Neil watched as smoke from Andrew’s third cigarette curled around the corners of his mouth. Neil’s own, hanging limply between his fingers, was momentarily forgotten. They were sitting comfortably on the rooftop, close enough that Neil could feel the warmth radiating from Andrew’s body, despite the light breeze. Neil turned his face towards the horizon and watched as the sun settled behind the clouds, painting them in a brilliant shade of orange. It was newly April, and Neil reveled in the cool weather. Spring meant fresh fruits and bright, new beginnings; both were things Neil was still getting accustomed to. The crisp air made morning runs with Kevin more tolerable, if that were possible, and then coincidentally, a certain blond’s attitude more tolerable. It wasn’t something Andrew had ever explicitly told him, but Neil had noticed the not-so-subtle way Andrew would lift his chin towards the sky whenever a gust of wind blew their way.
Neil lazily brought his gaze back to Andrew. His legs were sprawled loosely in front of him and his mouth was slack around his cigarette and Neil’s eyes couldn’t help but linger. Moments like these were few and far between with them, but as Neil’s second year progressed and his attention remained steadily on Andrew, he had quickly noted how he was becoming more and more comfortable around Neil.
Neil stubbed his cigarette out and brought his knees up to hug tightly against his torso, in part keeping out the cold and keeping the warm, pleasant feeling in his chest from spreading.
“Stop it,” Andrew said quietly, eyes still locked on the glowing horizon.
Neil tugged on his mouth, hiding his smile. “You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“No, I don’t. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Neil hummed noncommittally. A part of him knew he should feel embarrassed, considering the countless times the Foxes had caught him staring at Andrew, strong and unshakable in the goal during practices and games. The countless times Andrew had looked up to meet Neil’s gaze, fierce and unwavering, and matched it with his own quiet intensity.
He knew that despite everything that had transpired in Baltimore, the Foxes were still wary of his relationship with Andrew. He saw every quirked eyebrow and sideway glance they threw his way, but his gaze stayed frequent and unashamed. Neil loved his little makeshift family with every fiber of his being, but he’d fought tooth and nail to have this. To have Neil Josten and the Foxes and Andrew.
The wind picked up around them, lifting wisps of honey colored hair away from Andrew’s forehead. They would be wrapping up the season soon, and Neil would be promoted to unofficial team captain during the summer, before properly attaining the title come fall. Dan had promised to take him out for lunch before she graduated for a few last minute pointers, and though she swore he wouldn’t need them, Neil didn’t quite share her confidence. He wasn’t so sure he’d be able to lead the team at all, let alone mirror Dan’s fierce determination and unrelenting nature. Neil had spent the last year learning how to become a single person. He couldn’t fathom why Dan and Wymack thought he’d be able to lead an entire team.
Something hard and cold dropped to the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t even realized how soon graduation would be. How soon he would be losing Dan, and Allison and Renee.
Allison had been the first person, apart from Andrew, that Neil had allowed to touch his face after Baltimore. He and Renee weren’t as close as she and Andrew were, but Neil enjoyed her company during warmups or their weekly coffee dates. Renee offered him a quiet companionship that allowed him to just be.
Dan believed in him and his ability to lead their team on and off the court. They all did. The Foxes were the stitches in the fabric that held Neil together, and now, without school or exy keeping them together, he had less than a month before his family would unravel and inevitably come undone.
The third time Neil brought his gaze back to Andrew, Andrew was staring back, cocking his head to the side slightly. He studied Neil for a moment before his eyes glazed over.
“You’re acting more pathetic than usual.” The end of Andrew’s cigarette burned bright and angry as he took a drag. “What is it?”
Neil could hardly be surprised with Andrew’s keen perception. As well as he could read Andrew now, Andrew could read him even better. Though he usually left Neil to his thoughts, rarely getting involved unless absolutely necessary. Like those moments where Neil would dive too deep into his mind, and needed a hand clasped onto his neck to bring him back; an anchor to pull him out of dangerous waters.
Neil picked at a loose thread from one of the many holes in his jeans, courtesy of Allison. He wasn’t sure how to respond, how to accurately sum up the swirls of emotions twisting and turning his insides out.
He settled for, “The girls are graduating next month.”
Andrew blew a cloud of smoke through his nose and waited for Neil to continue.
“I just-” Neil raised his hands helplessly. “What if after graduation they move on and start new lives-”
“They will move on and start new lives,” Andrew interrupted. “But if you think for one second they’ll leave you behind then you’re more of an idiot than I’d thought.”
