Andrew doesn’t stop asking even though Neil has always said yes. When he said always he meant always. At first Neil wonders if Andrew is testing him, trying to catch his yes in a lie. But Andrew isn’t pushing for more, isn’t testing Neil’s boundaries with each kiss or touch. Neil honestly isn’t sure where his boundaries are, but Andrew hasn’t found them yet. It’s reassuring to know that if he does, Neil will probably be able to say something.
Andrew doesn’t always check with words, sometimes it’s the first still moments of his hand over Neil’s clothes or skin waiting for an objection, waiting until he’s sure he has Neil’s attention. Until he is sure Neil is focused on Andrew’s intent, building the anticipation of what’s next. Andrew has made his questions, silent or spoken, into an art form. When he tells Neil what he want’s to do to him, giving Neil time to consider, it does nothing but make Neil’s ‘yes’ more frantic.
Neil knows he hasn’t mastered that. Neil’s hands wait and hover, unsure of safe territory or sometimes even where Neil wants them to go. Neil can be too tentative, even when he has Andrew’s permission.
“I put it there for a reason.” Andrew growls, and twists his fingers around Neil’s to pull his own hair. “I’m not made of fucking glass.” Neil tries to be more confident, to telegraph his movements and wait for Andrew’s body to meet his question, to move into his hands.
Mostly it works. Sometimes Andrew says ‘stop!’ or ‘wait’ words barked out harsh. Neil always pulls himself back, even the time it means loosing his balance and falling off the bed. It's a better alternative than falling on Andrew. Mostly Andrew doesn’t explain and Neil tries not to push. The truth is there are answers Neil doesn’t want to know. The’ve come to a point where the secrets they share are ones neither of them are interested in uncovering. Neil is careful to respect Andrew’s boundaries, and Andrew asks for each new inch of skin uncovered.
There are places on Neil’s body that don’t feel like they should, knotted with scar tissue and old injuries. Neil’s relationship with the topography of his own skin changes and shifts under Andrew’s fingers in unexpected ways. It isn’t ‘no’, but the night Neil’s choked sob when Andrew kisses the old lacerations on his stomach precedes an uncalled for sting of tears, they don’t go any further. Andrew has touched the scars before, he’s even kissed Neil’s stomach. There’s nothing new in the scorching heat of his touch but somehow today Neil can’t handle it.
Andrew doesn’t hold him, doesn’t pull Neil in and keep him safe, but he stays through Neil’s ugly ragged breathing, his hand over Neil’s scars pressing him firmly down to the mattress and keeping him in his body, in their dark dorm room where Neil isn’t alone. So Neil understands that sometimes old things, territory they’ve long mapped between them, can suddenly become pocked with land mines. There are weeks where Neil enjoys gripping the muscles of Andrew’s legs, holding Andrew on top of him as Andrew grinds down, before the time Neil is a little too into it, perhaps grips a little too hard, and Andrew is clawing away from him, leaving a streak of blood over the back of Neil’s hand. He's across the room before Neil can even fully sit up.
Neil does not look down at his hands, feeling the sting of broken skin. He tucks them behind his back and watches Andrew carefully. Andrew doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t apologize but his eyes lock with Neil’s until his breathing evens and he comes back to sit on the far side of the bed.
“How’s your hand?” Andrew asks. Neil knows better than to say “fine”. Instead he holds it out, keeping eye contact and not looking down. Andrew tsks and goes to unnecessary effort to get the first aid kit and carefully swab clean the scratch before applying a bandage. Neil doesn’t interrupt him, or tell Andrew that it’s pointless. It’s going to scab in a few minutes anyway, Neil doesn’t need a bandage. Neil know’s an apology when he sees one so he lets Andrew gently turn over his fingers and hold his hand. Andrew knows Neil well enough to feel forgiveness in the relaxed muscles of Neil’s arm, in Neil’s willingness for someone else to see a pain he could have hidden, a hurt he could have fixed on his own.
It’s strange to feel so deeply for someone that sharing the imperfections, the failures and weakness written on his skin doesn’t trouble him. Neil isn’t sure when Andrew started being worth it. Worth second glances, worth considering, worth dying for. Sometimes Neil looks at Aaron and tries to see the features of Andrew’s face objectively, but Neil still isn’t fond of Aaron. Aaron’s face is a face. It looks like Andrew’s but it isn’t compelling without the way Andrew lives in his own skin.
Once, waiting for the other Foxes, Katelyn strikes up a conversation about their “boyfriends.”
“I knew the first time I saw him.” She says, “I have a thing for cheekbones, you know, and when paired with his eyes…” she grins at Neil inviting him to share her appreciation, “What did you first notice about Andrew?”
