the half-assed haircuts he gave himself after dyeing his hair, and Andrew was getting tired of smelling the chemicals from the dyes and helping him spot his roots. “Your issues, they’re many and wearying,” he told Neil as they stood in the lobby of the salon. “Try getting rid of one or two and surprise me.”

Neil shuffled his feet as he tugged on a strand of his long bangs. “But-“

“No,” Andrew insisted. “What’s the point if we’re no longer running? You’re not going to turn into *him* because of your hair color. Accept that and give our enemies one less weakness to use against you.” Having said his mind, he went into the salon to get his hair done.

His hands, hidden beneath the black plastic cape to keep his clothes dry and clean, were clenched around the padded arms of the chair to keep him from going for his knives while some woman named Donna chatted incessantly about her kids when he saw another employee lead a grim-faced Neil over to another chair. He attempted to meet his friend’s eyes in the mirror, which Neil refused to look into, instead keeping his eyes turned downward while the young man also chatted away and applied the dye to his hair. Andrew divided his attention between what the other man was doing and Donna, and it helped to keep him somewhat calm enough to get through Donna bleaching, dyeing and cutting his own hair – though just barely.

By the time she was done and his hair once more resembled his natural color and the cut similar to Aaron’s, his nerves were frayed and he was desperate for a cigarette as well as to return to the hotel for a couple of hours. Judging from the strained expression on Neil’s face, he was more than willing to leave the crowded mall as well, his eyes wild and skin pale, long fingers constantly tugging at his now auburn hair as if itching to pull it out.

“Leave it alone,” Andrew snapped, “it’s fine.” It was – the color was striking with Neil’s skin tone and eyes, made him stand out even more. Whoever had styled it had left the bangs and top long, and Neil kept pulling the bangs over his face, over the scar on the right side of his forehead.

“I just….” Neil shook his head and sounded a fast breath away from a panic attack. Out in the parking lot, Andrew pinned him against the car and slipped a hand around the back of his neck to pull his head down until their foreheads touched.

“It’s just a fucking hair color,” he told the idiot. “Don’t give him that power over you.”

Neil took a few shuddering breaths until he finally let out a slow one and began to relax. “Then why did you change yours?” A hint of a smile hovered on his lips as he flicked his fingers at Andrew’s bangs. “Nice hair style. Very… unique.”

“Don’t start any shit that I’ll finish,” Andrew warned as his hand tightened on the idiot’s neck before he stepped back. “I’m just embracing this twin stuff, figured I’d give it a try.” He gave Neil an innocent look, and arched an eyebrow when Neil appeared doubtful. “What?”

“I’m having doubts.”

“Like I give a shit,” Andrew said as he climbed into the car while Neil laughed, for a moment the stress smoothing out from his expression.

They returned to the hotel where they spent a couple of hours doing research on Andrew’s laptop, looking up information on Aaron’s school and Exy team. The good news was, Columbia and its educational system supported Exy, with the sport being popular with a local pro team and a Class I NCAA team, even if the Palmetto Foxes were ranked toward the bottom of the division. The bad news was, with it being a larger city and school district than Racine, Neil would have to work hard to stand out – at least he had a distinguishing season, such as it was, behind him now. They also looked at a few apartment sites, to get a feel of where he might rent, but it all depended on Tilda in the end.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, Andrew called his mother to see if she had prepared things for him to move in; there was no way he’d deal with Luther again, not after yesterday. After the third ring, Aaron picked up the phone.

“Yeah?”

Lovely manners, maybe they were related. “It’s Andrew. Should I bother to come over or what?”

There was silence for a few seconds before Aaron spoke again. “Why not, don’t see how it’s going to get any better. It’s just you, right? Gonna be tight enough with the three of us.” In the background, Andrew thought he heard Tilda murmuring.

“Yes, Neil’s a shy one and not inclined to crash,” Andrew told him. “Now, what’s the address?”

Aaron rattled off a street, his tone sullen as if he wasn’t too happy to do so, and hung up after Andrew told him he’d be there in about an hour. Considering that Andrew wasn’t exactly jumping with joy over the situation himself, he couldn’t blame his twin.

He stared at the phone in his hand and then across the room to where Neil sat on the other bed, his long legs drawn up to his knees and his arms wrapped around them as if to make himself as small a target as possible. “I should get going.”

Neil nodded. “Let me know how it works out.” He didn’t look upset or anything, or ask Andrew to stay; he knew Andrew was going to do it, felt that there was a reason for it so that was enough for him.

Still, Andrew scoffed as he set the phone aside and went to pick up the duffel bag that held most of his clothes. “Right, I can already tell you, it’s going to be shitty. I bet Luther put Tilda up to something.” That had been guilt, plain and simple, at the house yesterday every time she’d looked at him.

“Hmm.” Neil went to tug on his bangs but forced his hand to stop in time. “It’s just a little more than a year.”

“We’ll see.” Andrew went into the bathroom to fetch the kit with his razor and toothbrush, then returned to the room. “Stay near the hotel, all right? Don’t do any stupid shit.” It bothered him, leaving Neil alone like this, while he figured out what the hell was going on with Tilda and Aaron. Ichiro may have taken Neil under the main branch, but that didn’t mean Riko still might not pull some sort of shit. “You think your uncle can give you any head’s up if Riko steps out of line?”

“I doubt it, but who knows.” He gave a slight shrug. “I’d think Riko would be smarter than to pull something, considering how his brother and the FBI had just been involved.” Yet Neil still remained huddled on the bed.

Right, Riko not doing anything stupid, like sending men down to look into the past of two teenagers or bring armed men into a school. “Stay the fuck inside until I come back, tomorrow we can look for a new apartment together,” Andrew told him. “Don’t get it into that idiot head of yours to go off running or something.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Neil let out a slow breath and managed a weak smile. “Go have… well, yeah, go see your family and leave me alone. I’m going to order a damn pizza without any vegetables on it for once.”

Bastard. Still, Andrew felt the odd urge to smile as he grabbed his bag and went over to Neil’s bed and leaned in to brush their lips together. “Just for that, I’m ordering a double veggie’s lovers the next time we go out.”

“Such an asshole,” Neil breathed against his lips.

Andrew allowed himself one more kiss, his fingers combing through that now reddish hair, before he forced himself to move away and out the door.

*******

Neil got up to put the rest of the mushroom and pepperoni pizza away in mini fridge and then return to the bed – all the while avoiding the room’s mirrors since he wasn’t ready to accept the return to his natural hair color yet – when he heard his phone chime to alert him to an incoming message. Maybe it was Anna texting him; ever since New Year’s, she’d been doing that from time to time, and he’d taken to responding back. Now that he was here in Columbia and Andrew would be busy with his family… he had a feeling that he’d be grateful for someone to talk to, now and then.

By the time he picked up his phone, there was another chime, and then a third one. Confused as to why Anna would be texting him so much, he swiped to the text screen… and felt the pizza in his stomach become a heavy, uncomfortable weight when he saw the unfamiliar numbers on the screen and parts of the messages that had been sent to him.

*******

“So, ah, this is the room you’ll be sharing with Aaron. It’s not much, it’s just a two bedroom apartment, but you’re brothers, yes? I mean, you’re twins. You’ll get along fine. Like twins. Like brothers.” Tilda gave a nervous laugh as she waved her right hand about, the appendage flapping through the air like a trapped bird. “He’s so happy to have you here, right Aaron?” The smile took on a forced edge as she stared at Aaron, her pupils too big in her hazel eyes.

Aaron rubbed his right hand along his left arm, which was covered by a long-sleeved t-shirt once more and forced just as fake a grin. “Of course, so happy.” He sounded as sullen as a tired three year old, and Andrew noticed the half-hearted cleaning attempts that had gone on in the room he’d now be sharing with his twin, as well as the lingering smell of pot. There were now two twin beds in the room, pushed against either walls, a long, low dresser with a smaller, armoire style one next to it, a couple of nightstands, a pile of clothes shoved in the corner and a few books and shoes shoved beneath the half-made bed. There was an old poster on the wall of a sunset along a beach somewhere, something scenic, as if to cheer up the place, and dusty blinds on the window.

“Is that all you have?” Tilda motioned to the bag in Andrew’s hand.

“Yes, just some clothes.” He knew the drill by now after so many foster homes, and downplayed anything he owned; it was a good thing he’d left the laptop back at the hotel room.

“Don’t forget what’s outside,” Aaron said. “It must be nice to have a car.” The latter seemed to be directed at Tilda.

“We can’t afford two, we can barely afford the one as it is,” she snapped, before she turned a fake smile onto Andrew. “But now-“

“It’s Neil’s,” he was quick to lie. “He just lets me drive it a lot.” There was no way he was going to allow this woman into his car, or to take it away from him.

“Huh, some *friend*,” Aaron remarked. “Must be nice,” he repeated, but there was an odd note to it just then.

Andrew set his bag down on the bed before he gave his brother a cool look. “Yes, it is.”

Tilda chewed on her bottom lip for a moment as if thinking of something, then shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Oh well, at least he lets you borrow it, that should save me gas money if you need to get around anywhere.” She waved her hand around the room again, the motion jerky. “So the bedroom. You’ve seen the rest of the place, it’s not much. Don’t know what you expected.”

“I never expect much, it keeps me from being disappointed.” Andrew had gotten a glimpse or two of the apartment from the photos he’d trailed back to Aaron’s Facebook account from Nicky’s, and it wasn’t much better in person; a small, two bedroom apartment with the bare minimum of furniture. It looked as if someone had put some effort into cleaning it up, but there was that hint of pot in the air, and he’d seen the empty and half-empty liquor bottles in the kitchen and in the living room. If this was a foster home, he’d be bracing himself for the worst, and this was a situation he’d let himself into willingly – he must be insane.

But he wasn’t some little kid anymore, and he wasn’t alone. Neil was a phone call away, there was a car with a full gas tank outside, and he had several very sharp knives strapped to his forearms. He also saw the way that Tilda flinched when he got too close, the way her eyes would skitter away from him after a couple of seconds; oh no, someone wasn’t happy that he was here despite the offers for him to ‘come home’, despite the new bed and the newish dresser.

“Oh, that’s… that’s interesting,” Tilda said, her smile slipping a little. “I guess that’s a good mindset to have.”

“Yes, I learned from very early on that people just love to let you down.” He went over to check out the smaller dresser and pulled open one of the drawers. “One of the shrinks I saw in therapy told me I have abandonment issues, like that’s any big surprise.”

“Abandonment… I think I’ll go check on dinner.” Her smile all gone, Tilda was quick to leave the room, while Aaron scoffed as he went over to the messy bed.

“You having fun treating her like that?”

Andrew shrugged while he began to unpack his bag. “What, am I supposed to be all happy and just forgive her? How would you feel if *you* had been given up at birth and spent the last sixteen years of your life in the foster care system. Oh, wait, she kept you, didn’t she?” He sneered at his brother as he divided up his shirts and his pants into different drawers. “My bad.”

“Fuck you.” Aaron didn’t sound sullen just then, he sounded pissed off. “Like it’s been so great, living here. Like it’s been a bed of-“ He cut himself off and shook his head. “It’s not perfect.” He was twitching a little as he sat there, as if unable to sit still.

“Few things are,” was all he said while he continued to unpack, conscious of how Aaron watched him the entire time.

After that was done, he went out onto the small balcony which housed a few dead plants and a rickety lounge chair to have a cigarette to help calm his nerves, and fought the urge to send a text message to Neil so soon. The nicotine helped to calm him down, but he was all too aware of the raised voices inside of the apartment, of Tilda yelling at Aaron and his surly responses in return; it took all of Andrew’s willpower to not go charging back in just then, but he gave it a little longer to figure out the dynamics, to make sure he wasn’t imagining things or letting his own experiences shade his judgement.

He stayed out there a long while despite the warmth of the day, shaded by the balconies above, until Aaron came to fetch him. “It’s time to eat.”

“Oh joyous occasion,” Andrew said as he returned inside and followed Aaron to the kitchen, to the small round table set with three plates, with the two matching chairs and the odd one out. He had the impression that they didn’t often have someone else join them, as evident by the mismatched chair, and was grateful when there wasn’t any prayers like yesterday.

Unfortunately, there was another casserole, this one with ground beef, pasta and some tomato sauce, along with canned green beans – it was obvious that his mother wasn’t a master chef, especially when she paired it with a can of cheap beer. “I, uhm, hope you like it.”

“It’s not bad,” he told her after a couple of bites, which was the truth. There had been the one home where his foster ‘parents’ had been vegan, and he was determined to never eat anything made out of soy again.

“So, uhm, you changed your hair.” She glanced at it and then stared at her plate.

“It was time for something different.” He noticed that she had a more difficult time looking at him, now that he had a stronger resemblance to Aaron – now that he looked like her son. Good, let her feel guilty about what she’d done.

“Don’t you mean something old?” Aaron eyed Andrew’s hair and shook his head. “Very original.”

“I wanted to give looking like an asshole a try, what could I say?” Andrew smiled at his twin when Aaron stared at him in surprise that soon returned back to the sullen anger that seemed Aaron’s default.

“You think that’s funny?” He made another twitchy, aborted motion that led to his iced tea being knocked over. “I-“

“Dammit, Aaron!” Tilda screeched as the cold drink spread across the table, some of it onto her jean-clad lap. While Andrew watched, her left arm flew out and smacked into the side of Aaron’s head, and when it drew back to hit him again, he reached out to stop it. “You little-“

Everyone at the table went still as he leaned over with her wrist caught in his grip tight enough to bruise. “*Don’t*,” he warned her. “Don’t hit him.” He didn’t yell, he didn’t raise his voice, but all of the anger he felt toward her just then still came through.

“But… I….” She stared at him as if she had no clue what he was, as if something strange and unidentifiable was standing before her, which just might be the truth.” I-“

“Shut up and listen to me,” he told her. “You don’t hit him again, not while I’m here. This is your warning, do you understand?”

Between the two of them, Aaron stared at him in shock, the left side of his face red. “Andrew… what the hell?”

“I’m not going to stay here and put up with her hitting you,” he swore. “It’s as simple as that.”

“But… but I don’t,”

He tightened his grip on her wrist until she whimpered. “Don’t lie,” he told her. “Not to me. I’ve heard it too many times before. Just take your pills and drink your beer, and keep your fucking hands to yourself.” He gave her wrist one more squeeze and when she cried out, let go before he left the table. “Great dinner, can’t wait for the next one,” he called out as he went to his new bedroom.

Once there, he fell down onto his new bed, then cursed himself for not bringing any books with him; he’d have to go out and buy a few new ones tomorrow with Neil. Until then, he got up and grabbed a couple from beneath Aaron’s bed, and sneered when he realized that they were some stupid generic bestsellers but figured that they were better than nothing. Taking the best of the lot with him back to his bed, he pulled out his phone and sent a text to his friend.

**Worse than I thought. Hope you’re enjoying the pizza

Setting the phone aside while he waited for Neil’s text, he started the book and got about two pages in when Aaron crept into the room, his eyes red but his hands no longer twitching. “What the hell was that about? Why did you treat her like that?”

“Why the hell do you let her treat you like a punching bag?”

“I… I don’t. She just… it was a shock and she reacted. Anyone would do that.”

Yeah, that sounded convincing. “Then why don’t you show me your arms, or are you hiding track marks as well as bruises?”

Aaron stared at him in shock for a couple of seconds before he sank down on his bed. “Who the fuck are you? You’re crazy.”

“The verdict is still out on that, Judge Takashi certainly thought I might have psychotic tendencies but Dr. Evans said the tests were inconclusive so off to Wayward Burns I went.” Yeah, the book sucked as bad as he thought, he could already tell, so he sent another text off to Neil, this one saying ‘I hate you – 208%’ since he was stuck here without his laptop and any decent entertainment. When he glanced over at Aaron, he found his brother staring at him with an indecipherable expression. “What? They’re your genes too, you know.”

“You’re crazy,” Aaron repeated as if he had just come to some sort of revelation. “And you can’t treat Mom like that.”

“Just watch me, especially if she thinks she can smack you around.” Andrew narrowed his eyes at the moron who happened to be his brother and pointed the hand which still held his phone as well. “I’m not going to do nothing while she beats you up.”

“Why do you even care? We just met yesterday.”

It was a good question, and one that held too much pain to it for Andrew to ever answer. He’d already given up too much of himself to Aaron, had already sacrificed a hell of a lot to keep the asshole safe and that was without even meeting him. He could still recall the look of hunger and excitement on Drake’s face as he talked about having both of them – having Andrew and Aaron – in his bed, of attempting to ‘cajole’ Andrew in luring Aaron to Cass’…. Now that Andrew was here, he found that he couldn’t turn his back on Tilda, couldn’t ignore what she was doing to her son.  What the fuck was he, the patron loser for fucked up idiots or something?

“What’s one more idiot at this point,” he muttered as he checked his phone and dialed Neil’s number, tired of waiting for *his* idiot to text him back.

“Eh? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“One moment.” He frowned when the phone went straight into voicemail, a sign that the idiot had let it die again, which was sheer suicide with Riko out there and Andrew not at his side. But first thing first. “Look, why the hell did you get your cousin and your uncle to track me down?” he demanded to know from Aaron as he sat on the edge of the bed. “I know it wasn’t your mother, so someone had to get them involved.”

Aaron opened his mouth as if to dispute that, his hazel eyes wide and hands clutched around the wrinkled beige bedsheets of his bed, but something in Andrew’s gaze made him shake his head a few seconds later. “I wanted… I didn’t know who you were, but… that cop….”

“Pig Higgins.” Andrew put as much derision as he could into the name.

“Yeah, Higgins. He sounded happy when he thought I was you, that time.” Aaron scrubbed at his face and winced. “I thought… I don’t know what I thought. Maybe that it would be better if you were here. Maybe she wouldn’t be so… so… maybe it would just be better.”

“Maybe she won’t be an abusive drunk?”

“You don’t know her,” Aaron snapped as he tugged on the sleeves of his shirt. “She… the meds, she needs them, she… anxiety attacks, depression, stuff like that.” He stared at something on the worn carpet, his expression haunted. “I don’t want to be like her. I fucking *don’t*.”

Ah, Xanax, maybe, or even Ativan. Andrew had seen it often enough, in some of the homes and even at old Wayward. It would explain the twitching, and the occasional slurring he’d heard. “I don’t know her because she gave me up, remember?” He smiled when Aaron flinched at the reminder. “Very well, you wanted me so badly, here I am. If I’m stuck with you, then you’re stuck with me.” He wasn’t sure where Aaron was getting the drugs, if it was through Tilda or someone else, but he was going to put a stop to it. He also couldn’t allow Aaron to be used by Riko against him or Neil.

Aaron stopped tugging at his sleeves to look at Andrew. “What does that mean?”

“That means I’ll stay here until we graduate and protect you, will make Tilda back off and keep you safe, but you do things my way. No friends I don’t approve of, no activities, *nothing*, without my say so.”

His expression now dubious, Aaron gave his left cuff a sharp tug, the material beginning to fray. “And what the hell do I get out of it? That sounds like I’m your personal slave or something.”

Andrew smiled, the expression lacking of warmth or reassurance. “I don’t go into the slave thing, thanks. You get Tilda off your back. You get the users kept away from you. Trust me, I don’t want a thing from you other than your word and your intention to keep it.”

There was quiet once more save for a faint tearing sound as Aaron considered it. “And what about *your* friend? I get a say in who you hang out with?”

Andrew’s smile took on a warning edge. “Neil’s considered part of the bargain – don’t try to go there, I already have an agreement with him. Now, is it yes or should I pack up my shit and go?”

“The hell….” Aaron yanked a few more threads loose from his sleeve before he nodded. “If you can make Tilda back off and the rest….” He raised his left arm, hand covered by the ragged sleeve, up to his now bruised face. “Whatever.”

“That a yes?” Andrew wanted it to be clear if he was going to be sticking around.

“Yes, it’s a yes!”

“Fine.” That taken care of, Andrew dialed the number to the hotel room so he could bitch out a certain idiot, his temper flaring when it took several rings to answer. When Neil finally did pick up, he had to force himself not to yell. “What fucking part of ‘keep your phone charged’ do you not get? Did I miss any recent concussions or something?”

There was silence on the line for a couple of seconds before Neil spoke, his voice quiet and possessing an uncommon quiver. “It’s not dead, I turned it off.”

Warning bells went off in Andrew’s head as soon as he picked up on that quiver; noting the way that Aaron was staring at him while he talked, he switched to French. “What the hell is going on?” That only made Aaron all the more curious, but at least he couldn’t eavesdrop.

There was another pause before Neil answered, also in French; the switch in language seemed to lend him some confidence. “I think… yeah, think we can say that Riko is annoyed now.” There was a soft ‘whoomp’ sound in the background, as if he’d dropped down on the bed.

“What is that…,” he had to switch to English for a moment, “fucking little shit,” he needed to learn more swear words, that would be their next lesson, “doing now?”

“Seems like him and the rest of the Ravens are spamming my phone with texts.”

“With what?” When Neil didn’t respond, he repeated the question with more force, sharp enough to make Aaron scoot back on his bed.

There was a weary sigh on the other end of the phone. “It’s Riko, Andrew. I think you can imagine. He’s not happy that I got away, and….”

“And what?” Andrew slipped a knife free, which caused Aaron’s eyes to widen.

“And each day I delay going to the Ravens means another cut he’ll enjoy giving me, shit like that.” Neil sounded exhausted now, and Andrew could only imagine what it must have done to him, to see those threats come through, new threats from a new monster when he had done what he could to put his father to rest.

“Keep the phone turned off, I’ll deal with it tomorrow. Don’t let anyone in the room until I get there.” He tried not to think about how these were the type of people who weren’t put off by security locks on doors. “We’ll find a place for you around here if I have to kill a neighbor.”

“Okay.” There was another pause and then Neil chuckled. “Don’t go shoving any old ladies down the steps on my account.”

“No promises,” Andrew said, and felt some relief when Neil laughed again. “Don’t get yourself killed or kidnapped during the night, idiot.”

“Hmm, no promises,” Neil told him back before hanging up.

Andrew let the phone fall onto the bed and spent a moment or two fantasizing about how nice it would be to shove a knife down Riko’s throat, and then noticed Aaron’s assessing gaze. “What?”

“So, this Neil, he French or something? He didn’t sound like it, yesterday.”

“Actually, he’s half British.” Andrew flipped the knife before he slipped it back into the arm guard and watched how Aaron tracked its disappearance.

“Really.” Aaron continued to study Andrew as if looking for something. “You know, Nicky’s gay, that’s why Uncle Luther won’t have anything to do with him.” He kept his tone mostly even as he said that – mostly.

“I never could tell, what with all the pictures of his boyfriend that he posted online.” Andrew picked up the other paperback to see if it was any better than the first one.

“Yeah, and then there you are, with your *friend*. Just… just wondering, you know.”

“Neil doesn’t swing,” Andrew took great delight in informing his nosy brother with a perfectly straight face. “Either way. You could drop him off at an orgy and he’d just find a quiet corner somewhere to sit until it was time to leave.” Unless the right person decided to join him in that quiet corner, that was.

Aaron stared at Andrew as if he was still talking in French. “What the hell happened to him?”

Dropping the book onto the bed, Andrew was on his feet in an instant, and whatever emotion he couldn’t keep from his face just then made Aaron flinch away. “Never ask that question. Little boys who got to stay at home their whole lives don’t have that right, understand?”

“Yuh-yeah.”

Andrew left him there as he went out in the living room, such as it was, past Tilda who was steadily drinking her way through a bottle of wine, and out onto the balcony so he could have a couple of cigarettes to calm himself down. While out there, he did his best to figure out how to balance his promise to Neil with his new one to Aaron.

*******

Neil nearly had a heart-attack when the door to the hotel room slammed open, only to be stopped by the security latch; he’d gotten up and taken a shower, but felt so tired after being woken up by nightmares every hour or two that he’d just meant to stretch out on the bed and must have fallen asleep. The loud sound startled him awake and scrambling for a weapon, for the gun his mother had always kept beneath the pillow. Dammit, where was it? Where-

“What the *fuck* is this? Josten!”

Shit, Andrew. “Yeah.” Neil rubbed at his face as he rushed from the bed to go let Andrew in, and found himself herded up against the wall while Andrew kicked the door shut behind him, one hand full with a bag of take-out and a carrier filled with coffee cups, the other placed against the center of his chest. “You look like shit.”

“Funny, I feel like it, too.” They were still for a moment, Andrew’s eyes narrowed as he took in Neil’s appearance, and then they both moved at the same time for a kiss that made Neil moan in relief and happiness. It only lasted a few seconds before Andrew pulled away clicking his tongue. “At least you brushed your damn teeth.”

“And good morning to you, too. Uhm, what time is it?” It had been around six A.M. when he’d gotten out of bed before, and he still felt tired even after the nap.

“Almost nine, now.” Andrew set the food and the coffee down on the counter in the small kitchen area and handed him one of them; Neil inhaled the rich aroma before he raised the cup to his mouth and took a careful sip to gage its warmth, and found it cool enough to drink. “Did you get any sleep last night?”

“A little. I’m fi-“ As Andrew glared at him, he shrugged. “How are things with your mother and brother?”

Andrew picked up his own cup of coffee, which even from a couple feet away smelled sugary as hell, per usual. “We may have to rethink the whole ‘no killing family thing’ we talked about the other night.”

Neil watched him for signs that he might be joking, but of course he wasn’t. “Ah, I see.” Well, so much for turning over a new leaf or whatever. “Any particular reason why, or did you just wake up this morning to commit… is it matricide or fratricide? Just curious.”

“Matricide,” Andrew informed him as he leaned against the counter and gazed out over the room. “Seems among her many faults, dear Tilda can’t keep her hands to herself. I warned her last night that she needs to spare the rod, but she’s not listening.” His jaw clenched before he had another sip of whatever ridiculous cappuccino he’d bought. “She hit him again this morning, when I was in the shower. Bastard tried to cover for her, even after I told him I’d get her off his back.”

“Okay.” Neil gave the matter some thought, on the best way to go about it that would keep Andrew out of trouble. “Call Uncle Stuart? If he can’t do it, he might know a professional in the area, someone who comes recommended and who’ll keep their mouths shut.”

Andrew’s lips twitched when he lowered the cup to the counter then dug through the bag for what turned out to be egg sandwiches. “I’d rather we keep this between ourselves, but thanks.” He handed one of them to Neil. “Most people would be trying to talk me out of it, not offering up their family members as hit men.”

“Most people don’t have family members who are hit men,” Neil pointed out. “Okay, so, where does that leave us? Poison? How fast do you want to do this?” He frowned as he looked at Andrew’s arm guards. “Nothing messy, right?” He didn’t think he could stomach something that violent, not unless he was fighting for his life.

Andrew rolled his eyes as he took a bite out of his sandwich. “I’ve an idea, but it’ll take some time – she has a piece of shit car.”

“Ah.” Neil nodded and started on his own breakfast, and they ate in a comfortable silence for a couple of minutes. “Just be careful – it’ll be a lot more difficult to run now because of the whole Moriyama thing, not to mention from murder charges.” Well, when officially charged with murder.

Andrew finished off his sugar coffee then set it aside before he pinned Neil against the counter, his hands on either side of Neil’s hips and muscular body close enough for Neil to feel his friend’s warmth. “I will, and you won’t have to bitch about burying a body this time, too,”

“So thoughtful, you are.” Neil raised his hands and let them hover around Andrew’s hips until the teen gave a nod, then let them fall to rest onto the denim. “How long do you have?”

“A few hours – Tilda’s off to work so Aaron’ll be fine on his own. We can start looking for an apartment and get you a new phone,” Andrew told him.

Neil grimaced at the thought of a new phone, of how long it would take for Riko to track him down again, then pushed it aside. “Few hours, huh? So no hurry?” It was odd, spending the night alone after all those months with Andrew. He was surprised by how little he’d liked it.

“A few,” Andrew agreed as he leaned in closer. “So, yes or no?”

“Yes,” Neil moaned, the sound cut off by a kiss, Andrew’s mouth sweet from the coffee. Neil forgot about the phone, about Tilda, about Riko, happy to have this short amount of time together and uncaring about what would happen later when he had Andrew here now to tear him apart and put him back together again.

*******

“We do have to get going at some point today,” Andrew chided Neil, who was still stretched out on the bed, appearing tired yet happy at the moment and only covered in a wrinkled sheet.

“Hmm, I know.” Neil let out a low groan as he sat up, back arched and scarred arms held over his head as he stretched his lithe body; even the numerous scars on his chest didn’t detract from his attractiveness, and his auburn hair appeared almost curly in its tangled state. Andrew found himself sitting down at the edge of the bed and combing his fingers through it, enjoying how the thick strands felt so soft and cool against his fingers and the way Neil leaned against him as pliant as a purring cat.

“Where’s your phone?”

Well, he had been pliant; Neil stiffened for a moment before he pulled away to fetch the phone from the nightstand, then rested once more against Andrew as he handed it over. “It’s… I’ve heard worse from my father and his people. Lola could have taught them a few things,” he mumbled against Andrew’s right shoulder.

“Hmm.” Andrew powered it back on, and immediately the phone began to chirp with new incoming messages. “People need to get a life,” he muttered as he scanned through the texts, most of them as juvenile as Neil had said. The numbers were blocked, but one could tell some different senders from the writing styles – certain people favored emojis and actually spelling. He could figure out which were Riko’s by the insistence that Neil was property to be abused, and mention of the insult ‘mutt’. Then he frowned as he noticed the odd messages out. “Why the hell are there texts from Anna and Kelci on here?”

“Uhm, because they’re nice?” Neil pulled back a little to frown at him. “Kelci is an English major and helped me out with a paper last semester, and Anna… she started checking up on me and we just started talking here and there.”

“She’s a bitch, but whatever, it's your phone plan,” Andrew said while he typed a message back to Riko telling him to go cry on his daddy’s shoulder, if he could get the man to acknowledge his existence. “Now get your ass in the shower, I want to be gone in twenty minutes.”

“Now you’re in a fucking hurry,” Neil grumbled as he climbed out of bed and stalked to the bathroom naked, a sight to behold with those long legs, tight ass and sculpted back.

“I didn’t hear you complaining before, sounded more like begging,” Andrew yelled after him, and smirked at the way the bathroom door was slammed shut. Some people were just so easy to rile up, weren’t they? Much like the incoming call on Neil’s phone just then.

“You dare, Nathanie-“

Andrew cut off Riko’s rant with a great deal of satisfaction. “Sorry, Neil’s a little busy right now, I’d say he’d get back to a piece of shit like you but that’s not going to happen.” He palmed a knife as he stared off at the far wall, and on the other end of the line Riko sputtered in fury. “Didn’t one of your brother’s men make it clear to you? Neil’s not yours to play with anymore. Quit being a sore loser, you should be used to coming up second best by now.” He hung up the phone and then powered it off for good measure – but kept the phone, just in case. Some people were also a little slow on learning when to keep their hands to themselves.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

After leaving the hotel and stopping to pick up a new phone for Neil, they decided to try and see if there were any apartments available where Tilda and Aaron lived, and as ‘luck’ would have it, there were two at the moment – an efficiency and a two bedroom. Neil chose the efficiency since he didn’t need much room and went with the option for a three month lease, his ‘argument’ that he might want something else once school started, and between having Wolfe vouch for him and some sort of credit history in Racine, managed to get the place. That and… well, it wasn’t the greatest apartment, he thought as he looked it over, with the worn carpet and old windows and an oven he was too afraid to turn on, it looked in that bad of a shape.

“I hate you,” he told Andrew as he stood in his new ‘home’. “There’s not even an IKEA around here so figure out where we can get me something to sleep on tonight.” He had slept on a lot of floors in the last few years, had slept on couches and benches, in cars and on buses, in homeless shelters and hostels, but there was no way in hell he was sleeping on that carpet.

Andrew snorted as he pulled out the keys to the car. “Call Anna and tell her you want your bed back, you big baby.”

“You willing to give up your bed?” When Andrew gave him that flat, empty look, he scoffed. “Yeah, thought so.”

“Come on, I want you out of that hotel today.” There was a tension to Andrew’s broad shoulders just then that made Neil stop with the teasing, so he fell in step behind his friend as they went out to the car.

“Where’s Aaron?”

“In *his* bed.” Ah, that was a distinct note of displeasure just there, especially when Andrew continued. “I doubt he’s going to leave it any time soon.”

All right. “Is he okay?” Not that Neil cared too much for the teen, but Andrew had promised to look out for him, so….

Andrew paused to light a cigarette once he slid inside the car, only turning it on to start the a/c, and passed another one to Neil. “Saw him pop something after the whole Tilda thing, so willing to bet he’s just going to sleep for a couple of hours. He’s ‘fine’.” The bite that he put to the last word let Neil now that he was being sarcastic as hell.

“Then let’s get this done.”

They went back for Neil’s stuff at the hotel, then found a local furniture store where Neil ordered a futon, a small dresser which would double as a tv stand, a low end table and a small kitchen table set, which was all he was willing to buy. They arranged for it to be delivered later that day, then went to pick up a tv, microwave, some linens, kitchen and bathroom stuff, and groceries before they returned. Neil cringed at the thought of how he kept on buying stuff, even if the accounts Durand had set up for him were accruing interest, and resolved to see about a longer term solution if they really were staying here in Columbia, depending on what happened with Andrew’s mother and everything.

Left alone in his new apartment while Andrew checked on Aaron, Neil paused in putting everything away to dwell on Andrew’s plans for Tilda. Considering that Neil had helped set in motion his own father’s death and taken part in Lola’s… he wasn’t going to judge. He just wanted to make sure that Andrew didn’t get caught, and… yeah, knowing his friend as he did, he was certain that Andrew wouldn’t regret anything.

So, assuming that Andrew pulled off whatever he was thinking of doing, then they had at least a year in Columbia, probably two since Neil couldn’t afford to jump around too much if he was serious about getting in with a good Class I Exy team once he graduated from high school. The Columbia Caps had a pretty good record for a high school Exy team, usually making it to the district finals even if they’d never gone on to win a championship.

Once everything was put away, he texted Anna his new phone number so he could at least chat until the new furniture arrived, needing some sort of diversion all of a sudden. There were too many changes happening lately, too many things impacting his future, and his first impulse was to just find the nearest exit and run. Unfortunately, all the reasons he’d given Andrew back in Racine for them not just running after Riko had found them were still valid now, even more so after Neil’s ‘talk’ with Ichiro, so he forced himself to take several deep breaths as he leaned against the balcony rail and focused on Anna’s message so he could type something back. This was the choice he’d made, coming to Columbia with Andrew, and he would see it through whatever the cost.

*******

After over a month living in Columbia, Andrew was beginning to sense a pattern to things; Tilda would wake up in the morning, surly and hungover and altogether a bitch to behold, and stomp around the apartment as she got ready for her job as an office admin. If Aaron got in her way, well… she had learned to watch what she did to him in front of Andrew, but she didn’t have the best memory in the world. No, not with the drugs, not with the alcohol, not with the need to make herself feel better by taking it out on her nice, convenient punching bag. Every now and then she attempted to direct that rage and self-hate at Andrew, but he wasn’t either high on drugs or shaking with the need for more, wasn’t used to being her outlet for abuse so all it took was one flat look, one blocked arm and she cowered back. He’d have to be on guard then, because if she thought she could catch Aaron when he wasn’t paying attention? Yeah.

He also found out that she was sharing her Xanax pills with Aaron – he couldn’t get an answer out of his twin about when that had started, if it had been her idea or just a way to get Aaron to keep quiet about the abuse or what, but either Tilda’s doctor was an idiot who didn’t care how much he over-prescribed her or she was hitting up a couple different ones. She was also taking OxyContin, but those she didn’t share, thankfully. It was going to be bad enough getting Aaron off the barbiturates when the time came.

That was, if he didn’t kill Aaron before then.

For someone who wanted to be free of Tilda’s abuse, Aaron didn’t do much of anything to get away from it, didn’t do anything to defend himself when she turned violent. Co-dependency, Andrew knew from all those wonderful therapy sessions he’d been forced to attend, but it didn’t make seeing it any easier to stomach. Aaron understood that he needed to break free from his mother, that this life wasn’t good for him… but he seemed unable to do anything for himself on his own, other than reach out to Andrew. To seem to rely on Andrew more and more each week, to look to him as if watching after him with that hungry expression and following him around would somehow give him a damn backbone of his own.

He also appeared to have something against Neil, to hate the other teen on sight – either because Neil could function on his own without any parents or because he was Andrew’s friend - or both. Aaron alternated between ignoring Neil completely or being rude as fuck whenever the three of them were together – which was a lot, because Andrew tried to not leave Aaron alone too much - and all Neil did was ignore him in return or give him a bland look in the face of the hostility directed at him. In fact, Neil was awfully quiet about a lot of things, lately, which was growing annoying as well.

So Andrew learned to split up his days, to spend an hour or two alone with Neil when Tilda was at work and Aaron zoned out on a fresh hit of Xanax, and then return back to ‘home’ to stand guard over Aaron when Tilda was back. All along, he bided his time, did a couple of very careful internet searches on the laptop left at Neil’s tiny apartment, poured through books at various bookstores… and offered to run errands with Tilda’s ancient and unreliable Ford Taurus several times a week.

*******

Neil didn’t return back to his apartment until his muscles ached from all the miles run and his head felt clear at last; it had been another night interrupted by bad dreams, from old memories and awful, too-familiar pain. He gave grudging nods to a couple of people passed in the hallway as he made his way upstairs, neighbors and other residents that he maybe should bother to get to know but he wouldn’t, not when he wouldn’t be here that long, not after such an ingrained habit of standing apart, and most certainly not after his first week here, and was relieved when he reached his apartment. When he unlocked the door, it didn’t come as that much of a surprise to find Andrew already there and waiting for him, since it was a weekday and Tilda should be at work.

“I thought we talked about you running.”

And it wasn’t a surprise that Andrew was in a shitty mood, either, not after several weeks of living with Tilda and Aaron. Neil sighed as he slicked back his sweaty bangs and shook his head. “Not a good morning for this,” he warned as he headed to the tiny kitchen area for a bottle of water he’d left out before he went for the run, and of course Andrew followed.

“Would it be better if something happened while you were out running around like an idiot?” Andrew leaned against the counter, his black arm bands on display with the short-sleeved black t-shirt he wore, and watched while Neil drank down most of the water. “You should just paint a damn target on your ass while at it, make it easier for Riko to find you.”

Neil was careful to keep his expression even as he finished off the water. “Sure, why not? I’d hate to deprive you of any fun.” He tossed the bottle in the recycle bin and pulled off his shirt, tired of feeling covered with sweat; he missed living somewhere cooler, somewhere less humid and couldn’t wait until summer was over, even if the heat helped to seep into his brain while he ran and slowly numb it. The a/c in the efficiency – no big surprise – sucked, but the place was small enough that it didn’t matter too much. “Are you here to tell me anything else other than how stupid I am?” He went over to throw the shirt into the small basket with the rest of his dirty clothes, and reminded himself to take care of the laundry later, after Andrew left.

“Yeah, I had wanted to talk to you about the classes for fall, but then I found this.” Andrew reached into the back left pocket of the black jeans he was wearing to pull out a shiny new phone. “Funny, I’ve never seen it before.” His expression was the awful blank one that Neil hated, his tone casual, but his hazel eyes were bright with anger. “And it’s not the one we got you a few weeks ago.”

It wasn’t the one in the back pocket of Neil’s shorts, which he took out before he kicked off his shoes and grabbed a clean pair of underwear from the dresser, his motions jerky and an awful buzzing in his head. “I didn’t give you a spare key so you could go through my stuff.”

Andrew affected a fake hurt look, the anger still burning in his eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry, and here I was worried that a certain idiot had left his phone behind when he decided to go running off like a suicidal idiot this morning and I heard it chime. If you were that set on keeping secrets from me, you should have taken it or set it on mute.”

Neil thought he had set it on silent, but he’d been so out of it this morning, haunted by the nightmares and exhausted from the lack of sleep, that he should have double-checked for certain before fleeing the apartment. It would have been safer to take it with him, knowing how Andrew could just let himself in… but Neil couldn’t stomach even looking at the thing for very long, let along touching it. “Duly noted. I’m getting a shower now. Leave the damn thing and get out.”

The bathroom door had barely been shut and the water turned on when Andrew let himself in the small room; somehow Neil knew that it wouldn’t be that easy, not when Andrew was furious. “Seriously? Did you not get the ‘not a good morning’ part?” He refused to look at his friend as he stripped off the rest of his clothes and stepped beneath the sputtering water, never mind that it was still cold and would be for another minute.

Andrew jerked back the shower curtain and bared his teeth in an awful mockery of a smile. “Do you honestly think I’m going to ignore that you’ve hidden the fact that Riko sent you a phone and you’re using it? No lies, you promised me.”

“And I’ve kept up my end of the bargain,” Neil said as he shivered beneath the falling water; it had felt good at first against his sweaty skin, but yeah, any second now for it to heat up. “No lies, you said. Nothing about holding stuff back.”

“He thinks he’s amusing.” Andrew stared at the phone in his hand before he began to swipe and tap away. “He thinks it’s acceptable to roll over onto his back and give in to a psycho.”

Neil paused in scrubbing himself clean to throw the bar of soap at the asshole, which got batted aside and earned him a particularly vicious look. “I didn’t just ‘give in’, all right? He was threatening to get all of us evicted, and after my third noise complaint in less than four days from the rental office when I hadn’t done a damn thing, I stopped destroying the phones he sent and….” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his wet hair to wipe it away from his forehead. “I read his texts and reply back a couple of times a day, and it stops the complaints.”

“But it sets a dangerous precedent, you giving in. He knows that he just has to apply the right pressure and you give him what he wants, you damn idiot.” Oh yeah, Andrew was *pissed*.

“And what was I supposed to do? Let him pay off our neighbors until we’re thrown out on the streets? What about the next apartment?” Neil slapped his hand against the condescension slick tiled wall and wished it was a certain arrogant Japanese bastard that he was hitting.

Andrew continued to scroll through the texts a bit longer then typed for several seconds. “No, I’m just reminding him that a federal agent has her name down on your apartment application, so does he really want to mess with that? Because I will be more than happy to call Agent Wolfe the next time there’s any sort of complaint filed against you or me.”

