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light fires at night (to push back the void)

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10.

 

Andrew has an apartment now.

He has over a thousand square feet of his own space, separated from the rest of the world by thick walls, lockable doors and lockable windows. There is a balcony facing east, a quiet street below, a bakery on the other side of the road.

There is a bedroom in the apartment, with a queen-sized bed and two nightstands. In one of them, Andrew keeps his knives and his armbands. In the other one, Neil notoriously leaves Exy magazines and brand new phone chargers. The ceiling is painted in dark green, a rich, soothing color which never features in any of Andrew’s nightmares.

There is also a kitchen opening into a living room, and a fridge with a bizarre collection of healthy products based on the list Andrew received from his nutritionist and consequently ignored until Neil discovered the transgression and proposed a deal. The deal keeps Andrew’s freezer filled with ice cream, so he respects it.

There is a TV in the living room, several shelves stacked with books, a black, fluffy carpet, and a coffee table where unwanted guests put their coffee, and Andrew puts his feet.

There is also a bathroom with two sets of everything, with Neil’s spare toothbrush sitting next to Andrew’s by the mirror and Neil’s spare shampoo and shower gel occupying one of the shelves in the shower, and a spare clean towel always waiting for Neil on the laundry basket.

Unlike the towel, Andrew isn’t waiting. His book simply isn’t particularly interesting, and neither is any of the two hundred TV channels he has at his disposal.

He is thinking about Neil because there is nothing else to do.

They haven’t seen each other in a long time. They both have separate lives for now; Neil has the rookies he needs to keep in line, Andrew has a new team he has to occasionally train with.

Andrew doesn’t miss Neil. He simply got used to the noise — Neil’s breathing, Neil’s endless questions and answers, Neil’s heartbeat — and he got used to the touch — Neil’s calf pressed against his own as they sleep, Neil’s fingers combing through his hair, Neil’s lips brushing against his forehead. It’s a routine. In time, he’ll get used to the silence. In time, he’ll get used to the absence.

If there is one thing he excels at, it’s adjusting.

There is still half an hour left until Neil’s plane lands and an hour until Neil will be leaving the airport, but Andrew turns off the TV, picks up his keys and his phone, and leaves the apartment. He takes the stairs instead of the elevator to kill some time and chooses the long way to the Maserati, parked near the far end of the underground garage.

As is the case with everything today, looking at the Maserati makes him think about Neil. Just like the passports Andrew keeps underneath the nightstand, the Maserati also represents one of the emergency exits that Neil decided to close for now. Andrew has never expected to be handed the keys.  

He reaches the airport ten minutes after Neil’s plane landed and by the time he parks the car and walks to the Arrivals, enough time has passed for him not to be ridiculously early.

Still, he has to wait ten more minutes before he spots the familiar figure. As always, Neil is doing his absolute best to blend in. His hair is meticulously covered with a black beanie, his shoulders are hunched, and his clothes are dark and unassuming.

He is still drawing people’s attention, whether he realizes it or not, especially when he finally spots Andrew and smiles brightly, his eyes lighting up. It drives Andrew up the wall that even dressed like this and doing his absolute best to blend in, Neil is still standing out, and not due to his scars. The fact that Neil has no idea just how drop-dead gorgeous he is pisses Andrew off to no end.

He firmly ignores the knot in his stomach and stares back impassively, waiting for Neil to reach him instead of making as much as one step towards him.  

“Hey,” Neil says, coming to a stop two feet away from Andrew and making no move to touch him. It makes sense, of course; there are people everywhere around them, most of them have phones with cameras, and some of them probably recognized them already. This isn’t the place for this. Andrew had only just conceded to calling this a relationship; he can’t really justify wanting airport kisses all of a sudden. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want one, though.

Instead of reaching out, he hums in response, a vaguely dismissive sound, and turns on his heel, leading Neil through the crowd and towards the parking lot by the airport. Neil follows him in silence, but there is a bounce to his step, a smile on his lips.

They make it to the Maserati and Andrew pries the bag from Neil’s hand, throws it in the trunk, and walks around the car to the driver’s side. Neil follows his lead without a comment, settling in the passenger’s seat with a content exhale, the way he used to do after a long training session with Kevin, loose and relaxed. He takes off the beanie and runs his fingers through his hair, messing it up completely, and Andrew has to tear his gaze away to keep himself from reaching for him immediately.

He turns on the engine, puts his hands on the wheel, and focuses on the road.

The drive is silent as well, and Andrew refuses to drive any faster than he usually would, even if all he wants to do is to finally get to his apartment and run his fingers through Neil’s hair.

When they leave the car, he takes Neil’s bag and ignores his attempts at retrieving it, and they take the elevator to Andrew’s floor leaning against the opposite walls and staring at nothing in particular.

Andrew drops the keys in Neil’s hand and Neil opens the door, letting Andrew through first, and then closes the door behind them. Andrew toes off his shoes and intends to take Neil’s bag to the bedroom, but Neil catches the edge of his sleeve.

“Andrew,” he says quietly, giving the slightest of tugs, “yes or no?”

And that’s all Andrew can take today.

He turns around sharply, distantly registering the thud when Neil’s bag lands on the floor, as Andrew’s hand is no longer interested in carrying it, and he presses Neil against the door, remembering in the very last moment to cushion Neil’s head with his hand.

Then he catches Neil’s lips in a kiss.

All tension goes out of Neil’s body in a rush and he goes pliant against Andrew, melting into the kiss, a pleased hum escaping his lips. His hands are resting flatly against the door, and suddenly Andrew finds that unacceptable. He tears his mouth away from Neil’s and kisses his neck, dragging his teeth over the soft, warm skin just above Neil’s hoodie and effectively hiding his face from Neil as he murmurs, “Touch me.”

“Wh- What?” Neil pants, trying to look at him, but Andrew just presses his teeth a little harder against Neil’s skin. Neil makes another sound and shivers when Andrew replaces his teeth with his lips. “Where?”

“It’s a yes until it’s a no,” Andrew says.

Neil pauses against him, but then he lifts his hands and places them hesitantly on Andrew’s waist, fingers curling into the material of Andrew’s jacket, and that — that won’t do, either.

Andrew tilts his head to kiss the underside of Neil’s jaw and mutters, “On my skin.”

He can read Neil’s surprise in the way his hold tightens briefly, but Neil doesn’t question him. He moves his hands, slow but steady, and when they slide underneath Andrew’s jacket and then underneath his shirt, Neil stops breathing altogether. Andrew stays still against him until he feels the first brush of Neil’s fingers against his hipbones, and then he exhales against Neil’s neck. Neil pauses again, but when Andrew does nothing to stop him, his hands slide a little higher, until they’re resting in the exact same spot they were touching through layers of clothing just moments earlier.

Andrew knows that it’s not the touching itself that made them both so cautious; they’ve been together for over four years now, and Andrew asked Neil to touch him a hundred times before, in a thousand different ways. This is different because Andrew doesn’t give blanket permissions, not to anyone, especially not when it comes to being touched. Right now, he doesn’t want to map out his own boundaries, though; it’s enough to know with complete certainty that if he tells Neil to stop, Neil will do just that.

“Okay?” Neil asks quietly, and Andrew realizes he has been more or less still for the last minute or so, lost in his head.

“Shut up,” he murmurs and pulls back just enough to press their lips together again, an unfamiliar thrill passing through his body when Neil’s hold tightens slightly in a clear sign of want and need and everything that should make Andrew feel wary rather than grounded.

He tugs insistently at Neil’s hoodie and Neil obliges him by raising his hands and letting Andrew drag the hoodie over his head, along with his t-shirt. His breathing is shallow now and his expression so unbearably open that Andrew can’t quite look him in the eye. Instead, he shrugs off his own jacket and throws it carelessly in the general direction of the coat rack. Then he kisses Neil again.

Neil hesitates only for a moment before his hands slide back under Andrew’s shirt, warm and familiar. Andrew can’t quite stop a content sigh that escapes his lips at the touch. Neil’s answering shudder gives him pause, though.

He pulls away to give Neil an assessing glance and has to swallow hard at the sight of Neil’s flushed skin, his parted lips and ruffled hair. Neil looks back at him, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths, and when he seems to realize what prompted Andrew to pause, he flushes even more.

“I told you before,” he says, his voice slightly hoarse, making it nearly impossible to focus on what he is actually saying, “I really like it when you like something.”

“You’re making no sense,” Andrew tells him, because he hears the words, can count the vowels and the consonants, but he doesn’t understand what Neil means.

He steps even closer to Neil and it prompts Neil to move his hands to Andrew’s back, fingertips skimming hesitantly over Andrew’s spine as they kiss. Andrew lets himself make another sound he would usually stifle, just to see what will happen, and Neil shudders again, fingers curling against Andrew’s skin, and Andrew wonders how the hell he missed this.

He knows why he always asks for verbal consent; he knows why it thrills him to hear Neil whisper “yes” into his skin over and over and over again. He needs the reminder that this is okay, that wanting Neil is okay, that Neil wants this, too. He knows why it’s so important to make sure that his need to control never turns into need to inflict pain or cause harm.

He also knows that it doesn’t work like this for most people.

Most people prefer to take or to be given rather than to give. Reciprocation is just savoir-vivre.

And yet here is Neil, who is falling apart under Andrew’s hands not because Andrew is touching him, but because Andrew enjoys touching him like it makes all the difference in the world.

And it does make all the difference in the world.

“You can take off my shirt,” Andrew murmurs against Neil’s lips, and Neil obliges him quickly, his pulse racing and his breaths coming in short, hot puffs against Andrew’s lips.

Sometimes Andrew wishes he could crawl underneath Neil’s skin and make a home for himself in Neil’s ribcage, and never leave again. He wishes he could write the words across the landscape of Neil’s scars, so that Neil would have to carry those five vowels and three consonants with him everywhere he goes, just as Andrew does.

He wishes and wishes and wishes, but his fingers never leave any marks.

Neil pulls Andrew’s shirt over his head and then his fingers skim down Andrew’s chest, settling again on his waist while Andrew briefly considers and disregards the concept of taking this to the bedroom. Maybe later, when he can actually stand the thought of breaking the contact between them, but not now.

“Yes or no?” he says, looking up at Neil.

Neil presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth before breathing out a, “Yes.”

Andrew hums contently and kisses him again, deep and insistent, as he pops open the button of Neil’s jeans, undoes the zipper, and slides his hand underneath the waistband of Neil’s underwear.

Neil makes a soft, gorgeous sound and rests his head against the door, breaking the kiss, his eyes falling closed and his fingers trembling against Andrew’s skin. Andrew watches him for a moment, all this quiet happiness and unearned trust, before saying, soft but clear, “You can, too.”

Neil’s eyes open at that, and he blinks several times before giving Andrew an assessing glance which Andrew has come to recognize as Neil checking if Andrew is making the call for Neil’s benefit or his own.

Whatever he sees clearly persuades him, because his hands slowly slide across Andrew’s stomach, gentle but not teasing, his gaze following. Before he can look farther down or do anything else, Andrew crashes their lips in another kiss, humming in satisfaction when Neil’s knees buckle a little. He wills his brain to shut down and focus only on the pleasure he can read in Neil’s body and on the burning heat building in the pit of his own stomach, on the back-and-forth of need and want.

Neil is a quick learner, but so is Andrew, and now that he knows what really affects Neil, it’s even easier to make him shiver and fall apart under Andrew’s hands. All Andrew needs to do is let down his guard, just a little bit, let himself sigh against Neil’s lips when Neil moves his hand just right, let himself hum quietly when Neil’s fingers run through his hair.

He lets himself give in to the warmth and safety of Neil’s touch, lets himself breathe in the familiar scent of Neil’s body, lets himself imagine a world in which he gets to keeps this forever.

Neil comes first, with a trembling hitch of breath, but his hands don’t falter on Andrew’s body, and Andrew drops his head to Neil shoulder, pressing his nose to the crook of Neil’s neck and inhaling deeply. He curls his fingers into Neil’s hair and breathes against his skin, and it only takes Neil another moment to push him over the edge.

Andrew presses his teeth into the skin of Neil’s collarbone, not to mark, but to smother the sound of Neil’s name, slipping from his lips like a prayer.

Neil brushes his lips against Andrew’s temple, nudging his nose against Andrew’s messed-up hair, and murmurs a quiet, “I missed you.”

Andrew exhales through his nose, his head too heavy to move it from its warm spot in the crook of Neil’s neck. “I hate you,” he mutters and then nuzzles even closer until there is no space between them at all, like their bodies are two pieces of a puzzle, and this — yes, this will do.

Five vowels, he thinks. Three consonants.

“I know,” Neil hums, soft and soothing and nonsensical.

Andrew’s heart flutters hopelessly in his chest, a moth closing in on a flame.

 

 

11.

 

“You want to play Scrabble,” Andrew says.

They don’t celebrate Christmas, that’s just a fact. The Foxes try to coax them into attending their parties every single year, but they are yet to succeed.

Andrew doesn’t have any good memories when it comes to Christmas. When he was younger, Christmas was a study in feeling redundant, like an unnecessary piece of furniture in an otherwise harmonious room. When he got older, Christmas became even more nightmarish, because it brought everyone home.

There were Christmas decorations at Easthaven, too.

Neil doesn’t seem to mind the lack of celebrations. If he only ever got to celebrate in Baltimore, Andrew has no trouble imagining why the tradition holds little meaning to him.