“He’s short and blond.”
Katelyn hums agreement, “And his muscles, I think Aaron’s more built than Andrew though, probably all the running rather than being in goal. We actually met at the school gym, he was running on one of the treadmills in the most deliciously tight pair of shorts.” Neil really wishes Katelyn wasn’t trying to have this conversation. He’s saved from trying to find a response by Aaron’s glare when he sees the two of them talking.
Neil knew Andrew was well muscled when they first met, all the Foxes are. Their hard work on the court shows in their bodies. Andrew’s muscles, which as far as Neil knows have never been showcased in tight shorts, weren’t particularly important until almost a year after they met, until Neil’s life became so entangled with Andrew’s that Neil could no longer imagine a way to extract the two from each other. Once Neil cared that much about Andrew, it made sense that he also became aware of Andrew’s cheekbones and his chin, the strong column of his neck and the powerful muscles of his shoulders that let him smash balls to the far side of the court without pause. Andrew is beautiful. His hard eyes, the stability of his sturdy frame, the dismissive turn to his lips, all these things are important because it’s Andrew. On Aaron they’re diluted, meaningless. Neil’s glad he doesn’t have to share these observations with Katelyn because he’s fairly certain she wouldn’t agree.
Without the threat of death, a looming end date, or any certainty in Neil’s future beside the court, exy is still everything. Andrew still sometimes half plays. He trades deals with Neil when Neil’s frustration with Andrew’s blasé disregard of the game boils over. Neil’s counter offer is still “anything”, because he knows Andrew. Sometimes that means Neil drives them to Columbia. Sometimes it means Neil lets Andrew crowd into his shower stall after practice. Once it means that Neil actually keeps up drink for drink with Kevin, not because Andrew told him to do so, but because Andrew told him to stop holding back and enjoy the party as much as Neil wanted. Mostly it means anything Andrew would only have to ask for, but hasn’t yet for whatever reason. Then Andrew will face Neil in goal and block every shot until Neil is exhausted.
“It’s more fun when we sometimes have a chance to score.” Nicky whines. Neil shoves him, because the practices where Andrew really plays are the second best days to game days.
Andrew always plays the games now, focused and dangerous. His devotion to Neil’s passion, to the Foxes, wasn’t a deal and Neil is grateful to whatever force in the universe made Andrew set this promise with himself. It doesn’t mean they win every game, but the whole team can feel the energy of Andrew’s resolve. Like a final piece locking into place, it raises the bar for the rest of the Foxes to do better, push harder, to make it worth it for Andrew to play. When they don’t, Andrew is even more deadly. Andrew experiments with his goal keeping style. He practices against Kevin and Neil, switches up his grip and practices left handed until he’s almost as good either way. He practices for months without a racket, till the Foxes are sure, if Andrew’s stick was ever to break in a game, play wouldn’t actually need to stop. The Foxes bad days are the days that Andrew comes out of the goal, smashing into opposing players to pop the ball away from them, running his ten steps to fire it to the strikers when his back liners just haven’t been able to clear it. Andrew gets a reputation across NCAA Class I exy both for his innovative play style and for being batshit crazy, but in a different way than people thought before. A dramatic Andrew move has more than once completely shifted the tide of a game, rattling the opposing team, and bringing a surge of fierce joy and adrenaline through Neil’s veins that inevitably nets him a goal. It’s a pretty great set up.
Neil doesn’t make deals with Andrew for anything other than exy. Neil has everything he wants. He has Andrew’s knee pressing against his under the table when they go out for team pizza. He has Andrew’s shoulders nestled back against his own as he goes to sleep, Andrew between him and the world, guarding Neil. He has Andrew’s fingers on his neck, drawing him down into a kiss at a Trojan’s game Kevin got them all tickets too, the crowd around them going wild cheering the final score of the Trojan’s win and Andrew’s lips warm against his, his teeth a sharp tug and his eyes glittering when he pulls back.
“Get a room!” Nicky yells at them and Neil can’t agree more.
There are so many things Neil doesn’t know how to let go of anymore. He faces down his fifth year at Palmetto State with the kind of horror he hasn’t felt since freshman year. His Foxes have shifted and changed. They’re still composed of as many bent and damaged pieces as ever but the faces are all different. Neil has been loosing his family by bits and pieces the last three years. The upperclassmen weren’t easy to let slip loose, but Dan and Matt are the kind of family who stay in touch. Dan shows up at all of the Foxes games, no matter where they are. Matt makes it to all of the games near his graduate program. All the Foxes are invited to Matt and Dan’s wedding. Dan and Matt come back to Palmetto for the party celebrating Rene’s acceptance to law school. Rene keeps in touch with Andrew more than with Neil, but Andrew often puts their calls on speakerphone occasionally leaving Neil to finish his conversations and say goodbye to Rene instead. Everyone knew Nicky was going to Germany after graduation. Nicky tries to organize a group Skype at least a couple of times a year, besides his near weekly calls to Kevin or Neil. He even manages to get Allison to attend. The conversations are sometimes awkward, stilted over the jerky connection and distances, but they’re still Neil’s family. Neil knows Nicky’s planning to come back to the states, to be on campus for Andrew, Aaron, and Kevin’s graduation.
