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sickeningly sweet (like honey)

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Andrew didn’t have any pocket money.

It wasn’t really a surprise, not when the first thing his new foster father had done was tell him to clean up the dining table, still laden with the dishes from the meal him and his wife had eaten before picking Andrew up. And while Andrew had had much worse caretakers previously (for example, when he had experimented by dropping a spoon onto the floor, no one came at him with fists ready to dole out punishment), he wasn’t very impressed with the clear apathy his new foster parents had towards his existence. His new foster mother hadn’t looked up from her beer to check what had happened, and his new foster father had just turned up the volume of the movie he was watching. Andrew suspected that they would only pay attention if he was bleeding out on the floor, and only then to prevent him from ruining the glossy hardwood.

This, of course, made it quite easy for Andrew to extract himself from the house the next day, wandering through a neighborhood he had absolutely no knowledge of. All of the houses looked silly in how quaint they were, lawns trimmed and garden fronts filled with flowers to hide the weeds behind them. The area was suburban, so it only took a few blocks before Andrew crossed a road and reached a small shopping center.

Like the neighborhood, everything was so nice it seemed to be fake. Andrew passed a Subway with bricks lining the outside walls as if it made the place look any less like a corporation, a tiny clothing boutique that appeared to sell the same dress in five different garish colours, and a pawn shop with far too many lights on in an effort to detract from its overall seediness. As he approached the obnoxiously bright candy store that had caught his eyes, his empty pockets suddenly seemed much heavier.

Andrew was well aware that he wasn’t young or cute enough to get free candy. Even the wrinkliest grandmother would not consider gifting a twelve year old boy with free sweets, not when most of them had allowances, but Andrew and his own masochism were too curious about what the store might offer anyways. He suspected that he never would get the pocket money to buy anything, at least not from this family, but found himself entering the store regardless.

A small bell chimed as Andrew opened the door to Fox’s Sweets Shop . He scowled at the pathetic attempt to seem charming.

The place was larger than it had appeared from the outside. Two of the four walls held bulk candy – jelly beans and gummies that Andrew wasn’t terribly fond of – and displays holding the more interesting stuff were positioned throughout the store. The wall opposite the door was only wide enough for a register and another door (which was open, presumably to the backroom), and an older girl sat on a stool behind the counter.

She had looked up from the paper she was doodling on when Andrew entered, eyes immediately focussing on him. Andrew knew from past experience that workers tend to keep a close eye on him while in stores like this, all assuming that he’d do his best to filch something at one point. Perhaps if he was more desperate for a sugar fix he’d consider it, but until then Andrew chose to settle with browsing through the vibrant packages that he knew he couldn’t buy. He rounded a display and stopped when he realized that another boy – younger than the girl but still probably older than him – was lounging on the floor.

The boy looked up as he paused the Exy game he had been watching, played on an incredibly nice smartphone Andrew knew he would never get.

“Are your parents here? You shouldn’t be eating junk like this; it’ll stunt your growth,” he said haughtily, somehow looking down on Andrew despite being seated at least three feet lower than him.

Andrew considered ignoring that for approximately half a second before shooting back a fierce, “Fuck off”.

He wasn’t sure what pissed him off more: the kid’s nice phone, the condescension, the bossiness, the assumptions about his family, or the growth comment. His attention shifted when the back door closed, another voice joining in.

“Yeah, Kevin, fuck off!”

This boy was definitely younger than Andrew – he still had baby fat on his cheeks. At the same time, he was probably the sort of kid all of his girl classmates would be crushing over, with messy auburn hair, blue eyes that Andrew would have thought were photoshopped, and a lean body that practically screamed either high metabolism or sports . Bandages littered his face and arms. The smirk on his face was a bit too mischievous to mean anything good and the boy moved behind the register to stand next to the girl, who admonished him for the swear with an affectionate grin.

“What did Dad tell you about harassing customers with your health obsession?” He asked, elbows on the counter and head rested onto his the palms of his hands.

The first boy, who must have been Kevin, scowled before hitting the play button and looking back down. “Dad said not to scare off anyone who’ll buy anything. He,“ Kevin said, pointing at Andrew rudely, “does not look like he’s going to buy something.”

Despite the obvious hypocrisy from her previous actions, the girl came to Andrew’s defense. “Don’t be an ass,” she called out to Kevin. The youngest boy crowed in delight.

Andrew wasn’t finished with browsing, but he was uninterested in hearing them bicker further and even less interested in the bitter taste left in his mouth as he watched the girl give the younger boy a noogie. He made a quick decision to leave and return later, perhaps when they weren’t there. His newest foster home didn’t seem to have much in the form of entertainment, so he figured that he’d have plenty of time to come back. The bell rang again as the two behind the counter called out a rehearsed-sounding, “Have a nice day”, which Andrew ignored as he walked back out into the sun.

 


 

 

When Andrew finally returned to Fox’s two days later, he still had no pocket money.

The girl from before was once again stationed at the register, this time typing on her own phone while the younger boy lay draped over the glass countertop. He lifted his head when the bell sounded and grinned.

“Hey, you’re back!” he called. “Kevin’s not here to harass you right now, but if you wait, like, an hour, he’ll be back from Whole Foods.”

Andrew was torn between ignoring this and responding to the first person roughly his age who appeared to be making an effort to talk to him (without being a total dick). The day before had been so incredibly boring, first being forced to make his bed to his foster mother’s specifications and then spending the rest of the day doing absolutely nothing while other kids were probably having the time of their lives outside of school. Sometimes, Andrew found, it was easier to make a few sort-of acquaintances before inevitably moving out into another home.

The boredom won out. Andrew opened his mouth and meanly said, “Why would I want to talk to that dick face? More than that, why would you think I wanna talk to you ?” Usually his sort-of acquaintances were actually just kids that he pissed off for the fun of it.

The kid’s grin just widened. “Maybe the fact that you’re talking to me right now?” He looked smug and the girl got off of her phone just long enough to roll her eyes.

“What did we say about attitude?” she muttered, smacking away the finger that he used to poke her.

Andrew turned to the chocolate bars. Light footsteps behind him indicated the younger boy’s presence, and Andrew waited until he was done eyeing the display before reluctantly turning to look at him. Despite the age difference, they were almost the same height.

“I’ll make you a deal,” the boy said. “You’ve been here twice but you haven’t bought anything and Abby has this quota of free candy she’ll give us. If you tell me your name and play a game of Exy with us, I’ll give you my share.” The girl snorted in the background.

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “And why would you do that?”

“’Cause we need another player to complete our team and you’ve been looking at those Reese cups the same way Kevin looks at the newest racquet models.”

“I don’t have any gear.”

“That’s fine. Is it a yes?”

Andrew didn’t know exactly how much candy the other kid was offering (for all he knew it could have been a single gummy worm), but he seemed to gain from the deal either way through sugar and a relief from boredom. He nodded slightly and said, “Andrew.”

The kid seemed confused for a brief moment before understanding. “I’m Neil,” he returned, before pointing at the girl. “That’s Dan.”

“Did it look like I wanted to know?”

“Not really, but you should probably know who you’re gonna be playing Exy with. I get two chocolate bars or something worth the same amount per week, so you can take that much before our game.”

As Dan checked over the chocolate and lollipops in Andrew’s hands to make sure that they were roughly worth the same as two bars, Andrew looked over at Neil. He talked too much and obviously had no clue about what a fair trade was, but Andrew figured that he might provide some decent entertainment. Andrew even deigned to give some sort of half-hearted wave on the way out.

 


 

 

“Okay, so Renee, our usual goalkeeper, is away at a tournament,” Neil said, as if Andrew cared. “You’re gonna be in goal, but we should be able to make a big enough lead that you’ll be fine.” Neil gestured at himself, Dan, and Kevin, which Andrew thought was awfully conceited.

“We have a spare goalkeeper’s racquet, but no gear,” said Kevin, who still had a stick up his ass as he looked at Andrew disapprovingly. “It’s okay if you let a few shots in.”

Dan said, “As long as Kevin does a decent job at offense the ball shouldn’t even go near our goal.” Kevin scowled at her.

The three of them had arranged to meet with Andrew at Fox’s, which was manned by their adopted father, David Wymack (for a brief moment Andrew let himself feel envious over their good fortune before packing his feelings away firmly), from where they would escort him to the street where they play with the other neighborhood kids. As they walked, Dan and Kevin took the lead and began arguing about a certain play while Neil chose to go behind Andrew. He appreciated the fact that Neil didn’t think that they were friendly enough to walk side-by-side. When they finally arrived at the right street, everything was already set up and it appeared that most of the other kids were present.

Exy, Andrew knew from glimpses of TV and newspapers, was played in a plexiglass box within a huge court. The goals were usually formed from rectangular sections of the two opposing walls and every player wore a couple pounds of protective gear. Evidently street Exy wasn’t the same, since only one wimpy looking kid wore a helmet and their goals were only small hockey nets. Neil was the only one of the four carrying a helmet, along with the second stick they had brought along for Andrew.

“They’re late,” Dan said, looking around. She frowned.

“Dan’s looking for our team. We usually play on a league.”

Andrew turned towards Neil, who once again was spouting shit Andrew didn’t care about. “We tend to take the game a bit more seriously than everyone else, ‘cause of our families.”

“Theoretically that would mean that we’d be split up, so not to stack the game. Instead, everyone else gets too annoyed by us, mostly Kevin, and refuse to play on our team. The only ones who’ll play with us are Renee, Allison, and sometimes Seth, since they’re stuck with us in anyways.” Dan said.

“We have a smaller team but at least it’s competent,” Kevin added, seemingly unable to offer his unwanted two cents. Neil passed over the larger goalkeeper’s racquet that he had been holding to Andrew, gesturing at him to follow.

Once at the net, Neil also handed over his helmet. Andrew stared at him blankly. “I’m not going to be the only one wearing a helmet.”

“Dad’s rules for playing is that no one can get run over by a car and that goalkeepers have to wear helmets since they’re the ones more likely to be hit in the face.”

Andrew didn’t really see how that worked, on account of the fact that Exy was a violent sport that involved just as much face-hitting on court. He came to the conclusion that none of the other kids owned any decent helmets, which brought him to another topic. “Why’re your sticks better than everyone else’s?”

Neil seemed surprised that he noticed. “Oh, it’s ‘cause these are our racquets for playing proper Exy. Everyone else has cheap dollar store racquets ‘cause they don’t really play normally.”

“And they think it’s fair?”

“We could still beat them anyways,” Neil said, shrugging. “The games kinda end up as everyone just trying to get within a few points of us.”

Just then, Dan returned with two others by her side. “This is Andrew,” she said to them. “We’re putting him as goalkeeper for today. Andrew, this is Allison and Seth.”

Allison was impressively tall for a girl, with blonde hair pulled back and traces of makeup on her face. She looked roughly the same age as Dan, but held herself differently, clearly uninterested. Andrew supposed that she was what other boys would consider pretty.

Seth, meanwhile, was taller and older and lacked the sort of spoiled quality Allison had. Andrew disliked how much he had to look up, and Seth returned his scowl with one of his own.

“Great,” Seth said, ignoring Andrew and speaking only to Dan. “The other team might actually have a chance today if we have this midgety loser in goal instead of Renee.”

“Shut up, Seth,” Neil said with surprising vigor, either defending Andrew or defending his decision to invite Andrew along. “If Allison and I play as backliners and you actually manage to score, then we’ll be fine.”

“Shove it,” Dan warned Seth, who looked ready to get in Neil’s face. “Get into position.”

As Seth trudged over to the opposite end of the street to stand at the chalk-drawn lines with Kevin and Dan made her way to the middle, Neil turned to Andrew. So far Allison hadn’t said anything, but she was obviously listening in from her own position.

“In league games, Dan plays offensive dealer, Allison plays defensive dealer, and Seth, Kevin and I are all strikers. Our defense sucks, but it’s more important to actually score, and since Seth’s in a different league it’s better if I’m a striker. For street games they make me and Allison play backliner.” Neil made a face at that. “We should be able to keep the ball away from the net.”

The kid chosen as referee didn’t have a whistle nor a coin, which made everyone else groan. Instead, he did an eenie-meenie-miney-mo , which was pretty obviously rigged to make the other team win first serve. As soon as his countdown hit go , the game began.

From his spot in goal, Andrew observed the players. It was beyond obvious that his team outclassed the other. With a precise flick, Kevin scored on a shot that Seth and Dan had set up together. The referee seemed resigned by the game’s first goal and drew a small line on the sidewalk with a stick of chalk. One, nothing .

This time the ball made it into Andrew’s side of the court. He knew that it ultimately wouldn’t matter how many goals he let in, but a spiteful urge to prove Seth wrong made him crouch lower into a ready position as the other team’s striker readied for a shot.

Suddenly, Neil was in the way, clacking sticks with the opposing striker and stealing the ball in a blink of an eye. Without stopping, he tossed the ball to Allison, who was farther down the court than him. She didn’t even have to move her racquet to catch the ball, and immediately shoved her backliner out of the way to clear another toss to Dan.

If Andrew had wondered why Neil hadn’t passed the ball straight to Dan, who was open, he soon found out the answer. Neil’s shot had gotten the ball away from him fast, which was necessary when his striker barrelled into him. Neil went crashing into the pavement and for a brief, unforgivable moment, Andrew’s whole body tensed. He got back up without pause, however, and wiped his palms off onto his pants. In the next moment Seth scored.