Neil fiddled with the flap on the cigarette carton and exhaled a sharp breath. “I’ve never had to think about leaving people behind before. It was always don’t look back. Don’t slow down. I’ve never cared. I couldn’t afford to, and now-”
“You’re the one being left behind,” Andrew finished, waving him off. He stubbed his cigarette out on the concrete before turning to Neil, his expression neutral.
Neil opened his mouth to respond, but Andrew was right. He was the one being left behind.
“Start a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants pact or get matching tattoos if that’s what it’ll take to convince you,” Andrew added, slightly amused. He reached behind himself for the six pack they had brought, quickly unsheathing a knife to pop the cap off before taking a swig.
Matching tattoos. Neil had to admit he liked the idea of having something permanent, something tangible to tie him to his Foxes. He wasn’t sure if the others would approve, and he idly wondered if the arguments started about what design they should choose would be worth it. Neil would be more than fine with a little orange fox on the inside of his wrist but-
“Absolutely not,” Andrew growled, knowing exactly what Neil was thinking. He held out a hand for a cigarette and rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t have said anything if I thought you’d take it seriously.”
“It was your idea. I’ll be sure to let everyone know that as well.” Neil said, watching as the sun dipped before the horizon, casting shadows across the planes of Andrew’s face, and illuminating the strong line of his jaw and the gentle slope of his nose. Neil let his eyes roam, soaking up as much as he could before Andrew could call him out for staring. Sometimes, he couldn’t believe this was all his.
As if hearing Neil’s thoughts, “And I’ll be sure to throw you off this roof next chance I get.”
“You’ve had plenty of chances and yet-”
“Good luck getting them to agree.” Andrew’s eyebrow twitched. He knew as well as Neil that that wouldn’t be a problem. “And don’t even think about lumping me into this.”
“You’ll be leaving soon, too,” Neil said quietly, keeping his eyes fixated on the horizon until they burned. The future wasn’t something they’d ever explicitly talked about. Their most important conversations weren’t conversations, rather strong hands on his hips and a firm mouth on his neck that said Yes and I want this forever.
“Can’t wait,” Andrew said, ignoring the silent question in Neil’s voice.
Neil nodded halfheartedly, not trusting his voice, thick with unsaid words, to not give him away. He knew that nothing was Andrew’s way of saying everything. The only way he could, and yet his mind disregarded that and focused on the fact that after Andrew’s graduation, there wouldn’t be anything tangible left for them to hold onto either.
“Though is it really leaving if my ass will be back here every weekend.” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. A promise.
Neil grinned and the heaviness in his chest settled slightly. “This is true.”
“Whatever. Someone’s gotta do it,” Andrew grumbled.
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Yes, you do. Sucks to suck.”
“I don’t suck,” Neil said with a small laugh before his mouth curled into something more mischievous. “Unless you’re referring to the other night-”
Andrew snatched the carton out of his hand and chucked it at his forehead. “No one wants you. Get over it.”
“Except you,” Neil said. He ignored the spark of electricity that shot up his spine and threw the carton somewhere behind him before crawling over to close the small gap between them, eyes darting down to Andrew’s mouth before coming back up to narrowed hazel eyes.
“Now where’d you hear some shit like that,” Andrew said, leveling him with a bored stare.
They were close enough that Neil could press their foreheads together if he wanted, and he did just that. “Yes or no?” Neil breathed, shivering as Andrew’s warm breath washed over him. Forever was for tomorrow. Neil had fought for the chance of now, and to enjoy being Neil and everything that came with it.
“I’m not getting a matching tattoo with you, let alone with this fuckass team.”
Neil smirked and decided to rile Andrew up a little. “That’s not what I meant. Also, you’d be doing it for me, not them.”
“Now I extra don’t want to.”
“Great grammar. Very nice.”
“Go fuck yourself. Better?”
Neil nodded, bumping their noses together. He wanted to say more, but his mind said too much talking, and his mouth said not enough kissing, and Neil was very much past the point of denying himself the luxuries of being alive and here. “Much,” Neil said before Andrew finally, finally, brought their mouths together.
Thank y'all so much for your kind words! I've been running around for a few weeks getting everything ready for the fall semester. I've just moved into my new apartment and I felt the creativity FLOW tonight hence a new chapter (I've also split this into 3 chapters sue me) anyway, I'm really proud of this, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!
Come chat with me @exybee.tumblr.com
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Between homework, practices, and late night rooftop sessions, Neil was too burnt out from everything to properly propose his tattoo idea to the Foxes. But, much to Andrew’s dismay, Neil didn’t forget. His chance came a few weeks later at the Foxes’ monthly movie night.
After a quick smoke outside, Neil and Andrew made their way into Matt and Nicky’s dorm. The two technically shared the space with Aaron, but since he spent most of his time at Kaitlyn’s apartment, Matt had more or less taken over Aaron’s closet and Nicky had more or less turned his cousin’s desk and chair into his own personal mini bar.
