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sickeningly sweet (like honey)

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Andrew didn’t have any pocket money.

He wasn’t really surprised, not when he could tell from the beginning that his newest foster family wouldn’t be remotely attentive. His introduction into the house had involved having to clean the dirty dishes from his new foster parents’ lunch before they came to pick him up, and not much had improved from there.

They were far from the worst of his families (for example, when Andrew had experimented by dropping a spoon no one had bothered to hit him for it) but he wasn’t particularly impressed by the clear apathy they had towards his existence. His new foster mother hadn’t even glanced up from her beer to check on the noise, and his new foster father had just turned up the volume on the TV. Andrew suspected that they wouldn’t pay attention to him unless he was bleeding out on the floor, and even then only to prevent him from ruining the glossy hardwood.

This, of course, made it easy for Andrew to extract himself from the house next day, wandering through an unfamiliar neighborhood that was all-too-easy to get lost in. He thought the houses looked silly, all in pale pastels with trimmed lawns and garden fronts covered with flowers to hide the weeds behind them. The winding drives might have been confusing, but Andrew was confident in his ability to retrace his steps and continued on for a few blocks before crossing a road and reaching a small shopping center.

Like the neighborhood, everything was so nice it seemed fake. Andrew dug his hands into his jacket pockets, and tried to look as little like a target for other kids as possible. He passed a Subway with ugly fake bricks lining the outside walls, a tiny clothing boutique that sold 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 eye, his empty pockets suddenly seemed much heavier.

Andrew was well aware that he wasn’t young or cute enough to win over free candy. Even the wrinkliest grandmother wouldn’t consider giving a twelve year old boy free sweets, not when most of them had allowances and families that gave a shit about them. He wondered if it was masochism leading his feet - since he suspected that he’d never get money from this particular family - or just curiosity.

A small bell chimed as Andrew opened the door to Fox’s Sweets Shop, which he thought was just another pathetic attempt by his pathetic new neighborhood to pretend to be charming. He hovered at the door for a moment, taking in the two walls covered in bulk candy bins - jelly beans and gummies that Andrew wasn’t terribly fond of - and the displays covered in chocolates and brightly wrapped candies positioned throughout the store. The wall opposite him was only wide enough for a register and another door marked employees only , and he was surprised to see a dark-skinned older girl sitting behind the counter rather than some wrinkly old lady.

Andrew’s fingers clenched, and he pretended that he didn’t notice the way the cashier watched him, as if his age and old clothes and hunched shoulders were proof that he’d try to filch something eventually. 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 wouldn’t be able to buy. He rounded a display and nearly tripped over someone - another boy, probably younger than the girl but definitely bigger than him - lounging on the floor.

Move it , Andrew wanted to tell him, but he bit his tongue in silence. The boy looked up as he paused the Exy game he had been watching, and Andrew tried to ignore the bitter feeling in his gut as he eyed the nice, expensive-looking smartphone in the boy’s hands.

And then the boy opened his mouth.

“Are your parents here?” He demanded. “You shouldn’t be eating junk like this, it’ll stunt your growth.” There was something about the tilt of his chin that made it feel like he was looking down on Andrew, despite being on the floor, and he bristled at the haughty tone.

Andrew considered staying quiet 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 condescending assumptions about his family, or the growth comment. His attention shifted when the back door closed and another voice joined in.

“Yeah, Kevin,” it said, nasally high, “Fuck off!”

This boy was probably younger than Andrew, baby fat still clinging to his cheeks. But he was also probably the kid all his girl classmates would be crushing over, with messy auburn hair, a pretty face, and a skinny, bony frame. Bandages littered his face and arms, which was maybe a little interesting, and the grin on his face was a bit too mischievous to mean anything good. The kid slid behind the counter to stand next to the girl, and she admonished him for the swear with an affectionate smile.

Kevin rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue.

“What did Dad tell you about harassing customers with your health obsession?” The boy asked, elbows on the counter and chin rested on top of his hands. It looked awkward, because he might have been shorter than Andrew and could barely reach them.

Kevin scowled, leaning back and re-pressing the play button. “Dad said not to scare off anyone who’ll buy anything. He,” Kevin said, pointing at Andrew rudely, “Doesn’t look like he’ll buy anything.”

Despite the obvious hypocrisy from her previous actions, the girl came to Andrew’s defense. “Don’t be an ass,” she told Kevin as the other 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 sour taste left in his mouth as he watched the girl give the younger boy a noogie.

Hopefully they wouldn’t be here later, he thought, and decided it was probably better if he could spread out the few forms of entertainment he had here before getting passed off to someone else. The bell rang cheerfully as the two behind the counter called out a rehearsed-sounding, “Have a nice day.”

Andrew pretended he didn’t hear them and walked back into the sun.

 


 

Two days of making himself scarce around the house later, Andrew finally returned to Fox’s no richer than before.

The same girl was stationed behind the register, this time typing on her own phone while the younger boy lay draped over the countertop. He lifted his head when the bell sounded and grinned despite the bright red mark from where his cheek had pressed against the glass. “Hey, you’re back! Kevin’s not here to bug you right now, but if you wait like an hour, he’ll return to give you a meal plan.”

Andrew was torn between continuing to ignore him 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 being sent back.

The boredom won out.

“Why would I want to talk to that dick face?” Andrew asked meanly. “And why would you think I wanna talk to you ?” Usually his sort-of acquaintances were just kids he pissed off for the fun of it.

Instead of recoiling like Andrew expected, the kid’s smile just widened until he could see a tooth missing near the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know,” the boy said smugly, “Maybe the fact that you’re talking to me right now?”

“What did we say about attitude?” The girl muttered, rolling her eyes and easily smacking away the finger used to poke at her.

Andrew returned to the chocolate bars. Light footsteps behind him indicated the boy’s presence, and Andrew waited until he was done eyeing the display before reluctantly turning to look at him. Embarrassingly, he was nearly as tall as Andrew already.

“Hey, I’ll make you a deal,” he said. When he wasn’t yelling across the shop, there was a nice lilt to the boy’s voice. “You’ve been here twice without buying anything, and Abby keeps trying to offer us free candy. You play a game of Exy with us and I’ll give you my share.” Despite her attempts to muffle herself, Andrew could hear the girl snort in laughter.

“Why would you do that?” Andrew asked suspiciously, eyes narrowed.

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

“I don’t have any gear,” Andrew tells him.

“Is that a yes?” The boy asks hopefully. “We have some extra stuff.”

Andrew wondered how much candy was on the table, and pretended that he was thinking about it. He meanly enjoyed the way the boy shifted around impatiently, even though he knew he’d do it just to have something to do. Finally, he nodded and said, “Andrew.”

The kid frowned in confusion for a moment before understanding. “Oh,” he said. “I’m Neil, and that’s Dan.”

Kevin, Neil, and Dan. Andrew tried not to think about how long they’d last, or if they’d remember him a year from now. “How much are you giving me?”

Neil bounced himself on his toes. “Dan?”

Dan sighed from the counter, but in the same doting way she seems to do everything with Neil. For a moment Andrew wondered why they all spent time together at the shop, before she asked, “Is two chocolate bars enough? Or if you don’t like them, something of equal value.”

It was more than Andrew expected, and he agreed. Neil watched him as he carefully chose some Reese’s and a Snickers bar, showing them to Dan before pocketing them. They’d probably melt in the summer heat, but Andrew wanted to save them.

Neil was loud and talkative and obviously had no clue what a fair trade was, but Andrew figured he’d provide some decent entertainment. It was harder to like Dan, after years of being pushed around by older kids and foster siblings, but so far she’d been nice to him. Andrew even deigned to give them some sort of half-hearted wave on his way out.

 


 

“Renee, our usual goalkeeper, is away at a tournament,” Neil told Andrew, as if he 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 massive stick up his ass as he sized Andrew up disapprovingly. “It’s okay if you let a few shots in.”

Dan chimed in, elbowing Kevin until he scowled at her. “As long as the boys do a decent job at offense, the ball shouldn’t even come near you.”

The three of them were walking from Fox’s, manned by the kids’ adopted father (and maybe for a brief moment Andrew let himself feel envious over their good fortune), to the street where they usually played with the other neighborhood kids. Dan and Kevin were in the lead, bickering about plays and subs while Neil trailed behind Andrew. He appreciated the fact that Neil wasn’t dumb enough to think they could walk side-by-side like friends, and busied himself with taking note of the different houses and various intersections. The street was already set up when they arrived, and most of the other kids were present.

Andrew knew a bit about Exy from glimpses of TV games and newspapers, and could tell that whatever he was playing was far from legit. Instead of a plexiglass box and massive court, they played on the poorly-paved road, using the sidewalks as their boundary lines. The usual rectangular sections of the two opposing walls were replaced with small hockey nets, and the only one wearing any gear was a wimpy looking kid with a helmet. Neil carried their sole helmet, along with the second racquet they had brought along for Andrew.

“They’re late,” Dan said, looking around and frowning.

Neil shuffled closer to Andrew. “She’s looking for our team. We usually play on a league.”

Andrew turned to him. He crossed his arms and tried to look disinterested.

“We tend to take the game more seriously than everyone else, ‘cause of our families,” Neil continued. “For a while we tried splitting up to make everything more fair, but everyone got too annoyed by us - mostly Kevin - and they’re refusing to play on our team. So it’s us in the league, Renee, Allison, and sometimes Seth, against everyone else.”

“The team is smaller but it’s competent,” Kevin added, apparently unable to not be rude even when he’s trying to say something nice. Neil passed over the large goalkeeper’s racquet to Andrew and made towards the net, gesturing at him to follow.

When he also tried to give Andrew the helmet, he stared at him blankly. “I’m not going to be the only one wearing a helmet.”

“Dad’s rules. You’re not allowed to get hit by a car and goalkeepers have to wear helmets, since you’re more likely to be hit in the face.”

