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Trust Fall (And Welcoming Arms)

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Neil didn’t have an addictive personality, if you didn’t count his obsession with Exy. He had things he wanted now with a determination he couldn’t let go – his team, his home, his dreams for the future, his hopes for the new freshmen. He had things he refused to give up on. He had things he needed desperately; the occasional cigarette burning down to the filter between his fingers, to score the winning point, to sit silently on the roof and feel the wind against his face and the drop below his feet. He wouldn’t say he was addicted to any of those things.

He thought he could be addicted to the heat of Andrew’s hands.

They pressed him down into the mattress with silent command, the pulse in his palms rapid and red-hot against Neil’s skin which they claimed with full knowledge of Neil’s vocal and unhesitant consent. They traced the lines of his bones, skimming over his collarbones and wrists and shoulders. They pushed down over the battle wounds scattered on him, marks from his father and his life on the road and Riko’s cruelty and Lola’s precision and his father’s fury again that one last time, the occasional mottled bruise from their most recent match. They walked each scar easily, tracing it in its entirety before moving to the next one. His fingertips were firm and steady as they trailed over the raised lines and puckered dents, the pale swatches and dark patches. They memorised each mark as Andrew stared into his eyes, watching for his reaction and waiting to be told no.

Andrew’s palms had calluses from practice and his fingers were rough and thick as they held him down. They closed firmly around Neil’s crossed wrists above his head on the pillow, then deliberately travelled up in a light touch to where Neil’s nails dug into his own palms, half-moons that Neil would trace over and over later like the outline of a key, until they faded like the others could not. Andrew touched his tense fingertips and the strained line of his knuckles and said nothing. Neil didn’t have to explain he was clenched so tight to anchor himself in the now instead of murky memory and with determination never to cross Andrew’s boundaries uninvited, and Andrew didn’t have to explain why that meant so much under the façade and left him able to touch Neil like this.

Andrew shifted forward a little from where he lay between Neil’s legs, looming over him with an arm braced alongside Neil’s held to hold a little bit of distance between them. Mind the gap, Neil’s brain regurgitated from his time on public transport, and he held himself still so as not to lean up into the warm weight of Andrew held so deliberately away from him.

“You can touch here,” Andrew said with the same blank look as always. He touched his own hair for a second, then rested his heavy hand back on Neil’s crossed wrists. “I told you that already.”

“I know,” Neil replied, his voice a little tight from the buzz under his skin.

“You usually try to pull my hair out these days.”

“Not on purpose,” Neil said with a small twitch of his lips. He watched Andrew’s eyes for a few moments, thinking how best to phrase this. Yes, ever since Andrew gave him permission to touch back he’d been unable to let go, his hands aching when they weren’t buried in Andrew’s hair to hold him close for another blissfully numbing and scorching kiss. But tonight he was holding himself back on purpose, without needing to be told. “Do you want me to?” He asked to give himself time. “Do you miss it?”

Andrew looked away from Neil’s eyes and up to Neil’s hands. Neil fancied he could feel the weight of Andrew’s gaze on the wide swathe of scarring around his wristbones, reminders of Riko and Lola and being more willing to shred his own skin on handcuffs than stay where he was trapped.

“Do you not want to touch me anymore?” Andrew asked back, a dodge with unexpected honesty that put a little dart of warmth in Neil’s chest.

Neil knew better than to demand an answer before giving one himself. “I do. I always want to touch you. And I like the restraint too.”

Andrew’s gaze flicked back to Neil’s face. Andrew heard the unspoken without difficulty, knowing the chasm of difference between voluntary, self-inflicted restraint and violent, outside restraint. Neil wetted his lips and stretched his fingers for a moment.

“If we’re going further,” he said carefully, weighing each word. “I want to do it like this, at first.”

Andrew’s gaze sharpened, things moving in the darkness masked behind ice. At length, he gave Neil an answer back. “I miss it.”

Heat curled in Neil’s chest, a hopeful flame fanned by satisfaction and muted joy that Andrew would meet his honesty with vulnerability yet again, a careful reward to each of them for feeling their way through this thing between them, all secrets and memories given carefully to each other to guard, peeling back the layers and making gates through the defensive walls around them both.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Andrew said and kissed the smile from Neil’s mouth with a searing heat that evaporated the breath from Neil’s lungs and left him shaking and alive and his brain buzzing happily without thought. As Andrew’s tongue pushed into his mouth and his hand rested hot and heavy over Neil’s ribs, he slowly lowered himself down to lie chest to chest with Neil, his weight bearing them both down into the bed. Neil let Andrew’s body heat consume him and Andrew let Neil hold him up.

Neil’s brain fritzed out for some time, overwhelmed with the achingly wonderful weight of Andrew on top of him, the unbelievable heat setting fire to his skin, and the possessive crush of his mouth, kissing until Neil’s lips felt sore and bruised in the best way and the residual ache from all his scars was eased away. Andrew kissed like kissing was the only thing keeping him sane and the only air Neil ever wanted to breathe was air traded from Andrew’s lungs. Neil knew Andrew couldn’t miss the hard shape of his erection against his hip, like Neil couldn’t miss it either. But for some time, that didn’t matter. They breathed each other’s air and consumed each other until Neil had to pull away, dizzy and gasping. Andrew let him and raked his eyes over Neil’s expression and the flush of his chest as he trembled.

With a vaguely thoughtful air despite the redness of his own mouth and face, Andrew moved his free hand up to Neil’s throat as he struggled to breathe. He cupped his hand around Neil’s windpipe and let it rest there, not squeezing or pressing, just gravity and muscle tone holding it there. He watched Neil’s expression carefully until he got a gasped ‘yes’ and slowly tightened his grip, pressing against his jugular and oesophagus and larynx like he wanted to map them. Neil swallowed the saliva in his throat and took short, rapid breaths around the constriction, his blood rushing frantically in his ears and thrumming against Andrew’s fingers. Dark memories waited just out of sight with the feel of a blade and dashboard lighter, but the calmness of Andrew’s eyes kept them back. Sparks of pain flashed in his palms from the cut of his nails but he breathed through it, light and fast against the careful weight of Andrew’s hold. Andrew watched him like there was nothing in the world even vaguely as interesting to him, watched him tremble and wheeze and grin fiercely as Andrew brought him to the edge and held back just enough.

When Neil’s chest jumped, his diaphragm contracting without his lungs, Andrew took his hand away and rested it on Neil’s hip. Neil sucked in great, shuddering breaths and panted, his head tilted back and mouth wide open. He closed his eyes for a minute to calm himself from the electric thrill, savouring each sweet mouthful of air whooshing in and out of him, soothing the ache in his chest and pressure behind his eyes. There was a swiping touch at the side of his mouth and Neil couldn’t summon the mental energy to be embarrassed that he was drooling slack-jawed while Andrew watched with his perfect memory and rubbed the wetness away for him. That tiny touch made his stomach bottom out for a second, the slightest admission of care that could never be fully vocalised, not yet at least. 

Andrew let him recover until he was breathing normally again and opened his eyes.

“You said ‘going further’,” Andrew said, the rough edge to his voice the only outward sign he was as affected by Neil as Neil was by him.

“Mm.”

Andrew just looked at him, spare with his words and jealous of his questions as always.

“As far as you want to go,” Neil rasped.

Andrew looked away and went back to tracing idly over Neil’s scars, bare to him without a shirt to pull down and cover them. It had taken a long time for Neil to be comfortable with that, and with Andrew’s calm perusal of them. Neil felt it worth it now though, the ever-present heat of Andrew’s fingertips anchoring and securing him, sliding new sensation and memory alongside the old and smoothing the ragged edges where they brushed against his mind.

Andrew was fully dressed apart from the bands and sheaths on his arms, discarded at Neil’s request earlier in the evening without a word of protest. He still wore his long-sleeved shirt and they were both in soft sweatpants, Neil’s rucked up a bit to his knees from how he was lying with his thighs bracketing Andrew’s hips, soles pressed flat either side of Andrew’s calves.

Silence rested between them for some time, comfortable as they both thought and looked at each other. Neil watched the curve of Andrew’s profile as he thought, admiring the very familiar jut of brow and cheekbone and the slight dip of his sharp cheek, smoothing out to his clean jaw and long neck. He wanted to put his tongue to Andrew’s pulse and feel him shudder, but it wasn’t the right moment. He waited Andrew out patiently.

Eventually, Andrew sat up a little and pulled his shirt over his head in one sharp jerk, dropping it to the floor to crumple beside Neil’s. He braced his forearms alongside Neil’s head again, holding himself up just a little, and met Neil’s eyes with a grim set to his mouth.

“Thank you,” Neil said quietly once Andrew was settled. He kept his eyes on Andrew’s face, refusing the temptation to look down for now. “May I see?”

“Yes.”

Neil let his eyes flick down in careful sweeps to the skin only now revealed to him. He saw the strong swell of muscle in Andrew’s shoulders and biceps, taut as he held himself away, the strength behind his amazing goalkeeping and home-run swings. Neil felt saliva pool in his throat and a little jolt of heat went right to his groin as he imagined putting his hands and mouth on that strength, biting down if he was allowed, tasting more of his skin. His eyes saw the strong lines of Andrew’s torso, lean and muscled from training and a shade lighter than his face from the lack of exposure, the slightest of tan lines around his collar. He saw the occasional small scar, souvenirs from fights on and off court. He saw others he knew were his own childhood battle scars and kept his eyes moving. He caught a glimpse of pale hair under Andrew’s navel until their bodies pressed together and he lost sight of it. He knew there were other scars pressed into the mattress that he had only touched once or twice, and never been allowed to really see.

“May I see?” He asked again, careful and soft.

Andrew considered him for another long minute. “Not yet.”

Neil nodded firmly and gathered that little promise close to his chest, a small dream of the near-future he wanted to be worthy of earning. “Thank you.”

Andrew nodded back, then took a slow breath. He shifted between Neil’s hips and with a start, Neil felt him push forward just a little, a tentative thrust that had their erections rubbing against each other through their sweatpants. Neil couldn’t hide his shocked gasp and dug his nails harder into his palms, knuckles creaking from the force of it. He thought maybe a little blood welled up but he didn’t care.

Neil vividly remembered the time Andrew had washed him after being released by the FBI, how he had delivered on his half-promise to blow Neil and then knelt with him in the water, Neil’s hand in his hair as he got himself off silently and guardedly, for the first and only time in the same room as Neil. Whenever they were alone even now, Andrew would get Neil to come, they would separate so Andrew could sort himself and they could both calm down, and go on with their day without talking about it.

And now Andrew was grinding against him, just a little, with all the implications of getting off together loud and clear in the air around them.

“You don’t have to,” Neil said once he had his breath back. “The shirt is more than enough.”

Andrew flicked his gaze up to Neil’s happily-crossed wrists, the reminder of his choice and respect for all the invisible lines. “Do you trust me?”

Neil was floored for a moment and frowned up at Andrew. “Yes.”

“Then trust me to know what I can handle.”

Neil took the rebuke in silence and nodded.

Andrew rested a hand on his wrists again as if securing him. “Stay,” He said, half a request and half a reminder.

Neil understood then – with Neil offering such vulnerability and willing submission and the choice not to touch even when he wanted to, Andrew could stomach doing this together and show his own vulnerability. If Neil touched him while he was trying this, it would all break apart. He heard the nerves and stress behind Andrew’s words, stormy waters under a glacier.

He met Andrew’s eyes with his own and pressed his hands deeper into the pillow, tilting his wrists up a bit to press into Andrew’s palm. “Yes. And you?”

“Yes,” Andrew replied after a moment. He took his hand away from Neil’s wrists, trusting him to keep his word, and resettled his weight so he had a bit more leverage, their bodies flush from thigh to chest and Andrew’s heavy, hot, wonderful hands on Neil’s ribs. Andrew’s eyes fixed on Neil’s kiss-sore mouth and pushed his hips forward again. It was short, light, and hesitant, but it lit every nerve up Neil’s spine and his back arched without his permission, mouth falling open again in a wordless gasp.

Andrew paused for a moment, then did it again. And again. The fourth time, a ragged moan shivered from Neil’s mouth to their mutual surprise. They froze and stared at each other. They were quiet men by nature, and quiet lovers. Words were carefully conserved until needed the most, guarded and traded carefully in subdued tones, especially when they were alone. They were used to the occasional gasp or pant, moreso now they had been exploring Andrew’s fascination with Neil’s breath. Neil had whispered Andrew’s name once or twice, always so quietly and breathlessly the syllables were almost inaudible. Their reticence made it easier to be together like this, shut away in their dorm room but certainly not alone in the apartment; Dan and Matt were playing video games loudly in the front room, oblivious to the fact Neil and Andrew were here at all, presuming them to be on the court and never bothering to check the bedroom that was off-limits anyway. Neil didn’t care that they were doing this with others in the next room – he refused to give up these stolen moments and they were always so quiet nobody ever heard them. He knew Andrew felt much the same.

But then, Neil had never made a noise like that before.

He licked his lips, words spinning around in his mind to explain, say they should stop, anything at all.

Andrew thrust again cautiously. Noise pushed up through Neil’s throat and his back arched again, heart going a hundred miles an hour. In the next room, the murmur of voices faltered and Neil felt his face flame, though the burn scar tissue on his cheek was oddly cool, a stark pale patch without feeling.

Then, Andrew smiled.

It was just a tiny one, a widening of his lips and mouth and slight lift to his cheeks. Nothing like the manic mask of his meds, but genuine and devastating and oh God Neil felt his dick throb where Andrew was pressed hard and heavy against him.

Someone knocked on the door and they both froze. “Is somebody hurt in there?” Dan asked lightly.

“No,” Neil replied after a moment, though even the monosyllable couldn’t disguise the wrecked shade to his voice that gave away exactly what they were doing.

“Oh my God,” Dan laughed quietly. “Okay, right then. I am definitely not opening this door.”

They heard her walk away and after a moment, the video game music flicked back on at a much louder volume.

Neil looked back to Andrew, who still had that tiny smile on his face. He pushed again, a bit more confidently, and Neil gritted his teeth to choke back the moan that threatened. Andrew kissed him fiercely, claiming his lips and tongue and mouth and scraping his teeth mercilessly against the swollen edge of Neil’s lips until Neil couldn’t take the sensation and moaned again, muffled into Andrew’s mouth.

He was so hard it hurt.

Andrew thrust his hips in a shallow rhythm, seemingly spurred on by Neil’s helpless noise and distracted by how it buzzed in both their throats. Andrew was shaking him apart and sending his brain in a tailspin and Neil surrendered to it with a shudder, his nails cutting sharp into his palms with the effort of staying still and quieting his groans as much as possible into Andrew’s mouth. His back arched up from the mattress and his thighs locked unconsciously around Andrew’s hips as they moved with a white-hot friction, rushing hard and fast and delirious with it.

It rushed over Neil sudden and all-consuming – his hips jerked up a few times and he keened, shocking them both with the volume and pitch of it. His hips were still rocking with trembling aftershocks when Andrew panted shakily against Neil’s cheek and moved his hips hard and vicious against Neil’s once, twice, three times.

Neil’s back and hips slowly sank back into the mattress, borne down by Andrew’s weight as they both tried to come down from that dizzy high. Neil could feel liquid in his boxers starting to pool and stick unpleasantly but he didn’t suggest they move, too boneless and shaking to do more than try to breathe.

Andrew held himself up on his forearms, his head hanging low to hide his expression. Once Neil had his breath back and some portion of his brain functioning again, he murmured, “Andrew.”

Andrew was silent, the line of his back tense and knotted as he held himself still through whatever thoughts he couldn’t push away, and still, still, here with Neil, pressed close if unseeing, and not pushed away. No get out or silent dismissal. He was here, solid and braced against Neil, trusting and vulnerable and raw with it.

Neil thought about a hand on the back of his neck or curled in his collar whenever he was on the verge of panic. He thought about the careful way Andrew had held his face to inspect Lola’s damage in the Baltimore hotel room. He thought about stolen – no, shared – cigarettes on the roof and an obnoxious percentage. He thought about three words Andrew had gifted him with earlier. I miss it.

Neil slowly uncrossed his wrists and lowered his arms, ignoring the ache in them. He held a hand just away from Andrew’s face, where he could see it but not touching.

“Andrew,” he murmured again, quietly requesting.

It seemed to take an age, but Andrew nodded.

Slowly, carefully, Neil threaded his fingers through Andrew’s hair and over his scalp and traced shapes and patterns there, holding him close and secure. He heard Andrew’s breath shake but didn’t acknowledge it and kept stroking instead. He was baffled by the amount Andrew had given him today, in word and deed and quiet presence. He didn’t know yet how to repay it or what had inspired such an abrupt shift of trust, but he knew he could try and anchor Andrew in this moment, as Andrew had done for him so many times.

He stroked through Andrew’s fine, light hair over and over until the tension in his back began to fade, and he allowed himself to lie down against Neil again. He didn’t look up, kept his eyes on Neil’s chest instead, but that was okay. Neil cradled his head and rubbed through his hair and had no name for the soft, warm flickering in his chest. They breathed together silently, muscles sore from the unexpected exertion, and listened idly to the chatter of voices and video games in the next room, determinedly loud even though both Matt and Dan had to have heard Neil’s cry.

All Neil cared about was that Andrew wanted his hair touched and wanted to remain close this one time. He was more than happy to provide that. They lay together and very slowly, Andrew relaxed against him, his breath soft and quiet on Neil’s chest. Neil realised Andrew had fallen asleep and blinked away the wetness in his eyes. He held still and kept a hand in Andrew’s hair.

Nobody could ever survive saying Andrew was soulless, Neil was determined. Neil would destroy them if they ever tried.

An interminable time later, he heard the door open and Nicky’s distinctive voice in the apartment, as well as a few of the freshmen. Neil was surprised Andrew didn’t wake up – sober he was a very light sleeper – but he seemed oblivious. Neil traced the edge of his ear with a fingertip and with his free hand cautiously nudged the armbands lying to the side of the pillows, with their sheaths and hidden knives.

“—gonna get my stuff,” Nicky said, his voice getting louder. Andrew twitched and started to stir and Neil felt acid course through him at the thought they would be disturbed.

“No! Don’t go in there—” Dan started in alarm. But Nicky was already opening the door and Andrew was waking up and Neil felt exposed, exposed.

“Oh my God!” Nicky exclaimed in shocked delight.

Neil had a hand on a knife sheath and in the next moment a knife thudded hard and fast into the wall beside the door, in his fingers for less than a second.

Nicky yelped and shut the door abruptly. The knife quivered in the plaster, too solidly embedded to fall out.

“Okay, I’ll stay out!” Nicky laughed. “Wow. Congratulations, you grumpy shits!”

Another knife joined the first and Nicky laughed again, amused by Neil’s anger. He heard Nicky walking away and call to Dan and Matt, “Did you know Neil can throw knives?”

By this point Andrew was fully awake and staring at Neil. Neil met his blank stare and traced the back of his ear again. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Andrew replied.

“You were asleep,” Neil explained.

“You never said you could handle knives.”

Neil shrugged. “Nathaniel was the Butcher’s son. They taught him young.”

Andrew absorbed the pronoun for a second. “Will Nathaniel teach me?”

Neil felt his lips twitch. “No. Neil thinks you’re too dangerous already.”

Andrew looked at him for a moment in silence, then reached out to touch Neil’s palm. He traced the half-moon dents and small scabs with the edge of his nails. His face was inscrutable as always but Neil knew he was pleased.

“This is getting disgusting,” Andrew said eventually, shifting his hips a bit. Neil grimaced in agreement and dropped his hand regretfully from Andrew’s hair, letting him get up. His body abruptly felt too light and cold without Andrew pinning him down, but he swallowed disappointment and sat up as well. They cleaned up and changed clothes turned away from each other, each taking a few moments of privacy after the intense intimacy of earlier. Andrew crossed to the wall and examined the knives embedded there thoughtfully as he pulled his armbands back on. Neil shrugged on a fresh shirt and watched him.

“I’ll trade you my scars for lessons.” Andrew said.

Neil checked his own scars were well covered by the baggy shirt and tugged at his own armbands, hiding the worst of Lola’s damage. “Deal.”

Andrew pulled the knives out of the wall with a couple of measured tugs and opened the door, blank-faced and unruffled. Neil followed him out and they were met with grins and mocking applause from the small crowd in the front room. Neil saw money changing hands and didn’t want to know how many bets were being settled. He saw a couple of freshmen looking astounded – he knew they hadn’t believed the upperclassmen when they said Neil and Andrew were together, thinking it was a prank.

Andrew was tucking the knives into the sheaths but paused to hold one out to Neil, carefully gripping the blade so Neil could take the handle.

“Feel like practising your aim again?” He asked half-seriously.

The freshmen gawped and Nicky laughed. Neil smiled and took the knife. The familiar weight of it made his stomach churn for a second, but the grip was different to the ones he remembered. Andrew’s knife, Renee’s before that.

He casually flipped the knife and caught it still-spinning in one hand, earning an appreciative murmur from their audience. He did it again a few times until they were all quiet, then handed it back to Andrew. “Not right now.”

“You two are a terrible influence on each other,” Nicky huffed.

Neil thought of quiet words and fierce kisses and the texture of Andrew’s hair. He thought of the way Andrew trusted him enough to fall asleep on him, and himself allowing Andrew to see and touch all his scars. He saw Andrew watching him and smiled warmly.

Andrew prodded his chest. “Stop that.” He said and walked away. Neil grinned to himself, hearing the softer undertones inaudible to everyone else.

“Your flirting is disgusting and fascinating,” Nicky informed him.

“Shut up, Nicky,” Neil smiled. Then he turned his attention to the slack-jawed freshmen and channelled Wymack. “The fuck are you all doing here? Practice in fifteen minutes, go!”

They scrambled to obey their vice-captain and the upperclassmen followed them out the door. It was really quite a beautiful day.


 

my tumblr come talk to me about these guys holy shit, I read the trilogy twice in one week I love it so much

Chapter Text

Andrew had made quite a habit of staring blankly into space over the years. A lot of the time, he was consciously disengaged from the world around him, blocking everything out to a kind of empty mental static that bypassed the tedium marginally better than any inane conversation. Other times, he was taken prisoner by his own mind and held captive to the endless stream of perfectly-recalled memories, unresponsive to the others as he waited for the horror show to end. Occasionally, he was actually purposefully engaged in simply observing the world around him, every sound and sensation and word, letting the nonsensical constant flow of input anchor him in the moment, listening and memorising even when the others thought he was ignoring them all.

And even less frequently, he was immersed in more creative processes. While his eidetic memory was a weapon more than a help, it felt like, it meant he could always recall something when wanted. That, coupled with a vivid and sensory-rich imagination, meant that he could conjure up a potent mixture of memory and fantasy to pass the time, absorbed in it completely.

Like now, for example. His body was sitting on the desk in the suite he shared with his group, facing the open window and slowly consuming smoke and oxygen in roughly equal parts. His mind was very much elsewhere.

It was night in the fantasy, and moonlight dappled silver and grey through the mostly-closed blinds of the bedroom. He was naked, and standing over an equally-naked Neil at his feet. He could see every line of Neil’s body wrapped in moonlight, every piece of muscle and sinew and rough edge. He could see every beautiful curve of his shoulders, the dip of his narrow waist, the bunching of his strong thighs as he sat back on his calves. Each scar and mark was recreated perfectly; the abdominal slashes, road-rash scramble over one side of his chest, the bullet wound and dotted clothes-iron burn on his shoulder, the gashes and marks scattered liberally over his torso and tops of his thighs. Each circular burn and neat line on his arms and hands were there too, looking silvery-white on the side closest to the window and inky black on the other. His face was tilted up, eyes wide and pale in the dark room as he watched Andrew.

His hair was tousled and falling over his forehead where it needed a trim, starting to curl in its longer length and wisping around his temples and the tops of his ears. It looked black in the moonlight, but Andrew could recall the burnished brass-and-copper fire of it just fine. His eyelashes were long and pale, framing his large doe-like eyes, all icy blues and gunmetal greys, far too pretty for a man intent on blending into the crowd. His cheeks were painted with his scars, discrete and precise on one side, amorphous and vague circles bleeding into each other on the opposite side. Andrew knew their texture like his own skin, knew how the slashes were raised and thin like the ones on his own arms, and how the burns were deceptively smooth in the centre but irregular at each circle’s edge, how they felt just a little like melted and cooled wax from the liberal amount of scarring holding his cheek together. Neil’s sinfully-full and curved lips were parted and glistening in the low light, his breath warm and fast against Andrew’s thighs.

Andrew ran a hand through Neil’s hair, enjoying the soft tumble against his fingers and how the small curls clung to him, the warmth of his scalp and the contented sigh that gusted from between his lips.

“Yes,” Neil sighed in the fantasy, eyes fluttering closed for a moment. “Yes, Andrew.”

Neil met his eyes and deliberately let his mouth drop open, slack and relaxed and welcoming; a vivid recreation of each time real-Neil had done so after regaining his trapped breath. Andrew eased his cock slowly into Neil’s mouth, the imagined slide against his slick tongue the most beautiful thing his brain had conjured in a long time. Neil took him as deep as he could, his mouth so hot and wet it made Andrew’s hand clutch in his hair, twisting and pulling to get Neil moaning. Neil pushed his head closer, easing his throat open to take Andrew deeper until his lips were pressed to Andrew’s base, the tip of his nose flattened against Andrew’s gut. Neil looked up to meet his eyes again with a slow, blissful blink.

His mouth was stretched wide around Andrew’s cock, lips swollen and flushed. He looked beautiful and confident and unashamed. Trust and affection and easy wanting radiated from him like sunlight through clouds, and Andrew was already close to the edge.

He combed his hands through Neil’s hair some more, steadying himself even in fantasy, before taking careful hold of Neil’s jaw and cheek. Neil held perfectly still and kept his mouth relaxed and open as Andrew fucked into his mouth with deliberate slowness. Neil took the thick weight of him happily, eyes half-closed and the occasional moan shivering through him as saliva and fluid coated his lips and spilled just a little, shining bright on his glistening lips. He moved not an inch, his hands folded in his lap, and let Andrew have full use of his mouth and throat, suckling when he could and hollowing his cheeks out. He breathed in short gasps and puffs through his nose that warmed Andrew’s belly.

He was so pretty, Andrew thought dazedly as he pushed himself closer and closer to climax, watching Neil’s blissful expression shining in the moonlight. So pretty and happy and warm.

On his next thrust, Neil made a swallowing motion with his throat and sucked needily, eyes pleading silently for Andrew to come down his throat. Andrew’s balls tightened warningly and he pulled back until the head of his cock popped free from Neil’s lips. He took himself in hand and after a few rough strokes, he was coming at last in thick stripes over Neil’s eager and excited face, covering the scars in pale lines of his own and coating his mouth and chin. Neil made a surprised and appreciative sound that had another weak pulse spattering against his throat.

Neil smiled and slowly licked his lips clean as he held Andrew’s gaze, sweetly amused and pleased. He made a crude show of swallowing that had Andrew rolling his eyes in exasperation, stupid tease that Neil was when he was in the mood. Neil laughed, a quiet chuckle that had made Andrew’s stomach clench the first time he’d heard it. It was a soft sound, all surprise and shyness and joy like he’d discovered happiness for the first time in his life and wasn’t sure how to react. Beautiful.

Andrew smiled back with warm contentment curling through his body, satisfaction a pleasing weight in his bones. He began to tenderly wipe Neil’s face clean. He rubbed the come between his fingers until it dried and stroked over Neil’s cheeks some more, gentle and careful of this man with such strength and fire and yet raw, uncertain vulnerability twined inseparably with the vicious heat of words kept in his chest until they found the right target to scald. Neil hummed and smiled happily up at him, leaning into his hands with his eyes closed. Andrew traced over his cheekbones and pressed his thumb to Neil’s sweet smile. He touched under Neil’s pretty eyes and smoothed his fingertips over his brow and temples, brushing his curls away. He let himself caress Neil’s soft skin and enjoy the moment.

Neil sighed serenely and kissed the side of his thumb, nuzzling into his palm like a cat nosing at a friendly hand.

“Andrew,” He murmured softly.

Andrew took a slow breath and let the fantasy fade back into the blackness behind his eyes. He slowly came back to his body. He felt disjointed and unreal for a few minutes until the cold breeze through the window shocked him back into the present. He blinked and looked around the room; he was still alone, and he had about ten minutes until they would all start assembling for afternoon practice. He took a drag on the last millimetre of cigarette before the filter, burning it right down, then stubbed it out on the windowsill.

He was hard, he realised after a moment. Sometimes that happened after these fantasies, sometimes not. He wasn’t particularly bothered by it, but was just a little surprised at himself. He’d made fantasies about Neil before, but none with such softness. And that he’d gotten hard from it… it was a little startling.

He checked the clock again, cursed the way that Neil was daily burrowing himself deeper and deeper into Andrew’s cold heart, and locked himself in the bathroom to get rid of the problem before he had to drive them all to practice.

During the drive and the first half of practice, Andrew examined the fantasy again from a less-involved standpoint, refusing to let it consume his full attention but analysing it instead, interrogating himself. He took it apart ruthlessly and poked at every angle of what had made it so effective and commanding, searching for any hint of the dark taint of violence or possession or sickness those who had smeared his childhood might have left on the inside of his skull. He questioned whether fantasy-Neil’s sweet submission was borne of the need for control and domination that one abuser had left him with. He asked whether the fact of fucking his mouth without resistance was a holdover from the others holding him down helpless and cowed. He demanded whether he saw Neil as a hot body to fuck, something to service his needs rather than the man he knew. He asked whether he imagined the scars in such vivid detail because he wanted the reality of Neil, or because he wanted someone just as damaged as himself. He wondered whether the act of painting his face was a need to make his own mark and control him, degrade him, humiliate him.

He came up a tentative blank on his investigation, but it still left him restless and uneasy. He was always watching for it, for any sign that his own abusers had contaminated his brain in this way too. I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be, he’d said to Neil many months ago, and he meant it just as much now as he had then. Even more, now they were moving slowly along this path into increasingly new and potentially-treacherous territory together.

A ball bounced against his helmet and ricocheted off, jerking him out of his thoughts. Neil was standing in front of the goal, real Neil, vividly there and himself with a goddamn racquet in his hands and a frown on his face.

“You’re spaced out today. You okay?” He asked in clumsy, stilted Russian. Neil was picking it up a lot faster than Andrew, courtesy of his larger collection of languages, but neither of them were close to fluent yet. Andrew saw Kevin huff and roll his eyes at being excluded from the question but Andrew ignored that.

He looked back to Neil and considered what to say. And then, whether he could even express it properly for Neil to understand. So much of their conversations were made in glances and touches, tiny gestures and intuitive understanding. Andrew hoped Neil was awake enough to realise Andrew didn’t really know himself what the exact problem was, other than being surprised by his own sexual fantasy that was really a lot more sentimental than he’d been anticipating.

Andrew lifted his shoulders in a shrug and adjusted his helmet. Neil narrowed his eyes a little, watching him closely.

“Bad brain day?” He persevered.

“Something like that,” Andrew eventually replied, his tongue tripping over the syllables a bit.

Neil nodded shortly and set his racquet down on the ground out of a ready shooting grip, much to Kevin’s continued disgust. “What do you need?” He asked simply.

Andrew suddenly couldn’t bear to look at him, with that softness in his eyes and sharp attention all over Andrew’s face. Frustrated anger roiled in his gut and he sighed it out in a short gust, wishing for a second that he could go back to just hating Neil and all his goddamn nosiness, instead of relying on it to pick apart his tangled thoughts.

He ground his teeth and swallowed the need for a cigarette.

“Something simple.”

Neil turned that over in his head for a moment. “Do you want Renee later?”

Andrew considered that, but decided it was a different kind of uneasiness than the usual. He shook his head.

“Do you want me later?”

Andrew glanced back at him briefly, biting down on the thought that he always wanted Neil. Him and his horrendously soft mouth.

He shrugged again instead of admitting to that. Neil’s lips twitched briefly as if he’d heard the stray thought regardless. “Columbia?” Neil suggested.

Tempting, but Andrew had a feeling he’d just keep feeling more and more uneasy in his own skin if they spent the night surrounded by other people crushed up far too close.

“Leave it,” Andrew replied with another shake of his head. “I’ll figure it out.”

Neil gave him a small smile, thankfully knowing better than to be annoyed or upset by that dismissal. A treacherous little bloom of warmth unfurled in Andrew’s chest, something soft and grateful and complicated, and after a moment the automatic rage and frustration smothered it. That was more familiar, easier to deal with than whatever sentimentality was festering in his brain today.

Neil took up his racquet again and scooped up the errant ball.

“Are you two quite done?” Kevin asked sourly. “We’re in the middle of practice, you know.”

“I think so,” Neil replied breezily, back in English again. “Relax, Kevin. Think of your blood pressure.”

Kevin muttered something undoubtedly spiteful in French, Neil muttered back, and practice resumed as normal. As it was a Wednesday, Andrew walked off the court towards the end to change out for his session with Betsy. He felt Neil’s eyes on him as he passed, and resolved to bring it up with her. She was usually helpful as an extra set of eyes on the things his brain spat out sometimes; he’d described certain fantasies to her before and found it useful, if a bit uncomfortable, to have her pick them over with him. She’d helped him with the urges about choking and breathlessness, helping him accept the desire without the fear of seriously hurting Neil, or of wanting to hurt him. Maybe she could help with something less violent and almost more concerning.

But then Andrew noticed Aaron was following him, no doubt intending to gate-crash another session. He ground his teeth in annoyance but said nothing; he’d just have to ask Betsy another time. He might be prepared to talk explicitly about his sex life with his therapist, but not with his brother.

They changed out in silence and drove over to Reddin ignoring each other completely.

“Good afternoon,” Betsy greeted them both warmly, and handed Andrew the ritual cup of cocoa as he sat down. Aaron took a glass of water as was his habit, and sat on the other end of the couch. At first, Aaron had lurked around the room restlessly, pacing and poking at Betsy’s ornaments. Recently he’d been making a bit more of an effort to at least appear like he wanted to be there. Hence the show of potential reparations by sitting down only a few feet away from his brother.

Andrew found it transparent and irritating, but it made Betsy smile.

“How was practice today?” She asked pleasantly, settling herself with her notepad on her customary chair.

“Fine,” Andrew replied. Apparently proximity to Neil had several effects.

Aaron snorted. “You were barely paying attention.”

“Something on your mind?” Betsy asked, knowing him well.

“Just a sticky thing,” Andrew replied, using their private code to mean something sex-related that was bothering him. She nodded understanding and made a note.

“We can discuss it privately another time, if you’d prefer. Maybe Neil could sit in on it as well?”

Andrew shook his head and Aaron looked vaguely disgusted as he realised at least the vague meaning of the exchange.

“Trouble in paradise?” He asked snidely.

Andrew’s temper began to simmer but he kept his eyes on the line of glass ornaments on Betsy’s cabinet, and his mouth shut.

“Aaron,” Betsy chided. She consulted her notepad and tapped her pen three times exactly against it. “We were going to discuss Tilda some more today, but perhaps it would be more beneficial to discuss both of your relationships just now. I’m aware neither of you have discussed this previously, and that strikes me as an unhealthy potential for misunderstanding hampering you both as you learn to know each other again.”

“What’s to discuss?” Aaron said. “I can’t stand his fuckboy, and he hates Katelyn.”

Aaron,” Betsy said more firmly. “That is a very rude and disrespectful term.”

“I know, that’s why I used it,” Aaron muttered.

“We’ll look at that more closely in a moment,” Betsy said with a slight frown, then turned to Andrew. “Perhaps it would be helpful to talk about Katelyn for now. Andrew?”

Andrew looked at her, then turned slowly to his brother. He raised his eyebrows.

Aaron’s lip curled. “What’s your problem with her?”

Andrew blinked slowly at him, rage starting to boil over just a bit. “You know what. You promised me no girlfriends until the end of our deal. You broke that promise.”

Aaron huffed impatiently. “It was just a dumb fucking pinky-swear, Andrew.”

“You promised.” Andrew said again, voice carefully devoid of anything. “You gave me your word.”

Aaron rolled his eyes.

“I warned you that breaking it would have consequences, and you broke it anyway. You broke your word.”

“Christ alive, Andrew, people break promises all the time! They don’t mean shit.”

Andrew didn’t reply, so Betsy took over for him. “Aaron, I don’t think you understand how much promises mean to your brother, and how much a broken promise hurts him. He was giving you a trust he finds difficult to extend, and your actions betrayed that trust. Can you see why he is so angry?”

“What about you?” Aaron shot back instead of answering her question. “What about Josten, then? You broke your promise just as thoroughly. You can’t be pissed at me for loving Katelyn when you’re fucking around with him.”

Andrew felt his eye twitch and examined his mug instead of looking at his brother. “It’s different.” He said shortly. “It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything.”

Aaron scoffed impatiently at the implicit other half of that sentence, the admission that it meant something. Andrew carefully reigned in the vicious urge to punch his teeth in.

“I believe Neil means a great deal to your brother, and Andrew to Neil,” Betsy mediated calmly. “I would suggest their relationship has equal weight and importance to your own with Katelyn.”

“Yeah, right.” Aaron muttered.

Betsy tilted her head thoughtfully. “Aaron, I confess myself confused by your attitude on this issue. At one turn you insist that Andrew and Neil’s relationship is meaningless and purely physical, but at the other turn you are angered by Andrew’s broken promise, implying you believe Andrew has broken his word as completely as you did by falling in love with Katelyn. What is it precisely about Neil that makes you so angry?”

Aaron fumed silently for a few minutes before gritting his teeth and turning fully to face Andrew. “How can you let him fuck you after Drake?” He spat.

Andrew’s stomach clenched and rage spiked under his skin. “How can you stand Katelyn after Tilda?” He spat back.

Aaron looked shocked for a moment, then anger clouded his face in a pale mirror of his brother’s rage. “You – it’s different, Andrew! Mom never touched me like that!”

“And Neil has never touched me like Drake,” Andrew replied through gritted teeth, blood roaring in his ears. “He never touches me at all unless I tell him to, and he leaves when I tell him no. And if you’re that hung up on it, I’m the one fucking him. So screw you and your bullshit for thinking I’d let anyone touch me in a way I don’t want ever again.”

The silence following that statement seemed to ring. Betsy let it settle, watching between Andrew’s coldly furious face and Aaron’s shocked and disgusted expression. Andrew swallowed the last cold dregs of his cocoa and set the mug down so he wouldn’t be tempted to smash it.

“Alright,” Betsy said softly. “Is there anything else you’d like to say to each other on this subject today?”

“I want him out,” Andrew ground out, looking only at her.

“Happy to go, believe me,” Aaron snarled, and slammed the door behind himself before Betsy could argue for him to stay. She sighed quietly and made a few more notes before smiling at Andrew.

“Thank you for sharing that today.”

“He can think what he likes. I don’t care.”

“I think you care very much,” Betsy said gently. “You wouldn’t be so angry or defensive if you didn’t care.”

Andrew picked at a stray thread on his shirt instead of answering.

“For what it’s worth, I’m very pleased with and proud of how you and Neil communicate,” She smiled. “Do you want to talk more about it today?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk about the fantasy that was bothering you, now Aaron is gone?”

Andrew rubbed at his jaw for a moment. “No. I’m too angry right now.”

“I’m glad you recognise your anger, and that it may affect your judgement. That’s very good, Andrew.”

Andrew said nothing, and they sat quietly for a full five minutes.

“I don’t like how Aaron sees Neil,” Andrew said eventually, choosing each word with care. “Neil has asked me to let him fight his own battles. But I don’t like it.”

“Are you worried Aaron will be violent towards him?”

Andrew shook his head slowly; he knew Neil would hit back just as hard if pressed. He could hold his own against Aaron in a fight, and probably win. Never mind that Neil was a hell of a lot cleverer and sneakier than Aaron, and much more willing to fight dirty – the evidence of that was in their joint sessions, after all. “I don’t like that he sees it as meaningless. It means something to me.”

His chest constricted for a second, instinctual fear at that admission of weakness, out in the open. He breathed through it and after a moment managed to unclench his fists.

Betsy smiled sweetly at him, putting her notebook aside. “Then I suggest you find a way to express that openly, not just to me.”

Andrew fidgeted with the loose thread some more. Betsy checked her watch and hummed. “I’m afraid that’s time up. Thank you for today, Andrew, and I’ll see you next week.”

Andrew nodded and walked out. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he checked it when he reached the car, leaning on the sun-warmed bonnet. Aaron was nowhere to be seen, apparently too mad to wait for a lift back to practice. The text was from Neil. He lit up before reading it and pulled smoke deeply into his lungs.

Aaron just got back, Neil was saying. He looks mad. Are you coming back?

No, Andrew replied.

Okay, Neil said. Andrew presumed he was on a water break if he was able to text. Anything you need?

Andrew took another couple of slow puffs, letting the smoke and nicotine settle him down. I want to kiss you in front of the others later, he texted.

He could almost see Neil’s startled expression. He was even slower to text back than usual.

I’m doing a movie night later, if you want to sit in. Any reason?

Aaron’s being a shitheel, Andrew said. I’m sick of it. y/n?

There was another long pause, sufficient for Andrew to stub out that cigarette and get halfway through another.

Yes, if it’s just kissing. And permission to kick Aaron’s ass when he starts shit.

Andrew nodded to himself. Just kissing, he promised. And yes. I’m going back to the dorms now, tell Coach not to fuss.

Okay. We’re starting at 8, in the girls’ room.

Right.

Andrew closed his phone and shoved it back in his pocket. Be proud, Bee, he thought darkly.

He read his book instead of studying for the remaining hours of the day, holed up in his bunk and ignoring the noise of the others in the kitchen or front room, completely blanking Kevin when he tried to draw Andrew into conversation. He was vaguely aware of Neil coming in once to collect something, but he didn’t attempt to bother Andrew and gave him his space.

Andrew wished he could ignore the cautious warmth in his chest that respect inspired.

Eight o’clock rolled around eventually and he swung himself down the ladder. He collected a few candy bars from the cupboard on his way out to the girls’ room. Renee met him with a smile, and then Neil looked up from his conversation with one of the freshmen strikers and gave him another smile, a warm crinkle of his eyes and lips that Andrew wanted to kiss away. He thought of caressing Neil’s face like in the fantasy, holding his hair in both hands, thought of Aaron’s assertion that Neil must be cruel and violent like Drake and abruptly wanted to punch something.

He stepped into the room and took his usual place on the couch, pressing a candy bar into Renee and Neil’s hands as he passed. He threw one at Kevin’s head just to annoy him. He said nothing to anybody and stared at the wall as the others slowly congregated.

Neil settled beside him after a while, casually nudging his knee against Andrew’s for a moment while carrying on his conversation. Andrew said and did nothing but half-saw Neil unwrap the candy bar and start to nibble it. Neil wasn’t generally a fan of chocolate or sweets, but he appreciated Andrew’s effort to share and he would probably make that small bar last all night.

Gestures and glances, all unspoken and loudly-heard.

It made his chest constrict and then feel full of cotton candy a second later.

The rest of the team slowly trickled into the room in dribs and drabs, the freshmen with more hesitancy but soon they were all crushed up together in chairs, beanbags and blankets. Except for Andrew – he was in the corner of the couch with Neil at his open side, preserving a careful inch of space between their thighs and physically blocking anybody else from coming close. A former defenseman would always guard the goalie, after all. Nobody dared to perch on the couch arm on Andrew’s side, warned off by his blank glare.

Allison turned out the lights, sat across Renee’s legs and pressed play on the remote. Andrew noticed his brother was curled up with Katelyn in an armchair nearby, his hand sneaking up Katelyn’s front once the lights were out to rest on her stomach just under her bust. He saw Katelyn grin and playfully prod at Aaron, but she settled closer into him and didn’t pull his hand away. Maybe she was blushing, Andrew couldn’t really see in the low light and didn’t particularly want to know. He ate his candy bar to distract himself from the sour anger in his gut at their brazen display after the argument earlier.

He didn’t pay a blind bit of attention to the movie, thinking instead of how best to carry out his plan, for the maximum reaction from the right people. The heat of Neil’s leg and side distracted him, radiating against his skin despite the little vacuum of space. He wanted to grab Neil and take him up to the roof, to feel the burn of his skin amid the freezing wind, to see his breath form clouds on the air and warm their numb mouths. He wanted to shove his hands in that mop of ridiculous chestnut hair and see how soft it felt under his palms. He wanted to get Neil off and listen to the desperate, wrecked noises he made, how he would tremble and grin and pant with roses high on his cheeks. He wanted to cup Neil’s cheeks and see him smile, all dazed and soft around the edges.

Sometimes he hated Neil so much it was sickening.

The movie ended and Allison unfurled from the complicated tangle of arms and legs of herself and Renee and switched on the lights so everybody could have a bathroom break. The moment had arrived.

Andrew touched his fingers to the back of Neil’s hand, and Neil turned to look at him. “Still yes?” Andrew asked in a quiet murmur.

Neil smiled sweetly and nodded, leaning closer. Andrew lightly held his chin to keep him still, and leaned in to kiss him slowly. He knew Neil was surprised by the lack of force and fire by how his lips curved, but Andrew didn’t want to think too much about that. His eyes were closed and he felt only the familiar pressure and heat of Neil’s lips against his own, his mind blissfully blank of anything but sensation. Neil matched his softness easily, seeming to melt into each delicate drag of lips. Andrew’s hand splayed out and he held Neil’s cheek, holding him close with gentle pressure. He traced the lines of the scars with his fingertips as they kissed, earning a tiny shiver.

Andrew lost himself. He forgot the point of this, his anger with Aaron, the unresolved uneasiness of his fantasy, the ugly scene in Betsy’s office. He forgot they were surrounded by the rest of the team. He forgot people would be watching them. There was only the feeling of Neil’s mouth and the heat of his skin. His tongue brushed the edge of Neil’s lips and suddenly they were parting, so accepting and welcoming as their mouths slid together uninhibited. Andrew traced the scar from the edge of Neil’s dimple to just under his eyebrow, then back down again and along the other lines as his heart beat a frantic drum in his chest, calling Neil, Neil, Neil…

Somebody wolf-whistled and he felt Neil startle a little. Their mouths parted and they stared each other in the eyes for a frozen, golden second. Neil looked hazy and drunk and delicate under Andrew’s hand, so beautiful and soft that a fierce ache punched the breath out of Andrew for a moment. He looked away before the warmth in Neil’s eyes could wick out and singe his skin and found Aaron glaring bloody murder at them, looking revolted.

Andrew dropped his hand from Neil’s cheek and met his brother’s eye coldly, one eyebrow slowly raised.

“That’s just sick,” Aaron said in German.

Andrew looked pointedly at Aaron’s hand still shoved up Katelyn’s shirt and deliberately rested his own hand on Neil’s thigh, fingers curled around the inner edge and reasonably close to his groin. “And what?” He challenged in English, deadly quiet in the silent room.

Aaron snarled something incoherent and got to his feet. He pulled Katelyn along by the wrist and slammed the door behind them. Again.

The room seemed to have a collective exhale. The upperclassmen looked shocked and thrilled at the same time, Kevin was ignoring everybody in favour of his phone, and Nicky looked like he was quietly about to explode with glee as he looked between Neil and Andrew. The freshmen seemed a mixture of astounded and uncomfortable, not yet used to the twins’ hostility or the cliques and dynamics of the rest of the team. He knew Neil was staring at him again and met his eye briefly; he still looked dazed and insufferably vulnerable and trusting. What an asshole.

“As fascinating as that was, can somebody pass me the vodka?” Allison said airily after a few awkward moments. “Let’s drink every time there’s a panty shot in the next movie. Who’s in?”

Dan and Nicky loudly agreed, and the others turned their attention back to the screen. Andrew slowly breathed once the focus was off them, and discreetly pressed his lips together to blot the remaining traces of Neil’s mouth. Neil saw, of course, because he had a thing about staring.

“Stop that,” Andrew muttered under his breath.

“You like it,” Neil replied in the same tone.

Andrew was about to take his hand away when Neil shifted, the muscle of his inner thigh twitching for a second.

“You can leave your hand there, if you want,” He said lowly. “It’s nice.”

Andrew glanced at him, then slowly squeezed his hand. Neil rewarded him with a happy smile and shifted a bit closer so their legs could press together. They didn’t speak for the rest of the night, but that was okay. And if neither of them watched the second movie because they were too busy looking at each other, nobody mentioned it.

Chapter Text

Chapter Trigger Warnings for non-graphic panic attacks, discussion of past rape, discussion of past self-harm, discussion of childhood abuse, mention of animal corpse mutilation. None of them are discussed in any greater detail than canon but please, by all means, message me on tumblr if you're at all concerned before reading and would like to know more beforehand.  


 “…And breathe,” Bee was saying.

Like it’s that easy, Andrew thought sourly, but obeyed as best he could. He did as she had taught him over the past two years, despite all his ice and reluctance. She’d managed to get under his skin and thaw him out a little, and while he would not admit it, he was glad she had.

It meant that now he could uncurl his fists and lay his palms on her carpet instead. It meant he could uncramp his back and lean it against the wall instead of hunching over himself. It meant he could feel just-safe enough to keep his eyes closed, even if his knees were still pulled into his chest, and try to calm his breathing.

This whole ‘feeling’ business was greatly overrated, as he’d always known.

“You know where you are,” Bee continued in her normal, sweet, steady voice. “You know you are safe. You know you are with me. You know these memories are in the past. You know the feeling will fade to be more manageable. You know this.”

“I know this,” he mumbled back by rote.

“Open your eyes when you’re ready, Andrew.”

Who said therapy wasn’t fun? It was so much fun, flashbacks and all. At least in this moment he was in full touch with his goddamn emotions, like everybody was always wanting from him. Always want, want, want. Take, take, take.

He clenched his jaw and imagined punching that thought away like a cushion thrown at his head. Not really a threat, just an annoyance. Easily within his control. Easily deflected. Not important. And gone.

Bee had her techniques, he had some of his own. Hers might be healthier, on balance, but he’d been relying on his for longer than he’d known hers.