Dan ran to Neil and grabbed at his hands, ignoring his protests. From where he was, Andrew couldn’t tell if they were bleeding or just a bit scraped up, but neither of the siblings seemed too worried.

After a few more points for his team, one of which Dan managed to score straight from Neil’s shot, Andrew began to realize that there was a pattern. The other team had more than enough players to switch off when someone got tired, but his team only had the bare minimum. Aside from being exhausted, Andrew’s team had to deal with the fact that the other team, particularly the older members, seemed to have no problem with trying to run kids into the ground. The opposing dealer, a huge hulk of a boy who likely played rugby, did his very best to shove Dan around. Every time she would stand her ground and give better than she got. Kevin and Seth both got almost concerningly violent with the other team (and each other). No one was allowed to throw punches, but plenty of times Seth and his backliner got close to it.

The other team’s strikers acted like they were out for blood. Andrew could hear the insults Allison’s striker threw her way, and grudgingly admired every spiteful check she gave in return. Neil’s striker, however, was nearly a foot taller than him and looked like he weighed twice as much. There was no way for Neil to check the kid, but Neil was by far the fastest player. His speed and precision resulted in effortless plays with Allison and Dan, keeping the ball far from the goal. Only three had gotten near Andrew, two of them slow shots that he was able to block easily, and the last sneaking by him, too close for him to use the racquet and too fast for him to catch with his bare hands. His team didn’t begrudge him for that.

Unfortunately, constantly being shoved into the ground (and kicked once, in what didn’t quite look like an accident) took it’s toll on Neil. He was one step too slow and before getting possession of the ball, the other striker swatted Neil’s side with his racquet hard enough to knock him over. It was apparent that the ref was only there to count the scores and not to call fouls, so only Dan ignored the game to rush to her adopted brother’s side. Allison made to move towards Neil, perhaps used to playing with actual referees, and that moment of hesitation was all the striker needed to fling the ball as hard as possible at Andrew, from right at the goal line.

Andrew was pissed. The blatant foul on Neil, who Andrew might admit that he sort-of liked, made his entire body tense as the striker lined up for the shot. Before the ball even left his racquet, Andrew knew where it would go. He swung and made contact.

By some miracle, the ball rocketed right back at the striker, hitting him in the chest with so much force that it bounced back at Andrew. He dropped the borrowed racquet to catch it, pausing the game before moving towards the crowd of kids surrounding Neil.

Neil was in obvious pain but the grin on his face was huge. “Andrew,” he breathed. “That was incredible .”

Andrew couldn’t remember the last time someone had called him incredible or anything so nice. “Did he break anything?” He didn’t know what broken ribs looked like, but had seen a girl return from a foster home with a broken arm.

“Nah, it’s just bruised, I can still play,” Neil said, at the same time as Dan said, “It’s only bruised but he should stop playing,” and Kevin said, “It better not be broken!”

No one bothered to check up on the striker who Andrew had hit. As Dan forced them to pack up, Allison glared at him and Kevin went so far as to give a threatening, “If you hurt him again–”

Seth and Allison soon headed off in a separate direction from the remaining four, the two of them grudgingly acknowledging that Andrew made an acceptable goalkeeper.

“Do you want us to walk you home?” Neil asked. “Since you’re new here?”

For some reason the idea of them bringing him home and therefore potentially having them meet his foster parents left a bitter taste in Andrew’s mouth. “No,” he said. “Just bring me back to the store and I can find my way back.”

Chapter Text

Summer became days spent out of the house and hanging out at Fox’s with Neil, Kevin, and Dan. At least twice a week they’d play more street Exy with the neighborhood kids. Sometimes, another boy named Jean would come from across the town to join their team, playing as backliner and giving either Allison or Neil the chance to play in their proper position.

Andrew learned that the other kids picking on Neil was nothing new, not with his quick mouth and endless snark, but that the idiot was too stubborn to let his siblings put a stop to it. He learned that Allison’s family was rich but completely against their daughter playing Exy, that she and Seth were doing some strange dating thing where sometimes they’d kiss awkwardly and other times they wouldn’t talk to each other. He learned that Neil didn’t like sweets, that Dan only ate the sour kind, that Kevin absolutely abhorred any sort of unnecessary sugar, and learned that the only one he could get free candy off of was Neil. He learned that Kevin’s mother was Kayleigh Day, one of the creators of Exy and likely cause for a chunk of Kevin’s love of the sport. He learned that Dan and Neil’s adopted and Kevin’s actual father was a university Exy coach who both loved his kids’ obsession and was thoroughly exasperated by it. Andrew learned what it was like to have actual fun, for once, barely being at home in favour to hanging out with the kids he might actually consider something more than acquaintances.

 


 

He should’ve known it was too good to last. Renee Walker, the team’s original goalkeeper, was coming back and Andrew couldn’t see himself still being invited to hang out. It had happened many times before in foster homes – a new kid, younger, nicer, sweeter, ousting him out of a good home.

“Renee texted Dan to tell us she’ll be here in time for the next game,” Neil said. Andrew tried not to resent the proud smile on his face. “She got first place in her group!”

Because Andrew was a masochist and because he wanted one last day with them, he still went to Fox’s at the usual time.

As soon as he entered the shop, Neil called to him. Dan and Kevin each gave a lazy wave, but were too busy arguing to greet him properly. “We’re tying to figure out how our line up works, now that we have two goalkeepers. Jean can’t play today but with you and Renee, someone can have a bit of a rest.”

Suddenly it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of Andrew’s shoulders.

“You’ve never played anything but goalkeep’, right?” Kevin asked, breaking from his conversation with Dan. When Andrew nodded he turned back to Dan. “See? It’s better if Renee plays as backliner.”

“You can’t just decide to boot Renee from goal,” Dan said, frowning. “If we split it evenly –”

“Andrew’s a bit better at blocking, so he could be in goal a bit more than half of the time,” Neil suggested. He had some sort of fierce pride in Andrew’s defense abilities. “I think Renee would actually be really good playing with Allison since they normally work better together. And this way when Renee’s at goal and Andrew’s resting, I can switch to backliner, or other times we can give the strikers a break and Dan can go offense. It’s more flexible this way.”

It was almost funny how seriously they took the game. Kevin agreed quickly, but Dan seemed more hesitant. “Only if Renee agrees. Otherwise we’re teaching Andrew how to play backliner.”

By the time they got to the street, Renee was already there. Andrew wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t a smiling teenager with pink-dyed hair. She was slender and just barely shorter than Dan; the silver cross hanging from her neck immediately caught Andrew’s eye. It occurred to him that he didn’t know what Renee had competed in a tournament for .

“Hi,” she said, approaching him. “You must be Andrew. I’m Renee.”

Andrew didn’t say anything, so Dan came over and slung an arm around Renee’s shoulders. “Hey, Renee, good to see you!" she said, then continued after Renee's reply, 'We were wondering if you’d be fine with playing backliner for a bit over half the game, since Andrew joined as goalkeep’ too.”

Andrew refused to look at Renee. He didn’t want to get his hopes up.

“Of course. From what I’ve heard from both Kevin and Neil he’s a miracle worker in the net. I think I would enjoy seeing that. Next time I can bring my old gloves for you,” Renee said, addressing the last part at Andrew.

With the goal so small, the full goalkeeper armor would block basically everything. Therefore, the only protection offered to both goalkeepers was a mandatory helmet and gloves that Dan, Kevin, and Neil didn’t have. The surprise offer of protection was appreciated, and Andrew gave Renee a small nod of agreement.

Renee wanted to play backliner for the first bit, to warm herself up. Andrew took up his place at goal and surveyed the court. Dan was on as dealer with Seth and Kevin as strikers. Neil grinned at Andrew from the sidewalk, where he’d get a brief reprieve before constant switches between offense and defense.

As usual, the other team got first serve. The dealer, hoping to catch Renee off guard on her first day back, threw the ball hard and fast at her mark, who did her best to knock Renee over. Andrew watched in interest as instead, Renee shifted her stance and held her ground which caused the other girl to stumble. Using Neil’s racquet, Renee smoothly stole the ball and tossed it to Dan.

Eventually Andrew was switched out of goal. From the side, he tore his eyes away from Neil’s sprinting form to Renee, who had just blocked a ball that the dealer tried to score on her with. Renee’s movements were smooth, returned balls aimed more towards her teammates than the blocks that Andrew favoured, which flew hard and fast away from the goal. It worked better this way, he saw. Neil would usually be the one running after Andrew’s deflected shots, so with him as backliner, Seth and Kevin worked much better when the actually actually went to them.

Nobody was surprised by the huge point gap. Andrew wondered if the other kids would ever get bored of losing.

Back in goal, he blocked another shot at the net, this time trying to aim in Dan’s general direction. Kevin was resting while Allison played dealer; Neil and Renee were defense. It wasn’t long until someone did get bored of losing.

The same striker who had fouled Neil on Andrew’s first day seemed to have decided that he had enough of Neil’s constant interceptions. Pulling back his fist, he swung a blow that thankfully appeared to have only glanced off of Neil’s temple. Andrew tensed as the striker prepared for another punch, but someone beat him to Neil’s side.

Renee Walker blocked the striker’s punch with ease, arm coming up lightning-fast to push his fist aside. She bounced on her feet for a moment, adjusting her stance, before delivering a sidekick strong enough to push the huge boy back. Her fists were raised and ready to block another blow, right up until she swept the guy off of his feet with a dirty shot at his shins.

Andrew’s attention, which had been caught up in watching Renee, suddenly went to Neil when he heard a groan. He scrambled out of the net to his friend (when had Neil become his friend?). Somehow the idiot always managed to end up on the receiving end of some douches’ anger.

“Neil, are you alright?” Renee called from where she stood above the striker. Andrew noticed how she was far enough from him that he wouldn’t be able to surprise her and pull her down.

“I’m fine,” Neil said, and instantly all the neighborhood kids groaned. The ones who had come over in concern turned away and smacked their own foreheads while Allison turned to Seth with a triumphant, “Pay up”.

After the game was over, with the striker being kicked out of the game and Neil sitting sullenly on the sidelines, Renee joined the usual four on their way back to Fox’s . “I would like to say hi to Wymack,” she had said.

Renee and Andrew ended up staying in the store for another half hour before Wymack told them that he needed to close up, are you sure you don’t want a ride home?

“You do martial arts?” Andrew blurted out as they walked, breaking the silence between the two. Renee’s movements had seemed similar to those of Karate Kid , which Andrew had watched once in one of the better homes.

Renee looked surprised. “Yes. I just came back from my Taekwondo tournament.”

Andrew thought about how she had easily taken down a guy nearly twice her size. He thought about the foster parents he had who would swing out in fits of anger, of the bullies both in school and at the foster care facility. Andrew thought about the way Renee stepped up to protect Neil.

“Can you teach me?” he asked.

 


 

It didn’t come as a surprise when his foster parents finally decided that they had no room in their lives for kids, but it was a disappointment. Some part of Andrew was terrified that it was the last he’ll see of the Fox’s kids and his team, before the summer even ended. Wymack had asked him, once, about his family, evidently worried about the kid who had nothing better to do than hang around a candy store.

Andrew had just told Wymack that his parents were often busy with work. He didn’t want to be sent back, not after the most fun he had had in years, and revealing to an adult that the people who took him in sometimes forgot to feed him was the quickest route to that end. Wymack hadn’t looked entirely convinced, but Andrew didn’t tell him about being fostered and had no bruises from anything other than Exy.

He didn’t want Neil, Kevin, or Dan to know about that. Hopefully if another family took him farther away, Andrew would be able to pretend that he didn’t miss them.

 


 

The next home Andrew went to was with a new couple who wanted to try caring for a kid without having to deal with the full responsibility of one. From the way they spoke about it, it was pretty obvious that they weren’t planning on keeping him long, but on account of the fact that their townhouse was a block away from Renee’s house and a twenty minute walk from Fox’s , Andrew couldn’t bring himself to mind.

School was set to begin in September, when street Exy games would end and the little league’s season would start. Neil and Kevin, both about to attend middle school with him, had been trying to convince Andrew to join, something that he was actually considering.

Every few days Renee invited Andrew over to practice sparring in her mother’s living room, a location that he found equally amusing to the fact that Stephanie Walker was a nice and sensible lady who had no problems watching her teenage daughter teach a boy how to beat people up.

“We won’t be able to practice as much,” Renee said one day as they pulled off their hand and feet pads. Renee’s smaller set was a bit tight on Andrew but still in good condition. “You’re getting better. If you move fast like that it’s a lot harder for me to land a blow and every move you make has more power.”

“So that’s it?”

“We could still practice once or twice a week. I think you should learn how to get out of holds and stuff next.”

“I thought Taekwondo doesn’t have holds.” Andrew had searched it up after meeting Renee.

“It’s for self defense.” For her part, Renee stopped looking startled whenever Andrew said something she didn't expect him to know. “So are you going to join the league?”

“I need to ask my parents,” Andrew said.

Renee hummed in agreement and moved the gear bags into a closet. She returned to Andrew and they started the cool down stretching. “You’re a foster kid, aren’t you?”

Andrew’s mind went racing. Renee was full of surprises. “How did you know?” he demanded. “Don’t tell them,” also came tumbling out of his mouth before he could think about it.

