The lights are searing and Neil can feel the bass line in his bones, an almost sickening vibration. He’s been sat at this small, sticky table for - he doesn’t know, maybe ten minutes, maybe half an hour - too long; Allison having left as soon as she hit tipsy. He’s only grateful no one’s touching him.
After a song or two more and a few more people trying to share his table, Neil decides he doesn’t want to guard a table for someone who clearly isn’t coming back anytime soon. Instead, he thinks he could use a drink. As soon as he leaves the table, a sweaty, laughing group takes it.
While he waits to get the barman’s attention, a swaying man to his right attempts to strike up conversation with a long, slurred “hey”.
Neil flicks him a look as annoyed and disinterested as he can make it, and says a short, “Hi.” in return. He realises instantly he should have just pretended not to hear, but now it’s too late, as the man is putting his arm around Neil.
“Oh, I just saw someone I know, I’m going to-” Neil walks off without finishing his sentence, deciding he’s either too drunk or not drunk enough to deal with this, and moves to the other side of the bar, just a little bit too close to the stranger standing there. A look back shows that the handsy man has decided to follow him. “Wonderful,” Neil mutters to himself, then looks at the short, blonde man with a feeling of resignation. “Look, I’m sorry, I told this guy I knew you to get him to leave me alone, and he hasn’t.”
The man looks at Neil, then briefly to the man who’s making his way over, and says, “Okay.”
“Okay?” Neil asks, not entirely sure if the lacklustre response means this other man is going to help him out or just ignore him, then there’s an arm around his shoulders. Again. He contemplates hitting the taller man, and he feels himself tense up.
There’s a change in the blonde man’s eyes that Neil thinks could be interest, and he says calmly but clearly, “Get your hands off my boyfriend.”
Both Neil and the taller man freeze in shock. Neil barely manages to hold back his, ‘what?’ in time to hear the taller man laugh uneasily. “Woah, dude, hold up! We’re just being friends, right?” He slaps Neil’s shoulder a little too hard, and Neil winces. Definitely not friends.
“Take your hand off him before I do,” the blonde man says, and there’s something in his voice that almost sends a chill down Neil’s spine, even through the layers on sweat Neil finds himself covered in.
The taller man laughs again, either too stupid or too drunk to know better. “Dude, chill! We’re friends, right? Tell him we’re friends.” His voice is easy, and Neil just wants him to stop.
The shorter man raises his eyebrows slightly at Neil, as if to say it’s up to you how this goes. “No, not really,” Neil says.
“We could be,” The man says, breath tickling Neil’s ear, and his skin crawls.
“Last warning.” The other man says sharply, losing patience, “Hands off.”
Only a second or two pass, but the man must make some kind of expression or gesture that Neil can’t see, because the blonde man throws a punch over Neil’s shoulder. The arm around him is removed, and after the rush of fear is a sense of relief.
“My nose-!” Neil hears behind him.
“Holy shit,” Neil says, turning to the handsy man, then remembers himself and looks back at the blonde man. “Thank you. I think.”
The blonde man raises his eyebrows again.
“Andrew, man,” a barman says, sighing, after being absent for the whole conversation.
The blonde man - Andrew - shrugs. “He wouldn’t remove his arm. I asked him twice.”
“Three times,” Neil adds, not sure if he’s helping.
The barman looks at Neil for less than a second, uninterested. “Rules are rules. No fighting or you spend the night outside.” Andrew makes to move, clearly not that bothered, when the bartender adds, “And bring your boyfriend, too.”
Andrew doesn’t look back or acknowledge this statement, but Neil follows anyway. Any interest he’d had in staying at the club is long gone, and Allison can’t say he’s a killjoy if he tells her he was part of a bar fight. He sends her a quick text - Had to go. Got kicked out for violence. See you tomorrow - and puts his phone away, sure she won’t reply until she’s ready to leave.
As he heads outside, Andrew continues on away from him, and Neil is suddenly struck by the feeling that he hasn’t thanked Andrew enough, so he attempts to stop him. “Uh, Andrew?”
Andrew turns around, almost reluctantly.
“Thanks for helping inside,” Neil gestures ineffectually back towards the club. “I mean, I just expected you to just kind of… say you knew me and leave me to it, and I guess that might have been enough, but thank you anyway.” In the quiet, still street, Neil is aware of how unstable the world feels and the fact that he’s aware of the cold air but doesn’t really feel it, and he realises he’s more tipsy than he thought.
“He’d have left you alone?” Andrew sounds completely uninterested.
“Well, I mean, I thought he would.”
“So why did I have to punch him?”
Neil pauses, thrown. “What?”
Andrew talks slowly, as though to a child, “If you’re going to thank me, thank me. Don’t say thank you and immediately follow it by saying you didn’t need me.”
Neil swallows his response. “Yeah, okay. Thanks.”
Andrew nods and turns to go, which is when Neil remembers that Allison was his ride here. “Fuck,” he mutters to himself, trying to remember where he put his phone. He can call Matt, maybe, unless it’s a date night - what day of the week is it? - he’ll probably be awake and he always answers-
Andrew turns around, looking almost disgusted. “You’re stranded.”
“Uh… kinda,” Neil says, unwilling to lie. “It’s fine, though, I can get a lift. Maybe,” Neil tracks his phone down to his back pocket.
Andrew watches him fumble with the phone for a couple of seconds, then says, “I’ll drive you.”
“What?” Neil looks at Andrew. “No, it’s fine, I’ve-”
“You’re painful to watch.”
Neil’s phone is new. He barely knew how to use the flip phone he’d had before, let alone this one. Andrew isn’t the first to say it’s painful to watch. “I- alright, I guess,” He mumbles. “I’m Neil, by the way. And thanks. Again.”
“Whatever,” Andrew responds.
Neil follows him to a shiny black car and tries his best not to fumble with the door or seatbelt. By the time he’s settled, though, Andrew is looking at him expectantly. “Oh,” He says, realising Andrew wouldn’t know where he lives. “I live on campus. PSU. Uh, Watson Hall.”