He tilted his head back against the wall from where he sat huddled in the corner of her office and cracked his eyes to stare at the ceiling. The feeling was fading now alright, a rapid comedown from the overwhelming rush of confusion and rage and hatred and self-loathing and panic, all those wonderful things, the strongest echoes from the usual silence. They were being sucked away into the black hole of the apathy he’d learned years ago, the blank mask reasserting itself once again. It was somewhat of a relief to fall back on it, though he knew Bee wanted him to find a medium between the two extremes. He’d take the regression over the hateful feelings and the memories they regurgitated, just for now.

Fuck, he needed a cigarette.

He scrubbed his fingers over the short shag of the carpet instead and tracked over the small stains and paint cracks in the ceiling instead. Ground yourself in the moment, he mimicked Bee’s voice even as he relied on it. Engage with your senses where you are. He catalogued the vague aches in his muscles from practice, the sharp feeling in his kneecap from when he’d hit the court earlier hard enough to reverberate through his kneepads. It would already be bruising a dark red, and would darken to plum-blush by evening. Neil would fuss even if he’d get that look in his eye that he was pleased about Andrew’s exertion on the court.

Andrew punched that thought away, too. There was no need for that idiot in this moment. He wouldn’t allow it. His associations were already tangled and tainted enough.

“Do you feel ready to come back to the couch, Andrew?”

He thought about it. He liked the security of the corner, knowing he could see everything in the room, feeling the wall against his back. The couch was in the middle of the room, facing away from the door. Infinitely more vulnerable.

But that was the point, wasn’t it?

He levered himself to his feet instead of replying and ignored the jolt in his knee. He’d have to ice it later. Neil would definitely fuss. Nope. There goes the cushion.

He ghosted his fingertips over the insides of his forearms as he settled back on his place on the couch. His knives were all there, sitting pretty in their sheaths. Bee gave his hands a pointed, displeased look but for once didn’t say anything. He stared back as blankly as he knew how and refused to apologise for checking his safety measures were still in place.

Funny, how he could have the most interesting conversations without opening his mouth, if it was with the right people. Suck it up, Nicky. Bee didn’t give him a chance to let the mask settle more firmly, though. She might look sweet and soft, but there were several reasons why she had lasted this long with Andrew as a patient.

“You are frightened of hurting him. So frightened that it triggers memories of your own trauma. And triggers them strongly enough that you lose touch with the moment and panic.”

He grasped for the edges of the blanket apathy as she tried tugging it from him, and held onto the barest hems.

“This reaction shows the depth of your care for him. And that, too, frightens you.”

He said nothing. Did nothing. Was nothing. Nothingness could not be touched. Nothingness could not be hurt. Nothingness was fearless, boundless.

“I don’t like that word.” Andrew decided.

“Another for the list?” Bee smiled pleasantly. “’Frightened’?”

“It’s childish.”

She didn’t have to point out the associations between childish fear and helplessness to him. He knew them bone-deep. And she knew he wouldn’t have given her that ammunition unknowingly. She knew he wouldn’t have spoken if he didn’t want, in some way, to open up that avenue for her.

Dammit.

“Andrew, I don’t believe your fantasy had harmful edges to it. I believe, from what you’ve said, it was a very gentle and careful impulse, especially the aspect of cleaning his face and touching him in the aftermath – of caring, and grounding both of you. I think you should share it with Neil and see what he thinks about exploring it with you.”

“I am not gentle or careful.”

“Andrew,” she reproved him gently. “Those old self-beliefs are hurtful.”

True, he admitted. The words had been a reflex of sorts, lashing out against what she was saying. His thoughts were on the outside edges of his control today, it seemed. He grimaced and flicked his eyes away to rest on her cabinet of glass ornaments.

She let him retreat this time, and patiently waited him out.

“I don’t trust him to say no to this.”

But that wasn’t quite right. He did trust Neil – in itself something too big and horrifying to process, letting someone that close – and he trusted Neil to enforce his own boundaries. Even if he’d never yet said ‘no’ when asked.

“I don’t – we don’t get off together,” he bit the words on the way out.

“You said you had recently, and that he looked after you. You said you stayed together for a small time afterwards. That you enjoyed him looking after you.”

Ahh, Bee, never embarrassed by this shit. He waved his hand to dismiss her words. That wasn’t the point.

“He would be too happy about me pushing my boundaries to properly think about his own. He’d say yes and wouldn’t take it back even if he didn’t want it, because he’d want to help me through it. That’s not a real ‘yes’.”

Bee made a short note and tapped her pen three times against the paper. “And you’re concerned this would mean you could take advantage of his compromise, and that this would make you more like your own abusers?”

He said nothing. It was less of a question than a confirmation she’d understood him.

“I’m glad you asked for this extra session,” she said with a small smile. “It’s a good sign that you want to examine this impulse so closely with me, and I thank you for trusting me with it. I can also see why you didn’t want Aaron here for this. Though it also bears mentioning that it demonstrates a lack of self-trust on this issue that I would like us to continue working on another time.”

He nodded shortly. He’d known that was coming. She made another note. Tap, tap, tap.

“I’d like us to focus more on the gentler aspects of the fantasy for now, if you agree. I think we’ve got to the point of your concerns over the control and submission aspects, yes?” At his nod, she smiled. “Alright. So, you said that after the climax, you shared a laugh and began cleaning his face. Once he was clean, your hands then lingered in touching his face and hair, which he welcomed, and he kissed your hands. Is that correct?”

Nod. Scribble. Tap, tap, tap.

“That would suggest to me that a large component of the fantasy was his enjoyment of your care, and that he trusted you with that. Which in turn suggests that you want to be trusted to be gentle, and that you yourself would enjoy being gentle.”

She smiled at him.

“That’s quite a difference from your worries over forcefully taking advantage and being cruel, Andrew. From what you’ve said previously, if the main focus of your fantasy were the purely sexual part, then the fantasy would have ended with the orgasm and not ventured into the aftercare part. Therefore, it would seem the ‘whole point’ of the fantasy was the care you want to give him.”

And that is a very good thing, and a large step in your recovery, she didn’t need to say.

“I kissed him in front of Aaron after our last session,” Andrew replied blankly, almost a non-sequitur if she didn’t know him so well. “It was good.”

“Good,” Bee smiled. “I’m happy for you. Would you feel comfortable exploring the caring aspects with Neil for now, if not the sexual part? Touching his hair and face in a casual setting, for example.”

Andrew shrugged. He didn’t exactly hate the thought, and Neil was so goddamn touch-starved he didn’t think Neil would object.

“Touch doesn’t have to be either sexual or violent, Andrew. It can be casual, affectionate, and affirmative. You could simply touch because you want to, not because it has to lead to anything. I suggest you give it a try.”

He thought of his hand on Neil’s thigh after Aaron stormed out, welcomed and oddly comfortable. He thought of holding Neil’s nape when he panicked. He thought of washing Neil’s hair after Baltimore.

Perhaps he was more familiar with the concept than he’d wanted to admit. Goddammit, Bee.

Betsy glanced at her watch and capped her pen. “I’m afraid we’re almost out of time today, Andrew. Are you happy to pause this here? Is there anything else you’d like to discuss for the last five minutes? Any concerns we haven’t covered?”

He shook his head and turned the conversation to the new desk-kettle she’d bought recently, and listened to her chatter away about it for the last handful of minutes, letting the banality act as a buffer between all the grimy and uncomfortable things the session had brought up, and his present thoughts.

“Thank you for today, Andrew. I’ll see you on Wednesday as usual. Have a good night.”

He nodded, got his jacket, and left wordlessly. As it had been an extra session, he’d finished up practice as normal, dropped everyone off at Fox Tower, and headed to Reddin on his own. As Monday nights went it was as quiet as ever on campus. He idly hoped somebody had saved some food for him. Panic attacks really had a way of making a guy hungry, go figure.

“Hey, there you are! Where’d you go, anyway?” Nicky greeted him as he closed the dorm door behind himself. He didn’t seem to expect an answer. “We got you char siu and egg rice, it’s in the fridge.”

Maybe there was a use for his cousin after all. He shoved the containers in the microwave and watched them rotate, half-listening to Nicky and Aaron talking shit while playing a game and Kevin grumbling at them both to shup up before taking himself off to the bedroom and his precious laptop Exy. That just left one idiot unaccounted for as Andrew shovelled pork and rice in his mouth.

“Where’s Neil?” He asked at a natural pause in the shit-talking.

Aaron scowled at the question and Nicky tilted his head back over the beanbag to look at Andrew upside-down. “Loverboy’s with Allison, I think she took him shopping to that late-open mall across town.”

“Stop that.”

“Nope,” Nicky grinned. “You liiiiike him.”

“Shut up.”

“You dooooo.”

He was definitely back on the ‘useless’ list; he’d been absolutely infantile about the whole thing since the last movie night. Andrew pulled a knife and his dour expression into full view. Nicky pulled a face and turned back to the game. Much better. Andrew snagged a packet of cookies and crossed to his usual perch on the desk by the window, and occupied himself staring out at the twilight through the haze of his smoke and worked his way through the packet. It was too chilly to be on the roof without Neil’s breath to keep him warm, and he had the distinct urge to keep to his pack after the unsettlingly honest session with Betsy.

Nicky and Aaron had got through a handful of levels in their game before the door opened again to admit one idiot. Andrew didn’t turn around until Nicky’s low whistle caught his attention, sparking his possessive, protective instincts.

Oh.

Allison had really gone to town, hadn’t she? While it was true Neil desperately needed a haircut, she seemed to have missed the team memo and only made him get half of it cut; the back and sides were buzzed right down to the scalp while the top section was left long and curling, styled somehow to hold its shape off his forehead. He’d still need that stupid bandanna to keep it out of his eyes.

He was also wearing eyeliner.

Not much, just a thin line of light grey, and kept subtle enough to just pick out the outline of his large eyes, set the colour to aggravating vividness, without any ridiculous flicks or swirls at the corners like Allison usually had. Just a simple outline, but that was more than enough to make him stand out. And he looked disgustingly pretty. Even more than usual.

Andrew ground his teeth while Neil grinned shyly at Nicky’s teasing comments. The bastard wasn’t making it easy on himself, dammit. What an asshole, standing there looking all noticeable and pretty and fuck if Andrew didn’t want to touch his hair and feel the contrast between the short and long, pull his head around a bit by the top section, stare and see how the eyeliner made his eyes seem huge and even paler and brighter and God. Fucking. Dammit. Josten.

Hot ash fell on his wrist and he jumped at the unexpected pain of it – it had burned right down without him noticing, he’d been too busy watching Neil squirm delightedly at Nicky’s compliments. Ooooh, Allison was getting so many balls to the legs tomorrow. He flicked the useless butt out the window and rubbed at the red spot on his wrist irritably.

“Nothing to say, Andrew?” Nicky laughed, and he looked back out the window.

“No.”

He heard Neil drop his bags of shopping on the floor – huh, maybe Allison wasn’t so awful if she’d managed to get him some half-decent clothes – and join Nicky on the floor, talking about nothing important. Andrew got through another cigarette before Neil addressed him in Russian.

“Did you figure things out with Bee?”

Andrew considered ignoring him for the horrendous fact of his hair and eyeliner, but decided he was too tired from the session to put much energy into pettiness. Maybe tomorrow.

Da.”

Neil hummed a short note of acknowledgement but didn’t press him for details. He never pushed. Always giving ground, with Andrew. Ugh.

Andrew left them all to it and joined Kevin in the bedroom. They ignored each other until lights-out, one absorbed in Exy and the other with his newest book.

In the night, Neil had a nightmare. Andrew knew this because his whole-body jerk and trembling were strong enough to startle him awake as well, even up in his own bunk. He slowly let go of the knife under his pillow as he grounded himself. He fucking hated these bunkbeds.

He listened to Neil’s ragged breathing and shifting around for all of five minutes before his temper got the better of him. He eased down the ladder and scowled at Neil’s surprised expression from where he sat on the mattress. Andrew tilted his head silently and Neil followed him out after pulling on his PSU hoodie. Junkie.

Andrew got them both a glass of water and they sipped in silence for some time, until the tremble was gone from Neil’s hands. “It was Lola,” Neil murmured scratchily. “Did I tell you they were going to hamstring me, in Baltimore?” He shuddered.

Andrew watched him for a moment, watched how all the light and brightness in his eyes had faded to a dull resignation. A blank mask that Andrew knew far too well. Hello, Nathaniel. Hate to see you again.

“She’s dead,” Andrew reminded him bluntly, his own voice rough from the late hour.

“I know.”

He could have said So’s Drake, and I know you still have nightmares too, but Neil wasn’t that particular flavour of cruel. Andrew tilted his head again and Neil followed him to the living room. Andrew sat down on the floor with his back against the sofa and crooked his finger at Neil. Neil sat beside him with a puzzled look and Andrew sighed at his stupidity. He was glad of his strength as he pulled Neil bodily into his lap, thighs spread either side of Andrew’s and hips pressed close.

Neil raised his eyebrows and pushed his hands against the sofa seat, holding himself away from Andrew respectfully. He knelt up so he wasn’t touching Andrew at all. “This is new.”

Andrew didn’t dignify that with a response and settled his hands on Neil’s hips, looking up just a little (dammit) into Neil’s confused eyes.

“I didn’t think you liked to be loomed over or hemmed in,” Neil continued hesitantly.

“I don’t.”

“So what’s this?”

“This is repayment,” Andrew replied, and ran his hands down over Neil’s toned, muscular thighs. Damn him for wearing shorts to bed. And for running so much. Just damn his existence in general. Especially how his breath audibly hitched at the sensation of being touched like that.

“For what exactly?”

Andrew shot him an unimpressed look and kept trailing his fingers over the muscle of his thighs, feeling how they gave a slight quiver with the position of kneeling like this. “For looking after me when I fell asleep on you.”

“Oh,” Neil said softly. “That wasn’t given on credit.”

Andrew gritted his teeth and gave him another look; they both knew far too well how much such a gesture could mean after being deprived of it all their lives, and Andrew couldn’t bear to take it without giving something back. He might be learning to accept little things, like Neil getting him a candy bar ‘just because’ or losing track of who had stolen whose cigarette, but the bigger things still demanded equal payment.

Neil stilled and slowly let himself relax as Andrew stroked and palmed over his legs, until he was sitting flush in Andrew’s lap, arms gently cradled around Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew covered his thighs over and over with his hands, marvelling quietly at how skinny and simultaneously muscled they were. He rubbed up and down, around the curve of them, down to his knees, and back up to his hips again. It wasn’t precisely a sexual touch – though he had several ideas sparked from sitting like this – but rather something they both took comfort in.

For Neil, it was reassurance after his nightmare that his legs were still there and still functional, and that Andrew liked them. For Andrew, it was to make sure they were equal, and to practice this casual touch thing. And they both just liked touching each other, if they were being completely honest.

Neil sighed quietly and tucked his head into Andrew’s neck, loose-limbed and pliant in his lap. Andrew wrapped his arms around Neil’s hips and pulled him just a bit closer.

“Is this really okay?” Neil murmured into his neck.

Andrew fought with his tongue and bit out, “It is with you.”

That earned a kiss pressed under his jaw, so Andrew retaliated by easing his hands down to rest on Neil’s ass. Hmm. Definitely a few ideas. Neil chuckled into his neck, all warm breath and smiling mouth. “Are we going there tonight?”

“No.”

“Okay,” Neil accepted without pause, and kissed his neck again. Andrew rested one arm back around his waist and lifted his other hand to the back of Neil’s neck. He let it rest there a second before giving into temptation at last and pushing his fingers up through the buzzed section. It was soft under his fingers, slightly fuzzy over the smoothness of his scalp. Once he’d passed through it once, he had to do it again. And then a few more times. The texture was odd, and made his fingers tingle. He didn’t realise the effect it was having on Neil until he sighed and gave a slow, rolling, full-body shiver. He slumped deeper into Andrew’s hold and hummed quietly.

Andrew eventually dragged his hand off the buzzed section and into his longer top part, twirling it around his fingers and burying them deep in the thick curls. Neil leaned into his touch with another happy hum, lips pressed to Andrew’s neck, and it reminded him absurdly of the fantasy.

“You need to promise me something.”

“Hm?” He sounded halfway to sleep again, so Andrew tugged lightly.

“That you will say ‘no’ to me when it matters.”

Neil lifted his head to look in his eyes; Andrew let him move but kept his hand where it was in his hair. Neil didn’t ask for an explanation, didn’t expect one.

“Don’t you trust me to do that?” He asked instead. He’d apparently picked up Andrew’s habit of never answering questions plainly.

Andrew was quiet for a few minutes, struggling with himself. “I trust you to say ‘yes’. But I’ve never heard you say ‘no’ to me. I don’t know if you would.”

“I haven’t needed to say it.”

“I need you to be able to say it.”

Neil blinked at him, surprised that Andrew would admit to needing something. He put his own hands on Andrew’s shoulders and his face was serious and sombre when he replied. “I promise I will say ‘no’ when I need it, no matter anything else. I promise you. And I trust you to respect that ‘no’, as well.”

Damn him. Damn him, damn him.

He pulled on Neil’s hair and tugged him down into a fierce kiss, knowing it to be the only way to shut him up when he was talking like that, far too knowing. Neil matched him for desperation and force, their mouths crashing against each other until the angry churn in Andrew’s stomach had burned itself out, and he gentled his touch, let Neil pull back. Neil slowly slid his hands down to Andrew’s chest, fingertips on his collarbones. They watched each other’s eyes and Andrew put his hands back on Neil’s thighs, though he still itched to feel Neil’s hair.

Neil didn’t ask, didn’t push, didn’t prod. He wasn’t even waiting for Andrew to tell him. He just sat there, content to be held and touched and taken at his word.

So Andrew explained.

“I had a sex fantasy about you last week. It bothered me. That’s what I was talking to Bee about, earlier.”

Neil made an interested noise.

“I fucked your mouth.” The baldness of it made Andrew want to cringe, at the habit of stripping back any admission of sentiment. He forced himself to carry on. “You didn’t resist. I held your head still and you let me. You didn’t do anything but keep your mouth open. I came on your face and you liked it.”

Neil kept looking at him, all serious pale consideration, and lightly traced his fingers over Andrew’s collarbones. It took a long time for either of them to talk.

“It bothers you that I like giving you control.” Neil stated eventually, as bare-bones and clinical as Andrew had been. “You think I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because of it.”

Andrew dug his thumbs into Neil’s hips and nodded shortly.

“I surrender that control because I trust you.” Neil stated coolly. “I feel safe with you. I know you will respect me and my wishes. I know you won’t take advantage of my trust. I would tell you ‘no’ about something like that even if I hadn’t just promised. Do you believe me?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Neil’s icy gaze thawed a little. “I trust you, even when you don’t trust yourself. You’re not a monster to me.”

Andrew closed his eyes and grimaced, unable to bear his eyes anymore.

“Do you want to act on that fantasy sometime?” Neil asked, more like himself and almost playful.

“Not right now. Would you?” Andrew replied, and fixed his eyes on Neil’s neck instead of his face.

He caught Neil’s smile in his peripheral vision, shy and thoughtful. “Maybe. I’m – interested. I’ll think about it.”

Andrew huffed and traced the edge of Neil’s quad with his fingers. Neil curled back into his chest and nestled his head into Andrew’s neck. One of Andrew’s hands found his hair again.

“So you like the haircut?” Neil teased gently. Andrew gave it a small tug in reply. “And – and the eyeliner?”

“I thought you didn’t want to stand out in crowds.” Andrew evaded.

“Maybe I’m tired of fading all the time. You told me to stop being a rabbit, remember.”

“Makeup wasn’t the effect I was looking for.”

“Does it bother you? Is it – is it too girly?”

Andrew rubbed through his hair and squeezed his hip just a bit. “It doesn’t bother me.”

He couldn’t miss the way Neil relaxed just a bit more into him.

“I like it.”

“What?” Neil sounded delighted.

“You heard.”

Neil laughed until Andrew shut him up with more kisses. Idiot.

In Andrew’s next therapy session, Aaron tagged along and they discussed Tilda some more, with predictably angry results on both sides. Betsy seemed pleased about it, telling Andrew they were starting to make progress in understanding each other, or something else about it being good to air out their motivations. Whatever. She also promised they’d start to tackle Aaron’s homophobia in the next session. Andrew privately thought it was nothing a good few punches wouldn’t fix, but Betsy was determined to do it her way. Oh well.

When they’d returned to practice, Andrew was pulled out of his thoughts by the way Jack, the little toerag, kept trying to piss Neil off. Neil was apparently taking Renee’s advice and acting as if it didn’t get under his skin, but Andrew recognised the cold look in his eyes when Jack dared to mention Baltimore. He didn’t hear what Neil said in reply but he couldn’t miss the vicious curve to Neil’s smile as he said it, or the way Jack tried to hide his recoil.

Once they were all changed out and back at Fox Tower Andrew tugged on Neil’s shirt and drove him to the gym, and then to a small room equipped with punching bags and boxing equipment, as well as a padded section of floor. Neil lifted his eyebrows when he saw it. “Is this where you spar with Renee?”

Andrew nodded and pulled out an old punching bag from the corner, heaving it with relative ease until it was where he wanted propped against the wall. It was splitting at the seams and had already been replaced by the ones hanging in place. He turned and found Neil staring at his arms and shoulders with a very particular look to his face.

“Shut up.”

Neil snorted. “So what are we doing here?”

Andrew pulled his knives from their sheaths and put them on a table nearby. Neil’s face went still and blank, carefully neutral. “You promised me lessons.”

“So I did.”

Andrew gestured to the weaponry, and Neil slowly lifted one in his hand. His eyes were like chips of ice in his blank face as he turned it in his hand and tested its weight. “They aren’t really made for throwing.”

“Show me anyway.”

Neil turned to face the battered punching bag and, with an easy motion of his shoulder, struck his target. The knife stayed wedged in the material at the perfect height for a man’s throat or chest, depending on height.

He then picked up another and wordlessly showed Andrew the correct way to hold it, and demonstrated the throwing motion and release of his fingers slowly. Then he threw it, and it thudded perfectly into place under the first one.

“Why are we doing this today?”

“Because Jack is an asshole.”

“He’s always an asshole.”

Andrew picked up another knife and experimented with holding it like Neil had shown him. “You can’t just bury Nathaniel. I know I said you should, but you’re not able to do it. You’re going to keep remembering him, and your father, and your old life, every time some jerkoff mentions Baltimore or your scars or the Wesninskis. So if you can’t bury him, at least turn out his pockets for anything useful and leave him for dead.”

“Didn’t realise you were switching your major to counselling.”

“Shut up and show me again.”

Neil did so. After a few moment’s thought, Andrew mimicked him. The knife didn’t have enough rotation to hit blade-first, so the handle bounced off the punching bag.

“Lola taught me this, you know.”

That gave Andrew pause. Neil’s – Nathaniel’s – face was calm and cold and blank as he spoke, eyes on the punctured bag slumped against the wall. He gave no sign of being at all affected by what he said. “My father wanted all his people to know how to handle knives. Signature, and all that. So when I was old enough to know my place, he had Lola and Romero start to show me the ropes. How to hold and sheathe a knife, how to fight with one. Where to cut to make someone bleed, how to make them hurt. We practised technique on pig carcasses. When I did well for the day, Lola would give me a treat and show me how to throw them instead. Something flashier, she said. I got pretty good at it, seeing as if I had a bad day my father would teach me the correct technique in person.”

His hand lightly touched his cross-hatched abdomen and he lapsed into silence. Andrew watched his face and spared a moment to imagine slitting Nathan and Lola’s throats. Then he tugged off his armbands and let them crumple on the table by the knives. He pushed up his sleeves and turned his arms to display the neat, precise lines he’d etched there so long ago.

“I did this to survive Drake.”

He could feel Nathaniel’s eyes on him and spoke just as calmly, looking down at the evidence. “He wasn’t the first to rape me, but he was the only one I couldn’t escape. With the others, I left those foster houses as fast as I could once I knew I wasn’t safe. Cass’ house was the first one that felt like a home. He made it all hollow. Made me empty. This was how I felt again, how I took back control when I could. It didn’t really work.”

He looked up and met Nathaniel’s gaze, matching him for dark neutrality and a bone-chilling understanding. Nathaniel Wesninski held Andrew Doe’s eyes and didn’t flinch away.

“Show me the wrist movement again.”

They spent hours in that room until Andrew was satisfied with his ability to hurl knives and hit flesh. Nathaniel said his aim could do with some work, and that they’d practice more another time.

“You should spar with me and Renee sometime.”

Nathaniel tilted his head, considering, and nodded. “Are we done for today?”

Andrew nodded and started putting the knives away. With each one sheathed, they each put away the bladed parts of themselves too, tucking the edges away for now. When they got outside it was dark and the moon shone down on them both. Neil perched on the bonnet of Andrew’s car, and after a moment and a mutual ‘yes’, Andrew stepped between his legs and kissed him. They kissed with a slow burn of need that quickly had them both breathless and grasping at each other’s clothes.

“I don’t want to think anymore today,” Neil gasped out. “Take me to the roof?”

Andrew bit at his lips and jaw for a moment. “There’s a backseat right there.”

Neil groaned quietly and nodded. “That’s good too.”

Andrew caught his eyes. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Then get in.”

They scrambled into the backseat and Neil lay down sideways across the seats, legs shoved awkwardly in the corners of the car. Andrew took a second to look at him, sprawled out and needy, then rapidly undid Neil’s jeans and pushed up his shirt. He was about to press his hand to the scars when Neil froze under him.

“Wait – no.”

Andrew jerked back as if hit, his hands held up to his chest and far, far away from Neil. He would have left the car if his own legs weren’t wedged in odd places. They held each other’s eyes for a long moment.

“I – I thought. I thought it would help, after today. But the scars – no.”

Andrew nodded tightly.

“Are you okay, Andrew?”

Andrew looked at him, then very slowly reached out and tugged Neil’s shirt back down, letting him see the entire time what he was doing, and then held his hands back up to his chest again. “You said no.”

“I told you I would.”

Andrew tried to reason through what he was feeling, looking for any hint of annoyance or anger or desire to just keep pushing. He couldn’t find any of that. He just felt… overwhelmingly relieved. Neil had said no and meant it. He would say no in the future when needed. He’d promised, and upheld it.

“We should go back to the Tower.”

“No, Andrew, I… I don’t want to stop completely. Okay?”

“So what do you want?”

Neil chewed his lip for a moment. “Kiss me and touch my hair?”

Andrew nodded. When Neil sat up and zipped up his jeans again, Andrew kissed him carefully, one hand in his hair and the other on his jaw. Neil gradually relaxed under his hands until he was soft and settled.

“What do you want to do?” He asked back, a little breathless again.

“Nothing.”

“Andrew.”

Andrew lightly sucked on Neil’s lower lip. “I want… to be gentle. To see if I can.”

“I know you can.”

“Put your hands here,” Andrew replied, and guided them to his waist. “Only here.”

Neil offered him a small smile.

“Can I touch the scars on your face?”

Neil was quiet for a moment. “No. Just my hair.”

Andrew nodded. “Kissing only, then.”

“Yes. You?”

“Yes.”

Andrew licked his lips and leaned in. Neil’s mouth was soft and warm and pressed back slowly and gently. Andrew felt a shaky sigh ghost from him into Neil’s mouth and they settled themselves. Andrew felt thought slip away as he lost himself in the sweet warmth of Neil’s mouth and the fuzzy feel of his hair, in the way Neil curved willingly into him and welcomed his tongue. How Neil’s hands rubbed and squeezed just a little at his ribs but didn’t stray. His lips were overworked and swollen but tingling so pleasantly as he ran his tongue over them for a second, feeling Neil’s saliva on them. Neil shivered and moaned prettily so Andrew set his teeth on Neil’s lower lip and bit down just a little, eyes half-closed. He let go after a moment and went back to kissing them both senseless. All that mattered was the press of their lips.

He combed through Neil’s hair obsessively, uncaring what it revealed, revelling in the contrasting textures and holding Neil close, so close, as he chased sensation and good feeling to drown the soft warmth in his stomach and chest. Neil kissed him back with a sweet need that had him aching and pushing closer, welcoming his lips and holding tight to his waist. When Neil sighed, Andrew swallowed his breath and felt it burn in his lungs, stronger than nicotine, thicker than smoke. Neil moaned and shivered and Andrew curled his fingers into Neil’s hair, careful not to tug, nudging into his cheek as they kissed. It felt like burning and living and drowning all at once, and Andrew was never good at letting go. His hair smelled like the minty shampoo they all shared for convenience, and Andrew knew the scent would linger on his hands and under his nails for hours once they broke apart. He rubbed into Neil’s scalp and let Neil swallow one of his own sighs.

Neil hummed into his mouth, always so responsive, and Andrew checked himself. He slowed down the frantic pace of his hands and cradled Neil’s head instead. He took his time mapping every millimetre of Neil’s lips and exploring them with his own, the soft push and pull making his head spin. Every thought was dismissed in favour of feeling, of the steady thump of his heart and the heat of Neil’s skin, the scald of his mouth pressed against Andrew’s like he never wanted to be apart. He felt numb and electric all at once and chased Neil’s tongue carefully as they breathed together. Together, together. Neil’s mouth worked under his own, nudging back against his cheek and chin and resettling every so often. Neil’s nose pressed against his cheek occasionally as they tried to get closer, always closer. There was always too much impossible distance. Andrew slowed him down when he started to get antsy about it, holding his head lightly but firmly and doing nothing but dedicating every heartbeat to memorising the exact feel of Neil’s mouth and rewriting each memory with every sweep of tongue and lips, every tiny sigh and murmur and spark of heat shared between them.

Neil curled into him until they were chest to chest. His cheek burned hot against Andrew’s as he shifted himself, then sighed.

“Andrew, can I put my legs around you?”

And oh fuck, but his voice was so gravelly and uneven from want, Andrew could hardly process the noise he’d made as actual words. Andrew didn’t bother opening his eyes but murmured a ‘yes’ into Neil’s mouth. Neil held onto his waist as he pulled his legs up until they were crooked around his hips, ankles crossed behind his back and knees pressed into his spine. Andrew dropped his hands to tug at Neil’s hips for a moment to settle him close, tucking his own legs up on the seat under them both so Neil was properly in his lap.

“You can touch my legs too,” Neil murmured.

“You can touch my shoulders.”

Neil kissed at his neck for a moment before doing so with great apparent relish, his hands hot and strong as they squeezed and pressed over the dense muscle. Andrew did much the same to his legs and caught his lips again. Desire was secondary to just wanting the touch of his lips, so familiar at this point but never boring, always sweet and warm. He was feeling with every inch of his skin and every synapse in his brain going haywire and never wanted to stop if it was going to be like this, forever.

He felt Neil’s eyelashes brush his cheek.

“You’re very gentle,” he murmured dazedly.

“Stop talking,” Andrew replied hoarsely, and let himself slip away under the press of Neil’s mouth.

Chapter Text

Trigger Warnings for: references to eating disorders, canon-typical homophobia, use of the F slur, internalised psychological and emotional abuse, unhealthy coping mechanisms, toxic guilt, past drug abuse, references to past physical and sexual abuse of children, violence and lots of general ugliness regarding Drake. Please take care and as always feel free to contact me at my tumblr if you'd rather have a more detailed heads-up of the content before reading.


 

I don’t deserve this, Aaron thought as he watched Katelyn yawn with the golden light of morning sneaking between her curtains and over her bronzed skin. It was a familiar thought.

“Morning,” she smiled sleepily, a little blush to her cheeks as she caught him staring. “You been up long?”

“No,” he replied, and eased his hand under the covers to rest on her bare ribs. “Just a couple minutes.”

She grinned and shifted closer to him on the bed, her own hand reaching out to lightly map the curve of his hip from where he was laying on his side.

“Honestly, bless Christina for being out of town and giving me the room for the night,” Katelyn smiled. Her fingers pressed into the notch between his ribs and hip. Her eyelashes caught the light as she smiled, making striped shadows on her cheeks.

“Good of her,” Aaron replied, though he was a little distracted. He smoothed his hand over her toned stomach and firm abs, pressing down gently to feel the strength of her core. It always amazed him. Not that she was physically strong – he’d seen her lift just as much as Allison or Dan at the gym, and seen her perform the most mind-bending gymnastics with the cheer team – but that she had a strength that could make him feel sheltered instead of afraid. Somebody to lean against rather than pull away from. He could bare all the ugly parts of himself to her and she would still hold him up. He didn’t really know what she saw in him in return, but he knew he would fight the world for her smile.

“Are you okay, Aaron?” She asked quietly, watching his face. “I – I really enjoyed last night. I really liked falling asleep like this. I’m enjoying this too,” she reached down and squeezed his ass with a bright smile. It faded into concern after a moment. “How are you feeling about it?”

“I’m…” He frowned and dropped his eyes down to her collarbones as he thought. He kept tracing her stomach while he put his thoughts in order. “I’m okay. I’m adjusting. I liked falling asleep together, as well. And this.”

She tilted her head closer, nudging into his neck just a bit. “It was a big step for me too, you know. Falling asleep naked with somebody, that’s… it’s big, for me.”

“I know,” He murmured back. He didn’t think he’d ever completely understand her body confidence issues when he was constantly blown away by her gorgeousness, but he knew what it was like to feel like your skin didn’t fit right. He leaned over her a little and found her lips after a few tries. He kissed her as gently as he knew how, trying to show with every little pull and touch of tongue the tenderness she brought out in him, the ability to be soft. He tried to show her how much he cared, and how he cared with each fierce beat of his heart. She sighed, a soft little noise that had his bones aching, and leaned up into him. Her arm wrapped around his waist and held him close as she kissed him back hungrily, chapped lips and morning breath be damned. Her hand was clutched tight to his ass and he didn’t want to admit how good that felt, to have her fingers digging hard into the muscle like she never wanted to let go, wanted him to stay close, pressed together all along their sides like they could melt together if they just tried hard enough. He eased his hand up to cup her breast in reply, enjoying the shiver that prompted. She tugged on his lip with her teeth for a moment and he did as she wanted, squeezing his hand gently but firmly the way she liked, his thumb rubbing teasingly against the edge of her nipple, so soft and smooth under his hand that he could hardly breathe.

“Aaron,” she sighed into his mouth, her other arm winding around him to grasp at his shoulder blade.

“Katelyn,” he murmured back as he chased the wet slide of her tongue.  Some days they would just kiss, sometimes just touch. Sometimes more was needed, and Aaron felt his pulse pick up as she arched her back, her hips pressing into his. “How long until morning practice?”

She huffed and tilted her head back regretfully to check the clock. “Half an hour.”

He just had to take advantage of the opportunity and pressed his mouth to the smooth curve of her neck, startling a breathy laugh.

“I wanna eat you out,” he kissed into her neck. “Yeah?”

God, yes,” she grinned back eagerly. “Always yes, Aaron.”

He wanted to argue just to be pedantic, but she was tugging at his hips and he was happy to oblige. He eased down her body, marking the way with kisses. He wanted to linger at her chest, but after a minute of that she groaned and pushed on his shoulders impatiently. So he regretfully pulled his mouth away from kissing hickeys over her soft, squishy breasts and licked instead at the firm shapes of the muscles under her skin, biting down just a bit as she gasped.

Aaron,” she said in exasperation, though her voice wobbled happily.

“I’m getting there,” he smiled into her hip, feeling warm all over.

“Faster, c’mon,” she laughed breathlessly.

“I thought you liked it real slow?” He asked as he settled on his stomach with her legs shaking over his shoulders. He pressed his face into her thigh for a moment, kissing and mouthing at the skin and loving the jut of muscle and the smooth lines of the stretch marks there, pale and cobwebby. He pulled his tongue over one, tracing its little depressed line back up towards her hip.

“Usually, yeah,” she huffed. “But not when we’re on a timer, sweetheart.”

His heart always jumped when she called him that. He kept his face hidden in her thigh for another moment, trying to get a handle on the wild, burning feeling in his chest. It wouldn’t subside, wouldn’t let go of him, so he decided to use it instead. Without further ceremony he settled her hips wider and bent his neck to press his tongue flat against the warm heat of her. The way she moaned shuddered through her entire body, shaking down into his jaw, and he pressed closer. He lingered over the hood of her clit, sucking and pressing and using every trick he knew to make her voice get higher and higher, shivering into the air. Aaron knew he had somewhat of a reputation with her dorm-mates for this, but all he cared about was pressing closer, God, closer, and hearing her as she writhed under his mouth.

“Aaron, oh God, please, yes, just like that, just like that,” she panted, equally uncaring about loud voices and thin walls.

He gave one last hard suck, drinking in the way she cried out, before ducking lower and easing his tongue into her, hands tight on her thighs as they twitched reflexively.

Fuck,” she whined.

He wanted to smile but his blood was up and his chest felt full as he pushed gently in and out, stretching his jaw so he could get as close as possible.  

“God, Aaron,” Katelyn moaned in frustration. “Sweetheart, please.”

He couldn’t say no to that. He started moving faster, losing himself in the wonderful taste of her on his tongue as he lapped and sucked, pushing deep and pulling out to circle teasingly around her entrance. One of her hands found his cheek, straining to hold onto his jaw, and he leaned into her hand for a moment before getting back to work.

Her legs wrapped around his shoulders and trembled as she groaned loudly. “Sweetheart, oh yes, just there, God just there, you’re so good, you’re so good…”

He groaned a little himself and searched deeper with his tongue, veins aflame with the sweetness of her voice and words and the way she was falling apart at his touch.

“You’re so perfect, Aaron, so good, I love you so much, God, don’t stop, you’re so perfect…” She gasped desperately, her thumb leaving his cheek for a moment to rub at her clit and help things along. He pulled her closer, pulse pounding in his ears and cheeks on fire as her words worked under his skin and made his heart rabbit away. He sucked and worked his jaw quickly, straining and curling his tongue as far as he could.

“Ahh fuck, sweetheart, right there,” she moaned, whole body tensing. “Just there, yes! Sweetheart, sweetheart, so perfect, so perfect…!”

She gave an inarticulate cry as he pushed hard, throwing all he felt into the pull of his mouth, and she shattered apart. Her body tensed and relaxed and thrummed against him and he swallowed her down, laving his tongue wherever he could.

I adore you, I adore you, my sunshine, my sweet strong Katelyn…

“Oh God,” she moaned eventually, voice shaking. “Aaron, sweetheart. Honey. You were so good.”

He shivered but didn’t stop, kissing her gently and thoroughly and breathing in the scent of her. He sucked carefully on her clit until she groaned, and he went back to mouthing at her swollen and tender lips.

“Mmn, Aaron,” she sighed. Her hand ghosted up from his jaw to hover over his hair, though she didn’t touch. “Can I?”

He paused just long enough to pull his lips off her skin. “Yes,” he whispered. “Just don’t pull. No tugging.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” she replied, and very gently threaded her fingers through his short hair. His shoulders tensed for a moment until he could get used to it, and told himself over and over that it was Katelyn’s hand, and he was safe. He trailed sloppy kisses over her lips and thighs while she whispered praise and soft endearments, her fingers stroking so gently and never, ever, pulling.

He wanted to lay there all day, cradled in her strong thighs with her taste on his tongue and hand in his hair, but she sighed after a few minutes.

“Aaron, honey, come back up here,” she said fondly. “We haven’t got long, and I wanna get you off too.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “I’m happy just like this.”

He didn’t care all that much that he was rock hard and probably leaking a little onto her sheets. He didn’t eat her out so much to make her return the favour. He just liked being close, and sharing what she allowed of her body, showing her how much he cared; he wasn’t great with words, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t good with his mouth. He could always jerk off in the bathroom when they got dressed, it didn’t matter. He just wanted to show her all the softness he hadn’t known he could feel, before her.

“I know, but you made me feel so good I wanna treat you,” she replied mischievously. “You did so good, honey. So good.”

He bit his lip, wavering at the way she could make desire and affection twine together like that.

“You’re so perfect,” she crooned, playing gently with his hair. “You always get me just right, I love how you do that. Aaron, sweetheart. Come up here.”

He gave in, a happy melting feeling in his chest as he crawled back up her body. She gently rolled him onto his back and leaned over him, flushed and smiling and so, so gorgeous. “Would you be okay with my hand?” She murmured.

“Yeah,” he whispered back. “Just that.”

She kissed him sweetly and ran her hand down his chest and stomach before wrapping around him carefully. His breath hitched and she kissed his jaw until he relaxed again. He set his hands on the lovely bell-curve of her hips to ground himself and closed his eyes. She whispered endearments to him as her hand slowly moved, praise both sweet and dirty for his ears only. Each little word, each tiny proof of her love and affection caught at him, smoothing into his mind like balm on chapped skin, heat on sore muscles, and she held him so tenderly. He was adrift in warm, calm waters as she stroked and pumped her hand with delicate little strokes. Never rushing, never impatient with him. She took her sweet time and never ran out of things to say to him, until he was gasping with want and close to the edge.

“Dearest,” she whispered in his ear, and he was gone, he was destroyed, he was putty in her hands and shaking, but she was there and she held him close and worked him through it, voice so soft and tender even while she held him up and kept him from breaking.

“I’ll always protect you,” he gasped when his brain had reset itself a little. He turned his head into her neck and held her tight. “No one will ever fucking hurt you. I’ll keep you safe. Katelyn, you, I just… Katelyn…”

“I know, Aaron,” she replied fondly.

“You’re worth more than anyone, you’re so wonderful, you’re sunlight and starshine,” he slurred into her skin, still trembling. “Anyone who says otherwise’ll answer to me. They’ll be fucking sorry.”

She melted into him and kissed over what she could reach of his face. “I know, Aaron, I love that you will, I know. Sweetheart. My dearest Aaron.”

“Katelyn,” he sighed back.

He wanted to stay there until he couldn’t think anymore, but fortunately Katelyn had more of her wits about her.

“Honey, we should’ve been leaving for practice like, ten minutes ago.”

He swore under his breath and reluctantly let her go.

“Though I don’t think I’ll be able to do much running,” she laughed quietly, giving his cheek one last stroke. “My legs are that shaky.”

He gave her a small, smug smile. I did that, he reminded himself. I made her that happy, just with my mouth. I made her light up like that and laugh. I can deserve her.  It was a good thought.

She pouted playfully. “Sweetheart, oh my God, you can’t smile like that and expect me to get up, so not fair.”

“It’s not fair for you to be so beautiful, either,” he told her with a long, slow look over her body.

She blushed rosily and pushed at his shoulder, though he knew she was delighted. “Shut your face,” she said instead, hiding her smile behind a shy hand. “You go first, for that. Go on.”

He squeezed her hip before rolling off the bed and slipping off to the bathroom, a towel and his clothes held vaguely over himself for the sake of any lingering dorm-mates he might meet on the way. He washed off quickly, swished a bit of mouthwash and yanked on his clothes from yesterday. He made the mistake of going into her dorm’s kitchen, where there were a handful of other cheerleaders sipping coffee.

He nodded to them stone-faced and grabbed a piece of toast off somebody’s plate. “Morning.”

“Good morning to you too,” Angeline smirked at him, cheeks a little pink. “Sounds like Katelyn’s gonna be a bit slow in training today, huh?”

He didn’t reply and stole some more toast. They were used to him by now, even if some of the newer members were still intimidated by his cold manner with them, and the reputation of the Foxes.

“Could you give my boyfriend lessons?” Angeline asked casually. “He’s absolutely useless giving head, and if you can make Katelyn scream like that, well. Gotta get me some of that.”

“Fuck off,” he told her calmly, then drank her coffee.

She grinned toothily at him; he actually liked her quite a lot. She was alright, and more fun than most of the other cheerleaders. “You’re gonna be late for morning gym, aren’t you?”

He shrugged and was about to reply when Katelyn darted out of the bathroom, freshly dressed. Her teammates lost no time in cheering and making fun, a sudden roar of noise that had Aaron wincing. Katelyn laughed and gave dirty comebacks that made Aaron’s ears burn, even though his poker face was firmly in place.

“Anyway, have a good practice,” she beamed at him once they were done. “And a good session, too. See you after practice?”

“You too. Mmhmm,” he replied, and welcomed her kiss despite the raucous cheering it prompted. She pushed gently at his chest when they broke apart; he smiled back for just a moment, then left her to it.

He shrugged off Wymack’s yelling when he was late to the gym, and gave Nicky the finger when he correctly surmised it was due to spending the night at Katelyn’s dorm. He showed the fucker he could still out-press him when he dared to insinuate otherwise. That took the smug look off his face alright.

Classes were boring as always, but he had a bit more patience for them with the phantom taste of his girlfriend in his mouth and the memory of her words and gentle touch. He might not have a ridiculous memory like Andrew, but his was still pretty fucking good compared to most people.

It was almost time for afternoon practice at the court when he remembered he’d left one of his textbooks in his old room, and that he’d need it for his newest assignment; he hated listening to the lecturers and their stupidly organized classes, so he did the majority of his learning from his textbooks and journals online. He really needed that textbook seeing as he hadn’t taken any notes in class whatsoever. So he grit his teeth and used an old copy of the key to get inside his old dorm room.

He stopped dead in his tracks before the door closed behind him at the murmured sounds from the living room. His eyes snapped there automatically and he wished with all his heart that he could unsee everything.

Josten had his brother up against the wall, leaning against him and pinning him there.

“—this is okay?” Josten was asking in an intimate little murmur, far too loud in the silent room.

“Mm,” Andrew replied. He hadn’t noticed the door opening, obviously, and had one hand buried in Josten’s dumb hair and the other on his hip. “Just with you.”

“Yes or no?” Josten asked.

“Yes,” Andrew replied firmly, and Josten bent his head to start mouthing at Andrew’s neck, though he oddly kept his hands pressed to the wall by Andrew’s hips as he did so. Aaron wanted to hurl at the look on his brother’s face – brows drawn together and his lip between his teeth in a vulnerable, frightened way that had instinctive rage blotting out Aaron’s thoughts.

His brother sucked in a shaky breath and tilted his head towards Josten’s for just a moment, before his eyes latched onto Aaron in the doorway. His expression abruptly wiped blank and Aaron didn’t know how to feel, didn’t know how to process the fact that his brother could actually show emotion, just not to anyone except Josten. And Josten was so clearly forcing his brother like Aaron had always known. Aaron’s hands started shaking like they had right before he’d smashed Drake’s sick skull into fragments. The two brothers stared at each other for a moment, then Andrew deliberately twisted his hand deeper in Josten’s hair and grabbed his ass with the other, clearly wanting the terrible bastard, eyes a cold challenge.

Aaron was out of there in a heartbeat before he broke the terms of his bail and another skull. They were quits, he reminded himself. Andrew could get himself fucked up and it was none of Aaron’s business. Even if walking away felt like he was handing Josten the weapon himself. He shoved that thought away as hard as he could.

He didn’t know how he got through the first half of practice without murdering somebody. He was consumed by the inarticulate ball of fury that surged up in him whenever he heard Nicky talk about Erik or talk about any of his gross shit, whenever he saw Josten’s smug fucking face or anybody mentioned his brother. He slammed sticks with anyone who crossed him, snarled insults, and spat right back when Dan tried to take him to task for it. All he knew was that it wasn’t fucking right it was so gross and awful and why couldn’t anyone else see that? Why were they all so okay with Nicky talking about sucking off a guy, or so damn happy whenever they caught Andrew and Josten so much as looking at each other? Why couldn’t they see how wrong it was?

“Aaron, cool off!” Nicky told him at one point in sharp German. “I’d’ve thought getting your dick sucked would make you happy, but what do I know.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Aaron hissed back, not sure if he was speaking English or German or a hybrid of the two. His hands shook with the intensity of his hate and he could barely see straight.

“Seriously, did she use teeth or something?” Nicky persisted, never knowing when to shut up. “I had a guy once who tried that, really fu—”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Aaron yelled, throwing his stick to the floor. “No one wants to hear it, Nicky! No one wants to hear your gross faggy bullshit! Just shut up for once!”

The court went dead silent and Aaron watched as all the life drained from his cousin’s face. His normally dark complexion seemed to fade and the usual smile lines and dimples ironed out. He looked so, so tired. Aaron hadn’t seen him look like that since the last dinner at Luther’s place.

The rage dimmed for a second as white-hot guilt took its place, scorching his insides. What the fuck is wrong with me, Nicky’s been there for me all this time, I don’t deserve him, I’m so fucking sorry Nicky, I’m so screwed up and I’m so sorry and I can’t stand that I hate the way you talk when you’ve always looked out for me.

Then the rage was back, turned on himself and stealing his breath, his vision, until he could feel nothing but the terrible urge to lash out, hit something, break something, break himself, scream it all away. He was off the court and in the locker room before he could blink, throwing off his gear and slamming his fists into the walls with the effort to just get it all out, get it out of his head and body and make it all stop… I’m no good, Katelyn, you’re fooling yourself, I’m no good at all, I’m worthless and nothing like Mom always said she was right she was right she was right, I don’t deserve Katelyn, I don’t deserve Nicky I’m just nothing, she was always right, she was always right…

“Don’t break your hands.” The cold voice got him to turn around. Andrew. “Idiot.”

Aaron scowled at him in confusion, the sickly self-loathing halted for a second at his arrival.

“It’s Wednesday,” Andrew reminded him with a slight sneer, and started undressing. “Are you coming to this one as well or are you gonna have a temper tantrum instead?”

Aaron turned away and slammed his hands into the metal door of his locker, grimly savouring the stinging pain that lanced up his arms, shocking his brain until he could get calmer thoughts in his head. He did it again just once, then blew out a hard breath, panting as if he’d run a marathon. Then he finished changing out and followed his twin to the car. The silence was poisonous as Andrew drove.

Dobson seemed to somehow sense the fury and antagonism rolling off him in waves as they entered her office and didn’t bother offering her usual drinks, simply sat down with her notepad and a serious expression on her normally dopey face.