That was the last thing Neil wanted, to drag Wolfe or any other type of authority into this mess. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Too late.” The angry bite was back in Andrew’s voice. “It’s my job to handle this, not yours. Don’t make it more difficult than it already is, dealing with an idiot whose first reaction is to offer himself up as some sort of half-assed, unnecessary sacrifice.” Done typing, Andrew went over to the toilet then dropped the phone into it.

“What the fuck!” Neil twisted off the water as he jumped out of the shower, but it was already too late; Andrew grinned as he flushed the toilet, the phone spinning around and making an awful, clanking sound as it repeatedly smacked against the porcelain.

“Ooops, I hope Riko bought the extended warranty for it. Looked rather expensive.”

“You’re crazy!” Neil could only stare in horror as the screen grew black and cracked from the abuse. “He’s going to be furious! He’s-“ One of Andrew’s hands wrapped loosely around his throat and cut off his yelling, while the other grabbed onto his right upper arm hard enough to bruise, and Neil found himself shoved out of the bathroom, his wet feet sliding along the floor.

“No, you don’t get it, do you?” Andrew hissed, the most furious Neil had ever seen him, short of that time in the gym with Riko. “You don’t worry about him. You don’t *think* about him!” Andrew shoved him down onto the futon, still unmade and left out as a bed from that morning. “*I* deal with him! He pulls this shit, the only thing you do is you come to *me*, and I put the bastard in his place!”

Sprawled out naked on the futon with Andrew looming on top of him, hand still loose around his throat and face red with anger, Neil managed a slight nod. “Okay.” He raised his right hand not to knock away Andrew’s but to hold it up to his friend’s flushed face. “I wasn’t… I didn’t mean… you’ve got enough shit to deal with already, I thought.” There was Tilda and Aaron, and the last thing Neil had wanted was to add to Andrew’s burdens just then.

Andrew let out a shuddering breath as he shook his head and his hand moved from Neil’s throat to tangle in the wet strands of Neil’s hair. “I said I’d protect you,” he breathed out as he leaned into Neil’s touch. “Why do you make that so damn difficult?”

“Maybe because… because no one’s really tried so hard before,” Neil admitted as he dared to wrap his left arm around Andrew’s shoulder and back. His mother might have had good intentions… but that really hadn’t worked out so well for him, had it? Hadn’t worked out so well for either of him, at least until he’d been dragged off to that detention center in Oakland. “I can’t stop thinking that it’s all on me or something.”

“Then stop thinking,” Andrew ground out as he gave Neil’s hair a harsh tug; he leaned in as if for a kiss, and then shook his head. “No, this is a bad idea right now, not when-“

“Yes,” Neil insisted as he followed Andrew up off the bed. “*Yes*. It’s-“ he almost said ‘fine’ and winced. “It’s always going to be ‘yes’ with you, okay?”

Some of Andrew’s anger seemed to return as he pushed Neil back down onto the bed. “There’s never always a ‘yes’.” There was a sharp bite to his words and a terrible… it was almost like a hunger to his expression, yet there was also some pain. “You just don’t know….”

“I know I trust you,” Neil told him, not wanting to push Andrew away, not wanting to hurt him, but wanting Andrew to stop hurting himself. “Whatever it is you want or don’t want, it’s fine with me. I trust you… I want you,” he admitted, and saw the doubt on his friend’s face. “Me not telling you about Riko isn’t about trusting you, it’s about me trying to keep him away from you.” Riko enjoyed causing pain too much for Neil to want to see that turned on Andrew.

“And you think I’m going to just stand here while he sinks his claws into you?” Neil found himself pushed further into the bed from the force of Andrew’s kiss, both his hands pressed into the soft bedding by Andrew’s grip on his wrists. “That’s not going to happen, you stupid martyr,” Andrew insisted several seconds later, his voice rough and breathing uneven.

Neil needed a moment to catch his own breath. “Uhm, wow, okay, the sweet talk….”

“Shut up,” Andrew told him, but the anger appeared to be gone, judging from the way his hands trailed down Neil’s arms and an amused light in his hazel eyes despite the bland expression on his face. “If you keep talking, you’ll just annoy me.”

“And again, the-“

Andrew seemed to decide that the best way to shut Neil up was to kiss him, which was perfectly fine with Neil. He smiled a little around the kiss and wrapped his arms around Andrew, left leg hooking around Andrew’s calf, and had to laugh when he realized how his friend’s clothes were now all damp.

“You’re a mess,” he murmured as he tugged at the hem of Andrew’s t-shirt in an effort to help remove it; Andrew got the hint and pulled away enough so it he could yank it over his head while he kicked off his shoes.

“Your fault,” Andrew accused as he also set to work on removing his wet jeans, not that Neil was about to complain or argue even if he had been the one dragged out of the bathroom before he had a chance to dry off. Before Andrew pushed the material past his hips, he frowned and leaned over the bed for something, his hand reaching about for a moment, and returned with the bottle of lube Neil kept more or less tucked down there for when… well, when Andrew came over.

He set it down on the futon then leaned over Neil again. “Yes or no? You don’t… just say ‘no’ whenever.” His bangs fell forward, onto his eyes, and his voice was once again rough just then.

Neil wasn’t used to Andrew being so hesitant like this, not since they had first started… well, *this*, and he didn’t know if it was because of Andrew’s earlier temper or what. Then he felt his friend’s hand skim down along his left side and settle into the small of his back. *Oh*. “Yes,” he repeated as he pulled Andrew back down on top of him for another kiss.

He’d thought about it, about… well, they seemed to lead up to it a few times, but Andrew always shied away at some point. Neil was always fine with whatever Andrew wanted to do, with what Andrew gave him, but he had been curious about – well, they seemed to do everything but what most people thought of as sex.

“Should have some damn condoms,” Andrew mumbled as he broke off the kiss so he could shimmy out of his pants, while Neil enjoyed running his hands over his friend’s broad shoulders and the firm muscles of his forearms.

“Hmm, you’re clean, right?” He didn’t think Andrew would have allowed some of the things they’d done if he wasn’t, and shrugged when he was glared at as if he’d asked a stupid question.

“Yes,” Andrew snapped as he tugged Neil farther down the bed by his hips.

“Then it doesn’t matter.” He’d had a physical for the Panthers’ last year and come back with clean blood work as well, so it was fine.

“And you think there’s a mess now.” Still, Andrew’s good mood seemed restored as he leaned in to nuzzle Neil’s right ear. “This… I haven’t done it… fuck.”

Neil was careful to keep his hands on Andrew’s shoulders. “Good, then I don’t feel like such an idiot.” He turned to place a kiss against Andrew’s neck and smiled at the resulting shiver. “You don’t have to, you know.”

“No, but….” Andrew ground down against him until Neil could feel how hard he was; he inhaled sharply and dug his fingers into Andrew’s shoulders.

“Then tell me what to do.”

Andrew gave Neil’s ear another nuzzle while his hands rose up to squeeze Neil’s, a silent command for him to keep them there, on Andrew’s shoulders. Then he began to kiss his way down Neil’s body, mouth a terrible tease as it nipped and licked and sucked, until Neil was twisting on the bed *before* Andrew got below his navel. He inhaled again, the touch ticklish for a moment, and then gasped out Andrew’s name when that mouth ghosted lower and he felt one of his friend’s hands wrap around his cock.

The feel of Andrew taking him into his mouth almost distracted Neil from the sound of the bottle popping open, and Neil closed his eyes and concentrated on all the pleasure Andrew’s mouth was building inside of him when he felt the slick finger slide along the crack of his ass. Despite knowing what was going to happen, it still felt so odd, still caused him to flinch at the initial push, until Andrew started to stroke his cock as well as lick along the top.

Neil fought to keep his breathing even as that finger pushed inside, to relax and accept the slight burn, and after a minute it didn’t seem too bad. He had just started to thrust a little into Andrew’s mouth when the finger curled inside of him and then *something* sparked hard and bright.

“Fuck!”

Andrew’s mouth slid away from his cock and the finger slipped from his ass. “No, no!”

“Hmm, something wrong?” Someone sounded smug just then, and Neil lifted his head to glare just as Andrew pushed against his left leg and the finger was back against his hole – only this time, there was more pressure, was more of a burn. Neil hissed as he was stretched wider, his head falling back as he concentrated on relaxing once more, and Andrew took to loosely stroking his cock.

He could feel it as the fingers pushed in deeper, a somewhat uncomfortable fullness, and inhaled sharply as they spread apart. Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, there was a return of that sharp pleasure, causing him to moan and arch a little on the bed.

“Dammit, Andrew!”

“Almost there.” Andrew kept twisting those fingers about and pushing them apart until Neil was covered with sweat and torn between kicking the asshole away and yanking him closer, on the edge of… of something. When he let out an almost sob at another sharp bite of pleasure, Andrew finally pulled out his fingers with a slowness that tipped the favor toward Neil wanting to kick him; before he could, Andrew rolled Neil onto his side.

“Wuh-what now?” Neil felt as if his nerves were raw just then, as if every single one of them had been dragged to the surface of his skin and the slightest touch made him burn with need and not enough pleasure.

“Last chance,” Andrew warned, even though his breathing was just as ragged as Neil’s. He settled behind Neil, his left arm under Neil and around his chest.

“For the - *yes*,” Neil assured him before he got out of the bed to find something to smack him with, on the verge of hysterics as his fingers dug into the thick, damp material of the asshole’s arm bands. Wait – maybe a knife?

All thoughts of weapons fled his mind as he felt the slick, blunt tip of Andrew’s cock nudge against his ass, and then all he could think about was breathing and doing his best to relax and-

“Relax,” Andrew told him, breath hot against the nape of his neck.

“I *am*,” Neil ground out, fingers scrambling against the rough material, mind blanking as he forced himself to breathe out and… and…. He felt Andrew’s sigh as the worst of the pressure ended, as he felt Andrew’s warmth against his entire back and his thighs. There was a slight trembling, too, but he didn’t know if it was him or his friend.

Andrew’s hand wrapped around his cock, which wasn’t quite so hard anymore, but a couple of firm strokes took care of that and then Andrew was moving, was moving before Neil was certain that was a good idea, yet before he could complain there was this odd friction that just got better and better and the burn less and less, and the pleasure slowly came back. Neil moaned when he felt Andrew kiss along the back of his neck, slow, lingering ones, and began to rock his hips back into the increasing thrusts. Now and then were those intense sparks which made him cry out and dig his nails into the arm bands, made him think that oh fuck yes, was this a good idea, then Andrew’s thrusts grew faster, grew erratic and he felt the pressure of teeth against the crook of his neck while his friend shuddered against him.

Andrew rocked against him a little more after that, his face buried against the back of Neil’s neck, and then his hand stroked faster along Neil’s cock until the pleasure twisted sharper and sharper inside of Neil, until Neil forgot about all the various aches and gasped as he came all over Andrew’s hand, his head thrown back while warm lips brushed against his neck. A pleasant euphoria settled over him afterwards, even lying on damp sheets while all sweaty and a bit of a mess, until Andrew made a noise and pulled away, earning a twinge of pain from Neil.

“Ow.” He frowned as he rolled onto his back, his hand going down and… oh, maybe that was what Andrew had meant by the condom thing, he thought with some embarrassment as he added washing sheets to his to do list. “Uhm….”

Andrew was oddly silent beside him for several seconds, and then sat up and looked around as if to find his clothes. “Yeah.” He seemed to be avoiding looking at Neil.

Neil sighed and handed over the asshole’s t-shirt, which was wrinkled and damp, but didn’t let go until Andrew finally looked at him. “Thank you. I liked it.” That might be a bit of an understatement, but Neil didn’t think Andrew wanted an in-depth summary at the moment.

That earned him a potent glare, but after a few seconds Andrew’s expression smoothed it. “Tell me that if you try to run later.” A slight smirk tilted up the corners of his mouth. “Hmm, I may be on to something here.”

“Asshole,” Neil grumbled as he let go of the shirt.

“Says the idiot who’s up to 225% even after all of that.” He leaned in to give Neil a brief kiss. “Do me a favor and stay the fuck inside today, all right? And if a new phone shows up, break the damn thing.”

“Are you going to fish the one out of my toilet before you leave?”

“No, I’m going to go take a piss on it – it’s your toilet, you’re stuck dealing with it.” That said, Andrew got up, found his pants and went off to the bathroom – Neil enjoyed the view since he would indeed be stuck dealing with the damn phone thanks to the asshole.

*******

Andrew left when Neil was on the shower, after borrowing a clean t-shirt from his friend and watching the destroyed phone be retrieved from the toilet by a very annoyed Neil and thrown away. Yeah, might be best to stay away for a while since Neil had turned that disturbing grin toward him at the end, but he didn’t regret what he’d done. Was still a bit confused over what had all happened, but he didn’t regret any of it.

He was doing his best to not… to not turn into *them* when it came to Neil, to not mess things up with… with whatever it was, between them. To not push too far. To not just take. It was difficult, when even after all these months he still *wanted* so much, and Neil seemed to want as well. When Neil said ‘yes’ each and every time, when Neil *trusted* him. Neil, who had argued at length with the FBI for hours until they agreed to seal away Andrew’s juvie record, who hadn’t run when Riko had found them despite having been clever enough to do so for the past five years because… because Andrew knew he worried about their chances with Riko being able to hold Andrew’s police record against them. Neil - *Nathaniel* was the ghost, after all, Andrew not so much. And Neil had just accepted everything when Andrew had come to him with his plan for Tilda, had only been concerned that it was thought out enough so Andrew didn’t get caught. Then today, to find out that Neil was quietly taking the brunt of Riko’s temper, Riko’s abuse.

What had made him so angry, other than the fact that Riko kept hounding after them – after Neil – was that Andrew should have realized something was going on sooner, if his hands weren’t full of Tilda and Aaron. He wasn’t angry at Neil… well, okay, maybe a little. Neil really should have said something, because the idiot didn’t realize that he was digging a big, deep grave for himself. Neil didn’t understand people like Riko, but Andrew did; he’d read the texts that Neil, the huge, massively suicidal idiot had sent back. True to form, Neil wasn’t just taking Riko’s abuse, wasn’t being some docile doormat. No, he figured out a thousand different ways to tell the asshole to ‘fuck off’ and ‘go to hell’ each day with his owed responses… and it was just egging Riko on.

Riko wasn’t the type to be denied, wasn’t used to being told things like that, and for Neil to do so? For Neil to be out of reach, defiant and willful? Andrew knew those types, knew that Riko would only be that much more determined to have Neil, to see Neil broken and bowed before him and was counting down the days, the minutes until it happened. And Neil *just* *didn’t* *get* *it*.

Well, Andrew did, and he’d handle this despite Neil’s inclination to wrap himself up in a big red bow and hand himself over to Riko as a fucking present or something. That wasn’t going to happen, not as long as Andrew still breathed and could shove a knife in the asshole’s throat. And just a little longer, just a few more tweaks to the brake lines and there would be one less aggravation in his life.

He gave a narrowed look to one of the tenants as he passed them in the hallway going back to Tilda’s apartment, wondering if they had been paid off by Riko to harass Neil, and pulled out his keys to let himself back in to the ‘humble’ abode he was forced to reside in for the time being. To his surprise, Aaron was up and appeared cognizant; huh, guess he’d spent longer at Neil’s than he’d intended, between waiting for the idiot to return from his run and… yeah.

Aaron, busy drinking coffee and not one of Tilda’s beers for once, gave Andrew an odd look. “That’s not your usual style.” There was a slight slur to his voice, meaning that the Xanax was still kicking in. He was red-eyed and there was a puffiness to his left cheek, from where Tilda had slapped him that morning. Oh yes, not much longer.

Andrew ignored him as he went to pour some coffee for himself, but someone seemed to think that meant it was all right for them to have a conversation – that’s what he got for humoring Aaron these past few weeks, dammit. “In fact, I seem to recall Neil wearing that shirt last week.”

“Nice to know you still have a few brain cells left,” Andrew said as he searched about for a clean mug and finally found one. He filled it with about half coffee, and half whiskey since he would need something to keep him calm, then drank it down as he went into his bedroom to find Neil’s old phone.

Of course Aaron had to follow him, like always. “I thought you said that Neil didn’t swing.”

By now, Andrew knew his twin could be a stubborn shit and that ignoring him didn’t work very well. “He doesn’t – just ask the French club back in Racine. Think they did a lottery or something to figure out who would hit on him and when, and all he did was complain that they were constantly asking him for his class notes and for study sessions, which cut into his Exy practice time.” Such an oblivious idiot, Andrew thought with a slight smile, at least until he pulled the phone out of the dresser and turned it on. It only had a little bit of a charge left, so he looked around for his power cord and plugged it in while he went through the texts to find the one he knew was Riko’s.

Meanwhile, Aaron sat down on his bed and watched everything. “Well, obviously he swings one way.” He jerked his chin toward Andrew. “He’s gay. Don’t even try to deny it when you come back from seeing him with wet hair and wearing his t-shirt.”

“Actually, the term is ‘demisexual’. I’m the one who’s gay,” Andrew informed his twin with a mocking smile. “What, do I get kicked out of the family next? No more lousy dinners?”

The look on Aaron’s face just then was priceless – what, did he think that Andrew was going to deny it? Then why bring it up? Why bother with the constant innuendo over the two of them?

“So what… he really is your boyfriend?”

Andrew waved that aside. “He’s my friend.”

“But you just confirmed that you’re… that you and him….” Aaron’s confusion twisted into something shaded a little with disgust, a little something else.

“That we engage in non-heteronormative types of sexual intercourse? Yes. What’s your point?” He stared down Aaron, who looked back in open disbelief and shook his head. “Don’t ask things if you don’t really want to know, now be quiet.” He dialed the number and huffed in annoyance when it went into voicemail; he supposed the asshole had to practice Exy sometime. “I’ll get straight to the point, you pathetic little shit,” he told Riko’s voicemail in a pleasant tone while Aaron’s eyes went wide. “Keep away from what’s mine. Not yours, *mine*. Big brother told you ‘no’, so deal with it like the born loser you are.” Then he hung up but left the phone on, and glanced at the time. Hmm, it would probably be at least an hour or two before Riko heard it, dammit.

“What was that about?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” Andrew said as he made sure the ringer volume was turned up and then left the phone charging on top of his dresser. “Nothing that pertains to our agreement.” He didn’t want Aaron wrapped up in anything involving Riko or the Moriyamas.

“But it involves your agreement with Neil, doesn’t it?”

In the process of pulling out a new t-shirt, one that would fit better than Neil’s, Andrew paused and turned around to give his brother a warning look. “I told you, it doesn’t concern. Don’t you have some drooling or something equally important that you have to do?” This bonding time was getting to be a little annoying, when all he wanted was to be alone for a short while.

Aaron gave him the finger as he rushed off of the bed. “Fuck you! You know, you… you… you ruined my life, do you know that?” He jerked his right hand through his hair, wincing a little as he must have hit a sore spot or tugged on the disheveled strands.

“Oh, and how did I manage to do that, when I didn’t even know about you until four years ago?” This promised to be an amusing story, Andrew told himself as he leaned against the dresser, the black t-shirt held in his hand.

“Because even when you weren’t here, I could tell there was something wrong with Mom, that there wasn’t something right.”

“Yeah, it’s called ‘mental problems’,” Andrew decided to be helpful and explain. “And ‘addiction’.”

The dirty look Aaron shot him probably meant that he wasn’t being as helpful as he thought. “She felt guilty about you, which led her to being depressed and… and the pills and everything.” He winced again as he touched his red cheek. “And we just had to be twins, didn’t we? So I was always there, a reminder of what she did that day.”

Boo-fucking-hoo, Andrew was supposed to feel sympathy or something over this? Over Aaron letting himself be a punching bag because Tilda couldn’t live with herself after getting knocked up and then giving Andrew away? When Andrew had been passed around from one hellhole to another? When Neil’s father thought it was acceptable to carve him up like a piece of meat and give him away to another pyscho? “You think your life was ruined? That you had it hard?” He pushed away from the dresser and got in his brother’s face – the only good thing about being a twin was that he didn’t have to look up at the bastard, like with almost everyone else. “Being smacked around isn’t having your life ruined. Waking up each day and wondering if it’s the day that you’re finally going to be killed? *That’s* when your life’s fucked up. Waking up and hoping it’s the day they finally kill you? *That’s* when your life’s fucked up,” he spat out. “Let me know when it gets to that point and we’ll talk about how I ruined your life.”

The color slowly drained from Aaron’s face until the left cheek stood out with a vivid redness. “Is that… that what your-“

“We’re not talking about me,” Andrew told him through gritted teeth. “Now do me a favor and get out of my sight.”

It looked as if Aaron was going to argue, to say something else, but something in Andrew’s expression just then convinced him of the stupidity of that plan so he left; a minute or so later there was the sound of the tv being turned on. Andrew let out a shaky breath as he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes for several seconds, until the intense anger he felt inside began to fade, and then he remembered about changing t-shirts. He shoved Neil’s into the back of a drawer, shook out a cigarette and lit it, then fell down on his bed as he smoked it, attention focused on the cracked ceiling above him.

He didn’t care that Aaron knew about him and Neil, as long as his brother didn’t take it out on Neil; Aaron didn’t seem to be as homophobic as Luther since he spoke about Nicky with some affection, but he didn’t mention Nicky’s boyfriend at all and he still held quite the grudge against Neil.

Andrew had gotten through the cigarette and a couple of chapters of his latest book when Neil’s phone finally rang. Setting the book aside, he got up from the bed and went to answer it, taking his time so it rang several times. Just before it went into voicemail, he picked it up. “Josten’s answering service, how may I not help you?”

“Listen, you ill-conceived little bastard,” Riko snarled, while in the background it sounded as if someone whimpered in pain. “Do not for one moment think I’ll hesitate to throw you, your whore mother and-“

“No,” Andrew cut him off, tired of the rant already. “No you won’t, and you won’t touch Neil, either. Did you not get what I said about your big brother Ichiro? Did you miss the memo or does he just not bother with someone as lowly as you?”

Oh yeah, that one struck home, judging from the inarticulate growl of rage just then. “Let me try to break it down into small enough words for you,” Andrew continued as he smiled, a knife in his free hand that he tapped against the edge of the dresser. “Neil had the courtesy to cover your family’s ass by making sure there was no connection between them and the Wesninskis. Ichiro approved, and decided *not* to hand him over to you to be a chew toy. You throwing a temper tantrum and trying to get him evicted from an apartment that a federal agent helped sign for? Very, very stupid. Because she’s just going to do the same for the next one, and the next one, and very soon become annoyed when she gets a black mark on her credit rating and so forth because of *your* petty antics, and stick her nose in where Ichiro doesn’t want it.” On the other end, there was a muffled sound and more whimpers while Riko panted in obvious anger. “So use some self-restraint for once in your pathetic life.”

There was a thudding sound before Riko’s harsh voice all but huffed over the line. “We’ll see how confident you are in two years, mongrel, when Nathaniel is paying for your misplaced arrogance. You think he’s free? All he’s bought himself is a long leash, and I will pull him back in soon enough.” There was a spat of Japanese before Riko hung up on Andrew.

Like hell Andrew would allow that to happen – he would strangle Riko with that so-called leash before he allowed Neil within a hundred feet of Castle Evermore. Dropping the phone to the floor, Andrew then brought his foot down on it again and again until it was reduced to over a dozen pieces.

“That another friend of yours?” Aaron lounged against the doorway and watched him grind pieces of the phone into the carpet.

“That was a petty annoyance who’s about to find out what happens when they make the mistake of trying to rile me up.” He wiped the bottom of his boot along the carpet as he slipped the knife back in its place, then picked up the empty coffee mug he’d left on the dresser and turned to leave the room. “Not a good idea.”

Aaron’s expression was wary as he stepped out of Andrew’s way. “I’m beginning to get that impression.”

“Good.” Time for some more whiskey, and perhaps see if Neil’s temper had cooled down yet so he could remind the idiot of the folly of accepting gifts from Japanese psychopaths in case Riko hadn’t gotten the hint.

“So, uhm, Neil-“

Andrew didn’t even look behind him, he just stuck his left hand out in a warning gesture. “Shh. I told you, that doesn’t concern you.”

“Whatever.” It sounded as if Aaron had reset back to his default of surly, which was fine with Andrew, since he’d had enough brotherly interaction for the time being. He’d had enough interaction for the day, period, but it would be amusing to verbally spar with Neil for a bit, enough so that it might keep him from throttling or stabbing Tilda when she finally came home.

Maybe.

*******

Logged on to Andrew’s laptop, Neil was going over his schedule for the upcoming school year and tried not to feel a bit uneasy as he scrolled past the ‘Beginning Japanese’ class. He knew Andrew was going to be upset over it – if ‘upset’ was the right word – but he wasn’t taking it because of Riko, not really. He had no intentions of joining the Ravens, of attending Edgar Allan… but he also didn’t want to be in another situation like he had been back in Ichiro’s limo, sitting there while the man had decided his fate and talking in a language he couldn’t understand. He might not have a choice of being a Moriyama ‘asset’, but he could make sure that he understood what Ichiro and the others were saying about him, even if it was just to know if a death sentence was being handed down. As long as he kept up with the French and German lessons with Andrew, which he did, then there was no reason for his friend to be so angry that he was picking up a new language. Except, well… it was Andrew.

The rest of Neil’s schedule looked fine, even if he was only really interested in Statistics, Japanese and study hall, and he was checking out the web page for the Exy team when there was a knock on his door. A bit anxious since Andrew just used the key to enter, he shut down the laptop and got off the futon before he approached the door, wary over who it might be on the other side. When he checked the peep-hole, he spied Andrew’s bruised face staring at the door – not Andrew, but Aaron.

“What is it?” he asked as he let him in, noting the swollen lip and the bruised left cheek; Andrew must be furious with Tilda right now.

Aaron gave him a sullen look even though *he* had come to Neil’s apartment. “I need a ride to Uncle Luther’s place, Mom’s late and we’re supposed to be over there for dinner.”

Neil stared at the teen in shock, because Aaron *never* asked him for favors – he seemed determined to go through life pretending Neil didn’t exist, if possible. “Uhm….” He glanced away from Aaron’s disheveled appearance and out through the balcony door, to the grey skies that threatened to unleash a downpour at any moment.

“Andrew said you’d do it.” If anything, he sounded even more pissed off than before, as if it was Neil’s fault his mother was running late and not there to drive him.

Neil almost asked if that meant that Andrew was home, and if so, why he wasn’t using the car to take Aaron to Luther’s place – a place Neil would much rather avoid, considering the painful dinner he’d sat through the one time – when he caught himself. When he considered the fresh bruises on Aaron’s face, bruises that should not be there, not after all the warnings Andrew had given Tilda. When he remembered Andrew’s all too casual ‘not much longer’ when he’d complained about the crummy apartment and a/c to his friend the other day. Neil scrubbed his right hand over his face and sighed. “Come on, let’s see if we can’t beat the rain.” He wasn’t a fan of driving in bad weather, not after Austria.

Aaron seemed surprised that Neil had agreed, and stumbled after him as Neil slipped on his sneakers and snatched up the keys near the laptop. A minute later, they were out of the apartment and headed toward the car.

Aaron managed to keep his mouth shut until they made it to the car. “So… you and Andrew, huh?”

“Aaron?”

“Yeah?”

“I much prefer it when we don’t talk to each other,” Neil said, and made a point to turn up the radio loud when he started the car in case the teen missed the point. He was glared at for doing that, but Aaron had nothing on Andrew in that department so he just smiled as he pulled out of the parking lot. They were *not* talking about Neil and Andrew and… whatever, not when Neil was stressed out over his friend and what might be happening at any moment.

The rain stared before they were even halfway to Luther’s house, a few drops at first and then a heavy deluge with lightning cracking against the dark skies. Neil’s hands clenched around the steering wheel, his thoughts on Andrew and his phone a heavy weight against his right thigh as he waited to hear from his friend, as he waited for something to happen.

The waiting was always the worst part, he’d learned over the years.

*******

 

Chapter Text

*******

By the time Neil got inside of the ER of Lexington Medical Center, he was drenched from running through the parking lot; he shoved back the wet bangs falling onto his face and nearly slid into the information desk, his sneakers as soaked as the rest of him, startling the burly nurse sitting behind it. “Uhm, Andrew Minyard? How is he?”

The nurse looked him over and held up a large, dark-skinned hand. “Give me a second, okay?” The words were brisk but he handed Neil a few paper towels as he started typing on a computer. “You look like a drowned cat, kid.”

“Uh, yeah. It’s… yeah.” Considering the loud ‘boom’ of thunder just then, Neil figured the guy – ‘Ty’, from his name tag, could tell that it was still storming outside.  A storm which seemed to be contributing to a hectic evening at the ER, since the chairs were filled with people and various medical staff rushed about. “Busy?”

“You’ve no idea,” Ty complained. “I swear, people lose their heads when there’s a bit of rain. Could be worse, though. Could be sleet.” He typed a little more while Neil dried his face at least, then grunted. “Minyard, Andrew. Should be out in a few minutes, so why don’t you go sit down and try not to drip everywhere.”

That was good, right? Neil wanted to ask if that was a good thing, but the guy really looked busy and there was a person waiting behind him, so he shuffled toward over to an empty seat; he huddled over in the plastic chair, since there was an older guy sitting next to him, heavy-set and dressed in work clothes as if he’d come from some sort of construction site.

Feeling jittery with all of the people about and growing cold as the a/c hit his wet clothes, Neil wondered if the Hemmicks had been called yet about the accident; he’d received a text from Andrew telling him to come here, no details other than his friend was in the ER at this hospital. He was debating if he should try texting Andrew back when he heard his name be called out.

Once more standing up in a rush and nearly slipping, Neil took off as fast as he could toward the hunched figure standing by the police officer near the curtained alcoves. “An-andrew,” he choked out, doing his best to keep from being panicked at the sight of the cop. “Are you all right? What happened?”

He was surprised when Andrew reached out and grabbed hold of the front of Neil’s long-sleeved t-shirt as if to prove that Neil was real – it was left-handed because of Andrew’s right arm being in a sling. Neil noticed other things, such as the fact that Andrew appeared to be wearing Aaron’s clothes instead of his usual all black outfit, and that he wasn’t wearing his arm guards. “Yeah, I’m *fine*,” Andrew told him.

Neil raised his own right hand slowly and gave Andrew’s left one a gentle squeeze, a bit flustered by the unusual display of… well, the unusual display, and noticed the odd look that the police officer was giving them. It wasn’t one of disgust or disapproval, more of a slight discomfort even though he smiled a little. “I’m glad your… uhm, your friend could make it, should help with the… well, it should help. The rest of your family will be here soon.”

“Yes.” Andrew twisted his hand around to grab onto Neil’s, while Neil tried to figure out if perhaps he’d slipped somewhere along the way and hit his head on the floor, and this was all one mass hallucination.

“I’m going to go get some coffee, do you need anything?”

“I’m fine now, Neil’s here.” Andrew’s voice sounded a bit off, the words less crisp than normal as he tugged on Neil’s hand as if it were a leash, so the officer – Adams, from his badge, nodded before he walked away.

“Andrew….”

Andrew shuffled them over toward a pair of chairs and hissed as he sat down while still holding Neil’s hand; his borrowed clothes were dirty and speckled with blood, and his face bruised. Neil was certain he’d have two black eyes come morning, and was lucky he hadn’t broken his nose. “She’s dead,” he murmured in French, and Neil noticed that his eyes were a bit unfocused – he probably was had been given something powerful for the pain, maybe even a muscle relaxant.

“What happened?” Neil leaned in closer and, after pausing to wait for Andrew’s nod, scooted over until they were sitting right next to each other so they could whisper. “Why are you doing ‘this’?” He gave Andrew’s left hand a squeeze.

“She thought I was Aaron, it’s the only way she’d get in the car with me, after the fight we had this morning. She had stopped by the bar before coming home and had another pill, all because she didn’t want to put up with me.” Andrew paused to glance around, probably to make sure no one was paying any attention to them. “I waited until the storm got really bad to get into another fight with her, to reveal I wasn’t Aaron, to start taunting her. One of the things I hit her with was us.” He paused again and gave his head a slight shake as if to clear it. “I mean… well, you know.”

“Oh?” Neil was a bit surprised about that. “Any reason?”

“Hmm, because she’s as bad as her brother about that stuff and I knew it would make her loose it? And if anyone digs into tonight, I’ll tell them the truth, I came out to my dear mother and she freaked out.” A slight smile curved Andrew’s lips, which must have hurt because the bottom one was split. “As of right now, they’re just putting it down to bad weather and a car in lousy condition. I doubt they’ll want to dig any deeper when they get the… blood report, especially if Luther has anything to say, but it’s best to cover all the bases.”

Mindful of the nurses’ station not that far away, Neil sighed as he leaned his head toward Andrew’s. “Nice to know there’s a reason for it, I thought maybe the accident had caused irreparable brain damage or something, from the way you’re acting.”

“230%, Josten,” Andrew warned as he gave Neil’s hand a painful squeeze. “I think you need to reconsider that pathetic sense of humor-“

“Ah, sorry to interrupt, but it looks like the rest of your family has arrived.” There was a slight blush to Officer Adams’ cheeks as he gestured with the hand holding a cup of coffee, almost spilling it, down the hall.

Lexington was closer to the apartment building than Luther’s home, so it made sense that Neil had beaten them to it, and he was willing to bet that Andrew had notified him first. As he stood up, Andrew’s hand still in his since he helped his friend to his feet, he noticed the worried expressions on Luther’s and Aaron’s faces, the confusion on Maria’s… and then the disgust and coldness that overcame Luther when he caught sight of Andrew – caught sight of Andrew holding Neil’s hand.

“Andrew, what is going on?”

Instead of pulling away, Andrew leaned against Neil as if needing his support. “Hello Luther. I’m afraid that there’s some bad news.” He glanced at Officer Adams. “Might be a good time to get one of the doctors.”

“Ah….” The police officer appeared confused just then, but one of the nurses seemed to have been paying attention and ducked into one of the curtained room. “Sir,” he told Luther. “I’m afraid there’s been an accident.”

“I know,” Luther snapped, his attention still focused on Neil and Andrew. “We were told to come here – where is my sister?” Beside him, Aaron was staring at Andrew with a look of growing horror.

A doctor, dressed in scrubs that looked too clean, as if she’d just changed into them, stepped out of one of the curtained rooms. “Are you the Minyards?” she asked as she looked at a clipboard in her left hand.

“The Hemmicks and the Minyards,” Luther told her, while Maria hovered at his side. “What’s going on? Where is my sister? Is she injured?”

The doctor took a deep breath and shook her head. “I’m Doctor Ramiro, and I’m sorry to tell you, but… your sister sustained too many critical injuries in the accident. We did everything we could, but the chest and head trauma were too much. I’m sorry.”

Luther stared at her as if she was talking in a foreign language. “But… Tilda… she can’t.” His face crumpled for a moment, a flash of pure sorrow, and then he turned his attention back on Andrew. “How is it possible that she’s dead and you’re alive?” His eyes narrowed as he took in the way that Neil shuffled to stand in front of Andrew. “You abominations.” He made as if to lunge forward, but Officer Adams dropped his coffee and threw his arms up in front of the man.

“Hey! Look, I know you just received some upsetting news, but don’t take it out on the poor kid, all right? He just lost his mother!”

Neil thought that he heard Andrew make a faint humming sound as the officer pushed a furious Luther down the hall, telling him that he needed to sit and take a moment to calm down, to accept the news. Aaron stood in the middle of the corridor, appearing almost tiny in his rain-damp clothes, the bruise on his face darkened both by the harsh fluorescent lights above the shock-induced pallor of his skin.

“Aaron, are you coming?” Luther called out.

“No, he’s staying with us,” Andrew said, and Neil looked over his shoulder to find his friend staring intently at his twin.

Aaron stood still for a couple of seconds, the shock of the news evident on his face, and then he could be seen forcefully swallowing as if trying to keep something down before he, motions jerky, made his way over to Neil and Andrew. Luther’s face became even more flushed with anger, but he didn’t say anything, just glared in their direction with open hatred, while Aaron stared at the floor the entire time. He didn’t look at Andrew at all, not even when he reached his brother’s side.

Andrew was definitely humming just then, the sound faint yet pleased. Neil shivered, his skin clammy from the contrast of wet clothes and his friend’s warmth along his back, and hoped that they could go home soon so he could figure out what the hell was going on.

*******

As soon as Andrew was cleared to leave, statement all done and signed off by his doctor, he got out of the hospital as fast as he could, which wasn’t nearly as fast as he liked between the sore ribs and shoulder and just… just *everything*. The meds they’d put in him didn’t help, they made his head feel funny and body strange even if it did put a damper on the pain. He didn’t like that, didn’t like not being in complete control, not under the best of circumstances and especially not when he needed his head clear. It had unnerved him more than he had liked, having the shit in his veins and Officer Adams looming over him and asking about the accident, but he had stuck to the story, had stuck with what he had planned out over the last several weeks. Then Neil had shown up and… things had gotten a little fuzzier, all of a sudden. Andrew had just wanted to rest, to relax for some reason, and that annoyed him a great deal. But it had worked to his favor, judging from Adams’ reaction and then Luther’s. Oh Luther. That couldn’t have gone better than if Andrew had paid the man – it would be so easy to draw the conclusion that if *he* had reacted in such a way, that Tilda couldn’t have taken it much better, if the police dug too deep into the accident.

At least the asshole insisted on handling the remains of his departed sister, the last thing he had snarled at them as they walked past him and Maria in the waiting room. Andrew didn’t care, he had suffered Tilda while she was alive and refused to have anything to do with her now that she was dead. Neil hovered near him as if to spot him as he limped out to the Nissan, the rain having finally stopped at some point, while Aaron followed as if an unwilling shadow.

“You’re going to feel like shit tomorrow,” Neil warned as he held the car door open for Andrew.

“Funny, I feel like shit now.”

“It’s going to be worse.” He waved the bag which contained the meds that a nurse had handed over for Andrew. “Just crawl into bed when you get home and keep the pills close at hand.” He shot a quick glance at Aaron, who got in the backseat on the other side of the car. “Do you want to stay at my place?”

“Tempting, but no.” Andrew didn’t think he could take sharing a bed tonight, even if it was just lying there, now that he was thinking a bit clearer. He didn’t like how the drugs had made him feel before, and if he had to take them again, would rather be alone in his bed. “And how do you know so much about car crashes, hmm?”

Neil waited until he was behind the wheel and had started the car to answer, again with a quick glance to Aaron. “Switzerland. We were run off the road. Always wear a seatbelt.” The words came out fast, clipped, and his hands clenched around the wheel for a couple of seconds as he let out a bitter laugh.

Andrew rubbed at his strained right shoulder, where the seatbelt had bit into it. “Yeah, I know the feeling. Too bad Tilda wasn’t wearing hers.”

Behind them, Aaron made a choking sound, as if biting back on a sob. It annoyed Andrew, but he was too tired and sore to turn around and confront his twin just then. Beside him, Neil muttered under his breath in what sounded to be German for a couple of seconds before he slanted a disapproving look at Andrew. “That was uncalled for, you know.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “It’s the truth.”

“Maybe you should try thinking a little before you speak, for once.” Neil gave a pointed look to the rear view mirror before he focused back on the road.

So what, Neil and Aaron were buddies now, members of the ‘my mom is dead’ club? Too tired and sore to put up with this shit, Andrew chose to just scoff instead.

The rest of the drive to the apartment was quiet, with Andrew fighting the pull of the drugs to fall asleep. When Neil parked the car and got out, Aaron scrambled out of the backseat while Neil, apparently having a change a heart, came around to open the door and give Andrew a hand out of the car. “You going to be all right with him?”

“Yes,” Andrew ground out; sitting down had not been his friend, since it felt as if his body had begun to seize up. It had been a long time since he’d been in as bad a shape as this, and he was *not* happy. “Just get me inside.”

“Okay.” Neil seemed to pick up on the fact that he wasn’t comfortable with being touched any more, and kept a light grip on his left arm as they made their way into the building and up to the fourth floor, where they found the door to Tilda’s apartment unlocked. Aaron mustn’t have wasted any time getting inside and grabbing her stash of Xanax, because he was already curled up in his bed and facing the wall, eyes closed as if asleep. Neil frowned at him as he set Andrew down on his own bed and helped him undress. “Bother with a shower?”

“No.” Andrew just wanted to lie down himself. “Where’s the stuff.”

“Here.” Neil handed over the pills and left the room, to return with a glass of water. “Don’t take too many.” While Andrew took one of each, a pain pill and a muscle relaxant, he dug out Andrew’s phone from his – well, Aaron’s – jeans and set it down on the bed. “Call me if you need anything.”

“Don’t go off and do anything stupid,” Andrew warned as he shoved the pill bottles beneath his pillows where he had stashed his arm guards earlier in the day, along with the phone, and then stretched out on the bed; everything still hurt, and the sling was annoying. Ah well, the meds should kick in soon enough…

He thought he heard Neil say ‘no promises’, but at that point, his friend was too far away and he was so tired, the day’s events finally catching up to him. He fell asleep… and the next thing he knew, the room was flooded with light and everything *hurt*. He let out a curse as he forced his body to sit up, his muscles screaming in pain, then limped his way to the bathroom to take care of his very full bladder. On the way back to the bedroom, he caught sight of his reflection and was mildly impressed with how swollen and bruised his face looked after having gone a round with an airbag. Yeah, no shaving for the next day or two….

He fished under the pillows for the meds and his phone, and barely resisted the urge to collapse back in the bed, only because he needed to get something to eat and there was a text from Neil saying ‘dropped off some food’. Hobbling his way into the kitchen, he found Aaron sitting down at the table, face grim enough as if mourning the dead, and a bag of takeout in front of him.

“Better have left something for me.” The words were slurred a little, due to Andrew’s sore jaw and split lip.

Aaron didn’t look up from the breakfast burrito he was eating. “Don’t worry, your boyfriend bought a lot.” He sounded as happy as he looked.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Andrew said as he spied the coffee carrier left on the counter; he checked and let out a little hum of pleasure at discovering them both being mocha cappuccinos. Both went into the microwave to be heated up, while he shuffled over to the table to see what he could eat.

Meanwhile, Aaron just stared at him with something resembling exhausted exasperation. “You have sex with him, he lives two floors up from us, he brings you food when you’re hurt and you came out with him last night to the family. What is he, then?”