They don’t celebrate, but they always spend the holidays together, and this year is no exception. They need the break even more than they did in the previous years, not just to see each other, but simply to rest while Andrew would never admit it out loud, being a professional athlete isn’t exactly a cakewalk, and neither is being the captain of a college sports team.

Neil’s plane landed in the middle of the night, so they spent most of the first day in bed, alternating between sleeping and watching each other, exchanging lazy kisses from time to time just to fall asleep again, more and more tangled together, but fully clothed.

This morning when Andrew wandered into the kitchen, Neil welcomed him with a steaming mug of coffee and a lingering kiss that got Andrew spinning them around and pressing Neil against the counter, and then dropping to his knees to the kitchen floor to test just how quickly he can take Neil apart if he really sets his mind to the task.   

And now, after they have eaten breakfast and migrated to the living room, Neil is sitting on the other side of the couch and there is a board game between them.

“It could be fun,” Neil says, poking the box like it might explode. He doesn’t seem convinced by his own words, but he looks determined all the same.

“Why?” Andrew demands, because he needs to know which of the Foxes should be held accountable for this nonsense.

“I’ve never played,” Neil says reluctantly, like it’s something to be ashamed of, and Andrew thinks, Dan and Matt. “And it’s in Russian, so we can practice.”

Andrew squints. “What do I get out of this?”

Neil considers this, scrunching up his nose, infuriatingly adorable for someone who changed his name at least a dozen times and offered to stitch up his own wounds with dental floss on two separate occasions.

Andrew wants to kiss him again, so he does. Then he says, “Well?”

“My gratitude?” Neil says, drawing his lower lip between his teeth, perhaps in thought, or perhaps just to earn another kiss.  

Andrew raises his eyebrows.

“And pancakes,” Neil amends.

“Fine,” Andrew says.

Neil loses one of the tiny letters between the cushions before they even start playing, so they move to the carpet, and as a punishment Neil ends up dragging over two large blankets, because Andrew’s apartment is many things, but it’s not particularly warm.

An hour into the game, Andrew discovers that he’s having a better time than he expected. There is something oddly soothing about spending their time like this, about finding yet another thing they can do both on good days and on the bad ones, a thing that doesn’t involve touching or talking, but involves being together.

It’s strangely domestic.

Andrew doesn’t mind.

He doesn’t mind looking at Neil as he considers his next move, doesn’t mind watching Neil as he sits on the carpet in the too-short pajama pants he refuses to get rid of, with one knee drawn up and his chin resting on top, his teeth tugging at his lower lip as he thinks.

He doesn’t mind going to the kitchen to make them coffee, and he definitely doesn’t mind the way Neil’s fingers brush against his own over the warm porcelain, and the way Neil looks at him later over the rim of his mug with that inexplicable fondness of his.

He doesn’t even mind when Neil looks around the room, his gaze coming to rest on one of the bookshelves, and when he says, “I always wondered why you hate libraries so much, when you clearly like reading.”

Andrew looks up from his letters. “Is there a question there?”

Neil smiles, unapologetic. “It was implied.”

Andrew considers him briefly, but he knows that Neil doesn’t ask out of sheer curiosity; there’s the same need to solve and understand itching under Andrew’s skin.

“Libraries used to be a good hiding spot,” he says, thinking back to the first grade, to the astonishing knowledge that there is a place where he can spend hours and hours without being talked to or bothered, and that studying is an excuse nearly every parent accepts without question. “And then they weren’t.”

Neil’s lips flatten into an unhappy line, but he is nothing if not consequent, so he asks, “Why not?”

Andrew feels like laughing, but he smothers the bizarre impulse. “Because they close before nightfall.”

There is a dangerous gleam in Neil’s eyes, one that Andrew recognizes, one that says, If you let me, I’d kill every last one of them. It’s oddly soothing to see it, even if Andrew doesn’t care enough to think about the list of names he’d have to rattle off. There is no point in revenge; Andrew’s need for justice flatlined a long time ago.

Three vowels, four consonants.

Justice, revenge.

Purpose.

Neil stares at the floor for a moment longer before dragging himself out of his murderous thoughts. He looks up and asks, almost hesitantly, “What was your favorite book back then?”

It’s not a difficult question, but it makes Andrew wary all the same. Still, he stands up and walks over to the bookshelf. He doesn’t need to search for the book; he always knows where it is, even though he hasn’t opened it in years. The library mark on its back hasn’t faded, and Andrew feels a stab of vicious satisfaction at the knowledge that the Jacksons most likely had to pay his library debt. It’s not like anyone is going to trace his steps through all these foster houses just to get back an old copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”.

He picks up the book and drops it unceremoniously in Neil’s lap.

Neil examines it for a long moment; while there is a flicker of recognition on his face, it’s clear that he has never read it. Andrew supposes it might be for the best. At least one of them didn’t waste an entire year of their childhood checking the mailbox every single day and waiting for a stupid letter that never arrived.   

“Can I borrow it?” Neil asks, tracing the picture on the cover with careful fingers.

“You can keep it. I don’t give a damn about it,” Andrew says, and wonders if it’s a lie. On the one hand, he has never cared to read the rest of the story, and the last time he tried to reread this part, back as a teenager, all he felt was bitter resentment. On the other hand, he has been dragging this book with him for over a decade of his life. “It’s nothing special. I was six years old.”

Neil smiles fondly, probably imagining a six-year-old Andrew and getting everything wrong, and then he stands up and puts the book on the coffee table. “Pancakes now?”

“Yes,” Andrew says, standing up as well, and shooting the book an annoyed glance.

Neil nods and walks into the kitchen. It’s past noon now, and the room is filled with so much light that all colors blend together, creating a study in pastels and warmth. Andrew has to blink for a moment before his eyes adjust.

Neil hums to himself as he starts preparing the ingredients. Since he has no intention of helping, Andrew hops on the counter and observes the proceedings.

It’s odd to watch the confidence with which Neil moves around the kitchen, Andrew’s kitchen, like he has been living in this apartment his entire life. He doesn’t need to pause to recall where to find the spoons, or the bowl, or the jam; he moves around with nearly graceful ease.

There is a feeling in Andrew’s chest growing like a balloon, pushing at his ribcage. He has no name for it, but he thinks it might end up rearranging all of his bones.

Neil catches him looking, because he always does, and he raises an eyebrow at Andrew before putting the wooden spoon back into the bowl and leaving it there. Andrew thinks distantly that he could get used to quiet days like this one, to Neil padding barefoot around the apartment with permanently sleep-tousled hair, to Neil’s lips curled up in a content smile.

“Staring,” Neil says softly, a gleam in his eyes, and Andrew thinks he could get used to this, too.

He huffs, faking annoyance, and drags his gaze away, staring determinedly forward.

Neil steps unerringly into his line of vision.

“Yes or no?” he says, his hands hovering over Andrew’s knees.

Andrew huffs again, but he moves back slightly and lets his legs open so that Neil can step closer. Sitting on the counter means that he has a rare advantage of height over Neil, and he doesn’t mind using it.

“Yes,” he says, and Neil instantly shifts closer, his hands coming to rest on Andrew’s knees. His thumbs rub circles into the black material of Andrew’s sweatpants, creating warmth which seeps through the cotton and Andrew’s skin all the way to his bones.

Neil doesn’t go for a kiss. Instead he leans in, until Andrew can feel his breath on his throat, and noses at Andrew’s neck, his chapped lips only a ghost of touch, an echo of a kiss. It’s enough to make all of Andrew’s thoughts instantly evaporate. One of his hands moves to Neil’s head, but instead of tugging Neil away and into a proper kiss, his fingers simply comb through Neil’s hair.

Neil’s steady breaths are hot and moist on Andrew’s skin, and Andrew can’t help letting his head fall back against the upper cabinet, swallowing thickly around the lump in his throat. Neil hums into his skin in clear appreciation, a hint of teeth across Andrew’s pulse-point, and Andrew doesn’t quite manage to hide a shudder that runs down his spine like electricity, setting all of his nerves aflame. All he can focus on is the butterfly press of Neil’s lips, the warmth of Neil’s hands, the sound of Neil’s breathing, the liquid sunlight blurring the contours of the kitchen and turning Neil’s skin into molten gold.

Neil doesn’t try to take it any farther. When he finally moves back and tilts his head to press his lips against Andrew’s, there is no demand in the kiss, only foreign warmth that seeps into Andrew’s veins like an anesthetic, that prompts him to find Neil’s hands, still resting on his knees, and slot their fingers together. Their kisses grow slower and slower, until they’re simply breathing into each other’s lips, and Andrew feels content.

Neil sighs, his eyes closed. “I don’t want to go back,” he says.

Andrew looks at their hands, tightens his hold, and thinks, I only ever want this.

And maybe it’s the warmth humming deep in his chest, or the press of Neil’s forehead against his own, or the way neither of them cared to put on their armbands this morning, but when he thinks of the future, it’s no longer an empty word, no longer just vowels and consonants tangled together.

He considers the sentence tucked away in the corner of his mind, considers binding it with this memory forever, but there are no vowels and consonants to describe the quiet certainty settling in his heart as he looks at Neil.

All he can do is offer the same certainty in return.

He says, “You won’t always have to.”

 

 

12.

 

“Where are we going?” Neil asks for the umpteenth time, and Andrew ignores him yet again, smoothly changing the lanes and passing another car.

It’s March 31st, but Neil is either yet to figure it out, or unable to connect the dots between his birthday and Andrew’s presence in Palmetto. He seems happy, but vaguely confused, and it’s annoying Andrew to no end.

He glances at the clock and changes the lanes again to pull into the nearest parking lot, studiously ignoring the frustrated honking of the car he just forced to brake.   

There is a diner at the end of the parking lot, so Andrew stops the car, turns off the engine, and looks to Neil.

Neil sighs, put-upon. “What do you want?”

“French fries,” Andrew says without a pause.

Neil sighs again, for good measure, but there’s a smile playing in the corner of his lips when he pushes the door open and steps out. As soon as the door is closed, Andrew takes his phone out of the glove box and picks Renee’s number.

“Is everyone there?” he asks, trying to express just how annoying he finds this entire endeavor without actually saying it out loud.

“Can you stall just a little bit longer?” Renee asks lightly. “Like an hour or so?”

“Fine,” Andrew says. He doesn’t mind; it’s not like he is particularly excited about sharing their limited time together with the rest of the Foxes.

“Thanks,” Renee says. “I’ll see you soon.”

Andrew hangs up and slips out of the car, locking it behind him as he walks towards the diner. He chooses one of the wooden tables outside, where he has a good view on the car and on the road, and sits on the tabletop, resting his feet on the bench. He lights a cigarette for Neil and places it on the edge of the ashtray and then lights another one for himself.

It's a warm, sunny day, so Andrew tilts his head back and closes his eyes, basking in the sunlight. Today is not a good day, but it’s oddly… manageable. While Andrew didn’t let Neil kiss him Hello, he doesn’t mind being around Neil, or even around the other Foxes. There is an unpleasant itch underneath his skin, one that makes him want to scratch or cut until he sees blood, but when he is with Neil, it’s easy to forget about it for a second, a minute, an hour. Driving helps, too, as it always does, and it’s strange to know with complete certainty that while today isn’t good, tomorrow — or the day after that — will be.

Neil exits the diner, instantly catching Andrew’s gaze. He passes Andrew the fries, somehow managing to avoid touching him, and leans against the table by his side. He takes the cigarette and inhales the smoke.

“Thanks for today,” he says after a moment.

Andrew nods.

There is no point in regret, but he wishes he could have been here in January, too. While he has no doubt that Neil can weather just about any storm on his own, he finds that he prefers it when they weather said storms together.

They share the fries in silence, and then Neil goes to get them ice cream.

It’s odd, this balance between them. Andrew has driven all this way to see Neil, but he has no doubt that Neil’s presence helps him just as much as his own presence helps Neil.

Equilibrium, Andrew thinks. Six vowels, five consonants.

He watches Neil from the corner of his eye and lets himself consider the words hidden safely in the back of his head, five vowels and three consonants accompanied by plenty of other phrases he has never said out loud. He still wants to hear them, all eight letters knitted together, and he still wants to say them, but he doesn’t mind waiting.

He has time. Neil isn’t going anywhere.

He glances to his phone and discovers that almost an hour has passed since he called Renee. He hops off the table and Neil follows his lead, but he seems surprised when Andrew sits behind the wheel again and continues with their previous route instead of going back.

He doesn’t ask, though, finishing his ice cream in silence as Andrew pulls off the main road and into a local road, and then parks in the middle of a sunny parking lot in front of a tiny, ridiculously fancy hotel.

Neil frowns. “Are we staying here?”

“Come on,” Andrew replies, pushing the door open.

“I didn’t bring anything,” Neil says, but he obediently steps out of the car. “Andrew?”

“I packed your bag,” Andrew responds, bored.

Neil blinks at him, but doesn’t say anything else as Andrew ignores both the trunk and the entrance to the hotel and continues walking.

There is a path leading around the hotel and up the hill behind it, meandering between crooked, leafless trees, coated in warm shadows and muted sunlight.

Neil’s expression goes from vaguely concerned to vaguely curious, and Andrew watches him from the corner of his eye as he brushes his fingertips against the bark of the old trees, almost reverent. Neil’s other hand is dangling by his side, and it’s only the irritating dissymmetry that prompts Andrew to reach out and tangle their fingers together. Neil startles slightly, but before Andrew can withdraw his hand, Neil tightens his hold. Andrew rolls his eyes.