Renee smiled at him. “We’re similar. You know, when I started learning martial arts, it was because I told Mom that I never wanted to be hurt again. I was a very troubled child and spent plenty of time bouncing around foster homes before she found me.

“I’m different than Dan, Kevin, and Neil. Dan and Kevin were both adopted fresh when they were little by Wymack. That’s why they don’t really get us, and why they don’t quite understand how different it is. Don’t worry, though. It’s not my place to tell them.”

Andrew figured that it also wasn’t her place to talk about Neil, who he noticed she avoided explaining. Grateful for the words she had offered, Andrew nodded in thanks before pushing Renee down into a deeper butterfly stretch.

 


 

School was an altogether mundane affair. Andrew wasn’t in the same grade as either Neil (who was one year younger) or Kevin (who was one year older), and hadn’t bothered to learn the names of the two neighborhood kids who were his age. They had made a small attempt to speak to him before moving towards their own friends and the few other seventh graders who came to talk to the new kid soon left disappointed by his silence. Like usual, Andrew was alone.

Lunch ended up being the highlight, when Neil approached him from outside of the cafeteria lineup to tell him where to sit.

“If we knew you were gonna buy food here, Kevin probably would’ve insisted that Dad make you a lunch,” he said, leading the way to his and Kevin’s table. “You better get familiar with these people, ‘cause you’ll be playing Exy with them once the season begins.”

Kevin frowned at the meal – if you called soggy fries, a sandwich that appeared to be half mayonnaise, and chocolate pudding a meal – on Andrew’s tray as he sat down. “You should’ve told us you were going to eat the food from here .”

Neil snickered from beside Andrew. “Told you,” he muttered under his breath.

 


 

 

To Andrew’s surprise, the couple had no problem with signing off the forms and paying the fee, probably influenced by the government’s compensation for all of Andrew’s other costs and the promise that his friends would lend him a racquet and gear (most of Renee’s old gear was still on the small side, but the league had enough extra parts for him to make up a full set).

The first day in a proper court wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. The Fox’s kids had more than prepared Andrew for the most obsessed players, and Wymack had stayed the first day to assist their coach. Andrew realized that he might get to see Neil not covered in bandages, for once, since the smooth floor wouldn’t scrape him up after every check. The goal was much larger than Andrew’s usual net, but still small in comparison to proper ones. Looking at it, he could almost feel excitement at the challenge.

Because there was only one other kid wanting to be goalkeeper, the coach didn’t bother holding tryouts for the position. Instead, he got Neil, Kevin, and two other strikers to take shots at both goalkeepers, to find out who was better. New dealers were chosen since Dan and Allison were going to play on their high school team instead. From what Andrew could tell from the team’s scrimmages, the backliners were obviously the weakest link. Although better than the neighborhood kids, no one came close to Kevin, Neil, or even Andrew’s level and both the coach and Wymack seemed pleased that Andrew would be able to defend the goal.

After practice, Neil, Kevin, and Wymack stayed behind for the two strikers to practice some drills. They wanted Andrew to stay, but he needed to be home before dinner. Waving away Wymack’s offer for a ride, he hefted the gear duffle over his shoulder and made his way back, for once the idea of another school year no longer daunting.

 


 

The year went on.

The couple brought Andrew to buy his own racquet as a birthday-ish present, the first time anything so nice had happened.

Season ended with three more wins than losses.

His foster family didn’t celebrate Christmas, so Andrew didn’t get anything from them. He didn’t mind, though, not with the huge bag of candy Wymack offered him behind Kevin’s back.

Neil, Kevin, Dan, Renee, and even Allison and Seth played scrimmages with him.

Renee grinned and told him that he almost won a sparring round.

He went over to Wymack’s house after school one day and Neil fell asleep on him while doing homework; Andrew didn’t push him off.

The year went on, and Andrew was happy.

 

Chapter Text

Cass and Richard Spear had a son, they told Andrew as Richard (he insisted that at fifteen years old, Andrew was capable of making the choice on what he wanted to call his new foster parents) carried his things into his new room and Cass put the apple pie she had baked for him into the oven.

“Drake’s off on a gap year before he starts his training for the Marines, so you have the house all to yourself,” Cass said, smiling at Andrew as she began clearing away the mess on the countertop. Andrew got up to help her, used by now to the expectations of his foster parents. She shooed him away. “Don’t worry about cleaning up; I made this mess! The pie should be done in less than an hour, so go check out your room!”

Wordlessly Andrew got up and left the dining room.

Richard was already done moving Andrew’s meager bag and gear duffle. Seeing Andrew’s expression, he aborted his attempt to ruffle the boy’s hair on the way out. “Get comfortable,” he said. “I’m gonna start making dinner.”

The room was larger than most of the other ones Andrew had stayed in and contained a double bed rather than the usual single. The walls were bare but painted a light green, and both the dresser and closet were sizable. Andrew was surprised to see a desk and laptop in the corner, both fairly new and much more than any other family had ever provided.

Andrew laid back on his new bed (covered in soft, navy blue sheets) and sighed.

By the time Andrew had moved in with Cass and Richard, he had gone through two other foster homes, both on the worse side. Out of the three years, two of them were spent with foster parents unwilling to pay for his Exy, something which Wymack ended up covering. During his second year in the area, the Fox’s kids had finally found out that he was a foster child.

(“Why didn’t you tell us?” Kevin had demanded. Neil didn’t say anything to him for nearly a week.

When Dan had finally dragged Neil over to Andrew’s house, he had looked at his feet as he apologised. “Sorry,” Neil said grudgingly. “I just don’t get why you didn’t want us to know you’re a foster kid.”

Andrew had spitefully thought of telling Neil that he wasn’t forgiven. Instead, he said, “You weren’t supposed to see me differently,” and suddenly it was like nothing had changed.)

Cass and Richard seemed...nice. They honestly acted like they wanted him, like they wanted him to stay, and Andrew was completely unfamiliar with that.

Over dinner Cass asked about the area: how Andrew had liked school, if he had any extracurriculars, if he had any friends. Andrew grudgingly told her and Richard that the school was okay, if not either incredibly boring or incredibly frustrating (and in turn Richard offered him assistance in math), that he played for the high school Exy team and needed roughly $50 to participate, and that astoundingly, Wymack’s trio of children still talked to him. He thought he did a good job hiding his surprise at the questions, but the pitying looks his newest foster parents gave him said otherwise.

Cass promised that they’d do their best to leave him be, but to come talk to them anytime. Andrew nodded, not planning to take their words to heart and mind too busy elsewhere. As the school year had just ended, theoretically street Exy games would begin again. Unfortunately, that summer there were a few changes.

Allison’s parents, at last too frustrated with her Exy-rebellion and relationship with Seth, sent her to stay with her grandfather until school restarted. Seth had a summer job at the local Walmart, and Dan, Kevin, and Neil were all working at the candy store anytime they weren’t on an actual court. Andrew found himself there often enough that Wymack had shown him how to work the register and told him that, if not for the knowledge that Andrew would eat its worth in candy, he’d offer a wage.

(Kevin had, predictably, thrown a fit when Wymack informed his kids of their new summer activity. In the end, a deal was struck in which they get access to his university’s court if they work at least four shifts a week. In the end, Wymack had to introduce a ban on all discussions involving potentially selling anything new and healthy without Abby’s permission.)

All of the time spent with them, with Neil and Kevin in particular, led to another problem.

Neil was attractive. Almost year-round Exy training and practice gave definition to his arms, stomach (or of much of it as Andrew’s seen in locker room glimpses, since Neil had perfected the art of changing shirts without taking one completely off), and legs. Andrew had once imagined running his tongue over the inside of Neil’s thighs, toned from post-practice runs. Everything else about him: his perpetually messy hair, bright blue eyes that always lit up when he spoke to Andrew, and lips that Andrew had fantasized about, all contributed to the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that he wasn’t interested in Neil.

Neil was also, fortunately, oblivious. He never once looked at Andrew funny as if he noticed Andrew’s stares. Which was a good thing. For years Andrew had suspected his own sexuality – lingering glances at men on TV or magazine covers and absolutely no interest in any of his classmate’s top “hottest” celebs were enough evidence – but he had never actually had a face to his thoughts. With the new laptop Cass had bought him, nights were spent browsing through sites and trying to figure out where he stood.

His first family, the one that had tried adopting him until he was six, was incredibly against homosexuality. It was what had actually removed him from their care, when a social worker overheard some pretty vulgar comments about “faggots at their goddamn pride parades” during a random check-up. Afterwards, Andrew had been shoved into the foster care system. From there, things went downhill.

Now Andrew had to deal with the memories of every cuss his families had ever said, of every comment that seemed to condemn him. He clicked a link of someone’s story about their brother on Facebook. Andrew didn’t believe in heaven or hell and after years of foster homes, kids were the furthest thing from his mind.

By the end of the summer, Neil hadn’t gotten any less attractive, contrarily growing to what anyone else would consider gorgeous .

Andrew, meanwhile, gained an anonymous account on an LGBT forum, a habit of automatically deleting his web history, and a crush larger than he’d care to admit.

 


 

Their school team that year had the potential to make it the farthest it had ever gone. Seth, Allison, Renee, and Dan were all on their last year before graduation and already seemed ridiculously misty-eyed. Neil was finally in highschool, augmenting both their striker line and defense as well as improving both Andrew and Kevin’s performance just by being there and egging them on.

The only thing they needed was a backliner to replace the one who had just graduated and luckily, Matt Boyd, freshly moved from across the country, had promise.

Andrew didn’t have to be in goal while the backliners tried out for the first half, since those scrimmages were purely to test their racquet handling and aggressive blocking. Until later, when he’d be expected to communicate with the newbies, Andrew was content to watch.

He tensed when Matt checked Neil into a wall, instantly thinking of all the ways a six-foot player could crush the smaller boy. Across the court, Matt offered Neil a hand and pulled him up, apologising before laughing at whatever Neil must have said. Their coach nodded approvingly at Matt’s following stick check, which knocked the ball out of Kevin’s net with almost textbook form.

Break was called and Neil came to join Andrew on the bleachers, two water bottles held in his hands and racquet tucked in the crook of his arm. Neil smiled as he offered Andrew one.

“Did you have fun being slammed into walls?”

Neil huffed out a laugh and Andrew tried not to stare at the sweat running down his neck. “Better than the pavement. Charles’ checks are too weak, and he has no clue how to move, Lucy already looks like she’ll murder Kevin but she isn’t good enough to put up with. But Matt’s pretty decent. If he was here last year, there’d be so much more time to teach him.”

Andrew thought for a moment as Neil took a swig. It was more distracting than it should’ve been.

“Do you want him to make it?”

“Yeah,” Neil said, looking out onto the court where Dan was telling him off for not catching one of Neil’s off-wall passes. “He’s nice. Dan likes him too.”

They both knew what that meant: that Andrew, who still didn’t know the name of the other senior backliner, would actually make an effort to communicate with Matt Boyd if Neil wanted him to.

A few minutes before break ended, Renee came over and took the other spot on the bench beside Andrew. “I think Matt knows how to fight,” she told Andrew.

Both Andrew and Neil looked at her in curiosity. Renee shrugged. “The way he braces himself isn’t really how most beginners do it. He said he’s only been playing for a year. And if you listen to his breathing, he makes sharp exhales at bursts of movement, kind of like how we do it for kicks and punches.” She got up as the coach called for everyone to gather around. “Knowing our team, someone who can back us up would be pretty useful.” Andrew gave Neil a pointed look, which he ignored.

For the second part of the try-outs, it was pairs of backliners and a goalie against both strikers and Dan. Communication was more important than skills, which could be taught throughout the season. Andrew settled himself in goal first as Kevin and Matt got into place to the right and Neil and Lucy to the left.

Despite or perhaps because of Kevin’s higher skill than Neil, it was obvious that Matt was better. He managed to hold off Kevin well enough that Andrew could easily bat away any stray shots, while Neil had enough time to aim around Lucy and make life difficult. When he finally scored, Neil stuck his tongue out at Andrew and even through the metal grate of his helmet, the sight made something flutter in Andrew’s stomach.

Before long, Kevin seemed to get the hang of Matt’s moves. Partially to fuck with him and partially because he agreed with Neil’s assessment, Andrew chose to intervene. “You need to block his dominant arm, moron,” he called. “Kevin’s left handed.”

Neil’s responding snicker made his chest tight, too.

Matt would definitely make the team so he, Neil, and Andrew switched places with Charles, Seth, and Renee. After a moment, the coach made Kevin go against Lucy, to see how well she could restrain herself.

Andrew moved for his water while Neil started talking with Matt. Allison yelled something rude from the sidelines at Seth, who had enough time to flip her off with Kevin and Lucy’s fighting over the ball.

“Hey, man, thanks for the advice.”

Andrew turned towards Matt, who must have been a full foot taller than him. Right beside him, Neil, grinning broadly, said “If you weren’t so distracted by yelling at Matt, I wouldn’t have scored the second time.”

Pushing back the urge to flip him off, Andrew looked at the court. Charles had tripped over what appeared to be his own clown feet, and Lucy, finally having enough with Kevin’s constant berating, punched him in the gut. Everyone’s reactions varied: Dan’s laugh could be heard from where they were, Kevin and the coach both swore, Matt’s eyebrows raised, and Neil cheered. Andrew felt a hint of a smile pinch the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it, that’s it, pack it up!” the coach yelled. “Day, you better not be winded from a wimpy hit like that!”