Aaron noticed Andrew fiddling with his collar as he sat blank-faced, and a sick feeling surged up in him as he saw what was under Andrew’s fingers. He grabbed his brother’s wrist and yanked his hand away, ignoring the threat hurled his way, and stared at the dark bruise on his brother’s neck, vivid and awful.

“Did he do that to you?” Aaron demanded, hand tight on Andrew’s wrist. “Did he fucking do that to you?”

Andrew stared back at him with a dead face and deader eyes. “Yes.”

“And you let him?” Aaron spat. He thought his whole body was shaking again, but he could barely feel anything except the powerful, all-consuming rage. “You just let him?”

“I told him to do it,” Andrew replied, calm and distant as ever. Aaron wanted to shake some feeling into him – can’t you see he’s just like Drake? Can’t you feel anything at all? “I wanted him to. If you don’t let go, you’re losing the hand.”

Aaron released his wrist as if burned, appalled. He was screaming in his head, remembering how he’d wanted Mom to hit him sometimes, give him what he deserved for being such a fucking awful person, how he’d needed it to settle him in his place, how sometimes he’d provoked her just so she’d shut him up and knock him down for a while.

God, I should’ve seen this coming, I should have known, I should have been there, I should have kept him safe.

 “Aaron, why are you so angry?” Dobson asked in her stupid saccharine voice.

“He walked in on me and Neil making out, and he’s all twisted up about it,” Andrew told her blankly. “He yelled at Nicky.”

“Why did you yell at Nicky?” Dobson said, completely ignoring the only important part of that statement. Figured that she’d be as useless as every other adult in their lives.

“He wouldn’t shut up about all his disgusting gay shit,” Aaron said.

“Why are you really angry with him? You have to know your anger and homophobia are at best masking your real issues, Aaron.”

Oh, so clever, so patronising, so all-knowing. Thought she could get in his head, did she? He stubbornly ignored the babble of his thoughts – he should have stayed home, if he wasn’t so fucking gay he wouldn’t’ve gone to Germany, I should have seen what was going on, I should have asked more about the 'camp', I should have helped him, he should have stayed with us, he could have helped with Mom, he should have saved me, I wish Andrew had died in that car with her, I wish she’d killed me instead, Nicky should have known, he should have stayed…

“He was being disgusting,” Aaron insisted, lip curling.

“What is it about his sexuality you find so repellent?” She said, like a damn dog with a bone.

“It’s gross and wrong,” Aaron said, shooting a hard look at his twin.

“The lady doth protest too much,” Andrew replied, lifting an eyebrow. “Got something you want to say, Aaron?”

“Fuck you,” Aaron spat. “Though you know what – no. Just in case you’re getting ideas, seeing as you’ll let every twist who looks at you twice have your ass without protest.”

Andrew went perfectly still, then there was a knife at his throat a hair's breadth away from drawing blood. “Say that again,” Andrew hissed, an ugly twist to his mouth. “Say that again, I fucking dare you.”

Dobson was saying something, out of her chair with her hands flapping uselessly, but the twins ignored her completely.

“You’ll just roll over for him, won’t you?” Aaron sneered. “He’s screwed up enough to want you, so you’ll let him do whatever. Just like Drake. Did you even want me to kill him for you? Or were you having the time of your life getting fucked up the ass by that creep?”

He was on his back and his face was on fire, stinging from a punch he hadn’t seen coming, and Andrew was hitting him over and over and he was hitting back, both of them yelling and Dobson shouting over them both, but it was right, it was the only thing that mattered, Drake had fucked him before, it wasn’t the first time, Luther had known, Aaron should have known, he should have seen… he deserved this, he deserved this.

Andrew pinned him to the ground by the throat and leaned close, he blank mask ripped away to be replaced by a fury ugly enough to match his own. Twinsies.

“I let Drake fuck me for you, you miserable excuse for a brother,” Andrew spat, breathing hard and bleeding from a punch to his mouth. “I put up with him at first so I could be with Cass. I hated every second of him, but I wanted to stay with her. Then you came along, talking shit about family and wanting to see me. You know what Drake thought of that?” Andrew rested a shaking blade along his cheek. “He wanted a matched. Fucking. Set. Wanted to get you in bed for him too, see what we looked like side by side and bleeding.”

Aaron felt everything in him lurch to stillness, then slowly disintegrate. He could do nothing but stare up into Andrew’s cold, haunted eyes.

“I told you to fuck off, but you wouldn’t take the damn hint. And Drake wanted to meet you so bad, so damn bad. He was practically drooling. Andy, Andy, I can’t wait to have your brother here too, I hope he cries like you do, I hope he feels like you do, so good and tight and hot,” Andrew mocked in a horrible, horrible voice. “So I let him fuck me until I could find a way to get sent away from him, away from Cass, away from my only home. For you, you sack of shit. And when we got back to dear Tilda’s place, you promised you’d stick with me. You promised you’d stay.”

Aaron wanted to scream, to throw up, to deny all Andrew’s terrible words, but he was being hit with nothing but truth and he couldn’t escape the pain he could finally see in his brother’s face.

“And I thought okay, maybe this one will actually follow through on a promise for once. Maybe this one will be worth it. But when I took care of your addictions, took care of Tilda for you, you dared to think I’d do it for any reason other than that promise. You dared think I’d broken my word, and you’ve been breaking yours ever since.” He looked down at his brother and said the worst possible thing. “You’re nothing, you piece of shit.”

Aaron didn’t bother to hide the flinch, the memory of Mom’s hands in his hair, her fists on his bones, screaming it in his ears until it was all he could hear.

“You think it was easy, realising I’m gay?” Andrew went on, years of silence broken like a dam in a flood. “You think it was fun, wondering how much of what they’d done all my life had got in my head? You think it’s a great time, hating to be touched without an exhausting fucking laundry list of conditions and boundaries? What the fuck do you think I normally have these sessions for?”

“They?” Aaron whispered. Oh God, oh no, please no…

Andrew’s face twisted again and he dug the knife in harder. Blood welled up under it but Aaron was beyond caring.

“You don’t get to say another word about me or my sex life or Neil,” Andrew breathed. “Not now, not ever. Or I’ll kill you myself.”

“Oh, God,” Aaron whimpered, closing his eyes against the awful look on his twin’s face. “It’s all my fault.”

“The fuck did you just say?” Andrew demanded. “You fucking dare—”

“Andrew,” Dobson chimed in sharply, at long last. “Let him speak.”

“I should have found you sooner,” Aaron forced out through his abused throat. “I should have kept you safe from – from all of it. I should have known, dammit, I should have seen! I should have got to Drake faster, he should never have fucking touched you. And I can’t stand seeing you with Josten knowing he’s touching you like Drake did, knowing you want him to fuck you like that and I don’t understand and I can’t protect you from him either, it’s all my fucking fault, I’m useless, nothing, worth nothing!”

He was yelling by the end, staring hopelessly up into Andrew’s face. The rage was gone, replaced by numb shock and surprise. The room was deathly quiet as they stared each other down. After a long, awful minute, Andrew took the knife away from Aaron’s cheek and pulled the neck of his shirt down to display Josten’s hickey.

“I told him to do this because I wanted a mark under my control,” He said in a near-whisper. “He needed so much instruction to do it he was practically witless by the time he got the courage, needed to be cheered on every step of the way. And then he wouldn’t stop apologising afterwards. He still feels guilty about it. He would never hurt me or take advantage, and I wouldn’t give him the chance. So shut up with your martyr bullshit about him at least.”

Andrew got off him and sat back on the couch, closed-off once more. Aaron lay there on the ground, feeling more battered and bruised than he should from just the physical side of their scuffle. He felt weighed down by the god-awful mass of Andrew’s words and confessions, the truths he’d laid bare and the others he’d dodged around. Aaron covered his face with shaking hands and wondered just how hard he could fuck up, if he’d just keep rolling deeper and deeper into the shit with no clue how to make any of it right. Whether he could ever make up for all the pain he’d caused. Maybe Mom had always been right, and he should never have been born.

“Aaron,” Dobson said softly, kneeling at his side. Maybe she’d been there the whole time, he couldn’t remember. Couldn’t care. “Come sit down. Let’s all talk.”

He numbly got off the floor and sat beside his brother. Dobson poured them all a glass of water, looking drained and shaken herself, then sat down with pen in hand and a determined look on her face.

“Alright. That was not the way I’d wanted you two to address those topics, but as they’ve already been breached, let’s start unpacking them.”

 

Aaron left her office later feeling like everything was bruised, including his brain. He couldn’t meet his brother’s eye as they drove back to the court, said nothing to anyone when they exclaimed over their punched-up faces and the dried line of blood on Aaron’s cheek. He stared through them all, his brother’s equally-blank face the only thing he could focus on at all. He watched as Josten sidled over, all frowns and twitchy hands as he and Andrew talked in quiet Russian. He watched as Josten’s eyes flicked to him, then back to Andrew. He watched as Andrew reached out to touch Josten’s face, the gesture undeniably gentle and fond and like nothing Aaron had ever expected to see exchanged between two men.

He turned away.

He texted Katelyn when practice was over, and she replied immediately. He stared at the little emoticon hearts she always put at the end of her messages, trying to imagine how she could see him as someone good and perfect and worth loving when there was so much hate and rage and guilt eating him up inside.

“Want to get drunk later?” Nicky asked, breaking into his thoughts.

He turned to look at his cousin, who still looked tired and drained and not at all like himself, even a little wary to look at Aaron. But he had reached out anyway, because Aaron was in pain. Because that was what Nicky did – he just kept on loving and caring, even when it would probably be better for him to just cut all ties and go back to Erik and his happy life in Stuttgart.

Aaron swallowed the lump in his throat and gripped Nicky’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he choked. “I’m so sorry, Nicky.”

Nicky’s eyes were wide and astonished, wet and about to overflow. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he settled for just nodding, and gripping Aaron’s shoulder back. Aaron nodded and turned away. He was done. So done for the day.

He bailed out of the locker room as fast as he could and practically ran to Katelyn’s dorm. She was there, the only one there, and pulled him to her wordlessly. He clung, shaking so hard he was surprised they didn’t fall over. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his face to her chest, needing her solid strength and beautiful softness to hold him up and keep him safe while everything else in his life was turning to ash in his hands.

“I’ve got you,” she whispered. Her voice was fierce, as fiery as his own had been so long ago that morning when he promised to protect her from the world. “I’ve got you, sweetheart. No one’s gonna hurt you when I’ve got you.”

“Why do you put up with me,” he sobbed into her, uncaring how broken he felt, how useless he was, how terrible he could be to everyone around him. “Why do you bother?”

She threaded a hand carefully, so carefully, through his hair. Aaron knew all about that laundry list of conditions. Oh, he knew.

“Because this world is incredibly fucked up,” she replied tightly. “Because nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has shit they need to make up for. That doesn’t make everybody a monster, and you sure as fuck aren’t one to me. Because you looked at me and saw someone beautiful when all I’d ever seen was a weight and a number. Because you told me I deserved to be loved, and because I see you and I see somebody who deserves to be told he’s perfect and good and wonderful because he is, because he tries so hard to be that person despite everything the world has done to him. Because you’re mine to love as proudly as I do, and I will not give up on you like everyone else. Because we fit together, and I wouldn’t trade you in for the world. Because you listen when I say I feel fat or ugly or like I’ve eaten too much, and tell me how it’s not true and kiss my stretch marks and chubby bits. Because we both deserve to be happy, and we deserve to be happy with each other. Because, because, because. An endless list because. Because I love you, sweetheart, and that’s the only reason that matters.”

She was crying into his hair and he thought he was crying too but it was okay, it was okay. They had each other. It would be okay. There was nothing they couldn’t get through together. They deserved this, they deserved this.

Chapter Text

“What do you need?” Neil whispered anxiously. “Andrew, what do you need?”

“To punch Aaron some more,” Andrew muttered back.

“I think you probably stressed Bee enough for one day.”

“Just this,” Andrew replied, almost a sigh. “Just this.”

Neil nodded slightly and stayed still; they were curled up in Andrew’s bunk with the door firmly wedged shut and the lights off, turned on their sides with just their foreheads touching. Andrew had his eyes screwed shut and his hands bunched into fists between them. Every so often, a little tremble would shake his body, as if he were holding himself still and trying not to cramp up.

“Do you want me to talk?” Neil asked softly. “Nothing exchange-worthy, I promise.”

Andrew grunted a quiet affirmative, so Neil licked his lips and began to talk. He kept his voice soft, knowing Andrew probably wasn’t consciously listening to the words as much as the tone of his voice. He recited folktales from his travels in Europe, anecdotes about towns they’d moved through. Pointless little stories he made up on the spot that had no structure, no morals, no real action. Just made-up people dicking around and not doing much. He described people he’d seen on buses and trains, the peculiar outfits they wore or the things they did ‘unobserved’. He related a couple of Allison’s stories about rich people at parties, one or two of Matt’s jokes that had made him smile, though he didn’t expect a reaction from Andrew. When he ran out of stories he started listing things he liked – anything from fabric types to the best kinds of weather for running.

It took a long time, but gradually Andrew’s hands relaxed into looseness, and Neil lightly moved his head to nudge against Andrew’s. “See, now we’ve both done a load of talking today,” he whispered.

“I told him about Drake,” Andrew muttered, eyes still closed. “All of it. I didn’t mean to. I got mad, lost control.”

“You’re in control now,” Neil reminded him.

“I nearly killed him.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I wanted to,” Andrew whispered. “The things he was saying, about me and Drake and you…”

“You didn’t,” Neil said again, more firmly. “You stayed in control, and finished the session.”

“He blames himself,” Andrew muttered, his voice so small and lost it made Neil’s breath freeze. “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know.”

Neil didn’t know what to do either. So he fell back on what always seemed to work, and reached down for Andrew’s hands, just shy of touching. “Yes or no?”

“To what?”

“To touching and kissing your hands.”

“Yes.”

Neil carefully picked them up and held them close to his face. He trailed his fingertips over Andrew’s bruised and split knuckles, careful over the scabs where brother had collided against brother and both walked away damaged. He traced the lines of his bones and the bumps of his joints, then stroked down to hold his wrists. He bent his neck and pressed his lips to Andrew’s palms, tracing his lifelines and letting his lips drag against the soft skin and occasional callus from his grip through his court gloves. He kissed at every millimetre of skin and sucked gently, his own eyes mostly closed.

“Don’t bite,” Andrew warned him quietly, his eyes just a little open to watch.

Neil smiled gently at him and pressed more soft, closed-mouth kisses against his palms and fingertips. Andrew watched him apparently impassively, but Neil knew the way Andrew’s eyes tracked the movement of his mouth, and he could feel the tension leaving his hands until his fingers curled limp and unresponsive against his jaw. Neil nudged his nose lightly against Andrew’s hands, then gently took one of his fingertips into his mouth and licked.

“Gross.”

“You like it,” Neil said around his fingertip, smiling. His hands tasted like ash from the stress-cigarettes he’d smoked on the roof before Neil persuaded him to come down into the warmth. Neil didn’t mind the taste one bit. He let the fingertip drop out of his mouth after a moment. “I like your hands,” he said simply.

“Very profound,” Andrew muttered back, though he didn’t move away. Instead, he slowly moved his thumb to press over Neil’s lips, stroking and pushing gently. Neil let him, happily, and held his eyes. He didn’t know exactly what Andrew was looking for, but he was content to stay still while he searched.

Andrew slowly dragged on Neil’s lower lip, snorting quietly at the little fwpp noise it made hitting his upper lip when released. He did it again a few times, and Neil fought to keep his mouth relaxed enough for it to work, trying not to smile like he desperately wanted to.

“Shut up,” Andrew muttered after the fifth time, meeting his eyes.

“I didn’t say anything,” Neil murmured against his fingers.

“I can hear you thinking something stupid all the way over here.”

“All the way over there, hm?” Neil smiled, nudging their foreheads together again. “So far away.”

“Shut up.”

“Alright.” He kissed Andrew’s thumb instead, then sucked it into his mouth with a mischievous smile. He sucked just a little and pressed his tongue there for a moment.

Andrew raised one eyebrow, unmoved. “Real subtle.”

Neil let go of his thumb and grinned. “Everyone’s telling me to work on my innuendo. Gotta start somewhere.”

“It was terrible.”

“Did it suck?”

Andrew just stared at him as if re-evaluating all his life choices.

“Really though, I’ve been thinking about it,” Neil smiled, kissing his fingers again. “About – you know. Your fantasy thing. I’m not ready for that yet, but it’ll be a yes someday. Maybe someday soon. We’ll see.”

Andrew blinked slowly at him like a cat. “I’m not ready yet, either.”

“Mm. Well, when we’re both ready, I definitely want to try.”

Andrew looked at him for another few minutes, then bridged the tiny gap between them to kiss him with his hands cupping his cheeks instead. Neil smiled and kissed him back as lightly as he could; he knew this kiss was meant as a thank you rather than to initiate anything.

“I don’t want to think anymore,” Andrew breathed.

“What do you want to do?” Neil asked quietly, enjoying the press of noses against cheeks and jaw against jaw, from lying so close and pressed together.

“I want to get off,” Andrew said with another brief kiss, sounding completely bored by the concept. “I want to look at you. I want...” He sighed, and began peppering Neil’s mouth with short, firm kisses that spoke volumes of his frustration and unease.

“It’s alright,” Neil breathed against his lips, “It’s alright, it’s alright. I’m here.”

“I can’t…” Andrew muttered tightly, biting at Neil’s lips as if to try and pick up the words he couldn’t reach.

“You don’t have to talk,” Neil assured him, and gently rested his hands on Andrew’s cheeks, his heart twisting at the impatient, unhappy look in his eyes. “You don’t have to say anything other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I’m here. I’ll do the talking. I’m good at that, right? Going on and on and on?”

That got a nod, though Andrew was all tense again and Neil wanted to do nothing more than hold him close and rub his hands over his back, but he knew how well that would be received.

“You want to look at me, yeah?”

Andrew nodded again, so Neil struggled out of his shirt and dropped it onto the floor and propped himself up on his elbows; he took Andrew’s hand and pressed it firmly against his chest, against his scars. For just a second he let himself wonder that it was Andrew who had made him so comfortable with doing this, so easy with the idea of baring it all for the express purpose of being seen.

“So look,” Neil murmured, leaning up to nudge his face into Andrew’s neck. “And touch as much as you want. I’ll say ‘no’ if I need – you know I will.”

But Andrew didn’t move his hand.

“It’s alright,” Neil breathed into his neck, laying as relaxed as he could. “I want you to. You’re not forcing me, or making me uncomfortable. Look at my scars. Touch them. Do whatever you want. I’ll stop you if I need to. Go on.”

Slowly, so slowly, Andrew’s hand started moving in familiar patterns. His touch was light and almost reverent as he traced each scar from end to end, sometimes going back over particular ones, though he didn’t press and didn’t poke. Just mapped every one of them out, cataloguing each hurt survived. Neil let his eyes droop shut and he hummed contentedly into Andrew’s neck, enjoying the warmth against his cheek and being spread over his chest by careful fingers. He’d had a lot of time to wonder why Andrew liked his scars so much, and he had several working theories. But right then, all that mattered was that it was calming Andrew down, and it felt good.

“I like that a lot,” Neil made sure to tell him.

Andrew grunted a little, the way he did when he was pretending to be annoyed. Neil grinned and mouthed at the hinge of his jaw. Andrew shivered and abruptly shifted so he was lying between Neil’s hips, palming over his spread thighs and squeezing just a little. Then he hesitated, stilling his hands.

“Yes,” Neil told him before he could ask. “Yes, Andrew. It’s okay. You know I like that. I like that you like my legs. Keep going, I’m enjoying it.”

Andrew huffed again but settled himself there, resting heavy on Neil’s pelvis in a way that felt more secure than uncomfortable. Neil let his legs flatten out to the sides, loose and easy to move about under Andrew’s hands. Neil watched happily as Andrew distracted himself from whatever was in his head by bending to kiss at the scars and run his hands over Neil’s legs, feeling out the taut muscle and rubbing warm passes all over. Each little kiss to his chest and stomach made his heartbeat stumble in an excited little two-step that felt absolutely ridiculous and wonderful all at once. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel this way until Andrew went and smashed all his expectations and suppositions to glorious pieces. Again.

Andrew glanced up once to check his expression, no doubt to gauge if Neil’s ‘yes’ was still in place, and Neil found that for once, he wasn’t up to the challenge of staring. He looked off to the side instead, not bothering to hide the smile on his lips or the flush to his cheeks. He tugged a hand self-consciously through his hair and tried to get a grip.

“It’s still a yes,” Neil smiled. “I’m just feeling a whole lot right now. All good things.”

Andrew looked at him for a long time; Neil could feel the weight of his eyes but didn’t try to meet them, just enjoyed the tingling fireside brightness under his skin. Then Andrew leaned forward just enough until their foreheads could touch again, pushing and nudging gently. Neil moved with him, unsure what was going on other than feeling like he was slowly melting.

“You are too much,” Andrew gritted out, each word precise.

“Speak for yourself,” Neil smiled and tilted his head down to rest more fully against Andrew’s, eyes closed. “You make me really happy, you know?”

A thumb that smelled like smoke brushed over his mouth again and Neil pursed his lips a little to kiss it. He didn’t know what Andrew’s expression was, but he didn’t really need to – the sheer fact that Andrew stayed pressed close, brow to brow and touching him, said everything.

Then Andrew’s hands found his shoulders and gently pushed him down to lay flat. Neil hummed his continued enjoyment and let his head loll back against the pillows.

“I want you to feel good,” Andrew murmured against his cheek, sounding clearheaded and much more like himself.

“I’m already feeling good,” Neil smiled and turned his head to vaguely find Andrew’s lips with his eyes still closed; they traded clumsy, half-seen kisses for a few minutes until Andrew sighed.

“Don’t be so dense.”

“Hm?”

There was a distinct hand-like pressure against his groin and Neil’s breath hitched. “Oh. Oh, right. Yeah, that’s good, if that’s what you want. I’m happy just like this, but – yeah. Yes. If you want that.”

“I want to watch you do it.”

That got Neil’s eyes open. It was a good thing he was already flushed all down his chest, because his face felt incredibly hot at the thought.

“You can say no.”

“I know. I – okay. Okay. I can’t promise it’ll be much of a show, but okay.”

“That’s not much of a yes.”

“I’m nervous,” Neil admitted, kissing a smile into Andrew’s cheek. “I’ve never done that before.”

“I’ve literally sucked your dick, Neil, I’ve kind of seen it already.”

Neil couldn’t help the startled laugh that bubbled up from his throat, and leaned his head into Andrew’s again to calm himself. He didn’t argue with where Andrew wanted things to go; he knew plenty about blotting out the bad memories with newer, better ones. He worried for a moment whether he should go along with it, then reminded himself that Andrew would tell him firmly and unequivocally if this wasn’t something he really wanted. And clearly what Andrew wanted right then was to be in control, and watch Neil do as he asked.

So he reached down between them, feeling Andrew lift up onto his forearms to give him more space, and palmed at himself through his jeans for a little while, not all that focussed on the job at hand, but rather the warm, solid press of Andrew’s body alongside his own. Excitement was a low simmer, slow to build and harder to stoke without the usual urgent passion of Andrew’s kisses to move things along. It didn’t feel terrifically exciting, on his own, but he persevered and after plenty of rubbing and squeezing, he started to get hard. 

He blew out a shaky breath and undid his jeans, pushing them and his underwear down a bit.

“Having problems?” Andrew asked, half sarcastic and half maybe a little concerned.

“Told you it wasn’t much of a show,” Neil smiled, pausing to distract himself by kissing Andrew’s neck, ghosting over the bruise he’d made hours and hours ago. A little bit of guilt still twinged in his gut, but Andrew had wanted it, asked for it, and Neil hadn’t missed how he kept touching it when he thought no one was watching. “This is how it usually goes, on my own. It’s nothing amazing.”

Andrew hummed thoughtfully, eyes sharp as he looked back up to Neil’s face for a moment.

“I’m alright,” Neil assured him. “This is normal for me. It just takes a while.”

“You don’t normally need this long,” Andrew disagreed.

Neil grinned and sucked on the bruise for a second, enjoying the jump of Andrew’s pulse under his tongue. “That’s because it’s so much better when it’s you.”

Andrew huffed but didn’t ask anything else. Neil fixed his eyes on the tight curve of Andrew’s muscular shoulder as he worked his hand, biting his lip and moving just a bit faster. Heat was sparking and he could feel the slow pulses in his stomach that meant things were moving along. He rubbed his thumb over the head and sighed again as desire thudded slowly through his veins. He tilted his chin up with a hopeful noise he was just a bit embarrassed by, but Andrew understood him and kissed him dizzy, firm and wanting and oh with just a hint of wickedness, and Neil was in a rhythm now, panting and gasping into Andrew’s neck and shoulder. Andrew watched his hand with apparent disinterest, but whenever it looked like Neil was flagging he’d be ready to kiss him again.

“Andrew,” Neil groaned eventually. “It’s not – I need…”

Andrew’s hand wrapped around his own and he easily took control. Neil shuddered helplessly at how Andrew knew his body’s wants so comprehensively, how it instantly felt so much better and more like fire than coals, more like flying than falling. Andrew’s pace was quick and rough, his grip tight, and Neil felt himself rushing close to the edge a lot faster than he was used to, but he didn’t care, didn’t think, because Andrew’s fingers were laced with his own and his hips were rocking, legs clenching, and oh, oh, oh…

He gasped as Andrew pulled him through it, both their hands getting streaked with come, until Neil was wrung out and trembling. He waited to be told he was odd, that he should know how to jerk himself off, that it wasn’t normal to react like that – but none of it was forthcoming. Instead Andrew was kissing him, slow and gentle, letting him shake down from the rush and his hand still wrapped tight and tacky around Neil’s fingers.

“Sorry,” Neil whispered when they broke apart for breath. “I know that wasn’t really what you wanted—”

“It was good,” Andrew interrupted him tonelessly. “Don’t apologise.”

So Neil smiled into his cheek for a while until his heart stopped doing acrobatics. “What about you?” He mumbled, nosing into his cheek. “D’you want me to leave for a bit?”

“No,” Andrew murmured, meaning a ‘yes’ of a different kind. “Just…”

“I’m here,” Neil said. “I’m here. Whatever you need.”

Neil felt Andrew taking short, measured breaths for a minute or two, clearly steeling himself for whatever he had planned, and then he untangled their fingers and reached for his flies. Neil was about to tuck his hand away when Andrew caught hold of him again. He held Neil’s gaze determinedly, then pushed Neil’s hand down to his cock. Neil knew his eyes were wide and he was about to ask, to make absolutely sure, when Andrew pressed their foreheads together again, head bowed.

“Yes,” Andrew said. “Only like this, and only for now. But yes, Neil.”

Neil swallowed nervously. They took a shaky breath together, then Andrew started to move their hands. Slow, careful, so slow. Andrew directed it all, guiding Neil’s hand and showing him what to do. The angle was a bit awkward from how Neil was laying, but he didn’t say a word and instead tried as hard as he could to make it good for Andrew. Andrew was breathing in short bursts, so tightly controlled as if he were running laps, his breath warm on Neil’s cheek. Neil kept quiet as Andrew started to pick up the pace, not sure if Andrew wanted a reminder of who was with him or if he needed to be alone in the moment, in his head.

Neil bit his lip as their hands moved together, his own heart going fast as he tried to wrap his head around this – around everything of the past hour or so. Hot, fluttery feelings were racing through him too fast to understand or categorise but burning through it all was the conviction that he would protect Andrew through this openness, this vulnerability, he wouldn’t betray Andrew’s tentative but wholehearted trust, he would make this good, he would make sure of it with every bit of grit and purpose in his bones.

“Keep going,” Andrew panted, then took his hand away so just Neil was touching him. Neil fought the impulse to lock up or take his hand away and kept moving. Andrew breathed a soft curse under his breath and gripped at Neil’s sides, thumbs pressing into his scars.

“I’m here, it’s me,” Neil whispered and squeezed his hand just a bit tighter, doing as Andrew had shown him, and was rewarded by a slight shudder. Andrew ground their heads together and swore some more, but he didn’t say ‘no’; his hips tilted forward just a bit, pushing into Neil’s hand, and Neil knew how to interpret that alright.  Neil had never been more proud of his ability to learn things in a blink, and paid close attention to all of Andrew’s little responses as he varied his grip and speed and motion until he had Andrew gasping. His head slipped down to Neil’s shoulder with another curse that sounded more like praise and he was pushing his hips forward in keen little thrusts that had Neil’s thoughts racing ahead far in advance of anything they were ready for yet.

“I’ve got you,” He whispered and kissed the curve of Andrew’s ear, and a few moments more and Andrew gasped in a harsh breath, hips stuttering, and Neil held him through it, feeling honoured beyond words that Andrew was letting him in, was giving himself over to Neil’s care so completely. “I’ve got you, I’m here, it’s alright,” Neil repeated over and over until the shaking eased to a slight tremble. His clean hand found its way into Andrew’s hair and stayed anchored there.

“Talk,” Andrew asked, his voice thick against Neil’s shoulder.

So Neil talked some more, painting landscapes and fantastical tales on the air and shaping nonsense into the curve of Andrew’s skull, anecdotes of his lives as Stefan, Chris, Matthew and all those other boys carefully offered up, conjuring imaginary heroes and idiots to amuse and distract. He kept his eyes on the ceiling and his clean hand cradling the back of Andrew’s head, holding him close with his other hand squashed between them. When he ran out of stories or ideas, he settled for humming half-remembered song tunes of a hybridised mess of Nicky, Dan, Matt and Alison’s tastes.

When he ran out of songs, he swallowed and tried not to squirm in the silence.

He bit his lip for a few minutes, carding slowly through Andrew’s hair, then carefully nudged his nose against Andrew’s cheekbone.

“Thank you, Andrew. For trusting me, just now. Thank you.”

Andrew slowly lifted his head to meet Neil’s eyes, his cheek red where it had been pressed against Neil’s shoulder for so long. He was about to respond when his phone started buzzing in his pocket, startling them both with simultaneous, violent jerks.

Andrew levered himself up to kneel between Neil’s legs instead of lying on him, Neil’s legs hitched up and splayed over his thighs, and grimaced at the mostly-dried mess on their clothes. He wiped his hand off on his already smeared jeans and fished out his phone. To Neil’s surprise, he actually answered on the next ring.

“Hello again, Bee.”

Neil dug in his back pockets and came up with some tissues stashed there against the inevitable round of seasonal colds, and tried to clean them up as much as he could.

“Mm,” Andrew replied after a short pause, eyes on Neil. His other hand reached out to rest on Neil’s hip and his eyes had an almost soft look to them. Neil smiled shyly up at him. “I’m okay, Bee. It all still hurts, but I’m with Neil. He’s looking after me.”

Neil didn’t try to hide his wide, pleased smile, and Andrew simply stared back at him, his own lips tilted up the tiniest amount.

Chapter Text

Mild warnings for insomnia, lowkey depressive symptoms, and grief. 


 

Neil stepped softly into the living room and hid a yawn behind his hand. He slowly closed the door so as not to wake Kevin – fat chance of that – or Nicky. He found Andrew pacing the living room and breathing hard. His eyes were like hard chips of amber in the dark – plenty of potential to reflect light and induce wonder, but at the moment much more likely to be hiding something murky deep within.

“Go back to bed,” Andrew grated.

Neil sat down in one of the beanbags instead. Andrew spat a frustrated noise at him and kept on pacing. Neil watched him with a calm expression that masked his concern; he’d never seen Andrew restless like this. Shutting down, staring blankly, even cutthroat smiles were much more his style. But since the volatile session with Aaron on Wednesday, Andrew had barely gotten any sleep. He wouldn’t say why, but Neil knew enough to guess that old nightmares were back in full force courtesy of having his painful secrets and control unwittingly stripped from him, and from putting violent hands on the brother he'd promised to protect.

He didn’t know how to help other than offer his silent presence, watchful and understanding, or his words and distractions when needed. This was the fourth night in a row Andrew had rocketed out of bed too soon after lying down, with Neil close on his heels. If it was going to be anything like the preceding three, Neil would be getting his only sleep in his classes later. He wasn’t sure if Andrew was making up the hours during the day. Somehow he doubted it.

His eyes followed Andrew’s restless path around the suite and wished he could do more. He wanted to offer the distraction of his body and mouth, but everything about Andrew was screaming nobody touch me loud and clear. So Neil slouched down in the beanbag, tucked his bare toes into the too-long hems of his pyjama bottoms to keep them warm, and started doodling in his notebook. He was aware of Andrew orbiting around the room but it didn’t distract him. He used the faint light from the streetlamps outside, glowing through the open curtains, to illuminate his page as he covered it in little sketches. He was no artist, by any means, but he liked making drawings every so often beyond the habitual fox paws.

He littered the page with sketches of the things that meant the most to him. A cigarette burned half down, smoke spiralling out to intertwine with the locks of his mother’s hair, her face turned away. Her exact features were blurred in his sketch and memory – much clearer were her hands wrapped around a gun and streaked with blood. He set his jaw and shaded in the hollows of her knuckles, a bittersweet goodbye, and moved his pen to draw another set of hands right by them. Squarer, broader, thicker fingers and raw-bitten nails. Bruised knuckles and delicate veins, strong enough and gentle enough to hold his heart. An Exy racquet propped against a helmet with 10 painted stark and pale. His keyring, getting heavier and more loaded down. The pattern of Andrew’s bedsheets at the house in Columbia faded smoothly into a steaming cup of coffee and the tyre trails of a car bought with blood money. A small toy jokingly bought for him by Nicky that now lived tucked safely away in his wardrobe. A hat Matt had shoved on his head on a chilly day and never asked to be returned. Dan’s smile and a muffin they’d shared once. The bandanna that held back his hair on court. Renee’s knives and crucifix side by side. Allison’s lips blowing bubblegum and satire in one smooth breath. One of Aaron’s pens, chewed disgustingly at the end in a way that always marked them as his and never to be mistakenly stolen. Abby’s medical kit and one of Wymack’s tattoos snaked around the box. Dobson’s fancy fountain pen leaned against Aaron’s whimsically. In the corner, he hesitantly sketched out what he remembered of Seth’s scowl, full of fire.

Andrew shoved the other beanbag close to his side with his foot and sank into it. Neil eyed him carefully, seeing the tension in his shoulders still but that the restless energy seemed to have dwindled for now.

Andrew jerked his chin at the notepad in question and Neil held it out to him. Andrew looked it over for a moment, then grunted and rolled his eyes.

“You don’t like it?” Neil asked quietly.

“I don’t care,” Andrew replied blankly.

“Then why did you ask to see?”

Andrew gave him an unimpressed stare and wriggled deeper into his beanbag. Neil debated his next words silently for a good handful of minutes, but the tired crease between Andrew’s eyes decided him.

“Will you book an extra session this week?”

“No,” Andrew bit back. “I can go one week without needing more sessions.”

“But would it be easier on yourself if you did?”

“I don’t need to be easy on myself. I can take it.”

“You shouldn’t have to.” Neil replied. He watched how Andrew’s hands bunched and flexed in his lap. “This is what Betsy is there for.”

Andrew seemed to chew on his words for an age before spitting them back on his plate. “I use her too much already. I will not be dependent on anyone, or anything. I can cope with this myself.”

Neil knew offering himself as a substitute crutch would do nothing good for either of them in the long run, so he kept that ‘martyr’ card close to his chest. Instead he said, “I’m worried about you.”

Andrew’s eyes met his for a moment. “You don’t need to be. I’m not breakable like that.”

Neil shrugged, reaching for an apathy he could only fake. “You could break if you needed to. Crash and bottom out. I’ll still be here. So don’t worry about holding yourself up so strong all the time; I’m not running.”

Andrew’s lip curled derisively and he reached out to push Neil’s face aside, palm pressed to his cheek. His hand lingered for a moment before he tucked it back into his pocket. Neil slouched even further back in the beanbag and rested his head on the edge so he could watch Andrew’s face. He didn’t bother masking his yawns or the droop of his eyes. Andrew watched him right back for the space of twenty breaths.

“Go to bed, Neil,” he muttered softly. “I’ll be fine.”

“That sounds like my line,” Neil smiled back. “And I’d rather stay out here. Kevin’s snoring is getting bad again, anyway. We should get him some nose strips for Christmas.”

“If you fall asleep in practice Kevin’ll beat your ass.”

“Right,” Neil snorted. “That makes so much of a difference to every day.”

A little of the distance in Andrew’s eyes lessened. Neil reached out and let his hand hover above Andrew’s. He nodded cautious permission, so Neil slowly traced his fingers over the ridged line of his knuckles and the dips between them. He kept it light and smooth, merely mapping out the structures of his hand without pressing or demanding.

“I’m here,” he murmured. “I’m here with you.”

Andrew turned Neil’s wrist and trailed his fingers over Neil’s hand in return. Where Neil had traced sharp bone, Andrew felt the squash of his palm, soft skin and hard muscle and rough callus. He explored the lines of his palm the way he knew Neil’s scars, feeling out his seams. Neil yawned and watched the slow progress of his fingers. Andrew pressed his blunt nails into the meat of Neil’s thumb to mimic the halfmoons Neil made on himself every time he held himself back. Neil watched him watching the small marks smooth out again, and curled his own fingers down. He let their fingers tangle together just the slightest amount, nothing more than slotting in between each other, not trying to hold or grasp. The joints of their fingers matched up and Neil rested his thumb along the tops of Andrew’s knuckles.

Andrew blinked slowly at him and said nothing, but there was a tenuous peace in his eyes and his hand stayed there, fingers loose and the edge of his thumb brushing the side of Neil’s.

“Your hands can be gentle too,” Neil whispered. “You can be gentle too. I see it.”

Andrew closed his eyes with a slight grimace but didn’t pull his hand away. Andrew’s thumb moved in a tiny little arc that had Neil’s chest aching. He sighed to try and ease the feeling, but it changed to a shuddering yawn halfway through.

“I’m going to sleep now,” Andrew muttered, eyes still closed. “You should too.”

“D’you want to stay out here?”

“Mm.”

“With me?”

Mm.”

“Oh,” Neil smiled, each blink making it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. “Goodnight.”

Andrew stroked his thumb again, and Neil fell back asleep to the sight of their hands carefully intertwined between them.

He woke blearily in a couple of hours to the sound of the bedroom door opening and Nicky calling for them both, obviously wondering why both their beds were empty. His enquiry stalled abruptly and Neil craned his neck back to see him, squinting in the morning light.

“Sorry,” Nicky mouthed with a grin, watching them both. He padded into the kitchen with a bounce in his step and a smug look to his face. Neil huffed and turned back to Andrew, found his eyes already fixed firmly on himself.

“Did you sleep?” Neil murmured softly. He noticed their hands were still linked, and Andrew seemed to have curled closer in the few hours since Neil had last been conscious.

“A bit,” Andrew replied.

Neil took that to mean he’d had another nightmare or sour memory-filled dream, but hadn’t wanted to disturb Neil with it. He was both flattered and concerned and wasn’t sure how to respond. So he turned his attention to their hands and smiled.

“I like this. Not the insomnia thing, but this.” He squeezed very slightly, a tiny amount of pressure. “Can we do it again sometime?”

Andrew hummed a short affirmative.

“Gentle,” Neil whispered with a grin.

Andrew rolled his eyes and took his hand back, though not without a lingering stroke to Neil’s palm. “Get up, lazybones. You’ll be late for your date with Allison.”

Neil hauled himself upright with difficulty – each time they slept in the beanbags it pressed a little of their rigidity away and made them even more likely to try and swallow their occupant. He stretched out his back and arms with a slight groan and felt the weight of Andrew’s gaze.

“I don’t know why you keep calling them dates,” Neil smiled back over his shoulder.

“You go shopping and get food together and talk for hours,” Andrew replied with a slight lift of an eyebrow, still supine in his beanbag. “That’s a date.”

“Maybe if you took me out for a real one I’d know the difference better,” Neil grinned.

“Don’t be stupid,” Andrew muttered, but his fingers reached out to touch the small of Neil’s back where his shirt had ridden up just a bit. He dipped into the little dimples either side of Neil’s coccyx and whispered his fingertips across the jut of his pelvic bones and small hills of his spine. Neil smiled to himself and tugged his shirt up just a bit more, trying to hide it in another stretch. Judging by Andrew’s look he wasn’t being nearly subtle enough, but he followed the hem upwards regardless.

Deciding the hell with subtlety anyway, Neil pulled his shirt up to his shoulders to bare his back completely. He grinned down at Andrew and sighed quietly as Andrew pressed his whole hand flat to his back, skin pulsing warm with his heartbeats. He eased his hand up and down, smearing careful heat over him, and feeling the shape of his ribs and shoulder blades. Neil very much wanted to lie down on his stomach so Andrew could reach better, and was about to, when there was an impatient knock at the door.

Nicky came out of the kitchen to answer and Neil twisted to try and see who it was. Allison strode inside without an ounce of anxiousness as to whether she was welcome in ‘the monsters’ rooms and fixed Neil with an unimpressed look.

“And why aren’t you dressed yet?”

“Morning, Allison,” Neil smiled back.

Andrew tugged Neil’s shirt back down and curled up tighter in his beanbag, the shadows under his eyes more apparent when contrasted with Allison’s flawless everything. Neil hesitated to get up.

“Will you be alright if I go out? I could stay,” Neil offered in quiet Russian.

“Go on your date,” Andrew replied in the same language. “Bring me back something if you’re going to be stupid about it.”

“Alright,” Neil smiled back in English, and got to his feet. To Allison, he said, “I’ll just be a minute.”

He rushed through dressing, though he took a bit more care than usual as he knew Allison would dress him herself if she was dissatisfied. Kevin kept snoring away, oblivious to the world. He quickly washed the grit from his eyes with a damp flannel and combed haphazardly through his hair, taking a minute to touch the close undersection that still felt strange under his fingers. He watched his reflection for a moment, feeling the familiar clench of his stomach at seeing his eyes and cheekbones and jaw so stark in the mirror. Then he sorted through his little toiletries bag and fished out the eyeliner pencil Allison had bought him last time. His hands weren’t as skilled as Allison’s, but he was slow and careful and when he was done, he looked a hell of a lot less like Nathan.

He nodded firmly at his reflection and stepped into the heavy boots Andrew had got him for his first night out in Columbia, liking the inch they added to his height. And he knew from Allison’s comments and Andrew’s quiet looks that they looked good paired with slim jeans and baggy layered shirts, to say nothing of Nicky’s whistles.

He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Allison when he joined them again in the living room. She pursed her lips and gave a slow smile of approval.

“There might be hope for you yet, Josten.”

Neil turned to Andrew, who had got himself up and was sitting on the desk by the window having his morning smoke. Neil stepped close, and then closer when Andrew shifted his legs to let Neil stand between them.

“How’s it going down there?” Neil grinned, smug with his extra height.

“Shut up,” Andrew muttered, but rested a hand on his hip.

“I’ll be back later,” Neil said quietly. “Try and get some rest, okay?”

“Stop fucking fussing.”

Neil bent his head in retaliation and took a shallow drag from the cigarette in his fingers, holding the smoke for just a second before blowing it out the cracked window. It was starting to remind him more of Andrew than his mother.

“Pest,” Andrew muttered, but tilted his chin down with the same hand and kissed him quickly. “Go.”

Neil stepped away, feeling Andrew’s hand linger on his hip until he was out of reach, and waved bye to Nicky as Allison led him out and into her car.

To her credit, Allison said nothing until they were on the interstate. “That was unexpectedly sweet.”

“What?”

“You and the monster, back there. With the beanbags and cigarette and shit. Didn’t know he had those kind of fuzzy feelings.”

Neil frowned at her. “Stop calling him that. He’s not a monster – he’s a real person with needs and wants and fears and he’s trying so hard to let them exist without shoving them all back down again. If you guys hadn’t been so intent on believing the meds were a good thing, you’d’ve seen that a long time ago.”

“Alright, back down,” Allison replied. “No need for salt so early in the morning.”

“Just stop calling him that,” Neil muttered. “I’m tired of hearing it. He doesn’t care, but I do, alright?”

“Obviously.”

They sat in silence for a good few miles. Then Allison’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “It’s Seth’s birthday today.”

Neil felt winded. Her abrasiveness suddenly made a lot more sense. “Oh. And – and you want to spend the day with me?”

Her jaw clenched and she shot him a hard look when they paused at a crossing. “Yes, Neil. It was Riko who killed him, not you. And I don’t want to spend the day dodging Dan and Renee’s sympathy or Nicky’s awkward comments about how he wasn’t such a bad guy, really, when we all know nobody gave much of a shit when they heard.”

“I didn’t give much of a shit,” Neil admitted quietly. “I didn’t really feel anything. Still want to spend the day with me?”

Her throat worked and her eyes were vicious on the lights. “You only knew him for a few months, and he only ever gave you a hard time. I can accept that. But the others never tried to know him in all the years he was here. Or if they did, they gave up quickly.” She glanced his way again. “And I know you know a thing or two about how angry that still makes me. So yes, I want to spend the day with you.”

The grieving, painful fight in her eyes was something he knew intimately. So he nodded. “Do you want to talk about him today?”

She was quiet for a few blocks. “Yes,” she said quietly. “But first, we need to get some new clothes.”

She dragged him into a huge mall and led him unerringly to the most expensive outlet there. He was happy to hold the rapidly-increasing pile of clothes she shoved in his arms and made interested noises as she talked. She had been on a mission for a while to improve his sense of fashion, and as he caught sight of himself in mirrors as they passed, he thought she might be succeeding just a little. Even if his clothes were a mixture of gifts from her, Andrew and Nicky, he’d put them on himself without consultation and liked what he saw. He wasn’t fading into the background anymore, and while that was a little terrifying, it was a little freeing too.

“Come on,” she grinned and hooked her fingers in his collar as they walked to the changing rooms. She sweet-talked the shop assistant into letting Neil into the women’s section, seeing as it was a slow Sunday morning and that he was her shopping basket, and pulled him into the stall with her. He sat on the chair and handed her clothes as she stripped off unabashedly a few bare feet from him. The first time they’d done this, Neil had tried protesting, wondering what she was playing at, but she’d gripped his chin and said, “I know you’re not interested in me. I know you’re not going to try anything, and I know you’re not really going to care about what you see either. So shut up and hand me that skirt.”

A month or two later, he had to admit it was a nice kind of intimacy. Very different from what he shared with Andrew or even Matt in their talks, but nice all the same to know she trusted him enough to strip down to her underwear and ask his opinion on her clothes, as if he had an opinion on fashion worth hearing. He knew Allison found it comforting for her own reasons, being free and unashamed of her body and not having to mask it with her sexuality. He’d thought maybe he should be a bit annoyed she considered him ‘safe’ because he was so thoroughly invested in Andrew, but he knew it was more than that. It was more than being a queer friend, he knew. It was just being a friend.

“That’s nice,” he offered with a nod to her bra when she shrugged off her shirt; it was a pale pink with blue seashells patterned over it that caught his eye far more than her breasts.

“It is, isn’t it?” She smiled and adjusted one of the straps. “Renee got it for me.”

“Nice of her.”

“Very,” Allison grinned. “She likes it too.”

Neil smiled back, enjoying the little secrets she gave him. If he were more interested in betting, he knew he could make a lot of bank with the tidbits she slipped him on these trips. “Andrew likes the eyeliner,” he offered back to her triumphant grin, knowing she’d respect the secret in return and keep it to herself.

“Really?” She teased.

He blushed a little but didn’t look away. “What? You saw the clothes he gets me for nights out.”

“True, true,” she laughed. “Never thought I’d know this much about his tastes, but alright.”

Neil rolled his eyes and held up a dress she’d picked out. She put it on happily, examining herself in the mirror. It was a low-cut halterneck, which showed off her strong arms and shoulders in a very interesting contrast to the wide, feminine bell of fabric swirling around her hips.

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s very you,” he replied honestly. “What’s the occasion?”

“For the winter banquet,” she shrugged. And, “Don’t look at me like that. And yes, we’re getting you a new suit today. You’ve bulked up a bit in the shoulders and legs since last year, your old one won’t fit anymore.”

Neil sighed but knew she was right, and did what he could to help her as she tried on the mountain of clothes. She discarded about half, though Neil thought she looked good in all of them, and took pictures in the ‘keepers’. When she was done she sat across his lap with her phone out.

“Smile,” she told him, and gently kissed his cheek as the camera flashed. She checked the picture and smiled. “Aw, Neil. You look precious.”

“What?”

She showed him the image and he shared her smile; he looked surprised and flattered and relaxed in a way he never saw in his reflection.

“I’m posting this,” she announced, hands busy on her phone. “And it’s going on the wall, too – the only one we have of you on there is the one with you and Andrew eyefucking at the airport. It’s a waste of your pretty face.”

Neil knew better than to protest and hesitantly put an arm around her waist. She leaned back into him with a hum. “What are you posting it as?”

She showed him her newly-updated Instagram, captioned “my sweetheart baby Neil came shopping with me!”

Almost instantly her phone began to ping with notifications as the other Foxes and a fair chunk of strangers following her account made their opinions known. Mostly through emoticons, exclamation points and a whole lot of innuendo from the strangers who didn’t know about Neil and Andrew. She grinned smugly and replied to a few of them, happily using Neil as her seat. Nervous warmth bloomed in his chest as she leaned against him, still not used to all the casual touching his family enjoyed with each other. Feeling brave, he looped both arms around her waist and squeezed quickly. His face felt rather hot but it was a giddy kind of embarrassment.

Allison smiled at him and stroked lightly through his hair. “What was that for, shy boy?”

“Nothing,” he muttered. He was very distracted by her hand in his hair. “This is nice, that’s all.”

She considered him seriously for a moment, then sighed and softly kissed his forehead. “You are such a baby deer off-court, you know that right?”

“Thanks, I think. And on-court?”

“You’re a loudmouthed cocky bastard who could give Kevin a run for his money,” she replied dryly, and snapped another selfie of him with a lipstick kiss on his forehead. She seemed to be mightily enjoying the drama she was creating and watched it foment for a few minutes before putting her phone away and getting to her feet.

