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the key to fighting.

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They rarely fought.

They rarely fought, mostly because they had nothing to fight about. Neil was a smart ass and knew how to get to Andrew like no one else could. Andrew had a unique talent for pissing people off. They both knew how to provoke and they both knew how to win verbal fights.

They understood each other, though. Neil understood Andrew’s lack of vivid emotions and his underlying anger. Andrew understood Neil’s thoughts better than Neil did. There was no reason to fight because they rarely reached that point. While the two were quick to annoy each other (though never seriously), they were only together because they were best fit for one another.

So it’s strange for everyone, including all of the foxes, when Neil and Andrew’s one and only fight stretches on for more than a single day.

It starts privately. Ugly.

It was the last week of classes before winter break. The monsters had turned down Matt’s offer for New York in exchange for Christmas in Germany with Nicky and Erik. They would all be leaving after exams at the end of the week to embark on their own holiday adventures. Kevin and Neil were going to Germany, too, though Kevin would come back early for Christmas with Wymack and Abby.

It was the Monday prior to winter break. Andrew had his legs kicked over Neil’s lap, and they were kissing. Not softly; rarely softly. Lips swollen, tongues angry. Hands had been touching and roaming and Neil could feel his skin buzzing, excitement burning.

He began to smile as they kissed, feeling a particular and unavoidable way, and Andrew ran his hands through that auburn hair and slightly yanked his head back.

The blond gave him a blank look. “What?” he asked, referring to Neil’s irritably insistent grin.

“Nothing, I’m just…” The smile grew wider. “I”m happy, I guess. Really happy.” Teasingly, he prodded at Andrew’s cheek with his finger. “And people smile when they’re happy.”

Andrew’s emotionless expression did not change, though he was relentlessly staring at the other. A moment of silence passed, as if Andrew was thinking.

Neil pointed at Andrew’s hand. “Can I?”

It took Andrew a second to realize what Neil was referring to, and it took him even longer to reply. Something was causing a reaction in Andrew, and Neil’s instinct was to soothe whatever it was before it collapsed into something destructive.

“Yeah,” Andrew said.

So Neil grabbed his hand, thumb gliding softly on his open palm. He looked over at him, eyeing him, fully taking him in.

It wasn’t common for Neil to gush about his mirth and his contentment with Andrew and their relationship, but sometimes he couldn’t resist it. He said, “I’m happy about this.”

Andrew was still looking at him. There was nothing new or unusual about his face. With a flat, rehearsed voice, he told Neil, “There’s no this.”

Neil scoffed. “Can I have a minute without your ‘there’s no this’ bullshit?”

“No. Because I don’t think you’re understanding it when I say it.”

“Understanding what, exactly?” Neil asked, sounding bored with the same argument that they were nothing, when they both knew that was a lie. “Understand that you’re with me, and we’re safe, and I’m happy… and sometimes, you look a little happy, too?”

Andrew slid his hand out of Neil’s grasp. He still looked bored with the conversation. “No. What you don’t understand is that I can’t… we can never be more than whatever we are now.”

Neil took a second to try and understand, though it was obvious by his scrunched eyebrows that he didn’t know how to decipher what was being said. He didn’t care about being more than what they were. What they were now was enough for him.

“Okay…” He sounded confused. “So what? I’m content.”

Andrew looked at him calmly. “You’ll be content when we don’t get married? You’ll be content not having a family? You’ll be content never hearing how I feel about you?”

Neil knew Andrew was referring to how he’d never said “I like you” or even “I love you”, and that he probably never would as far as they knew.

He paused to give Neil a second to grasp that. “You’re content now, but you’ll want more.”

Neil ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’m getting a little sick of you telling me how I’m going to feel when the time comes. Because guess what, Andrew? I’m not scared to tell you if I’m unhappy. I’m with you because I know all this, and I’m okay with it. So can you stop?”

Andrew shrugged, sat there silently for a minute, then got up. He went to the window and popped out a cigarette before lighting it. There was a passing few minutes of elongated quiet. The sun was setting somewhere out of view, and shadows played inside the living room.

Andrew inhaled and exhaled one last time before looking back at Neil, who was waiting expectantly. “I think you’re not as happy as you could be. I think you’re settling for me because I’m the first person you found, and you’re scared to let go and find someone better.”