“A friend.” Hmm, his jaw was sore, but the burritos should be doable with their soft tortilla. If not he’d get a fork and just eat the filling. He took a couple of the egg and cheese ones over to the microwave to heat up now that the coffees were done, and used one of the drinks to wash down his morning dose of pills.

Behind him, Aaron made a frustrated noise. “A friend. Yeah, because a friend does all of that.” He ran his hands through his hair and gave the strands a hard tug. “I can’t… I’m not in the mood for this today. Mom *died* last night, you know. Do you even care? Or is it all right because you have your *friend*? Is everything all right just because you have your friend with benefits to still care about *you*?”

Andrew set the coffee cup down so he could shuffle around to face his twin. “Is this about Tilda? Are you upset about her?”

Aaron jerked his head to glare at him, at least for a couple of seconds before his gaze skittered away. “Of course I am! She’s our mother and she’s dead!”

“She’s *your* mother,” Andrew informed him without any emotion, because that’s what he felt for the woman – nothing. Well, some contempt, but she was dead now so she wasn’t even worth it anymore. “And she was a shitty one at that. She’s dead and you’re still carrying around the bruises from her pathetic type of ‘love’, so don’t tell me that I should care for her. She’s better off in the ground, and you’re better off without her.” Why couldn’t the idiot see that?

The look on Aaron’s face just then was one of utter confusion. “How can you not care at all that she’s dead?”

“The same way she didn’t care at all that she gave me away. The same way she didn’t care that she beat you up and fucked up your life. She’s not worth it, and I don’t waste any energy on people who aren’t worth it.” He went back to the counter to fetch his coffee and his burrito, a simmering rage building inside of him. Aaron had asked him for help, had said that he wanted things to get better. Andrew had promised to help him, had lived up to his end of the deal… and now his twin was crying over Tilda? Over the person who had abused him?

“She’s still our… my mother,” Aaron choked out. “She’s all I have. Was all I have.”

Andrew’s hands curled into fists for a few seconds, before he forced them to unclench so he could shove the coffees back into the drink carrier. “*Was*. Now you have me.” What had been the point to the promise between them, he wondered as he added the burritos to the carrier as well.

“Eh?” Aaron sat up and twisted in the chair to look at him. “Wait – you’re not going to leave and… I don’t know, leave and go off with Neil?”

Where did that come from? Ready to go back to the bedroom, Andrew paused with the carrier in his left hand and frowned at his brother. “No, we made a deal – we stick together until graduation, remember? I’m not going anywhere.”

Something that looked a lot like relief washed over Aaron’s face and he rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. “I… I thought… okay.”

“I don’t go back on my word,” Andrew told him. “Do you?” That said, he hobbled to the bedroom with the intention of staying in bed as much as possible that day.

*******

Neil sat on Andrew’s bed and watched as his friend went through Aaron’s closet to find something to wear for the funeral; he’d gone out to buy a plain pair of black pants and a grey button-down shirt, and still had serious misgivings about attending the event, but Andrew was adamant about him being there for some reason. He got the impression that when Andrew burned bridges, he just didn’t pour a little metaphorical gasoline and light a match, he went all out. “You know-“

“We’re going,” Andrew told him, cutting off what he was going to say. “It’ll be fun.”

“We need to discuss your definition of ‘fun’.” Neil sighed as he fussed with the long sleeves of the new dress shirt. “I draw the line when it comes to torturing small animals.”

“Don’t worry, I’m more amused by tormenting bigots and Neils.” There was a slight smirk on Andrew’s face as he said that, which was wiped away as he attempted to put on the white dress shirt with his still sore shoulder and the arm guards. Neil sighed again as he got up and went over to help, mindful of the space Andrew had put between them the last couple of days; he only touched the shirt, and felt a sense of relief when his friend didn’t object and didn’t pull away when he was done.

“You’re an asshole,” he reminded Andrew as he smiled. “And where’s your sling?”

“It’s annoying.” There looked to be something almost dangerously close to a pout on Andrew’s face just then, which Neil would put down to the meds except that he knew that Andrew was cutting back on them.

“Yeah, but keep wearing it for the full week if you want your shoulder to heal.” He found it on the one dresser and was fussing with Andrew’s collar as his friend slid his arm back into the thing when Aaron entered the room, fresh from a shower and with only a towel wrapped around his waist. “Ah, I’ll go wait in the living room.”

“Why, not like he has anything you haven’t seen before,” Andrew drawled as he searched for a pair of shoes to wear, and so missed the glares he got from both Neil and Aaron for the comment.

“Right now I’m wondering why I bother seeing yours,” Neil muttered as he left the room, while Aaron huffed in laughter.

He was standing out on balcony and staring out over the parking lot when Andrew came out to join him, and shoved a mug of something alcoholic into his hands. “I’m not drinking – someone has to drive us to the funeral.” It smelled to be rum.

“It’s not for you, just hold it.” Neil accepted the mug and watched as Andrew fished a pack of cigarettes out of his sling and lit two of them, put one between his lips and handed the other one over to Neil in exchange for the mug. “So, what’s bothering you today?”

Neil almost said ‘what isn’t?’ because the list was so long, but they didn’t have a lot of time before the funeral. So he went with the most important one first as he held the cigarette close enough to breathe in the smoke. “I never… you know, this is the first funeral I’ve gone to.” For someone he barely knew and didn’t even like.

“Ah.” Andrew breathed out a lungful of smoke and then took a long sip of the rum. “So nothing back in Baltimore?”

“No, my father… no family for him, none that he acknowledged at least, and Mum and I were never invited to anything… well, we were kept away from anything business-related. Guess for appearances’ sake. Definitely didn’t attend anything while we were on the run.” He wouldn’t call what he’d done on that beach back in California a funeral, either, just an act of desperation and grief, with no time at all for mourning.

Andrew had another sip before he spoke. “Well, you’re not missing much, from what I can tell. Attended a couple over the years, dragged to them by a foster family or two. Luther should keep a muzzle on today because of the other guests, be all holier than thou in public, there’ll be some stupid platitudes we have to sit through while everyone lies about how much of a good person Tilda was and shit like that.”

‘Should’. That was comforting to hear. “Great.” Neil inhaled some more smoke to help center himself. “I’ll save that drink for when we get back.” He had a feeling he’d need it then.

“I made sure to keep Aaron away from a bottle of vodka, just for you,” Andrew said before he finished off the mug. “So, is that it?”

Neil hesitated before he mentioned his other main concern. “Are we okay? I know a lot has happened lately, but…” But Andrew had seemed to shut him out, the last couple of days. Maybe it was because of Aaron needing him, maybe not….

Andrew stared into the empty mug as if he could will it to fill back up with rum and then sighed. “I didn’t like how the meds made me feel.”

“Ah. Okay.” Neil smiled a little as he watched some ash fall from the cigarette into the air below. “I should have known something was up when I didn’t get any extra percentage for picking you up a Happy Meal.”

He got a lit cigarette jabbed into his face. “I will get you back for that, Josten. It’s only a matter of time before someone tries to kill you, you’re a walking target after all, and it’s nothing but veggie omelets and pizza while you’re laid up in bed, you little shit. 232%,” Andrew snapped as he flicked ash on Neil’s new shirt.

Neil laughed a little as he brushed away the ash and was about to say something when he heard a chiming sound, and both him and Andrew turned to look back inside the apartment. They saw Aaron, dressed in black pants and a blue shirt, come out of the bedroom and go toward the front door, so they got rid of their cigarettes and headed back inside.

“Expecting anyone?”

Andrew shook his head. “We’re supposed to meet up with Luther and Maria at the funeral home, along with Tilda’s friends.” He gave Aaron an odd look, but his brother was busy with the door.

Neil didn’t know what he was expecting, for it to be Luther showing up to tell him and Andrew to stay away, for it to be one of Tilda’s coworkers or a friend stopping by to pay their respects privately, or maybe a police officer following up on the accident. Instead, it turned out to be a young man a couple of years older than him, dressed in a plain yet elegant black suit with a lavender shirt underneath. He was several inches taller than Neil, with a sun-darkened complexion and black hair cut close to the sides but left longer on the top. There was a nervous smile on his face as he stood in the doorway, one that widened as he caught sight of Aaron.

“Nicky!” Aaron seemed to know him, and embraced the stranger – Nicky – when he stepped into the apartment. “What are you doing here?” In a rare show of affection, Aaron hung on to him as if he was a lifeline, while beside Neil, Andrew took to scowling at the two young men.

“Oh my god, you’re still here! I was afraid you’d already left – ever since you called to tell me about Aunt Tilda it’s been, it’s been insane! There was getting the ticket and then the flight which was so blegh and then, yeah, not going to talk about my parents now, this is about you, okay? I’m here for you. But yeah, didn’t think it was going to be okay to stay there so I got a hotel, and the flight, I told you about the flight, right? Total blegh, so I barely had time to get to the hotel and change and here I am!” It all came out as if a constant stream of thought while he continued to hug Aaron. “Enough about me, how are you? Are you holding up all right?”

Aaron nodded as he pulled back, his expression a bit guarded once more. “I’m… it’s been rough, but it’s good that you’re here.”

“I understand that a lot’s been going on. I’m here for you now.” Nicky gave Aaron a pat on the shoulder and then glanced around. “Uhm, didn’t you say something about Andrew?” He then seemed to notice Andrew and Neil standing back a bit – he smiled at Andrew, since he was standing in front of Neil. “Hi! I’m your cousin Nicky.” His smile faltered a little. “Uhm, hopefully you’ve heard good things about me.”

“A bit,” Andrew said, his tone flat and Neil certain his expression blank to give nothing away.

Andrew’s reaction seemed to deflate some of Nicky’s exuberant energy, but he still tried. “Well, it’s great to finally meet you! I’ve been in Germany, great country, I’ll tell you all about it later, and – wow! Who’s this? Aaron, who is this cutie? Why didn’t you tell me about the cutie?” He rocked up onto his toes as if to look over Andrew at Neil.

“What cutie?” Aaron turned around and snorted. “That’s Neil. I told you about Neil.”

“You told me about the ‘scrawny ginger friend’, and *that*,” he pointed at Neil while glaring at Aaron, “is not a ‘scrawny ginger friend’!”

“He’s a ‘friend’, all right,” Aaron muttered.

Nicky continued on as if Aaron hadn’t said anything. “*That* is gorgeous, and should do just fine to help me through my Erik withdrawals, thank you very much!”

“He’s also underage,” Aaron pointed out, not that Neil thought it mattered to Nicky as Neil cringed back a bit, suddenly disturbed by the delighted grin on the eager man’s face.

“He’s also not a ‘that’,” Andrew snapped.

“He also can hear everything,” Neil mumbled as he wondered if he could retreat back to the balcony.

Nicky made a grabbing motion over Andrew’s head. “Come here, cutie, and let me introduce myself prop-ow!” He gasped as Andrew latched onto and twisted his right arm about.

“He is not to be touched,” Andrew told Nicky in almost a friendly manner, except for the chilling smile on his face. “Understand?” He twisted Nicky’s arm some more until Nicky cried out again.

“Ow! Fuck, yes, I get it! What are you, his bodyguard or something?” Nicky pouted as he rubbed his now free arm.

“No, he’s his *friend*,” Aaron sneered while using air quotes.

Nicky stared at Aaron in shock, his jaw agape, then back at Andrew and Neil, at the way Andrew stood in front of Neil with a glower on his face and Neil tugged on the cuff of his left sleeve and did his best to melt into the carpet. “What, they’re… oooh.” His dark brown eyes went wide. “Oh! Oh wow! Oh, you’re just adorable, the two of you!” His arms held out wide, he went to hug Andrew. “Let me welcome you the fami- what the hell!” He backpedaled in a rush, panic clear on his face, when Andrew pulled a knife. “What is wrong with you?”

“Don’t touch me, either,” Andrew told him as he flipped the small weapon once and then held it loosely in his right hand.

“Aaron, why didn’t you tell me he’s gay and psychotic and dating a cutie?”

“Why spoil the surprise?” Aaron sounded tired as he headed toward the kitchen, where Neil imagined he was going for whatever liquor was still left at that point; he was about ready to join him by now. “Welcome back.”

“Yeah, I’m feeling the love,” Nicky muttered as he eyed Andrew with obvious concern, who was still flipping the knife. “So nice to meet you both.”

“Uhm, nice to meet you, too,” Neil murmured as he reached out to let his hand hover over Andrew’s right arm, which really needed to be back in the damn sling. “Save the bloodshed for the actual funeral, okay?” he told his friend in French.

Andrew sighed as he returned the knife to its sheathe. “So demanding you are,” he answered back in the same language.

“Please note that doesn’t mean there should be actual bloodshed at the damn thing.” Neil bit into his bottom lip as he followed Andrew into the kitchen while noting how Nicky’s face lit up once more.

“Too late, no take-backs.”

“Shit.”

“Oh ho, you two are so interesting,” Nicky sang out as he followed them.

“Why are you here again?” Andrew shot him a displeased frown as he took the bottle of rum, which Aaron had used to fill up a glass, and filled up another mug for himself; Neil didn’t ask what had happened to the other one.

“For Aunt Tilda’s funeral, which we should get to soon, yeah? And… you know, maybe a bit sober, too?” Nicky took to frowning as well while he watched Aaron and Andrew drink.

“Your parents know you’re coming?” Andrew asked over the rim of the mug.

Nicky swore under his breath as he fetched his own glass and poured himself some rum.

Great, looked like Neil was stuck driving all of them.

*******

They arrived at the funeral about half an hour late, Neil driving the four of them in Nicky’s lousy rental car; Nicky had complained about being stuck in the back of the car he was paying for, but one look from Andrew shut him up. Well, mostly shut him up, as he fake-whispered to Aaron something about letting the ‘couple’ have the front seats. Too bad it would look suspicious if another family member died in Andrew’s presence so soon…

Still, it was amusing to see Luther’s face turn red when the four of them walked in, Neil at Andrew’s side and Aaron and Nicky behind them, his expression at first thunderous and then forced into that usual sourness by an evident strong amount of will when Maria squeezed his left arm and whispered into his ear. Neil took a seat toward the back of the viewing room, the look on his face stubborn and clearly telling Andrew that there was a limit to how far he’d ‘play’ along, so Andrew sat down next to him while Aaron went up to the casket to say his goodbyes or whatever to Tilda. From this far away, it looked as if they did a semi-decent job of putting her back together. Nicky went about halfway down the aisle as if he wanted to do the same, but the presence of his parents kept him at bay.

After a couple of minutes, Aaron had his fill of staring at a dead body and left the coffin, and a few of Tilda’s friends or whatever patted him on the back and gave him hugs as they offered their fake condolences. During that time, Maria left Luther’s side and approached Nicky, and the hope evident on the young man’s face just then made Andrew want to throw up.

“Mom?”

“Nicky, you look… you look well.” She gave him a tight smile.

“Yeah, Germany agrees with me, it seems.” He gave a nervous laugh and brushed his right hand along the front of his suit; with them standing that close together, one could see the resemblance between the two. “Erik drags me along with him on the weekends when he-“

Maria’s slight smile slipped away in an instant. “You’re still seeing *him*.” Behind her, Luther’s sour expression turned into blatant disapproval.

Nicky laughed again, and Andrew noticed how the hope had been extinguished. “Yes, I am, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you came home.”

“I came home because of Aunt Tilda, because Aaron called, not because I left Erik.”

She gave him a slight, dismissive wave of her right hand, and it was clear that motion hurt Nicky as much as if she’d insulted him. “Then there’s nothing left to say, is there?” She turned her back on him and went over to her husband, who gave his only son a cold look before he turned away as well.

Nicky stared after them for a few seconds with his shoulders bowed, before he shook his head and went up to Tilda’s coffin; he was only there for a moment or two before he returned to where Andrew and Neil were sitting. “Uhm, you going to pay your respects?”

“No reason,” Andrew told him. “Nothing to respect.”

That earned him an odd look from Nicky, who just shook his head again. “Then why are you here?”

“Because Aaron wanted to come.” There was a bit more bitterness to that than he had intended, which caused Neil to give him a curious look and Nicky to offer up a sad smile.

“Yeah, she’s… she was his mom,” was all he said, with enough sadness and a hint of bitterness as well that Andrew had to wonder if Nicky knew a bit about what had been going on between Tilda and Aaron. “It’s a good thing he has you now, to help him through it.”

Andrew scoffed at that – Aaron didn’t seem to think that, with the way he’d been sulking the past couple of days and clinging to the memory of Tilda, with the odd looks he’d been giving Andrew when he thought Andrew wasn’t paying attention. “Whatever.”

Beside him, Neil shifted about in an obvious sign of discomfort as he gazed around the room of the funeral parlor, at the beige coffin at the far end of the room, the rows of empty chairs, the few people gathered around Aaron and another few around Luther and Maria, then the burst of colors from the flowers. “Uhm, it’s… it’s a small one? The funeral, I mean?”

Nicky smiled at him, the expression a bit sad. “Tilda didn’t have that many friends since she just moved back here a couple of years ago, so I imagine most of the people showing up with be for my parents.” His expression brightened for a moment. “Though it looks like someone thought enough of her to send some pretty arrangements.” He motioned to one in particular, a huge display of red roses and white chrysanthemums wrapped with a black ribbon. For some reason, Neil frowned when he saw it.

Things were quiet after that, which Andrew was fine with, but Nicky started to fidget after about a minute. “So, you two. The two of you.” He grinned as he tugged on the cuffs of his lavender shirt. “All Aaron told me is that you showed up back in June, that everything was hush-hush after we were all freaked out that you were dead in a ditch somewhere, and lo and behold the police call to say you were in town all safe and sound with a ‘scrawny ginger friend’.” His grin widened into a leer as he stared at Neil, which was wiped away by a flinch when Andrew leaned toward the moron with his left hand hovering near his right wrist, the cuffs of his borrowed white shirt left loose for a reason. “Okay,” Nicky groaned as he held up his hands as if in surrender. “Not touching, not doing anything, I get it, just some aesthetic appreciation, I’m not a perv, sheesh.”

“You’re a moron with a slow learning curve,” Andrew insisted with a flat, warning look.

“We’re in a funeral home,” Neil moaned as he buried his face in his hands.

“Good, then no worries about what to do with the body,” Andrew told him.

“He’s joking, isn’t he?” Nicky gave a nervous laugh that faded away when Neil lifted his head to stare at him in a blank manner. “Really? Wow, should have had another round of shots before coming.” He wiped at his face, which now had a faint sheen of sweat. “Where was I? Before the death threats and all? Ah yes, our long lost Andrew showing up with Neil.” He hummed a little and tapped his fingers against the back of an empty chair. “So, what’s your story?”

“There’s no story,” Andrew informed him with growing impatience and homicidal urges.

“There’s always a story,” Nicky told him, for once with a hint of seriousness to his demeanor. ”And you two?”  He flicked his fingers in their direction. “You two reek of it. So, how long have you been together? Is it true love? Tell me it’s true love, that’s my favorite. Two star-crossed lovers who met and knew it was forever as soon as your paths crossed, and you just had to bring him back home to meet the family. Am I right?”

“Oh my god,” Neil ground out as he once more buried his face in his hands. “Make him stop.”

“Go find an empty coffin,” Andrew demanded as he flexed his wrists. “Then distract the others and I’ll make it quick.”

Nicky’s brown eyes went wide as he jumped up from his chair, and almost knocked over the ones behind him. “Hey! What, don’t take things so seriously, sheesh!” He took a hasty step backwards, and bumped into Aaron. “Aaron! I think your brother is trying to kill me! For like, real!”

Again, there was a flash of something across Aaron’s face, too quick to read, and then he shoved Nicky back down into his chair. “Quick making a spectacle of yourself,” Aaron snapped. “Be respectful for once.”

A hurt look came over Nicky’s face. “But I am! I just… I just wanted to know a little more about Andrew and Neil.”

“Now’s not the time.” Aaron seemed tired and a little stressed, and just about collapsed into an empty chair. “Who thought it was a good idea, this funeral thing?”

“Your uncle,” Andrew reminded him; he had to wonder how many of Tilda’s pills were left, and if Aaron was nursing them along to stretch them out. That would explain the recent drinking, and the pot the last two nights. Andrew hoped that she had at least stashed the more potent stuff or kept it on her, or there would be problems later on.

They sat in an uncomfortable silence during the viewing period of the funeral, with Aaron getting up now and then to talk to a few people while Luther and Maria seemed to hold court across the room, happy to be the center of attention for what did turn out to be the majority of their friends stopping by to offer their condolences. Nicky fidgeted with his phone and got up a time or two to make a call, in-between staring forlornly at his parents, who were more than happy to pretend that he didn’t exist.

Andrew went out once for a cigarette, relieved to be away from everyone for a while, and Neil went out to fetch them some water. When people were gathered near the coffin for a bit, Neil got up to check out the flowers; the tense set to his shoulders and thin line to his lips when he returned made Andrew reach out to hold on to his left wrist and give it a painful squeeze. “The truth,” he reminded his idiot after Neil sat down and didn’t say anything for five minutes. “Who sent them?”

Neil’s lips pressed together for a couple of seconds before he answered, but he didn’t shake off Andrew’s hold; Aaron, who had taken to twitching in his seat, suddenly became still as he watched the two of them. “They’re for you and me, and they’re from Riko and Kevin. ‘For your loss’, it said.” His breath hitched when Andrew’s fingers tightened in reflex, and then they let go – only for Neil to grab on in return. “Don’t,” he breathed out. “Just let this one go, okay?” There was a pleading note to his voice. “Not here.”

Andrew stared at the ostentatious arrangement of flowers and imagined picking it up and throwing it across the room, imagined stomping on the blooms until they were nothing but crushed petals. “Fine, let him waste his money on useless things.” He supposed it would be best to not always rise to Riko’s bait – that would annoy the asshole just as much as the usual taunts.

“Thank you.” Neil slumped back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair. “Just… just let them rot.”

Yes, just let them rot, like dear Tilda.

Meanwhile, Aaron leaned closer to Andrew. “’Riko and Kevin’, eh? Like in the Ravens? Why would they send flowers for my mother?”

Andrew gave him a cold smile. “What did I tell you about things that don’t concern you?”

Aaron’s eyes narrowed upon hearing that, but he didn’t say anything else. Instead, he turned his gaze on Neil, who was wearing a hole in the cuff of his new shirt, he was tugging on it so much, and studied him for several seconds before he once more resumed playing some sort of game on his phone, his expression now thoughtful.

Fortunately, soon after that Luther got up in front of the room and introduced a man with just as dour a face who commenced with the actual funeral part of the whole thing, a boring ceremony where useless words were said and toneless songs song, and during the whole thing Andrew and Neil just sat there silent the entire time. Aaron wiped at his eyes a couple of times, as did Nicky, but they didn’t partake in the singing or repeating trite lines, either.

When the whole nonsense was done, Aaron came over to Andrew, his expression serious and posture defensive. “We’re going to the cemetery now. You can… there’s a spot for a pallbearer, if you want it.” Behind him, Nicky looked as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t.

“Seems to me that you should ask someone who cared about her,” Andrew told him.

Aaron closed his eyes and sighed. “Fine, be that way. I just thought… I shouldn’t have asked.” He sounded bitter as he turned around and went over to his uncle, and Nicky watched him go with something akin to pain.

“Why don’t you just ask,” Andrew snapped at his cousin.

“Because that’s not the point,” Nicky answered. “They didn’t call to tell me about her, they didn’t call to tell me anything and it’s clear they don’t want me here. If it wasn’t for Aaron….” He let out a shaky breath. “I’m just here for him, him and you.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re still family.” Nicky gave him a weak grin. “Now come on, I always wanted a cute chauffer, time to take advantage of it.”

Andrew decided to let that slide with just a warning glare, especially since Neil seemed eager to leave the funeral home. Along the way out of the room, Andrew made certain to grab a handful of roses and mums and twist them out of the artful arrangement, then drop them to the floor so he could stomp on them.

They filed outside to wait in the sun, and a few minutes later Aaron, Luther and two strange men came out, two on each side, to push Tilda’s casket long on a cart toward the waiting hearse; Andrew supposed they didn’t have enough people to carry it, which would have been amusing considering Aaron’s short height compared to the other three men. Once the casket was tucked away, everyone split up to ride to the cemetery; Luther said something to Aaron, but he shook his head and came over to Andrew, Nicky and Neil so they could ride together again in the rental car.

It was for the most part a quiet ride, save for Nicky babbling on in German on the phone for a couple of minutes – Andrew assumed he was talking to his boyfriend again, Erik. There was mentions of ‘missing you’ and ‘love you’ and ‘no, not yet, still waiting to see what happens, I should have an idea soon’. He was quiet for a minute or two and sighed. “I think it’s getting better, I think I’m growing on him.” Then Nicky laughed and asked Erik about something, and told him to have a good time before hanging up.

“You sound disgusting when you talk to him,” Aaron grumbled, his attention focused on the view outside as if he couldn’t be bothered to look at anyone inside the car.

“Hmm, he makes me so happy.” Nicky didn’t seem to take the insult to heart – probably because he was used to them, from the family.

“I don’t want to hear about any of that… stuff.”

“Aw, but you must be used to it, right?” Nicky waved toward Andrew and Neil. “What about the two lovebirds?”

“Oh god, please never say that word again,” Neil groaned as the car swerved a little in its lane.

“Yes, go ahead if you want to lose your tongue,” Andrew told the moron as he twisted about in the seat and brandished a knife. “In fact, might be best if I just remove it now and spare us all the annoyance.”

Nicky gave a nervous laugh as he pressed back against the corner of the door, as far as he could to get away from Andrew. “Aaron, a little help here?”

“Nope, you’re the idiot, you’re on your own with him,” Aaron told him in a bored tone. “I want nothing to do with you.”

“But I came back for you!”

“Don’t care.”

“Neil!”

“I’m busy driving.”

“Neil! He’s climbing back here, help me!”

Neil sighed and made a swatting motion at Andrew but didn’t connect. “Could you not kill him in the rental car, how would we explain the bloodstains when it’s time to return it?”

Andrew thought about that for a moment and returned back to his seat. “Fine, I’ll wait until we get to the cemetery. Easier to dispose of him there anyway.”

“I’m not digging any graves today,” Neil insisted, his attention focused on the road in front of him.

Someone really needed to get over that hang-up. “There’s already an open one waiting for us, we’ll just dump him in there.” Andrew continued to give Nicky a cold, flat look while he put back on his seat belt so that the man knew in no uncertain terms that he’d just received a delay in execution and not a reprieve.

Still huddled in the far corner, Nicky gulped, the sound audible in the now quiet car, then turned his head just a little in Aaron’s direction, his eyes locked on Andrew. “Ah, he’s kidding, right? They both are?”

Aaron, meanwhile, had taken to regarding Andrew and Neil in a thoughtful manner. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“But what did I do? All I was just talk about how lo-“ Nicky gasped when Andrew began to lean into the back of the car again. “Aw come on, you’re going to kill me over *that*?”

“I told you, they’re ‘friends’.” Aaron made the air quotes around the word once more. “They’re not all sappy and disgusting like you, they’re in denial about their relationship.”

“What relationship?” Andrew and Neil said, almost at the same time.

“See?” Aaron sounded rather pleased with himself just then, and turned back to looking out the window with a slight smile on his lips, the first time Andrew had seen him smile since Tilda’s death.

“Oh now come on, that’s just… that’s just *sad*,” Nicky insisted as he sat forward on the seat. “Love is a beautiful thing,” he glared when Aaron made a gagging sound, “it’s nothing to be ashamed of no matter who you- ack!” He rushed back into the corner when Andrew waved the knife right in front of his face. “You’ve got issues, kid. Just saying.”

“And you’ve got a death wish, now shut up,” Andrew told him.

“Why am I even here for this?” Neil sounded as if he was talking out loud to himself, but he had a hint of that disturbing grin on his lips.

“Because he’s your ‘friend’,” Aaron said with what sounded to be a great deal of satisfaction.

Neil was quiet for several seconds after that, while the grin grew stronger and his knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. When he next spoke, it was in French. “You even try raising the percentage on me today, I will drive this car into the nearest wall with you in it, do you understand?”

Andrew regarded him for several seconds, the grin, the knuckles, the two morons by blood in the back and the wild look in those pale blue eyes and just reached into his sling for his packet of cigarettes so he could shake one free. Nicky made a small noise of complaint, probably about him smoking in the car, but another cold glare had him falling quiet, and once it was lit, Andrew held it out to Neil. His friend accepted it with a shaky breath and held it between his knuckles, the one hand on the steering wheel, and cracked the window a little. He used his other hand to steer while he held the cigarette near his face and breathed in the smoke, uncaring about the ash that fell on his clothes, and Andrew lit another one for himself. The rest of the drive passed on silence, and they reached the cemetery soon after they finished the cigarettes.

It was more of the same when they gathered around the grave; a few chairs set out even though most people chose to stand. It looked as if only a few people from the funeral home had decided to come about to the internment, probably those closest to Luther and Maria, and it was as if there were two sides to the ‘mourners’ – Luther’s side and Aaron’s. Andrew stood beside his brother with Neil and Nicky at his back and watched on while the minister from before spoke some more useless words, and Luther stared at Tilda’s casket while looking as if he’d never had a single moment of happiness in his life and his wife crying quietly at his side.

Then the senseless droning was done and Aaron threw some dirt on the casket as it was lowered into the waiting grave, followed by Luther, and Andrew tried not to be annoyed when he spotted the tears streaking his brother’s face; Tilda didn’t deserve them, not when there was still lingering bruises from her last day alive. Not when Aaron was shaking from the need to take another Xanax. So Andrew clenched his hand before he said something, mindful of Neil’s earlier admonishment of ‘not here’.

They were headed back to the car when they heard Luther’s voice call out to them – to Aaron.

“Aaron, I think you should come home with us, son.” On Andrew’s left, Nicky stiffened upon hearing that last word.

Ahead of them, Aaron stopped and was still for a moment before turning around; he paused for another second as he looked at Andrew, and then he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Uncle Luther, but I- we’re going home.” The rest of them turned around to face the man as well, and found him standing a few feet away, with Maria behind him.

Luther, still dressed all prim and proper in his black suit, white shirt and black tie, glared at Aaron as if offended by the denial. “You need to be with your family, Aaron. Come home with us, there’s room for you there.”

Aaron shook his head again. “I have a home, and I’m going back to it. Thanks, but no thanks.”

“You need….” Luther looked at Andrew and cleared his throat, disproval plain his lined face.

“He needs what, exactly?” Andrew smiled a little, the expression mocking, and reached over to tug Neil closer just to goad the man.

The action made Luther’s face become flushed with anger. “He needs to be with family, with *proper* people, not degenerates.” The insult made Nicky moan, the sound faint and pained.

“I think we’re going to disagree on who exactly the ‘degenerates’ are here,” Andrew informed the man. “And he has family, he doesn’t need you.”

“But he does, you both do.” A suspicious gleam came into Luther’s pale eyes just then. “Both of you are under-age and will be for the next few months, and that means you need adult supervision. As your only surviving adult family member, that means *I* am responsible for you, so you *will* come home with me.” His thin lips twisted in a pleased smile. “I will be certain to put a stop to… certain unsavory activities.” His eyes narrowed as his gaze fell onto Neil.

Andrew was about to step forward to let the bastard know in no uncertain terms what he thought about Luther’s misconception that he would have any control over Andrew’s life – that Andrew would let *anyone* take control over his life every again - when Nicky stepped into his view with a determined look on his face.

“Actually, you’re wrong,” he said, his voice quiet but determined. “You’re not the only adult relative they have.”

“Nicky, this doesn’t concern you,” Luther told him without even looking in his direction.

“Yes it does, Dad. You see, I’m old enough now to be their legal guardian.” That got his father’s attention in a hurry, the first time he’d paid proper attention to his son all day long. “And I’ll do it, I’ll do it in a heartbeat before I’ll let you get your hands on them.”

Luther’s demeanor became extremely displeased, while behind him, Maria took to shaking her head. “You? You’re barely an adult. How can you support them? Where would you live? Do you think a judge would approve of someone like *you* over-“

Andrew cut him off before he could insult Nicky any further – his cousin was an annoyance, but Nicky was much preferred over Luther and wasn’t quite so bad after standing up for him and Aaron. “Trust me, money isn’t an issue.” He smiled at Luther’s confusion and nudged a now wincing Neil in the side. “How soon can we buy a house?”

“I hate you,” Neil murmured in French as he rubbed at his face again. “The lines of credit will extend to one, as long as it’s not too extravagant. I’ve already been looking into something like that if we were going to stay here much longer,” he said louder in English, to Luther and Nicky’s shock. For some reason, Aaron wasn’t so surprised, but Andrew had a feeling that Aaron was learning to take things in stride when it came to Neil.

“And the lawyer?”

“I’m sure we can find a good one as soon as I call my…,” Neil narrowed his eyes as he looked at Luther and shook his head, “contact. Knowing him, it’ll be one of the best in the city.”

Yes, ‘Uncle’ Stuart was the type to have connections to the best and nastiest lawyers around. “Ready to push for a fight now?” Andrew asked Luther with more than a little satisfaction. “I assure you, Neil’s pockets are considerable deeper than yours, and his connections more impressive. You won’t win this one.” His smile took on a sharp edge as he motioned to the two of them. “That’s the problem with us ‘degenerates’, we don’t fight fair but we fight to win.”

Luther stared at Neil as if he’d never seen him before, then closed his eyes and shook his head. “Aaron, please, think about what your mother would want.”

“I’m staying with Nicky,” Aaron told him, his voice sharp and expression furious. “Don’t ask again, and don’t mention Mom like that again.”

Face so red with anger that Andrew wondered if he was about to have a heart attack, Luther cut his right hand through the air as if to dismiss all of them. “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re all foolish children playing at being adults.” He looked as if he wanted to say something else yet shook his head instead and turned away; Maria cast a lingering glance at first Nicky and then Aaron before she followed him.

Nicky made that soft, painful moaning sound again but stayed where he was for a moment before he wiped at his eyes. “Oh god, what did I just do?”

Andrew shot him a dissatisfied look. “Don’t tell me you were making up shit there.”

“No!” Nicky took a deep, shuddering breath. “No, I wasn’t.” He sought out Aaron and gave a slight nod. “I… I sorta knew something like this might happen if I came back, what it meant with Tilda being dead. I’d hoped….” He shook his head. “They never change, do they?” He sounded so plaintive just then, his expression crestfallen.

Aaron took an abortive step in his cousin’s direction. “What… what about Germany?”

“It’ll still be there.” The dejection turned into something more resolved as Nicky firmed his shoulders and held up his head. “*Erik* will still be there. We talked about… well, about this maybe happening. He understands family, and it’s just for what, ten months or so?” He smiled a little as he toed his right foot into the grass. “Were the two of you serious, back there? About the money and the contacts?”

Neil sighed as he rubbed at the back of his head as if he had a headache. “I’d rather not have to ask… *him* about a lawyer if we can avoid that, but yeah. And there’s money for a house if we need it.” He glared at Andrew. “There’s going to be a budget, and nothing outrageous, and… and… oh hell.” He started panting as if he trying to stave off a panic attack, bending over with his hands pressed against his knees.

“Is he okay?” Aaron frowned while he eyed Neil as if he was some exotic specimen he needed to figure out.

Andrew waved off the semi-concern. “He has this habit of doing stuff like that whenever he has to spend more than twenty bucks.”

“Thousands,” Neil gasped as if in physical pain.

“Try running away from a *house*,” Andrew told him sweetly, and smiled at the dirty look he received in return.

A slight smile spread across Nicky’s face. “You two really are adorable, you know that?” He yelped when Andrew spun around toward him and held his hands up in surrender. “Wait, you can’t kill me now, you need me!”

…shit, the annoying bastard was right. Andrew scowled as he put the knife away, and kicked at Neil’s left foot when the idiot began to chuckle. “240%,” he told him, and now he’d have to drive the lousy Camry back to the apartment, dammit.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

They headed back to the apartment to figure out what they were going to do moving onward, with Andrew behind the wheel and hating every moment of it; if he thought for one moment that Neil wasn’t serious about the whole ‘drive into the wall’ comment, he would let Neil drive the shitty sedan that reminded him way too much of Tilda’s car. Whatever Neil’s problem was for the day, he better snap out of it soon.

As soon as they left the cemetery, Nicky got on his phone and called his boyfriend, and started babbling in German about what had happened, about how he had stood up to his father and yeah, seemed to have obligated himself to staying here until next June and it was okay, it would be all right, Andrew seemed to be warming up to him (no, so not the case) and Neil was adorable, he’d send pics tomorrow (Andrew was breaking Nicky’s phone the first chance he got) and they’d get by with lots and lots of phone sex, okay? Andrew wished right then that he’d never learned German.

“How much vodka is there?” Neil asked in French as he scrubbed at his face as if he could reach into his brain somehow.

“Not enough,” Andrew assured him, while in the back seat Aaron stared out the window in blessed ignorance.

“Fine, pull over at the nearest grocery store.” There was a hint of that disturbing grin again on Neil’s face, the one Andrew hated, and he was tugging once more at his ragged left sleeve.

Nicky finally hung up, right before Andrew was about to pull a Neil and drive into a wall himself, and there was a store at the next exit, so he got off there and forced Nicky to hand over his coat to Neil (it didn’t take the bastard much prompting when it was for ‘Neil’, oh yes, they would have a conversation, and soon).

Twenty minutes later, him and Neil were back at the car with enough fried chicken, mac & cheese – there was that grin again, when Andrew had even hinted about getting vegetables – and stolen alcohol to get them through the night. As Andrew drove the rest of the way ‘home’, Neil placed a call to Agent Wolfe and explained the situation to her – while they had shopped and shop-lifted, he had told Andrew that he didn’t really want to drag his uncle into the mess just then, but had agreed that they needed a lawyer in case Luther decided to push the issue. A compromise had been reached with Wolfe, since she was supposed to keep an eye out on Neil and should know the legal community well enough considering her job.

It didn’t take long to explain the situation to her, that Andrew’s mother had passed away and Andrew had a preference as to what relative took over custody, given his circumstances. Considering the fact that Agent Wolfe had sat in when Neil had argued for Andrew to stay with him during the ‘interview’ process, when he had fought for Andrew’s record to be sealed away and wiped clean, and for Neil to remain in Columbus with Andrew… yeah, Wolfe didn’t need things spelled out for her when she learned that Nicky was younger than Luther and willing to relocate from Germany and leave behind his boyfriend in the bargain.

“It’s done,” Neil told Andrew as he ended the call. “We’ll have a lawyer by morning, and she promised that she’ll beat down whatever opposition Luther tries to put up as if it’s nothing. Apparently Sonja is calling in someone who handles a lot of family cases for… them.” He glanced up at the rear view mirror before looking back at Andrew.

Andrew huffed as he turned off on the exit that would take them to their apartment building. “I figured Sonja would know somebody.” The FBI probably had lots of lawyers on their payroll – nearly as many as the Moriyamas and Hatfords.

Nicky leaned forward to rest his arms on the back of Neil’s seat and stared at him as if he was a miracle or something. “Are you real? Seriously, are you real? How do you know these people?” He reached out as if to touch Neil, and when Neil flinched back, Andrew smacked Nicky’s hand aside with as much force as possible.

“What the fuck did we talk about? No *touching*.” If he wasn’t driving, he would stab the bastard.

“Ow! It wasn’t going to be a bad touch, I swear it!” Nicky pouted as he curled back into the corner of the back seat again.

Meanwhile, Aaron, who had spent the drive from the cemetery quiet and was becoming rather twitchy and sweaty, gave his cousin a truly scathing look. “You’re an idiot.”

“Aw come on, aren’t you the least bit curious about the whole thing?” Nicky whined as he gestured toward Neil.

Aaron shot Andrew a narrowed look. “It’s not my concern, right?”

Andrew glanced over his shoulder before he pulled into the apartment’s parking lot. “Nice to see that someone’s finally learning.”

As soon as Andrew found a parking spot and the car came to a stop, both Neil and Aaron were out of the car – Aaron stumbled a little and looked as if he would throw up, while Neil actually ran a few steps before he stopped, chest heaving as if he was desperate for fresh air.

Andrew’s eyes narrowed at both of their reactions, and he threw his keys to the apartment at Nicky with a satisfying amount of force. “Take the food and Aaron inside,” he told his cousin.

“Eh?” Nicky barely caught the keys and stared at him in confusion. “What?”

“Go, *now*,” Andrew insisted.

Nicky blinked a couple of times and then looked over at Neil, who was still gulping in air as if he’d been starved of it. “Oh. Yeah, I get it.” He reached back in the car to grab the take-out, then closed the door and went over to wrap an arm around Aaron’s waist. “Those two need a minute,” he told Aaron in a too-sweet tone.

“I will throw up on you,” Aaron groaned as Nicky half-carried him away, “if you keep talking like that.”

Nicky’s response was muffled, since Andrew was focused on Neil at the moment; he could hear the clanking of the stashed liquor bottles inside of Nicky’s coat that Neil still wore as Neil struggled to breathe, and it bothered him. He reached out and tugged the coat off of Neil’s thin shoulders, the motion startling his friend enough to make Neil spin around and face him, face pale and eyes wild.

Nicky was right, damn him – Neil really was gorgeous.

“You-“ Neil’s voice was ragged and he jerked his right hand through his hair in such a rough manner that he had to rip out some of the strands, yet it seemed to calm him down, finally.

“What did I say about you and all of your many issues?” Andrew scoffed as he hung Nicky’s coat over his right shoulder, the bottles heavy against his chest.

Neil gave a quiet, brittle laugh. “Look who’s talking.”

“Yeah, but I’m not the one breaking down today.” Then Andrew thought about what he had just said, at the way Neil’s expression grew blank at that and cursed himself. “What is it?” He forced himself to reach out and touch that gorgeous face. “What am I missing?”

Neil shivered at the touch yet didn’t pull away. “You know… we were near the water, in Baltimore. The Chesapeake Bay wasn’t too far away…. We could go to the ports, some of the beaches there… just to get away from my father.” He shuddered a little then, lost in the memories. “I think that’s why I… it wasn’t so bad, leaving her there… in California. At the beach. It wasn’t the same, but it was close. It reminded me of the days when… when…” He shook his head, his eyes closed tight and his lips pressed in a white line. “And then today, with… why is the past nothing but pain?”