Andrew nods and pulls out without another word. The radio isn’t on, and the engine is quiet, so all Neil hears is the blood rushing in his ears - too loud; he always hates how clubs screw with his hearing. He wants to scratch at his ears until he can hear again, but he knows it won’t help. He sighs. There’s just enough caffeine in his system to make him restless, and he loathes the fact that it’s not even 11pm. The drive will be an hour, and the thought of sitting still and silent for that time makes him itch.
“Do you often start fights with strangers?” Neil blurts out.
Andrew’s gaze flicks to Neil for a brief moment. “If you’re bored, turn on the radio.”
Alright then. Neil leans over to the radio, not sure what he wants to listen to or even how to turn on the radio. The expensive car is as sleek on the inside as the outside, which means that all functionality is hidden. He can’t even find the on button. He stares blankly at the radio screen.
Andrew makes a short disgusted noise and turns on the radio in a swift movement Neil can’t follow. Loud guitars come out of the car’s speakers, and Andrew doesn’t seem surprised. Somehow Neil didn’t expect the music to be Andrew’s taste. He’s not sure what he would have expected or what information he was basing this expectation on, but he’s caught off-guard either way.
Now that the radio is on, it’s easier to find the button to change station, which is something Neil does with relish. He doesn’t have any particular type of music that he likes, but he finds that tonight, nothing being played is satisfactory.
Andrew remains stoic through at least twenty station changes, before he finally casts a baleful glare on Neil and says, “Are you incapable of making a decision?”
Neil shrugs and leans back, “This one will do.”
Quickly, Neil realises that he should have been more discerning, or at least left it on a music station. By virtue of random chance, Neil had found a 24-hour religious talk station that somehow broadcasts to a road in between cities. Better yet, the current sermon is preaching against “same sex relations”. Neil is drunk enough that he’s not sure whether it’s funny or not, but Andrew just levels a murderous stare at the radio as if that would turn it off.
“You chose the only station that would be worse than your prattling,” Andrew says, cutting off the radio. “Talk if you have to. We’re not listening to that.”
“The car deserves better,” Neil nods in agreement.
“I deserve better,” Andrew responds, deadpan. It sounds like a joke, but Neil thinks Andrew means it as sincerely as he is capable of.
Neil tries to sit still and patiently. He thinks of how grateful he is to this stranger for getting kicked out of a club for him and then driving his drunk ass home, and tries to use that to be patient. But he can’t.
Then, trying to find a topic of conversation that will not get him gutted leads to, “Is your hair colour natural?”
Andrew keeps his eyes on the road but Neil could swear he sees a muscle in his jaw jump. Andrew is either amused or considering Neil’s death. “Yes. I grew it all myself.”
“Damn,” Neil says, sitting back into his seat. “That’s hard to get with dye. Mine always stayed really ginger-y.”
“You tried to dye your hair white blonde?” Andrew says, monotone not showing any emotion - but Neil suspects Andrew wouldn’t ask if he weren’t actually interested.
“Well, bleach, but yeah. I’ve dyed my hair a lot and I was just… bored, mostly. White seemed cool.”
Andrew shrugs, “I know someone who dyes her hair white.”
“Yes. She’s done a lot of colours, actually. I don’t think she can commit to a favourite, so she’s got all of them now.”
Neil notices a tense set to Andrew’s shoulders, and he’s not sure volunteering conversation is natural to him. He wonders briefly why Andrew’s bothering, but decides he may as well persist with the conversation. “That’s cool. I’ve only really done natural colours. I should probably try, like, pink or blue or something. Less pressure to keep up with roots, I guess.”
Andrew gives Neil more of a once over. “Why natural colours?”
“Didn’t want to stand out,” Neil responds, which is technically the truth.
“Because shiny ginger hair is so subtle,” Andrew says, clearly unimpressed with Neil’s answer.
Neil grins. “That’s why we dyed it.”
Andrew raises his eyebrows in question, but Neil decides he doesn’t want to just give out information for free and watches Andrew back, a silent challenge. Andrew concedes, blowing out a sharp breath from his nose and saying, “We?”
“My mother and I,” Neil says, then gives Andrew a bonus. “We were hiding from my father. It’s his colour.” Neil grasps a handful of it, and tries not to think of the painful first few months of seeing red and fighting the urge to run.
“A Disney childhood, then,” Andrew says.
Neil smiles, wryly, “Sure.” Then he thinks that night is the time for sharing secrets, and says, “Can we make this into a type of game?”
“Are you asking me if I want to play a game?” Andrew doesn’t need to sound disparaging for Neil to know it’s supposed to be.
“Truth or dare?”
“I dare you to shut up for five minutes.”
Andrew glares at the road.
“Fine, twenty questions.” Neil hears Allison in his ear saying only fuckboys play twenty questions. Fuckboys and Edward Cullen. Don’t be Edward Cullen, but he doesn’t think he cares.
“Only if you don’t call it that,” Andrew says, sounding too tired to tell Neil to fuck off again.
“Truth for a truth,” Neil says, and thinks business student Matt ought to be proud of his bargaining skills. “I’ve already given you one.”
“This is not I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
“Why not? We’re boyfriends, aren’t we?”
Andrew flicks another glance at Neil, and Neil’s glad the road’s empty because Andrew doesn’t seem to spend much time looking at it.
“How did you afford the car?”
“The only good thing my mother did.”
“She bought you a Maserati?”
“No, she died. Inheritance,” Andrew seems almost smug. Neil’s not sure he wants to ask. “Where’s your mother?”
Neil almost laughs. “She didn’t come to college with me.”
Andrew shrugs, “Something clearly changed if you’re a redhead.”
“Not her. My father got shanked in prison,” Neil would wish he sounded upset rather than relieved, but he’s not sure that would ever be possible. The only good memory he has of Nathan is learning of his death.