Then he stamped out the cigarette as Neil sat there, gaping. He could feel his throat closing, his anger rising, untamable.

It was hard to get control of his voice, and it was shaking when he said, “Fuck you.”

Andrew shrugged. “I’m just trying to be honest.”

“Fuck you,” Neil repeated. He pointed at his own chest in building, rugged rage. “I…” He choked on the word. “I’m not settling for you. You were the first, and the only one I…” It was becoming harder to express a coherent response. “Fuck you.”

“You can’t say anything because you know it’s true.”

“No! I can’t say anything because I’m surprised that you would think that lowly of me! Like I can’t handle my own fucking feelings.” He paused and stood up, feeling himself tremble. “Have you always thought this? That I’m just with you for convenience?”

Andrew blinked at him. “I’ve always thought that you wanted more and that you would eventually realize you’re not the happiest you could be with me, yes.”

Neil stood still, his face showing his pain too easily. He wished he was like Andrew, who could shove it all down and speak with such a passive, uncaring voice.

“You know what I think, Andrew? I think you’re a goddamn coward. I think you can’t handle the idea of me being happy with you, of me actually maybe loving you, and so you make up these delusional reasons for us to end it. And I refuse to believe this bullshit you come up with, because it’s not true.”

He was pacing now. Neil refused to believe that this was what Andrew really thought of him, of the basis of their relationship, but it was hard not to believe this was the truth behind Andrew’s thoughts. He wanted to fix it somehow. He wanted to prove to Andrew that he was happy and content and that he didn’t need more in the future. But it was hard to do so at this very moment, which meant it was hard to prove it right now.

Andrew’s eyes were beginning to look dark and brooding, though his tone remained level. He noticeably ignored the ‘love’ comment. “I’m not a coward if I’m telling you the truth. Maybe you really are happy right now, but you won’t always be. Especially when you realize that I can’t give you more, and you won’t be able to bring me happiness.” Neil blanched, and Andrew continued. “I know you like trying to pretend that I’ll change one day.”

“I don’t -” I don’t want to change you, he wanted to say.

Andrew didn’t let him finish. “Shut up. I know you think you’ll make me happy, but you won’t. You can’t.”

“So… what? Why stay with me?”

“Passing the time until you leave, I guess.”

Neil stood there for awhile, processing, yet not thinking. He was beginning to feel bitterness take over, while his ability to stay calm slid from his grasp.

He felt himself laugh. A short laugh, though there was no anger in it. Just soft amusement.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said. Hurt him. “Maybe I’d be happier without you. I mean, how much can you really give me, huh? Nothing more than the occasional good fuck.” Hurt him. “It’s not like we were ever going to get anywhere with this.”

Andrew stared at him, and like a goddamn reflex, he said, “There’s no this.”

Again, Neil laughed. Mostly at the disbelief and the absurdity of it all. “What was I thinking? You can’t bring me happiness.” He shook his head, smiling. “You’re not good for anything or anyone.”

Silence stretched out. Neil finally looked at Andrew a few minutes later. The blond was staring at some random place on the wall. When he looked back to Neil, he gave a stiff, forced shrug. Then he calmly grabbed his keys and left.

 

The next week passed slowly. They didn’t speak, but they didn’t fight, either. Neither of them looked mad. If anything, they looked exhausted and broken down. Though Neil snapped at his teammates more than once throughout the week, and Andrew was especially volatile. No one asked, though Nicky almost did before Aaron shut him up. It was obvious that whatever had happened, it had been serious.

Once Friday rolled around, and the cousins, Kevin, and Neil were gathered in the room, Kevin turned to Neil and asked, loud enough for everyone to hear, “So are you still coming to Germany?”

Neil looked at Andrew, but the blond didn’t spare him a glance. Neil had stopped feeling much this past week, so it didn’t hurt much when he shook his head. “Nah, I’m going to spend the break hanging around Wymack.”

Nicky looked devastated, and Kevin gave him a disappointed look.

Aaron gave a short laugh, lacking any humor. “Are you sure you’re not going to get yourself killed spending four weeks alone?”

Neil shrugged. Andrew was looking at Kevin, and Kevin was looking back. Neither said anything to each other. After an uncomfortable moment, Kevin said, “I’ll stay back. I was going to come back early, anyway, and I don’t feel like spending time away from the court.”