Because their practices were always after school, most of the team chose to shower at home. Both Charles and Lucy seemed inappropriately hopeful about their chances to get onto the team. Andrew waited for Neil to change into his running clothes before the two of them left for Andrew’s house – from there Neil would be able to take a detour jog back home.

They walked together in silence, both of them stinking of sweat but appreciating the cool down it offered whenever a breeze picked up. Neil grinned as he started talking about his day, not expecting Andrew to respond but knowing he enjoyed listening to him prattle on about everything from their math teacher (who Neil liked and Andrew hated) to this girl in French class who keeps asking for help as if the teacher isn’t right there (Andrew’s fists clenched at that – damn Neil’s good looks).

The days were still fairly long so it was bright when they reached Andrew’s house. “Cass wants to meet you soon,” Andrew said, thinking about all of the comments she had made about his entire team and about how often he’d mention them over dinner.

Neil hummed. “Maybe when I’m not sweaty as fuck; wanna make a good first impression.” For some reason, it sounded a lot like something a date would say. “Bye, Andrew. See you tomorrow.”

As Neil ran off, Andrew’s hands finally relaxed though the butterflies stayed in his stomach. This was a problem.

 

Chapter Text

Cass was making donuts.

Sometimes living with her and Richard felt like a dream. They didn’t hover over everything Andrew did, but showed interest in anything that he mentioned. They’d buy little things for Andrew sometimes, like a new calculator when they realized that his didn’t have trig functions, without him having to ask. Richard woke up early enough to make lunches for Andrew to bring to school, while Cass cooked amazing meals for dinner.

And sometimes on weekends, Cass would decide to try experimenting. Andrew had been called down from his bedroom for help, something that he was gradually being used to. To Cass and Richard, helping was helping , not doing , so Andrew came down willingly to find a bowl of powdered sugar and four fresh donuts on a drying rack.

“Andrew, can you roll the finished donuts in sugar? I still have another batch to do,” Cass said from the stove where she was turning over another donut.

“Sure,” Andrew called back, picking one up before hissing when he felt how hot it was. He wasn’t burnt, so he went to the drawer to get a fork instead.

Even after an entire month with her, it still surprised Andrew when she gestured at the donuts and told him to eat. “I’d ask you to bring some to your friends,” she said, “but I think it’s about time you invite them over for dinner.” It didn’t escape either of their notices that Andrew refrained from denying his friendship with the Fox’s kids.

When Andrew didn’t respond, Cass said, “Please ask them, Andrew. I want to meet the people important to you.” She smiled at him.

“Fine,” Andrew eventually said. “Tonight?”

“Yes; I’m making lasagna, so there should be more than enough. Now go, isn’t this normally when you meet up with them?”

Picking up another treat as he walked out of the kitchen, Andrew wondered how exactly Kevin would react to a plate of cheese and carbs and an offering of donuts. He wondered how Neil’s eyes would light up at the invitation and how Dan would try to force some manners into her brothers. Without anyone around to see, Andrew let the corners of his mouth pinch up into a smile.

 


 

Kevin scowled as the bells signalling Andrew’s entrance rang.

“What the fuck, Andrew, did you eat an entire box of powdered donuts?”

Andrew blinked. “What? No.” He had only eaten two.

“Then what’s that all over your pants?” Kevin demanded, furious in his usual entitled way. Andrew looked down to see that the whole front of his black sweater was covered in white powdered sugar, both from coating the donuts in sugar and eating them. Oops.

“It’s cocaine,” he finally said, enjoying the rise he got out of Kevin.

Neil laughed from his spot in the corner, where he was slowly working through an English grammar package. The sound made Andrew’s chest feel tighter and he swallowed hard; a small part of him was incredibly pleased with himself. Fuck Neil and his handsome features and pretty laugh and ability to make Andrew feel dizzy.

“Where’s Dan?” he asked instead of doing anything stupid, like going over to Neil and combing through his nest of hair with his fingers.

Kevin frowned. “Not eating donuts,” he answered petulantly, which drew another snicker from Neil.

“She’s with the others,” Neil said, referring to Allison, Renee, Matt and Seth. “They went out to watch a movie.”

“Let me guess,” said Andrew dryly. “There wasn’t enough Exy in the plot to satisfy you and Kevin?”

The silence he got in response answered his question. Andrew moved to sit beside Neil, being careful to leave a gap of space in between them. He took at quick glance at the sentences scrawled across Neil’s paper and pointed to one that was wrong.

“Thanks,” Neil said, grabbing his eraser. “So what did you need Dan for?”

“Cass wants me to invite you all to dinner.”

Kevin drummed his fingers on the counter. “Why?”

With a shrug, Andrew said, “She said she wants to finally meet you. Honestly I think she’ll end up disappointed with you , but you’ve been known to perform miracles before.”

“Fuck you,” Kevin snarled as Andrew flipped him off nonchalantly. He grabbed the nearest small object on the counter and chucked it hard at Andrew, who had no problem catching it with his goalkeeper’s reflexes. It turned out to be a small package of dried fruit.

“Ew,” Andrew recoiled. “Get this shit away from me.”

Neil looked up from his homework and rolled his eyes. “I’ll eat it,” he offered, reaching out to grab it from Andrew’s hand. For a second their fingers brushed and Andrew flinched away from the sudden spark he swore he could feel. Neil was completely unaffected as he tore open the package, shoving a piece of mango halfway into his mouth before looking back down to fill in another blank on the page. It suddenly looked a lot more appetizing hanging from Neil’s lips.

Andrew cursed his hormones.

“So does your m–Cass want us to come over tonight ? ‘Cause I can call Dan and Dad to ask if we’re good,” Neil told Andrew, snapping him out of his thoughts.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. He tried to look anywhere but at Neil, who pulled out his phone (incidentally the same model as the one Cass had bought for Andrew during his first week). Andrew tuned Neil out and entertained himself by trying to figure out the remaining answers on the worksheet.

“Okay, we’re good,” said Neil as he put down his phone. “Dad said that he might end up running a bit late, but to start eating without him. Dan’s fine, though.”

Andrew didn’t acknowledge Neil, and instead pointed at an oddly specific line and said, “You’d have thought that a sports junkie like you would know that baseball’s played on a diamond, not a field. Idiot.”

“I hate baseball,” Neil muttered under his breath, frowning as he looked around for his misplaced eraser. “Reminder that I like Exy, not sports in general; and honestly who cares? God, I’d really rather be doing a whole math booklet now instead of his garbage.”

Snorting, Andrew picked up the eraser from where it had fallen during Neil’s phone call. He flicked it at Neil’s face while at the same time Kevin yelled a defensive, “For the last time, history’s not garbage!” from the counter. He wasn’t appeased when Neil pointed out that he wasn’t even talking about history – not that time at least.

While the two of them bickered, Andrew sent a text to Cass confirming their guests before settling back down. The three of them lounged around Fox’s , glancing up briefly only when an occasional family walked in. Dan finally entered the shop around closing time, excitedly telling them about the movie, as Neil began packing up and Kevin set about shutting down the register. Neil hefted his bag over one shoulder as the four of them exited Fox’s , Kevin locking up before they made the trek to the Spears’ house.

Richard was beaming as he opened the door for them, despite Andrew having already fished out his key. He must have been watching for them and he chattered busily between telling the Fox’s kids where to put their shoes, jackets, and bags. In the dining room, Cass was setting the table as she asked Richard to check the lasagna in the oven.

Instantly, Neil and Dan both stiffened as they turned to look at Kevin, who had stilled. Cass looked at him in concern.

“Are you okay with lasagna? You aren’t allergic, are you? Lactose intolerant?”

Whatever Kevin might have said was covered up by his siblings.

“He’s absolutely fine, don’t worry about it,” said Dan, smacking Kevin in the arm.

“Kevin’s just thinking about all the carbs he’ll get to work off during practice tomorrow,” said Neil, waving his hands around.

Kevin finally choked out, “No, no, it’s fine,” then turned to Andrew when Cass walked out. “You knew what she was making,” he hissed, “This is so far from a proper diet plan that it’s not even funny.”

“You’re right,” Andrew drawled. “It’s fucking hilarious.”

Kevin was pushed into the dining room by his siblings, all the while complaining about how much better it would have been if they went to Jeremy Knox’s house. At least his family understood the importance of healthy food.

Despite that setback, soon the six of them were seated around the table, an empty chair left between Richard and Dan for Wymack. Cass didn’t fail to notice the fact that Kevin barely ate anything (no doubt waiting to get home for a fully nutritious meal), but wisely didn’t say anything. The three guests answered Cass and Richard’s questions about school, the candy store, and Exy. Cass took extra interest in Neil, smiling and calling him a good friend, before embarrassingly informing him about how much, exactly, Andrew talks about him in particular.

Andrew was mortified.

Thankfully his rapidly reddening face was saved by Wymack’s arrival. He took off his shoes, greeted his hosts and kids, before shooting Kevin a look of exasperation when he saw how clean his plate was. With his presence, the conversation at the table split into two; Cass and Richard discussed anything from coaching to dealing with the kids with him while Neil suddenly remembered a complaint he had about all of their least favourite freshman science teacher.

Andrew helped clean up when dinner was over. He ignored the raised eyebrows Kevin, Dan, and Neil gave him as he grabbed the empty plates from in front of them. The Spears had a dishwasher, so all he had to do was load them in and set the timer, soon making his way back to the table.

When Cass re-entered with the plate of homemade donuts, Kevin practically had a heart-attack. His siblings and father all tried to explain it away.

“Kevin’s allergic to anything with a higher sugar content than zero,” said Neil, helping himself to a donut out of politeness.

“Don’t worry about him, it’s delicious,” Dan assured her, taking a bit of her own donut.

“All of my kids are weird, don’t mind them,” sighed Wymack.

 


 

“So,” Neil said, smirking teasingly at Andrew and leaning against the locker next to his. “Cass said you can’t stop talking about me?”

God, Andrew wanted to kiss the look off of Neil’s face so badly.

“Yeah. I tell her that I want to murder you ninety percent of the time.”

Neil shrugged as Andrew grabbed his lunch and slammed shut his locker door. “And the other ten percent of the time?”

Andrew couldn’t answer.

The two of them made their way to the cafeteria where most of the team sat. Allison was betting Seth that Renee could beat him in a fight – if she still pooled candy like she had when they were kids, Andrew would have joined in. Kevin was multitasking; reading his history textbook on his lap while chewing vigorously on the chicken sandwich Wymack had made for his kids. Meanwhile, one of the school’s cheerleaders, Katelyn, had come up to Dan and Matt to discuss their practices and the upcoming season.

Before lunch break ended, Neil slid off of the bench. “I forgot I needed to talk to someone,” he told the team. “See you at practice.”

Dan and Matt broke away from their conversation briefly to wave and Kevin nodded his head absentmindedly. “Failing English?” asked Andrew in a mocking tone.

Neil turned just long enough to stick out both his tongue and a finger at Andrew.

 


 

“Neil, what the fuck?” Kevin exclaimed, loud enough for Andrew to hear from across the court.

Andrew had been late to practice as a result of a displeased teacher wanting to talk about his unpleasantly worded Law assignment and arrived only to see the majority of the team all huddled together. Kevin appeared particularly agitated, while Matt was cooing from way too fucking close to Neil.

He got closer only to stop. And stare. “Why is there a rodent?”

Kevin huffed. “Ask Neil. He brought in the fucking rat.”

Neil turned and scowled at Kevin, giving him a rude hand gesture. “I thought you were supposed to be good at remembering things. He’s a gerbil . I was getting him during lunch.”

Interrupting the squabbling siblings, Andrew repeated himself. “Again, why is there a rodent?”

“Some kid from my math class was offering up his gerbil for twenty bucks,” Neil shrugged. “He couldn’t keep the guy, so I decided to save Nicky from an awful fate.”

“Nicky?”

“The gerbil,” Matt said. He, Renee, and Dan were engrossed with watching it eat what must have been a chunk of one of the Fox’s kids’ apple. Dan looked at Neil in what was probably meant to be an accusing manner but ended up seeming rather affectionate, the way a parent looks at their silly child.

“You do know that you’re the one telling Dad about our newest addition, right?”

“What was I supposed to do?” Neil asked in exasperation. “Wayne said his parents wanted him to just release Nicky into the wild! And we don’t have to buy housing or anything since he’ll come by tomorrow with all of the stuff.”

Kevin kicked a temporary plexiglass wall bitterly as he said, “Are we going to stop staring at it and warm up? First game’s in two weeks.”

Grudgingly, the rest of the team pulled away to jog laps around the court.

Most of practice that day was conditioning with an hour of drills at the end. The strikers, from right at the penalty line, shot balls in the corners of the goals while the backliners and dealers practiced precision passes from across the court. Andrew managed to block most of the balls when he was on and found himself working extra hard to keep out both Neil and Kevin’s shots, partially to frustrate them and partially because he liked the competitive glimmer in Neil’s eyes as he kept count of both his and Kevin’s goals.

“Hey, Andrew,” Neil said after practice ended, pulling off his helmet and using his fingers to card through the messy bangs that had escaped his bandana. Andrew’s throat went dry. “Can you stay later? Matt and I wanted to try a play and it’s no fun without someone in goal.”