Maybe he and Andrew aren’t that different after all.
“Moving on - what’s your major?”
Andrew snorts. He actually snorts. “Criminal justice.” Some kind of inside joke, then. “Why were you even at Eden’s? You looked miserable.”
“I was miserable because some asshole double my age with an ego ten times bigger than his dick was trying to hit on me,” Neil says, almost indignant, then shrugs. “My friends like it there and they think I’m not social enough.”
“Which is why they were by your side all night?”
Neil’s mouth twitches into the starts of a smile. “Yeah. And with friends like Mr. Tickle there, why would I not want to hang out in clubs?”
“They’re not completely wrong, though. As you’ve probably guessed, I have a grand total of…” Neil counts it out on his hands, then continues, “three friends.” He’s hardly bothered by it; he’s only a few weeks into his college degree and he’s wormed his way into his roommate’s long-standing trio of friends. He’s pretty proud of his progress, since he never had friends until past his eighteenth birthday.
“Friends are overrated,” Andrew responds.
Neil thinks about it. “It’s nice to have someone else to cook for you sometimes.”
“I’d rather starve.”
Neil looks at Andrew. “You clearly have stories to tell.”
“Pot noodle made with vodka.”
Neil gapes. “That is… the most student thing I have ever heard of. No, wait, how much money does that kid have? Or had, because he has to be dead now.”
“No, but his liver has to be halfway there,” Andrew says. “The house stunk of the fumes for the better part of a week.”
“I don’t know if I’m impressed or terrified.”
“Both,” Neil agrees. “I think I’m more him than you, though. Matt doesn’t let me cook because I’m a liability.”
“How many kitchen appliances have you destroyed?”
“None!” Neil says, then catches himself yelling and attempts to moderate his tone. “I may burn my food but the kitchen remains in tact. I haven’t even triggered a fire alarm!”
“In student accommodation, I will grant you, that’s impressive.”
“Are you on campus?” Neil’s not sure when they gave up on truth for a truth, but he thinks Andrew either never really cared or is keeping a silent tally.
“Technically. I prefer the house, though.”
Allison’s voice, again, comes to him. Sugar daddy potential! Neil thinks laughing might make him seem unhinged. “I’m just glad I don’t have to get up more than ten minutes before some of my classes.”
Andrew scoffs, “Not if you share rooms with people who get up at the crack of dawn to fling balls around.”
Neil considers. “Uh… I might be that person.”
“You’re not on the exy team.” Andrew says it as fact, not a question.
“No,” Neil agrees, thinking it’s strange that Andrew chose the sport Matt plays, but he thinks if it’s anyone’s turn for a question then it’s Andrew’s. “If I can’t sleep, I get up early and run.”
“A common occurrence?”
“Not rare,” Neil concedes. “It turns out I really can run from my past.”
Andrew doesn’t seem to find that funny, but Matt didn’t either. Neil thinks he probably has to work on his sense of humour. “Never worked for me,” Andrew says, instead.
“Well, sure, you have short legs.”
“You are only three inches taller than me,” Andrew says, with a defensive confidence.
“You counted them?”
“Every inch matters.”
Neil stares. He’s not sure what Andrew meant, and he thinks if he tries to laugh at the probable joke it would come out as a strangled, panicked sound.
Seemingly bored of Neil’s silence, Andrew says, “Stop staring. It’s your question.”
“So you have been keeping count.”
“Yes, you offered a fair trade.”
“I wasn’t counting,” Neil says, but he doesn’t think that’s a surprise to Andrew. “Uh…”
“Don’t strain anything.”
Neil glares, and then thinks that he should ask any of the ludicrous questions in his head just because Andrew deserves to be forced into answering one by his pride. “Did it hurt?”
“When I fell from heaven? No, but being dragged from Hell did.”
“Nice ego, but I actually meant the tattoo.” Neil gestures uselessly at the black ink appearing from where Andrew’s sleeve has slid up.
“No more than life,” Andrew says, pulling the sleeve down.
Neil nods, somehow feeling he’s crossed a line. Sitting in silence for a few seconds, he thinks he’s gone past the restless energy, and all of a sudden he yawns.
“You can sleep,” Andrew says, and Neil realises he could. Andrew somehow doesn’t feel like a threat. “It’s still forty minutes or so to Palmetto.”
“Okay,” Neil says, and closes his eyes.
Neil’s eyes open by some instinct from long ago when the car comes to a stop. “We’re here?”
Andrew doesn’t answer, but Neil supposes it was a pretty stupid question given they’re parked in front of the Wilson Hall sign.
“Thanks for driving me. I probably owe you some kind of blood debt or something.” Neil scratches at his neck. He’s not sober yet, but he’s closer to that than drunk, and the ringing in his ears has started to lessen. The world feels very, very quiet. “I’d say it was nice to meet you but not the best of circumstances. See you around?”
Andrew just nods, and Neil takes his cue to leave the car.
Neil reaches into a pocket to pull out his keys and finds it empty, so tries another. Then he remembers in a flash - Allison laughs, and the lights are changing the colour of her hair every second. It’s mesmerising. She pulls something from his pockets, probably sensing his distraction. “Nope! These are mine. No leaving early without us!”
“Fuck,” he mutters to himself, but he still has his phone. He can’t remember if it is date night, but it’s gone midnight so there’s a chance Matt will be back and willing to answer the phone.
“Neil?” Matt says, after two rings. He always sounds slightly panicked when Neil calls him, which he supposes might be his fault. He only calls when something’s going wrong. “Please tell me the reason I don’t hear a club is not because you got kidnapped and need me to pick you up.”
“No! I’ve only known you for three weeks. Why are you better at being my dad than my actual dad was?”
“Just the sight of you brings forth every fatherly instinct I never thought I had. What went wrong?”
“I mean, nothing really just… Allison took my keys and now I’m kind of locked out.” Neil looks up at the building and wonders if he could climb up it. “Did we leave a window open?”