The Foxes were spread about the room, but still managed to come together to resemble a unit. The living room floor was littered with Renee’s old patterned quilts, sugary snacks, and a copious amount of alcohol. Neil’s shoulder’s sagged a bit in relief at the sight of his family laughing and drinking together. He desperately wished his mind were a camera, and he could save the night and replay it forever.
Some nights the freshmen would filter through in hopes of free food and drinks, and while they weren’t explicitly excluded, they weren’t exactly welcomed either, and had eventually gotten the hint that nights like these were primarily reserved for the Older Foxes. Neil didn’t mind all that much, because even though a fox was a fox, his foxes were family.
“Finally! We were just deciding whether or not to play Two Truths and a Lie or Never Have I Ever.” Nicky staggered forward and greeted them at the door with a bright smile and a fistfull of alcohol.
“I thought this was movie night,” Neil said as he and Andrew stepped through the threshold and shrugged off their jackets.
“We always do movie night!” Nicky pouted, before slinging an arm around Neil’s shoulders and putting most of his weight on him. “I thought we could do something a little different tonight.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Neil.
“Well, I for one have told enough truths to last a lifetime.” Neil frowned and stepped out of Nicky’s reach. “Also, what’s Never Have I Ever?” he asked, and then immediately wanted to grab his words from the air and shove them back into his mouth.
“It’s when someone says something they’ve never done before and if you’ve done it you take a shot,” Allison said from her place on the floor, her feet nestled in Renee’s lap. She arched a sly brow and lifted her chin in Neil and Andrew’s direction. “Though I’m sure we don’t have enough alcohol for the two of you.”
Neil nodded in agreement. Speaking of Andrew, Neil turned to see that Andrew had left him in favor of searching the kitchen for his bottle of Jack Daniels. Most of the Foxes preferred mixed drinks, save for Kevin, who preferred Vodka, or anything remotely resembling battery acid. So It wasn’t until the summer after Baltimore that Neil had noticed the few bottles of whiskey set aside for Andrew during the Foxes’ social events.
A piece of wrapped candy thumped the back of his head. He glanced over his shoulder to see Andrew holding up two empty glasses with a raised eyebrow. Neil shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood to drink.
Neil wiped his hands on his jeans, walked over to an empty spot on the floor and sat down with his back against the front of the couch. The air was riddled with the Foxes’ conversations and he would wait patiently for his turn.
Kevin was sprawled loosely in one of the beanbag chairs facing the television, fully immersed in his current game, and yelling obscenities at the referee. Neil watched the game for a few minutes before it reminded him of everything he had to lose. He quickly averted his eyes in time to see Andrew drop to the floor next to him.
Neil reached a hand out and was met with a cool glass. He took a few sips of Andrew’s whiskey before handing it back to him, deciding he’d had enough for the night. Andrew regarded him with cool, unreadable eyes, before taking the glass from him. Neil’s eyes fixated on Andrew’s throat as he downed the rest of the amber liquid.
Nicky collapsed on the couch next to Aaron, who was chatting quietly with Kaitlyn, her fingers raking through his hair fondly. She nodded thoughtfully as he spoke, hanging onto his every word. Neil wouldn’t say he understood their relationship, not by a long shot, but he did respect it. Well, he respected Kaitlyn at least.
“Hey, Neil,” Kaitlyn said, raising her glass of wine. “Hi, Andrew,” Her smile was strained, but sincere.
“Hey,” Neil said politely. He felt Andrew stiffen slightly at his side, but as always, he made no move to acknowledge her. Neil tried explaining to Kaitlyn that Andrew ignoring her was very much in her best interest, but she said she was determined to try anyway. Neil promptly wiped his hands of it after that.
Dan was sitting on the armrest of the recliner when Matt waltzed over and tried to sit in her lap, causing the recliner to tip slightly at the uneven weight.
“Is this seat taken?” Matt asked, trying to balance himself.
“Do I look like a chair to you?” Dan laughed and pushed playfully on Matt’s back.
“You’re very comfortable.”
Dan rolled her eyes and looped her arms around Matt’s waist for a quick squeeze, before getting up and adjusting their position so that she could perch on Matt’s lap.
“Well, since we’re all here and comfortable,” Dan flicked Matt’s stomach. “I guess I can go ahead and make my announcement.” Dan said, giving them a toothy grin, her excitement ringing clear in her voice. Neil swallowed thickly, already knowing what was going to be said.
“Kevin, pause the game and watch it on your own damn time,” Dan said, tossing Kevin a dark look.
Kevin sighed audibly and turned the television off, making a dramatic show of his cooperation.