It was still nearly an hour until when the Spears normally had dinner, so Andrew agreed. He pulled out his phone to text Cass, before asking, “Aren’t Kevin and Dan staying?” Both of them were packing up their stuff.

Neil shook his head. “Dan has a test and Kevin wants to watch a documentary on Irish kings, like the huge nerd he is,” he said. Andrew nearly missed that, as Neil had given up on trying to tame his hair and instead opted to just redo his sweaty bandana. He liked the way his hair looked right then, damp and mussed and falling over his face in curls.

Renee provided a good distraction when she started up a conversation with Andrew about the next colours to dye her hair as she took off her gear, loosening straps and yanking at padding. She soon finished and left in disagreement with him; he thought blood red would look pretty wicked but she insisted on staying with boring pastels. As she was leaving, Renee reminded him that their usual sparring that week was cancelled – she and her foster mother were working on a project.

Eventually Neil returned with his refilled water bottle. He unscrewed Andrew’s and poured in half of his own water before passing it back to him. Although he didn’t say it, Andrew was grateful as he took a few heavy gulps.

Matt came over to them as Kevin and Dan waved goodbye, sneaking his hand under the bandana and ruffling Neil’s hair, laughing at his disgruntled expression. It pissed Andrew off more than it should have and the returns that he aimed at Matt’s body rather than racquet net later during their scrimmage did little to make him feel better. Andrew watched Neil twist and make an impossible shot that neither he nor Matt were able to block, then bit his cheek in jealousy when the two on court excitedly grabbed each other, yelling like complete morons.

After they were done, Matt limped away to grab his water while Neil flung himself onto the floor near Andrew’s goal.

“Don’t tell Kevin,” he said, breathing heavily. “I know I’m not supposed to lie down but shit, was it really necessary to block the balls all the way down court?”

Andrew had only done that in response to the other boy asking him to stop returning shots to Matt’s head, so he didn’t say anything. They both pulled off the bulk of their gear but left their jerseys on, resolving to take a shower when they got home.

“Guys?” Matt called when he returned, wiping his face with a towel. “Bad news: it’s raining really hard outside and I don’t think Nicky’s gonna like that.”

“Shit,” Neil muttered under his breath. “I didn’t bring a jacket.”

None of them had a jacket. The weather was still warm enough for wearing just the team hoodie, so all three of them were prepared to be soaked. Neil eyed Nicky’s wire cage in particular, which he otherwise could have covered up before making a dash home.

Matt was rooting frantically through his backpack as Andrew looked outside in displeasure. Amongst his huge list of things he disliked, the cold and rain sat fairly high. A loud, “Aha!” brought his attention to the older boy, who was holding a pale purple fold-up umbrella.

“I gotta thank my mom for making me bring an umbrella! I can walk you and Nicky home,” Matt told Neil with a proud grin. “And Andrew too. I think your house is nearby?”

Andrew would have taken his chances in the rain but an ugly side of him hated the idea of Matt and Neil huddling together under a shared umbrella. He nodded; the Spears were a quick detour on the way to Neil’s house from the school.

In the end, it hardly mattered. Because of the height difference, Matt, holding the umbrella, was in the middle and had a hard time angling the plastic in a way that shielded his two much shorter companions. Neil was almost completely out of its protection, opting to carry Nicky’s cage closer to Matt in order to keep the gerbil dry instead of himself. Arguably that was worse than simply walking without an umbrella – he got hit by both the rain and extra drips off the rim. For Andrew, it was moderately windy and most of the rain was angled enough that it would’ve made no difference if he had walked separately. He glared as Matt (whose hair was still dry enough to hold his gelled spikes) and Neil laughed over the former’s failed attempts to keep the three of them dry.

When they got to the Spears’ house, Matt sheepishly apologized for the extra downpour. Andrew thought he looked like a stupid puppy as he waved goodbye while Neil called out, “See you!” He ignored them as he pulled out his key, giving the two of them and Neil’s gerbil one last glance.

Damn it; somehow Neil still managed to look good soaking wet.

 

Chapter Text

Matt was hanging out with Neil a lot more, Andrew noticed, with the observation skills of someone who spent much of his own time staring at Neil. However, unlike himself, Matt got along seamlessly with Dan and therefore spent free time in the candy store with the two of them while Andrew scowled over his homework from beside Kevin. He didn’t miss the way Matt’s eyes would soften when he saw either of the two less asshole-y siblings, and hated that he could recognize that look from his own face.

Furthermore, Nicky and the whole being-stuck-out-in-the-rain incident seemed to have made Neil and Matt friendlier. Instead of parting ways after practice, more often than not the older boy would tag along home with the siblings just to see Nicky.

Andrew tried not to seem too desperate by tagging along. As much as he hated to admit it, the stupid gerbil was actually sort of cute. Some days Nicky would use his tiny arms to lift himself onto the wire mesh on top of his home and hang from there before dropping – one of the siblings' favourite tricks. The petty part of Andrew always felt some sort of validated pride whenever Nicky shuffled around his tank on his two hind legs, a trick that he’d only do around Andrew.

(He called Nicky stupid and a waste of money, but none of the Fox’s kids needed to know that his recent search history was filled with queries like what do gerbils eat and how to care for gerbils . Someone needed to make sure that Neil didn’t fuck up.)

 


 

“Hey, Neil, can I talk to you for a bit?” Both Andrew and Neil turned around on the bleachers, where they had been discussing the zombie apocalypse and possible contingency plans with Renee during water break.

“Yeah, sure,” Neil said, smiling apologetically at the two goalkeepers. Renee, bearing some manners, excused herself to go find Allison while Andrew stiffened and refused to move. Matt looked at him nervously.

“Ah, can I talk to Neil privately?”

Andrew glared. The entire interaction made him feel sick, his chest tightening uncomfortably and mind running to a million places. The thought of Matt and Neil had been bugging him for a while, and Matt’s obvious jitters did nothing to calm him. “You can talk to the both of us or leave,” he said.

Neil swatted him on the arm and called him rude. “Do you want to go somewhere quiet?” he asked Matt.

“Nah, it’s okay,” Matt said, looking very much like it was not okay. “I, um, was wondering, um, if you knew if, um, Dan was dating, or open to dating, or maybe interested in dating anyone??” By the end of it, his face had bloomed red and his voice reached a near-squeak.

It wasn’t what Andrew had been expecting and it must have not been what Neil was expecting, by the surprised yet pleased grin on his face. “You like Dan ?” Neil demanded.

“Um...well she’s really nice and a great friend! Not that it’s a bad thing if we stayed friends if she’s not interested or anything! But um,” Matt swallowed hard. “She’s amazing on court and absolutely beautiful. I really do like her and I don’t want to make her uncomfortable by asking her out if there’s a zero chance that she’ll be okay with it.”

Normally Matt was a lot more articulate, Andrew mused, feeling relief flow throughout his body. The older boy’s nerves were wrecking his ability to speak clearly, something that Andrew allowed himself to find amusing now that the main threat had passed. Neil looked exceptionally pleased.

“Dan’s not dating anyone and I don’t think she has before.” he said. “I dunno how she feels about it now, but I think she’s okay with it as long as nothing interferes with the season?” Junkies.

Matt perked up. “But is she really busy with anything other than Exy right now? I don’t want to stress her out or anything.”

Andrew noticed that the more Matt said, the more Neil’s grin seemed to widen. The three siblings were close in a way that Andrew never had been with any of his foster siblings, and Dan and Neil especially looking out for the other’s well being. “Ask her,” Neil told him, giving Matt an unnecessary push in their captain’s general direction. “The only thing really going on right now is the season!”

“I’ll do it after practice,” he promised. “Thanks!”

The two of them executed a long and lame fist bump before Matt jogged away. Neil’s attention was still on Matt, which Andrew didn’t like, so he prompted, “Which is better for fighting off zombies: the cooking class rooms or woodshop?”

 


 

Andrew had been told to come home right after practice, since dinner would be early that night (Richard had managed to secure the afternoon off of work), so it wasn’t until the next day that he saw Dan and Matt walk into the lunch hall holding hands. Glancing at Neil, he suddenly wished he was there while Matt asked Dan out, if only just for reference notes. He slid onto the space at the end of the bench beside Renee and she turned to him in order to continue a previous conversation they had about the probability of aliens.

(They both agreed that aliens must exist somewhere, but couldn’t decide on their relative intelligence to humans: Andrew thought they must be eons of innovations ahead of Earth while Renee had a more optimistic opinion.)

The end of the school day passed in a blur.

Normally Andrew jogged with Renee during warm up, the two of them going at a decent pace as opposed to Neil’s insane half-sprint. Renee would be late to practice in order to finish writing an in-class essay, though, so he figured that he would be running laps alone. It was both surprising and gratifying that Neil chose to slow down that day, cockily jogging backwards and keeping up with Andrew without any problems.

“Is that necessary?” he eventually ground out. Neil shrugged but turned around, altering his steps and speed to keep an even pace with Andrew.

“You should ask Renee out,” the idiot said. Andrew didn’t know where he got the idea that he was interested in Renee or that Neil could talk to him about it. He didn’t know whether to feel relief or disappointment.

“Not happening.”

“Why? She seems to like you too, and you guys spar together all the time.”

Because I’m gay and I like you, Andrew didn’t tell him. Renee knew, after he came out to her when she warned him about Allison’s latest bet, but definitely wouldn’t share his secret. “What does sparring have to do with liking her?”

“I’m just saying you two would probably be happy together,” Neil said, watching Dan and Matt jog side by side.

“Children should be seen and not heard,” Andrew returned mockingly, slowing down to a pace so obnoxious that he knew Neil would end up pulling ahead. The other boy stuck out his tongue, but sped up to his usual sprint, as if he was allergic to moving too slowly. Andrew had to tear his gaze away from Neil’s ass as the other boy made quick work out of lapping the entire team.

His own thoughts drowned out Neil and Kevin’s yells as they tried to race.

 


 

Andrew was beginning to wonder if the universe was working against him, because everybody seemed to be obsessed with dating.

Within a week, a freshman girl was shoved towards their lunch table by her giggling friends, blush high on her cheeks as she stared at a point a little past Neil’s shoulders. Andrew was pretty sure she was in student council, popular and pretty and everything he wasn’t. He was so tense that Renee nudged his arm, gesturing to his hand where little crescents were being pressed into his palm. Andrew swallowed hard, and tried not to think about how he’d rather be anywhere but there.

Neil looked like he was in the same boat, face flushing bright red and eyes darting around nervously, as if searching for an escape. Most of their team had quieted, trying not to appear to be paying attention.

“Sorry,” said Neil. His hand came up to tug on his own hair. “I, um, I don’t –”

“You’re gay?” asked the girl, who suddenly looked both put-out and incredibly curious. Her friends’ eyes were wide and Andrew’s heart felt like it might burst from his chest.

Neil blinked. “No. I don’t swing.”

Beside him, Kevin didn’t react, too busy scrolling through his phone. Dan let out an exaserated snort from her spot beside Matt and muttered something about letting a girl down nicely, but certainly didn’t act like the information was new.

Renee looked at Andrew – either in sympathy or pity, it didn’t really matter.

Andrew’s chest felt tight, like he was suffocating on his own dumb feelings. It was one thing to assume that Neil was straight and hold out that little bit of hope, but knowing that there was no chance hurt so much more.

He barely registered the disappointed girl shuffling away, or the way Neil immediately ducked down into his food as if it was the most interesting thing in the world.

Anywhere, he thought, would be better than the cafeteria right then, sitting half a table away from the boy he liked, who obviously would never like him back.

 


 

Andrew spent the night on an incognito window in Google, eventually coming out with the term asexual . Renee offered half-hearted suggestions about possible romantic inclinations but didn’t say anything about his distracted sparring during their practice and only patted him consolingly on the back after.

“You should at least tell him you’re gay,” she said. “Neil’s your friend; it won’t change anything.”

That was the problem, though.

 


 

By Halloween Andrew was trying his best to at least pretend he didn’t have his stupid feelings. He accepted the Fox’s kids’ invitation to hang out and watch lame horror movies, all the while trying not to think too hard about how handsome Neil looked even with horned ears and a spiky tail.

(Andrew, for once wearing a costume of his own, did not think about cheesy vampire romances, and most definitely did not think about pulling Neil down and biting at his neck.)

“Hey!”

Pulling his hand from the candy bowl, Andrew tried to give an innocent smile around the plastic fangs Cass had somehow convinced him to wear. Neil wasn’t fooled, but he was smiling and didn’t seem terribly pissed to find Andrew filching chocolate bars meant for trick-or-treaters.

“If Kevin had caught you, you’d be dead,” Neil told him, adjusting the headband in his hair. His costume was pretty half-assed, just the horns and a tail taped to the back of his jeans, with a red t-shirt that wasn’t really his colour on top. Andrew wanted him so badly.

“If it were up to Kevin, you would be passing out granola bars.” Andrew relished the peal of laughter that brought.

“Y’know, I wouldn’t mind another deal,” Neil said. “You help me with my English essay and I’ll give you whatever leftovers there are.”

Andrew agreed immediately. “Deal.”

“C’mon,” Neil said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him from the entrance hall back into the living room. He snickered when Andrew almost tripped over the edge of his too-long vampire cloak. “This one’s got you in it!”

Dan passed him a cup of something bright green and fizzy, only winking and saying, “It’s a mystery,” when Andrew asked what it was. Neil tugged him down onto the nearest couch and hit play on the remote.