Andrew didn’t really see the logic in that, on account of the fact that Exy was a violent sport that involved just as much face-hitting on the court, albeit usually by fists instead. Glancing around at the shoddy equipment everyone else had, though, there was a good chance that none of the other kids owned decent helmets. “Why’re your sticks better than everyone else’s?” He asked, instead of protesting more.

Neil seemed surprised that he noticed. “Oh, it’s ‘cause these are our normal racquets for playing in league. Everyone else has those cheap dollar store versions since they don’t play.”

“And they think it’s fair?” Andrew had spent years watching kids get jealous over toys and clothes that they didn’t have.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Neil told him, shrugging. “They’re not going to win any more points from us.”

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

Andrew had to look up at both of them, which was annoying. Allison was impressively tall, with long blonde hair pulled back and traces of makeup on her face. She was probably the same age as Dan, but held herself differently, clearly uninterested. Andrew supposed that she was pretty, in that she looked like a mini version of any random tall, blonde celebrity, but that didn’t mean he thought she’d be nice. Seth, meanwhile, was scowling, looking down at Andrew with that familiar sneer.

“Great,” he 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 snapped, either defending Andrew or defending his own decision to invite Andrew along. “Allison and I can cover backline, so all you have to do is actually score.”

Seth looked ready to pick a fight when Dan got between them. “Shove it. 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 to him, but it was obvious she was listening.

“In league games, Dan plays offensive dealer, Allison plays defensive, and Seth, Kevin, and I are all strikers. Our defense usually sucks, but we can make up for it with more goals. For street games they make me and Allison play backliner,” Neil said, making a face at that. “We’ll keep the ball away from you.”

It didn’t seem like they needed Andrew, but he wasn’t complaining. They gave him something to do, and might make this stay slightly more bearable. Further down the street their ref, a useless boy who’d forgotten both his whistle and coin - everyone groaned at that - did an obviously rigged eenie-meenie-miney-mo , before passing the ball to the opposite team for first serve. He counted down from three, and the game began.

From his spot in goal, Andrew was able to watch the whole court. It was clear that his team outclassed the other. With a flick of his wrist that Andrew was grudgingly impressed by, Kevin managed to score on a shot that Seth and Dan had set up. The ref seemed resigned by the game’s first goal and drew a small line on the sidewalk with a stick of chalk. 1-0.

This time the dealer tossed it far to Andrew’s side. He knew that it ultimately wouldn’t matter how many goals he let in, not with the offense’s skill, but a spiteful urge to prove Seth and Kevin 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 striker and stealing the ball in a blink of an eye. The striker yelled in anger, but Neil had already passed the ball to Allison, who carried the ball farther down.

If Andrew had wondered why Neil hadn’t passed the ball straight to Dan, who was open, he soon found out his answer. Neil’s toss 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, uncontrollable moment, Andrew’s whole body tensed, He got up without a pause though, wiping his scraped palms off onto his pants, as Seth scored on the other goal.

Dan ran to Neil and grabbed at his hands, ignoring his protests and loud “I’m fine ”s. Andrew was too far to tell if they were bleeding, but neither sibling seemed too worried and the game soon resumed.

Their team was quickly gaining points, Dan once scoring straight from Neil’s shot, and other team was getting desperate. They had enough players to switch off when someone got tired, but his team only had the bare minimum. Aside from being exhausted from the constant running and hot sun beating at them, Neil, Dan, and even Kevin and Allison had to contend with players bigger than them. The opposing dealer, a huge hulk of a boy who could play rugby, was doing his best to shove Dan around, despite her standing her ground and giving better than she got. Kevin and Sether both got increasingly violent with the other team’s backliners (and each other) despite their parents rules against throwing punches.

And their strikers acted like they were out for blood. Andrew could hear the insults Allison’s mark threw her way, and grudgingly admired every spiteful check she gave in return. Neil’s own striker was nearly a foot taller than him and probably weighed twice as much. There was no way for Neil to check him, but Neil was by far the fastest player. His speed and precision resulted in effortless plays with Allison and Dan, and they kept the ball far from the goal. Only three had gotten near Andrew - two of them slow enough that he could easily block them, and one last sneaking by too close to use his racquet and too fast to catch with his bare hands. Even Seth kept quiet about that one.

Unfortunately, constantly being shoved into the ground (and kicked once, in what had better have been an accident) took its toll on Neil. He was one step too slow in getting catching the ball, and his mark swatted at Neil’s side with his racquet hard enough to knock him over. The ref obviously had no clue what a foul was, and blithely continued watching them. Dan ignored the game to rush to Neil and Allison made to move towards them too, 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 decided was probably the most okay of the lot, was enough to make his entire body tense as the striker lined up his 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, who was obviously hurt, gave Andrew a crooked grin. “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 he 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 that Dan said, “It’s only bruised but he should stop playing,” and Kevin said, “It better not be broken, he needs to play!”

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

It felt nice - the team’s agreement over making sure that the asshole stayed far away from Neil, the humiliating (for the other team) win, Andrew’s final moment of glory. Seth and Allison soon headed off in the opposite direction of Fox’s, reluctantly admitting that Andrew made an acceptable goalkeeper.

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

For some reason the idea of them potentially meeting 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, thoroughly crushing them and still having to listen to Kevin whine. Sometimes another boy named Jean might come from across town to play a game, giving Allison or Neil a chance to play in their proper positions, and other times they didn’t have enough players to make a team. Those days were okay, even though Andrew would find himself trying to make nice with whoever the kids bullied into playing with them.

The whole time, he watched and learned things about the other kids. Neil always got picked on, started more fights than he could win with his quick moth and endless snark, and was too stubborn to let his siblings put a stop to it. Allison’s family was from some rich, snobby part of town, completely against their daughter playing Exy but not attentive enough to notice it’s still happening, nor to notice that she and Seth were doing some strange dating thing where sometimes they’d kiss awkwardly and other times wouldn’t even talk to each other.

Andrew learned that Neil didn’t like sweets - heathen -, that Dan only bothered with the sour ones, that Kevin absolutely abhorred any sort of unnecessary sugar and wasn’t afraid to be vocal about it. He learned that he best person to get free candy from was Neil, that Kevin was the only one related by blood to their father, Mr. Wymack, and that his dead mother was someone famous in the Exy world. He learned that Mr. Wymack was gruff and sarcastic and coached university Exy, and tried not to be too jealous about the equally affectionate and exasperated hugs he gave them after a long afternoon playing the family-obsessed sport.

He learned what it was like to have actual fun, for once, barely being at home in favour of hanging out with the people he might consider as something more than acquaintances.

 


 

Andrew should’ve known that it was too good to last. Renee Walker, the team’s original goalkeeper, was returning and Andrew couldn’t see himself still being invited to hang out. It had happened enough times before in foster homes, the feeling of being replaced, and Andrew tormented himself by imagining how much better she was than him - nicer, stronger in goal, someone who the Wymack kids had known long before meeting Andrew.

“Renee texted Dan to tell us she’ll be here in time for the next game,” Neil said. Andrew tried not to resent the excited smile on his face. “She got first 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. The weather was unfairly nice, sunny but not uncomfortably hot, and he wondered if he could hide out in his room for the rest of the summer.

As soon as he entered the shop, Neil called to him. Dan and Kevin each offered an absent wave, but were too busy arguing to greet him properly. “We’re trying 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 by goalkeep’, right?” Kevin asked him, breaking from his conversation with Dan. When Andrew nodded he turned back to her. “See? It’s better if Renee plays as backliner.”

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

“Andrew’s good in goal when he isn’t tired,” Neil said. He still sounded proud, and Andrew liked the warm feeling his stomach made in response. “We can get him to start and end, since Renee usually plays well when she’s defense with Allison. I’ll switch between striker and backline depending on what we need and we can rotate out the strikers when they need a break.”

They discussed it a bit more, and Andrew found it almost funny how seriously they took the game. Kevin agreed quickly, but Dan was more concerned about taking over Renee’s position.

“Only if Renee agrees,” she said. “Otherwise we’re teaching you how to play backliner.”

By the time they got to the street, Renee was already there, waving cheerily as soon as she saw them. 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, wearing a silver cross necklace that caught Andrew’s eye. It occurred to him that he didn't know what tournament Renee had competed in.

Dan slung an arm around her shoulders and led her over to him. “Hi,” said Renee, her voice tinkly and strangely sweet. “You must be Andrew. I'm Renee.”

Blinking at her blankly, Andrew finally offered a small wave and mumbled, “Hi.”

“We were wondering if you’d be fine with playing backliner a bit today, since Andrew here has never played in another position,” Dan said, recapturing Renee's attention.

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

“Of course,” Renee said, and graced Andrew with a curling smile. “From what I’ve heard from both Kevin and Neil, you’re a miracle worker in goal. I think I’d enjoy seeing that. Next time I can bring my old gloves for you.”

With the hockey net so small, full goalkeeper armor would block basically everything. For their street games the only protection offered to both goalkeepers was the mandatory helmet and a pair of gloves that the Wymacks didn’t have. Even though Andrew was sick of second-hand goods - from clothes to toys to affection - the surprise offer from a total stranger was appreciated, and Andrew gave Renee a small nod of agreement.

She walked him down to the goal, stretching her arms across her chest and greeting the kids they passed - surprisingly, most of them treated her with a nicer attitude than they did any of Andrew’s other teammates. Allison and Renee didn’t cut imposing figures against the unfairly large strikers, but something about their stance told Andrew that wouldn’t be a problem. Neil waved at him from the sidewalk, and they watched the ref do his usual rigged attempt to give the other team first serve.

The dealer started the game by throwing the ball hard and fast at Renee’s mark, maybe hoping to catch her off guard or maybe hoping to get the ball as far as possible from Kevin. Renee held her ground as her striker tried to push her over, shifting her stance quickly for better balance and causing the other girl to stumble. Using Neil’s racquet, she easily stole the ball and tossed it to Dan.

