Neil transferring to Andrew’s team caused quite a stir in the Exy world. Not that it was a surprise to either of them. The press (and general public) had latched on to the ‘Minyard-Josten rivalry’ years ago and had plans to let it go anytime soon, it seemed. It didn’t really matter either way to them, though. All Neil was interested in was playing his game and being with Andrew, and all Andrew cared about was Neil and having something to challenge him. Exy provided both, and he was even better now than he had been in college. So when the chance opened up for Neil to join Andrew’s team, he took it.
(No one but the coaches and Andrew knew that the reason Neil was picked to trade to Andrew’s team was that Andrew had promised three more shutouts a season, whenever the coaches wanted to cash that in).
So Neil transferred in the off-season, and it meant a lot of things. It meant uprooting his life in South Carolina and moving to Boston. It meant moving in with Andrew and discovering he’d let two strays eat and sleep there. It meant Neil got to name the cats and buy them collars and toys. It meant meeting a new team and learning how to work with them. All of those things were good.
But it also meant more press.
Specifically, it meant going on a talk show to discuss his new team. Which meant most of it would be about the famed rivalry that didn’t even exist. And that meant that Andrew had to go as well. (He’d traded in one of the shutouts in order to do it, but that was something no one needed to know).
Which was how Neil and Andrew found themselves made up to an inch of their lives, wearing very uncomfortable clothes, and under the hot lights of a recording studio. It was far too similar to Kathy’s talk show all those years ago.
Neil tugged at his collar, wishing it was over, even though they still had five minutes on the countdown clock. Andrew stood stoically beside him, just a hair closer than he usually did in public. Their knuckles brushed together, a silent conversation, until they got the cue to walk onstage.
Neil blinked against the glaring lights, already sweating through his pancake makeup. He forced a smile onto his face as the crowd applauded, and shook the host’s hand. The host was no Kathy—thank god—but his vapid smile and sharp eyes were remarkably similar. Neil and Andrew took seats on opposite ends of the small leather couch next to the host’s desk. The host, a short man with perfectly styled dark hair and chunky glasses that were probably supposed to be ironic somehow, thanked them for joining him tonight. Neil knew Andrew wouldn’t respond, so he replied for both of them.
“Thanks for having us,” he said as blandly as he could. The host blinked but his smile stayed plastered firmly on.
“So,” the host, John Something-Or-Other said, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s get down to business. Anyone who knows anything about Exy—and even most who don’t—know who you are, Mr. Josten. You were doing brilliantly with your old team—why did you transfer all the way to Boston?”
“I needed the change,” Neil said. He’d learned some things about talking to the press over the years. How to give them an answer without having to say anything.
“And quite a change it was!” John exclaimed. “Let’s talk about your new team. Are you fitting in with them so far?”
Neil held back an eye-roll. He’d been asked that exact question half a dozen times in the past two weeks. He knew what John was really asking. Nonetheless, he tried to dodge the question, knowing it was futile.
“It’s pretty early in the season but I think we’ll be alright.”
“Speaking of friends,” John said, even though they really weren’t, “Andrew, how did you react when you heard your old college teammate would be joining your team?”
Andrew shrugged. The audience, quiet up until this point, broke into light laughter.
“Care to elaborate on that?” John asked chummily. Andrew pinned him with his coldest stare.
“Ah, I see we’ve arrived at the true reason for this little interview: the Minyard-Josten rivalry.” To the audience, John said, “Now, in case anyone here has been living under a rock for the past half a decade or so, these two fine Exy players have a rivalry like none other—played together in college, went pro, and started playing against each other. I’ve never seen such electricity between two players before! It’s like when they play, there’s no one else on the court.”
Neil thought absently that John was more right than wrong. Playing against Andrew professionally was electrifying. And he did usually forget anyone else existed.
John, still rambling, mentioned, “Like any good Exy player, both of these fine gentlemen are well versed in smack-talk. But they go above and beyond—some fans have clocked three different languages between them. Tell us about that, boys.”
Neither one of them spoke for a second. Finally, Neil sighed and said, “We both like languages.”
“Really? Which ones?” John asked, sounding as if he might die if they didn’t tell him.
In Russian, Andrew said, “is this fuckwad going to shut up anytime soon?”
“I doubt it, we still have ten more minutes,” Neil replied, in German. John, oblivious, actually stood up and applauded.
Neil made a mental note to get Andrew out of the studio right after the show before Andrew had the opportunity stab John.
“So, Andrew, now that you’ve finally said something, let’s keep the ball rolling. How do you feel about Neil joining your team? Any chance of that famed rivalry turning into a friendship of some kind?”
“I hate him,” Andrew said flatly, and Neil fought to keep his smile under control. John looked devastated.
“Well, I suppose some on-field chemistry is too good to sacrifice on friendship. Though,” he added, with a mischievous smile, “some fans have elected to take your chemistry in quite a different way, haven’t they?”
When neither of them responded, John clapped his hands delightedly. “Oh, so you haven’t heard?”