He hears the familiar voices before they reach the clearing, but Neil is clearly too lost in his thoughts, or too busy staring at their joined hands, because he nearly jumps when Kevin suddenly appears before them.

Finally,” Kevin says, throwing his hands up for a more dramatic effect. “We’ve been waiting for you forever.”

Andrew raises an eyebrow at Renee, who steps behind Kevin. She gives him an unconcerned smile. Andrew looks back at Kevin.

Kevin sighs, annoyed, and looks to Neil. “Happy birthday,” he says sourly.

Neil blinks at him and then looks to Andrew. “What’s going on?” he asks.

It’s Nicky who responds. He’s wearing a birthday hat and he sounds distinctly sad, like he often does when he figures out another depressing fact about Neil. “It’s your birthday party,” he explains. “The kind we’ve been throwing for five years now?”

“Oh,” Neil says, his eyes wide. “I thought…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, which seems to affect the Foxes more than Kevin’s constant melodrama ever does. Dan hands Neil a cup with something that smells like hot chocolate, while Matt ruffles Neil’s hair and earns himself one of Neil’s rare, genuine laughs. Andrew wants to roll his eyes, but he settles on letting go of Neil’s hand and giving him a nudge.

This finally prompts the Foxes to usher Neil towards the small, preorganized fire pit in the middle of the clearing, conveniently surrounded by nearly identical tree trunks. It’s clearly meant to look effortlessly elegant, like the hotel below. Since he is not the one paying the bill, Andrew hopes it’s effortlessly expensive, too. Not that Allison is going to care either way.

Aaron isn’t here, but that’s hardly surprising. Everyone else is present. Neil seems bewildered, but pleased; his smile is genuine, but so is the nervous way he is picking at the frays of his hoodie.

Andrew stays back, watching in silence, and Renee stays back, too.

“I thought you said you needed more time to gather everyone,” Andrew points out, leaning against one of the trees. “Kevin seemed to imply the opposite.”

Renee smiles at him. “It’s Neil’s birthday,” she says. “There’s no better gift than letting him spend time with you.”

Andrew looks at her, point-blank refusing to emote. “You grew sentimental, Walker.”

She shrugs, her smile still in place. “Haven’t we all?”

Andrew rolls his eyes. He walks towards one of the effortlessly elegant wooden tables near the far end of the clearing, where he can easily watch everyone gathered by the fire without necessarily participating in the conversation. He sits on top and lights a cigarette.

It’s odd, watching Neil with the Foxes. Kindness is a language Neil has learned how to speak, but it still takes him some time to recognize it; gentle teasing and prodding applied by the Foxes confuses and baffles him. He accepts the gifts that the Foxes got him both with childlike curiosity and unchildlike puzzlement; it would be entertaining if Andrew didn’t know the story behind it. As it is, he tries to catalog the small differences, the tiny improvements from the years before, the way Neil spends a little less time insisting that the trouble was unnecessary, the way he doesn’t fidget as much as he used to when he becomes the center of attention. The way he holds his chin a little higher.

One constant, though, is the way his gaze keeps drifting towards Andrew, as if he is using Andrew’s very existence to center himself.

Andrew holds his gaze every time.

“These are bad for you, you know.” It’s Kevin, of course. Andrew hasn’t been paying attention to him, so Kevin showed up to demand it. “Your lungs’ capacity —”

Andrew interrupts him by tilting his head to the side and blowing a cloud of smoke right into his face. “You were saying…?”

Kevin valiantly tries not to cough, then ends up nearly coughing his head off. Andrew watches, mildly entertained, until Kevin straightens and wipes the tears from the corners of his eyes. Then Andrew takes another drag and blows the smoke away from him, letting it curl in the air.

Kevin, the persistent nuisance he is, doesn’t let the minor setback discourage him, and he leans against the table by Andrew’s side.

“Good game last Friday,” he says. “Nice save in the twenty-ninth.”

Andrew looks at him from the corner of his eye.

The thing is, Andrew spends a lot of time observing his surroundings, and his deal with Kevin meant that Kevin was one of the things he had to keep around.

He has learned to recognize that this is Kevin’s crooked way of caring. He only ever talks about Exy, but sometimes he uses Exy as a conversation tool. Right now, for example, he is trying to let Andrew know that he keeps track of his career, that he watches his games and cares enough to memorize the timeline, which is something he has only ever done with his own teams, and probably the Trojans.

Andrew doesn’t watch Kevin’s games, but his eidetic memory and Neil’s obsessive nature means that he knows all relevant scores either way and remembers all of the highlights. He ponders that fact for a moment; he has no interest in inflating Kevin’s ego, but he doesn’t really mind Kevin.

He says, “You choose the left upper corner too often. It’s getting predictable.”

Kevin blinks up at that, outraged, but then he seems to realize who he is talking to, and he instantly perks up. He launches into a lengthy and excruciatingly boring tale of statistics and striking techniques and Andrew tunes him out, but he doesn’t tell him to go away, and Kevin seems perfectly happy to do all of the talking.

He doesn’t seem anywhere near done when Neil drifts towards them, but he shuts up all the same, and Andrew is distantly grateful for that.

“Hey,” Neil says, coming to a stop in front of Andrew and completely ignoring Kevin, because just like Andrew, Neil is also an instigator at heart.

For once, Kevin doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He rolls his eyes and walks away, towards Nicky and Allison, and their stash of alcohol.

“Hey yourself,” Andrew replies.

Neil smiles and then climbs on the table by Andrew’s side, dropping his gifts on the bench next to their feet. Andrew fervently hopes that none of the bags contains anything orange or fox-related. He wouldn’t bet on it, though.

He considers the gift sitting in the pocket of his jacket, wrapped in simple brown paper, and decides to fish it out before he can change his mind.

Neil’s eyes widen slightly when Andrew drops the small package in his lap.

“What is it?” he asks.

“See for yourself,” Andrew replies, feigning disinterest and ignoring the way his heart is racing in his chest.

He holds his breath as Neil untucks the corners of the package and opens it with more care than he afforded any of his other gifts, and his heart nearly skips a beat at the familiar sight of metal.

He doesn’t know why this is different. He’s given Neil keys before; to his room, to the old car, to the Maserati. Except none of those things were his in the way his apartment is, none of them were earned, and none of them spoke so very clearly of future and together and I want your stupid toothbrush by my bathroom mirror.

He clears his throat. “One for the main door to the building,” he says. “Two for the door to the apartment.” Neil is still watching him with wide eyes, not saying anything, so Andrew elaborates, “You’ll be on a professional team in a few months and it won’t be easy to work around conflicting schedules. This way I won’t have to be there to get the door.”

Neil continues to say nothing at all, and it takes Andrew ridiculously long to figure out that it’s because he’s trying to suppress a panic attack.

Acting on instinct, Andrew shifts and places a hand at the back of Neil’s neck. He firmly ignores the alarm bells in the back of his head, blaring cheerfully, This was a mistake.

He wants to take the keys away, wants to hide them from Neil and never speak about anything concerning their future ever again, as long as Neil starts breathing normally again, as long as it wipes the terror from his eyes. Unfortunately, Neil’s hand has already clenched around the keys, so short of breaking his fingers, Andrew can do nothing to fix his mistake.

“Stop,” he tells Neil, as firm as he knows how. “Enough. Stop this.”

Neil’s gaze finally meets his and between his wheezing breaths, he manages to whisper, “What if I don’t make it? What if I don’t make it on a professional team? Or the US Court?”

Distantly, Andrew is aware that the Foxes have grown suspiciously quiet, but so far none of them intervened, so Andrew doesn’t even glance in their direction. Instead, he focuses on the problem at hand, and reruns Neil’s words through his head only to realize that Neil didn’t panic because of the keys, or because of another thing tying him down. He panicked because of the exact opposite.

“If I don’t make it, the Moriyamas —”

“You’ll make it,” Andrew interrupts him. “Neil. Look at me.”

Neil glances up again, like Andrew is a lighthouse in the middle of a storm, and isn’t it funny — seconds ago, Andrew was certain that the storm was of his own making.

“You’ll make it,” Andrew repeats. “There is no if.”

Neil’s hands slowly relax in his lap, and Andrew reaches to take the keys away, but Neil tightens his hold.

“No,” he says firmly.

Something deep in Andrew’s chest settles. “Okay,” he says.

Neil continues to look at him, but his breathing is becoming steadier by the minute, and his pupils are their normal width now, considering that the sunlight is beginning to dim.

His gaze keeps dropping to Andrew’s lips.

It’s an unconscious action, of that Andrew is certain, and he knows that the second Neil realizes he is doing it, he will stop. He never asks for anything on the bad days, and besides, they are both well aware that the Foxes are watching them now.

Except — Andrew doesn’t necessarily want him to stop. He doesn’t think he can handle Neil’s hands anywhere on his body, but a kiss doesn’t necessarily have to entail that, and he knows that Neil draws comfort from being touched.

He looks Neil in the eye and says, “A kiss. Yes or no?”

Neil blinks, his eyes darting briefly to the Foxes. He doesn’t seem bothered by their presence, though — he is only reminding Andrew that it’s an issue to consider. Still, if Neil doesn’t care, Andrew doesn’t care either.

“Yes or no?” he repeats.

“Yes,” Neil says.

Andrew stubs out his cigarette against the edge of the table and leaves it there, and then shifts his upper body towards Neil, and slides one hand into Neil’s hair. Neil keeps his hands in his lap, but his gaze remains fixed on Andrew, and he chews unconsciously on his lower lip for a moment while Andrew simply looks back. He no longer cares about the Foxes at all, even though they probably have their phones out and cameras on; all he cares about is the steadiness in Neil’s gaze, the calm setting back in, the storm coming to an end.

He leans in, tilting his head slightly so that their noses don’t bump together, and catches Neil’s lower lip between his own. It’s tentative and tender, more tentative than they usually are, but Andrew finds that he likes it, likes the way their lips part on an exhale in the exact same moment, the way they both use it to their advantage to press a little closer.

There is aching warmth spreading in Andrew’s chest, like his heart is bleeding everywhere while remaining intact, like he swallowed a handful of matches.

When they pull back, still sharing air, there are no wolf-whistles, but the Foxes suddenly seem very busy not paying any attention to them. The only exception is Nicky, who is just looking down at his hands with a vaguely teary smile.

Neil’s lips are curled up. He says, “Thank you.”

Andrew says, “Shut up.”

Then, after a moment, he adds, “Happy birthday.”

 

 

13.

 

The echo of a ball smashing against the plexiglass accompanies Andrew as he walks through the corridor of the Foxhole Court, joggling his car keys in one hand. He isn’t really in the mood to confront Neil right now, but he doesn’t have much of a choice, except for leaving Neil to his own devices, which somehow doesn’t seem like an option anymore.

He doesn’t go to the court right away; instead, he detours to the locker room and gears up, using his own jersey, but borrowing someone’s racquet. He leaves his bag on the bench by Neil’s bag, picks up one of the helmets, and heads to the court.

Neil isn’t even dressed in his gear, except for the helmet. He is wearing a black hoodie and black sweatpants, and he keeps going over Kevin’s precision drills, over and over again, with a singular focus and a crease between his eyebrows, his clothes soaked through with sweat. He doesn’t even notice Andrew until Andrew stands between him and the goal.

Neil lowers his racquet, his entire body radiating tension. Andrew can see a variety of questions pass through Neil’s mind, clearly reflected in his eyes, can see Neil biting into his lip as he tries to choose one of them. Andrew knows that talking won’t solve a thing.

“Well, Josten?” he says, waving his racquet impatiently. “I don’t have all night.”

Neil’s lips click shut and he glances away, but he lifts his racquet, takes a swing, and takes a shot. Andrew deflects it. It’s pathetically weak, so he makes Neil run for the ball all the way to the end of the court.

He deflects the next one, too, and the one after that, but the fourth one takes some effort, and the sixth one is the first one he doesn’t catch.  

Neil makes them play for another twenty minutes before he finally sidesteps the ball instead of catching it, and lowers his racquet to the ground. He rips his helmet off and drops it to the floor.

“I win,” Andrew tells him, clicking open the straps on his own helmet, and taking it off.

“Asshole,” Neil says, still sounding on edge, and Andrew offers a shrug, unconcerned.

Neil is the one to bridge the distance between them, stopping right in front of Andrew. His “Yes or no?” sounds biting, angry. It should prompt Andrew to say no right away, but all he can really feel is a thrill of anticipation humming underneath his skin.

Neil is bleeding raw emotion all over the place and Andrew thinks it might just be contagious.

He tilts his chin up and doesn’t say anything.

There is a part of him that expects Neil to go for a kiss anyway. It’s not like they always ask these days and Andrew doubts that Neil doesn’t see the want in his eyes.

But Neil — defying expectations and hellbent on proving Andrew wrong about the world over and over again — doesn’t move at all.

Instead, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

Andrew looks at him, watching patiently as the tension slowly leaves Neil’s body, as his shoulders relax, as his fear-fueled anger slowly but surely dissipates, as his fingers uncurl. Throughout all of this, Neil doesn’t open his eyes. Throughout all of this, Andrew doesn’t step away.

When Neil opens his eyes and Andrew sees the familiar calm settle in, he says, “You made it.”

He can see Neil swallow convulsively before he nods. He says, “Yeah.”

