Neil’s pretty sure he shouldn’t be surprised that he ended up in the crowd of an Exy game. It was probably inevitable from the time he befriended even one member of the Exy team, and it was nigh on impossible to avoid by the time he’d met every person on the team and started to consider more than half of them friends.
He didn’t expect to like the sport though.
He finds himself screaming in the stands, completely enraptured even if he only barely understands what’s going on. When he yells for Matt, the backliner seeks him out with a bright grin. Though Neil shouts just as loud every time Andrew blocks a goal, he doesn’t respond.
Andrew might prove to be a challenge, but Neil likes him. He thinks he can put in some more work to be his friend. Neil’s always been good at maths.
“Neil!” Matt says, once the team has escaped showers and press. “You liked the game?”
It’s more confirmation than a sincere question, but Neil nods anyway. “I didn't really have any clue of what was happening, but I loved it.”
“I can help with that,” Matt says, and claps him on the back.
Matt teaching Neil the magic of Exy begins with the weekly pro games. Matt supports a team called the Lions, who are scorned by critics and who frequently place badly in tournaments. Matt shrugs, “They’re really interesting players. They use new maneuvers and experiment a lot. People forget it’s a new sport and there’s still so much we can do with it. Yeah, it goes wrong a lot, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it.”
“Even in the pros?”
“Especially in the pros!” Matt enthuses. “If a sport’s gonna be your life, you’ve gotta enjoy it.”
Neil thinks that’s a decent point and nods, “So their problem is that they refuse to play for their strengths.”
“I suppose so, yeah. But every so often they hit on new strengths, and because no one expects it, they completely dominate. Okay, the last - well, the only - time they won the champs was the year after the leagues were even established, but even then they were innovative. Everyone was trying new things, kind of, but the other teams were trying and failing to stick to their strengths, right? The Lions didn’t even try. Look, I’ll show you the game later, because the way they win is a classic move now. But it was the first time it was done!”
Neil finds himself smiling at Matt’s enthusiasm. He can see where the passion comes from; one game, he thinks, could have gotten him hooked alone, but there’s more to it. “Show me the game.”
“Yes!” Matt says, turning to their TV. “Dude, I am so glad you were my roomie this year. Dan was getting sick of me talking about Exy.”
“Isn’t she the captain?” Neil says, though he knows the answer.
“Yup,” He sighs, but Neil knows he’s proud. Dan deserves that role. “What a pity.”
Matt shows Neil that some old games are available on YouTube. He watches a few, trying to be critical of players’ techniques and team maneuvers, and finds it comes more easily the more he watches, so he watches games back-to-back. He notices patterns in teams and individual players, and he thinks he can see ways they’d improve.
He points out a couple of things to Matt the next Friday night they watch a live game, and Matt gives him one of the looks that Neil has learnt to interpret as surprise. “Okay, dude, you don’t need to show off that I have nothing to teach you.”
“What?” Neil asks.
“You’ve been doing your homework.”
Neil looks at the stack of assignments on his desk. “No, I haven’t.”
Matt grins, “You really need to do those. But later. I’m gonna teach you to actually play. I mean, if you want.”
Neil meets Matt’s eyes with a growing smile. “Yes.”
“You’re going… back to the court?” Allison asks when Neil shows no sign of leaving after practice is over.
Matt grins like a proud parent, “I’m teaching Neil to play.”
“How the fuck do you still have energy?”
“I only just woke up,” Neil says.
Allison looks at him as though deciding whether to consider that funny. “You’re glutton for punishment. Don’t let Kevin know.”
“Don’t let Kevin know what?” Kevin asks. “Oh, you’re here,” He says to Neil, looking confused.
“Hi,” Neil says to Kevin and the blonde to his side. Apparently they’re inseparable. Neil feels like that’s the kind of thing it should have been hard to miss when he got to know Andrew.
Andrew raises his hand in a two finger salute and keeps moving as no one answers Kevin. Kevin waits a second before going to follow Andrew.
“I still can’t believe you actually talked to him,” Allison says. “I know he and Renee talk but it still seems like a myth to me.”
“It seems you were myth-taken,” Matt says.
“I hate you. Neil, please hit him in the gut with an Exy ball,” Allison says, and leaves.
“Exy?” Neil asks.
“I’m kind of nervous you didn’t say no to Allison,” Matt responds.
Neil stares blankly at Matt. “Exy?”
Matt sighs, “Exy.”
Matt spends a few hours a couple of times a week, when he feels up to it, teaching Neil the basics of playing Exy. He tries to teach Neil the general feel of the game, but admits he’s only played defensively so there’s a limit to how much he can teach. “On top of that, man, there’s only two of us. A court is huge. This is not gonna be like playing an actual game, but you can’t practice for real on a starter team. You may be short, but you’d kill any kids on a team.”
Neil nods. He probably would.
Neil sits at his desk and looks at the pile of assignments that threatens to fall down. He’s not been ignoring them, exactly, but he admits he has been letting the pile grow. He decided he should probably tackle more than the bare minimum after Renee entered their dorm room and said, in a blank tone that was oddly reminiscent of Andrew, “That’s a health hazard.”
His notes look foreign, and Neil realises he barely remembers going to these classes. “What the fuck,” he says, under his breath, and scratches the back of his neck.
When Matt comes in a half hour later, Neil is contemplating tearing his hair out, maybe. “Here,” Matt says, before a greeting, handing Neil his laptop. “Look it up, dude. Forget the notes. The internet knows everything.”
“I hope you don’t need this back tonight,” Neil replies.
Matt looks at the clock that reads 8pm. “You’ve been running me off my feet. I think I could do with an early night.”
Neil looks dubiously at the pile of work. “You’d better sleep enough for both of us.”
Matt laughs, “Oh, you bet your ass I will. Have fun!”
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” Neil says sarcastically, and means it.
“I know,” Matt says, collapsing into his bunk.
Neil doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t finish his assignments either. He thinks maybe his priorities have been a bit skewed. However, he gets the leaning tower of paper down to a hill.
He rubs his eyes and heads to class, where he promptly falls asleep. He does remember to hand in his assignment though, and it’s a passing grade. Barely.
“It’s not college if your life isn’t a mess,” Dan says, wisely.
“Speak for yourself,” Allison says. She is the only person at the table eating fries with a fork. Neil doesn’t think he can see anything in her life as being messy.
“Dan, you’re balancing a job, perfect grades, captaining the team, and you have an actual social life,” Neil says. He has not got an actual social life. He is social when people come into his life and tell him to do something.
She laughs, “I know I’m awesome. But you didn’t see me freshman year.”
“Oh my god, remember that one time in the library?”
“Oh, god,” Dan says, and covers her face briefly. “An ad came on while I was watching a video for one of my history classes - I don’t even remember what the assignment was on - and it was something for a charity? Maybe about water? Yeah! It was saying that by 2030 everyone in the world can have clean water or something, and I just burst into tears.”
“Not quiet tears, either. There was an actual sob,” Allison adds.
Dan shrugs. “I just thought that was way too long, and it… broke me, I guess.” Neil thinks he can relate to that. Maybe there’s something recognisable in his expression, because Dan continues. “Get someone who can help with your assignments. Seriously. Having someone explain it to you, even when you know it, is just comforting.”
Neil realises he doesn’t know the name of anyone in a single one of his classes. “I’m fucked."
Matt and Neil’s practices get less frequent while Neil tries to navigate college life without having a nervous breakdown.
“Alright, dude!” Matt says when Neil turns up just before the end of one of the team’s Exy practices. “I have extra energy today, good timing.”
“Extra energy?” A tall person Neil barely remembers chokes out. He imagines his face, suddenly, in dim lighting, and the name Nicky comes to him. “How?”
“Practice isn’t over yet,” Kevin calls.
“Matt’s cheating on you with Neil,” Nicky calls back before making minimal effort to walk back to where the rest are playing.
“What the fuck?” Allison calls back.
“He’s got extra practices,” Nicky calls back, and he sounds shocked. This seems strange to Neil, because more practice seems like a good thing to him.
“Oh, yeah,” Allison says, and throws a ball directly to Nicky, catching him off-guard.
“It wasn’t a secret,” Dan calls. “Can we get back to drills? The more we gossip, the longer practice is.”
After practice, Kevin lingers near Neil and Matt in a way that seems intentional, but he avoids eye contact. That seems intentional, too. Andrew loiters nearby like an angry shadow.
Eventually, Matt looks pointedly at Kevin and says, “Um.”
Kevin looks at them and he seems angry, for some reason. “Are you practicing now?”
“We were planning on it,” Matt says, confused.
“I only just started,” Neil says.
“I’ve been teaching him some defensive strats,” Matt says, almost as if it’s an instinct to answer Kevin rather than through any real desire to share.
“Is he any good?”
Neil shakes his head, but Matt says, “He’s fast. I think he could be.”
Kevin nods, as if a decision is made. “I’ll practice with you.”
“What?” Neil says, as Andrew turns to glare at Kevin.
“Let’s practice,” Kevin says.
Andrew sits on the bleachers and drops his car keys with a loud, resigned clatter.
Neil opens his mouth to question further, but Matt claps his shoulder and says, “Kevin’s the boss now. He doesn’t take ‘no’s when it comes to Exy.” Then he throws a glance to Andrew and lowers his voice, “Well, with one noticeable exception.”
But he plays, Neil doesn’t say, because Andrew isn’t volunteering to play now, and he suspects there’s more to the story he doesn’t know.
Kevin’s only instruction is a sharp, “Show me what you’ve got.” They play a scrimmage of Kevin trying to score against Neil and Matt, which Neil might assume would be stacked in their favour had he not seen Kevin play before. Matt isn’t at the top of his game, coming from a heavy practice, and Neil’s inexperience leads to a hesitance that Kevin has no qualms taking advantage of. In direct contrast, Kevin’s years of experience in apparently brutal conditions mean he shows absolutely no sign of weakness, and he’s scored ten times before he even seems out of breath.
Kevin cuts Neil a scornful glance and looks to Matt, “You call this potential? He wouldn’t catch the ball if you threw it to him standing still.”
Neil bristles at being talked about as though he’s not there and doesn’t give Matt a chance to reply. “Are we playing or not?”
“I was,” Kevin replies, but he takes a few steps back as if to launch into play.