Soon enough 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 other dealer must have considered an easy point. Renee’s movements were smooth, her returned balls strategically aimed to their teammates instead of the blocks that Andrew favoured, which was mostly him swinging at the ball as hard as possible. She set up more plays that way, Andrew realized. With Neil as striker he could run after all of Andrew’s wild blocks, but when Kevin and Seth were on they scored more when the ball went to them.

Nobody was surprised by the huge point gap. As Andrew resettled himself into the net, he wondered if the other kids would ever get bored of losing.

When the opportunity came Andrew tried to take a page from Renee’s book. He underhand-swung his racquet in an almost softball motion in what he hoped was Dan’s general direction. She caught it and scored, and Andrew noticed the contemplative look Kevin gave him from the sidewalk. Allison managed to steal the ball from the other dealer once play restarted, and his attention shifted back to the game.

It wasn’t long until someone did get tired of losing.

The same striker who had fouled Neil on Andrew’s first day seemed to have decided that he had had enough of Neil’s constant interceptions. Pulling back his fist, he swung a punch that thankfully appeared to have only glanced off of Neil’s temple. Not expecting it, Neil nearly fell. Andrew dropped the racquet as the striker prepared for another blow, but someone beat him to Neil’s side.

Renee blocked the striker’s punch with ease, arm coming up lighting-fast to push his fist outwards. She bounced on her toes for a moment, twisting so she wasn’t facing him directly, before delivering a sidekick strong enough to push the huge boy back a few feet. Her hands were raised and ready to block another blow, right up until she swept the guy off his feet with a dirty shot to his shins.

Andrew’s attention, caught by watching Renee, suddenly returned to Neil when he heard a loud groan. He scrambled out of the net to his friend (which was a funny thought, had Andrew been in the mood for humour). Somehow the idiot always managed to end up on the receiving end of some douche’s anger and Andrew wanted to tape his smart mouth shut.

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

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

They finished the game with the striker being shamefully banished (“I’m telling my mom!”) and Neil sitting sullenly on the sidelines. Renee joined the usual four afterwards, fitting seamlessly into their group as they made their way back to Fox’s.

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

They refused, leaving the shop together. The late afternoon was still sunny, but cooler than it had been while playing and Andrew appreciated the light breeze.

“You do martial arts?” He blurted out as they walked, finally breaking the silence. Renee’s movements had seemed similar to brief glimpses of the Olympics and that one time he had seen Karate Kid , back in one of the better foster homes.

“Yes,” Renee said, looking surprised. “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 had stepped up to protect Neil.

“Can you teach me?” He asked.

 


 

It wasn’t a surprise when his foster parents finally decided that they had no room in their lives for kids, but it was still a disappointment. Some part of Andrew was terrified that it was the last he’d see of the Wymack kids and his team, before the summer even ended. He wondered if Renee would be alright with praying for him, for a nearby family that’d finally keep him.

Mr. Wymack had asked him, once, about his family. He was obviously worried about the kid who had nothing better to do than hang around the candy store all day, but didn’t push further when Andrew told him that his parents were often busy with work. Andrew hadn’t wanted to be sent back - for all the good it did him - and revealing to an adult that the people who took him in sometimes forgot to feed him was the quickest way to lose his friends.

Mr. Wymack hadn’t looked entirely convinced, and still offered to invite Andrew over for dinner all the time, 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 far away, Andrew would be able to pretend that he didn’t miss them.

 


 

The next home Andrew went to was with a couple who wanted to try caring for a kid without having to deal with the full responsibility of giving birth to one. From the way they talked 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 in the same complex as Renee’s and a twenty minute walk from Fox’s, Andrew couldn’t bring himself to mind.

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

Every few days Renee would invite Andrew over to practice sparring in her adopted mother’s living room, a location that he found amusing due to the fact that Stephanie Walker was a nice and normal lady who had no qualms with her teenage daughter teaching a boy how to beat people up.

Renee was good - far better than she had been at the game once they were sparring tournament-style - and she was a good teacher. She showed Andrew stances and breathing patterns and made him learn how to block his head from unfairly fast taps. His favourite thing was that brief moment of success when he landed a hit, the surprise on Renee’s face, right before she whooped his ass.

“We won’t be able to practice as much,” Renee said one day as they pulled off their hand and feet pads. Her smaller set (except for the groin protector that he had refused) was a bit tight on Andrew, but still in good condition. “You’re getting better. You have lots of power, and you’re fast when you’re blocking. Try to bounce more, to keep up momentum.”

“So that’s it?” Andrew asked, trying not to feel put-out.

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

“I thought Taekwondo doesn’t do holds or throws.” Andrew had searched it after meeting Renee.

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

Andrew frowned. “I need to ask my parents.”

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

Mind racing, Andrew struggled not to show anything on his face. Renee was full of unexpected surprises, and his stomach churned at the thought of him being too obvious. “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 serenely. “We’re similar, the two of us. You know, when I first started learning martial arts, it was because I told Mom that I never wanted to be hurt again. I was a very troubled kid, and spent plenty of time bouncing between foster homes before she found me.

I’m different from Dan, Kevin, and Neil. Dan and Kevin were both adopted when they were little by their dad, and got their happy ending on the first try. That’s why they don’t really get us, and why they don’t quite understand how different it is to be in the foster care system. 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. He was grateful for her, and nodded his thanks before pushing Renee down into a deeper butterfly stretch. Ms. Walker soon came in with a plate of oranges, and Renee passed the time showing him videos and explaining the moves behind them.

 


 

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 talk to him before moving towards their own friends, and the few other seventh graders who showed any interest in the new kid were soon disappointed by his silence. Like usual, Andrew was alone.

He entered the cafeteria searching for an empty table that didn’t look too pathetically lonely, when Neil suddenly popped up by his side.

“If we knew you were gonna buy food here, Kevin probably would’ve insisted that Dad make you a lunch too,” he told Andrew, leading him towards a table where Kevin was already sitting with a bunch of athletic-looking kids. “You better get familiar with them, ‘cause we’ll be playing Exy together once the season begins.”

“I still haven’t asked my parents,” Andrew protested, even though he’d spent nights fantasizing about playing more with his friends.

“Sign-ups end soon,” Neil said, sitting down and leaving enough room on the edge of the bench for Andrew to fit in.

Kevin glanced over and frowned at them - or maybe it was directed at Andrew’s tray of soggy fries, a sandwich that appeared to be half mayonnaise, and chocolate pudding. “You should have told us you were going to eat food from here .”

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

Later on, Andrew finally mustered his courage and asked his foster parents about joining Exy. To his surprise, the couple had no problem with signing the forms and paying the fee, likely influenced by the government’s compensation of all of Andrew’s other costs and the promise that his friends would lend him the necessary racquet and gear.

Soon enough, Neil and Kevin dragged him to the first practice. His first day in a proper court wasn’t as bad as he had expected (nor as bad as he had feared). The Wymack kids had more than prepared Andrew for the more obsessed players, and their dad stayed with them the first day to assist the coach. Andrew realized that he might get to see Neil not covered in bandages, for once, since the smooth court floor wouldn’t scrape him up after every check. The goal was much larger than Andrew’s usual net, but still small enough for kids to play in. Looking at it, he could almost feel excited at the challenge.

Because there was only one other kid interested in playing goalkeeper, the coach didn’t bother holding tryouts for the position. Instead, Neil, Kevin, and the two other strikers took shots at both goalkeepers to test their skills and weaknesses. New dealers were chosen to replace Dan and Allison, who were joining their high school team along with Renee.

As far as Andrew could tell from the team’s scrimmages, the backliners were obviously their weakest link. Although they were better than the neighborhood kids, no one came close to Kevin, Neil, or even Andrew’s level and both the coach and Mr. Wymack seemed pleased that Andrew was able to defend their asses.

He waved bye to them after practice, taking one last lingering glance at Neil and Kevin trying out some drills and refusing Mr. Wymack’s offer for a ride home. As Andrew hefted his gear duffle over his shoulder and made his way home for dinner, he realized that for once, the idea of another school year was no longer daunting.

 


 

The year went on.

Andrew’s time was filled with Exy and school, with Renee smiling as she told him that he had almost won that last round, and afternoons spent at the Wymack’s house. It was easy to be comfortable around them, Neil falling asleep on his shoulder as they did homework and Dan lightly elbowing him in the ribs whenever Kevin was being particularly obnoxious about something. Andrew found himself letting Neil nap without pushing him off, nudging Dan back, dragging Kevin away to keep him from getting into fights with the soccer team.

He had a new racquet from the couple, bought as an early birthday present, and a team that took second place in leagues. He had friends, sparring sessions with Renee every weekend, and a massive bag of candy given to him by Mr. Wymack.

The year went on, and Andrew was happy.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Andrew had moved in with Cass and Richard Spear, he had gone through two other foster homes, both of them on the worse side. Of the past three years, two of them were spent with a couple unwilling to pay for Exy, something which Wymack ended up covering. He suspected that the family he had lived with the year before - loud and chaotic and covered in glass shards, both literally and figuratively - had only paid for him to be out of the house.

Cass and Richard seemed different, though Andrew was no stranger to perfect families hiding bad habits and stinging hits under smiles in public. They’d both insisted that at fifteen years old, Andrew was capable of choosing whether he wanted to call them Mom, Dad, or anything else. Andrew wasn’t used to being afforded that much freedom, nor was he used to Richard carrying his things into his new room.

He hovered restlessly around the kitchen, because Richard had rejected his help and Andrew was in unfamiliar territory.

“Drake’s off on a gap year before he starts his training for the Marines, so you have the house all to yourself,” Cass told him as she put a freshly-made apple pie into the oven. Andrew didn’t quite believe that it really was for him, but hopefully he’d at least get a slice. When Andrew moved to help her clear away the messy countertop, Cass shooed him away. “Don’t worry about cleaning up, I made this mess! The pie should take about an hour, so go check out your room!”

