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light fires at night (to push back the void)

Chapter Text

 

perfectly able to hold my own hand
but I still can't kiss my own neck

 

1.

 

The first time Andrew realizes he wants to hear the words, Neil isn’t even doing anything. He’s just sitting there, staring at the horizon with that stupidly dramatic faraway expression of his, and letting the cigarette burn down between his fingers all the way to the filter — an outrageous waste of good nicotine, if you asked Andrew.

Maybe it’s the way Neil always keeps his distance. Maybe it’s the fact that he has been sitting on the roof with Andrew for over an hour, even though it’s September and he’s only wearing a worn-out t-shirt he usually sleeps in and a pair of equally worn-out sweatpants. Even his feet are bare.

Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe Andrew wants to hear the words just so he can shut Neil down, so he can tell him to fuck off and leave him alone for good. Neil would go away and Andrew would finally stop feeling like his skin is coming apart at the seams, threatening to expose the tender flesh underneath, all for Neil to see.

Maybe, maybe.

Neil tilts his head to the side to look at Andrew, keeping the rest of his body perfectly still. His eyes are ridiculously blue. He doesn’t ask, just looks at Andrew, patient in the way most people stopped being a long time ago, if they bothered in the first place.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Andrew tells him, even though, technically speaking, he was the one looking, and he might have even been looking like that.

Neil’s lips curl up, like he has a retort on the tip of his tongue, but he obediently looks away. He brings the cigarette to his lips and takes a single drag. He exhales slowly, smoke rolling off his lips and curling in the air, and Andrew wants, with an intensity that still makes his head spin, and what he wants has nothing to do with safety.

Neil is a knife at Andrew’s throat, sharp blade digging into skin.

And Andrew doesn’t know how to step back.

He stubs out his cigarette, annoyed.  Then he steals Neil’s.

Neil turns his head towards him again, watching as Andrew brings the cigarette to his mouth and curls his lips around the exact same spot Neil’s lips touched just a moment ago. Andrew inhales, holding Neil’s gaze and watching Neil’s pupils dilate, and keeps the smoke in his lungs for a moment before stubbing out this cigarette as well, letting it scald his fingertips as he presses the ashes into the concrete.

There is no gentleness left in Andrew’s soul, no kindness. There is only cotton-like emptiness, a void that feels like presence rather than absence, and it fills his mind to the brim. There is no room for emotions, and there most certainly is no room for feelings.

And yet there’s room for Neil.

Maybe it’s because Neil has been trained to keep his head low, to keep his shoulders hunched, to keep his elbows close. Maybe Neil has learned to occupy so little space that he can find enough room for himself even in Andrew’s thoughts.

Maybe, maybe.

Someday, though — someday Neil will learn to keep his head high.

Future, Andrew thinks. Three vowels, three consonants.

It’s been a while since he had to take this word apart.

At present, Neil is looking at Andrew like looking is enough. That, too, is new. In Andrew’s experience, people want more regardless of what they get.

Hope, Andrew thinks. Two vowels, two consonants, denotatum: nonexistent.

And yet — here Neil is. Two vowels and two consonants himself.

Keeping his distance. Keeping his word.

And Andrew hates him for it.

He doesn’t want to be known like this. He doesn’t want to be understood. He doesn’t like having yet another part of his makeshift armor stripped away. Sometimes just knowing that Neil knows is enough to make Andrew consider never speaking to Neil again, but then Neil does one of these stupid things he tends to do — like look at Andrew with that quiet wonder of his or smile at Andrew with that ridiculous, inexplicable fondness — and Andrew feels tethered.  Not to Neil, not to the ground, but to that part of himself that always held back just enough when he put a razor to the battered skin on his wrists.

Sometimes Andrew wonders if he made Neil up.

“Hey,” Neil says, apparently done with the silence for now, but his voice is still quiet and content, not demanding. He is trying to pull Andrew out of his thoughts for Andrew’s benefit, not for his own. It’s not a “yes or no” that would imply there is something he wants. It’s not an “are you okay” that would imply that the thing he wants is a comforting lie. It’s just a word — a thread for Andrew to follow if he wants to get out of his own head.

Andrew picks one end.

“Yes,” he says, firm and oddly loud in the empty space between them. It’s not a prompt or a question, it’s an answer, even though Neil hasn’t — will not — ask the question.

Neil blinks at him, clearly confused, his brow furrowing briefly and teeth tugging at his lower lip, pulling at the scar on his cheek. Andrew watches him impassively, holding still against his instincts which are — as always — telling him to either take initiative or pull away.

He waits.

Finally, Neil’s gaze drops to Andrew’s lips and then travels back to Andrew’s eyes, questioning. Andrew doesn’t nod, but he doesn’t look away, either.

It’s nerve-racking to wait, but less so than Andrew expected. Neil doesn’t take anything for granted and he doesn’t make assumptions. He doesn’t guess. He learns. And for reasons yet unknown, Andrew wants him to learn.

Neil keeps one of his hands on the concrete and the other in his lap, and he doesn’t move closer. Instead, he leans in only a little bit and stops, his gaze flickering from Andrew’s lips to his eyes so many times that Andrew finally snaps an impatient, “Yes, Neil.”

Neil swallows, his throat moving with it, and then his eyes fall shut and he leans in the rest of the way with a quick intake of breath, like he’s jumping into a waterfall.

And then they are kissing.

Andrew spends a lot of time reminding himself that there is nothing between them except for physical attraction — this is something they both want, something they both can have. Something to pass the time and make life a little less boring. It’s convenient.

Neil is attractive and unique enough to hold Andrew’s interest, but predictable enough not to be a threat. Neil’s lips are soft, his body lean, his touch controllable. This is all Andrew needs from him — from anyone, really.

It’s a lousy lie at best.

It’s harder to fool himself in moments like this — moments when Andrew shouldn’t want Neil around. Right now Neil’s lips aren’t soft — they’re chapped after hours of sleep. His morning breath is terrible, since he didn’t waste time brushing his teeth before following Andrew to the rooftop. There is nothing conventionally beautiful about Neil’s scars — about the marred skin and the way it remains too smooth to touch, strange and unfeeling.

Right now, Andrew shouldn’t want to be touched — not after that particular nightmare — and he is certain that if someone else as much as brushed past him, they would end up with a knife in their gut. And yet here he is, kissing Neil out of his own volition, because somewhere along the way touching Neil became more comforting than not touching him.

Andrew should walk away from this while he still knows how — but perhaps he already doesn’t know how.

He changes the angle of the kiss and taps two fingers against Neil’s wrist — and almost without a pause, Neil’s fingers travel to Andrew’s hair. Andrew exhales shakily when Neil’s fingers curl around the nape of his neck, but Neil never tries to hold him in place, never retaliates for the way Andrew’s fingers keep digging greedily into his body.

Maybe it’s not Andrew’s skin that’s coming apart at the seams; maybe it’s the last layer of his armor.

He has never expected to find anything beneath it.

These days there is a softness to their kisses that Andrew doesn’t quite understand. It’s not obvious, not really, but Andrew senses it nonetheless — this strange gentleness that people who consist only of sharp edges shouldn’t be capable of. It’s in the way Neil’s thumbs keep brushing against the soft skin just behind Andrew’s ears, over and over again, in the way his breaths come in short, trembling puffs against Andrew’s lips, in the way his pulse goes racing the second Andrew touches him.

It’s also, frighteningly, in the way Andrew’s hands tend to sneak towards Neil’s out of their own volition, in the way he can’t stop contemplating the idea of threading their fingers together, of bringing Neil’s hands to his lips and kissing the inner sides of his wrists.

This isn’t desire — desire Andrew understands.

He pulls back from the kiss and can’t help resting his forehead against Neil’s for a fraction of a second. Neil blinks up at him, his gaze still slightly glazed over and his lashes impossibly long, and suddenly Andrew wants to hear the words, all three of them, breathed into the barely-existent space between their lips. He wants Neil to say them and he wants Neil to mean them.

It doesn’t make sense.

They are just words. Eight letters, five vowels, three consonants.

Andrew doesn’t remember ever hearing them — but he remembers wishing to hear them. He has never meant to start wishing again. They’re nothing but words. They don’t hold any meaning, like a phrase in a language you can’t speak doesn’t hold any meaning.

There are some words that Andrew can’t stand, that he never says out loud. Then there are some words he can’t help dissecting, cutting into smaller pieces and inspecting at every turn, searching for a meaning and never really finding it.

Two vowels, two consonants. Home, hope.

Love, hate, need.

Neil.

Neil doesn’t say the words. Instead, he nudges his nose against Andrew’s, playful and affectionate, and Andrew has to pull back and look away, because it’s too much. Neil is too much. The feeling rekindling in Andrew’s chest over and over again, like a flicker of flame on a lighter almost out of gas, is simply too much.

“One hundred and ten,” he tells Neil, his voice strained.

In his peripheral vision, Neil nods in solemn acceptance.

Andrew keeps his eyes on the very center of the rising sun.

Two vowels, two consonants.

He isn’t even sure what he’s measuring anymore.

 

 

2.

 

Andrew dreams in detail.

He knows that most people do not; for most people dreams are a collection of abstract, senseless images, a tangle of emotions and hopes and fears, a worthless blur. Most people have imperfect memory; their minds struggle to fill in the blanks and never get anything right. Most people wake up and feel alright again.

Andrew’s memory is flawless.

There is always a movie rolling in the back of Andrew’s head, on a constant loop, like he’s a spectator in an old, dusty cinema he can never leave. Sometimes the lights are so bright that he can barely see the images on the screen, can barely make out anything at all; sometimes his heart beats so loud and strong and alive that he doesn’t hear the sounds, either. Sometimes his skin is thick enough to be an armor, to protect him from the echo of unwanted touch.

Sometimes, though, the lights simply have to go out.

The movie starts rolling and Andrew remembers every single detail, the colors of the wallpapers, the shadows dancing on the ceilings, the words, words, words, the silence, the cold tiles in too many bathrooms and the nausea in his stomach, the blood, the water in too many showers running cold, the footsteps and the sounds of countless locks clicking shut, white sheets drying in the sun, pressure on his wrists, smell of foreign sweat on his skin. The movie goes on and on and on, because time runs differently in dreams, because it’s easy to fit years into minutes and decades into hours, to play the same memories over and over and over again. There is no escaping, no running away, no closing your eyes — and no opening them, either.

And then he hears, “Andrew.”

Andrew opens his eyes, suddenly hyperaware of his surroundings. The room is so bright that for a second he can’t make out the familiar scratch just above the headboard of the bed, the one he carved there with a knife a long time ago, and a surge of panic rises to his throat, but then he blinks again and the scratch is there, clear and sharp.

Andrew takes a deep breath.

He can feel the sleeves of his shirt brush against his skin. The back of his shirt sticks to his spine, drenched in sweat. He can feel the sharp texture of the sheets beneath his fingertips, and ever so slowly, he unclenches his fingers and tries not to wince when his wrists ache in phantom pain. He registers the cold air filtering through the open window, the warmth of the blanket curled around his legs, finally the lack of knives underneath the pillow.

He swallows, shifting to lie on his back, and stares at the ceiling just to avoid looking at Neil, even though he is aware of Neil’s presence; he can hear Neil’s quiet breathing and he can almost feel Neil’s gaze on the side of his face. He doesn’t scold Neil for staring only because he can’t really force himself to speak. The lights are brighter now, but the memory of the darkness is fresh in his mind and all of his senses suddenly go from hyperactivity to complete numbness.

Neil recognizes the silence and reacts accordingly.

“Do you need me to go?” he asks quietly.

Andrew briefly thinks about saying “no” — but today is not a day for steps forward.

Neil is lying on his side, as far from Andrew as he can possibly get, but his hand is resting on the mattress between them, and if it were a different day, Andrew would consider reaching for it. As it is, he drags his gaze back to Neil’s eyes and nods.

“Okay,” Neil says, and Andrew watches him only for a moment longer before going back to staring at the ceiling again, because looking at Neil is easy, but being seen in return is sometimes the hardest thing in the world. 

He listens as Neil gets out of bed and pulls on the shirt Andrew helped him out of only several hours ago. Neil doesn’t sit at the edge of the mattress to lace his boots and he moves quickly and more quietly than he usually would. Andrew notices it all. He doesn’t acknowledge it, though.

Neil collects his training bag and leaves the room, closing the door without making a sound. Andrew considers reaching for his cigarettes, but they are all the way across the room, and Andrew can’t quite force himself to tear his gaze away from the comforting blankness of the ceiling.

Instead, he reaches over to the nightstand and pulls his knives out of the drawer. He places them underneath his pillow. He will need to remove them before Neil comes back to sleep here, but for now, they can stay.

His mind is blank, still exhausted from the nightmare, so it takes him a while to notice that there is a cigarette pack lying on the mattress where Neil slept, along with a lighter. Neil must have tossed them over before he left. Andrew refuses to acknowledge the quiet warmth that hums somewhere in his chest as he reaches for the cigarettes.

He smokes three in a row, staring at the smoke circulating around the room, and daring the disabled smoke detector to react.

But he can only stay still for so long.

He considers going to the roof, but Neil would inevitably find him there. He considers taking a shower, but the idea makes his skin crawl.

Instead, he sits at the edge of the bed and methodically places each and every knife underneath his armbands, and then leans down and puts on his boots, focusing on the familiarity and simplicity of the motions, the control he has of his surroundings.

He puts on the first piece of warm clothing he finds — which happens to be one of Neil’s stupidly bland, oversized grey hoodies — and leaves the room with nothing except for his wallet and the keys to the Maserati. He only makes it halfway downstairs before he grits his teeth and returns for his phone — he might not want to bring it along, but since Neil isn’t in his immediate proximity, he will inevitably get himself into trouble before the day ends, and Andrew — well, Andrew clearly can’t have that.

For the next couple of hours, Andrew simply drives ahead. He is only vaguely aware of the direction, but he realizes before long that he is making a large circle around the city, which works for him just fine. He doesn’t listen to the radio, but he rolls down the windows and rests his elbow against the door and lets the wind fill the silence. It’s a sunny day, with little to no traffic, and the air is clear enough that he can see the horizon.

He drives fast enough to keep his mind busy with paying attention to the road, but not as fast as he used to back when it was his only coping mechanism. He has no intention of wrecking his car and he also — surprisingly — has no intention of wrecking himself.

When he goes back to the city, the sun is already setting, but Andrew still doesn’t feel like seeing any of the Foxes, or even Neil, so instead of driving to the campus, he chooses a large, empty parking lot nearby, stops the car, locks the door from the inside, shifts to the passenger’s seat and rests his feet on the dashboard.

He lights a cigarette, pulls the hood over his head and the sleeves over his knuckles, rests his head against the comfortably smooth leather, and closes his eyes.

Cars, with their lockable doors, expensive windows, and tanks full of flammable gasoline, have always been a safe haven, even if only a temporary one.

Now, though — now Andrew doesn’t have to leave. There are no promises weighing him down. He doesn’t have to leave, but he can.

Choice, Andrew thinks. Three vowels, three consonants.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, only that it gets darker and darker as the sun sets and the night begins. The over-saturated movie is still rolling in the back of his head, so Andrew forcibly drags his thoughts away and focuses on the only thing he can actually focus on — his surroundings. There is nothing in the car capable of holding his attention, except perhaps for the hoodie he is wearing — warm, worn-out, and unmistakably Neil’s. It smells a little bit like Neil’s soap and a little bit like Neil’s skin, and it’s soft underneath Andrew’s fingertips.

Andrew spends a lot of time thinking about Neil, even if he would never admit it to anybody, because Neil still is a puzzle he doesn’t quite know how to solve. He understands Neil well enough now to recognize that there is darkness inside him too, just like there is darkness in Andrew, but Neil has never tipped over the edge that Andrew fell over years — if not decades — ago. Neil is not beyond living this life the way most people live it — the way Andrew never will. Neil might still end up with an adorable house in the suburbs, with cute pets, a set of board games, and a set of boring friends.

And yet Neil continues to follow Andrew around even when Andrew pushes him away, like they are two objects on intersecting orbits, like they’re pulled together by gravity.

Andrew lights another cigarette just as he hears a knock on the window.

It’s Neil — because of course it is. Andrew has been thinking about him and he thought Neil into existence, just as he must have done the first time around — this is the only way Neil makes sense.

One of these days Andrew will have to wake up.

Before he makes a conscious decision to move, he is already reaching across the driver’s seat to open the door for Neil, and Neil rounds the car and slips inside without making a sound. He is dressed in his workout clothes and his hair is slightly wet from the drizzle. He must have jogged all the way here, impossible as it sounds.

“What are you doing here?” Andrew asks when it becomes clear that Neil will not explain anything unless asked to do so.

“Finding you,” Neil says, leaning back in the driver’s seat and offering Andrew a smile, like his answer makes any sense at all.

“I didn’t need finding,” Andrew tells him. “I wasn’t lost.”

“No,” Neil says, infuriatingly agreeable. “I suppose not.”

He reaches over to the small backpack he brought with him and offers Andrew a large bar of chocolate and a token apple.

Andrew raises both eyebrows at the fruit.

“Kevin says hi,” Neil says, shrugging.

He runs his fingers through his hair, messing it up even more, and then shakes his head like a dog, ignoring Andrew’s glare and getting water everywhere.

“What did you tell him?” Andrew asks finally, more out of curiosity than anything else.

“That none of this is any of his business?” Neil says. “Something like that, anyway. Maybe not in so many words.”

“And he said ‘hi’,” Andrew deadpans. Something inside him loosens slightly with every word they exchange, as if the tension he couldn’t quite get rid of is finally bleeding out.

“Well, he said ‘fuck you’ to me, but he’s always liked you better,” Neil says.

Andrew hums, tossing the apple to the back seat and opening the chocolate; it’s his favorite kind. It must have been picked by Neil. “Well, that’s unreciprocated.”

He knows that Neil’s lips will be curled up in a smirk before he even glances up. Neil holds his gaze, his blue eyes bright and clear in the dimmed yellow streetlight.

“So you like me better, huh,” he says, fearless even though Andrew is doing his best to glare him into silence.

“That would imply that I care about you at all,” Andrew says.

Something passes through Neil’s eyes, a ghost of a reaction he doesn’t quite manage to hide, and Andrew knows instantly that for a reason he doesn’t know, this time Neil failed to see through Andrew’s halfhearted lie. Andrew’s past is a minefield, but so is Neil’s — Andrew should have known that by now. Clearly, these are the words to be avoided. Andrew won’t be repeating this mistake.

He looks at Neil and leans over the console, saying, “Yes or no?”

This is something he can always offer. He isn’t good at words, but he’s good at this.

But Neil says, “No.”

And that’s — that’s a first. Andrew blinks before he can school his expression into indifference, but this simple refusal has sent his heart racing, as if he hasn’t spent the last few years trying to feel anything at all. It shouldn’t matter that he doesn’t know how to navigate this — there shouldn’t be anything to navigate — but it matters.

“Okay,” he says, reaching for the keys — now lying on the dashboard — to pass them to Neil, but Neil’s hand, hovering over his wrist, stops him in his tracks.

“That’s not what I meant,” Neil says firmly. “I don’t need reassurance. I already told you. I don’t expect you to do anything you don’t want to do or feel anything you don’t want to feel. We're good as we are.”

And that, right there, is the center of the problem, and the exact reason why Andrew has spent the last few hours driving — running in circles, but never away. It’s not that he simply doesn’t want to be seen — it’s that he doesn’t want to be seen by Neil. Neil’s presence is the only variable that has recently changed. Andrew had never cared before.

The thing is, Andrew doesn’t just want to hear the words — he wants Neil to mean them. He wants to let himself believe that Neil will not run away, that he is here to stay. He wants to let himself believe that Neil is something — the first thing — he will get to keep.

He could make it into a deal, but he has learned by now that deals like this never work. It didn’t bring him and Aaron closer, if anything, it tore them apart, because Aaron didn’t care to do his part. This can’t be a deal, but it can’t also be a sacrifice on Neil's part; Andrew has no interest in these.

He takes a breath and makes a tiny step in the only direction he has never chosen before. He says, “I do.”

Neil blinks at him, confused. “What?”

“Care,” Andrew says, through gritted teeth.

It sounds odd in his own ears, but it doesn’t sound like a lie, even if the long-faded bruises on Kevin’s neck are a proof that it’s a hell of an understatement.

Two vowels, two consonants.

A truth.

He can almost see Neil repeating the word in his head before his gaze softens.

“Okay,” Neil says.

“Okay,” Andrew echoes, leaning in towards Neil without a conscious decision to do so.

Neil hums, so close that Andrew can feel his breath on his own lips. He wants to close the distance between them, but he is still waiting for a ‘yes’, or for whatever else Neil chooses to say.

What Neil chooses to say is, “Kiss me.”

Andrew nods, because he can’t quite come up with a response with all the tension building and building between them, and then he slots one hand behind Neil’s neck and presses their lips together.

It would be funny — if it weren’t so terrifying — how quickly his heart goes into overdrive.

When he pulls back, suddenly aware that he has both of his hands on Neil’s face, cradling his jaw, Neil is watching him with a calm expression that makes Andrew feel much more exposed than it should.

For once, he chooses to do nothing about it. Instead, he reaches for the keys and drops them in Neil’s hand.

“Drive,” he says, fixing his gaze on the windshield. 

To his credit, Neil does as he is told.

They leave the empty darkness of the parking lot. The streets leading them home are all brightly lit.

 

 

3.

 

They win the championship for the second time. It’s a tough game and they only beat their opponents by one point, but when the final buzzer resonates across the court, the victory is theirs. Andrew exhales and lowers his racquet, and automatically looks to Neil, who has already ripped off his helmet and is currently being crushed in Dan’s fierce embrace. Andrew supposes it’s only fair, since Neil was the one to score the winning goal, and the rest of the team must believe the same, because they follow Dan’s lead. Andrew can barely see Neil in the crowd, but he doesn’t mind; he might not like the Foxes, but they are the closest thing Neil has to a family, and they will keep him safe for the time being.

Andrew watches only for a moment longer, waiting patiently until Neil catches his gaze, and then he jerks his chin towards the locker room. Neil holds his gaze and gives a nod, and even all the way across the court Andrew can see his expression soften into a more quiet sort of happiness, something meant only for Andrew’s eyes. It’s an acknowledgement and an understanding, a question and an answer, and it settles Andrew more than the score on the board does.

He holds Neil’s gaze for a moment longer before picking up his racquet and turning on his heel to head for the locker room.

Renee catches up to him with practiced ease, her smile wide and happy, her pastel ponytail a complete mess.

“Hello there,” she says, falling into step by his side. “You played very well tonight.”

Andrew looks at her blankly, unwilling to explain himself. Exy is first and foremost a means to guarantee Neil’s continued survival. It’s also a means to pass the time. It will never become anything more significant, Andrew simply isn’t capable of caring about it the way his teammates do.

Renee doesn’t seem deterred by his silence; she never is. “I’m glad for you,” she says softly. “Both of you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Andrew says, which isn’t even exactly a lie. He doesn’t know — and doesn’t really want to know — what the Foxes see when they look at him and Neil, but he is pretty sure that whatever it is, they’re getting it all wrong.

“It’s okay to enjoy it, you know,” Renee continues. “Even if you’re just passing time. It’s okay to feel good about winning.”

“Again,” Andrew says, sharper this time, as the hit came too close to home, “our mutual understanding would benefit from you actually making sense from time to time.”

Renee simply smiles at him. “Ice cream tomorrow?”

“Only if you buy your own,” Andrew replies instantly. “And bring that purple plastic spoon you stole.”

“I stole the pink one,” Renee says. “The purple one is on Neil.”

She has the audacity to wink at Andrew and then she walks away towards the girls’ locker room, bumping shoulders with Allison, who offers Andrew a nearly polite nod.

Andrew manages to shower and change before the rest of the Foxes return to the locker room, and so he drops on one of the benches and tips his head back against the lockers to wait for Neil.

Naturally, Neil shows up last, still drenched in sweat, and apparently in the middle of an argument with Kevin.

“I’m just saying,” Kevin argues, “that you should work on long passes!”

“Maybe you should work on your footwork,” Neil snaps back, apparently angry enough to actually argue back instead of ignoring Kevin altogether. “It’s not my fault you can’t catch.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t throw!

“Can’t you just let it go?” Matt asks. “We won. It’s not that big of a —”

“It is that big of a deal!” Neil and Kevin snap in unison.