“God,” Matt mutters, and Neil can see in the set of his shoulders that Matt already regrets this, but he steps into a ready position.
Neil knows, suddenly, that the only way he could ever impress Kevin is to put everything he has into this. His passion for the game can make up for Matt’s waning energy, his speed can make up for some of his inexperience; he only needs to convince Kevin to give him a chance.
He meets Matt’s eyes, and maybe Matt sees a glimmer of Neil’s new harsh determination, but he grins a vicious smile back and Neil knows they’ll give it their all, fuck the consequences.
Kevin calls the start of play, and Matt runs straight for him to knock the ball free. Kevin sidesteps, barely, surprised by Matt’s newfound energy, but his grip is shaky and Matt takes advantage with a second collision. The ball goes flying and Neil follows it without hesitation. Unopposed, he runs towards Kevin’s goal, and hurls the ball.
His aim is good, but his lack of practice shows in the force: the ball falls short. He scoops the ball back up to throw into the goal a second time, and the glow of the goal matches the red of his face.
Matt runs for Neil and pulls him into a tight hug, whooping in his ear, “That’s my boy!”
When Neil’s finally free, he looks to Kevin to see that same scorn still present. “You need practice.”
Breathless, Neil responds, “That’s why we’re here.”
Kevin makes a ‘hrumph’ sound. “When are you practicing next?”
Neil and Matt look at each other and shrug. Matt says, “There’s never been any set time. When we’re both free and not dead on our feet.”
Kevin regards them both. “I’ll find you,” he says, and walks off of the court.
“Was that a threat?” Matt asks. “It sounded like a threat.”
But Neil’s seeking out the eyes burning a hole into his side. Andrew stares, face impassive, until Neil breaks eye contact to wipe sweat from his forehead. When he looks back, Andrew’s gone.
A few days later, Neil’s phone buzzes with the second text he has ever received from Andrew Minyard. what classes are you struggling in
Neil considers who could have talked about his grades in front of Andrew, and comes up with the fact that it could be any of his friends. He sighs and figures he may as well answer. English and my Science requirement. After sending that, he decides to add a text for justification. I suck at English. I signed up late for Science and got the sadistic professor everyone avoids, apparently.
He gets a response within a minute of putting his phone down. Neil stares at the phone as though it will bite, then picks it up anyway. meet me on the roof
Neil starts typing, what, now? but he’s well aware that Andrew means now. Neil doesn’t know how to get to the roof. A voice in his head tells him that if he climbs upward he’ll eventually make it. He decides to ignore the voice asking if Andrew even means this roof.
He doesn’t know why Andrew wants to meet. Should he be bringing books? In one clumsy movement, he stands up, having decided to be as utterly unprepared as he can be, and just heads for the roof. He barely remembers to grab his keys.
The rooftop is windy. He wishes he’d grabbed a jacket. “Hi,” he says, and carefully makes his way to sit next to Andrew on the edge of the building. He wishes he were surprised that Andrew’s here, but he’s been such an enigma that Neil’s not sure anything about Andrew could really surprise him anymore.
Neil learns he’s wrong about that assumption within two minutes, when Andrew starts reciting poetry to him.
Neil thinks he might fall off the roof.
“If that’s how you look during your classes, no wonder you’re failing,” Andrew says, after Neil has been staring at him in silence for a few seconds too long.
“I’m not failing yet,” Neil is startled into saying.
Andrew just raises his eyebrows slightly.
“Please help me,” Neil says.
“I thought that was why we were here,” Andrew says, and looks around the two of them dramatically. “But you have none of your books.”
“Who needs them when Andrew Minyard can just read all of the source material to you?” Neil says, noting and disregarding how awed he sounds.
“Andrew Minyard doesn’t know what your assignments are, and he’s not going to be there when you choose to study at 3am after practice.” Neil wonders if that’s the only time Andrew won’t be there, then thinks that’s unlikely.
“I’ll go get my books,” Neil says.
“Come on,” Matt says. “It’s not college until you’ve drunk away the pain of a test you’re sure you’ve failed.”
Neil isn’t sure he’s failed. He thinks he maybe stands a chance at a passing grade, thanks to Andrew, and that’s confusing. He knows the look on his face when he’s confused looks like pain, though, so he forgives Matt the discrepancy.
“You don’t have to drink,” Dan says, glancing at her boyfriend before fixing her eyes back on Neil. “But we’ll look after you if you do. We’re a team.”
“I’m not on the team,” Neil replies.
She shrugs. “Not that team. We’re friends. It’s like being a team.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve drunk, you don’t have to corrupt me,” Neil says, but he’s touched and he knows it shows.
“Oh, Neil’s drinking with us?” Allison says as she walks through the door. “Isn’t this, like, the second time ever? Good, you’re a lightweight, I won’t have to get more for you.”
“And Allison is as good at persuasion as always,” Dan laughs.
“You guys made it sound like a done deal,” Allison shrugs and pulls open a bottle, somehow making both actions seem dainty. “And whatever, he’s boring drunk. I just want to fucking forget everything.”
“I’m in,” Neil says. “I want to forget Allison’s boy troubles, too.”
Matt’s delighted laugh seems to bounce off the ceiling.
It takes two drinks for Allison to decide that forgetting her boy troubles does not mean forgetting all boys. Her gaze is disturbingly sharp as she says, “Neil, what’s up with Minyard?”
“What?” Neil, who is not holding his drinks as well, replies.
“Please, don’t act as though no one has noticed you two talking all earnest on the roof. That is some romantic shit right there.”
Neil blinks twice, but the sentence does not rearrange itself in his head. “He’s tutoring me.”
Allison snorts, “Sure, babe. And I’m a virgin.”
Neil looks around for help, but even Renee just shrugs slightly and smiles. He doesn’t know what to say, but he feels betrayed.
“He could be boning Kevin,” Dan adds, unhelpfully. “Kevin’s shown no interest in anyone since Andrew.”
“Ooh, three-way?” Allison asks. “That would be the most emo thing in existence.”
Neil drinks more.
Matt and Dan are gone, and Neil doesn’t think about where they’ve gone. He, Renee, and Allison are pointing out constellations in the weird stains and bumps on the ceiling.
“That one’s a road,” Neil says.
“You’re shit at this,” Allison replies. “Hey, look, a rabbit!”
At some point, Renee, who was sober and probably tired, disappears too. He hopes not to the same place as Matt and Dan. He thinks she’s probably sleeping on the couch, but he’s not sure, because the next room over may as well be on Jupiter.
Neil and Allison are squeezed into his single bed, and he thinks she was crying. He’s not sure, but his shoulder is damp, so he pats her head. He feels not-completely-drunk, and he doesn’t taste alcohol in his mouth, but the past few hours are a blur. “Boys are confusing,” He says, and he’s not sure if he’s thinking of himself or Andrew.
“He’s such an asshole,” Allison moans. “Why can’t I just dump him and be done?”
Definitely Andrew, Neil decides. He can’t stop thinking about Andrew telling him about his past and how everyone thinks of him as almost mute. It seems weird, and wrong, somehow. “I don’t know. You said he’s good in bed?”
Allison cackles suddenly, “He is. But that’s not a good reason to date a guy! We’re better than that, Neil.”
“Okay,” He says. Maybe he shouldn’t think of Andrew when they’re talking about dating boys. He’ll probably confuse the situations, and understanding Andrew is different from Allison wanting to get back with Seth. He thinks. “Hey, Allison?”
She gives a non-committal noise in response.
“Why can’t you just dump him and be done?”
She sniffs once, then says, “I don’t know. I still like him, even though he’s a dick, because sometimes he’s not, you know? Sometimes he’s nice, and that’s - nice.” She sighs, “But that’s not, like, enough. And I know that, that’s why I dump him… I dump him a lot. But then it’s like he’s changed, or he could change, I don’t know, time is weird, and I think it could be better. I think he could be better and I could be better and then maybe we’d be happy, and the good times would be the always times.”
“That’s smart,” Neil says, trying to understand what she means.
“No, it’s not,” She says wistfully. “If I don’t like him now, I shouldn’t be with him now, right?”
“Right,” Neil agrees.
“Life tip, Neil, because I’m smartest while I’m drunk and I’m not gonna remember my advice tomorrow so you better: don’t get with a guy or a girl or whoever if you’re not sure about it. If there’s even a little, tiny, small part of you saying ‘hey, this could be bad’, then listen to it. Because you’re better than the- than the uncertainty. And you’re better than letting someone hurt you and yell at you just because he knows you’ll come back,” Allison turns into Neil’s side with a kind of finality.
Neil lets the silence hang, because his thoughts are too thick to push words through. He wants to remember Allison, remember her words, because they feel right , but it’s hard. He wishes idly that Andrew were here, because he’d remember. The words swim in front of him.
“Hey, Allison?” Neil whispers, not sure if she’s still awake. “Don’t get back together with Seth.”
Neil’s woken with a start by knocking on the door. No one else seems to be awake, but he’s not sure anyone’s here but him and Allison. Even bearing that in mind, Neil has no idea who’d be at his door. He thinks everyone has keys. Either that, or they plan their entry to his room so well they never need them.
“Seth,” He says, not quite surprised, not looking forward to the neck pain this conversation is going to cause him.
“Is Allison here?” Seth replies, somehow not managing polite. It’s probably the lack of greeting, Neil decides.
“No,” Neil replies.
“Yes, she is,” Seth says.
“Well, I don’t see her,” Neil says. “Did you?”
Seth looks down at Neil as though this is a new intimidation tactic and not something that happens to him daily, regardless of who he’s talking to. Neil yawns. Waking up after drinking is hard. “Neil. I’m sure that somewhere in that tiny brain of yours you think you’re doing the right thing here. I’ll make it easy for you: you’re not. And the only thing stopping me coming in anyway is that I respect Matt too much to force him to clean up the mess I’d leave behind of you.”
“Allison isn’t here,” Neil says. “Can you leave so I can go back to bed?”
“Neil,” Seth says, and the sudden raise in volume makes Neil flinch. Okay, alcohol definitely hurts. “Let me in.”
Neil shakes his head, trying to keep the volume down, but that’s worse.
“I’m not asking again. Get the fuck out of my way.”