Nicky glanced between Kevin and Neil, obviously hurt by this news. “Great. Fan-fucking-tastic.”

“Nicky…” Neil said, trying to word an apology, knowing how excited Nicky had been. But Nicky was already out the door.

And two days later, they were packed and ready to leave the dorms. They were all saying their goodbyes with each other and the upperclassmen, though Andrew held back, looking bored and impatient.

When everyone was done and ready to go, Neil glanced over to Andrew, only to see that the other was already staring at him. The two looked at each other, eyes speaking beyond anything words could say, understanding and not understanding, loathing and missing. Then Andrew turned away, and Neil had to accept that he wouldn’t be able to keep Andrew company on the plane ride.

Neil had to accept that he wouldn’t be spending their first Christmas together like he’d wanted to for the past few months.

Later that night, Kevin and Neil finished up a recent exy game. They exchanged strategies and notes, though Neil was clearly much less enthusiastic and much more dull than Kevin was.

Finally, Kevin gave him a meaningful look, the queen tattoo glaring at him in the dim dorm light. “You guys sure picked a shitty time to fight.”

Neil didn’t grace him with an answer.

“Guess we’ll be practising a lot over the break, huh?”

Neil gave a lifeless laugh. “Guess so.”

And they practised a lot. Everyday, Neil woke up and ran to the court. There, he stretched and got ready until Kevin arrived, and then the two practiced strategies for hours on end. Neil was pushing himself for distraction, and sometimes, not even Kevin could keep up.

There was no word from Andrew, but everyone else texted him and gave him updates on Germany or New York or the many other places his teammates were.

Kevin would give him the occasional deep look, knowingly watching Neil strain himself. Neil gave no explanation, and he was thankful that Kevin didn’t pry. Instead, they pushed each other on the court, and that was enough for both of them.

The closer it got to Christmas, however, the more noticeable Neil’s hollow eyes became. He began sleeping on the couch, claiming he felt suffocated inside their room. Some days, he only drank energy drinks, and other days only water. On the 24th, Kevin caught him puking in the bathroom, back hunched and forehead covered in sweat. He brought him water but made sure not to hover, knowing that Neil would not appreciate being crowded in this state.

At some hour while he was still sleeping, Neil got a text message. He rolled over, and seeing that it was from Andrew, he groggily opened it.

It read, “merry christmas.”

Neil figured it was morning or early afternoon over in Germany. With a feeling he could not name, he texted back the same message, then remained awake until the sun rose.

Christmas felt like hell. Even though there were no decorations in the suite, and the dorms were generally quiet, the day somehow felt jolly. The air was biting cold, and Neil felt a rapid growing pain in his chest. It was something similar to loneliness - it felt like he should be experiencing something, yet wasn’t able to. Just like last year, when he was trapped in Evermore. Except, for some reason, this year felt worse.

When Kevin woke up and was ready to head over to Abby’s for present exchanging and breakfast, he looked at Neil and gave him an encouraging nod. Neil only shook his head.

“Go without me.”

“No.”

Neil sighed. “I’m serious. I’m not spending Christmas morning with you and Wymack. It’s your first Christmas with him. I’ll head over tonight.”

“Abby will be there, too, though.”

“That’s different. They’re a package deal - we’re not.”

Kevin stared at him meaningfully while Neil slipped on his sneakers. “Stare all you want, I’m not going. I’ll be there for dinner, seriously.”

And then he was out the door with his key, gripping it hard in his palm as he ran and ran and ran.

As he ran, trailing beneath trees and stomping over shadows, he thought about the new black armbands he’d gotten Andrew as a present for today. He thought about the plane tickets he’d purchased for both of them: from Germany to Korea, where they’d spend the rest of their winter break if Andrew agreed. And he thought about how he’d stupidly gotten a small tattoo above his ribcage two weeks ago, right along an old, deep scar, the black outline of the first key Andrew had ever given him.

He thought about these dead presents over and over again until the sun was high and he’d been running for hours. He trudged back to the dorm, lugging behind these looming thoughts, hoping that the day would end soon.

When he got back, he called Andrew on instinct, but there was no answer. Which was a good thing, perhaps, since Neil had no idea what he wanted to say. He took a shower and, without realizing it, he slipped on Andrew’s jacket. It was a Foxes hoodie, and it said ‘Minyard’ on the back. Wrapping his arms around himself, he curled up on the couch, willed his tears to stay in his eyes, and took a nap. When his phone rang a few hours later, he clumsily picked it up and told a very impatient Kevin that he was leaving now.