Andrew sighs and opens his eyes, annoyed with the noise. “Go shower, Kevin,” he says quietly, without moving from his spot. “Now.”

Kevin bristles like an angry kitten, but Andrew only needs to gaze at him for several seconds before Kevin throws his hands up in the air and leaves the room, followed reluctantly by Matt, Nicky, and Aaron.

Andrew closes his eyes again and doesn’t flinch when Neil drops on the bench by his side, his shoulder nearly but not quite brushing Andrew’s.

Not a day for collective showers, then.

There is a quiet sigh as Neil relaxes by his side and leans against the lockers, and the silence in the room — muted only by the hum of the showers and the familiar pattern of Neil’s breathing — is making Andrew’s eyelids feel heavier and heavier.

When he opens his eyes again, the hum of the showers is no longer there, but Neil is still by his side. Andrew blinks and looks quickly around the room, realizing that he must have fallen asleep and that the Foxes have already left. Neil is still dressed in his gear, which means that he hasn’t left Andrew’s side.

Andrew doesn't know what to do with that knowledge. 

“Time?” he asks, tilting his head to look at Neil, who is looking back with a calm expression.

“You’ve only slept for fifteen minutes,” Neil says. “I told the rest we’ll meet them in Columbia later.”

“You could have woken me up,” Andrew says.

“I could have,” Neil agrees, unconcerned. “Wait for me?”

Andrew nods and keeps his eyes forcibly open as Neil collects his clothes and leaves the room. He returns minutes later, his t-shirt clinging to his skin and his ridiculous orange socks probably getting wet, and collapses on the bench again to dry his hair with a towel.

Andrew continues to watch him in silence until Neil drops the towel carelessly on the bench and leans against the lockers again, so close that Andrew can feel his breath on his lips.

“Thanks for today,” Neil says quietly, his eyes skimming over Andrew’s face, like he can’t quite decide where to look. Andrew is familiar with that particular dilemma.

“Stop reading into it, junkie. I’m just doing my job,” Andrew says.

“And doing it pretty damn well,” Neil says, his smile a little crooked and so ridiculously gorgeous that Andrew can’t help leaning in just a little more.

“Yes or no?” he says quietly, his entire attention focusing on a droplet of water running down Neil’s temple, over his cheekbone, and across his scars. He thinks about Neil’s winning goal, the impossible shot that had no right to end up in the goal and yet ended there all the same. He doesn’t know why the thought is so terribly distracting or why it makes heat curl in his stomach, but it is and it does.

He shifts his gaze to Neil’s eyes only to discover that Neil’s gaze already dropped to his lips.

“Always yes with you,” Neil says, equally quiet, his shoulders loose and his gaze clear.

“Except when it’s a no,” Andrew reminds him, echoing his own words, and this time Neil simply nods in agreement.

Andrew raises one hand and brushes the droplet of water away with his thumb and then drags the thumb across Neil’s lower lip. Neil lets him, his gaze calm on Andrew’s face, and then he presses a kiss to the pad, his expression turning playful for a moment before clearing again.

Andrew can’t look at him anymore, but he can’t look away, either, so he slides his hand to Neil’s jaw, tilts his head slightly, and finally, finally slots their lips together, swallowing Neil’s pleased hum.

Before he can change his mind, he grabs Neil’s hands and places them on his waist, and then runs his fingers through Neil’s wet hair, just as he planned to do from the moment Neil walked into the room. Neil’s lips are soft and giving, and it should be perfect, but —

— but it’s not quite enough.

Andrew hums in frustration before tearing his lips away and glaring at Neil. “Keep your hands exactly where they are,” he warns and waits for Neil’s nod before shifting on the bench, swallowing hard, and throwing one leg over Neil’s knees to straddle his lap.

He catches Neil’s surprised intake of breath and glances at him to make sure that his ‘yes’ hasn’t turned into a ‘no’ before tilting Neil’s head back a little too roughly and kissing him furiously on the lips.

Neil’s fingers curl instinctively into the material of Andrew’s hoodie, but he doesn’t move his hands at all, keeping them right where Andrew needs them to stay.

This really isn’t the place for this, considering that the doors aren’t locked and even though the court should be completely empty by now, someone technically can still walk in on them — but right now Andrew really couldn’t care less.

The only thing he can focus on is the heat of Neil’s lips, his own racing heartbeat, and the way Neil tilts his chin up into the kiss, trying to inch a little bit closer, like he wants Andrew just as much as Andrew wants him, impossible as it seems. 

Somehow, Andrew’s thoughts drift to the game again, to that last impossible goal, to Neil’s unrelenting stubbornness, to the happiness on his face and the joy in his eyes, to that unapologetic display of talent and skill.

He clutches at Neil’s shoulder, trying to shuffle closer, considering the possibility of letting Neil slide his hands underneath his hoodie, considering the possibility of bringing back that awed, happy expression to Neil’s eyes.

For the first time ever it occurs to him that maybe he wants Neil to say the words because he wants to try saying them back.

The thought stops him dead in his tracks, with one hand still clutching at Neil’s hair and the other kneading at his shoulder.

He has to leave, now.

Neil opens his eyes to look up at him, his expression suddenly anxious, and his hands fall away from Andrew’s sides to rest flatly on the bench.

Andrew stares back at him for a moment, bewildered but doing his absolute best to keep it off his face, and then he moves to stand up and shoves his hands roughly into the pockets of his hoodie, turning his head away. He can tell that he is blushing, and that’s almost as bad as thinking the words was.

“Let’s go,” he says, sharper than necessary.

Neil frowns. “Did I —”

“You didn’t,” Andrew interrupts him, taking another step back. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”

Neil doesn’t catch up with him right away. Andrew has enough time to go through his bag and find his cigarettes and then to light one up. He leans against the car, forcibly relaxing his shoulders, and wonders quietly why he thought this was a good idea, what was the point of building all these defenses if he’s just going to hand Neil the keys.

Neil shows up several minutes later, when Andrew is going through his second cigarette, and he looks uncertain, his expression wary as he picks absently at the strap of his bag.

After a moment of hesitation, he leans against the car by Andrew’s side, still fiddling with his bag, his gaze fixed firmly on the ground.

“Can you tell me what happened?” he finally asks.

Andrew exhales, irritated. “Nothing happened,” he says, which prompts Neil to look up at him and raise an eyebrow. Andrew huffs a little, but Neil deserves better than a blatant lie, so Andrew corrects his response. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” Neil says, accepting the truth as easily as he dismissed the lie. He drops the cigarette and grinds it against the concrete with the heel of his boot. “Columbia, then? Or are we going home?”

It genuinely surprises Andrew how much he wants to choose the second option. There would be no one in the Tower now, no one to disturb them, and Andrew would have all the time in the world to coax every possible noise out of Neil and then maybe even let him return the favor.

But what he really wants from Neil right now is not something Neil should be expected to offer, so Andrew looks away from him and says, “Columbia.”

In his peripheral vision he can see Neil nod quietly, but before Andrew can fish out the car keys from his pocket, Neil shifts slightly.

“Andrew,” he says, “yes or no?”

He’s obviously looking for reassurance.

Sometimes Andrew still forgets that the bone-deep understanding between them is only worth a damn if they continue to communicate. Neil might know him better than anyone else in the world, but he can only ever know what Andrew chooses to tell him, nothing else.

Andrew can let him assume that he is to blame for something that wasn’t his fault at all — or he can do something about it.

He rolls his eyes, partly at Neil and partly at himself, but he shifts so he can face Neil. “Yes, junkie.”

Neil leans in and kisses him, a barely-there brush of lips that makes Andrew even more annoyed and prompts him to grab the back of Neil’s neck and press their lips together more firmly, a reassurance and reaffirmation in one. It’s ridiculous how much effort it takes to keep the kiss short and to the point, but Andrew forces himself to pull back before he can end up spinning them around and pressing Neil against the Maserati.

“So we’re fine, then?” Neil ask when they both get into the car, and one day Andrew is going to strangle him, he really is.

“Aren’t you always fine?” he says, putting the car into reverse.

Neil just continues to look at him.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him. “Yes, we’re fine.”

“Okay,” Neil says, and only when he finally leans back in his seat Andrew realizes just how much tension he must have been holding in his body for the last several minutes.

Ridiculous, Andrew thinks vehemently, but there’s a part of him that is quietly pleased that Neil cares so much, that he asked, that he waited for an actual answer instead of accepting the evasion like anyone else would.

Ridiculous.

 

 

4.

 

Andrew is sitting on his bed, staring at the patch of sunlight on the dusty floor.

He is thinking about letting Neil go.

All he needs to do is choose not to reach for his car keys, choose to just stay here in silence for several more hours, until Neil has enough time to run far enough to never be found again. Andrew doesn't doubt that Neil could do it. He could fool the FBI, could find a way to leave the country, could find a way to keep himself alive. This is something they both excel at — survival.

The longer he thinks about it, about the life after Neil, the closer to the surface his rage runs. He isn’t angry at Neil, not exactly — it would be like blaming Neil for his nightmares, or for the way he counts exits from every room — but, oh, he is angry. He is furious, in a way he doesn’t remember ever being before.

If Neil’s father were alive, Andrew would bury him six feet under with his own two hands, no shovel necessary.

In the end, this is what prompts him to move — the knowledge that Neil hasn’t chosen this, just like Andrew hasn’t. It’s a coping mechanism like a razor cutting through skin is a coping mechanism, and Andrew no longer mistakes the victims with the perpetrators, even when it comes to himself.

He briefly considers texting the Foxes, but he knows that drawing attention to Neil’s actions might bring the FBI running, and that’s the last thing Neil needs. He texts Wymack, instead, to let him know that he and Neil will be skipping tonight’s practice, and picks up the car keys.

The only comforting thought is the knowledge that Neil has decided to run and hasn’t been kidnapped; if the latter was the case, his old duffel bag would still be hidden underneath the mattress of his bed, and it’s not.

Andrew doesn’t search the campus; he already knows Neil is not here. He only tries to call him once before heading to the parking lot, climbing into his car and setting off. He throws the phone on the passenger’s seat, forces his thoughts into submission, and methodically goes through the list of all possible places Neil could have visited.

It's a long list, and Andrew absolutely loathes being forced to talk to strangers, but he does it all the same. 

Neil is nowhere to be found, though, so Andrew buys two energy drinks and a lot of chocolate and continues to drive around in circles, trying not to think too much and ignoring calls from Betsy.

When he finally thinks about the airport, it’s dawn, and he has been driving around for twelve hours straight. He parks nearby, looks for a long, long time at the ‘departures’ timetable, and on a whim decides to check the observation deck.

And that’s where he finds Neil.

He is standing by the panoramic window, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and he is staring at the sky, or maybe at the planes currently moving around the airport, preparing to take off. His bag is hanging on his shoulder, his posture absolutely terrible, and his hair hidden underneath a snapback. Still — Andrew has no trouble recognizing him.

Instead of stepping next to Neil, he sits down on one of the plastic seats by Neil’s side, making as much noise as he possibly can, and stretches his legs. Then he looks up at Neil, who is staring at him like he’s never seen him before.

“Andrew,” Neil says, then stops, like he has no idea what else to say.

“Neil,” Andrew responds, pocketing his phone and giving Neil an unimpressed glance before turning his gaze on the planes. He almost likes the way they look on the ground.

Neil remains motionless for another long, long moment before finally letting out a sigh and dropping to the seat by Andrew’s side. He curls up sideways in the seat, and Andrew can feel his wary gaze on the side of his face.

“I’m sorry,” Neil says.

“No, you’re not,” Andrew tells him.

“I am, though,” Neil insists, missing the point.

“No,” Andrew repeats patiently, turning to look at him, “you’re not.”

It’s not Neil’s fault, not really, and the bottomless rage in the pit of Andrew’s stomach isn’t directed at Neil, not really. What is, is. Neil has as many sharp edges as Andrew does; they would never fit together otherwise.

“Okay,” Neil says. “Can we stay for a while?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. “Did you eat?”

Neil frowns, like it’s a difficult question, but eventually shakes his head. “No, not really.”

“Go get us something, then,” Andrew says, stretching out in his seat and closing his eyes.

He can sense Neil’s hesitation, but he refuses to tag along. He thinks — hopes — that Neil won’t run again, but he can’t know for sure until he gives him the opportunity. Finally, Neil moves; he is quiet, but Andrew is used to that and can hear through the silence.

It’s a struggle to keep his eyes closed, to keep himself from checking if Neil took his bag, if he used the opportunity and ran away. But Andrew is nothing if not stubborn, and he forces himself to simply wait.

The wave of relief that crashes into him when he hears Neil return should be surprising, but it isn’t. Being around Neil is often like standing at the edge of a roof and taking a step forward only to realize that the concrete stretches out farther than he expected.

He opens his eyes and meets Neil’s gaze.

“Here,” Neil says, handing him a croissant and a cup of coffee. He has the same set, but he toys with the wrapping for a long moment instead of eating.

“What is it,” Andrew says, more an order than a question, taking a sip of the coffee.

Neil shrugs, but when Andrew pins him with his gaze, he sighs. “Did you tell the others?”

Andrew watches him for a moment. “Does it matter?”

“I don’t know,” Neil says. “Did you?”

“No,” Andrew says. “They probably think we fucked off to Columbia.”

“Oh,” Neil says. “Good.”

He unwraps the croissant and takes a small bite, staring off into the distance, and Andrew watches him for a long moment, cataloging the comforting lack of changes.

“Why the airport?” he asks, reluctant to break the silence, but too curious to resist. “If you had bought a ticket, the FBI would have been all over you in seconds.”

Neil tilts his head to the side and gives Andrew a long look. “You either overestimate them, or heavily underestimate me.”

Andrew raises his eyebrows. “How would you do it, then?”

Neil looks back for a long moment before reaching for his bag. He fishes out a passport and hands it to Andrew. Then he looks away.

The person in the picture is definitely Neil, but with black hair and brown eyes, and the name at the bottom is Michael Francis Smith.

“Weren’t you supposed to give all of these to the FBI?” Andrew asks, surveying the passport. It looks legitimate, slightly worn down, real.

“I was,” Neil says, sounding unruffled. “Did I? No.”

Andrew gives him an unimpressed glance. “How many did you keep?”

“Two,” Neil says, without hesitation. “One to leave the country, the other one to disappear in the country I end up in."

“Smart,” Andrew says blankly. “Color me impressed.”

Neil sighs. “It's not like I wanted to leave, Andrew."

“Why did you, then?” Andrew asks. “What happened?”

This time, Neil does hesitate. “There’s just… There’s so much tying me down here. There are so many strings to pull. My mom would kill me if she knew. She always told me not to get attached to anyone or anything. She would be so mad.”

“Why today, though?” Andrew insists. “Surely you must have known all of this for ages."

“It’s her birthday today,” Neil says at length. 

Andrew blinks, not following. “And you… what? Decided this could be a gift?”

Neil winces, even though Andrew is certain he managed to keep his tone even.

“Not really,” Neil says, slowly but methodically crushing the croissant in his lap. “We just… We never celebrated it, you know? She wouldn’t let me. She usually got me something for my birthday, but when I tried to do the same, she would get really, really angry with me. She told me that I should just focus on staying alive, that she didn’t sacrifice everything to save me just so I could get myself killed trying to buy her a birthday card.”

“And?” Andrew prompts.

“And I just threw it all away,” Neil says in a rush, almost frustrated. “All her sacrifice. To play a sport.”

It occurs to Andrew that by sharing all of this, especially the name in his fake passport, Neil has willingly closed one of his emergency exits.

He cut off one of his own escape routes just because Andrew asked.

And that’s why Andrew says, “If she cared about you at all, Abram, don’t you think she’d be glad that you’re safe?”

Neil sighs. “She wouldn’t consider this safety.”

Andrew reaches out slowly, his hand hovering over the scar on Neil’s shoulder. “And this was?”

Neil looks away, but doesn’t reply, and his silence makes something like anger stir to life in Andrew’s chest.

“If you want to run, then run. I won’t stop you,” he says. “But if you’re doing this just to please a ghost, you better hope I never see you again.”

Neil doesn’t reply. He simply looks at Andrew, his gaze searching; Andrew has no idea what he’s expecting to find. Eventually, though, he reaches for his bag again and rummages through it only for a moment before pulling out another passport.

Without a word, he extends his hand to Andrew.

Andrew looks back at him.

Neil doesn’t withdraw his hand.

“I can’t promise I’m giving them up for good,” Neil says. “Maybe one day, but not now.”

“Why give them to me, then?” Andrew asks, and he sounds more unsteady than he’d like.

“For safekeeping,” Neil says, like it’s that simple. “Hold on to them for me.”

Slowly, despite himself, Andrew takes the passport, but doesn’t open it to check the name. “And if you need them?”

“Then I’ll let you know,” Neil replies. “You can check.”

“Maybe one day,” Andrew says, echoing Neil's words. He puts the passport away. “Are you ready to go now?”

Neil gives a small nod, but he doesn’t move, and Andrew doesn’t move either. He glances around, but there is still nobody on the deck, and so he reaches out and cups Neil’s jaw in his hand. Neil doesn’t pull back, his gaze steady, but Andrew doesn’t lean in to kiss him. Instead, he brushes his thumb against Neil’s scars and then against his lips, and pulls his hand back.

“Stay,” Andrew orders, like it’s that simple.

“Okay,” Neil agrees, like maybe it is.

 

 

5.

 

“You really like him, don’t you,” Roland says because, like most people in Andrew’s life, he very clearly has a death wish.

Andrew pointedly ignores him, playing restlessly with the decoration of his drink. The club is crowded tonight and it’s making Andrew more uneasy than usually.

He glances at the dance floor where Nicky seems intent on torturing Andrew and everyone else in the club by teaching Neil how to dance. Neil doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself all that much, but Nicky is keeping his hands to himself, and Neil can fight his own battles, so Andrew lets them be.

“Well?” Roland prompts.

“Don’t you have something to do?” Andrew asks. “Somewhere to be, maybe?”

“You’re the one sitting at my bar,” Roland points out, passing a drink to one of the customers without sparing them a glance.

“Well, not for much longer!” Andrew says faux-cheerfully, turning to slip from his stool, but Roland rolls his eyes at him and places another drink on the bar.

“On the house,” he says. “And no more talking about Neil, I promise. No need to run."

Andrew sneers in annoyance, but he settles back on the stool. “What about you?” he asks, choosing to throw a punch of his own. “Met somebody?”

Roland shoots him an amused glance. “I have, actually. Do you want to hear about it?”

“Not particularly,” Andrew says, his aggression deflating. 

Roland seems neither surprised, nor offended. “Either way,” he says, “I’m happy for you.”

Andrew glares at him, but without much venom. “Do I also get a blessing?”

Roland snorts. Andrew watches him impassively, following Roland’s skillful hands with his gaze, the same way he would do in the past. He can still remember being attracted to Roland, but there is no trace of it now.

And yet all he needs is to glance at Neil from the corner of his eye and his heartbeat picks up instantly.

Roland watches him with a slightly amused expression that tends to make Andrew feel like he can read his thoughts. He places another drink on the bar.

“I don’t have a blessing for you,” he says, “but I have a drink for your boy. He’s getting the hang of that whole dancing thing, so I’d go there if I were you. Plenty of people here would happily steal him from you.”

“You can’t steal a person,” Andrew tells him. “Or own a person, for that matter. Neil can do what he wants.”

“Did you practice that speech? I almost believe you,” Roland says.

“I almost care,” Andrew replies. “See you around.”

He slides off the stool and heads towards the dance floor.

Neil does seem to be doing better; he still isn’t a great dancer by any means, but he definitely has a body to make up for it, and Andrew couldn’t possibly count the people who are watching him right now, even if he cared to try. Neil, obviously, has no idea, and for a brief moment, Andrew pities all those poor souls who probably tried to get Neil’s attention with a classic “Wanna get out of here?” and got Neil’s confused “I just got here” in return.

He stops pitying them the second Neil notices him, because he is too busy watching Neil’s expression go from uncomfortable to relaxed and pleased at the mere sight of Andrew.

It will most likely never cease to amaze him.

Neil stops dancing and instantly gravitates towards Andrew, who can almost feel the general disappointment in the air as people begin to look away. Nicky shoots him a sly smile over Neil’s shoulder and Andrew glares him into submission before turning to Neil.

“Are we leaving?” Neil asks, sounding hopeful, so Andrew nods easily and puts the drink in Nicky’s hand.

Nicky pouts excessively. “Already?”

“You can go back with Kevin,” Andrew tells him, glancing back towards their table, where Kevin and Aaron seem to be arguing about something. “He won’t be leaving for a while. And probably can afford a cab.”

Nicky frowns, concerned. “You won’t mind?”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but manages to find a little more patience. “I won’t mind,” he says. “Neil?”

“I’m ready to go,” Neil says.

When they make it outside, Andrew drops the keys to the Maserati in Neil’s hand, since all Neil drank was water, and he settles into the passenger’s seat. Neil takes way too much time readjusting the seat and the mirrors for someone who is nearly as short as Andrew is, and he smiles infuriatingly when he notices Andrew’s glare.

“Are we ever going to leave?” Andrew asks.

“We’re not of the same height,” Neil says airily. “I can’t drive like this.”

“I will stab you, Neil.”

“So you keep saying,” Neil says, but finally turns on the engine and pulls out of the parking lot.

Andrew would never admit it to anyone, but most of the time he lets Neil drive simply because it gives him plenty of time to watch Neil without being watched in return. Neil’s hands are steady on the wheel, his expression focused, but his shoulders relaxed. He looks as good driving as he does doing pretty much anything else, but watching him drive a ridiculously expensive car is still a worthwhile experience. 

They make it to the highway when Neil says, his tone light, “So, Roland, huh?”

Andrew blinks himself back to consciousness and then has to blink some more because there is no way in hell they’re having this conversation. Not even Neil can possibly be that blind.

But there is no way to misinterpret the question, even if there is no trace of jealousy in Neil’s tone.

Andrew doesn’t say anything.

Neil offers a shrug when he notices Andrew’s silence. “It’s not a big deal,” he says, eyes focused completely on the road. “As you keep reminding me, this —” he gestures between them “— is nothing.”

Andrew stares at him. The thing is, he can’t tell if he is being played, or if Neil is truly this clueless. It doesn’t really matter, though — and that might just be the most frightening part.

“Pull over,” Andrew says.

Neil deigns to look at him. “What, now?”

“You started it,” Andrew points out. “Pull over, Neil.”

Neil sighs, but he flicks on the turn signal and pulls over into the first empty parking lot on their right. There is a dusty factory of some kind at the end of the parking lot, and they're most likely on a private property, but Andrew doesn’t pay attention to any of it as he throws the door open, steps out of the car, and waits for Neil to join him.

Neil is dressed in the clothes Andrew picked for him, clinging to him like a second skin, and a jacket of his own choosing, and he looks infuriatingly good. He stops in front of Andrew, his expression cautious, streetlight playing in his hair.

Andrew runs his thumb down the zipper of Neil’s jacket and says, “Yes or no?”

Neil’s eyes dart first to Andrew’s face and then to the empty space around them. “To getting stabbed in an empty parking lot?”

Andrew glares at him some more. “Possibly, if you don’t stop being stupid.”

Neil bites his lip, inevitably drawing Andrew’s attention to his mouth.

“What am I being stupid about?” Neil asks.

Andrew clenches his teeth. “Yes or no, Neil?” he repeats. “To making out in an empty parking lot, if that remains unclear to you.”

Neil exhales. “Yes.”

“Alright,” Andrew says, pulling at the clasps of Neil’s jacket and tilting his chin up instead of spinning them around. He silently dares Neil to say or do something about it, but Neil simply follows his lead, careful not to press his body against Andrew's until Andrew tugs harder at his jacket and leans back against the car, giving the clearest permission he can give without breaking the kiss.

Neil tentatively changes the angle of the kiss and tangles his fingers in Andrew’s hair. Even with his perfect memory, Andrew can’t possibly recall how many kisses they’ve shared by now, and it infuriates him to no end that each and every one of them feels just as intoxicating.

Andrew is the first one to pull away and all he needs to do is draw his chin back for Neil to instantly step away, even though Andrew’s hands are still clutching at his jacket.

Andrew could probably just leave it at that, and Neil would eventually understand what it was supposed to mean. Andrew could push away from the car and open the door, and Neil wouldn't question him at all. 

It’s the way Neil’s hands drop automatically to his sides, acknowledging Andrew’s need for personal space without a pause, that prompts Andrew to stay where he is and look up at Neil.