Neil decides standing still and watching Seth is a good enough answer. As a bonus, it lets him see the moment Seth starts to tense up to push past Neil, and he’s able to push first. Neil’s spent a few weeks trying to pick on people a foot taller than him, and he’s learnt that the only time he has any chance of getting them to budge is catching them off-guard. Seth moves back about a foot out of surprise, but Neil knows that’s the only luck he’s getting, and he doesn’t think he can move fast enough to shut and lock the door before Seth gets in.
Luckily for him, though, the hallway had already begun to fill at the sounds of yelling - nothing can rouse students faster than the prospect of a story to tell later - and better yet, there are some familiar faces in the crowd.
“What the fuck, Seth?” Kevin says, sounding tired. Seth turns to the voice, and Neil takes advantage of the distraction to lock his door.
“I just want to see Allison,” Seth says, making some kind of attempt at a calm voice.
“And tackling Neil helps how? I mean, I’m all for the methods, but I didn’t think he was your type.” Neil’s not sure he’s thankful for Nicky’s help.
Seth rolls his eyes towards heaven. “I’m being tag-teamed by the idiots.”
“Seth? I think you might have lost this one. Unless you particularly feel like battering down the door,” Neil says, because he hasn’t acted on his death wish in a while and it’s overdue.
Neil weighs up the chances of being tackled, and watches Seth calculate how satisfying that would be against the consequences. Neil doubts Kevin or Andrew would get involved if it became physical, but Nicky might. He’s not sure that’s a deterrent, but apparently it is to Seth, who just storms off.
Kevin looks Neil up and down with disapproval written on his face. “I guess you’re not up early for practice.”
“No, Kevin, I’m up because a 6 foot tall striker just banged on my door and wasn’t going to stop until someone answered,” Neil responds, deadpan.
Kevin just rolls his eyes and walks off, obviously expecting the others to follow. “See ya later, Neil,” Nicky says cheerfully.
Andrew waits until Neil turns back to where he’s still standing and says, “Nice tattoo,” then follows the others. It’s a testament to how much alcohol is still in Neil’s system that he hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t wearing a shirt until that second.
Rubbing the back of his neck as though he could feel the tattoo, Neil unlocks his door again to head back to bed. He’ll crash in Matt’s, because sleeping with Allison was fine last night, but now he’d rather stretch out.
“You didn’t have to,” Allison says quietly when he enters the bedroom.
Neil smiles softly at her. “Forgot you were here,” he says, and hits send on a text that says Allison doesn’t want to go back to Seth. Can you make sure she doesn’t?
Neil turns up to class late. His professor is either used to college students, or just to Neil, because she doesn’t miss a beat as Neil walks in to take a seat.
Papers are being handed around as the professor figures out where she’s put the registration sheet, and the guy in front of Neil looks kind of concerned as he says, “You okay?”
Neil doesn’t think he’s spoken to him before. He doesn’t even think he’s seen the guy before. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”
The guy shrugs and the tips of his ears go slightly pink. “The bags under your eyes are just… impressive. Do you ever sleep?”
Neil laughs a little. Between figuring out what a social life actually is, Kevin insisting Exy be important to Neil, attempting to drag his grades up from the pit, and the fact that Andrew can only tutor him in the evenings or at night when Kevin is ‘safely’ in their dorm room, Neil’s discovered that fitting in sleep isn’t as easy as it might seem. “No, I don’t. Not really.”
“Do we just share the dorm rooms?” Neil asks upon returning to his room to find Dan sitting with Matt, and Allison and Renee’s voices coming from the attached bedroom.
“Yeah,” Dan says. “Three rooms are better than one. Always, Neil.”
“It’s not like he’s a bad person. I mean, not really,” Allison says, voice muffled through the wall.
“That doesn’t mean you’re good together, though,” Renee replies, soft but relentlessly sensible.
“Uh,” Neil says, eyes darting between the closed door and Dan.
“You texted me, but Renee has a way of saying things you already know and not taking your bullshit while still being nice about it. My version of persuasion is yelling,” Dan says with a shrug.
“Sounds very persuasive,” Neil replies.
“Works for me,” Matt says.
“You never say no to me anyway.”
“You’re a very sensible person.”
Dan snorts. “Anyway… thanks for sticking your nose in, Neil.”
Neil shrugs. “She doesn’t want to be back with him. She said so.”
“What, while drunk? That doesn’t mean anything. If you’d let Seth in, they’d probably be in a love nest by now,” Matt says.
“What? Ew!” Dan says, punching Matt’s shoulder.
“I’ve seen it! Don’t ‘ew’ me! I’m scarred,” Matt says, fake-wounded.
Dan rolls her eyes. “Besides, drunk people are the most honest. It’s just that none of the rest of us would remember her saying it, and assume she’s doing what’s best for her.”
“Allison doesn’t leave much room for doubt,” Matt adds.
“Hasn’t she spent her whole life trying to convince tabloids that she knows what she wants more than anyone else does?” Neil asks.
“Fuck,” Matt says.
Dan shrugs. “Yeah, and it’s not like we forget that - uh, except Matt, maybe - but it’s different knowing she might be hiding stuff and pushing her to deal with that. She doesn’t like being pushed.”
“You seem to be doing fine,” Neil says, hearing Renee’s soft tone and the way Allison’s agreeing with her more as the minutes pass.
“Hey, stop with the guilt tripping!” Dan says.
“I’m not,” Neil says, confused.
“We get it, Neil, Matt tells us enough how perfect you are,” She teases.
“He’s just good at everything,” Matt says in a lofty tone.
“What?” Neil says. He may consider them friends, but that doesn’t mean he understands them.
“We were about to watch a movie,” Matt says. “Wanna join?”
“Yeah,” Neil sighs.
“Okay,” Allison announces, when she and Renee finally leave the bedroom about halfway through the film, “Single people in this group officially outnumber people in relationships. Therefore, Dan and Matt, you suck.”
“What?” Matt whines.
“Well,” Dan says, and Matt throws a cushion at her.
“As such, I’m not going to be making any more attempts at match making. Even if Neil should be boning Andrew.”
“What?” Neil says.
“Please, you’re the only one he talks to. It’s gay,” Allison says.
“Yeah, you don’t swing. And as I said, I respect that now. So don’t worry.”
Neil thinks this might be mixed messages. He can feel a headache coming on.
“And Neil?” Allison adds, squeezing in next to him on the couch.
“Thanks,” She says, with a rare, genuine smile. Then she punches him in the arm. Hard. “But don’t ever fucking meddle in my business again.”
Neil isn’t asleep, but being awake feels like dreaming. Everything’s kind of distant. He reaches for his coffee, because he’s starting to yawn again and he’s only halfway through his required reading for the exam he has tomorrow morning, but someone else has grabbed it. “Hey,” he protests weakly.
He looks up to Andrew, who finishes his cup and sets it down, looking unimpressed as always.
“You owe me a coffee now,” Neil says, making an attempt to sit up straight. He thinks about reasons Andrew could be here, and thinks of Exy. “And tell Kevin to go fuck himself. I’m not practicing Exy during finals.”
Andrew looks faintly offended. “I’m not here to run Kevin’s chores for him.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re in the library to study like everyone else. You’re a genius or something. What was I meant to assume?”
“How long have you been here?”
Neil is pretty sure it’s Wednesday, but he’s not 100% on that. “Uh… roughly since Monday,” he says, because he wants to give himself credit for leaving to shower and even eat sometimes. “Wait, are you here because you’re concerned about my health?” He can’t help the disbelieving tone.
Andrew stares back at Neil for a few seconds before picking up his textbook, and Neil realises, distantly, that it’s not new for Andrew to express some kind of concern for Neil. He proposed tutoring Neil, after all. Neil blinks in shock and realises he’s kind of touched.
Andrew flicks a few pages ahead, and makes a small, derisive sound. “You know this.”
Neil laughs, a short, sharp sound. “It looks like it’s written in Greek, Andrew. I understand none of it.”
“That’s because you’ve been awake for over 72 hours. This is content you should have covered in high school. Probably three times, for you.”
Neil shrugs. He’s not sure he’s actually written his notes in English. He can spot some German in there, and maybe a few French words. The rest could be in Egyptian hieroglyphs for all he can tell.
“You distinguish between ketones and aldehydes with an ammoniacal silver nitrate solution called…”
Neil waves a hand in a ‘pass’ gesture, but Andrew just looks at him in silence. He sighs, and says the only name in mind, “Tollen’s reagent?”
Andrew grants him a brief nod. “An aromatic hydrocarbon containing or more benzene ring is…”
“An arene,” Neil replies. That’s an answer he knew; it sounded like aromatic and benzene smashed together, and he’d actually giggled about it until a girl at the next table to him looked at him strangely for it.
“I have all but read the whole of this textbook to you, and I know you understand it,” Andrew says.
“You haven’t tested my calculations,” Neil points out, and he’s not sure why he’s being a glutton for punishment.
Andrew stares at him. “You’re worried about your grades, and you should be. You’re barely passing. But you can’t think right now, and if you believe that will make your final exam better, then you’re more of an idiot than I took you for.”
Neil looks back at Andrew, who doesn’t seem to be giving him his textbook back. “What’s the time?”
Neil calculates, and he figures he has time for a shower and then he might still wake up in the morning. “Fine. You win.”
Neil follows Andrew out of the library in silence. The world moves past him strangely, like he’s on a fast-track ramp at an airport. “Where are you going?” Andrew asks, breaking Neil’s fragile concentration.
He points in an abstract direction, “Uh, back to my dorm?”
“Get in the car,” Andrew says, unlocking it. Neil gets a strange sense of déjà vu.
“Are you kidnapping me again?” Neil asks, trying not to giggle as he gets into Andrew’s car.
“Don’t touch the radio this time.”
As they pull out, Neil asks politely, “How are your finals going?”
“Better than yours,” Andrew replies.
“Touché,” Neil says. He’s not sure, but he might have fallen asleep for the rest of the car ride. He wakes up to Andrew opening his door. “Chivalrous.”
“Get out of my car.”
“Less chivalrous,” Neil says, making for the door to the dorms and not quite managing surprised when Andrew follows him. He thinks Andrew lives in the same dorms as him. It’s the most sensible explanation for why Andrew always seems to be in the halls or on the roof. “Thanks for the lift, and, uh, for saving me from myself.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Andrew says, and heads straight for the top of the building.