“You are not climbing the building, Neil.”
In the background, Neil can hear Dan say “oh my god,” and she sounds pretty exasperated. Neil isn’t sure that’s fair.
“Tell Dan I say hey,” Neil says, kindly. Then he remembers. “Shit, you guys are out of town, right? Forget I called! I can figure something out.”
“I shut the window before we left,” Matt sighs. Neil swears again. “It’s really concerning you thought that was an option, man. You’re not that small. Why aren’t you with Allison anyway?”
“Long story,” Neil hedges.
“You already woke me up. You owe me a bedtime story.”
“Once upon a time, there was a-”
“At least put me on speaker so I don’t have to tell it twice.”
“You already are,” Dan says, not quite cheerfully, but trying to achieve it.
“Alright, fine. Allison was dancing and I was guarding a table or something. That got boring and I decided drinking might be the solution. Someone tried to hit on me.”
“Why are you the prettiest girl in the group?” Dan mutters. “More people hit on you than Allison, I swear.”
“Uh… thanks? But it’s just uncomfortable so I was trying to get rid of him, so I… uh, pretty much just walked away. Which didn’t work. So I turned to the guy next to me and kind of begged him for help. He was very nice, said I was his boyfriend and asked the asshole to get his hands off, and when he didn’t, he punched the guy in the face.”
“What?!” Matt says.
“Dude, where do you find these guys?” Dan says, caught between impressed and concerned.
“Bars Allison drags me to? But, uh, yeah, we got kicked out for that. And I think I looked pretty pathetic because he offered me a lift back to PSU.”
“Or he was into you,” Dan says. “Please tell me he’s still there.”
“Or he lives at Palmetto, too. That’s an hour drive, I wouldn’t do that for a stranger,” Matt adds.
“You would,” Dan replies.
“You pretty much did for me,” Neil says.
“Anyway,” Dan says pointedly. “So you’re stranded outside the building without keys?”
“Yes. But it’s fine, I’ll call Allison and make her come or just buzz everyone until someone lets me in and I can sleep on the floor,” Neil says.
“Dude, no, we can-”
“No, it’s the middle of the night and you have plans tomorrow! It’s fine.”
“It’s never fine with you,” Matt mutters.
“It will be this time,” Neil insists. “And seriously, if you come back I will hide so you can’t find me. Just out of spite.”
“You’re a mess,” Matt responds.
“Yeah,” Neil agrees. “Go to sleep, guys. I’ll see you Sunday.” Then he hangs up before they can change their minds again. (He doesn’t really think they will. Dan didn’t really seem awake.)
Then he reassesses the issue. He’s not really willing to buzz in, because he’s only lived here a couple of weeks and he doesn’t want the other residents to hate him yet. He tries to call Allison but it rings out - her phone is in her bag, probably, and they’ve not yet left Eden’s Twilight.
He turns around, a half-formed thought about the library or a park bench in mind, but the sleek car is still there and he freezes. Andrew must have turned on the car light just so Neil could see him looking distinctly unimpressed by Neil, but he feels sheepish anyway. He takes it for the invitation it must be and walks over to the driver’s side to explain himself. Andrew starts to roll down the window when Neil gets there. Neil feels like he’s stuck in the naughty corner.
“I’m, uh, gonna go sleep in the library or something. I don’t have my keys and my roommate’s out of town. It’s no big deal. Thanks for waiting, really, but you can go home.”
Andrew only blinks slowly and says, “Get in.”
“What? No, I’m fine, honestly.”
Andrew leans over - an awkward movement since he’s even shorter than Neil - and pushes open the passenger door.
Neil flounders for a second longer before obeying. He protests once more, feebly, “You don’t have to.”
Andrew just levels a stare that is somehow a degree more unimpressed than it was and starts driving.
“If you just, uh - I don’t know if it’s out of your way - um, where are we going?”
“We have a house in Columbia. You can stay the night.”
“You went an hour out of your way?” Neil says, momentarily distracted. The lights are blurring, but he shakes his head. “I mean, thank you. But you can just drop me off at the club if you want, I can wait for my friends.”
“And when that inevitably goes wrong?”
“It won’t!” Neil protests, but weakly, because he realises all Andrew has seen of his life is things going wrong. Which, in hindsight, doesn’t seem like an inaccurate summary of his life. “Um, it might.”
Andrew just nods, and turns on the radio. He’s already reset it to a music channel, and though Neil doesn’t recognise the music, and it is definitely not the music that came out of the speakers earlier, he thinks this suits Andrew a little better. Still, he knows it’s a barely-veiled attempt to avoid more questions.
Unfortunately, after Neil’s nap, he’s no longer tired. Whether or not it’s because his body is used to being thrown into immediate motion after waking up he’s not sure, but he can’t sleep. More than that, the full weight of all the idiotic things he’s done tonight are finally hitting - not just the small things, but also getting into a stranger’s car. Twice.
Neil’s used to not trusting anyone. He doesn’t know why Andrew feels different. He hopes a few years of an easier life haven’t led to him being able to trust people just because they defend him once. He knows that’s stupid, and more than that he feels that Andrew didn’t defend him out of the goodness of his heart. Neil would perhaps never know if it was to suit some personal agenda, or what agenda. Still, he can’t quite shake the feeling that Andrew is safe.
For once, Neil is glad for his phone ringing. Andrew turns down the radio as Neil brings the phone up to his ear.
There’s an immediate loud blast of music and Allison’s voice, barely audible over it. Neil is sure Andrew can hear and mouths an apology in the driver’s direction. “Neil! Where are you?”
“I texted you, I-”
“Yeah! I got your text, violence? Since when do you fight? I mean, with your-” Neil isn’t sure how she finishes that sentence.
“Wasn’t me, I was just involved.”
“Story of your life,” Allison replies emphatically, and, silently, he has to agree.
“I can barely hear you,” He replies instead.