“This,” he says, through clenched teeth, using his chin to gesture between them, “has never been nothing.”

Neil blinks at him, clearly caught off guard, but before Andrew can push him away — or actually stab him just to be finally done with this — Neil looks away and nods. Suddenly Andrew feels a jolt of fear at what Neil’s going to say next, whether he’s going to respond with a confession of his own.

But all Neil says is, “I know.”

Andrew exhales, letting go of Neil’s jacket. “Good,” he says, and firmly tells himself that he isn’t disappointed. “Now that we’ve got that covered, can we leave?”

Inexplicably, Neil doesn’t point out that it was Andrew who wanted to stop in the first place, but simply nods and rounds the car to get behind the wheel.

Andrew watches him warily from the corner of his eye for a long time, but Neil seems perfectly content to let the matter drop, so Andrew closes his eyes and lets himself sleep.

 

 

6.

 

Neil hates looking in the mirror — Andrew knows that. It’s impossible not to notice. When they happen to brush their teeth standing side by side — which always happens accidentally and is not, regardless of what Nicky has to say about it, their routine — Neil always stares absently into the sink. When he is shaving — which, again, is not something that Andrew pays attention to — he uses the side mirror that’s small enough to keep him from seeing his eyes.

Andrew knows this, because Andrew spends most of his time observing his surroundings, and Neil is, well, around.

Still, Neil is a functional human being, someone who was on his own for a long time and had to survive somehow, so Andrew doesn’t immediately make a connection between Neil’s aversion to mirrors and the fact that his hair is now long enough that Kevin orders him to tie it during practices — which, naturally, Neil completely ignores.

It’s only when Andrew finds Neil fumbling with scissors that he finally connects the dots.

The bathroom door isn’t locked and the light is off, so Andrew pushes the door open with his shoulder, initially intending only to grab the hoodie he left there and leave. What he doesn’t expect is to find Neil standing in front of the mirror, scissors in hand, his expression grim.

Andrew raises his eyebrows and leans against the door frame, and waits for Neil to meet his gaze in the mirror.

“What?” Neil asks, sounding uncharacteristically on edge, as he runs one hand through his hair, messing it up even more.

“A riddle, Neil,” Andrew says. “What is it: two legs, two hands, cuts hair for a living?”

Neil rolls his eyes and places the scissors on the edge of the sink.

“I hate hairdressers.”

Andrew sighs, because he can already tell where this is going, but he’s refusing to just let it happen without putting up a fight.

“Does this have something to do with your one man war on the fashion industry?” he asks, picking up his hoodie and pulling it over his head.

Neil actually turns around to glare at him. “Funny.”

“That’s me,” Andrew deadpans. “Why do you hate hairdressers, Neil?”

Neil offers an uncomfortable shrug, glancing to the small mirror by his side and immediately looking away. “You know why.”

Andrew sighs again, but really, he knew this was coming from the second he opened the door, so he might as well just get it over with.

“I really do hate you,” he informs Neil. “Sit down.”

It’s Neil’s turn to look confused. “What?”

“I don’t like repeating myself,” Andrew says, gesturing to the closed toilet and locking the bathroom door. He turns on the lights. “Well?”

Neil gives him an odd look, but sits down quickly enough, looking up at Andrew with barely concealed curiosity. Andrew grabs the scissors and stands in front of Neil, whose legs fall open to give him more room. Andrew runs his fingers once through Neil’s hair, pulling it back just to let it fall back on Neil’s face. Neil huffs in annoyance. Andrew definitely doesn’t smile.

“Yes or no?” he asks.

“Do you even know what you’re doing?” Neil asks, looking up at Andrew through his adorable fringe, and really, fuck him for making Andrew think the word ‘adorable’.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Andrew tells him with a shrug, clicking the scissors.

Inexplicably, Neil smiles. “Yes,” he says.

Andrew nods and picks a comb from underneath the mirror. Neil’s hair is soft to touch, slightly wet after the shower he must have taken earlier, and Andrew runs his fingers through it thoughtfully, pleased with the way it contrasts with his own skin and pretending it’s all a part of the cutting process.

Then he gets to work.

At first, Neil remains rigid, but then his shoulders slowly lose tension and he exhales.

“My mom used to do it for me,” he tells Andrew quietly. “Cutting and dyeing and all of that.”

Andrew hums in response, because he doesn’t really want to talk about Neil’s mother, not when he has a sharp object in his hands. He pushes Neil’s head back slightly and Neil looks up at him, his expression open and content, and it occurs to Andrew how intimate this moment is. He wouldn’t do this for anyone else. The possibility wouldn’t even occur to him. And yet he doesn’t mind this — doesn’t mind the silence in the bathroom, Neil’s quiet breathing mixing with his own, the lack of space between them, Neil's soft hair underneath his fingertips, the fact that Neil’s knee is brushing against his own.

“She hated it when I looked like him,” Neil continues, his gaze darting away. “She would dye my hair every two weeks just to avoid seeing the roots.”

Andrew clenches his teeth, but he manages to continue with the chosen patch of hair instead of dropping the scissors altogether and storming out of the room. “You look nothing like him,” he says finally.

Neil smiles lopsidedly. “That’s a lie.”

Andrew exhales and puts the scissors in the sink. He tilts Neil’s head back roughly and glares at him, a part of him still not quite believing how trusting and calm Neil is under his touch. Neil blinks at him slowly, unbothered in the slightest by his own bare throat and the collection of knives hidden underneath Andrew’s armbands, as if he knows as well as Andrew does that Andrew would sooner slit his own throat than Neil’s.

Having a perfect excuse to study Neil’s profile, Andrew spends a long moment doing just that.

He remembers the pictures. He knows that Nathan’s eyes were almost the exact same color as Neil’s, that the color of their hair is pretty much the same.

But he is not lying when he repeats, “You look nothing alike, Abram.”

“But —”

“I have an eidetic memory,” Andrew snaps, harsh. “I’m right and you’re wrong, understood?”

Neil looks at him for a moment longer, as if searching for a lie, before his expression softens into something cautiously hopeful. It’s hard to believe that it was Andrew who caused that.

“Okay,” Neil says, and Andrew nods, picking up the scissors again.

He finishes his work in silence and waits for Neil to stand up and reluctantly examine his reflection. As predicted, he shoots Andrew a surprised look.

“You’re actually good at this,” he says, sounding impressed. “You’ve done this before?”

“No,” Andrew says, and considers leaving it at that. But then he finds himself saying, “Cass used to do it for me.”

Neil expression is a complicated tangle of emotions, but Andrew doesn’t bother deciphering them. It’s a pact of sorts between them; Andrew doesn’t talk about Neil’s mother, and Neil doesn’t talk about Cass. It works and keeps a lot of arguments from happening.

The only problem is, Neil has never met a status quo he hasn’t completely fucked up. 

Now, he runs his fingers through his hair, glances up at Andrew and says, “I know it’s my mom’s fault, in a way. That I can’t look at my own reflection.”

One day, Andrew is going to murder Neil. He really is. Or marry him. Either one.

He drops the scissors in the sink for Neil to deal with, but he has never walked away from a challenge, and he is not walking away from this one, either.

He says, “I know that Cass was making it up to me for things she chose not to see.”

Saying it out loud is like slashing a knife across his wrists.

Andrew has not expected that.

This particular truth had been decaying in his heart for a really, really long time, and sharing it is like ripping open a festering wound and letting out dark, oily blood.

It makes Andrew think of the way Cass never questioned his armbands, even when he cut himself so deeply that blood actually left a stain on the tablecloth. It makes him think of the way she would accept his pathetic excuses, even when he ended up in the hospital. It makes him think of the long summer days, of sheets drying in the sun, of love that had a price tag all along.

It’s sickening.

But it’s also long overdue.

By the time he looks up, Neil’s expression is schooled into careful neutrality, but one of his hands is extended. He doesn’t move closer, though; if he tried, Andrew would most likely end up pushing him away.

But all Neil says is, “Yes or no?”, and he looks pointedly at his extended hand.

Andrew doesn’t say yes, but he extends his own hand. Neil doesn’t try to tangle their fingers together; instead, he curls his fingers into the sleeve of Andrew's hoodie. Andrew looks down at their hands to avoid looking at Neil’s face, and feels dark, hysterical laughter bubble in his throat, because he really should know better than to let himself do this again. The laughter dies out, though, when it occurs to him that for him, this is it.

There won’t be anything after this.

“The roof?” Neil asks quietly, and Andrew nods, letting himself be tugged out of the bathroom.

Halfway across the room, he manages to say, “You’re cleaning up that mess later.”

“Sure,” Neil says, which sounds like a complete lie, but for now, Andrew lets it go.

It’s cold on the roof, but Andrew has his lighter and his cigarettes, so they sit on the edge and smoke for a while in silence, shoulders pressed together.

At some point, Neil’s head drops to Andrew’s shoulder, and Andrew simply lets it happen. He runs his fingers idly through Neil’s hair, and he can feel the words on the tip of his tongue.

But he doesn’t say anything.

 

 

7.

 

These days Andrew lets Neil fall asleep in his bed nearly every night, partly because he got used to the familiar weight on the mattress by now, and partly because it seems to annoy Kevin — who probably still firmly believes that Andrew and Neil are purposefully making their Exy careers more difficult by not being straight.

There is a part of Andrew that’s awaiting Kevin’s inevitable outburst and Neil’s inevitable reaction with nearly giddy excitement. Still, no matter how many times Andrew lets Neil stay, Neil never assumes that he is allowed to do so without Andrew’s explicit permission, and perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Andrew anymore, but it does.

The lights in the bedroom are off now; Kevin is watching something on his phone, with his obnoxiously large headphones on, and Nicky seems to already be asleep. They both wandered inside several minutes ago, forcing Andrew to stop kissing Neil and get the door. Neil smiled at Andrew almost smugly as he brushed past him on his way to the bathroom, and Andrew rolled his eyes at him, and then glared daggers at Nicky who only needed one look at Andrew’s kiss-swollen lips and tousled hair to connect the dots and offer thumbs-up.

Andrew listens as the shower cuts off, and his gaze inevitably drifts to the bathroom door when Neil steps outside and pushes the door close with his bare foot. His oversized, bland t-shirt and black sweatpants have no business making him look so good, but they do, and it annoys Andrew to no end. The annoyance is only second to the ever-present, confusing warmth in his chest, which Andrew chooses to call want.

Neil directs a small smile his way before reaching for the ladder, and Andrew sighs internally before snatching Neil’s wrist and giving a small tug.

“Stay,” he mutters, moving towards the wall, and Neil’s gaze softens slightly as he offers a quiet nod and slips underneath the blanket.

Kevin stares determinedly at the bunk bed above him and turns up the volume until Andrew can hear the sounds of the Exy game he is watching all the way across the room. They could probably get away with an entire make-out session without drawing his attention, but the idea makes Andrew defensive — this isn’t for anybody’s eyes but their own.

Instead, he moves farther back until Neil can settle comfortably on his side, facing Andrew but not touching him. He looks pale and exhausted after their late-night training, but a smile is still playing on his lips and Andrew looks at him for a moment, gaze assessing, until Neil gives a small nod and Andrew instantly presses their lips together. He plans to pull back right away, but Neil’s lips part slightly on an exhale, and Andrew finds himself pressing closer instead, breathing in Neil’s content sigh. He brushes his fingertips against Neil’s jaw, coaxing him into deepening the kiss, and then lets his hand travel to Neil’s throat and lower, to tangle in Neil’s t-shirt. He lets it rest there, knuckles brushing Neil’s chest.

Neil runs his fingertips gently over Andrew’s wrist, just once, before settling into the pillows again.

“Sleep,” Neil says quietly, the way most people would say Goodnight

It’s funny how this one little word and the soft material of Neil’s t-shirt underneath his fingertips have the power to make Andrew’s eyelids feel so heavy, but they do.

The truth is, once upon a time Andrew would hardly ever get any sleep in the dorm. All it took to wake him up was someone shifting on their bed, someone breathing out too loudly, a piece of furniture creaking in the silence. It was impossible to let his guard down with three other people in the room, even if none of them posed any real threat to him.

The truth is, it’s disconcertingly easy to sleep next to Neil. It used to be hard in the beginning, as all Neil needed to do was shift in his sleep to send Andrew's hands flying for his knives, but now, after countless months of this, it’s easier to sleep in the dorm with Neil by his side than it is to sleep without him.

It’s not rational, Andrew knows it’s not, it’s just a pipe dream and a childish hope, but with his back against the wall and his hand clenched in Neil’s t-shirt, he feels safe.

Two vowels, he thinks, keeping the word at arm’s length, two consonants.

Neil has already closed his eyes and his breathing has evened out, so Andrew gets to watch him without being watched in return. It’s nearly dark in the room, but the dim light from the streets is enough to get by. Andrew watches Neil’s auburn hair curl against the dull, grayish white of the pillow, watches the way Neil pulled the blanket all the way to his chin, instinctively curling into himself for warmth. He watches the barely-there freckles on Neil’s nose, the soft curve of his parted lips. His scarred cheek is pressed against the pillow, so Andrew moves on to examine Neil’s long eyelashes, casting scattered shadows on his cheeks, the way his brow smoothed out in his sleep, the content expression on his face.

He thinks about the way Neil let him press himself into the mattress just moments ago, about the way he looked up at Andrew, so calm and so trusting, and kept his hands resting on the pillow until Andrew told him how and where he can touch. He thinks about the way Neil’s eyes always fall close at the first press of their lips together, about the way Neil touches him, always with the pads of his fingers, never using his nails, so absurdly mindful that just looking at him makes something warm and unfamiliar curl in Andrew’s stomach.

He thinks about the violence hidden on the other side of their eyelids and about the violence lurking on the other side of their control. He thinks about their jagged edges fitting together somehow, not to make something whole, but to make something kinder.

He thinks about the words, eight letters, five vowels, three consonants.

When he glances up, he catches Kevin’s gaze over Neil’s shoulder. Kevin is watching him with an unreadable expression, so Andrew gazes back, quirking his eyebrow in a silent challenge. When Kevin doesn’t instantly back down, Andrew raises his hand and runs his fingers ostentatiously through Neil’s hair, causing Neil to hum softly in his sleep and curl closer.

Kevin finally rolls his eyes and lies back down, his gaze once again fixed on the bunk bed above him.

Andrew runs his fingers through Neil’s hair one more time, for good measure, and then settles back on the pillow and closes his eyes.

Safe.

 

 

8.

 

“You know,” Renee says, her voice carrying across the empty training room, “we don’t need to fight in order to talk.”

Andrew doesn't move from the floor and doesn’t say anything, partly because he still hasn’t managed to catch his breath. Fighting against Renee is as exhausting as it has always been, which is outrageous considering that Andrew actually does his cardio these days. 

He thinks about her words, though. 

Fighting is what glued Renee and Andrew together, and it consequently should be the only thing keeping them from falling apart. Andrew doesn’t know how to speak to the person Renee is, only to the person she once was, the person who throws punches impossible to avoid and only ever fights dirty.

It’s the darkness that Andrew recognizes, not the light. Without it, they might as well be strangers.

Renee sits by his side, legs drawn to her chest, chin resting on her folded arms. She looks small and harmless like this, but Andrew knows that if he reached for his knife, she would have a hand around his throat in a blink of an eye.

Right now, she poses a threat of a different kind. 

“So,” she says, quiet and gentle, “how are you, Andrew?”

“I’m fine,” Andrew snaps impatiently, and then gives himself a mental slap on the forehead for giving up more information than he intended — namely that he spends too much time around Neil.

Renee doesn’t miss it, of course.

“Last year, right?” she says, and Andrew tenses slightly, because he hates thinking about it.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Renee tells him, and damn her for reading his thoughts so easily.

“I’m not worried,” he spits out, glaring at the ceiling, because it makes him angry that he cares so much, that Neil made him care so much. It’s a foreign feeling, a dangerous one, because Andrew should by now know better than to get attached. It’s so much harder to let go, later.

“Andrew,” Renee says, and it’s her tone — almost scolding — that gets Andrew’s attention. “You are giving him way too little credit, you know? He doesn’t deserve that.”

“What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” Andrew challenges, staring impassively at the ceiling.

“Do you want to be right?” Renee asks.

Andrew gives her a withering glare, not bothering to move his head from the ground. “No.”

“Good,” Renee says. “Have you thought what you want to do after graduation?”

“Stop,” Andrew replies instantly. “We’re not doing this.”

“You can’t exactly run away from this decision,” Renee reminds him, not unkind. 

“Watch me.” He makes a show of glancing at his bare wrist. “Speaking of, your plane leaves in two hours.”

Renee sighs. “Alright,” she says. “Are you staying here?”

“Not indefinitely,” Andrew tells the ceiling.

“Alright,” Renee repeats. “I’ll call you when my plane lands.”

Andrew offers nothing but a nod.

He doesn’t get up from the floor and doesn’t even move his head to watch her go; he continues to stare at the ceiling until the door closes behind her.

Then he texts Neil, puts the phone on the floor next to his head, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t fall asleep, but he feels safe here, so he lets his thoughts drift until he hears the recognizable sounds of Neil’s footsteps.

Neil drops into a crouch by Andrew’s side and Andrew watches him watch the knives, still scattered carelessly on the floor. He picks one of them absently and plays with it for a moment, looking around the room. He doesn’t glance down once, but the knife dances smoothly between his fingers.

Andrew distinctly remembers Neil telling him that he doesn’t want Renee to teach him how to fight.

“I want a truth,” Andrew says, looking up at Neil. Throughout the last three years, their game has changed; they still trade secrets, but they’re more willing to volunteer them, too. Andrew can usually get Neil to share anything simply by asking; sometimes he grants Neil the same courtesy.

Now Neil’s hands still and he looks down at Andrew, tilting his head to the side. “Ask.”

“Why won’t you take the knives?” Andrew asks. “Next year I won’t be here to watch your back.”

Neil blinks at him, nonplussed. “I already told you,” he says. “I don’t want to be like him.”

Like Nathan. Or like Nathaniel. Either way —

“He’s dead,” Andrew replies. “You’re alive.”

Neil hums noncommittally. He looks down at the knife in his hands, then looks away.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Neil says. He is staring at the far end of the room and he looks a million miles away, but his voice is steady.

“Talk,” Andrew says.

“We’ll split the knives,” Neil says, looking at Andrew once again. “But you let me watch your back.”

All Andrew can manage is a flat, “What.”

Neil rolls the knife between his fingers, but he doesn’t look away from Andrew. “I told you once that I want to be the kind of person who would go back for you.” He pauses. “I am now.”

Andrew clenches his jaw, glaring at Neil, because Neil is too naive and too blind to realize that there’s nothing to go back for here. There’s not a single part of Andrew that can still be hurt and therefore there is not a single part of Andrew that needs to be protected.

“I don’t need you,” Andrew says, less indifferent than he’d like.

Neil shrugs, unbothered. “You still have me.” He puts the knife back on the floor without making a sound. “Yes or no, Andrew?”

“I can’t look after you if you look after me,” Andrew tells him. “These are mutually exclusive.”

“Not really,” Neil says, sitting down on the floor and crossing his legs. “I think they’re complementary. Besides, that deal is over, remember?”

Naive, naive Neil.

“What would you protect me from?” Andrew asks him idly.

“Anything,” Neil says without hesitation. “Everything.”

“You’re such a child,” Andrew says. “I told you many times not to make this into something it’s not. Do you need me to spell it out for you again? I don’t need you.”

“You also once told me it’s not a ‘this’,” Neil says and Andrew can hear the smugness in his voice. “You’re not as good of a liar as you think you are.”

Andrew grits his teeth. “Why, Neil? Why do you care?”

Neil gazes back at him. “Don’t make me say it if you don’t want to hear it,” he says simply.

Andrew looks at him for a moment, wondering what kind of truth Neil would share if Andrew chose to ask.

Instead, he simply exhales again, looking up at the ceiling. “Take the knives or don’t take them. I couldn’t care less. We’re done talking.”

Neil doesn’t move. “You do care,” he says. “And I’m still waiting for my answer.”

Andrew tilts his head to look at him and meets Neil’s defiant gaze. “Do you have a death wish, Neil?”

“If you give me a no,” Neil says, without bothering to acknowledge Andrew’s threat, “I won’t bring it up again. But I want an answer, not an evasion.”

Andrew glares at him some more, but Neil is not — has never really been — afraid of him. He looks back with calm resolve, waiting for Andrew to make the call.

Andrew thinks about Neil’s holidays in Evermore. He thinks about the scars all over Neil’s body, about the sacrifice Andrew has never asked for and never wanted.

It’s a promise for a promise, give for give and take for take.

It makes mathematical sense, even if Andrew still can’t quite wrap his head around the concept. Nobody cared about the math before. People take and take, and that is all.

If that’s not true, Andrew is unsure whether he understands the world at all.

“There are eight of them,” he finally says, going back to staring at the ceiling. “Pick four.”

It’s not a yes Neil wanted, but it must be enough, because Neil stands up and starts collecting the knives. When he is done, he places four on the floor by his side and offers four to Andrew.

Andrew picks himself up to a seated position to face Neil and considers him for a moment.

Neil isn’t smiling, but he seems calmer now. Andrew watches him for a little longer before extending one of his hands, palm up, and glancing pointedly at the black armband.

It takes Neil only a moment to understand and he gives Andrew a questioning look that Andrew returns with a steady gaze of his own.

Neil picks one of the knives and slides two fingers underneath the armband to figure out where the knife needs to be placed. Andrew looks away, waiting for the cool touch of metal, but it never comes. When he glances back at his hand, Neil has placed two knives in their sheaths already, shielding Andrew’s skin from the blades with his hand. Every time Neil’s fingers brush against Andrew’s scars, he has to keep himself from pulling away, but Neil works quickly and efficiently, and soon enough he is done with both armbands and places Andrew’s hands back in his lap.

Andrew flexes his hands to feel the cold of the knives against his skin and exhales.

Neil continues to look at him for a moment before raising his hand, slow enough that Andrew could easily evade him if he wanted to. He runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair.

He runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair and murmurs a quiet, “Thank you.”

Andrew replies with an equally quiet, “Don’t say stupid things.”

And if he shifts his head slightly to press the corner of his lips against the inner side of Neil’s wrist, it’s nothing but an accident on his part.

 

 

9.

 

The Foxes drop out in the semifinals.

It’s a tough game and there is only so much they can do with several of their best players benched or carded, and when the game ends, they are two points behind.

The mood in the locker room is subdued and Andrew finds that for some reason it affects him too. The Foxes gather for a short meeting and then decide to go to sleep early, but Andrew feels too restless to sleep, so after stubbing out his third cigarette and watching Neil’s breathing even out, he puts his boots back on, grabs his phone, and leaves the Tower.

He doesn’t really know where he’s going until he reaches the stadium, and then he fishes out the keys from his jacket and opens the door before he can question the impulse.

He goes through the corridor leading to the court, suddenly very aware that today he played here for the last time in his life. The thought doesn’t really make him nostalgic, but there is a tug of almost-wistfulness in the vicinity of his heart and that’s — surprising. Andrew has expected that leaving would not be nearly as easy as he’d like, but he has always thought that his attachment to Neil would be the only problem. He has never expected to miss this stupid court.

The main lights are off, but the automatic emergency lights are enough to go by. Their eerie glow shines through the plexiglass and creates long shadows that travel across the freshly-cleaned floor. If Andrew were more sentimental, he might have tried to recall the sounds of the game, the shouting and the clash of the racquets, and compare it to the heavy silence surrounding him now. As it is, all he does is look around the court for a few minutes, thinking about nothing in particular.

On a whim, he picks up one of the training balls and toys with it for a moment, weighing it in his hands, before he drops to the floor in the middle of the room and lies down on his back to stare at the dark ceiling above the court.

He throws the ball idly above his head and catches it with his other hand, and the pointless exercise is enough to quiet down his mind. He still hasn’t decided whether he wants to play Exy professionally when he graduates. Several teams approached him already, but Andrew didn’t give them any answers yet.

He has never considered his future, because the word lost its meaning a long time ago. It was an abstract concept, yet another word in a language Andrew simply did not speak.

Happiness. Dreams.

Vowels and consonants and nothing else.

Andrew throws the ball as high as he can without moving from the ground, and watches it lose momentum, come to a stop, and lose its fight against gravity. It falls right into his extended hand and Andrew curls his fingers around it and squeezes until his wrist aches.