“Bye,” Neil says to the closing elevator doors.
“Neil, what the fuck?” Matt says when he walks into the dorm room. “I’ve been texting you.”
“Finals,” Neil says. He points to the phone on his desk, “and my phone’s dead.”
Matt walks over to Neil and puts a hand on his shoulder. “You, Neil, are a mess. I don’t know how you’ve survived nineteen years.”
Neil shrugs his free shoulder, because he’s unsure on that himself. “I had some help.”
Neil somehow finishes exams, and while he barely remembers the week, he doesn’t think he failed. Of course, as soon as he starts to feel like he’s breathing normally again, someone asks a casual question that stresses him out.
“Oh, have you decided what you’re doing for Christmas break yet?” Matt asks. “Just because I think you’re running out of time to book tickets or whatever.”
“Fuck,” Neil says. “I’m not going home.”
“Yeah, your mom’s in England, right?” Neil nods. “Why didn’t she bring you? I’d be super offended if my mom had left me behind.”
“I told her to go, she hasn’t had time to spend with her family in ages. And tickets were cheaper if she left earlier,” Neil shrugs.
“Neil,” Matt says. “You’re allowed to be selfish if it means preventing you from staying in the dorms alone over Christmas.”
“I’ll be fine. I probably need a couple of weeks to catch up on my sleep anyway.”
Matt laughs. “Okay, but my mom’s gonna be pissed I didn’t convince you to spend Christmas in NYC with us.”
“Hey, it was totally my fault. I put off making a decision until you were actually leaving.”
“You’re not gonna be there to tell her, Neil!” Matt dramatically places a hand over his heart. “Have a good Christmas, dude. Eat whatever you want of mine, it’s probably gonna go off before I get back anyway.”
Neil acts as though he’s choked up. “That’s the best present you could have given me.”
Matt rolls his eyes and pulls him into a hug, “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”
It may be winter, but Neil has never had a particularly well-developed sense of self-preservation against the mundane, so the first full day he has alone in the dorms with no assignments that need to be done imminently, he wraps himself in a blanket and goes to sit on the roof.
It’s cold but not snowing; still, with the sky overcast and mist curling around the corners of the buildings, everything looks soft in greys and whites. It’s Saturday, so the town is busy, but Neil is removed from the sounds and congestion of it from the heights of the top of the building. Watching the smoke drift off the end of his lit cigarette and life from a distance, Neil feels himself finally start to unwind from the endless motion of his first semester at Palmetto State University.
Then the door that’s supposed to be locked is pushed open by someone who knows how to work it. “You’re staying in the dorms for the break,” Andrew says, coming to sit by Neil like it’s no surprise that he’s there.
“Yeah, I thought…” Neil trails off, realising he hadn’t thought about what Andrew would be doing for the holidays; he’d just assumed that Andrew wouldn’t be here. “Aren’t you guys going to Columbia? Or… to spend the holidays with your families?”
Andrew looks at him briefly like it’s a stupid question, and Neil supposes it is. “We’re going to Columbia later. In an hour.”
“Okay,” Neil says, puzzled by the extra information. “I hope you have a good time.”
“You might want to pack a toothbrush, at least.”
“What?” Neil asks.
“I said we’re leaving in an hour. I’d guess you haven’t packed.” Andrew is steadfastly watching the town, as though he hasn’t just added Neil to their holiday plans last minute and without a hint of doubt.
“It’s not- I don’t-” Neil pauses for a second to collect his thoughts. “I’m fine staying here, really. It’s your guys’ house.”
“Really? I seem to recollect you have a key.”
“Yeah, because I forgot to give it back,” Neil moves to retrieve his key ring from his pocket, which is a difficult maneuver under his layers.
“I’d have taken it back if I wanted it,” Andrew drawls. “The kitchens are closed for the winter and it’s 50/50 on whether they’ll remember to leave the heating on. You’re an idiot to pass up a free invitation to an actual house.”
“Free?” Neil replies, staggered. “What happened to fair trades?”
“You’re right,” Andrew says, almost on a hum. “I suppose I’ll have to figure out a way for you to make it up to me.”
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Neil says, raising his eyebrows, but he doesn’t feel threatened by Andrew at all. In fact, he almost thinks he might trust him more than he trusts Matt.
“You’re just wasting time now.”
Neil shakes his head, realising he’s going to accept the ridiculous proposition to spend two weeks with Andrew and his make-shift family. “How am I going to even know where to meet you guys?”
“I’ll find you,” Andrew says casually.
“Fine,” Neil says. “Fine, I’ll see you in an hour.”
Packing doesn’t take long. Neil owns more than he used to, but his mental checklist of necessities is the same as it has always been. Still, Andrew’s knock on his door comes sooner than he’s prepared for. He barely knows the rest of the group, and he wouldn’t consider Andrew a friend, not yet. Regardless of the hours they’ve spent together, the conversation topics are limited: class, Neil’s failures as a human, and, briefly, Exy. Ignoring the night he met Andrew, but that seems somehow like an alcohol-induced hallucination.
Even if this is a bad idea, Neil’s survived worse ideas. So he pushes down the sense of dread and pulls his duffel bag over his shoulder before following Andrew out of the building.
“Took you long enough!” Nicky says, cheerful tone at odds with the accusatory statement, then registers Neil. “Wh- Neil’s coming? Since when?”
Andrew gets into the driver’s seat without answering, so Neil says, “About an hour ago.”
“Damn, Andrew could have given us some notice. I was looking forward to actually having space in the backseat - not that I mind cosying up to you, Neil, of course, but I am too tall to truly enjoy car journeys, you understand - and I know you can’t have had time to pack in just an hour.”
Neil frowns. “Packing really doesn’t take that long.”
“Who’s sitting in the front?” Aaron asks.
In answer, Kevin gets into the passenger seat.
“Figures,” Nicky says. “We never get front. If you want it, Neil, you’re gonna have to get faster at calling shotgun.”
“I’m okay in the back.”
“Good! You’re in the middle, so get squishing!” Nicky replies, nudging Neil cheerfully. The dread returns.
The journey is filled with an awkward kind of chatter, as it originates solely from Nicky. In response, he gets the occasional line or two back from Neil or Kevin, but Aaron and Andrew are completely silent. Neil’s not sure if the others just totally detest Nicky or if his presence is throwing off the balance.
He tries to imagine Andrew ever talking to Nicky and comes up blank. It’s between the memory of Andrew threatening Nicky and Andrew’s consistent presence as Kevin’s shadow, but his whole personality seems to be a polar opposites to Nicky’s.
They don’t talk about the mechanics of Neil joining their trip until they arrive at the house, and that’s only because everyone in the car had done the basic mathematics involved to figure out that there were more boys than rooms. Neil breaks the silence to say, “I can sleep on the couch.”
“Not unless you want to wake up with Nicky on top of you,” Andrew responds.
“It’s true,” Nicky says, with a shit-eating grin on his face. “It’s all instinct now. After a night out, I crash on that couch, and I will not notice anything wrong until I wake up in the morning.”
Neil opens his mouth, then closes it again. He doesn’t actually think he wants to deal with that. “I can sleep on someone’s floor, I guess? I’m not picky.”
Nicky looks at the others as if to say wait, you won’t offer to share a bed with your family so Neil can sleep? Then he seems to suddenly realise he also isn’t offering Neil his bed and doesn’t say anything.
No one’s offering him a patch of floor either. He tries to calculate how long it will take him to get back to Palmetto on Christmas Eve. He doesn’t sigh as he turns and says, “Andrew?”
Andrew turns around and walks away. Neil takes that as the invitation it is and follows, nearly, but not quite, missing the shocked expression Nicky assumes. The voice of his mother unexpectedly chimes in, if he’s not careful, his face will get stuck like that. Another voice, a soft and less familiar one, says that one of these days, Andrew’s family and friends are going to have to learn that he isn’t as heartless as they think.
Everyone disappears quickly. Neil’s only had one Christmas to really be ‘normal’ about it, but he’s fairly certain people are supposed to spend Christmas with their family.
As it is, Kevin’s the only one who appears to still be in the house, which is a surprise in itself. Neil guesses that, like a well-trained pet, Andrew can leave Kevin alone for short periods of time.
They mumble greetings to each other as Neil goes to make a mug of coffee. Despite what Andrew said about the heating at Palmetto, the house is cold - kindly, Neil is willing to accept it’s because they haven’t been in the house for a few weeks, but he still needs a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
He sits next to Kevin, who’s watching some made-for-TV movie about Exy players and the true spirit of Christmas. It’s reaching the climax, and Neil’s fairly certain they’re going to have to defeat the Grinch-like character in a game of Exy, which seems like an unlikely victory. He supposes it’s the only Exy related thing on TV this Christmas eve.
They sit in silence for a while until Kevin says suddenly, “Why did you choose Andrew’s room?”
Neil knows it was an unexpected choice, but it had seemed simple to him. “He’s the closest thing to a friend I have in all of you.”
Kevin is noticeably offended, which surprises Neil. “We’ve been practicing together for weeks.”
“Yeah?” Neil responds. “You yell and throw hard balls at me. I know I’m not an expert on friendship, but I was pretty sure that isn’t it.”
Kevin is still frowning, and Neil comes to the belated conclusion that Kevin had actually considered him a friend. This is more mystifying to him than the first time Matt had called him a friend, because at least he’d been able to examine their interactions and see some affection.
Then again, if the only thing Kevin cares about is Exy, maybe sharing that with Neil was his way of showing affection. Same as with Andrew, maybe kindness was shown more in the actions than in demeanour. It would make sense, in a certain way. “Um,” Neil says, after a long pause.
Kevin’s still frowning, but it seems to have changed into a more thoughtful expression. “We could watch some Exy on my laptop,” he says, and Neil interprets this as a kind of bonding activity.
“Sure,” Neil says. Anything has to be better than this movie.
“It’s a better option than this trash,” Kevin says derisively, and Neil thinks maybe friendship is an actual possibility here.
He follows Kevin into his room, and Kevin shows him that he has a subscription to an Exy streaming site. He starts making comments about plays and technique, but Neil doesn’t think it’s in an educational way, more in that this is just how Kevin wants to watch the game. When Neil makes a comment that he knows Matt would approve of, he still half expects Kevin to be disparaging, but he just gets a slightly wide-eyed look and a belated nod.