Dan cleared her throat and began. “As you all know, I’ve put in a few applications for-”
Allison threw a pillow at Dan. “Just tell us already. We’ve been sitting here for an hour-”
“I didn’t know you were a human clock, Al,” Dan shot back.
Dan hopped off of Matt’s lap to stand on the adjacent couch cushion and cupped her hands over her mouth. “Y’all are looking at Breckenridge’s new assistant coach!”
It took a few minutes for the round of applause and screams, and cheers of congratulations to die down, leaving Dan smiling so wide Neil thought her face would split in two.
Dan’s gaze bounced around the room, satisfied and soaking up the sight of her team, before inevitably landing on Neil’s blank face.
“What’s wrong, Neil?” Dan said, smile fading as if Neil had thrown a bucket of water at her.
“Congratulations, Dan,” Neil said, voice careful. He hoped Dan wouldn’t take his lack of enthusiasm as disappointment. He was immensely proud of her, but he also couldn’t help the way his chest began to ache in a way that was somehow completely foreign and all too familiar. In all his years on the run he’d never thought he would ever have something worth losing, and now, with his new life and new family, he had everything to lose.
“No. We’re not doing that anymore. That shit where you don’t tell us something and you end up kidnapped and half dead,” Dan snapped at him, folding her arms over her chest.
“I wasn’t half-” Neil started weakly, but between the unanimously murderous look the Foxes shot him, and Andrew’s fingers pressing hard into Neil’s upper thigh, he got the hint and shut up.
Neil tried again, this time weighing his words carefully. “It’s nothing, Dan. I’m really happy for you.”
“Then why does your face look like that?”
“When I was kidnapped and half dead-”
Dan cracked a smile and chucked a pillow at him. “Not what I meant, Smartmouth.”
“Yeah, what’s up, man? You look down,” Matt chimed, shooting Dan a meaningful look. It was times like this were Neil couldn’t help but wonder if Matt and Dan were practicing their parental skills on him.
“Are you jealous?” Kevin turned away from the television to pin Neil down with narrowed eyes. “You shouldn’t be,” Kevin continued. “You could easily obtain a pro coaching position after graduation-”
“That’s not very nice to Dan, Kevin,” Renee chastised. She gently lifted Allison’s feet from her lap and placed them on the floor before moving to join Dan on the couch.
“Way to be a dick, Day,” Allison said, faux sweetly.
“Kevin Dick, everyone!” Nicky shouted and raised his glass in a mock toast.
“I wasn’t implying anything about Dan. I’m simply saying-”
“I’m not jealous. I just-” Neil stopped, the words, too thick in his throat, were stuck. It was too late to swallow them back down, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to choke them out.
Andrew tapped his elbow, silently asking if Neil needed to leave the room.
Neil was running out of time, and fast. He made the promise to live and breathe as Neil Josten to the best of his ability, and he couldn’t afford any regrets. Not anymore.
Neil took in a deep breath, letting the air become stale in his lungs before exhaling. “You’re graduating,” Neil said slowly. “All of you are.” Eventually, he added silently.
“And.” Pause. “It upsets me.” Neil finished, pulling a face. The residue of his words, unfamiliar and slightly alarming, sat uncomfortably on his tongue, leaving his mouth dry and bitter.
The Foxes’ faces shifted a few times, Neil could only make out a few expressions, vague irritation and mild concern, before melting into something much warmer.
Nicky broke the silence. “That’s like, the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.” he cried out, grabbing a hold of Aaron’s collar and pushing his face into his cousin’s neck.
“Ugh,” Aaron rolled his eyes and attempted to push his older cousin off. “That’s such bullshit. It’s not like they’re dying.”
Kaitlyn laughed. “Come on, babe. It’s cute.”
Neil could feel the heat from his face spread all the way to the tips of his ears. He didn't want to be cute. He just wanted to make sure his family stayed his family.
Dan, Allison, and Renee shared a look with one another before Allison uncrossed her legs and joined the other two girls on the couch. They leveled Neil with an amused look.
Dan opened her mouth to say something, but a giggle came out instead. Renee pursed her lips in a poor attempt to hide her smile. Allison was the only one fit enough to say.
“Neil, you’re an idiot.”
Andrew raised his empty glass in agreement.
Dan composed herself and said. “What Allison means is that we aren’t going anywhere,” Dan sighed. “Well, yeah we are physically, but we will always be a team. We will always be a family. Even before Baltimore, we were yours, and you were ours. Completely and irrevocably. You-”
“Isn’t that from Twilig-”
“Shut the fuck up, Nicky. Point is. You’re the reason why were all together in the first place.” Dan gestured around the room. “You've brought us together. You’ve made us a team. You’ve made us a family. You’re-” Dan shrugged, and smiled meekly. “You’re kinda the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”
Matt nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I second that.”