A day to bury Tilda with a bunch of useless posturing, when Neil had been on his own with his mother – now Andrew got it. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But we’re here, now, because of it.” He slipped his hand behind Neil’s neck and dragged him closer. “We’re stronger because of it.” He refused to believe otherwise, because… because. Lately, he thought of everything he’d suffered… and how it had led him to this moment, standing before this… *this* person. “Are you going to give in to it now?”

Neil opened his eyes and stared at Andrew for several seconds before he let out a shuddering breath. “No. But fuck if it doesn’t hurt sometimes.”

“Yeah.” Andrew understood all about the pain. “That’s why we have the alcohol.”

Neil huffed at that as he closed his eyes again. “Is there going to be anything left after tonight?”

“Hmm, depends. Do you want Nicky to live until tomorrow?”

Neil’s answer was a weary sigh. “It’s going to cost too damn much to get us another set of fake IDs, remember that.” He leaned in, just short of a kiss, and smiled when Andrew brushed their lips together. “Ten months,” he told Andrew as they headed inside. “Try not to kill him for that long.”

“No promises.”

Neil laughed for the first time that day. “Yeah, I figured you’d say that.” He slipped his hand inside of Andrew’s, the hold loose for a moment and then more firm when Andrew didn’t pull away.

They had just reached the stairwell when Andrew gave Neil’s hand a painful squeeze. “Hmm, just one thing. I didn’t appreciate having to drive a shitty car today.” That had been incredibly annoying on top of everything else.

Neil came to a stop of the stairs, causing Andrew to stop as well. “Are you serious? Considering everything that happened today, you’re complaining about that?”

“Well, I had to drive it because you basically threatened to kill me otherwise, yeah.” Andrew hadn’t forgotten about *that* part, but figured he’d at least be nice enough to not bring it up.

“You know what? Let’s just go and deal with *your* family, and then when you’re stuck dealing with mine and there’s all this drama about buying houses and crazy people mentioning relationships and… and….” Neil shook his head and resumed walking. “All my family did was try to kill you, okay? Wait, no, they tried to kill me. So much better.” Then he seemed to think of something. “And they have better tastes in cars.”

Andrew considered all of that as they came up to Tilda’s apartment, and was left with one thing to say. “242%.”

Neil glared with blatant hostility as Andrew opened the door. “You’re such an asshole.”

“Yeah, but the asshole who has the alcohol,” Andrew reminded him as he tugged his friend into the apartment.

*******

Neil had to give Andrew credit, he knew well enough to wait until Neil had eaten some food and had a few shots of vodka to bring up anything related to money.

By the time they had returned to the apartment, it was clear that Aaron had dosed himself up with another pill of Xanax, and that Nicky was desperate for a peaceful evening. Neil had put some space between him and Andrew at that point, and focused on getting some food into him, the first thing he’d eaten since that morning, which really hadn’t been that much.

Considering how much everyone else had eaten, it was the first real food anyone had eaten that day – which made sense, considering that Nicky had flown in from Germany and that Aaron was burying his mother. Neil really didn’t care what Andrew’s excuse was, knowing that his friend didn’t care in the least about Tilda and still pissed off over their last conversation.

He knew that Andrew didn’t give a damn about Tilda, so Andrew might not be able to grasp how difficult today was for Neil, who had cared for his mother. Mary might not have been perfect, might not have made the best decisions… but she was all Neil had, when it came down to it. In his life, there had been Nathan and Mary… and yeah, he chose Mary. Mary at least had seemed to care if he lived at all, if he came out with some semblance of sanity. He knew she was far from perfect and had fucked up his life… but if he had been left in his father’s care? Yeah, it would have been so much worse. That much was clear, especially after dealing with Riko these last couple of months.

If there was anything he blamed Mary for after all these years, it was for not running sooner, before Riko and Tetsuji could say that there was a claim on him, before Nathan had so clearly handed him over to the Moriyamas. But Neil couldn’t change the past, and right now he was stuck in a shitty apartment eating decent fried chicken while Aaron glared at Nicky and Andrew watched Neil as if waiting to see if he would act out in some manner.

“No, no, seriously, most people don’t bother with turkey over in Europe, they’re too big! A lot of apartments don’t have the right sized ovens for them and so forth, and they’re expensive. Erik’s family baked one for me and they were so disappointed, they said it didn’t taste that much different from chicken,” Nicky told them.

Neil nodded as he waved his chicken drumstick around. “It’s true. I don’t think I saw it that much when I was over there.” He remembered how one year his mother thought maybe finding something from ‘home’ might make him happy since things were… yeah, it wasn’t a good November, that year, but she couldn’t and he hadn’t minded, not really - there were so many bad memories associated to the Thanksgivings back in Baltimore that he was glad to leave them behind.

Nicky beamed at Neil and would have leaned over the table to hug him if it wasn’t for Andrew shoving a fork in his face. “Yes! I’m so glad that there’s someone who isn’t so ethnocentric here!”

“And that’s the cue for more alcohol.” Andrew gave Neil a heavy-lidded look as he left the kitchen table, only to return with the bottles they’d shoplifted earlier in the day since the other bottle was now empty. “Enough talk about culture and shit, it’s time to get serious.” He poured at least a couple of shots worth of vodka into Neil’s empty glass, and did the same to everyone else’s around the table.

Nicky stared at the bottle in Andrew’s hand. “Do I want to know where you got that?”

‘No,” Andrew told him, to which Nicky shrugged.

Aaron stacked the mostly empty plates toward the middle of the table before he lifted his glass and tossed it back with an ease that spoke of too much experience; Neil noticed the way that his face smoothed out as he swallowed, as if the alcohol came as of a great relief. When he finally opened his eyes, he gazed at Neil as if expecting something. “Okay, so you told Uncle Luther that you had money and contacts.”

“Actually, Andrew told him that.”

Aaron gave Neil a disappointed look. “It was implied.”

Neil sighed as he held out his glass for Andrew to refill, and drained it once that happened; he really wasn’t in the mood for this discussion to happen without more of an alcoholic buffer. “You know that I’ve already arranged for the lawyer.”

“And the money?” Aaron stared at him with eyes that reminded Neil too much of Andrew’s. “You mentioned lines of credit.”

When Andrew didn’t say anything or object, Neil yanked on his hair before he answered. “There’s almost half a million dollars available for Andrew and me to use.”

*That* finally got a rise out of his friend. “What happened to the rest of it, the other half a million or so?” Upon hearing that, Nicky gasped and Aaron stared at Neil as if daring him to answer.

Neil turned in his seat to face Andrew, who was looking at him with outright suspicion. “I asked… I asked Stuart a few weeks ago to invest it,” he told him while holding his glass out for more vodka.

Andrew glared upon hearing that but filled the glass. “And why would you do such a thing?” His voice was quiet yet steady – but Neil knew the quiet part was the more worrisome of the two.

Why the hell was he explaining this out loud? The only reason he could think of was that, if they were going to function together in the future, all of them needed to know something, and Andrew wouldn’t have asked the question in front of his brother and cousin otherwise. “Because while our friend in Chicago set up the initial accounts to accrue interest, the rest of the money was just sitting there, doing nothing.” Neil paused to toss back some of the vodka, and shuddered at the sharp bite of it burning down his throat. “*We* can’t touch that money for two years while it’s invested, but after that time period, we can use the interest.” He stared at Andrew and waited for him to figure out what he was saying. “There was no use for the bonds to be just sitting around, this is more beneficial to us.”

“Two years,” Andrew repeated, his gaze locked on to Neil’s.

“Yes, two years.” Neil wasn’t certain he could break free of the Moriyamas in two years… but Andrew could, and he would need more than one million at the time if worse came to worst. That was why he had taken the money to Uncle Stuart - once it was clear that Ichiro and Kengo weren’t going to ask for it back – to invest it. The half million was more than enough to get Neil and Andrew through for the next two years even if something bad happened, and the rest should give Andrew some sort of future.

“And you’re just ‘friends’,” Aaron insisted as he helped clear off the table when nobody said anything for about a minute. “’Friends’ just share millions of dollars between them, right?” He stared at Nicky when he came back. “You and Erik have that much in your joint account, right?”

Nicky gaped at his cousin as if he was insane. “We have a few thousand, if that.” Then he turned his attention to Andrew. “What the hell is going on here?” He glanced over at Neil. “Who are you?” He yelped when Andrew grabbed his chin and jerked his attention away from Neil.

“Never ask that, and never care,” Andrew warned. “Just know that we’re going to make sure that your asshole father can’t interfere.” He let go of Nicky’s face and wiped his left hand on his jeans as if it was tainted before he looked at Neil. “We have enough money now to buy a house, right?” he asked in French.

“Yes,” Neil agreed.

“This better not be more of your martyr bullshit,” Andrew snapped as he leaned over to pour more vodka into Neil’s glass.

“Half a million should be more than enough to last us two years if we don’t go crazy,” Neil pointed out. “After that….” He stared off into the distance as he tossed back the alcohol.

“After that you’ll be on a team other than the Ravens,” Andrew insisted, before he did the same.

“Eh, do they talk in French a lot?” Nicky asked as he grabbed one of the bottles of vodka on the table.

Aaron shrugged as he held up his glass to be filled. “They’re doing it a lot today.” He didn’t seem very pleased about it.

“Well you know, it’s the romantic language.” He leered at Neil until Andrew slapped a knife on top of the table near the idiot. “Oh come *on*,” Nicky whined as he poured himself more alcohol. “What do you expect from me?”

“Very little,” Andrew informed him in English with a heavy tone as he scooted his chair closer to Neil’s. “You’ll learn better unless you want to be stabbed.”

“Are you missing the big picture here?” Nicky gestured with his hands about in the air. “Normal teenagers don’t have access to millions of dollars and fancy lawyers, nor do they speak in foreign languages! What is going on with the two of you?”

Neil hunched over as he stared into his half-empty glass, while Andrew dragged the one bottle of vodka away from Aaron so he could fill up his own glass. “So we’re not exactly normal.”

“Who is these days,” Aaron sneered.

Beside Andrew, Neil stirred as he stared at Andrew’s glass as the vodka flowed into it, his hand over his own since he was feeling drunk enough at the moment. “Are we good?” That’s all he cared about as he watched Andrew fill the void of the glass with the clear liquid; he had done what he could to protect Andrew if he couldn’t escape the Ravens, if indeed worse came to the worst.

Andrew paused as a few drops fell from the bottle, then he set it down on the table, only for it to be snatched away by Aaron. “As good as we can, considering the circumstances.” He tossed back the shot, then shifted his grasp to the nape of Neil’s neck, his fingers tight in Neil’s hair. “We’re going to be,” he insisted. “We’re going to tell Luther to fuck off, we’re going to get a house and do this normal shit and everything, and it’ll work out.” He spat out the words as if challenging Fate to contradict him. “Now drink, dammit.”

Neil dared to smile just then, just a little, and tossed back the vodka remaining in his glass. He didn’t mind the burn down his throat, not when it would help to wash away the awfulness of the day, not when he was beginning to associate the taste with Andrew, and when he set the glass down on the table, he leaned toward his friend. “Yes or no?” He didn’t care that Nicky and Aaron were on the other side of the table just then. Considering the shit he’d put up from them that day… yeah.

“Don’t get cocky,” Andrew murmured, yet he leaned in for a quick brush of lips all the same. Meanwhile Aaron made a gagging sound while he poured some vodka for himself and Nicky crowed out loud.

“See! True love, I tell ya! You heteros can just suck- aw come on.” Nicky pushed back from the table when Andrew brandished the knife in his direction. “Seriously, what is your problem? You have a cute boyfriend and everything, what’s with the hate?” He pouted at Andrew from a safe distance.

“’Friend’,” Aaron pointed out with great satisfaction as he lifted a glass full of vodka. “They’re just friends, remember?”

“Someone needs to brush up on the definition of ‘friends’,” Nicky grumbled.

“I don’t give a shit,” Andrew said as he stood up from the table, quick to grab the remaining bottle of vodka before Aaron took that, too. Neil was amused when he found his wrist grabbed as a close second. “We’re going to Neil’s, you can crash here for the night,” he told Nicky.

“Yeah, because ‘friends’-“

“Fuck you,” Andrew snarled at his brother as he dragged Neil from Tilda’s apartment.

The quiet of the hallway was almost a relief, after everything that had happened during the day. Neil felt a comfortable buzz in his head from the vodka, nothing too potent just yet, as they made their way to his apartment, and was grateful for once for the small space when he unlocked the door and waved Andrew inside. “You know we’re going to have to get used to it,” he warned as he began to unbutton his shirt. “We’re stuck with Nicky now.”

“We’ll see how bad he is after I neuter him.” Andrew grumbled.

Neil laughed at that as he fumbled with his shirt and kicked off his shoes; he knew he should brush his teeth and so forth, but he was tired, was exhausted and buzzed and just wanted to curl up on his bed and let the day end. Andrew seemed to feel the same way, as they peeled off their clothes until they were down to their underwear, and soon curled up beneath the blankets of the futon.

“Don’t punch me tomorrow,” Neil told Andrew as they ended up lying half on top of each other as if seeking assurance that the other was there.

“No promises,” Andrew slurred as he fell asleep, and Neil found himself smiling despite himself as exhaustion took over.

*******

Andrew came out on to the front porch where everyone else was waiting and nodded. “It looks good.”

Amy Philips, the realtor, smiled upon hearing that and pulled out her phone. “Great! If there’s no objections….” She glanced around, but Nicky, Aaron and Neil had been waiting for Andrew’s final input, so her smile widened as she stepped off of the porch as she went through the call. “Jane? Yeah, it looks like we got a bid. How does-“

“Oh wow, we may have a house.” Nicky got up from the top step and walked around the porch. “It’s weird, thinking that we have a house.”

“We need them to accept the bid first,” Aaron snapped, his face sweaty and skin a bit pale; he was starting to run low on the Xanax and stretching out the few pills he had left.

Andrew shared a look with Neil as he leaned against one of the porch pillars and waited for the realtor to come back; they had a certain criteria when looking for a house, a certain price range, yard allotment and ability to move in right away, and this current house was one of three that fit those requirements. It was probably the best out of the three, being the cheapest and ready to move in, but they still had options if the owner turned down the deal – the main thing was having something soon so they could deal with Aaron and be ready for the school year.

Tori Iorio had dealt with the legal paperwork so Nicky could become Andrew and Aaron’s legal guardian, and was working with the insurance company with what should be an unexpected and generous payout for them – even Aaron was shocked to know that Tilda had set something up in that regard. Upon talking to Neil for a little bit, she had told him she’d look into Nathan Wesninski’s estate in Baltimore, claiming that he should probably have the title to the house at least – not that Neil really wanted anything from his father – but there was enough money coming in that they didn’t need to worry too much about the cost of the house despite the accounts Durand had set up last year.

Even so, Nicky was determined to cover some of the monthly bills on his own and had put in applications at several of the local businesses, and since all he had was a high school degree, he would be starting a job waiting tables at a restaurant named ‘Sweetie’s’ soon. He didn’t want anyone – didn’t want his parents – to be able to claim that he wasn’t doing what was necessary to support Andrew and Aaron, even if they were using Neil’s money and the life insurance claim to buy a house.

All Andrew cared about was that he had a place to live that wouldn’t be snatched away by someone else; Neil had said that the money was ‘theirs’, so he didn’t see why it was a problem to spend it on someplace they lived. That Aaron wanted to spend his portion of the insurance money on a house… yeah, more power to him.

This one might not be anything too fancy – Neil was sticking to that ‘nothing extravagant’ theme – but it had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a den and a decent kitchen, and more importantly, had a nice bit of property with it, some tall trees for shade and a nice porch, a bit of seclusion that Andrew wasn’t used to seeing after living out in California for most of his life. Yet it wasn’t too far away from anything in particular, from the highway and shopping and the school district, and it would suit Andrew’s immediate needs just fine.

After talking on the phone for a few minutes, Amy came back with a huge grin on her face. “They accepted the offer!”

Nicky let out a loud whoop and jumped off of the porch to go over to stand by her. “Great! So, uhm, what do we do now? How soon can we move in?”

Amy laughed at his exuberance. “Come to the office tomorrow, I’ll have all of the paperwork ready for you then. Main thing is that you’re already cleared, credit-wise, so it’s just the last bit of technical stuff. I’d say it’ll be yours in a couple of days, since you said you wanted this expedited.”

“Yeah, my cousins.” Nicky waved back to the porch. “Need everything done for the school year.”

“I understand,” Amy said as Nicky walked her to the shiny dark blue sedan parked in the driveway.

“So, we have a house,” Neil murmured as he stared at the grey floorboards of the porch.

“If you start hyperventilating, I will punch you,” Andrew warned him, and offered a cheerful smile when Neil looked up to glare.

“No.” Neil shook his head. “No, it’s… it’s sinking in, now.”

“I want to know who’s sleeping where.” Aaron wiped at the sweat on his face as he came to stand beside Andrew. “Don’t tell me I’m stuck with a bedroom by the two of you.”

Neil frowned as he tucked back the bangs falling into his eyes. “What do you mean? We’re not sharing-“

Aaron made a rude noise to cut him off. “He’s been in your apartment ever since Nicky arrived, I think that means you can handle sharing a room together even if you’re just ‘friends’.” He rolled his eyes and huffed. “I’m not sharing a room with Nicky just so you two can have separate rooms and then fuck when it’s convenient.”

Okay, *now* it looked as if Neil was going to hyperventilate. “But-“

“So, what are we talking about now? Neil? Uhm, try to breathe.” Nicky made as if to reach out and pat Neil on the back, but stopped and gave Andrew a wary look instead as he climbed back onto the porch.

“Rooms,” Neil choked out as he rubbed along the back of his neck.

“And the sharing of,” Andrew explained with a bland tone. “Apparently, Aaron believes Neil and I now count as one when it comes to them.” Aw, it looked as if Neil managed to get his breathing under control before he passed out, that was no fun.

Nicky scoffed as he gestured toward the front door of the house. “Of course you do! Young lo… erh, hormones and all that!” He gave a nervous laugh as he eyed Andrew – and Andrew’s hands with an evident and well-earned caution at last. “Neil, help me out here.”

“No,” Neil told him in a flat voice as he stepped away from everyone.

This was taking too long. “We get the biggest room, then,” Andrew decided, his lips twitching at the way Neil’s eyes widened upon hearing that. “Only fair, since it’s two of us.”

Aaron shrugged as if it didn’t bother him. “Great, that means you’re downstairs and I don’t have to listen to you two get it on.”

“But… but I liked that room,” Nicky pouted. “Thought it would be great for when Erik visited and everything.”

“You’re not paying for the house,” Andrew reminded him.

“And you better keep the freaky shit to a minimum when your boyfriend visits,” Aaron snapped as he stalked off of the porch. “Why do I have to put up with this stuff?”

Nicky appeared crestfallen for a moment, and then he smiled as he chased after Aaron. “Are you *sure* you like girls? I mean, you’re the odd one out here!”

“Andrew, give me the keys so I can run over this asshole,” Aaron called out, while Nicky laughed.

“At least now we’ll have lots of room to bury his body,” Andrew muttered as he made sure that the door to the house was locked behind them. “And don’t say it, I’ll make him dig his own fucking grave before I put him in it.”

That pulled forth a weak grin from Neil as he fell in step beside Andrew. “You’re going to force me to go furniture shopping tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I know how much you love doing it.” Andrew brushed the back of his right hand along Neil’s left. “The bedroom thing really bothering you?”

“It’s just… we’ll need a big bed.” Neil’s smile took on a wry twist. “Maybe then I won’t get knocked out of it too much.”

Andrew was getting better, on the whole, on not waking up and lashing out at Neil being in bed with him; some part of him seemed to recognize that *this* person was safe, was to be trusted. But they both had their nightmares, had the times when the past was too close to the surface… and those times could startle Andrew, could wake him up before his brain caught up to the instincts, the need to defend himself, and yeah, Neil usually ended up going over the edge of the bed as his own instincts kicked in to flee. Andrew didn’t know why Neil put up with it – put up with *him*… but he did.

“The room should fit a king-sized one, I’m thinking.”

That made Neil laugh. “Great, I can’t wait to hear Nicky’s comments about *that*.”

“Maybe I should let Aaron run him over,” Andrew mused, only half-kidding as they approached the car and found Nicky still laughing and running around it while Aaron glared at him.

Neil sighed and shook his head. “Too much damage. Find a way to kill him that won’t cost us money and effort – and do it after you turn eighteen.”

What amused Andrew the most was never knowing just how serious Neil was just then – oh, he knew that Neil would be upset if he pulled out his knives at the moment, but in another few months? It was up in the air, if he could get away with it then, as long as he didn’t make his friend dig the damn grave. There was something to be said for messed up people coming together.

*******

The days leading up to moving into the house went by with a blur, as they got everything ready to move in and to start the new school year. Andrew did indeed take great delight in dragging Neil, along with Aaron and Nicky, to a furniture store where they picked out everything the house would need – it was decided that they wouldn’t bring anything from Tilda’s apartment. A ‘fresh start’, Nicky called it, while Neil knew that Andrew wanted to make certain that Aaron couldn’t smuggle any of his mother’s drugs into the new home.

As soon as the house was closed on and they were given the keys to the place, Andrew had Nicky take Aaron out to shop for some clothes, something to distract Aaron for a couple of hours, while he and Neil headed to the new home. The furniture had been delivered earlier that day and they were set to officially move in that evening, but before then, Andrew and Neil got to work in the upstairs bathroom – school would start in two weeks and they didn’t have much time.

Andrew had bought a huge stack of newspapers, and after they had removed everything they could from the bathroom – things like the door to the medicine cabinet, the towel rack, the lid to the toilet’s water tank, a couple of small shelves on the wall, they started taping the paper to the floor in several thick layers, and even some on the walls and over the window. They also wrapped rags around the faucets and any other ‘sharp’ edges, and then brought in the cases of bottled water and Gatorade, and boxes of protein bars and crackers. The last thing they left was a pile of soft towels, blankets, rolls of paper towels and toilet paper, and a box of garbage bags, before Andrew finished up by putting in a new door knob.

“You think this is enough?” Neil thought the place looked like some sort of nightmare survivalist… something.

“It should get the job done. Xanax takes about a week to work its way through the system.” Andrew had that flat look on his face, but Neil knew that he wasn’t being uncaring at the moment, not when Aaron’s health was at stake. He was just doing his best to not let emotion get in the way of what needed to be done.

Neil almost offered to call Uncle Stuart, to see if there was some sort of program they could get Aaron in… but he knew that Andrew had promised to help Aaron and that was what he was going to do, and that if anyone knew enough about therapy, it was Andrew. There had to be a reason that Andrew was so insistent that his brother go through this the hard way.

With the bathroom ready, they went downstairs and waited for Nicky and Aaron to return, which took about half an hour; during that time, Neil brewed a pot of coffee with their new machine, and managed about a cup despite his nerves. When they finally arrived, Nicky carried in several bags of clothes, since Aaron looked miserable and barely able to walk under his own impetus.

“Uhm, we took advantage of a few good sales. You should go with me next time, Neil.” Nicky had a too-wide smile on his face, as if he was trying too hard to appear cheerful.

Meanwhile, his face sweaty and complexion too pale, Aaron stumbled inside and looked about until he saw Andrew. “I need… I need a drink,” he slurred.

“No, no more alcohol,” Andrew informed him. “It’s time.”

Aaron’s eyes went wide upon hearing that and he shook his head. “No. No, maybe there’s something left in-“

“Yes,” Andrew insisted as he went to stand in front of his twin. “You said you didn’t want to be like her. You said you wanted me to fix things. Come upstairs.” He held out his right hand and stared at Aaron as if waiting for something.

“What is-“

Neil shushed Nicky with a curt wave of his right hand as he watched the siblings, and after several seconds, Aaron let out a shuddering breath and allowed Andrew to lead him upstairs.

“Okay, seriously, what is going on?” Nicky set the bags down and gave Neil an unhappy look. “Aaron threw up but refused to come back early. What’s going on with him, and don’t tell me it’s the flu or something he ate.”

“He should just be out of Tilda’s Xanax pills.” Neil finished his coffee and got up to get some more; he had a feeling it was going to be a long night. While over there, he held up the mug to see if Nicky wanted some.

“Shit.” Nicky’s dark eyes went wide and he shook his head. “I know she… dammit, I figured that she let him smoke pot and there was the drinking, but I had hoped that she didn’t go that far – I would have thought that my dad would make sure it didn’t go that far.” He rubbed at the back of his head for a moment then motioned for some coffee. “How could you do that to your kid?” At Neil’s bitter smile, he laughed, the sound sad and broken. “I mean, I know how people can do it, but… yeah, how.”

Neil didn’t say anything until he brought the mug over to Nicky. “Andrew’s going to help him get over it.”

“How?” Nicky stared up at the second floor. “Wait, what were the two of you doing while we were out?”

“You’re going to have to use the bathroom down here for the next few days,” Neil warned him. At Nicky’s confused look, he sighed. “Andrew’s locking Aaron up there – he won’t let him out until the Xanax is out of his system. We made sure he won’t be able to hurt himself while he’s in there.” At least physically – Neil trusted Andrew, but he hoped that his friend knew what he was doing, because this wasn’t something he’d try on his own.

“What the hell?” Nicky nearly dropped his mug upon hearing that. “He’s making him quit cold turkey? Ah man, poor bastard.”

“They both feel it’s the best way.” Neil shrugged to show that he didn’t understand it, but it wasn’t his decision. “Either way, Andrew’s going to be busy the next few days.”

Nicky gave a weak laugh upon hearing that. “Yeah, go figure.” He pushed away his mug and ran his fingers through his hair. “This is just… it’s insane. But Aaron… okay, if it makes him better. Whatever I can do to help.”

Neil almost told him to stay out of Andrew’s way, but he figured that would be evident enough. As it was, he gave it a little time and then took some coffee and a couple of sandwiches he’d put together upstairs to Andrew, who was stationed outside the bathroom door. Andrew nodded in thanks, but it was clear that his friend wasn’t in the mood for any company.

It fell on Neil and Nicky to do the unpacking, not that there was that much to do, since most of the house was full of new furniture and items. Neil and Andrew had brought in the groceries earlier, along with their few personal items, so Neil helped Nicky with the few things he’d brought from Germany, along with Aaron’s belongings and the new things they’d bought. There would be more stuff arriving in the few days for Nicky, packages that Erik had promised to send, but for now, that was about it.

“Uhm… I think… ah, I’m gonna crash on the futon,” Nicky told him, motioning to the den; they had brought Neil’s furniture from his apartment, just because it was still new. “I’m not sure I want to sleep up there while… uhm, yeah.”

“That’s fine.” Neil was going to be spending the night alone on the huge bed Andrew had picked out, the biggest bed he’d ever slept on. “Should be quiet down here.”

A hint of a leer came over Nicky’s face. “Well, you know, if you’re lonely, I can-“

“Nicky, I do know how to use Andrew’s knives. Don’t make me go get one,” he warned.

Nicky held up both of his hands as he took a step back, eyes wide and a nervous smile on his face. “I was just going to say, I could find a teddy bear for you or something!”

“Sure you were,” Neil sighed. “Let’s watch a movie.” He didn’t want to go to bed just yet, not with what was happening upstairs, not when it was the first night in a house that he partially owned, of all things.

“Yes! Great idea!” Nicky seemed very excited to have been asked to do something, and even though he had to spend about fifteen minutes making sure the tv and everything was set up right, soon had a movie playing – it was something Neil hadn’t seen before, but that wasn’t anything new since there were a lot of movies Neil hadn’t seen before. There was something about a virus and zombies and people escaping the city, and around that point they heard a lot of banging and cursing from upstairs.

It sounded like the withdrawal symptoms were really kicking in.

Nicky tried to turn up the volume, but the banging continued, along with some hoarse yelling, so after about fifteen minutes Nicky turned off the movie. “I’m, I’m sorry,” he told Neil, huddled over on the couch with his arms wrapped around his abdomen as if it hurt. “I just… this really sucks.”

He got up and walked outside, and when Neil didn’t hear the car start up, he debated things for a minute or two, then got up and poured two mugs of coffee before following.

Nicky ended up to be sitting on the back porch, where one couldn’t hear Aaron carrying on that much. He appeared surprised when Neil sat down a couple of feet away and handed him a mug of coffee. “I – you didn’t have to come out here,” he said, but he sounded happy all the same. “I figured you’d stay in there with Andrew.”

“I think Andrew’s busy with Aaron right now, and it’s quiet out here,” Neil told him.

“Still, maybe Andrew could use you.”

Neil took a sip of the coffee and wished that he’d grabbed his friend’s pack of cigarettes. “I think this is something he has to do with Aaron,” he admitted. “If he needs something, he’ll let me know.”

“The two of you….” Nicky shook his head and held up his left hand when Neil frowned. “No, not being snarky or sappy or anything, but seriously, I’d love to know the real backstory about the two of you. I mean, I’d do anything for Erik, would give him everything I have and help him out if he did something like this for his family… but he’s my everything. He… he saved me, not to be too dramatic.” Nicky regarded Neil with a heavy gaze for several seconds. “So yeah, just wondering what went down with the two of you for you guys to be like this.”

Neil had a sudden interest in his coffee just then, rather than figure out what to say to that.

“Uh-huh, I thought so.” Nicky seemed rather pleased with himself just then. “I’ll get the truth out of you two eventually, no one can resist the Nicky Hemmick charm for long.”

“Have you met Andrew Minyard?” Neil gazed at the man with weary exasperation. “I’m beginning to really believe you are suicidal after all.”

Nicky waved aside his concern. “I’ll just make sure you’re around, you won’t let him kill me.”

“I’m beginning to rethink that decision, too.”

“Ha, ha.” Nicky leaned back with his left elbow on the porch and looked out over the dark yard, everything cast in deep shadows due to the cloudy night sky. “I mean it when I say that Erik is my life – I don’t know if Aaron told you anything, but I was a mess when I got to Germany. You may have noticed, but my parents… yeah, they don’t accept the whole ‘gay’ thing.” His voice grew quiet as he continued to gaze out over the yard. “They even sent me to one of those Bible camps where they try to make you straight, they try to ‘fix’ you, and I actually tried to pretend it worked.” His expression was a bit bitter then. “It was Erik who made me accept who I really was and accepted me in return.”

Neil had heard some of it from Aaron, that Luther had tried to ‘fix’ Nicky and that upon Nicky coming out in Germany, Luther and Maria had cut off all ties to him, but that was a bit more extreme than he had thought. “Thank you, for stepping in to look out for them.” He motioned back at the house. “It must be difficult, being away from your boyfriend.”

A wide smile curved Nicky’s full lips. “You know, I think that’s the first time someone’s said that to me.” He chuckled when Neil blinked in surprise. “Oh, it’s okay, I know Aaron and I’m getting to know Andrew, too. It’s not really the family way.” He chuckled again and shook his head. “Just keep Andrew from killing me and we’ll call it even.”

That prompted a faint groan from Neil. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“Hmm, a kiss then?” Nicky waggled his brows as he puckered his lips.

Neil gave him the finger and got up to fetch some more coffee. “You’re not helping with the whole ‘don’t let Andrew kill me thing’, you know.”

Nicky’s laughter followed him into the house. “Aw, I had to try!”

“Yeah, remember that when Andrew just has to try to show you your spleen,” Neil reminded him, but he couldn’t help but smile a little – at least until he heard Aaron shouting about something upstairs and it sunk in that here he was in a house, a house he now shared with Andrew and his family, a house that would be Neil’s home for the next two years. And for the first night in it, he had an addict locked up in the bathroom while he sat outside with his friend’s possibly perverted cousin rather than sleep in an obnoxiously big bed in his own room by himself.

He gave it two more hours before he went to shoplift some alcohol, unless Nicky had any decent fake ID.

*******

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*******

Eight days after Andrew had locked his brother in the upstairs bathroom, he unlocked the door for a final time; Aaron was pale, his face covered with stubble and he reeked from sweat, but his eyes were clear and he no longer trembled from withdrawal. It took some time to clean him up and get him into his new bed, but the worst was over, other than helping to build back up his strength.

When Andrew returned to the bathroom, Neil was busy cleaning it up, throwing away the remaining newspaper and soiled towels; Andrew had entered the small room a couple of times when Aaron had been passed out from exhaustion to clean things up, including his brother, and make sure that Aaron was doing all right. Now that Aaron was tended to for the time being, Andrew stood in the doorway with a cigarette in his hand and stared down at his friend, took in the shadows beneath Neil’s pale eyes and the way he focused a little too much on cleaning the room. “I can take care of this.”

“Seems to me that you’ve been dealing with it enough lately. Just go lie down or something.” Neil shoved some more garbage into a bag and tied it off, not looking at Andrew the entire time. “There’s a nice big bed you haven’t tried out at all. It’s comfortable.”

Was Neil mad at him? Upset that he’d put Aaron first these last few days? Neil knew that Aaron was important to Andrew, that this needed to be done and hadn’t argued about it when they’d discussed the plan; when Neil went to leave the room with the garbage, Andrew grabbed onto his arm and noticed how Neil flinched as a result. Neil managed a weak smile as he pulled free. “I think Nicky wants his bathroom back, so let me get this done.”

“It’ll be faster if we both do it.”

“Not if you’re dead on your feet, which you are. Just let me handle it,” Neil argued, even though he appeared just as tired as Andrew right then. He offered up another weak smile and continued on his way, to take the bags downstairs and toward the garbage cans outside.

In the kitchen, Nicky appeared to be getting ready to leave for his shift at Sweetie’s and he smiled at Neil, his expression much too bright for Andrew’s liking at the moment; he might have been wrapped up with Aaron for the past week, but he had noticed how Neil had been spending a lot of time with his cousin lately. “Hey, do you want me to bring anything home tonight? That club sandwich you like so much?” His gaze flickered to Andrew and faded a little. “Maybe some ice cream, hmm? You think Aaron’s up to anything yet?”

“A sandwich would be good, and some ice cream,” Neil agreed.

“Let me take that for you,” Nicky offered as he grabbed the bags. “I’m on my way out, anyway.” He paused as he once more glanced at Andrew. “So you told him, eh?”

Oh, like *that* didn’t sound suspicious as hell, especially when Andrew noticed the way that Neil’s shoulders tensed up and the slight shake to his head. “Go to work,” Neil told Nicky. “And bring lots of ice cream home with you.” He sounded rather tired just then.

“Shit,” Nicky muttered as he backpedaled out of the kitchen as fast as he could. “Sorry,” he mouthed at Neil, and then he was gone as if he knew that shit was about to go down.

Andrew smiled at Neil, the expression oh so sweet as he backed his friend into the corner of the counters. “So, what are you supposed to tell me, hmm?” He trapped Neil between his arms and noticed another slight flinch. “Just what have you been up to, you and *Nicky*?” Oh yes, he would be having a nice chat with his cousin later tonight, about the folly of keeping secrets with Neil.

Neil sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “I have a new phone.”

Andrew’s fingers dug into the fake granite counters hard enough to drive spikes of pain into his nails. “And why would you waste the money on a new phone, when you nearly had a heart attack about all the new furniture for a house – a house that you had to hide in a bathroom for over an hour about, once it became clear we were going to buy it, hmm?” Even with Aaron contributing to the cost, just the fact that Neil would own something so… so *permanent*, something that locked him in with Andrew and the others… yeah, that had been a fun evening.

“I wanted to wait a little longer before telling you about this,” Neil mumbled as he glared at Andrew; he had slouched down a little, so they were eye level, his fingers twisted in the cuffs of his grey long-sleeved t-shirt.

Yeah, Andrew had definitely missed out on a few things this past week. “Tell me *what*,” he snapped as he leaned in closer.

“That… that Riko sent us a present for the new house.” Neil’s eyes flashed with… with *something*, something sharp and annoyed before he closed them and shook his head. “Before you tear into me, I didn’t tell you because you were dealing with Aaron. You had more than enough on your hands.” He didn’t sound bitter just then, didn’t sound jealous, just sounded tired.

Andrew took a moment to accept that and then let out a harsh breath. “What was it? More flowers?”

“No, it was a lovely package full of dog dishes and a crate and leashes and dog food.” Neil opened his eyes to give Andrew a scathing look. “There was a definite theme going on there, and the note was ‘for your new home, here’s hoping the mutt knows its place’.” Something must have shown on Andrew’s face because Neil winced. “I had Nicky donate everything to the local animal shelter.”

So that explained how Nicky was involved, not that Andrew would forgive either of them. “How does the new phone come into play?”

Neil jerked his right hand through his hair. “Because when Riko texted me to see how you liked the gifts, I told him to keep his perverse sexual preferences out of my life.” A hint of a smile curved Neil’s lips for a moment before he shook his head. “It… hasn’t gone well since then.”

Because Neil was once again feeding Riko, was taunting him, was making Riko all that much more insistent on having Neil for his own to break him and- “Dammit, what part of ‘don’t feed the monster’ do you not fucking get!” He didn’t realize that he was shouting until Neil’s face had paled.

Only it didn’t seem to be from fear, it seemed to be from anger. “What was I supposed to do? Aaron needed you, I wasn’t going to divide your attention for an asshole like Riko,” Neil snapped.

So while Andrew had dealt with his twin, had dealt with the mess Tilda had inflicted on Aaron, while Aaron had cried out for Tilda despite it being all her fault… Neil had once more faced down Riko and only made things worse. Never again, Andrew swore. He would have a nice, long chat with Nicky later, would make it perfectly clear to his cousin that from now on, Nicky would come to *Andrew* right away if there were any future packages or Neil thought to hide anything – or else.

Andrew drew in a ragged breath as he slipped a hand along the nape of Neil’s neck. “Never again, do you understand? You made me a fucking promise, and I’m getting tired of you being unable to grasp that I’m supposed to protect you-“

“But-“

He tightened his grasp on the back of Neil’s neck. “No, no *buts*,” he ground out. “It’s amusing, this impulse of yours that you need to protect me in return, that you need to watch out for me,” that Neil was the only person who had ever done such a thing for Andrew, “but it’s not part of our agreement. You tell me the truth, *no fucking delays, no fucking hesitation*, and I protect you.” He pulled Neil’s head toward him until their foreheads rested against the other. “Do you understand? Think before you speak.”

Neil shuddered even as he dared to tangle his hands in Andrew’s wrinkled black t-shirt. “I hate that he tries to get at me through you,” he admitted, his voice hoarse and quiet. “I’m so tired of people being hurt because of me.”

“I’m not your mother,” Andrew informed him, not unkindly. “Trust me that I’ll tear Riko to pieces if he tries – this shit he’s pulling? It’s juvenile.” Andrew knew true pain, and these weak insults were nothing.

“It bothers me that you’re a target because of me.” Neil pulled him closer. “It’s easier to not care when there’s nothing to lose.”

Andrew didn’t want to think of the implications of that statement, of the fact that he was something that Neil didn’t want to lose, so instead he pulled Neil even closer. “Yes or no?” He didn’t want to think about how he wouldn’t lose Neil no matter what.

Of course his idiot breathed out ‘yes’, he always did.

“Then come on, I hear there’s this incredible bed I need to try out.” Aaron was passed out upstairs, Nicky was gone for the next few hours and… and Andrew just needed Neil right then, needed to be assured that right now, all was right between them even if everything else was up in the air.

Aaron and Nicky and Riko could wait a little longer.

*******

Neil entered Columbia High School with Andrew and Aaron at his side, and felt slightly more comfortable than when he had walked into Park back in Racine. They had driven to the school in Andrew’s new tricked out GS – they had finally gotten the check from Tilda’s life insurance policy, and had spent the weekend at a dealership while Andrew had wasted a good portion of his part of it on a fancy black car with too many features and worth too much money, but it he’d been pleased as he’d driven off the lot. When Neil had asked him ‘why’ later, Andrew had just shrugged and said that he thought it fitting, spending the money on a car when she’d died in one, and he was tired of driving used cars. It was his money, so Neil didn’t really care, not when it freed up the Nissan for Nicky to use, not when there was enough space in the GS to take him and Andrew and Aaron to school each day. Not when Aaron had transferred money into his and Andrew’s account to contribute toward paying for the house.

Still, it was a new school, and Neil hated feeling all those looks directed toward to him, especially when he was wearing the clothes that Nicky insisted that he buy since his other outfits were ‘utterly horrible’. It didn’t help that Andrew had forced him to the mall as well, and here he was in jeans that weren’t loose and shirts that weren’t pale and… and… he just kept his head down and hoped that he didn’t stand out too much.

“Meet up with us at lunch,” Andrew told him as Aaron and Andrew left him at his locker. “Try not to get the Japanese Club falling all over you.”

“I hate you,” Neil muttered as he figured out the new lock.

“225%,” Andrew informed him as he flicked at Neil’s bangs. “And Exy tryouts aren’t until next week.”

Yeah, it was going to be such a great year, especially when Neil noticed the girl to the left of his locker staring at him with open curiosity and a hopeful smile.

*******

So far Andrew wasn’t that impressed with Columbia High – the color scheme was barely better than Park’s with all the red and gold around, and he’d been mistaken for Aaron three times already. Apparently it would take some time for word to get around that Aaron had a twin brother.

He did manage to pass Neil in the hall on his way to his German language class when Neil was leaving Japanese, and his friend had a harried expression on his face as a couple of kids tagged along in his wake; Andrew took great satisfaction in grabbing Neil by the back of his neck and reminding him of their meet-up at lunch, while the fan club stared on in shock. Neil just nodded and said that he’d be there.

After Intermediate German was the chemistry class that Andrew shared with Aaron, and as he entered the large room with various workstations, he noticed that Aaron was already there and hanging out with a small group of teenagers with ripped jeans hanging down on their hips and t-shirts displaying the names of various bands and skateboarders, expensive but worn sneakers and ratty backpacks with some… interesting decals. As he approached the group, Andrew could smell an abundance of body spray, some lingering cigarette smoke… and another distinctive odor.

“Hey,” Aaron called out to him, a hint of a smile on his lips. “These guys didn’t believe me when I told them that I had a twin. You just won me twenty bucks.” He motioned to Andrew as he held out his right hand. “Pay up, this is my brother Andrew.”