“C’mon, let’s get these to the checkout and you a new suit.”

He followed her around for the next few hours obediently, letting the tailor take his measurements and leaving the more exact details to Allison’s discretion, and picking up a few bags of his own so he wasn’t just carrying all her shopping. She took selfies of them all through the day, much to the excitement of the Foxes and her fans, and Neil was happy she was enjoying herself and more willing than usual to let her take photos of him and steer him about with a hand on his back or tugging on his hips or arms. Hers was a bright, commanding, fierce kind of love, and he appreciated every moment of it.

They dropped the bags back at her car once they were done and headed off to a secluded little coffee shop they went to every trip, where they could lounge in a sofa booth hidden away at the back. Neil ordered their drinks and a light meal for them both and let her drape her legs across his lap as they waited.

“It’s kind of amazing that you can walk in these,” he commented, looking at her fearsome stilettos.

“You should see me run in them,” she promised with a wicked grin.

“Well that’s terrifying. Aren’t you afraid your ankles will snap?”

“Bitch please, I have far more balance and co-ordination than that,” Allison scoffed and flicked some of her drink at him.

“Right, sorry, forgot about that,” Neil smiled back, and patiently waited while she took another photo of him. She showed him the caption again – “refuelling after a long day. Baby makes a great footrest fyi”. He shook his head but rested his hands on her ankles. He was resigned to her nicknames at this point.

Once their food arrived they ate quietly for a while, content in each other’s company. She stopped before he did, and stirred her drink while watching the other customers go about their business.

“He could be such an asshole,” she said quietly once he was done.

Neil washed down his last bite and pushed the plate aside to give her his full attention.

 “He never let anybody trample him, though,” she continued. “Sure, he never fucking knew when to stop and save it for another day, but I always liked that. Everyone else, they just saw his attitude. They didn’t think to ask why.”

“So, ‘why’?” Neil replied, watching her seriously and holding her ankles gently in his lap.

She gave the ceiling a shaky smile. “Because he refused to be himself on anybody else’s terms. People don’t want to think about people like Seth – people who lash out, who aren’t picture-perfect victims to coo over. People with raw wounds that won’t be bandaged because the world keeps picking at the scabs. People who dare to be themselves despite everything. The world wanted to kick him to the curb and shut him up, to deny he ever existed, to deny him everything. So he stood the fuck back up and made them notice him.”

Neil thought of the one conversation he’d really had with Seth, about Kevin – his life isn’t worth more than mine just because he’s famous.

“He would never take any shit,” Allison continued with a fiercely proud look in her watery eyes. “Nobody wanted to know what he had to say, so he’d shout it until it was all anybody could hear. He stood on his own two feet and told the world, ‘I’m here, fucking look at me’. He demanded to be respected for who he was and didn’t let anyone forget he wasn’t receiving it. He didn’t care what everyone else thought. He just wanted to live his life on his terms. He was a dick, and an asshole, and a bigot, and he was nowhere near perfect or even really good as a person. But he was real, and burning with life, and I loved him.”

Neil could certainly see why she would have loved him, when she talked like that. Coming from a family determined to deny her everything but the frivolous, control her every waking moment for the business while refusing to let her in on any major decisions… Seth must have seemed like a soldier of her heart, born to the same battles on different fields.

“And sometimes I fucking hated his guts,” she admitted with a hard swallow. “He never knew when to stop, never knew when he was just being an asshole instead of standing up for himself. He’d never seriously talk about his addiction problems. And sometimes I was too much for him, too loud, too bossy, too much like the people who’d told him ‘no’ all his life. But we made it work. We knew each other. Nobody else got that. Nobody else ever tried.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil murmured helplessly as he watched her eyes fill but not spill. He patted her legs as gently as he knew how and floundered for what to do to ease her grief.

She sniffed and took a long, shuddering breath. Then she turned her too-bright eyes on Neil. “Tell me you understand, Neil. Please tell me you understand.”

Neil squeezed her ankles. “Of course I understand. Everyone still looks at Andrew like they’re amazed he doesn’t eat newborns for breakfast. Everyone thinks his head is so messed up, that he doesn’t think right, that his reactions are terrible and out of line. And they’re not always perfect – but who fucking is? Especially any of us. He’s a real, complicated person. But the way he thinks is really very simple. He protects his family, whatever it takes. I still don’t know why that’s so hard for people to get.”

Neil scowled down at his hands. “He cares so much, Allison. He doesn’t show it how you’d expect, but he cares so much it’s fucking painful to see him try and deny it, even to himself. He’s so full of feeling that he’s terrified of admitting is real. His nightmares are horrific and he covers them up with a blank face so people don’t think he’s weak, because he’s been beaten down and taken advantage of all his life. You all give me shit for saying I’m fine but he’s been screaming for years and nobody thought to ask if he’s okay. He’s fighting every day to try and get better, and everyone around him is determined to cut him off at the knees because they don’t like him. He’s a Fox too, goddammit, but the team never wants to shovel the shit and help. So yeah. I understand.”

They shared a furious gaze – eyes hard, jaws clenched, shoulders shaking.

“Seth always wanted us to win,” Allison said. “He was fed up of everyone treating us like a joke. But he couldn’t hope it would happen when we were fractured, and he hated Kevin for dangling the possibility in front of us and then tearing us apart with his criticism.”

“I’m sorry he never got the respect he should have done,” Neil replied, and reached out to gently blot the tears that trembled over her lids. “I’m sorry people didn’t try with him. I’m sorry you’re having to carry this. I’m sorry that you’re hurting, Allison.”

She sniffed and nodded once. She let him wipe her tears and then curled her fingers around his to hold them tight.

“Thank you, Neil.”

“For what?”

Her smile was a few shades too grim to be her usual one, but it still made her look more like herself. “For being a tiny mouthy asshole who won’t shut up about the things he cares for. For today. I needed this.”

She gestured him closer until they were tucked up side to side and she took a selfie of them, her head leaned into his neck with her smudged mascara and eyeliner trails in full view. “Remembering absent friends with Baby” she captioned, and posted. She silenced her phone and put it away before the notifications could pour in again. She sighed and hooked an arm around his shoulders, keeping him close.

“Tell me something nice about your life, Neil.”

“You mean besides you being a literal goddess?” He teased gently, trying to imitate her speech.

She smiled a little and rubbed through his hair. “Nice try.”

He thought about it and wondered what would be okay to say. He bit his lip over a smile and offered shyly, “Me and Andrew fell asleep holding hands last night.”

She stared at him in astonishment for a full minute, then kissed his nose. “You beautiful baby deer,” she smiled. “Have the rest of my fries.”

He obliged and cleared her plate while she toyed with his hair and fixed her makeup. She drained both their glasses of soda and left some bills under a plate. She tugged him by the hand out to the car and steered them out onto the highway. Once they were going fast with hardly any other cars around, she buzzed down her window, took a deep breath, and screamed out, “Happy fucking birthday and I miss you, Seth gobshite Gordon!”

Then she screamed some more until she was out of breath. The window buzzed up again and she calmly switched on the radio, her smile pleasant and calm.

“You are a force of nature,” Neil said with admiration.

“Why thank you, Baby,” she crooned back sweetly.

They separated at the dorms, divvying up the bags as needed. She gave him one last fond kiss on the cheek before pushing him towards his door. “Go on, check in with your man.”

“Thanks for today, Allison.”

“Same time next week?”

“You bet.” She wiggled her fingers at him and went into her own dorm room. He stepped into his own and dropped the bags by the door, looking around curiously for his dorm mates. He found Andrew in the kitchen, still dressed in his slouchy pyjamas and a hoodie, frowning down at a pot of oatmeal. He stirred it every so often with a wooden spoon, and Neil spotted a jar of honey liquefying in some warm water to the side.

“Hi,” Neil said softly and perched on one of the breakfast bar stools close by. Andrew acknowledged him with a glance. “Did you get any sleep?”

“No.”

Neil watched him stir the pot for a few minutes. It was nearly four in the afternoon, definitely too late for brunch, but he said nothing. It wasn’t ice cream, which had to be positive.

“Did you have a nice date?”

Neil smiled and rubbed at his cheek. “Yeah, it was good fun. We talked about Seth a bit. I got you something too, if you want it. If you don’t then I’ll take it, but I got it for you.”

“What is it?”

“A new hoodie. It’s in the blue bag if you wanna see.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow at him and stalked off to find the bag. Neil stirred his oatmeal a few times while he investigated. Andrew came back wearing it and took over at the pot again. Neil smiled to himself, enjoying the sight of Andrew in smoky grey-blue instead of relentless black for a change.

“Thanks, baby,” he muttered caustically.

Neil snorted. “Nicky?”

“Screamed about it all day until I pushed him out the door. The pictures were adorable, apparently.”

“So she tells me,” Neil smiled. He reached out to gently tug Andrew’s sleeve. “Are you annoyed I spent the day with her?”

Andrew turned to look at him properly. “No,” he replied with perfect calm. “I don’t want a monopoly on you, you’re clingy enough as it is. I’m more surprised you let her call you that.”

“I kind of like it,” Neil smiled with a relieved shrug. “Nobody else ever called me that before. And she means it well.”

“Then it doesn’t annoy me.”

“Alright. Why oatmeal, anyway?”

“It’s the only thing I’ve wanted to eat all day,” Andrew shrugged a bit. “Better than nothing.”

Neil watched as he poured the oatmeal into a large bowl and stirred several dessert spoons of honey into it. He ate it standing up at the bar next to Neil. He had all of it, though he didn’t seem to have much of an appetite and didn’t appear to be enjoying it. It seemed much more necessity than want.

“Can I do anything to help?” Neil asked in a soft voice once the bowl was soaking in the sink.

Andrew considered him for a long minute, then reached out to touch his thigh. Neil parted his legs in answer and Andrew stepped between them; the stool had them at an almost equal height for once, and Neil let his legs gently press against Andrew’s to keep him close, his boots propped up on the footrest of the stool. Andrew watched his face and ran a hand through his messy hair, already ruffled from Allison.

“I hate that you know to ask that,” Andrew muttered in a dead voice.

“I don’t like seeing you hurting,” Neil replied in the same quiet tone. “I want to help.”

Rather tellingly, Andrew didn’t bother to deny that statement. He almost seemed to slump forward, all sharp angles and bruised eyes, until their foreheads were touching. “I don’t like being this weak,” he almost growled. “I don’t like wanting to rely on you. I don’t like this. I don’t need your help.”

“I know,” Neil murmured, and gently nudged their noses together. “But I’ve got you anyway.”

Andrew muttered an obscenity in Russian then tilted his head to close the distance and shut him up in the only way he’d found effective. Neil kissed him back gently, careful with each press of lips never to take more than was being offered. Andrew’s lips tasted like honey and he found a little drop of it smeared at the corner of his mouth, slowly kissed it away. Andrew tugged a bit on his hair for that, but Neil just smiled into him.

“Where can I touch you?”

Andrew pulled his head back a bit to kiss down the exposed line of his throat. Neil tried not to swallow too obviously, but with Andrew’s mouth on his Adam’s apple it was tricky. “Just the hoodie,” he muttered into Neil’s pulse, sounding just a bit frustrated with himself. “No skin.”

“Okay.” Neil carefully held onto the baggy sides of the hoodie, just over his ribs, holding only the material in his hands.

“And you?”

“Anywhere you want,” Neil murmured back. “My scars are fine too.”

Andrew seemed to think about it as he trailed slow, open-mouthed kisses over Neil’s neck. He didn’t bite or suck or mark, content apparently to just feel. One hand stayed firmly in his hair and the other reached around to ease up the back of his shirt to feel out his bare back again. Neil arched his back up unthinkingly, curving into his hand and tilting his head back further. Their chests bumped together at the motion but Andrew didn’t push him away. He kept kissing and mouthing over his neck and collarbones while Neil tried to breathe.

“You’re too vulnerable,” Andrew muttered when Neil shuddered.

“You’re my safety,” Neil replied honestly. “You’re my home, Andrew. I don’t need to protect myself from you.”

“Shut up,” Andrew whispered, and kissed him more firmly on the mouth. “Shut up, shut up.”

So Neil told him in touch instead, with the restraint of his hands staying where they were, with the relaxed arch of his back, with the breath they shared back and forth in slow, intoxicating waves. He told him in tiny sighs and the wet noise of their lips meeting, parting, and meeting again in sweet reunion. He told him with the steady beat of his heart and the press of jaws and noses. He told him in forehead touches and cheek kisses. He told him in the light scrape of teeth against stubble unshaved from the day before, in the fleeting touch against an old bruise on his neck. He told him in how he stayed completely still under Andrew’s hands, acquiescing readily and happily to each steer of his head or tracing of his spine. He told him with closed eyes, not needing to keep careful watch on the exits when he had Andrew there. He told him in his willingness to stay still and kiss without wanting anything more, in the lack of hardness if Andrew had touched him there. He told him with fluttering breaths and the shared taste of honey.

“I hate that this helps,” Andrew whispered eventually, a secret pressed into Neil’s cheek.

“I like that you’re able to say so,” Neil breathed back. Truth for truth. They kissed until neither of them could think, until all that mattered was touch and the reassurance it brought.

The rest of the week passed agonisingly slowly for them both, with so many hours to fill at night as well as day. They went to class and tried to pay attention, ran themselves ragged at practice (Neil) or did as little as possible (Andrew). They sat together in the evenings, not saying much at all, but needing some kind of closeness. Aaron came down with the flu and begged off practice for a few days, so Andrew went to his Wednesday session alone for the first time in a good few months. When he came back he seemed more present and not trapped in his head, but it only lasted until the nightmare later that night. They smoked through two packs of cigarettes, but Andrew didn’t touch the whiskey. He took his liquor in Neil’s kisses instead, and Neil tried everything he knew to soothe this man so close to breaking. Neil didn’t suggest he ask Betsy for sleeping pills - he knew Andrew would never consent to medication ever again. He drew and told stories and lost himself in the oblivion of touch, but Andrew still couldn’t sleep through a full night.

When Friday came around, Neil was just about ready to tell everybody to fuck off and take Andrew out for a drive to nowhere, but they had a home game that night and a considerable point difference to reclaim if they wanted to stay in the season.

The whole team was gathered in the Foxhole’s lounge to discuss strategy an hour before first serve.

“We’re gonna need a shutout and at least eight goals to make it through,” Wymack said grimly, looking around at his ragtag team that was still adjusting to the freshmen. Then he looked to Andrew for a moment, and raised his brows expectantly at Neil. Neil scowled back, knowing everybody was watching and waiting for him to do his ‘asking’ thing. Only Renee seemed to expect nothing.

“Fuck you all,” he muttered before turning to Andrew.

Andrew was sitting at his side as always, their legs pressed together from hip to ankle. He was wearing the hoodie Neil had bought for him, but his cheeks were even more hollowed than normal and his eyes looked sunken in his face. The others had to have noticed his exhaustion, but nobody had said anything. Well, Nicky had tried, but been forcefully rebuffed. Renee had done much the same as Neil had been doing all week, and simply kept him silent company and worried. Neil watched him sway just a bit in his seat with a spike of sick alarm. He looked so checked out that Neil would be surprised if he’d heard a word of Wymack’s speech.

“Andrew?” He murmured lowly, wishing everyone else were gone. Andrew’s eyes slowly focussed on his face, though he was still very distant. Neil reached for his hand and waited for a slow nod before carefully lacing their fingers together, trying to anchor him. Fuck the others for silently staring. He switched to Russian to close everyone else out, dipping into German when he couldn’t find the right words. “You know if it was my call, you wouldn’t be playing at all tonight. I’d keep you benched until you’re sleeping properly again. But it’s not my call. They want me to persuade you to go all out and save the season on your own. I’m not gonna ask that. I’m not gonna say that if you don’t do this, our season will be over and I’ll be killed by the Moriyamas, because that’s not a threat right now and I swore I wouldn’t lie to you again. The season is important to me, but not as much as you.”

Andrew blinked slowly at him like a cat, detached and unimpassioned. Neil rubbed their thumbs together.

“I’m gonna ask that you just do what you can without hurting yourself. Whatever you can give, will be enough. As always. And when the match is done, I’ll drive us down to Columbia, just us, and you can sleep in your own bed for a change with a locked door and no one else in the room. I’ll go on the couch, I don’t care. But we’re getting out of here tonight and you’re gonna get some sleep.”

He lifted Andrew’s hand and pressed a careful kiss to his palm, holding his eyes steady. Andrew brushed his fingertips along Neil’s cheek for a moment, then took his hand back and stood. He left the room without a stumble, but Neil watched the too-slow way he moved.

“Did you just trade sex for goals?” Aaron asked with a disgusted sneer.

“No,” Neil replied with all the cold fury building in his chest like dry ice vapour leaking from his lips. “Sex is not a bargaining chip.”

Aaron rolled his eyes but Neil didn’t have the patience for him. He turned to the rest of the team and continued in the same cold voice. “Listen up. This is what’s going to happen, and I’m not going to repeat myself. Renee will sub for Andrew each quarter, he’ll do second and fourth. He probably won’t be able to do a shutout but he’ll do what he can and fuck everyone in this room for expecting anything else. I’m done with watching from the sidelines – it’s about time this team pulled the fuck together. He’s had your backs on the court whenever you needed him, but none of you have ever had his on or off court. Defense,” Neil snapped towards them, his hands starting to shake with impotent rage. His voice was colder than an arctic wind. They flinched back from him but he didn’t care. He held them all in his judgemental gaze and let them know exactly what they were dealing with. “You need to get your act together. I’ve seen the way you rely on him to close out the goal, letting him mop up your mistakes. It’s been sloppy and awful all season and it stops right now. Hold the line tight away from goal and bulldoze any striker who tries to get close, no matter who’s in goal. Communicate with each other and keep them from crowding the goal or I swear to God you’ll all be on four AM marathons for a week.”

He turned to his strikers. “Offense. Go hard and fast and don’t let anyone trip you up. Bounce off the walls and pass to me if you’re in a bad spot. We can’t rely on defense to control the point gap – we have to go hard right from the start and don’t let up. Get goals in fast and early and make the backliners desperate. Exhaust them and outrun them. Take no shit and get the ball however you can.”

He took a quick breath to master himself a bit. “Dealers. Keep us in possession no matter what. Let defense drown if you need to – it’s about time they learned to deal with pressure on their own. Keep the ball moving forward to offense at every opportunity and block out midcourt for us.”

He fixed them all in his sights, resting on each of their eyes. “Nobody paces themselves tonight. We all go full throttle immediately. The freshmen can sub for us each quarter and keep us rotated and rested. It’s not our usual strategy but this is what we’re doing and I’m not letting anyone say otherwise. Freshmen, if you don’t give me your all I’m benching the lot of you. You want to play on our team? Step up and impress me tonight. We all need to get our act together and stop relying on the goalie to pull off a miracle. Form up as a team for once this season. Be a fucking Fox and have your team’s back.”

Kevin frowned and opened his mouth so Neil cut him off. “Do I look like I’m even remotely fucking around, Kevin? Stow it. I won’t hear it tonight.”

Kevin closed his mouth with a click in the silent room. The freshmen looked pale and determined – even Jack looked begrudgingly impressed. Aaron scowled but said nothing. Nicky nodded. Matt gave him a solemn look of understanding and started stretching his arms. Renee nodded with all hints of softness gone. Allison smiled at him, fierce and proud with an answering anger in her eyes. Dan met his eyes guardedly, then smiled.

“Yes, Captain.”

That snapped him out of his cold command and he blinked, then looked at Wymack. He thought he caught a proud look on the coach’s face before he assumed his usual frown. “You heard Josten. Kit up and start your exercises. Go!” he barked, and everyone but Neil and Aaron ran for the locker room.

Wymack looked him over with interest. “What’s going on with Minyard that you’d start acting like the cap right now?”

Neil dug his nails into his palms so he wouldn’t do something rash. “He hasn’t slept more than three hours a night in over a week.” He spat, then turned to Aaron. “Fix it.

He brushed past the other Minyard, ignoring the hurt and astounded look on his face, and changed out in cold silence. Andrew watched him from where he had been waiting, already kitted up and weary.

“What did you do? Everyone looks scared shitless,” Andrew asked in Russian.

“I gave them a piece of my mind,” Neil replied and turned to him with righteous anger still under his tongue. “I told them to stop depending on you to save their asses and start being a real fucking team. You’re a Fox too, and they should have your back like they have mine, like they have each other’s. And they know I won’t let them get away with any shit tonight, either.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I would burn the world for you, Andrew,” Neil shot back, slipping back into English. “This is nothing.”

Andrew stared. Neil looked right back for long heartbeats until Andrew grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him down for a searing, painful kiss that was all fire and desperation and teeth and angry need. It felt like life and death and promises of the future that neither would ever, ever break.

“And everyone thinks Andrew’s the scary one,” Matt muttered. Neil sent a raised middle finger in his general direction and only pulled back from the kiss when he started to get dizzy. He rested his forehead against Andrew’s and met his gaze – clear and calm and settled for the first time in over a week. Andrew brushed their noses together for a second, a tiny touch of softness, then let him go.

The locker room was silent until they were all changed out. Neil felt Aaron’s stare between his shoulder blades like the red dot of a rifle sight.

After the match was won – fifteen to three, with the Foxes firmly going forward in the season with the crowd and commentators going wild – Dan slung an arm around Neil’s shoulders on the way to talk to the press.

“Good job, Cap,” She grinned exhaustedly.

“I didn’t mean to step on your authority,” he apologised. He leaned back against her; his legs were shaking so hard he could barely walk and his shoulders throbbed from the eight goals he’d slammed into the net, and from getting checked and hit all night.

“No, no, it was fine,” she assured him. “You need to get used to being in control of these delinquents, might as well start sooner than later. I’m proud of you, Neil. You’ll be a great captain next year.”

“Thanks, Dan,” he replied, with a throat suddenly closing up. She ruffled his sweat-soaked hair with a laugh and pushed him front and centre when the reporters lined up.

When that was done and he was showered, Neil was about to close his locker when Aaron made his presence known. He ignored Neil and instead looked to his twin.

“I shouldn’t have said those things in our last session,” he said in a perfectly emotionless voice. His throat bobbed despite his efforts to seem unaffected. “I was wrong.”

Maybe Aaron expected to be ignored, because he looked surprised when Andrew replied. Neil wasn’t – there could only ever be equal exchange. “I shouldn’t have hit you or held a knife to you.” He grimaced, and went a step further. “Drake wasn’t your fault. Let it go.”

Aaron’s face drained of all colour. He matched Andrew’s expression grimly. “You protected me from Mom.”

They watched each other as if unsure what to do with the suddenly more-level ground between them. They had existed in painful opposition for so long. And they were by no means even, but they were a lot closer to it than before. Aaron turned away first and hurried off to Katelyn’s waiting embrace. Andrew’s eyes followed his brother every step until he was out of sight.

Neil gently curled his fingers into Andrew’s sleeve. “I’ll drive,” he offered quietly.

When they got to the house in Columbia Andrew led the way upstairs without a word and kicked off his shoes. Neil hovered outside the door uncertainly.

“Where do you want me to sleep?”

Andrew paused in taking off his shirt, considering the neatly-made sheets. They’d shared the bed in Columbia more often than not now, though Neil was careful never to take it for granted.

“Here for now,” Andrew said in a quiet, rough voice. “But you might need to leave later.”

“That’s fine.” Neil smiled and got changed as well. He eased under the covers and watched as Andrew locked the bedroom door, checked it with a jiggle of the handle, and climbed over him to his place by the wall.

They lay on their sides facing each other, foreheads lightly touching. They breathed silently together with exhaustion dragging at both their bones. Neil yawned and smiled as its echo shuddered through Andrew’s chest. He didn’t remember closing his eyes or falling asleep, but when he woke it was to midday sunlight and birdsong. He woke to see Andrew’s sleeping face, loose and relaxed and tucked into Neil’s pillow by his shoulder. He woke to a hand curled in his shirt and a relief strong enough to make him tremble.

He woke to home and safety and peaceful dreams.

Chapter Text

Andrew woke to musty heat and a pounding head from sleeping too long, and a curious sense of emptiness. He squinted around at the over-bright room and slowly realised he was in his bedroom in Columbia, it had to be nearly three in the afternoon, and he was alone in his bed.

It took him a few minutes to realise he was perturbed by that rather than reassured. A hand to the wide open space next to him revealed a cool temperature – Neil had been gone some time. But then, he reminded himself, he didn’t want the idiot to stay there all day. He was annoyed enough at himself for sleeping too late, at least Neil hadn’t been stupid and soppy enough to stay and keep him unconscious company.

I don’t want a monopoly on you, he’d said, and he still meant it. But maybe… he could be getting a little too used to having him within reach so much of the time.

He was out of bed and swigging some bottled water from his travel bag before he remembered he hadn’t dreamt at all. No nightmares, no visceral memories, no tense emotional sucker-punches. His head had hit the pillow and there he’d stayed, apparently too deeply asleep to feel or hear Neil moving around, getting out from under the duvet, his body weight leaving the mattress, him getting dressed and presumably showered. It should have alarmed him, that lack of survival instinct, and somewhere it did. Somewhere deep where his least useful thoughts and paranoid urges dwelt. But in the thinking, commanding part of his brain… he was feeling something else. He didn’t know what it was, but it felt new and slippery and tricky.

It seemed rooted in his stomach, making him feel like he’d drunk something hot. That usually meant something big. No tightness in his chest, so not to do with anger or stress. His shoulders and hands stayed relaxed, so it was probably a silly thing. Something to do with Neil – and there it was again, that weird feeling.

He shook his head, giving it up as a bad job trying to teach himself how to name feelings he’d never experienced before the age of twenty, and headed downstairs. He paused on the threshold of the kitchen.

Neil was there, standing at the stove and frying bacon as if three PM were an acceptable time to eat. There were potatoes and onions and mushrooms cut up on the board by his elbow, and he was adding handfuls to the pan with each new strip of bacon. The smell and sound of it made Andrew’s mouth automatically water, but that wasn’t what had caught his attention.

He and Neil were of similar heights, but where Andrew was all broad muscle, a low but intimidating wall, Neil was skinny and whip-like, made for the wind. Although their clothes were usually the same size, they filled them in very different ways. So a shirt that was a little tight across Andrew’s shoulders would be baggy on Neil’s frame and hang loose. Neil was too tall, comparatively, for the shirt to cover any further than his navel. As such, Andrew had a clear view of the close-fitting boxer briefs Neil was wearing, and nothing else.

It shouldn’t have surprised him – he’d seen these particular ones several times before, in fact – but there was something a little odd about Neil Abram Josten walking around in a borrowed shirt and his underwear in the afternoon, while cooking. He pushed that aside as unimportant when Neil shifted his weight from one leg to the other, drawing his attention to the wonderfully snug fit of the underwear over his ass and upper half of his thighs.

Exy was still a worthless sport. But it did wonderful things to men’s bodies, Andrew had to concede. Especially ones who specialised in running full games.

“Kevin would be mad if he could see you right now,” Andrew said, and Neil didn’t even jump. He’d probably heard Andrew coming downstairs and had stayed at the stove to let him get a good look. Asshole.

“I dunno what you mean, this is protein and carbs and even a vegetable,” Neil replied, and flicked a grin over his shoulder. “It’ll be ready soon, if you’re hungry. I only got up about an hour ago myself.”

Instead of answering, Andrew got two plates out of the cupboard and set them by the pan.

“Is your appetite coming back?” Neil asked.

“I think so.”

“So, no nightmares then?”

“Apparently not.”

Neil got back to his task and Andrew eased into place at his back, resting his chin on the jut of Neil’s shoulder to watch his hands.

“Hello,” Neil murmured, and lightly nudged their heads together.

Andrew gradually rested his hands on Neil’s hips, waiting for a no, and squeezed when Neil smiled and leaned back into him.

“Where are your clothes?” Andrew asked. He rubbed his thumbs over the waistband of Neil’s underwear and slipped them under the edge.

“I kind of forgot to pack another change?” Neil replied. “I just wanted to get us out of there, I wasn’t really thinking straight when I grabbed my bag. And I figured we weren’t going anywhere really, either. Do you mind about the shirt?”

“No.”

“Can I borrow some of your old stuff if we go out?”

“Well you can’t go out like this,” Andrew said and eased one hand slowly down to firmly grab his ass. Neil’s breath hitched and he grinned down at the pan.

“You’re in a good mood.”

“Mm.”

Andrew thought back to the last time he’d seen Neil cooking bacon in this kitchen. The morning after the Hemmick family reunion. Neil had promised to stay and keep Kevin safe and given Andrew a few pieces of his secrets, just enough to keep him steady and given him a puzzle to work on and get through Easthaven. He’d been in raw physical agony under the mask of the meds, any distress pushed way down into the bottomless pit of rage instead where it would never escape beyond a manic grin.

Andrew much preferred this morning.

He made his teeth known on the edge of Neil’s shoulder in a little mock-bite, not chomping down, but just resting there. His other hand absently travelled up to Neil’s abdomen and traced his scars without needing to look. Neil hummed and took the pan off the heat, tilting his head back to rest against Andrew’s. He braced his hands on the countertop and seemed to focus solely on Andrew’s hands.

That was just fine. Andrew smoothed his hand down Neil’s front and brought both hands around to his thighs. He felt out the way the smooth elastic hugged Neil’s muscular thighs, the way the bottom hems on each leg were a little tight from being stretched by the thickness of them, the little ribbed pattern it left on his skin. The fabric was warm from his skin and Andrew let his fingers splay over the inside seams, up high where his thighs joined the crease of his hip and groin. He knew Neil liked this style because it kept his thighs from chafing under his workout or game shorts, but Andrew rather enjoyed the firm fit of them on Neil’s body, how they displayed and emphasized without Neil appearing to notice. He rubbed his fingers slowly and firmly along the dips where his thighs began after his hips and pressed his lips to the exposed arch of Neil’s neck.

Neil shivered and goose-bumps jumped to attention all over his neck and arms. He shifted his legs again, resting his weight a little more against Andrew’s chest. It pushed his ass against Andrew’s hips and groin, not that he seemed to care. Or maybe he did, and was playing coy. Andrew wasn’t quite sure but didn’t want to push him away, either.

His heart pounded just a little at the sensation of Neil’s ass – tight and firm and athletic – pressed against him, set his thoughts frantically racing with questions. What would it be like? Would he let me? Do I want that? Would he like it? Would I like it? Would it be too much like the others? What if I hurt him? What if it was good?

Desire pulsed in his stomach and his body wanted to rock forward, to crowd Neil against the counter and see if just the motion of their hips moving together could get them both to come, a little dress rehearsal for the fantasy roaring to life in the back of Andrew’s brain. His hand moved to cup Neil’s groin without him realising, pressing and holding while Neil shuddered and panted quietly.

The growing firmness under his hand shook him out of his thoughts and he realised with a sick swoop like vertigo that he hadn’t asked for a yes. That he was thinking of fucking Neil over the counter like some kind of – some kind of animal. He knew neither of them were ready for that, he knew that, but his brain had gotten ahead of him like always, wanting too much, wanting to take, wanting to have, and it was too much. He’d just wanted to touch and appreciate what Neil had inadvertently put on display, he hadn’t planned on getting them both hard. But here they were.

“Fuck,” He murmured, his voice rough, and stepped away. He walked to the other side of the kitchen and turned his back so he wouldn’t be tempted to do anything else.

“What’s wrong?” Neil asked. He sounded a bit unsteady and breathless and Andrew hated the flare of wanting in his gut.

“I didn’t ask,” Andrew replied and rubbed over his face.

“I would have said no anytime,” Neil said. “You know with me, I won’t stay quiet. If I don’t say no, that means it’s a yes. It was nice, Andrew. I was enjoying it.”

“I just…” Andrew pushed his breath out hard and inhaled sharply, trying to master himself. “I wanted to just touch, to keep it innocent, but…” He gestured with frustration down at his crotch and folded his arms. “Christ.”

His libido had vanished for the past week or so, not strong enough to compete with the chasm in his chest and the numbness that was still lurking, though it was slightly reduced after the brief talk with Aaron and catching up on much-needed sleep. It was still there, waiting to drag him under again, but the peculiar feeling he’d woken up with had apparently weakened its grip on him, for a little while. Enough for his dick to wake up and ruin things, he thought with a sour twist to his mouth.

“It’s okay, Andrew. You don’t need to beat yourself up over it,” Neil said, with a smile in his voice. “I missed it too.”

“Says the man who doesn’t swing.”

“I still don’t. My swing-set’s in your yard though, it’ll move for you.”

“Drama queen.”

For some reason that startled a quiet laugh out of Neil. Andrew rolled his eyes and wondered that the odd feeling from earlier was back, loosening the tenseness in his shoulders and soothing the nagging uneasiness in his head. He grabbed the feeling and dove into it, demanding to see it from every angle and figure out what associations were causing it. The quiet sizzle of the pan accompanied his thoughts as he interrogated himself.

It was a bit like trust, he eventually surmised. A bit like trust and security. A bit like home.

He pushed the feeling away as if burned and sat at the table while Neil finished cooking. They ate quietly to the hum of the fridge and the ticking of the coffee percolator. Neil didn’t push, didn’t ask, just smiled when Andrew said it tasted alright – it tasted amazing – and refreshed his coffee. He didn’t look disappointed or frustrated or annoyed at the abrupt halt to the touching. He just looked at Andrew with something big and soft and trusting in his ridiculous eyes, and Andrew thought maybe the weird feeling in his stomach was echoed.

“Can I kiss you?” Neil asked casually when the dishes were clean and dry in the cupboards. “We haven’t kissed yet today.”

“I didn’t realise there was a daily quota,” Andrew commented, and lifted his chin in assent.

Neil smiled and rested his fingertips lightly against Andrew’s chin and jaw. He bent down and pressed a slow, sweet kiss to Andrew’s lips. It didn’t demand or light a spark, just dropped a bit of warmth. Neil pulled away, then reconsidered and gifted him with a few more light pecks over his mouth, almost whimsical.

“There isn’t,” he eventually replied when he was smiling too much to kiss properly. “But I’m glad you slept alright, and I’m happy to be here with you.”

“You’re an idiot is what you are.”

“Probably,” Neil agreed, and kissed him some more, fleeting butterfly touches like he was too happy and jittery to focus properly and use the rest of his mouth. Andrew didn’t want it to be endearing, didn’t want to enjoy it, but it was happening anyway. “Though don’t feel too proud of yourself – I’m also really happy about the game.”

Andrew huffed through his nose and turned his face when Neil next leaned in, so the kiss smeared clumsily over the corner of his mouth and cheek instead of landing square. “You can go jerk off into your bandanna if that’s how you feel.”

“Ew,” Neil muttered and grazed his teeth over Andrew’s jaw. “It’d all sweaty from the game, Andrew, gross.”

“Why do I like you again?” Andrew sighed, then froze as his brain caught up to his mouth. Neil looked at him with wide eyes and Andrew lifted his chin in challenge. Regret was for morons, and mistakes were for the past.

Neil took a quick breath, wet his lips, then smiled as if Andrew had said nothing more important than that the sky was blue. “Must be something to do with my legs, I think,” he teased lightly and caught Andrew’s hands, placing them firmly on his own ass.

Andrew squeezed firmly and watched Neil drag his teeth over his bottom lip. “Must be, can’t stand the rest of you.”

“I know, I know, every inch of me.”

“Damn right.”

Andrew dug his fingers in and enjoyed the rush of satisfaction as Neil arched up into him with a soft moan. Neil looped his arms around Andrew’s shoulders as he squeezed and massaged. Just when Neil was starting to pant again, Andrew took his hands away and stepped back.

“I’m going back to bed,” he announced calmly.

Neil was flushed and trembling and the tent in his underwear was painfully obvious. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”

Andrew tapped his temple in salute and walked back upstairs, a smug little flicker of amusement keeping him company as he rolled back under the covers and drifted off into peaceful sleep.

They spent the rest of their weekend alternating between sleeping, cooking for each other, doing homework and distracting each other from that homework – Neil refused to put on pants just to rile up Andrew and get him looking, so Andrew kept ‘forgetting’ to put on his shirt after his naps. Their lecturers wouldn’t be pleased with the lack of homework the next week, but kissing on the couch or floor for hours was a fair trade, in their eyes.

By the time they loaded into the car on Sunday afternoon, Andrew almost felt like himself again. He’d caught up on a lot of sleep, hadn’t had to deal with idiocy from more than one person (and Neil’s idiocy could always be tolerated) and had soaked up a lot of warmth from Neil’s hands and mouth. He took them down the familiar roads with a calm confidence and easy speed, the radio on a low volume for once as Neil had been good enough to cook lunch for them both. The engine roared and thrummed through his feet and hands, responding to the slightest movement of the wheel and pedals. He knew Neil was watching him from the passenger seat, but said nothing to dissuade him or acknowledge it. The peculiar feeling had been settled in his stomach and chest all weekend and seemed like it was staying.

Plus, there was something just a little reassuring about the fact he always had Neil’s attention, the man who wouldn’t look at anybody twice in that way, except for him. He still didn’t entirely understand Neil’s sexuality, but for once he was alright with working with incomplete understanding. They’d talked about it once before, and Andrew thought back to it every so often, though Neil’s explanation was still too full of huge, alarming concepts and emotions for Andrew to be able to process all at once.

Fox Tower eased into view and Andrew reluctantly killed the engine in his usual parking spot. Neither of them moved. Andrew was thinking that they were about to plunge back into the madness and lose all sense of personal privacy, and wasn’t enjoying the instinctive tensing of his shoulders. This weekend with Neil had been strangely peaceful and comforting, if he could admit that to himself. He didn’t want to give it up just yet.

Neil seemed to feel the same, despite his fanatic devotion to his new family. He reached across the gearshift and lightly rested his hand on Andrew’s in his lap. Andrew stretched his fingers so Neil’s fell between the gaps, and tucked his thumb over Neil’s pinkie.

I would burn the world for you, Neil had said before the game on Friday. This is nothing.

Andrew swallowed the uncomfortable weight in his throat and held tighter to his hand. He didn’t know what he’d done to earn Neil’s regard like that, other than offer him protection and a place when he needed it and hard kisses and firm touches and a nothing that had always been an everything… okay, maybe he knew. But Neil’s protective streak still took him by surprise, especially when he knew there was very little about himself worth fighting for or defending. But regardless, Neil seemed to want to do it. He’d pulled on his captaincy hat for the first time, brought the team brutally into line and rearranged their whole team strategy. Just for Andrew. He’d taken them away for the weekend for privacy and sleep and helped Andrew find his equilibrium again.

Andrew looked down at their hands – at the scars worked in precise lines and circles and the occasional scuff and scab on his own, holding tight to each other.

“Thank you,” he said shortly, and refused to elaborate. He lifted their hands and kissed Neil’s fingers – hard and abrupt with much less softness than Neil had done to his, but Neil saw through the superficial to the myriad layers underneath, as always.

“You’re welcome,” he replied in a quiet voice, because he knew better than to brush it off.

Andrew nodded and got out of the car, Neil a few steps behind him. Their teammates had a lot to say about their abrupt vanishing act – especially Nicky, who had wanted to go to Eden’s and had had to settle for something more tame on campus – but left them alone about it eventually. Neil got a lot of whistles about the fact he came back wearing some of Andrew’s old jeans and shirt, but he refused to rise to their comments and stubbornly kept wearing them until it was time for bed.

Aaron had wandered into the dorm an hour or so after they got back, trying too hard to act casual about it as he rifled through the cupboards next to his brother.

“Did you get some rest?” He asked, his eyes on the spices and herbs as he ostensibly searched for whatever was missing from Matt’s dorm.

“Yeah,” Andrew replied after a cautious beat. He was still reeling a bit from their brief talk on Friday, didn’t know how to react to actually talking to his brother. But whatever. This was what Bee had been aiming for, he might as well put in a little effort.

It had nothing to do with any familial feelings or his own wants.

“Good,” Aaron replied, similarly stilted. “You looked a wreck last week.”

And oh, Andrew was far too familiar with that brand of backhanded, barbed concern. His gut clenched and uneasy anger roiled in his stomach, an automatic reaction to anything to do with Aaron. He’d apparently reached his limit for casual conversation with his brother. He grabbed one of the spice jars and shoved it at Aaron’s chest.

“Three tablespoons on chicken,” He said bitingly, and turned away to master himself. Aaron left him to it and closed the door quietly behind himself. Andrew took short breaths and clenched his fists to hide their shaking. He knew the rest of his group were staring but ignored them all, checked his pockets for his cigarettes and escaped to the roof. Neil gave him an hour on his own before joining him, and Andrew kissed him senseless in return.

The winter banquet rolled around the next week, and tensions were high on campus and in the locker room – they hadn’t attended the usual fall opening banquet as Wymack had heard rumours there would be a memorial service for Riko, and nobody wanted either Kevin, Neil or Andrew around a load of angry and grieving Ravens – and by some organiser’s twisted logic, the Foxes had been chosen to host the winter one, as the current champions. Campus grounds were looking smarter than they had all semester, the Foxhole Court was buffed and primped within an inch of its life, and the security force was tripled. To the press, the Foxes were proud and excited to be hosting, but in private there was a heavy undercurrent of anxiety over having the other teams invade their space, and at having the Ravens in home territory after avoiding them all season.

Andrew concerned himself with watching over Kevin’s drinking and monitoring Neil’s smoking and running habits, in the run-up to the banquet. Nicky and Aaron were alright, and the others were under Renee’s care. If he was a little tense about all the ways this could blow up horribly in their faces, he kept it to himself and Neil likewise kept his knowledge of it quiet.

They all reported to the court early for Wymack’s pep talk, still adjusting their suits and dresses as he rambled on about pride and being the reigning champs and not reacting to inflammatory talk, et cetera, et cetera. Andrew let it go in one ear and out the other, more focussed on the outfit Neil was wearing.

Allison continued to surprise, Andrew mused. The tight, flattering cut of the charcoal suit would ensure he’d be drooled over all night, and the icy blue of his tie over a cream shirt set off his eyes and hair in a way that made Andrew’s hands itch. He was back at it with the eyeliner – he’d muttered something half-jokingly about war paint when getting ready.

The other teams arrived and were introduced, and the lot of them made boring small talk until everyone had arrived. Andrew stayed with Kevin, so Neil stayed with them both. He yawned through the small talk, only vaguely interested when Moreau showed up stuck close to Knox’s side with the rest of the Trojans. Kevin and Moreau spoke quietly in French and Andrew eased a hand to the small of Neil’s back, torn between his protective and violent urges – Moreau was just as much as victim as Kevin, but he’d held Neil down and helped Riko torture him for two weeks, whatever else he’d done on-court.

“It’s okay,” Neil muttered in Russian as they watched numbers Two and Three try to chit-chat without any Ravens hanging over them.

“He hurt you,” Andrew replied in the same language. “If I can’t hit back, then I’m not letting him get near you again.”

Neil sighed and lightly bumped his hip against Andrew’s. That drew Knox’s smiling attention, but they stared him down with identical, coldly neutral eyes until he gave up and joined in with Kevin and Moreau’s conversation instead in patchy French. Andrew watched how Moreau seemed to lean towards the Trojan captain whenever he spoke, like he was being pulled closer without realising. He watched them both and recognised more than he wanted to know.

He looked away and his attention caught at the river of black and scarlet stepping onto court. He didn’t realise he’d pushed Neil and Kevin behind himself until he felt Neil’s hand on his shoulder, telling him it was fine. Knox was at his side, Moreau standing behind in just the same way. He met Knox’s eye with dull surprise, but he knew the fire in his gaze and gave the man a slow nod of understanding. They formed a two-man barricade as they watched the remnants of the Ravens ooze onto court, all conversation abruptly ended.

They seemed like shadows of their former asshole selves, all broken pride and razor-sharp grief. Their arrogance had been shattered at the same time as their flawless record, and they didn’t know what to do with themselves except get angry and lash out at everyone around them.

Welcome to the pit, Andrew thought bleakly. Now you could almost be Foxes.

They stuck together in an inky pack, shepherded by their rattled-looking coach, a newcomer who already looked like he was in way over his head with this supremely fucked-up team. Most of the team were looking around and when they spotted their former teammates, ugliness was raw on every face. Andrew folded his arms and lifted his chin in challenge, and he caught Knox doing the same out of the corner of his eye. Huh, he thought, Not all smiles and pretty words after all.

Wymack crossed the court floor to diffuse the growing tension, and made a show of politely shaking the coach’s hand, and that of the new Ravens captain, and welcoming them to the banquet with an admirable amount of composure, considering all this team and their fans had done to his semi-adopted reject children, his son, and his own reputation.

Andrew didn’t relax until the Ravens were led away to the tables on one end of the court and firmly seated there. Wymack spotted them and jerked his chin irritably – sit the fuck down for the meal already.

Neil’s fingers tugged at his jacket and Andrew reluctantly walked with him to the Foxes’ table. They were sitting with the Trojans, so Knox and Moreau followed the three Foxes there and sat down with them. He sat through the meal, just about, talking to Neil or Renee occasionally and ignoring everything else. Knox tried including him in the conversation every so often, but Andrew ignored him steadfastly and stole Neil’s apple pie when he pushed it away after two bites. Neil rolled his eyes but didn’t fight him for it. A scarred hand found its way onto his knee under the table and an irritating amount of Andrew’s tension melted away at the touch.

After the meal and the usual announcements of which teams were going forward in the spring season – obviously the Foxes and Trojans, and the others were so much static in Andrew’s ears – the tables were cleared to make way for dancing and games. It seemed like Knox and Moreau were going to stay firmly at Kevin’s side for the night, so Andrew resigned himself to their presence and trusted Neil to them for a moment; he’d spotted Allison at the punch table and made his way over.

She raised an eyebrow at him when he stood by her and got two cups of punch.

“What bets are on for tonight?” He asked casually, as if the last time they’d interacted hadn’t ended with her neck nearly broken.

She flipped her hair and responded with the same ease, though her eyes were flinty and wary. “Aaron and Katelyn will get caught hooking up later. Dan will have a hickey tomorrow morning. Nicky will get drunk and try to hug Neil. You’ll try to knife a Raven. Kevin will down two bottles of vodka before blacking out at the dorms. Renee will have to break something up between Moreau and the douchebags. Neil will start shit with somebody and you’ll get all proud. There’s more about you and Neil groping each other but you’re not qualified to bet on those.”

Andrew met her eye for a second and sipped some punch. “How much do you want to win one of those?”

She scoffed. “As if you’d help me out.”

“So you’ll profit off insider information about my relationships from Renee but not from me? That double standard’s a bitch, Reynolds.”

She considered him for long minutes, manicured nails tapping against her lips. He didn’t know what she and Neil discussed on their trips, but he figured something about him had to have come up at some point. He didn’t really care – he trusted Neil not to give away anything important, or secret. He blinked back slowly, waiting her out. He owed her a good turn after making sure Neil looked more than presentable for tonight.

“There’s one with poor odds about you two doing some PDA in front of the other teams,” she eventually replied with an assessing look. “If you do, I’ll get four hundred.”

Andrew finished his punch and refilled the cup. “Keep an eye out,” he said blandly, and carried the cups back to Neil. Neil looked at him curiously but didn’t ask, just sipped his drink and turned back to his conversation with Knox about plays.

The evening droned on and Andrew stayed by his troublesome strikers, not trusting them to be on their own with the Ravens and so many other teams who’d been nothing but hateful to them all walking around, free to cause trouble. His main source of amusement came when some fledgling Ravens tried to start a fight, and Neil shot them down with his sharp tongue without even breaking a sweat, laying into them without needing to blink. He didn’t look in the least offended or perturbed by their words – they’d had all summer and all fall to thicken their skins to other teams throwing Wesninski in their faces. If it still hurt, that was only for Andrew to know, only to see when he took knife lessons from the shadow of Nathaniel. As far as anybody else knew, it was so much water off the duck’s back, and Andrew was more than a little proud.

He caught Allison’s eye as the Raven fledgies flounced away and saw how her whole face lit up and she grabbed her phone out of her clutch bag. Andrew glanced around, saw they were unaccompanied for now, though there were plenty of players close by who would see.

“Yes or no?” He murmured, because a bet wasn’t worth more than consent.

“Yes, of course,” Neil smiled with an exasperated sigh.

Andrew cupped his cheek and pulled him down gently, feeling him bend happily. They kissed slow and gentle, and Andrew’s fingertips found the lines of his scars without any conscious decision. He didn’t want to pull away, but he also wanted to keep Neil’s kisses to himself as much as possible.

“Alright?” Neil asked softly when they pulled back, a smile written all over his face.

“Yeah,” Andrew replied, and leaned up to kiss him again quickly, butterfly-fast.

Chapter Text

Trigger Warnings for: depression, grief, disassociation, intrusive thoughts, minor flashbacks, scars, discussions of self-harm, rape mentions and Proust's abuse (taken from the extra content). Any concerns, please feel free to contact me at my tumblr as always :)


 

Neil woke the morning after the winter banquet feeling as if the ceiling had collapsed onto his chest in the night. And then, when he realised it actually hadn’t, he fleetingly wished it had.

This time last year I was planning how to deceive everyone about my plans for Christmas break, he thought miserably. Lying lying lying liar fake liar.

He stared at the underside of Andrew’s bunk and tried to force himself to get up. Nobody’s alarm had gone off, but he was a creature of habit and this was the usual time he would be up and out for his morning run, for all that it was technically the start of the holidays. His limbs were lead and he lay like marble under his blankets, letting his eyes trace over the cross-hatching of the wire mesh supporting Andrew’s mattress. It bulged a little closer to the wall where the majority of Andrew’s weight was resting, distorting the pattern above him just a bit.

Yesterday was nice, he tried reminding himself. The dinner was fun.

It was harder to remember what he’d enjoyed about it specifically, though. Much clearer was the way it felt exhausting to breathe, even just to lie there and stare vacantly. His mom would have screamed at him for being so lazy and stupid – but she wasn’t around anymore. She’d never seen Nathan die – phut, smack – or know that he was safe. She’d never come to any of his games and see how much it still meant to him and how much he’d improved. She’d never learn to live life after the Wesninskis, how to stop looking over her shoulder the way Neil was learning. She’d never be there for him to scream about how much she’d hurt him or see him inhale smoke to commemorate her. She’d never meet his new family, never endure a shopping trip with Nicky or tell Kevin to get the racquet out of his ass, or have a stare-down with either of the twins.