By the end of their first game, Kevin is speaking faster and responding to Neil’s points. He even sometimes finishes Neil’s points, and somehow Neil feels like they’re on the same wavelength. It’s gratifying, even though Neil knows this is the part of Exy he’s good at - he can instinctively pick up on good plays, especially with someone to guide his thoughts.
After one game, Kevin mentions slowly that they have some of the Foxes’ games from this season on the site. It feels like more of a test - why does friendship with the monsters feel worse than finals? - so Neil is more cautious with his comments. Still, he can pick up quickly and with confidence that the offense line is strong, but defense is saved by Andrew alone. No one on the team is bad, but their teamwork falters, and while any individual player could be good, only Kevin and Andrew are strong enough to carry their whole line.
When he says this, Kevin nods like it confirms what he’s known all along. “You’ve got a good eye, but you’ve still got a long way to go.”
“I only picked up the sport two months ago,” Neil says.
“Hey, it was a compliment.”
“I’m not sure you know what a compliment is.”
The look Kevin gives Neil leads to the impression that Kevin regrets trying to befriend Neil. Neil’s not bothered. He’s still not sure humouring Kevin’s attempts at friendship was a good idea, except for the access to more Exy games.
A few games later, Neil’s phone starts ringing. “Nicky?” Neil answers.
“Neil! We’re home,” Nicky says, enthusiasm still ear-shatteringly evident even over the crackling phone line.
“Okay,” Neil says, wondering why Nicky would have called him from one room over.
“Don’t you care about the evening’s plans?”
“It’s Christmas eve!” Nicky’s voice becomes more shrill.
“You’re the only one who celebrates Christmas, Nicky.”
“Everyone celebrates a chance to get drunk. Even you, I assume. How else would you get through friendship with Andrew?” Nicky laughs, then continues with his voice more distant, “No offense, of course, cousin dearest.”
“I’m not a big drinker,” Neil says, deciding to disregard everything else Nicky has said.
“Exactly why you need to be part of the discussions then! Let your voice to be heard! We’re in the living room, so when you get back, we’ll, uh, be here, I guess.”
“Okay,” Neil says, and hangs up. “Living room,” he says to Kevin.
“He needed to call you to get you to move one room over?”
Neil shrugs as Kevin closes the lid of the laptop and follows him out of the room.
“Wait, you were here all along?” Nicky asks when he notices them.
“You didn’t even check,” Kevin replies, with his unimpressed coach look.
“Well yeah, but you’re not frie- Neil, have you been befriending everyone behind my back?”
“I’ve never even talked to Aaron,” Neil replies. Aaron salutes him with a drink that seems to be straight vodka.
“I’m the one who’s easy to get along with!” Nicky pouts.
“I like the quiet types,” Neil says, deadpan, and wonders what it is about Nicky that makes him so fun to render speechless.
Andrew decides Nicky’s spluttering has lasted long enough at three seconds. “What are we getting for dinner?”
“Is anything open?” Kevin asks.
“Yes,” Andrew replies helpfully.
Nicky tears his eyes from Neil to say, “Pizza is the most festive of all takeaways.”
No one disagrees.
“Now onto the important things,” Nicky says, and hands a bag over to Neil. “Merry Christmas, Neil.”
Neil looks inside, and looks back at Nicky, confused. “I have clothes.”
“Yeah, and none of them are suitably festive for a Christmas outing with the coolest people!” Nicky says. Neil looks around at Aaron, still drinking, Kevin, faintly embarrassed, and Andrew, impassive as always. Neil raises his eyebrows. “You can’t wear those to Eden’s. It’s for my reputation, not yours.”
Neil shrugs. That, at least, he can accept as a valid motivation. “We’re going to Eden’s Twilight? On Christmas eve?”
“Hell yeah we are!” Nicky says. Neil meets Andrew’s eyes. “We go most weeks, and because Andrew refused to leave last night, we’re gonna have to race the clock to drunk because it’s Saturday. But it’ll be more festive, and the house is stocked, anyway!”
“That sounds like hell,” Neil says, looking back at Nicky.
“You don’t have to come,” Andrew says.
“I already got him an outfit!” Nicky says, and he’s pouting again.
“I’ll go,” Neil says. But it’s not because of Nicky.
“Ground rules, Neil: no starting fights,” Andrew says. Neil fights a smile.
“Is that something we have to worry about?” Nicky asks, looking genuinely in concern.
“Andrew’s more of a danger than I am,” Neil replies.
Nicky looks between them. “Is this, like, an inside joke? Does Andrew have an inside joke?” He clasps a hand to Andrew’s shoulder with a gasp. “He’s all grow- ow, ow, Andrew, stop!”
Eden’s Twilight is as loud as Neil remembers, and if anything, it’s more crowded. He’d thought that perhaps the limit on serving alcohol at midnight would have made it less busy, but apparently the fact that it’s Christmas eve counteracts that.
The bouncers seem to recognise the others, though, and let them straight in without queueing in the cold, which Neil is appreciative of. “Used to work here,” Nicky explains with a grin, which explains their familiarity and, also the fact that Andrew’s had seemed to know the bartender - Roland - last time.
Andrew somehow manages to find a free table and leads the way, then leaves to get drinks, all the while managing to make his way through the crowd like it’s easy.
“I don’t get you,” Nicky shouts.
Neil frowns in confusion at him, but Nicky’s attention has moved on already. Probably the five shots he’d done before they’d left the house.
Andrew returns with a tray of drinks after a surprisingly short amount of time, and slides in next to Neil. He looks at the tray, trying to figure out what’s what.
Andrew places two drinks in front of Neil; one a golden-brown drink in a small glass, the other an unopened can of something carbonated. Neil looks at Andrew gratefully for the choice and pulls the tab on the can. Andrew downs the liquid in the glass without hesitation.
After a couple of drinks, Nicky and Aaron disappear to the dance floor. Neil catches Nicky cosying up to someone in a Santa suit that is far too warm for the club. Kevin requires a few more vodka shots before he makes his way onto the dance floor, so he guards the table as Neil follows Andrew to get more drinks - Neil guesses it’ll be a larger round to tide them over, as midnight is fast approaching, so offers a hand.
It takes them a while to attract Roland’s attention, but the other bartenders seem to know that Andrew doesn’t want them, and it still takes less time than it would for Neil alone. “You’re back,” Roland says, looking surprised.
“Well, Andrew punched a guy for me. I owe him a life debt,” Neil replies.
Andrew rolls his eyes and pushes the tray forward towards Roland, who levels Andrew an unimpressed look and starts refilling glasses. “Still going strong, then?”
Neil remembers Roland’s throwaway ‘boyfriend’ comment from last time, and looks at Andrew. “He’s not leaving me alone,” Andrew replies, but he doesn’t sound annoyed about it.
Neil smiles. “Hey, you’re the one who recites poetry.”
“Never thought I’d see the day,” Roland says with a clucking noise, but Neil can see he’s happy for Andrew. Neil gets the sudden urge to correct Roland’s misconception, but if Andrew isn’t, he’s not going to. He lets the stranger to his right push him further into Andrew’s side, and grimaces an apology.
Roland smirks as he pushes the tray back, and disappears to deal with another customer.
When they make it back to the table, Nicky’s back, sweatier and ready for the next round. “Lifesavers!” He yells, then pulls Neil to his side in a sticky hug. “Hey, Neil, just tell me one thing.”
“Are you two banging? Like for real?”
“Who?” Neil asks.
“Are you serious?” Nicky asks. “You and Andrew, obviously. I mean, I guess you’re not, but you’re the only one he shows, like, any interest in. At all. The rest of the world is white noise or a constant ‘blah blah blah’, like in the Peanuts. It was the Peanuts, right?”
“I don’t-” Neil tries.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the Peanuts. Anyway, whatever. You guys are cute, which is something I never thought I’d say about Andrew,” Nicky laughs. “I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
With that, Nicky makes his way back to the dancefloor.
Neil meets Andrew’s intense look. He’s always intense, but it hasn’t been uncomfortable before. “What did he say?” Neil thinks Andrew says. He shrugs off the question, and reaches for a glass of something that’s probably alcohol.
He doesn’t know what it means, but it can’t be as significant as Nicky is making it out to be. Either way, Neil doesn’t want to think about it.
Being the only two in the house without hangovers, the room Neil and Andrew are sharing is the only one with conscious occupants. The rest of the house is more quiet than it has been in the entirety of the time that Neil has spent there.
“I didn’t invite you here so you could be Kevin 2.0,” Andrew says, and behind his blank tone Neil almost thinks he’s jealous of Neil’s new friendship with Kevin.
Neil looks away from his phone screen to meet Andrew’s eyes. “You’d be a better goalie if you didn’t focus so much on analysing the rest of the game. It’s interesting and it means you can help the other players when an opportunity comes up, but they’re rare, and it distracts you from when the shots on goal. Sometimes.”
Andrew lets him finish before he kicks Neil’s phone out of his hand. Neil thinks that’s considerate, for Andrew. “We’re getting ice cream. I’ll give you some if you shut up.”
“A true sugar daddy,” Neil says, and regrets it.
Andrew raises his eyebrows in the way that means he’s amused. Neil meets the gesture with a smile, and follows Andrew out of the room.
Sitting across from Andrew to have ice cream for breakfast feels domestic, and Neil realises he’s comfortable in this house, even half-filled as it is with people he barely knows. It took a few weeks for his room at Palmetto to feel anything like a home, and he’s only spent three nights in the house. He supposes he’s practiced being comfortable around Andrew, though.
“Problem,” Neil says. He takes Andrew raising his eyebrows as a cue to continue, “Without Exy, I have nothing to talk about.”
“I know that’s untrue,” Andrew replies.
Neil shrugs. “The past month or whatever, Kevin’s kind of insisted all my free time is Exy. And when he hasn’t, I’ve done it anyway. It’s kind of an addiction, and it’s wiped out my personality.”
“You didn’t have much of one to start with.”
“You may have a point there. Regardless, though, how do people do small talk?”
Andrew just stares back at Neil in silence.