Wordlessly, Andrew got up and left the main room. Richard was already finished with moving Andrew’s meager bag and gear duffle. He made to ruffle Andrew’s hair on the way out, but aborted his attempt when Andrew stiffened. “Get comfortable,” he told Andrew, voice a little sad and a little pitying. “I’ll go start making dinner.”

Andrew closed the door after him and surveyed the room. There wasn’t a lock - “For safety reasons,” Cass had said - but it was larger than most of the other ones Andrew had stayed it, and contained an inviting double bed rather than the usual single. The walls were painted pale green, left bare for Andrew to stick up posters or awards or whatever teenagers who weren’t Andrew owned. There was a nice bedside table, his new closet was sizeable, and Andrew was surprised to see a desk and laptop in the corner, both fairly new and much more than what any other family had ever provided.

He grabbed the laptop and brought it with him to the bed, but didn’t open it as he laid back onto the soft sheets. His eyes traced the popcorn ceiling for irregularities, mind busy with wondering if Cass and Richard were really as good as they seemed. Andrew wondered if they would be the first family he’d introduce his friends to, and surprisingly his stomach was calm at the thought.

It had been a couple years since the Wymack siblings found out he was a foster child, and even then he had refused to let them meet his families. The looks of hurt from Kevin as he demanded to know why Andrew didn’t want to tell them and the week of silence from Neil had been miserable, but at least he was able to pretend his foster families weren’t that bad when they started talking to him again.

Andrew thought Cass and Richard would like the Wymack siblings. They honestly acted like they wanted him, like they wanted him to stay, so it would make sense if they liked the kids who had made the past few years bearable.

Finally, he pulled the laptop towards himself, balancing it on his stomach and angling the screen down before powering it on. He was shit with technology, used to slow school computers and the rare moments when he’d embarrass himself on his friends’ stuff, but the laptop seemed to boot up fast and most of the programs he was familiar with were already installed. Figuring out how to open a private tab wasn’t hard, and Andrew spent the time googling swear-word combinations, just because he could, until he was called down.

Over dinner Cass asked about Andrew: how he liked school, if he had any extracurriculars, if he had any friends. Andrew suffered through it, fascinated by the attention both she and her husband paid to his answers. He told her that the school was okay, if not both incredibly boring and incredibly frustrating (and in turn Richard offered him help with his math), that he played Exy with the high school team and he was wondering if they’d be willing to pay the fees, and that astoundingly, Wymack’s trio of children still talked to him. Richard chimed in at the right moments, Cass kept refilling his plate, and Andrew let himself pretend that they’d keep him.

“I know you probably just want us to leave you alone, but tell us if you need anything, okay?” Cass said, passing Andrew a rag to wipe down the table after they had finished eating. She was doing the dishes, and Richard was putting away the pots, and Andrew couldn’t remember another house where he wasn’t expected to clean up everything after dinner. He nodded, and scrambled up to his room afterwards, not sure if he was supposed to stay down for bonding time and not sure if he was ready for something like that.

Sleep came easy, and the summer was ahead of him.

 


 

(“Sorry,” Neil had said reluctantly when Dan finally dragged him over to Andrew. He hadn’t looked up from his feet, and something twisted painfully inside of Andrew at the wounded tone. “I just don’t get why you didn’t want us to know you’re a foster kid.

The spiteful part of Andrew wanted to tell Neil he wasn’t forgiven.

“I didn’t want you to look at me any differently,” he admitted instead, and suddenly it was like nothing had changed.)

 


 

It was weird feeling restless without Exy, because for the past three years Andrew had been constantly playing it, either in league and school or on the street.

There wasn’t enough of them to play street Exy that summer, and maybe it was for the best because the older kids were getting less gracious when they lost. Allison was staying with her grandfather until school restarted, her parents eager to stop her from roughing herself up playing sports and eager to end her relationship with Seth. He was busy at his summer job anyways, and Renee was off volunteering. Dan, Kevin, and Neil were all cycling through shifts at Fox’s anytime they weren’t on court, and Andrew found himself there often enough that Wymack had shown him how to work the register. In the end, most of his earnings were spent there anyways.

Hanging out with them was a decent way to pass the time, even as Dan spent more time with friends in her own grade. Andrew liked standing beside Neil, talking about anything and nothing, and liked listening to Kevin throw his daily fits over Fox’s deviances from a healthy diet. They got to play at Wymack’s university court whenever they had free time, and Andrew spent half the time snickering with Neil over Kevin’s attempts to convince their dad to let them sell protein bars and other healthy horrors.

It was nice, until it wasn’t, and Andrew found himself staring at Neil’s lips and wondering if they were really as soft as they looked.

Andrew had never really been interested in girls, had thought they had cooties up until he had bigger things to worry about. Except even as he squinted at girls passing by, none of them had the appeal of Neil - or even Kevin, though he’d never admit it.

Neil was infinitely more attractive, though. He was still lean, almost endearingly stringy for his height, but year-round Exy training and practice gave definition to his arms, stomach (or as much of it as Andrew’s seen in locker room glimpses, since Neil had perfected the art of switching shirts under each other), and legs. It made a good jerking-off fantasy to imagine running his tongue over the insides of Neil’s thighs, toned from post-practice runs and cross-court sprints. Everything else about him: his perpetually messy hair, bright blue eyes that always lit up whenever he spoke to Andrew, and a wild grin that would be so easy to kiss off, all contributed to the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that he wasn’t interested in Neil.

Andrew was lucky that so far, Neil appeared to be completely oblivious. He never once looked at Andrew funny, as if he noticed Andrew’s stares or hot blushes. For the past few years Andrew had suspected his 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. He had never wanted to do anything, and suddenly the threat of rejection was crippling.

The new laptop helped, because it was easy to find websites and forums with other people’s experiences. Andrew had never really thought about it too hard, but he remembered enough about his first family - the one that tried adopting him - to figure out that he was removed from their care after a social worker heard some choice words about pride parades and what the mother would do if any of her children ended up like them . From there, bigots had been the norm in his foster homes, from assholes who didn’t like the idea to overzealous religious families bent on condemning him.

Andrew didn’t believe in heaven or hell, not after years of the foster care system, but he liked to think that no higher power gave a shit about his preferences. He clicked the link to someone’s story about their brother, squinting at the bright screen in the darkness of his room.

Neil was his best friend, and it was nice imagining their shared smiles and friendly claps on the back meaning something else. Andrew kept quiet because statistically speaking - even though Andrew sucked at stats - it was much more likely that Neil was straight.

By the end of the summer, Neil was more gorgeous than ever. Meanwhile, Andrew had an anonymous account on an LGBT+ forum, a habit of automatically opening private windows, and a crush larger than he’d care to admit.

 


 

Their team that year had the potential to make it the furthest it had ever gone, with Seth, Allison, Renee, and Dan all in their final year before graduation and Neil finally in high school. The seniors all seemed ridiculously misty-eyed, and Neil liked to egg Andrew and Kevin on an annoying amount, but even Andrew found himself swept up in their excitement.

The only thing they needed was a decent backliner to replace the one who had just graduated. From listening to the Wymack siblings talking about him, Andrew would’ve thought that Matt Boyd was the new messiah.

He sat on the bleachers watching, because the first half of scrimmages and drills were purely to test the backliners’ racquet handling and blocking. Andrew didn’t look forward to having to communicate with the newbies later, but the view was nice and Neil’s shorts were tighter than he remembered.

Andrew tensed when Matt checked Neil into a wall, mind racing with all the ways a six-foot-player could crush someone smaller. 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 the following stick check, which knocked the ball out of Kevin’s net with almost textbook form.

Break was called and Neil jogged to join Andrew at the bleachers, two water bottles in his hands and racquet tucked in the crook of his arm. Neil smiled as he offered Andrew one, even though he hadn’t moved since warm up.

“Do you have fun being slammed into walls?” Andrew asked dryly. Over the years, it seemed that Neil had just traded asphalt scrapes with plexiglass bruises.

Neil huffed out a laugh and Andrew tried not to stare too hard at the sweat trailing down his neck. “It’s better than the pavement. What do you think about the defense? Charles’ checks are too weak and he doesn’t know how to move, and Lucy looks ready to eviscerate Kevin already, because he keeps telling her that her aim’s off. Matt’s pretty decent. Wish he was here last year.”

Andrew indulged him, because his crush was getting out of control, and said, “Charles is an idiot and I’m not interested in having to save everything he misses. Lucy isn’t worth putting up with.”

“And Matt?”

Andrew pretended to think about it. It’d be easier in goal with someone good covering him, and the only thing bad about Matt was his puppy-like enthusiasm. “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 Kevin’s insane off-wall passes. “He’s nice. Dan likes him too.”

Andrew nodded indifferently, but they both knew what that meant: that Andrew, who still pretended not to know the name of their senior backliners, would actually make an effort to communicate with Matt Boyd if Neil wanted him to. He listened to Neil rattle off different possible lineups and watched the way light made his hair turn copper.

A few minutes before break ended, Renee made her way over to them and took the spot on Andrew’s other side. “I think Matt knows how to fight,” she told him.

Both Andrew and Neil looked at her curiously. Renee shrugged. “The way he braces himself before a check 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 does the sharp exhales at bursts of movement.” 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.

The second half of tryouts was spent pairing backliners and a goalkeeper against the offense. 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 his right and Neil and Lucy made their way to his left.

Despite - or maybe because of - Kevin’s noticeable skill compared to 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 things 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 his stomach.

Before long, Kevin was getting 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 of hesitation, 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. From the sidelines, Allison yelled something rude at Seth, who had enough time to flip her off with Kevin and Lucy fighting over the ball.