“Oh! Hold on,” He’s subjected to a minute of shuffling sounds before the music suddenly decreases. “I’m in the smoking area. Where are you? Forgot that’s why I called.”
“Yeah, got kicked out. So I-”
“No, start from the top. Why did you get kicked out? What violence happened? I love violent stories.”
“I’ve already told Dan and Matt, though.”
“I am not Dan or Matt, Neil.”
“I know that,” He says, and sighs. “Fine. Okay, some asshole hit on me, I walked away, he followed, I begged a stranger’s help and he ended up punching the asshole in the face. We got kicked out. Kinda feel bad about that. He took pity on me, again, and drove me back to Palmetto, where I remembered that you have my keys. And Matt’s out of town.”
“Dude,” Allison says.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Why do you get hit on more than I do? I work for these free drinks, you don’t even want them.”
“Allison, that is… not the issue.”
“Oh, right, yeah, stranded at-”
“No, actually, he’s driving me back to Columbia.”
“What?” Allison yells. Neil isn’t actually sure whether she’s heard, but she continues before he can repeat himself. “You only meet the nicest and most helpful people, honestly, you’re a magnet for nice people. What the fuck?”
“Uh, making up for my tragic back story?”
“I still don’t know your back story, but not over the phone. Wait, is the guy hot?”
“Did you not hear when I said I was in his car right now?”
“Yeah, he can’t hear me. Unless you have me on speaker. Actually, put me on speaker, I wanna talk to him.”
“I think he can hear you anyway.”
“I’m not that loud! But anyway, whoever he is-”
“Andrew,” Neil says, resigned.
“Andrew. Don’t be a kidnapper!”
Neil thinks he might go deaf. “Thanks, I’m sure that helped.”
“You’re welcome. Wait, why are you coming back to Columbia?”
“Are you guys nearly done?”
“Not even close,” Allison says, then hesitates. “I mean, we could leave if you need us.”
Neil knows she means it, and he feels torn in half. He doesn’t want to make his friend - one of the few he actually has - leave early and ruin her night, but equally he doesn’t want to impose on Andrew and sleep at his. He glances at Andrew, indecisive, but Andrew’s face is completely blank. There’s no indication he’s even listening to the conversation. “Just, uh, text me if you leave? You don’t have to leave early, though.”
“Then where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know!” Neil says, but realises that’s not quite true. “If you guys finish early I’ll go back with you. But, uh, Andrew said I could stay at his.”
“Neil!” Allison screeches. Neil pulls the phone away from his ear. “He is hot. You should have said.”
“Fine, whatever, you don’t have to tell me. I’ll figure out what kind of person you like and set you up on dates soon enough. If you don’t swing, that’s fine, but I don’t really believe you. Still! We’ve got time. But do me a favour and bang this Andrew.”
“See you tomorrow!” Neil looks at his phone. She’d hung up on him. He turns to Andrew, “Yeah, I don’t know how much you heard? But is it alright if-”
“I already invited you to stay the night. You haven’t yet convinced me to take that back.”
“Okay, thank you,” Neil says. “And sorry. I don’t mean to be an imposition.”
“I’ve already driven two hours out of my way, Neil. Letting you sleep in the house is actually the best way to ensure you’re not going to cause me any more trouble,” Andrew says casually.
Neil snorts. “You’d be surprised what kind of trouble I can get into.”
“You mean I haven’t seen the worst of you tonight?”
“Not by far. My friends have known me all of three weeks and even they’re astonished that they trust me to leave anywhere on my own,” Neil says, and realises he thinks of his friends as a family already.
“Oh, I can believe that.”
“Yeah, the first time I met Allison was actually because some guy was being an ass and I told him off. Which was… I think my third day at PSU? Apparently I don’t know how to make friends, because he wasn’t thrilled by it. Allison defended me, and then we figured out I knew Matt. She said it wasn’t a surprise, because he always adopts strays.”
“Someone on a college campus snapping and yelling at someone in public isn’t exactly rare.”
Neil raises his eyebrows briefly. “Are you challenging me?”
“I’m saying I’m not impressed yet,” Andrew says back, and Neil is starting to think that his tone is very carefully and precisely blank.
“I went for a run one morning and ended up joining the football team’s morning practice. Lapped the same guy I’d told off. I didn’t even notice until he started yelling at me again. In fact, I still didn’t really notice, but the exy team was practicing at the same time and Allison told me it was ‘the same douchebag’.”
“Palmetto’s a small college.”
“Really? That’s not even slightly impressive or strange to you?”
Andrew shrugs, “I’ve seen ‘douchebags’ yell at strangers plenty of times.”
“You’re probably one of them.”
Andrew doesn’t respond.
“Oh no, wait, you probably just stare them to death.”
Andrew still doesn’t even look at Neil.
“It’s very impressive. You might even be able to turn a mosquito to stone if you really tried.”
“You can shut up at any time,” Andrew says.
“Oh no, I’ve been told I have an attitude problem.”
“Of course you have.”
Despite himself, Neil thinks he likes Andrew. It’s a pity making conversation with him is like pulling teeth. He shrugs to himself and decides to start from the top. “What do you think’s scarier, deep sea or deep space?”
Andrew’s silent for two long seconds, and Neil almost thinks he’s going to have to try again, but then he speaks. “Deep sea. The ways animals have to adapt to live there are completely different to the ways humans have adapted to our environment, and we know they’re there. We don’t know there’s anything in space.”
“So you don’t think aliens are real?”
“I didn’t say that. If they are real, they’ve shown no interest in harming us. Deep sea animals would eat us without hesitation - prey is few and far between, and we’d be easy targets.”
“Wouldn’t we implode before we get down there?”
“Well, in that case, neither deep sea nor deep space is particularly scary to me as I am not likely to experience either so any fear they hold is entirely abstract and theoretical, thus essentially non-existent.” Neil thinks there may be a hint of sarcasm in Andrew’s monotone.