“I guess I knew you weren’t a fan of it, but it’s a genuine question. I’m not gonna talk to you about the weather, but people act like it’s useful.”
Andrew continues his stare for a few seconds of silence before saying, “Why aren’t you with your family?”
Neil doesn’t choke on his ice cream, but he probably would have if it had been more solid. “Took too long to make up my mind,” he manages.
Andrew’s expression doesn’t change, but something in the lack of expression tells Neil that he doesn’t believe him.
“My mom’s family, the ones she’s visiting, are involved in some… shady business, I guess. I’ve just never felt comfortable with them. Avoidance is the best method,” Neil tells Andrew, and lets his eyes flicker to his melting breakfast. “She’s going to call when she gets back, though. After New Year’s. We agreed there was no point in me going back to Arizona for the few days left.”
Andrew nods and takes an ungodly bite of ice cream.
“Are we still doing the honesty game, then? I’d thought it was a one night deal.”
“You owed me some,” Andrew says.
“I don’t think so. Unless this is your payment for tutoring, which you didn’t say beforehand, so that doesn’t seem very fair…” Neil lets his voice trail off, and ruins the silence with the clank of his spoon against the side of the bowl.
“Fine,” Andrew replies. The look in his eyes feels like it could burn Neil alive.
“I’ll let you know,” Neil says. Ice cream’s good for burns.
The quiet is eventually interrupted by Neil’s phone ringing. “Hello?”
“Neil! Merry Christmas!” Matt’s cheery voice greets him.
“Oh, hey Matt. Why are you even up this early?”
“I could ask you the same. Was it the excitement of having so many presents to open?” Matt jokes, knowing that his present was the only one Neil received - his mother said they should exchange presents the next time they saw one another, Allison insisted the shops nearby weren’t as good as the ones at home, and Dan and Renee apologised and said they were waiting for Christmas sales.
“Fuck,” Neil says. “I left it at Palmetto.”
“That’s no big deal, it’ll still be there wh- wait, where are you? I thought you were staying on campus?”
“I was, but I got- rescued? Kidnapped? Uh, hijacked by Andrew. I’m at the house in Columbia,” Neil says, watching Andrew’s lack of reaction.
“How come you always end up there when you go missing?”
“You didn’t even know I was gone,” Neil accuses, then changes the subject. “Aren’t you supposed to be with your family or something?”
“They all wake up late, and the excitement of Christmas makes me an early riser. Plus, you’re family too, man. I already called Dan.”
“She was awake?” Neil asks.
“Nope,” Matt laughs. “You’re the first one I’ve talked to this morning.”
“Can’t say the same for you. It’s quiet here, too, though, the others are hungover, so it’s just me and Andrew.”
Matt laughs again, “Did you guys really go out on Christmas eve? I knew they were fearless but,” he whistles, “that’s on a whole different level.”
“There were so many people,” Neil says. “But I didn’t get kicked out this time, so I guess it’s a win. How are your family anyway?”
Though it’s only been a couple of days since Matt last saw Neil, the stories of what he’s been doing in New York last a good few minutes before Matt decides to let Neil go. “Sorry, you know I love you, but my phone contract does not love me in the same way.”
“No problem, I’ll see you soon anyway,” Neil replies, still trying to comprehend the fact that friendships mean Matt misses him after being away for all of two days.
“Yeah. No, wait, last thing - I’m the only one who knows where you are, right?”
Neil frowns. “Yeah?”
“Okay, cool, that’s gonna help me. Bets, you know?” Neil does not know. “See you, Neil.”
Neil looks at his phone in confusion, and puts it away.
The others eventually emerge, but even Nicky is failing to feel the Christmas spirit. He’s wearing a jumper that says ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’ in rainbow lettering, but the most festive part of his look is the distinctly green tinge to his skin. “I’m never drinking again,” he says.
“Bullshit,” Aaron replies.
“Merry Christmas,” Andrew says, putting away cutlery as loudly as he can.
“Fuck you,” Kevin says.
They manage to organise themselves to make toast, though Nicky flinches when the toaster pops. After, they start to put gifts in front of one another without any prompting or well wishes, and Neil realises this is probably part of their Christmas tradition. Nicky’s are the only gifts that are wrapped.
“Sorry I didn’t get you anything, Neil. Just didn’t know you were coming, so…”
“It’s fine,” Neil says, confused by his concern. Nicky doesn’t look convinced. “You’re all letting me stay. That’s enough of a gift.”
“How sweet,” Andrew says.
Opening - or, more accurately, unfolding - gifts doesn’t take long, but is still interrupted by a phone ringing. Neil checks, but it’s not his, and Aaron steps away from the table.
“Aww, young love,” Nicky says, and clasps his hand to his chest.
“What?” Neil asks.
“That’s Katelyn, or at least I guess it is. Don’t know anyone else who’d call Aaron on Christmas,” Nicky explains, then realises that’s not really an explanation. “She’s a Vixen, and she’s… not his girlfriend. They’re working on that. Or at least, he says he is, but who knows? I’m the only one in this family with a hint of charm.”
Neil finds that unlikely, but decides his present to Nicky will be keeping that thought to himself. Meanwhile, Andrew is caught between glowering at Nicky and the door Aaron disappeared through.
Which is a weird reaction. This is the first time he’s seen Andrew show any hint of interest in his brother, and it seems unlikely that it’s purely through concern. Neil’s not sure Andrew would experience concern for Aaron. It almost seems rather like he’d prefer Aaron to disappear.
“Why do you hate Katelyn?” Neil asks Andrew, as soon as Nicky is distracted by a plain pair of socks he received from Kevin.
Andrew turns his glance, suddenly blank, to Neil. “Maybe if you had met her, you’d understand.”
“I think I have,” Neil says, because he knows he’s at least been introduced to the Vixens. “I can’t say she made much of an impression at all.”
“He just doesn’t learn,” Andrew says in what is almost a snarl.
Neil blinks. “You care because he’s had a bad break up before?”
Andrew stills immediately, and the look on his face is the simple question: do you really not get it?
It’s as much of a hint as he’s going to get. Andrew thinks Neil has all the pieces he needs to put it together, and whether or not he was given them in any recognisable way is irrelevant. If there’s one characteristic of Andrew that Neil’s sure of, it’s that he doesn’t waste his breath with unnecessary words.
“Don’t bother, Neil. Andrew’s just stroppy. Jealous or something.” Nicky doesn’t sound convinced, though.
Neil doesn’t even look away from Andrew to think. The answer comes to him in a couple of seconds, or at least a guess does. If it’s not a girlfriend, then the only other woman Neil knows to have any kind of acquaintance to Aaron would be his mother. And Neil knows exactly how fond Andrew appeared to be of her - not at all.
Neil flicks a glance at Nicky, who’s still watching their conversation, and forgoes saying it out loud. Andrew knows Neil figured it out. Instead, he asks the question that’s been bugging him since he met Andrew, “Don’t you ever get tired of carrying the world on your shoulders?”
“Don’t you ever get tired of sticking your nose in other people’s business?” Andrew returns, then moves to dispose of the wrapping paper still on the table.
“What? What did I miss?” Nicky asks. “I was watching the whole thing, and I still have no idea what happened. And if I made eye contact with Andrew for that long, I’d have black eyes.”
“He doesn’t care about anything, Neil,” Kevin says, his voice somehow both pressing and tired.
“How can you say that?” Neil asks Kevin, putting emphasis on the ‘you’. He could almost understand Nicky asking the same question, but Andrew devotes so much time to watching over Kevin that it seems impossible not to notice he has an interest, at the very least.
Kevin shrugs, “We have a deal. I’m not the thing he’s interested in, and he’s not even that interested in what he gets, either.”
“Then why does he do it?” Neil says, not a question, but a challenge.
Nicky smiles sadly. “When Andrew makes sense to you, let me know. We haven’t figured it out yet either.”
Neil frowns. “You mean you haven’t figured it out.”
“That’s what I said,” Nicky replies, a question in his voice.
Neil shakes his head slightly and decides he’s done with the conversation. “Happy with your presents?”
Neil wakes up and has to roll his shoulders out with a grimace. He doesn’t know if he’s getting old or just used to having a bed of his own, even if he’d thought the old mattress was only barely better than the ground. At least he’d not lost his knack for sleeping anywhere, because he’s certain Nicky would be unbearable if he’d had less energy.
He goes for a run, his first since coming to the cousins’ house, but it only loosens his muscles a little bit. He’s stiff all day, and he knows it’s only going to get worse the longer he sleeps on the floor. He wonders if he could pretend to fall asleep on the couch and just not move until the morning, and if that would even be better.
That night, he looks at his pile of blankets on the floor as though they were an enemy. Andrew only lets this last a second before he says, “Don’t be an idiot.”
Neil turns to look at Andrew, who couldn’t have realised he was dreading getting down onto the floor. There hadn’t even been enough time to consider it a hesitation.
“There’s enough room in the bed for two. We’re both still sleepers,” Andrew says, and gets into one side of the bed without another comment, clearly expecting no argument.
Neil wonders what it means that Andrew’s noticed he’s a still sleeper, and thinks it’s probably more to do with Andrew than him. He gets into his half of the bed, trying not to remember what it was like to share a bed with his mother, or with Allison. He’s tense, but realises in a span of a few seconds that’s it’s far easier to share with Andrew than with any of his previous experiences: there’s no distracting breath on his neck, there’s no need for the other person in the bed to pull him close as assurance that he’s still there.
He feels much better the next day, but he has to wonder if the arrangement isn’t working out much better for him than for Andrew. He sees Andrew yawn for the first time in the supermarket while Nicky stacks a ridiculous number of bottles of alcohol into their cart. By the time they get back to the house, Neil decides to guess that Andrew’s just a light sleeper - it would explain why he noticed that Neil doesn’t move much when he’s asleep - but he still feels somewhat responsible for Andrew’s disrupted sleep pattern.
That night, he tries to go back to the floor, even though his muscles seem to ache with just the memory of it. “I’m fine, really. I felt much better today.” Neil’s knee twinges.
“I didn’t do it for you,” Andrew says, and Neil wonders when he started to be able to figure out when Andrew is lying. “I just wanted the blankets back. It’s cold.”
Neil lets Andrew win. He’d given Andrew the opportunity to get rid of him, and Andrew didn’t take it.