“Haven’t heard what?” Neil asked, stupidly, probably. By the way Andrew rolled his eyes, yeah, that was probably a stupid thing to say. John looked like Neil had single-handedly handed him the keys to the city.
He clapped once, and behind him, on the huge LED screen, a photo popped up and the audience tittered. It was a painting, actually, Neil saw. Someone had digitally painted the two of them—Neil and Andrew—in their matching uniforms, helmets off, kissing passionately, their arms wrapped around each other as a crowd of Exy fans cheered in the background. There was a pride flag painted on Andrew’s cheek.
“Ah, yes,” John Whatever said, still not dropping his absolutely fake delight. “Some of your—ah, younger, more imaginative fans have decided that the two of you would make a lovely couple. Thousands of pieces of art have cropped up over the past few years, as well as a ‘ship name’ for the two of you: Minton. Any comments, boys?”
Neil sat frozen in his seat. They hadn’t discussed coming out very much in the past. Neil knew Andrew wasn’t ashamed of who he was and neither was Neil. Being with Andrew was one of the things he was proudest of, and some days he wanted everyone to know, wanted them to see how precious Andrew really was to him. But it certainly would complicate their professional lives. Besides, he didn’t the general public any kind of details of his personal life. They had pried enough of his personal life away from him on the court and in the tabloids.
Thankfully, while Neil was stuck in his loop of thoughts, Andrew spoke up. In a dangerously calm voice, he said, “Did you ask the artist’s permission to use their art on this show?”
“What?” John asked, obviously taken aback.
“Did you get permission to use this piece of art?” Andrew repeated, as if he was talking to a five-year-old.
“I—no, I suppose I didn’t,” John stuttered.
“That, John, is what we call illegal. Art belongs to the owner. You can’t just pick it up at random to use on national TV in order to alienate and humiliate a whole sub-section of passionate Exy fans for seeing something you don’t.”
John fumbled for words, but Andrew didn’t let him get that far.
“You know, John, I hated you since the moment I walked on this stage, and it turns out, that hate wasn’t at all misplaced after all. What was your purpose of showing this to us? To embarrass us? Shock us? Did you think we would have a great old laugh with you about our fans? Did you think they were stupid for ‘reading into’ something that ‘doesn’t exist’? Do you believe it is so implausible, so impossible, so unheard of that two professional athletes might not be your perfect ideal of macho heterosexual jocks? Do you really believe that a person can’t be both a professional athlete and gay at the same time?
“Or,” Andrew continued, “Are you just trying to subtly tell the world what a bigoted, homophobic asshole you are? If so, applaud you. You’ve done well.”
He clapped slowly, not a trace of a smile on his face.
Aside from the uncomfortable murmurs from the audience, the studio was dead silent. Andrew stood up, deliberately brushing his hands together as if to get something unpleasant off them.
“Neil?” Andrew said, holding out his hand. Neil took it readily, using the leverage to pull himself to his feet.
“We’re done here,” Andrew said to John. “If you do it now, I’ll punch you, but on your show tomorrow, I had better hear a heartfelt apology to the artist that made that painting, and all the fans you’ve offended in the past five minutes.”
They walked off the stage, Neil trailing behind Andrew, still holding his hand. They almost cleared the stage when the first person in the audience started applauding. Another person joined them, and another after that. Neil could hear them applauding all the way through the backstage area and through the backstage door.
Neil squeezed Andrew’s hand, a wordless question, and received a gentle squeeze in return. He wasn’t mad anymore, then. Well, he was, but it wasn’t the kind of rage that would send him spiraling to a bad place. It was the kind that would probably ruin this idiot’s career, but at least he had a target for his anger.
“What should we do?” Neil asked, once they were back safe in their apartment.
Andrew shrugged. “We don’t need to do anything. I think I got my point across well enough. Is there anything else you want to do about it?”
Neil thought about it for a few minutes. He kept coming back to that piece of art, how the artist had somehow captured the exact feeling of tender-fierce possessiveness Neil felt for Andrew.
“Yes, actually,” Neil said. He leaned their foreheads together. “We don’t have to if you don’t want to. But I think a few of our fans might appreciate if we followed up on this.”
“What are you thinking?” Andrew asked suspiciously. But the way his hands pressed against Neil’s lower back told him that he would be onboard with what Neil was planning.
“I’m thinking I need to track down that artist.”
The next morning, Neil sent out a tweet to his roughly 300,000 followers. Two pictures, side by side. One was the digital painting that was featured on the talk show the previous night, and the other was a photo of Neil and Andrew at early-morning practice. The photo was as a close a replica to the painting as they could manage—there was even a rainbow flag painted on Andrew’s sweaty cheek. The crowd of Exy fans was replaced with Neil and Andrew’s teammates cheering as the two kissed in the foreground. The caption said, ‘thx to @mintonisreal for letting us use their art (with permission) and seeing what others refuse to. #lovewins’.
Andrew was the first person to retweet it.