“New York is three hours and thirty minutes from Denver,” Andrew adds, and watches another set of emotions flicker through Neil’s eyes. Surprise that Andrew has already looked that up, understanding of what it means.

We are not over until you tell me we’re over, Andrew’s perfect memory whispers in his ear.

“You did well,” he says, because he thinks this is something Neil might need to hear — and also because it’s true. “You are done now.”

And just like that, Neil’s legs give out from underneath him and his knees hit the floor with a dull thud. Andrew follows, kneeling in front of him, but he knows that this isn’t a panic attack — this is Neil’s relief finally catching up to him.

He takes Neil’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, prompting Neil to look up, and then moves his hand away.

“Yes,” he says.

Neil nods, but he doesn’t go for a kiss. Instead, he drops his forehead to Andrew’s shoulder, sagging against him, but keeping his hands firmly in his lap, unwilling to let their bodies touch anywhere else without Andrew’s explicit consent.

Hugging isn’t really something they do, but Andrew finds that he doesn’t mind. Slowly, he reaches for Neil’s hands, curled up in his lap, and untangles them before placing them firmly on his sides. Neil’s hands immediately curl into the material of Andrew’s jersey, and Andrew shifts a little closer, absently running his fingers through Neil’s hair.

Neil isn’t crying and he isn’t trembling, he is just resting against Andrew’s shoulder, quiet and trusting. Andrew presses his lips against Neil’s temple and gazes into space, waiting patiently until Neil is ready to let go. He doesn’t mind this, exactly, it’s just — foreign. But it’s not unpleasant, and he can make do for as long as Neil needs him to.

Eventually Neil shifts slightly, only enough so that he can talk without the material of Andrew’s jersey muffling his words.

“How long will you stay?” he asks.

“I have obligatory practice on Monday,” Andrew replies. It’s an offer, not an answer, and he knows that Neil knows it.

“Sunday, then?” Neil asks.

“Yes,” Andrew agrees easily. “You should pack.”

“Pack,” Neil repeats, not quite a question.

“We’re going to New York,” Andrew tells him. “You need an apartment there.”

It’s not that Andrew thinks that Neil would run if he had to go to New York on his own — it’s just that he knows how tempting it would be. Just like Andrew needs a tether to keep him alive, Neil needs a tether to keep him in place, and a new set of keys will be a good start.

Neil figures it out, of course.

He pulls away slightly, without letting go of Andrew’s jersey, and looks up. He is so close that Andrew can see each and every single one of his freckles.

“I’m not going to run again,” Neil says.

“I know,” Andrew tells him.

“Even if I wanted to,” Neil says, “I wouldn’t do it.”

Andrew knows that, too. If Neil were to run, the Moriyamas would retaliate against something — someone — Neil cares about. Neil wouldn’t let it happen. The last time he tried and failed is a proof of that. It’s not what this is about.

Andrew pauses, collecting his thoughts, but before he can mold them into something less vulnerable, the words are already slipping from his lips. “I don’t want you to want to.”

Neil blinks at him, then frowns. Hesitantly, he lifts his hand, and runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair. Andrew huffs, but he doesn’t pull away.

“I don’t, not really,” Neil says quietly. “Haven’t for a very long time. From here, maybe. But never from you.”

Andrew swallows, because it still shocks him sometimes — how good Neil is with words. How easy it is for him to say things that Andrew would never be able to force past his own lips. There is strength in Neil that Andrew completely fails to understand.

His hand trembles slightly, so he curls it into the collar of Neil’s hoodie, giving a faux-annoyed tug.

“Don’t,” he snaps, and he doesn’t even know what he is trying to stop Neil from doing.

“You’ll need to specify,” Neil tells him, not unkind.

“I’m still not your answer,” Andrew tells him, and tries not to think of it as cruelty. It’s a truth, nothing else. Andrew won’t be Neil’s cornerstone. Unlike Neil, he consists only of negative space. 

Neil expression is clear. “That’s okay,” he says calmly.

Andrew curls his fingers, giving another tug. “Why?” he demands, and it sounds angry, sounds — alien. “Why is it okay?”

The thing is, people always want more regardless of what they get. This is the truth. This is something that Andrew has learned not to question. Whatever you give them — a word, a plea, a silence — they will always want more. They take and take and take.

Neil — Neil makes no sense. Neil is a puzzle that Andrew has been trying to solve for years now, and it still refuses to bend to any rules, refuses to fit in with the rest of the world. Andrew desperately wants to understand, but the knowledge slips through his fingers like sand.

Instead of tilting Andrew’s chin up, Neil leans back until he can look Andrew in the eye.

Then he says, “You are enough.”

Andrew’s breath catches.

His breath catches, and he swallows through a lump in his throat, and somehow the only thing that makes it past his lips is, “I do hate you, Neil.”

A part of him expects Neil to recoil — because while Andrew always means it when he says it, he doubts he has ever said it with such raw honesty.

The last thing he expects to see is the softening of Neil’s gaze.

“I know,” Neil says, as calm as ever, and suddenly Andrew is angry, fury simmering in his veins.

“I do mean it,” he snaps. “How can you —”

“You are a gun pointed at my head,” Neil says, almost soft. “Forever. I can’t run and I can’t dodge. I chose this, all of this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I want this. I want you. But it doesn’t mean I don’t understand.”

Andrew opens his mouth, but Neil beats him to it.

I know you,” he says with an air of finality that causes Andrew’s lips to click shut. “Don’t you think that I of all people understand how terrifying it is to be known?”

Andrew doesn’t quite manage to stifle a shudder that runs through his body at that. When he looks up, Neil is still looking at him with calm, fierce certainty, and with that quiet, nearly tangible understanding.

Andrew thinks about the words, about the five vowels and three consonants.

He looks to the side, keeping his gaze on the empty bleachers. What makes its way past his lips is something that Neil has told him numerous times, something that Andrew has never said back, even though it has been true for a long time. It’s a smaller step, but it’s a step all the same. Perhaps if he makes enough of these, the last step will seem a little easier. He says, “I trust you.”

When he finally manages to look at Neil, Neil is looking back at him, his eyes bright with warmth. “I know,” he says, once he catches Andrew’s gaze. “Thank you,” he adds.

Andrew doesn’t know what he is being thanked for, but it doesn’t really matter. He follows Neil when he moves to stand up, one hand still clenched in the collar of Neil’s hoodie, and only lets go when Neil reaches for his racquet and his helmet.

He places the car keys in Neil’s hand and turns around to leave the court.

Neil takes a moment before he follows him, but that’s alright — it’s not like Andrew is going anywhere without him.

 

 

14.

 

This time when Andrew picks Neil up from the airport, he kisses him as soon as the doors of the Maserati click shut, before Neil has a chance to take off his beanie. Andrew does it for him, tossing it carelessly to the back seat, and then he runs his fingers through Neil’s hair and slots his hand at the back of Neil’s neck.

This time Neil doesn’t simply melt into the kiss, but he kisses back with equal hunger, fingers clenched in the clasps of Andrew’s jacket.

They saw each other three weeks ago, but now they have the entire off-season at their disposal. Andrew played his last game yesterday and Neil has already signed all necessary documents in New York and his team is scheduled to start practicing in four weeks.

They have four weeks just for themselves.

“Hey,” Neil says when they separate, his lips still only a breath away.

“Junkie,” Andrew replies, already leaning in to kiss him again.

He has missed this.

He has missed the warmth of Neil’s lips against his own, the familiar scent of Neil’s skin, the curve of Neil’s smile, the gleam in Neil’s eyes. He has missed the closeness, the gentleness, the simplicity. He has missed being able to reach out and touch.

He has missed this like you miss breathing right before you drown.

“Let’s go home,” Neil murmurs into Andrew’s lips, and Andrew nods. He pushes lightly at Neil’s shoulder, forcing him to lean back in his seat, as if he wasn’t the one holding Neil in place just moments ago. Then he turns on the engine.

He feels Neil’s gaze on the side of his face for the entirety of their journey, but he doesn’t mind. The elevator takes ridiculously long to arrive, so they take the stairs, and Andrew fishes out the keys from the pocket of his jacket before they reach the right floor. Neil’s hand keeps brushing against his own as they walk towards Andrew’s apartment, and Andrew considers stealing a kiss before they even reach the door.

And then he stops dead in his tracks.

The door to the apartment is open.

Andrew has a knife out and a hand in front of Neil before he can even think about it. He tries to push Neil back, but Neil doesn’t budge. Instead, he reaches to his own armband and slides his own knife out. He reaches out to push the door open and looks to Andrew. Stifling a frustrated sigh, Andrew gives him a nod.

Neil pushes the door open. The quiet creak of the hinges sounds loud and foreboding in the thick silence filling the apartment. The lights are on.

Neil gestures to Andrew’s bag lying by the door. It looks untouched. Whoever broke in, they didn’t come for the money.

Andrew tugs at Neil’s sleeve, forcing him to stop, and uses Neil’s distraction to push past him and into the living room, keeping his knife at the ready.

In the kitchen, facing the entrance to the living room and leaning back against the counter, is a man in a black suit. He is sipping coffee from one of their mugs, and he is looking at Andrew and Neil with a bored smile.

There is a knife in his hand and he is playing with it without interest and without care, but with terrifying skill. His silhouette is partially hidden behind the kitchen island, but Andrew doubts he has use for other weapons.

“Hello there, Nathaniel,” the man says, placing the mug on the counter and running his fingertips over the edge of the knife, his gaze following.

Neil goes completely still.

Andrew keeps his fingers curled around his knife. He looks at the man for a moment longer, watching him play with the blade, and says, “Are you scouting for a food reality show?”

The man in the suit turns to look at him, a flicker of smile passing through his lips. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Hello, AJ. Didn’t see you there. We won’t be needing you.”

“We?” Andrew asks.

The man in the suit smiles, looking back to Neil. “Ichirou Moriyama has some instructions for you.”

Neil offers a curt nod, drawing Andrew’s attention. He clearly pulled himself together already, and now he looks a thousand miles away, his expression vacant and clear. When he looks to Andrew, his gaze is steady. “It’s okay,” he says. “I can handle this.”

The man in the suit smiles and gives Andrew a dismissive wave, but Andrew doesn’t move. It’s his apartment that the man broke into — his and Neil’s — and Andrew never took kindly to people who don’t knock.

He looks at Neil. “Do you want me to go?” he asks.

Neil doesn’t reply, which is a response in itself, so Andrew looks at the man in the suit. “You can talk to both of us or you can fuck right off.”

He hears Neil’s sharp inhale, but he continues to look at the man, refusing to back down. There is only one way to deal with this family, he has learned it by now. Fear is not an armor, it’s a weapon aimed at your own heart.

The man in the suit smiles at him. “Still a rabid animal, aren’t you? Perhaps too much carrot, too little stick?”

“Oh no,” Andrew says flatly. “Mixed metaphors. My kryptonite.”

The man in the suit smiles wider. “Do you really think you’re untouchable?”

He pushes away from the counter, as if to move closer, but before he can take a step, Neil speaks up.

“Threaten him one more time,” he says, quiet and calm, “and you’ll be taking the trash chute downstairs. One limb at a time.”

The man in the suit tilts his head to the side in consideration, but eventually leans back against the counter. He picks one of the oranges from the fruit bowl and begins to peel it with his knife. With casual disinterest, he asks, “Do you really think it’s a good idea to threaten me, Nathaniel?”

Andrew takes several steps closer, intending to put himself between the man and Neil, but Neil follows him without a pause. Andrew leans his hip against the kitchen counter. “His life is worth way more than yours,” he says. “Both in American and Japanese currency.”

The man raises an eyebrow at that, but after a moment he relents. He drops the orange peel to the floor, places the orange on the counter, and extends a folder in Neil’s direction.

“Here are the account numbers you will be needing this year,” he says. “See that your payment is not overdue.”

“I will, thank you,” Neil says, a strange smile playing on his lips. He doesn’t take the folder, so after a moment of awkward stillness, the man in the suit places it on the kitchen counter. Neil watches him with an odd gleam in his eyes. “Terry Ward, isn’t it? I remember now.”

The question wipes the remnants of the smile from the man’s face. He goes pale.

Neil tilts his head to the side, suddenly completely relaxed. The smile playing on his lips doesn’t go away. “I remember you,” Neil says again, and there is a smile in his voice, too. It sounds so alien and strange that Andrew has to glance at him to make sure the words are actually coming from Neil’s mouth. “Does Ichirou Moriyama know how badly you fucked up back in the ninety-eight? Some would say it looked more like sabotage than a mistake.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ward says, but his hands freeze mid-motion.  

“Don’t you?” Neil says. “Does the name Amanda Jones remind you of anything at all?”

Ward swallows loudly. “You’re a liar and a thief, the Lord would never —”

“Call him,” Neil suggests softly. “Let’s find out.”

Ward doesn’t move. After a long moment, his gaze skitters away.

Neil smiles again.  “Give my regards to the Lord,” he says pleasantly. “I believe we are done. Follow me.”

With that, and with a cursory glance at Andrew, Neil turns on his heel and leaves the living room.

Ward’s knife disappears under his sleeve, but he pauses for a moment in front of Andrew.

“Your boyfriend won’t always be here to protect you,” he says.

Andrew smiles at him, leaning back against the counter, his hands steady. He tips his head back and looks right into Ward’s eyes. There is unfamiliar anger humming underneath his skin, and it’s the most steadying thing he has ever felt.

“But I’ll always be here to protect me,” he says. He pats Ward’s shoulder. “Have a good day.”