Neil has to wonder what he did right with Andrew, since he doesn’t seem to tolerate anyone else, and yet he gives Neil as much as he can accept. Neil contemplates the feeling in the pit of his stomach, and decides it’s gratitude.
Kevin wakes both Andrew and Neil by quietly walking into their room as the sun rises. He stops when he sees them. At first Neil thinks it’s because of the simple weight of their combined stares, but Kevin’s eyes dart between them and then to the sheet that covers them. Neil thinks about offering an explanation, but Kevin is the one who walked into their room in the early hours of the morning, which is not only out of character but just plain rude.
Kevin finally decides not to ask. “There’s a court locally we can use today. Are you in?”
In bed, yes, and I'm warm and I don’t want to move. “Sure,” Neil replies. “I’m impressed you’re out of bed, though.”
Kevin levels him a look that suggests Neil has said something stupid. “We haven’t practiced in weeks, Neil.”
“We had finals. I haven’t breathed in weeks,” Neil says slowly.
Kevin shrugs as if to say well, that’s over now, so Exy?
Neil blinks at Kevin a few times, then decides him a lost cause. “Is Andrew invited?” The man behind him may as well be a statue for how much he’s moved throughout the conversation.
“He’s driving,” Kevin says, and leaves.
Neil turns to Andrew and says, “Is that alright with you?”
Andrew then gives Neil the same flat look Kevin had just given him.
“Okay, okay, whatever, I don’t get either of you, and it’s fine.” Neil gets out of bed. He regrets it.
It turns out that when Kevin says there’s a court they can use, he doesn’t mean a public one. He directs Andrew to the stadium that the local pro team uses, and they’re shown in by someone in an official-looking fleece jacket. Neil looks around in awe at the stadium, and kicks himself for forgetting that Kevin’s actually pretty famous in sporting circles.
“We could have practiced somewhere public,” Neil says, frowning.
Kevin scoffs. “You try getting anywhere near a goal when twelve year olds are on the court. Not a chance.”
Andrew drops into the seating with his usual clatter and bored expression. Neil directs his energy to him, “You can play, too, you know.”
Andrew merely raises his eyebrows at Neil. Kevin clicks his tongue and says, “I told you, Neil. He doesn’t care about anything.”
Neil doesn’t look away from Andrew and says, “Why would you play Exy if you don’t care about it?”
“Slightly less boring than the alternative,” Andrew says, voice almost light.
Kevin lets out an annoyed breath and turns to the court, “We should get changed out.” Neil holds eye contact with Andrew for a few seconds more, but he knows he’s not going to win this one. Not today, at least. He’s willing to bet it’s more Kevin’s battle than his, anyway.
The festive season does not make Kevin any softer towards Neil. Every word is a criticism, and every hit is as harsh as Kevin’s racquet will allow. Neil finds that without Matt there to buffer against Kevin’s energy, he’s noticeably winded within ten minutes. That doesn’t mean either of them lessen their attempts, but Neil is forced to slow down after half an hour unless he wants to spend the rest of their Christmas break bed-bound.
“Kevin,” he gasps. “A little mercy.”
“How do you ever expect to get better if you don’t push yourself?” Kevin says sharply, every inch a brutal product of his upbringing.
Neil stares at him, in what would be disbelief if he hadn’t known this to be Kevin. “I picked this up as a hobby, man. Because my friend likes the sport. It was kind of fun for a while, too, until you tried to use it to kill me,” He drops his racquet to the ground. “So fuck this, I guess.”
Kevin holds eye contact with Neil like some kind of challenge, but he can’t seem to find any words to convince Neil it’s worth it. He almost seems lost for words to be faced by someone for whom Exy isn’t everything. Neil wonders if this is why he’s never able to talk to Andrew. “You’re giving up?” He finally manages.
Neil shrugs, borrowed gear heavy on his shoulders. “No, probably not. I’ll still play with Matt, and you if you both want to, but… I’m not training for anything. I like how the game works, but I’m way more into tearing a game apart with you than playing against you.”
Kevin stares at Neil in silence for a few seconds, then nods slowly, “You’re better at that.”
“Thanks, Kevin,” Neil replies, hoping the Exy robot can detect the sarcasm dripping from his tone.
“No, I just mean-” Kevin sighs, not used to being nice, Neil guesses. “You could be a good assistant coach. I know Wymack’s looking for one, maybe, soon.”
“I’m not-” Neil cuts himself off from trying to explain that he actually doesn’t care about Exy that much to just accept what, from Kevin, is a compliment. “Thanks.”
Kevin nods and says, “I’m going to do drills.”
“Okay,” Neil says, and leaves Kevin to his court.
Neil thinks that New Year’s could be his least favourite holiday. Somehow Nicky has managed to make a house with only five people in seem full, and he apparently likes playing cheesy music to the same volume as they do at Eden’s. He’d retreat to his room, but he doesn’t think it would be any better.
Nicky spends the night professing how sad it is to have no one to kiss on New Year’s Eve. “You’ll kiss me, right, Neil?”
“No,” Neil replies.
Andrew pours a drink, and leaves it near Neil in case he wants it. Neil wants it.
“Ugh, don’t be so boringly monogamous,” Nicky pouts, and promptly moves away.
Neil frowns in confusion, then turns to Andrew. “Does he still think we’re dating?”
Andrew shrugs, which Neil takes as a yes.
“How..?” Neil wonders, but doesn’t bother to finish the question. It’s not important, anyway. “Why does everyone think we’re dating?”
“You told them we were,” Andrew replies.
“Not my friends. Just yours,” Neil says, and puts his empty glass down in front of Andrew in a blatant hint.
Andrew levels an unimpressed look at Neil, but refills his drink.
New Year’s Eve seems to be a weird kind of holiday. Nicky has decided it’s devoted to kissing, Kevin’s using it as an excuse to drink as much vodka as his body will allow, Aaron was talking on the phone about things that have changed and what he plans to change, and Andrew doesn’t seem fazed by it at all. Usually holidays have a more obvious message, Neil had thought.
He guesses that he’s following Kevin’s interpretation of the holiday most closely and puts down his drink.
A lot of things have changed for Neil over the year. The biggest change was moving out and to Palmetto State, which spurred on all the other changes; friendships, sports, classes. He thinks he prefers his life to how it had been the previous December, when he’d sat at home with his mother and they’d watched the ball drop on the TV quietly. But he thinks resolutions being time dependent seems like an odd idea. If he wants to change his life, he’d rather start right there and then.
His phone dings in his pocket with texts from Allison. Gonna be too wasted to text coherently later, so I’m issuing the corrections now - HAPPY NEW YEAR!!* . The second text, sent a few minutes after, reads And kiss Andrew. I dare you.
Neil closes the text without a response and almost puts his phone away before he remembers that he’d promised he’d call Dan at some point during the holidays and he hasn’t yet. He knows she’s with her sisters, but figures that it’s maybe early enough to call her, and it’s earlier where she is, anyway. He can use the call as an excuse to step away from Nicky’s music, at least.
“Hey, Dan,” He says as she picks up, sitting on the edge of Andrew’s bed.
“Neil!” She says happily. “I was wondering if you were gonna call while there was still some of this year to celebrate.”
“I am… bad at using my phone,” Neil says, a smile already in his tone.
“We know. How’s your break been, though? I hear you didn’t spend it at Palmetto, in the end.” She doesn’t make any attempt to hide the curiosity in her tone.
“No,” Neil agrees. “It’s been… loud.”
“I can hear that!” Dan laughs. “Is it all of you guys there?”
“Yeah, all of Andrew’s lot.”
“You could not pay me to spend time there,” She says seriously. “I dunno. Might be different if I were actually friends with them. You’re alright there?”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Nicky keeps threatening to kiss me, though, and he still thinks I’m dating Andrew, but I’m not sure… why.” Neil realises that’s true for every one of Nicky’s motivations; they’re as much of a mystery to him as Andrew’s seem to be to anyone else.
“Well, hey, it’s the season for love, right?”
“I thought Valentine’s day was the love holiday,” Neil says. He’s only had a couple of years to really get to grips with the differences between holidays, and he’s not done that very well.
“It is, yeah, but Christmas is… okay, I’m not religious, like, not at all. But to me, Christmas is about spending time with the people you love and showing them you appreciate them, you know? That’s why you give gifts and have huge ridiculous meals together. It’s like family, but… whatever family you choose. Which is why I’m not near my biological family.”
“Nicky shows his fondness for family by being loud and making cocktails,” Neil says, gratified to hear Dan’s laugh in response. “Hey, can I ask a random question?”
“Sure,” Dan replies, as though she expects the question to be anything but random.
“It’s because you said about, like, people you love, it’s not completely- yeah,” Neil forces himself to stop fidgeting. “How did you know you wanted to date Matt?”
“Oh, Neil,” Dan sighs, almost sadly. “You’ve never had a crush before, have you?”
“I’ve never really had the opportunity,” Neil says, and realises that’s probably dodging the question. There have been people he thought he might like, but looking back the feelings he had for them were less intense than for Allison, for example, and he knows he doesn’t want to date her. He’s certain on that, but he’s not sure why. The imprecise nature of feelings feels like an injustice, and frustration wells up within him when he thinks about it.
“Okay, bear in mind I have had a couple of drinks at this point, so if it makes no sense, ask… I don’t know. I guess Aaron’s actually the expert, which is kind of sad, really. Anyway, I get you. I don’t know how much of the story of me and Matt you already know, but I did reject him for a while, because I wasn’t sure if a crush was worth it… not really the same, and that doesn’t answer your question at all,” Dan sighs.
“I guess the biggest thing is that he makes me smile, whether I’m with him or not. He makes me happier than anyone else does, and I trust him. That’s what’s most important to me. It’s different for everyone… the persistence of him asking me out was annoying, actually, because no means no, but I knew because he was him that he respected me, so that wasn’t really a problem. He feels safe. Like home.” She pauses for a second, and lets out a small laugh. “It’s all about trust, I guess. That’s why I said yes. But that’s not the description of a crush - forgive me, Neil, there’s a lot, and… feelings are messy.”
“Yeah,” Neil says on a sigh.