He had no car, but he had no problem running and walking. It was a little far, but nothing Neil wasn’t used to.With his phone, wallet, and keys, he took off, heading off campus and towards Abby’s.

Halfway there, however, a voice called out to him.

“Minyard?”

Neil turned. The night was already dark, the sky a deep, darkening blue. The last street light was a few yards away, and Neil could only see the figure of a person who’d called out to him. No - there were two figures.

Again, a man called out. “Is that Minyard?”

He didn’t know how he knew. The strangers tried to be friendly, but Neil knew how to spot that particular rise in tone. He felt the ominous air, and he knew when a warning was in play.

So Neil said, his voice as sharp and cruel as Andrew’s, “Yeah. What do you want?”

“Ha! No need to be unfriendly, man.” The figures came closer, and Neil hid his face, wondering why they were after Andrew and who had sent them. “We just gotta borrow you for a few minutes.”

“Fuck off.” With that, Neil turned around and began to walk away with his head held high. He didn’t run. Andrew would never run. Because of this, though, he heard their footsteps stomping behind him, and the next thing he knew, he was fighting. Fists flew out and he heard grunts as he made contact with a chest, an arm, and then a sheet or a pillowcase was covering his head, and he was struggling to breathe, choking on large inhales and spitting out ugly exhales.

Putting up a fight, he was dragged off. At first, Neil thought he could tell the direction they were going, but eventually the excitement wore off and the pain clouded his judgement. He gave them his dead weight, and soon they were huffing and groaning as they dragged his feet. The sound of water, slow and soothing, came minutes later. They dragged him up to dirt and grass and mud, and Neil thought he might be at a lake near school.

Feet were splashing in the water now, and his face got closer and closer until they were shoving him beneath the surface. Water rushed in through the pillowcase and clouded his mouth. He choked, struggling, then realizing he had to stay calm. But seconds passed, and panic bled inside him until he was struggling again. A minute went by, and right when unconsciousness began to linger, they lifted him out.

He came up, coughing and spitting inside the case, and then they were shoving his head under again. He felt a foot on the back of his knee, crushing the muscle there, and another at his shoulder. This time when he came up for air, he felt too weak to struggle, and could only manage to fight for as much oxygen as he could.

“Hey, Minyard, a Nicky is calling your cell. Answer it and tell him you’re having a grand ol’ day, okay?” There was laughter, and Neil realized there wasn’t only two guys around him.

The phone was suddenly being pressed next to his ear, and there was a brief silence before Andrew said, “Hello?”

Neil held back a cough. “A- Uh, Nicky, I can’t talk right now.”

There was a brief pause. “It’s Andrew.”

“O-oh, right. Listen - I’ll call you later, okay? In an hour or two.”

Another pause, and then, “Okay.”

“Okay. Bye.” And then they took the phone from his ear and clicked off. He couldn’t see through the pillowcase, but he was glad they hadn’t done something as stupid as talk to whoever was on the phone. He didn’t need Andrew worrying. Neil knew what this was. A warning from someone, most likely the Ravens (because Ichirou’s men would be more thorough and not as lenient). A warning for Neil. By hurting Andrew, they could give Neil a warning, though Neil wasn’t sure what that warning was yet. He just hoped that once they gave this ‘warning’, they wouldn’t try to hurt Andrew again. Therefore, Andrew would never really be hurt in the first place.

After the phone call, they kicked him in the back and sides a bit, though it was nothing he hadn’t experienced before. One kick to the head made him taste blood, but besides that, he figured he would live. It was the water that was giving him difficulty. They barely gave him time to collect himself before they pushed him under again and again. When they were done, they tied up his hands with tight, thick rope and pulled him further into the lake.

Someone leaned down close to his ear. “Tell Neil this year the Ravens will win.”

You’re telling me now, you moron, Neil wanted to say, but he held himself back. There was a second of hesitation, and then they let go, letting him sink. He struggled, holding his breath and fighting the tied ropes, before he realized it was hopeless. The rope was medium sized and rubbing raw into his skin. He didn’t even have his sight. All he had were his feet, and he kicked them as hard as he could, trying to perfectly direct himself rather than panic. He kept kicking, gurgling and spitting out water through the pillowcase, until his foot hit a carved bottom. He kicked faster and found himself at the edge of the lake, where he half walked, half pulled himself out.