Ward looks at him for a moment longer before turning away without a word.

The time between Ward leaving the room and the lock clicking shut is too long to be natural, but Andrew is only mildly curious what else Neil decided to say to Ward, especially when Neil finally returns to the kitchen.

Neil avoids his gaze as he picks up the orange and the peel and throws both in the trash. He continues to avoid his gaze as he picks up the folder, clearly intent on looking through it right away. Andrew has had enough of this.

“Sit down,” he tells Neil, pointing to the kitchen island.

Neil doesn’t look up, and everything about his skittish behavior is putting Andrew on edge, because Neil just stood up to a member of the mafia, and yet he can’t look Andrew in the eye. Neil opens the folder. “I should —”

Sit down,” Andrew snaps.

Neil flinches. It’s an aborted reaction, stifled halfway through, but it’s enough to make all of Andrew’s irritation instantly evaporate. The remnants morph into something that tastes bitter and unfamiliar in Andrew’s mouth.

Two vowels, three consonants.

Guilt.

They look at each other over the kitchen island for a long moment, until Neil licks his lips and climbs on one of the stools, his gaze fixed firmly on the countertop.

Andrew knows that there is no fixing this with words, not right away, so he does the second-best thing. He finds milk in the fridge and pours some into a small pot, facing away from Neil to give him some space. Then he rummages through the sweets he has stored in one of the cupboards and chooses his favorite dark chocolate. He waits for the milk to boil and chops the entire bar of chocolate into tiny pieces. He adds them to the milk and stirs the entire thing impatiently, waiting for Neil to say something, anything.

Neil remains silent.

Finally, the chocolate is ready, and there is nothing else to do. Andrew puts the dishes in the dishwasher, pours the chocolate into a high mug, places it in front of Neil, and has no idea where to go from there.

Neil is still fidgeting with the folder, so Andrew reaches over slowly, making sure that Neil sees his hands before he registers the touch, and pries the folder from his hands.

“I’ll deal with this,” he says.

Neil doesn’t try to take back the folder, but he frowns. “I’m not letting you pay for me.”

“That’s not what I offered,” Andrew says. “I’ll look through this and make the transfers from your account.”

“Oh,” Neil says. “Okay.” He pauses. “Thanks.”

Andrew nods. “Drink this,” he adds, pointing to the chocolate. “If you faint here, you sleep here.”

Neil blinks up at him, as if only now noticing the mug, and he immediately curls his fingers around it, trying to soak in the warmth. Andrew sits at the opposite side of the kitchen island and stares above Neil’s shoulder at the window in the living room.

Just as Andrew’s guilt begin to fade into apathy, Neil speaks up.

“Amanda Jones was my mom’s friend,” he says, staring into his mug. “She was a part of our first escape plan. My father found out and he ordered Ward to kill her. Yet she was still alive when my mom contacted her years later.”

“He let her go?” Andrew asks.

“I used to think so,” Neil replies. “I used to think he was a mole. With the police, or the FBI. But he isn’t. He didn’t let Amanda go. He is just a lousy shot.”

“How did you learn about that?” Andrew asks, already suspecting the answer.

“He shot my mom,” Neil replies easily. “He wasn’t the one to kill her, that happened much later. He shot her in the arm. It was the first time I had to stitch her up. She couldn’t reach it herself. I did a shitty job. The stitches barely held.”

“That’s disappointing, Neil,” Andrew deadpans. “Most teenagers make excellent surgeons.”

Neil gives a weak smile, and finishes his hot chocolate. He still seems tense, but less so than he was minutes ago, and so Andrew relaxes too. Neil traces the rim of the mug with his fingers, and Andrew watches him for a while, thinking about the way Neil usually acts when Andrew has a bad day, considering which of Neil’s techniques work and which do not.

“Do you need me to leave?” he asks eventually, only a little wary. Polar questions are good, because they are simple. There is safety in simplicity.

“No,” Neil replies instantly, looking up. He looks ready for a more difficult question.

“What do you want to do, then?” Andrew asks.

Neil doesn’t reply right away this time. His hand stills on the mug and he looks at Andrew for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Eventually he pushes the mug away.

“I want,” he starts, then pauses, starts again. “Can we pretend none of this happened? Just for a little while? Can we pretend we didn’t find the door open?”

Andrew considers him for a moment. Neil still looks unsettled, but he doesn’t look lost. Besides, he draws comfort from being touched, that much has always been clear. Andrew doesn’t know if the words sitting on the tip of his tongue would have a similar effect, and this isn’t the time for trial and error.

“Just kissing,” he says.

Neil tilts his head to the side, his smile a little easier now, a little more playful. “Seemed to me you had more in mind, earlier.”

Andrew rolls his eyes. “Maybe,” he concedes, “but that will have to wait until you get some sleep.”

“Okay,” Neil says, sliding off the stool.

He waits for Andrew to round the kitchen island and licks his lips unconsciously when Andrew stops right in front of him. Andrew slides his fingers into Neil’s hair and tugs, just a little.

“You’ll tell me if you want to stop,” he reminds Neil.

“I know,” Neil says.

“Or if you need to,” Andrew adds, because these days neither of them ever really wants to stop. It’s more complicated than that.

“I will,” Neil agrees. “Kiss me.”

So Andrew does.

 

 

15.

 

Neil’s apartment is small and clean, and Andrew got used to the way the lock always resists the key before finally clicking open, got used to the ugly mat in front of the door, got used to the way people in the elevator react to him with polite recognition rather than wariness.

Neil isn’t home when Andrew arrives, and that’s something he got used to as well. They have the keys to each other’s apartments and they are both allowed to come and go as they please. Their moments together are rare; their schedules collide, their cities are almost two thousand miles apart, and regardless of how much effort they put into finding time for each other, there simply isn’t enough time to be found.

Tonight, Neil has obligatory practice, and he will be home past nine, and tomorrow morning Andrew will have to leave to get to his own obligatory practice in the afternoon.

It’s a familiar routine by now, and Andrew is a creature of habit, whether he likes to admit or not. Routine is boring, but it’s easy, too, and when it gets too boring, Neil is always a welcome distraction. For now, Andrew fights the obnoxious lock and pushes the door open, wincing slightly at the familiar scent of burned vegetables — Neil clearly tried to make dinner at some point of the day.

Andrew hangs his jacket on the coat rack and begins his reconnaissance. He nearly winces at the mess in the kitchen and fights an inner battle for several long minutes before he places the dishes in the dishwasher, cleans up the counter, and throws out whatever it was that Neil was attempting to make. It looks like coal with a dash of broccoli.

There is a part of Andrew that runs a mocking narrative of everything he is doing, but he pushes it away. He needs to get out of his own head; he might as well find something useful to do. He doesn’t question himself as he takes inventory of Neil’s fridge and composes a shopping list. When the ever-cynical part of him tries to stop him, he tells himself firmly that he is doing this first and foremost for himself, because Neil has a terrible taste in ice cream, and Andrew refuses to live like this, even for one evening.

He buys everything he needs and returns to the apartment to prepare the least complicated relatively-healthy meal he can think of; if he makes enough for two people instead of one, it’s only because he doesn’t feel like measuring the ingredients.

When he finishes eating, he dumps the plate in the sink in silent retaliation, puts away the rest of the food for Neil, and goes to the bedroom. As always, the bed is rumpled only on one side, and the clock tells Andrew that Neil has been up since five thirty am. Andrew picks up Neil’s hoodie, discarded on the bed, and puts it in the laundry basket. Then he opens the window in the bedroom and locks the door behind him quietly, moving to the bathroom.

He takes a shower to get the unpleasant smell of plane-circulated air off his skin, and uses Neil’s soap and shampoo out of spite. When he makes it out, he goes back to the bedroom and chooses one of Neil’s hoodies instead of unpacking his own. He tells himself firmly it’s another method of retaliating for having to clean up the kitchen, but it’s harder to lie to himself when the smell of Neil’s detergent makes his shoulders relax instantly. He pulls the sleeves over his knuckles and thinks, nonsensically at best, Home.

He brings the newly-bought ice cream to the living room and settles on the couch. Neil’s TV has at least a hundred sports-related programs and pretty much nothing else, so Andrew settles for a cartoon. He vaguely recognizes it, but he doesn’t mind; he uses the TV as background noise while he continues to eat his ice cream, letting his thoughts drift aimlessly.

At some point, he places the empty container on the coffee table and pulls Neil’s blanket — which smells a bit like Neil himself — all the way to his chin. He feels warm like this, warm and safe, so he lets himself close his eyes.

When he opens his eyes again, it’s dark in the room, and the TV is off.

It takes Andrew some blinking and some fidgeting to notice Neil, who is sitting on the coffee table, facing Andrew, an empty bowl by his side.

“Hey,” Neil says, soft.

The lights in the room are off, but Neil’s apartment has large windows, and they are letting in both the moonlight and yellow glow of the streetlights. Neil’s face is hidden in the shadows, but Andrew doesn’t need to see it to know that Neil’s lips are curled up in a small, private smile.

“Hey,” Andrew echoes, too tired to do anything except move back slightly so that he is half-sitting against the cushions. A cursory glance at the clock tell him Neil couldn’t have returned longer than twenty minutes ago.

“Thanks for the dinner,” Neil says, and now Andrew can hear the smile in his voice.

He huffs. “Don’t get used to it.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Neil says with a grin, and Andrew narrows his eyes at him.

“Good practice?” he asks.

“Mmm,” Neil agrees with a small shrug. There aren’t many moments when Neil doesn’t want to talk about Exy, but now is clearly one of them. Andrew can relate.

“Come here,” he murmurs, shifting back a little more and kicking the blanket away.

Neil slides down the coffee table and kneels by the couch to lean in for a kiss, but Andrew huffs against his lips.

“Pay attention,” he scolds, and tugs at Neil’s arm until Neil gets the clue and stands up, moving to place one knee on the couch. He gives Andrew an uncertain glance, and Andrew glares black impatiently. “Well?”

Neil rolls his eyes, but obediently moves to straddle Andrew’s lap and then leans down so that their lips are only a breath away. He still keeps his body from resting against Andrew’s, though.

“Let me know if it’s too much,” Neil reminds him when Andrew nudges his leg against Neil’s hip to get him to relax.

“I’ll just push you off the couch,” Andrew tells him, unconcerned. “Get on with it, Josten, I have a flight in —” he makes a show of glancing at his bare wrist “— twelve hours.”

“Funny,” Neil says, but he finally relaxes enough to put some weight on Andrew’s body.

“Mmm,” Andrew agrees, and when he gets bored of waiting for Neil to move, he tilts his chin up and kisses Neil instead. When he moves to pull back, raising one eyebrow in a challenge, Neil finally, finally follows him and starts kissing back in earnest.

It still takes some getting used to — feeling the weight of Neil’s body on top of him — but while Andrew knows better than to expect the progress to be linear, he also knows that the progress is there. It’s two steps forward and one step back, and then one step forward and two steps back, but it’s not a stalemate.

A small, vindictive part of Andrew, one that Andrew has never expected to still exist, thinks of this as small victories. He runs his fingers through Neil’s hair and thinks, You didn’t take this away from me. He nudges his knee against Neil’s hip, lazy and content, and thinks, I chose this and I want this and this is mine alone.

It’s odd, this rage. Andrew knows fury, he knows anger, he knows violence. He has used it to protect what’s his and to fulfil his promises.

This is different, though. This rage feels a thousand years old, feels like a flicker of flame somewhere deep in his chest, somewhere he can’t quite reach. Andrew has felt glimmers of it before, while arguing with Aaron about Tilda, while lashing out against Katelyn, while standing up to Ward — but it always burned out too quickly for him to grasp, leaving nothing but familiar ashes of apathy.

Lately, though — lately Andrew has been feeling it more often. It’s always there when the familiar movie begins to play in the back of his head, when he can’t stand being close to Neil, when he can’t stand being in his own skin.

The last time Andrew thought of anything that happened to him as injustice was many, many years ago.

He presses his hand against Neil’s back, pushing him closer, and wonders if this is what revenge tastes like, even though he doesn’t know what he is lashing out against, except, perhaps, the entire world.

Neil, being Neil, senses Andrew’s odd mood, and pulls back.

“Are you okay?” he asks, so close that Andrew can feel his fringe brush against his own forehead.

Andrew mutters something incomprehensible, suddenly unable to look up. He doesn’t want to pull away, but he knows that he has to. This isn’t a good day, it started off bad and Andrew can’t make it better like this, he simply can’t, not without causing harm — to Neil or to himself.

Neil frowns; Andrew doesn’t see it, but he knows for a fact that Neil is frowning as he says, “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

Andrew sighs. “I don’t want to stop,” he says. It’s the truth; he doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean he can keep going. He doesn’t want to let the present tangle with the past; he doesn’t want any progress between them to be fueled by resentment. Bee told him once that anger is important, that it’s a far better response than apathy, and maybe it is, but Neil isn’t a tool in Andrew’s recovery.

Neil says, “It’s okay,” and sits back on his heels so that Andrew can shift away and pull his knees to his chest. He doesn’t seem surprised by the seemingly contradicting words and actions.

I know you, Andrew’s perfect memory reminds him.

Neil sits back on the couch, with one knee drawn up. He says, “Do you want to sleep now?”

Andrew nods his assent and stands up, letting the blanket fall away. He catches Neil’s wrist and tugs him towards the bedroom, refusing to let go as they slip beneath the covers, still fully clothed.