“Hey, man, thanks for the advice.”

Andrew turned towards Matt, and glared up at him. He must have been a full foot taller than Andrew, which meant that he was even taller beside Neil, who told him, “If you weren’t so distracted by yelling at him, I wouldn’t have scored a second time.”

Disregarding 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 he 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. “Kevin, 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 and Kevin was still glaring at them resentfully, probably more over their lack of skill than the punch. 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 both stank of sweat, but the cool down it offered whenever a breeze picked up was nice. Neil grinned as he started talking about his day, not really expecting Andrew to respond but knowing that 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 kept bugging him as if the teacher wasn’t right there.

Well, Andrew didn’t like listening to that .

The days were still long, so it was bright when they reached Andrew’s house. “Cass wants to meet you soon,” Andrew said, thinking about all of her comments every time he mentioned his friends over dinner.

Neil hummed. “Maybe when I’m not sweaty as fuck; wanna make a good first impression.”

Andrew tried to agree noncommittally, without thinking about how much that sounded like a dating thing.

“Bye, Andrew. See you tomorrow,” Neil finally said. He waved before jogging off, and Andrew’s hands finally stopped clutching his bag straps like a lifeline. His stomach felt like it was flopping uncontrollably.

This was a problem, he thought.

 

Chapter Text

Andrew came downstairs to the smell of baked goods and the deep hum of the stove’s ranger hood. He passed Richard, who was occupied with the newspaper, to go stand near Cass. She was busy with a big pot of oil, but turned to him with a smile on her face.

“Good morning, Andrew,” she said, and Andrew liked the way she lit up when she saw him. “I thought I’d make donuts for breakfast, in celebration for your game this Friday.”

Andrew wasn’t sure what to say, only that none of his foster families had ever done something like this before. Sometimes living with the Spears felt like a dream. They didn’t hover unbearably over everything Andrew did, but were interested enough whenever he talked about school or the team or his friends. They’d buy little things for Andrew that other families used to make a big deal about, like a new calculator when they realized that his couldn’t do trig. Richard usually woke early to make lunches for Andrew to bring to school, and Cass often experimented with sweets once she realized how much Andrew liked them.

“Do you need help?” Andrew asked, a little bit because he felt awkward standing there, and a little bit because he wanted to.

“Sure,” Cass said, carefully moving dough into the pot. “Can you roll the finished donuts in sugar?”

“Yeah,” Andrew said, rolling up his sleeves and going to wash his hands. They smelled good, and Andrew hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He tried picking one up, and hissed when he felt how hot it was. His fingers weren’t burnt, so he went to a drawer to get a fork instead.

Richard came up behind him to ruffle his hair, and this time Andrew let him.

“Nice sugar coating,” he said, tone too kind to be patronizing, before stealing a donut.

“Cass,” Andrew complained. She laughed and passed him another batch to coat, turning off the stove and taking one for herself.

“He’s right,” Cass said, mouth pulled into a wicked grin. “Very even.”

Even an entire month with her, it was still surprising when she pushed the rest of the plate towards him. “It’s yours. And your friends’, if you want to finally invite them for dinner.”

Andrew looked at her, chewing on his own donut to postpone responding.

“Please ask them, Andrew. I want to meet the people important to you,” Cass said. She smiled at him, and Andrew could imagine living with her and Richard until he was old enough to voluntarily move out.

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

Cass unsubtly flashed Richard with both thumbs up. “Yes, I’m making lasagna so there should be more than enough.” When Andrew finished eating, she said, “Now go, isn’t this when you normally meet up with them?”

Andrew grabbed one last treat to eat on the way to Fox’s. He wondered what kind of face Kevin would make at a plate of cheese and carbs and donuts. He thought about the way 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.

 


 

The walk to Fox’s was nice, warm enough that Andrew didn’t need a jacket. It was funny, thinking about how much he hated the shop when he first went in, from the tinkling of the bells to the easy familiarity between the siblings.

Kevin scowled as Andrew stepped into Fox’s, hands on his hips. “What the fuck, Andrew, did you eat an entire box of powdered donuts?”

Andrew blinked. “What? No.” He had only eaten two, not that Kevin would have known.

“Then what’s that all over your pants?” Kevin demanded, all bossy and dramatic like usual. Andrew looked down to find that the whole front of his black sweater and jeans were covered in white powdered sugar. Oops.

“It’s cocaine,” Andrew told him, and watched Kevin splutter until his face turned nearly purple.

Neil laughed from his spot in the corner, where he was slowly working his way through an English grammar package. The sound made Andrew’s chest feel tighter and he swallowed hard, pleased with the response. He could feel a slow blush working its way up his neck, and cursed 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 comb his fingers through Neil’s nest of hair.

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

Neil hummed in agreement, but Kevin just sat there in embarrassed silence. Once Andrew’s fingers stopped itching to touch Neil, he moved to sit beside him, a careful gap of space left between him. He glanced over at Neil’s papers and the rushed scrawls across it before pointing out a mistake.

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

“Cass wants me to invite you over for dinner.”

For a moment everyone was silent, and Andrew could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

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

Andrew tried to shrug nonchalantly, and said, “She wants to meet you. I think she was wondering who annoyed me into playing sports.”

“Fuck you,” Kevin said, except he didn’t mean it, so Andrew didn’t mean the finger he used to flip him off. Kevin 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. He opened his hand to inspect it, and cringed with he realized it was a 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. For a split-second their fingers brushed together and Andrew flinched away from the sudden spark he swore he could feel. Neil leaned back completely unaffected, tearing open the package and 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 Cass want us to come over tonight? ‘Cause I can call Dad and Dan to ask if we’re good,” Neil told Andrew, snapping him out of his thoughts.

“Sure,” Andrew agreed. He tried to look anywhere but at Neil, who was too busy pulling out his phone (incidentally the same model as the one Cass had bought for Andrew during his first week) to notice anything weird. Andrew finally settled on trying to figure out the remaining answers on the worksheet and tuned Neil out.

“Okay, we’re good,” Neil told him as he put down his phone. “Dad said that he might end up running a bit late, but we can start eating without him. Dan willl meet us here.”

Andrew didn’t say anything in acknowledgement, 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 court.”

“I hate baseball,” Neil whined, mock-pouting as he looked around for his misplaced eraser. Andrew either wanted to pull on his bottom lip or suck it. “Reminder that I like Exy, not sports in general, and that this worksheet is dumb. Hey, can I trade you your math booklet for this and my history stuff?”

Snorting, Andrew picked up the eraser from where it had fallen during Neil’s phone call. He flicked it at Neil’s face while Kevin shouted an affronted, “History’s important, you know!” from the counter.

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. It was nice, because Neil and Kevin were probably his best friends, and because they knew that Andrew didn’t need them to try to fill the silence.

Dan finally came back 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 left Fox’s, Kevin locking up before they made their way 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 chattered busily between showing the Wymack siblings where to put their shoes, jackets, and bags. He shook hands with all of them, which was a little embarrassing, and led them into the dining room talking about how long it took for Andrew to invite them over. Cass joined in, carrying the lasagna, and Andrew really, really regretted giving in.

“Is that it?” Kevin hissed into Andrew’s ear, right before Dan elbowed him to shut up. “That’s so far from a balanced -”

“It looks great,” Dan interrupted loudly, elbowing Kevin again. Cass looked worriedly at them.

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

“No, no, we’re fine,” Dan told her, looking very pointedly at her brothers.

“Oh, yeah, it smells really good,” Neil finally said, still looking gleefully at the look on Kevin’s face.

“It looks...really cheesy,” Kevin said faintly. Andrew caught Neil’s eyes and they grinned at each other.

Cass left them to get a serving spoon and Kevin turned to Andrew furiously. “You knew ,” he whisper-shouted. “This is so far from a proper diet plan that it’s not even funny.”

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

That startled a laugh out of Dan, and she and Neil worked together to shove Kevin into a chair. He muttered furiously under his breath about how Jeremy Knox’s family understands the importance of healthy food, why can’t we eat with them? before quieting when Andrew’s foster parents re-entered the room.

Despite the setback, soon the six of them were seated around the table, an empty chair left between Richard and Dan for Wymack. Cass obviously noticed that Kevin barely ate anything (no doubt waiting to get home for a fully nutritious meal), but didn’t say anything. The siblings answered Cass and Richard’s questions about school, the candy store, and Exy. Andrew hadn’t told his foster parents that the Wymack kids were adopted, but they were tactful enough to not ask anything about the fact they shared approximately zero similar features. Instead, Cass grinned mischievously at Andrew before describing, in excruciating detail, how much he talks about his friends.

Andrew was mortified.

Thankfully his rapidly reddening face was saved by Wymack’s arrival. He took off his shoes, greeted his hosts and kids, and stumbled into the dining room only to roll his eyes at Kevin’s barely-touched plate. Kevin didn’t seem cowed by his dad’s exasperation, and only tilted his head in a defiant way that used to get Andrew in trouble.

“I hope the kids didn’t cause any trouble,” Wymack told the Spears dryly, his tone fond. “They used to try to leave the table to try out new Exy moves they just thought of.”

Dad ,” Dan protested, as if it wasn’t the truth. Neil was pouting again in his seat and Andrew wanted to catch his lower lip between his own.

Cass laughed cheerily and took the opportunity to start a conversation about that, and the table split into talks between the adults and Andrew and his friends. While Wymack talked about his coaching job, Andrew listened to Neil complain about their least favourite freshman science teacher.

It was nice and fun and not nearly as awkward as Andrew had feared, mainly because the Spears picked up the slack whenever someone faltered. Neil and Dan teased Kevin about his appetite while Andrew provided receipts - “Remember that time we tricked you into eating half a cake by saying I’m better at it than you?” - and ate a good, warm, home-cooked meal. It occurred to Andrew that, except for Renee, these were his favourite people in the world, the ones he’d like to be with for the rest of his life.