“Okay, slow down, remember you’re talking to a drunk person.”
“So are you now going to argue deep space is scarier?”
“Not a chance. I’d love to go into space. I mean, the practicalities of it probably suck, but it’d be pretty.” Neil feels almost wistful, thinking about it. He’s not sure he’s ever thought about it before, but the stars have always been a comfort.
“That’s all you need? Pretty?”
Neil pauses, as if considering it, “Yeah, basically.”
Andrew shakes his head once, a sharp movement.
“Why do you think I got in your car?” Neil says, followed by the immediate feeling that he’s made a mistake.
“Because you had no other choice,” Andrew says, bored tone somehow comforting.
“I’ll let it slide because you’ve only known me a couple of hours, but you massively underestimate my stubbornness. I would have stayed outside that club until my friends left.”
“Or until you got arrested.”
Neil shrugs, “Sure, either works.”
Andrew shakes his head almost imperceptibly.
“Oh, hey, you knew the bartender there, right?” Neil says, suddenly remembering that he’d known Andrew’s name before Neil had.
“Uh, sure, I guess. Can I ask how?”
Neil waits in silence for a beat before he realises what Andrew’s doing. “Okay, fine, asshole. How do you know him?”
“I worked at Eden’s Twilight.”
“Oh, that’s cool. For how long? You barely look old enough to work there now. That’s not meant to be an insult.”
Andrew continues to look unimpressed. “It was my freshman year.”
“Oh. So you’re… a sophomore now?”
Getting answers from Andrew now is like trying to get a rock to bleed. Neil isn’t sure why Andrew’s even answering if he doesn’t want to talk to Neil, but he’s getting the impression that Andrew’s trying to make some kind of point that Neil isn’t quite getting. He sighs, “I’ve not even met a freshman worth talking to yet.”
They fall into almost silence again, the only noises being the quiet engine and the muted sounds from the radio, and Neil strains to find a way to spark conversation again. He likes Andrew, and this awkward silence would make staying at his place exceptionally uncomfortable. Well, he thinks it would. There’s every chance Andrew would just blankly ignore him, which would at least erase the chance for awkward conversation.
Apparently Neil’s pained introspection is obvious, because Andrew says, “I preferred talking to you. Not whatever this is.”
Neil opens his mouth to respond, then shuts it and thinks that yes, actually, it’s possible he’s shifted into the way he’d talk to Dan or Matt or Allison, which could easily be different than the way he was talking earlier. Earlier, his filter was lessened by alcohol, and he was tired and desperate. A lot closer to the way he would have been years ago, when all he was had been tied between his mother and the road they’d leave behind them. I was nothing then, he thinks, but discounts that thought almost instantly. As he left a fake name and backstory behind him and tried to work his way back to blank, perhaps that was when he was most himself.
He doesn’t think Neil is quite a fabrication, but he knows he strains to find a place to fit, so maybe he’s acting more like his few friends in order to belong. He’s not sure he has a problem with that, but then he also doesn’t think there’s harm in stripping it back a little.
He sighs. “Are you always this judgmental of people you’ve just met?”
“For that, I’m taking an extra question,” Neil says, and presses on before waiting for confirmation. If Andrew doesn’t want to answer, he won’t. “What’s the tattoo of?”
One characteristic Neil knows is entirely his, not Nathaniel’s, or Stefan’s, or any new friend’s, is the tendency to throw challenges to anyone who even moderately annoys him. Andrew clearly wouldn’t talk about the tattoo on his own, so Neil pushes his luck. He gauges them to have only a short part of the journey left back to Columbia. He could walk it if he had to.
To his surprise, Andrew pulls his sleeve back without so much as a moment of hesitation. Thick black lines twist and curl up most of his forearm, so that there is more dark ink than pale skin. Between the lines, Neil can see uniform pale lines of scar tissue, and thinks that’s why Andrew must cover his arms. Then he thinks of the therapeutic pain of a tattoo needle.
Neil nods. He doesn’t have to comment on it for Andrew to note the understanding, and Andrew pulls down his sleeve in one sharp movement. “I have one on the back of my neck. It’s of the key to the first house my mom and I got.”
“I didn’t ask,” Andrew says.
“No, this one’s for free.”
Andrew’s silent for a few seconds. “I’m not going to trade meanings with you.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.” The accompanying I think you already get it goes unspoken. There’s a silence Neil could interpret as uncomfortable, but he decides not to. Andrew will speak or he won’t. Forcing him would be worse.
Neil finds himself enjoying the music from the radio. He’s more used to music with lyrics, but he decides this is far better than the music he could feel in his bones at the club. He thinks any one of those songs could immediately make him feel drunk again.
Neil watches the lights flickering and passing through the window on his right. The sound of muted music and Andrew’s quiet breaths with the faint smell of smoke combine to calm Neil to a point he’s not sure he’s reached in a while. He touches a hand to his hidden tattoo, and thinks of the feeling of home. Can he feel it with someone he just met?
If it’s someone who forces Neil back to himself and refuses to judge him, Neil thinks he could.
Seeing the sign that welcomes them to Columbia is somewhat jarring for Neil. Somehow it doesn’t feel like an hour’s drive has passed, and he doesn’t think that’s just because Andrew drives too fast. Neil pulls out his phone to send a text to Allison, with only a little hope that she’ll actually respond. Have you guys left yet?
His phone buzzes within the minute, suggesting Allison’s been waiting to text him - or she’s busy snapchatting blurry faces and loud music. nopppppppppppeeee
Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow, he replies.
GET SOME, is the response he gets within a few seconds. + gimme address so i can pick u up in the morn xo.
Neil puts his phone away. “Is it alright if I stay at your house for the night?”
“I offered,” Andrew responds, which Neil figures is fair.
“If I text my friends the address they’ll pick me up in the morning. It’s more likely to be the afternoon, but they say the morning.”