She just wasn’t there, and wouldn’t ever be there.

Neil slowly realised his eyes were wet and his pillow was getting damp to either side of his head. He thought he’d run out of tears the day he burned her body, but apparently not. He still knew how to do it quietly, though, and his chest didn’t even shake. Moisture just leaked out of his eyes and he kept laying there feeling like shit. It didn’t feel connected to him at all, just something that was happening without any bearing on his thoughts or feelings.

He wondered vaguely if this was what feeling was like for Andrew.

Of course, thinking about Andrew had him thinking about Easthaven in his current mood, about Drake and the word ‘please’ and Riko’s threats and how Neil had failed, failed, and Proust had still…

He lifted one heavy arm to cover his eyes as he bit his lip to tear apart the hurt noise trying to escape his throat. He could feel his shoulders shaking now with the effort to stay quiet and as still as possible so as not to alert the others. His chest was starting to feel tight from the constriction weighing it down and the way he was sucking in breath through his teeth and fighting to keep it down.

Failure liar failure liar failure liar failure liar nothing nothing nothing

A weight settling onto his mattress by his feet jerked him into awareness and he kicked out, reactive panic sending him right back to Evermore and the nights of torture and handcuffs and knives and Riko’s purring threats…

Warm hands easily blocked the kick and redirected his legs. They didn’t linger, and the familiar non-touch was enough to let him lower his arm and see what was going on.

It was Andrew, of course. Neil blinked up at the mesh above him for a second, confused – but the dip had gone while he hadn’t been looking. Andrew had woken, shifted about and climbed down the ladder without Neil noticing a thing.

Blind stupid careless reckless failure liar nothing

Andrew just looked at him, blank and serene as a desert. Neil knew there were still tears welling in his eyes and falling with each blink of his eyes but he couldn’t care about that, couldn’t care about anything. Andrew held his eyes for a long minute and his expression shifted minutely, so subtly Neil knew nobody else would have even noticed. But no one spent half so much time studying Andrew’s face as Neil did. The emotionless burden that usually weighed down his eyes and pulled the corners of his mouth into a low curve had changed, deepened into something dark and cold. Neil felt it ping recognition in his chest, a dim sonar echo.

I know.

Then Andrew held out his hand, palm up and waiting. Request and offer all in one. His fingers curled back a little towards his palm, relaxed and loose, and Neil could dimly see pale white lines on Andrew’s arm devoid of his bands and exposed by his short sleeves. Neil tugged his gaze away from the old scars – permission had not been granted – and considered his hand again. His arm still felt leaden and clumsy, but he managed to put his hand in Andrew’s.

Andrew’s fingers gripped his tightly and he stood, levering Neil up with him onto his feet. Neil swayed a bit with the sudden head-rush but Andrew was there to steady him with a fleeting touch to his ribs, there and gone again in a blink. Andrew kept hold of his hand and led him out of the bedroom towards the kitchen. They both squinted against the lights when Andrew flicked them on and cringed a little at the cold air on their skin without three other slumbering bodies to heat up the room.

Neil concentrated on breathing as Andrew got out two glasses one-handed and filled them with water. Neil obediently sipped, feeling only vaguely tethered to his body by the lifeline holding his hand. Andrew didn’t let go, and waited until Neil had drunk all the water before rising up on his toes to peer into the freezer box in the top compartment of the fridge. He fished out an ice cube from the childish penguin moulds Nicky had bought over the summer and looked pointedly to Neil’s other hand.

Understanding was slow, but Neil eventually raised it, palm up. Andrew placed the ice into his palm and folded Neil’s fingers over it. He squeezed just once, then let go and raised his eyes to watch Neil’s face.

The cold was a shock to his system, jarring him back towards awareness and realness. He held it tighter as shivers rolled up his arm and his skin began to tingle at the sensation. His palm started to ache from it, turning into something almost painful, sharp enough to cut through the fog without doing any real damage.

Neil blinked and with every second felt more real, more like himself. Neil Josten, number ten, starting striker at Palmetto State University.

He had cold rationality in one hand and heart-warm devotion in the other, and the combination of the two was enough to put a little distance between himself and his thoughts. He focussed on Andrew’s face again, upturned to watch him in the glare of the too-bright lights. His hair was fluffed up on the side usually huddled against his pillow and he had bags under his eyes, sleepy grit in the corners, a dehydrated chap to his lips. His eyes were half-hidden beneath drooping lids and blank as the hard edge of knowing faded back into the depths.

Neil looked back down at his hands and noticed water leaking between his fingers, dripping down onto his toes as the cube melted in his hand. He took a few minutes to watch the drips, counting them in two languages side by side, until it occurred to him that maybe getting his feet wet wasn’t such a great idea. He slowly moved his arm and uncurled his hand over the sink to drop the small remnant of the ice there. His palm felt numb and sore and on fire all at the same time and the unexpected sensation kept him grounded. He pressed his palm against the burn scars on his cheek and wondered at the mingled odd sensations – his cheek could feel the temperature of his palm, but much less forcefully thanks to the nerve damage and scar tissue.

Andrew’s hand holding his felt like a live coal in comparison. Andrew always ran hot, as if he were burning up the emotions he swallowed like gasoline in a thoroughbred Maserati stomach.

Andrew watched his eyes for a few minutes longer as if checking Neil were still present with him, then tilted his head and walked off with Neil’s hand towards the living room. As Neil was still attached to that hand, he followed and dropped down in the beanbag beside Andrew’s as he fiddled with the TV remote. He settled on a documentary channel and turned the volume right down, maybe only three pegs at most, on a two-hour movie about the seasons of the ice caps. It was only just loud enough for the two of them to hear the reverent murmurs of the presenter doing his voice-over and the soundscape of tundra wind and the occasional bout of penguin squawking.

They settled silently into the beanbags and Neil didn’t have enough energy to wonder that Andrew was keeping firm hold of him still, had even shifted their arms about so the insides of their forearms were pressed together elbow to wrist and their fingers were interlaced. Neil could feel the lines of his secret scars like bas-relief all along their skin, and could feel Andrew’s fingertips lightly brushing the burns on his knuckles too.

Andrew didn’t acknowledge his glance and kept fixedly watching the movie with eyes almost closed. Neil felt like he should say something, maybe thank Andrew for staying up with him when he was clearly tired and probably wanting to go back to sleep, but the words wouldn’t come. He settled for a vague squeeze of Andrew’s fingers. Andrew flicked a look at him for that and lifted up the shoulder closest to Neil. It took a few minutes for him to decipher that, and hesitantly slouched down until he could rest his cheek on Andrew’s shoulder. He waited for Andrew to tense up and push him away, but Andrew just kept hold of his hand and resettled his legs to be more comfortable.

They watched the movie to its end in complete silence, though Neil didn’t take much of it in. He was drifting in an odd space – kept separate from his thoughts which waited like vicious vultures, but present enough to feel the warmth of Andrew’s skin and the minute rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed. The grief and guilt which had consumed him was kept at bay by Andrew’s steady presence, and every time he started to get lost again, to shake and blink too frequently, Andrew would brush over his knuckles or fingers and reel him back.

Soon after the movie finished, the others started to stir in the young morning light. He felt Andrew twitch when they heard Nicky’s distinctive yawn, and saw him look down at his bare forearms. The scars were out of sight, pressed along Neil’s arm instead, but Neil understood the urge to hide regardless; he still didn’t change out with the team. Neil lifted his achingly heavy head off Andrew’s shoulder and spotted one of his own hoodies draped over the chair by the window. It took serious effort and not a little distress to untangle their fingers long enough to reach over and grab it in clumsy, uncoordinated hands. Andrew took it from him and pulled it on quickly, uncaring for once about the screamingly-bright orange shade. He pulled the cuffs tightly around his wrists and down to his thumbs just in case as Nicky and Kevin wandered out of the bedroom. Kevin scowled to see them both slumped in beanbags and looked set to break out his well-practised rant on lumbar support and back strain, until Nicky ‘accidentally’ smacked him in the face as he stretched.

“Hey, you two! Getting an early start on your vacation?” Nicky asked with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. Neil guessed the weight of grief was awful on his face, and Andrew’s blank expression didn’t usually inspire cheer either. Andrew shrugged slightly in response and Neil let his gaze slide away to look at the floor, which seemed much easier. He wanted Andrew’s hand again and was about to tug on his sleeve in request when Andrew got to his feet.

Neil looked up at him wordlessly, confused and vaguely upset by the sudden distance. Andrew rolled his eyes and took hold of his arms to pull him bodily to his feet, the strength in his shoulders more than enough to pick up Neil’s deadweight. He waited a second to make sure Neil wasn’t going to fall over, then tugged him towards the breakfast bar. Neil obediently sat on one of the stools and let his eyes track Andrew as he moved around the kitchen, getting out a saucepan and oats and milk. He looked back at Neil for a second, then sighed quietly. He got out another ice cube and pressed it into Neil’s hands with a firm squeeze.

Neil jolted again at the sudden cold but held tight with both hands and took a slow, rattling breath. Andrew watched him another second, then turned to the other two, who were openly staring.

“Oatmeal?” He asked blandly, his voice rough from disuse.

“Oh… sure!” Nicky said with obvious false cheer and blatant concern. “Thanks, Andrew.”

Kevin just grunted and watched Neil with narrowed eyes. Neil didn’t feel up to a staring contest so he went back to watching Andrew as the ice slowly melted in his hands, making a little puddle on the counter. Andrew made a large pot of oatmeal with practised efficiency, though Neil caught his eyes often enough to know he was still keeping a careful watch over him. He divided it up between the four of them and went so far as to chop up some peaches and throw blueberries in Neil’s bowl. His own got a sickening amount of honey and he left Kevin and Nicky to do what they liked with their bowls. He sat down next to Neil and pushed the bowl closer to him with an expectant raise of his eyebrows.

Neil blinked at him, then at the bowl, and wiped his wet hands on his thighs. He started eating and the others took that as their cue.

Nicky started a stilted conversation about their holiday plans with a surly Kevin – Nicky was flying out in a few hours to spend Christmas with Erik on a trip to Berlin, and Kevin was leaving the next day to spend the break with Thea in Houston. Aaron had left with Katelyn the previous night after the end of the banquet, and the upperclassmen were scattering that morning as well. None of them gave much of a fuck about the freshmen – all of them except Jack had left already.

“What about you two?” Nicky asked eventually, throwing the conversation at them both as if not sure either would catch it.

Neil kept stirring his oatmeal, coating the fruit and squashing the pieces to release the juice a bit better. All the upperclassmen and Nicky had invited Neil – and therefore Andrew by default – to come with them, but he’d turned down all offers in the previous week. They were going to spend it together. They’d planned a slow, circuitous road-trip down through Georgia to Florida and back again for the fortnight break, seeing as their last almost-vacation had turned into a full Fox shitshow in the wake of Baltimore, and Kevin had co-opted their summer break with Exy practice; with Kevin spending Christmas with Thea, and the rest of Andrew’s family scattered, they’d wanted to actually take that vacation. They hadn’t shared that with anyone, though, in case they invited themselves along.

Neil felt Andrew’s eyes on him and wasn’t entirely surprised by his eventual reply, though it made a sad stone settle in his stomach.

“Probably just Columbia for a few days,” Andrew said. “After that we’ll see.”

“Sorry, Andrew,” Neil managed to mumble and prodded at his oatmeal listlessly.

Andrew pushed his bowl closer to him. “Don’t apologise,” he said firmly and put more fruit in his bowl. “We’ll see in a couple days.”

Nicky was looking rapidly between them, Neil just knew it. He was actually keeping his tongue behind his teeth for once – he was learning, apparently – but Kevin wasn’t being so delicate.

“What’s wrong with him and why are you being so – so hover-y?” he asked bluntly, directing that to Andrew. Neil wanted to be pissed about being discussed as if invisible, wanted to swear at Kevin and tear him apart for being so rude, but he couldn’t summon the will or words. He picked up pieces of fruit and sucked on them slowly, wanting to focus on the tiny gesture of Andrew’s care instead of Kevin’s bullshit.

“Well shit, I don’t know,” Andrew said in a dangerously flat tone. “Maybe it has something to do with it being a year since he went to Evermore to be tortured for two weeks. Something from my extensive time in therapy is telling me that might be a tiny little trigger, what d’you reckon?”

Nicky gave a full-body flinch at that and Kevin paled and dropped his gaze to his bowl. He clenched his left hand for a moment, looking at his scars, and resumed eating without another damn word. Neil was just surprised at Andrew’s reply – he thought it might be the most vocal Andrew had been with anyone besides himself, Renee or Dobson since getting sober. He hardly had two words for anyone else on a good day.

“Eat your fruit if you’re not finishing the oatmeal,” Andrew instructed into the blistering silence, and Neil picked up his spoon again. He slowly worked through the fruit and let the sweet tanginess jolt him into awareness like the ice had, pulling him out of his head. He kept wavering between the two states and felt exhausted from the fight already.

“Hey,” Nicky said quietly once he’d finished eating – long after everyone else, Andrew had already done the rest of the dishes and put them away. He took Neil’s bowl away without comment and Neil dragged his gaze up to Nicky’s anxious frown. “You’re a tough one, Neil.” Nicky reached out slowly and wrapped his arms around Neil’s shoulders, pulling him into a cautious hug.

Neil sighed and slumped against him; he kind of preferred Andrew’s quiet watchfulness and solid presence to hugs, but Nicky meant well. Nicky lightly fluffed up his hair and let him go after a moment.

“I have to go pack for my flight,” Nicky said. “But keep in touch over the break, yeah? For real, this time.”

Neil managed a nod and endured another hair ruffle before Nicky went back into the bedroom. Kevin kept clenching his left hand and opening then closing his mouth, hardly able to look Neil in the eye.

“Are you still coming to practice?” He asked gruffly.

It was just going to be Kevin, Neil, Andrew and Jack – Kevin had been adamant about using the small scrap of time before his flight to try and force some finesse into Jack’s playing, seeing as Jack was spending the break at Abby’s house.

Neil considered whether he still felt like playing, and sluggishly decided it might feel good to run around and swing his racquet a bit. He always felt better on the court, after all. He nodded slowly and Kevin grunted again in satisfaction. He stormed off to hog the shower, much to Nicky’s annoyance – “You’re going to practice in like ten minutes anyway!” – and left Neil alone with Andrew in the kitchen.

“Junkie,” Andrew muttered quietly. “It’s supposed to be a vacation.”

“It’s only two hours,” Neil mumbled, inching closer. He reached out tentatively for Andrew’s sleeve, who raised his eyes to the ceiling briefly as if praying for patience. He took Neil’s hand firmly, though, without a second of hesitation.

“Do you need Bee or Abby or Coach?” Andrew asked blankly.

Neil shook his head. “Just you.”

Andrew frowned just a bit. “I’m not your answer,” he reminded Neil as if by rote.

“You’re still looking after me,” Neil replied. “Thank you for that.”

Neil waited for a scornful dismissal or to be ignored, but Andrew surprised him again with a quiet, “It’s what we do, apparently.”

A little of the crushing weight in Neil’s bones lifted at that and he squeezed Andrew’s fingers gently. Andrew’s jaw worked momentarily and he traced the scars on Neil’s fingers.

If it’s a yes later,” he said, very low. “There’s something I want to try. To do with these.” He gestured vaguely at his arm, then at Neil’s.

Neil nodded slowly; he was curious, and wanted to know what Andrew was planning, but knew he wasn’t in a great headspace to even consider consenting to anything, no matter how delicate or non-sexual. And he respected Andrew far too much to pretend a ‘yes’ for the sake of someone else, even Andrew himself.

“Ask me later,” he said instead of a pre-emptive answer, and Andrew seemed satisfied with his self-awareness.

Andrew nodded, then led him back to the bedroom. “Get dressed, Neil. I’m not driving you to the court in pyjamas.”

Half an hour later and Neil flinched as the plexiglass doors clanged shut. He knew instantly he’d made the wrong decision to come to practice as the shadows of Evermore flashed before his eyes and his muscles locked up in fear for a long moment. Certainly long enough for Jack to notice, as he was right behind Neil.

“What’s wrong, Wesninski?” the freshman asked in mock-concern and took a swipe at Neil’s legs with his racquet.

It wasn’t a hard hit, wouldn’t even bruise, and normally Neil would have dodged it with ease. But today it landed at the backs of his knees, he hit the floor hard on his back – was tossed onto the ground with Jean, gasping and bleeding under his uniform and padding while Riko towered over them both, racquet raised to hit again, air whistling through the strings—

“Back off, Jack,” Kevin snapped, of all people. Neil blinked blearily and saw Kevin was standing between him and Jack, looking furious. Neil kept blinking between Palmetto and Evermore and gripped his racquet tight to his chest, heart galloping.

“What?” Jack was asking, all innocent. “He seemed a bit shaky. I was trying to catch him if he fell over. Oops.”

“Knock it off,” Kevin ordered. “You’ve been a disappointment all season, now is not the time to piss off your future captain or me or Andrew either, honestly. The rest of the team isn’t here to play nice with you, so shut the fuck up and start running drills.”

Jack gaped – it had been clear from the get-go that Jack idolised Kevin, and Kevin normally allowed his crap as long as he was performing half-decently. Sour rage and loathing flashed over his face for an instant before he ran off as told to space out the balls. Kevin muttered some choice thoughts in French and leaned down to offer Neil his hand.

“Get up,” he said curtly, taking after his father in more ways than one. “C’mon, Neil. Up.”

Neil let himself be pulled to his feet and took a slow breath. He glanced behind Kevin and saw Andrew had frozen at the goal, staring at him with a frankly dangerous glint in his eyes and a too-blank expression – he’d been too far away to intervene with Jack’s hostility and was clearly furious about it. He waited for Neil’s nod that he was okay, then turned that gaze onto Jack. Neil watched him slowly tighten the straps on his helmet and sink down into a low crouch, racquet held ready and sweeping a little from side to side.

Kevin patted Neil’s shoulder heavily. “Run some laps, get your legs steady again. I’ll start him on the drills.”

Neil nodded and started running the perimeter of the court, keeping his eyes firmly on the orange and white seating so he wouldn’t blink and see black and red, wouldn’t twitch and think Jean was beside him, wouldn’t flinch from Riko’s imagined voice or hands. He ran until he felt somewhat steady again and hesitantly brought his attention back to his teammates, and was relieved when they stayed in friendly orange.

He circled around the back of goal slowly and watched as Jack took a shot, only to have it brutally denied by Andrew’s wonderful reflexes, slamming it right back between Jack’s ankles with more force than strictly necessary. Kevin’s odd expression of mingled pride and disgust said that Andrew was putting in a rare effort for an informal practice, and Jack was performing badly.

Jack took another shot and narrowly dodged the return flying back at his feet. He swore and tried a feint, dodging hard to one side before flicking his racquet along the diagonal, but Andrew was more than ready and contemptuously swatted it away so hard it landed in the away goal; if the sensors had been activated for a real game, the plexiglass would have lit up red and the buzzer sounded for a goal.

Damn, Neil thought, with a little bit of the usual admiration and excitement seeing Andrew perform so beautifully inspired in him, enough to break the last of his brain-fog. He jogged back around to stand by Kevin and smiled warmly at Andrew when he glanced Neil’s way. Andrew held his gaze for a long, heated moment then set his sights back on Jack.

Kevin and Neil watched as Jack tried over and over to land a single shot and was humiliated every time. Andrew made him look like a clumsy amateur and didn’t react to Jack’s increasingly loud and desperate swearing – just kept staring at him with a deadly scrutiny and decimating focus.

“Maybe we should have opposing strikers take swipes at you before games if this is his reaction,” Kevin muttered half-seriously in French.

Neil blinked at him; coming from Kevin, that was the closest thing he’d gotten to a positive comment about Neil and Andrew’s involvement since, well, ever. He was usually so dour with the long talks about the risks, the publicity, the scandal, the struggle… it was almost sweet.

“I wouldn’t recommend that strategy,” Neil replied eventually. “He’d see through it and go for his knives, and you.”

Kevin scowled in acknowledgement, and the expression only deepened as Jack started getting desperate and sloppy. He missed the goal completely, the shot would never have landed and Andrew would have seen that in a millisecond, but Andrew added insult to injury and stepped a good yard wide of the goal to return it anyway. It flew hard past Jack’s helmet to ricochet off the plexiglass, and Jack flinched back from the closeness.

“Try again,” Andrew commanded in a tightly-controlled voice, the first thing he’d said all practice. He stood a foot in front of his goal, reducing his own reaction time, and waited for Jack to take the shot. Smack. He stepped forward again. Slam. Again. And again. And again. Until Jack started to panic and back away in fright at how close Andrew – and those returns – were getting to him.

“Stand your fucking ground,” Andrew said from a bare four feet away, an impossible reaction time for any goalie, but he managed it more than competently. As soon as the ball was gone, Andrew tossed his racquet to the side and lunged forward to grab Jack’s jersey and yank him in close. He got right in Jack’s face, only their helmets keeping Andrew’s teeth from his cheek. Though Jack was nearly a foot taller, he cringed and cowered away from Andrew, pushing at his hand and chest ineffectively.

“Quit squirming and listen,” Andrew said, deadly calm and vicious with each word. “I know your type, Jack. I’ve seen a hundred assholes just like you, in and out of juvie. You think if you act all tough and talk all that smack, people will actually respect you for once in your miserable life. Well, kid, you have to be able to back that up with substance.” He shook Jack hard to prove his point and Jack cringed some more.

“Your attitude is shit,” Andrew continued, cold and precise. “Yeah, we get it, you’re a Fox. Honestly I don’t care one bit about whatever baggage you have that qualifies you for the line, and I don’t want to know. We’re all here because we’re fucked up, so stop acting like you’re so damn tough. Especially as you’re nothing but a pissing coward when it comes down to it,” he sneered, looking at Jack’s terrified face like he was a pile of filth come to life. “You want to fight so badly? Ask Matt to teach you to box. Or, if you’re feeling brave, me or Renee will teach you how to brawl. Better ask carefully though, I don’t like you too much right now, and I think you’d talk nicer with less teeth. Maybe, if you’re especially contrite, Neil might teach you first-hand how to use a knife. You’re familiar with his lineage, from what I’ve heard.”

“Please,” Jack whispered, his voice cracking. “Please, don’t—”

“I don’t like that word,” Andrew cut him off and shook him again. “Lesson number one – begging gets you nowhere. You have no place on the court if you’re afraid to stand up for yourself, especially as a striker. So prove your worth on this team, prove your ability, and maybe you’ll get that respect and approval you want so badly. Until you can land a shot against me, you’re worth less than garbage on this line. Get your shit together.”

Andrew gave him another shake, then shoved him to the ground. Jack fell hard, whimpering and cowering. Andrew loomed over him and folded his arms, his lip curled in disgust.

“Oh, one last thing. That was a piece of friendly advice – notice how you’re not even bleeding. But if you ever lay a hand on Neil again, you and me are going to have a real problem.” He tapped his temple in salute and scooped up his racquet.

Neil could hardly breathe. And oh, it was so satisfying to see the smug taunts wiped so thoroughly off Jack’s face. Andrew casually rested his racquet along his shoulders with his wrists draped loosely on top, and turned to his strikers.

“Any problems with that?” He asked coolly.

Neil grinned, sharp and vicious, and shook his head. “I think Dan would cry with pride if she’d seen that.”

Andrew gave him a slow, assessing look, no doubt cataloguing how much more present Neil felt, how he was smiling and talking and standing up straight again.

“Junkie,” Andrew tossed back, and raised his eyebrows at Kevin, who frowned but eventually shook his head.

“Just don’t break him, we need all our players.”

“I played nice, Kevin – he’s only a little rattled. And he’s had his warning.”

“It beats a trip to Columbia,” Neil added, rubbing at his mouth to get rid of his father’s smile.

Even Kevin had to concede that and he spun his racquet in his hand. “Alright, enough of that. Let’s move forward with the drills. Neil, you play backliner against me and Jack. We’ll shuffle teams in ten minutes.”

Jack was quiet and obedient for the rest of practice, eyes wide and acting shockingly receptive to any ‘suggestions’ Kevin made. He actively avoided Andrew, and stayed out of Neil’s reach too. Neil didn’t like his fear, but knew once he’d calmed down a little he’d be much more useful to play with; he’d needed to be put in his place in the hierarchy long ago, and hopefully he’d reflect on it over Christmas and come back with a better focus for teamwork. If he was still afraid after two weeks of distance, Neil would intervene, but only then.

Neil was so focussed on their practice and Jack’s abrupt change in attitude that he forgot about the Ravens, Edgar Allen, Jean and Riko completely until it was time to clean up and pack away.

“Can I drive us?” Neil asked once they were changed out; or at least, Neil was done and waiting for Andrew to finish with his shoes. They were new, big black military-style ones that tied halfway up his shins, though Andrew had customised them with aggressively neon green laces; a shocking dart of colour in Andrew’s grim wardrobe. He’d caught Andrew carefully polishing them the other weekend and decided that if Andrew liked them, he liked them too. He was relacing them with his knee pulled up towards his chest, his heel propped on the edge of the bench. Neil could appreciate the taut bunching of his thigh and arms, as well.

“Do you feel like you’d be safe behind the wheel of a muscle car right now?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Very confidence-inspiring.” Neil noticed he didn’t immediately shoot down the idea, which was as much of an agreement without the words themselves.

“You’re chatty today,” Neil observed with a small smile, and reached out for his hands. Andrew paused in tying the laces of his boots to allow Neil to lace their fingers together instead. “And on the court, too. You were even talking about Exy.”

“Are you groping towards a point or just making redundant comments?”

Neil rubbed over his knuckles and shuffled a little closer on the bench. “Was it fun denying Jack’s shots?”

Andrew gave him a scathing look in reply but didn’t pull his hand away. Neil felt his smile growing, easing away the remnants of heavy stillness that had crushed him earlier.

“You were being quiet and boring,” Andrew said nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t stayed up with Neil and cut up fruit for him to eat. “Somebody had to carry the conversation.”

“I’m feeling mostly better now,” Neil said quietly, stroking over the bones of Andrew’s hand and wrist. “More… here. Thank you.”

Andrew considered him for a few moments, then leaned in to press a slow, careful kiss to his lips. Neil sighed, letting tension drain away from him, and rested his forehead against Andrew’s for a minute. Andrew had agreed to stop protecting Neil long ago, but Neil was alright with sheltering in his fierce warmth when he wasn’t steady enough to protect himself. He felt Andrew’s fingers brush over his jaw for a moment before he pulled away to keep adjusting his boots. Neil smiled at his profile, and every second felt more like himself.

They packed enough clothes for two weeks away, waved a brief goodbye to Kevin and Nicky on their way to the parking lot, and soon enough they were on the road. Neil focussed on the task of driving to keep him grounded, enjoying the smooth responsiveness of the monstrously expensive thing and the familiar, comforting smell of the leather seats. It was quite a far cry from the nondescript sedans he used to drive with his mother, and the dissonance helped. He could associate this car with only Andrew and the many bonds they’d made with each other. He felt Andrew’s eyes on him for most of the journey, and was tempted to needle him with a comment about staring, but he liked the feeling of Andrew watching him drive. Of Andrew trusting him to have perfect control with possibly the only material possession he really cared about.

When they reached the interstate and Neil could ease into cruising without needing to worry so much about the gears, Andrew brushed his wrist and stroked up his palm. Neil glanced at him in surprise but happily curled their hands together.

Andrew kept staring out the windshield, his eyes flickering a little on the many signs and cars, but he looked calm and settled.

“I like it,” he stated with a perfect lack of inflection, for all that his statement was so honest and exposing. “It isn’t – sullied. It’s just ours.”

Ours.

Neil swallowed the lump in his throat and took a slow breath. He didn’t know what to say to that with his head a mess and his chest feeling like he’d swallowed liquid sunshine, so he settled for tucking their hands more securely together and sweeping his thumb over Andrew’s knuckles. Andrew kept quiet too, though he held Neil tighter out of reflex when they passed the turn for Easthaven. Neither mentioned it and Neil accelerated a little past the turn.

When they got to the house, they spent a few mindless hours unpacking and getting groceries; they didn’t discuss their stalled roadtrip, but they were both more than aware of all the potential dangers lurking in both their heads at this time of year, so they planned for the worst and hoped for the best. They compromised on food a little when Andrew persuaded Neil to put some peach-flavoured ice cream in the cart and Neil sighingly agreed to give it a try as long as Andrew would eat whatever he made for the main meal. They spent the rest of the day ‘watching’ documentaries or quiz shows, though it was really an excuse to sit close and share space, and keep their hands intertwined and each other anchored.

Neil managed three spoons of the peach ice cream before the gagging sweetness got to him and he pushed the bowl away, but as he pointed out to Andrew, at least he’d tried. Andrew shrugged and finished off his bowl, though he complained it was too plain in flavour.

It was a nice way to spend the day, Neil reflected as he replied to a few texts from Nicky – delayed between connections and very bored – and Matt. He didn’t know if he should be surprised by the text from Renee, saying she knew it was a difficult time for him and Andrew and that her thoughts and prayers were with them both, and to call anytime if she could help with anything.

He replied with a brief, awkward ‘thank you’ and put his phone away. He tilted his head to watch Andrew, trying very hard not to think about Easthaven or Proust or his own trip to Evermore. The anniversary of… of Drake’s death… had been unanimously ignored at the time by the entire team, and the freshmen had been threatened to keep quiet about whatever they thought they knew from the news coverage. Neil had kept Andrew silent company on the roof while he drowned his liver, Kevin-inspired, and sat sentinel over him while he slept that night, but Andrew hadn’t said a word about the affair. Neil didn’t know if he’d discussed the milestone with Dobson, and knew whatever happened in Dobson’s domain wasn’t really his business – he wouldn’t violate the sanctity and privacy of that space, no matter what he personally thought of the woman. But still, he worried about this particular milestone. As much as Andrew lacked connection still with his own feelings on most things, Neil knew the rape had been damaging enough under the haze of his apathy towards his own pain. Never mind having yet more control taken away from him in what was supposed to be a safe space, for recovery and healing.

Andrew hadn’t given a hint of being affected by any memories of his last Christmas all day, other than that slight tensing in the car. But that couldn’t help but worry Neil a bit, who knew him so well and who knew how much energy he devoted to repression.

“Hey,” Neil said quietly when the programme paused for commercials. “How are you doing?”

Andrew returned his gaze calmly and neatly dodged the question. “I want to shower together tonight. Yes or no?”

Neil considered himself, how centred and settled he’d felt the past few hours, and gently squeezed Andrew’s hand. “Yes. Was that answering my question?”

A dead look flashed across Andrew’s face for a heart-stopping instant, then smoothed out into his usual blankness. “Partly. I want different memories for today, if we can.”

“Okay,” Neil said, still confused but willing to wait for a fuller explanation. Andrew nodded and turned his attention back to the TV as his show came back on. They spent the rest of the evening quietly, leaning close together and watching nothing much at all. At some point halfway through another documentary, Andrew apparently decided it was time, and tugged Neil upstairs to the bathroom.

He locked the door behind them even though they were alone in the house and took a minute to check it was secure. Neil didn’t comment on the nervous tell and leaned against the sink instead, fiddling with the hem of his shirt and wondering if he should undress or wait for Andrew’s instruction.

“I don’t want to have sex,” Andrew stated casually when he turned around. “I just want to wash.”

“That’s fine,” Neil smiled; if things had been heading that direction he would have enjoyed it, but the thought of just being close and touching with Andrew was more than enough to set his heart glowing. “Is kissing okay, or is that too much?”

Andrew stepped closer and rested his hands on the sink behind Neil’s hips, neatly containing him. He tilted his head with his eyes on Neil’s mouth as if considering and Neil didn’t try to stop the smile that formed. Andrew hummed a short note under his breath and leaned up to kiss him slowly, all languid presses and warmth.

“Yes for now,” Andrew murmured into his jaw. “It might be a no later.”

“I understand,” Neil replied and nudged their foreheads together lightly. “Shall I undress?”

Andrew kissed him again briefly and stepped back with a nod. Neil stripped off without any self-consciousness despite Andrew’s heavy gaze on his tattered skin; the previous time they’d showered together, things had been so new and tenuous between them, and his scars and wounds had been so fragile. Now, Andrew’s eyes were an anchor, a pleasing companion, a flattering view through a different lens. Neil tossed his clothes to the corner and stepped fully nude into the shower.

“When you’re ready,” he smiled, and pulled the curtain closed between them to give Andrew whatever privacy he needed. Neil cut on the water and set the temperature hotter than he would usually take, because he knew Andrew liked the steam. Under the noise of the water, he heard Andrew’s zipper and the weight of his jeans hitting the floor, and his heart skipped a bit.

It took another few minutes for Andrew to pull back the curtain and step inside with him, and he avoided meeting Neil’s gaze. He focussed instead on Neil’s shoulder as Neil quickly looked him over; he was still wearing his underwear, but he was otherwise bare. He wasn’t even wearing his armbands. Neil had never seen so much of his skin and felt at once overwhelmed and so, so grateful that Andrew trusted him this much.

He wanted to look and look and look until his eyes were saturated with the image of him, but he could see very well how tense Andrew was, despite this being his idea. So he let his eyes skip quickly over the strong shoulders, broad and defined chest, firm stomach, narrow hips, thick thighs, form-fitting underwear, and smiled at Andrew’s face.

“Is the temperature okay?” He asked calmly, and stepped out of the direct spray so Andrew could rinse off too.

Andrew stepped under the water and tilted his face up into it, his nose and eyes scrunched up. He ran a hand quickly through his hair to get it all wet and took a moment to stand there and soak in the warmth. Neil was careful not to touch him despite how close they were standing. When Andrew opened his eyes again, much of the tension had been soothed away. He inched up the temperature another notch and Neil arched away from the water for a second until his skin got used to it, though he knew he’d be pink all over when they dried off. Steam billowed around them and through the room and Neil breathed it in like thick soup into his lungs.

Andrew reached for his jaw and guided him into another careful kiss; water cascaded over them both, running rivulets through their hair and down their cheeks and slipping between their lips, droplets transferred on eyelashes and cheekbones. Neil slowly kissed over the sharp line of his jaw and down to his neck when Andrew hummed permission. Andrew’s hand found Neil’s nape and guided him as he kissed down Andrew’s throat, massaging the top of his spine and pulling him closer. He tensed a bit when Neil got to his collarbones and the firm arc of muscle connecting his neck and shoulders, so Neil ventured back up until he found lips and tongue instead.

As ever, kissing was a home for both of them. It was how they settled themselves in these anxious boundary-pushing moments, how they comforted and reassured when needed. It was how they’d started, all vicious passion and desperation, I want you, and now it was their safety, I want you beside me every day.

Andrew’s hands slowly moved into Neil’s hair and rubbed slow, firm circles into his scalp. “I want to wash you,” Andrew said, his lips brushing wetly over Neil’s cheek.

“Yes,” Neil sighed contentedly, and raised his hands from his sides to hover between them. “Can I touch you?”

“My shoulders and back,” Andrew replied after a slight pause. “Only above the waist.”

“Thank you.” Neil kissed his neck again and smoothed his hands slowly over the firm curves of his shoulders down to his shoulderblades; sharp bone swathed in firm muscle and smooth skin. Neil sighed again and traced out the wing-like structures, feeling how each small adjustment of Andrew’s arms made the muscles twitch and stretch. He kept his touch light and careful, though he wanted to dig in firmly, to grasp and pull and feel every deep movement of those beautifully strong arms and back, but he knew that would only hurt in such a delicate moment. “Is this okay?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t allow it otherwise.”

Neil hummed acknowledgement and kept gently stroking and feeling, being very careful not to stray from the safe areas, and keeping closer to the ones that made Andrew kiss more firmly along his jaw and unwind a little more. Andrew reached behind Neil for a moment to grab the shampoo and the move pressed them close together, chest all down to thigh, for a startling moment. Neil had grown to treasure the moments where Andrew would rest his weight on Neil when they laid down, though there was always some kind of gap so Andrew could preserve his space. Neil’s breath caught at the sensation of skin sliding wetly, body heat shared, and realised Andrew was trying to ease himself into something, to test the waters. So, he didn’t comment on it and simply leaned into Andrew’s hands as he massaged shampoo firmly into his hair.

With each soothing scrub of Andrew’s hands, Neil’s eyelids drooped lower and he took to simply resting his hands on Andrew’s shoulders as he leaned into the touch, feeling safe and secure in Andrew’s hands. A hand over his brow stopped suds from getting into his eyes as Andrew tilted him back into the spray to rinse.

Another press of warm skin, and Andrew was squeezing a huge puddle of body wash into his palms before lathering it into Neil’s chest.

“I didn’t think I smelled that bad,” Neil muttered, his lips twitching. “I showered after practice, I should be all squeaky clean.”

“You talk too much,” Andrew replied quietly, and kissed him again to smother a reply. Neil hummed into his mouth and stroked gently down Andrew’s spine while Andrew’s hands rubbed firm, thorough circles over him. First his chest and stomach, then over his arms and shoulders. Each press was hard enough to make Neil’s skin tingle, but not forceful. It felt like a very controlled massage, as if Andrew were working on a sprain. Neil sighed again and again, uncaring of how his eyes closed or his lips parted. Andrew kept working over him, squeezing down his back to his hips in methodical sweeps. He kept gentle hold of Andrew’s shoulders so he wouldn’t sway or fall over and smiled at how Andrew’s hands briefly dipped down to his groin and then around to his ass; it was an intimate touch, but nothing sexual. He rubbed the body wash over Neil’s thighs, going as far as his knees, before straightening again.

Neil kissed his neck and let a quiet contented noise slip past his lips. “This is much nicer without garbage bags,” he mumbled into Andrew’s neck, all drowsy and pleased. “Thank you.”

Andrew hummed vaguely and slowly moved his hands around again to cup Neil’s ass, holding tight and firm and pulling him closer. It pressed Neil up against Andrew’s front and he sighed shakily at the sensation, and the slightest touch of Andrew’s thumbs sweeping over his skin. They stood together under the water until all the suds had dripped off Neil’s skin. Neil kissed delicately over Andrew’s neck and traced his fingertips over his back and shoulders reverently.

“Andrew?” He murmured when the quiet began to feel slightly anxious instead of comfortable.

Neil felt the slightest jitter in Andrew’s hands before he let go of Neil completely and looked up at last to meet his eyes. Then he deliberately took up the bottle of body wash, and handed it to Neil.

Neil looked down at it, then slowly poured some into his palms. “Where?”

“Any bare skin that isn’t my scars. Slowly.”

“If you’re not—”

Yes, Neil,” Andrew said curtly. “It’s yes.”

Neil looked at him another second, then slowly started rubbing his hands over Andrew’s back. He didn’t go anywhere new at first, focussing just on the areas he’d already touched. Where Andrew had been firm with him, he was light and delicate. He treated each touch as something infinitely precious and fragile in his hands, because it was. He was terrified of fucking this up when Andrew was trying so hard, of throwing him into a sickening memory, of proving unworthy of his trust after all.

But Andrew stayed still with his hands on Neil’s waist, and his breathing was regular and smooth against Neil’s neck.

“I like how strong you are,” Neil offered quietly, sincerely, and slowly worked his hands down Andrew’s chest. “Like you could pick me up and carry me anywhere. I’ve always thought that – that I could lean on you, rely on you, and you’d hold me up no problem. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known.”

“You don’t have to talk, you know,” Andrew muttered as if he were so unaffected. The squeeze of his hands on Neil’s hips said otherwise.

“But you’re so jacked,” Neil grinned into his neck and trailed his fingers over Andrew’s corded abdomen. “And don’t get me started on your arms – the first time I saw you working out at the gym was an experience, let me just say. I mean. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I definitely remembered it.”

“Idiot.”

“Mmhmm,” Neil smiled and stopped his hands at Andrew’s waist, then calmly crouched to run his soapy hands over Andrew’s thighs. Andrew’s underwear was soaked from all the water and bubbles but he kept them on, and Neil would respect his boundaries no matter what.

He wanted to trail kisses everywhere his hands had been, to suck water off his skin and just try to express all the warmth and gratitude and security and happy-anxious nerves welling up in him as Andrew stood there and let Neil put his hands all over him. He wanted to, so badly, but simply smiled up at Andrew and hoped it showed in his face.

It must have done, because a strong, capable hand cupped his cheek for a moment before turning his gaze away. Neil grinned and kissed his palm before standing, and managed to catch a slight expression of surprise on Andrew’s face.

“Can I wash your hair?”

Andrew nodded, and Neil bit his lip to contain his giddiness when Andrew closed his eyes and swayed closer once Neil started massaging his scalp. His breath felt scalding in his chest at just how much Andrew was giving him, trusting him. He combed through Andrew’s hair with trembling fingers, brushing the sopping locks off his forehead and rinsing it all through. Then he kept stroking because Andrew let him and it felt far too sweet to give up just yet.

Eventually, Andrew opened his eyes again and they shared a few drowsy kisses. Then, Andrew reached behind him again and grabbed a smaller bottle of a high-end lotion, with all sorts of pampering creams and oils listed on the packaging. Neil’s eyebrows shot up a bit – he’d seen the bottle there before, and a twin of it in the dorm bathroom back at Fox Tower, but he’d always assumed it was Kevin’s. Andrew cracked open the lid and let some ooze into his hand; the steam around them suddenly smelled deliciously of vanilla and coconut.

“I use this on my scars sometimes,” Andrew said quietly. “Bee suggested it in my freshman year. To try and change my associations. To care for instead of hurt.”

Neil hummed to show he was listening. With slow deliberation, Andrew began smoothing the lotion into the many lines and hazy patches on Neil’s chest, working into his scars carefully.

“I’m not ashamed of them,” Andrew continued, eyes on his work. “They’re how I survived. They remind me of my freedom, and all the work I’ve done since then. Touching them can be – calming, sometimes.” He swallowed and took a slow breath as he stroked the cream over the slashes on Neil’s abdomen and the burns on his arms. Neil didn’t know what to say, what Andrew needed to hear, if he wanted any response at all to that confession given on credit. So he held still, tried not to think too hard about a twelve year old teetering on a knife’s edge, and kissed Andrew’s neck gently.

Andrew took some more slow breaths, then handed the bottle to Neil and turned both arms over to display his own cross-stitching.

Neil squeezed the lotion into his palms and carefully rested his hands on Andrew’s arms, testing both their nerve. When Andrew didn’t tense or flinch or pull away, Neil slowly caressed over his skin, as softly and gently as he knew how.

Andrew’s forearms were a battleground – trenches and tactical lines drawn and redrawn, retreating from his wrists back towards the crooks of his elbows. Most were orderly, neat, discrete lines precisely etched. Others were more ragged, hastily done and criss-crossing. Neil thought those might have been the oldest, or maybe just the most desperate. He could tell the wounds hadn’t been deep enough to incapacitate from his own knowledge of scars, but had been deep enough to leave raised pale lines with enough time. Some lay almost flat against his skin and were starting to fade, while others looked like they were permanently entrenched. Tracing up and down Andrew’s arms felt like reading with his fingertips, if Braille were done in lines rather than dots. The bumpy rise and fall told its own story, and whispered tentative trust at being exposed.

“Proust liked to bite them,” Andrew said in a dispassionate voice, watching Neil’s hands as they froze on his skin. “He left bruises on me for days, and refreshed them when they healed. He was trying to taint them and ruin them.”

Shocked silence seemed to ring in Neil’s ears; he couldn’t even hear the water for a long moment over the unexpected pain of that admission. He swallowed hard enough to make his throat click and watched Andrew’s calm expression.

“Why are you telling me this?” Neil asked in a choked voice. His hands were trembling now but he didn’t dare take them away in case Andrew saw it as rejection or revulsion instead of sorrow.

Andrew lifted his gaze up to Neil’s eyes again, proud and challenging. “Because I never wanted any of them to touch me, I hated every second. They did nothing but damage. But the way you touch is different, and right now I don’t want you to stop.”

Neil exhaled shakily and poured more lotion into his hands. As he stroked and soothed with the utmost care, he noted how Andrew’s hands stayed relaxed and his breathing was even. Neil rubbed his fingers in small circles from his palms up to his biceps and rubbed the sweet-smelling cream into all the lines and marks. He didn’t know how to cope with the bald truth Andrew had given him, how to process the guilt and grief and protective outrage at all that had been done to this man, all he’d suffered through.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him hurting you,” he said and traced over the scars with soft strokes.

“He started hurting me the day I was too sick from withdrawal to defend myself,” Andrew informed him blankly. “That was weeks before Riko coerced you into going to Evermore. His terms were just to fuck with your head and get you where he wanted. There was nothing you could have done, so let it go.”

“Forget fighting, I’ll fucking murder the next person to even look at you funny,” Neil choked out, and bit his lip hard as the shaking spread through his whole body and set his eyes stinging.

“Neil.”

Andrew’s hands stroked up Neil’s chest to cup his cheeks and pulled his gaze firmly to Andrew’s face.

“I like how you touched my scars,” Andrew said in the same tone as he’d delivered his ugly truths. “I like holding your hand. I like kissing you. I like touching you. A year ago I didn’t like or want anything. So here’s your answer – I’m doing okay.”

Neil sucked in a shuddering breath and leaned into Andrew’s hands, hating that he needed comforting when Andrew had been through so much.

“More lotion?” He asked unsteadily.

“More lotion,” Andrew agreed, and they spent the rest of the shower gently smoothing expensive cream over the most vulnerable parts of each other, and kissing between water droplets. Andrew turned off the water when it started to run cold, once they’d used up the whole tank of hot water.

They dried off and dressed in their sleepwear separately, needing a little moment of privacy, before finding each other again in the bedroom. They laid down side by side on the bed with their hands intertwined, staring up at the dark ceiling.

“We smell like ice cream,” Neil observed in the quiet.

“There’s a reason I get that particular one, Neil.”

Despite himself, the long day full of awful memories and better ones newly made, the exhaustion and pain and the nightmares that were surely waiting for them both – Neil started to smile. Andrew squeezed his fingers in the dark, and Neil never wanted to let go.

Chapter Text

Slight warnings for discussion about Drake and life in the Spear household, reference to Aaron's abuse and reference to self-harm. There's also a brief section talking about Andrew's medication and I would like to state that I am very pro-medication, very pro-therapy (if you hadn't guessed) and I am very supportive of people getting the help they need and want in whatever form that takes. I would also like to state I am firmly of the opinion that Andrew's medication was not appropriate for him, that the dosage was likely excessive and it hurts me thinking about how Betsy needed two legal consults to agree to admitting him to Easthaven despite the fact he was discharged into her care and she was supposed to be in charge of his medication. I'll make a post about it when I'm not so tired but in the meantime if you have any concerns about how that section is written or anything to do with Andrew's history and recovery in particular, please please please contact me


 

“How are you both today?” Bee asked as they settled themselves on the couch, drinks in hand as usual.

“Alright,” Aaron shrugged.

“Good,” Andrew sipped. “You?”

Bee smiled warmly at him. “I’m very well, thank you. I had a restful Christmas break, it was very quiet and pleasant. How was your break?”

“Good,” Andrew said again. “We went on a road-trip down to Georgia for a couple days. Neil got me a new book for a present. I finished it yesterday.”

He knew Aaron was side-eyeing him for that, especially as they’d told no one their plans before going. Andrew ignored him; he had a tradition of two minutes of honest small-talk at the start of his sessions with Bee before they got down to the heavy stuff.

“How lovely,” Bee beamed. “Did Neil want a present?”

Andrew nodded and sipped some more of his cocoa. “New running shoes.” He put the mug aside and fished in his backpack for a minute, then drew out a plain newspaper-wrapped bundle. Bee accepted it with gentle hands and put it on her desk; she would take the time to carefully rearrange her figurines later to accommodate the new one.

Andrew ignored Aaron’s disdainful looks and finished his cocoa. The trip with Neil had been… shockingly nice. Once they’d taken a few days to get their heads back together, they’d just had the open road and a hand to hold, sights to see and hotel beds made for kissing. They hadn’t spoken a single word about Exy or Easthaven or the Moriyamas once they left Columbia, and had spent the time enjoying each other’s quiet presence or debating the most inane nonsense. It had been quiet morning smokes and chilly-bright afternoons with the winter sun low and glorious in the windscreen. It had all felt very stable, very calm. Very homey.

It might have been his most pleasant and drama-free Christmas ever.

He rubbed absently at his neck, for a moment feeling the ghost of Neil’s mouth from days and days of gentle kisses – for a good morning, a hello again, after a cigarette, something more heated behind closed doors, a drowsy goodnight.

“How about you, Aaron? How was your Christmas?” Bee persisted in trying to get him to engage with the little tradition, not that it usually helped.

Indeed, Aaron was still watching his brother with a cool, assessing gaze. “It was noisy,” he said eventually. “Katelyn’s cousins were all around and we had to keep them occupied and entertained while all the food was being prepared.”

“That still sounds very fun,” Bee encouraged, lighting up at Aaron’s reluctant participation. “How old were they all? Did you play games with them?”

“The youngest was three, the oldest was twelve,” Aaron grimaced. “The littler ones were easier, they just wanted to get whirled around and clamber all over us. Sticky and noisy, though.”

“How sweet,” Bee smiled, then glanced at her watch and tapped her pen once, twice, thrice. “To business, then. Mr Waterhouse called me this morning. He said he’s been in touch with you both this week?”

They nodded, looking away from each other as if there were a mirror down the centre of the couch.

“The date for the trial has been set, finally,” Bee said calmly, seriously. “It is my belief we should use the next few weeks of sessions specifically to prepare for it, if you both agree. Of course, my office is always open for extra sessions between these ones, and you both have my number.  I am here for you both in whatever way I can.”