A lot of time passed with him simply laying there, breathing in and out rapidly, letting his lungs choke up water and breathe in air. The other side of the small lake was quiet, and he figured his attackers had already left. He knew they weren’t trying to kill him. If they wanted Andrew dead, they would have tied his feet. Still, getting out had been way too close, and he was surprised that they’d left before making sure he got out safe and alive. Maybe they really didn’t care at all whether Andrew lived or died.

For a minute or two he fought with the rope, but it was hopeless. There was a tie where his fingers could not reach. He could always break a finger and pull free, but his life wasn’t in peril, and he didn’t want to break any bones that would hurt his exy season. So he decided on stumbling home, tied up and blind. He knew exactly which lake he was at. There was only one this size near campus, and the brightness of lights told him which way was the university with its crowded, orange street lights.

He called out a few times, but no one answered, so he stumbled his way back to the dorm. While he couldn’t see much through the pillowcase, he could still make out certain shapes and could easily see the light. The direction wasn’t hard, and he stuck to the sidewalk, finding rhythm and confidence in his step. His cellphone was in his front pocket and he couldn’t reach it, so he figured he would go wait outside the dorm room until Kevin came back to take this off and let him in.

Neil felt drained. Of emotion, of strength. Of life. His mind was running on pure willpower, and he was forcing himself to continue. There was an anger inside him for being so pathetic. Being treated so roughly, so inhumanly, like he was nothing more than trash that had to be dealt with. But on the other hand, he couldn’t find it in him to truly care.

Maybe he deserved it.

At some point, he tripped off the sidewalk and into the road, and his pants ripped at the knee. With tiring precision, he found the sidewalk again, and continued on. He knew he was closer to Fox Tower now, and he walked on impulse. He’d planned his escape route from Palmetto so many times that he’d never considered he’d one day be trying to find his way back.

The lights around him increased in a straight line, and he knew it was the main university road that led back to the parking lot near the dorms. He got closer and closer until he bumped into a stray car, and he knew he was in the Fox Tower parking lot. He laughed to himself quietly, throat still raw and watery, bag still tightly tied around his head.

And right when he felt close enough to the dorm building, where he’d sit down tiredly on the curb and wait for Kevin’s arrival, he heard a voice call out.

“Neil…?” It was Kevin. He sounded scared and extremely concerned.

Neil tried to look in the direction of his voice. “Uh.. yeah.” He laughed. “Can you get my wrists? They’re killing me.”

It took a second (perhaps Kevin was standing there in shock), but finally someone was untying the rope and getting his wrists free. With shaking, free fingers, he began pulling at the ties of the pillowcase, yanking it off a bit too fiercely. He’d never been particularly claustrophobic, but he was bordering something panic-fueled and ugly.

He threw the pillowcase to the ground and rubbed at his eyes, sighing heavily. Then he blinked up, expecting to find Kevin beside him. Instead, he found Andrew. Kevin stood a few feet away, still looking a bit terrified.

“Oh,” Neil said. He tried not to look Andrew directly in the face. “You’re home early.” A pause. “Merry Christmas?”

“Who?” Andrew’s voice was non-negotiable.

Neil closed his eyes and rubbed at his wrists absentmindedly. “Ravens.” When he opened his eyes again, he felt the pressure of a storm beside him, but it was comforting. “They thought I was you. It was dark.”

Another long silence, and then, “You let them believe you were me.”

Neil shrugged. When no one replied, he said, “I’ve got Christmas presents upstairs, if you want to come up.”

Kevin mumbled, “Jesus Christ, Neil.” Andrew made no sound. His muscles looked strained.

“What?” Neil snapped back, finding himself irritated. “I didn’t expect anyone to be here when I got back. I don’t know what to say.”

“Why are you wet?” That was Andrew.

“Attempted drowning.”

Andrew ran a hand through messy blond strands. Neil could see knuckles tightening hard on his hair before Andrew’s arm fell back to his side.

It seemed like no one had an answer.

Kevin was the first to break. He reached out for Neil. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”

Andrew blocked Kevin’s hand. “Do not touch him.” The words were so heavy, so menacing, that it felt as if Andrew had chewed them and spit them out. They were words that felt sharp and hungry. “Don’t.”