“Awwww, I’m gonna throw up from all of this cute!” Nicky wailed.
“Or maybe it’s from your third rum and coke,” Aaron snapped.
“Is there something you want us to say or do to reassure you?” Renee said, her voice carefully neutral.
Neil squinted for a second before remembering the quiet blonde at his side. He turned to Andrew, unable to hide the amusement in his voice. “You told Renee?” Andrew lifted his gaze from the rim of his cup to stare at Neil, his mouth saying nothing, but his eyes spilling everything.
“Told Renee what?” Allison asked, eyeing Renee suspiciously. Renee smiled when Allison jabbed a gentle elbow into her side. “Are you keeping things from me now, Walker?”
This was the perfect time for Neil to jump in, though he was sure that Andrew had long ago figured that out as well.
“She means the matching tattoos. I know we’re a family. I just, I thought that maybe if I had something physical, something tangible, then I wouldn’t-” Neil screwed his mouth shut, as if tasting something sour.
Aaron scoffed, obviously appalled at the idea of having something permanently linking him with their ragtag team of misfits. “Count me the fuck out.”
“Tattoos?” Kevin echoed, distaste clear in his voice. “No, I do not-”
“No one asked, Kevin,” Andrew said mildly, but the threat was clear.
“Just think, Kev. You could get another tattoo on your second ass!” Nicky faux-assured, before falling into a fit of drunken laughter.
Kevin scowled, but remained silent.
“My sisters and I were supposed to get matching tattoos,” Dan reminisced quietly. She pulled one of Renee’s old quilts from the floor and around her shoulders, lost in thought.
Renee patted Dan’s knee reassuringly. “But it would be okay now, right?”
“Yeah,” Dan smiled, before locking eyes with Neil. “I vote yes.”
“Me too!” said Nicky.
“Hell yeah,” Matt grinned fiercely.
“Of course,” Renee said.
“I’d always thought about getting Seth’s name to piss off my parents, but revenge tattoos are so early 2000s,” Allison sniffed. “Yes, you fuckwad. If it’ll help you sleep at night,” but she came over and squeezed his hand gently.
Kevin pointed an accusatory finger at Neil. “Where? It can’t be anywhere that’s going to prohibit us from-”
“Says the asshole with a tattoo on his cheek,” Neil shot back, the rush of adrenaline giving him a new sense of confidence.
Kaitlyn grabbed Aaron’s hand. “Come on, we should do it, it’ll be so fun!” She whipped her head at Neil, flushed with embarrassment. “Oh, well is it okay if I participate too-”
“Yeah,” Neil cut her off. He didn’t mind Kaitlyn. It was probably the only way Aaron would even consider participating anyway.
There was only one more person to ask. Neil tapped the side of his head to Andrew’s temple. “Yes or no?” He asked, not really caring if the Foxes overheard, though they probably wouldn’t realize that Neil was asking for so much more than a tattoo.
“Don’t ask me stupid questions.”
Neil’s answering grin was wide and fierce. They were all going to be alright.
And with that Allison whipped out her phone and began typing. “I’m going to find us the best damn tattoo parlour on the east coast.”
Thanks so much for your support! Comments and kudos always brighten my day!
Hello all! This is the final chapter of JLAT! I'm super pleased with this and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have! I've had a blast writing this and I hope to write more one shots in the future. As always, thanks to my amazing friend @conniptionns I don't know where I would be without you. This is for you! It's all for you!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Neil rolled down the passenger window of the Maserati and stuck his head out, eyes briefly catching the flash of a New Jersey road sign before the hot wind blurred his vision. He adjusted his position and rested his head on the ledge. Much like molasses, Neil was filled with a warm, sticky feeling that was nestled deep in his belly. Closing his eyes, he basked in the mid-morning’s glow; the slow, steady pulse of the sun’s rays washed over him in smooth, easy strokes.
Neil yawned lightly and watched as the shadows from the trees passed behind his eyelids, sleep still lingering at the edge of his mind. Andrew’s ego had them on the road well before dawn. Allison had made good on her promise and booked their appointment with what she’d decided was the best tattoo shop in New York, and then took it upon herself to set the team up with flights, which Andrew immediately took as a challenge.
Andrew was confident in his ability to make it through the four states before the Foxes’ flight landed. Neil had dutifully reminded Andrew that it was a ten-hour drive, and that he’d rather show up late than dead, to which Andrew had dutifully informed Neil that he could make it in six, and that Neil sounded like a middle aged, suburban mom.