He’d given up on Wymack miraculously adopting him long ago (once he realized that as much as Wymack loved them, taking care of three kids was hard) but Andrew hoped that Cass and Richard were different. It had only been a few months, and already he knew that they were a dream come true for any foster kid.

All of the plates soon emptied - even Kevin’s, though he’d scooped out half as much lasagna as everyone else - and Andrew got up to help clean up. He hoped his face wasn’t too red as Neil, Kevin, and Dan all raised their eyebrows at him, because maybe he was a little bit lazy at cleaning up around them. The Spears had a dishwasher, so all he had to do was load the plates in and set the timer, making his way back to the table.

Cass reappeared with a platter full of the remaining homemade donuts, and Kevin’s eyes bulged out unattractively. Even though he didn’t even like sweets - heathen -, Neil let out a whoop of laughter as Dan’s elbow found Kevin’s ribs. Wymack just sighed, but helped himself to a donut.

“Are you sure Kevin isn’t allergic to anything?” Cass asked, her eyebrows knitting together. Neil and Dan reached for a donut and, with a horrified look, Kevin finally did too.

“He doesn’t have any allergies,” Dan assured her. “Just a strict idea of what athlete’s diets should consist of.”

Neil laughed again around his bite, a fine dusting of powdered sugar sprinkling his mouth. “We’ll be playing Exy all day to work it off.”

Cass looked at Andrew, and he shrugged. “More for me,” he said, liking the final smile she gave him.

 


 

“So,” Neil said, leaning against a locker. A smirk played at the corner of his lips and did horrible things to Andrew’s gay heart. “We’re your best friends and all you ever do is talk about us?”

“You,” Andrew corrected without thought, then nearly slammed his head against his own locker. He was probably turning crimson, like an ugly blond lobster. “I tell Cass and Richard about how I want to murder you ninety percent of the time.”

Neil didn’t get mad, only snorted.

“I hate you and you talk too much,” Andrew added. Luckily, he did not continue with, I want to kiss you to shut you up. Instead, he twisted the knob on his lock and made his way towards the cafeteria, Neil walking beside him.

“Hey,” Neil said, right before they got to their table. “What about the other ten?”

It was a bit much to hope that sports-jock-slash-math-nerd Neil Wymack wouldn’t be able to do basic subtraction, but it gave Andrew a little thrill to be so close to admitting that ten percent of the time - usually before bed - he fantasized about holding hands and going on dates and kissing and maybe-possibly having sex with Neil. He didn’t say anything and let Neil come up with his own answer as they found their seats beside each other.

Loudly, a bit farther down the table, Allison was betting Seth that Renee could beat him in a fight and Andrew eavesdropped in interest - if she still pooled candy like she had when they were kids, he’d definitely join in. Kevin sat across from him, multitasking between a history textbook on his lap and vigorous chews of the chicken sandwich Wymack had lovingly packed for his kids. Meanwhile, one of the school’s cheerleaders - Katelyn, who Andrew only knew for not being blonde nor white like the others - was discussing practices and the upcoming season with Dan and Matt.

Neil stole one of Andrew’s apple slices, and he was only annoyed because there was nothing good in his lunch to take in retaliation. Andrew grumbled something rude under his breath, mostly because he thought Neil would find it amusing, and broke another slice into two so he could nibble on each side separately.

Before lunch break ended, Neil slid off of the bench. “I forgot I needed to talk to someone,” he said when everybody’s attention swivelled to him. “See you at practice.”

Dan and Matt broke away from their conversation long enough to wave him bye, maybe a bit more enthusiastically than necessary, and Kevin bobbed his head absentmindedly before going back to reading about ancient sewage systems or whatever.

“Failing English?” Andrew asked in a mocking tone, because he liked having Neil’s attention (and also because it was entirely possible).

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

 


 

Even from across court, Kevin’s shrill pissy voice was loud enough for Andrew to hear. “Neil, what the fuck?”

Andrew had been late to practice due to a displeased teacher wanting to discuss his unpleasantly worded Socials assignment - give shitty essay topics, get shitty essays - and arrived to find the rest of his team all huddled together. Kevin was practically tearing out his hair, and Matt was cooing from way too fucking close to Neil.

Andrew was too short to see over everyone’s shoulders, so he made do with shoving them away, the bulk of his gear helping. “Why is there a rodent?” He finally asked, because what he saw made no sense.

“Ask Neil,” Kevin huffed. “He’s the one who brought in the fucking rat.”

Neil turned and scowled at Kevin, the hand not holding the cage rising to flip Kevin off. “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?”

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

“Nicky?”

“The gerbil,” Matt said, a touch gleefully. He, Renee, and Dan were watching it nibble on a bit of lettuce that looked like it came from one of the Wymack kids’ sandwich. Dan gave Neil a look that was probably meant to be exasperated, but only succeeded in giving off the air on an affectionate parent staring down their silly child.

“You do know that you’re the one telling Dad about him, right?” She asked.

“What was I supposed to do?” Neil whined. “Wayne said his parents wanted to just release Nicky into the wild! You know how wrong that is? And he promised to bring over all of Nicky’s stuff later so we don't even need to buy anything.”

The gerbil turned its fat little head up, to look directly at Andrew, and half the team breathed a collective, “ Awww” .

Kevin interrupted them by kicking at a plexiglass wall bitterly. “Are we going to stop staring at it and warm up? We have a game soon.”

Grudging and grumbling, the rest of the team pulled away to jog laps around the court. Andrew ran fast enough to catch up to Renee before slowing to a more leisurely pace, saving his breath for the hour of conditioning ahead of him.

Practice was boring, with drills following and everyone's mind occupied. Andrew was kept busy when the coach made him and Renee practice saving penalty shots, from right at the goal line. He managed to block most of the balls, but was pushed hard once Neil and Kevin made a competition out of it. It was fun frustrating them, but it was also nice seeing the competitive glimmer in Neil's eyes every time he scored a point.

Sweat was dripping down Andrew’s hair into the neck of his jersey by the time practice ended. He was breathing hard, which was unfair when the strikers barely had to work, and he had to force his legs to move off the court.

“Hey, Andrew,” Neil said, pulling off his helmet and using his fingers to card through the messy bangs that had escaped his bandana. Andrew’s throat went dry and he took a desperate gulp from his water bottle. “Can you stay for a while longer? Matt and I wanted to try out a play and it's no fun without someone in goal.”

Andrew still had nearly an hour until dinner, and no interest in doing his homework. He nodded in agreement to Neil, then distracted himself with more water when Neil flashed him a blinding grin. The team packed up as he texted Cass, until slowly they started filtering out.

“Aren't Kevin and Dan staying?” He asked, watching them argue over knee pads and stumble towards the door.

Neil shook his head. “Dan has a test and Kevin wants to watch a documentary on Irish kings, like the huge nerd he is.”

Andrew nearly missed that, as Neil had given up on trying to tame his hair and instead opted to redo his sweaty bandana. He liked the way Neil’s hair looked right then, damp and mussed, and shit Andrew was really horny, wasn't he?

Renee, bless her, provided a good distraction when she started up a conversation with Andrew about the next colours to dye her hair, slower to pull of her gear than everyone else on account of the fact that goalkeepers had so much . They were stuck in disagreement - he thought blood red would look pretty wicked but she insisted on sticking with boring pastels. Eventually her mom came to pick her up, and she left reminding Andrew that their usual sparring that week was cancelled while she and her mom worked on a project.

He waved to her as Neil sidled up next to him, stealing Andrew’s water bottle to pour in half of his own refilled bottle. Bumping his fingers into Neil’s in thanks, he took a couple heavy gulps and tried to will his muscles to last another hour.

“Ready?” Matt asked as he came over. He snuck his hand under Neil’s bandana to ruffle at his hair, laughing at the disgruntled expression he got in return. It pissed Andrew off more than it should have, and he nodded shortly before returning to goal, something bitter lodged partway down his throat.

It made him feel a bit better to aim return shots at Matt’s body, close enough that he had to scramble to dodge instead of catching it gracefully in his racquet. The more he thought about it, the more Andrew disliked how close Neil and Matt were after only a little while. He watched Neil twist and make an impossible shot around Matt, using the backliner’s bulk to block Andrew’s vision. The ball hit the goal just out of Andrew’s reach, which would have been cool, but he was too busy biting his cheek in jealousy as the two on court excitedly grabbed each other, yelling like complete morons.

Andrew hit the bottom of his racquet against the floor, using the noise to bring back their attention. Something ugly and mean brewed in his stomach, and he tried to focus on Exy instead, calling out an angry, “Again,” that could be mistaken for anything else.

After they were done, Matt limped away to grab his water while Neil flung himself onto the floor in front of the goal. “Don’t tell Kevin,” he said, chest heaving as he breathed. “I know I’m not supposed to lie down but shit, was it really necessary to block the ball all the way down court?”

Andrew had only done that in response to Neil asking him to stop returning shots to Matt’s head, so he didn’t say anything. Eventually Neil groaned and sat up, and the two of them worked at pulling off the bulk of their gear. They left on their jerseys, because changing would mean covering their other clothes in sweat, and packed their gear bags in companionable silence.

“Guys?” Matt called when he returned, wiping his face and hair with a towel. “Bad news: it’s raining buckets 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 brought one - the weather was still warm enough for just wearing the team hoodie, usually. Neil eyed Nicky’s wire cage warily, and Andrew imagined that he would have otherwise covered the cage and braved the dash home himself.

Matt was rooting frantically through his backpack as Andrew looked outside in displeasure. Amongst the huge list of things he didn’t like, the rain and cold sat fairly high. A loud, “Aha!” brought his attention back to Matt, who was triumphantly holding up a pale purple fold-up umbrella.

“Gotta thank my mom for making me bring this,” He said proudly. “I can walk you and Nicky home. And Andrew too, I think your house is nearby?”