“Holy shit, he really does look just like you,” said the guy with the spiked up brown hair. “Imagine that, two runts.” The others laughed while their teacher, a young man maybe several years older than them, came into the room and called out for everyone to find a partner.

Andrew set his bag on the lab station and sat beside Aaron, who gave him an odd look. “Ah, I figured maybe you could partner with Mike,” Aaron nodded to the guy with dark brown hair with bleached tips. “He’s-“

“No,” Andrew told him. “This works out better.” As the three strange teens stared at him, he gave them a flat looked and waved them away. “Looks like class is about to start, better go find your seats.”

“But-“

“*Fuck off*,” Andrew told them with a bit of force and a hint of teeth as he leaned forward, while beside him, Aaron had gone still. “Get it now?”

The one teen with the spiky hair shot Aaron a confused look, but when Aaron didn’t say or do anything, he scoffed and grabbed his bag before going away, and the others followed. By that point the teacher, McIntyre, was yelling at them to hurry up and find their partner so he could get the class started.

Andrew reached into his bag to pull out his notebook, and had just opened it when Aaron finally spoke up. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I told you, no friends unless I approve of them, and I don’t, not those three.” He turned to look at his brother and tapped his pen on top of the hard surface of the lab. “Stay away from them.” He hadn’t spent a week sitting outside of a bathroom for nothing, so shit like that could got Aaron hooked on something again or some other type of trouble.

Aaron’s jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed, but he forced himself to flip open his notebook as well, even if he tore the corner of a page. “You don’t have the right-“

“I do,” Andrew reminded him. “It’s the deal you made with me, and I’m honoring my end of it. I’m here, so shut up and honor yours.”

Aaron didn’t look at him for the rest of the class.

*******

Neil had never been so thankful to return home from school – well, there had been that day back in Racine when Riko had tracked them down, but he wasn’t certain that it counted. No, as first days went, it hadn’t been *too* bad, other than thanks to Andrew he was now aware when people paid too much attention to him – still had no clue why, but he could sorta figure out the difference between friendly and ‘friendly’. Well, there wasn’t much to figure out when someone came right up to you and asked if you were dating someone. For all the careful lies Neil had spun over the years, he’d just sorta… blanked on that one and mumbled something before running to his next class.

If that hadn’t been bad enough, there appeared to be something going on between Aaron and Andrew, which had led to one very uncomfortable lunch with the twins, with Aaron back to glaring at Neil and Andrew sitting there with that awful blank expression on his face the entire time. The ride home in Andrew’s new car hadn’t been much better, so much so that Neil had wished that he could have been the one sitting in the back seat, rather than Aaron. At least now they were home and he could retreat to the den or on the back porch, wherever the brothers *weren’t*.

Coming into the house, they found Nicky in the kitchen dressed for a shift at Sweetie’s, which he would be leaving for soon. “Hey! How was school? Learn much today?”

“Yeah, that some people are assholes,” Aaron muttered as he tossed his bag onto the table.

“And that some people don’t pay attention when they make promises,” Andrew added with a dangerous smile on his full lips.

Oh yeah, Neil was going to definitely *not* be wherever these two were for as much as the evening as possible; he crept over to the cupboards so he could grab a snack or two to tide him over for the next few hours.

“Okay,” Nicky drawled as he glanced back and forth between the twins. “I’m on the night shift tonight, but it’s a split shift the next couple of ones, in case you need any help with your German homework.” He seemed eager to be of some assistance and smiled at the twins.

“Sure, whatever, only reason I took the class,” Aaron said as he fetched a can of soda from the fridge.

“Andrew?”

Andrew shrugged and, before Neil could make his escape, grabbed onto Neil’s left shoulder. “I’m doing fine.”

“I’m sure you think you are, it’s just the first day,” Nicky said with a patronizing grin. “But it’s not the easiest language to learn. You’re just at the beginning.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Aaron paused in drinking to glance back and forth between his cousin and his brother. “He’s in his second year of classes. I thought you knew that.”

Not only had he been unable to escape, now he was stuck here for this; Neil held the box of crackers to his chest and sighed as realization hit Nicky. “What, you mean Andrew knows German? Oh shit!” That was a distinct look of panic on Nicky’s face just then, probably as he mentally went through all of the times he’d spoken to Erik in front of the three of them.

A rather cruel smirk spread across Andrew’s face as he nodded. “Neil and I do – I’d say I’m past the current curriculum for the year so the class will be easy.” He flexed his left wrist about, showing off the black arm band encasing his forearm. “Might want to think about what you say to your boyfriend from now on.”

The look Nicky sent Neil just then was one of utter betrayal. “How could you? All this time and nothing?”

“Not about to interrupt you and your boyfriend and your… yeah.” Neil scrubbed at his face with his right hand. “Can we go now?” he asked Andrew, having had enough of Andrew’s warped sense of humor for the week, let alone the day.

Humming a little in evident satisfaction, Andrew nodded. “Why not?” As they left the kitchen, they could hear Nicky wailing to Aaron about how long he’d known and not said anything.

“Feel better now?”

Andrew tilted his head to the side as if he was considering the question. “It’s always amusing to put Nicky in his place, so slightly.”

Neil almost asked what had happened between the brothers at school, but all Andrew did was take him to their room and push Neil onto their huge bed, then went around to the other side and sit down on it – all without asking ‘yes or no’. It appeared that he was in the mood to be away from Aaron and Nicky  but not alone, to sit there in their room and work in the day’s homework in quiet, so Neil just sighed, curled up his legs beneath him as he pulled out his books and his notepads, and shared the crackers he’d brought along.

*******

“So, how did try-outs go?” Nicky smiled at Andrew as he handed over a can of beer – Andrew didn’t ask where he got it from, he just accepted it.

“Neil’s on the starting striker line, I’m a starting goalkeeper, and Aaron’s a sub backliner.” He shrugged a little to show that it didn’t bother him, Aaron not making the starting line-up. “We all made the team, though yeah, Aaron was on it last year.”

“Aw man, you make me wish that I was still in high school or something, not that I was anything special.” Nicky grinned as he knocked his beer into Andrew’s. “I loved playing Exy, though I don’t think I was anything near as good as you and Neil, from the sounds of it.”

Aaron came into the living room, a beer in hand as well, and dropped onto the couch near Andrew. “No shit, after seeing the two of them during the tryouts.” He slanted a look at Andrew. “Thought you said your last team was shit.”

“It was – it wasn’t total shit thanks to Neil and me.” He watched as Neil came into the room with a bottle of water in his hands, and chose to sit on the floor near Andrew.

“We had a lousy coach,” Neil explained as he leaned against Andrew’s legs.

“Fucking puppy,” Andrew spat out. “He’s probably crying, now that we switched schools.”

“Hmm,” Neil agreed. He seemed a lot more relaxed today, now that he’d made the team – as if it was ever in doubt. Still, it was one less thing for him to worry about.

“So what, you’re happy now that you made the team? Somehow I didn’t figure you two for big jocks.” Nicky gave a nervous laugh as he stared at Andrew and Neil, as if he’d somehow figured out that there was a reason Neil was pushing so much to get on the team.

Andrew tightened his hands in Neil’s wavy auburn hair. “Some of us are serious about Exy, and that’s all you need to know,” he snapped, his gaze narrowed at Nicky; after a few discussions he’d had with his cousin, the idiot should be better about picking up cues by now.

Beside him, Aaron stirred and gave the two of them a narrowed look. “Funny, how Exy is so important.” He tossed back the rest of his beer and got up to go to the kitchen, where the rest of the beer was; Andrew stared after him for a few seconds before hearing Nicky clearing his throat made him turn his attention to his cousin even as he continued to card his fingers through Neil’s thick hair.

“You know, there’s this….” Nicky began to fidget with the empty can held between his hands.

Even with Neil leaning against his legs and the feel of Neil’s thick, cool hair between his fingers, Andrew’s temper grew sharp and jagged. “Spit it out,” he snapped while Neil tilted his head back to look up at him.

“Okay, there’s this stuff they sell at Sweetie’s,” Nicky rushed out, his face flushed as if embarrassed. “It’s called ‘cracker dust’, but it’s probably because people go to the salad bar and grab cracker packets, and depending on how many they get, we deliver the packets of… drugs to them.”

Andrew tightened his fingers in Neil’s hair enough to make Neil murmur out his name while he glared at his idiot cousin. “You’re dealing drugs now?” And the asshole gave them shit about shoplifting alcohol.

Nicky flushed and sat up in the chair. “Only once I made sure it wasn’t anything bad!” He seemed to think about that and shook his head. “Seriously, I checked the stuff out, and it’s okay. Not addictive, nothing too strong. It’s a bit like E and all.”

That sounded a bit familiar…. Andrew stared at Neil, who was tilting his head back as well. “What did Anna call it, back at that party?”

Andrew paused to remember. “Pixie dust?” He remembered that one girl hoping for a threesome and all. “She said it was really new.”

Neil nodded. “Said it was okay, that it was fine for the party because the stuff wasn’t bad or addictive.”

As if the idiot would object to anything Anna approved – he knew that Neil was still talking to her and all. “What’s the point to all of this?” he asked Nicky.

“Well… I know Aaron is still….” He shrugged and looked toward the kitchen. “Guess I just wanted you to know that there were options and all.”

Andrew considered that, considered how Aaron had been withdrawn from everything lately. “Bring some packets home,” he told his cousin. “If I don’t have a problem with it, then it should be fine.” He felt Neil stir against him and gave his friend’s hair a slight tug. “What, you want to try a little, too?”

Neil shook his head. “Just be careful, okay?”

“I’m not going to be stupid,” he told his friend as he leaned in close. He would also make sure first that it wouldn’t create more problems for his twin. After a quick brush of lips, he sat back on the couch.

When he noticed that Nicky was making an odd humming sound, he glared at his cousin. “What?”

Nicky gave him a wide smile. “Nothing. Oh, wait, yeah, wanted to say that I probably won’t be working too much longer at Sweetie’s – I got an offer at Eden’s Twilight.” When Andrew just stared at him upon hearing that, he sighed in disappointment. “It’s one of the most popular clubs in the city?”

Andrew waved that aside. “Whatever.” He hadn’t been to a club since leaving Oakland.

However, Nicky appeared outraged at his blasé dismissal. “No ‘whatever’! This is really one of the better clubs in the area! If I get a job there, you should come!”

Neil tilted his head up at Andrew. “Uhm, club?”

Oh, now this seemed interesting. “You haven’t been to one?”

“No?”

“Okay, we’re going.” Nicky insisted. “This I have got to see.”

“Eh?”

Andrew just combed his fingers through Neil’s hair. “Hush.”

“Such an asshole,” Neil muttered, but he curled up against Andrew’s legs none-the-less.

“You’re going to have your hands full there,” Nicky warned with a huge grin.

“What else is new?” Andrew’s fingers tightened in Neil’s hair for a moment, but he figured that Aaron could use the night out so he’d put up with it.

*******

Tired from their first week of official week of Exy practice and the after practice that he put in with Andrew and Aaron – a very sullen Aaron who glared the entire time while Andrew and Neil practiced their French, Neil was grateful to return home and wash off in the shower. He relinquished the bathroom to Andrew and had pulled on some shorts and a loose, long-sleeved t-shirt then went into the kitchen to fetch some water when he found Aaron already there, glaring into the fridge as if its contents offended him.

“Uhm, if you see a bottle of water, you can throw it at me,” Neil said as he leaned against the counter.

Aaron grunted as he reached into the fridge and did just that, throwing the bottle with a bit more force than necessary.

Neil arched an eyebrow as he looked at Andrew’s twin. “Problems?”

He had meant the question as a bit of a general one, but Aaron seemed to take it as serious as he glared even more and opened the can of Coke that he’d grabbed before slamming the fridge door closed. “Let me see – I’m tired, I’m cranky, and every time I try to talk to someone at school, my brother has to be an asshole and scare them away. Well, unless they happen to the ‘friend’ he’s fucking, that is.” Aaron’s voice dripped enough attitude just then for about a dozen angsty teens.

It wasn’t often that Neil felt the urge to drink, but he wished right about then that he had something stronger than water on hand. “You’re an ass,” he felt it should be known, before he continued with the conversation any more.

“Really?” Aaron glared at him from across the room. “That’s what you have to say?”

“Yes,” Neil agreed. “You have any idea what your brother does for you?” He waved aside anything Aaron was about to argue just then and decided to just vent what he’d been holding back all these weeks. “No, seriously? We could have gone *anywhere*, the whole country was open to us, I could have gotten us passports even, and he insisted that we come to Columbia.” He let a hint of bitterness creep into his voice then. “I’ve been all over Europe, been around Canada, and he insisted in coming *here*.” The smile he gave Aaron just then was rather patronizing. “Even after teaching him French and German he insisted on coming here. So yes, I think it’s rather plain that you’re the reason we’re here, and yet you keep pushing him away. You keep refusing to see everything he’s given up for you.”

Aaron stared at him as if he wasn’t speaking English. “I don’t… you’re not making any sense.”

“Aren’t I?” Neil shook his head. “Look, I’m am only child, I don’t quite get what’s going on between you, but I know that Andrew’s given up a hell of a lot for you,” even if Andrew wouldn’t tell Neil why that was so, “and all you seem to be doing is pushing him away. And that’s pissing me off, quite honestly.” Neil allowed some of his frustrations, some of his annoyance to come to the forefront – not that Andrew was putting so much importance on Aaron, but that Aaron didn’t seem to give a shit about Andrew’s feelings. “You seem to think I’m a threat? It’s the complete opposite – I don’t think I can get him to leave while you’re here,” Neil admitted, which made him want to curl up in a tight ball of suppressed fear when he thought about his prospects of future Class I teams versus the Ravens. “So stop treating him like shit, stop whining about Tilda and recognize your brother for what he is,” he snapped as he grabbed his bottle of water and prepared to leave the kitchen, unwilling to put up with Aaron and his issues any longer.

He got to the bedroom he shared with Andrew, the room mostly taken up by the king-sized bed, and sat down on the soft mattress while he combed his fingers through his hair in an attempt to calm his temper.

He had been there for about twenty minutes or so, eventually stretching out on the bed and resting with his eyes closed when he heard someone come in, mostly because of the door opening and closing. There was the weight of another person sitting on the bed and then the gentle touch of fingers stroking through his hair, the faint scent of burnt tobacco. “Aaron seems rather pissed off with you right now.”

“Go figure, I’m not terribly pleased with him right now myself,” Neil murmured as he enjoyed the feel of Andrew playing with his hair.

“Thought the two of you were tolerating each other lately.”

“We were.” He sighed as he opened his eyes and found his friend staring down at him, expression not quite completely blank. “I may have gone off on him for being an asshole toward you.”

Andrew was quiet for about a minute, his fingers moving through Neil’s hair the entire time. “I’ll handle my brother.”

Neil made a spluttering sound as he sat up. “Look, I know he’s your brother, dammit. I’m not trying to get in the way or… or I don’t know, mess things up. Though fuck me if I can figure out how it’s possible to make things more messed up than they are right now,” he snapped. “I just told him that he’s being an asshole to you, that you’ve given up a lot for him and he should treat you better.” When he saw Andrew’s expression become completely blank, he threw his hands up in the air. “I just… I don’t like it, okay? Maybe I said too much but I have to stay here and put up with this… whatever it is, between the two of you.”

Andrew’s hands clenched into fists and he looked away from Neil. “You don’t get to interfere with my promise with him – just like he doesn’t interfere with our deal.”

Had Neil spoken English just then? “How am I interfering by telling him that he’s being an asshole?”

“Just *don’t*”,” Andrew insisted as he got up from the bed. “Stay the fuck out of it!”

Neil stared at him in shock before he slipped away from the bed as well, careful to step away from his friend. “You want me to stay out of it, fine, I will. But *this*?” He waved around him to indicate the house. “This is all on you – we’re all here together because you wanted this. I’m just trying to get through the damn day without it seeming like everyone hates each other.” He tugged at his hair again as he pushed thoughts of Baltimore out of his head. “I just don’t get why you’d force someone to stay if there’s so much hate,” he admitted in a quiet yet frustrated voice before he stalked out of the room.

Nicky was at work and Aaron must have retreated to his room, because the rest of the house was quiet as Neil raced through it to grab his sneakers and then hit the street running; he was still a little tired from Exy practice but as always, once he got about a block or so into the run, once the houses and mailboxes began to blur past him, the faint exhaustion fell away along with his anger and frustration. He could feel his phone buzz inside the pocket of his jeans but he just didn’t care at the moment, didn’t care who it was calling him when the streets stretched out in front of him and it seemed like he could run on forever.

The was setting by the time he finally returned home, several of the windows glowing with a soft light but the front porch dark. Neil slowed as he reached the driveway, shirt wet with sweat but breathing even, and was startled when he saw a shadow move on the steps, caught the bright glow of a cigarette’s tip.

He paused a little then was about to walk past Andrew, to go in and take another shower, but Andrew snagged onto his wrist and held on until Neil got the hint and sat down on the steps beside his friend. “I need to wash off.”

“You need to answer your damn phone,” Andrew said, for once sounding more tired than angry.

“Rather difficult to do that when I’m running.” Still, Neil pulled it out and noticed that he’d missed three calls, all of them from Andrew. There weren’t any messages, which probably was a good thing.

“You and your obsession with running. Almost as bad as Exy.” Andrew’s tone sounded almost nasty just then, as he ground out the cigarette and stood up. “Come here,” he demanded as he walked down the steps.

Neil had a feeling that it wouldn’t do much good to argue that he was tired and thirsty and just wanted to wash off then finish his homework before going to bed – better to just get… whatever this was out of the way, he told himself as he followed Andrew into the back yard. His friend leaned against one of the large maple trees and lit another cigarette, which he proceeded to smoke while Neil stood there with growing impatience.

“If all we’re going to do is stand here, I’ve things to do,” Neil snapped when Andrew was about halfway through the cigarette.

Andrew gave him a flat look. “Really, what are you going to meddle in now?”

“Fuck you.” Neil was too tired for this. “I’m going inside.” He’d sleep in the den or something, he wasn’t in the mood to put up with Andrew when all he’d done was try to help out – lesson learned on that one.

He’d turned around but didn’t get very far, since Andrew had latched on to his wrist again. “I’m not done yet,” Andrew informed him as he pulled Neil back for the step or two he’d taken.

“You haven’t done anything,” Neil felt he should point out, then shut up after he received an annoyed look in return.

“This...,” Andrew waved his right hand in the air, the cigarette tracing a jagged bright line through the darkness, “isn’t easy. I forget, sometimes, because you don’t… you don’t push. You just… with everything that goes on, you just take it and you deal with it. Anyone else would be digging, would be asking….” Andrew huffed as he threw the cigarette aside. “Sometimes it annoys the shit out of me, how you just blink at things and then roll with it. Because you shouldn’t *get* it, but you do, and I don’t know which of us is more fucked up.”

Neil wasn’t certain where Andrew was going with this, and fought not to wince as his friend’s grip on his wrist tightened enough to hurt. “I promised you the truth,” he tried to explain, “not the other way around.” Andrew didn’t owe him a thing in that regard… and he wasn’t going to push, not when it was clear that Andrew guarded his secrets like some people guarded money or status. Not when he knew enough about Andrew’s past to figure out that the knowledge was better left buried and unspoken, if it would help Andrew move on from it.

“And you do keep your word, don’t you?” There was an odd twist to Andrew’s full lips just then, difficult to figure out in the dim light. “Must drive you crazy, to look at Aaron and feel that he’s getting off easy.”

“I don’t think he’s getting off easy, dammit.” Neil jerked his wrist free so he could throw his hands up in the air. “I just don’t… why do you go through so much effort for….” He didn’t know what to say just then and shook his head.

“For Aaron?”

“For either of us,” Neil admitted. “I don’t get it, don’t get what’s in any of this for you.” At least Aaron was blood for Andrew, was family, even if he was an ungrateful shit.

Andrew was quiet for several seconds before he let out a long, slow breath. “Did I… did I ever mention Cass?” As he spoke, he ran the fingers of his right hand along the inside of his left arm, the skin covered by the material of his black arm band.

“Uhm, no?” Neil couldn’t recall that name.

“She was… it was the last foster home I was in, the Spears.” Andrew took to staring at something in the distance. “She had fostered children before, but for some reason… for some reason she was willing to adopt me, to give me a real home. ‘Andrew Jospeh Spear’, she said. I’d finally belong.” There was so much bitterness in his voice just then that Neil winced to hear it, and knew to brace himself for something awful.

“What went wrong?” he dared to ask after there was another pause, unwilling to look at the awful mocking twist on his friend’s lips any longer.

“Hmm, Cass happened to have a son, Drake.” Andrew’s hand tightened around his left wrist. “Great guy, if you like rapists.”

“Ra- shit.” Neil felt his heart seize in his chest. “What… you? Oh fuck.” He had known that things were bad because of Lola’s words back in Reno, but to hear this….

“Hmm, at least you didn’t try to tell me it was all a ‘misunderstanding’,” Andrew spat out the word, “like Luther did. Yes, Drake had a thing for young boys, it seems. I thought I could outlast him, just had to wait until he joined the Marines. Except… except that was around when Aaron and Tilda found out about me, and Drake thought it would wonderful, if I had my newfound brother join us.” Something dark and terrible twisted Andrew’s features even more just then. “Always wanted to try twins, he said.”

Neil felt sick. “So you….” He had to swallow a few times to keep from throwing up, even if he hadn’t eaten in several hours.

“So one day when I was out shopping, some random pervert or whatever got a bit fresh and I….” Andrew shrugged as he let go of his wrist and held up his hands in fists. “They took him away in an ambulance and me to good old Wayward. It mostly worked out, since it got me away from Drake. When a cop I knew came around investigating later, I told him enough to make sure that Cass wouldn’t get any more kids to foster to keep them out of Drake’s hands.”

So… so what, Andrew had thrown away the only home he had known at that point, one he had endured – Neil shook his head. “You told Luther?”

“Huh, at dinner that first night, he said that Cass and Drake had been in contact, guess they had reached out when everyone was trying to find out where I had gone.” There was evident anger in Andrew’s voice just then. “I told him to never speak to them again, and why, and the asshole dared to tell me that I must have ‘misunderstood’, that Drake was too fine of a man to have done anything to me.”

That startled a weak, sour laugh from Neil. “Why am I not surprised? He disowns his son for loving a man, but can’t see a pedophile for what he is.” He scrubbed at his face as he tried to make sense out of everything. “So why are you telling me this?”

“Because…” It was rare to see Andrew appear so uncertain. “Because I’m not walking away from Aaron, I don’t care how much of a shit he’s being. Even if he’s going back on his word and can’t get over Tilda.”

Because Andrew had been watching out for Aaron longer than Neil had suspected – longer than Andrew had known Neil, even if there had been no formal promise in place. “Okay, I get it.” He managed a slight smile as he tucked back his damp bangs. “He’s family and you’re looking out for him, and you always will. I said my piece today and I’ll back off.” There wasn’t that much more he could say to Aaron anyway.

Figuring that Andrew was finished, Neil went to go inside, wanting nothing more than to wash off and just curl up on the futon then, to get some sleep and start the next day. However, once more he barely got a couple of steps before he was stopped. “I’m not done,” Andrew told him, holding out his hands in front of Neil.

“What now?” That came out sharper than Neil had intended, but he was tired and uncertain that he wanted any more revelations.

Andrew’s eyes narrowed, probably at Neil’s tone, and he huffed in annoyance. “Keeping you from something important?”

“I’m tired,” Neil tried to explain. “I’m tired and a shower would be really nice right about now.”

“You’re the one who decided to go running for over an hour.” Andrew’s tone made it clear what he thought about that stupidity.

“You know how I feel about burying bodies,” Neil shot back, and waited for the insinuation to sink in.

Andrew dropped his hands and shook his head, his expression blank once more. “Fine, go wash off, you stink after all.”

That was what Neil had wanted, but for some reason now…. “What?” When Andrew remained quiet, he asked again, but quieter. “What was it?”

Andrew had turned away and was headed to the house before he spoke out. “It’s because you do keep your word, you know. Why you’re here, why I’m not letting you walk away either.” Then he gave a dark chuckle. “Well, more like run, in your case.” Then he was up the porch and inside the house.

Neil stood outside for another minute or two while he rubbed at the back of his neck and tried to figure out just what the odd feelings inside of his chest meant, before he gave up so he could take that shower. Afterwards… well, he wouldn’t sleep on the futon, after all.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Before Nicky quit his job at the restaurant, he brought home several packets of ‘cracker dust’, as he said he would, and Andrew made sure to try one of them; he’d done E back in California and so was familiar with the effects, and had to admit that the euphoria washing through him just then was similar. After a few hours he had a dry mouth and a bit of a headache, but didn’t feel any worse than that and didn’t feel the need to take more of the drug. He tried it once again just to be certain, and then allowed Aaron to have some that weekend, along with some beer Nicky had bribed an older server to pick up for them.

It wasn’t much of a party, considering that it was just the four of them and Neil barely participated, only having a couple of beers and none of the cracker dust, but it seemed to allow Aaron to let off some much needed steam, getting drunk and somewhat high, dancing around a little with Nicky and playing video games through the night. Andrew kept a careful eye on his twin while he drank with Neil curled up at his feet and laughing at the other two’s antics, and had a pleasant buzz going on by the time he finally led Neil off to their bedroom at some ungodly hour late Saturday night. They slept in the following morning, and got to smirk at the two hungover idiots all the next day.

They fell into a routine of sorts for the next several weeks, school and Exy during the weekdays with Nicky finishing up his shifts at Sweetie’s and then starting at Eden’s Twilight, Exy games every other Friday and their mini-parties on Saturday nights. The exception was the rare weekday ‘celebration’ where there was no cake, no presents, but a large bottle of vodka and several cracker packets on hand as the twins turned eighteen.

The pattern lasted until one day in mid November, after Nicky had worked a couple of weeks at Eden’s Twilight.

“I’ve been chatting with Roland, one of the bartenders,” he explained as he helped Neil put together a simple dinner.

“So, you talk to a lot of people.” Andrew shifted back in his chair so Aaron could finish setting the table.

“Roland’s been teaching me a lot about bartending.” Nicky smiled at Andrew over his shoulder. “Anyway, he told me that the place has a few other positions available, that there’s a lot of turnover.” He paused in making the garlic bread to go with the spaghetti to glance at Aaron and then looked back at Andrew. “Said there’s always some jobs available in the kitchen and the general stuff. I hear they’re pretty good about letting said staff into the club without checking ID.”

That got Aaron’s attention. “What, you mean we could get into the place if we worked there?” He’d been interested in going to the club since Nicky had mentioned it a month or so ago, but supposedly it wasn’t so easy to get into if one was under-aged.

Nicky shrugged and seemed to pay too much attention to sprinkling garlic powder on the bread. “Just a rumor I heard, but Chris - I knew him as well from Sweetie’s – he’s not twenty-one yet and he’s been working at the club for a month now. We were chatting the other day and he tells me he gets in whenever he wants.”

In other words, spend a couple of nights cleaning dishes or carrying ice around, and they wouldn’t have to worry so much about hitting people up to buy alcohol for them or stealing it – Nicky had been on them about that, telling them that it would only be a matter of time before they were caught in the act. Andrew glanced at his twin, who shrugged while nodding. “Should be doable, a couple nights a week.”

“Will be nice to have some spending money, too,” Aaron agreed.

“They’ll hire all of us?” Neil finished draining the pasta and looked over at Andrew; when he noticed Andrew’s frown, he shook his head. “No, I’m not going to sit at home while everyone’s out working.” There was that annoying set to his jaw that made Andrew… made Andrew want to do *something* just then.

“You need to focus on your precious Exy,” Andrew reminded him. “Don’t mess that up.” Usually that argument worked.

“We’re 3:1 so far, and no one expected us to beat Raleigh.” Neil dumped the sauce on the pasta then turned around to glare at Andrew. “I go with you or I’m stuck here, by myself, doing who knows what.”

Yeah, like that was much better than the idiot being in the middle of a club unsupervised; Andrew glared at Nicky, whose fault all this was, while Aaron took to smirking. “You better not be lying about the drinking thing.”

Nicky slid the bread into the oven and then held up his hands. “Honest! I’d never lie about such an important thing!” He made a motion as if crossing his heart. “So, should I call Roland and tell him that I’ll be bringing a couple of bar backs with me?”

“Two bar backs, one kitchen helper,” Andrew clarified as he stared down Neil. “No arguments.”

“I don’t know why you act like I’m going to cause trouble,” Neil grumbled as finished with the pasta then carried it over to the table.

“Let me refresh your memory – who taunted a striker twice his size during the last game, hmm?”

There was that stubborn jaw thing again. “I got him red carded, didn’t I?”

“Yes, at the expense of your head being slammed into the wall a few times. Most impressive tactic there, sacrificing your least important body part.” Andrew smiled as Neil gave him the finger while he sat down at the table.

Nicky sighed as he fetched the garlic bread. “Some day, the two of you are going to get past this whole first grade courtship mentality.”

“No they aren’t,” Aaron argued as he helped himself to the pasta. “This is as grown-up as they get with their ‘friendship’.”

Andrew glared at his twin – he was considering stabbing Aaron each time he heard that word from now on.

“Hush, don’t spoil my dreams here,” Nicky chided Aaron as he set the tray down on the table.

“Everyone needs to shut up and eat,” Andrew warned as he held his fork in his hand, ready to start the stabbing.

Dinner went along its usual lines, with Nicky being an obnoxious, hyper idiot and Aaron spurring him on, Neil watching them as if he’d never seen such antics before and stepping in when Andrew’s death threats were about to become reality. Aaron and Nicky got left with cleaning up the kitchen, since Neil had done most of the cooking and Andrew could never be bothered, so Neil and Andrew retreated to their bedroom.

Andrew had settled at the top of bed with his laptop so he could finish his homework, while Neil stretched out along the bottom with a book from his English class. “What do you have against me working at the club?” Neil asked after about fifteen minutes or so.

Saving the essay he was writing for German class, Andrew set the laptop aside for a minute. “Because it’s going to be busy and I won’t be able to keep an eye on you if I’m working, so stay the fuck inside the kitchen.”

Neil lifted up on his arms and scowled, not appearing to be angry just yet but not pleased either. “You think I’m going to screw up or something?”

“I think Riko’s been awfully quiet the past month or so,” Andrew admitted, and noticed how Neil’s narrow shoulders tensed up beneath his plain white t-shirt. There had been the ‘lovely’ housewarming present, and the occasional text – how the bastard always managed to track down Neil’s new phone number, Andrew would love to know – to show how he was following the Columbia Caps’ Exy season. That he was following *Neil’s* season, in growing anticipation of being able to recruit him as a Raven.

There was no fucking way that Andrew was allowing that to happen.

“So yes, it seems your damn paranoia is catching, and you better have fun washing dishes,” he said as he set the laptop back on his lap so he could finish the essay.

“Okay.” For once there was no arguing, no snarky comeback from Neil, so he assumed that the matter was settled for the night. It wasn’t until he had just finished with the German assignment and he went to look around for his chemistry notebook, that Neil dropped his book over the side of the bed and rolled over onto his knees, then crawled up to Andrew.

“’Yes’ or ‘no’?” he asked as he set the laptop aside on the nightstand, those long legs of his straddling Andrew’s thighs.

Andrew still had some homework to do… but he could always harass Aaron into giving him the answers tomorrow, he figured as he wrapped his arms around Neil’s waist. “Yes,” he answered as he pushed forward and toppled the idiot onto his back, had Neil sprawled out beneath him smiling and eager.

*******

Thanksgiving came around with two more wins for the Caps’ season record; Coach Jackson was already talking about them making the district finals that year, and possibly going further. There was also noise about recruiters showing up after the new year if they kept up their winning streak, with Coach Jackson giving significant looks Andrew’s and Eddy’s – their captain – way. Neil tried not to put too much thought into it, too much hope, but if they could both get signed on to the same university team….

His days were full of school and Exy practice and more Exy practice and homework and now a couple of nights at Eden’s Twilight, where he had the pleasure of washing dishes and cutting fruit while Aaron and Andrew hauled buckets of ice, racks of glasses, kegs and cases of alcohol back and forth. There were times when Neil felt utterly exhausted by it all… and then Nicky would do something so stupid and outrageous to make him smile, Aaron would make a snide comment that shouldn’t be funny but was, and Andrew…. There was the ‘yes’ and ‘no’, were the nights when they just sprawled out on their huge bed to do their homework together or sat out in the backyard near the fire pit that Nicky splurged on one day after finding out that Neil had never had s’mores. It was exhausting and a bit crazy and Neil knew that it would end one day, that either Riko would win out or he’d have to leave for university – and that made it all the more precious.

Nicky had seemed depressed about Thanksgiving at first, probably because of his parents, and there had been talk about them making a big, fancy dinner. However, Andrew had put his foot down, had insisted that none of them really knew how to cook that well and he refused to put that much effort into the day (into anything, really), and that him and Neil had a perfectly fine holiday last year. Upon hearing about it, Nicky changed his mind and got on board, though he did insist on at least buying a pumpkin pie or two from a local bakery.

So there was pie and lots of Chinese take-out and several bottles of alcohol, courtesy of Roland from the club, and they all watched a bunch of movies together while yelling at Nicky to shut up and stop ruining the plots for Neil (Aaron did most of the yelling, Andrew the usual threats and Neil wondered why he just didn’t allow Andrew a little maiming to get it out of his system one of these days). Even if they didn’t practice Exy at all that weekend, it was a great time. Good enough to make Neil worry about how long such a thing could last, to make him check his phone to see if Riko had left a message or anything. Because nothing this good had ever lasted so long.

*******

Andrew dropped off the two stacked racks of clean glasses for Roland. “Anything else before we open?” It was a Thursday night, so it should get pretty busy once they opened the doors.

The bartender flashed him a wide, white grin and leaned sideways against the bar, which made the tight black t-shirt he wore bearing the club’s logo stretch across his rather impressive chest; Andrew didn’t mind the display, though the artifice of it was a bit annoying. “You and your brother work pretty hard, how about a little something, hmm?” Roland continued to smile as he reached beneath the bar and pulled out a decent bottle of whiskey, then poured Andrew a shot. When Andrew just stared at him, he laughed a little and poured another one, then made a show of tossing it back.

“And Aaron?” Andrew asked as he picked up the shot.

“Tell him to stop by when you see him, and I’ll give him one then.” Roland’s smile tightened to something a bit more secretive, which showed off a dimple. “But it’s nice, being able to talk with you now.”

“I’m not very talkative,” Andrew said before he tossed back the shot himself.

“Hmm?” Roland gathered up the empty glasses and put them in the sink filled with disinfectant solution. “Well, we don’t have to talk, really.” When Andrew continued to give him a flat look, his smile faltered. “Or maybe I’m completely wrong about you.”

Andrew shrugged as he filched a cherry from the tray set out for drink decorations. “Not really, but I’m….” He frowned as he bit into the sweet fruit and tried to figure out what he wanted to say. What were he and Neil? “Not available,” was what he settled on as he pulled out the stem and pit a moment later.

“Oh.” Roland seemed a little disappointed upon hearing that. “Then I won’t take it personally, knowing that someone beat me to you.”

“Ego much,” Andrew scoffed as he filched another cherry.

Roland gave him a saucy wink. “I’ve no complaints. Just keep me in mind if-“

“Where the hell did you and Aaron go off to? The glasses are piling up back there!”

Andrew turned around to find Neil standing by the bar with a couple racks of glasses in his arms and a glare on his face, his hair almost curly from the humidity in the kitchen and black outfit covered by a white apron.

“Give me that,” Andrew snapped. “And what the hell did I say about staying in the damn kitchen?”

“I’m running out of space-“

“I don’t care, get back there.” Andrew glared at his idiot until Neil gave him the finger and left, all the while muttering about slacker twins and assholes. When he went to set the racks down on a clear bit of space at the bar, he found Roland grinning at him in a rather suspicious manner. “What?”

“Nothing, that’s just the most emotion I’ve seen from you since you started working here. So is Neil ‘unavailable’, too?”

Andrew shoved the racks at the asshole with a good bit of force. “Don’t even think about it.”

Roland winced as he scrambled not to drop the racks. “Okay! I got it, message received.” Then he chuckled as he set them down on top of the bar. “Though he’s a bit young for me, and not quite my type.”

“Good, that’s much healthier for you.” Andrew gave the bartender a warning look before he started to unrack the glasses. “Lot of nasty workplace accidents that can happen around a bar, you know.”

“And now I’m never going back into the kitchen, thank you very much.” Still, Roland laughed as he helped Andrew with the glasses. “Would another shot get me back in your good graces?”

Andrew grunted in agreement, and after sharing second shot with Roland, finished with the glasses so he could go find out what his brother and idiot cousin were doing – they better be setting up the other bar, or else one of those ‘workplace accidents’ was about to happen.

*******

“Neil! Neil Josten!”

About to leave the court, Neil turned to look up at the stands and noticed a blonde woman waving at him; it took a few seconds for him to recognize her at Agent Sonja Wolfe, in part because she was dressed in jeans with a bright red wool coat. “Ag- ah, Ms. Wolfe?” He waved back and then looked at his racquet for a moment.

“I’ll take that, go see your friend,” Sarah, one of the dealers, told him. He gave her a nervous smile in appreciation and took off his helmet as he headed for the stands, and wasn’t surprised when Andrew soon caught up with him.

“Why is she here?”

“I’ve no clue,” he told his friend. “It doesn’t look like it’s for anything official.” Still, a small knot of worry formed in his chest.

If it was odd to see Sonja Wolfe at one of his Exy games, it was even odder when she reached over and gave him a brief hug. “You were amazing!” she told him with a laugh when he did his best not to flinch, then turned to Andrew and smiled. “You too! I wish I had the two of you on my team.”

“You play?”

Sonja smiled at Neil. “Oh, nothing too fancy, but we have an amateur league at work. Right, Bryan?” She smiled up at the man standing beside her, who appeared about the same age and height as her, with dark brown hair shot with a few strands of grey and pale green eyes behind his wire-frame glasses. “Oh, this is Bryan Finley.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” he told them with a slight incline of his head. “And don’t let her fool you – it’s an amateur league in that there’s no money involved, but it’s a cutthroat as if it’s the pros.” He laughed a little as he rubbed his right hand along his ribs. “I’m still sore from the beating the forensic team gave us last week.”

“Don’t worry, we take them on next, I’ll defend your honor for you.” Sonja reached back to give his hand a squeeze. “Bryan works with arson squad.”

“Okay.” Really, what was Neil supposed to say just now? “So… you came to see the game?”

Sonja nodded. “Yeah, we had the night free and Bryan attended Columbia High, ages ago.” That prompted another laugh from her… date? Boyfriend? “We couldn’t resist.” She seemed to notice his confusion and her smile dimmed a little. “I’m not checking up on your or anything, not really. Though it is good to see that you’re doing well. We just had the night free and thought it would be fun, watching a game and all.”

“Okay,” Neil repeated, and this time he managed a smile. “It’s a good thing we won, since you stopped by.”

“Yes, you’re doing much better than back when I was on the team – more like on the team bench,” Bryan agreed. He smiled at them then patted Sonja on the shoulder. “We should get going.”

She nodded and smiled once more at Neil and Andrew. “Seriously, I’m glad you’re both doing well. Keep letting me know you’re still alive now and then, that’s all I ask, and keep winning.” She waved goodbye and followed Bryan off the stands.

“Well, that was weird,” Neil admitted as he watched them leave.

“I’m just trying to wrap my head around a cop being here and me not getting arrested.” Andrew seemed to not take his attention off the pair until they were out of sight.

Neil turned to look at his friend and shook his head. “And you say that I have issues.” He smiled until Andrew hit him in the stomach with one of his gloved arms.

He was still wincing when Aaron caught up with them. “That was the one agent, right? What the hell did you do now?” he asked, staring pointedly at Andrew.

Neil managed a wheezing laugh when Andrew removed his glove and threw it at his twin.

*******

Andrew went into winter break with mixed feelings – on one hand, it was great to get away from Exy and school for a while. The Caps had one of the best records in the district, was currently second and Coach Jackson was being a pain in the ass about, was pushing for ‘more effort’ and ‘give it your all’ and all those other platitudes that made Andrew want to punch him. The team was good, was so much better than the Panthers, but they weren’t perfect. Neil was out there busting his ass in each game, along with Terry, another striker, and half the time their backliners could barely defend the goal. The good news was, their ineptitude made Neil look all the better, made him learn all the faster, and Andrew had to do something other than just stand around in the goal whenever he was on the field. It was annoying… but it was almost fun, looking out over the court and seeing Neil run around with a smile or that determined gleam in his eye, taunting the other team to goad them into making a mistake. To watch Aaron’s back and yell out the occasional insult to his twin to make Aaron pay attention and stop the damn ball before it got to Andrew. There were times when he didn’t mind playing.

Which was good, if the recruitment talks were true that the universities would be doing the high school circuits after the new year and were intending to swing by Columbia to check out Andrew and Eddy, and to pre-scout Neil and Terry and maybe even Saul, who was developing into a halfway decent dealer. Andrew knew that Neil had to make it to a Class I Exy team in the next year and a half, but what about him? Just how far did Neil intend for… there was the very real possibility that Neil might go too far for Andrew to follow. That wasn’t something Andrew wanted to think about just then.

There was also the fact that Aaron was back to being a little shit, after seeming to take whatever Neil had said to him to heart; it probably had to do with Andrew stepping in on the burgeoning relationship, if one wanted to call it that, he had tried to get going with the one junior on the soccer team. Or, more appropriately, that she had tried to start and Aaron had been more than happy to follow along with, until Andrew had pulled the girl aside one afternoon and ‘explained’ to her why she was going to leave Aaron alone. Considering how easy she’d been to scare away… he heard the talk, about how him and Aaron had the nice car, the house ‘perfect for parties’, were ‘lucky’ enough to not have parents (Nicky didn’t seem to count), and the hot two roommates (the two very unavailable roommates, considering it was mostly the female student population talking). The supposition was there that they had money (somewhat true – Aaron was saving the rest of his life insurance settlement for college, if he could get his grades up enough to make it into a decent one, Andrew had a very attractive watchdog over his account who wouldn’t allow a raging kegger for idiot high school students). So why Aaron hadn’t appreciated the save… there were a lot of things Andrew couldn’t figure out about his twin, and that was just one of them.