Squished between Kevin and Neil on a couch that was only meant to sit two people and listening to the siblings squabble across him, Andrew told himself that this was the best he could have.

 


 

A few days before the fourth of November, the day his papers said he had been born, Cass asked Andrew if he wanted a birthday party. The concept seemed so foreign that Andrew he refused, though she managed to extract a list of his favourite foods to make for dinner.

Andrew had never put much stock into his own birthday, at best receiving a present (like his first racquet) from the nicer families and at worst thinking of it as he day his birth mother decided that she couldn’t handle a child. He had never had foster parents willing to invest both time and money into a silly celebration.

“Hi,” Neil greeted him, shoving himself onto the too-small space of bench on Andrew’s empty side. Even pressed against him, his ass must have been hanging half off, so Andrew scooted a little closer to Renee to give him room. He hoped he wasn’t blushing as much as his warm face indicated. “Happy Birthday.”

Around the table, his teammates chimed their own congratulations, the Fox’s kids a little more enthusiastic than the rest. Neil fished around his backpack for a bit before pulling out a stained Lock-n-lock container, its clear plastic revealing the mess inside.

“Kevin made us get you dark chocolate.” Neil finally found a fork and passed it to Andrew. “Said even that’s pushing it.”

Andrew snorted but thanked them anyways, finding that the cake tasted good enough with the icing mixed in. It was a messy affair, what with Neil’s backpack being a disaster, and Neil laughed at the chocolate staining his mouth. A tiny part of Andrew, one that he had thought he had managed to shove down, desperately wanted Neil to offer to lick away the mess.

He pretended not to notice when Neil filched a strawberry from his container.

Before the bell could ring, the team sang Andrew a quick Happy Birthday as Kevin pressed a sloppily wrapped package (which he later found to contain a boxed set of the entire Harry Potter series) into his hands and Dan shoved a crushed cone hat on his head. His friends’ brilliant smiles kept him from yanking it off immediately.

“For you,” Renee told him, passing him her own present (a new pair of inner gloves, on account of the holes in his). Andrew rolled his eyes at the neat bow and holographic wrapping paper, but resolved to be nicer to her during their next sparring session.

“Thanks,” he said as the bell rang, a grin creeping onto his face and backpack heavier than it was before. He turned around so they couldn’t see and shuffled to his next class.

Later, as he blew out the candles on the ice cream cake the Spears had got for him, he couldn’t stop himself from wishing that things could stay good like this forever.

(The look on Kevin’s face when he took out the leftover cake to eat for lunch the next day was just a bonus.)

 


 

Some nights Andrew would dream of Neil.

He would dream of Neil beneath him and smiling, bright blue eyes half lidded and hair mussed. He would dream of Neil trailing kisses up his body before meeting his mouth, of Neil sighing and tangling his fingers with Andrew’s.

Then he’d wake up with damp pants and a wave of guilt.

 


 

They already knew that they’d make it, but the team still cheered and laughed and hugged anyways when they won their last game before winter break began, with the knowledge that state championships would meet them in the spring. Dan ran to Matt, who swung her around and gave her a kiss. Allison yelled something at the two of them. The girls and Seth in particular were thrilled with the team’s performance, on account of it being their last year, and soon Andrew found Renee pulling him into an ecstatic hug.

The Fox’s kids noticed and moved their celebration to them. Before long, Andrew was surrounded by his friends, Neil giving him a tight squeeze and saying, “You were amazing.”

Kevin couldn’t stop gushing with his father over the plays, as if Wymack didn’t already know. Somehow Andrew had managed to lock down the goal completely during last half, letting in only one ball while Renee only missed three. Matt and the other backliners helped; because of them all shots were made from behind the first-fourth line. Their strikers had made fools out of the other team’s defense, and while their opponents were nowhere near championships level, the win still put everyone into high spirits for the holidays.

Of the team members that Andrew cared about, only the Fox’s kids and him were staying. Renee was going to visit her adopted mother’s family, Matt would be sharing a terse holiday between his divorced parents, and somehow Allison had managed to convince her parents to let her bring along Seth to their expensive winter vacation. Even Abby, who owned the candy store, was leaving to visit her parents, opting to close Fox’s rather than get the siblings to work over the holidays.

On the last day of school, Andrew let Renee give him a quick hug. He promised to text her, before going to meet with the Fox’s kids at Dan’s locker. The four of them walked to Wymack’s house since Cass and Richard were both out and none of them were willing to do any homework. Neil immediately dragged him upstairs to check on Nicky, whose excitement at Andrew’s arrival nearly gave away the fact that he’s been slipping the gerbil treats for the past month.

Dan managed to convince Kevin to relinquish the remote, citing that he’s already seen that particular game rerun three times, and they all settle down to watch the first Harry Potter movie, which they insisted Andrew see after reading the books. Andrew was commenting on the kids’ shitty acting when Neil turned over in his sleep and flopped his head onto Andrew’s shoulder. He clenched his fists and fought against the urge to wrap his arm around Neil’s side.

“Don’t move,” Dan told him, getting up in order to grab her pencil case from her backpack. Kevin looked up from where he was watching an old USC game and snorted when Dan returned wielding a black marker.

“Permanent?” he asked. His sister smiled deviously as she uncapped the marker and brought the tip to Neil’s face.

Fortunately for Neil and unfortunately for everyone else, he was a light sleeper and woke up instantly at the contact. His skull slammed against Andrew’s jaw and he kicked out blindly at Dan’s legs before falling off the couch when Andrew pushed him.

“Seriously,” he moaned groggily, glaring at both Dan and Andrew. “You weren’t going to stop her?”

Andrew called him an idiot and demanded some ice cream as retaliation for his jaw. Neil grumbled about retaliation for his tailbone but got up anyways and brought back bowls of sorbet for everyone. He sat back down, a little farther from Andrew (which was probably for the best) and they managed to get halfway through Chamber of Secrets before Andrew needed to go home.

“I can’t come over tomorrow,” he told them as he pulled on his shoes and jacket. “But Sunday?”

“We need to practice a lot over the holiday,” Kevin said seriously. He shivered at what must have been the thought of all of the food and lazing around the rest of the team had ahead of them.

“Yeah,” Neil agreed. “This year we’re gonna win state. So we’ll probably be in the community center court when you come over?”

Dan laughed at the two of them but didn’t disagree, a fierce smile on his face. They chorused goodbyes and waved at Andrew, who needed to hurry home before it got dark.

Cass opened the door for him before he even managed to dig his keys out of his pocket. Both she and Richard were buzzing in excitement.

“Drake just called to confirm that he’ll be coming home tomorrow,” she said happily. “We’ll have the entire family together for the holidays!”

Chapter Text

 

There was something about Drake Spear that put Andrew on edge from the moment Cass and Richard’s biological son arrived. It might have been the way Drake seemed to be watching Andrew every time he turned around, the way Andrew’s skin prickled under the man’s gaze. It could have been the danger in Drake’s smile, the way his voice would turn syrupy when speaking to Andrew alone – with either of his parents Drake was loud and boisterous and nowhere near as creepy.

It, Andrew eventually decided, must have been that Drake was training for the Marines. Years of foster homes have made him wary of anyone capable of beating him; it was all instinctual. He’ll just avoid the man as much as possible throughout his stay and everything will be back to normal by the twenty-seventh, when Drake was set to leave. Andrew counted it as a small blessing that Drake and his friends wanted to drive to New York for the ball drop, and ignored Cass’ disappointment that her son would be gone during the holiday.

He waited.

On the twenty-first of December, Andrew spent most of the day between his room and the family room, where he silently listened to his foster parents talk with their son. He treaded lightly, all too aware of the ways he could anger Drake and bring on a beating.

On the twenty-second, Andrew left the house and ended up practicing with the Fox’s kids on the community center court. They pushed him hard, three members of the offense going against a solitary goalkeeper, until Neil took pity on him and took up backliner against Kevin. (Andrew couldn’t remember if Neil’s ass was quite so nice the last time he played defense.)

On the twenty-third, restless and more anxious than he’d admit from Drake’s constant stares, Andrew called up Neil and asked if they could spend the day training again. The siblings’ excitement at Andrew finally taking initiative almost made him forget what awaited him at home.

On the twenty-fourth, Andrew was waiting with bated breath for the last of Drake’s visit. He only managed to escape the house for a few hours – the rest was spent helping Cass and Richard in the kitchen. Drake only came down from his room for Christmas Dinner, where he had looked at Andrew every time he complimented the food.

On the twenty-fifth, Andrew sent the Fox’s kids and their father a “Merry Christmas” text before making his way downstairs. He opened the presents from Cass and Richard and spent the day with the Spears watching cheesy Christmas films. Drake apologized for not having a gift for him, patting him on the shoulder with a touch that lingered.

On the night of the twenty-fifth, Drake came into Andrew’s bedroom.

 


 

Andrew lay awake in bed after his foster brother left, wondering if Drake could tell that he was gay.

 


 

Morning came and Andrew had never hated himself more. He was sore, pain lancing through his legs every time he moved and bruises scattering his torso and thighs. He had bitten his tongue and could only breathe in small bursts, still feeling the phantom pressure of Drake’s weight on his chest forcing him to be quiet.

Andrew knew what happened: Drake had held him down and raped him.

Andrew was aware, logically, that it wasn’t his fault.

Andrew couldn’t stop himself from thinking about everything he had done wrong. He couldn’t stop himself from turning the blame inward.

Maybe if he wasn’t gay, Drake wouldn’t have noticed him. Maybe if he was stronger, he could’ve fought back harder. Maybe if he wasn’t so horrible, Andrew would have finally been able to find a foster home that would’ve kept him happy.

Andrew closed his eyes against the light streaming through his window. The Fox’s kids were expecting him at their house in the afternoon, where they planned on spending the day conditioning after Christmas dinner. Andrew didn’t think he’d be able to do any of it, not when every tiny shift hurt so fucking much, but he knew he couldn’t stay in the house all day. He already felt like screaming, every noise that he had been forced to choke back the night before threatening to release itself finally. Downstairs he could hear Drake telling his parents stories about a concert he and his friends had went to.

He hoped that Wymack wouldn’t mind it if he came over early.

Andrew’s bedroom door couldn’t lock. Cass had told him it was for safety, his first week there, before assuring him that she and Richard would respect his privacy. The thought of undressing somewhere so open made him feel ill, so somehow Andrew managed to heave himself up into the bathroom to change and wash the invisible dirt off.

Andrew pulled on the loosest and thickest clothes he had before making the inevitable attempt downstairs. He had to stop after the first two steps, remembering that he had left his phone in his room and in no shape to climb back up and down the stairs to get it. The railing and its ability to hold the majority of Andrew’s weight was likely the only reason why he was able to make it down. Somehow, Andrew managed to mask his pain enough in front of Cass and Richard that neither of them said a thing.

(Cass did, however, ask if he was sure he had to leave – after all, it was Drake’s last full day.)

(That and the smug look on the bastard’s face when he asked Andrew how his night had been nearly sent him into a panic attack before he mustered the courage to walk out of the house.)

 


 

Neil answered the door alone, hair still messy from sleep and wearing what appeared to be the first things he found on his floor. “Dad and Dan went out to McDonald’s to get breakfast,” he said. “Kevin’s still sleeping.”

Andrew hated the lurch his stomach did when Neil shot him a smile.

(Andrew hated that he was gay.)

When he bent down to pull off his shoes, pain spiked through his body and he couldn’t hold back the flinch nor the grunt. Neil’s smile faded fast.

“Andrew?”

“It’s nothing,” Andrew said. He gritted his teeth and managed to get back up, following Neil into the house. Despite his best efforts, the other boy must have noticed his limp. Something flashed across his face and Neil said, “Can we go up to my room? Otherwise we’ll have to deal with Kevin when he finally gets up.”

Andrew didn’t want to. But he’d never had any qualms with Neil’s room before, so he nodded his head okay.

Going up those stairs was agonizing; it hurt every step and Andrew was too shaky to safely ascend without support from the railing. Neil didn’t offer help, for which Andrew was quietly grateful. Instead, he took each tread just as slowly as Andrew and refrained from saying anything.

They were both silent as Andrew went to sit on Neil’s desk chair, the younger boy pulling the door closed behind him. Panic flared up within Andrew, a feeling of being trapped that he fought to push down. Thinking about Drake, the claustrophobic darkness, and being stuck beneath a body wouldn’t do any good.

“Andrew,” Neil said softly, coming towards him. Instead of sitting on his bed or standing in front of him, Neil chose to go down, shifting so he was cross-legged. The difference in position – Neil’s much more vulnerable spot lower than him – somehow helped comfort Andrew. The look in Neil’s eyes told him he knew.

It was bright outside, in the sort of way where light managed to filter through the clouds without any of the warmth. Andrew refused to look at Neil and instead stared out the window. The siding of the house beside Wymack’s was incredibly ugly.

For a while Neil seemed to struggle for words. “Something’s wrong,” he eventually settled on. It wasn’t a question.

Because Andrew practiced honesty and because Neil deserved it after all these years, he nodded, still looking away.

“You’re hurt.” Andrew paused, before hesitantly nodding again.

He glanced back for a moment to see Neil close his eyes; long lashes fluttering slightly as he took a deep breath. “Did they hit you?”

“Not Richard or Cass,” Andrew croaked out. “He didn’t hit me, either.”