Andrew nods, and Neil settles back. Briefly, because he knows they’ll only be in the car for another couple of minutes at absolute maximum, he watches Andrew for any break in the impassivity.
There’s the faintest twitch, which Neil assumes is Andrew registering his attention, but he’s not sure if it’s anger, embarrassment, annoyance- honestly, it could be anything. Then Andrew’s face settles. Neil doesn’t move, though, content to watch the way the passing lights change Andrew’s profile and colouring. If Neil were an artist, he thinks he’d want to paint this.
Andrew pulls up at a relatively large house. When he cuts the engine, Neil can barely hear cars from the nearby roads, and thinks it’s astonishing that there’s anywhere in a city that’s quiet before 1am on a Saturday night.
Andrew throws Neil a key, presumably because he’s closer to the door. Neil takes this as a cue to get out of Andrew’s car and advance towards the house. He fumbles to get the key in the lock and somehow opens the door.
“Couch is there, or you can take one of the rooms. I don’t care, but you might wake up to Nicky cuddling you. Kitchen’s there if you want water.” Andrew punctuates his short speech with pointing, then walks out of the room. Neil would almost think he was mad at him, but he’s learning not to assume Andrew’s motivations. Or maybe he’s just hoping.
“Um, bathroom?” Neil calls out, thinking he desperately wants the stale taste of tequila out of his mouth yesterday.
Andrew doesn’t answer, but Neil hears the sound of running water and guesses he has to wait.
He rinses his mouth out with water, but it doesn’t really help. Andrew leaves the bathroom when Neil places the freshly clean glass on the side and Neil turns to find him a mere inch out from being uncomfortably in Neil’s personal space. “I don’t trust you,” he says, and Neil’s stomach lurches.
“I can leave.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
A clock somewhere ticks. Neil counts a few seconds, then he thinks that he’s been telling Andrew truths all night, but maybe he can tell Andrew one he hasn’t told anyone else. One that shouldn’t matter. If there’s anyone he trusts to know the significance of it, it’s this strange, serious man he’s just met. “Abram. It’s my middle name. It’s the only name I’ve kept with me, really. I was born Nathaniel Abram Wesninski. There’s been a few names since, but I’m Neil Abram Josten now.”
Andrew cocks his head slightly to the right. “Why Abram?”
“It’s from my mother’s side, not my dad’s. I don’t mind keeping her.”
After a few more ticks of the clock, Andrew nods and steps back, “If you're sleeping on the couch, you can grab blankets from under the stairs.” Then he’s gone.
Fine, Neil thinks, and doesn’t think about his heart, a couple of beats faster than it should be. In a haze aided by the alcohol still in his system, he makes up a bed, brushes his teeth, and falls promptly asleep.
It doesn’t last long. Only two hours later, according to the angry red numbers under the TV, more people enter the house, preceded by excessive jangling of keys and the smell of vodka and sweat. Andrew descends the stairs and manages to pose leaning against them, looking for all the world like an unimpressed mother, before they enter the house.
One of the tall ones, giggling, is the first to notice Neil on the couch, “Ooh, hello, we appear to have a stray!”
“Who are you?” Asks the one who could be Andrew. His twin, Neil has to assume.
“Neil,” He responds, then decides he may as well stir shit. “Andrew’s boyfriend.”
The giggling one chokes. The other tall one looks faintly shocked, but mostly he looks like he wishes he were anywhere else. He checks his hand like he may have missed something - a bottle of alcohol, probably. Neil risks a glance at Andrew, but he’s impassive as always, and watching the tallest one. Neil may survive the night yet.
“Okay, well, we haven’t heard of you until this point, and you’re not even in his bed which means he’s clearly not treating you right, so if you want some more fun, I’m Nicky, Andrew’s cousin,” Nicky tries to wink at Neil but just ends up blinking.
“I’m fine,” Neil says. Mentally, he files away the fact that Andrew seems to live with family against the sugar daddy comment Allison might have made.
“Are any of you capable of getting to your own beds or do you need an escort?” Andrew asks, sounding disinterested.
“I need Neil to help me,” Nicky declares.
“No,” Neil says.
“Don’t push it,” Andrew says.
Nicky pushes it. He tries to perch on the arm of the couch Neil is sat on, but doesn’t quite make it. It takes him a few seconds to adjust his distance perception, and then when he’s about to figure it out, Andrew pushes him against a wall. Not often you see that from a guy who was just asleep, Neil thinks in surprise.
Nicky falls into a suspicious silence. The other tall person looks faintly sick. Not-Andrew looks like he wants to go to bed. Neil picks his battles. “Don’t throw up,” he advises the tall person.
He gets a glare from the tall person, which leads Neil to notice that he has a tattoo on his cheekbone that Neil can’t quite make out in the dim light. Andrew shifts his attention from Nicky and says, “Kevin, water.”
Kevin might be an exotic plant. He dutifully goes to the kitchen to get some water. Neil looks back to Andrew and Nicky, who looks distinctly uncomfortable, and notices a flash of silver. Neil stands up, pushing his blanket aside, and yep, that’s definitely a knife.
“Andrew,” Neil says, and he’s not sure where he’s going with that sentence.
“Yes, dearest?” Andrew says, and his sweet tone is dripping with poison.
Neil sighs. “It’s just… way too early for this. Can you save the murder for a more reasonable time?” Nicky looks paler at this, which Neil might think was unfair except there is a very real chance that someone might get stabbed.
Andrew shrugs, like it’s a fair request, and steps back from Nicky with a sharp, “Go to bed.”
Nicky nods, “Okay, uh, good night.” Nicky and Kevin make a swift exit.
Not-Andrew sighs. “I’ll bring water for them.”
Andrew watches them leave, back in his disappointed mother stance.
“So, are stabbings common here?” Neil asks in what even he recognises as a disturbingly casual tone.
Andrew shrugs, “Only to people who deserve them.”
That could mean anything. Andrew starts to walk out of the room. “Good night, Andrew.”