It was close enough that Andrew could take his chances with the rain, but the ugly thing reared up and hated the idea of Matt and Neil huddled together under a shared umbrella.

In the end, it hardly mattered. Because Matt was a giant and both Andrew and Neil were on the shorter side, he held the umbrella in the middle. He struggled with angling the plastic to shield the two of them, and before long Neil was completely out of its protection, opting to keep the gerbil dry instead. Andrew kept getting hit by raindrops caught by the wind, and the only thing that made him feel better was that everyone was too miserable to talk. Andrew glared at Matt - whose hair was still dry enough to hold the spikes - as Neil laughed at the latter’s attempts to keep the umbrella steady.

By the time they got to the Spears’ house, Andrew was equally annoyed with the rain and Matt’s sheepish apologies. His house was a quick detour on the way to Neil’s, so the other two waved cheerfully at him as he pulled out his house key and fumbled with the lock.

Andrew turned back to give them and the gerbil one last glance, and could feel his face warm at the way Neil’s soaking shorts clung to his ass.

 

Chapter Text

It did not escape Andrew’s notice that lately, Matt was hanging out with Neil a lot more. He wasn’t sure what he liked less - the idea of Matt stealing away his best friend or the way his eyes softened around Neil in a way that was all too familiar. Suddenly hanging out at the candy store with the Wymack siblings became Andrew scowling over his homework from beside Kevin, as Neil, Dan, and Matt laughed and joked and talked about things other than Exy.

Andrew didn’t like the aching feeling in his chest, or the unattractive bouts of jealousy that seeing Neil and Matt together caused. It was hard being closeted, and harder to have a crush on his best friend. He tried not to think too hard about them bonding over Nicky - who Wymack allowed Neil to keep so long as he was in charge of cleaning the cage - on the way to Neil’s house or during after-practice trips.

Andrew usually joined them, hoping that he didn’t seem too desperate by tagging along. Even though he was only meant to be an excuse, Nicky was actually sort of cute as long as nobody was around to hear Andrew admit it. He was soft when Andrew stuck his finger into the cage to pet his back and liked doing little tricks, like hanging from the wire mesh on top of his cage as if it were monkey bars. The petty part of Andrew liked that Nicky only did special tricks - shuffling around on his hind legs, pressing his tiny paw into Andrew’s fingers - around him.

(He had called Nicky stupid and a waste of money, but nobody needed to know that his recent search history was filled with queries like what do gerbils eat and how to tell if gerbil is sick . Someone needed to make sure Neil didn’t fuck up.)

 


 

Andrew was arguing about zombie apocalypse contingency plans with Neil and Renee during water break when his own apocalypse appeared.

“Hey, Neil,” Matt called, grinning as if he wasn’t ruining Andrew’s life. “Can I talk to you for a bit?”

Andrew scowled at him, but Neil shrugged.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling apologetically at the two goalkeepers. Renee, bearing some form of manners, excused herself to go find Allison while Andrew stiffened and planted his ass even more firmly on the bench. Matt glanced at him nervously, but Andrew pretended he didn’t notice.

“Uh, can I talk to Neil privately?” Matt finally asked.

He was too old for Neil, Andrew thought. They hadn’t known each other that long either, and obviously Matt was also too tall. The idea of them had been bugging Andrew for a while, churning a cocktail of jealousy and fear and loneliness in his belly, and Matt’s obvious jitters did nothing to calm him down. Andrew’s fingers curled tight onto the edges of the wood, and he said, “You can talk to the both of us or leave.”

Rude ,” Neil told him, swatting him on the arm with one of his gloves. “Do you want to go somewhere else?” He asked Matt.

“Nah, it’s okay,” Matt said, looking very much like it was not okay. “Gotta get it over with eventually.” He gave a queasy smile to both Andrew and Neil, which only the latter gave him an encouraging nod for.

“I, um,” Matt continued, “Was wondering, um, if you knew if Dan was, uh, dating or open to dating or maybe interesting in dating anyone?” By the end of it his face had bloomed an impressive red and his voice reached a near-squeak.

It wasn’t what Andrew had been expecting, and he had a moment to feel relief flood through him before Neil made a strange, squawking noise. “You like Dan?” He 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 uh,” Matt swallowed hard, “Dan’s amazing on court and absolutely beautiful. I really, really like her and I don’t want to make her uncomfortable by asking her out if all it’ll do is make us awkward. Or something like that.”

Normally Matt was a lot more articulate, Andrew mused, relaxing his grip on the bench. Matt’s nerves were wrecking his ability to speak coherently, and Andrew allowed himself to find that amusing now that the main threat had passed. Neil looked pleased, which probably meant a good thing, too.

“Dan’s not dating anyone right now, and I don’t think she likes anyone either,” Neil said. “I dunno if she’s interested in dating now, but I think she’s okay with it as long as nothing interferes with the season?”

Andrew snorted meanly, because the whole Wymack family was predictable that way.

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

Neil’s grin widened, like Matt was passing every single one of his criteria. The three siblings were close in a way that Andrew had never been with any of his foster siblings, and it was kind of nice watching them look out for each other. “Ask her,” Neil finally approved, reaching out to give Matt an unnecessary push in their captain’s general direction. “It’s just the season.”

“I’ll do it after practice,” Matt promised. He was almost skipping in delight. “Thanks!”

They watched him jog away, before Neil turned back to Andrew and said, “There’s no way he’ll hurt Dan but if Matt messes with the season, he’s dead.”

“Of course,” Andrew muttered sarcastically under his breath. He scooted a little closer to Neil, so their gear was touching and Andrew could imagine leaning into him, and prompted, “Which is better for fighting off a zombie invasion: the cooking rooms or woodshop?”

 


 

Andrew hadn’t stayed after practice to gawk at Dan and Matt, so it wasn’t until the next day that he saw them walk into the lunch hall holding hands. They were smiling and happy, and in a moment of weakness Andrew glanced at Neil and thought, what if . He slid into the space at the end of the bench beside Renee - since Neil looked squished enough between Kevin and Allison - and they spent the rest of lunch continuing a previous discussion 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 that they must be eons of innovations ahead of Earth while Renee had more optimistic opinions.)

The rest of the day passed as usual - Andrew barely paying attention because his memory was good enough to push him through, the teacher’s voice a boring drone.

At practice Andrew pulled on his runners and started jogging around the gym alone, since Renee was busy writing an in-class assignment and normally he preferred jogging with her to dying beside Neil. He was halfway through his first round when Neil lapped him, and Andrew rolled his eyes at his insane pace. It was both surprising and gratifying that Neil chose to slow down, cockily jogging backwards and keeping up with Andrew easily.

“Is that necessary?” Andrew huffed, both annoyed and impressed. Neil shrugged but turned around, seamlessly changing his speed to Andrew’s pace.

“You should ask Renee out,” the idiot said, voice unfairly even. 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,” Andrew told him, and looked pointedly ahead.

“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 say. Renee knew, after he came out to her when she warned him about Allison’s latest bet, but she definitely wouldn’t out him. “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.

“Just because you played a role in getting them together doesn’t mean you should involve yourself in my love life,” Andrew warned. What he meant was, You should totally get involved in my love life by kissing me right now .

Neil frowned, a tiny furrow of his eyebrows that always made him look unreasonably cute. “I’m not trying to,” he defended.

“And you’re doing a bad job at it.”

They jogged in silence for a while, the coach calling out a loud, “Three minutes left.”

Finally, Neil said, “I want you to be happy.”

Andrew wanted to snap at him, because how unfair was that? He wondered what Neil would say if he came out right then and there, and instead slowed down so he wouldn’t do something stupid. Neil got part of the hint, since Andrew knew that he hated running so slowly, and stuck out his tongue at Andrew before returning to his usual speed.

Andrew let Neil and Kevin’s yells as they raced through the last few laps drown out his thoughts.

 


 

Something out there was conspiring to screw Andrew over because for some reason, everybody seemed obsessed with dating.

Allison and Seth were being loud about their anniversary - did it count after the number of times they’d broken up? - and Dan and Matt were still being gross. Renee kept skipping sparring session for what Andrew suspected was a secret boyfriend and by Wednesday, Kevin had already turned down a girl on account of the fact that she didn't know how Exy worked.

Worst of all was the freshman girl 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. He was so engrossed by a YouTube reel of last night’s game highlights that Kevin had to impatiently snap for his attention, which made the girl’s friends squeal in laughter.

Andrew was pretty sure that she was in student council, popular and pretty and everything he wasn’t. He’d always known that Neil was too handsome and bright to slip under the radar, but a dumb part of him had hoped that Neil would stay single long enough for him to work up his courage. Instead, he sank a little deeper into the bench and clenched his fists so hard that Renee had to nudge him to stop. As little crescents bloomed in 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, uncomfortable and nervous, his eyes darting around as if he could make a run for it. Most of the team had quieted, unsubtly eavesdropping in on Neil and the girl.

“Sorry,” Neil was saying, his hand going up to tug on his own hair. “I’m not interested in, um -”

“You’re gay?” Asked the girl, who's put-out expression was replaced quickly replaced by something almost offensively curious. Her friends’ eyes were wide and Andrew’s heart felt like it might burst from his chest. Hope bubbled up inside of him and Andrew found himself leaning in too.

Neil blinked. “No,” he said. “I don’t swing.”

Beside him, Kevin didn’t react, too busy scrawling out last-minute homework. Dan let out an exasperated snort from where she sat next to Matt, and muttered something about letting a girl down nicely. Neither of them looked at all surprised.

Renee turned to Andrew and opened her mouth - either to say something in sympathy or pity, it didn’t really matter.

Andrew’s chest felt tight, like he was suffocating on his own dumb feelings. He’d assumed that Neil was straight - probability and all that - but there had always been that little bit of hope that maybe his best friend felt the same about him. 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, Andrew thought, would be better than the cafeteria right then, sitting half a table away from the boy he liked, who would obviously never like him back.