“He went from a rabbit to a fox, and now a dog. I hope your next trick is disappearing.” Neil stirred at the sound of Andrew’s smooth voice. He quickly glanced at the clock. It was only eight.
Neil kept his eyes closed and smiled. “Hmm?” he said, pressing his lips together and dragging out the syllable until his mouth tingled.
“I’ve got the air on. You’re wasting gas.”
Neil pried his eyes open and turned in his seat to squint at the blond next to him. “Since when have you cared about going green?” he said, slurring his words slightly.
“I care about my green. That’s money you’re wasting, asshole.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t try to roll up the window while I slept.”
“I fought the urge, believe me.”
Neil’s mouth twitched, eager to respond, but he stayed silent and let his gaze wander, taking in the deep green trees and the bright blue sky. But if he were to be perfectly honest, his favorite view was sitting right next to him. Untouchable and unwavering. Strong, yet vulnerable.
Everything about Andrew was a contradiction, an enigma. Andrew was all hard planes and distinct lines, something Neil very much enjoyed, but over the course of the last few months, Neil had actively begun mapping out Andrew’s quieter features, like the subtle dips in his cheeks when the corners of his mouth would lift involuntarily, or the faint strip of pale hair that trailed the soft, but firm length of his belly.
Everything about Andrew was a smooth, muted gold like a sunrise dipped in honey. Andrew was all hard planes and distinct lines, but he was all soft hues and fine features too.
The Maserati slowed as they approached a red light. “Are you done?” Neil saw a flicker of amusement cross Andrew’s features before his lips pursed into a thin line.
“Never. Are you?” Neil teased, though he wasn’t sure if they were talking about the same thing anymore.
Andrew leveled him with a bored stare. “Unfortunately not.”
Neil smirked and reached over the gear shift to tangle their fingers together. Andrew rolled his eyes but opened his hand up immediately, enveloping his like a flower unfurling, ready to bloom.
Neil drifted between periods of wakefulness and sleep.The constant flicker of shadows and the quiet purr of the engine lulled him into an in-between stage where his thoughts became a scrambled mess of words and bizarre emotions.
Neil’s pocket buzzed. He lifted the arm he had been using as a pillow and dug his hand into his back pocket to retrieve his phone. Tapping in his passcode, 0331, he scrolled through his texts. Most were from the Foxes’ group chat, which was mostly used as a platform for placing bets and fighting over who’s turn it was to pick dinner. He sifted through those and found a couple pictures Nicky had sent. One with Aaron and Katelyn huddled together sleeping, and another with Dan, Matt, and Renee making silly faces in the background. Neil felt his chest constrict. They would be together for the entire flight. Neil had decided not to fly because of Andrew’s, and quite frankly his own, apprehension of needles and being held down, so they didn’t need to exacerbate their fear by flying as well. Although, now he couldn’t help but think that this whole trip would cause him to lose more than he would gain.
“Do you think-” Neil croaked, before clearing his throat and starting over. “Do you think this is stupid?”
“You could be referring to many things that I would probably deem stupid. Be more specific,” Andrew said coolly, lifting his wrist from the gear shift to adjust his sunglasses.
"This." Neil gestured at the air. "This.. whole idea..." He trailed off, unease clawing its way up his throat and clamping his mouth shut.
“Aren’t all of your ideas?” Andrew replied wryly.
“Technically, this was your idea,” Neil’s mouth curled up slightly.
Andrew turned his head to regard Neil intently through his sunglasses. Somehow, Neil found this scrutiny more intense than normal.
“Eyes on the road,” Neil said.
“What did you read that made you think that? Did Kevin say something?” Andrew said, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
“No. I just,” Neil sighed and looked down at the phone in his hand, still vibrating with messages. “I know how much you’re giving up to do this and everyone’s flying out and I don’t want this all to be for nothing.” The words spilled from his mouth like a leaky faucet.
Neil was the question posed and the Foxes were his long awaited answer, but he’d never given the thought that maybe it was a one-sided sentiment.
“Look at me. Neil, look at me. The martyr shit got old a long time ago. Okay, cut it out.”
Neil rolled his eyes and sighed.
Andrew huffed out a fast breath before saying. “I’m not giving up anything. I’m here because I choose to be.”
“As for your ‘worth it’ issue,” Andrew continued. “Tattoos are not what’s keeping this team together, and they’re not what’s going to keep this team together, but you know that. You don’t want to address the real problem here and that’s up to you, but don’t sit here and act like those assholes are flying to New York City to get a shitty tattoo because they feel pressured to do so.”
Andrew turned forward in his seat. “And until you figure it out you are going to drive yourself and everyone around you crazy. Mainly me, so shut up. Drama queen.”