Neil and Andrew don’t talk about the future. It hangs heavy in Neil’s gut, the last weeks of classes. Neil stays on campus during the summer, he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. The only summer he didn’t spend on campus was his third year when Nicky had convinced them to come to Germany with him. All the past summers Andrew and Kevin have stayed. Kevin’s already started packing his boxes, with so few weeks left, shipping his gear to his new court. He’ll start summer training with the national team as soon as classes end. Andrew received an invitation to the national team. As the best goal keeper in the league, it’s unsurprising. Neil knows because Nicky couldn’t shut up about it on while arranging his arrival for graduation. Andrew hasn’t said anything. Kevin keeps glaring at both of them in a way that’s totally uninformative and Neil hasn’t found the words to ask. Exy is Neil’s dream, but if Andrew wants this, Neil doesn’t know how he could tell him not to go.
Neil had helped Wymack pick the new recruits for next year, but he can’t be excited for them this time, when everything around him is a clock ticking down until the time that he’s alone again.
“You should talk to Andrew.” Wymack says more than once, like there’s a question Neil hasn’t asked. With all of Andrew’s words, his ‘yes or no’, Neil hates that he hasn’t been able to find his own way of externalizing the disconnect that roils nausea in his gut and tunnels his vision. He chain-burns cigarettes until his clothes are so steeped in the scent some of the underclassmen start coughing when he goes by. Neil tries to stop, but when he does, he winds up running instead. Miles and miles away from Andrew and the overfull and yet too empty Foxhole Court. Neil thinks maybe he should push to graduate early, or drop out of college. None of the professional teams have approached him yet, probably because he still has a year left. Neil could do it. He could just follow Andrew. Andrew hasn’t said it and Neil hasn’t said it, that ‘not a this’ has become permanent. Neil thinks it’s permanent. He doesn’t know how to ask, because the words “I love you” aren’t a question. The last time Neil received something close to an “I love you” it ended with him burning his mother’s body. Even when Neil is overwhelmed with the kind of feeling that makes him want to find Andrew under his hands and never ever let him go, those aren’t Neil’s words. “I love you” has always meant ‘I’m leaving’ and Neil isn’t. Neil is afraid Andrew might be, even if he hasn’t said those words yet. There are moments, silence between them where words could fit, where Andrew could jump into that breach and Neil is so, so grateful that he hasn’t. Somehow Andrew knows it would mean the wrong thing.
Five days to graduation and Andrew hasn’t even bought boxes. The danger of hope sits on the back of Neil’s tongue. The underclassmen have now begun to box up their rooms, getting ready to move their college lives into storage for the summer. Even though the Foxes stay in the same dorm, with new recruits coming and older students leaving the rooms shift around most years. Andrew and Neil have shared a double the past two years, since the program expanded and Wymack added new rooms to the team dorm layout. They haven’t packed up in two years, since they both stay all year round. Neil looks around the room and sees the places that will be empty when Andrew leaves. Neil thinks about buying some boxes and asking Wymack to change rooms.
“You could ask me to stay.” Andrew says, three days from graduation. Classes are over and the Foxes have been in a fairly continuous state of party, their third national championship, celebrating the end of classes, and the fifth years graduation. Neil has been floating around the edges of team gatherings, smile folding around the edges of his “I’m fine” when Foxes ask why he’s not drinking or dancing or talking with the rest of them. Neil struggles to stay connected but his fingers itch for the strap of his duffle bag in a way he’d forgotten they knew how.
Curling his fists, Neil swallows and shrugs. “I don’t know how.”
“Don’t you?” Andrew cocks his head. He unballs Neil’s hand and presses it flat to his chest. “Don’t go.” Andrew says. His eyes hold Neil’s. Neil feels like he’s falling. It feels like Andrew is asking him to stay.
“I won’t.” Neil promises. “I’m not going anywhere.” Neil’s knees are weak with relief. The curve of Andrew’s lips suggest a smile.
“Good, because it felt like you were.”
“Stay?” Neil asks and it still feels too much like pleading, but Andrew’s hand cups over his own, pressing down so Neil can feel Andrew’s heartbeat more firmly.