“Your foster brother?” Neil asked, voice soft and looking nowhere but at Andrew’s face. There was no way he could have missed Andrew’s flinch. “What did Drake do to you?”

It was easier to look out Neil’s window than at the boy in front of him. His throat was dry, but somehow he was able to say, “Did you know boys could be raped?”

The hitch in Neil’s breath told him what he refused to see: that Neil understood. Andrew finally forced himself to look at Neil, maybe wanting to drink in one last look at the boy before being kicked out of his room and house forever, maybe wanting to see the disgust on his face just to feel validated.

Neil had a habit of never doing what he expected. Instead, once he caught Andrew’s eyes, Neil asked, “Was this the first time?” He reached out to touch Andrew’s knee, hand hovering half an inch away and giving him a choice.

Andrew nodded, meaning yes for both. Neil’s touch was light where Drake’s had been heavy and bruising – it was meant to be support and nothing more.

“Do you need anything?”

No , Andrew meant to say. His body was a traitor and said, “I can’t go back tonight.”

Weaknesses like that were dangerous. Neil didn’t pick at it, and only asked, “Have you told anyone?”

Instantly Andrew grabbed at Neil’s hand and squeezed. “You can’t tell anyone,” he said, panicked and nauseous at the idea. He didn’t know what he was scared of, only that the thought sent warning bells through his head.

Neil’s voice, just as soft as before brought him back from the brink. “Andrew, I won’t say a word. I promise. I won’t hurt you.” Neil repeated himself until eventually Andrew’s breathing slowed back to normal.

They sat in silence for a while, Andrew still refusing to look at Neil and Neil refusing to look away. Stop staring , Andrew wanted to say, but couldn’t bring himself to.

“Make a deal with me,” Neil finally said. It was their game; little trades like candy for Exy, homework help for distracting Kevin when he’s particularly obsessed. Neil’s hand was still tightly clamped between both of Andrew’s and the tiny twitch of his fingers prompted Andrew to release them. Neil brought his hand to his lap but didn’t wait for a reply he knew wouldn’t come. “Stay here for tonight, for however long it takes until Drake leaves. I can sleep on the couch and you’ll be safe here.”

Andrew was terrified of what his end of the deal would be: then never talk to him or his family again.

“When Abby comes back,” Neil said instead, “I want you to tell her in exchange.”

What ?” Andrew demanded, needing to know what Neil was aiming for. Abby owned Fox’s Sweet Shop , but tended to be away most holidays. As a result, Andrew had probably only met her a handful of times and couldn’t fathom why Neil would want him to share his shame with her.

“She’s a nurse,” Neil explained. “Abby only owns the candy store because it’s her family’s. She won’t judge you or tell anyone else.”

Andrew didn’t need to see a nurse. He needed Drake gone, he needed to not be gay, he needed to be able to tell himself that it wasn’t his fault. Because Andrew still looked ready to refuse, Neil admitted, “I don’t want you to have been hurt by Drake. Abby’s the one who taught us about how to be safe during sex; she knows what she talks about and could pull in favours for testing. You need to know if he’s passed anything on to you.”

I want you to be okay, Neil meant, and Andrew understood.

After what felt like an age and a million thoughts flying through his head, he nodded. “I promise,” Andrew said and the relieved smile on Neil’s face matched the way he felt.

 


 

Neil told his family that Andrew had joined him on his morning run and pulled a muscle. His hair was still a little damp from the shower he had taken that morning, explaining the lack of sweat and any suspicions they might have had were forgotten when Kevin started scolding both him and Neil for running without stretching and forgetting to ice the spot. Andrew was vaguely impressed with Neil’s lie, which also provided a reason for his limping.

Kevin would’ve demanded that Andrew come to watch them condition anyways if the others hadn’t teamed up to defend him. Dan and Neil pointed out that it wouldn’t do any good if Andrew couldn’t ice himself regularly and Wymack said that it would be more likely for Andrew to strain himself that way. (Andrew had the feeling Wymack knew they had lied, but couldn’t imagine a reason for why he’d play along.)

Finally Kevin and Dan left. As usual, Kevin’s obsession with Exy must have used up all of his brain cells, since he seemed to believe that Neil was on the cusp of injury as well. Andrew sat at their dining table and watched Neil and Wymack throw away their food wrappers.

“Dad?” Neil called from the sink in a horrible impression of casualness. “Can Andrew stay over tonight?”

Wymack’s eyebrow went up as he looked over at Andrew in pity. He paused, likely trying to figure out why , before finally releasing a verdict with a sigh. “As long as he has his parent’s permission.”

Under his breath, in a tone so soft that Andrew suspected he wasn’t supposed to hear it, Wymack said, “Someday this is going to kill me.”

 


 

“Wait until later today before you call Cass,” said Neil, digging through his drawers for suitable clothes to give to Andrew as pajamas; despite Neil being slimmer, the two wore the same sized clothing. Andrew tried to watch him from his reclaimed spot on Neil’s desk chair, but found himself unbearably tired.

“Why?”

A t-shirt was tossed onto the bed, followed by a pair of sweats that Andrew remembers due to the low way they hung from Neil’s hip bones. “That way you can play sleeping over off as a convenience. Tell her that we were finishing Harry Potter or something.”

Andrew leaned back into the chair. He span around to look at the clock. Kevin and Dan were expected to come back in a few minutes. “Should I be worried that you’re so well-versed in lying?”

Neil shrugged, turning around and collapsing onto his bed with his arms spread out and knees bent over the edge. “Must be a natural talent,” he said to the ceiling.

The younger boy’s concerning skill in weaving lies aside, Andrew found the advice to be sound against both of Neil’s siblings and his foster parents. They had just finished Order of the Phoenix before dinner when Andrew phoned Cass.

“Are you sure?” she asked for the upteenth time. “Drake’s leaving so soon and you shouldn’t impose on David.”

“They’ve already said I can stay for the night and dinner,” Andrew somehow managed to say evenly. “We want to watch the rest of the movies tonight, so it’ll be late by the time we’re done.”

He could imagine but not emphasize with Cass’ frustration. “I’m old enough that Wymack doesn’t have to follow me around,” he said, trying to play on the Spears’ belief that he should be independent.

“Yes, I know, but this will probably be the last time we can see Drake for a while.”

“I’ll be back tomorrow morning in time to say good-bye.” Andrew felt ill promising that, but he needed to make an admission.

Cass sighed into the mouthpiece of their home phone. “Alright. Be careful, okay? Text me when you’re coming home.”

“Okay,” said Andrew. “‘Night.”

“Good night, Andrew,” Cass said, before Andrew pressed the “end call” button. He tossed his cell phone onto Neil’s bed in frustration. Neil, who been silently watching him make the call, ready to give advice, got up to find him a new pillow case from the linen closet.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t drool,” he said to lighten the mood, switching around the pillows anyways and grabbing a blanket. Andrew’s chest ached in a way that had nothing to do with the bruises. “Make sure you can lock and unlock the door, ‘cause short of passing you a screwdriver under the it we can’t really do anything if you’re locked in.”

Andrew nodded as he fiddled around with the doorknob; it didn’t use a key and relied on an internal mechanism that prevented the other side from being turned. If Neil hadn’t taken the initiative, Andrew might not have considered the safety or comfort a locked door would offer, even this far away from Drake, and was grateful for his friend.

Neil finally grabbed one of his two pillows, a blanket, and his pajamas before leaving the room. Neither Dan nor Kevin had said anything about Andrew’s stay, only that Neil wasn’t allowed to sleep on the couch for fear that he’d wake up in the morning with sore muscles. Neil had made a face before finally agreeing to their alternative solution of sharing Kevin’s twin bed.

Andrew locked the door while it was open, checked the other side, then slid it shut before moving to the pile of clothes Neil had left out and changing. The shirt was faded and soft, the pants loose and warm.

The four teens drifted back into the living room once they were done getting ready for bed. Dan popped in the disk for the first part of Deathly Hallows as they made themselves comfortable. Andrew, who was expecting to feel terrible – dirty and panicked and miserable – was surprised by how easy it was to relax around the kids who’d stuck with him for years even after last night.

Kevin was soon out and both Neil and Dan’s enthusiasm ebbed partway through the final movie. Anytime tiredness hit Andrew, he’d press his nails into the flesh of his palm; despite how safe he felt around them, the thought of being so vulnerable out in the open made his skin prickle. By the time Nineteen Years Later ended, only Dan and Andrew were awake and the two of them were tasked with watching Kevin and Neil stumble up the steps and making sure they were able to cram themselves onto the same bed without having to wake up with sore necks.

“G’night, Andrew,” Neil called sleepily. Kevin only grunted from the other side of the makeshift pillow barrier that the boys had created, and as Andrew turned to close their door, he caught the tired smile on Neil’s face and the quiet “Please be safe.”

Dan was lazily stretching out her calf muscles against her doorframe. She lifted an arm to wave him good-night and didn’t seem to mind his lack of a response. Andrew went into Neil’s room, twisting the handle just right to lock the door. He surveyed the bed, which was neat enough if not for the slightly rumpled sheets.

When he climbed into the bed, Andrew realized that what he had assumed was a lump of blanket was actually a small stuffed fox, roughly eight inches tall. The fur was matted but soft and a small grin teased the corner of Andrew’s mouth as he carefully placed it beside the pillow. Silly as it was, with the way the fox was angled, Andrew could almost imagine it gazing across the room like some sort of guardian. He lay down and inhaled. The bed smelled like Neil’s soap and shampoo, the cheap, fruity stuff he liked to get on sale, and was absolutely nothing like whatever Drake used. After shifting around, Andrew found himself more comfortable laying on his side, back pressed against the cool wall. He closed his eyes to the dark outline of Neil’s fox.

Within a few minutes, he managed to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

The morning came and everything was different.

First Andrew became aware of light filtering into the room, even though he usually kept his blinds firmly closed. Then he thought about the wall at his back despite the side he was lying on. The more he woke, the more he noticed: the vaguely citrus-scented quilted blanket, a small stuffed fox at his head, an excited gerbil squeaking in the corner. It took a few minutes for Andrew to blearily remember he was in Neil’s room.

He glanced at the alarm clock on Neil’s bedside table, the glowing numbers reading 9:47 and the device blessedly silent for the holidays. From what he pieced together of Neil’s comments over the years, him, Dan, and Wymack would all be awake by now – Kevin rarely got up before noon without someone having to physically drag him out of bed.

Rolling over revealed that Andrew’s body was still horribly sore. Either because of the night’s rest or because he was getting used to it, the pain was slightly more tolerable. Andrew briefly considered just staying in Neil’s bed until someone came for him, since not moving was both much more comfortable and much warmer. He shoved his face into the pillow and sighed.

As if summoned, a knock sounded from the door. Andrew refused to do more than groan to acknowledge the person on the other side.

“Hey, kid,” said Wymack through the wood. “Just checking to make sure you’re still alive in there. Neil and Dan are convinced that they can make pancakes, so come down if you want any.”

Andrew managed to make a vaguely affirmative grunting noise. Wymack’s receding footsteps soon followed. In an incredibly slow attempt to minimize movement, Andrew finally rose from the bed, hissing at the cold air.

Andrew hefted Neil’s blanket, which was thick and so, so warm, around his shoulders and shuffled to the door. There was no way to arrange it so the bottom wouldn’t drag across the floor, but it was too cold for Andrew to consider leaving it behind.

Taking the stairs was gradually becoming easier, though Andrew had to tediously take each tread one at a time. Despite that, each step was heavier than it otherwise would have been and it wasn’t long until a flour-covered Neil came out of the kitchen to check on the noise. By the grin on his face and the way those gorgeous eyes sparkled, the sight of a grumpy blanket monster on his stairs must have been amusing.

“Good morning?” Neil asked more than said, waving the greasy spatula in his hand at Andrew.

“It’s too fucking cold to be good,” Andrew retorted as he finally made it to the last tread. “Those pancakes better be worth it.” Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. “What was your cooking mark, again?”

“High C,” the younger boy said sourly, referring to the mandatory course both of them had to take in their freshman year. “The teacher didn’t like me.”

Dan called from the kitchen. “Neil!”

“Coming!” he shouted back before turning to Andrew. “You were okay last night, right?”

To his surprise, Andrew could honestly say that he was. He nodded and Neil gave him one last relieved smile before jogging back to the pancakes. When Andrew finally made it to the dining table, Wymack shot him a raised eyebrow from over the booklets of paper he was going through. “Thought you were Kevin.”

Andrew didn’t deign to respond and instead carefully sat down on the one mismatched chair that had been pulled out for him the night before. Regardless of the bickering coming from the direction of the stove, no fire alarms were set off and the two siblings finally stumbled out of the kitchen. Dan placed a plate piled high with pancakes onto the center of the table while Neil dumped a bottle of syrup in front of Andrew, who bit his lip and tried to ignore the part of him that desperately wanted to kiss the spot of flour off of the other boy’s nose. Those thoughts had been what got him into the whole mess.

Their late breakfast was fairly quiet – Dan and Andrew both mocked Neil for falling asleep during the climax of Deathly Hallows Part Two the night before until a loud thump came from upstairs, followed by the angriest moan possible. Wymack rolled his eyes and took another sip of his coffee while the teens snickered into their pancakes.

They looked up as Kevin stumbled into the kitchen. “You breached the pillow barrier,” Neil informed Kevin. “I didn’t appreciate you clinging onto me like some sort of leech.”