Neil nodded, but the heaviness didn’t lift. Instead, it settled deeper, carving a hollow home in his chest.
A few minutes later, Andrew lifted his hand from the gear shift to casually rest his forearm on the console, palm up. Neil took up the silent offer and tangled their fingers together once more. Maybe things weren’t perfect and maybe Neil’s future was riddled with uncertainties and contingencies, but he had everything he needed, all laid out in front of him. It was up to him to make the best out of it.
Andrew squeezed Neil’s hand in silent agreement.
After sitting through an hour’s worth of Manhattan traffic, the Maserati finally stopped in front of a old, bricked building. Battered paper flyers were taped to the tinted windows, and the word Tattoo was spelled in bold neon lettering.
Andrew cut off the engine and Neil’s knees popped as he hopped out of the car. Stretching his arms, he shivered as he tried to stifle a yawn. He padded over to the driver’s side where Andrew was already out, propped against the door, with a cigarette in hand.
Half an hour later the two were sat on the curb, sharing a cigarette and making idle guesses on what design their teammates would choose when two shiny black cars pulled up in front of them.
“Told you he’d beat us,” Nicky was the first to jump out. Allison followed suit, eyes flicking briefly towards Neil and Andrew before she began brushing herself off. Nicky waved an outstretched hand in Allison’s face. “Pay up.”
“Who knew even a plane would be no match for the monster,” Allison quipped, opening up her purse.
“How was your flight?” Neil asked.
“Fine. If you’d call shouting at each other from across the aisle fine.” She turned to glare at Nicky.
“I just wanted to see if you guys had the same movie choices I did,” Nicky argued.
Allison rolled her eyes.
“Alright,” Dan said, coming up from behind Nicky and Allison. She rubbed her hands in anticipation.”Who’s going first?”
Matt was last to file out. “Not me,” he said, and quickly joined the group.
The remainder of the Foxes climbed out of the second car and caught up to them. Katelyn and Aaron were at the front with Renee and Kevin trailing behind. Aaron used his free hand as a shield from the sun as he spoke. “You guys haven’t even decided on an idea yet. And our participation,” Aaron motioned to himself and Katelyn, “is contingent on whether or not it's a stupid one.”
“No, it's not,” Katelyn laughed. “Whatever you guys pick is fine with us. Show some team spirit, babe.”
Aaron ignored her in favor of glaring at Neil. “I’m holding you personally responsible if this sucks.”
Kevin scoffed at Aaron’s response. “I won’t allow anything that can alter the media’s perception of us.”
“Right. Everyone listen to Kevin. He’s the official authority on shitty ink,” Nicky mocking tone bought him a few chuckles.
Kevin glared at Nicky, before turning to level Neil with his death stare. “What were you even planning anyway? Design wise.”
Neil shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t mind.”
“You’re telling me that you dragged us all the way out here for a tattoo without so much as an idea of what you wanted?” Kevin said, as if he were disgusted by the idea.
“I thought we said foxes,” Renee chimed in.
“Absolutely not,” Aaron growled. Neil grimaced. Most of the time he could forget that the Minyard brothers were identical twins. Most of the time.
“Yeah, that’s kinda tacky,” Nicky said, making a face.
“Since we can’t agree on any one design,” Neil shot his team a pointed look. “Maybe we should get different ones. Something that means something to each of us.”
“Well, they should have some element of unity,” Dan said, her face contemplative.
“How about we each get something in the same place,” Katelyn suggested. “How about on the wrist. That way we can always see them.”
“Oh, I really like that, Katelyn,” Allison said, and Katelyn beamed in response.
Neil glanced down as his scarred wrist. His scars were undoubtedly his, but he didn’t mind the idea of giving himself his own mark.
“What like a word or something?” Kevin rolled his eyes.
“Yeah! Like we each get a word that means something to us. Same size and font and everything! Kevin! Look at you! Contributing to the group!” Nicky gushed, coming up to hug Kevin. Kevin scowled but made no move to push Nicky off.
“Is that okay, Neil?” Renee turned to ask him. “This is your idea. We want you to be happy with it.”
Neil turned to the silent blond by his side. “Yes or no?” Neil asked.
Andrew clenched his jaw slightly before answering. “What did I tell you about stupid questions.”
But Neil wasn’t completely convinced. “Andrew-”
“I don’t need you to remind me of my rights, Neil.”
Neil nodded. He trusted Andrew to know his limits and which lines were okay to cross and which weren’t, and expected the same from Andrew.
Neil looked around at his friends, his family. His heart fluttered in his throat as he thought about everything that had led up to this moment. He wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.
Nicky edged closer to him and tried to sneak a peek at his wrapped wrist. “Let me see the word you picked, Neil!”