So yes, no Exy, no matter how much Neil wheedled and begged (though it would be fun if his friend tried), no school, but one very sullen twin and the fact that they had just picked up Nicky’s fiancé from the airport after a completely ridiculous display of physical affection. “You’re just scared me for life when it comes to airports,” Andrew said as he pulled out onto the highway; beside him in the front of the car, Neil was slumped down in the seat and rubbing at his temples as if he had a headache – that or trying to clear his brain of the images forced into in in the last five minutes.

“My apologies, but it’s been too long.” Erik was huge and blond and smiled too much – if Nicky knew what was good for him, he’d keep his boyfriend away from Andrew as much as possible during the holidays, because there was only so much tall blond happiness he could stomach.

“Ignore him, he thinks he’s being affectionate when he tells Neil how much he hates him. Now come here, I can’t believe you were finally able to visit!” Nicky dragged Erik back toward him and did things that made Andrew wonder if his insurance covered him burning his own car since it was tainted now.

They made it back to the house in record time, since there was no way Andrew could stomach listening to his cousin make out any longer, and after Nicky introduced Erik to Aaron, the two headed right upstairs. Aaron watched them leave the kitchen with a type of fascinated disgust. “I’m sleeping in the den until that guy leaves.” Then he glanced over at Andrew and Neil, the first time he’d looked straight at Andrew in the last several days. “You two don’t make much noise, I bet you’re quieter than them.”

Neil tugged on his bangs as he went to the fridge for a bottle of water. “It’s times like these that I appreciate not having any family around.”

“What, and miss out on the fun of having strange men come over to have sex in your house?” Andrew snatched the bottle of water from Neil since he was thirsty, and smiled at the glare he got for his actions.

“No, because everyone in your family is an asshole,” Neil informed him as he fetched another bottle of water then stalked out of the room as if he couldn’t stand to be in it one moment longer.

“Kind of difficult to argue with that,” Aaron said as he played some sort of game on his phone. “Looks like I won’t have to worry about you two making much noise at all tonight.”

Andrew threw the cap from the water bottle at him. “That’s what you think, he gets more into it when he’s all fired up. Better break out the earplugs.” He smirked at his twin and gave him the finger as he went to track down his idiot, and ignored the mumbled sounds of German from upstairs.

Neil did eventually calm down and Aaron had another thing to hate Andrew for in the end, but Andrew decided not to hold it against him. That and Aaron complained about all the German being spoken in the house, since four out of five people were mostly fluent in it, while Nicky laughed and told him it would help him improve his grades in the class. If Aaron was frowning for most of the break, Nicky was smiling, obviously pleased to have his boyfriend by his side and with some sort of family for the holidays. He even went out with Erik to get a small tree, which he decorated with red ribbons and gold garland ‘for good luck’, since they didn’t have any other ornaments, and bought presents as well. There was almost an air of desperation to his activities, as if he was desperate to make the holiday a good one, so Andrew just gave Neil a dark look and upped the percentage one point when he was dragged off to the mall for some shopping.

For the actual holiday, they once more got Chinese take-out and drank the red wine Erik bought for the day while they exchanged the few presents they had bought; Nicky had got Aaron, Neil and Andrew new messenger bags for school, some nice sweaters for Neil, games for Aaron and a pair of leather boots Andrew had been eyeing for the past month. Andrew and Neil (more Neil) had gotten Nicky a new scarf and minutes for his phone so he could call Erik, and Aaron had bought him some new headphones, though Aaron complained he should be keeping them for himself after what he’d been put through the last couple of days. Aaron gave Andrew a gift card for the local bookstore and Neil one to the local Exites shop, surprising Andrew a bit in that his twin had gotten them anything at all, and appeared surprised in return when they got him a new MP3 player since he still had an old one. He didn’t say much after opening the bag, but he didn’t seem so sullen any more for the rest of the day.

Despite Nicky cajoling them to open their gifts for each other in front of everyone, Neil and Andrew waited until it was just the two of them to do that – by late night, Aaron was passed out on the couch and Andrew had enough of Nicky pretending there was mistletoe everywhere and molesting Erik whenever he could. Neil had only sipped a glass or two through the night so he appeared more tired than anything and grateful for some quiet, when they went to their bedroom.

He fetched a small, bright blue and silver bag from a drawer in his dresser and handed it to Andrew before he climbed up on the bed and sat with his legs crossed. “It’s not much, but I know you’re not a big fan of presents.”

“You think?” Andrew huffed as he thought about the big mess out in the living room and catering to Nicky all day, even as he pulled out the silver tissue paper to see what Neil had gotten him. Like last year, there was a new book, one he’d been looking forward to reading, and a white box. It didn’t come as much of a surprise when he opened it to reveal a metal flask about the size of his hand, also monogrammed with a stylized ‘A’ to match his lighter. It wasn’t a surprise, but it still made his chest ache in an odd way.

“You’re going to have to figure out something new for next year,” he said as he set the gifts aside and reached under the bed for the bag he’d set there earlier in the day. Meanwhile, Neil shook his head and smiled.

“It be funny to get you cufflinks or something, just to see what you’d do with them.”

“Throw them at you, most likely.”

“Yeah.” Neil kept smiling as he dug through the bag, then sighed. “Another party?” he asked as he held up the black shirt, this one sheer but layered with a white shirt beneath it.

There were matching black cargo pants and new boots in the bag; Andrew had gone out with Nicky to pick out the outfit. “We’re going to the club for New Year’s Eve.” It was about time they finally went to enjoy a night out and not work, and he was willing to bet that Aaron would be very happy to hear about it.

“Oh joy.” Neil’s tone just then was flat, but his eyes were bright with amusement and he set the bag filled with the new outfit aside with care. “At least it gets me out of the kitchen.”

“Always a comeback with you, Josten.”

“Hmm, I try.” Neil reached out for Andrew’s hands and, when he didn’t resist or pull away, tugged him down onto the bed until they were lying beside each other. “Merry Christmas.”

“If you insist.” Still, Andrew closed his eyes and lay there on the bed, slightly buzzed and warm and oddly content, as Neil chuckled and lay beside him. It wasn’t a bad holiday, all in all, even with Nicky and everything.

*******

After working the last several weeks at Eden’s Twilight, it took some getting used to being let in through the front door as a guest, Neil thought as he looked out over the crowded dance floor. There was also something to be said about being back in the kitchen where it was a lot less crowded and noisy. Still, Aaron actually had a smile on his face and Nicky couldn’t stand still, he was bouncing around so much with excitement, while Erik laughed at his boyfriend’s antics.

They managed to find a table up near the bar, and Andrew volunteered to go get them their drinks – which meant that Neil got to tag along, following in his friend’s wake as Andrew somehow managed to make everyone get out of way with a flat stare and bad attitude alone. The bar was just as crowded as the rest of the place, but Neil didn’t mind pressing his back against Andrew’s firm chest, especially if it kept him from touching the strange redhead who seemed way too intent on downing her large margarita next to him.

“Andrew! And Neil!” Roland smiled at them – well, more at Andrew, Neil noticed, as he came to stand in front of them. “Haven’t seen you guys in a few days.”

“We took some time off since Nicky has his significant other in town.” Andrew handed over a couple hundred dollar bills. “So we need some drinks – whiskey, that Jaeger stuff Aaron likes, Nicky’s crap, and some of those lime shots you were making that one night.”

Roland laughed as he accepted the money. “Very concise, I’ll see what I can do.” He gave Andrew a wink before he got busy with the order.

“You two seem friendly,” Neil remarked as he made a point to rest his weight against Andrew.

“He gives me and Aaron free shots.”

“Uh-huh.” Neil still remembered Ryan and wasn’t buying it. “Free shots.”

A hand settled on his right hip and gave it a tight squeeze. “Don’t go there, considering half the Japanese and Anime clubs are coming to our Exy games these days. Something tells me they’re not there for newfound team spirit.”

“Whatever,” Neil muttered.

“I thought so.” Still, Andrew kept his hand on Neil’s hip and didn’t push him away, even when Roland returned with a tray full of drinks and smiled at them.

“Fun time starting all ready?”

“Something like that.” Andrew waved him off as he picked up the tray and carried it with ease despite all of the drinks back to their table. Nicky let out a cheer when he caught sight of them, and snatched up the colorful shots which he handed some over to Erik, along with a couple of packets of cracker dust. Aaron wasn’t too far behind in downing his Jaeger bombs, and soon it was just Andrew and Neil left at the table. “Are we going to have to carry them out of here?” Neil remembered how quickly people got trashed at the New Year’s party last year.

“I told Erik he’s responsible for Nicky while he’s in town, so that leaves us with Aaron.” Andrew slid over a couple of pale green shots toward Neil. “Drink up.”

He eyed them with some trepidation, remembering the vodka shots from last year and how quickly he’d become drunk. “I’d rather not be carried out, thank you.”

“Then don’t drink too much too fast.” Andrew picked up a double-shot of whiskey and tossed it back. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Neil never did, yet somehow he found himself picking up one of the glasses. “What is it?” He braced himself for something disgustingly sweet, knowing Andrew, and was surprised when it was only a little bit so, reminding him a bit of the slice of pie he’d had at Sweetie’s the one night at Nicky’s insistence.

“Something that Roland whipped up the one night, it was popular. Thought you might like it.”

“Hmm.” Neil set the empty glass down but didn’t pick up the other one just yet, he was content to just sit there with Andrew for the time being and nurse his shots for the next couple of hours. “So, Erik leaves the day after tomorrow.” He looked out onto the dance floor and thought he could see the German thanks to his height- that and Nicky hanging on him.

“Not that I’m counting down the hours or anything.” Andrew grimaced as he tossed back another whiskey. “I think Aaron will be happy to be able to sleep in his bedroom again.”

“Just a little.” Neil shook his head as he thought about Andrew’s brother and his recent mood swings; at least he was semi-decent some of the time. “Then back to school.” As much as he missed playing Exy, the break had been nice. “We’ll start the semi-finals in another month or so.”

“Imagine that, being on a team that makes it to them.” Andrew stared at Neil as he held the empty shot glass cradled in his right hand, his expression blank. “Must make *you* happy.”

Neil hesitated a moment before he spoke again and had another of the lime-flavored shots to stall for time. “It’s what we wanted, me getting on a decent team and being noticed.” He stared at the table as he figured out what to say next. “It’s getting you noticed, too.”

“Hmm.”

Dammit, couldn’t Andrew help him out here? “I hear… I hear there’s some good scouts out during the quarter finals. Penn State, USC, Breckenridge and the such.”

“Edgar Allen,” Andrew said with a sneer that Neil didn’t need to look up at him to see.

“Yeah, them too.” Neil sighed as he sat upright. “But they… I’m not focused on them.” He was doing his best not to even think about them. “Penn State and USC… they’re almost as good.”

Andrew set the glass down on the table. “I wouldn’t know, we’ve just been talking about them for the past few months.”

Neil wanted to hit him just them. “For me, we’ve been talking about them for *me*. What about you?” He let out an angry hiss and shook his head at how Andrew was avoiding the topic – things seemed to have been taken for granted at first that maybe Andrew would just follow Neil, but now there was Aaron and Nicky and… and Andrew’s graduation didn’t seem so far off. “Are you just going to stay here forever, or will you accept a scholarship if they give you one?”

The asshole stared into the remaining shot of whiskey as if he found it to be utterly fascinating. “There’s Aaron…”

“I thought that deal was through high school.” Neil wanted to snatch the glass away from Andrew.

“It is.” He finally looked at Neil. “What about the house here? Your senior year of school?”

“It’s part Aaron’s, isn’t it? If he can’t use it, rent the damn thing out.” Neil forced himself to take a deep breath. “See what offers you get, we’ll figure something out. That’s… that’s all I’m saying. Switching schools… that doesn’t bother me.” Not if it meant that he wouldn’t be facing five years away from Andrew.

Andrew sat there in silence for a good minute or two, while Neil wondered if he shouldn’t just… just go up to the bar or pretend he had to go the bathroom or something, anything to get away from the table for a little while. Then Andrew pushed another one of the lime shots toward him. “First I have to get some offers, right? Let’s see which schools come through and then we can figure it out.”

Relief flooded into Neil as he picked up the shot. “Okay.” He laughed a little as he held it near his chest. “Though I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, not with how well you’re doing this season.”

“Worry about your own ass, Josten,” Andrew told him as he picked up his last shot.

“I thought you did that for me, too.”

Andrew shoved the last shot toward Neil. “Just for that, you are going to drink now.” Yet there was a hint of a smile on his lips as he watched Neil pick up the glass.

*******

Sitting on the bench, Andrew watched as Steve just barely blocked the latest shot from one of the Bulldog’s dealers, the team appearing intent on not going back to Decautur in defeat. Neil, Eddy and Terry had worked hard to build them up a nice cushion of points in the first half, but once Phil had been subbed in for Andrew and Terry benched with sore ankle, the lead had been eaten away enough that the Caps were fighting for the last minute or two of the game.

Next to him on the bench, Aaron made a hissing sound as Neil was slammed into the wall, but it cleared the way for Sarah to grab the ball and send it in for a final goal. “Which scout’s supposed to be here today?”

“Penn State,” Andrew answered as he glared at his idiot until Neil stumbled to his feet, head shaking and hands loose around his racquet while the rest of the team shouted as the buzzer counted down the final seconds of the game.

“Bet they’re real impressed right now.” Aaron’s tone was pure sarcasm as they watched the majority of their team jump up and down on the court. Neil dodged a hug from Jay and stumbled toward the line-up as the teams shook hands. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Andrew followed him out onto the court and took his place next to Neil, who wavered a little as he attempted to stand up straight. “How hard were you hit just then?”

“Uhm….” Neil paused to yank off his helmet, his face flushed and sweaty. “I’m seeing double?” He motioned toward Andrew and Aaron.

“Idiot,” Andrew huffed as he hit him on the back of the head, and just glared at the Bulldogs as they came past to shake hands – especially the dealer who had slammed into Neil.

The whole stupid ‘good game’ ritual over, Andrew tugged Neil off of the court. “You might want to rethink running around in circles until you’re sure you can stand up.”

“I’m fi-ah!” Neil’s arms windmilled for a few seconds as he struggled to remain on his feet, since Andrew gave him a shove as soon as he started in with his usual bullshit. “Asshole,” he muttered once he could walk again.

“Yeah, but not one who seems determined to become concussed on a monthly basis,” Andrew sneered, while beside him, Aaron’s lips twitched as if he wanted to smile.

As soon as they reached the locker room, Andrew heard his name be called out, along with Eddy’s; he looked over to see Coach Jackson waving at him from down the hall.

“Go on, I’ll make sure Josten doesn’t walk into any walls or something,” Aaron told him as he herded Neil toward their section of the locker room.

“You’re both assholes,” Neil complained, but he gave Andrew a slight nod.

Having an idea what this was about, Andrew handed Neil his helmet and gloves, then went to get it over with; he wasn’t surprised to see some middle-aged guy wearing a Penn State jersey waiting inside of the office, along with Eddy and Eddy’s father. The Cap’s captain still appeared flushed from the game, sweat gleaming on his face and soaked into the bandana he wore over his close-cropped black hair. Beside him, his father loomed over the senior, taller and heavier, but there was a smile on his broad face whenever he looked at his son and Eddy always talked about how his dad was a great guy.

Must be nice.

“Since you’re both here and I’m sure tired after such an exciting game, I won’t waste your time.” The scout leaned over to shake hands with Eddy and his father, and arched an eyebrow when Andrew just stared at him. “I’m John Donahue, and I’m here on behalf of Penn State’s Exy team.” He stepped over to the desk, where a briefcase rested. “Since I’m certain that I’m not the first scout to talk to you, I’ll save you the usual song and dance, but both of you have some very impressive statistics.” He opened the case and pulled out two large folders. “It would be great if you’d consider our program,” he told them as he handed both Andrew and Eddy an envelope with their names on it. “I’ll be in town through tomorrow night, if you want to talk to me some more – and my number’s in there so you can call me at any time.”

Since Andrew already had similar envelopes from Breckenridge and Maryland, and he knew that Penn State was at the top of Eddy’s wish list since the teen wanted to get into a good engineering school, he just nodded at Donahue and waved with the thick envelope. “Sounds good. Anything else?” He glanced at Jackson before he headed for the door.

“Minyard!” Donahue caught up to him out in the hallway, a chagrined smile on his face. “I’ve heard you’re a hard sell.”

“I didn’t know that people were talking about me.” Andrew narrowed his eyes at the man.

Donahue shrugged as his smile slipped away. “Guys like me, we talk when we cross paths. You know, I’m not just here for this year – there’s four graduating upperclassmen on the school’s team next season. I’m keeping an eye out for prospective replacements for them, and Josten’s at the top of my list. Something to consider if that makes your decision any easier.”

Like he would trust the word of a stranger, unless he had an ironclad contract. Still, something to consider indeed, especially since he hadn’t talked to USC yet. It wasn’t unheard of for a school to sign a player in their junior year – he was certain that Edgar Allen would snatch up Neil right now if he called Riko to say ‘yes’.

By the time he made it back to the locker room, most of the team had finished with their showers and had left. Aaron, in the process of removing his protective gear, nodded at the envelope in Andrew’s hands. “Another one?” There was a hint of wistfulness in his voice, since it was clear there would be no scholarship offers coming his way, at least not from the type of schools he wanted.

“Probably the same as the others.” Andrew shoved it into his locker and began to take off his own gear, mindful of Neil’s attention on him; by the time they got ready for their showers, everyone but Eddy should be gone, and he was willing to bet that the teen and his father would be in there with Donahue for a while. “You up for washing off here?”

“Yeah.” Neil didn’t sound so sure, but he managed to get his gear off on his own; he had the beginnings of a nice black eye, but his pupils didn’t appear dilated.

Andrew figured it could wait until later, when they were alone, to look through what Penn State had to offer and talk about what Donahue had said.

*******

Neil swiped off the bandana which had held back his bangs while he worked, grateful that his shift was done for the night; with the Caps in the semi-finals, Coach Jackson was working them hard enough that Andrew and Neil were skipping their extra practices, needing the break and the time to catch up on their homework – especially with the shifts at Eden’s Twilight. He didn’t hold out much hope of them advancing to the final rounds, not with the way they had barely won their last game… but they should be able to hold out another game or two, long enough for the USC scouts to come check on Andrew.

“Good job, Red,” Joe called out to Neil as he left the kitchen, and Neil gave his coworker a weary wave as he went looking for Andrew, Aaron and Nicky. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to find the twins near Roland’s bar as he broke it down for the night, glasses in their hands. When Roland smiled at him and held up a bottle of what looked to be vodka, Neil shook his head.

“Where’s Nicky?”

Aaron grimaced as he set the empty shot glass down on the bar. “Something about helping someone get a taxi.”

“Carlos,” Roland explained. “Bad break-up, he had a few too many tonight.”

Neil thought Carlos might be one of the other bartenders, but he wasn’t certain. “Okay.” He nodded in thanks when Roland handed him a glass of water. “We going to be here long?” More importantly, was he going to have to drive everyone home?

“Waiting on Nicky,” Andrew explained as he tossed back what looked to be his second shot.

Great. Neil had just had a sip of the water when one of the servers, he thought her name was Cory, ran up to them in a panic. “Come on, these guys are beating up Nicky!”

Neil stared at her in confusion for a moment, the words not making any sense – why would anyone want to beat up Nicky? Then it sunk in that Andrew was off and running, so he dropped the water and raced after his friend.

It was dark outside, the parking lot mostly deserted with a few cars here and there, mainly those belonging to the club’s staff. About ten feet from the club’s sidewalk there was a cluster of people, were about five guys huddled around what turned out to be someone on the ground – that someone being Nicky. He made an awful sound as he was kicked in the stomach.

Neil heard someone yell out to call the damn cops, and then he saw Andrew barrel into the group, saw his friend punch the guy kicking Nicky and then lash out with his foot at another person. In all of the years back in Baltimore, on the run from his father’s people… Neil had never seen so much rage, so much hostility unleashed in such a short span and in such an effective manner.

Andrew was constantly on the move, swinging his fists and lashing out with those heavy boots of his, hitting where Neil knew it mattered the most, striking kidneys and throats and sternums and the sides of knees, all the less obvious points of attack. The few times one of the other guys managed to land a hit on him, Andrew seemed to shrug it off as if it was nothing, his eyes gleaming in the dim light and a cruel twist to his lips. He took the hits and kept dishing them out.

“Fuck,” Neil whispered when he realized that Andrew wasn’t stopping. “Grab Nicky,” he yelled at Aaron as he circled the melee.

“What?”

“Nicky,” he yelled again while pointing to his friend huddled on the ground, then wrapped his arms around a guy barely standing and threw him with all of his strength into the nearest car. Aaron finally got with the program and half-dragged a moaning Nicky away from the fight, Nicky’s face bruised and bleeding, which left Neil to deal with Andrew.

“Stop it,” he yelled at his friend, who seemed determined to bash one of the guy’s head into a lamp post. “Stop it before you kill someone!” When Andrew continued to ignore him, he took a deep breath and dared to grab onto Andrew’s left arm.

Even braced for it, the punch to his face hurt so *damn* much it took his breath away, and he almost forgot to latch onto Andrew’s arm as it pulled back to strike him again – or at least try. “Stop!” He thought that more or less came out as he clung to Andrew’s arm, the arm bands rough beneath his palms, and then he was sent flying into at least one of the other guys.

The impact knocked out the bit of breath he had managed to get back, and then he was punched again, this time in the mouth, and as he was sent to the ground, a kick to his side made him cry out. He felt hands in his hair pull him upright, then another guy was shoving his attacker away – someone other than Andrew. “Not the redhead!”

Neil blinked in shock upon hearing those words, then heard the guy cry out as Andrew came after them, this time with a knife in his right hand. Cursing himself, Neil threw himself at his friend’s legs, intent on stopping the idiot. “No, dammit!” He took another hit, this one to his back, before Andrew jerked him upright.

“Get out of my way,” he spat out, left cheek swollen and upper lip split.

“No,” Neil managed to more or less get out. “Stop it.”

Andrew made as if to punch him again, the knife held clenched in his fist, then screamed, the sound more noise and rage than any articulated word, and threw the knife aside. In the distance Neil could hear the sound of sirens, could hear them draw closer with each passing second, and noticed that Roland, Aaron and a few others from the club had the two remaining attackers who could still stand surrounded.

“I hate you,” Andrew seethed as he shoved Neil aside so he could stand a few feet away, hands clenched in fists as if he still wanted to beat something.

Just then, the words didn’t sound like a joke, like a defense mechanism. There was too much real emotion behind them, and Neil could only nod as he stumbled away. “I know.” He all but collapsed onto the hood of someone’s car, body one huge ache, and watched as the police cars pulled into the parking lot, with what looked to be the lights of an ambulance not far in the distance. Seeing how everyone stood away from Andrew as if in fear, he winced as he reached into the pockets of his jeans and pulled out his cell phone to make a call.

*******

“Minyard, you have a visitor.” The police officer motioned for Andrew to get up off of the bench and follow him out of the holding cell, to a small room with a table and two chairs. “You going to be good, or do I have to restrain you?”

Andrew gave him a blank look in return, and when the cop didn’t move or say anything, sighed. “I’ll be fine.” Somehow the words seemed hollow just then.

“You better.” The cop left the room, and a moment later Andrew was stunned to see Sonja Wolfe walk into it, dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a black blazer; she looked tired and had on no make-up, making him think she’d gotten out of bed to come down to the police station.

He had a feeling that a certain idiot was behind this.

“Well, I’ve had better Friday nights,” she started off with as she motioned for him to sit down, while she did the same. “Sure you have, too.” When he gave a slight huff at that, she shook her head. “I’m also sure you know why I’m here.”

“Neil called you.”

“Yes, he did.” She rubbed at her eyes as if tired. “Said you were in trouble and he’d appreciate it if I made sure that things didn’t go wrong. Considering what I know about your personality… I don’t blame him.” She tapped a short, manicured nail against the table as if waiting for him to say something, then after about a minute scoffed. “It’s not good, but it’s not as bad as it could be.”

“Meaning?” He wasn’t in the mood to draw this out.

“Meaning that thanks to your friend, your previous record is sealed.” Wolfe glanced up at the camera in the corner. “A smart prosecutor will know that you did something and can even track it down, but by law, they can’t bring it up in court. They can’t bring it forth in front of a judge. So you’re going into this with a clean slate. That helps a lot. So does the fact that, by the account of numerous witnesses, you were beating off the men who were attacking your cousin. Witnesses who are more than willing to sign affidavits that it was a case of a hate crime, considering the homophobic comments that were made during the attack.”

Someone sure had been busy in the last few hours, hadn’t they? Andrew motioned to the small room. “Then why am I here?”

“Because two of the men require medical attention – nothing too serious, but one was unconscious and the other isn’t going to be able to eat solids for a while.” Wolfe’s expression hardened as she tapped her fingers against the table again. “Heard the medics wanted your- wanted Neil to get checked out as well, but he refused any and all medical attention.” Her eyes narrowed when all Andrew did was stare back at her. “Some witnesses report that he got roughed up trying to stop you, but he won’t go on the record saying that.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“Yes, on that we agree,” Wolfe said, her voice low and very displeased. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I don’t care for people who beat up their partners, whatever the circumstances.” She huffed when Andrew continued to give her a blank stare. “Back to you, there’s a lawyer who is currently handling the charges for you, one who is quite good at what he does. Martin thinks you’ll get slapped with a little probation and mandatory therapy, but that should be it.”

It felt as if Andrew had been punched in the chest just then, there was a sudden release of the pressure that had been building inside of him. “You’re joking.” He knew how this went, he knew how it went for people like *him* and he’d had every expectation of being locked up again.

Wolfe shook her head. “No, I’m not – you’re lucky didn’t hurt anyone worse than you did and you effectively don’t have any priors on your record, as well as the right contacts.”

He went to push away from the table and remembered the camera in time. “Wait, why do I even have a lawyer? Why is he doing all of this?”

“Because your friend and your family member, your brother, have retained his services.” Wolfe waved aside his suspicions. “You have an issue with Martin’s hard work, you take it up with Neil and Aaron, which you’ll be able to do shortly since Martin is also working on your bail.”

Part of Andrew wanted to tell her to pass on a message to the lawyer and the two busybodies to go fuck off, that he would take care of things on his own… but he was crawling in his own skin, being here in detention and they had put him in a private cell so far. “They shouldn’t have bothered.”

She rose up from the chair with her hands on the table as she stared down at him with blatant disapproval. “But they did, Minyard, even if I have to say I agree with you. So don’t expect me to keep bailing you out because of Neil. He helped us out, so we wiped your record clean. He’s not running, so I’m willing to work with him a little. That is it, and I’m not going to clean up your messes. Keep your fists to yourself from now on.”

He almost let her walk out of the room without saying something, but something had been bothering him ever since he’d calmed down. “Who were the guys – the ones who beat up Nicky?”

Wolfe paused right before she got to the door. “Some prejudiced assholes whom I’m sure the DA will just love to rake over the coals.” When Andrew considered to stare at her, she shook her head. “Nope, that’s all you’re getting out of me. You got your pound of flesh out of them, almost literally, so forget about them and move on. It’s in your best interest.” That said, she knocked on the door so the cop waiting outside could let her out.

Andrew thought about that as he was returned to the empty holding cell to wait for ‘Martin’ to work on his bail, thought about Neil and Aaron working on getting him a lawyer and Neil calling in Wolfe to help him out. He thought about the blinding rage that had filled him when he’d gotten out into the parking lot to see those bastards beating on Nicky – someone who annoyed him on a daily basis yet who had come through for him, who was one of his own. And he thought of Neil and how his friend had got in the way of Andrew doing what needed to be done, of the look on Neil’s face when Andrew had told him that Andrew hated him.

Then he thought about that barely heard ‘not the redhead’, the words just on the periphery of his conscious during the fight, something filed away until he had the time to calm down, to think about everything that had happened.

Those thoughts went round and round in his head as he sat alone in jail, his fists sore from punching and body aching from the fight, but the pain preferable to focus on than what might lay in store when he was let go.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

Neil sat once more in Lexington Medical Center’s ER, this time with an ice pack that one of the nurses had practically forced on him held against his face and his phone cradled in his hand as he waited for them to finish up with Nicky, something about scans and x-rays. It had been decided back at the club that he would go with Nicky while Aaron went to the police station for Andrew, not that he’d objected too much to the decision. Not when all he could think about was the way Andrew had looked at him at the end there, the emotion behind that final ‘I hate you’….

He pressed the ice pack against his split lip and wished that it was still cold, that it could numb more than his sore face. Funny how he hadn’t figured out yet just how little wishing did him any good.

His phone vibrated in his hand which caused him to huff a little, cursing out Nicky for giving Erik his phone number before the medics or the nurses had taken the damn thing away from the injured man. Preparing to text back that Nicky hadn’t been released yet, Neil stared at the message from the blocked sender and slowly set the ice pack on the empty seat next to him.

‘Mutts who bite their masters should be put down’

He had to fight the urge to get up and search the room, to look around to find if anyone was watching him, to just… to *run*… but Nicky was still being patched up and needed a ride home. Aaron was at the police station, waiting for the lawyer Sonja had gotten them to get through the red tape and release Andrew with the money Neil was providing. Andrew-

Neil dropped the phone onto his lap and jerked his hands through his hair, never mind the pain just then. Actually, the pain felt good, was a welcome distraction from the awful muddle of his thoughts, from things he didn’t want to acknowledge. Part of him wanted to delete the message, to pretend it never came through. To deny its awful implications on what had happened tonight and for the life he’d built here in Columbia. More than anything he wanted to get up and stomp on the phone until it was nothing but tiny pieces. But even if Andrew hated him now, hated him for real, that would just be another betrayal, would break their deal – Andrew had said no more holding back when it came to Riko. So Neil sat there and pulled on his hair and bit into his split bottom lip until the pain helped to subsume the awful ache in his chest and the burning need to get up and run until he couldn’t go another inch further.

This early in the morning – or late in the night, depending on your outlook – the ER was quiet, with only a few other people scattered about the room, so Neil was left alone as he struggled not to have a panic attack over the situation. He had things mostly under control by the time he received another text, and it only took him about ten minutes to gather up the nerve to look at his phone again, to find out that the current message was from Aaron to let him know it would be another hour or two until Andrew was released. It was clear from the emojis and lack of grammar that Aaron was rather displeased about that.

Neil was just about to text him back when he heard his name be called out, so he shoved his phone into the pocket of his torn jeans and got up from the chair – or at least tried to. Wincing in pain as his body protested the movement, his left knee throbbing, entire torso sore and… and he’d felt worse, so he forced himself to move, to push past the pain and the dizziness and ignore the concerned look of the nurse. “Yeah?”

“Nicky Hemmick is ready to be released.” She looked him up and down. “Are you certain you shouldn’t get checked out yourself?”

“I’m fine,” he gritted out. “Where is he?”

She motioned toward the one station, across the room, where a huddled figure was bent over signing papers. Neil felt a rush of relief to see Nicky on his feet and hurried over there as fast as he could, and came to a stop a couple of feet away.

Nicky’s face was swollen, both eyes bruised and a cut over the bridge of his nose and along his left cheek held together with butterfly bandages. No stitches, nothing appearing to be broken, but he had to be in a lot of pain.

Nicky seemed to notice him as he finished signing the paperwork and turned around, a small bag clutched in his left hand. “Neil!” He smiled, his lips just as swollen as the rest of his face, and attempted to hold out his arms as if to embrace Neil. “Ow!” He winced and hunched over. “Oh, not good, not good at all.” The words came out slurred, and not just because of his face, Neil was willing to bet.

He glanced at one of the nurses watching him. “What’s the verdict?”

The woman, who looked to be in her early thirties maybe and about Neil’s height, seemed to understand the question. “No internal injuries and broken bones, no concussion, just a lot of bruising, including to his ribs. We’re sending him home and recommending lots of bed rest for the next day or two, maybe avoid any rock candy while he’s at it.” She smiled as she gave Nicky a gentle pat on the back.

“You’re funny, Mia,” Nicky told her as he clutched at his meds.

“Yeah, I get that a lot. No more fights for you, okay?”

“I’mma lover, I tell ya.” Nicky shuffled over to Neil and leaned against him. “You tell her, Neil.”

Neil shook his head and allowed Nicky to use him as a crutch even if the weight made his body hurt even more. “We’re going home.”

“I want Erik,” Nicky whined as they both shuffled toward the exit.

“Call him as soon as you get to the car.”

“Battery died.”

Neil tried not to wince as Nicky wrapped his arms around Neil’s shoulders. “You can use my phone.”

Nicky sniffled a little into Neil’s hair, which would have made Neil cringe in disgust but at that point, he just didn’t care anymore, he was too tired and too sore and… it all was just too much. “You’re wonderful,” Nicky murmured.

No, he wasn’t, he was anything but because here was Nicky doped up on meds because he’d been beaten up because of Neil. Because Neil had come into his life and brought the same death and destruction he always did, the same evil that always followed him around. Only this time it hadn’t touched people who knew about it, who were prepared for it, it had touched someone nice like Nicky. And that was anything but ‘wonderful’.

But Neil couldn’t say anything just then, so he suffered through Nicky’s clinginess and got him into the Nissan then handed over his phone, so Nicky could call Erik and reassure his boyfriend that he was all right, that the doctors said he’d be fine in a few days and gave him these *amazing* meds and oooh, there were jewels on the road, a pretty necklace and Neil, Neil go get the necklace, why wasn’t Neil stopping to get the necklace, bad Neil, and what? Oh yes, Nicky loved Erik, he was so sad that Erik wasn’t there right now, he hurt and he wanted Erik and don’t cry, babe, it hurt Nicky’s face to cry too and- Neil started thinking in Japanese to block out the rest of the conversation, thought in Japanese as he mentally went through every step, every city he and his mother had been since leaving Baltimore all those years ago.

He had Nicky end the call when they got home, belatedly realizing that he’d never answered Aaron back, and after propping Nicky up against the kitchen counter, texted Aaron back to let him know that they were home. He got called an asshole for that, but Aaron seemed in a better mood now because they were finally beginning the process to release Andrew.

Neil wasn’t sure how he felt about that, knowing that Andrew would be home soon, but he was exhausted and sore and not really in the mood to put up with too much more at the moment.

So he set his phone down on the counter and turned to face Nicky, who was frowning at his own phone as if trying to figure it out. “Are you good for the night?” He had to ask the question again before Nicky responded.

“Huh? Yeah. Tired.” Nicky went to rub at his face and yelped in pain. “That hurt.”

“Yeah, it’s gonna do that for a while,” Neil assured him. “Time for bed.”

“Okay.” Nicky shuffled toward him and gave him a weak hug, during which Neil did his best not to flinch. “Thank you.”

“It’s fine.” Neil couldn’t really manage a smile in response, since he felt overwhelmed with guilt. “Go to bed.”

“’kay.”

Neil made sure that Nicky managed to get up the stairs, then went to get ready for bed himself; he swore as he pulled off his dirty and torn clothes, all the while thinking about the meds Nicky had brought home from the hospital before settling on some pain relievers in the bathroom when he washed off and brushed his teeth. They weren’t anywhere near as good, but they wouldn’t add to his guilt.

Going back into his bedroom, he stared at the nice, soft bed in there for a couple of minutes before he decided that it would be better to crash the night in the den, not wanting to… it would just be better. It only took a minute to set up the futon, even if his side complained the entire time, and he had just found a semi-comfortable position on it when the sound of someone shuffling into the den startled him wide awake.

“Neil?”

He stopped sweeping his hand beneath the pillow for a weapon that wasn’t there when he recognized Nicky’s sleepy, slurred voice. “Yeah?” What was the man doing down here?

There was more shuffling and then a weight on the mattress. “Can’t sleep.” A slight pause and then Nicky was stretching out beside him. “Can I sleep here?”

Neil had the impression he really didn’t have a choice – Nicky had come down with his own pillow and was already taking up half of the bed. “Stick to your side,” Neil sighed as he scooted over, unwilling to say ‘no’ after everything that had happened that night.

Even in the dark room and with all of the bruises, he could tell that Nicky smiled just then. “Thank you! I just… don’ wanna be alone,” Nicky mumbled as he tugged the blanket over his legs.

“Your side,” Neil reminded him, not unkindly.

“Hmmm.” Nicky stole a bit more of the blankets as he closed his eyes, and Neil lay on his back while he listened to the other man’s breathing even out with a bit of a snore, probably because of his swollen nose.

Neil thought it would take him a while to fall asleep with Nicky beside him, but he was too exhausted and too eager for the night to end to lay there staring at the ceiling for long.

*******

When Andrew was released from jail, it was to find Aaron waiting for him along with Martin Dupree, the lawyer who had spoken to him an hour or so ago when it looked as if his bail was going through. Martin reached Andrew first and handed him a business card. “I’ll be in touch, I should have an idea in the next couple of days when this will go in front of the judge. Until then, don’t go anywhere without letting me know.” There was a stern expression on his face until Andrew accepted the card; wherever Wolfe had found the guy, it was obvious he was used to dealing with troublesome clients yet didn’t seem to allow it to bother him. Dupree seemed confident in his ability to get Andrew off with a minimum of ‘fuss’ and even with it being almost daylight outside, appeared fresh in his dark grey suit and white shirt, with no hint of stubble on his dark complexioned face.

“I know the drill,” Andrew snapped, just wanting to get this over with and talk to Aaron – he didn’t see Neil anywhere.

“Good, then you know not what to do and won’t cause any unnecessary problems. We’ll talk again soon.” Dupree gave him a curt nod before he left, expensive shoes clacking on the stone floor of the police station.

Andrew almost shredded the bastard’s business card right there, but forced himself to shove it into the back pocket of his jeans instead as he stalked over to Aaron. “Where is Neil?”

Aaron gave him a surly look as he pushed back the bangs falling into his bloodshot eyes. “And a good morning to you, too. You’re welcome, by the way.” Without saying anything else, he turned around and headed toward the door.

Andrew clenched his bruised hands into fists and followed. “Where’s Neil?”

“Oh, now you’re worried?” Aaron let go of the front door to the police station, and Andrew had to scramble to keep it from closing in his face.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Out on the sidewalk, he reached for his twin’s shoulder and jerked Aaron around to face him. “Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Aaron knocked Andrew’s hand aside and stood there with his arms folded across his chest as if to keep them from lashing out, his face set in anger.

“It means, you sure as hell didn’t seem to care about him last night, when he kept you from killing those guys. And you don’t seem to give a damn about Nicky, either.”

Because Nicky didn’t have a psycho after his ass, but Andrew wasn’t willing to get into that right now. “Why the *fuck* isn’t Neil here, and how is Nicky?”

Aaron gave him the finger and continued onward, to what looked to be a parking station. “Neil isn’t here because I decided that it would be best if the police didn’t see the evidence of you beating up someone while we tried to get your ass out of jail so he went to the hospital instead to take care of Nicky. Nicky’s fine, by the way – well, as fine as he can be, after what happened, and him and Neil got home an hour or so ago.”

So he’d basically been left alone, Andrew thought as he pushed down the rage and… and it wasn’t panic, he told himself. “Are you sure he’s at home?”

Aaron gave him an odd look. “He sent me a text saying that he was there with Nicky. Where else would he be?”

“Just give me the keys,” Andrew snapped, and snatched them when Aaron held them out.

At least there wasn’t any traffic at that time of the day, since the entire way home, Andrew thought about Riko pulling something else, of Riko having hired more thugs to carry through with all of those threats to break Neil.

“You know, it’s not a good idea to get pulled over right after getting bailed out of jail,” Aaron remarked as Andrew went 60mph down a 25mph street.

“Oh look, this is me caring.”

“Something’s going on.” Aaron braced himself against the dashboard as Andrew turned onto their street while going a bit too fast around a corner. “This isn’t normal behavior for you.”

“This doesn’t con-“

Aaron reached over to punch on the horn before Andrew could knock his hand aside. “Don’t you dare say that, not when Nicky got beat up and your ass landed in jail! What the hell is going on? You didn’t want Neil at the club in the first place, and now something like this happened? Don’t you dare say it doesn’t concern me – me or Nicky.” Aaron glared at them as they pulled up to the house.

Andrew clenched his hands around the wheel and ignored the pain in his knuckles for a moment; everything looked all right, the Nissan was parked in the driveway and the door was closed. “Not right now,” he warned before he shut off the engine and got out.

“Later then, but we *are* talking about it.” Aaron got out of the car as well and hurried after him up the porch.

The door was locked, which was a good sign, the kitchen in order save for a bag of meds and two phones left out on the counter, and two pairs of shoes scattered about as if their owners were too tired to leave them by the door. Andrew tossed the keys to the GS on the table and continued into the house without bothering to toe off his shoes, heading straight for his bedroom.

Neil’s clothes were in a pile on the floor by the closet, but the bed was empty. Andrew stared at it for several seconds, his fingers curling and straightening several times as he attempted to figure out what its emptiness signified – had Riko done something? Had Neil been pushed too far and decided to up and run? Letting out a curse, Andrew spun away as he jerked his left hand through his hair and his right hand scrambled for his phone – he should have called as soon as the police returned it and ordered the idiot to stay put. It wasn’t until he heard the answering ring in the kitchen that it sunk in, the importance of the two phones left there, and he cursed again when Aaron touched him on the back and nearly ended up punching his brother.

Jumping back, Aaron held up his hands in a defensive position. “If you’re looking for Neil, I’ve found him. Found both of them, in fact.” There was a hint of a smile on his face which faded the longer that Andrew stared at him.

“Where?”

“The den.” Aaron motioned behind him and hurried to get out of the way. “He- ah, hell.” From the sound of it, he was following after Andrew.

Why was the idiot sleeping in the den? Andrew barreled into the room, only to be brought up short by the sight before him; Nicky was sprawled out over most of the futon, bruised face turned toward the right, and Neil had maybe a third of the bed and was lying on his side facing Nicky, with his pillow shoved between them as if a barricade or shield of some sort. Something must have woke him up, either Aaron or the phone ringing or something, because Neil was blinking and trying to sit up, but moving slowly and wincing.

“Wha?” He blinked a few more times and caught sight of Andrew staring there, his blue eyes going wide and body still. “You… you’re back.”

“Get up,” Andrew told him, voice quiet because if he didn’t control it, he’d start yelling. “Get up now.”