After a moment of consideration, he shifts closer to Neil and tangles their legs together. Neil shifts his hand until he can twine his fingers through Andrew’s, and Andrew does nothing to stop him. He tightens his hold instead.

Above the headboard of the bed is a small scratch; it wasn’t there when Neil moved in and Andrew hasn’t carved it himself. Andrew appreciates it, but he doesn’t need it, not when Neil is just a breath away, not when Andrew will wake up to the sight of his face, to the sunlight flickering in his eyelashes, to the ghost of a smile on his lips.

He considers the words, tucked safely in the corner of his mind, and thinks that someday he won’t need the scratch at all.

 

 

16.

 

Nicky’s wedding is somehow both less and more overwhelming than Andrew has expected. There are plenty of guests, but Nicky’s parents are suspiciously absent. The reception is held in a small hotel, but while Nicky apparently booked the entire building, there are only two bartenders and four bars. After nearly two hours of listening to small talk, Andrew decides to occupy one of the bars, if only to keep everyone at counter’s length from himself.

Neil leaves him to it after a while, clearly happy to spend time with the Foxes. Andrew doesn’t mind, not when he has such a convenient observation spot.  Nicky shot him a pained glance or two, but Andrew simply gazed back in silence, because even if Nicky refuses to acknowledge it, Andrew has always been better at observing than participating.

He makes drinks from time to time, when someone is actually brave enough to approach him, and he doesn’t spare the alcohol. It’s mostly on his tab anyway, even if Nicky doesn’t know that.

He is mildly surprised to find that Nicky invited Roland, before he remembers that he and Nicky had known each other before Andrew met him. When Roland approaches the bar, Andrew merely raises an eyebrow at him.

“Well, well, well,” Roland says, clicking his tongue, “how the turntables.”

Andrew gives him the flattest look he can manage.

Roland smiles, unconcerned. “Can I have a B-52?”

Andrew rolls his eyes this time. “I’m not here on a job interview, you know.”

Roland grins, drumming his fingertips against the counter. “Are you sure about that?”

He tilts his head to the side, without looking over his shoulder. Andrew follows the motion and unerringly meets Neil’s gaze across the room. Neil is leaning against the opposite wall, clearly in the middle of a discussion with Dan and Matt, but while they’re talking and gesticulating animatedly, Neil only nods from time to time, his gaze fixed on Andrew. Despite the ocean of people between them, Andrew feels a flicker of electricity run down his spine.

He huffs, looking back at Roland. “Fine.”

Roland grins wider, but he doesn’t comment, which probably saves his life.

Andrew makes the shot, and because he is an asshole, he fishes out a lighter from his pocket and lights the shot up before passing it to Roland without a straw of any kind.

Roland rolls his eyes and smothers the flame with his hand. Then he tips back the shot. Before he can place the glass on the counter, Andrew senses the familiar presence by his side.

Neil leans against the counter and says, “Hey.”

Roland has the audacity to wink at Andrew before he slides the glass across the counter and disappears in the crowd.

“Hey yourself,” Andrew says, leaning against the counter as well. If he wanted to, and if he climbed on his toes, he could probably press his lips against Neil’s. It’s something to consider.

“Make something for me?” Neil asks, a smile dancing in his eyes.

“Specifics, Neil,” Andrew says, feigning boredom.

“You know me,” Neil says, his eyes gleaming. “You’ll think of something.”

“You’re a bartender’s worst nightmare,” Andrew informs him.

Neil smiles, making a humming sound as he presses two fingertips to his lips. Andrew watches, transfixed, as Neil brushes the very same fingertips against Andrew’s knuckles, only a ghost of touch. Andrew stifles a shudder.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” Neil says, his unblinking gaze meeting Andrew’s.

Andrew stares at him in disbelief, but just as he is about to reply, he spots Nicky in the crowd, looking at him with an uncertain expression, clearly wondering whether it’s a good time to approach him.

“I’ll think about it,” Andrew says.

Neil follows his gaze and Andrew sees a flicker of understanding in his eyes.

“Do that. I’ll be back,” Neil says. He pushes away from the counter and walks back to Dan and Matt, only to be snatched away by Allison.

Andrew looks at Nicky and raises an eyebrow, knowing that Nicky will recognize that for the invitation it is. Nicky walks over, his expression cautious, and Andrew lets himself be briefly annoyed with Nicky’s wariness before he pushes the feeling away. There’s no point in this, Andrew will always be a threat to them, that’s just how it is.

He is slightly surprised when instead of sitting on one of the stools, Nicky slips behind the counter to stand by Andrew’s side. He is smiling, but the wariness is still present in his eyes.

“Can you teach me something?” Nicky asks. “Simple but showy?”

Andrew gives him a bored look. “It’s usually one or the other.”

His tone is slightly harsher than he intended, and he can see Nicky’s smile beginning to slip. It annoys him to have caused harm unintentionally.

“I’ll teach you,” he says, and Nicky visibly perks up at that. “Layered shots or a cocktail?”

Nicky considers it. “A cocktail.”

Piña colada, then,” Andrew decides. “Get me a hurricane glass.”

Nicky looks at him. “A what?”

Andrew sighs, put-upon. “Just find a tall glass.”

Nicky hums and chooses a glass; it’s not the one Andrew had in mind, but he decides that it will do.

“I’m glad you came,” Nicky says quietly, when Andrew picks the alcohol.

Andrew huffs noncommittally. “Where are your parents?”

Nicky looks away, his lips a flat line. “They aren’t here.”

Andrew gives up on trying to get one of the bottles from the top shelf and turns to Nicky, raising an eyebrow. “They simply didn’t show up?”

That seems low, even for Luther, Andrew decides.

Nicky looks at him for a long moment, clearly weighing his next words. “I invited them only to the ceremony,” he finally says. “I knew it was either you or them.”

Andrew gives him a flat look. “Do you honestly think I can’t handle them?” he asks. “I don’t break that easily.”

Nicky pinches the bridge of his nose. “That’s not… That’s not what I meant, okay? I know you’d manage. I just. We’re family, alright? I didn’t want you to have to.

Oddly, it reminds Andrew of something he said to Neil, a while back, in a dark Exy court. Oddly, it makes something warm flicker to life in his chest. For once, he doesn’t smother it right away. He just makes sure it doesn’t show on his face.

He looks back at Nicky for a moment. Then he says, “Okay.”

Nicky smiles.

Andrew rolls his eyes and looks back at the shelves. “Get that bottle, I don’t have all night.”

From the corner of his eye, he can see Nicky’s expression soften into something playful and obnoxious. “That one?” he asks, pointing to a bottle of Scotch.

“Don’t test my patience,” Andrew tells him.

Nicky smiles wider, but reaches for the right bottle without further prompting, and offers it to Andrew.

Andrew puts the bottle on the counter and proceeds to list instructions for Nicky to follow. Nicky inevitably needs help measuring the ingredients, but other than that, he seems perfectly content to work in uncharacteristic silence, following Andrew’s pointers as closely as he can.

When he is nearly done, he looks up at Andrew and says, “Really, though. Thank you for coming. It means a lot.”

Andrew nods, then shrugs for good measure.  

Nicky doesn’t resume his work, so Andrew instantly knows that there’s something else he wants to say.

“What is it?” he asks, getting bored with the waiting.

Nicky bites his lip, turning away from the drink and leaning his hip against the counter to face Andrew. “I just wanted to say… I know I wasn’t the best guardian you could’ve hoped for, so… Sorry about that.”

“Hoped for,” Andrew echoes, because out of all assumptions Nicky has made of him, this one is the farthest from truth. “Do you really think I hoped for anything from you?”

Nicky winces and Andrew reruns the words through his head, annoyed with the miscommunication.

“I don’t want your apology,” he says.

“But —”

“Don’t presume I’m something you could have fixed,” Andrew interrupts. “I’m not a school project.”

Nicky’s expression looks pained. It’s like they’re speaking in different languages.

“You did well,” Andrew says, deciding to spell it out as clearly as he can, just to get it over with, once and for all. “If I had expected anything from you, you’d have exceeded those expectations. Just because I have no gratitude to offer doesn’t mean I want an apology. Stop trying to give me one.”

When Nicky finally looks up at him, his eyes are suspiciously watery. Andrew glares.

Nicky swallows and offers a shaky smile. He reaches out slowly and Andrew instinctively braces himself for whatever touchy nonsense Nicky insists on putting him through, but to his surprise, Nicky’s hand stops midway and he gives Andrew a searching look.

“Can I?” he asks.

Nicky isn’t great at asking and he’s never done it before; clearly, he must have picked it up from Neil. The fact that he cared enough to observe and learn means more than Andrew would like to admit.

“Do what?” Andrew asks.

“Hug you?” Nicky says, hesitant.

Andrew sighs; he doesn’t really understand what is so great about hugging, but he doesn’t really mind it, either, as long as it doesn’t last. None of his memories involve being hugged. It’s foreign and slightly claustrophobic, but nothing he can’t handle.

“Fine,” Andrew says. “Just don’t linger.”

Nicky doesn’t linger. It’s not even a real hug; all Nicky does is place his hands on Andrew’s shoulders and squeeze once before letting go, keeping careful distance between them at all times. Realizing that this is all that’s going to happen, Andrew exhales with quiet relief.

“Thanks,” Nicky says, smiling again and turning to his drink.

“Shut up,” Andrew says. “Get a spoon. No, the long one.”

He walks Nicky through the last few steps of making the drink, and then sends him on his way, going back to thinking about a drink for Neil.

As soon as Nicky leaves, clearly excited to share both his new skill and his Piña colada with Erik, Neil materializes by the bar again, slightly more drunk and even more cheerful, his hair messed up already, and the first button of his shirt undone, because Neil is either a criminal mastermind intent on torturing everyone around him, or he still hasn’t learned just how good-looking he is.

“What about my drink?” Neil asks, leaning against the counter and tilting his head to the side, exposing the faint mark on the side of his neck, one that Andrew left there last night.

Andrew glares at him a little, but Neil seems unconcerned, so glaring loses its appeal.

“Here,” Andrew says eventually, placing a glass in front of Neil.

Neil examines the drink curiously. “What is it?”

“You figure it out,” Andrew replies. “I’m not making you anything else tonight.”

Neil smiles, unbothered, and takes a sip of the drink, and then makes a soft content sound that nearly succeeds at causing Andrew’s hands to tremble.

“It’s good,” Neil says, with a smirk that tells Andrew he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s having fun doing it. It’s a little clumsy and stupidly adorable and Andrew wants to kiss him right here and right now. Neil smiles as if he can read his thoughts and adds, “I owe you.”

“Yes, you do,” Andrew says, placing his hands flatly on the counter.

“How about a dance?” Neil asks, with a sly smile.

Andrew looks at him blankly. “I’m not sure you know how debts work. You’re currently creating one, not settling one.”

“Is that a no?” Neil asks, holding Andrew’s gaze, his chin nestled in his hand, his eyes hooded and his hair tousled, a dictionary definition of irresistible.  

“Have you been taking classes?” Andrew asks, almost petulant.

“What?” Neil says, confused.

“Fine,” Andrew says, before Neil asks any follow-up questions. “If you step on my feet, I’ll bury you in the garden.”

“Pick me a nice spot,” Neil replies lightly. “Come on, then.”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but makes his way around the counter and catches Neil’s wrist to drag him away from the center of the dance floor.

The music isn’t that bad, since Nicky’s taste has been heavily influenced by Eden’s Twilight, and Andrew is familiar enough with the heavy basses not to be concerned with the technicalities of dancing. He lets Neil place his hands on his shoulders and then places his own hands on Neil’s hips, pulling their bodies closer so they can sway together.

He doesn’t need to worry about the dancing part, but being so close to Neil in a room full of people is a different matter. Still, they have danced together before, so Andrew knows for a fact that it’s manageable.

Neil smells vaguely of his bland aftershave, sweat, and cologne Andrew doesn’t recognize, and his breath is hot and moist against Andrew’s lips. Using the height difference to his advantage, Andrew dips his head to brush his lips against Neil’s neck under the pretense of hooking his chin on Neil’s shoulder.

“Having fun yet?” he mutters into Neil’s ear.

“I am,” Neil says, a smile in his voice. “You?”

Andrew sighs, resigned. “I’m leaving after this song,” he says.

“Okay,” Neil agrees easily. He is a little unsteady on his feet, clearly more drunk than Andrew has realized, but he doesn’t protest when Andrew pulls back from him after the song ends and tugs him towards the stairs.

“What about Nicky?” Neil says when they reach their room.

“He’ll survive,” Andrew says. “It’s three a.m., I’d say we exceeded his expectations.”

“Okay,” Neil agrees, leaning heavily against the door. He closes his eyes and instantly falls asleep, only to jerk awake when Andrew tugs at his wrist, forcing him to walk into the room.

Neil looks around with bleary disinterest before flopping down on the bed with absolutely no grace.

Andrew glares at him, unimpressed. “We’re not sleeping like this.”

Neil’s eyes flutter open and he begins to scramble to his feet. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I can sleep on the —”

“Not what I meant,” Andrew interrupts. “Get your shoes off, idiot.”

“Oh,” Neil says, sitting down again, and he leans down to undo the laces, only to straighten up after a second and swallow uncomfortably.

Andrew rolls his eyes. “Why do I put up with you,” he sighs, crouching in front of Neil. He unlaces Neil’s shoes and takes them off, just to be done with it.