“It’s wrapped, Nicky,” Neil said. “I told you what it said.”
“Yeah, but I wanna see! I showed you mine!” Nicky pointed to his own wrist, plastic covering the Family he’d had done in German.
“Is that a reminder?” Andrew had asked as soon as Neil had finished. Andrew had followed him into the room when the artist called his name, saying that he wanted to see first hand the stupid word Neil would choose to be etched into his skin forever, but Neil knew better. Andrew motioned a hand to the Stay written in neat, black ink on Neil’s wrist.
“No. Well not in the way you think it is. It’s not reminding me to stay, it’s reminding me of the choice I made. I decided to be Neil Josten. I decided to be a fox. I decided that I wanted whatever you were willing to offer me. I decided to stay.” Neil had explained sincerely.
Andrew had rolled his eyes, but Neil had felt the ghost of his fingers brush against the back of his hand.
Behind him, Matt was pacing the walkway, his nervousness almost palpable. Dan and Matt had offered to go last, deciding that unconquered was something that could definitely apply to both of them.
“Alright, Matt?” Neil asked, though he already knew the answer. He began apologizing when Matt cut him off. “I’m good, man. This is good. Dan calls it character development.” He gave Neil a weak smile. “I’m stronger than my past, and I won’t let fear stop me.”
Kevin was pressed against the back wall, brows furrowed, texting furiously. He had been the first to go, apparently already knowing what he wanted. Neil spotted the faint outline of Intrépide as he had walked by. Andrew raised an eyebrow and Neil whispered the translation. Fearless.
Katelyn and Aaron were off to the side, heads pressed together as they tried to take a picture. They too had decided on matching matching tattoos, splitting a two-worded latin phrase.
Renee and Allison were sitting on the couch, palms up, trying to decide if the lettering was identical. Neil thought Renee’s Redeemed and Allison’s Fierce were extremely well picked.
The only one left was-
“Alright,” The tattoo artist called from behind the curtain. “Is that everyone?” Andrew’s expression hardened slightly before he began walking towards the back. Neil immediately made a beeline to Andrew, following him back and quickly linking their pinkies as the curtain closed.
Neil laughed harder than he’d ever had the second he caught a glimpse of Andrew's tattoo.
The others weren’t as amused.
“Are you fucking serious?” Allison said, shooting them a dirty look. “That’s two words, not to mention-”
“Are you really surprised?” Nicky asked. “Cause I’m not.”
“Typical monster,” Allison rolled her eyes. “Can we take a picture now, all of us?”
The waiting room filled with laughter and chatter as the Foxes attempted to take a group photo. Neil’s chest swelled with something akin to happiness. Brighter, he thought, because he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world experiencing the absolute bliss he was feeling. In that moment, he was on top of the world
"Are you gonna tell me what it means?” Neil and Andrew had been sitting on the roof, lit cigarettes in hand, for a few hours now. Any trace of light had all but faded from the sky, leaving behind an inky black blanket splattered with faint stars.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” Andrew said, aggressively stubbing out his half used cigarette and reaching for the carton.
“Do I have to take a turn?” Neil teased, leaning back to prop his hands against the smooth pavement. He held out a hand and was immediately met with a wrapped wrist. Neil held onto Andrew’s hand with the utmost care, his eyes immediately catching the faint black lines of Fuck You.
Neil could see the silent battle being fought in Andrew’s head. He wondered who was going to win when Andrew spoke up.
“First words,” Andrew said finally.
First words ? Neil tossed that around in his head, searching for the reference and coming up empty handed.
Wait. “ You mean back in Millport?”
Andrew took a drag in lieu of responding.
Neil’s lips turned upward uncontrollably, grinning so wide his face would split in two.
“Shut up,” Andrew bit out.
“Is that really the first thing I said to you?”
“I did hit you with a racquet.”
“It seems so long ago,” Neil mused, mostly to himself. “Oh god, you’re right,” Neil laughed, loud and unabashed. Of all the wonderful memories he had shared with his new family, he still wasn’t used to the freedom, the liberty, of letting out a laugh and drawing attention to himself without consequences.
Neil glanced down at his scarred wrist, and then at Andrew’s, both still wrapped in plastic. It seemed they already had matching marks, in their fight to stay alive.
“That’s pretty permanent, you know,” Neil said.
“I didn’t notice.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.”
“It’s really not.”
“Well, it's something,” Neil said, breath catching slightly on the last word. It was one thing to think it, feel it, etch it into each other's skin with hot hands and slick mouths, but to say it-
“Yeah,” Andrew said after a while. “It is.”
Neil smiled and threaded his fingers through Andrew’s. This was everything he wanted, everything he needed, and Neil was never letting go.
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