Neil remained still for a couple of seconds, then sighed before he moved again, to slowly push aside the blanket and get off of the futon. He moved as if an old man, hunched over as if his ribs or stomach hurt him, that beautiful face marred with bruises that Andrew knew he was at least partially responsible for, and all Andrew cared about just then was getting him out of the same damn bed as his cousin.

Dressed in just a t-shirt and a pair of boxer briefs, Neil paused for a moment when he found Aaron standing out in the living room, but by then Andrew’s brother had seen the scars on Neil’s arms and so just arched an eyebrow at him, probably a silent commentary about Neil’s sleeping arrangement for the night. When he caught sight of Andrew, though, Aaron made as if to hold out his arm before he seemed to think better of it.

“Don’t,” Andrew told him.

“Just… don’t do anything stupid,” Aaron said as he stepped back.

Andrew gave him a cold look before he shoved Neil toward their bedroom. Neil stumbled a little, appearing unsteady on his feet, but managed to get inside without saying anything. As soon as he did as well, Andrew slammed the door behind him and locked it for good measure.

Neil flinched at the loud noise and paused, then went and curled up on the bed; Andrew suspected it was more because he was too tired to stand for long, not for the sake of comfort. With the light turned on, Andrew could see the split bottom lip, the bruised jaw and blackened right eye. “What did the doctor say?”

“That Nicky will be fine in a couple of days,” Neil answered in a quiet voice as he hugged his right knee to his chest and wrapped his arm around it, his eyes tracking Andrew as if waiting for some sign – or another punch.

That was *not* helping Andrew’s temper any. “About you, you damn idiot.”

Neil shook his head, then took to tugging on his bangs. “Nothing, I’m fi-“ he scooted back on the bed, eyes wide and face pale, when Andrew picked up the first thing in reach, which happened to be the alarm clock, yanked it free from the wall and threw it against the opposite wall with all the force he could muster as soon as he heard Neil start with the same old bullshit.

“No,” Andrew ground out as he did his best to hold on to the fraying edges of his control, to not get lost in the rage again before he did even more harm to Neil. “No, you do *not* say those words right now, do you understand?” He waited until Neil gave a couple of curt nods. “You say nothing but the truth to me, because…” He flexed his fingers again and let out a shuddering breath. Because he couldn’t take Neil being evasive, being a fucking martyr right now. “What did the doctor say about you?”

“Nothing,” Neil repeated, once more tugging on his bangs in a clear sign of agitation. “Because I didn’t get checked out.” When Andrew glared at him, he shook his head. “It’s… it’s nothing serious. I’ve been in fights before, I’ll be- just give it a day or two,” he finished in a ragged voice.

Andrew reached out to him, and noticed how Neil seemed to force himself to remain still. “I hit you.” It was a statement.

“You hit a lot of people.” There was no reproach there, no accusation, just Neil making a statement in return as he let Andrew’s fingers skim along the right side of his face. “Did you even know it was me you were punching?”

“No,” Andrew admitted. Not at first, he’d just turned in reaction to someone touching him and it hadn’t been until he’d shoved Neil away that it had sunken in, that he’d realized who had been shouting at him and what, that he’d realized what he’d done. The rage had been too powerful, his intent too strong to make Nicky’s abusers pay for him to care about what he’d done, not then. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he insisted. “You shouldn’t have gotten in my way.” He ended up half-kneeling on the bed so he could thread his fingers through Neil’s hair, and some part of him eased when Neil didn’t pull away but allowed him to do that.

“I wasn’t going to let you kill them.” Neil’s expression hardened as his fingers brushed along Andrew’s forearms, which reminded him that he hadn’t gotten his arm guards back from Aaron yet; his brother had managed to take them from him right before the cops had arrived, and probably had them hidden in the car somewhere. He’d been so worried about Neil… dammit, he needed to start thinking straight. “They weren’t worth you getting in trouble like that.”

“What, you mean you didn’t want me falling into Riko’s trap?” He stared at Neil when he said those words, and tightened his fingers when Neil didn’t react other than to close his eyes. “’Not the redhead’, one of them said.  You heard it too, right?”

“Kind of difficult to miss when he was stopping the other one from breaking my ribs,” Neil admitted. “When did you figure it out?”

“I had plenty of time to think things through, while waiting for the fancy lawyer you hired to work on my bail.” Andrew tugged some more. “You interfered tonight. You put yourself at risk stopping me and you called Wolfe.”

Neil opened his eyes and glared. “I’m not going to stand by and do nothing while you just… just… argh!” He made as if to shove Andrew’s hand aside before his fingers curled loosely around Andrew’s wrist instead. “Go ahead and hate me if you must, but I’m not going to do nothing if I can help you.” He said that last part so quietly and while glancing aside, his fingers letting go of Andrew’s wrist to fall down onto his lap, that Andrew felt some of his anger fade.

“Why were you sleeping in the den?”

The change in topic seemed to confuse Neil, as he looked back at Andrew, his brows drawn together and teeth biting into his swollen bottom lip. “The den? But you – I figured you’d just want to sleep when you came home, so-“ he motioned to the bed they were on. “You probably didn’t want to see me.”

Because he’d told Neil that he hated him. “I really do hate you, you know.” He watched how Neil flinched at those words and kept Neil from scooting away any further with the grip on those soft, reddish strands. “You shouldn’t… I hate how you affect me. I hate you having this much control,” he admitted, his voice harsh as his fingers twisted enough that he had to be hurting Neil again. Why did it seem that he was always hurting Neil somehow?

Yet all Neil did was go still and look up at him, to run a light touch along his arm. “I won’t lose you,” he said, his voice quiet but fierce. “To your own stupidity or Riko, I *won’t*.”

Andrew was surprised when a slight laugh slipped free and he bent his head forward to rest against Neil’s. “That wasn’t stupidity last night, you idiot.” His fingers relaxed enough so they could skim down and rest against the nape of Neil’s back.

“It wasn’t you at your brightest, trying to tear five guys apart with your bare hands.” Tension left Neil’s body as he relaxed against Andrew.

“Who looks the worst right now?” He allowed himself this moment, the feel of Neil against him and the peace of their room, before he pulled away. “So, Riko. When did *you* figure it out?”

Neil rubbed at his left eye, exhaustion and pain making him appear younger than his nearly seventeen years. “Probably around the same time you did, a bit after the fight.” He sent still for a moment and then sighed. “Had my suspicions when the one guy stopped beating me up, but knew for certain when Riko texted me.”

The anger Andrew had worked so hard to bank flared up when he heard that. “What did he say?” Before Neil had a chance to answer him, he was off of the bed, having remembered about Neil’s phone being left out in the kitchen.

He made it there before Neil did, fumbling with the lock aside, and was swiping through the texts when Neil limped over and Aaron looked up from the cup of coffee he was nursing for some reason instead of being in bed. It was easy to figure out which one was from Riko – it was the only blocked one in a sea of texts from Erik, Aaron, Agent Wolfe and even Roland that night, and Andrew felt an overwhelming urge to destroy something as he read the words. Something must have shown on his face, because Neil began to shake his head.

“No, don’t, don’t do anything – dammit!” The last was for Andrew dropping Neil’s phone into the garbage disposal and turning the machine on, for it to grind onto the phone with an awful crunching sound for several seconds before producing a high pitched squealing; around then Neil managed to push Andrew aside and turn off what was probably the busted machine. “Dammit,” he repeated in a quieter voice as he stared into the sink strewn with bits of plastic and metal.

Yeah, that had helped a little. Not as much as shoving Riko’s hand into the thing, but it helped a little.

Once Andrew was finished, Aaron got up from the table, mug in hand, and peered into the sink. “Huh, nice.” He glanced back and forth between Neil and Andrew. “I’m seeing a pattern here,” he said as he stared at Andrew. “Is willful destruction of phones part of your two’s foreplay or what?”

Andrew gave his twin a flat look to say he was *not* amused by the pathetic joke. “Are you offering up yours to test out that theory?”

“Do you have any idea how awful it is to keep getting new ones,” Neil complained as he slumped against the counter, appearing utterly done with everything. “They *know* me at the store now. At all of the stores, as soon as I walk in.” He said that as if it was painful, like having a tooth extracted or something.

“That’s what happens when you feed the monster,” Andrew snapped, and mentally kicked himself when he saw the way Neil’s face became blank as a result. Dammit, Riko would be harassing Neil one way or another, it was just too easy to lash out at someone within reach than at Riko, who was safe behind Castle Evermore’s walls. Still, for some reason, Andrew couldn’t make himself apologize.

Busy paying attention to what was going on, Aaron narrowed his eyes before he went over to refill his mug with some coffee he must have just brewed. “So, this is where you two start with the explaining, I believe.” Once his mug was filled, he reached into the cupboard above to fetch two empty mugs. “Sit down and start talking.”

Neil stirred a little and shook his head. “What about Nicky?”

“He can be caught up later.” Aaron pointed at the kitchen table. “I want answers.”

Neil chewed at his bottom lip and looked at Andrew as if taking his cues from him, and sighed when Andrew nodded a couple of seconds later; as much as he’d tried to keep his brother and his cousin free of anything that had to do with the Moriyamas, Riko had dragged them into the whole mess last night. It was time to come clean.

When everyone had their coffee and was seated at the table, Neil started by telling Aaron about his childhood, about his father and that day at Castle Evermore. About how he knew now the importance of the day, about how he was meant to be handed over to Tetsuji Moriyama as an asset, to play Exy as a Raven and earn money for the Moriyama family. As he continued with his story, went on about his mother and her running away with him, first disbelief and horror spread across Aaron’s face. He stared intently at Neil during it all while barely sipping his coffee, until Neil, his voice ragged from talking and face bleak from discussing the past, reached the point where his past had crossed Andrew’s in Oakland.

Andrew took it over from there, the details sparse as all that Aaron really needed to know was that he and Neil had met, had fallen in together and Andrew knew what he was getting into by running off with Neil. He glossed over the whole Reno mess and summed up them living in Racine in a few words, leading up to Riko tracking them down there and revealing Neil’s past, that he was Moriyama property. It was because of him that they left Racine and came to Columbia, where they made a deal with the FBI to wipe clean Andrew’s criminal record and set Neil up with a new ID, and in hopes of managing to wrangle Neil free from Riko’s grip. Unfortunately, Riko didn’t seem willing to let go.

By the time they were finished, most of the coffee was gone and Neil looked ready to fall asleep at the table. Meanwhile, Aaron kept shaking his head. “That’s… it’s insane. Where do people get off just… just handing over their kids like that?” The look he gave Neil just then was one of pity.

“At least his father assumed he had some value, he didn’t give him away as if he was nothing,” Andrew said.

That made Aaron’s face become flushed and Neil lean back in his chair, face carefully blank. “It’s not the same,” Aaron insisted, his voice rough and hands clenched around his empty mug.

“Whatever.” Andrew was too tired to get into a fight over Tilda right now. “You wanted to know what was going on, and now you do.” He stood up from the table, unsteady on his feet for a moment as he felt every one of the punches which had landed during the fight earlier, and sighed. “Come on, we’re going to bed,” he told Neil.

“’bout time.” Neil was even more unsteady on his feet and nearly walked into the doorway as he preceded Andrew to their bedroom. It was a good thing that the alarm clock was in pieces on the far side of the room, because Andrew just wanted to sleep until he couldn’t anymore, and somehow he didn’t think he’d have to worry about Neil getting up early to go running or anything.

Resting in his spot by the wall, he waited for Neil to curl up on the bed as well, lying down facing him. He reached out to brush his fingers once more along the bruises, but Neil caught his hand and entwined their fingers together as he closed his eyes.

Taking that – Neil still here with him, saying that he refused to lose him – to mean that he was forgiven, Andrew didn’t pull his fingers free and closed his own eyes and allowed himself to fall asleep.

*******

Neil had worried that the worst of what would come out of the attack would be the legal impact to Andrew and Nicky finding out that he’d been hurt because of Neil. The first seemed to be under control as Andrew’s lawyer, Martin Dupree, called them early in the following week to let them know he had been in talks with the D.A. and the judge who would handle Andrew’s case, and it was likely that due to Agent Wolfe putting in a good word for him, along with the circumstances of the case and Andrew’s age, that all Andrew would face would be some court-ordered therapy and a probationary period – Dupree was working out the specifics of both with the D.A. at the moment. Once they reached an agreement, he would notify Andrew and have it signed off by a judge, and Andrew’s record would be cleared once again as soon as he completed the requirements without incident. Andrew didn’t seem to believe the man, but Neil put that down to his friend having received few breaks in his life.

As for Nicky, Neil was certain that the young man would hate him once he found out the truth, but he’d just hugged Neil afterwards – a very uncomfortable thing for them both, considering Nicky’s injuries and, well, *Neil* - until Andrew had threatened to stab Nicky to make him stop molesting Neil. Nicky seemed to care more about what Neil had gone through than the fact that he’d been beaten up because of Neil, which Neil just… didn’t understand. But as long as the man didn’t hate him, Neil would accept it.

The true fallout of the of the fight became evident when they returned to school, Neil and Andrew still sporting bruises from the fight, though Neil’s knee had finally stopped bothering him. Somehow word of the fight must have gotten around, because people were giving Andrew odd looks and avoiding him, making certain to get out of his way. Neil received several pitying looks his way throughout the day, and noticed that people gave their table a wider berth than normal at lunch. He almost said something to Andrew and Aaron, but decided not to because of Aaron’s bad mood and Andrew’s twisted amusement.

However, the amusement came to an end later that week during Exy practice, when Andrew was called into Coach Jackson’s office when they were done for the day. They’d been pushed hard all week because of the upcoming away game at Charlotte, where it was expected that USC would have scouts. Since Eddy had signed with Penn State the other day, Neil wondered if Coach wanted to talk to Andrew about something before they left for the game… and was outside running laps, Aaron sitting on the bleachers and playing on his phone, when Andrew came storming out several minutes later.

Catching sight of the murderous expression on his friend’s face, Neil cut across the field to intercept Andrew. “What happened?” Aaron was just as quick to notice and was coming down from the bleachers.

“Fucking Riko.” Andrew ground out, a rare show of true anger on his face as he clenched his fists and glanced around as if looking for something to punch. “It wasn’t just about trying to kill Nicky or locking me up, damn him.”

Neil felt something cold run down his back despite being warm from practice and running. “Riko….” What did Riko have to do with Coach Jackson? “What do you mean?”

Andrew reached out and fisted his hands into Neil’s jersey. “The damn scholarships – Jackson just told me that he’s heard from Breckenridge and Penn State already, and it’s only time for Maryland, too. They all have policies against recruiting anyone with any type of criminal record, and those nice charges that I have pending?” He gave Neil a quick shake before letting go. “He fucked up the scholarships.”

“But why would he do that?” Aaron looked as if he wanted to reach out to his brother but stopped with his hand just short. “What does it get him?”

“It keeps Andrew from signing at the same school I’m trying for,” Neil said as he struggled not to have a panic attack. “He knows I’m trying for a school other than Edger Allen and he’s blocking Andrew from getting into them.” What were the chances of Andrew submitting a regular application for one of the schools? His grades had been decent the last year or so, but on the whole, good enough to get into Penn State? USC?

Andrew nodded. “He’s trying to take away your guard dog.” He reached out to give the back of Neil’s neck a quick squeeze, as if to help calm him down. “Jackson told me I can forget about USC. Had this whole spiel about how disappointed he was in me and about how I better not drag you down with me, I walked out about then before I broke his damn neck.”

Neil winced when he heard that. “Ah, thank you.” Yeah, that had been a remarkable amount of restraint on his friend’s part.

“So let me get this, not only did this asshole pay guys to beat up Nicky, but he did it to set you up so you’d get arrested and lose your scholarships?” Aaron almost sounded impressed, even if he looked ready to break some necks himself. “Why is he still alive?”

No, that was not what Neil wanted to hear just then – feeding the monster indeed. “Because he has a small army perfectly willing to kill anyone who tries to change that condition,” Neil snapped before either of the two idiots got any stupid ideas into their heads.

Andrew patted Neil on the head. “Let the adults worry about the petty details.”

“Those petty details have guns,” Neil gritted out.

All Andrew did was hum a little as he patted him again before walking past him with Aaron falling in step beside him.

Oh that so didn’t seem like a good thing. Neil scrubbed at his face despite the soreness of his right eye before he gave in and followed the twins.

*******

“Well, that’s another one down,” Aaron said to Andrew as they went out onto the court so Charlotte could wish them a good game – the Caps had beaten them, had actually done a good job tonight, between Andrew blocking out all goals for his half of the game and Neil running around the court as if demons were chasing him. The latter was almost true, in a metaphorical way, considering that the USC scouts were in the crowd and he had an even more pressing reason to want to catch their attention now. As for himself, Andrew had considered his performance earlier as one big ‘fuck you’ to the school and their strict recruiting policy.

Out of breath from all that running around, Neil leaned against him for support while he did the handshaking thing and Andrew just glared at the other team, and then they headed for the lockers; as soon as they reached them, Aaron was quick to text Nicky to make sure that their cousin was still doing all right alone at home for the night. He gave them a thumb’s up whenever the idiot texted back and rolled his eyes, probably because of Nicky’s dumb response.

“How’s the knee?”

Neil shrugged as he removed his gear. “A little sore, but it held up okay.” At Andrew’s frown, he sighed and shook his head. “No, really, I’m not going to risk messing it up.”

“Still, don’t go running off any time soon. Just sit your ass at home this weekend.” Andrew had noticed him favoring it a little during the game.

That earned him a frown in return, but Neil had at least agreed to stay at home with Nicky until he felt well enough to return to working at the club, which should be a few more days. Ah, guilt was such a wonderful thing when it came to keeping certain trouble-magnets out of harm’s way.

They were still waiting for the showers to empty out enough for Neil to use them when Coach Jackson came over with an odd expression on his face; considering what Andrew had said to him the other day, the two of them had barely talked to each other, outside of the man giving Andrew instructions on playing the game.

“Andrew, there’s someone here to see you.” He made a jerking motion back to one of the private room. “Now.”

Well wasn’t that interesting, considering the fact that he was basically untouchable to USC? Was there some other university out there that didn’t have such high standards? Neil had gone on guard upon hearing their coach bark at Andrew, while Aaron was staring at him as if waiting to see what he’d do.

“Well, this should be interesting,” he said as he removed his shoulder pads. “Let’s go see who wants to talk to me, hmm?” He noticed that the few remaining teammates who weren’t in the showers, such as Sarah, Jay and Steve, were paying attention to everything as well, since word had spread about him losing the scholarships.

He didn’t know what he expected when he entered the small room with a table and a couple of chairs, maybe someone from a university with a second string Exy team like Baylor or Kent State, but when he saw the black outfit with the red shirt, saw the familiar face, his reaction was immediate – he got one punch in before Jackson managed to pull him off of Kevin Day.

“Minyard? What the hell? What are you doing?” Jackson shoved him across the room while Kevin straightened up and wiped at his mouth; good, the bastard was bleeding. “Do you want to get arrested again? Do you have any idea who the hell you just hit?”

“Yes, and get the hell out of my way so I can do it again!”

“He’s here to recruit you, you ungrateful little shit!” Jackson seemed to realize what he just said and shook his head, his face flushed with anger as he stepped back from Andrew. “Sorry, that was out of line, but you can’t go hitting people like that!”

“I can when they’re bastards.” Andrew bared his teeth at Day. “Where’s your master? Did he have the balls to come here?”

Kevin’s eyes went wide at that comment and he gave a quick look at Jackson. “He – ah, I’d really like to talk to Andrew alone, Mr. Jackson.” Despite his bleeding lip, he summoned one of the smiles that he always flashed on tv. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding here.”

To say that Jackson appeared incredulous just then was an understatement. “Son, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Minyard has some… anger management issues.”

Yeah, way to be on his side. Still, Kevin’s smile smoothed out. “I think it was the surprise of the moment, sir, and we’ll do fine.”

“There’s supposed to be an adult present for these things.”

“It’ll probably go a bit better if it’s just the two of us, being we’re the same age.” Kevin continued to smile at Jackson until the man grumbled a little then nodded.

“I’ll be right outside the door.” He gave Andrew a warning look as he pointed at the door. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Oh, I assure you, nothing of the kind,” Andrew told him in a too-sweet tone. Nothing stupid at all about killing a bastard traitor in his book. He waited until the man left and then scowled at Day. “What, don’t want anyone to hear me badmouth Riko? To go on about what an absolute psycho he is, sending men down here to beat up my cousin?”

Kevin’s smile slipped away, to be replaced by a mix of fear and horror. “You can’t say things like that! You have to know what he is by now!” He cursed under his breath in what sounded to be Japanese as he dabbed at his mouth. “It’s insanity!”

“No, the insanity is all on Riko’s part,” Andrew informed him. “Try to tell me you don’t get that by now.”

All Kevin did was shake his head. “I didn’t come down here to argue with you about Riko, I’m here to recruit you.”

Oh this was just priceless, Andrew thought to himself as he stroked his right hand along his left arm guard and toyed with the idea of sending Kevin back to Riko in pieces; only the fact that he refused to fall into another of that asshole’s traps kept him from beating Day’s face into a bloody pulp. “You’ve got to be kidding me – Riko fucks up my chance to get in with all the other universities and then he sends you to me?” Something in his voice just then made Kevin flinch. “You were there when he talked about beating me, and you think I’m going to sign up for that, willingly? You want to talk insanity? Go look in the fucking mirror, Day.”

Again, Kevin shook his head. “No, I promise you, that won’t happen – I got the Mas- I got Tetsuji’s word.” Kevin actually seemed earnest just then, which was sickening as all hell. “Riko doesn’t care about you anymore, he said that you’re my responsibility of you come to the Nest. He swore that he wouldn’t touch you, so you’ll be safe. Just sign up and you can play Exy.” He was actually smiling at the end there.

Andrew stared at him for several seconds, and then he was across the room with Kevin slammed up against the room with one of Andrew’s knives at his throat. “*I’ll* be safe? And what the fuck am I supposed to do when it’s Neil’s turn, hmm? Do you think I’m fucking stupid? Do you think I don’t know why he sent you down here?” The blood drained from Kevin’s face, making the tattooed ‘2’ stand out all the more against his left cheekbone. “His fucking endgame is to get his claws on Neil, and it makes it so much easier if I’m at Edgar Allen, doesn’t it? Well *fuck* *you* and fuck your offer.”

Kevin made as if to shake his head but stopped when the blade pressed against his neck. “No! It’s not – dammit, he’s going to win anyway, so just take it! Take the damn offer,” he ground out in a desperate whine. “This way you get to play and you’re safe, and Nathaniel has you there. You’re too damn good to let Riko ruin your career, and Nathaniel’s going to need you when- ah!” He hissed in pain when a drop of blood inched its way down his throat.

“Don’t,” Andrew crooned. “Don’t assume, it’s much too dangerous. Don’t assume that Riko’s won, don’t assume he’s gotten Neil and don’t ever assume he’s beaten me.” He held the knife against Kevin’s throat for another second or two and then forced himself to step back before he went too far and couldn’t stop. “Now go back to your master and tell him that I said ‘fuck off’.”

That said, he wiped the blade clean on Kevin’s black jeans, enjoying the way that the other teen flinched in response, and slipped it back in the guard as he headed for the door. Jackson was standing just outside of it, as was Neil and Aaron with clean clothes in their hands, and a few other teammates a few feet down the hall.

“Andrew! Dammit, think about what you’re doing,” Kevin called out as he came running after him, and Neil paled when he caught sight of him; Andrew latched on to Neil’s arm to pull him along, while Aaron’s eyes went wide in surprise. “Nathaniel, tell him to-“

Andrew pushed Neil ahead of him while he spun around to glare at the bastard, right hand held up in a fist. “What part of ‘fuck off’ do you not get? I told you ‘no’ now shut up!” Around him, Jackson, Sarah and the others gasped, as if it was some unfathomable thing, saying ‘no’ to Kevin Day.

Kevin took a step back, expression now wary as he looked first from Andrew and then to Neil. When he next spoke it was in Japanese – which did nothing to calm Andrew’s temper. Neil’s expression hardened, and then he spoke back in the same language, Andrew thought he heard the word ‘Ichiro’. When he was done, he tugged Andrew with him in the direction of the showers.

Jackson, asshole that he was, could be heard apologizing to Kevin, but Andrew didn’t give a shit, as long as the bastard just left. “What did he say to you?”

Neil tugged on his bangs and was quiet until they entered the empty shower room, and waited until Aaron took up guard by the entrance to start undressing. “He told me to talk sense into you, that it would be better for me if I had an ally at the Nest when I joined the Ravens.”

Andrew was almost tempted to go track down Kevin and punch him again. “And what did you say back to him?”

“To tell Riko that I don’t answer to him, I answer to Ichiro and so I’m never going to be a Raven.” Neil gave him a sheepish grin. “I know, don’t feed the monster.”

“I think this one time I’ll let it slide.” Uncaring about where they were at the moment, Andrew leaned in for a kiss, one Neil was eager to return – at least until Aaron cleared his throat.

“More showering, less ‘friendliness’, I want to wash off too, you know.”

Andrew gave his twin the finger but started to undress so he could wash off and get ready to return home.

*******

The days following the Charlotte game were… were not the best. It wasn’t long before the texts started pouring in on Neil’s phone, which he refused to look at until he, Andrew and Aaron returned home late that Friday night. As expected, Riko hadn’t been pleased with either Andrew’s refusal to join the Ravens or Neil’s comment, and after telling Neil that ‘the mutt would never set foot on Edgar Allen soil’, started in on Neil about how he would pay for each of Andrew’s ‘insults’. Neil’s hands shook with rage and the urge to type back when Andrew snatched the phone from him, read the texts with a blank face and then began to respond.

Having an idea where this was all going to lead to, Neil got up from the couch with a weary sigh and went to fetch two bottles of water, and came back to the living room to see Andrew still at it, with a scary smile on his face while Aaron and Nicky watched on with an almost hypnotized fascination.

“I thought he said ‘don’t feed the monster’,” Aaron whispered to Neil.

“Yep,” Neil began a mental countdown as he took a sip.

“So which monster is doing the feeding right now?”

“Very good question.” Neil cringed when Andrew’s smile twitched, just a little, and sighed again when his phone was thrown across the room with enough force to leave a sizable dent in the wall. Nicky yelped in surprise and covered his head as if it had been thrown at him, while Aaron just blinked. The same smile on his face, Andrew got up and went over to stomp on the broken phone for good measure.

Once he was finished, Neil glared at him. “You’re paying for that,” he said as he handed over the other bottle of water; he was getting so sick and tired of ordering new phones and changing his number.

“But it’s such a pleasurable method of transference,” Andrew insisted. “Until the time I get to do that to dear Riko’s face, allow me my simple fun.”

“Your ‘simple fun’ is costing me money,” Neil complained.

“Hmm, you’re right, much better to just go to the heart of the matter and end it right now.”

Neil gritted his teeth and shook his head, well aware of what Andrew was doing. “You know it’s not. Fine, just keep destroying my phones.”

There was a hint of a smirk around the mouth of the bottle as Andrew had some water. “Ah, now it’s okay. Still, the phones are only a temporary measure.” The smile vanished, to be replaced by that awful blank look. “He’ll have to be dealt with eventually.”

Like that was a pleasant thought. Neil finished his water and led Andrew to the bedroom, more than willing to go to sleep after such a long day. He would need some, since the next day would mean yet another new phone and him putting up with Nicky while Andrew and Aaron worked at the club. Nicky was mostly healed from the previous week’s fight, but didn’t want to return to Eden’s Twilight until all of his bruises were gone, so that meant Neil had to put up with a hyper and sometimes jumpy Nicky, watch some rather dubious movie choices, put up with learning how to play some video games, and do his best not to overhear some rather sappy and x-rated phone calls. Why the man couldn’t just stay up in his room when he talked to Erik….

Sunday was the best day out of all of them, with his phone turned off and most of it spent in the bedroom with Andrew, catching up on homework and… well, spent in the bedroom with Andrew and ‘yes’. It was worth it to put up with the teasing from Nicky at dinner and Aaron’s sardonic ‘friends’ comments, even if he had to intervene to save them both from Andrew a couple of times.

Which was important, to have had that one good day, because it really went downhill once they were back in school; somehow word had gotten out that Andrew had turned down Kevin Day, had turned down an offer from the *Ravens*. Neil wanted to blame Riko for it, but there was too much sullenness directed his friend’s way from the rest of the Caps during their practice on Monday, too much anger and disbelief and jealousy. Even Coach Jackson seemed curt and unwilling to deal with Andrew, and Neil remembered the look the man’s face as Andrew had told Kevin to fuck off, the same looks on Jay’s and Steve’s, and knew that his own team was at least partially to blame for the rancor in the locker room. Eddy tried his best to restore the sense of unity, until Jay made a snide comment about him having a full ride so what did he care? Besides, it wasn’t as if *Eddy* was good enough to be scouted by the Ravens, huh. At that point, it was clear that even Eddy had to distance himself before he did something to jeopardize his own scholarship – and Neil couldn’t blame him.

Andrew walked out halfway through practice; Neil went to go after him, but Aaron stopped him. “No, it’ll only make him that much more pissed off if you mess things up for yourself,” Aaron warned. “Stick it out.”

Neil’s hands tightened on his racquet as if it was one of the necks of his teammates. “This isn’t right.” For all of their faults, he couldn’t see the Panthers tearing into each other like the Caps were doing right now.

“No, it isn’t. They’re just jealous that they’re not good enough for Kevin to have come for any of them.” Aaron stared at the rest of their team with open loathing. “Watch your back with these guys.”

The rest of the week was more of the same, with the kids at school whispering about Andrew behind his back, even worse than after his arrest, and with him only showing up at practice enough to keep an eye on Neil and Aaron. Half the time he’d suit up and then sit on the bench without doing anything, would just give Coach Jackson a flat look if the man tried to talk to him, and he refused to speak to anyone else on the team.

Aaron was trying to engage Neil in a bet about how badly they were going to lose on Friday; Neil just gave him a blank look in return for the poor joke, but he secretly agreed about their chances for the game.

The only high point was Martin Dupree calling to say that a deal had been worked out for Andrew; two years’ probation and mandatory therapy with a psychiatrist of his choice once a week for that same time period.  Andrew was set for a date in a couple weeks’ time to go before a judge and make it official, and as long as there were no new incidents during that time period, his record would be wiped clean once again.

Even with that bit of good news, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Aiken did defeat them come Friday night – the team was too fractured, the players too focused on playing as individuals and not cooperating with each other. Neil did what he could, but if he was honest with himself, he just didn’t care enough at that point. He’d worked hard all season, had pushed himself to improve as fast as he could… and didn’t know if he could try any harder to take this team onward after what they had done to Andrew.

As for his friend, Andrew barely made a token effort to defend the goal, his movements lazy and attitude a far cry from the last game. Coach Jackson was quick to sub him out with Steve, not that the change helped the game that much. Neil could see that the man wanted to strangle Andrew when Jay was subbed out for him and he got to sit out the final last few minutes of the game, by that point their lose a forgone conclusion, but Andrew didn’t give a shit.

“Guess we’re done for the season,” Neil murmured as he took off his helmet.

“Hmm.” Andrew watched as the other team added to their score. “Let’s go to the club and surprise Nicky when this is all done.”

Neil looked at his friend in disbelief upon hearing that, while Aaron was quick to agree. When Andrew turned to stare at him, he gave a slight shrug before pulling off his bandana; okay, so Andrew wanted to celebrate their loss, it should be an interesting night.

Coach Jackson looked as if he wanted to do more than throttle someone when it came time to thank the other team for the game, since he probably had felt this year was his best shot at winning a title, and the acrimonious feelings only increased as everyone headed to the locker room. There were mutterings of ‘fucked it up for himself, so what, had to fuck it up for us as well?’, and ‘always were strange, those three’. When Neil did his usual drawing out of getting undressed so he didn’t have to shower with everyone else, he heard Jay make a loud, snickering laugh. “So what do you think they do in there, huh? Think it’s a threeway or one of them likes to watch? Josten’s pretty enough that-“

Andrew had been on his feet as soon as Jay started to talk, and the sound of his fist smacking into the locker near the striker echoed through the room. “If you didn’t get enough hits to the head tonight, just let me know, I’ll be happy to make up for the lack.” Neil couldn’t tell since Andrew’s back was facing him, but he had the feeling that Jay was being ‘graced’ with one of his friend’s awful smiles just then, where Andrew’s lips curved but his eyes went dead. Neil could tell from the way that Jay shook his head in a frantic manner and stuttered out a ‘no’, and how everyone around him rushed to go take their showers.

“So glad we’re done with these losers,” Aaron muttered as he stripped off his gear.

“Hmm.” Andrew seemed lost in thought as he worked on his gear, but since he kept said thoughts to himself, Neil left him be.

As soon as everyone cleared out, making a point to not look at the three of them, Andrew, Neil and Aaron went to wash off, talking all the while about their plans for the night. Well, Aaron did most of the talking, with Andrew clarifying a few points – they’d go back home to change into ‘suitable’ clothes for the club (mainly Neil) and then head to Eden’s Twilight, where no one was to wander off. Aaron was a bit annoyed with that, but as long as he got to drink, fine. They were picking up some last items from their lockers when they heard Coach Jackson call out Andrew’s name.

Remembering the last time something like that had happened and their coach’s displeasure with Andrew, Neil and Aaron left their stuff behind and followed Andrew as he went to the man’s office. “Someone wants to talk to you.” Jackson sounded rather surly about that fact.

“Oh, another surprise.” Andrew’s smile just then was chilling enough to make Jackson flinch. “Let’s hope for your sake this one turns out better than the last.”

“Kid… I swear that you’ve added five years to my life,” Jackson complained as he waved to the inside of his office. “Can’t wait to wash my hands of you.”

Andrew motioned that he would go in first, and shot a glance at Aaron before he did just that; Aaron put his hand on Neil’s shoulder to hold him back a moment, until he heard a man’s gruff voice call out Andrew’s name. As if that had been some sign, Aaron let him into the room.

Andrew was standing in front of an older man, probably late thirties, early forties, with dark hair and tribal tattoos creeping down the arms exposed by his short sleeved shirt – a shirt that bore a white and orange emblem. Neil stepped into the room just as the man introduced himself. “Nice to meet you, I’m David Wymack, coach of the Palmetto Foxes.”

*******

 

Chapter Text

*******

Andrew didn’t know what he had been expecting in Jackson’s office, but it wasn’t someone who looked as if he should be down at the local bar instead of scouting Exy players, even if it was for a team with as bad of a reputation as the Foxes. “Wymack, huh?” He ignored the man’s outstretched hand and motioned to Aaron that it was safe for Neil to come further into the room since it wasn’t another Raven asshole.

Neil was staring at Wymack with wariness and a bit of confusion, as if wondering why he was here, and Aaron didn’t seem to recognize him at all. Meanwhile, Jackson stood in the doorway with his arms folded over his chest and a put upon expression on his face. “If these other two are bothering you, I can-“

“No, they’re fine,” Wymack assured the asshole with a wave of his left hand. “Though I’d appreciate it if you gave me a chance to talk to Andrew and his family alone, Bill.”

Jackson didn’t appear happy to hear that, though Andrew hadn’t seen him look happy about much at all, lately. “I don’t know, the rules-“

“You had no problem bending them for Kevin Day,” Andrew reminded him.

“And we all know how well that went,” Jackson shot back. When all Andrew did was stare at him with a slight smile, the asshole threw his hands up in the air. “I’m going to go make sure the locker room is all cleaned up. Take your damn time.”

Wymack waved him off and waited until the door was closed to speak. “Bill’s been coaching here for… damn, ten years or more? You guys looked good this season, I’m sure it broke his heart for your team to break down tonight.”

Andrew’s face went blank as he settled back between a tense Neil and Aaron. “And whose fault is that?”

“Well, part of it is his, for letting his team go out there so fucked up, but I noticed that you played a hell of a lot better at your last game than this one.” Then Wymack gave a quick chuckle. “But I’m not your coach, not yet, so I’m not going to bust your balls.”

Beside Andrew, Aaron stirred at that while Neil was almost perfectly still, all eyes and ears as if he was intent on not missing anything – or drawing attention to himself. “And why are you here?” Aaron asked.

“It’s simple, I need players for my team.” Wymack settled back against Jackson’s desk, a slight wince flashing across his face as his one hip lifted up. “I’m here to recruit you for the Palmetto State University Foxes.”

“You’re here to recruit Andrew?” Aaron glanced at Andrew and shook his head. “Right, after all the other schools turned him down because of the charges? I’ve heard the Foxes suck, but are you really that desperate?”

Wymack shrugged off the insult to his team and instead reached down and gripped the edges of the desk as he looked between Aaron and Andrew for a few seconds. “Palmetto State isn’t like other universities, they let me run my program the way I want to and I don’t give a damn about your criminal record.” When Andrew scoffed at that, Wymack gave a slight shrug. “Okay, I give a little bit of a damn, but I did my research before I came here, and your charges? Not bad enough to get you kicked out of my program.”

Andrew scoffed again upon hearing that. “Isn’t that so kind of you – I’d heard you recruited troublemakers, but you’re in over your head here.”

Wymack just stared at him for a few more seconds before reaching behind on the desk into an open briefcase for a folder, then flipped it open. “Andrew Wymack, eighteen years old, senior at Columbia High. Impressive as hell statistics, which is what had all those other schools sending their recruiters after you – recruiters you basically ignored.” His gaze flickered up at Andrew, then at Aaron and Neil. “Year before that you were at Park High, but as Aidan Hennon.”

“Found out I’d been adopted and decided to come live with my real mother,” Andrew lied, giving up the story he and Neil had decided upon when people had asked about how Aaron’s long lost twin had been ‘discovered’, and with a ‘friend’ in tow at that, as well as to explain his year as Aidan back in Racine.

All the explanation earned from Wymack was a slight nod. “You did a pretty good job there, so much so that the Panthers’ have suffered without you this year.” He closed the folder and gave Andrew an even look. “What I find interesting is the lack of anything beyond that, considering your skill.”

All Andrew did was shrug and stare back at him without any emotion.

“That and… you know, there’s this odd thing - about two, two and a half years ago, some coach out in Oakland, California called me.” Wymack continued to study Andrew while Neil took to leaning against him, just the slightest bit. “Davy Sanchez, he works at Wayward Burns, a juvenile detention center located there. Said he had this kid who played goalkeeper who was talented as hell, if lacking some motivation. Davy knows that I take on the hard cases, that I like to give second chances and was hoping that I could help the kid out a little, could maybe stop by one day if I was out that way recruiting for the team – but the kid up and disappeared not too long after that.” A slight smile crept over Wymack’s face as he went in for the kill. “Funny, how the kid’s name was ‘Andrew’, too.”

“Uhm…,” Aaron glanced between Andrew and Wymack, until Andrew hit him in the side with his elbow. “Ow!”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about, that sounds like a rather weak coincidence to me,” Andrew insisted with a fake smile.

Wymack’s dark eyes narrowed yet the small smile remained. “Sure it is, but my point here is that everything about you, whoever you are, points to you being the right candidate for my team.”

So what if the guy had done his research, Andrew had heard enough – nothing that Penn State or the others had been selling him had been enough to catch his attention, not when it all depended on where Neil would end up in another year, and the guy with the worst team in the Class I division thought he could win Andrew over? “And I think you’re delusional, crazy theories and all,” Andrew told him as he nudged Neil in the side and pointed toward the door. “I’m not interested in your team.”

“You haven’t heard my offer,” Wymack called out as they started to move.

“I’ve heard enough.”

“What about your brother?”

“Wait, what?” Aaron came to a stop and turned around, as did Andrew once it was clear that Aaron’s attention was snagged. “What about me?”

Wymack’s smile strengthened while Andrew felt the urge to punch the asshole. “I said that I needed players, didn’t I? The offer is for more than just you, Andrew.” He reached back and grabbed two more folders. “Aaron Minyard, senior at Columbia High. Decent statistics, but you’ve shown some real improvement this past season. I can work with that.”

Andrew caught sight of the hope warring on his brother’s face with disbelief and clenched his hands into fists; he knew that Aaron wanted to do something with his life, that part of his fear with Tilda was that she’d drag him down to where he’d never be anything but a useless drug-addict. Because of her, his previous school years had been affected by poor parenting and drug use, and it was only this past one where he’d been able to focus on his grades and had any hope of pursuing his dreams of some sort of medical career. Now for this asshole to be dangling it in front of him…. “If this is some sort of sick joke,” he snarled. He refused to be manipulated because of his brother.

The smile was gone from Wymack’s face when he glanced his way. “It’s not – I don’t joke about shit like this. I told you, I did my research, and I’m here for players. I’m also willing to offer a scholarship to your cousin, Nicky Hemmick.” He held up the folders. “I can see that he was a decent backliner as well in high school.”

“If this is a damn joke, I will break your neck,” Andrew threatened, unwilling to accept that his family was being used against him, even as Aaron stared at Wymack as if this was his dream come true and something awful twisted in Andrew’s gut.

“It’s not,” Wymack repeated. “I always do my research, and I figured there’s a reason you came back to Columbia.” He glanced at Neil for a moment, until Andrew shifting in front of his friend made the man focus his attention back on him. “I figure having your family at Palmetto will be best for you.”

“So what, you only want us because of Andrew?” Aaron asked, that bit of hope wiped from his face.

“I won’t take anyone on my team who can’t be of use,” Wymack told him in an even tone of voice. “If you have a problem, don’t accept the scholarship.”

“Yeah, well you can just fu-“ Andrew stopped when he felt Neil tug on his arm and turned toward him in surprise. “What?”

“So that’s the offer? Three scholarships for Andrew, Aaron and Nicky?” Neil didn’t look at Andrew, he stared right at Wymack with a blank expression, one Andrew recognized from when he was determined to give nothing away. “Full rides?”

Wymack seemed just as surprised to hear from Neil but nodded. “Yes, full tuition, room and board for five years.”

Was Neil even considering for them to take the damn offer? The Foxes were the worst team out there, dammit, it wasn’t as if Neil had paid any attention to them before. “We wouldn’t need room and board,” Andrew told Wymack as he glared at Neil, trying to figure out what the hell his friend was thinking.

“Tough shit, all players are required to live on campus,” Wymack insisted.