Andrew nodded slightly, a little duck of his chin towards his chest, and Aaron said nothing at all.

“We’ve discussed Drake a few times,” Bee continued, and Andrew briefly wondered if their punch-out counted, “And his impact on both your lives. We’ve talked about Tilda, and intentions and motivations. We’ve talked a little about Katelyn and Neil, too. But there is someone else who needs to be discussed, especially as she will be at the trial.” Bee levelled her gaze at Andrew. “Are you ready to talk about Cass?”

Dead silence claimed the room. Andrew felt it like lead in his bones, like mercury in his lungs, like titanium in his skull. A hollow, pained little clutch around his heart that set every one of his scars burning.

“We’ve talked about her before,” he managed, his voice dead in his throat.

“Not with Aaron,” Bee said, firm and gentle and kind all at once. “If you’re not ready, we can defer this conversation to another day. But it is my professional opinion that the conversation needs to happen. If not today, then another time. Ignoring her will only continue to hurt you, Andrew, and it’s stopping you from fully recovering from what happened last November.”

Andrew watched the clock for three minutes and forty seven seconds in absolute silence. Then he took off his shoes and brought his knees up to his chest, draping his arms over the top. He rested his cheek on his forearms, the muffled edge of a sheath pressing into his jaw, and met Aaron’s eyes.

Aaron looked a little startled and alarmed and ill at Andrew’s acquiescence. He glanced quickly at Bee as if for guidance. His question was cautious and weighted all at once. “What made her so special?”

“She was good to me,” Andrew replied, slow and quiet like dripping treacle slowly oozing, tarred and dirty from his memories. “She was the first proper home I had in twelve years. She made me lunches for school and asked about my classes and offered to help with my homework. She bought me new shoes when mine fell apart. She asked me to help bake things at the weekend. I wanted to stay with her, and she wanted me too. She wanted to be my mother, for real.”

Aaron swallowed hard. “And she didn’t notice Drake’s – interest?”

Andrew didn’t flinch or cringe. He ran a hand over an armband and recalled the soft way Neil had touched his scars.

“He didn’t exactly fuck me right in front of her.”

Aaron flinched instead.

“He was the perfect, doting big brother around her and Richard. She was delighted I was settling in so well. One big happy family. I just wanted to stay with her. It would have hurt her too much to know.”

“Andrew,” Bee said gently. “You don’t need to protect her.”

Andrew looked at her for a moment and struggled through the conflicting urges in his head – to keep his memories of Cass pure and happy and gentle, her wholesome smile and blissful ignorance, not to acknowledge what he learned with the experience of age and a hell of a lot of sessions peeling back the woolly blindfolds to get at the aching, disgusting suspicions he’d always known for truth. He didn’t want to tarnish his memory of her, to give Drake that last concession. But, as Bee was reminding him, he was lying to himself.

“I think she knew.”

The words burned his tongue and screamed in his head and it hurt, oh fuck it hurt to say it out loud. Bee held his gaze steadily, serene and kind like a lighthouse over stormy seas.

“Maybe not the specifics, but I think she knew something was wrong. I couldn’t always wash the sheets before she saw them, but she never said anything about it. She made me pancakes, once, while they were drying on the line.”

Aaron choked and clenched his fists, over and over. Andrew watched his impotent anger impassively, seeing the horror in his eyes like a distant movie. He could remember his own sick betrayal at the time, of course he could, but soon after that he’d stopped feeling anything but the sting of a blade.

“She was still good to me. She never stopped smiling or trying to talk to me about school or my books. Even when I got angry and punched the wall or acted out at school, she still wanted to keep me. She still made me cupcakes at the weekends.”

He met Aaron’s eyes and remembered how Aaron would hang on Tilda’s words for the slightest crumb of approval even with fresh bruises under his shirt, how he was so desperate for a kind word he’d walk on eggshells around her and get her water when she was strung out on her latest high. How he would do the laundry for her and clean up her pigsty when she was off her head so she might smile at him just one more time.

Hi, brother.

“I know now the whole thing was fucked up,” Andrew said, plodding on because dammit he would finish what he started. “Trying to hold onto her could have killed me, and she refused to see I needed her help. The only thing I knew then for sure was that I didn’t want you getting mixed up in it too. I think you know the rest by now.”

“And she’s going to be at the trial,” Aaron said, low and furious. “Do you still want her to be your mother?”

Bee was watching him carefully, just as interested in his answer. He looked down at his feet and the mismatched socks, one striped and the other spotted. Cass used to tease him when he wore them like that, calling him a sock thief and laughing and running a fond hand through his hair when he paired them wrong on purpose.

“No,” he said eventually. “I want to see her again, but I don’t want her in my life anymore.”

“What do you want from her in that meeting?” Bee coached him gently.

Andrew closed his eyes and held onto his armbands. Words were barbed wire wrapped around his tongue and he was bleeding, bleeding. “I want her to acknowledge what happened. I want her to admit that she failed me and all the other kids in that house. I want to hear her say that her son was a paedophile and a rapist. And then I don’t want to see her ever again.”

“Well done, Andrew,” Bee said softly. “I just have one more question, if you feel up to it. It would be an understandable response to feel like taking Drake’s life, or getting him imprisoned, was your right. Are you angry with Aaron for killing him before you could get justice and closure?”

Andrew opened his eyes again and lifted his head, examining the sick expression on Aaron’s face and the way his hands twitched.

“No,” he said slowly, only knowing his answer for sure once it was shivering hesitant and newborn in the air between them. “I’m satisfied we’re safe from him.”

Aaron made another gulping, choking sound like he wanted to either vomit or cry.

Andrew blinked slowly at him. “Are you still angry with me over Tilda?”

“Sometimes,” Aaron admitted painfully. “But. I’m trying not to be.”

“Are there things you would have wanted to say to her?” Bee asked in the same tone of voice.

Aaron looked at her, then refocussed on Andrew again with steel in his eyes and grief in his voice, meeting him halfway with honesty all over his face. “That she was a shitty fucking excuse for a mother at the best of times. That I hated her. That I miss her. That I don’t know what I ever did wrong to earn all that. That I loved her. That I’m glad she’s dead. That she messed up my whole fucking life. That I still cook sausage and eggs on her birthday.”

“Well done, Aaron. I’m very proud of you both, and how far you’ve come. Let’s take a few minutes to breathe, shall we?”

Andrew kept looking at his socks and cast his mind back to each time Neil had held his hand over their vacation, how neatly their fingers seemed to slot together now, how natural and simple. When he’d got to juvie, finally free and safe from his foster-abusers, finally able to properly think about his body and his wants and his choices… he’d never imagined something so soft and comforting could belong to him. He’d never imagined wanting something like that, or liking it. He’d never imagined being able to touch so lightly or casually, or to be touched in return. It had always been about adjusting his expectations, how to account for his damage, how to enforce his boundaries.

He felt tired right down in his bones, aching with old pain. And he wanted Neil to hold his hand and keep him away from the ugliest parts of his memories.

He blew out his breath slowly and checked the clock. He didn’t want to be here anymore, for all that he liked his time with Bee and the security of their sessions. He didn’t want to be sitting here stewing in old thoughts and hurts. He didn’t want to endure Aaron’s looks and glances or hear Bee’s steady advice. He didn’t want to think about what his testimony would involve, how much he’d have to reveal to a room of strangers. He just wanted to be somewhere quiet and a little dark and warm and feel Neil’s weight beside him, steady and grounding.

“Andrew? Are you with us?”

“I think I want to leave,” he replied dully. “I’m tired.”

“Is it an avoidant impulse?” Bee asked carefully. “It’s okay to be tired and drained after a conversation like that, honestly I would be surprised if you weren’t affected. But we’ve talked about the difference between self-soothing behaviour, and behaviour which enables avoidant and anxiety cycles. Do you feel disassociative?”

The energy it took to shrug was exhausting. “I’m tired and I don’t want to think about all that anymore.”

“What are you feeling? Will you tell me?” Bee said, her smile kind and patient.

Andrew rested his chin on his knees and hugged his shins instead. He felt so, so tired. It took a good few minutes to be able to sort through the small symptoms in his body and reconcile them with his head, matching them up and cross-referencing them against what he knew people generally experienced for each emotion. Aaron was watching silently, head tilted a little. No doubt this was all fascinating to his medical mind. Andrew didn’t care.

“I feel sad,” he said eventually, each word precise and quiet. “I am feeling sad from remembering Cass.”

“Where do you feel it?”

“My chest. Stomach. Throat.”

“Good,” Bee said softly. “How strongly do you feel it?”

That was another difficult twist of the brain. He blinked at the wall and forced himself to the task, trying to gauge how much of his normally-blank emotional desert was being occupied by the feeling. He’d been apathetic long before the medication, but it hadn’t helped the situation either by keeping him buzzing and detached all the time. He knew it had done a number on his brain chemistry too after so much artificial stimulation and the ensuing addiction to the high dosage. The doctor in charge of his withdrawal at Easthaven had said that it would take some time for his brain to start recognising its own signals and hormones again, to break through the learned dependence on the medication. So far all that usually broke through the fog of his sobriety were the occasional bits of spite or rage, fear from heights, and the tug of vertigo-wanting he associated with Neil these days.

“I’m tired,” he said, feeling increasingly like she was asking him to bottle mist.

“I know,” she replied. “Can you try and give me a number? Then we can be done, if you want to leave.”

“Sixty five percent.”

“Okay. Thank you for today, Andrew. Let me know if you would like another session before next week. Take care.” She smiled gently at him as he stuffed his feet back in his shoes and grabbed his bag. He waved vaguely at her and ignored Aaron completely. Part of him was pettily amused that Aaron would be stuck having a solo session for the last fifteen minutes, for all his avoidance of being caught alone with Betsy over the past two years.

He drove back to the court with the windows down and the wheel smooth and warm under his palms as the wind whipped against his face, smacking him out of his head and the slippery taint of new-old emotions. Aaron could walk back or bunk off practice for all Andrew cared. He took a minute once he was parked just to breathe in the orderly patterns Bee had taught him. He debated having a smoke for a second, but then he checked the time and realised everyone would be breaking soon, and if he was quick about changing back into uniform he could catch Neil alone for a few minutes.

He didn’t hurry or rush, of course not, but he found Neil sitting off to the side with Renee as they sipped water. He caught a snippet of their conversation as he approached, ignoring the rest of the team watching him, no doubt confused by his early return and Aaron’s absence. Neil was trying to convince Renee of the best way to case a drug store and what medicines he would count as necessary or just nice to have. She didn’t seem convinced by his argument but kept smiling and nodding for him to continue, pleased that he was talking to her.

Andrew dropped down at his side without ceremony or greeting and Neil didn’t blink at his sudden reappearance, just kept talking after a quick glance his way. Renee smiled sweetly at him and kept listening to Neil. Andrew half-listened, interested but not enough to participate. He reached out and rested his fingers on the back of Neil’s hand, and Neil easily laced their fingers together without hesitation.

Andrew let himself drift and distance from his memories and focussed just on the warmth of Neil’s palm and the familiar shape of his fingers. He let the session and the awful memories recede, harmless, painless in the wake of being wanted so lightly and gently. The tightness in his chest and heaviness in his bones melted away and he felt… settled. Eighty percent.

Renee excused herself after a few minutes to answer a text from Moreau and Neil smiled at him properly.

“Bad session?”

Andrew thought about it and watched Neil’s thumb skate over his knuckles. “Bee would say it was a positive session. Doesn’t make it less exhausting.”

Neil hummed thoughtfully. “Is there anything you need?”

Andrew shook his head and idly traced a callus on the edge of Neil’s palm.

“You don’t have to be here if you don’t want,” Neil reminded him with a quick flash of teeth. “I’m vice-cap, remember, I can excuse you.”

“I knew there was a reason I still bother with you.”

Neil grinned down at their hands and gently squeezed. “Really though, I can cover for you with Wymack if you want to go.”

“I’d rather be here.”

Neil hummed and finished off his bottle of water, holding it in his free hand. Andrew listened to him continue his point about the virtues of surgical glue versus bandages, holding his eyes to show his presence and his hand to show his need to be close just then. Neil took it all in stride and was starting to talk louder and gesticulate harder with his free hand, his eyes shining and closed-off expression changed to light and determination and enthusiasm – this boy who spent almost a year clutching every emotion and thought so close to his chest Andrew couldn’t help but see a mirror in his eyes.

I like listening to you talk, Andrew thought, very quietly, and didn’t immediately chase the thought away. It was a stray cat, harmless and lonely, and it could linger for a minute.

“Baby,” Allison called loudly from halfway across the court, “That’s real sweet and all, but some of us can’t handle heavy gore talk right before lunch, okay?”

“I – oh,” Neil muttered, ducking his head in embarrassment and curling in on himself a bit.

Andrew rubbed over his thumb. “Tell me the rest later.”

“If you want,” Neil smiled. “Are we going for a drive before night practice?”

“Why, getting itchy feet again?”

“I like driving around with you,” Neil shrugged. “It clears my head.”

And we usually end up making out for ages in the backseat, Andrew agreed.

“It gives you an excuse not to do your homework, you mean.”

“Well, that too.”

“Typical jock,” Andrew muttered without any real heat. “I’m not helping you cram for exams this semester.”

Neil pulled a face but didn’t fight him on it, accepting the quiet prod to think more about his classes – he couldn’t stay on the team and keep his scholarship if he flunked out. The Moriyamas would not be pleased if that happened. Despite his words, they both knew Andrew would roll his eyes and grouse but would sit down with Neil’s flashcards and quiz him if he only asked.

“Aaron’s back,” Neil said after a minute, his eyes tracking the exits as always.

“Good for him.”

“He’s watching us.”

“How nice.”

“Andrew.”

“Neil.”

Neil sighed and shook his head. “He’s always watching us, you know. It makes me jumpy.”

“That’s probably why he does it.”

“I know. I still don’t like it much.”

Andrew reached out and lightly held Neil’s chin, tilting his gaze back up so he could look in Neil’s eyes. “Is it a problem?” He asked.

Neil smiled faintly. “No, you don’t need to intervene. I can handle Aaron.”

“Sure of that?”

“Yes.”

Andrew held his eyes for another minute, then let go with a short hum. They sat quietly together until Wymack called his team to order and harangued them back onto court. Neil asked a quick ‘yes or no?’, kissed Andrew’s temple at his agreement, and jogged off to Kevin’s side.

Andrew sloped off to the goal and leaned on his racquet. He stood off to the side with Renee as they watched the freshman goalie try her best against the freshmen strikers. It was a drill Dan had implemented in the past few weeks – to have the newbies try out their positions unaided, with the more seasoned players watching and critiquing.

Andrew didn’t know much about the goalie other than she was Renee’s pick for her replacement, her qualifications for the Fox line had something to do with a house fire, and she was not a threat to his family. He didn’t talk to her or engage with her. She seemed to have some potential in the position, not that Andrew cared. He only noticed that potential because he spent most of his time awake around Neil and Kevin, and neither of them could shut up about Exy for more than an hour, at the very most.

He leaned his weight on the racquet and watched her flail and try her best against Jack – keeping his distance from Neil and being less of a jerk since Christmas – with his head tilted to the side. Renee called out encouragement and suggestions, but she was quickly needed elsewhere to break up a disagreement between the dealers and Aaron.

The goalie girl glanced at him nervously and he blinked slowly back at her, waiting to see if she would talk first. All the freshmen were nervous or downright afraid of him, though it wasn’t much of a change from the upperclassmen’s wary disdain of most of his first two years. She held his gaze for a good minute, her lips trembling a bit but her gaze clear.

“What do you want?” She finally asked. She clutched her racquet across her chest like a shield.

“Nothing,” he replied with a twitch of his eyebrow.

“Stop staring then.”

“You have no idea how much her majesty will whine if I don’t pretend to engage with this nonsense,” he replied flatly, inclining his head in the general direction of Kevin’s strident voice.

“Why is it nonsense?” She asked, still holding his eyes like a challenge.

Andrew sighed shortly. Of course, another junkie. “Because you have a different style to me or Renee. Our advice will only be minimally helpful. The better way for you to improve is just game time.”

She blinked rapidly at him and slowly her grip on the racquet loosened. She looked downright shocked to have gotten a clear, non-threatening answer from him. He watched her weighing her options and gathering her courage to keep the conversation going.

“Where am I going wrong with Jack?”

Andrew blinked slowly back at her. She didn’t look away or back down, and that bit of spine earned her an answer.

“Have you ever been in a fistfight?”

She shook her head.

“You need to keep your centre of gravity low, in your stomach, with your stance wide. That gives you a strong base. You don’t have a strong base – you rush from side to side and overbalance and flail, which costs you reaction time and telegraphs your moves. That’s how he’s getting past you.”

Her mouth dropped open in a slight ‘o’ and she looked down at herself critically. She took a minute to adjust her stance and flicked him a quick look. He nodded slightly and looked away to watch Neil and Kevin at the away side of court, showing off their Raven-style rebound passing to the remaining striker subs and the two boy dealers.

After ten minutes or so, a decisive smack drew his attention back to the goal – goalie girl was crouched in a low ready stance with her legs wide and arms close by her sides, a fierce snarl on her lips as she watched the ball soar over Jack’s head. The first one of his she’d blocked, Andrew realised.

Jack swore at her, but he didn’t dare push his luck with Andrew close by. Renee smiled and gave a thumbs up from where she was standing with Allison, Dan whooped encouragement and Neil raised his racquet in pleased salute. Goalie girl grinned at their praise and calmly showed Jack her middle finger. Then she looked to Andrew, proud and excited.

“Thanks, Andrew,” she said brightly. “I appreciate it.”

He flicked his fingers dismissively. “Whatever.”

But he recalled that her name was Emmeline.

 

“I finished studying,” Neil called from the living room later that evening.

“Don’t care,” Andrew replied as he diced vegetables with quick, efficient rocks of the knife.

“Can we go for a drive now?”

“No. I’m cooking.”

“What?”

Andrew heard Neil getting up and dodging around the piles of Kevin’s laundry in the living room. Neil announced his presence with a light touch to Andrew’s elbow.

“I’ve never seen you cook anything except oatmeal before,” Neil commented. “We always just order in. What gives?”

“Tonight, I wanted to cook.”

“Okay,” Neil accepted, though there was a confused lilt to his tone. “What are you making?”

“Paella.”

“Can I have some too?”

“Maybe.”

Andrew knew Neil was smiling but refused to verify it, kept his gaze instead on his work stripping down vegetables and pieces of chicken and pork into small chunks while the rice hissed quietly in the slowly heating oil.

“Can I help with anything?”

“No, I want to do it.”

Neil nodded easily. “When did you get all this stuff?”

“When you were absorbed in your calculus. You looked like you were having fun, no wonder you didn’t hear me leave.”

“It was a fun workbook,” Neil replied without a trace of sarcasm. Andrew rolled his eyes briefly; he didn’t think he would ever understand why Neil seemed to enjoy math. He could kind of vaguely see the appeal in finding a concrete solution and fixing a puzzle, but he found no interest in doing sheet after sheet of monotonous problems like Neil could. Math and Spanish were possibly the only classes Neil wouldn’t have to worry about passing.

“Betsy called me earlier,” Neil said after a short pause. “She said the date for the trial has been set and offered to help coach me with my testimony.”

Andrew grunted acknowledgement.

“I might take her up on it.”

“Are you asking for my permission?”

“I – maybe,” Neil admitted uncertainly. “You’re close with her, and I know it’s been difficult sharing your sessions with Aaron. I don’t want to crowd your life too much.”

Andrew paused in stirring stock into the rice. “If you want to talk to Bee, talk to her. I don’t want to know about what, or why, or what you might discuss with her. If it’s something you want or need then do it. You don’t need my permission and you don’t need to justify it to me or anyone. Do what you need to do.”

“Okay,” Neil said quietly.

Andrew turned the heat down a little and tugged on Neil’s shirt so he leaned down, and pressed a short, firm kiss to his lips. Neil sighed into his mouth and the tension dropped out of his shoulders with the sudden absence the only tell of its previous presence.

“If you want to be useful you can do the washing up,” Andrew muttered against his lips and tried not to miss them too much when Neil stepped back to get the water running.

Andrew took his time with the paella, stirring in the stock and adding spices so slowly Neil complained it would be midnight before they ate. Andrew refused to be hurried, though, and instead listened to Neil talk and talk and talk about the oddest things – his opinions and insights on emergency first aid, peculiar stories about tiny European towns, meandering recollections of conversations or things that happened in his classes that really shouldn’t be anything other than irritating or boring. But somehow they became interesting when coloured with Neil’s thoughts, became engaging or surreal when Neil’s gestures danced in the air.

Andrew stirred his meal quietly and let himself memorise the feeling of this evening. It wasn’t bittersweet cupcakes on Sunday mornings with an almost-mother. It wasn’t a pot of oatmeal made because nothing else would stay down. It wasn’t a carton of ice cream and a pack of cigarettes tasting of freedom and excess.

It felt like a quiet promise, instead. It felt like a nice thing that he might be allowed to keep. It felt like the start of a routine that he could glimpse, a future lurking in the wings with Neil at his side and comfortable routine in his bones.

He pushed away thoughts of the trial, of testifying in front of a court of strangers to lay himself bare, of the possibility of Aaron never coming back, of seeing Cass again for the first time since he was taken off to juvie. He let it all go and focussed on Neil’s delighted smile as Andrew offered a spoon of rice to test the seasoning. He focussed on the moment, on the light in Neil’s eyes, on the quiet bubble of the pan and the drip of the tap.

It was good. It was enough. It was home.

Chapter Text

Right everybody this is a long and sad ride so get ready. I was tempted to split this into two chapters but the pacing felt janky so instead it's just one long chapter. Also - fair warning, I am not legally trained or experienced in any way, all the legal parts of this chapter came from a mix of research and a fair whack of dramatisation courtesy of watching a lot of Daredevil, Elementary and other crime-based media so there are very likely faults but please bear with me. The therapy section however is hybridised from a lot of discussions during my own therapy, but as always feel free to come talk to me if you think I've mishandled anything or not made certain things clear enough.

Warnings for: therapy discussions, explicit and graphic discussion of rape, murder and reference to self harm. Like seriously. More than canon. Also warnings for disassociation, violent urges, rape-apologist sympathies and dismissal of a rape victim's experiences. Please take care and as always, contact me with any concerns, issues or other triggers I should warn for at my tumblr.


 

Neil gathered his courage in his fists and clenched them tight, then slowly opened his palms and pressed it all into his thighs as he sat waiting. He stretched out his fingers and swallowed his nausea. The clock ticked down the seconds until he’d have to get up and walk ten steps into the fucking office and start talking.

But it would be worth it. Andrew would always be worth it.

Betsy Dobson smiled sweetly at him as she stepped out of her office. “Neil, good afternoon. Please, come in.”

He nodded jerkily and followed her inside, trying hard to suppress his cringe when the door closed behind him with a softly menacing click.

“Would you like some water, or juice perhaps? I know you aren’t partial to sweets.”

“Water, thanks.”

He considered her couch and tried to figure out where Andrew usually sat. Probably directly facing Dobson’s chair, he decided as he sipped. Andrew was all about facing threats head-on. So, Neil sat just to the left of that point, like he did on the couch at Court. It helped him feel less ill and tense about this whole thing.

Dobson settled herself with her own glass of water – mirroring, Neil’s suspicious brain supplied, to create a false sense of connection and empathy. He bit down on a reflexive sneer.

“So, Neil,” she said calmly, pen casually resting on her notepad. She tapped it three times. “As you requested a formal session with me, this will be a little different to our previous meet-and-greets. The purpose of today will be to try and figure out together what you would like to achieve in these sessions, and to discuss possible therapy techniques if you feel we make a good fit. We might also begin to discuss the things you want to explore or express, if you feel comfortable. Does that sound acceptable to you?”

“Sounds great,” Neil replied tightly.

She smiled and considered him keenly. “I must confess I was surprised, but pleased, that you contacted me. I know you have had your reservations about my profession and my usefulness before. May I ask what changed your mind?”

“Is it relevant?” Neil asked, fidgeting with the glass.

“It would help to know why you feel now is the appropriate time to approach counselling, and whether this is due to any changes in your life – positive or negative. If I am to help you, I need to understand you a little better, and where you are in your life at the moment.”

Neil chewed the inside of his cheek for a minute before replying. “Aaron’s trial is coming up and I’ll have to testify as a witness. It’s going to be horrific for both the twins and Nicky too and I have no idea how to help. The team is still in a shambles and we’re just barely scraping through matches. Andrew is stressed and overwhelmed and seeing you a lot more. I’m not sleeping well. My grades are shaky. I don’t know how to be a vice-captain, though I’m trying, and I have no idea how I’ll do it next year without Dan or the girls around. People still stare and ask rude questions about my scars and I know they’re ugly, no matter what Andrew thinks.” He met her eyes properly for a second, bleak and tired. “I guess you could say I’m stressed.”

“I guess so,” she replied calmly and made a few quick notes. “Thank you for answering me. I noticed that you mentioned Andrew a fair amount there. Obviously, I am aware of your relationship through my own professional relationship with Andrew. May I ask if your decision to see me was influenced by him?”

Neil shrugged jerkily. “Not directly. But he trusts you, and I trust him. So here I am.”

“But you do not trust me,” Betsy pointed out in a quiet voice, her gaze calm and piercing.

Neil shrugged again. Betsy made a note.

“Neil,” she started again, “I said once that I preferred the honest side of you. I still do. Will you be honest with me, if I promise to do the same?”

“What, truth for truth?” Neil smiled humourlessly.

“If you would prefer.”

“Alright.”

“Why are you here?” She asked quietly.

Neil found himself trapped in a staredown of Minyardian proportions and had far too many paranoid instincts telling him not to look away first, not to show weakness. The hairs on the back of his neck rose.

“Andrew needs you to be there at the trial,” he admitted eventually, feeling ill. “I thought if I did a session with you and proved willing, you’d agree to be there for my support, and therefore his. I don’t honestly care about talking over the past or my nightmares or my classes or team stuff. It’s not important. He is.”

Betsy was quiet for a long moment, her pen moving idly. “I can’t say I’m completely surprised,” she said at length. “I would like to assure you, before we discuss anything else, that I was always going to be at the trial. I’ve been called as a character witness and in my capacity as Andrew and Aaron’s therapist. So there is nothing to barter for there, no cause to manipulate on that front.”

“Oh.” Neil looked away quickly.

“Would you like to ask me something in return?”

“What’s your honest opinion of me?”

“Hm.” Betsy considered him for another minute, then gave a slight smile. “These are observations I’ve made in our conversations together, and my impressions of you from other people. You are very smart and incredibly secretive. You do not hesitate to lie or manipulate when it suits your needs, but also value honesty with those you deem worthy of it. To those people, you are fiercely loyal and protective, and incredibly self-sacrificing. To a fault. You would rather take the punishment on your own back than see someone you care for suffer. While that can be a good quality, you seem incapable of doing things in half-measures. I know for a fact you spent last Christmas being hurt, and then cheerfully lied to my face when asked directly about it.”

Neil refused to apologise for that, though he knew he should be feeling a little guilty. He just felt sick with the calm certainty with which she laid him bare, but he’d asked her for honesty and he could at least respect her giving him that. She waited a beat for his reply, then carried on when he said nothing.

“I think it very likely the events of your past, and particularly the events of Baltimore last spring, will have caused long-lasting trauma and possibly some form of PTSD which you may be experiencing in the nightmares you mention or moments of lost or confused time. I also think it likely you will need to talk about your relationships with both your parents at some point, and the abuse you suffered at both their hands. I think you have severe trust issues and difficulties forming and valuing casual platonic relationships. I also know there is a great deal more I do not know, have not seen, and would not know unless you chose to tell me. I think, Neil, that I could help you if you could trust me enough to let me in, and be honest with me.”

Neil felt like he’d been sucker-punched. The room seemed to echo in the wake of her words, reverberations shuddering through Neil though he kept it from showing. He was all smooth water, no vicious undercurrents at all. Definitely not.

“Wow,” Neil said quietly. His throat was sticky and dry despite his empty glass. “And I was trying so hard not to make an impression.”

She smiled gently at him. “Unfortunately, I am trained to notice these kinds of things.”

Neil shifted his feet and thrust her words away, trying not to let them settle into his brain. It all sounded far, far too plausible.  “What does Andrew see in you?”

She held up her hand in a gentle ‘stop’ motion. “I will not discuss the therapy of any of my other patients with you. I believe you are operating under a misunderstanding of what therapy entails.” She tilted her head questioningly and Neil gestured for her to continue. “Trust is a very important part of the relationship between therapist and patient. Trust that is often established through building of a rapport, or a sense of understanding or empathy. Even so, not every relationship ‘clicks’. My training, experience, techniques and knowledge will not be appropriate for every patient. While therapy is often purposefully uncomfortable for the patient, to help them to explore troublesome aspects of their memories or thoughts in a safe space, if there is a lack of trust, or a presence of fear or uneasiness or resentment, I would recommend a referral to another therapist who might be a better fit.”

Neil slowly nodded.

“The patient needs to be ready to undertake therapy,” Betsy continued calmly. “If they feel pressured or pushed into it by others, or have not chosen it for themselves, for the betterment of themselves and not for any other person or reason, there is very little I can do for that patient. I am here to guide, but it is your mind, your health, your wellbeing. You have to be willing to do the work inside and outside of sessions, and commit to yourself and your own health, in the short and much longer term too.  Do you feel ready to commit to that, Neil?”

Neil found himself unable to meet her too-knowing, too-kind eyes and shook his head.

“That’s okay,” she said serenely, and he heard her pen moving over the paper. “It’s a very difficult thing, and every person needs to come to it in their own time. Even knowing that you are not currently ready is an encouraging sign, as it is a small step forwards from denial and avoidance. If you like, I could give you some reading materials to take away and peruse on your own time?”

Neil considered his knuckles and the bubbled scarring on each joint; he considered the thin, precise white lines carved all over the backs of his hands and up his arms. He thought about the nightmares that still came every so often, terrifying and disorienting. He thought about getting confused over Christmas and not feeling present or real for a long time. He thought about the future he was being allowed to have, and considered that he might not have to feel this way for all of it. And of course he thought about Andrew, how could he not, but now it wasn’t to force himself to do something he didn’t want. He thought instead about Andrew fighting so hard for his own health and peace of mind and fuck everybody else’s opinion on his progress. Neil didn’t know if he could be that strong, if he could fight that fight for himself. But maybe someday he could find out.

He nodded.

He heard Betsy moving around the room and calmly gathering up things for him. He took the time and lack of observation to settle his breathing, unsure why it felt so tight and anxious when he’d said nothing at all really, just listened. He knew he shouldn’t be feeling so exhausted, he’d just been sitting and listening for fuck’s sake, but he felt heavy like he’d been up all night practising drills with Kevin.

“Here,” Betsy handed him a small stack of books and pamphlets.

“I could get my own copies,” Neil said belatedly as he saw the gaps on her shelves.

“And so can I,” she said gently. “I think you need them more right now. If you don’t get on with them, feel free to return them. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so yourself, I’m sure Andrew would consent to playing messenger just this once.”

Neil busied himself putting the materials away in his bag so he wouldn’t have to meet her eyes. He struggled with the right words for long minutes, chewing them over and swallowing them down while she waited patiently. He got to his feet and edged towards the door, even though their allotted time wasn’t completely up yet.

“Thank you,” he managed, tight and uncomfortable and too exposed.

“You’re very welcome,” Betsy replied in a pleasant voice. “Call anytime, Neil. I’ll be happy to see you in whatever capacity you need – as a therapist, for a referral or advice, or coaching for your testimony. Drive safe now.”

He nodded and bailed out of there before she could say anything else. He somehow managed the drive back to Fox Tower without wrapping the Maserati around a lamppost or another student and made his way to his dorm in a daze, holding his bag strap in a white-knuckled grip.

He paused in the doorway – Aaron and Andrew were standing in the living room, apparently talking. Civilly. No knives or bruises or insults involved. Neither one looked angry or upset or dismissive. Neil was very confused. He heard the words ‘Waterhouse’ and ‘trial’ before they both turned to look at him.

“Neil,” Andrew frowned slightly at his arrival, eyes flickering quickly over him. He knew where Neil had been, but Neil knew he wouldn’t ask about it, and definitely wouldn’t address it in front of Aaron. “What do you need?” He said instead.

Neil opened his mouth but words were hard to come by. So instead he made a vague smoking gesture with his free hand. Andrew pointed upwards towards the roof in question.

Neil shook his head, so Andrew smoothly rotated his wrist to point to the window and handed over his lighter and pack of cigarettes as Neil passed. He leaned against the wall by the desk with his arms folded as Neil fumbled with the lighter. He lit the cigarette on his fourth shaky try under Andrew’s calm supervision.

“We’ll finish this later,” he said to his brother without looking away from Neil.

“I figured,” Aaron muttered, and Neil felt his cool and curious glance before Aaron closed the door behind himself.

“Breathe,” Andrew said quietly once they were alone. “Process. Let yourself feel it. Have a shower if you want. No night practice later. Just rest.”

Neil nodded, delivering himself into Andrew’s steady hands, and watched the smoke slowly spiral from the tip of the cigarette. Andrew gave him space for the rest of the afternoon, though he was never truly alone. He was always somewhere in the suite, well within calling distance, and almost always within sight. They didn’t talk, and Neil stopped smoking after the second one burned out. He stayed at the window until it was full dark and Andrew closed it and handed him a sweatshirt. Kevin was busy haranguing the freshmen, so the dorm was very quiet. Andrew settled on one of the beanbags reading the sequel to the book Neil had bought him for Christmas, and Neil eventually curled up on the floor by him with his head propped up by Andrew’s leg. He nodded to Andrew’s question and drifted peacefully to the feeling of Andrew’s palm pressed to the back of his neck, anchoring him safe in the troubled waters Betsy’s truths and smiles had stirred.

 

The remaining week-and-a-few-days before the trial seemed to stretch and blur like melting toffee, falling and tearing fast one minute and sticking unbearably slow the next. Neil felt like he was losing his mind, watching the clock and snatching stolen moments of peace.

 

At one practice, one of the freshmen decided to be brave.

“So, like,” Raphael hedged, fiddling with the netting of his racquet. “How do you know which twin is which?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Neil stated plainly as he adjusted his helmet. “Andrew is very clearly in the goalie armour right now.”

“No, I mean like, off the court,” the guy continued, shooting a furtive look to the home goal where the twins, Nicky and Matt were having a slight ‘huddle’, either discussing new plays or – more likely – bullshitting and trying to look like they were actually talking tactics.

“I still don’t understand what you mean,” Neil replied. “They’re completely different. They have the same face, but it doesn’t move the same. They walk different, dress different, talk different, behave different. They grew up states away from each other as strangers. It’s easy.”

“It’s really not,” Raphael frowned. “They both just stare blankly at everything and refuse to answer questions. The best way I have for telling them apart is A – is one of them wearing armbands? And B – if one of them talks back sarcastically, it’s probably Aaron but sometimes not. How the hell do you know which one’s your boyfriend?”

“It’s easy,” Neil frowned and said again. He twisted the racquet in his hands and looked at his feet. “They’re just – they’re so different. I don’t get how you confuse them.”

“Huh,” the freshman said, looking at their defense line’s huddle contemplatively. “So – sorry if this is rude and definitely tell me to fuck off if it is, but like… do you find Aaron attractive?”

Neil felt his face pull in opposite directions as if he’d stuffed lemons in his cheeks. “No, definitely not. Aaron’s a grade A asshole. Not into him. Gross.”

“But they look the same?”

Neil shook his head impatiently, though his face was starting to burn. “Andrew is attractive to me. A lot. I very much like how he looks and him and everything. But it’s not primarily a physical thing. It’s a person thing. It’s a trust thing. It’s… it’s not just about this,” he fumbled, waving vaguely at his face. “It’s about everything. It’s hard to explain, I guess, and I never have the words for it.”

“No, no,” Raphael smiled gently at him. “I get it. That’s really… that’s really something, Neil.”

Neil shrugged uncomfortably and checked the netting on his racquet. “Let’s just get back to practice.”

“Sure thing, man. Sure thing.”

 

Dan hugged him one night after practice. Renee kept texting him to make sure he was eating properly. Allison dropped a large bag of new clothes off without a word of explanation.

Nicky kept ruffling his hair. Matt was always there with fresh coffee and understanding quiet. The freshmen were walking careful eggshells. Abby kept making up spurious reasons to check on Andrew’s group, trying in her own way to offer comfort and support. Wymack was yelling slightly less than usual. Even Kevin was scaling back on his criticism, maybe seeing how tightly wound everybody was as the calendar slowly brought them closer to the trial.

 

Neil scowled down at the book he was reading, fighting his way through the chapter with his throat all closed up and his eyes stinging. It was one of the ones Betsy had loaned him. About half had been about therapy techniques, the other half was focussed on survivors of childhood abuse and violent crime, and how to recognise and treat trauma in young adults.

It was fucking ridiculous. He wasn’t traumatised, he wasn’t some kind of wreck, he didn’t need these books. Yeah, his dad had made a mess of his body with knives and lighters and irons and heavy fists, and yeah his mom had beat him black and blue and yeah he’d been on the run for nearly a decade and yeah okay maybe he’d been hurt at Evermore and whatever he’d been abducted and tortured and nearly killed but he wasn’t… he wasn’t… this was fucking ridiculous.

Obviously, the only reason he was getting upset was the – the patronising way the book was written. So what if it hit a bit too hard, so what if it was stirring up things he liked to try and forget, so what if it read a bit too much like truth. The Foxes had softened him up, mostly, it was just a reaction to the ‘survivor stories’ peppered through the chapters. Fucking stupid.

He threw the book on the floor and wiped angrily at his eyes. It was just stress from the upcoming trial. And the nightmares and lack of sleep. He was fine.

After about ten minutes, he picked up the book and carefully smoothed out the crinkled pages. He took a slow breath and read another page.

 

The night before the trial, the whole third floor of Fox Tower was deathly quiet as the Exy line kept anxious vigil. Neil spent the time smoking out the window perched next to Andrew while Nicky tried to study. Aaron was sitting in the beanbags with Kevin, nursing beer in moody silence.

Andrew said the only words of the whole night. A bluntly offered, matter-of-fact announcement for his brother.

“They will not take you to jail.”

Aaron looked at his twin with wide eyes, then swallowed and nodded. Andrew nodded back, and turned his head to stare out the window again.

 

Neil had decided five minutes after seeing Cass Spear for the first time that he definitely did not like her. He’d had a few preconceptions about her, mostly drawn from Andrew’s quiet confessions and his knowledge of Drake’s abuse, but had tried to stay impartial.

Irritatingly enough, because Allison would bust a gut if he ever told her this, it was her outfit that clinched it.

They were all dressed smartly for the trial, not wanting to seem like rash young idiots in hoodies and sweatpants before the judge, and had silently and cohesively decided not to wear black in case it looked like mourning or regret. Even Andrew had conceded, and was wearing smart, light grey slacks and a matching jacket over a crisp white shirt and a deep purple tie. Apart from his socks, his hidden armbands and likely underwear, there wasn’t a stitch of black on him.

Cass Spear was in full mourning regalia, in contrast. Long black dress. Black gauzy cardigan. Black little hat. Black shiny shoes. Black handbag. Dark lipstick and bags under the eyes to match. She wouldn’t look any of them in the face from across the courtroom, and was pointedly avoiding looking at either of the twins.

For fuck’s sake, Neil thought scathingly. Drake died over a year ago. Come the fuck on. 

Luther and Maria were there too, he noticed, dressed in puritan monochrome, forbidding and cold. Neil had watched Nicky watch them, hardly blinking, for over a minute. He’d watched as Nicky took a slow breath, then deliberately turned away from the parents who had turned their backs on him years ago, and turn instead to his tense cousins with a small, encouraging smile.

The drive to Columbia courthouse had been tense and near-silent. Wymack had hired a minivan for the dubious occasion, to attract less attention than the Fox bus, of carting Kevin, the Minyard-Hemmick family, Neil, Katelyn, Abby, Dobson and himself off to court for the day. They’d all been excused from classes, as it was a Tuesday, and practice was cancelled. There was an open bet on whether Kevin would drink himself senseless or storm off to the court as soon as they got back. Neil was privately betting on the vodka option; there was no way Andrew would want to practice after this, and would probably be reaching for the whiskey himself.

Katelyn’s inclusion hadn’t been in the original plans. Apparently not even Aaron had been told – she’d simply turned up in the parking lot as they were assembling and climbed on board while they were all staring at her. She’d met Andrew’s blank gaze with only respect, no fear, and he’d said nothing. Neil wasn’t sure whether it was due the breaking of the deal or Andrew having no energy to spare for anything but the upcoming ordeal. He’d sat beside Andrew on the back seat and quietly held his hand, hidden between their legs out of view, the whole way. They hadn’t talked, but had simply shared the time watching the cars whizz by on the other side of the highway.

Now the lot of them were assembled in the courtroom, taking up an entire pew-like bench. Waterhouse had met them at the door and had escorted Aaron to the defense bench in front of the judge’s podium thing. Neil hadn’t bothered memorising the names of the architecture. He was too busy trying not to vibrate out of his seat with twitchy worry and resentment over Cass Spear’s attitude, and the too-still presence of Andrew at his side.

“Well, this is gonna be fun,” Wymack muttered darkly, stuffed into his own suit jacket and forced to look professional. Abby patted his knee, then held Kevin’s left hand to stop him obsessively clenching it. Dobson adjusted her glasses and sent a confident smile down the pew to Andrew, whose eyes flicked away from her towards his brother.

His knee bumped deliberately against Neil’s as they waited for the attorneys and whatnot to get themselves in order, and for the jury to file in. Neil desperately wanted to take his hand again, especially when he saw Andrew watching Cass, but they’d agreed not to do that in the courtroom. Appearances mattered, and while it was part of Waterhouse’s strategy to bring up their relationship, they shouldn’t give the jury or judge any preconceptions. Really, he wanted to drive Andrew away from everything on another road trip and fall into bed, where the only things that mattered were each other, but the world was inconvenient like that. Besides, Andrew would not miss his brother’s trial for anything, even if he wasn’t there as a witness.

Katelyn and Nicky looked like they wanted to be sick when everything was ready and all in attendance stood for the judge’s arrival, but they squeezed each other’s hands and put on their brave faces. Neil took a slow breath and heard Andrew doing the same.

The trial began.

The defense and prosecution gave their opening statements, summarising the incident in the ways they wanted it to be perceived. Waterhouse was presenting the case as it should be – Aaron had defended his brother from a vicious attack in the only way he had seen fit at the time, resulting in Drake’s death. The prosecution was a bit more snide, trying to convince the room at large it had been premediated, that Neil and Aaron and Andrew had conspired to murder Andrew’s foster-brother in some kind of sociopathic play for Cass’ attention and affection. Because, after all, Andrew was a violent, unhinged monster with a long criminal record and years of antipsychotics. Neil wanted to burn the courthouse down and everyone inside it by the end of the statement.

Andrew nudged his knee again and Neil forced his calm neutral face to remain intact.

Aaron was called to the witness stand and the prosecution began by making him recount the events of the day.

“We had gone to Luther and Maria Hemmick’s house to try and patch up the relationship between my cousin, Nicky Hemmick, and his parents,” Aaron began calmly, no doubt having been thoroughly coached and prepared by Waterhouse. “They invited us there the previous week.”

“Us?” The prosecution asked.

“Myself, my twin brother Andrew, Nicky, and our teammates Neil Josten and Kevin Day.”

“Why so many people?”

Aaron looked tired already to Neil’s keen eyes but it was only just beginning. “They had specifically asked for Andrew to be there to mend their relationship with him too. We knew that Andrew would refuse, so Nicky asked Neil to convince him to agree. The end result was that we would all go. I assumed it was so that Neil and Kevin could keep an eye on Andrew and keep things civil.”

“It seems strange to me that he would suddenly agree, when you said yourself you and your cousin thought he would refuse.”

Aaron looked her in the eye. “We also knew that Neil had a degree of influence over my brother. He listens to Neil. I don’t see where you’re going with this.”

“Well,” the prosecution attorney said with raised eyebrows. “It’s public knowledge by now that Neil Josten was formerly known as Nathaniel Wesninski, son of the so-called ‘Butcher of Baltimore’ who died earlier this year, and noted rival of Riko Moriyama who also died following an incident with him. I’m merely suggesting it seems odd that people tend to die very messily around your teammate. What do you think of that?”

Neil clenched his fists so the scarring, remnants of knives and a dashboard lighter, leapt out on his skin. So that was where they were heading. Waterhouse had warned them all it might be their strategy, but it didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“Objection – leading the witness,” Waterhouse interjected, and the prosecution was forced to get back to the point and told Aaron to continue laying out the events.

“We started having dinner, but it didn’t go very well. It didn’t appear that Luther or Maria had been genuinely concerned with reconciling with my cousin, and Luther seemed more interested in baiting my brother than talking to his own son. Luther and Andrew left the table and began having an argument in the next room.” Aaron paused long enough to swallow and glance at his brother. “Luther returned to the table afterwards and Andrew did not. We didn’t think it strange at the time. I thought Andrew was having a smoke or calming down from the argument.”

“What happened next?”

“Andrew’s absence started to feel too long,” Aaron said steadily, though his expression was grim. “Neil asked Luther about their argument. Luther revealed that he had planned for one of Andrew’s previous foster-brothers to wait upstairs until he could get Andrew alone to talk.”

The prosecution asked him to elaborate on the ‘foster brother’ comment so Aaron obliged and explained the separated nature of their childhoods. He took a long swallow of water before continuing.

“Neil asked for the name of the foster brother. Luther said it was Drake Spear. Neil then grabbed his Exy racquet and immediately pulled me upstairs. I did not know what was going on or why Neil was so agitated. He tested the doors upstairs and we heard sounds of a struggle from inside a locked bedroom.” He swallowed and held his brother’s dead eyes across the room. “Neil pushed the racquet into my hands to help his balance and kicked down the door. We saw—” His words seemed to fail him and he took a moment to gather his thoughts. Katelyn had her hand pressed to her mouth and Andrew was deathly still at Neil’s side. Aaron’s voice was flat with grief when he continued. “I saw an older, muscular man holding Andrew down on the bed so that Andrew could not move or defend himself. The man was raping my brother. I saw blood everywhere. The man – pulled out – and started to stand and turn towards us and I swung the racquet to defend my brother. It hit the man in the head and he died.”

The courtroom was silent for a few seconds and Neil felt the weight of the combined stares of the jury on Andrew’s impassive face. He was watching his brother with a calm focus but Neil knew the tension in his frame.

The prosecution explained to the jury how the head wound had killed Drake, pulling up the medical report as evidence. She then went on to speculate on how exactly Neil had known to run upstairs at that exact moment, and that it was possible Aaron had misinterpreted the scene. After all, Andrew was known to be gay, and Aaron was known to make homophobic comments in public.

The defense took over for cross-examination, and Waterhouse asked Aaron to elaborate on why he’d felt it was necessary to use deadly force.

“He was bleeding,” Aaron responded in a raw voice. “All over. Not just from – from the rape. They’d clearly been in a fight and Andrew had tried to defend himself. When we walked in, Drake was holding Andrew’s hands against the headboard and his head was shoved in the pillow. There were signs of a fight all around the room and it was – my brother was being raped right in front of me.” He cut himself off with a harsh swallow and drank some more water.

Waterhouse pulled up photos from the scene as evidence; photos of the bloody and semen-spattered sheets, the disturbance in the room, the smashed bottle of alcohol, and lastly some photos that had been taken of Andrew’s injuries in the ER afterwards. They showed the bruising and cuts over his face and especially his temple, the defensive wounds on his arms and the injuries covering his torso and especially his hips in horrid hand-shaped marks, the vicious bites on his shoulders and cruel scratches of greedy hands over his thighs and reaching towards his groin. Thankfully the photos were at such an angle that Andrew’s scars weren’t visible, and his genitals had been blurred out. Small mercies.

He read out the report from the ER, stating the clear signs of self-defense, the concussion and the results of the rape kit used. Neil wanted to scream at the clinical way he was discussing Andrew’s body, the photos of his wounded skin projected large for the room to stare at, all privacy ripped away, but Andrew was stone-still and apparently unaffected by it all. The only sign of any distress was the press of his thigh firmly along Neil’s and the way he was holding the edges of his armbands under his sleeves; they might be empty of their weapons, but the fabric itself had to be grounding or comforting.

Neil couldn’t look directly at Andrew in case he started to cry or yell, so he settled for glaring viciously at Cass. Your son did that, he thought furiously. He did it years before and you didn’t protect Andrew. She had gone even paler, if that was possible, and was dabbing daintily at her eyes. Neil hoped it was remorse and shock over Andrew’s suffering, but she kept shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe the lies she was hearing.

Nicky and Abby were crying silently on the bench; after all, Neil remembered, he’d had the sheet over Andrew’s exposed body by the time Nicky got upstairs. He hadn’t seen what Aaron and Neil had seen, until now. Kevin looked green and Wymack’s face was a thundercloud of impotent, protective rage. Betsy was a harder read, but she seemed grim and angry for all her neutral façade.

Waterhouse thanked Aaron for his testimony, then called Andrew to the stand. Neil’s hands twitched for the need to reach out as Andrew stood, but they settled for sharing a look before he was escorted up there. Aaron claimed a seat beside Katelyn and she wound her arms around him tightly. Neil could see him shaking in his peripheral vision but wouldn’t look away from Andrew as he was sworn in and took his seat.

Andrew was asked to recount the day from his perspective, and Neil fought not to be sick at the cold, emotionless tone of his voice. Neil knew, he knew, it was to distance himself from the horror in his memories and the events unfolding around him, that it was a defense mechanism and not one he could always control, but Neil couldn’t help but worry that the apathy would seem too much like deceit to the jury. He twisted his hands together in his lap and tried to keep his expression calm as Andrew explained how he had gone upstairs for the bottle of alcohol Luther had promised. Explained how he had seen Drake in the room and momentarily froze. How it had given Drake the advantage needed to hit him with the bottle and wrestle him towards the bed. How he had fought, but Drake was much taller and stronger. That Drake had stripped and raped him.