When he hears footsteps, he expects to see Neil.

It’s Aaron instead.

Andrew has no idea what Aaron is doing here and how he got here, but Aaron doesn’t seem surprised to see him. He shoves his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and walks a little closer, but he stops several feet from Andrew, ever cautious, like Andrew is a feral animal.

Maybe he is.

He tilts his head to look at Aaron, his hand still curled around the ball. Aaron shuffles his feet and looks away.

“I thought you hate this game,” he says.

Andrew considers it for a moment, and then he throws the ball in the air again.

“I do, a bit,” he says eventually. He knows that the significance of this particular statement will be lost on Aaron, but Andrew’s secrets are not for Aaron to know and understand, not anymore. Maybe not ever. 

They still attend their weekly sessions, but Andrew has never really expected Bee to fix them, not as a unit. She helped him and she helped Aaron, and that will have to be enough. Andrew doesn’t expect to see Aaron again after graduation. It’s a hollow thought, but not a surprising one.

People leave and leave and leave, because that's just what they do. 

“How did you know I was here?” Andrew asks, because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Aaron is not here by an accident.

“Your boyfriend,” Aaron says and Andrew doesn’t miss the distaste in his voice.

“That’s not what Neil is,” Andrew tells him calmly, his eyes back on the ceiling.

“Your soulmate, then,” Aaron says, and Andrew briefly considers how fitting it is that Aaron is the only one to realize that Andrew doesn't refer to Neil as his boyfriend not because the word is too big, but because it's too small. 

He throws the ball in the air again and this time has to shift slightly to catch it.

“Did you want something?” he asks.

“Yes,” Aaron says. “Your phone.”

Andrew tilts his head again to look at him, but Aaron just stares back blankly, and Andrew knows that getting an explanation would be like pulling teeth, so instead he takes the phone out of his pocket and slides it across the floor. It rotates several times before hitting the side of Aaron’s boot.

Aaron picks it up and flips it open, somehow managing to express a lot of annoyance without making a single facial expression, and types quickly. Andrew watches him impassively, not curious enough to ask.

Several seconds later, Aaron walks over and attempts to drop the phone on Andrew’s chest, but Andrew catches it midair.

“Nobody can lose at Snake that fast,” Andrew comments, and Aaron actually cracks a smile at that. Then his expression sobers up and Andrew finds himself bracing for whatever is coming next. He squeezes the ball unconsciously and then forcibly relaxes his hold. There is no point in this. 

Aaron takes several steps back before he says, “Katelyn and I are taking some time off the campus. I just thought we might not see each other before you leave.”

Andrew exhales, trying to run a mental check on himself and coming up empty. He feels nothing at all. “Well, you’ve seen me now. Mission accomplished.”

Aaron sighs, exasperated now. “Just… call me, if you want. That’s all.”

Andrew considers him for a moment in silence before he says, “I have nothing to say to you.”

“Okay,” Aaron says, sounding resigned, but he doesn’t walk away. He continues to look at Andrew for a moment longer and then he says. “Thanks, by the way.”

Andrew turns to look at him again and all he needs is one glance to figure out what Aaron is talking about. It’s hilarious, really. Once upon a time, it would mean the world. It means nothing now.

“I don’t need your gratitude,” Andrew informs the ceiling, throwing the ball so high up that he loses sight of it for a moment. “I told you already. I was keeping my word. You don't owe me anything. You are free. Congratulations.”

Aaron misses the double meaning again, but Andrew stopped expecting him to pay attention a long time ago. He doesn’t watch Aaron leave; instead, he gets up, leaving the phone on the floor, and throws the ball against the plexiglass. It bounces back with a satisfying thud and lands unerringly in his other hand, so he repeats the motion again until the echo matches his heartbeat and then some more until the steady rhythm is disturbed yet again by the sound of footsteps.

The right ones, this time.

He doesn’t watch Neil approach and doesn’t glance at him even when he senses Neil’s presence by his side.

“Good talk?” Neil asks quietly.

“Will you ever learn to mind your own business?” Andrew asks, throwing the ball again but doing nothing to catch it this time. Neil does it for him.

“You are my business,” Neil says, ever-obnoxious. “So?”

“I told you once to stop wasting your time on worthless pursuits,” Andrew reminds him and looks pointedly at Neil’s hand until he extends it and passes Andrew the ball.

“You also told me that this is a worthless pursuit,” Neil says, and Andrew doesn’t need to see him gesture between them to know what he means.

“You’re especially exhausting tonight,” Andrew tells him, refusing to address Neil’s comment. “How did you know I was here?”

Neil smiles, small and fleeting, and Andrew makes the mistake of looking at him, all soft angles and sleep-tousled hair, dressed in one of Andrew’s hoodies, his hands folded in the pockets, his body radiating warmth. It’s a deception, of course. Neil’s skin is made of steel.

“Maybe I know you better than you think,” Neil says.

“Or maybe you track my phone,” Andrew replies, looking away from him.

“If that’s what you’re more comfortable with,” Neil says with a one-shoulder shrug. “Have you decided yet?”

“Can you talk about anything other than Exy?” Andrew asks in return.

“If you don’t choose Exy, I suppose I’ll have to learn,” Neil replies, unconcerned.

It’s funny how certain Neil is that this thing between them can survive if Andrew doesn’t choose the only thing they currently have in common.

Neil watches him for a moment, and then, because he clearly developed the ability to read minds, he says, “It’s not over until one of us wants it to be over, you know.”

“You really never learn, do you?” Andrew says, throwing the ball against the plexiglass, but Neil doesn’t let him finish the thought.

“You told me this has never been nothing,” Neil reminds him. “Was that a lie?”

Andrew sidesteps the ball and lets it go past them and towards the other end of the court, and then he turns to look at Neil.

“Put your hopes in something else,” he says. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I think that’s up to me to decide,” Neil replies, and there it is again — the steel of his resolve. “Play Exy, don’t play Exy. Study criminal law, don’t study it. It doesn’t change anything. We are not over until you tell me we’re over.” He pauses. “So, are we? Over?”

“You’re infuriating,” Andrew tells him.

“That’s not an answer,” Neil says, his chin up and his gaze fixed on Andrew’s eyes.

And the worst thing is — Andrew believes him. Neil shouldn’t even be alive today, shouldn't have made it so far, but he fought tooth and nail to get here — and here he is. It was his resolve that got him through that year, that got him what he wanted — and here he is, and for some reason, the thing he wants now is this.

He will let Andrew walk away, though, if that’s what Andrew chooses to do. He will let him go even though he already had to let go of so many things.

In a way, it’s like looking in the mirror.

Andrew reaches up slowly and curls his fingers in the front of Neil’s hoodie, and Neil simply looks back at him, giving only the slightest of nods, the permission Andrew is looking for.

He tugs gently until Neil takes a step forward, and then he presses their lips together. Neil exhales through his nose and some of the tension melts away, but his hands stay by his sides, and he doesn’t try to touch Andrew. Andrew flexes his fingers in Neil’s hoodie and uses his other hand to grab Neil’s wrist, to press his fingers against Neil’s pulse-point, searching for the familiar rhythm.

After a moment, Neil tears his mouth away, but he doesn’t try to step back, so Andrew doesn’t loosen his hold. Instead, he opens his eyes and meets the ridiculous blue of Neil’s gaze.

Neil’s lips brush against his when he says, “This isn’t an answer, either.”

Andrew swallows, certain that Neil can hear it in the silence, and gives the only answer he can give.

“We aren’t over.”

He can feel Neil’s smile against his lips and bites at Neil’s lower lip just to remind him that someday there will be an argument which Neil will not win so easily. Neil makes a small sound, but he sounds pleased rather than apologetic, and then he kisses Andrew again, all soft lips and pliant body. There is something different this time about the want unfurling slowly in the pit of Andrew’s stomach, something steady, warm and reliable, rather than desperate.

“You better make it to my team, junkie,” he murmurs against Neil’s lips, wondering how they made it all the way from the center of the room to one side of it, but he doesn’t really care when Neil leans back against the plexiglass and his expression goes through confusion and surprise to finally settle on cautious happiness. “Otherwise you’ll have my future teammates on your conscience.”

“I’ll make it,” Neil says, his voice breathy.

“So sure of yourself,” Andrew muses, but the truth is, he likes this self-confidence on Neil, and he knows that Neil knows it. He slides one hand underneath the hem of Neil’s hoodie and skims his fingers across Neil’s stomach, waiting for the familiar hitch in Neil’s breathing, and with the thumb of his other hand, he traces the outline of Neil’s jaw, the barest hint of stubble.

“Choose your team, and I’ll see you there soon enough,” Neil says, and the fact that he can still form coherent sentences is insulting, in Andrew's opinion. At least he sounds winded now and Andrew can hear the way his nails keep digging into the plexiglass.

Andrew presses another heated kiss to the warm pulse-point on Neil’s neck and tightens his hold on Neil’s hip. Neil arches into him, his body taut with tension, and Andrew continues to nip at the soft skin underneath his ear, pushing his knee between Neil’s legs, until Neil makes a small, desperate sound and tries to inch even closer.

Andrew hides a smirk in the crook of Neil’s neck — and then he steps back.

Neil huffs, frustrated, but doesn't try to follow him, leaning against the plexiglass instead. He glares at Andrew.

Andrew raises an eyebrow at him, pretending he isn’t affected by the blush rising to Neil’s cheeks, by his moist lips, by his disheveled hair.

“Make it to my team, and we can pick this up where we left off,” Andrew tells him, sounding a little more hoarse than he’d like. “I’m told additional motivation does wonders for working discipline.”

Neil glares at him. “You overestimate how much I care about the localization,” he says, his blown pupils and shallow breathing contradicting him completely.

Andrew leans towards him again, pressing one hand against the plexiglass by Neil's head, and brushes his lips against Neil’s ear, nearly smiles at Neil’s answering shudder. “I don’t think I do,” he says. “I’ll see you in the dorm.”

Neil shoots him another glare, but he pushes back from the plexiglass and stalks out of the court and towards the exits. Andrew looks after him for a moment, waiting for his own pulse to stop racing, and then picks up the phone from the floor.

He chooses the newly-programmed number.

“Uh, yes?” Aaron says on the other end of the line. “Andrew?”

Andrew exhales, looking around the court one last time before he turns around towards the corridor.

“You too, by the way,” Andrew says lightly and waits for the surprised catch in Aaron’s breathing meaning that he understood.

“Yeah, well,” Aaron says after a long moment. “Seems that’s what siblings do. Or whatever.”

“Yeah,” Andrew echoes.

He waits a moment longer, but there is nothing left to say, at least not now. He might come up with something someday, though. It surprises him that he wants to.

“Goodbye, Andrew,” Aaron says finally.

Andrew nods, well aware that Aaron can’t see him, and waits for Aaron to hang up.

He pockets the phone and closes the door behind him.

Somehow, it feels less like a farewell now.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

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.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

19.

 

 

Andrew startles awake and realizes that he is alone.

It takes him a moment to remember why it bothers him; it takes him a moment to remember that since yesterday, this bed — along with the entire apartment — belongs to Neil as well.

He rolls to his side and runs his fingers across Neil’s pillow; it’s still warm to touch. It’s that, more than the scratch carved above the headboard, that reassures Andrew that this is not a dream. Neil is here. He is here to stay.

Andrew shifts to lie on his back again. He closes his eyes and listens, but the apartment is eerily silent; he can’t hear the hum of the water in the bathroom or the swish of the coffee machine in the kitchen or the whisper of the TV in the living room. Wherever Neil is, he is quiet. It’s not out of character, but it’s enough to prompt Andrew to open his eyes again and sit up in bed.

He waits for a moment longer before kicking the sheets and the blankets away. He huffs in annoyance when his bare feet touch the floor. There are still two small cardboard boxes in the corner of the room, waiting to be unpacked; another proof that this is real. Neil is here.

Andrew pulls his warmest hoodie over his head, curling his fingers around the fox-adorned sleeves, and steals a pair of Neil’s socks. The retaliation is reasonable; Andrew wouldn’t be padding barefoot around the apartment at all if Neil hadn’t decided to deprive him of his body heat.

Neil isn’t in the living room and he isn’t in the kitchen, either, but Andrew recognizes the familiar ghost of cigarette smoke curling in the air on the balcony.

He gets the coffee machine going and finds two mugs — orange for Neil and black for himself. As he waits for the coffee, he stares absently at the bluish digits displayed on the microwave, counting down the passing minutes of the early morning, and at the Exy magnets on the fridge, one of the few things Neil decided to bring from his old apartment.

He is tired and sleepy, but calm.

Nightmares are an old enemy, one they both have battled a thousand times before. Just a few days ago, Andrew wouldn’t be able to offer anything except for his own steady breathing on the other side of the line. Now that Neil is here, he has plenty of tools at his disposal.

Once the coffee is ready, Andrew picks up the mugs and collects Neil’s hoodie from the couch, and opens the door leading to the balcony.

Neil is there, of course, curled against the wall of the building, with his knees drawn to his chest and a cigarette resting between his fingers. Like this, wearing Andrew’s t-shirt — too loose in the shoulders, and Andrew’s sweatpants — short enough to reveal his ankles, and with his hair sleep-soft and ruffled, Neil looks young and harmless. He looks gentle and quiet and lovable, and Andrew supposes that this is what the Foxes see when they look at him.

It’s not that he doesn’t see it as well, but while he always wants to run his hands through Neil’s hair and to thread their fingers together, it’s not the softness in Neil that he understands.

He understands the stillness. He understands the tension coiled in Neil’s muscles, the odd combination of fury and fear of an animal cornered but unwilling to die.

He understands the silence. He understands the hollow taste of old memories in the back of Neil’s throat, bitter and sour, impossible to swallow down, too heavy to let any words get through.

He understands the exhaustion. He understands being forced to witness the spectacle of your own past as it tries to get a hold of the present and the future.

He understands the ugly jealousy for those who can sleep through the night.

Neil is curled into himself, so when Andrew sits next to him, he stretches out his legs and crosses them at the ankles, just to be contrary. He steals Neil’s cigarette, takes a drag, and then places it neatly between Neil’s motionless fingers. Neil doesn’t acknowledge him.

The sky is slowly beginning to brighten, darkness fading into grey. The street below is still silent, but there is already a delivery car in front of the bakery.

Ten minutes pass before Neil finally moves.

He stubs out his cigarette against the floor and picks up the mug Andrew put by his side. He takes a sip, exhales, and says, “Sorry for waking you.”

“Put this on,” Andrew replies, shoving the hoodie in Neil’s lap and freeing him from the mug for the time being. He takes a sip just to get an annoyed noise out of Neil, winces at the bitter taste and immediately reaches for his own coffee to wash it down.

Neil huffs in irritation when he inevitably traps himself in the hoodie and has to take it off before putting it on again. He blows a breath to get his fringe out of his eyes and Andrew watches him with familiar warmth curling in his chest like cotton candy. Fondness, Andrew thinks, and counts the vowels and the consonants just to have something to do while Neil settles again, pries his mug from Andrew’s hand, and takes another sip of his coffee.

Andrew looks at him for a moment longer, then glances up at the sky. “Talk, Neil,” he prompts.

It takes Neil a while to respond. He places the mug back on the tiles, then pulls his knees even closer to his chest and folds his arms around them, curling as small as he can get. Andrew can by now tell the difference between Neil needing silence and Neil needing encouragement, so he leans into him slightly, pressing their shoulders together, and nudges Neil’s bare foot with his sock-clad one. “Neil.”

Neil glances over at him and rolls his eyes at Andrew’s tone, but then his expression falls again and he looks away. “I had a nightmare,” he says.

Andrew acknowledges that with a quiet hum, but he can tell that Neil isn’t done speaking, so he doesn’t interrupt.

“It was nothing new,” Neil says, then pauses to chew on his lower lip. “It’s just that I can’t tell if it’s a memory or not.”

“Your father?” Andrew prompts when nothing else seems to be forthcoming.

“No,” Neil says quietly. “Evermore.”

They never talk about Evermore, just like they never talk about Easthaven. Both had the potential to break them and yet neither did; as far as Andrew is concerned, there is nothing else to say. He prefers to pretend none of this has ever happened.

“Sometimes I think,” Neil says, “that if I could just remember it, I’d be able to let it go.”

Andrew picks up the cigarette pack lying between them, shakes another one out and lights it up. He watches the smoke for a moment, and then he says, “It wouldn’t help.”

Neil tilts his head, still resting on his folded arms, so he can look at Andrew. He doesn’t reply.

Andrew takes a drag of the cigarette. He pictures the smoke curling in his chest, black and suffocating and deadly. He lets it linger for a moment and then he forces it out of his lungs.

He says, “The most impossible thing always seems like the perfect solution, Neil. If you remembered all of it, you’d give anything to forget it.”

Neil chews at his lower lip again, clearly not quite convinced, but he doesn’t argue. Knowing Neil, he is well aware that Andrew is speaking from experience, and he has no intention of belittling that.

Andrew sighs. “Do you really want to know?”

“Does it matter?” Neil asks, shrugging with feigned disinterest. “It’s not like there is anything —”

“Do you really want to know, Neil?” Andrew interrupts.

“Yes,” Neil says, quiet but clear. “I do.”

Andrew clenches his teeth, but he knows just how inescapable the pull is. To remember and to forget, both equally destructive.

“Give me your phone,” he says.

Neil frowns. “It’s the middle of the night,” he says.

“Witness my remorse,” Andrew replies impatiently. “The phone, Neil.”

Neil huffs, but he passes his phone to Andrew. Andrew takes it and walks into the living room, closing the door behind him. He sits on the arm of the couch and looks at the dark room and at the bluish moonlight flickering in every reflective surface around him.

Kevin picks up after the second signal.

“What,” he says, “the fuck, Neil?”

“Rise and shine,” Andrew greets, just to cause further annoyance. “You have some college debts to pay.”

“Andrew?” Kevin says, and Andrew hears him shuffle around in bed. “What the hell do you want?”

“Pay attention,” Andrew scolds. “I just told you. I’m collecting.”

“Collecting,” Kevin repeats dumbly, suddenly very still, if the lack of background noise is anything to go by.

“Neil has some questions about Evermore,” Andrew replies. “You know someone who has some answers.”

“Jean,” Kevin says quietly, understanding. “Andrew, I can’t —”

“You mistake me for someone who cares,” Andrew interrupts. “It’s your problem to handle, not mine. I kept my promise. Neil’s deal with the Moriyamas is keeping you alive today. If you want to wipe the slate clean, you’ll get Moreau to talk to Neil.”

“You overestimate —”

“I told you already,” Andrew interrupts again. “You mistake me for someone who cares. Handle this and we’re even.”

“Even?” Kevin repeats, and Andrew’s beginning to feel like he’s talking to his own echo.

“Yes,” he says impatiently. “Deal with this and your debts are paid.”

There are two ways this can go now and Andrew is familiar with both of them. He has seen Kevin break a thousand times before, but he has also always recognized that nothing can continue getting broken if it doesn’t mend in the meantime. Whether Kevin has finally mended enough to stay that way remains to be seen.

When Kevin finally speaks, his voice is steady. “I’ll handle it.”

Perhaps his spine has found its way into his back.

“Good,” Andrew says, then hangs up without waiting for a reply.

Before he can turn around, Neil is sliding the balcony door open and stepping inside, their mugs in one hand and the cigarettes in the other. Andrew tosses him the phone and Neil catches it deftly in the hand holding the cigarette pack, without dropping either.

He checks the phone and looks up at Andrew. “Kevin?” he asks. “Kevin wasn’t even there.”

“No,” Andrew agrees. “But Moreau was.”

Neil goes very still. Andrew wouldn’t even notice the tremble going through his body if it weren’t for the mugs in his hand and the way they clatter together before Neil manages to stifle the shudder.

“Yeah,” he says, trying to push the phone into the pocket of his hoodie. His hands are shaking too much to accomplish that. “Yeah, he was.”

Andrew sighs, then plucks the phone and the cigarettes from Neil’s hands and tucks both gently into the front pocket of Neil’s hoodie. He remains close, but he lets his hands fall to his sides.

“It’s up to you,” he says. “You don’t have to ask him anything at all.”

Neil nods. He takes a deep breath and then exhales. “I think it might help,” he says after a moment. “Both of us, actually.”

Andrew shrugs. “I don’t give a damn about Moreau, Neil.”

He takes the mugs from Neil’s hands and turns on his heel. He doesn’t turn on the kitchen lights as he places the mugs in the dishwasher. Neil trails behind him and when Andrew turns around to face him, most of the tension has bled out of his shoulders.

He smiles, a little steadier now. “But you give a damn about me, huh.”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but plays along, pretending this is just an ordinary night, just an ordinary conversation. “You are ridiculous.”

“And yet you like me,” Neil says, unruffled, his slouch nearly nonchalant.

Andrew sighs impatiently, but there is no denying that he prefers Neil at his most annoying to Neil at his most detached. “And yet I like you,” he echoes in agreement, effectively wiping the smirk from Neil’s face.

Whatever Neil was planning to say next, it clearly has lost its way before it could reach his mouth. Andrew tilts his head to the side and enjoys the rare moment of rendering Neil speechless.

After a moment, Neil’s gaze drops to Andrew’s lips, and Andrew feels the familiar thrill somewhere deep in his stomach. It should get boring by now, this affection and hunger and want, but it only ever continues to grow.

“Ready to go back to sleep?” he asks.

Neil’s gaze remains locked on Andrew’s lips for a moment longer, and it seems like he might agree, but then he shakes his head slowly and meets Andrew’s gaze.

“I think I’ll go for a run,” he says.

“Do you want to be alone?” Andrew asks.

“Not really, no,” Neil says, honest. “I just want to get some air. Clear my head.”

Andrew sighs. “Fine,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Neil pauses, raising his eyebrows. “You hate running.”

“I hate you,” Andrew replies, all autopilot. “Running I can handle.”

Neil hums thoughtfully, a teasing smile in the corner of his lips, but his gaze is quietly pleased. Relieved. He steps closer to Andrew and after receiving a curt nod, presses their lips together, soft and warm and familiar. Andrew wants to bury his hands underneath Neil’s hoodie and drag him to bed, but he has made his decision already and he will keep his word.

“You like me,” Neil murmurs into his lips, intolerably pleased. “You like me a lot.”

Andrew huffs. “How old are you?” he asks, and then prevents Neil from answering by kissing him again, pressing their bodies together from head to toe. Three words, five vowels, three consonants. “Go get dressed.”

“You’re holding me in place,” Neil points out, doing absolutely nothing to free himself from Andrew’s hold at the back of his neck and Andrew’s fingers curled in the front of his hoodie.

“Shut the fuck up, Neil,” Andrew says pleasantly, and when Neil smiles again, he plasters his hand across Neil’s mouth. “Get dressed, now.”

He pushes Neil away and towards the bathroom. Neil pretends to zip his lips up, smiles at Andrew again, and doesn’t quite wait to reach the bathroom before pulling both his hoodie and his t-shirt over his head.

Andrew rolls his eyes, doing his absolute best to stop thinking about the easy play of muscles underneath Neil’s skin, and walks to their bedroom to find some workout clothes.

 

 

 

20.

 

It’s raining in Los Angeles.

It’s uncharacteristic, and it sets Andrew’s teeth on edge. He is used to the ever-blue skies and the ever-present warmth, just as he is used to the heavy taste of dust on the tip of his tongue, the burn of dehydration in his throat, the relentless fake cheer of California.

If it weren’t for the rain, Andrew would consider burning it all to the ground.

He has been here many times since joining his team, but the trips from LAX to the hotel and then to the L.A. Exy Stadium are both short enough that he could always easily avoid acknowledging that he is in California. Now, though, he has plenty of time and nothing to do.

In hindsight, he should have told Kevin to organize the meeting somewhere else, maybe somewhere between California and Colorado, but what’s done is done. As soon as Neil is back, Andrew will pull out of this parking lot and never think about this day again. By midnight they’ll be in Nevada.

He doesn’t like staying in the car, but he trusts Renee to look after Neil more than he trusts himself not to kill Jean on sight. He can keep his temper in check when they’re playing against each other, but he doubts he could extend the courtesy when Moreau started talking about Evermore.

He leans back in the driver’s seat, drumming his fingers restlessly against the wheel, and continues to watch the interior of the small café through its large, panoramic windows. It’s getting dark now and the lights inside are on, so he has a clear view of both Neil and Jean, despite the heavy cascades of rain. Renee is the only other person sitting at their table. While Kevin and Jeremy Knox are both present, they’re sitting closer to the entrance.