Kevin scowled and bypassed the dining table in favour of the fridge, where he pulled out a jug of skim milk. “Fuck off. If you’re the reason why I was half hanging off of the bed with my arms trapped with blankets when I woke up, then fuck you .”

While Dan hid her laughter with a choked cough, Andrew had no such qualms and snorted loudly.

“Fuck you too,” Kevin informed the rest of them as his father sighed a half-hearted, “ Language ”.

With impressive motor skills considering the fact that he had to yawn every few minutes, His Royal Grumpiness took to slicing up some oranges from the fridge. Dan told him to check the mangos for ripeness, and he set to work cubing those as well. When Kevin dumped a plate of fresh fruit onto the table, Andrew’s phone ringtone started. Everyone else at the table quieted for him.

“Cass,” he told them, reading the name on his screen with dread.

His foster mother answered him cheerily, not pausing long enough for him to answer. “Good morning Andrew, did you have a nice night? Drake’s about to leave soon so you need to come home. Thirty minutes?”

Fuck . Andrew was tempted to crawl back into Neil’s bed and never come out, but if what Cass had told him last week was true –

“Yeah, okay,” he said, letting her chatter a bit more before saying, “I’ll be home in half an hour,” and hanging up.

Andrew looked down at his clothes, which were still the ones Neil had given him. He thought of the stairs.

“You can give them back later,” Neil told him. “You want me to walk you home?”

The offer was a kindness Andrew didn’t expect, casually given so none of the others in the room batted an eye. Andrew shrugged, which he knew Neil would take as an okay , and relinquished the blanket around his shoulders.

“Wait a moment,” Neil said before racing up the stairs. He came down less than a minute later, wearing his usual grubby jeans and team hoodie, carrying Andrew’s clothes, and passing him a bottle of painkillers. “For your pulled muscle,” he clarified to the room’s occupants.

The walk back to the Spears’ house was quiet until they turned the block. “You know that none of it’s your fault, right?” asked Neil.

Andrew dodged the question. “What’s up with the fox?”

It was an obvious evasion, but Neil didn’t press. “Dan bought him for me a few years ago, when she found out about–nevermind. I like him,” Neil said in an even voice that didn’t match the pretty flush of his cheeks. Andrew let that distract him from his own prying.

When they got to the house, Neil fished the house key out of the pocket of Andrew’s pants. Andrew took it and unlocked the door, catching onto Neil’s wrist and pulling him inside. They didn’t say anything, only toeing off their shoes and making their way into the house.

“You’re home!” said Richard in surprise over his mug of coffee. “We didn’t hear you. Sleep well?”

Andrew nodded. His foster father noticed Neil and greeted him as well, asking about his Christmas and belatedly congratulating him for making championships.

Cass came into the room looking frazzled. “Hi, Andrew, good morning, Neil. Sorry about the mess; Drake’s still packing to leave!”

A flash of anger flared across Neil’s face before he affixed his game only, shark-like smile and said, “It’s fine. Sorry for just showing up.”

She absentmindedly waved off his concern as Drake came up behind her. He gave Andrew a look that made his whole body feel icy cold before his attention went to Neil and his grin grew wider. Drake’s gaze ran up and down Neil’s body, which was thankfully mostly hidden by his usual baggy clothes. Rage swept through Andrew and he wanted nothing more than to step in front of the younger boy, but his legs felt frozen solid.

“Hey, AJ,” said Drake. Andrew flinched, and felt his hands clench. “Mind introducing me to your friend?”

“Neil,” said boy interrupted coldly, carefully poking a finger at Andrew’s thigh. The touch jolted Andrew and he was finally able to move between Neil and Drake. Luckily Cass had already left, though Richard watched them with open concern.

“I thought you were busy packing,” Andrew managed to spit out in an even voice that didn't match the way he felt.

Drake swept them one last look before Cass called for him to check through his drawers again. Andrew only relaxed when he turned around.

Neil stayed until after Drake left, always keeping himself within a foot of Andrew and interrupting them when Drake suggested privately saying good-bye. It was another blessing that Drake and his friends had somewhere to be and didn’t loiter around the house, only giving brief holiday greetings to Richard and Cass before driving off. Andrew wasn't sure what he would've done if he had to walk on shells around all of them.

As soon as they left, Neil turned to Andrew and loudly asked, “So what was the video you wanted to show me?”

It took a moment for Andrew to realize what he actually meant, before he nodded and slowly led Neil up into his room. Neither of them moved to close the door. Neil stood by it and waited until Andrew got his laptop and let him choose where to sit, not saying anything when Andrew made himself comfortable on the carpet, leaning against the wall, rather than on the bed like usual. They sat inches apart and watched a combination of people doing dumb things and cat videos on YouTube for an hour, making an excuse for Neil’s intrusion throughout Drake’s farewell. After a while, Neil went downstairs to ask for a glass of juice, returning and deliberately pouring it onto Andrew’s sheets.

“Guess they’ll have to be washed,” he said.

“Clumsy idiot,” Andrew muttered half-heartedly, scooting over and clicking onto the next video. At Neil’s insistence, they switched to Exy videos until Neil received a text telling him had to come home.

“Thanks,” Andrew said, referring to the support, the protection, and the unending friendship over the years.

“Of course,” Neil said back.

 


 

“Are their any problems with Drake?” asked Richard when Cass left to run an errand.

“No,” Andrew said. He couldn’t quite look him in the eyes, and stared at Richard’s nose instead.

“Are you sure? I’m not mad, it’s just that you seemed tense and–”

“It’s fine,” said Andrew. “I’m just used to avoiding the older kids.”

As intended, that shut Richard up. He looked at Andrew with pity, which he was only able to stomach because it was the lesser evil.

“Alright,” Richard finally said, sighing heavily. “Just try to get along better with him? You know it’ll mean a lot to Cass if you and Drake can get along when we finalize the adoption papers.”

Thinking of Drake’s upcoming absence due to Marine training and the promise of a permanent home that would be worth it, Andrew nodded. “Okay.”

 


 

“We better not be practicing today,” Andrew warned Neil, voice deadly in its calmness. The other boy froze for a moment.

“Um, yeah, of course not,” Neil said convincingly. He didn’t look at Andrew and laughed nervously. “We could play a round of Mario Kart?”

Andrew hummed in response. He nudged his shoulder into Neil’s when they reached an intersection, having noticed the way the he looked longingly looked where the court was. The grin Neil gave him was sheepish, the bright afternoon light seeming to make him glow and the harsh winter cold making his face flushed red. Andrew bit his lip and tried not to think about it.

Kevin, who was poised to start yelling at them for wanting to skip out on practice shut up fast when Neil mentioned Mario Kart. Andrew watched in amusement as he and Neil engaged in an intense pre-game stare-down, Kevin promising that this time he’ll defeat his younger brother.

“Damn, I have to start on a project,” Dan moaned resentfully, opening the fridge to grab a carton of juice. “You’ll have to kick their asses for me,” she told Andrew.

They loaded the game and Kevin passed Andrew a controller as Dan stomped up the stairs. The three leaned back into the couch and started playing; before long vulgar words and loud insults could be heard throughout the living room. Neil, who apparently played fast and reckless off court as well as on, soon found himself being teamed up against by Kevin and Andrew.

“You suck,” Neil told Andrew in regards the sudden flash of lightning on screen. Having lost all chances of winning, he reached out to pinch Kevin’s side in retaliation for the older boy’s dirty tactics – it was a lot harder to play when there was someone a good twenty pounds heavier sitting on you. Kevin yelped in response, and narrowly missed elbowing Andrew’s head with his flailing limbs.

Andrew frowned when he came in second, shooting Kevin a glare. “Truce against this dickhead?” he offered Neil.

Neil smirked and the sight sent a wave of desire crashing through Andrew’s body. He wanted so badly, something that he could never have; something that he shouldn’t have. A tiny, sick part of him couldn’t help but wonder how similar he was to Drake every time Andrew caught himself staring at Neil, and it disgusted him. He pushed his thoughts aside and distracted himself with trying to shove Kevin off of Neil and onto the floor.

Neil advantage of the scuffle and pulled ahead in the game with a triumphant cheer.

 


 

Abby came back into town on the twenty-ninth. Andrew turned to Neil expectantly once he heard the news.

“I told her,” Neil said, taking a deep swig from his water bottle. The two were taking a quick break, Andrew bent over panting while Neil barely looked phased. “She wants to see you later at one.”

Fox’s ?”

“Yeah. She’ll drive you to her office from there.”

Andrew closed his eyes. “How did she react?”

“If you mean whether or not Abby believes you, she does. But warning: she might smother you. Abby’s the nurse for Dad’s team so just because she’s used to seeing kids abused doesn’t mean she wants to.” Neil looked like he was about to say something else, but kept his mouth closed. Andrew didn't push and swallowed down his nerves. They finished their jog, Neil going at half his usual pace, and suffered through Kevin’s paranoid demands to stretch after.

After eating a quick lunch at a nearby cheap restaurant, Neil got up to accompany him to Fox’s . When Andrew turned to scowl at him, he answered his glare with, “What? Abby wants me to take shift while she’s gone.”

The shop bell tinkled as they entered. Abby called out a greeting from behind the counter, coming out as Neil went to take her spot.

“Hello, Andrew,” Abby said. “I hope you’re doing better now.”

Andrew didn’t say anything, silently following her through the door out into the parking lot. He slid into the passenger seat and was pretty sure he managed to hide his wince, but the look of pity on Abby’s face said otherwise.

She did a good job of keeping him relaxed, though. Abby didn’t ask anything invasive and kept the car drive to small talk the holidays and their Exy season, commenting that she’s glad high school teams manage to keep themselves in one piece better than university teams until Andrew reminded her that Neil’s a fucking mess and gets beat up enough for everybody else. She laughed in agreement.

Abby worked on university campus; if any of the few remaining students wondered what a five-foot tall high school student was doing there, no one said anything. She led him into her office and told him to wait while she got the test kit prepared.

The testing wasn’t nearly as bad as Andrew had expected. Abby did the physical exam with as much respect to Andrew’s privacy as possible but started to chatter about impersonal topics as she took blood and tissue samples. Used to Andrew’s monosyllabic answers, she asked him for candy-stocking recommendations with a friendly smile. It didn’t really work to distract him, but Andrew found himself appreciating it all the same.

Before long Abby was done.

“I’ll send these off to the lab tomorrow,” she said, peeling off her gloves and gesturing at the samples before moving to washing her hands. “The results should come fairly soon, within two weeks tops.”

Andrew joined her at the sink. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he didn’t say anything at all.

“Before you leave, take this,” Abby told him, passing Andrew a business card once they dried their hands. At the word therapist , he scowled and tried to give it back to her.

“I don’t need a shrink.”

“Think about it,” Abby told him sternly. “I know that it’s automatic not to want to consider the trauma, but getting it out on a professional is a lot better than keeping it in or unloading everything onto Neil.” Andrew bit back his retort. Guilt gnawed at his stomach, the idea of inadvertently burdening Neil enough to shut him up. “He’ll do everything he can to help you, but Neil has his own problems. Just consider calling this number. Betsy Dobson’s an excellent therapist and I know she’ll be fine with counselling you over the phone.”

“Is that legal?” Andrew asked, trying not to think about what Abby had said about Neil.

“I asked.” Abby shot him a look when he started at that. “I didn’t tell Betsy anything about you, but I mentioned someone in a hard position who could use her help and she agreed. In fact, she recommended giving you her cell number,” Abby said, grabbing back the card to scrawl down a number off her own phone.

She fixed Andrew with a look just as intense as his own as she pressed the card into his hands. “Consider giving her a call.”

“No promises,” Andrew grudgingly told her as he accepted the card. Abby seemed satisfied enough, and held the door open for him on the way out.

The ride back to Fox’s was a lot quieter.

 


 

It definitely wasn’t the first time Andrew stayed up until midnight, but it was the first time he was with both his foster parents, lounging on the sofa, while they waited for the New York ball drop rerun.

“Any resolutions?” Cass asked.

“Not really.” Andrew shook his head, then wondered if maybe he should have one after all. He thought he was pretty close to succeeding in the resolution he had had for the past fifteen years after all. Somewhere, the Fox’s kids were probably planning on something Exy related.

“Exercise more,” Richard chuckled. “Be healthy.”

“I can help with that,” offered Cass.

Andrew made a face and pulled out his phone so he wouldn’t have to listen any longer. “Ew.”

Opening a new text message addressed to all of the teammates he had phone numbers for, Andrew typed in happy new year . A moment before midnight, he hit SEND and looked up in time to see the ball drop. It wasn’t really special, just an over-glorified disco ball that had already fallen hours before, but Cass and Richard turning to him was.

“Happy New Year, Andrew,” Cass said, pulling him into a hug that he struggled out of. Richard repeated her, but ruffled his hair instead.

His phone was already buzzing with replies from his teammates. Matt’s was obnoxious, almost half exclamation marks and the entire thing capitalized. Renee hadn’t gone for that, but she typed in a little heart which made him grin. The messages from Allison and Seth were both pretty tame, and Andrew rolled his eyes at the emoji Exy racquets the Fox’s kids sent him.

Happy New Year! , Neil wrote. Make a wish!

you dont wish on new years , Andrew sent back.

He found himself making a few anyways.