“Crushes,” Dan says, almost musingly. “It feels light. The clichés of butterflies in your stomach and your heart flipping in your chest. Smiling when you see them or think about them. Wanting to be near them, and touch them. It kind of feels like you’re going to crawl out of your skin in excitement, sometimes. It’s almost painful, actually.”
Neil waits until he’s almost sure she’s done before saying, “Yeah, I’ve never felt that.”
“Not everyone does,” Dan says, and she sounds so certain about it that Neil almost forgets what all the movies and books have told him his whole life. “It’s not the most important thing, Neil. Crushes can be based on nothing. Friendships are worth more. Security, and feeling safe with people are worth more. God, you can have better romantic relationships without having crushes. A relationship that’s passion without the friendship is…” she sighs again, and Neil knows they’re both thinking of Allison, “Messy.”
“It sounds pretty complicated anyway,” Neil says, doubtfully.
Dan laughs. “It is. I’d say you know it when it happens, but that would be a lie. The best thing is to go with what feels right. Don’t think about it too much. It’ll happen, or it won’t. You’re not alone if you’re not dating someone. You’re a whole on your own.”
“You’re a captain through and through, Dan,” Neil says.
He can hear her smile as she says, “That’s the best gift you could have given me. Anyway, I’ve really got to get back to the girls, but I’ll call you in the new year for an actual catch up? Maybe you can make the monsters seem like real people, because up until this point I’ve just been considering them my personal nightmares.”
“Sure. Happy new year, Dan.”
“You, too, Neil.” He’s smiling as he hangs up.
Neil thinks he trusts a lot of people, but he’s not sure there’s anyone he’d trust with all the small aspects of his life, like he knows Dan and Matt do for each other. There’s a part of Neil that wants that. He wants to be able to trust someone to have his back and look out for him, someone who he can take for granted to always be there, someone who will make sure he’s alright even when he stops trying. It might be nice to be someone’s first choice, first thought.
But he believes Dan. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine. He’s fine.
“Neil! Where did you go?” Nicky pulls Neil into a hug as soon as he exits the bedroom, and Neil realises Nicky’s managed to have a few drinks in his short absence.
“I was calling Dan,” Neil replies, trying half-heartedly to extract himself.
“Hey, you’re here with us! Celebrate with us instead!” Nicky presses a wet kiss to Neil’s cheek and lets him be free.
“It’s not midnight yet, Nicky,” Neil says, looking around for where he left his glass.
“You can kiss me anytime,” Nicky says with a sloppy attempt at a wink. Andrew hands Neil a new drink, and Kevin raises his bottle in a weak imitation of a toast.
“You’re disgusting,” Aaron says plainly.
“You can have a kiss, too, Aaron,” Nicky says and makes his way over to his cousin.
Neil wipes at his cheek belatedly. It still feels kind of damp. Andrew watches this, taking a sip, and says, “If you want him to stop, I’ll tell him.”
Neil gets the impression that this would involve a threat or knives. “I’m fine.”
Andrew looks like he doesn’t believe Neil, but he shrugs. Suddenly, the injustice of Kevin’s “he doesn’t care about anything,” hits Neil with a visceral force. All Andrew has done for the short period Neil has known him is to protect him in different ways, despite Neil trying to reject his help at every turn.
Another realisation follows on the first’s heels, one that Neil doesn’t quite know how to put into words and that approaches on a distant wave of nausea. He turns to Andrew, “Can I use that question I was saving?”
Andrew frowns slightly. “You asked about Aaron.”
“I said I’d let you know. That wasn’t it,” Neil presses, without the usual feeling of satisfaction when he can get any kind of win from Andrew.
“Fine,” Andrew says, and swishes the liquid in his glass with a distinct air of annoyance.
“Why do you care?” Neil says in a rush.
Andrew looks at Neil, and Neil feels like he knows what he means but is simply refusing to make things easy for him.
Neil raises his eyebrows, the simple annoyance making him feel more grounded. “About me.”
“What makes you think I do?” Andrew replies, as contrary as always.
Neil borrows Andrew’s trick and steadily holds eye contact instead of answering the obvious question. Andrew holds the eye contact longer than Neil would in his place, but maybe he’s trying to find the answer. It’s more likely that he’s more comfortable with the silence, but thinking of Andrew scrambling for words makes it easier for Neil to hold still.
Andrew grits his teeth slightly, sets down his glass, and looks back at Neil. “You need the help.”
“I was doing-”
“Don’t,” Andrew says suddenly. “Say fine.”
Neil blinks. “You sound like Matt.”
“It’s rare I’d agree with him, but you overuse the word.”
Neil smiles a little, and looks over at Nicky, too tall to be sitting in Aaron’s lap and battering his eyelashes at Kevin. “They’re definitely wrong about you.”
Andrew doesn’t pretend to play the guessing game. “I don’t care.”
“About Exy,” Neil allows. “But you’re here with them, though you don’t have to be. You stick to Kevin’s side because of some kind of deal with him. You’re worried about Aaron getting hurt, and don’t argue, whatever you’ve convinced yourself the motivation is, it’s that.” Andrew stays silent. “You drive a drunk stranger home and back again. You make sure he doesn’t fail his classes, and you make sure he has a home for Christmas.”
“Your forced third person sounds like an inexperienced writer trying to make an artistic statement,” Andrew says, voice layered in its usual defense of monotone.
“I still don’t know why you gave me a key,” Neil turns back to Andrew, who gamely makes eye contact.
“I didn’t take it back. An accident.”
Neil snorts. “I don’t think you do anything by accident, Andrew.”
Andrew doesn’t reply to that, but then it’s not a question.
Neil thinks of the next thing to say, but it doesn’t coalesce. He brings a breath carefully in and out of his lungs, doesn’t let his eyes dart away, doesn’t distract himself with a sip, just looks at Andrew. “What if I wanted you to be my New Year’s kiss?”
Andrew doesn’t have the same trouble with his reply, “You used your question already. I guess you’ll have to find another way to get the answer to that.”
It sounds like a challenge. Neil smiles.
He starts to get invested in Nicky’s countdown, and lets himself be dragged into drinking games (Kevin is only too easy to persuade to join, he’s harder to convince to only drink at certain times; Aaron silently puts up with it; Andrew joins in but drinks only sometimes. Neil wonders how the games would work if everyone participated as they were supposed to).
Still, the time until midnight stretches, and the wait feels like an itch under his skin. Neil is glad for the time, in a certain way he almost wishes midnight would never come. He doesn’t know how his feelings matches up to Dan’s definition, and he doesn’t know how they match up to the definition he’s somehow formed in his head, but the words felt right as they came out of his mouth and he thinks that has to count for something.
Above all else, Neil refuses to regret his words. He trusts Andrew not to let him regret it. He doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t think there’s much he wouldn’t trust Andrew with.
“Take my hand, take my whole life too…” Nicky warbles, holding an arm out to Kevin, who ignores him.
Andrew surveys the mess of their living room, takes a bottle of amber liquid, and retreats to his room without so much as a word of goodbye.
“Happy new year!” Nicky slurs at his back.
“It’s still 2016,” Aaron says.
“I’m drunk. It doesn’t have to be any time I don’t want it to be,” Nicky says, and laughs. “Did that make sense? Words are weird. They’re… heavy.”
Neil blinks at Nicky. Drunk people don’t make sense.
Then again, Neil’s skin is starting to feel electric while his senses are dulled, so maybe he’s not sober either. He makes his way over to the kitchen for water. He’s not sure whether feeling or not would be better, but he thinks Andrew won’t let Neil do anything drunk. He can’t get sober in - what is it? - half an hour, but he thinks he can restore feeling to the tips of his fingers.
“Carbs help,” Kevin says, and Neil wasn’t aware he’d followed him into the kitchen.
Neil blinks. “With what?”
“Sobering up,” Kevin says with a smirk. Neil isn’t sure he’s seen a smile on Kevin that isn’t a vicious, victorious spike on his face.
“Thanks,” Neil mumbles, and rifles through the cupboards for a slice of bread.
Kevin watches the others for a few seconds, and Neil thinks, suddenly, that Kevin is more sober than he’d thought. He seems composed, and he’s standing taller than his drunken slump. Neil narrows his eyes slightly in thought.
Neil is able to get through his bread and a couple of glasses of water before Kevin speaks again. “I’ll make sure Nicky doesn’t notice you leave or you’ll never get any peace.”
“What?” Neil asks, heart thudding to a halt in his chest.
“You’re not as quiet as you think you are,” Kevin says, and then seems to realise he’s being harsh. He brings his eyes to Neil’s, and the green softens slightly, “I look out for my friends, too.”
Neil smiles a little, and ducks his head. “I’m sorry I said we weren’t friends.”
Kevin shrugs. “You’re allowed that. But you’re my friend, anyway.”
“You’re mine, too,” Neil replies. “And not just as blind bribery for helping me out.”
“Yeah,” Kevin acknowledges with a wave of his hands. “It’s nothing.”
Neil believes him.
At two minutes to midnight, Kevin walks over to flop on Nicky. He wonders if the others notice that Kevin’s walk was too purposeful to be drunk, but they don’t seem to. Neil smiles as he slips into Andrew’s room.
Andrew’s eyes meet Neil’s, and he thinks he made a mistake giving this a schedule. The tension has been rising inside him all evening, and it constricts his throat until he feels like he can’t breathe.
He takes careful steps until he can sit next to Andrew. His familiar gaze is intense as always, but Neil thinks he can detect some softness in there; affection, maybe. If it’s wishful thinking, Neil thinks he’s okay with that.
Neil presses his lips together, stomach muscles tensing. “Is this okay?”
Andrew slowly places his hand firmly on the back of Neil’s neck, and stays there until Neil can feel some of the tension leave his body. Andrew wouldn’t let things not be okay. He pulls Neil’s forehead to his, gentle and firm at the same time, and Neil can hear the thump of the music under Nicky starting the ten second countdown. He can feel the ghost of Andrew’s breath tickle the hairs under his nose. He can’t see Andrew anymore, but he can feel him. He can feel that it’s okay, that somehow, this is alright.
Neil breathes, and it’s simple. It’s easier than it has been in months. He doesn’t know why Andrew feels like home, or what he’s done to earn this, but he’s glad for it all the same.
Nicky screams “Zero!”, but all the world is Andrew and fireworks.