Neil looks pale and tired, which isn’t particularly surprising, considering how little he slept in the last few days. He is wearing Andrew’s hoodie and he keeps tugging at the edges of the sleeves, pulling them over his knuckles just to push them back again, uncharacteristically anxious. His coffee remains untouched.

Renee looks, as always, eerily calm. She doesn’t say anything as Neil and Jean continue to talk, merely keeps glancing between them, patient and attentive, her hands folded on the table.

Moreau looks even paler than Neil, but he seems a little less defensive than Andrew remembers, a little less like an injured animal about to lash out one last time. He seems calmer. Steadier. If Andrew didn’t have his own reasons to hate Moreau, he’d find it satisfying to watch — here is another one of Riko’s projects coming undone. One day, after this conversation is over and another memory is buried, there will be nothing left of Riko, like he never existed at all.

The Foxes one, Andrew thinks. The villain zero.

He goes through another cigarette and by the time Neil moves to stand up, Andrew’s hands are nearly completely steady and his thoughts are clear. The rain, however, continues to pick up in force.

Neil hesitates briefly and then offers Jean a simple nod, leaves some cash on the table and moves towards the exit. Renee stands up as well, pausing for a moment to squeeze Jean’s shoulder and say something to him, and then follows Neil outside. From the corner of his eye, Andrew watches Jean push his coffee away and reach for his jacket, but most of his attention is drawn to Neil, who opens the door of the café and steps outside. He doesn’t move towards the car, though, only shifts to hide from the rain underneath the edge of the roof and shuffles through the pockets of his jacket for his cigarettes.

Before Andrew can turn off the engine and move to join him, Renee steps neatly around Neil and jogs towards the Maserati. She pulls open the passenger’s door and slips inside.

“Hey,” she says, shrugging off the hood of her jacket and smiling at Andrew as she tucks her hair behind her ears, her fingers careful around her pearl earrings. Andrew definitely remembers seeing these earrings on Allison’s ears.

“Hey yourself,” he replies, letting his hand slide from the door handle, but keeping his eyes on Neil, who finally manages to light a cigarette and shoves his lighter into the pocket of his jacket.

“Thanks for doing this,” Renee says. “I think they both needed to talk about it.”

Andrew shrugs. He couldn’t care less what Moreau needs. His only concern is Neil, and Neil doesn’t exactly seem improved.

He wants to ask whether Neil got his answers, but he knows that Renee is not the right person to have this conversation with. Instead, he watches as Jean walks out of the café, accompanied by an uncharacteristically serious Jeremy Knox and a characteristically stressed out Kevin Day. Knox jogs towards his Range Rover while Moreau follows him unhurriedly, clearly not caring about the rain. Kevin, after a brief moment of hesitation, turns towards Andrew’s car.

Andrew rolls his eyes, but he grudgingly unlocks the back door and lets him inside.

“So,” Kevin says.

“So,” Andrew parrots, but he doesn’t want to prolong it, so he adds, “we’re even now.”

Kevin nods, but doesn’t leave. Renee nudges her elbow against Andrew’s side, shooting him an encouraging smile. Andrew rolls his eyes again.

“What, Kevin?” he asks, offering Kevin an acknowledging glance in the rear-view mirror and then getting back to watching Neil, who is going through his second cigarette now.

“What does that change, exactly?” Kevin asks. “Our deal being over?”

Everything, Andrew thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud.

The thing is, in Andrew’s world nothing has ever been free. There was a price to pay for Cass’s warmth, there was a price to pay for Aaron’s and Nicky’s presence in his life, there was a price to pay for Kevin’s promise. If everything had a price, then everything was a transaction, and Andrew learned a long time ago that nothing keeps people from leaving quite as effectively as the weight of an inescapable bargain.

Except there is no bargain between him and Neil. There is no bargain between him and Renee.

And from now on, there is no bargain between him and Kevin, either.

“You figure it out,” Andrew says, ignoring another warm look Renee sends in his direction. “Do you need a drive to LAX?”

“My flight is in the morning,” Kevin replies, shaking his head. “And my cab is already here.”

“Renee?” Andrew asks, keeping his voice steady, even though he is growing impatient. He wants this conversation over and he wants to speak to Neil, now.

“No, thank you,” Renee says. “I still need to talk to Jean.”

She gestures to the Range Rover, waiting patiently in its parking spot.

“Great,” Andrew says. “Out, both of you.”

It sounds harsh, but neither Kevin nor Renee seems particularly bothered. Renee reaches out and squeezes Andrew’s shoulder, once, before pushing the door open. She pulls up the hood of her jacket, but keeps her pace steady as she walks towards the Range Rover.

Kevin catches Andrew’s eye in the rear-view mirror and nods once, and then leaves the car and jogs to the cab waiting near the other end of the parking lot.

The second the Range Rover and the cab leave the parking lot, Andrew picks up his car keys and pushes the door open.

The rain is warm and sticky like a melted popsicle, and Andrew barely stifles a grimace as he walks towards Neil, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket.

Neil doesn’t look up at him, but shuffles to the side so that Andrew can fit beside him in the tiny space beneath the roof. The rain is still growing stronger, but there is little to no wind, so Neil’s clothes look relatively dry. When Andrew leans against the wall next to him, Neil drops his cigarette and grinds it against the concrete with the heel of his boot.

“Well?” Andrew says when the silence begins to feel heavy. “Did you get your answers?”

“I guess,” Neil says, fumbling for another cigarette. Andrew takes the pack out of his hands, slides one out and lights it up before passing it back to Neil, whose hands continue to shake.

Neil actually smokes through this one instead of simply letting it burn.

“It was real,” Neil adds after a moment. “The nightmare.”

“Do you want to tell me?” Andrew asks.

“I want to drive,” Neil replies, stubbing out the cigarette against the wall of the building with uncharacteristic ferocity before letting it drop to the pavement. Since he doesn’t ask for the keys, Andrew extends his hand, palm up, and offers them without prompting.

Neil takes the keys without hesitation, but Andrew doesn’t miss the way he manages to avoid both touching Andrew’s skin and meeting Andrew’s gaze before he steps into the rain.

When they get in the car, Neil stares at him pointedly until Andrew sighs, put-upon, and buckles up. Only after he is done, Neil turns on the engine, pulls the car into reverse, and leaves the parking lot.

The second they reach the interstate and the traffic thins out, Neil presses the gas pedal nearly all the way to the floor. Under different circumstances, watching it happen would cause a thrill of excitement to run through Andrew’s veins, but now all he feels is a sharp pull somewhere deep in his chest.

Concern.

Two vowels, five consonants.

He barely even registers the moment they leave California and then wordlessly accepts that they won’t be staying in Las Vegas. Neil keeps his eyes fixed on the road and his hands are steady on the wheel, and the silence isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but Andrew wants it to end all the same. He alternates between watching his own reflection in the window and watching Neil from the corner of his eye, and tries not to doze off.

They’ve reached Utah by the time Neil lets the car slow down, and it’s past two a.m.

Andrew is drowsy with sleep, but he keeps his eyes forcibly open and focused on the road; while Neil seems completely awake and alert, Andrew doesn’t like the idea of letting him do this — whatever it is that Neil is doing — on his own.

The road is empty and dim, and if it weren’t for the Maserati’s headlights — the cold, fierce light cutting through the thick darkness — the whole journey would feel like drifting in outer space.

The faint, reddish glow of the dashboard controls reflects in Neil’s eyes and deepens the scars on his face, and Andrew feels a heavy weight somewhere deep in his chest, the familiar pull of irresistible fascination, but right now it’s easily overshadowed by worry.

His imagination is creative when it comes to terrifying things, and it has been working restlessly for days now, trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that Neil’s nightmare entailed.

Neil does not frighten easily, Andrew’s restless mind reminds him, ever-cruel.

“We can stay in St. George,” Neil says, interrupting Andrew’s thoughts; it’s the first thing he has said in the last five hours. His voice sounds a little hoarse.

“Okay,” Andrew says.

He continues sneaking glances in Neil’s direction until they enter the city and Neil picks the first motel on their right, pulling into the nearly-empty parking lot and turning off the engine. He doesn’t move to open the door, so Andrew doesn’t move either, but whatever Neil was meaning to say, he clearly decides against it, because after another long moment he drops the keys in Andrew’s hand and leaves the car without a word.

Andrew takes their bags and lets Neil handle the rooms, and several minutes later Neil returns and takes his bag from Andrew’s hand.

Andrew follows him to their room, trying to focus on keeping his feet from tripping over one another, and he only pauses for a brief moment at the sight of two narrow beds separated by a nightstand. He doesn’t question it, the same way he wouldn’t question a verbal “no”, and he drops his bag on one of the beds and flops back on the mattress, considering the idea of falling asleep like this, without even kicking off his boots.

Californian rain is still gnawing at his skin.

It’s Neil’s quiet voice that jolts him awake again.

“In the nightmare,” Neil is saying, his voice quiet but steady, “Riko made me use my father’s knives.”

Andrew swallows. It sounds very loud.

He briefly considers whether he should sit up or pretend to sleep; whether Neil would find it easier to talk to him if he didn’t have to hold his gaze. In the end, he does sit up, because he needs to make sure that Neil is not doing something stupid and self-destructive as he speaks.

Neil isn’t doing much of anything, though. He is sitting on his bed, still in his jacket, with one knee drawn up to his chest and his chin resting on top. He is fiddling with the frayed ends of his jeans and his gaze is fixed on the wall.

“He told me to hurt Jean,” he says, absent and terrible and far-away.

Andrew has not foreseen this scenario, but in hindsight, there is nothing surprising about it at all. Neil would never care that much about his own well-being.

“Did you?” Andrew asks.

“No,” Neil says, glancing up at Andrew just to look away again. “So Riko did it for me.”

“He hurt you as well,” Andrew points out.

Neil neatly sidesteps the comment. “He warned me,” he says. “He said that if I don’t follow his orders, he’ll do whatever he asked me to do, only ten times worse.”

“Neil —”

“I knew he’d keep his word,” Neil interrupts. “I knew I could spare Jean some pain, but all I cared about was keeping my hands clean. Preserving that one last line between me and Nathan.”

Andrew sighs, irritated and out of his depth, because he hates being helpless, and there is nothing he can do here. There is no one to threaten and no one to kill. “What is it that you want from me, Neil? Absolution?”

Neil snorts. “I don’t know,” he admits, and it sounds hollow. “Maybe I just want you to punch me in the face.”

He sounds like he means that, too. Andrew grits his teeth, slides off the bed and steps closer to Neil before dropping to a crouch directly in front of him.

“Look at me,” he orders. When Neil complies, his gaze wary, Andrew says, “Having two equally shitty options is not a choice. You were just a pawn and the game was rigged.”

“But —”

“It’s over,” Andrew interrupts. “Moreau is alive. Riko’s dead. Stop letting a ghost play with your head.”

Neil sighs, then lets go of his knee and lets both of his feet rest on the floor, taking down one of the defenses between him and Andrew. He finally looks into Andrew’s eyes.

“How can you tell me it’s not my fault,” he says quietly, “and yet hold Jean accountable for what he did to me?”

His voice is steady, almost calm, but Andrew can instantly tell that this is the heart of the problem.

He stands up, because his legs are beginning to ache, and after receiving a nod from Neil, sits at the edge of the mattress next to him. He shifts to the side and Neil mirrors him without a pause.

“I don’t hold him accountable,” Andrew says.

Neil raises an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. Andrew wants to reach out and smooth Neil’s frown with his fingertips, but he orders his hands to stay still.

“If I did,” he says, “do you really think he’d still be alive?”

Neil swallows. “But —”

“Do you, Neil?” Andrew interrupts. He means it, too.

Neil looks at him for a long moment, as if searching for a lie, and then he exhales and just as the air leaves his lungs, the tension leaves his shoulders. He slumps forward slightly and before Andrew can question himself, he reaches out and places his hand on the back of Neil’s neck, giving the slightest of tugs, easily resistible.

Neil doesn’t resist. Instead, he tucks his head in the crook of Andrew’s neck, his body sagging against Andrew’s. Andrew runs his fingers through his hair, ignoring how uncomfortable the position is, ignoring his own exhaustion, ignoring everything except for the steady rhythm of Neil’s breathing against his skin.

“Stay?” Neil asks.

Always, Andrew thinks, and it no longer sounds like a knot of incompatible vowels and consonants.

It’s a truth.

He maneuvers Neil until they’re mostly horizontal, limbs tangled on the tiny bed, Neil’s head resting against Andrew’s shoulder and his nose still tucked against Andrew’s neck, their bodies pressed together from head to toe.

A few years ago Andrew wouldn’t let himself fall asleep like this. Now all he does is take off his armbands, just in case, and drop them by the bed. Then he buries one hand in Neil’s hair and winds the other around his waist, pulling him closer.

When Neil’s breathing evens out, he presses a kiss to the top of Neil’s head.

 

 

 

21.

 

“We’re not getting a dog,” Andrew says, for what feels like the billionth time. “Neil.”

He regrets every single decision that has led him to this moment. He regrets opening that text from Bee, all those years back. He regrets having listened to her advice and checking out the animal shelter. He doesn’t regret the hours spent walking the dogs, because the dogs are alright, but he regrets mentioning it to Neil, and he sure as hell regrets the results of that slip.

“Look at them, though,” Neil says, his eyes almost as wide as the puppy’s he is holding in his arms. “Just look.”

“I am looking,” Andrew says. “For fuck’s sake, Neil. Put the dog back on the ground.”

Neil pouts, but he complies. He looks almost more heartbroken than the dog does, and Andrew absolutely refuses to let it affect him.

It’s a sunny day, only two weeks into autumn, only four months since Neil has moved in with him, and Andrew already can’t imagine living without this. He can’t imagine waking up without the warmth of Neil’s body pressed against his own, he can’t imagine making morning coffee without a lazy make-out session against the kitchen counter, he can’t imagine a single part of his life without Neil in his peripheral vision.

Which is the exact reason why Neil is here with him now, dressed in Andrew’s leather jacket, and with an obnoxiously orange scarf draped loosely around his neck.

They’re both accompanied by five dogs. Andrew knows all of them by name, but he knows that Neil would never let him live it down, so he refers to them by their breed. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t a great decision either, if his plan was to prove how little he cares.

“You clearly like dogs,” Neil accuses. “So why not? Look at this one.”

He picks up another dog, a fluffy Pomeranian named Jedi, and shoves it in Andrew’s face.

“Are you always so exhausting?” Andrew asks, stepping back and ignoring the betrayal in Jedi’s eyes. He decides to bring her an extra snack next time he visits.

“Stop evading,” Neil says, stubborn as ever. “Well?”

Andrew sighs. “We travel a lot, Neil. Who would walk the dog in our absence? Feeding, fine, someone could do it. But the rest? Dogs hate being alone. Don’t you think it would be a little cruel?”

Neil watches him for a moment longer, his expression contemplative. Then he says, “Okay.”

“Okay?” Andrew repeats warily, surprised that Neil gave up so easily.

“Yeah,” Neil says. “Good arguments. We’re not getting a dog.”

Andrew narrows his eyes, but Neil looks back calmly, clearly very aware that Andrew can’t figure out his track of thought.

For the lack of any better options — and because he’s been wanting to do it for a while now — Andrew tugs Neil down by the scarf to kiss him. Neil melts into the kiss, but it doesn’t quite work with the way he can’t stop smiling, so Andrew gives up after a moment and pushes him back lightly before turning on his heel to walk towards the shelter.

Neil grins even wider when he catches up with him, but he doesn’t say anything for the rest of their walk, so Andrew is nearly relaxed by the time they enter the main building of the shelter and pass the leashes to one of the volunteers, and he even leans down to pet a dog or two.

That is, until Neil asks, “Can we see the cats?”

Neil,” Andrew says.

Neil smiles at him brightly. “I just want to see them. Come on.”

“I can show you around,” the blonde volunteer — Kelly? — says, ignoring Andrew’s glare with practiced ease. “Come on.”

She leads them out of the main building and into another one, filled with smaller cages. The sheer amount of meowing and purring makes it nearly impossible to think, which, Andrew can admit, might be useful sometimes.

Kelly leads them past the cages and into a large, open room. The second they slip inside, at least fifteen cats are crowding around their feet and several of them attempt to climb their legs, nearly all of them purring and demanding attention.

Neil’s smile is nearly blinding.

“We’re not getting a cat, Neil,” Andrew says wearily, but Neil has already knelt down and allowed four cats to climb into his lap.

“Okay,” he says, picking up another cat and settling it on his knee.

By now most of the cats have abandoned Andrew and Kelly and are crowding around Neil, trying to climb into his lap and get him to pet them. Neil does his absolute best to pet every single one, letting the rest play with his scarf. He looks happy and pleased and excited.

Andrew is so, so annoyed.

It takes him a moment to realize that not all the cats are playing or trying to get Neil to pet them; one of them is sitting at the very top of the cat tree and staring at everything around it impassively.

It’s the ugliest cat Andrew has ever seen. It must have been black at some point, but most of its fur is gone, and its left eye seems to be damaged. Its right ear is ripped at the edge.

“A cat fight?” Andrew asks.

Kelly stands up to follow his gaze and shakes her head, her ponytail swishing in the air. “No,” she says. “Chemicals and a knife.”

“Who?” Andrew asks.

Kelly shrugs, a sad smile on her face. “You know how it is. Police closed the investigation before they even opened it.”

The cat gazes back at them, uninterested and unconcerned. Andrew looks back.

“What’s its name?” he asks.

“King,” Kelly replies. “He’s only two years old.”

“Only?” Andrew echoes.

Kelly looks away. “We’ll need to put him down. He needs a surgery, one we can’t afford, especially considering how lengthy the treatment is.”

“What kind of a surgery?” Andrew asks.

“For his eye,” Kelly replies. “It’s probably a tumor.”

“Would the surgery help?”

“It would,” Kelly says. “But we have plenty of cats that have priority, because they’re still healthy and pretty enough to be adopted. He’s at the bottom of the list. He gets his painkillers, but that’s it.”

Andrew turns his gaze back to the cat, who is watching them both, uncaring, unmoving and unimpressed. Relatable cats are not something Andrew has ever wanted in his life, but he is acutely aware that nearly all of his arguments against dogs don’t really apply here. He is also acutely aware that he has never been on this side before, capable of actually fixing a fucked-up thing, rather than being the fucked-up thing.

So he says, “Neil.”

“Mmm?” Neil hums, still focused solely on the cats crowding his lap.

“Pick one and we’re leaving,” Andrew says.

Neil startles at that, and the cat he is currently petting meows in annoyance.

“What?” Neil says, sounding genuinely surprised.

“You heard me,” Andrew says. “Pick one.”

“But —”

Andrew gazes at him in silence until Neil seems to accept that Andrew is neither joking, nor willing to discuss his decision, and then he smiles brightly. He doesn’t hesitate before picking a cat — a fluffy, white mess of claws, teeth and purring nonsense, and he scoops it up in his arms.

Andrew nods and turns to Kelly. “We’ll be taking these two.”

Kelly blinks at him. “You mean Sir and…?”

“And King,” Andrew confirms.

Kelly smiles at him, wide and bright, before she has to blink and look away. “Okay,” she says. “Just wait here for a second, I’ll have it all organized.”

She leaves, closing the door behind her.

Neil moves to stand by Andrew’s side, still petting the white ball in his hands, apparently unconcerned that Sir is chewing restlessly on this thumb. Together they look up at King, who looks back at them for a moment before turning around and instantly falling asleep.

“I do see the resemblance,” Neil says lightly.

“Shut up,” Andrew advises him. “We’re never talking about this.”

“About what?” Neil says obediently. “We need to get him down.”

“Glad you volunteered,” Andrew says. “Give me this,” he adds, pointing to Sir.

“What? Why?” Neil asks, holding the cat closer to his chest in a rare show of possessiveness.

Andrew gives him a bored look. “I can’t reach King.”

“And I can?” Neil asks, indignant. “I’m only a little taller than you are.”

“You’ll think of something,” Andrew tells him, extending his hands. “Well?”

Neil glares at him, but he puts Sir in Andrew’s arms. It’s still a white ball of nonsense, but Andrew has to admit that the persistent purring is kind of nice.

King is awake and back to watching them by the time Neil finds a stool and climbs on it to reach him, and he hisses loudly at Neil. Neil pauses at that, with his hand still extended, and Andrew pretends he doesn’t watch as Neil lets King sniff at his fingers before he tries to touch him. He is careful and patient, and it shouldn’t surprise Andrew, but it does.

King takes his time. He examines Neil’s hand, sniffs at it, looks impassively at Neil, and then, only then, grudgingly allows Neil to pet his head.

“Hey there,” Neil says quietly, and King continues to stare at him, but he lets Neil touch his chin, and several minutes later he lets Neil lift him gently into his arms.

King spares Andrew a glare over Neil’s shoulder before semi-accidentally nuzzling into Neil’s neck, and when Neil steps down and smiles at Andrew, his expression is triumphant.

Andrew silently dares him to say something about resemblance again, but Neil clearly has developed some survival instincts, because he stays quiet. He pets King gently, keeping his hold careful and light, and when King gives a soft, defeated purr, Andrew decides that he can’t watch this any longer.

He ignores Neil and turns around with Sir in his arms to leave the room, and pretends not to care about the fact that Sir’s purring changes from simply content to content and inquisitive and then excited as they go farther and farther away from the cages.

Sir is a bizarre cat. He seems healthy, if a little overweight, but there is something distinctly wrong with his face, as if he hit a wall at a very high speed or — Andrew supposes — as if someone tried to cross breeds that should not be crossed. The only thing Sir seems to be interested in is being petted and purring loudly, and Andrew lets himself wonder for a moment why Neil chose this particular ball of fluff and affection, but he supposes that the answer is not that hard to guess.

In the meantime, King has fallen asleep in Neil’s arms, and he has stopped purring, but his paws are kneading unconsciously at Neil’s shoulder, and Andrew must be glaring again, because Neil shoots him an amused glance and says, “You can’t be jealous of a cat.”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. “You’ll be looking after them on your own.”

“Sure,” Neil lies, without caring to sound like he isn’t lying. “Look, he loves you already,” he adds, pointing with his free hand to Sir, and Andrew stills for a moment at his choice of words and the ease with which they slip from Neil’s tongue.

If Neil notices, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he presses a kiss to King’s head and then puts him gently in the box that Kelly prepared for them.

Andrew dumps Sir in Neil’s arms and looks through the documents prepared by yet another volunteer before signing them all and taking the small bottle with King’s painkillers.

The cats are meowing by the time they reach the car, and Andrew rolls his eyes when Neil tries to both pet them and keep them in the box at the same time throughout the entire journey to the apartment.

King ends up falling asleep on Andrew’s pillow, so Andrew ends up sharing the second pillow with Neil. All in all, it’s not as bad as it could be, at least until Sir climbs on Andrew’s shoulder using nothing but claws and sheer determination.

It ends up being worth it, though, when Neil smiles wider and wider and then smothers his laughter against Andrew’s neck.

 

 

 

22.

 

In hindsight, Andrew should have seen it coming.

He has always known, rationally, that his past is not going anywhere, and not just due to his eidetic memory. He has always known that his apathy will forever be lurking in the shadows, waiting to crawl back into his life.

He has known that, rationally, and yet when it happens, it’s still unexpected at best, maybe because he finally has everything he has ever wanted and he should be alright now.

But he isn’t.

Neil notices, of course, because it’s impossible to hide anything from Neil. He notices that the nightmares are back. He notices Andrew’s exhaustion, heavier now than it has ever been. He notices the silence and the stillness and the apathy.

At first, he doesn’t intervene. He is simply there, a steady presence by Andrew’s side, close enough to touch, but never touching without permission. He continues to make meals that Andrew continues to pick at, hardly ever able to swallow down much of anything, and he continues to talk to Andrew in a quiet voice, even though Andrew has no answers to offer.

Andrew knows what is happening, but there is no rationalizing the way he feels, or, to be more specific, the way he doesn’t feel.

He continues to go to practice, but other than that, he spends most of his time curled up on the couch and staring into space, letting the cats crowd his lap.

He feels empty and hollow like blown glass, thinned out to the breaking point, all his defenses cracking under the relentless pressure of discomfort. He wants to rub at his skin until he reaches flesh and blood and bone, the last place where he has never been touched. He wants to stay still until the world ends.