“I was also dealing with the shock of seeing an old abuser again,” Andrew said coldly. “In the heat of the moment I couldn’t tell if it was real or a flashback and couldn’t defend myself.”

“An old abuser? What do you mean?” The prosecution asked. Neil saw the slight tension in her shoulders – no doubt her preparation had turned up the investigation into the Spear household, but Neil knew from Higgins that nothing had been proven until after the incident at Luther’s house, and Andrew and the other children had never spoken up. There was no official record of any of Drake’s crimes for her to find.

Neil watched as Andrew’s eyes flicked minutely around the room – first to Cass, then Betsy, then himself. Neil nodded slightly. I’m here, you can do this, you can do this.

“Drake Spear sexually abused me when I was a child in that house,” Andrew replied with icy precision. “From the ages of twelve through to thirteen until I went to juvie. He raped me for months on end and psychologically intimidated me into keeping it a secret. Seeing him in my uncle’s house was enough to trigger traumatic memories.”

Cass Spear gasped and muffled a sob into a handkerchief and Neil fought down his temper. The prosecution hesitated then bulled ahead.

“How are we to know this is true? No complaints were ever issued,” she said.

Neil didn’t realise he was getting up until Aaron yanked him back into his seat, his face a mirror of Neil’s helpless rage as the prosecutor went about trying to smear Andrew’s claims, pointing out the lack of evidence for them and the likelihood he was lying under oath to help strengthen his brother’s case. Andrew seemed to tune her out and was looking instead at Betsy who held his gaze steadily. Neil could only watch as Andrew retreated further, invisible to everyone but himself and Betsy, as he shut down in the face of the prosecution’s disbelief. When she had the gall to say ‘misunderstanding’ Aaron had to keep him in his seat again and he watched Andrew’s expression grow heavy and dull.

Waterhouse took over when she had said her piece and, with Andrew’s permission, pulled up another of the ER photos. It was Andrew’s arms exposed, the scarring painfully obvious especially against the livid bruises. Shock rippled through the pew, touching all but Abby, Betsy and himself. Nicky was quietly having a breakdown while Katelyn tried consoling both him and a white-faced Aaron. Kevin’s eyes were wide and his mouth was slack. Wymack looked so, so tired and old. Abby was holding his hand, grief in her eyes; of course she would have known from the physicals.

Cass was staring at Andrew as if she’d never seen him before and even the Hemmicks looked a little queasy.

Neil wanted to run away with Andrew forever and keep him away from all their judgemental eyes, to shower with him and rub lotion into all the marks and kiss him until the steam remade them into people with less horrific childhoods.  

“Would you like to explain the origin of these scars, Andrew?” Waterhouse asked calmly. No doubt they’d discussed this particular rebuttal before, but Neil couldn’t help but hate it.

“They’re from self-harm,” Andrew replied in an awful, dead voice. “I started doing it soon after Drake began abusing me.”

“Do you feel able to explain why?”

Andrew turned his head to look fully at Cass for a moment, defeated, before looking back to Waterhouse. “Cass Spear was the first foster mother who treated me like she genuinely cared for me. She wanted to adopt me. She was kind and loving. Her son was also a paedophile I couldn’t escape. I didn’t want to leave Cass but that meant putting up with Drake. I felt I had no control over my body or my life. Harming gave me the illusion of control.”

Waterhouse thanked him and said he was finished with Andrew as a witness, unless the prosecution had any further questions? The prosecution did not.

Betsy was called next to give her professional opinion on both twins and the events of the day in question. Neil tuned her out mostly and concentrated on the minute, tiny shudders that were moving through Andrew in the seat next to him even as he sat with a perfectly empty expression. Neil knew better than to touch him but curled his fingers around the cuff of Andrew’s sleeve instead. Andrew didn’t respond at all and Neil’s heart clenched in his chest.

After Betsy, it was Neil’s turn. Andrew touched his fingers just slightly before he stood, and that tiny touch put strength in his spine and he held his head high as he walked. He recounted the day as calmly as possible to the prosecution.

“I reacted the way I did to Drake’s name because I knew that that Andrew had been abused in the Spear household,” He responded when asked, keeping his voice calm by effort of will. “I didn’t know the nature of it, and Andrew had never given me explicit details, but I’d put enough pieces together myself to know that Drake was a threat to everybody’s safety, especially Andrew’s. I grabbed the racquet because I’m short and not very strong and I knew Drake was trained as a Marine. I knew that if Andrew were unable to defend himself, I would need to step in, and I would need something to keep him back.”

“Such devotion to the man you reportedly did not get along with at that time,” the prosecution asked with raised eyebrows.

Neil blinked back at her coolly. “We weren’t friends, no, but nobody deserves to be hurt or abused. I would have done the same for any of my teammates.”

“How would you describe your current relationship with both Minyards?”

Neil told himself to keep calm – he knew exactly where this was going. “They are my teammates, and I’m their vice-captain. I’m not great friends with Aaron but we’re learning to get along. I am Andrew’s partner.”

“Could you expand on that?”

Neil gave her a flat look. “We have a romantic and sexual relationship. Do you want transcriptions of our pillow talk too?”

The judge reprimanded him for sassing the prosecution and he tried to rein in his temper, though he saw Nicky’s weak smile and Wymack’s disbelieving look to the ceiling.

“And how long have you been together, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I do mind, actually, but I have to answer anyway right?” Neil said before he could stop himself. “Since the second of February last year.”

He dimly registered the small ripple of surprise through the Foxes on the bench at his precise answer. He caught Andrew’s slightly raised eyebrow and lifted his chin; he knew Andrew remembered it just as vividly; the night Neil had got them ice cream, asked where the boundaries were, given his first real ‘yes’ of their nothingness and been pushed down to the carpet with Andrew’s mouth heavy on his own. They hadn’t discussed official dates or anniversaries, but he knew Andrew would consider that night their beginning as well. He glanced quickly at the Foxes and distracted himself trying to figure out the root of their surprise. Maybe that it was so early in the year? He knew, in hindsight, that Allison had been betting on them well before Binghamton, but he didn’t think even she had thought it started only a month after Andrew’s return. Wymack looked vaguely surprised as well, though probably at how late they’d started considering he thought they’d been together already in November.

“So, nearly a year?”

“Yes.” Neil glanced again at Andrew and felt his thoughts derail for a minute the way they always did when he thought in terms of time – he was alive a whole year longer than expected. And while he had definitely fought for that time and paid for it with his blood and misery ten times over, Andrew had been the one to give him the time and protection to get his feet under him and his fists ready for that fight. He’d tugged at Neil to stay and given him all the incentives and workarounds needed, supported and protected and grounded him. And when their deal was done, he’d still wanted Neil to stay. Just for himself, not for any deal.

Andrew met his gaze for that heartbeat of thought and Neil knew if he was more present and they were alone, he’d tell Neil to stop looking at him like that. But as it was, it seemed to draw Andrew out of his head a little, the awful deadness easing away just slightly.

“Your own past is more than a little… chequered, wouldn’t you say?” The prosecution asked, intruding, and Neil pulled his eyes away from Andrew’s reluctantly.

“I’m not sure how much I can respond to that, considering the on-going federal investigation into my father and his properties and businesses.” Neil said coldly with a look to the judge and Waterhouse.

“It simply seems suspicious to me that you, the only other member of your friendship group with a  history as bloody as your now-partner, and only you, knew to prepare for the possibility of a threat in that house. That instead of leaving the weapon in the car, you brought it inside. That you purposefully grabbed Aaron Minyard and knew immediately where to go, and what to do.” The prosecution asked with raised eyebrows. Waterhouse tried objecting but the judge overruled him, watching Neil just as carefully.

Neil released a slow breath through his nose to keep his temper under control. He knew exactly what she was insinuating and it made him sick. So he leaned forward and raised his voice enough to be clearly heard throughout the room.

“To answer your suspicions – I did not plan or scheme for an abuser to attack my teammate. It was not premediated. We did not collude or plan anything together. I did not know what would happen when we went there. I did not know what was happening in that bedroom until I saw it for myself, I only guessed that Andrew was in danger. I grabbed Aaron because I knew he would be better in a fight than Kevin or Nicky, if it came to that. And it did. I brought the racquet inside because it was expensive and I didn’t want it getting stolen or lost. I didn’t know that Drake was even in the state until I saw him in the bedroom.”

Neil took a quick breath, heat rushing through him in a furious tide, his knuckles clenched on top of the witness stand.

“I had no foreknowledge, no association with the crime, no motive. And you have no proof of any of your suspicions regardless, and isn’t that kind of your job? To provide a burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt? Do you have any proof of my supposed-involvement in this foul incident other than a knowledge of my father’s crimes? Which, by the way, is completely unfair. Isn’t there something in the law about not being tried for another’s crimes? Is there any logical reason you’re trying to slander me and Aaron and Andrew other than the fact my twitchy childhood makes me plan for the worst, and I had a greater confidence with Andrew that gave me more information to work with than anyone else there? Anything at all? Because damn, I’m sorry that it apparently makes me ‘suspicious’ but I’m not sorry that I was able to do what I could, though not fast enough to prevent the atrocity itself.”

“That’s quite enough, Mr Josten,” the judge said reprovingly, then looked to the prosecution while Neil caught his breath and wrestled with his temper. “Though I echo his sentiments, counsellor. Provide proof for your argument or I’ll be forced to throw it out.”

Neil glanced to the Foxes again and saw their mixed expressions of pride and amusement, especially Wymack’s fierce, paternal smile and Nicky’s tear-streaked grin. Aaron and Kevin still looked slightly stunned from everything, while Abby and Betsy were giving him identical tiny smiles. Andrew seemed unmoved, but at least his attention was firmly fixed on Neil now, not the mess in his memories or Cass so close by.

No one likes a smart mouth, he remembered Andrew saying, so vividly, after their victory over the Ravens.

Except you, Neil thought again.

The prosecution backed down and handed over to Waterhouse, who asked him to clarify a few points in his account and then released him. When he took his seat again his hands were trembling a bit from the adrenaline of being up there, all eyes on him, evaluating his words and using them to decide whether to condemn Aaron or not, and the anger still buzzing under his skin. Andrew reached into his lap and firmly took his hand, lacing their fingers together and holding on tight. Neil looked at him in surprise but held just as fast. Everyone knew about their relationship now anyway, he reasoned; there was no need to play it cool. He knew Andrew had to feel the shakes and trembling, and indeed he was a little shivery too, but they just held tighter and breathed together, eyes fixed forward.

The prosecution called Luther to the stand, who did his very best to help her smear all of their characters and motivations, but Waterhouse shot down his credibility in a series of well-aimed questions about how he had packed his son off to a conversion camp at barely fifteen, and his resentment towards Andrew for being in the car when his sister died. Neil was bitterly disappointed there was no evidence to convict Luther for conspiring with Drake for Andrew’s assault, but at least he had been thoroughly dismissed as a reliable witness of character.

The trial dragged on, exhausting minute by minute. Nicky and Kevin were briefly called up to corroborate parts of their accounts, and Betsy was called again for similar reasons. Neil held tight to Andrew’s hand and felt more drained and angry by the second until it was all he could do to focus on the words being thrown around, and the heat of Andrew’s palm.

Cass wasn’t called – no doubt because the prosecution could feel her case crumbling and tilting in Waterhouse’s direction – but she sat sniffling in her full mourning. A loud presence even without saying anything. Neil traced his thumb over the back of Andrew’s hand whenever he seemed to be glancing her way, tugging him back to the present and reassuring him he wasn’t that young boy anymore, alone and unprotected.

Finally, hours later, at long fucking last, the jury came to the decision Neil had known they should pick ever since the incident – Aaron was judged to have used justified force in defence of a family member, and was judged not guilty on the charge of manslaughter. He was to be released from parole and all charges were dismissed. Relief moved through the Fox bench; Nicky ruffled Aaron’s hair, Katelyn kissed his cheek and Andrew relaxed just slightly.

“Dismissed,” the judge announced, and the courtroom got to its feet and started filing out. Neil kept tight hold of Andrew’s hand and pulled him out of the room quickly, not wanting him to get caught with Cass at the door. The Foxes headed outside as a loose group. None of them wanted to stay any longer in the courthouse than they absolutely had to.

“Hey,” Andrew said in a rough voice, causing Aaron to turn around. “I told you, didn’t I?”

“Yeah,” Aaron replied, his own voice strained from the stress of the day. “Yeah, you did.”

They shared a long look, cautious and tentative on the ever-balancing ground between them. After a long minute, Andrew seemed to get what he was looking for in Aaron’s eyes, and nodded in quiet self-satisfaction. Neil caught Betsy’s eyes and for a brief second felt like they were on exactly the same page – pleased and proud of how far these two had come. Nicky was crying again; or maybe he just hadn’t stopped. Then Andrew sighed and rubbed his free hand over his eyes, and Neil’s attention snapped back to him.

“Fuck, I need a cigarette before we go back,” he muttered.

Neil fished their shared pack and Andrew’s lighter out of his pockets and handed them over. “There’s a smoking area over there,” he said with a jerk of his chin. “I’ll join you in a sec.”

Andrew grunted and walked off after reluctantly untangling their fingers, head held high as if he weren’t bothered by anything. Neil turned to Nicky and gave him a tight smile, unsure what to do for him.

“So, you’re officially a free man now,” Nicky said to Aaron with a pale shade of his usual exuberance.

“Of course, the charges that woman was trying to drive home were absolutely ridiculous,” Katelyn said and wound her arms tightly around her boyfriend. She rested her cheek on his hair and squeezed him and Neil had never seen Aaron smile like that before. Neil blinked rapidly; he could never get used to these glimpses of a less grouchy and grumpy version of Aaron.

“And you did great up there Neil,” Nicky added as he wiped his eyes. “You were really great.”

“Thanks, Nicky.” Neil replied quietly. He debated what to do, chewing his lip, then cautiously reached for the eldest cousin. “Uh – do you want a hug?”

Nicky stared at him in shock for a long moment before collapsing on top of him, sobbing brokenly. A bit alarmed, Neil patted his back a few times the way Nicky did to him, or like Matt did sometimes.

“Um, it’s okay Nicky,” he said awkwardly and adjusted his feet to bear both their weight easier. “It’s all okay now. The trial’s over.”

Nicky garbled something that sounded like a blur of names and maybe a ‘thank you’ before dissolving back into total incomprehensibility. Neil kept patting his back and looked to Wymack.

“Coach, can we stop by the house for a bit before heading back? I think everyone needs a breather.”

“Good call,” Wymack agreed. “When Andrew’s ready we’ll head there.”

Neil glanced that way and felt his breath freeze in his lungs. “Nicky,” he said urgently. “Let go.”

As soon as Nicky’s bodyweight was being held up by Aaron and Abby, Neil ran.

“Get away from him,” he growled and shoved his body between Cass and a paralysed Andrew, forcing her back and stopping her from touching him. “Don’t you dare.”

Betsy was right on his heels but he ignored her as he splayed his arms out wide to shelter Andrew behind himself.

“I…” Cass said in a thready voice, looking shocked and grieved and wounded. “I just wanted to hold my son.”

Neil felt a snarl growing in his throat, hateful words queuing up on his tongue with his father’s temper surging through him and was more than ready to release them and give her a piece of his fucking mind – but Andrew’s hand on his back had them halting and tumbling over themselves. Neil let Andrew tug him back and away to Andrew’s side instead, though he still bristled with the frustrated need to protect, protect, fight her away and keep him safe.

“Hello, Cass,” Andrew said quietly. His expression was caught somewhere between stress and pain and Neil hated seeing him so out of control. “Been a while.”

“Andrew,” She said with a smile that fell flat immediately. “I… the things you said in there…” she tailed off, clutching at her bag with shaking hands. “About – about Drake.”

Neil felt Andrew’s hand twist in his jacket, clinging tighter and no doubt wrinkling the fabric but Neil didn’t care about that. He shifted his weight just a bit so his hip bumped Andrew’s and stayed there.

Cass looked all around with sad eyes but somehow managed not to look at Andrew much at all, her hands now flapping at the air. “He wouldn’t have – I know he wouldn’t have done those things. He couldn’t’ve. He was – he was such a good son, a sweet brother… Andrew, why would you… why would you say those things? He wouldn’t’ve…”

“Did you not see the photographs?” Andrew asked jerkily. “Did you not hear anything any of us said?”

She shook her head numbly and kept flapping her hands like cruel birds. Neil wanted to seize them and snap her fingers but kept himself still as Andrew’s hand clutched even tighter, his knuckles creaking audibly.

“He raped me, Cass,” Andrew forced out, raw and bleeding and with all the hurt of a betrayed child. “Often. He liked hurting me. You had to know.”

By now all the others had gotten over to them and Neil guessed Wymack was holding Aaron and Nicky back. Kevin was a ghost. Betsy was standing on Andrew’s other side, her hand lightly resting on his shoulder.

Cass stood and flapped and shook her head, babbling denial and grief and confusion. Neil watched as the hurt drained slowly from Andrew’s face, to be replaced with blank grief instead.

“Why can’t you say it?” He pushed again, one last time. “Say it, Cass. Say what he did to me, and more than likely all the other kids you had. Say it.”

But she wouldn’t, couldn’t maybe. She’d compartmentalised it all away, locked up her sense and thrown away the key to keep the cherished memories of her precious son untainted and pure of the ugly truth. On some level Neil could understand her denial, but he could not condone it. He’d never wanted to make somebody hurt so badly and for a second was shocked at himself, at his father’s words and Lola’s methods right at the forefront of his mind.

“Go away, Cass,” Andrew said eventually, his face twitching a little with so much suppressed pain. “Goodbye. I never want to see you ever again. Leave me alone.”

She gaped at him, then seemed to wilt and shrink. She walked away without another word and the Foxes watched her go in grim silence, outraged and grieved to a one.

“Let’s leave,” Neil said coldly, still fighting with himself not to go running after her and scream in her face until she admitted what she had allowed to happen under her roof. “This place fucking sucks.”

They fell onto the bus, all of them exhausted, and Wymack drove them through Columbia until they got to the house. Andrew was closed-off and silent, his hands clenching in his lap every so often. Neil didn’t try to touch or talk to him, knowing that when he was ready, he would come back. He walked immediately into the house and up to his bedroom with Neil shadowing him cautiously.

Neil watched as Andrew shut the door behind them and started rapidly tugging off his clothes, tossing the nice suit to crumple on the floor with barely-restrained violence. Andrew didn’t seem fully aware of Neil being in the room as he stripped right down to his underwear – even taking off his socks – and rummaged through the closets in search of better clothes, so Neil fixed his gaze on the ceiling and tucked his hands behind his back. He had seen this much of Andrew’s body before, in the shower at Christmas, but Andrew hadn’t consented today.

Neil could hear Andrew’s harsh breathing, silent sobs trapped in his chest, and his own ribs ached sympathetically. He listened as Andrew threw on different clothes, muttered to himself, tossed them on the floor as well, tried on different ones. Neil trailed his eyes along the cracked paint of the ceiling and waited.

At length, Andrew stopped changing clothes and pacing about and sank down heavily on the end of his bed. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, staring down at the carpet between his feet. Neil looked him over quickly; he was wearing an old, raggedy pair of sweats and a baggy grey tee with holes in the hems and a few stains here and there. Neil had never seen him look so unpolished – even his usual all-black was well-fitted and flattering and stylish. This looked like Andrew had reached into Neil’s duffel bag and found the rattiest things possible.

“Andrew? Can I borrow some of your clothes?” Neil asked cautiously.

Andrew nodded stiffly, so Neil changed out as well into some of Andrew’s old jeans and a faded shirt. He folded up his suit and set it on the desk; he was tempted to throw it down like Andrew had done, to get rid of the clothes that would always remind him of today’s awfulness, but Allison had bought it for him and he wasn’t yet in the habit of throwing away perfectly usable clothes. Once he was done, he walked forwards and sat down on the floor in front of his hurting partner, neatly slotting himself between Andrew’s legs.

Andrew looked down into Neil’s eyes with a troubled, wounded gaze that was far too distant. Neil didn’t dare look away, though he ached to wrap his arms around Andrew and keep him safe from everything, from this terrible world that seemed so intent on hurting him over and over.

“When you’re ready,” he murmured slowly, “I’m here with you.”

“Pipedream.”

“I am not going anywhere. I’m here, and I have no intention of ever leaving you. Ever, Andrew.” The words burned his tongue on the way out but it was the sting of the truth rather than the shame of lies. “I am here.”

“Shh,” Andrew replied, and covered his mouth. Though his gaze seemed to sharpen as if he were looking for deceit. Neil simply gazed back and kissed Andrew’s fingers where they lay heavy over his lips.

Neil lost track of time as they drifted in each other’s eyes, blinking slow and watching, holding each other tethered to safety. So slowly, the pain and betrayal and anger in Andrew’s face eased away and he started to look more like himself; calm, in control, watchful. He vaguely heard the others moving around the house, muffled voices downstairs, but paid them no mind. The bedroom was cocooned in their silence, safe and sound.

Some indeterminable time later, a jaunty knock broke it like a gunshot and Neil nearly jumped out of his skin. Andrew took his hand away from Neil’s mouth and dragged his heavy gaze to the door.

“Enter.”

Betsy waltzed in with two tubs of ice cream and three spoons. “Hello, you two,” she smiled gently. “I thought a treat might be in order.”

Andrew wordlessly held out a hand to her to receive a tub and two spoons, and got to work warming it between his hands.

“It’s much quieter up here,” Betsy observed as she warmed her own tub, and Neil saw her eyes moving around the room and lingering on the clothes pile. “Much easier to think.”

“Where’s the rest,” Andrew asked flatly.

“Aaron is with Katelyn in the back yard,” Betsy answered. “Nicky is calling Erik, I believe, or possibly napping. Kevin is with David and Abby in the kitchen. Sober, for now. So, you get my company, if you like.”

Andrew didn’t tell her to leave, and they all knew that was an invitation to stay.

“Why those clothes?” She asked casually.

Andrew paused in carving a spoonful out of his tub to rub the shirt between his fingers. “They’re soft,” he replied, the syllables sounding disconnected and unsteady. Neil shuffled closer. “Everything else was too scratchy and hot.”

Neil kept quiet and let them talk, taking small spoons out of Andrew’s tub and watching his face.

“Ah, I see. Do you want to go back to campus tonight?”

“Not really.”

“Do you not want to face your teammates?”

“They’re too loud and nosy. I want to stay here.”

“I’ll pass that on to David, but he might ask you come back to Fox Tower regardless,” Betsy replied calmly. “He won’t want the team separated right now.”

Andrew sighed and shoved another spoonful in his mouth.

“How are you doing, Neil?”

Neil blinked up at her over Andrew’s knee, surprised that she wanted to talk to him too. “I’m fine.”

Andrew flicked his arm for that and Neil managed a small smile for him. “I’m okay,” he tried again. “Tired, mostly. Happy for Aaron.”

Angry about Cass, he didn’t say, but knew she heard him.

Betsy nodded sympathetically. “Make sure you get plenty of rest tonight, both of you. And go easy in practices for a day or two, I know David will understand if you need to conserve your energy. And my door is always open, for any reason.”

Neil dropped his gaze to a shredded patch of fabric on Andrew’s knee, an apparent victim of a skid on tarmac or something similar. “Thank you for the books,” he said awkwardly. “I’ve started reading them.”

“You’re very welcome, Neil,” she smiled. “And what you do with them is entirely your business. You don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want.”

Neil nodded and handed his spoon to Andrew; he’d had more than enough of the sickly treat, though Andrew and Betsy kept going.

“Are you comfortable down there, Neil? You could join us up here if you like,” Betsy suggested.

Neil frowned a bit in confusion as he was more than happy to be sitting snug between Andrew’s legs, close enough count the little freckles and moles on Andrew’s hands. “I like it here.”

“That’s alright then,” Betsy smiled.

They sat together for a few minutes until Andrew replaced the lid on his half-empty tub. “February second, huh,” he said in a bored voice as he smoothed the edges down.

Neil smiled and rested his chin on Andrew’s knee, looking up at him. “Seemed appropriate. Do you disagree?”

Andrew’s lips tugged to the side. “Did you mean what you said earlier?”

“Yes, Andrew,” Neil replied softly. “I meant it.”

“Then I don’t disagree.”

Andrew’s fingers slipped under Neil’s chin and he was about to kneel up for a kiss when there was another knock. Aaron this time.

“Hey,” he said, eyes on Neil’s position so close to his brother. For once, he chose not to comment on their relationship and instead looked to Andrew.

Andrew blinked back slowly at him, waiting. Aaron shuffled his feet and crossed and recrossed his arms a couple times.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get the closure you wanted from Cass,” he said eventually. “That – that sucks.”

“Yes,” Andrew replied slowly. “It does.”

Aaron remained in the doorway, not apparently done but not talking either, staring at Andrew’s armbands. Andrew caught on before anyone else, naturally.

“I’m done talking for today,” Andrew said. “But we will talk about the rest.”

Aaron nodded, his expression grim, and walked away.

“I think I’ll go check on Nicky,” Betsy said breezily. “Abby said she was going to run to the store for some food, any requests?”

Andrew seemed drained of all words, so Neil replied, “Burgers, I think,” and watched as she closed the door on her way out.

Neil braced his arms on Andrew’s thighs and slowly pushed himself up to his knees so they were eye-level.

“It’s over,” he said quietly. “It’s done.”

“Enough talking,” Andrew mumbled, and occupied Neil’s mouth in a much pleasanter way, until neither of them could think with any coherency. Neil shivered and arched into his touch, blissfully removed from the stress of the day. They were okay. Everything was going to be okay.


 

Two side points:

1) holy heck?? check out this amazing, tender, gorgeous (and nsfw) artwork (HERE) by the amazing enoticrobin of Andrew's fantasy from chapter two!!! It's so wonderful go like and reblog it right now holy heckkkk and thank you so so much to enoticrobin for taking the time and effort?? I'm so overwhelmed and awed?? Much love!

2) If you're curious as to whether I pulled the date of Feb 2nd out of thin air - I didn't. I combed exhaustively through The Kings Men to put together the precise timeline, which you can read (along with my sleep deprived ramblings) HERE :)

Chapter Text

Fair warning this is a whole lot of emotional smut... so there's that :') Also you may notice there is now a chapter count, and we're getting towards the end. You may also notice this is part one of a series now :> 


 

“Come on in, Andrew,” Bee smiled as she held the door open for him. “Hot chocolate?”

He nodded and got settled in his usual spot on the couch, directly opposite Bee. While she made up their drinks he took a moment to look around the office, taking comfort in its regularity and precision. Her books always lined up the same (though shuffled around just slightly since she’d given some to Neil), furniture always arranged just so, her desk organised perfectly. The hotplate to one side with the drink materials tucked neatly into a little caddy hanging off the edge of the desk, decorated with butterflies and birds.

He glanced out the window at the familiar view of the building opposite, reflecting sun back into Bee’s office from the whitewashed walls. There wasn’t anything in particular to look at in the view, but sometimes the admin staff in the other building forgot other people could see through those windows. On particularly bad days, when Andrew had refused to say anything to Bee or do anything except stare out the window, he’d managed to distract himself watching the silent, petty dramas of the secretaries and lecturers. There was Brenda, guiltily sneaking nibbles of a chocolate bar hidden in her desk. There was Mark, idly browsing Wikipedia articles while trying to look busy. There was Angie, run off her feet and trying to keep track of five different phone calls, it looked like. And Ramone and Trish were making out in her office. About time, too. They’d been dancing around each other for months.

Idly he wondered if any of them had seen the fight between him and Aaron, or if his own drama had passed unobserved for once, with the rest of them blissfully unaware as they worked through their day. He decided he rather liked that idea, and amused himself with it until Bee handed him his usual mug. He thanked her in a short nod and sipped while she got ready, pen in hand.

He was about to comment on the sameness when a new addition caught his eye – a new figurine on the top shelf. It was in the shape of an apple, sitting pretty in pride of place among the ones he had bought over the past two years. His hands twitched reflexively.

Bee followed his gaze over her own shoulder and smiled at the shelf. “Pretty, isn’t it? Another patient got it for me, she said she loved the display.”

Andrew hummed shortly and took another sip. He reminded himself not to be petty. It didn’t quite work.

“It bothers you?”

He looked at her flatly, then nodded. “It was supposed to be our thing.”

“Hmm,” Bee nodded thoughtfully and made a quick note. “Are you irritated because of the perceived encroachment on our relationship, or the change in the room?”

Andrew ran his tongue over his teeth to get rid of the sugary residue from the hot chocolate. “Our relationship,” he responded eventually.

“Does it make you feel threatened? Possessive? Angry?”

He tapped his fingers on the rim of the mug, warming his fingers. While South Carolina couldn’t be called exactly cold, there was a lot of wind and rain going around as January slid towards February. “Threatened.”

“Why do you think that is?” Bee asked calmly, with an encouraging little smile. Lately in his own sessions with her she’d been trying to get him to explain himself without so much prompting. She said it was to help him engage more with the therapy and rely a bit more on his own judgement in this area, instead of depending so much on her insights.

He sighed shortly and considered the milky sheen of his drink as he swirled it in the mug. When he spoke, it was slow, forming each word carefully as the thought solidified in his head.

“I have very few relationships I care about – very few people. I’m possessive of them because I’m not used to relationships like that.” He took a sip and grimaced as a few memory associations popped up. He dutifully vocalised them as she’d taught him. “When I was a child, I was never valued in any of the houses I was placed into. Nothing was permanent and I was always at risk of being sent back to the carehome. Other children were competition for good homes. I was never good at winning affection from the foster parents; any gestures I made meant nothing compared to the other kids. I was easily replaced.”

A muted pang of hurt rippled through his chest at the last admission and he scowled down at his mug; for a moment, he was transported back to those years of stress and isolation and an ever-growing anger and helplessness. Easily replaced. Too difficult to bother with. Not good enough. Nothing. Worth nothing to anyone.

“I’m sorry you experienced those feelings,” Bee replied softly, “And I can understand how they’ve carried through into adolescence and adulthood. As an adult, I’m sure you can see that those feelings and beliefs don’t need to be driving forces in your life anymore; they’re simply not true. You have a permanent, committed family of your own, friends in your teammates, people who care about you like myself, Abby and David. And all of us love you, value you, and want you to be happy and included. You are not in danger of being rejected or replaced, Andrew.”

He glanced up at her briefly then fixed his gaze firmly on the mug again. He clenched his jaw and quietly repeated her words in his head, trying to get them to sink in.

“We’ve talked before about affirmative touch,” Bee continued after making a few notes. “Specifically, touching Neil in a nonsexual way and allowing it in return as an expression of intimacy. You’ve said it’s been positive?”

He nodded and finished the last gulp in his mug. “Yes.”

“Does it make you feel more secure in yourself, and your relationship?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, good. I’m glad.” She smiled warmly for a moment. “I’d like to suggest you try affirmative words as well, and not just with Neil. You say you weren’t successful at bidding for affection or attention as a child; a useful way to reach out as an adult is to express what you are feeling, and asking for a response. For example saying, ‘Hey Bee, it makes me feel upset that a stranger has given you a gift like mine. It makes me worry I’m losing you’. To which I would then reply, ‘I understand, Andrew, and I want you to know it is not a replacement and I don’t care about you any less, this other person is not your competition’. Does that response help you feel less threatened?”

He thought about it for a few minutes, eyes on the figurines. Slowly, he nodded. It still wasn’t completely okay, but he knew it would take time to really sink in.

“Good,” she smiled again. “And this method of reaching out could help you strengthen your valued relationships by opening up about your emotional state. When we share emotions like this, it often prompts others to share as well – trusting you with their emotions in turn, and assuring you of your value to them. It can also help to identify your own emotions when you’re unsure, and to simply be honest; saying that you don’t feel okay and need assurance. Those who love you will provide that assurance. You’re not a child on your own anymore Andrew, it’s not just you against the world. You have a network of valued people, and they will support and help you if you let them.”

He held her gaze for a long minute. He took a slow breath, trying to ease the tension out of his body. Breathe in the calm and quiet, breathe out the hurt and stress, memory-Bee coached him. You are safe.

“I will try.”

 

None of Andrew’s family asked what was going on when, on Friday February 1st after classes were finished, Andrew and Neil quietly packed their bags for a weekend away.

“We’ll be back Sunday night,” Neil offered when Kevin opened his mouth to ask. “We won’t miss practice, don’t worry.”

“Have a nice weekend, you two,” Nicky smiled from the beanbags. He looked like he wanted to make some kind of innuendo, but settled for a peaceful smile when he looked at his cousin. “We’ll still get drunk without you, of course.”

“Have a soda shot for me,” Neil said as he hitched his bag over his shoulder.

Nicky laughed. “Sure thing, Neil. Bye-bye now, get lost.”

Andrew vaguely saluted him and casually grabbed Neil’s fingers to lead him outside. Andrew knew Dan and Allison spotted them leaving hand-in-hand as they passed the girls’ open door, but couldn’t care much. No doubt they were already texting the rest of the monsters for details and placing bets. He idly wondered if Nicky or Kevin would say that it was their anniversary tomorrow, or if everything from the trial was still considered monster-only territory. He supposed they’d find out on Monday in practice, if anyone had any comments to make.

Anniversary was an intimidating word, he thought as they got settled in the car and linked hands again over the console. Especially when connected with the phrase ‘one year’.

Normally Neil was the one that got weird about time and dates, but Andrew allowed himself to think about it tonight. He and Neil had been an item of sorts for just about a year now, and after the trial Neil had tentatively promised years to come as well. While the time had been unspooling steadily behind them, Andrew had tried not to pay too much attention to it even as they pulled each other closer and started to dismantle their walls just a little. He had told himself nothing lasted, he didn’t get to have things long-term, that even if this meant significantly more than nothing to both of them, there was no way it could last.

And yet. One year.

He’d never had anyone worth a commitment before.

He’d expected to feel tied down, restricted, strangled, afraid and holding too tightly, scared by all that Neil knew about him and the ghastly spectre of hurt and loss that could result. He examined his thoughts carefully, assessing them as Bee had taught, and tightened his hold a little on Neil’s hand.

He glanced over at Neil when they got to the highway; he was watching out the windscreen with a faraway look to his face. When he noticed Andrew’s attention, he smiled with that soft, gentle look to his eyes and mouth that the press would never get to see.

“You okay?” He asked. Always asking. Always checking.

“I am okay,” he affirmed.

Neil smiled some more and gently lifted his hand to place a kiss over his knuckles, looking relaxed and at ease.

It didn’t feel like he’d expected. It felt like having someone in his corner at last, knowing that if he tripped he wouldn’t fall flat on his face, knowing that he had just as much knowledge about this man with decades of lies under his skin. It felt like knowing where the boundaries were and how to navigate them. He could still feel the potential for unbelievable pain after letting someone in so far – but the risk against this, this comfort and steadiness and assurance, was worth it.

They drove in silence to the house in Columbia, comfortable with each other and their thoughts, and Andrew pulled Neil in for a kiss when they parked. Neil hummed against his lips in surprise and combed gently through Andrew’s hair when Andrew pulled his hand there. When they pulled back a little to breathe, Neil kept stroking his hair with a silly look on his face. Andrew eased his hand up Neil’s knee to his thigh in return.

“I just want to kiss tonight,” Andrew murmured, his eyes a little unfocussed from having Neil so close to his face. “And try things tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” Neil agreed and leaned in to place small kisses on Andrew’s bottom lip. “I feel too tired for much tonight anyway.”

Andrew closed his eyes and rubbed slow and firm over Neil’s thigh as they kissed for a little while longer, until Neil made a frustrated sound as he strained against the console and gearshift digging into his hip.

“Bed?” Andrew asked against his lips; they’d had dinner at the dorms earlier. Neil nodded and slowly let his hand drop from the back of Andrew’s head. They separated long enough to get inside with their bags and up the stairs. They didn’t bother with the downstairs lights as they knew the house well enough to navigate it in the dark. Andrew pulled down his blinds and flicked on his bedside lamp, coating the walls with a warm, buttery orange glow. He restrained himself from reaching for Neil again, oddly needy about having hands on him tonight, and dressed down into his sleepwear of some old sweatpants. He considered his usual sleeping shirt, then thoughtfully discarded it along with his emptied armbands. When he turned around Neil had stripped down as well, into a loose tank top and some soft jersey shorts that barely covered the tops of his thighs and left the long majority of his legs uncovered. Neil noticed the direction of his gaze and tugged on the hems a little, looking vaguely embarrassed for some reason. Andrew didn’t understand that – he’d seen Neil naked before, he knew Neil’s legs very well. He raised his eyebrows in question and lifted Neil’s hands away.

“It’s nothing, just some stupid thoughts,” Neil shrugged. Andrew kept looking at him until he continued over a half-bitten lip, “It just… it feels much more deliberate, this weekend, tonight. We planned this. It’s different to just getting caught up in the moment. It’s making me nervous for some reason.”

Andrew thought about it for a little while, settling his hands absently on Neil’s ass. At Andrew’s nod, Neil gently rested his hands on Andrew’s bare chest. He thought about his last private session with Bee and sorted through what he wanted to say.

“It makes me nervous too,” he replied quietly.

“Oh,” Neil blinked, surprised and relieved all at once. “Oh, okay. That’s alright then. I thought it was just me being… stupid, I guess.”

“It’s not stupid. You’re not stupid. If it’s stressing you out we won’t try it tomorrow.”

Neil smiled again and rubbed his hands carefully over Andrew’s chest. “Ask me tomorrow, and we’ll see.”

Andrew nodded and tilted his head towards the bed. Neil nodded back and they eased around each other to lay down. Andrew drank in the moment when Neil lay back with his legs spread so Andrew could settle between them, stored it away in his brain for later. It took a bit of shuffling and pulling on limbs, but they quickly got comfortable. Andrew carefully looked over the way Neil relaxed fully against the pillows, his legs shifting to curl around Andrew’s hips and legs. Andrew didn’t know why Neil had such a thing about sitting or lying like that (he suspected it was to do with feeling secure and interlocked), but he liked the way it felt regardless, having those long, pretty legs wrapped around himself, pulling them both close, and so easily touched and moved. He rested his weight against Neil, closing his customary distance, and palmed over the thigh cocked up over his hip.

“Where can I touch you?” Neil asked.

“From the waist up,” Andrew replied. Neil grinned briefly and ran careful hands down his shoulders and back, before tracing back up again into his hair.

“Kiss me?”

Andrew could hardly refuse that request. He eased down and found Neil’s upturned mouth easily, feeling a sigh gust into his mouth. They kissed with a lazy slowness, revelling in each and every of many kisses and touches. Andrew let his thoughts fade as he worked firm hands over Neil’s thighs, and felt hands cradling his head and stroking over his arms and shoulders. His skin seemed to burn from the constant contact, and he welcomed it with a relish. Tonight, there was nothing to worry about, nothing to cause concern. They could simply lay in bed kissing and touching and trading sweet promises with every wordless breath. They kissed until they were delirious and sleepy with drooping eyes and clumsy hands.

Neil eventually groaned and turned his face a little so Andrew’s mouth brushed his cheek.

“I’m gonna fall asleep,” he mumbled, his body soft and pliant under Andrew’s careful hands. He would arch and shift and curl at the slightest prompt and Andrew didn’t want to stop, wanted to soak this in all night, but he could feel sleep weighing his own bones too. They untangled their limbs regretfully and pulled the covers over themselves. Andrew fell asleep to the sight of Neil yawning smilingly into his hand, ruffled and dazed and very content.

Saturday February 2nd dawned bright and crisp, the sun sliding in between the slats of the blinds and making long stripes over the shape of two dozing bodies. They went about their day without ceremony; doing homework and making a quick trip to get groceries, smoking out the back when they wanted. They watched game shows and the clock tick down with equal attention. Andrew read a book with Neil leaning up against his shoulder while he muttered Spanish conversation pieces under his breath. Neither of them mentioned the date or its relevance, and that was just fine.

They ate a quick takeout dinner and spent an hour or two on the sofa, not really talking or watching the TV all that much. Neil held his hand and traced over his fingers and joints absently as they shared time. Eventually, when it was dark outside with moonlight replacing the sun, Neil cleared his throat.

“Do you want to go upstairs?” He asked, all casual as if he wasn’t breathing a bit faster than normal.

Andrew swallowed dryly and nodded. “Yes.”

They lost their clothing somewhere between the locked door and the bed until they stood naked before each other, both a bit nervous and trying not to be. Neil wet his lips as his eyes skimmed down Andrew’s body, obviously trying not to linger but just as obviously curious. Andrew stepped closer and ran his hands slowly up Neil’s arms towards his shoulders.

“Say no at any time,” He reminded him quietly.

“I know,” Neil replied with a gentle stroke of Andrew’s hair. “And for you too. How do you want to do this?”

“I want to get you off first.”

“Okay. Yes.”

Andrew nodded to himself and turned to the bed; he propped up the pillows against the headboard and settled himself against them, stretching out his legs. He held a hand out to Neil, who took it almost shyly and let himself be pulled into Andrew’s lap with his knees either side of Andrew’s hips.

“Sit,” Andrew said quietly, pressing on his hips. Neil took a quick breath and sank down to sit on Andrew’s thighs. His hands twitched at his sides like he wasn’t sure what to do with them and eventually settled for putting them on his knees.

Andrew took a few moments to simply look and feel; Neil looked very pretty sitting like this, naked and exposed and waiting to be touched with a shy flush to his cheeks, hard to see in the dim light but very much there. His skin was hot and soft against Andrew’s legs, and his weight was almost grounding, letting Andrew know this wasn’t a vivid fantasy any longer.

Andrew slowly eased his hands over Neil’s knees and up his taut, bunched thighs towards his hips. He watched Neil shiver minutely at the touch and swept back down again, rubbing warmly up and down the firm muscle of his gorgeous legs until the tension in his shoulders loosened and he was sighing, his own fingers trickling lightly over Andrew’s shoulders and biceps. Andrew leaned forward and slowly pressed his mouth to the scars on his chest, keeping his hands moving with a steady pressure.

Neil’s arms shifted to cradle Andrew’s shoulders and head. He could feel Neil’s rapid heartbeat under his cheek as he slowly kissed and trailed his tongue over the scars, savouring the shivery reactions and twitches he got from each one and trying to coax out some noise. Neil curled into him, gasping just a little, hips tilting down and thighs squeezing. Andrew felt his chin rest on the top of his head, the hot pass of breath in his hair, and sucked a little on his skin.

“Do you like this?” Andrew asked against his chest, arms slowly snaking up to wrap around Neil’s hips and pull him in closer.

“Yes,” Neil breathed, then gasped as his slowly-hardening cock brushed up against Andrew’s stomach. Andrew squeezed his hips in his arms and grazed his teeth just a little over the marred skin under his mouth. One of Neil’s hands tangled in Andrew’s hair and the other gripped his shoulder hard, digging into the muscle and bone. Andrew covered him in slow, heated kisses and held Neil close while he shivered and curled over his shoulders and back, thighs twitching and shaking with the effort of sitting splayed out in Andrew’s lap.

“Andrew,” he sighed, long and low and tinged with a moan underneath, reverberating through his chest into Andrew’s jaw.

“Yes?”

“Kiss me,” Neil asked breathlessly, shifting back and tugging a little on his hair. Andrew let himself be pulled in and crushed their mouths together hungrily, sloppy and with a distinct lack of finesse but Neil just moaned into his mouth and slid their tongues together needily. With one hand, Andrew reached to the side and found the bottle of lube he’d left under the pillow earlier. He squeezed some into his palm while Neil was distracted sharing breath, then slowly reached between them and closed his hand over Neil’s dick.

Neil’s hips jerked forward involuntarily and a startled moan shuddered between them.

“Still good?”

“Yes, yes,” Neil panted into his cheek as Andrew’s hand moved slowly, bringing him to an aching fullness in just a few strokes. As always, Neil’s responsiveness was both gratifying and intoxicating, and Andrew could feel himself responding to it all, heat bubbling away in his stomach and making him burn for Neil’s skin.

So he slowed down. He moved his wrist in slow pulls, teasing each increasingly-desperate gasp and moan and bead of precome. As he moved slower and slower, Neil’s hips and legs started to shake in frustration until they bucked forward again, just a bit, pushing himself harder into Andrew’s hand. He groaned and rested his forehead on Andrew’s shoulder.

“Andrew, come on,” he panted.

“You like it like this,” Andrew observed calmly in spite of his own flushed skin and racing pulse, definitely in spite of his own erection. He leaned back against the pillows again and surveyed the sight before him – a mess of heaving breaths, helpless shudders and desperate touches.

“Yeah,” Neil admitted breathlessly, his hips trying to move again even as he bit his lip. He pressed a hand to his face, half-hiding. “It’s sitting like this, I think. It feels… strange.”

“What kind of strange?” Andrew asked evenly.

Neil covered his face with both hands, trembling, and Andrew moved his own hands to simply rest on Neil’s knees.

“Neil, talk to me. Do you want to stop?”

“No,” Neil mumbled between his hands. He stretched his legs a little, widening his hips with a shiver. “I think – I think it feels strange because it’s very…”

“Vulnerable?” Andrew asked quietly, gently squeezing his thighs. Neil nodded quickly. “Do you like the feeling or does it scare you?”

“I think I like it more than I’m scared,” Neil admitted nervously.

Andrew watched him for a moment, a contradiction of wants and fears. He took a slow breath of his own and squeezed again. “That’s how I feel about you. And this. All the time.”

The admission had his chest tightening in reflexive fear, the need to deny and push away and put up his walls again – but then Neil’s trembling stopped, and he slowly lowered his hands to close over Andrew’s. His lips curved hesitantly as he watched Andrew’s face. Neil leaned in and they shared a slow, syrupy kiss that eased their anxieties away and felt like more promises, always more promises. Their hands squeezed tight together.

“I want to keep going,” Neil murmured against his cheek. Andrew nodded, left a kiss smeared against his jaw and moved one hand back to Neil’s cock.

Slowly, hesitantly, Neil started to move again. He watched as Neil squirmed and bucked in his lap, hips moving in a strange, erratic rhythm as if his body knew what it wanted but his brain couldn’t quite catch up to it, leaving him in a frustrating limbo between the two that was fascinating and enthralling to watch. Andrew kept his grip loose and slick as Neil rocked unsteadily into him, panting with his eyes closed.

He sometimes forgot that sex was tricky for Neil, too. He couldn’t really be called inexperienced anymore, with a year of kisses and touches behind them and Neil’s easy compliance and eagerness, but Andrew sometimes lost sight of just how new everything was to him. He remembered Neil’s stumbling explanation of how the only person he felt attraction for was Andrew, how long it had taken him to understand his own feelings, remembered how difficult it was for Neil to get himself off without Andrew’s help, how dazed and overwhelmed he’d been the first time they’d kissed, never mind receiving his first hand or blow job.

He watched Neil feeling out this new sensation and for a few moments, thought he understood what Neil meant by only ‘swinging’ for Andrew. The only reason he could let himself relax and feel this way, the only reason his body could really respond at all – was because of how he felt about Andrew. It was more than a year of trust and understanding all packaged into this… vulnerability. He was placing himself entirely at Andrew’s mercy and control and trusting in Andrew wholeheartedly. Andrew couldn’t imagine him feeling safe enough or excited enough to try this with anyone who knew him any less than Andrew did. In the same way, he knew for a fact he couldn’t imagine being naked and exposed and planning to receive oral for the first time with anyone else. It just wouldn’t be possible.

He pressed another kiss to the underside of Neil’s jaw as he squirmed and pushed unsteadily forward in Andrew’s lap. He could feel the weight of the past year in this moment, how completely Neil was offering himself up to Andrew’s steady guidance. It made his throat close for a moment in fear at just how deep they had fallen into this something (this relationship, his brain whispered shyly), but also put warmth in his chest. Being trusted in such a way was… amazing. It was a request, and Andrew was incapable of refusing those from Neil.

Andrew untangled their fingers to place Neil’s hands on his shoulders. He gathered him close in his free arm, steadying him and guiding his hips into a better motion in slow, deep rolls.

“You like that?” He asked again.

Neil nodded frantically and let out a truly filthy moan that had Andrew biting his lip and shuddering a little himself. They moved slowly and carefully, guiding Neil securely against Andrew’s hand. Their foreheads rested together and they gasped the same air.  Their thighs rubbed together hotly with each push of Neil’s hips and it was taking all of Andrew’s control not to touch himself as well or get too far along with Neil moving in his lap so sweetly. He could imagine doing this pushed deep into Neil’s body, their hips moving together in a slow dance, pulsing and shaking with how good it would feel… but for now even this was almost unimaginably good, so good, more than enough for now. Someday, he thought dazedly, maybe someday.

“Andrew,” Neil was gasping needily, “I – I’m…”

Andrew firmed his grip to give a few rapid pulls and with a hoarse cry, Neil curled forward into him, pushing hard and desperate into his hand as he gave in to his release. When Neil was left trembling in the aftershocks, his thighs clenching and releasing in hard spasms, Andrew reached down and gripped himself firmly at the base with a clenched jaw, willing himself not to come as well.

Neil gasped for breath and slumped into him, sitting limply in his lap with his arms curled tight around Andrew’s shoulder, his face tucked into Andrew’s neck.

“Andrew…” he mumbled.

“What is it?”

“I’m good,” Neil sighed, and Andrew could feel the smile pressed into his shoulder. “I’m good. That was… I’m good.”

Andrew took some slow breaths himself and eased his free hand up and down Neil’s back, feeling the bow of his spine and the rapid beat of his heart thundering in his ribcage; he rested his other hand on Neil’s shuddery thigh. It took quite some time for Neil to calm down, but that was okay. It felt shockingly good to just sit and touch and breathe together. A simple comfort, maybe, but much needed. Andrew could admit he very much liked having Neil close in his arms like this, soft and jelly-limbed and shaky with pleasure. Feeling their bodies pressed hot and slick against each other, far from repulsive or triggering, simply joyful and very wanted. Holding him felt oddly like being home.