Kevin dropped his hand immediately.

Andrew began walking towards the dorm, and Neil followed wordlessly. Andrew called back to Kevin, “Spend the night at Wymack’s,” and they climbed the stairs to their suite.

Inside and alone, Andrew indicated towards the couch. “Sit.”

Neil crossed his arms. He felt his body trembling. “No, thank you.”

Andrew stared at him. Neil stared back. There was something in Andrew’s eyes that suggested momentary weakness - there was no wall up right now. There was vulnerability. Emotions were more on the surface than they usually were, and he could feel them rolling off Andrew like waves.

“So are you going to stay, or…? ‘Cause if you’re leaving, I’d really like to get some sleep.”

“Don’t do that thing where you force yourself to look fine when you’re not.”

Neil laughed. “That’s rich coming from you.” He lifted his arms, flashing his red wrists at Andrew. “This? This, I can handle. It doesn’t hurt. I’ve had worse.” His hands dropped. “What I can’t handle is looking at you when you think I…” He looked down, unable to finish.

Andrew took a step closer, and Neil instinctively took a step back. Not from fear - he simply just couldn’t be around Andrew with all that was between them. It felt overwhelming, and he felt words looming at the front of his heart, ready to spill from his chest.

“You don’t have to feel bad for me… you don’t have to be with me just because I’m hurt. You can leave.”

Andrew practically spit out in response, “I don’t feel bad for you. I came back early for a reason.”

“Then what?” Neil spat back in response, quick and angled. He could feel heat rising along him. “Why come back at all?” He felt pathetic. Here he was, beat and damp, and this stupid fight with Andrew was the one thing that really hurt.

“Because!” Andrew bit back, his voice rising. It was probably the first time Neil had heard him shout, and judging by Andrew’s expression, they were both pretty surprised by it. Andrew took a second to calm down. He took out his pack of cigarettes, began to take one out, then seemed to think better of it and tossed the pack on the table. “Because I…” It looked like he didn’t know how to continue. Andrew did not show remorse for anything, and whether this was an attempt at an apology or not, it was clear that he couldn’t continue the original thought.

Neil took a step closer. Immediately, he was able to recognize how much Andrew was struggling. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Tell me, Andrew. I won’t judge you. I’ll listen, no matter what you have to say. Just explain it to me, and I’ll try my best to understand.”

Andrew’s mask had easily slid back to a bored expression, but his eyebrows were slightly furrowed. “It’s not that I think you want something better. I don’t think that.”

Neil said, “I know.”

Andrew gave him a look that meant ‘shut up’. “But I think the time will come when a better opportunity shows itself. And I don’t want you to reject whoever comes along just because you’re scared of giving up your first ever relationship.”

Neil looked at him pointedly. Andrew made an effort not to look back. Neil tried his best to counter these points in a soft, easy tone. “I told you, Andrew. If I wanted to give this up, I wouldn’t be scared to tell you. I don’t want to now, and I won’t want to in the future. You’re not just enough for me - you’re everything to me. I’m not infatuated, and I’m not disillusioned.”

“Even if you mean it, that doesn’t mean you should have to put with me for life. I can’t give you anything. I can’t give you happiness.”

“Andrew,” Neil choked out. “You do make me happy, even if you’re not trying. I’m happy with you all the time. Fuck, I’m even happy right now in some fucked up way.” He took another step closer, not even realizing it.

Andrew stared him in the eye, dead and devastating. His voice was quiet but void of emotion. Like stating a fact. “I’m not good for anyone, Neil.”

You’re not good for anything or anyone.

And just like that, it became too much, and Neil felt a sob rip through his chest. “N-No. I didn’t mean that.” It had been eating him away for the past two weeks. It was so completely polar opposite of what he believed, and he had only said it to be vindictive.

“Whether you meant it or not, it’s true.”

“No.” Neil was shaking his head. He hastily wiped at his eyes before any tear tried to fall. “You’re good for me. There is so much with you that I would never get anywhere else. No one will ever, ever be able to give me what you give me. It’s okay if you don’t understand, but what I feel for you is a one-time thing. It’s you, Andrew. No matter who appears, it’s you.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Andrew muttered. “People move on.”

“Maybe,” Neil agreed. “But I would never find the happiness I feel with you.”