He ignored the nonobligatory practice this morning, but he ordered Neil to go without him, and he hasn’t moved since then.

He hears the door click, but he recognizes Neil’s footsteps, so he doesn’t get out of bed. He realizes distantly that it’s late, that he should be up by now, that it must be past noon if Neil is back from practice, but he feels exhausted.

When he opens his eyes again, it’s to meet Neil’s gaze across the pillow. Neil is lying on his side on top of the covers, fully dressed. Concern is lurking in his eyes, but his expression is soothingly blank.

“Hey,” he says quietly.

Andrew simply looks back. The words are there, somewhere, but it’s too much work to get them out. Neil won’t walk away because of the silence, even if his passports are always waiting for him underneath the nightstand. He won’t.

“Can I touch you?” Neil says, extending his hand to hover over Andrew’s hair to specify his intentions.

Andrew nods and closes his eyes when Neil’s fingers slide into his hair. Neil spends a long time doing nothing except for this; his touch careful and soothing, predictable. Finally, his hand stops moving, his thumb resting just behind Andrew’s ear, massaging gently.

“How about a shower?” he asks quietly, and Andrew tenses minutely before forcing his muscles to relax.

He doesn’t respond, so Neil’s hand slowly resumes its motions as Neil lets the matter drop for the moment. He is persistent, but he is also patient, and he doesn’t ask for more than Andrew can give.

“Breakfast, then?” Neil says after another long moment, but when Andrew doesn’t respond to that question either, he lets the matter drop as well.

Andrew opens his eyes and watches him, searching for the signs of disappointment or frustration, but finding none. Neil simply continues to pet his hair, steady and unwavering in his support, clearly concerned but doing his best to project calm.

After a while, he reaches to the nightstand for his copy of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and resettles on the bed until he can hold the book with one hand and pet Andrew’s hair with the other. Andrew pretends he doesn’t notice that Neil always glances at him before turning the page, making sure that Andrew had enough time to read it, too.

After they reach the end of another chapter, Andrew says, “A shower.”

His voice sounds hoarse from disuse, but Neil pretends not to notice. He nods, slowly withdrawing his hand.

He rolls out of bed and rummages through Andrew’s clothes until he finds his preferred sweatpants and hoodie and clean underwear, then picks up a fresh towel from the drawer.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he says, and then leaves the room. Andrew hears the quiet sound of the hinges of the bathroom door, and then the hum of the water when Neil sets about filling the bathroom with steam.

Andrew forces himself to kick away the sheets and stand up. He is distantly aware that his clothes are clinging to his skin, sticky with sweat. Just as distantly he acknowledges his lightheadedness, caused by too many skipped meals.

Neil is waiting for him in the bathroom, which looks suspiciously clean and smells suspiciously nice. There is also a collection of Andrew’s favorite shower gels that he hasn’t bought himself.

“Do you want me to leave?” Neil asks, pushing away from the sink and handing Andrew the towel.

Andrew considers him for a moment, then shakes his head. He doesn’t necessarily want to be touched right now, but he is also aware that Neil’s touch has helped in the past. If he has to, he can always ask Neil to leave, and Neil will do just that.

“Is touching okay?” Neil asks again.

Andrew frowns. It’s not the touching he minds right now, but he can’t make the words leave his mouth.

“Yes,” he says. “Just…”

He doesn’t say anything else, but Neil doesn’t move, patient and encouraging.

“It’s okay,” Neil says. “Whatever it is. Tell me.”

Andrew grits his teeth, but manages to force the words out. “Don’t look at me.”

He expects at least a flicker of confusion, but there is none. The second the words leave Andrew’s mouth, Neil offers a nod and closes his eyes.

Andrew swallows, then reaches for the hem of his hoodie and pushes it over his head. He takes off his pants, too, before reaching for the hem of Neil’s t-shirt. Neil jumps at the touch, but he relaxes instantly and doesn’t open his eyes.

“Okay?” Andrew asks.

“Yes,” Neil replies easily.

He keeps his eyes closed as Andrew finishes undressing them both, and doesn’t open them when Andrew pulls him into the shower. Andrew exhales at the heat of the water against his skin and steps closer to Neil. Without a word, he presses the bottle of shampoo into Neil’s hand and then rests his forehead against Neil’s shoulder.

“You can touch,” he murmurs.

Neil offers another nod. He doesn’t seem to have much trouble moving around with his eyes closed, and Andrew supposes that there is a story behind that, but he doesn’t want to break the silence at the moment. He lets Neil wash his hair and then he returns the favor, pleased with the way the tension in Neil’s body uncoils at every brush of Andrew’s fingers.

He lets Neil wash his body, still with his eyes closed. He feels safe and warm and content, at least until he registers the heavy pull of arousal in the pit of his stomach and a wave of nausea runs up his throat. He forces it down, but he doesn’t manage to conceal a shudder, and Neil instantly drops his hands.

“It’s fine,” Andrew manages. “I just need —”

“I know,” Neil says. He doesn’t reach out to touch Andrew again. “I’ll make you something to eat.”

He steps back and out of the cabin, leaving Andrew alone. He stays in the shower until Neil puts on his clothes and leaves the bathroom, closing the door behind him, and only then he rests his head against the tiles and turns the water as cold as it can go.

He is shivering by the time he gets out of the shower and puts on the sweatpants and then his hoodie, but his thoughts are a little less murky.

He discovers that Neil has opened the window in the bedroom and changed the sheets. The cats are already perched on the pillows and Sir starts purring the second he notices Andrew. King spares them both an annoyed glare before going back to licking his paw.

Andrew closes the door to the bedroom and pads to the kitchen, where Neil seems to be making pancakes. He is even wearing an apron. It is, naturally, orange.

“There’s also hot chocolate,” Neil says when he notices Andrew. “But only if you eat the pancakes first.”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but he sits obediently at the kitchen island and accepts the first pancake, frowning at the sheer amount of fresh fruit accompanying it.

“All part of the deal,” Neil says, pointing to the fruit with his spatula.

“Terrific,” Andrew mutters, but he devours the first pancake before Neil has the time to make the next one. After a few minutes, King saunters into the room and jumps on the kitchen counter, directly disobeying every single command Andrew has ever given him, and headbutts Neil in the elbow, purring furiously when Neil doesn’t immediately acknowledge him. Andrew glares at them both for a moment before Sir decides to join them and curls on the stool next to Andrew, absolutely content to simply exist.

Andrew eats two more pancakes before he is allowed to have his hot chocolate, and then three more after that, and then scrolls through the messages he received from Aaron and Renee, and through the missed calls from Nicky. Neil sits at the opposite side of the kitchen island and sips at his tea, looking content. When Andrew is done with his food, Neil places his mug on the counter.

He says, “I called Betsy.”

Andrew stills. After a moment, he forces himself to put down his mug as well. “Why?” he asks.

“She gave me a number for a therapist she knows here in Colorado,” Neil replies. “She thinks you would be able to work together.”

“Why?” Andrew repeats, still steady, but he can hear the demand in his own voice. He doesn’t want to be having this conversation, he doesn’t want a new therapist, he is tired.

Neil chews at his lower lip. “Because I can’t help you,” he says eventually. “I want you to feel better, but I can’t help you.”

“It’s not the flu, Neil,” Andrew snaps. “This is who I am.” He pauses, but the irrational sense of betrayal pushes the next words out of his mouth anyway. “You’re better off leaving than trying to fix me.”

Whatever careful gentleness was present in Neil’s voice before, it evaporates now. In the blink of an eye, Neil switches from patience and softness to conviction and steel.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “You could quit Exy, you could stop leaving the house, you could stop talking to me altogether and I still wouldn’t go anywhere. This isn’t about me and it isn’t about us. It’s about you.”

“Then it’s my choice, not yours,” Andrew replies. “I don’t belong to you.”

Neil swallows. “No, you don’t,” he acknowledges. “But you also don’t belong to this.”

“This,” Andrew echoes derisively.

“Your nightmares,” Neil says. “Your memories. Your mental illness. Take your pick.”

Andrew clenches his jaw. “As if you’re a paragon of mental health yourself.”

“I never claimed to be,” Neil says, and just like that, the steel in his voice melts away again. “But I have you, and that’s enough. It never worked like that the other way around.”

It takes a while for the words to actually register in Andrew’s mind, and when they do, he still can’t make sense of them for a moment.

When he does, all he says is, “You’re an idiot.”

Neil rolls his eyes, then moves to slide off his stool. “Right. Whatever.”

Andrew has no intention of letting him leave, so he catches Neil’s wrist. He jumps off the stool and rounds the kitchen island to stand in front of Neil.

“You’re an idiot,” he repeats.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Neil snaps.

Before he can push past Andrew and out of the kitchen, Andrew places a hand on his chest and says, “You help.”

Neil huffs, annoyed and disbelieving and avoiding Andrew’s gaze, so Andrew catches his chin between his thumb and forefinger and forces Neil to meet his gaze.

“You help,” he repeats. The words feel heavy on his tongue, like they might drop back into his throat any second now, but he pushes them out. “This,” he says, gesturing between them, “is everything.”

He can see Neil’s throat work as he swallows, and for a second he considers all other words that are still unsaid, but he has time to say them. There will be years and years after this, plenty of time to use and to waste, and Neil isn’t going anywhere. He was never going anywhere.

Andrew says, “I’ll make you a deal.”

“I’m listening,” Neil says quietly, though he seems busy maneuvering his hand, his wrist still in Andrew’s hold, until he can thread their fingers together.

“I’ll see the therapist Bee recommended,” he says. “But only if you do, too.”

Neil rolls his eyes. “I told you I don’t need —”

“And I told you you’re an idiot,” Andrew interrupts. “Do we have a deal or not?”

Neil glares at him some more, but eventually he huffs, annoyed.

“Fine,” he says. “But you’re taking me for a drive later tonight. And call Nicky, will you? I talk to him often enough as it is.”

“Deal,” Andrew agrees, pretending that he doesn’t know it’s all for his benefit.

“Deal,” Neil echoes and brings Andrew’s hand to his lips to press a kiss to his knuckles.

 

 

 

23.

 

“So,” Micky, the Denver EC’s starting backliner, says, “you and Josten, huh?”

Micky happens to be one of the people on their team that Andrew doesn’t completely ignore. He used to play for the Trojans back in the day, but he keeps his sunny personality to himself and he brings sweets to practice, so Andrew has decided to acknowledge his existence in exchange for unlimited access to Skittles and M&M’s.

He is reconsidering that decision now.

He puts his bag on the floor and folds his arms across his chest, raising an eyebrow.

It took their team exactly eight months to figure things out. By now they all know better than to antagonize Andrew, and Andrew doesn’t really care what they think as long as they keep their thoughts to themselves. He is used to the way their eyes linger on him and Neil, but as long as everyone keeps their mouth shut, he can handle it. When they choose to speak out — not so much.

“A problem?” he asks pleasantly.

“A solution, more like,” Micky says, unconcerned as he turns his back to Andrew and starts packing his bag. “That way you don’t get a plus one invite to the wedding, and I save, like, two hundred dollars.”

Andrew watches him for a moment longer, but Micky seems completely oblivious to the fact that he nearly got murdered in a locker room, so Andrew lets himself relax.

“We’re not coming,” he tells Micky.

“Well, Josten is definitely coming,” Micky says with a shrug. “He told me. As for you — think about the cake.”

Andrew narrows his eyes. “You can’t just win me over with sweets every time.”

“Can’t I?” Micky asks, like that’s news to him, and he swings his bag over his shoulder. “Too bad. I was thinking tiramisu and those tiny cupcakes with pink-and-white frosting that Amy makes —”

“Stop talking,” Andrew interrupts. “Fine.”

“Aw,” Micky says. “Cool. I’ll send you an invite and everything. And a cupcake.”

“Fuck off,” Andrew advises him, but accepts the Skittles Micky offers him.

“See you around,” Micky says, leaving the locker room with an obnoxious salute.

Andrew huffs, still a little on edge even though his wariness was misplaced, and double-checks his bag before picking it up and leaving the room.

Neil is waiting for him by the Maserati, toying with their apartment keys, his bag resting on the ground by his feet. His hair is still slightly damp from the shower and Andrew curls his hands in the pockets of his hoodie to keep himself from reaching out. Soon, he promises himself, and lets himself imagine the way he’s going to run his fingers through Neil’s hair the second they are alone and behind closed doors.

“Hey,” Neil says, smiling at Andrew, easy and pleased.

He hasn’t stopped smiling for days now, ever since they won the semi-finals, and Andrew should be getting bored of it by now, but instead he still has trouble looking away. There’s a new kind of peace in Neil’s eyes and a lack of tension in his body, and he looks more content than ever, even though they still have one big game ahead of them before the season ends. Andrew has no idea whether Neil’s mood should be attributed to the therapy sessions he attends but refuses to talk about, or the Denver EC’s recent progress, and he prefers not to ask.

“We just saw each other,” he says, feigning indifference.

“Killjoy,” Neil says, but his smile doesn’t fade, and Andrew steps closer to him than he really should, considering that they’re in a public parking lot. Neil doesn’t seem to mind, though.

“You’re driving,” Andrew says, dropping the car keys into Neil’s hand.

“Because you like watching me drive?” Neil asks, cheerful, obnoxious, and infuriating.

“Because it keeps you from talking,” Andrew tells him.

Neil hums, eyes gleaming. “There are other ways to keep me from talking.”

“Do you want to end up on the cover of tomorrow’s newspaper?” Andrew asks him, stepping a little closer just to watch Neil’s pupils go wider and his breath hitch. Andrew leans in so their lips nearly brush and says, “Body found in the parking lot by the Denver’s Exy Court…”

Neil tips his head back and laughs out loud and it’s such a gorgeous sound that Andrew has to step back before he actually ends up kissing Neil against their car in a public parking lot.

Before he can walk away, though, Neil’s fingers curl around the sleeve of his jacket, so Andrew stops in his tracks and moves to face him again, tilting his head in a silent question.

“Would it be so bad?” Neil asks, peering up at him, his careless slouch nearly making him shorter than Andrew.

“Would what be so bad?” Andrew asks.

“Ending up on the cover of tomorrow’s newspaper,” Neil says, his gaze fixed firmly on Andrew’s eyes.

It takes Andrew a moment to understand what he means.

He sighs. “Give me the keys,” he says.

Neil complies without a pause and lets go of Andrew’s sleeve.

Andrew pulls the car out of the parking lot and into the street, locking his hands tightly on the wheel and wondering if they’d tremble if he allowed them to relax.

Neither of them says anything until they’ve made it out of the city and onto the interstate.

“You want to come out,” Andrew says eventually, opening the window on his side and lighting up a cigarette. His hands are steady now; his thoughts are anything but.

“I don’t want to have to,” Neil replies. “But since we would have to — yeah.”

“Why?” Andrew asks idly, rolling the cigarette between his fingers and forcing himself to pay attention to the road. “Haven’t you listened to Kevin at all?”

“I have,” Neil says, shrugging. “I just really don’t care.”

Andrew glances at him from the corner of his eye. “What about the Moriyamas, then?”

“What about them?” Neil asks. His hands are folded neatly in his lap, his gaze fixed on Andrew’s face, as if he expects the stillness to conceal the uncertainty in his eyes.

“Since it can affect your career,” Andrew replies, “and since it will definitely affect your sponsorship deals, it seems like something they might consider relevant.”

“Not if we win the league,” Neil points out.

“Wrong. Besides, we haven’t won yet,” Andrew replies. “And you’re evading the question.”

“So I might make them less money,” Neil says. “Less is still more than none, and that’s how much they’re gonna get if they choose to kill me.”

“True,” Andrew allows. “But it doesn’t make the call any less risky.”

“I don’t care,” Neil says, fiercer now. “They don’t own me. It’s not their decision.”

“You really do have a death wish, don’t you?” Andrew says, tossing the cigarette out of the window and lighting another one. “Why now?”

Neil offers a shrug, glancing away.

Andrew sighs. “If you expect me to go through with this, I want some answers, Neil.”

Neil licks his lips. “Because I want to,” he says. “I want to be able to kiss you hello if we both feel like it, without worrying about the paparazzi. I want to be able to hold your hand. I want the journalists to stop asking about my relationship status. I want this to stop being a secret.”

Andrew considers it for a long moment. “How would you want it to happen?”

“We should probably warn the management first,” Neil replies. “Then we could tell the media.”

“Tell the media,” Andrew parrots, without heat. “You want a press conference?”

Neil shrugs. “I thought about an interview, actually. With a journalist we both can stand.”

Andrew considers it for another long moment. “You really want to do this?”

“Yes,” Neil replies. “But only if you do, too.”

Andrew knocks the ash away and brings the cigarette back to his lips.

He wonders if the journalists will drag out his past and whether they’ll ask him about it. He wonders if they’ll transform all of this into yet another spectacle to be endured, just like Aaron’s trial had to be endured. He wonders, but he knows that there is no running away from this. He has made his call a long time ago, the second he chose to become an Exy player, the second he agreed to the fame. Their team already knows, the management already knows. Sooner or later the media will know as well.

He’d rather they learn about it on their terms.

“I mean it,” Neil says quietly. “I want this, yes, but only if you want it as well. If you don’t, I won’t ask again, I promise.”

Andrew sighs, stubs out his cigarette, and chooses the exit from the interstate which will allow them to turn around and drive back home. Then he pulls into a gas station, parks the car facing away from the station store, and turns off the engine.

He drops the keys into Neil’s hand. “Your turn.”

“Okay,” Neil says easily, and just as promised, he doesn’t press the matter any further. Andrew pushes the door open, looks around the empty parking lot and the nearly empty road, and before Neil can move past him, he curls his fingers in the clasps of his jacket.

“Fine,” he says. “I want to get this over with, too.”

Neil nods, his expression serious but soft around the edges. Andrew tugs him a little closer.

“It’s not like they can say anything we can’t handle,” he adds.

“True,” Neil says easily. “Are you going to kiss me or what?”

“Or what,” Andrew decides, then gives him a small shove and lets go of his jacket. “Get behind the wheel, Josten.”

Neil doesn’t move away from the door. “Eager to get back home?” he asks, a lazy smile curling up his lips.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him, but Neil has a lot of experience in making Andrew do whatever he wants.

“You know,” Neil informs him conspiratorially, completely unbothered by Andrew’s glare, “technically speaking, we’re both already home, if home really is where the heart —”

Partly to shut him up, but mostly because he wants to and because Neil isn’t exactly wrong, Andrew presses their lips together, pushing Neil against the door of the car, just as he wanted to do at the parking lot by the Exy Stadium.

Neil smirks into the kiss, clearly pleased with himself, but the smirk gives way to a small, surprised sound when Andrew tilts his head just right and drags his teeth across Neil’s lower lip. Neil has a lot of experience in pushing Andrew’s buttons, but Andrew also isn’t exactly new to this, so by the time he pulls back, Neil’s body is completely pliant against his own and Neil’s breathing is ragged.

“Fuck,” Neil murmurs, chasing after another kiss. Andrew indulges him by pressing their lips together one more time, pleased with the enthusiastic response he gets, and pulls back.

He runs his fingers through Neil’s hair. “Eager to get back home?” he parrots.

“Shut up,” Neil says, flushed and annoyed.

“You still have to drive us there,” Andrew informs him airily.

“Shut,” Neil repeats, “up.”

Then he falls silent, his gaze fixed on Andrew’s face, and Andrew doesn’t quite understand the reason behind it until he realizes that there is a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. It’s not a grin he recalls from his days on medication and it’s not a lopsided smirk that sometimes accompanies his mocking remarks. It’s simply a smile, content and carefree, and Andrew did nothing to smother it.

Neil reaches out, slow and questioning, and traces Andrew’s lips with his fingertips.

Andrew thinks about pushing his hand away, but somehow he ends up shifting his head until he can press a kiss to the inner side of Neil’s wrist, still holding Neil’s gaze. There is nothing accidental about it this time, and Andrew doesn’t care to pretend otherwise. Neil’s response is a small shiver.

“Let’s go home,” Andrew says quietly.

“Yeah,” Neil agrees, for once without putting up a fight.

Once they are on the interstate, the road between them empty and basking in the last glimpses of sunlight, Neil catches Andrew’s hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles.

Andrew’s skin is still tingling long after the sun sets.

 

 

 

24.

 

Neil doesn’t talk about New York.

At first, Andrew thinks it’s because there is nothing to talk about. Neil never learned to get along with his old team, especially after he up and left to watch over Andrew in the hospital. He never really explained where the black eye came from, but Andrew can tell it had something to do with him. Regardless of the reason behind it, Neil never really made friends in New York, and he always seems to take a lot of pleasure in crushing the New York City EC on the court, even if he never celebrates his goals out of respect for the fans.

He also doesn’t seem like he has any trouble adjusting to living with Andrew, and his mood has definitely improved since they moved in together.

And yet Andrew can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Maybe it’s because he realizes that something would definitely be off if their situation was reversed; while Andrew prefers living with Neil to living without him, he got used to his apartment.

It’s his space. It’s a place he carved out of the universe that never wanted him, a place he molded into something familiar and safe. Regardless of how much he wants Neil here, nothing changes the fact that the apartment is his in a way it isn’t theirs.

He spends enough time thinking about it to end up mentioning it to his — their — therapist. He still refers to her as Not-Bee in the privacy of his own mind, but he can tell from the perspective of an adult who actually wants to recover, that she is good at her job and that she is worthy of his trust.

It’s her advice that brought him here, accompanied by a sleepy and unhappy Neil.

“Why are we in the suburbs?” Neil complains.

He has been continuously annoyed — and annoying — since they lost against Kevin’s team two days ago, and Andrew doesn’t really expect it to change until their next game. Neil’s mood and his Exy career are by now so entangled that Andrew has long since given up on trying to make Neil separate between the two.

“Andrew,” Neil complains again, until they leave the clean, terrifyingly pedantic neighborhood behind and turn into a side road and stop in front of a lonely house.

Andrew parks the car, ignoring the suddenly silent Neil, and pushes the door open.

There is a ‘for sale’ sign by the gravel path leading to the porch, and Andrew passes it without sparing it a second glance, joggling the keys he received from the estate agent. She insisted on accompanying them at first, but all it took was Andrew’s last name and his attempt to leave the office for her to reconsider.

He is halfway between the sign and the porch when he hears the passenger’s door of the Maserati click open and then shut. Neil jogs up to him and catches Andrew’s sleeve.

“Andrew?” he repeats, questioning now.

“Come on,” Andrew replies.

Since Neil continues to stare at him, completely still, Andrew sighs and threads their fingers together, and then brings Neil’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss to the inner side of his wrist.

Neil swallows thickly, but finally offers a nod and falls into step beside Andrew when he moves towards the door.

The house is far enough both from the road and from the other properties that Andrew can hear nothing except for the hum of the wind, the rustle of the leaves, the crunching of the gravel beneath their feet.

The porch is small and the steps creak under their boots. The house is brand new, but it already looks settled between the trees and next to a small garden.

It doesn’t remind Andrew of anything. The houses he lived in were far smaller than this one, surrounded by their mirror reflections, and they always looked worn-down. This house, though clearly designed to belong, looks untouched.

He pushes the front door open, letting Neil into the open space of the corridor. There is no furniture in the house and all the walls are painted in white, but the floors are already finished and the electricity is already installed. The house is brimming over with warm, muted sunlight.

He leads Neil through the bedroom and the guestroom first, separated by a spacious bathroom, and then into the kitchen open to both a small dining room on the one side and a significantly larger living room on the other side.

There is one more room in the attic, but Neil only spares it a glance or two before trailing back to the living room. Andrew isn’t surprised that it drew his attention; the room has panoramic windows with a view of the garden stretching behind the house, and a glass door leading onto a terrace.

Andrew watches Neil watch the room for a long moment before speaking up.

“According to Wymack, keeping this place warm will cost a shitload of money, courtesy of the windows, but it’s not like we can’t afford it.”

That gets Neil’s attention.

“You asked Wymack about this,” he says, disbelieving.

Andrew shrugs. It does, in hindsight, seem like an odd decision; it’s not like he couldn’t check it online. Still, Wymack’s reaction was interesting to witness; Andrew has never before been on the receiving end of anyone’s fatherly instincts. Or — he amends, thinking about all those nights spent getting drunk under Wymack’s watchful eye — he has never before acknowledged it.

“Can we even afford this place?” Neil asks.

“Yes,” Andrew replies simply.