“Because you like me,” Neil says, a lazy smile playing on his lips.

“Do I?” Andrew says, just to be contrary. He puts Neil’s shoes away and begins to unbutton his shirt.

“Yeah,” Neil says, honey-warm, his hands coming to rest lightly over Andrew’s wrists, halting the tedious process of undressing him.

Andrew sighs. “What, Neil? What do you want?”

Neil smiles happily. “A kiss on the lips.”

It’s infuriating how impossible to resist he is; his eyes bright and his skin flushed slightly, lips parted on an exhale. The want in the pit of Andrew’s stomach is like wildfire, going through all of his defenses at once, leaving nothing but scalding ashes behind.

And yet his control remains intact, which is a discovery on its own.

He huffs, places one hand on Neil’s knee and leans up to kiss him, just once.

Neil smiles against his lips, a smirk Andrew instantly recognizes.

“That’s the name of the drink,” Neil says, still smirking when Andrew sits back on his heels to look at him. “Kiss on the lips. I looked it up.”

“Well done,” Andrew say, rolling his eyes. He stands up and pushes the shirt off Neil’s shoulders.

“You like me,” Neil says, sounding even more certain now, while Andrew helps him put on a t-shirt. It messes up Neil’s hair and Andrew reaches out to brush the auburn fringe away from Neil’s eyes only because without his eyesight, Neil would be even more useless. He runs his fingers through Neil’s hair three more times just to be sure.

“If you say so,” he says, crouching again to tug Neil’s pants off his legs now. Neil is clearly content to make him do all work, but Andrew is too exhausted to care or complain.

“I do say so,” Neil says warmly.

Andrew flicks him in the forehead, but that only causes Neil to smile wider.

He leaves Neil’s clothes on the nightstand for him to deal with, then eyes the door to the bathroom for a moment, but at this point he is barely keeping himself awake, so he decides against a shower. In the end, he simply undoes the cuffs of his shirt and unbuttons it, facing away from Neil out of habit more than anything else, until he feels Neil’s gaze on his back.

He turns around and Neil doesn’t look away, but his gaze travels to Andrew’s eyes.

“What,” Andrew says.

“Nothing,” Neil says, without looking away, his flush deepening. “You’re so gorgeous.”

As usual, he manages to bring all of Andrew’s thoughts to a staggering halt.

“You’re drunk,” he says, running a mental check on himself. It should make him wary, the combination of the comment and the alcohol in Neil’s blood, but it doesn’t. Even completely drunk, Neil is still someone Andrew trusts without question, and not just because he can easily overpower him. It occurs to him that it’s the same in return, that right now Neil is consciously trusting Andrew with himself and all of his vulnerability.

This is it, Andrew thinks, and it’s no longer such a frightening thought.

“Yeah,” Neil agrees easily. “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

“Go to sleep,” Andrew says, tense, and Neil understands it for the request it is. He nods, getting under the blankets and shifting to face away from Andrew.

Andrew watches him for a moment longer, then shimmies out of his pants, rounds the bed, and lies down, facing Neil.

“Thanks for the dance,” Neil says, without opening his eyes.

“I’m never dancing with you again,” Andrew tells him, curling on his side so that he can rest one hand against Neil’s chest, his knuckles brushing against the cotton of his t-shirt.

“Even on our wedding?” Neil asks with a sleepy smile, and Andrew’s heart skips twenty beats consecutively.

“What?” he says, as soon as he regains some motor skills, and it sounds odd, sounds choked-up, sounds bewildered, so very unlike him that he isn’t sure the word actually came from his mouth. “Neil, what?”

But Neil is already asleep.

 

 

17.

 

Andrew wakes up to the eerily familiar smell of a hospital.

His right hand automatically goes to his left, to check the wrist, but there are no bandages there, of course. There is only the familiar scar on his skin, older than most of his nightmares. His armband is rolled up to allow the presence of an IV.

Slowly, with more effort than he’d like, he manages to pry his eyes open. He blinks several times, but his vision doesn’t get any clearer. All he can see is darkness, the bluish glow of the night, and the unnerving whiteness of hospital sheets.

He forces his eyes to stay open. He isn’t safe here; he shouldn’t sleep. There is no wall to either side of the bed and there is no scratch above the headboard. Anyone wearing a white coat can walk inside, can press a syringe to his neck, can wait for him to be defenseless.

He tries to sit up to examine his surroundings, but his body flat-out refuses to move. Andrew blinks and tries to force his upper body into a seated position, but nothing happens. He can move his feet, but he can’t sit up — and that’s when he realizes that there’s a bandage around his middle, and he feels the vaguely sickening pull of stitches on his skin.

He remembers walking to the store late in the evening. He remembers the bright lights in the store, remembers paying for the ice cream and the orange juice, remembers walking back to his apartment.

But he doesn’t remember reaching it.

He looks to the side and instantly notices Neil; he is standing in front of the window, staring straight ahead, his posture rigid. There is something in the set of his shoulders that Andrew doesn’t recognize, something different from the tension he sometimes still holds in his body. He looks like a caged animal put on a stage, eager to lash out.

Andrew tries to say his name, but only a dry cough makes it past his lips.

Neil reacts instantly.

Between one blink and another, he is by the bed, one hand sliding smoothly to the back of Andrew’s neck to hold him up and the other reaching for a glass. He allows Andrew all of two sips before taking the glass away.

Andrew tries to protest, but all he can manage is a pathetic huff.

Neil leans back and turns on the small lamp on the nightstand; the light is bright enough to illuminate his face and not much else. It’s enough to see his pale skin and the shadows underneath his eyes. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days, and he seems to be sporting a black eye.

Andrew reaches out, catching Neil’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, and forces him to tilt his head so that Andrew can examine the black eye more closely.

He clears his throat and manages a hoarse, “What happened to your stupid face?”

Neil looks at him. “That’s your question?”

“Answer me, Neil,” Andrew says, aiming for threatening. It sounds tired.

Neil shakes his head, freeing his chin, clearly exasperated. “I had a disagreement with a teammate.”

“Who?” Andrew asks, letting his hand fall back on the bed.

Neil laughs. It’s so sudden that Andrew startles; it seems to surprise Neil himself. It sounds borderline hysterical. Neil smothers the laughter against the back of his hand, then reaches into his pocket, types something on his phone, and puts it away. He hides his face in one hand for a moment, then runs his fingers through his hair. Then he finally looks at Andrew.

“Since you clearly don’t care enough to ask,” Neil says, “you got stabbed with a Swiss knife. Twice. By one of my father’s men.”

“He stabbed me twice and still couldn’t kill me?” Andrew says, feeling more and more relaxed the more worked up Neil gets. “Didn’t your father do job interviews?”

Neil stares at him for a moment. Then he says, “You’re unbelievable.”

There is a quiver in Neil’s voice that wipes the lightness from Andrew’s tone. He sighs, makes sure to look Neil in the eye, and says, “I’m fine.”

Neil snorts. “Touché,” he says.

Andrew rolls his eyes. “Stop sulking. It looks bad on you.”

Neil doesn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he sighs, rocks back on his feet, and fixes his gaze somewhere above Andrew’s shoulder. “I promised I’d watch your back,” he says quietly.

Andrew exhales. “And I told you that I don’t need you.”

“It was still a promise,” Neil insists. “I broke it.”

Andrew considers him for a moment. He has never expected Neil to take his promises so seriously, but then again, he does have a history of underestimating Neil.

“Then I broke mine,” he replies. “Before Baltimore.”

Neil glances up at him. “I asked you to break it.”

“And I could tell that something was off,” Andrew says. “Yet I still agreed.”

“That’s different.”

“Not really,” Andrew says. “Why did you want to break it, back then?”

Neil fidgets. “I told you. I had to stand on my own two feet.”

“That’s only one half of the truth, though,” Andrew replies, watching Neil for his tells. “What’s the other half?”

Neil is silent for a long moment, avoiding Andrew’s gaze. Andrew waits.

Neil says, “I made a mistake when I agreed to that deal in the first place.”

“Why?” Andrew asks, genuinely curious now.

“I knew my father’s men,” Neil replies quietly. “I knew what they’re capable of, what they could do to you. And I didn’t care.”

Andrew shrugs, puzzled. “Why would you care? It was my problem.”

“No,” Neil says firmly. “It was unfair.”

“Again,” Andrew says. “It was my problem.”

Neil exhales, angry now. “If it was your problem, then it was mine, too. I don’t care whether you agree or not, you’ll have to deal with it. That’s just how it is.”

If the world is a crossword, Neil is the correct answer which nonetheless doesn’t fit in any of the boxes. Andrew doesn’t have a word for him anymore, doubts that the right vowels and consonants even exist.

He looks at Neil some more and says, “It’s not your fault. You can’t always watch my back, it’s impossible. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Oh,” Neil says. “You’re wrong.”

“What?”

“I took care of it,” Neil says, like Andrew is a particularly slow child. “Of him.”

Andrew looks up at him. His heart is beating in an odd rhythm; he has no idea what he is feeling. “What did you do?”

“I collected a debt,” Neil says. “We won’t be seeing him again.”

The calm in Neil’s eyes should be frightening, considering the subject of their conversation. The steadiness in Neil’s hands should make Andrew wary, considering his current physical condition.

And yet for the first time since he woke up, Andrew feels absolutely safe.

Neil isn’t a threat to him — just the rest of the world. Andrew’s heart continues beating in its unsteady rhythm, but it isn’t racing. He doesn’t want to run. He wants to tug Neil down for a kiss.

He pats the edge of the mattress, inviting Neil to sit down and ignoring his confused look. Neil obeys, but he maintains a careful distance from Andrew.

Andrew says, “Tell me.”

Neil looks away, absently toying with the frayed edges of his sleeves.

“In order to escape,” he says quietly, “my mother needed more than money. She also needed to have people indebted to her, people willing to do anything and everything just to pay her back. She was always good at this. Holding back my father’s men when it mattered the most.”

“Not from hurting you, though,” Andrew interjects.

Neil’s gaze shifts to him briefly. “She didn’t let him kill me, did she?”

“How generous of her,” Andrew says, cold.

Neil looks away again, clearly leaving this battle for another day. Andrew decides to let him, and so Neil continues his story. “Either way, she collected some of the debts, but some other weren’t collectable at the time. They are now, though.” Neil pauses, smiles down at his hands, a vacant, self-deprecating expression that Andrew wants to wipe off his face. “They found him,” Neil continues. “And they killed him.”

“How?” Andrew asks, curious but not particularly concerned.

“Does it matter?” Neil asks, as if he prepared for the question. “They took their time. And they had plenty of it.”

Andrew flashes back to seeing Neil type on his phone, just seconds ago, and he looks to the date displayed on the clock on the nightstand. Three days.

 “It had to be done,” Neil says, as if Andrew had demanded an explanation. “Now the message is sent. Next time someone comes after you, this will look like mercy in comparison.”

There is no lie in his eyes, in his voice, in the steady set of his shoulders. Andrew wants to shake him and tell him that he is mistaking Andrew for something worth protecting. He wants to tell Neil to leave. He wants to tell Neil to never leave again. He wants to kiss Neil until his lips go numb.

“What about the Moriyamas?” he asks, prodding absently at his bandages.

“I called them,” Neil replies, unconcerned, his gaze drifting to Andrew’s hands as if he can still them with his gaze.

“You called them,” Andrew deadpans, but he leaves the bandages alone. “And they didn’t mind.”

“Mind?” Neil repeats, nearly a huff. “They didn’t keep their end of the deal. They were supposed to take care of Nathan’s men. I didn’t ask permission.”

 In this light, Neil’s pupils are so dilated that Andrew can barely see the familiar blue. In this light, the only color to challenge the blackness of Neil’s eyes is the reflection of the lamp. It looks like a flicker of flame.

“You told me to leave Nathaniel buried in Baltimore,” Neil says after a moment, a crooked smile on his face. “Seems he dug his way out.”

Andrew considers him for a moment. He remembers Nathaniel, and this isn’t him. This is Neil, all of this, the fire in his eyes, the steel in his voice. Threat, threat, threat, Andrew’s mind sang when he saw Neil for the first time. Now, more often than not, it hums, Home.

Because home, if Andrew were to ever have it, would come with sturdy walls and doors.

It would come with weapons.

Andrew exhales, reaching out and placing his hand on Neil’s wrist. Neil doesn’t flinch away, but he looks down at their joined hands like it’s the strangest thing he has ever seen.

“He didn’t,” Andrew says. “It’s all you.”

Neil huffs a laugh. “Is that supposed to comfort me?”

“I don’t know,” Andrew says. “But it’s the truth.”

Neil looks at him before looking down again, a frown on his face. “I don’t regret it,” he says. “At all.”

“Good,” Andrew replies simply. “You know I don’t believe in regret.”

“I thought —” Neil says, and the steadiness of his voice gives way to a tremor. With visible effort, he pulls himself together. It’s surprisingly hard to watch. “You didn’t wake up right away and I thought —”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Andrew interrupts him. “What are you waiting for, Neil?”

“What?” Neil asks, apparently confused, but that odd vacancy fades away for a moment.

Andrew rolls his eyes, faux-impatient. “Kiss me,” he orders.

Neil blinks. “You want —”

“You, yes, always, what else is new,” Andrew interrupts him again, irritated now, but he doesn’t miss the way Neil’s eyes widen slightly. Step by step. “Well?”