“Andrew, what are you-“ Aaron, that hope returned to his expression, stilled when he looked at Neil. “Oh, fuck.”

Wymack seemed to have caught that. “Is there a problem with you living on campus?”

Andrew debated saying anything just then, but Neil continued to stare at him with that even expression which gave nothing away. “If we take you up on your offer, and that’s a big fucking *if*, we have to figure out someplace nearby for Neil to stay.”

“Oh, that.” Wymack waved his right hand as if it was nothing. “There’s decent apartments near the school, I’m sure one of the teachers can-“

“Not good enough,” Andrew ground out as he glared at the man even as he wondered why he was continuing on with this.

“We can talk about this later, just get the information about the scholarships so we can talk to Nicky,” Neil urged him as he tugged on the sleeve of Andrew’s t-shirt, a faint hint of apprehension showing as he glanced Wymack’s way. “That stuff isn’t important.”

Like hell it wasn’t important – the last thing Andrew was going to even contemplate was leaving Neil on his own, especially with how pissed off Riko had been after the whole Kevin Day shit. “Shut up,” Andrew snapped even when he knew it would piss off Neil. “It’s not up to debate.”

“What am I missing here?” Wymack asked Aaron.

The traitor answered the question. “Neil… has stalker issues. Ow, dammit!” He scowled at Andrew, who had kicked his foot for saying that.

“Huh.” Wymack gave Neil a considering look before reaching back into his briefcase for three thick envelopes. “Listen to your friend and read these over, then call me if you think they look good – I might have a solution for where Neil can stay for his senior year while you’re on campus.” He handed the envelopes over to Aaron.

“And where would that be?” Andrew snatched up the envelope with his name on it.

“Someplace safe and near campus, I’m not going to say anything more until I talk it over with the person.” Wymack shook his head as if to prevent any more questions. “You know, I’d make a deal with you, too, Neil, if I thought it would be any good. But word is you’re promised to the Ravens.”

Andrew almost dropped the envelope upon hearing that, especially when Neil’s fingers dug into his right arm. “What the fuck?” He glanced aside and saw that Neil was gaping at Wymack as if the man had just told his friend that Nathan Wesninski had come back from the dead. “Where the hell did you hear that bullshit!”

“That’s… no,” Neil insisted in a strangled voice as if he was trying to figure out what to feel. “No!”

Wymack’s eyes narrowed as he gazed at the both of them. “Huh, that’s odd, because Neil’s name is definitely up on the Raven’s forum as a future recruit. Talk on it is that you turned them down, Andrew, because they were just recruiting you as a courtesy, because Neil asked them to as a favor to him. You didn’t want to get in on the team that way once you found out.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, is there anything that asshole won’t pull?” Aaron muttered as he smacked his folder onto his left hand.

Andrew gave Aaron’s foot another warning kick as he smiled at Wymack. “Don’t believe everything you read. Now, is there anything else?” Neil was probably only a minute or two away from a panic attack, so they needed to get the hell out of here.

His arms once more crossed over his chest, Wymack regarded the three of them again for several seconds, his eyes hooded and lips pressed together in a thin line. “Again, I honestly think that the Foxes will be a good fit for you. Think about it, really think about it. Don’t listen to the crap some of the people say about us, keep an open mind and give us a chance. It’s what we’re here for – to give you a second chance.”

“Such trite words from a man looking to recruit bodies for his Exy team,” Andrew sneered as he pushed Neil toward the door.

“I’m a damn coach, not an orator. Just look at the folders and give me a call,” Wymack told them as they walked away.

Neil managed to hold it together until they got to the car, where he huddled into himself in the passenger seat. “Shit,” he mumbled as he wrapped his arms around his waist. “What is he putting out there? What if people believe it, like Wymack?”

“It’s his word against yours – you just keep playing and make sure you tell people you want to go to the other universities or something,” Andrew snapped. “Send them fucking applications or something.”

“You said that one Penn State guy wanted Neil, right?” Aaron said while he texted away on his phone. “Surely he won’t back off next year if Neil hasn’t signed with anyone.”

Who the hell knew, when it came to Riko and his tricks, Andrew thought, but that seemed to help calm Neil down, the reminder that he already had some schools interested in him. “What I want to know is, why are we even listening to this Wymack guy?”

Aaron made a low sound of frustration. “Why not? What, you think we don’t deserve some sort of scholarship? Isn’t Palmetto good enough for you?”

“Their Exy team sucks,” Andrew echoed out as he glanced at Neil out of the corner of his eye.

“So what, yeah they’re not Penn State or USC, but the school is pretty good. Some of us don’t give a shit about winning tournaments, we just want the degree,” Aaron shot back.

Andrew noticed that Neil wasn’t saying anything, so he waited until they reached home, which was just a couple of minutes away. Once the car was parked, he waved Aaron inside. “We’ll follow you.”

Aaron gave them both a suspicious look at that, but all he did was shrug. “Okay, but don’t take too long, we need to talk things over with Nicky. I texted him at work to tell him something’s up and he’s getting off early. Should be here soon.” He held the two envelopes in his hands up before he went running inside.

Now alone, Andrew leaned against the hood of his car as he lit a cigarette. “All right, now tell me why the hell you bothered to put us through that spiel.” He handed it to Neil and lit another one for himself and took a long drag. “There’s no way you’ll sign up for a team as bad as the Foxes so why lock me in to them?” He felt something tighten inside of his chest the more he thought about it. “What happened to us going away together?” Was Neil trying to keep that from happening now?

Neil inhaled a shuddering lungful of smoke and shook his head. “Riko happened,” he explained in a quiet voice. “I can’t think of any way for you to come with me to USC or Penn State, not attending school at least and… and I don’t want you to throw away this opportunity.” He held the cigarette cupped in his hand as he stared at Andrew. “I want… I want us to be together.” The cigarette fell to the ground as he stepped closer, as his fingers tangled in the hem of Andrew’s t-shirt. “But I’m not going to ask you to just follow me around and do nothing. Breckenridge isn’t too far away by car. Penn State is doable by plane.” Neil closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’d rather see you just on the weekends and holidays than feel guilty about how I made you give up a chance like this, about how it’s only about me,” he admitted in a quiet voice.

It was funny, how Andrew never minded touching Neil, how his hand would reach out as if of its own accord to slip his fingers through the soft, wavy hair or curl up behind Neil’s neck; the thought of doing this to anyone else repulsed him, but with Neil it was the opposite, it was calming. “It’s not a sacrifice, you idiot.”

Neil gave him a small, sad smile. “Yeah, but would you be happy to do it? Would you be fine leaving Aaron without anything and following me across the country, to maybe be stuck in an apartment all by yourself and work some crummy job when you had an opportunity like this?”

Andrew hesitated… and that’s when Neil nodded. “Four years, that’s all it is. It’ll suck and I’m already regretting it, but if I could spend more than five years running from my father, I can get through those four years.”

Andrew shook his head at the thought of Neil giving up anything for him even if it made sense, dammit. But there was a relief in knowing that Neil wasn’t trying to move on without him, even if this current plan truly did suck – there was a logic to it, but it sucked none the less.  He would have been willing to follow Neil regardless… but it would have eaten at him, leaving Aaron behind so… unfinished like that. “We still have to wait and see what Aaron and Nicky have to say, and then there’s finding you a safe place to stay. Are you even fine with switching schools again?”

“Aaron’s going to take it,” Neil told him as he tugged Andrew away from the car, though he stayed close enough that Andrew still kept his hold in Neil’s hair. “Nicky… either he stays here or he goes back to Germany, who knows. And I’m fine, moving. Think it’s better that I find a new team to play on, after this last season.”

“Wymack better come through with someplace decent for you,” Andrew insisted as he pulled Neil in close. Neil smiled at that, and bridged the remaining distance between them with only a slight hesitation for a kiss, which Andrew returned without any pause; there was no way he would break his promise to Neil just so Aaron could go to university. “So I guess we go in there and wait to find out what’s going on with those two,” he said once they broke apart. Or, more what Nicky was going to decide, because Neil was right – Aaron wasn’t going to turn down a scholarship – not when all he wanted was some sort of normal life. Not when in the end they all wanted some sort of normal life.

“Yeah.” Neil bumped into Andrew and then laughed a little. “I just thought of something – you’re back to wearing orange you know.” At Andrew’s confused look, he shook his head. “The Foxes’ colors, white and orange.”

Andrew groaned as he shoved Neil onto the porch. “156%,” he informed his idiot as they went inside.

*******

Neil didn’t know what was more worrisome, the large bottle of vodka placed on the coffee table or Andrew’s laptop when they all gathered in the living room. “Should we be drinking during this discussion? It seems rather serious.” He looked up from the items as he settled on the floor near Andrew’s legs.

Andrew motioned to Aaron as he reached to open the laptop, and as Aaron poured a shot, Neil could see how his friend was navigating to the Raven’s fan forum; he didn’t need Aaron’s urging to take the glass at that point and toss back the shot, especially when Andrew was clever enough to quickly figure out where to get to the ‘new recruits’ section which Wymack had mentioned.

Aaron crowded around them, as did Nicky. “Wow, that guy wasn’t lying, was he? They really have a website for stuff like this.”

“Their fans are like cultist wannabes, what do you expect?” Andrew sneered as he scrolled down the page, and Neil flinched when he noticed that somehow, someone had managed to get a picture of him and posted it online – it looked to have been taken at one of the away games. “Hmm, seems to be a lot of chatter about why the Ravens are interested in such a nobody with only two seasons behind him.”

“They shouldn’t – they shouldn’t have posted anything.” Neil struggled to control his breathing as his hand clenched around the empty glass; what if Jackson Plank or Patrick DiMaccio saw that? His father’s men were still out there and still looking for him, doubly so if they had found out that he’d turned evidence to the FBI. He didn’t think belonging to Ichiro would protect him from them, not since his father had fallen from the Moriyamas’ graces and he still hadn’t proven his worth to them. Was this another part of Riko’s plan? To force him from Columbia and to somewhere the Butcher’s men shouldn’t be able to touch him? Hide from the monsters in the lair of another?

Pressure against the back of his neck made him gasp. “Breathe,” Andrew commanded him as he took away the shot glass. “You’re no use to anyone dead from asphyxiation.”

Neil shook his head as he tugged at his bangs. “He can’t do this.”

“He already has, so accept it,” Andrew told him, words cold but hand warm against the back of his neck.

Nicky glanced back and forth between the computer screen and the two of them. “This Riko… he just… he’s not going to stop, is he? He’s just going to keep throwing things at us until he makes Neil join the Ravens, isn’t he?”

Andrew’s eyes narrowed as he slammed the lid of the laptop shut. “Not *us*, I’m not letting him get another shot in at the two of you even if I have to drive to Charleston and beat that into his head myself.”

“No,” Neil insisted with a low moan as Aaron handed over the refilled shot glass. “It won’t come to that.” He wouldn’t let it come to that – he’d do whatever it took to make sure it wouldn’t come to that, even if it meant angering Andrew; he’d said back in Reno that they could renegotiate their deal if it looked as if things got too dangerous for his friend, and he would do whatever was necessary to keep Andrew and the others from being dragged down with him.

The displeased look he received for that statement clued him in that Andrew had his suspicions about Neil’s thoughts, but Neil just gave him a flat look in return before he tossed back the shot then set the glass on the table. “So you can predict Riko now?”

There was no answer to that, so all Neil did was tap the glass on the table as he leaned back against Andrew’s legs. “Aren’t we supposed to be talking about Wymack’s offer for the three of you?”

The sharp tug to his hair let him know that Andrew didn’t appreciate the change of topic, but Aaron snatched it up all the same. “I say we take it,” he said, just like Neil knew he would. “This is the best chance any of us have for getting any degrees, and we’d be stupid to turn it down.” He gave Andrew a challenging look as he sat at the end of the couch with his arms folded over his chest. “You lost all those other scholarships, do you think another school is going to step in? Don’t be an idiot and take this one, too.”

Nicky reached for an empty glass and poured himself a shot, then sat in the chair near the couch. “I don’t know, this is so… it’s a shock for me. I never thought I’d get a scholarship when I was in high school, let alone now.” He gave a nervous laugh before he tossed back the vodka, then wiped his mouth. “I mean, I wasn’t bad, but there were better people on the team.” He pointed at Neil and Andrew. “You guys are so much better. But… Erik and I are saving up so I can try to get a degree when I get back in Germany, it’ll help so much with me finding a job and staying there.” There was a thoughtful look in his dark eyes as he held the glass cradled in his hands. “It’s just… five years is a long time.”

“It’s free,” Aaron reminded him. “Use the money to go visit on the holidays or something.”

“Easy for you to say, you don’t have a girlfriend,” Nicky snapped, which caused Aaron to give him the finger. Then Nicky once more regarded Andrew and Neil. “What about Neil? Is he going to attend after his senior year?”

Andrew took to tugging on his left arm band while Neil shook his head. “No, not Palmetto State.”

“What, not good enough for you?” Aaron sneered.

“Not good enough for Ichiro,” Neil explained as he leaned back against Andrew to keep him from going after his twin. “I can’t… if the Foxes were even mid-ranked, I could give them a try, but not a bottom-ranked team. My argument against the Ravens is they hamper my shot at the Court, and you think Ichiro’s going to accept me turning them down for the Foxes?” He ran his hands through his hair and scrubbed at his scalp while he took a couple of deep breaths and wondered why it seemed that so much of his life was under the control of other people, why he never was ever truly free; yes, he had made the deal with Ichiro... but Riko was making him feel as if he was back out there on the run, was faced with waking up each day and doing whatever he could to limit the damage, limit the pain and knowing that the noose was tightening all the while….

“Penn State,” Andrew said as his hand knocked Neil’s aside and his fingers replaced Neil’s to comb through Neil’s hair. “He’ll take Penn State’s offer.”

Nicky chewed his lip upon hearing that. “I don’t know, maybe USC would be safer? It’s farther away.” Then he shook his head as his face blanched; Neil didn’t know what expression was on Andrew’s face just then, but he had a feeling it wasn’t a good one. “Penn State’s good! He’ll be a Panther again! Weren’t your last team the Panthers? I’m sure Eddy will be glad to look out for him and everything,” Nicky babbled as he poured himself another shot, then Neil’s glass as well.

“I’m sure it’ll be okay by then.” Neil accepted the shot, but wasn’t surprised when Andrew took it from him, so he just held out his hand until the empty glass was put back in it. Hopefully by that point, Ichiro could step in to rein back his younger brother, rather than risk Riko doing something that might cause some unwelcome publicity. Hopefully.

“But you aren’t staying here, right? I mean, if… if we’re moving to campus, he’s coming with us?” Nicky took out his phone and held it in his hand as he once more stared at Andrew and Neil.

“Wymack’s looking into something for him – I told the man that we wouldn’t go unless Neil had someplace safe to stay.” Aaron took to fidgeting and the fingers in Neil’s hair tightened, so Neil wondered if Andrew was giving his twin a displeased look just then.

“That’s good.” Nicky stared at his phone with a thoughtful expression for about a minute or two, then once again gave Neil and Andrew a considering look for several seconds before he got up. “I’m going to call Erik, we need… we need to talk about things. When did Wymack say we had to give him an answer?”

“He didn’t, but I’m sure he’d prefer sooner rather than later,” Andrew told him. “You don’t have to say yes.”

“I know.” Nicky managed a shaky grin as he headed toward the back door. “This will… it’ll probably be a while, okay?”

“What’s to decide, it’s a scholarship,” Aaron muttered as he poured himself another shot of vodka. “He’s stupid if he turns it down because of Erik.”

Neither Andrew nor Neil said anything to that, but Andrew leaned forward to pour them both a shot which Neil accepted, before allowing himself to be tugged onto his feet and led to the bedroom. Once there, Andrew closed the door and pulled Neil closer. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.” Neil barely waited for Andrew to finish the question before he answered, before he risked threading his fingers through Andrew’s blond hair and tugging his head in for a kiss. There was the bite of vodka in his mouth as Andrew’s tongue swiped inside, the rush of the alcohol catching up to him as he was pushed onto the bed, but he didn’t really care just then. Too much was happening, too much was changing, and all that mattered was for now, he still had Andrew.

Clothes were pulled off and thrown aside, he got one of his arm bands off before deciding it wasn’t important enough – he had learned long ago to not bother with Andrew’s – and he was sinking back into the mattress with Andrew on top of him, that solid weight pressing him down into the soft duvet and grounding him at the same time. He kept his fingers entangled in wiry, short blond hair as he waited to see how far Andrew was willing to go tonight, willing and eager for however far that would be, desperate for… for anything that proved that there was something between them, something that would last the harsh four years looming ahead. Perhaps Andrew felt the same, because after stealing Neil’s breath away with a ferocious kiss, he pulled away just long enough to fetch the bottle of lube from the one nightstand.

He paused for a moment with the lube held in his right hand to make his intentions clear, and when Neil gave a slight nod, settled back between Neil’s legs. There was another ferocious, passionate kiss, this one leaving Neil more befuddled than those shots of vodka, before Andrew began to nip at Neil’s chin and jaw while there was the ‘click’ of the lube bottle being open.

Neil squirmed a little at the ticklish feel of his neck being sucked upon, fingers once more curled tight in Andrew’s short hair, and huffed a little at the unfairness of the attention being lavished upon his neck when it was more fun doing just that to his friend; he adored the way Andrew shivered and let out faint moans when he was the one doing these things, even if it felt so good to be on the receiving end. He let out a loud gasp when there was the dual sensation of being bit and a slick finger sliding inside of him at the same time, and tugged Andrew’s head up so he could kiss the bastard.

Andrew allowed him that bit of control, and then set about to break him down, to go about preparing him in such a way that Neil was soon alternating between cursing him out and begging him as spikes of bliss jolted through him when Andrew twisted those fingers just *so*. Just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, when he was cursing Andrew out in earnest, Andrew slipped those fingers free and shifted onto the other side of the bed while pulling Neil onto his lap.

A bit startled by the change on position, Neil hesitated for a moment, waited to make sure that Andrew was all right and not pulling away from him before he settled his weight on top of the other teen. “Is this-“

“It’s fine,” Andrew said, almost a bit snappish, as his hands grabbed Neil’s hips. “Unless you-“

“No, it’s- okay, it’s okay.” Neil almost said ‘it’s fine’, which he didn’t think Andrew would appreciate just then, as he straddled his friend’s hips, as he sank downward, teeth biting into his bottom lip as Andrew pushed into him, a faint burn giving way to pleasurable friction with each thrust. Neil shivered as he leaned forward, hands falling against the wooden headboard, and gasped when Andrew’s hand curled around his cock to stroke in time to their steady thrusts. The feel of Andrew’s hand curled around his hip, around his cock, the steady gaze of Andrew’s hazel eyes into his own as the pleasure coiled tighter and tighter inside of Neil with each motion, each slide of their bodies against the other-

He gasped out loud at a particularly hard thrust and his right hand dropped to trail along Andrew’s face as he hunched over even more, which caused a sharp jolt of ecstasy to course through him. Moaning out Andrew’s name, he began to shudder as he felt Andrew pull him down harder, to hold him there so that the sharp pleasure spiked higher and higher, until he felt as if he was nothing but raw nerves and bliss and-

And Neil came with Andrew’s name on his lips, hand splayed over Andrew’s chest, still staring into those hazel eyes darkened with passion, mind numb with wondrous pleasure as he slumped forward with one arm still braced against the wall, and swore he could feel how his friend’s heart raced moments later when Andrew shuddered beneath him. The hand on his hip clenched in an almost painful manner, and when it finally let him go, slid along his back to pull him forward.

Neil rested against Andrew for a few seconds, tired and drained and enjoying a rare moment of peace, all the more precious because he knew it wouldn’t last. It probably wasn’t even an entire minute before Andrew shifted beneath him, signaling that it was time for him to move, so Neil gritted his teeth and did that, wincing a little as they separated and he rolled onto his back.

Andrew combed his fingers through his hair as he got off of the bed. “I’ll go shower first.”

“Okay.” Neil knew how things went well enough by now not to take things personally, that Andrew needed his space – there were times when they could shower together, usually when they were doing things *in* the shower, but times like *these*… yeah, Andrew liked a little space. So he let his friend go and then reached for some tissue to clean himself off a bit while he waited, and hoped that Nicky and Aaron weren’t still downstairs for their sakes, because if one of them decided to tease Andrew… yeah.

That mustn’t have been the case, because Andrew was back in a few minutes, wrapped in a clean towel and expression mostly blank yet peaceful. Neil left him to deal with the bed and went to wash off, mindful to take some clothes with him, and the bed was ready to be slept in by the time he returned, ready for the night.

They each curled up in their respective side of the bed, but didn’t seem to fall asleep right away. “Even though he is an idiot, Nicky might be right about USC,” Andrew said after a couple of minutes.

Neil groaned as he reached out and placed his hand near Andrew’s. “If we go by that logic, what’s to stop me from asking my uncle to find me somewhere to live in England and see if I can’t get into Cambridge or Oxford?” Both of those schools had excellent Exy teams. “I can’t… if I start running now… I’m not going to stop,” he admitted, aware of how easy it was to give in to the fear, to slip into those old habits. “Don’t make me go any further than Penn State.” If it were anyone other than Andrew, he’d add a ‘please’.

Besides, he didn’t think it mattered, if he was in Pennsylvania or California, not if Riko was that determined. But knowing that Andrew was just a few hours away? That did.

Andrew was quiet for about a minute, and then he huffed. “Well, I hear they have this amazing ice cream shop near the campus. Maybe it is worth it, having you go there. That’ll give me a reason to come up and visit.”

Neil groaned as he shoved at his friend. “Go to hell, you asshole.” Yet he was smiling even as he rolled onto his other side. When warmth pressed against his back, he continued to smile and closed his eyes so he could go to sleep.

*******

Once Nicky decided that he would accept the scholarship, Andrew arranged for the four of them to meet with Wymack at Sweetie’s after school at the end of the following week; with the Exy season finished there was no need for them to deal with Jackson or the rest of the team anymore, and he’d had to go down to the court house that Wednesday to take care of his outstanding charges. Dupree had been true to his word and Andrew only was stuck with probation along with weekly therapy sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist of his choice – as long as they were properly accredited – which had to start sometime in the next two weeks. He’d been given a list of court-recommended ones along with the notice that his probation office would be in contact with him soon.

Andrew was so looking forward to all of that.

Knowing that someone would have a bit of control over his life, no matter how minimal, for the next two years, put him in a foul mood, made him short-tempered and unwilling to deal with anyone and refusing to talk at all, made him just stare back at people with the blank mask he’d used for so long until Nicky took to avoiding him and Neil was just as quiet and Aaron flat out called him an ungrateful bastard who didn’t deserve anything. So by Friday they all piled into the GS, Nicky and Aaron more than willing to sit in the back for once, got to Sweetie’s where Aaron insisted on a table, and sat in silence while they waited for Wymack to show up.

Nicky was the only one who stood up to greet the man, but at least Aaron put his phone away when Wymack sat down. “So, I’m assuming that you didn’t call me out here for fancy ice cream, yes?” Wymack rested his elbows on top of the table, tattooed arms on display.

When no one answered him right away, Nicky nodded. “Ah, yeah. We’re going to accept your offer. You know, the scholarships.” He gave Wymack a nervous smile as he tore his paper napkin to shreds.

“Not so fast,” Andrew insisted, earning a sidelong look from Aaron for finally speaking up. “What about that condition we spoke about, for Neil?”

“I talked to a friend of mine about him, and she agreed to let him live at her house for the school year.” At Andrew’s narrowed glance, Wymack sat back in his chair. “Her name’s Abby Winfield and she’s the team’s nurse, so I trust her to watch out for him. Her house is close to the campus and in a good neighborhood.”

“She doesn’t really have to watch out for me,” Neil insisted as he ran his fingers along the glass of water their server had dropped off. “I’m an emancipated minor – I just need a place to live.”

“She’ll be happy to know she’s not expected to be your babysitter, but I ask that you don’t give her any grief since she’s doing this as a favor to me.” Wymack grunted as he ran his right hand over his hair, making the short strands stick up in a few directions for a moment. “Look, I don’t know what your situation is, and-“

“No, you don’t,” Andrew snapped as he pushed his own glass aside. “You asked for three new players on your team, and you’re getting them. Neil’s a part of this as in that he lives with us and we’re not kicking him to the curb just because we’re accepting your offer, but he’s *our* concern, not yours? Do you understand that?”

Wymack gave him a level look for several seconds. “So what you’re saying is?”

Andrew ignored Aaron stepping on his left foot and Nicky’s anxious expression to give Wymack a flat look back. “I play for you, and that’s where your concern ends, what and how I do on the court. You’re my coach, nothing else.”

“Don’t fuck this up,” Aaron hissed at him, while Nicky remained oddly quiet and Neil acted as if there was nothing else of importance other than his damn glass of water.

As for Wymack, he sat there and stared back at Andrew for several seconds before he nodded. “Fine, I’m your coach, nothing else. So are you signing or what?”

Andrew turned toward Neil, who finally looked up from his glass and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, we’re signing.”

“It’s about damn time,” Wymack grumbled as he reached into the bag he’d brought with him for what turned out to be three contracts. “Don’t usually wait this long to recruit, but didn’t think I’d get a chance at you.”

“Gee, isn’t it lucky that I got arrested,” Andrew sneered as he waited for Aaron to finish signing to use the pen.

“You said it, not me.” Wymack glanced around for a server and held up his empty coffee mug while Nicky gave out a nervous laugh. “Now look, you three need to be on campus by June 9th - all of the team has to be ready to start practice by then.” He glanced at Neil as a server, the same teenaged girl with bright blue hair who seemed to know Nicky and who had served them their waters, poured Wymack some coffee. “I guess I’ll tell Abby to expect you to show up then, too?”

“Yes.” Neil was going to spill the glass of water, he was playing with it so much. “It’ll give me time to transfer school districts and everything.”

“Well, let me know if you need to move in a little early or anything, I’m sure we arrange something, too.” Wymack eyed Neil for a moment and grunted when there was no response. “Ran into J.B. the other day – J.B. Lee, he’s the coach out at Palmetto High. Mentioned to him that there was a chance that you might be transferring and I think it made his year.”

Neil stilled upon hearing that, his expression going blank the way it did at times when people praised him, especially people who made him uncomfortable like Wymack clearly did, and then he gave a slight shrug. “Uhm, good? We, ah, we barely beat his team.” That came out rather weakly as he ducked his head and went back to toying with his water.

Yeah, no wonder Wymack thought there might be something going on there with the idiot. Andrew did some foot stepping of his own and narrowed his eyes when Neil’s head jerked up and blue eyes stared at him wide and confused before brightening with anger.

“A whole new season for you to look forward to getting slammed around, aren’t you happy?”

Distracted from Wymack, Neil’s eyes narrowed and he straightened up some. “Probably have less concussions without all the balls thrown at my head.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet, not with that mouth of yours.”

“Yeah? Well-“

“What about rooms?” Nicky spoke a bit loud and smiled at Wymack, expression strained and exaggerated. “You said we had to live on campus, right?”

There was a hint of a smirk behind the coffee cup, as if the man knew what Nicky was trying to do. “Yeah, there’s a specific dormitory for athletics, which is where you’ll be. I can put in a request for the three of you to have a room to yourselves.” He waited for any objections, and while Andrew wasn’t that pleased to be sharing close quarters with Nicky, he refused to be stuck with a stranger or parted from Aaron. “That’s what I thought.” Finished with his coffee, he set the mug back on the table. “So, unless there’s anything else? You have my number, just give me a call. I’ll get in touch with you closer to the start of practice to let you know about Abby’s house and everything.” He gathered up his bag and stood up, but didn’t leave the table just then. “Look… whatever’s going on…”

“Just a coach,” Andrew reminded him as he flicked water about on the table.

“Yeah, I can tell it’s going to be a fun five years ahead with you.” Wymack’s mouth twisted as he set a couple of dollars down on the table for his coffee then waved goodbye. “See you in June.”

The table was quiet until he’d been gone about a minute or two, then Nicky groaned. “Oh my god, did you have to act that way to him?”

Andrew flicked water at his cousin. “What do you care? If you’re so unhappy about it, go back to Germany.”

Nicky gave him an odd look for a couple of seconds before shaking his head. “You just don’t get it, do you?” Then he focused on Neil. “You gonna be okay, staying with that friend of his?”

“I should be – it’s just a place to crash, right? I’ll have school and Exy practice, and we have the house on the weekends.”

“We’ll smuggle you in the dorm somehow, hide you in our gear bag since you’re almost small enough to fit.” Nicky laughed when Neil threw his straw at him. “Aw come on, I find it funny that I’m like, a giant compared to you three.”

“You’re a prime example of how bigger isn’t better,” Aaron said as he gave their cousin the finger.

“Oh, Erik never complains about-“

“Shut up, I don’t want to hear about any of that sick stuff.” Aaron shoved Nicky hard enough that he almost fell out of his chair, the moron laughing the entire time.

Meanwhile, Neil took to tugging on the sleeve of his shirt again as a thoughtful expression came over his face. “Uhm… how are you going to deal with just the two of them by yourself?” he asked Andrew. Andrew thought about that himself and stroked his right fingers along his left arm guard. “Shit, that’s what I thought,” Neil muttered as he gave up on his sleeve to tug on his bangs instead, right over the scar through his eyebrow.

“I promise not to call you to ask you to help bury their bodies,” Andrew told him.

“Eh, what?” Nicky stared as he fumbled into his chair. “What are you going to do to us?”

“That’s so reassuring.” Hmm, Neil could be a sarcastic little shit when he wanted to be.

“You only said to wait until I was eighteen to kill Nicky – I’m eighteen now.” He smiled just a little at the look of betrayal on Nicky’s face upon that revelation.

“Neil! How could you? To me, the nearest thing you have to a brother! I’m all set to adopt you and everything!”

Andrew was tempted to pull out his phone and snap a picture of Neil’s face just then, it was so, so priceless, the mix of emotions on it just then – such confusion, surprise and disbelief. After several seconds, all Neil could manage to get out was a very eloquent “huh?”

“Okay, now I’m feeling sick about all those times you tried to get in his pants.” Aaron grimaced in disgust and scooted his chair away from Nicky’s.

“I did no such thing.” At Aaron’s scoff of disbelief and Andrew’s glare, he shrugged. “Okay, maybe just a little, but we’re good now. We’re brothers.”

“We’re so confused,” Neil murmured as he rubbed at his face.

“What, don’t you think so?” For a moment Nicky appeared crestfallen, and then he rallied and reached around Aaron to tousle Neil’s hair – he managed to snatch back his hand before Andrew could stab him with a fork. “I know, it’s new to you. Just let it sink in.”

“I’d run for the hills while you can,” Aaron advised. “We’re stuck with him because he’s blood.”

“Oh hush, you. You guys would be lost without me and you know it.”

Andrew pulled out a few bucks to cover for the mess they’d made of the table and stood up. “Come on, I’ve had enough of this.” They’d done what they’d meant to here, time to go back home, where there was a big yard perfect for burying idiots.

“I’m suddenly not feeling so bad about the prospect of living with a stranger,” Neil murmured as Nicky did something to piss off Aaron enough for Andrew’s brother to yell at him and make him run out to the car laughing.

“Whereas I take back that part about not calling you to ask for help about burying the bodies.” Andrew gritted his teeth together at the prospect of living with his brother and his cousin without Neil there to calm Nicky the fuck down.

“What did you say about no take-backs?” There was a slight smile on Neil’s face just then.

“159%, Josten.”

“Ah well, in that case, I’ll pick up some ice cream to go.” Neil’s smile strengthened as he used those damn long legs of his to step away from Andrew to go up ahead, toward the take-out coolers stocked with ice cream pints.

There was that odd feeling in Andrew’s chest again, at the sight of a smiling Neil buying him ice cream, of stepping outside to see Aaron glowering at a laughing Nicky before turning toward Andrew to complain about their idiot cousin, only for all of them to get in the car to go home together. It frightened him a little – no, it frightened him a lot, because things like that didn’t seem to be meant for him. Because even as this one moment stretched on, even as he pulled up to the house and Nicky stumbled out of the car, going on about making a fire and cooking hot dogs on it to go along with the ice cream before they headed to Eden’s Twilight for the night, even as Aaron hurried after him to join in and Neil waited for Andrew so they could go in together and he have first pick of the ice cream… he knew that it wouldn’t last for much longer. That it was in fact in some way ending all too soon.

*******

Chapter Text

*******

In the month and a half that they had before moving to Palmetto State University, in addition to finishing with the school year and in Andrew and Aaron’s cases graduating, Andrew also had to set up his weekly therapy sessions and initially biweekly probation check-ins. The latter went mostly well, at least as well as they could when he was being forced to go visit someone and prove that he wasn’t breaking any laws, but Dan Tyler wasn’t too bad for a government prick and told Andrew that he’d arrange for another probation officer to take over once Andrew moved on campus so it would be easier for him to make the check-ins.

The therapy sessions were another matter; Andrew had gone through enough over the years, had suffered through various psychiatrists and psychologists as he’d worked his way through the foster system and then been forced to attend mandatory sessions at Wayward Burns. As a result, he was steadily going through the list that had been handed to him when he’d received his sentence that day in court. Arnolds was clearly one of those quacks who relied heavily on medications, so Andrew had walked out halfway through that appointment. Aquino tried too hard to come across as his friend, going so far as to talk about personal things in his own life. Wyler thought she could out silent Andrew and lasted the longest with him, before giving up after the third one. Parson thought to engage him by talking about Exy, so Andrew did talk in that session – he recited all of the Exy statistics he had memorized in his head. Ha, no more reporting back to the judge that he was being uncommunicative, right? Sometimes it paid to have an Exy obsessed… friend.

Nicky took some time off of work and went back to Germany for almost a month, to ‘recharge’ himself with Erik to help him deal with the unexpected separation – considering it was supposed to be his return trip home. Andrew would never admit that the house was oddly quiet without the moron around, but Aaron almost made up for him with all the running around for ‘university’ planning, buying stuff for their dorm room and so forth. It was the most animated that Andrew had ever seen his twin, and even Neil was impressed by Aaron’s excitement for the upcoming move.

As for Neil and Andrew, they were determined to enjoy the time left in the house at Columbia that they had, to spend evenings out in the backyard by the fire pit or in their bedroom. Neil laughed for a good couple of minutes when he found out that Andrew had settled on a criminal justice major, until Andrew grew annoyed and pinned him to the bed to kiss him silent.

It was also the longest span that one of Neil’s phones had survived – there were no messages from Riko, no texts at all. Andrew knew that the bastard was aware that he’d signed to the Foxes, there’d been a thread about it on the Raven’s forum, but Riko wasn’t saying anything to Neil about it. At least, he wasn’t saying anything to Neil about it *yet*. Andrew knew that the asshole was just waiting for what he felt was the right moment to inflict the most damage.

Though Andrew had been tempted to destroy Neil’s phone when Neil had handed it to him so Anna could wish him ‘congratulations’ for getting the scholarship, with Kelci chirping along in the background. “Wow, I am just… I’m amazed,” Anna told him. “You, going to college? And on a scholarship? I hate you even more right now, you short asshole,” she told him while laughing.

“Fuck off and stop talking to Neil, he doesn’t need a bitch like you in his life,” Andrew said while he glared at the idiot who didn’t seem to know any better before he hung up and almost threw the phone at the ground. “Seriously, why do you talk to her?”

“Because she’s nice, and Kelci keeps helping me with my papers since you won’t,” Neil told him as he snatched away his phone as if reading Andrew’s mind. “Besides, who else do I talk to?”

Andrew realized that it was true – the only contacts in Neil’s phones besides him, Aaron, and Nicky were Erik (after the whole fight mess), Agent Wolfe, Anna and Kelci. Oh, and Neil’s Uncle Stuart, who sent short texts from time to time, rather odd ones that Neil somehow understood. Not a hell of a lot, but Andrew still found Neil staring at the list now and then with something resembling amazement.

Besides, he’d need those contacts when it came time to move to College Station on his own, since Andrew would then have his hands full with Aaron at Palmetto State; Andrew would have to hope that Stuart Hatford would be able to watch out for Neil somehow, to assist in keeping Riko at bay, and he’d rather Neil talk to a bitch like Anna who knew better than some stranger.

With that thought in mind, Andrew waited until one day at the house when he caught Aaron alone, Neil off in their bedroom working on a paper, and motioned for his twin to follow him outside. Aaron did so, with a slight frown on his face. “What’s this about? It’s not my week to do laundry, I told Neil that.”

Andrew rolled his eyes as he lit up a cigarette. “No, it’s about our deal,” he said as he leaned against the railing of the back porch. “Yours and mine.”

“What about it?” Aaron was frowning now in earnest as he scratched at the back of his neck. “It’s over when we graduate, right?”

“That was if we went our separate ways. Seems to me that since I accepted a scholarship on large part because of you and will be living with you, it’s still in effect.” Andrew blew out smoke and waited for that to sink in.

He could tell exactly when it did as Aaron’s cheeks became flushed. “What the hell, you think just because we’re going to the same university that you get to control my life for five more years?” Aaron gave Andrew the finger and turned to leave, before Andrew reached out to stop him.

“Five more years of making sure you don’t fuck things up,” Andrew reminded him. “Of watching your back. Of making sure you get the chance to do something with your life. I could have turned down Wymack’s offer and gone anywhere, could be packing to move up to Pennsylvania right now with Neil, but I’m not,” he said, his voice low and earnest. “So yes, the deal is still in effect.” He wasn’t letting Neil’s sacrifice be for nothing, wasn’t going to let the hold Tilda still had on Aaron fuck things up any more than it already did.

The look Aaron gave him just then was pure disgust at first. “Don’t make it sound as if you’re staying here because of me. You’re the one who couldn’t get a scholarship otherwise so-“

Andrew flicked the cigarette aside and grabbed Aaron by the front of his shirt and pulled his twin in close. “Don’t presume to know what the hell I want,” he warned. “I don’t give a damn about the scholarship or playing for the Foxes. You have no fucking clue what I’ve already done or what I will do for you, so just keep your mouth shut.” His fingers clenched even more in the fabric for a couple of seconds before he forced himself to let go. “See if you can’t bother to keep some semblance of your word before I do say ‘fuck it’ to Wymack and tell Neil we’re hitting the road.” As if it would be that easy, turning his back on Aaron after all he’d given up for his brother, but Aaron didn’t need to know that.

“You signed the contract,” Aaron muttered as he tugged on the hem of his shirt, but it sounded more like posturing than a real argument.

“Do you think I give a damn about that when I have a pre-existing agreement with someone who *does* keep their word?” Andrew graced his twin with a cold smile.

“I’m beginning to wonder just what all you do care about.” But Aaron’s expression smoothed out into one more of apathy as he regarded Andrew. “You know what, fine. If I’m stuck with you and Nicky and Neil, then at least I don’t have to deal with those fucked-up Foxes, right? Anything is better than that.”

 “Just remember that, you don’t seem to have the best memory when it comes to agreements,” Andrew told him as he went to break the news to Neil that he was stuck doing laundry with Nicky out of town – because Andrew sure as hell wasn’t going to be bothered doing it.

*******

Abigail Winfield lived in a one story ranch in a nice neighborhood about five minutes from campus; Neil, Andrew, Aaron and Nicky drove to her house the day after the twins graduated since Nicky had commented on wanting to brush up on his Exy skills before the others arrived. That gave the four of them about a week and a half to practice.

Abby answered the door as they pulled up to the house, the GS in the driveway and the Nissan at the curb, the cars loaded with most of the belongings that they intended to bring with them to Palmetto. She turned out to be a pretty woman in her late thirties or so, with dark blond hair and blue eyes, only couple inches taller than Neil. “You came earlier than I thought,” she said with a laugh. “Good thing we got the place ready last night.” She held the door open for them so they could bring their bags inside.

Neil tried not to feel uncomfortable inside the house, which reminded him in a way of the Hemmicks’ except without the crosses and Bible quotes. The couches looked comfortable and there were prints on the wall, and various knick-knacks scattered about….

“So, there’s two spare bedrooms,” Abby explained, “and an office with a comfortable couch. Either two or more of you can share or-“

Right away Aaron and Nicky pointed at Neil and Andrew. “Oh, don’t worry, they’ve got that covered,” Nicky said while he stared down Aaron. “Now me, I’m more than willing to share that other bed, so….” He grinned at Aaron.

“Fine, I’ll take the office.” Aaron wrinkled his nose in disgust as he heaved his bag higher up on his left shoulder. “Not sharing a bed with your perverted ass.”

“Oh, you won’t have to worry about that part of me,” Nicky teased with a leer, then yelped when Andrew reached over to smack the back of his head. “Hey, I’m just joking!”

“It wasn’t funny,” Andrew told him with a flat look.

Meanwhile, Abby just kept glancing back and forth between them as if waiting for someone to say it was all one big joke. “So… you boys get along well?”

“Not really,” Aaron said as he glanced around. “The rooms?”

She started at the question and then led them down a hallway. “Right this way.” She pointed out each one in turn, and frowned a little when Neil and Andrew put away their stuff in the same room. “Uhm, the two of you?”

Unsure of where she was going with that and if it was going to be a problem, Neil looked up and nodded, while beside him, Andrew narrowed his eyes.

“Huh, okay.” Abby let out a sigh as she rubbed her forehead. “I guess I hadn’t thought to worry about you bringing anyone back to the house so soon.” A quiet chuckle escaped her. “Considering the circumstances… I’m just going to skip that talk.” She was still rubbing at her forehead and chuckling as she left the room.

“Oh god,” Neil groaned as he fell onto the bed, his face buried in his hands and heated with embarrassment. He could feel it a moment later when Andrew stretched out beside him.

“Isn’t it nice, having her approval?” Oh yes, someone was just a bit annoyed right now, judging from the bite to those words.

Neil dropped his hands and found Andrew looming above him. “I have to live with her,” he reminded his friend.

“Hmm.” Andrew’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, slow enough for Neil to tell him to stop, which of course Neil didn’t do, and Neil spent several minutes in his new bedroom being kissed breathless – at least until Aaron had to put a stop to things.

“Quit being so ‘friendly’ with each other and get your asses in gear, we need to head to the stadium,” he snapped.

Neil felt Andrew’s shoulders tense beneath his hands and sig