Neil frowns. “Even if we pay equal halves?”

“Halves are always equal,” Andrew says and receives an annoyed huff for his efforts. “But yes, Neil, we can.”

There would be no point in this otherwise.

Neil narrows his eyes. “Why now? What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Andrew says, shrugging. “We don’t have to pick this one. There’s no rush.”

“I like it,” Neil says immediately, shaking his head to keep Andrew from backtracking.

Andrew offers a simple nod, even though he is quietly pleased.

He has, as a matter of fact, spent quite a lot of time thinking about this.

The house is far enough from the nearest neighbor that they wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered by anyone. They could sit on the porch and smoke and make out without anyone watching them. They could go on a midnight drive without drawing anyone’s attention.

The door to the house is enforced, as is the door in the back, and all windows have locks. The bedroom is large enough that if they wanted to, they could fit two beds there, for the nights when one of them can’t handle being touched, but doesn’t want to be alone.

The guest room could probably be adapted for the cats, though Andrew doubts this would keep them from trying to sleep with him and Neil.

The living room vaguely reminds him of Neil’s old apartment, the large windows letting in a lot of light, and Neil clearly thinks the same, if his slightly wistful expression is anything to go by.

He turns to look at Andrew. “I know why you’re doing this,” he says eventually. “And you don’t have to, okay? I’d be fine living absolutely anywhere as long as we live together.”

He looks earnest and serious, but it only makes Andrew’s conviction grow stronger.

“I know I don’t have to,” he says, holding Neil’s gaze. “I want to.”

“Yeah?” Neil says, soft and content, because even after all these years, hearing that Andrew wants something always seems to please him.

“Yes,” Andrew confirms.

Neil smiles and leans in, careful as he always is to give Andrew ample time to pull away, and then slots their lips together, and for a brief moment, Andrew can see the rest of their lives. He can imagine waking up to the heat of Neil’s body and brushing their teeth together, he can imagine driving to practice and then coming back home and making dinner for both of them, he can imagine their cats playing in the living room and trying to escape through the terrace door.

He can imagine all of this happening on the loop, with only minor changes, for the rest of his life, and not a single part of it seems boring.

“Hey,” Neil murmurs, pulling back just to brush his lips against Andrew’s forehead, and Andrew never cared much for the gesture until Neil, but now it causes all tension to bleed out of his body and he sways slightly until he can rest his forehead against Neil’s shoulder.

It still strikes him as unreal, sometimes — how far they have come.

Neil raises his hands, keeps them hovering by Andrew’s side, so Andrew gives a small nod. “Yeah,” he hums, and Neil shifts closer.

This still doesn’t come naturally to either of them, not really. It’s a little easier when they are about to fall asleep and don’t have the strength to question the impulse, or when they’re sharing a blanket on the couch. They hold hands, they exchange casual touches, they kiss without the intent of taking it further, but hugging is still foreign.

Maybe it will always be — but maybe it won’t.

Andrew keeps his arms hooked loosely around Neil’s waist, but he lets himself relax into the familiar heat of Neil’s body. Neil’s hands are nowhere near that still; one of them is running through Andrew’s hair, a soothing, rhythmical gesture Andrew has grown used to, while the other is traveling up and down Andrew’s spine, applying pressure from time to time.

It might never come naturally to either of them, but it doesn’t make it any less pleasant.

They only spend several minutes like that, but it might as well be several hours, because Andrew feels drowsy and sleepy and absolutely doesn’t want to do anything else for the rest of the day.

He sometimes still thinks that it should scare him, how much he has learned to rely on Neil and how much he has learned to trust him, but instead, he feels as though an enormous weight was lifted off his shoulders.

He is used to being needed. He is used to being needed for protection, he is used to being needed on the court, he is used to being needed to get his hands dirty and to get the job done.

He is used to being needed. He isn’t, however, used to being wanted — at least not in the way he would like to be.

Neil doesn’t expect anything. He doesn’t need Andrew, not the way people usually do; there are knives underneath his armbands and there are skills forever burned into his muscle memory. He has learned to watch his back at the age of ten. He has his own passions, he has people he can count on. He doesn’t need anything from Andrew except for his continued existence.

For once, it’s enough to just be.

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to give him everything Andrew would never think to give anyone else.

“Yes or no, Neil?” he murmurs into Neil’s neck.

He can feel Neil shift slightly as he looks up and around the room again, even though it’s clear that he has made up his mind already.

Still, he says, “Always yes with you.”

 

 

 

25.

 

They win the Olympic gold.

They win the Olympic gold, and Andrew kisses Neil in front of billions of people.

They have been out for over two years now; their team knows, the media knows, their fans know. Some seemed to have a problem with that, some seemed to care very little, some seemed bizarrely excited. Ichirou Moriyama cared enough to call Neil, but not enough to kill him, and as far as Andrew is concerned, that’s all that matters.

They discussed the kiss itself, several days earlier, so when the final buzzer sounds across the court, and after Neil manages to get out of the crowd of their screaming teammates and stops in front of Andrew, Andrew asks again, “Yes or no?”

Neil says, “Yes.”

It’s a short, firm kiss, a confirmation more than anything else, but then Neil presses their foreheads together for a moment, and Andrew knows that this will make newspapers. He doesn’t mind, unlike Kevin, who shoots them a stern look all the way across the court.

One medal ceremony, three interviews, four phone calls, several text messages, and one official afterparty later, they are all stuck in a dim hotel bar with the team, and Andrew wants to finally leave. Neil, dressed in a dark navy suit and with his hair actually styled for once, doesn’t exactly help matters.

Kevin, sitting by the bar next to Andrew and nursing his third glass of champagne, shoots Andrew a grim look.

“Was the kiss really necessary?” he complains, following the line of Andrew’s gaze.

“Jealous?” Andrew asks, without caring to look away from Neil, who easily catches his gaze and smiles, familiar and content, from where he is talking to one of their teammates.

Kevin huffs. “No,” he says. “But your life would be much easier if you stopped pissing off your sponsors.”

“Do I look like someone who strives to make their life easy?” Andrew asks. “Where is Thea, anyway? Don’t you have your own relationship to supervise?”

Kevin shoots him a look. “She isn’t here.”

“Figured that much,” Andrew says. “Stop nurturing your alcoholism and call her, then.”

Kevin narrows his eyes. “Since when do you care enough to suggest that?”

“Oh, Kevin,” Andrew says, with an exaggerated sigh. “We’re friends now, remember? That’s the kind of shit it apparently entails. Condolences to us both.”

Kevin blinks at him, clearly caught off-guard, and Andrew quickly gets bored with his stunned silence. “Shoo,” he says, waving his hand. “It’s around five p.m. in California now. Get a move on.”

“Yeah,” Kevin says eventually. “Yeah, okay. You’re right.”

He slides off the stool, absurdly careful, but he seems steady on his feet. He pushes his drink towards Andrew, then reaches out to touch his shoulder, changes his mind, and offers an awkward wave. Andrew watches him until he enters the elevator, his phone already in hand, and then offers himself mental congratulations for handling the problem without breaking Kevin’s neck.

He looks around to search for Neil and nearly startles when he discovers that Neil is already standing behind his back.

“Hey,” Neil says. “What’s up with your son?”

“Before sunrise,” Andrew deadpans, “he is your son.”

Neil snorts, then drops his forehead to Andrew’s shoulder to stifle a fit of hysterical laughter.

Andrew shoots him an amused glance and offers him his water. Neil takes a sip, still unable to stop laughing, and then leans around Andrew to place the glass back on the counter.

His lips brush against the tip of Andrew’s ear, taking advantage of the fact that with Andrew sitting near the end of the bar, nobody is currently paying any attention to either of them, and even though the gesture is clearly meant to be teasing, it nearly causes Andrew to shiver. Pride and happiness is a deadly combination on someone as stupidly gorgeous as Neil.

“We’re leaving,” Andrew decides, picking up his glass and turning around on his stool to face Neil.

“Oh, are we?” Neil says, clearly pleased with himself.

“Me and the champagne,” Andrew clarifies, which earns him another huff of laughter from Neil.

“My bad,” he says with a grin.

“It is,” Andrew agrees, before using Neil’s tie to tug him down for a kiss.

Neil offers no resistance whatsoever and Andrew draws him closer, sliding his fingers into Neil’s hair and letting Neil’s hands rest on his knees. He is distantly aware of the wolf-whistles, courtesy of their teammates, but he doesn’t care enough to open his eyes and so he flips the bird in the general direction of the noise. He can feel Neil smiling against his lips and decides that he doesn’t want to stay in the bar any longer.

“Let’s go,” he says, pulling back from the kiss and sliding off the stool.

“Leaving us already, Josten-Minyards?” Micky asks, clearly cultivating his death wish.

“It’s Minyard-Jostens,” Neil corrects seriously, pushing past Micky and towards the elevator.

“What?!” Micky says, nearly dropping his glass. “Neil, what?!”

Neil salutes him, shamelessly stealing both the gesture and the smirk from Andrew, and then drags Andrew into the elevator by the sleeve of his jacket.

“I absolutely hate you,” Andrew informs him the second the door closes.

“He started it,” Neil points out, like the five-year-old he is. “And I don’t think you do.”

Andrew huffs an annoyed breath and walks out of the elevator. He can feel Neil’s gaze on his back, but he refuses to glance back, and he fishes out the key to their room and pushes the door open without waiting for Neil.

“Why does it bother you so much?” Neil asks, his gaze sharp and inquisitive, and Andrew absolutely can’t let him figure it out.

“Shut up,” he says, entering the room.

Neil continues to watch him for a moment longer, and then his expression clears, and Andrew doesn’t want to know what kind of conclusion he has reached.

Neil says, “Make me,” and then he contradicts himself by kissing Andrew first and pushing the door shut with his foot.

The kiss is quieter and more tender than Andrew has expected, but he doesn’t try to deepen it right away, allowing the gentleness. He shuffles closer to Neil, then huffs impatiently at the layers of clothing and pushes the jacket off Neil’s shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.

Neil hums into his lips, and Andrew tugs at Neil’s tie, letting the silk slide between his fingers as he walks Neil back in the general direction of the bed.

He pushes Neil down on the mattress and then prevents him from lying down by holding on to the tie. Neil doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest, his gaze calm and patient as he looks up at Andrew, his hands resting on the mattress by his sides.

Neither of them cared to get the lights, but the city glow is enough to go by. For once, the dark doesn’t bother Andrew at all. He looks at the play of blue and yellow lights travelling across the room and at the play of shadows on Neil’s face, behind the curtain of his eyelashes, in the corner of his eyes, under the jut of his lower lip.

He kicks off his boots and shrugs off his jacket, and then he climbs on Neil’s lap, with one knee on either side of his hips, and he kisses Neil on the lips. Neil’s fingers curl into the sheets, but he doesn’t try to touch Andrew, only tilts his head into the kiss and makes a content noise.

“You can touch,” Andrew tells him, pulling back from the kiss to finally get rid of Neil’s tie. He takes his time untying the knot he tied himself, earlier today, while Neil moves his hands from the sheets to Andrew’s waist and then his back.

“Okay?” he asks.

Andrew hums approvingly in response and dips his head to kiss Neil’s neck, undoing the first two buttons of his shirt. Neil makes a small noise, and his hand splays on Andrew’s back, unconsciously trying to push him closer, while Andrew undoes the rest of the buttons and tugs the shirt off Neil’s shoulders. Then he pauses, because Neil’s hands are still trailing up and down Andrew’s back, and it’s impossible to get the shirt past his arms.

“Off,” Andrew huffs, pulling back from another kiss and giving Neil’s shirt an irritated tug.

Neil bites his lip to keep himself from smiling, but he ends up smiling all the same as he complies and lets go of Andrew to shrug off the shirt.

“Better?” he teases.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him and immediately leans in to bite at Neil’s neck in retaliation.

Neil shivers, but before Andrew can push him back in order to get a better access to his collarbones, Neil uses his temporary distraction to press a kiss to the underside of Andrew’s jaw, and Andrew doesn’t quite manage to stifle a shudder.

It’s ridiculous. It should be familiar by now — the way Neil’s chapped lips feel on his overheated skin — but there clearly is no getting used to this. Andrew tips his head back, baring even more of his neck for Neil, and hums at the feeling of Neil’s teeth dragging against his pulse-point, just enough to make all of Andrew’s thoughts dissolve into a puddle of pleasure.

“Fuck,” he murmurs, conflicted between wanting to take off his own shirt and not wanting to stop Neil from kissing his neck, but before he can make a decision of any kind, Neil pulls back.

Andrew opens his eyes — when did he close them? — and glares at Neil.

Neil seems unconcerned. Instead of leaning for a kiss, he reaches for one of Andrew’s hands, and Andrew frowns at him, puzzled, but doesn’t resist. Neil takes Andrew’s hand between the two of his own, and then begins to undo the cuffs, infuriatingly unhurried.

Andrew watches him do it, annoyed but oddly captivated, until Neil says, soft and gentle, “Hey.”

Andrew looks up at him, already frowning, because there is a weight to Neil’s voice that hasn’t been there in a while.

He tilts his head to the side in a silent question.

Neil takes his time with the cuff and when he is done, he brings Andrew’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss to Andrew’s knuckles, all of this while holding his gaze.

“Thank you,” Neil says, the same weight still present in his voice. “You were amazing.”

Andrew freezes.

For a brief moment, all of his thoughts stagger to a halt and he is back in that damn locker room, with Neil looking at him with a smile on his lips and a goodbye in his eyes.

If his body weren’t frozen, he’d push Neil away and stand up and slam the door on his way out, but before his muscles register the command, he realizes that there is no trace of mockery in Neil’s eyes, only tentative tenderness.

“Hey,” Neil says again, and once again Andrew lets him meet his gaze. “It’s not like that. I’m not going anywhere. I just realized I never told you exactly what I meant, then.”

Andrew grits his teeth, but he doesn’t protest when Neil takes his other hand and after a cursory glance at Andrew begins to undo the cuffs, too.

“You meant goodbye,” Andrew says, and there is fury lurking in the tremor of his voice. “And thank you for the game.”

“Yes,” Neil agrees. “But not just for the game.”

He continues to look at Andrew with that quiet, hopeful expression, so Andrew pushes away his resentment for a moment.

“For what else, then?” he asks, knowing that this is the question Neil has been waiting for.

As expected, Neil smiles at him, grateful and relieved. He finishes undoing the cuffs and reaches for the first button of Andrew’s shirt, letting his hand stop just short of touching Andrew’s skin and waiting patiently for Andrew’s curt nod.

“For the keys,” Neil says, calm and collected, like he has considered all of this before. “I never had a home before you. I never had anywhere to go back to.”

“They were just keys, Neil. Get over it,” Andrews says, echoing his old statement, but he does nothing to push Neil’s hands away. He keeps his own hands in his lap, easily keeping his balance on his legs alone, and watches the play of shadows across Neil’s face every time he closes his eyes.

“Were they really?” Neil asks, not because he believes that — by now Andrew knows that he doesn’t — but because he enjoys being annoying. He undoes the first button of Andrew’s shirt and looks up, waiting for his answer.

Andrew glares at him, but he still believes that the only way to pay for honesty is with a truth, so he looks away and says, “No.”

Neil hums, unsurprised but pleased all the same. He reaches for the second button of Andrew’s shirt.

“I also meant thank you for the trust, and the honesty,” he says, quiet. “Nothing about me felt real until I started trading truths with you.”

“Nothing about you is real,” Andrew snarls, an old defense against vulnerability, and Neil barely manages to stifle a flinch. Andrew notices nonetheless, and just like that, his annoyance is gone. Before Neil can look away, Andrew catches his chin and keeps him still. Neil avoids his gaze.

“It’s not like you’re wrong,” he dismisses with an exaggerated shrug, masking his hurt as easily as he would mask a physical injury.

“Stop,” Andrew tells him, then waits for Neil to look up. “You are real, of course you are real.” He pauses. “I just sometimes find it hard to believe.”

Neil’s expression goes from careful blankness to the familiar understanding. He reaches out again, but instead of undoing another button, he traces his fingertips against the tip of Andrew’s ear.

“I’m not a pipe dream,” Neil says.

“Sure you are,” Andrew disagrees, then tilts his head to the side to nestle his head in Neil’s hand. “Doesn’t matter, though, as long as you are not going anywhere.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Neil promises, and then tilts his chin up and presses their lips together. Andrew hums, pleased with the development, and kisses back, letting his hands rest on Neil’s shoulders as Neil undoes the remaining buttons of his shirt.

When Neil breaks the kiss again, Andrew nearly huffs in frustration, but then Neil presses a kiss to his shoulder, quiet and chaste, and all fight goes out of Andrew’s body.

“I also meant,” Neil says, “thank you for the kisses.” He pauses and looks up at Andrew, a smile once again curling in the corner of his lips. “Though I guess you enjoy them as much as I do.”

“Thin ice, Neil,” Andrew warns him, but he softens his own threat by kissing Neil again.

Neil smiles into the kiss. One of his hands migrates to the scar on Andrew’s stomach, tracing it with absurd gentleness and making Andrew feel centered and settled and indestructible.

He gives Neil a push and Neil doesn’t resist him at all as he topples back on the mattress, with Andrew now hovering over him.

“Hey,” Neil says, content and smug and pleased, and Andrew thinks, I love you.

He says, “Eight hundred and ten.”

 

 

 

26.

 

There is nothing special about the day.

Andrew knows this, because he’s run through the calendar in his head two times already, and came up empty. There is nothing special about the day at all, and yet there is something odd in Neil’s behavior, something Andrew can’t quite pinpoint.

Not that he has the time to consider it at length, not with the warm weight of Neil’s body against his own, with his hands underneath Neil’s loose t-shirt. His lips are tingling from kissing, but he doesn’t particularly want to stop, so he ignores it. They’re getting progressively more horizontal, even though the kissing began with Andrew sitting up against the pillows and Neil straddling his lap, but Andrew doesn’t mind that, either.

He puzzles over the breakfast Neil made for them both and brought to bed; it clearly wasn’t an impulsive decision, considering the ingredients. He has planned this.

Neil’s lips taste of chocolate and strawberries, just as Andrew’s own, and it drives Andrew up the wall that even after so many kisses the taste still lingers on the tip of his tongue.

The other part that bothers him is that there is no urgency in this.

It’s not like they never kiss without the intention of taking it further, but it’s unlike Neil to give up his morning run just to make out in bed. Andrew is quietly suspicious, even though he enjoys himself too much to complain and risk reminding Neil that he has other things to do.

Neil breaks the kiss for a moment, and Andrew can’t help glaring a little, but he stops glaring when Neil smiles, soft and carefree, and picks up another strawberry and dips it in the chocolate. Andrew considers saying something about getting chocolate all over the sheets or maybe about how ridiculously cliché this whole endeavor is, but he can’t get a single word out of his mouth as Neil brings the strawberry to his lips and eats it in two excruciatingly slow bites. He leans in later, but Andrew doesn’t feel like waiting, so he meets him halfway, cradling his jaw as he chases the taste lingering in Neil’s mouth.

He feels like he is floating, suspended a thousand miles above the ground, for once uncaring about the pull of gravity.

I love you, he thinks, unable to recall the difference between vowels and consonants, unable to think about anything except for the press of Neil’s lips against his own, the touch of Neil’s hand on the side of his neck, the weight of Neil’s body resting in his lap. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Neil breaks the kiss again, but before Andrew can draw him back in, he dips his head and presses his lips to Andrew’s jaw. He shifts in Andrew’s lap, briefly reminding them both of their arousal, but there is still no urgency in this, maybe because neither of them is interested in bringing it to an end. Neil kisses his jaw again, but doesn’t move to his neck as Andrew has expected.

Instead, he meets Andrew’s gaze again, and then leans in and brushes his lips against Andrew’s right cheek. It’s only a ghost of a touch, a question more than anything else, and Andrew swallows before giving a terse nod. He used to dislike this kind of tenderness, back when all tenderness seemed dishonest, but he has learned by now that when it comes to Neil, gentleness doesn’t serve to disguise violence.

Neil’s lips brush against his cheekbone again before moving to Andrew’s brow, causing Andrew’s eyes to flutter shut. He presses another kiss to Andrew’s right eyelid and then the bridge of his nose and the center of his forehead, before moving to the other side of Andrew’s face, his touch soft and butterfly-light. When he reaches Andrew’s jaw again and once again doesn’t move to his neck, Andrew huffs in annoyance and tightens his hold on Neil’s hair.

Neil pulls back without a pause, waiting for Andrew to look up. “Wanna stop?” he asks, his words sliding together, warm and honey-like, his eyes hooded.

Andrew shakes his head, then tugs Neil closer again, directing his head until Neil gets the clue. He lets out a soft, breathless laugh, but before Andrew has a chance to get annoyed, Neil’s lips finally brush against his neck, and Andrew’s body — the traitor — gives a pleased shudder.

He can tell that Neil is smiling against his skin, but he has neither the patience, nor the willingness to do anything about it, so instead he tips his head back and rests it against the headboard, giving Neil as much access to his neck as he can.

Neil takes his time. He alternates between pressing open-mouthed kisses to Andrew’s skin and brushing his lips against it so lightly that Andrew can barely feel it, and it’s excruciating and unbearable and Andrew never wants it to stop. Neil reaches his favorite spot, the beginning of the curve between Andrew’s neck and his shoulder, and lingers there for a long moment, until the lightness of his touch becomes absolutely impossible to stand.

Andrew licks his lips and has to try several times before he manages to make a sound. “You can, if you want to,” he says, and forces himself to continue. “Leave a mark, I mean.”

Neil pauses, his lips still brushing lightly against Andrew’s skin.

It’s not the first time Andrew has allowed it, even though Neil has never explicitly asked. The first time it happened, Andrew was wary of how much he wanted it, and then grew even more wary when he realized just how grounding the mark was. He has left marks on Neil before and then watched with hungry eyes as Neil traced them absently through his t-shirt, but he has never expected that he would like having one on his own skin. And yet he found himself pressing his fingers to the marks just as he presses his fingers against his scars, making his nerve-endings flare with awareness. This is real. You are real. This is your life and you are still here.

Neil shifts back just enough to meet Andrew’s gaze. There is a pretty flush spreading from the bridge of his nose. “Do you want me to?” Neil asks.

Once upon a time, Andrew would offer an annoyed huff or an even more annoyed retort, missing the purpose of the question. Now, though, he holds Neil’s gaze, and says, “I want you to.”

Neil nods, then brushes his lips against Andrew’s and goes back to kissing down his neck. Andrew has to stifle a shudder at the first brush of Neil’s teeth and waits for Neil to press his lips to the exact spot he has been touching before.

He suddenly can’t control his arousal anymore, but before he can free his hand and slip it into his sweatpants, Neil’s fingers slide between his own. He doesn’t try to stop Andrew’s hand, just follows his movements, and Andrew sighs at the first brush of their entangled fingers against his overheated skin.

He is panting by now, but he can’t force himself to try to play it cool, not with Neil’s chapped lips still focused on marking his skin, not with the sharp pleasure building in his stomach. His other hand keeps a tight hold on Neil’s hair, and he uses it to tug Neil back and into a proper kiss, but he instantly misses the pressure of Neil’s lips on his neck, so he finds Neil’s other hand and maneuvers it until Neil’s thumb is resting over the throbbing mark.

He bites at Neil’s lower lip and Neil presses his fingers against Andrew’s shoulder in an instinctive retaliation, and a small, breathless noise escapes Andrew’s lips. He tightens his hold on Neil’s hand and Neil adjusts to his rhythm, the touch an odd combination of rough and impossibly gentle, making Andrew feel alive and awake and impatient.

When he comes, he can barely breathe through the pleasure, but it doesn’t stop him from kissing Neil again and sliding their still-entangled hands into Neil’s pajama pants. Before he can get creative about taking Neil apart, though, Neil’s breath hitches and he comes, messy and flushed and gorgeous.

Andrew swallows, then disentangles their hands carefully and reaches for the nightstand and the tissue box in the drawer. He cleans his hand and passes the box to Neil, who is still straddling his lap.

Andrew doesn’t really feel like telling him to move. Instead, he coaxes Neil into another long, languid kiss, feeling boneless and pleased and a little sleepy.

“Nap, now,” he murmurs into Neil’s lips, and Neil smiles.

“Okay,” he agrees easily. And then, because he is obnoxious and because his music taste is the combined music taste of everyone he has ever known, he singsongs, “Should I stay or should I go?”