Maybe Neil should be concerned by how easily sleep still comes to him, but this evening has just been exhausting.
When he wakes up in the morning, it’s to the smell of eggs and the sound of his phone buzzing. “Hello,” he mumbles into it, hoping he’s pressed the right combination of buttons.
“Neil, we’re on our way to Columbia. Can we have an actual destination, please?” Allison asks in a tone too bright for the sheer number of cocktails she must have had.
The red numbers say it’s 9:26, “It’s the actual morning.”
“A brilliant observation, Josten.”
“That must be novel for you,” He replies, sitting up to figure out who’s in the kitchen. He sees blonde, which means one of the twins.
“Ha ha,” Allison says sarcastically.
“You said ‘we’,” Neil says. “Who else?”
“My friend Renee from the team. I don’t think you’ve met her? Small, colourful hair? Could cut a man?”
“So like you with dyed hair?”
“Oh, Neil,” Allison says. “Of course my hair is dyed.”
“Of course,” Neil says, and walks over to the kitchen. He figures he has an equal chance of hatred with either of the twins, so decides it’s not worth it to ask which he’s talking to. “Could you give my friend the address?”
The twin takes the phone from Neil’s hand, reels off an address and hangs up. Neil thinks he should maybe protest about that, but he’s not sure he can handle Allison this early anyway.
“The others still sleeping?”
The twin nods. “Except Nicky, who’s nursing a hangover. He threw up in the shower.”
Neil snorts, “He deserved it.”
The twin’s mouth twitches. He points in a familiar gesture, “Coffee.” Neil thinks he can decide this is Andrew, and pours himself some coffee. When he’s done, Andrew hands him a plate of eggs.
This is domestic, Neil doesn’t say. They eat in silence.
Kevin comes in part way through, and puts on a sports show that Neil thinks is covering exy. “I can wash up,” Neil says.
“No,” Andrew replies, and stacks their plates by the sink. “One of the other idiots will later.”
Neil shrugs and goes to sit on the couch again. While he’s never had any particular interest in the sport, he’s found it intriguing, at least. Andrew ends up sat between him and Kevin.
After a few minutes, Kevin turns with a frown, like he’s been thinking too hard, and says, “I feel like I know you.”
“Um,” Neil responds. Then he sees the two on Kevin’s face, only recognisable now in full light, and says, “Um.”
Andrew looks between the two of them. Kevin frowns more, and says, “What?”
“Kevin Day?” Neil asks.
“Fuck,” Neil responds.
Andrew turns to Kevin. “Does the name Nathaniel Wesninski ring any bells with you?”
“Fuck,” Kevin says.
Andrew looks to Neil. Neil thinks his neck might start to hurt, and decides to respect the silent request for information, if only to help his neck. “We were on the same team when I was… uh, ten, maybe.”
“I thought you didn’t play exy,” Andrew responds.
“I don’t now,” Neil shrugs. He played a little bit, and then he and his mother left. He’d seen no reason to pick it up again later.
“You were good,” Kevin says.
“I played for three months.”
After a few more minutes, the other twin walks out of his room and says, “This looks domestic.”
Neil is saved from agreeing by the doorbell, which Andrew gets up to answer. Neil follows.
“Andrew?” Allison says, incredulously, which is kind of the wrong tone, Neil thinks. “Neil, you couldn’t have said it was this Andrew on the phone?”
“I didn’t know there were different types of Andrews I was supposed to be looking out for,” Neil replies, confused.
“This one’s our asshole goalie,” Allison says. “Nice to see you, Andrew. Oh, and Kevin, of course, and Aaron.”
Aaron, Neil thinks, filing that away for - well, probably never, honestly. The others don’t respond out loud. “Wait, you guys are on the exy team, too?” Neil asks. Andrew nods.
Allison snorts. “You’re an exy magnet, Neil.”
“Don’t tell Matt.”
“Oh, please, I’m telling everyone.”
“Wait, are you the Neil that Matt’s been talking about? His roommate?” Kevin asks.
“Live and in the flesh,” Allison responds.
“I thought he was in love with you,” Kevin mutters.
“He is, a little bit,” Allison flashes a grin.
“We’re just friends,” Neil says.
“Not like you and Andrew!” Nicky says, and Neil’s not sure when he entered the room. At least he appears to regret his loud words by the wince that follows.
“Um,” Allison replies.
“He’s my boyfriend,” Neil supplies. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Definitely not,” Allison says.
“I’m hurt,” Andrew says, looking completely unaffected by the whole exchange.
“No, you’re really not.”
“We can go whenever,” Neil says to Allison.
“What, don’t want to spend more time with your boyfriend?” Neil gets the impression that he might be in trouble with Allison, but he decides he can explain later.
“No, not particularly.”
“Whatever,” she says, then pulls something out of her pocket and hands it to Neil. “Here are your keys.”
“Oh, thanks!” Then he remembers and turns to Andrew. “Do you-” Andrew hands him his phone. “Thanks. Okay, I’m ready.”
“You guys can kiss goodbye, we won’t mind,” Nicky says.
“Yes, we will,” Aaron adds. Neil can’t see him. He might be in the kitchen.
“I’m going,” Neil says, and follows Allison to the car, where Renee is waiting. He doesn’t think a goodbye is worth it at this point.
As they pull out, Allison says, “Okay, I know I was drunk, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered if you told me you had a boyfriend. In fact, what I remember was telling you to hit on Andrew and you said no. What the fuck happened?”
“You’re dating Andrew?” Renee, who missed the whole exchange, asks. He remembers Andrew mentioning he has a friend with coloured hair and thinks that’s probably Renee. Small world.
Neil’s phone buzzes in his hand, and the screen lights up with the name Andrew. Neil frowns in confusion. He’s pretty sure he’d have remembered getting Andrew’s number- but Andrew did have his phone for a while.
The text reads, You have my key. Take care of it.
It might be a threat, but Neil smiles anyway.