Andrew didn’t answer, so Neil kept going. They were still whispering fiercely, as if the things they spoke aloud were secrets no one else could ever know. “I will tell you this once, Andrew, so listen to me and believe me. I’m not settling for you. I won’t force you to try and be happy, but as long as you’re content to be with me, I’ll be content with you. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be with you, and happy about it, until you tell me no and mean it. It doesn’t have to be a ‘this’ if you don’t want it to be, but I will stay by your side until they put me in the ground because I love you, and if you can’t believe anything else I’ve said, at least believe that.”

Andrew was visibly gritting his teeth, his jaw clenched tight. Neil waited patiently. The two were stubborn, strong forces, but Neil would not back down from this fight.

In the quiet, Neil lifted his hands. “Yes or no?”

Andrew frowned, but said, “Yes.”

Neil took Andrew’s cheeks in his palms. Gently, he told him, “Tell me what you’re not telling me.”

Andrew gave him an unimpressed look. A long minute passed, but eventually he complied, eyes roaming along Neil’s tired face. “Sometimes you look really happy, and I think… I think sometimes I might be, too. And I hate that. I fucking hate it, Neil. I hate you.”

Neil just smiled softly, understanding. “I’m not going to leave. You’re not going to get your heart broken, so you should allow yourself the luxury of occasional happiness. You deserve it.”

Andrew scoffed. Neil rubbed his thumb along his jaw. “You do,” he reiterated. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, referring again to their original fight. “I should have never said that you’re not good for anyone because it couldn’t be more false - you’re good for me. So, so good for me. You’ve given me more and taught me more than anyone else ever could. You make me strong. You’re good for Kevin and Nicky and Aaron and this team. You’re good.”

Andrew watched him carefully. His eyes were hard, and his jaw was still tight. He looked stable and steady in Neil’s arms. The former vulnerability seemed to have left, and Neil’s words appeared to finally be sticking. Andrew’s blank face came back, and he hooked his hands along Neil’s waist.

“Stay with me,” Andrew ground out, as it allowing himself the momentary pleasure of selfishness.

“I will.” Neil quickly wiped at his eyes again, pressing hard against his eyelids. “I will.”

And they were kissing, not at all soft. Teeth and hate. Tongues met and teeth scraped along lips. Neil found his back being pushed against a nearby wall, their hips grinding roughly, and then he remembered something. Breath heavy, he pulled back, pecking kisses all over Andrew’s face before the blond swatted him away lightly.

“You’re being gross,” he said, though his voice was ragged.

“Look. It’s one of your Christmas presents.” Neil lifted his shirt up to his ribcage, showcasing the outline of that original key. “I got it about a month ago.”

Andrew stared, rubbing his finger along it, taking a minute to take it in. He said, almost offhandedly, “You’re too much.”

Neil grinned. “You like it. I got you more, too.”

But Andrew was already distracted, bending down to kiss the key, lips sucking with biting, unforgiving teeth. When he pulled back, he was staring at a recent forming bruise on the other side of his ribcage.

Andrew stood back up, eyes not giving anything away. “That reminds me: describe them to me.”

Neil shook his head. “It was a warning for me. They didn’t plan on killing you.”

“I don’t give a shit.”

“But now that they beat you up, they think the message is passed along. It’s over. Don’t provoke them further,” Neil added.

“No.”

“Andrew…”

“Come here,” Andrew told him, and so Neil leaned it, kissing him softer this time.

“I missed you,” Neil murmured.

“Yeah, yeah,” was Andrew’s only reply. He took his hand and led him to the bedroom, where Neil showed Andrew the rest of his presents, and Andrew tended to his wounds.

“Tomorrow I’ll see if I can exchange the tickets so that we can leave from here instead of Germany.” Neil glanced at Andrew. “Is that okay with you?”

Andrew gave a grunt in response.

“Is that okay with you?” Neil repeated, looking for a verbal confirmation.

“Yes, it’s okay with me. Now get the fuck in bed, you’ve got bruised ribs.”

Neil smiled and crawled in beside Andrew, who was already lying against the wall. The lights were off, and they laid under the blankets and kissed until they were too tired to continue.

They went to sleep holding hands between them, dreaming of a trip to South Korea and keys and each other.

And maybe, just maybe, they went to sleep feeling happy.