“You should shut up,” Andrew advises him, then pushes Neil off and settles on the mattress. “Stay.”

Neil does, curling on his side and facing Andrew, but Andrew wants more contact right now than just their legs and hands.

“Turn around,” he murmurs, fighting to keep his eyes open for a moment longer.

Neil complies without comment, and doesn’t say anything when Andrew moves closer and then slots their bodies together, sliding one hand around Neil’s stomach and underneath his t-shirt, splayed against the familiar texture of Neil’s scars.

“Okay?” he asks, when he finally settles against the pillow.

“Yeah,” Neil sighs drowsily, nuzzling back slightly before stilling again. “Sleep.”

Andrew closes his eyes, tightening his hold on Neil briefly before letting his body relax into sleep.

When he wakes up, Neil is gone, and his place is taken by both Sir and King, curled together against Andrew’s side. Andrew spends a moment running his fingers over Sir’s fur, ignoring King’s attempts at catching his hand with his paws. Then he notices a mug filled with coffee on the nightstand and sighs gratefully as he takes the first sip.

It’s past two p.m., but they have nowhere to be today. Andrew has a mild headache from sleeping too much, so he collects some fresh clothes and heads to the bathroom. He takes a lengthy shower, basking in the hot water and letting his muscles relax, and puts on his clothes, disregarding the armbands for now.

He finds Neil in the kitchen.

“What are you doing,” he says flatly, leaning against the fridge. He pulls the nearest magnet from the fridge and shifts it so that the tiny ball is flying for the striker’s head instead of the goal.

The corner of Neil’s lips twitches, but he doesn’t look up from the vegetables he is cutting into pedantically even cubes. “Dinner,” he says simply. “Should be ready in two hours.”

Two hours,” Andrew repeats, incredulous. “What is this about, Neil?”

“What is what about?” Neil replies, unconcerned, even as Andrew steps behind his back and peers over his shoulder at the vegetables.

“You’re being odd,” Andrew says.

“I make dinner nearly as often as you do,” Neil replies evenly, reaching for a vegetable Andrew doesn’t even recognize and beginning to peel it.

“Yes,” Andrew agrees. “But it usually only takes you two hours if you burn everything and have to start from scratch.”

“Funny,” Neil says, but he doesn’t seem offended.

“That’s me,” Andrew replies. He kicks Neil lightly in the shin. “Tell me.”

“Bear with me a little longer,” Neil says. “You’ll find out.”

“I don’t like surprises,” Andrew reminds him, petulant, climbing up on his toes and leaning into Neil to nestle his chin in the crook of Neil’s shoulder.

Neil tilts his head slightly so he can brush his lips against Andrew’s temple.

“Indulge me,” he murmurs. “Just this once.”

“Just this once,” Andrew agrees, sliding one arm around Neil’s waist.

Neil smiles down at the vegetables and he gets back to work. It becomes clear very soon that Neil has practiced making all of these dishes before. He rarely needs to check anything in the cookbook — all in French — and his motions are precise. Andrew’s suspicions grow.

Eventually, he gets bored with observing and goes to the living room, curling up under one of the blankets and picking up his abandoned copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” from the floor. Sir immediately shows up to curl in his lap and several minutes later King grudgingly wanders into the room, lies on the floor in Andrew’s direct line of vision, and turns his head away to stare into space. Andrew resumes reading, ignoring the distracting swish of King’s tail, until Neil shows up two hours later.

“Dinner’s ready,” is all he says before disappearing again.

Andrew sighs, wariness warring with curiosity, and pushes the blanket away. The living room and the dining room are separated by the kitchen, and their layout means that Andrew didn’t get to watch the preparations, which is why he blinks at the sheer amount of dishes displayed on the dinner table. Thankfully, there is no candlelight, as the warm afternoon sunlight is cheesy enough.

Still, Neil is smiling and his expression is open and oddly hopeful, so Andrew rolls his eyes instead of complaining out loud and sits down, but he can’t quite push away his unease.

Neil clearly notices, because he smiles a little sheepishly. “I didn’t mean it to be weird,” he says. “I just wanted to make something you might like and I couldn’t decide on one thing.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Andrew says, but Neil’s words have broken the oddly stiff atmosphere, and he can feel himself relaxing. “I can’t even name half of these things.”

“I forgot the names already,” Neil says, shrugging. “I mean, it’s food.”

Andrew snorts. “That’s romantic, Josten.”

He doesn’t expect the food to be particularly good; Neil has learned the basics by now but it’s not like cooking is his passion.

He doesn’t expect it, which makes the surprise even better. By the time they get to the raspberry-chocolate pie, Andrew is willing to reconsider every thought he has ever had about romance and dates and dinners.

They clean the dishes in peaceful silence, Neil scrubbing them clean and Andrew drying them off and stacking them on the shelves, and then Andrew kisses Neil against the kitchen counter, soft and pleased and relaxed. He wants to stay like this forever, but his fingers are itching for a cigarette.

“You go ahead,” Neil murmurs against his lips, reading him like an open book. “I’ll be there in a second.”

Andrew nods and kisses him once more before pulling back and heading for the terrace. He pushes King away with his foot and slides the door closed behind him.

He lights a cigarette and leans against the railing, watching the garden. The trees planted there are still small and frail, but Andrew likes the way the last glimpses of sunlight flicker in the leaves and in the moist grass. He also likes the way the warm light from the living room bleeds over onto the terrace, making him feel safe and grounded.

He hears the swish of the door being opened and Neil’s voice as he orders King to stay back, and then Neil is leaning against the railing by his side. He extends his hand with the cigarette, but Neil shakes his head, so Andrew stubs it out and drops it into the jar by the stairs.

“Well, Neil?” he says after a long moment of watching and being watched. “Spit it out already.”

Neil chews at his lower lip, his eyes lingering on Andrew’s.

“There is something I want to ask you,” he says. “But I don’t want you to think that you have to agree. If you say no, nothing will change between us. Okay?”

Andrew frowns. “What’s the question?”

“Give me your hand,” Neil says instead of replying.

When Andrew complies, Neil takes his hand between his own and presses something against the middle of Andrew’s palm. It’s round, small, and unmistakably made of metal.

Andrew’s breath loses its way someway between his lungs and his lips.

“It would make things easier for us,” Neil says, curling Andrew’s fingers around the ring and then letting go of his hand. “I wouldn’t have to bribe people to see you at the hospital and you wouldn’t have to threaten anybody with a knife. We wouldn’t have to deal with the media questioning just how serious our relationship is. We wouldn’t need to worry about a new team trying to buy one of us off.” He pauses. “But that’s not why I’m asking. I’m asking because I want this with you. I want everything with you. That is, if you’d like that, too. Just think about it, okay?”

Andrew’s emotions, usually muffled and distant, are tripping all over one another, and he can’t make sense of them at all. It’s like falling, only without the fear.

Neil moves to leave, presumably trying to give Andrew some space. Before he can make it through the door, Andrew catches his wrist and forces him to turn around. Neil leans back against the glass, his expression calm, even though his pulse is racing underneath Andrew’s thumb.

Or maybe it’s Andrew’s pulse.

Abby always said not to measure anyone’s heartbeat with your thumb.

Andrew looks over Neil’s shoulder and into their house. He looks at the blankets discarded on the couch, one his and one Neil’s, and at their cats, sleeping together on one of the cushions, King’s tail moving irritably whenever Sir shifts in his sleep, both of them looking healthy and healed. He looks at the coffee table and two empty mugs sitting side by side. He looks at the TV, currently recording Kevin’s game for them to watch later, and at his own book next to the couch.

He looks at the open kitchen and a bowl Neil apparently forgot to clean. He looks at the magnets on the fridge, a little faded now, but still just as annoying.

He looks at Neil’s jersey, thrown carelessly on the armchair, and at his own training bag, resting by the door to their bedroom. He looks at the dozens of different objects they chose and got together.

It’s not just a house — five letters, three vowels, two consonants.

It’s a home.

He looks back at Neil, who is still watching him calmly, even though several minutes have passed. There is no trace of impatience on his face.

Two vowels. Two consonants.

Home, Andrew thinks. Hope.

Neil.

He swallows.

“You haven’t —,” he says, and he sounds hoarse, so he starts over, the ring warming in his hand, “You haven’t actually asked me anything, Neil.”

Neil swallows, but he doesn’t look away, stubborn as ever. He meets Andrew’s gaze, clears his throat, and says, “I want to marry you. Yes or —”

“Shut up,” Andrew interrupts, and then interrupts himself by pressing his lips against Neil’s. “Yes.”

Neil’s breath catches, but then Andrew kisses him again and he melts into the kiss, his fingers winding up in Andrew’s hair. They kiss and kiss and kiss until Andrew can’t feel anything except for the heat of Neil’s lips, and then they kiss some more, until Andrew can’t imagine ever pulling away. He finally does when it gets cold enough that Neil begins to shiver, and all he does is force the door open and push Neil inside and kiss him again.

The ring fits just fine.

 

 

27.

 

Andrew doesn’t quite recall how they ended up agreeing to host this party.

Considering that his memory is as flawless as it has always been, they haven’t agreed at all, but now it’s too late to do anything about it.

It began with Allison noticing the ring that Neil wears everywhere without caring what their PR manager has to say about it. It ends with the Foxes playing a board game on the floor in the living room, with Wymack, Bee, and Abby sharing drinks by the kitchen island, with several of their Denver teammates and Kevin watching an old game on the TV like the antisocial junkies they are, and with Andrew wishing to burn the whole place to the ground.

Neil, on the other hand, seems pleased as he leans against Andrew’s arm and steals Andrew’s drink. He looks unfairly good in a blue button-down Andrew bought him a while ago and in a pair of skinny jeans that should probably be illegal.

Neil takes a sip of Andrew’s drink and then passes him the glass, leaning back against the kitchen counter. They have found refuge in the kitchen, but Andrew doubts they’ll get to stay here for long. He glares around the room.

“I’m divorcing you for this,” he tells Neil.

Neil snorts. “You’d just have to marry me again,” he replies, and he does, unfortunately, have a point.

“At least we got chocolate,” Andrew says, pointing to the stack of gifts in the corner of the room.

“And some granola bars from Kevin,” Neil adds, his lips curled up in a smirk.

“You can have them,” Andrew tells him graciously. “Go deal with the guests. The sooner they’re drunk, the sooner they pass out or leave.”

“Aw,” Neil mocks, leaning even more into Andrew’s side. “And what’s in it for me?”

“A quick death?” Andrew suggests, then catches his chin and draws him into a kiss. “Go.”

Neil licks his lips, holding Andrew’s gaze, and finally offers a nod, pushing away from the counter.

“You still owe me a dance,” he points out and leaves without waiting for a reply.

Andrew rolls his eyes and then catches Aaron’s gaze across the living room.

He is accompanied by Katelyn, who keeps casting worried glances in Andrew’s direction. Andrew sighs in irritation; it’s not like he didn’t know who Aaron was going to bring when he extended a ‘plus one’ invitation.

Instead of doing anything about it, though, he simply offers a nod, and Aaron nods back. They’ll probably talk before the night ends, but it’s nothing special by now; while they still don’t spend much time together, as they live on opposite sides of the continent, they call each other nearly every week. It rarely lasts longer than a few minutes, but it’s far more that Andrew has ever expected.

Nicky isn’t here, as he couldn’t afford to take the time off at his new job, but he has already both extended an invitation to Germany for Andrew and Neil, and bullied them both into accepting it.

The person who approaches Andrew after Neil leaves is Bee. She is dressed in a simple brown dress and there is a small pendant on her neck. It’s, naturally, a tiny fox.

“Hello, Andrew,” she says. She gestures to the empty space by Andrew’s side. “May I?”

Andrew nods. He opens the cupboard above the sink and finds two mugs, and then goes through the drawers next to the fridge to find the cocoa. Someone else would probably tell him not to bother, but Bee has always been more perceptive than that, and she lets Andrew do every nice thing he ever feels like doing.

She waits patiently for Andrew to make the cocoa and accepts her mug with a smile.

“Thank you,” she says.

Andrew nods again, leaning against the counter. He takes a sip and looks at Bee over the rim of his mug. “How are you, Bee?” he asks.

He still isn’t fond of small talk, but it’s a tradition between him and Bee, and he sees no reason to break it. The words are meaningless, but the intention behind them is not.

“I’m well, thank you,” Bee replies, calm and collected. “The new Foxes are settling in. They are a handful, but nothing I can’t, well, handle.”

Andrew hums in agreement. “Good,” he says.

“How are you, Andrew?” Bee counters, her voice just as soothing as it has always been.

Andrew gives her the courtesy of actually considering the question. He takes another sip of his cocoa and looks around the room. He meets Neil’s gaze across the crowd of people who somehow ended up being a part of their lives, and offers a small smile, a barely-there curl of his lips which instantly causes Neil to brighten up.

King jumps on the counter by Andrew’s side and violently headbutts him in the elbow, nearly causing Andrew to spill the contents of his mug. Andrew glares at him in a quiet fury and King glares right back, his eye now completely healed.

Andrew looks back at Bee.

“I’m okay, Bee,” he says, and he means it, too.

She smiles at him again. “I’m glad,” she says. “I’m very glad.”

She doesn’t reach out to touch him, but she clicks their mugs together before she leaves to join Abby and Renee, currently busy playing with Sir and sneaking him snacks.

That leaves Andrew with Wymack, who takes a swig of his beer, leans back against the kitchen island directly in Andrew’s line of vision and says, “Took you long enough.”

Andrew huffs, partially annoyed and partially indignant, and glares at Wymack’s shoulder to avoid actually meeting his gaze.

Wymack shrugs, waving one hand dismissively. “No, I know, it wasn’t your fault,” he says. “You did your best with all the blatant staring, illegal drugging, and casual death threats.”

Andrew shifts his glare from Wymack’s shoulder to his face, but he supposes that he owes Wymack some patience, considering how much patience Wymack once had for him, so he doesn’t reach for his knives. The point about drugging stings a little, in a way it wouldn’t have in the past, even if Neil has never blamed him for the things he did in order to keep his promises.

Before he can come up with an appropriately scathing response, Wymack’s gaze softens. He takes another swig from his bottle and then places it on the counter.

“The drugging aside, I’m proud of you, kid,” he says. “I’m proud of both of you.”

Andrew has never known what to do with that brand of Wymack’s honesty, so all he does is shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans and offer an uncomfortable shrug, avoiding Wymack’s gaze once again.

Wymack nods to himself, clearly pleased with a mission accomplished, and moves to leave the kitchen.

Instead of simply letting him go, Andrew clears his throat and says, “Thanks.”

He doesn’t specify, but since he has never thanked Wymack for anything, he doesn’t think a specification is all that necessary. Wymack stills, but then he smiles, more at the ground than at Andrew. It looks weary, but it also looks glad.

“Any time, kid,” he says, then pauses and frowns, all for show. “Just don’t make a habit out of it.”

Before he leaves Andrew to his own devices, he reaches out to pet King, and King lets him do it without a single noise of complaint. Andrew decides to withhold his snack privileges for the time being.

It takes several more hours for the crowd to begin thinning out; Wymack, Abby, and Bee leave first, claiming to have already booked a flight back to South Carolina. Most of their Denver teammates huddle together in Micky’s van, and Micky himself steals the rest of Andrew’s orange juice in exchange for excusing Neil and Andrew from morning practice.

The Foxes stay the longest, since it’s absolutely impossible to get them to leave any kind of a party, but finally, even they begin to get ready to leave. Kevin ends up sharing a cab with Aaron and Katelyn, while Matt and Dan take a bus to the airport. Eventually, the only people left are Renee and Allison, whose flight is the last one to depart.

Andrew is collecting glasses when Renee joins him, choosing to help him pick up the bottles and throw away the left-overs. They work in companionable silence for several minutes, with both Neil and Allison notably absent, and then Andrew offers Renee one of the remaining water bottles and they sit on the kitchen island, crossing their legs at the ankles.

“Seems surreal, doesn’t it?” Renee says after a long moment, taking a long sip from her bottle. Her white shirt looks as impeccable as ever and her hair is tucked neatly behind her ears. She is wearing the pearl earrings again.

Andrew doesn’t need to ask her to clarify. He looks around the dim room and at the cats napping on the couch. A flicker of flame in the night tells him that Neil is smoking on the terrace, probably accompanied by Allison. It’s too dark to see their silhouettes.

He knows what Renee means, because he shares the sentiment — he also finds it hard to believe that people so broken could have a life so whole.

“Yeah,” he says, picking up one of the large round cookies Abby brought to the party and taking a careful bite. “But it isn’t.”

“No,” Renee agrees. “It isn’t.”

She leans against his shoulder, only slightly, and Andrew leans into her, just as slightly.

He offers her half of the cookie and she takes it without comment, and they spend another moment sharing the peaceful silence and trying to kick off each other’s sneakers until Renee glances at her watch and sighs.

“Time to go,” she says, and then she uses Andrew’s distraction to rid him of his left sneaker.

Andrew glares, first at the offending sneaker and then at Renee, and hops off the counter to put the shoe back on. Renee waits for him patiently and then walks towards the door leading to the terrace and slides it open. Andrew follows her, shooing the cats away.

Neil and Allison are sitting on the steps leading into the garden, both with their knees drawn up and their heads tilted back to watch the stars. Allison glances back when she hears the swish of the door and she smiles at Renee before climbing to her feet.

She pats Neil’s shoulder and says, “See you around, gorgeous.”

Neil snorts, too old by now to get flustered that easily. “Right back at you,” he replies without standing up. “Goodbye, Renee,” he adds.

Renee smiles at him and then hands Allison her bag. “You don’t need to walk us out,” she tells Andrew. “We’ll go through the garden.”

“Suit yourself,” Andrew responds with a shrug, but he accepts a brief hug from Renee and mirrors Allison’s wordless nod.

They do go through the garden, and Andrew and Neil spend a long moment listening to the way they laugh on their way, trying not to trip in the darkness, Allison’s giggle loud and cheerful, Renee’s bright and clear.

The cab has been waiting for them for a while now, if the impatient honking is anything to go by. As soon as the honking stops and the silence descends again, Andrew sits next to Neil and steals his cigarette.

Neil lets him do it without comment, leaning back until he can rest his elbows against the step behind him, and he tilts his head up to continue staring at the stars. It gives Andrew a great view of his profile, so he doesn’t complain.

He smokes through the cigarette, differentiating between watching the garden and watching Neil, and then he stubs it out against the railing, dumps it in the jar by the stairs, and mirrors Neil’s position.

The stars look just as distant and unreachable as they always have, but Andrew is no longer searching for escape routes.

“My mom always liked looking at the sky at night,” Neil says after a long moment. He sounds a little wistful, but his voice is calm. It’s just a memory. It no longer holds the power to hurt Neil, so Andrew no longer has a reason to resent it. “When I was younger, she used to say that you can only see the stars in the loneliest of places. That if you can see them all, you are truly alone.” He pauses, tilting his head so he can meet Andrew’s gaze. “In her mind, alone has always meant safe.”

“Not in your mind, though,” Andrew says, not quite a question, but not a statement, either.

“No,” Neil agrees. “I’m perfectly safe here with you.”

Andrew holds his gaze and for once doesn’t brush the words away. He says, “You are.”

“And you are safe here with me,” Neil adds, always careful not to take more than he offers to give.

Andrew looks at him, at the familiar certainty that shines in Neil’s eyes and seeps into Andrew’s heart one day at a time, at the constellation of freckles and the battlefield of scars, and there is nothing frightening about the warmth in his chest, about the lack of defenses between him and Neil, about the future and about the forever. There is nothing frightening about life.

Two vowels, Andrew thinks, two consonants.

Home, Neil, life — these are truths.

He says, “I am.”

 

 

+1.

 

When Andrew wakes up, Neil’s side of the bed is empty, and the clock on the nightstand informs him that it’s too early to be awake. Through the window, he can see the grayish landscape of dawn — bare, leafless trees covered in frost, a motionless ocean of mist. The world looks suspended in time, looks quiet, looks half-asleep.

The sheets on Neil’s side are still warm, so Andrew rests one hand, palm-up, on Neil’s pillow.

He waits, looking up at the ceiling without really seeing it.

He is still tired after their game last night, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion, a familiar one. It nests in his muscles and in his bones, but it doesn’t weigh him down.

For once, his thoughts are as quiet as the world around him seems to be. He can smell the faint scent of the detergent they use to clean the sheets, the smell of Neil’s skin and shampoo lingering on the pillow, finally the distant but unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee.

He pushes the sheets and the blanket away and instantly regrets it. He has a sneaking suspicion that Neil has tinkered with the temperature controls again, and while Andrew can admit that he sleeps better when the room is cold, it only works when Neil is around to provide body heat.

Andrew winces again as he places his feet on the floor and pads barefoot to the closet. He steals Neil’s socks and finds his own favorite hoodie, a little worn-out by now, but comforting in its familiarity. He puts both on and after a brief moment of consideration, tugs the blanket off the bed and curls it around his shoulders like an oversized cape.

In the corridor, he almost trips on Neil’s racquet and then actually trips on one of the cat toys. He manages to regain his balance, though, and walks into the kitchen instead of falling through the doorway.

Neil isn’t there, either. There are, however, waffles. Andrew contemplates them for a moment and then steals one. He finds some jam in the fridge and then hip-checks it close, humming contently when he takes the first bite. They taste unbelievably good, as they always do. Andrew steals another one, in retaliation for the traps in the corridor, rearranges the magnets on the fridge, and leaves the kitchen.

He finds Neil in the living room. There are two small steps leading from the corridor to the living room, and they are Andrew’s favorite place in the entire house, because when he stands on top, he is much taller than Neil.

Neil, being Neil, is well aware of that, so Andrew never has any trouble finding him there.

Right now, Neil is standing on the first step, leaning against the doorframe, his back to Andrew, his hair sleep-tousled and his stance loose. Andrew can read Neil’s body as easily as Neil can read his own, so he knows instantly that Neil didn’t have a nightmare, that he isn’t agitated, that it’s alright to touch him. Neil is also aware of Andrew’s approach, if the way he tilts his head slightly towards Andrew is any indication.

Andrew stops inches behind his back and looks over Neil’s shoulder at the all-too-familiar living room. He watches the sunlight filtering through the windows, the patches of light on the wooden floor. Their cats are curled up in the brightest — and most likely the warmest — spot, their eyes closed, tails swishing across the floor from time to time.

Neil is holding a mug, both hands curled around it, seeking warmth. His feet are, naturally, bare, and the hoodie he is wearing has, naturally, the number three on the back.

Neil doesn’t turn around and he doesn’t say anything, but he leans back subtly, giving Andrew the permission he is looking for.

He hooks his chin on Neil’s shoulder and slides one hand around Neil’s waist, sneaking his fingers under Neil’s hoodie and splaying them on Neil’s stomach. They both lean into each other and Neil tips his head back to nuzzle closer to Andrew before straightening again and taking a sip from his mug.

Andrew uses his free hand to steal the mug from Neil in exchange for the remaining half of the waffle. Neil’s nose scrunches up at the sheer overabundance of jam, but he doesn’t complain about the exchange, only leans even more into Andrew, as if in a challenge. It’s no trouble at all to hold him up.

For once, Andrew feels settled in his own skin. His memories are still lurking in the shadows and maybe they’ll never leave, but they are paler now, details of his past finally beginning to blur as the future continues to brighten.

He is home, and home no longer consists of vowels and consonants. Home is the press of Neil’s lips against his skin, the warmth of Neil’s gaze when it meets his own, the unyielding support offered and received. Home is this house, the large windows and the wooden floors, the green of the bedroom ceiling and the Exy magnets on the kitchen fridge. Home is the old, warm hoodie he is wearing, with fox-adorned sleeves, the photographs and postcards glued to the kitchen wall, the messages in Andrew’s phone and the passports Neil won’t ever need.

Home is the steadiness in Andrew’s chest, the hard-won peace of mind.

He looks at the greyish landscape of dawn and at the landscape of cruelty on Neil’s skin, at the study in silence and the study in strength.

He looks and looks and looks, and then he says, “I love you.”

Neil pauses only for a moment, so minuscule that if Andrew didn’t know him as well as he does, he would miss it completely.

Then he says, calm and casual, “I love you, too.”

Andrew takes a sip of the too-bitter coffee and Neil takes a bite of the too-sweet waffle.

When they kiss, it tastes just right.

 

 

 

THE END