Neil swallows, but he leans in, leveraging himself with a hand on Andrew’s pillow, and he brushes their noses together, prompting Andrew to roll his eyes and tilt his chin up to finally, finally capture Neil’s lips in a kiss.

And this is Neil, too. Soft lips pressed against Andrew’s, the smell of his skin, the brush of his fingers on Andrew’s jaw, tilting his chin up until they create a perfect puzzle, completely unsolvable.

When they pull back, Neil rests his forehead against Andrew’s.

Andrew doesn’t try to push him away.

“The way I see it,” he says into the almost nonexistent space between their lips, “you did what you could. You kept your promise.” He pauses, weighing his next words, still slightly baffled by how much this means to Neil. “We’re even.”

Neil’s shoulders drop on an exhale, tension bleeding out. His hand, still resting underneath Andrew’s, shifts until their fingers are tangled together.

“Alright,” Neil says, straightening up.

Andrew looks back at him for a moment. Then he sighs again and shifts on the bed.

“Come here,” he says, patting the mattress.

Neil frowns. “I don’t think that’s a good —”

“Then stop thinking already,” Andrew advises, annoyed. “Not your greatest skill. I want to sleep now and you’re hovering, it’s annoying and I hate you. Come here.”

Neil’s lips curl up in a small smile, and for the first time since he woke up, Andrew feels like he can breathe freely once again.

“You like sleeping with me,” Neil says, clearly back to his obnoxious self.

“I like sleeping,” Andrew corrects. “You I just put up with.”

“Lies, lies, lies,” Neil says in a singsong, kicking off his boots and putting a lot of care into lying down without disturbing Andrew. He curls up on his side, with one hand beneath his head, and Andrew begrudgingly borrows him some of the blanket.

“I missed you,” Neil says quietly.

“It’s been three days, junkie,” Andrew tells him, even though he knows exactly what Neil means. While they don’t see each other very often, they talk every day, at least for a few minutes. Three days feel like a lifetime.

“I still missed you,” Neil says, unrepentant.

“Well, I’m here,” Andrew huffs, a bit drowsy by now, and tells himself that he is doing this for Neil’s benefit as he shifts on the pillow until he can rest his head against Neil’s shoulder, closing his eyes.

Neil, his mind hums, sleepy and content, and Andrew lets himself say the words in his head, lets his tongue curl around the syllables, around the five vowels and three consonants, without making a sound.

They all taste oddly familiar.  

Neil presses a kiss to the top of Andrew’s head, and Andrew briefly wishes he could curl on his side to get even closer, but the uncomfortable pull of the stitches keeps him on his back.

He tilts his head a little closer to Neil, though, probably cutting off the circulation in Neil’s arm, and if he sighs contently when he receives another kiss for his efforts, Neil’s survival instincts prevent him from drawing attention to any of it.

 

 

18.

 

Andrew’s coach tells him to take it easy, which turns out to mean that he isn’t allowed to practice until his doctor says otherwise, and so Andrew gets a well-deserved break both from Exy and from his obnoxious teammates.

It’s not as great as he expected.

He got used to having his time filled with daily workout, training sessions and skyping with Neil. Now he can’t even rely on the last one, because Neil’s team doesn’t have a good season and Neil spends most of his time either practicing or sleeping.

And so, Andrew spends most of his days simply passing time. He reads. He cooks. He writes messages to Neil and deletes them from the drafts. He reads some more.

After five days of this he is ready to remove his stitches himself if only he can get back to playing Exy.

He can see Neil grinning smugly all the way from New York.

On the sixth day, there is a knock on the door.

Andrew freezes on the couch, and then frowns. He doesn’t know who could possibly be standing on the other side of the door. It’s not Neil; Andrew explicitly told him that he doesn’t need him here. It’s not Renee; she is stuck somewhere on a different continent, fixing the world one day at a time.

Andrew sighs and stands up. Even if it’s someone who came here to finish the job after the guy with the Swiss knife, it’s best to just get it over with. Andrew is alert and his armbands are in place; there is nothing to be afraid of.

He opens the door, sees Danielle Leigh Wilds, and closes the door again.

“Hey!” Dan yells through the door. “How old are you, exactly?!”

Andrew rolls his eyes, with one hand on the doorknob, and considers his options. Number one: leaving the door closed and dealing with the inevitable reaction of his noise-sensitive neighbors. Number two: threatening Dan with a knife and dealing with Neil’s inevitable reaction. Number three: opening the door and dealing with Dan.

He opens the door.

“What do you want?” he asks, leaning against the doorframe and blocking Dan’s way. He crosses his arms over his chest for good measure, in case she forgot about the armbands and the knives.

She sighs, all exasperation, and runs her fingers through her short hair. There is a package resting on the floor by her side and Andrew eyes it for a moment without much interest before looking back at Dan.

“Do you think I want to be here?” she says. “I drew the short straw.”

“Aw,” Andrew mocks. “Got sent into the monster’s den? Where’s your red cape, then?”

“You’re the grandmother in this scenario, asshole,” Dan says, fearless to the point where Andrew almost respects her. “This is for you.”

She points to the package, then crosses her arms.

“What is it?” Andrew asks.

“You’ll see,” she says. “Well?”

She clearly expects him to pick up the package, so Andrew ostentatiously ignores it and walks into the apartment, leaving the door open behind him. Dan mutters something furiously, but she picks up the package and follows Andrew all the same.

They end up in the kitchen, where Andrew turns on the coffee machine, and leans against the counter to glare some more. Dan looks around and tries very hard to seem like she isn’t looking. Andrew lets her stew in the uncomfortable silence.

“Nice place,” she says eventually.

Andrew just looks back at her.

“How are you?” she tries, gesturing vaguely to his stomach.

Andrew gives a shrug. “Been better, been worse,” he says, hoping that giving an actual response will keep the rest of the Foxes from asking.

She considers him for a moment. “I suppose that’s true enough.”

Andrew turns around to one of the counters to find a clean mug.

Dan says, “We’re doing well, in case you were wondering.”

“I wasn’t,” Andrew says truthfully.

Dan snorts. “Fair enough,” she says, sounding amused, and Andrew feels a flicker of something in his chest, not fondness, never fondness, but recognition. He smothers it ruthlessly.

He takes one of Neil’s to-go cups and fills it with coffee. Then he hands it to Dan.

“Goodbye,” he says.

Inexplicably, she smiles again. “We’re all glad you’re okay,” she tells him. “Wouldn’t be the same without you.”

“What wouldn’t be the same?” Andrew asks, before he can stop himself.

“The world, Andrew,” Dan says, rolling her eyes, and then takes a sip of her coffee. “It’s good, thanks. You don’t need to see me out.”

With that, she turns on her heel and walks out of the kitchen. The soft click of the door tells Andrew that she didn’t linger in the corridor, either.

Andrew eyes the package for a moment before reaching for his phone. He calls Neil.

“Wilds was here,” he says, as soon as Neil picks up.

“Oh?” Neil says, sounding winded; he is probably in the middle of his morning workout. “What did she want?”

Neil has nothing to do with this, then.

“Doesn’t matter,” Andrew says. “I’ll call you later.”

He hangs up without waiting for a response and places the phone on the counter, far enough from the edge that it won’t vibrate its way to the floor when Neil inevitably calls back.

Then he slides one knife from underneath his armband and kneels in front of the package.

It’s large, nearly the size of Neil’s duffel bag, of irregular shape. The paper is simple and gray.

Andrew glares at it for a moment, willing it to disappear, and then grudgingly begins to unpack it.

There is an oddly-shaped basket inside, with a staggering variety of objects, all of which look like junk at the first glance. Andrew frowns at the ribbon tying it all together, with an obnoxious “Get better!” plastered in the middle.

Warily, he picks the first item he can reach.

It’s a hoodie. It’s completely black, but there is — of course there is — a tiny orange fox on the inner side of each sleeve. Andrew glares at it for a bit, but he can’t deny that it looks warmer than most of his hoodies, which always is an advantage. The sleeves look unusually loose, which means that his armbands will easily fit beneath them.

Andrew folds the hoodie carefully, then catches himself doing it and drops it carelessly to the floor.

The next item is a DVD in a see-through plastic box. Andrew easily recognizes the handwriting on the top of it, but he’d know who the gift is from even if there was no handwriting at all. It says, “The Best Exy Goalkeepers of All Time”, and Andrew has no doubt that the selection was as ruthless as it was meticulous. The whole thing is probably four minutes long, at maximum. Not that Andrew intends to watch it.

There are a lot of German sweets in the basket, nearly all of his favorites.

There is also a black mug with a handle shaped like brass knuckles, something that looks like a pretty expensive coffee, and two books Andrew might actually read someday.

The last thing in the basket is a set of photographs tied together with a simple brown string. Andrew looks through them with a frown; none of the photographs feature any people. It doesn’t take him long to connect the dots, though, not when he sees a picture of an empty parking lot in front of the Medical Academy. There is an unfamiliar lump in his throat as he looks through the pictures again, paying more attention this time. There is a picture of a fluffy white dog, staring into the camera with a happy expression. There is a picture of a steamy mug on a window sill. There are several pictures of what seems like a view from one window. There are also pictures of a small apartment, with personal items scattered everywhere.

There is also an ignored call from Aaron on Andrew’s phone, dated three days ago.

Andrew stands up, puts the things back in the basket in the exact order in which he found them, wraps it back up and drags it to the living room for Neil to deal with when he visits. He keeps the hoodie, though, and pulls it over his head. It’s warm, and Andrew is perpetually cold. It’s reasonable.

Just as he flips his phone open, there is another knock on the door. Andrew freezes again. Then he grits his teeth, readjusts his armbands, and walks towards the door.

It’s Aaron and Nicky.

Andrew looks at them. “I thought Wilds drew the short straw.”

“She did,” Aaron responds, and Andrew doesn’t miss the way his eyes flicker to Andrew’s hoodie before settling on his face.

“Aaron thought it was funny to make her do this,” Nicky explains, pinching the bridge of his nose. He keeps glancing past Andrew like he expects to see a body hanging off the ceiling fan.

“I didn’t kill her,” Andrew says blankly.

Nicky flinches. “That’s not what I meant,” he says.

“Right,” Andrew says. “Whatever.”

“No, not whatever,” Nicky says, surprisingly firm. It surprises Aaron too, if the way he startles is anything to go by. “That’s not what I meant,” Nicky repeats.

Andrew considers him, leaning against the doorframe. “What did you mean, then? Pray tell.”

Nicky looks back, fidgeting only a little bit. “I only meant… It’s your space. You should get to decide who is invited and who is not.”

Andrew tilts his head to the side. “It’s not like I couldn’t have stopped her.”

“Yeah, I know that,” Nicky rushes to assure. “I just meant —”

“I know what you meant,” Andrew interrupts, not because he does, but because it’s getting exhausting. “Come in.”

“I’ll make hot chocolate,” Nicky says, kicking off his sneakers and rushing to the kitchen, and inevitably leaving Andrew and Aaron alone.

“Learn to pick up your phone, asshole,” Aaron says, which probably translates to, I was worried.

 “Maybe next time I get stabbed, I will,” Andrew replies, which Aaron seems to translate into the almost-apology it is.

The phone, still resting in Andrew’s hand, chooses that moment to start ringing.

Aaron rolls his eyes when Andrew instantly picks up, but he leaves Andrew alone without a word.

“Hey,” Neil says on the other side of the line, “so what did Dan want?”

“Can you visit after your game?” Andrew asks instead of replying.

“Did something happen?” Neil asks, instantly alert. “I don’t really have to go to the practice tomorrow, I can just —”

“Monday will do,” Andrew interrupts. “Nothing happened.”

“But —”

Fine,” Andrew interrupts again. “I miss you. There. Happy?”

The words hang between them like a spell; Andrew’s heart is busy trying to beat its way out of his ribcage and jump out of the nearest window. He isn’t used to this — wanting something he might actually get to have.

One step at a time, Bee would say. You’re doing great.

“I’ll be there on Monday,” Neil says softly. He pauses. “I always miss you. You know that, right?”

Andrew rolls his eyes. “Are you trying to one-up me?”

Neil snorts, and just like that, Andrew’s heart settles back into its nest of muscles and bones, absolutely content.

 “I have to keep you on your toes,” Neil says, a smile in his voice. “You’d get bored otherwise.”

“I’m bored to death as it is,” Andrew says.

“Liar,” Neil replies softly, without missing a beat. “I’ll see you in four days.”

“Don’t forget your key,” Andrew tells him. “I’m not letting you in at ass o’clock in the morning.”

“I always have it with me,” Neil says. “I can’t wait to see you.”

“Junkie,” Andrew says, stubbornly ignoring his own hypocrisy, and hangs up.

He can hear Nicky rambling in the kitchen and Aaron maintaining his borderline exasperated silence, and discovers that the warmth which has been steadily seeping into his bones doesn’t evaporate the second he stops talking to Neil. It’s still there, as grounding as the presence of his knives always is. Possibly more, since it doesn’t go away even when he detours to the bedroom, takes off the armbands, and pulls the sleeves of the new hoodie over his knuckles.

He walks into the kitchen, receives a mug filled with hot chocolate from Nicky, and sits next to Aaron by the kitchen island to share his familiar silence and watch Nicky prepare pancakes for the three of them. Nicky keeps talking animatedly, Aaron keeps making grudging noises of interest from time to time, and Andrew sips at his hot chocolate and lets his thoughts drift.

Belonging, he thinks, and he doesn’t count the vowels and the consonants for once.