“I want to get you off too,” Neil sighed into his neck when he was a bit more recovered. He left little kisses over the very sensitive skin there and Andrew fought down shudders of his own. “I’m ready, Andrew. I want you to.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Neil replied sweetly, and leaned up to give him a long, lingering kiss. When he pulled back, he rubbed his thumbs over Andrew’s cheekbones as he waited for a reply.

Andrew swallowed thickly. He didn’t want to move from sitting so close, didn’t want to risk ruining things, but he was still achingly hard and Neil said he was wanted it too… “Kneel on the floor.”

Neil ran his hands firmly down Andrew’s chest, an excited little gleam in his eyes, before leveraging himself out of Andrew’s lap and off the bed. Andrew watched as he looked around the room, naked and beautiful, before slowly kneeling in a puddle of moonlight easing into the room from an uneven crack in the blinds. He smiled expectantly, hands folded in his lap as he sat back on his heels, as Andrew carefully got to his feet and joined him there, his feet either side of Neil’s knees this time.

Hesitantly, he rested his hands in Neil’s hair. It was already different to the fantasy, in the undercut style with the back and sides newly trimmed down to his scalp. He slowly ran his fingers through it, first over the soft buzzed sections and then through the messy, sweat-damp top part. Neil watched him patiently, face upturned and serene in the silvery light. His eyelids drooped a little as Andrew kept stroking his hair, lips parting of their own accord. They were cherry-red from a night of kissing, plump and inviting as always.

“I like this,” he breathed, a sigh of words that shivered against Andrew’s belly and groin. Andrew had flagged a little from nerves and time, but he bit his lip as desire pulsed in him again. His hands drifted down to cup Neil’s face, gentle and careful over his scars and delicate bones.

“Can I touch you?” Neil asked, blinking up at him.

“My legs,” Andrew replied tightly.

Neil smiled and slowly raised his hands. He stroked gently down the sides of Andrew’s thick thighs, as if trying to calm him. His thumbs rubbed little circles and he squeezed gently, much the same as Andrew liked to do to him.

Andrew took a slow breath and slowly organised some words. “I am scared of hurting you,” he said as plainly as he could.

“I know,” Neil replied, and briefly ducked his head to lay a small kiss to Andrew’s thigh. “And I know you won’t. I trust you. I want this too.”

Andrew swallowed and watched as Neil continued kissing his thighs with a lazy, unhurried sweetness and attention.

“Tap my legs twice if you want to stop.”

“I will, Andrew. I promise. It’s okay.”

Andrew took three measured breaths, then carefully guided Neil’s jaw into readiness. Neil licked his lips and slowly stretched his mouth open, eyes calm and trusting. Oh, fuck.

Slowly, so slowly, Andrew rested the head of his cock on Neil’s tongue and closed the distance between them. He was panting already, holding Neil’s hair and cheek to keep himself grounded at the overwhelming sensation of wet heat and knowing that it was Neil and they were doing this and it was real…

He could feel the muscles in Neil’s cheek and tongue moving as he got used to the particular alignment of teeth, lips, tongue and throat needed for this. His hands squeezed Andrew’s thighs slowly, not to stop, just to encourage. Neil hummed quietly, sending shocks all through Andrew’s body, and he had to pull back with a short gasp.

“Are you okay?” Neil asked softly once his mouth was free again, looking concerned and petting his thighs some more.

“Are you?”

“I’m really good, Andrew,” Neil assured him patiently. “Really. I quite liked the feeling, actually.” He looked away for a second, unexpectedly bashful. “If you want to keep going, I do too.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Andrew. I want you to feel as good as you make me feel. I want this.”

Andrew examined the earnestness in his face and stroked his hair a few more times to steady himself. Neil opened his beautiful mouth again and they eased together carefully. A low moan shivered from Andrew’s chest despite himself at both the sight and the feeling. Neil’s hands firmed on his legs and his thumbs swept back and forth soothingly. Andrew kept one hand in his hair and steadied his jaw with the other. He pulled back a bit, not quite leaving Neil’s mouth again, and pushed forward in a slow rock along the slick passage of Neil’s mouth. Neil’s eyes fluttered closed for a second and he hesitantly hollowed his cheeks and sucked a little, his tongue pressing and coaxing…

They settled into a slow rhythm of back and forth. All of Andrew’s nerve endings were sparking and fizzing from the top of his head down to his toes. It was overwhelming, it was terrifying, it was beautiful. He watched Neil’s face in the dappled moonlight, scars shining white and mostly-closed eyes glinting, long eyelashes shadowing his cheeks. His hair was soft and soothing under Andrew’s hand and seemed to curl welcomingly around his fingers. Neil sighed through his nose, content and pleased as they moved, and Andrew felt warm all through his bones.

In the fantasy, Andrew had been completely in control, Neil simply allowing the use of his body. But now – they were moving together, steadying each other, Neil pushing forwards as much as Andrew was, inviting him closer and deeper. His hips were moving a little faster but Neil was keeping up, his lips slick with saliva and precome. His hands curled around the backs of Andrew’s thighs, pulling him in with each thrust and bracing himself. The fantasy had been pleasant, but Andrew would always take the reality of Neil over it.

He felt like he was losing control, his hands in Neil’s hair the only thing keeping him grounded and present as his breath caught and gasped in his chest. Neil started to hum with each thrust, a quiet moan that wrecked them both, until Andrew knew he was approaching the edge and if he didn’t pull back, he’d be coming down Neil’s throat.

He held Neil’s jaw again and gasped his name. Neil opened his eyes and pulled off, saliva spilling from the corners of his mouth.

“Close your eyes,” Andrew whispered tightly. Neil did so immediately and waited with his face upturned and lips parted. Andrew took himself in hand, shaking a little, and tumbled over the edge in a hot rush that had Neil clutching his hips to keep him steady even as come streaked his face.

Andrew gasped for breath and opened his eyes after a few moments. He groaned involuntarily at the sight that met him. Neil’s expression was calmly pleased, his burn scars obscured under the spatter of come. It was over his jaw too, painting his lips and dripping a little into his mouth. There was a bit in his hair, Andrew noted with a vague twist of guilt. At least he’d closed his eyes; Andrew remembered with a sense of unreality the time Roland had got some in his eye and how much it had stung.

It put an odd feeling in his chest, mingled pleasure and satisfaction and control to see Neil’s face so marked, and marked by him. With shaking hands, he stroked through Neil’s hair and over his cheeks where they were clean. He traced along Neil’s jaw and delicately brushed his lips, and down to his throat. He brushed the bangs off his forehead and sighed quietly. Neil licked his lips and swallowed the come he found there, prompting a quick clench in Andrew’s gut.

“Andrew?” Neil asked, his hands stroking over Andrew’s legs again comfortingly. “Are you okay? I’m feeling really good, I promise. I liked that a lot.”

“I’m okay,” Andrew replied quietly. “I need – I need a minute. Stay there.”

Neil nodded in understanding and kept his eyes closed as Andrew stepped away and flicked on the bathroom light. He washed his hands, ran a wet flannel over his body to get rid of sweat and Neil’s come. He braced himself on the sink for a few minutes, trying to process everything that had happened and to calm down from the warring states of panic and heady pleasure. Breathe in, breathe out.

They had done it, he realised absently. And it had been good. Really good.

What do I want to do now? He asked himself as the worry eased into calm. I want… to look after him.

He nodded to his reflection and dampened another flannel. When he went back to the bedroom, he was a little surprised to see Neil still kneeling there, eyes closed. He hadn’t moved at all, even though come was sliding down his neck now. He turned his head a little at the sound of Andrew’s approach and smiled.

“I’m going to clean your face,” Andrew said quietly.

Neil nodded again, then leaned into his hand when Andrew started gently wiping the flannel over him. He took his time about it, carefully cleaning up the mess he’d made and then kept going, washing his face and over his neck and chest. His knees felt wobbly from the high of his orgasm but he refused to sit down when Neil needed his care. When the flannel needed rinsing out, he tossed it through the open doorway onto the floor of the bathroom. It splatted softly and Neil snorted.

Andrew stroked slowly through his hair again, and over his face. He was always pretty, but in the soft glow of the moonlight and loose and calm from pleasure, he was lovely. He sighed in contentment and kissed vaguely over Andrew’s hands when they came near his mouth, eyes still closed.

“I enjoyed that,” Andrew said eventually. “Thank you.”

Neil smiled slowly and opened his eyes, soft and happy and calm. “I enjoyed it too. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”

“Mm.”

“Do you want to go to bed?”

“Not yet. There’s ice cream downstairs.”

“Then let’s go downstairs,” Neil said lightly, and accepted Andrew’s help in standing on unsteady legs. They pulled on their sleepwear and headed down. Andrew felt vaguely lightheaded but knew it would pass. He pulled out two cartons from the freezer, and caught Neil’s delighted smile when he saw they were the same flavours he’d bought them a year ago. Neil got the spoons and a blanket as they settled on the couch.

After a few bites, Andrew realised he was starting to feel restless with the distance between them. They weren’t even sitting far apart, their knees were touching. But after everything they’d done that night, it felt far too distant. Especially with how completely Neil had given himself over to Andrew’s care. He felt the tug of pleasant responsibility burning away in his chest, and a need to keep him safe and secure in the aftermath.

“I want to keep you close right now,” he admitted to his hands. This neediness, this anxiousness, it should frighten him like it had during the Binghamton riot. But it melted away when Neil simply hummed and twisted to sit sideways on the couch, his legs tucked over Andrew’s lap as he curled into Andrew’s side.

“Better?”

Andrew rested his arm along Neil’s leg, holding his hip and pulling him just a bit closer. “Yes,” he said into Neil’s cheek. Neil sighed happily, his body warm and supple as he pressed closer too. It seemed Andrew wasn’t the only one hungry for contact. Neil settled the blanket around both their shoulders as they slowly ate through their ice cream, heady affection and security shared in every inch of skin pressed against each other.

One year, Andrew thought as Neil kissed his temple sleepily. One year, and more to come.

It sounded pretty damn good.

Chapter Text

TW for homophobic language, slurs, violence, mentions of drug abuse and overdose.


 

Aaron turned away from the room to hide his smile as he read Katelyn’s text. You’ll do so great tonight sweetheart!!! See you after the game xoxo

You too, he texted back slowly. Kick ass, babe :)

She sent back a series of truly sappy and adorable emojis that had his ears burning even if his expression was blank and calm.

“A-hem,” Nicky coughed loudly from the beanbag next to him. “Earth to Aaron, hello, I was asking what game you wanna play? Unless you’re too busy sexting. Oh my God, are you sexting? Is it Katelyn? Aaron! How can you be sexting with your family all right here! I am so shocked and proud of you.”

“Knock it off,” Aaron muttered, embarrassed as he shoved his phone away and leaned back from Nicky’s grabby hands. “And I was not.”

“You so were,” Nicky laughed delightedly. “But fine, keep your lies. I was sexting with Erik the other day, no shame in it buddy! And let me tell you, Erik is the king of suggestive one-liners, oh boy, and in German too, I don’t think I’ll be able to concentrate in that marketing class ever again.”

“This is why your grades are terrible,” Aaron replied as he picked up the case for a co-op FPS and chucked it Nicky’s way. “Do you ever take notes?”

“Sure I do,” Nicky said as he loaded up the game and got comfortable in the beanbag again. “There’s just always so many more interesting things to think about once I’ve been concentrating for the first half hour. Like, the material is all interesting, but it’s supposed to make us think and plan what we would do if we were in charge of that project, but the teachers never give us any time to actually think about it properly? Which is totally unfair, and we never get to debate stuff regularly either, and I have so many ideas Aaron! So many ideas. But if I’m concentrating so hard on taking notes, how am I gonna have the space and time to write down all my awesome ideas? This is why projects are way better than exam classes.”

“Uh huh,” Aaron nodded along, used to Nicky’s mile-a-minute chattering by now. “Can’t you like, make notes in a different workbook or something and develop them later?”

“I guess I could,” Nicky shrugged and twirled the controller in his hands as they waited for the game to load. “But then that’s splitting my attention even more, and I don’t wanna miss the entire class, you know? College is hard.”

“Mm,” Aaron hummed, watching his bubbly cousin for a moment. “I bet your ideas would be way more fun than the normal stuff we see all the time.”

Nicky beamed at him, bouncing a little in his seat. “Aww, Aaron! That is so sweet of you to say! I’m gonna dedicate my next sciencey project to you, just for that.”

“Fuck off,” Aaron said mildly, raising his eyebrows.

“I’m serious! We’ve got one coming up where we can choose to reinvent the marketing strategy for a particular object or person, so I’m gonna do the next one for you! Quick, what’s your favourite piece of lab equipment?”

“Uhh,” Aaron stalled while he thought. “Probably the bacteria tenderiser.”

“The what?”

Aaron fumbled his phone out again to try and pull up a picture. “Well that’s not its real name, I think it’s actually called a well replicator or something? It’s basically a big block of metal spikes that you dip into microwells of stuff to put on agar plates or in enzyme assays or whatever. It’s pretty badass.”

“Whoah,” Nicky agreed as he looked at the pictures. “Andrew, come look at this! It’s like a mediaeval torture thing.”

Andrew gave them a cool stare from where he was sitting on the desk smoking out the window, then slid off the top and slouched over to them. Aaron held the phone out, surprised at the rare show of maybe-curiosity, and watched his brother’s face.

Andrew glanced at him for a minute, and Aaron recognised the very particular micro-expression that meant Andrew was about to try and offer something; he’d been seeing that look in therapy more often recently, though he had yet to see it outside of Dobson’s office.

“Good weapon for a zombie apocalypse,” Andrew offered, almost casually.

Aaron raised an eyebrow, having overheard the weird hypotheticals his brother, Renee and Josten played out when they walked laps sometimes.

“Yeah,” Aaron replied stiffly, swallowing down the weird sense of success at getting his brother to offer something up for no reason than conversation, nothing needed, just maybe wanted. Like maybe Aaron’s company was wanted. “Well, if zombies hit while I was in the lab building, I’d be set. Huge supplies of gloves and labcoats and eye goggles, no infected fluids getting in there. And lots of glass stuff to smash and lay on windowsills and tops of walls for defence, you could way-unbalance the centrifuges to get them to explode like bombs if you need, tons of chemicals and a protected supply of clean water. Big fridges and freezers to keep food. Emergency chemical showers. Isolated air systems. Security locks in the Category 2-or-higher labs. First aid kits in case anyone gets hurt. Microscopes and stuff to examine infected samples, microbiology equipment to figure out if you could inoculate people or if antibiotics worked against the strain, if it were bacterial or fungal or whatever. Not really anywhere to sleep, but you could always pile up coats and stuff on the floor, it wouldn’t be too bad. Pretty easy, really.”

There was a long silence as Andrew just stared at him and Nicky gaped. Eventually, Andrew replied.

“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, then nodded. “Good shit, Aaron.” Apparently done, he went back to the desk and staring out into the midday sun.

Aaron shared a look with Nicky, whose eyes were wide with his hands over his mouth. Aaron felt a satisfied smirk tugging at his lips and let it grow for a second before taking up his controller again.

“C’mon Nicky, I’m gonna beat your ass this time.”

“Ha! Yeah, yeah, okay,” Nicky shot back with a patronising tone. “We’ll see, rugrat.”

“Sure your arthritis won’t hold you back, gramps?” Aaron asked snidely as they started moving through the game.

Nicky scoffed. “Sure your tiny baby fingers can reach all the buttons?”

Aaron scowled; one time he couldn’t stretch to get the bumpers, one time, and that was when he was sixteen. But would Nicky ever let him forget it? Never.

“Mmkay, just don’t freak out when you see me following you and frag me again.”

“You were right on my ass and glowy, of course I just chucked a thing and ran!” Nicky protested. “What else was I supposed to do? It’s my natural reflexes man, like a cat. Or a ninja. Ninjacat. That would be an amazing show, I’m trademarking it right the fuck now. No steals.”

Aaron smiled and let himself relax into the beanbag, chatting the shit with Nicky and destroying a gratifying number of aliens on-screen while Andrew silently smoked and Kevin nerded out with Josten in the bedroom watching old Exy games. It was rare for them all to be free from classes at the same time, but with the game later their afternoon ones had all been cancelled and they had time to kill. It was nice. And the occasional buzz from Katelyn in his pocket made it even nicer.

His rosy feelings blued over a little once they got on the court for warmups, though.

“Pick up the pace!” Dan was yelling at the freshies, who had come over all nerves for tonight’s game. It would determine whether they were going through to the death matches, and the lot of them seemed to have lost all confidence they’d gained through the season.

“Sheena, that’s fucking wrong,” Aaron snapped at the defensive dealer who’d missed yet another easy pass. It should have gone to either himself, Matt or Andrew and had somehow missed the lot of them and gone to Jack instead. Aaron was positive the two of them had some kind of hate-fuck arrangement that he wanted no concrete knowledge about. Allison and Seth had been dramatic enough. “You’re on defence, you can’t pass to the striker line. How many times? You have to work with us back here. We’ve done that transfer a hundred times in practice.”

“It’s not a big deal!” She hissed back, crossing her arms over her chest and pouting under her helmet. “Quit riding me, jeez!”

“I’m riding you because it’s stupid fumbles like that that earn penalty points, and if we let the score differential get too high we can’t proceed.”

“You’re not even in my position,” she sneered.

“Even worse, if I’m the one having to correct you!” He yelled in her face, fed up with her bullshit fouling up his end of the court.

“Whoah, did you and Kevin swap bodies or something?” Matt smiled as he came over, trying to diffuse the tension. “Aaron, give her a break. Sheena, if you can’t see where to pass to one of us, rebound it and we’ll reset for the receive, okay?”

Sheena was about to snap at him too, when Josten came jogging over. “What’s the problem over here?” He asked, trying too hard for a captainly presence. “Everyone’s supposed to be running precision drills right now.”

“Aaron’s blowing up at me for no reason!” Sheena said, pointing fingers. Aaron threw up his hands and was about to throw down his gloves at last, but Josten smacked his wrists with his forearm in an easy block.

“Alright, you two separate and do drills on either end of the court. Pointless arguments right before a game will get us nowhere.”

“You can fuck right off, Josten,” Aaron snapped at him and shoved his chest. “You don’t get to tell me what to do!”

Josten gave him a cold look and pointed a thumb at his chest. “Vice-captain. Now fuck off down that end and throw some balls at the wall until you’ve cooled down. Sheena, you need to listen to your senior teammates’ criticisms without taking it so personal. You go off that end, right now, and practice your rebound precision. Kevin’s got the cones out. Now scram, both of you. Focus on what we’re actually trying to do later.”

Aaron made sure to smack his entire body against Josten’s side as he passed in a full-body check, making him stumble back a step.

“Hey!”

A pair of court gloves smacked the back of his helmet and Aaron spun around again. He caught Josten’s jersey in one fist and yanked him close.

“Get this nice and clear, Josten – I am not my brother. You cannot manipulate me into doing anything on or off this court. So take your orders and shove ‘em right up your ass and ride them ‘til the cows come home, I don’t care. I don’t care whatever gross gay shit you do with him, you do not get to order me around.”

Josten snarled and shoved his chest hard enough to make them both rock back on their heels. “Must hurt trying to pretend all that worry and love is anger at me, right? You have an issue with me, I’ll happily go a couple rounds with you off the court. But not here, and not now. We have a game tonight and I will not let you and your bullshit issues screw this up for us. We clear?”

Aaron was about to just deck him, when he saw Nicky and Andrew standing together by the goal, watching the spat. Andrew’s face showed nothing, but Nicky looked tired and upset as if Aaron had thrown those words in his face instead of Neil’s, and the tight grip Andrew had on his racquet betrayed his apparent apathy. In a flash of self-loathing, he remembered Nicky telling him one time what some of the ‘therapy’ sessions at the conversion camp had been like with learning how sick and wrong and sinful he was, and Andrew in their last session quietly admitting to the mental turmoil he’d had in juvie, confronting years of abuse against an increasing attraction to the other guys around him.

So instead of punching Josten right in his smart mouth, Aaron got a fleeting handle on his temper and walked off to the far end of the court to launch some fucking balls at the fucking wall. Maybe one day he’d learn to speak without screwing things up for his family. Maybe.

The rest of practice passed frostily, but at least everyone’s precision drills were getting faint praise from Kevin.

When game time rolled around, he decided to focus his anger and sick guilt on their opponents instead of himself. He smacked his racquet on the ground, staked a claim on his part of the court, and defended it viciously.

Matt whooped when Aaron drove his mark bodily back across the line towards middle court, completely legally, just holding around the guy’s waist and running like a football player running drills. “Aaron, sweet power move!”

Aaron raised his racquet in acknowledgement and sneered at the mark spitting insults at him. He stole the ball out of the guy’s racquet with a sharp pop, spun and hurled it back to Andrew, who lined up his shot like a baseball player and whacked it clear up to Kevin with perfect timing. He focussed down hard into his body, ignoring any thoughts that weren’t about the game or shutting down their opponents, and let himself sink into the fast dance with Matt to his side, dodging strikers and forming fast-moving walls and keeping the opposing strikers way out of shooting range.

“Fuck off,” he drawled to his mark when he tried feinting, and smacked into him hard enough to knock him over.

“Fucking midget,” the guy spat as he picked himself up, then went right for a left hook and to hell with the illegality. It caught Aaron in the jaw just under his helmet and he staggered before lunging forward – and right into Matt’s restraining arm while the refs blew whistles and scrambled towards them.

“Druggie scum,” the striker jeered at them both. “Go shoot up, why don’t you? Do us all a favour and overdose like your loser friend Gordon.”

“Kinda rude,” Matt said in an entirely pleasant voice, then punched him so hard in the stomach that he doubled up over Matt’s fist and started retching. “Might wanna work on those manners.”

“Nice hit,” Aaron admired as they watched the guy squirm. “Worth the card?”

Matt grimaced at the refs advancing with yellow cards held out for both Matt and the striker. “Worth it. Give ‘em hell with Nicky.”

“Obviously,” Aaron said.

Matt grinned hard, all teeth and menace, and clacked racquets forcefully enough to send tremors up both their trackmark-scarred arms. Aaron shared a fistbump with Nicky when he came running on in Matt’s place.

“You okay, buddy?”

“It wasn’t a hard hit,” Aaron shrugged. “Don’t fuss. Come on, they’re resetting for the substitution. Watch your left this time.”

Nicky laughed and jogged over to his spot.

They fought furiously for the next twenty minutes, pushing themselves hard but the other side had fresh strikers invigorated by their slight lead of one point, and the clock starting to wind down towards the end of the game.

“Christ,” Aaron swore as he was bowled over, and watched from flat on his back as the striker lined up a high shot with a yell and fired, and Andrew – fucking Andrew – launched into a jump and smashed the ball away in mid-air, twisting hard enough to stagger against the goalpost when he landed. Halfway across the court, Neil mirrored him and leapt up to catch the ball perfectly as it soared towards him, then used his own momentum to aim at the goal and –!

Bzzzt!

A goal, a fucking goal off that stupid-ass manoeuvre, Aaron couldn’t believe it.

The stands went wild and the players did too, and Aaron caught sight of orange pompoms waving frenetically at the home side. Nicky started screaming and dancing with joy, spinning Dan around when she came close enough, a firecracker on the court and so alive with it.

“We are such hot shit, we are such hot shit!” He yelled over and over, and Aaron smiled as he clambered upright, leaning on his racquet.

“Andrew!” Josten yelled breathlessly as he came racing towards the home goal, barely slowing until he slotted neatly against Andrew’s side, arm around his shoulders. Andrew rested his own arm around Josten’s waist and Aaron’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets – that wasn’t anything like a hug but it was the closest Aaron had ever seen his brother willingly come to it.

“Andrew, that was brilliant,” Josten was panting, grinning wide enough to split his banged-up face as he stared down at Andrew with so much joy and open affection in his eyes. “You’re brilliant, you’re amazing, that was so wonderful!”

Aaron watched as Andrew rolled his eyes and pretended the praise wasn’t affecting him, but Aaron saw Andrew’s hand squeeze on Josten’s hip and how he was still holding onto the guy instead of pushing him away. He thought of Katelyn whispering praise in his ear and stroking his hair, telling him he was worth her love and worth the happiness they made for themselves, and had to look away uncomfortably.

“Ugh,” some asshat on the other team called, watching as well with a distinctly unfriendly expression. “Get the fags a room, would you? Gonna lose my lunch over here.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Nicky said, though without his usual anger. He looked tired again – the same expression he’d had earlier when Aaron blew up at Sheena, he realised with a sick lurch. “No one wants to hear your crap, dude.”

“Got a problem?” Josten yelled, his joy transformed to something angry and ugly.

“It’s not worth it, Neil,” Andrew said, quiet enough that only the defence line would hear.

“But, Andrew—“

“I said it’s not worth it. Drop it.”

But Aaron knew that tone, knew that way of looking away and burying the self-censure deep with all the anger and insecurities. He heard his brother’s words, and heard the silent undercurrent. I’m not worth it.

I’m not worth defending.

He looked to Nicky, glum and silent and dulled after just a few nasty words.

I’m not worth defending.

And then, this is what they think when I say these things too.

I’m hurting them just like this guy.

He saw how neither of them looked to him for help, knowing he probably felt the same. Knowing he didn’t think they were worth defending, would stand by while they shrugged off more abuse.

The next thought came to him with a painful clarity, like glass shoved in his eyeballs. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand completely. My feelings about it don’t matter. I have to be better for them.

He tossed his racquet aside. “Oi, dickhead,” he yelled and made his way to the guy. “That’s my fucking family you’re talking about.”

“Yeah?” The guy grinned lazily, looking at all five feet of him like there was no way Aaron could ever pose a threat. “Great family of fuckups and druggies and faggots and psychos. Lucky your mom’s dead, right? Do your brother and cousin take turns with each other, or just that criminal guy with all the scars?”

Aaron didn’t bother with a comeback. He simply grabbed the guy at the shoulder and hip, bent his legs, and heaved with all the strength in his tiny, solid body and threw the guy bodily across the floor. He hit the wood with a satisfying smack and rolled a bit, gasping and shocked. Aaron stalked over and grabbed the grate of the guy’s helmet. He took a deep breath, leaned in close enough to smell his breath, and yelled as loud as he could.

“There is nothing wrong with my fucking family! You got that, asshole?”

The refs were in his face before the guy could do more than gape, brandishing a red card and shouting about penalties and benching him for the next two games, but he didn’t care.

“No one talks that way about my family,” he said, loud enough for the shocked-silent teams to hear all through the court. “Ever.”

“Aaron, off,” Dan said firmly and shoved at his shoulder. “You’re benched. Go swap out, right now.” She grabbed his arm and marched him towards the doors, though she flashed him a violently proud grin when they were out of view of the refs. He broke away from her grip when they passed the goal and she let him go to his family.

Nicky was standing stock-still, staring at Aaron like he’d smeared rainbow war-paint on himself. His eyes were wet with unshed tears, and his mouth trembled. Aaron could read the shock and tentative hope in the fidgeting of his hands, so he grabbed one and yanked him in for a quick hug. Nicky clasped him back with a choked-off sob and only let go when Aaron turned to Andrew, who had untangled himself from Josten.

They shared a long look, then Aaron extended his closed fist. Andrew bumped it smartly, his mouth set in a grim line like he was locking down every thought and feeling with iron control.

Aaron looked at them both, swallowed the last of his misguided uneasiness about their preferences, and made them both a promise.

“I won’t be that guy anymore.”

He couldn’t explain further, but from Nicky’s tears and Andrew’s slow nod, he knew they understood. He walked back to the doors before the refs could lose their shit over the delay, and punched Josten’s shoulder on the way.

“We’ll talk later,” he gritted out.

Josten nodded and punched him back cheerfully, then sprinted back to his own starting spot. Dan escorted him to the doors where one of the freshies was waiting to take his place, and he saw Katelyn screaming and jumping and crying with the other Vixens. When the doors opened for him to step thought, he could finally hear her.

That’s my man!” She was screaming at the top of her voice while the Vixens chanted his name. “You get him, honey!”

He flashed her a tight smile and she blew him a kiss through the stands. He endured Wymack’s tirade about needless violence, let Abby check his jaw, and sat down with Matt and Allison on the bench.

“Dude,” Matt said warmly, “That was so badass.”

“And you’re totally getting laid later,” Allison smirked and pointed back to the Vixens.

“No one talks that way about my family,” he muttered, and watched as the game restarted. Nicky was playing like a new man, so much focus and energy and grit in his moves, and Andrew was going after every shot like he was personally offended by the ball. The rest of the team was energised as well, yelling out to each other and passing lightning-fast like a new breed of less-terrible Ravens, racking up points hard and fast.

I did that, he reminded himself quietly. I defended them and made them feel like this. I can be a better brother and cousin.

And wouldn’t you know it, they won the match, eleven to six.

Less than an hour later he found himself lounging in a comfy armchair in one of the basement study rooms, repurposed for the big Foxes-and-Vixens party just starting to get into its stride. Katelyn was curled up in his lap, changed out as well into an outfit that should be outlawed – a tight orange crop top that showed her stomach and pushed up her breasts until he could barely look anywhere else, a tiny little pleated skirt, and thigh-high orange stockings with lacy tops curved around her lovely, plump thighs, held up by garter straps that he was kind of losing his mind over. He had his arms around her waist and a hand on the soft margin between the lace and the hem of her skirt, his head tucked into her shoulder as she held him just as tightly. She was whispering deadly-sweet things in his ear as he rubbed and squeezed slowly over her thigh and watched her chest move as she breathed.

“I’m so proud of you honey,” she whispered, and nuzzled into his hair for a moment. His breath turned to fire in his chest and he squeezed down tightly. “And you looked so damn hot giving that guy the business. You just threw him.”

Aaron hummed and got to work slowly sucking a hickey on her neck and rubbing over the sweetly scratchy-smooth lace under his hand, listening as her breath hitched though her whispers and one hand gripped at his bicep admiringly.

“You played so well,” she whispered breathily. “Sweetheart, you did so good. You’re so perfect, I love you so much. I’m gonna treat you so well later, I can’t wait.”

He bit down gently on the growing bruise and felt her shudder against him.

“What about you, huh,” he murmured back in a low voice. “I saw you in the stands, giving it your all. Your form was so clean, sunshine, and you were jumping so high. You looked amazing.” He slipped his hand a little higher under her skirt and flirted with the edge of the garter belt. “You always look amazing. And I could hear you singing at halftime as well, it was beautiful.”

“Oh, honey…” she shivered.

He lowered his voice to the barest whisper against her neck. “I’m gonna kiss every inch of your skin, and take you apart so slow and make you moan so loud the next floor’ll hear it and get jealous.”

She squeaked and shuddered, then took his hand under her skirt and slowly moved it down between her thighs. He groaned into her shoulder and felt his face flame as raw desire burned through him; he could feel how wet her underwear was getting even through the fabric.

“I have condoms back at my room,” she breathed, and gently bit his earlobe.

“Oh my God.”

She laughed and kissed his cheek, then moved his hands off her. “Just let me make sure the suite’ll stay empty for a couple hours, then we can bail outta here.”

He let go of her regretfully and watched as she stood up and smoothed down her clothes and swept her hair over her shoulder and down over her chest, giving him a cheeky grin as she did so.

“So, the outfit was a good choice then?”

He made a strangled sound and weakly gave her a double thumbs up. She flicked a smug glance to his crotch and bounced away, all beautiful legs and swishy skirts. He took a shuddering breath and tried to calm down a little as he watched her playfully negotiate for the suite with her teammates, earning more than a few whistles from them and arch looks his way. Angeline in particular started laughing raucously and yelling for Katelyn to get some, get some girl!

Katelyn started blushing under the attention and met his eye for a golden moment, smiling so bright, he honestly felt dazzled. He tilted his head in the direction of the door and headed out, knowing she’d follow in a few minutes.

The cool air outside Fox Tower calmed him down a bit and helped him get his thoughts together as he waited. He took the time to let himself think about nothing in particular, and just enjoy the clear, starry night. As he was looking around the parking lot, he spotted two figures sitting on top of the Maserati. He was about to shout for them to get off the fucking car, when he saw the red glow of a cigarette, glowing bright enough to illuminate Andrew’s face as he took a drag. He watched as his brother slowly exhaled a cloud of smoke in Josten’s direction, how Josten closed his eyes and sighed contentedly as it curled into his hair. He saw the softening of Andrew’s expression, the gentleness in his hand as he took Josten’s chin and pulled him in for a slow, intense-looking kiss. He watched as their lips parted again and they leant their foreheads against each other, sitting curled into each other and oblivious to their surroundings.

Aaron swallowed down guilt at intruding, and smothered his surprise at catching them at something so tender. He’d never really bought the hate-sex thing like Nicky had first suggested, but he hadn’t thought their togetherness was so… emotional. He wasn’t used to seeing his brother show anything, and there he was, tracing the scars on Josten’s cheek with light fingers as they murmured together under the stars.

Maybe he couldn’t understand being gay, couldn’t understand finding guys attractive. Maybe it still made him uneasy to think about, especially thinking about his brother and cousin like that. Maybe he still had a lot of work to do in that area. But he’d been covertly watching how Josten and his brother acted around each other ever since Baltimore, watching for anything dangerous or unsavoury, and all he’d ever seen was a great amount of care. And he’d have to be blind to miss how relaxed his brother always seemed around Josten these days – his brother, the permanently twitchy knife-happy maniac. He’d seen how his brother was slowly opening up around the others, too, how calm he seemed and how he was reaching out more to himself and Nicky too, talking more often and paying more attention in practice.

Maybe… maybe Josten was good for his brother. Maybe Aaron could learn to accept that, at least.

“Hey,” Katelyn whispered as she joined him and slipped her hand into his. “Ready to go?”

“Mmhmm.”

She followed his gaze across the parking lot and made a quiet ‘aww’ sound as Neil lifted Andrew’s hand and kissed his palm.

“That’s cute as hell,” she whispered. “They look so happy.”

“Yeah,” Aaron agreed quietly. “Let’s go.”

On their way to the cheerleader dorms, they had to pass by the Maserati. Aaron watched how the instant Josten and Andrew noticed they weren’t alone, they drew away from each other and the walls all went back up. Andrew started messing with a new cigarette and his lighter and Josten slid his hands in his pockets.

“Good game tonight, guys,” Katelyn said cheerily as they came close, smiling at them both as if Andrew hadn’t scared her half to death a few months ago. “That joint goal was amazing.”

“Thanks,” Josten replied placidly, politely. “Have a nice night.”

Aaron stopped as they were about to pass, watching his brother’s blank expression as he lit up, no indication he’d been playing sweethearts just a minute ago. Christ, no wonder Aaron had never realised. He looked to Josten, who had a similarly impressive poker face, though his mouth looked a bit red. They were well-matched at least.

“You’d better not fuck up,” Aaron told Josten coldly.

Andrew rolled his eyes and Josten just raised an eyebrow and met his gaze head-on. “If I fuck up, I’ll hand you the gun myself.”

Aaron would have passed that off as a melodramatic bluff, but he reminded himself ‘Neil Josten’ had been raised on blood and violence at the hands of psychopathic gangsters, and figured he was most likely being brutally honest for once. It was strangely reassuring.

“Good.” Aaron said shortly, then squeezed Katelyn’s hand and started walking again.

“Good talk,” Josten muttered.

“Bye,” Andrew said quietly before they stepped out of earshot. Aaron felt his heartbeat jump in surprise; to other siblings, that might not mean much. But after years of being either ignored or antagonised by his brother, that neutral politeness when he could have stayed silent was something to remember.

Katelyn smiled softly at him as they walked. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”

Aaron smiled back and took a slow breath.

Yeah. Maybe things were going to be okay after all.

Chapter Text

Neil grimaced as Renee swooped in under his guard, snapped a rigid hand to his wrist and got him in a lock. Her expression was deadly, determined, and for a second he was almost afraid she would take it further. Then she smiled, all sweetness, and booped the tip of his nose with her finger.

“You need to keep your guard up at all times,” she instructed him as they took up loose stances again. “Don’t get distracted when you think you have the upper hand.”

He nodded his understanding and paused to retie the bandanna keeping his hair out of his face. He felt Andrew’s eyes on him as he did so, as Andrew sat across the room slowly sipping from a water bottle. Neil flashed him a grin, to which Andrew rolled his eyes and pretended he hadn’t been looking in the first place.

Renee coughed, and he brought his hands up in a ready position, focussed again. That round went on for longer as he was able to keep her at arm’s length for longer, but eventually her experience and stamina got the better of his speedy dodges and feints.

“Better,” she assured him with a smile. “You need to work on your attacks more, though. You need to be able to hit back instead of relying on dodging so much.”

“Story of his life,” Andrew muttered as they joined him. This time Neil rolled his eyes and lightly tweaked an errant flick of Andrew’s hair. Andrew looked up at him with a lazy blink, then offered a lovely view of his middle finger.

Rene coughed again, a bit more pointedly. Andrew passed Neil the water bottle and got up to have his round with Renee. Neil settled in his spot to watch, knowing he would learn a lot watching them. As he was still relatively new to these lessons, Renee had been going easy on him and stopping her punches or kicks before they reached him, content to show him the holes in his defence without hurting him. She said she didn’t want to take it that far until he was better able to defend himself in a proper match. But with Andrew there was no such courtesy.

It had bothered him, the first session he’d been invited to watch. Seeing Andrew take a punch to the face or a kick to the stomach, or getting knocked to the ground, had reminded him too much of finding him battered and bloody in Columbia. He’d wondered if this was more evidence of Andrew’s self-destructive streak. And seeing him go after Renee with powerful swings of his fists had been unsettling, too. But Andrew had told him afterwards not to be concerned about it; he and Renee had long ago worked out the appropriate amount of force to use with each other, and they both found it freeing to let loose some of their constraints. Besides, Neil had seen how careful they were to only hit where they would bruise instead of break or bleed, how they stopped immediately if one of them said so, how they checked each other’s wrapped hands for injuries.

And seeing as Renee refused to get rough with him yet, and Andrew flatly refused to lay hands on him at all in this way, it was a good chance to see a real, if controlled, match up.

It was fascinating to watch. They treated each other with a stern respect and laser focus, circling around each other until one of them made the first move. It was always obvious to Neil how well they knew each other in these fights, how many times they had squared off, learned each other’s tells and tricks. Sometimes, when they were especially in-sync, it looked like they were dancing back and forth, neither able to quite land a telling blow or get the upper hand.

It was rather different to the messy scraps Neil had been part of before. In those ones, there was no consideration for footwork or feints or reasonable rules. They were about grabbing whatever weapon would hurt the other person more, using it, and running away. This was about force and control, letting loose frustration and anger in strict confines. And while they didn’t stop until someone gave in, and frequently ended up trading floor-pins and holds, and a fair amount of dirty tactics used, there were clear lines they did not cross. It was about learning and trying again in the next round, not about crippling or killing their opponent.

Watching them made his hands itch in the same way watching Kevin play left-handed did; he wanted that power, that innate muscle memory and movement, that speed and aggression and force. He wanted to get better and meet Renee on her own level the same way Andrew could. It made him more determined to try harder and master this skill.

And even if watching them made him feel clumsy and slow sometimes, he got his own back whenever Renee asked for a rest and Neil took over to show them knife tricks. Andrew was catching up with throwing them, gaining accuracy, and Neil had started him the task of throwing while moving. Renee had kept at the lesson until she had achieved a basic level of proficiency, then asked to be taught something different. So recently Neil had been showing them tricks that felt more like sleight of hand than deadly weaponry, but that was alright for all of them. Renee was getting pretty good at flipping and juggling two or three at once.

That had unsettled him too, sharing this side of himself with Renee. Andrew already knew his hard edges and grisly secrets, but Renee hadn’t known the full picture. To his relief, she didn’t treat him any differently outside of the practice room and simply respected his skills, however he had picked them up. And it was good for him too, he was realising, being able to revisit these awful skills and use them for something other than what his father had intended.

It was a good pressure valve for the three of them, bursting at the seams with skills they couldn’t quite put on their résumés and couldn’t quite relinquish either. He always came out of the lessons exhausted, sweaty, aching, and feeling calm as if he’d forced all the bad stuff out of his body for a while. It was better than a harsh run when his father’s presence was too loud in his head, better than losing himself on the Exy court when his nightmares got too strong. Andrew had mocked him lightly the first time he expressed that sentiment, saying that if Neil was developing other hobbies Hell must surely be freezing over.

Neil smiled to himself as he watched them. He could understand why they sparred, now he was a part of it. He still didn’t quite find it funny when Matt kept joking about them being in a fight club, but he enjoyed the lessons anyway.

 

It made paying attention to his studies in the library afterwards more difficult, though. He was on his third coffee and still wasn’t sure he’d absorbed the point of this particular chapter. In a project assignment for his Spanish class, they were supposed to read a Spanish text and write an essay on its language use and meaning, and argue some sort of point. All in academic-level Spanish.

Well, he’d picked his piece and read it and understood it, but he wasn’t sure how to do the essay. He’d been looking up essay guides for the past hour but nothing seemed to be helping. He’d passed the point where his natural proficiency for languages had carried him through, and now in his second year he was facing the daunting reality that he didn’t know how to seriously study, when before he’d been content just to get middling, average grades so as not to stand out. Now, he needed to do well, and he had to do all his assignments because he wasn’t leaving this town any time soon, and this would be his degree for the rest of his life.

Some days the concept of being Neil Josten for the rest of time terrified him. He hoped it wouldn’t turn into one of those days. He poked at the guide and half-heartedly made a note in his jotter. He nearly jumped out of his skin when Aaron of all people helped himself to a seat at Neil’s table.

“Get out your textbooks,” Aaron announced brusquely. “I am going to show you how to take proper notes. You are an embarrassment.”

Neil blinked at him in shock for a moment, then woodenly put away his doodle-filled jotter and pulled out his books.

“What?”

Aaron scowled at him. “I’ve been watching you look pathetic over here for the past half hour. Your grades are going to tank if you keep this up.”

“You haven’t really talked to me since the whole Katelyn-versus-therapy thing started,” Neil said. “I was kind of enjoying the silence.”

Aaron rolled his eyes and shoved his reading glasses higher up his nose, smudging one of the lenses along the way. He didn’t seem to notice or care. Actually, they were so covered in smudges it was a wonder he could see through them at all. “As much as I hate it, you’re gonna be stuck in my life at least until I graduate and if you flunk out I’ll have to deal with Nicky pouting and whining and Andrew being even moodier than usual. So get out a pen for chrissake and pay attention.”

Neil very carefully did not smile and smothered a caustic response about how Aaron was unfortunately stuck in Neil’s life too, and paid attention as Aaron explained the difference between ‘just fucking scribbling whatever’ and ‘taking down the main points as concisely as possible’. Aaron was still an asshole, but he was the Fox with the most promising GPA. There had to be some kind of trick to it.

Besides. Another language Neil was very fluent in was Minyardian doublespeak, and while he was more familiar with Andrew’s accent, he could understand Aaron just fine.

 

At afternoon practice that day, he had the strangest feeling that he was on a team that actually wanted to be a team for once. The freshmen finally seemed properly integrated into the scheme of things, and his original Foxes all seemed to be in good moods and ready to work hard. He spotted Andrew giving Emmeline some tips on holding her racquet and was glad his helmet hid his smile. He watched Kevin and Wymack standing together with comically-identical crossed arms and frowns as they discussed progress and future plans. Dan was running around checking on everyone while Matt and Nicky kept up morale when plays fell through or scrimmages failed. Allison and Aaron’s heckles kept everyone competitive, and Renee’s sweetness stopped it getting too nasty. The freshmen were listening to him and taking him seriously, even Jack and Sheena, and trying harder after he talked to them.

During the scrimmage, he was very nearly the weak link because he was so distracted by how well everyone else was doing. When they took a ten minute break, Dan pulled him aside with a kind smile.

“You alright, sunshine?” She asked. “You look a bit dazed. Renee said you were sparring with her this morning, are you too tired?”

Neil smiled back and took a chug of water. “No, that’s not it.”

“Good, because you work yourself too hard with those night practices anyway,” Dan said and lightly punched his shoulder. “If you started exhausting yourself with four kinds of exercise every day I might just bench you for the rest of the season. We have the subs now, don’t test me.”

“No fair.”

“While I’m still captain, I refuse to let you be an idiot,” Dan said sternly, then her smile fell a little. “And I’ll just have to hope Matt can reign you in when I’m gone.”

“I’m at least twenty percent less reckless with my health than I was in my first year, give me some credit,” Neil replied, though his smile faltered too.

“So,” Dan said, a little more brightly than needed, “What’s got you so distracted?”

“I was just thinking that we’re very strong today,” Neil replied, glancing back at the mass of their teammates sitting together. Renee smiled as she and Andrew passed on their lap, and Andrew’s eyes touched his for a brief moment before he turned away. “It’s good.”

“Yeah,” Dan said quietly. “Everyone’s working really hard today.”

They watched the others quietly for a few minutes, then Neil gave voice to a worry that had been plaguing him since the previous year. “Do you really think I’ll be able to captain them well?”

“I have no doubts,” Dan said firmly, eyes bright. “We’re at our strongest right now, and I know you’ll push everyone higher and better each year.”

Neil had to look down at his feet and wrestle with his voice for a minute. “I’d better. I’ve got some pretty amazing shoes to fill.”

“Oh, Neil,” Dan said thickly, then yanked him to her in a fierce hug. Neil dropped his racquet and clung back to her, his throat tight and chest squeezing. “I am so proud of you, rookie,” she whispered. “And you’re going to be amazing too. Just follow my flawless example and you’ll do fine.”

He managed to laugh at that, and she squeezed him tighter. After a moment, she smacked the back of his head gently.

“Alright, enough of that,” she said in a fake-cross voice, her eyes over-bright and just a little pink at the edges. “I’m still your captain from now until the end of the season, and as your captain I demand laps. Give me laps, Josten!”

Neil grinned and obligingly started running.

 

Neil yawned when he finally got back to the dorm after his post-practice tutor session and dropped his bag on the floor. He made for the beanbags and flopped down face-first in one.

“Now Neil,” Nicky said in a grandmotherly tone, from the other one as he read a book, “Have you finished all your homework?”

“Yes,” Neil mumbled into the fabric.

“And all your Exy?”

“Yes.”

“And have you eaten dinner yet?”

“No.”

“Then no nap for you. Come on, up, eat something.”

Neil groaned.

“Don’t make me poke you,” Nicky threatened, and Neil could hear the grin in his voice. “Come on. If I managed to get the tiny assholes through high school I can make you eat your dinner. Up.”

Neil groaned louder.

“Is he being dramatic again?” Andrew asked coolly. Neil turned his head to look at him; he was leaning in the kitchen doorway, an unimpressed look on his face.

“Extremely,” Nicky chirped. “Can you do your magic thing and talk some sense into him?”

“That’s already too tall an order and you should know better.”

“Then I’ll give you a suitably Neil-sized order – get that boy some food.”

Neil heard Andrew snort quietly and smiled to himself; he loved seeing this side of his family, where they were starting to replace bitter miscommunication with peaceful bickering.

“Come on,” Andrew said. “You can chop the vegetables.”

Neil sat up to see him properly. “Are you cooking again?”

“Obviously,” Andrew replied and turned on his heel. Neil got to his feet and followed him, ignoring Nicky’s teasing. Andrew handed him a small paring knife and a bag of onions and peppers and got back to his own workstation, chicken strips laid out already-cut while he got to work using Kevin’s ‘smoothies only’ blender to make some kind of sauce. It smelled good, whatever he was doing.

“What are you making?” Neil asked as he blinked water from his eyes after the second onion.

“Enchiladas.”

“All for yourself or can the rest of us have some too?”

Andrew gave him a flat look. “You can have some if you’re going to be pathetic about it.”

Neil grinned and handed him the next onion. They worked quietly side by side until all the tortillas had been made up and placed in the oven. Andrew seemed content to wait and watch the sauce bubble over them blankly, so Neil started washing up the mess they’d made. He could hear Nicky and Aaron chatting in the living room, and Kevin’s low murmur where he was Skyping with Thea in the bedroom.

And he had Andrew quiet and settled next to him, watching the meal they’d made together slowly cook. Neil had a sudden sense of timelessness – for a breathless moment, he let himself imagine doing this for years. Cooking together, sharing space. At peace.

He didn’t try to fight it down.

Later, Matt popped round to invite them all to a movie night in the girls’ dorm. Nicky and Kevin agreed quickly, Aaron was persuaded pretty easily, and Andrew simply followed Neil out the door. It was crowded and noisy already in there, but it was crammed full of Neil’s family and the freshmen he was learning to include in that statement too, and it just made Neil smile. While the others wandered about getting drinks and snacks, Andrew made a beeline for his usual spot on the couch and took it before anyone else could dare.

Neil spent a little time with everyone, feeling altogether content and generous with his time. Eventually Allison got bored of the chatter and turned the lights off without warning.

“Movie time!” She declared over a couple of startled yelps. “Sit your asses down, people.”

Neil picked his way through the sprawling limbs and bowls of pretzels and candy until he found the little space left by Andrew’s side, and sat down. Andrew didn’t spare him a glance as he got comfortable, but once the movie started his hand crept into Neil’s lap and laced their fingers together, snug and secure. Neil couldn’t help but smile at the shape of his profile in the flickering blue light of the opening credits.

“Staring,” Andrew murmured without looking.

“Yeah,” Neil admitted with a smile. “Can I kiss you?”

Andrew took a moment to think, then nodded. Slowly, Neil leant over, and very softly pressed his lips to Andrew’s cheek. He felt Andrew’s eyelashes flutter against his cheekbone, and squeezed his hand gently.

Andrew didn’t say anything when Neil pulled away, didn’t even look at him. But his hand squeezed back, and his thumb lightly traced the edge of Neil’s knuckles. And as they watched the movie, surrounded by their family, Neil thought that – yeah. It felt pretty good to be Neil Josten.

He couldn’t wait to do it all again tomorrow.