 


 

That night was spent on an incognito window Googling variations of “don’t swing” until Andrew finally ended with the terms like asexual and aromantic . Renee offered half-hearted suggestions about still asking anyways, since Neil had never specified about being both, but she kindly didn’t say anything about Andrew’s distraction during their sparring practice.

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

Andrew had spent a long time hoping that it would.

 


 

By Halloween, Andrew was doing his best to at least pretend that he didn’t have his stupid crush. He accepted the Wymacks’ invitation to hang out and watch lame horror movies, and spent a large chunk of the night trying not to think about how handsome Neil looked when dressed like a miniature devil.

(Andrew, who for the first time in years was wearing a costume, did not think about cheesy vampire romances, and most definitely did not think about pressing Neil against a wall and sucking love bites onto his neck.)

“Hey!”

Andrew jumped and yanked his hand away from the candy bowl, trying not to seem too much like he’d just been caught red-handed. He did his best to give an innocent smile around the plastic fangs Cass had somehow convinced him to wear and Neil’s mouth twitched in response. He didn’t seem pissed to find Andrew filching chocolate bars meant for trick-or-treaters and soon gave in with a little huff of laughter.

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

“If it were up to Kevin, you would be passing out granola bars,” Andrew told him, and was rewarded by a startled bit of laughter.

“He’d make you run a lap around the house before giving you anything,” Neil gasped out.

Andrew grinned. “No, twenty push-ups.”

“Burpees!” Neil said, and they both snickered. Neil bumped his shoulder into Andrew’s in a friendly, bromance-y sort of way, but Andrew was enjoying making fun of Kevin too much to really mind.

“Y’know, I wouldn’t mind making another trade,” Neil finally said once they’d both calmed down. “You help me with my English essay and I’ll sneak you whatever leftovers we have.”

“Deal.”

“C’mon.” Neil grabbed Andrew’s wrist and pulled him from the entrance hall back into the living room, the laughter returning when Andrew almost tripped over the edge of his too-long vampire cloak. “Dad’s choosing the next one.”

Dan passed him a cup of something bright green and fizzy, only winking and saying,”It’s a surprise,” when Andrew asked what it was. He took a sip and was relieved to find that it only tasted of citrus. Neil tugged him down onto the nearest couch as the movie started playing.

Their hands were still close, and Andrew could imagine how easy it’d be to close that little gap. Squished between Kevin and Neil on a couch that was really only meant to seat two people and listening to the siblings squabble, he 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 to him that he refused, but eventually Andrew agreed to let her treat him to his favourite foods - even just buckets of ice cream, if he wanted - for dinner.

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

At school it was a little different.

“Hey,” Neil greeted him, shoving himself into the too-small space of bench on Andrew’s empty side. Even pressed against him (which was really, really nice), his ass must have been hanging half off the end, so Andrew scooted a little closer to Renee to give him some room. He hoped he wasn’t blushing, but his warm face said otherwise. “Happy Birthday.”

Around the table, his teammates chimed their own congratulations. Neil fished around his backpack for a bit before finally pulling out a stained Lock-n-lock container, its clear plastic revealing the absolute mess inside.

“Kevin made us get you dark chocolate,” Neil told him, searching a bit more for a fork. “Said even that’s pushing it.”

Andrew snorted but thanked them anyways, finding that the cake still tasted good enough if he blended all the icing in. It was a messy affair, what with Neil’s backpack being a disaster and the boy himself laughing at the chocolate staining his mouth. Andrew bit his tongue before he did something irreparably stupid, like daring Neil to lick it off, even though he really wanted him to.

He pretended to be offended when Neil stole a strawberry from his container, and on his other side Renee absconded with a blueberry.

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. Dan crept behind him and shoved a crushed cone hat onto his head, and only 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 hole in his) once he’d pulled off the hat with exaggerated disgust. 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, to all of them. His backpack was heavier than before and a grin creeped its way onto his face, so he quickly turned away before they could see and shuffled to his next class.

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

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

 


 

On some nights - usually when Andrew was feeling particularly gay for his best friend - he’d dream of Neil.

Andrew would dream of Neil beneath him and smiling, bright eyes half-lidded and hair mussed. They’d be sweaty, in a hot-and-sexy sort of way instead of a gross-and-Exy way, and dream Andrew would make a trail of kisses going all the way up dream Neil’s body, to his mouth, before going all the way back down. Dream Neil would sigh and tangle his fingers in dream Andrew’s hair and -

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

 


 

They already knew that they’d make it to state championships in the spring, but the team still cheered and laughed and hugged anyways when they won their final game before the start of winter break and end of regular season. Dan ran to Matt, who swung her around and gave her a kiss, while Allison yelled something rude at the two of them. It was hypocritical because Seth had pulled her close, even though she eventually moved away for a girls-only group hug. It was theirs and Seth’s last year, and soon enough Andrew found himself being swept up in Renee’s ecstatic hug.

Neil and Kevin - who were doing their usual post-game, “You should have done this ” and, “How could you miss that shot?” - noticed and moved the celebration over to them. Before long, Andrew was surrounded by his friends, Neil giving him a tight squeeze and saying, “You were amazing.”

He was giddy in his own way, and even though Andrew wasn’t tripping over himself and screaming like the rest of the team, it was still nice knowing that they’d keep playing once championships began. Over near the bleachers, Kevin was gushing with Wymack over the plays, as if his father didn’t already know. He and Neil had made fools out of the other team’s defense, while Andrew and Renee only let in four goals total, with Matt and the backliners pushing the opposing strikers to behind the first-fourth line. The other team had been nowhere near championships level, but the big win was still enough to put everyone in high spirits before the holidays.

Of the team members that Andrew cared about, only him and the Wymack siblings 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 town to visit her parents, opting to close Fox’s rather than have the siblings work over winter break.

Andrew was pretty sure they’d be spending most of the extra time practicing Exy, and wondered if he’d get yelled at if he refused to play every day. He could imagine huddling up with a big thermos of hot chocolate while they ran themselves ragged out on court.

On the last day of school, Andrew let Renee give him a quick hug. He promised to text her, then went to meet the Wymack siblings at Dan’s locker.

There wasn’t any snow, but it was cold enough that a fine layer of slippery frost covered the sidewalks to Wymack’s house. Kevin swore the second time he nearly fell, and they all laughed at him. When they got to the house, Neil immediately dragged Andrew upstairs to check on Nicky, whose excitement at Andrew’s arrival nearly gave away the fact that he’d been slipping the gerbil treats for the past month.

Dan managed to convince Kevin to relinquish the remote, citing that they’d already seen that particular game rerun three times, and they all settled down to watch the first Harry Potter movie, which they insisted Andrew see after finally reading the books. He was busy making fun of the kids’ shitty acting skills when Neil turned over in his sleep and flopped his head onto Andrew’s shoulder. It took all his willpower to fight the urge to wrap his arm around Neil, and he squinted at the screen to distract himself.

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

“Permanent?” He asked dryly. 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. He head-butted the side of Andrew’s head and kicked out blindly at Dan’s leg before falling off the couch when Andrew pushed him.

“Seriously,” he moaned groggily, his glare alternating between Dan and Andrew. “You weren’t going to stop her?”

Andrew rubbed his head pitifully and demanded some ice cream as retaliation. 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, which surprised Andrew not at all. He shivered at what must have been the thought of all 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 over the weekend?”

Dan laughed at the two of them but didn’t argue, a fierce smile on her face. They chorused goodbyes and waved at Andrew, who didn’t look forward to the walk home as the sky quickly became 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, hovering around Andrew as he struggled out of his shoes.

“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 his gaze. It could have been the danger in Drake’s smile, how his voice would turn syrupy smooth when speaking to Andrew alone - with either of his parents around he was loud and boisterous and ceased to set off alarm bells in Andrew’s head.

Eventually Andrew decided that it must be related to an old ingrained fear. Drake was training for the Marines, and years of foster homes had made him instinctively wary of anyone capable of hurting him. He figured he could just avoid his foster brother as much as possible throughout his stay, and count down the days until the twenty-seventh, when Drake was set to leave. Andrew supposed that it was 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 New Year’s too.

He waited.

On the twenty-first of December, Andrew spent most of the day between his room and the family area, where he silently listened to his foster parents talk with their son. He tried to convince himself it was jealousy, and treaded lightly to avoid incurring any anger or fists.

On the twenty-second, he escaped the house to practice with the Wymack siblings at 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 switched to play as Kevin’s backliner mark. (Andrew couldn’t remember if Neil’s ass was quite so nice the last time he played defense, and spent a lot more time distracted than any of the siblings would have approved of.)

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’ delight at Andrew finally taking initiative almost made him forget what awaited him at home.

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

On the twenty-fifth, half surprised that the Spears had lasted his long, Andrew sent a quick “Merry Christmas” text to his friends before making his way downstairs. He opened the presents from Cass and Richard and watched cheesy Christmas films with them for the rest of the day. Patting his shoulder with a touch that lingered, Drake apologized for not having a gift for him.

And on the night of the twenty-fifth, Andrew’s first Christmas with the best family he’d ever had, Drake came into Andrew’s bedroom.

 


 

Andrew lay awake in bed after his foster brother left, and wondered why . The only answer he could come up with was because Drake could tell he was gay.

 


 

Morning came and Andrew had never hated himself more. He was sore, pain spiking 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 keep quiet.

Andrew knew what had 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, the blame twisting itself 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.

Light was already streaming in through his window, bright but with none of the warmth, and Andrew closed his aching eyes against it. His friends 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 threatening to finally release itself. Downstairs he could hear Drake telling his parents stories about a concert he and his friends had gone to.

Right. Drake was the biological - real - son. Andrew was temporary.

Cass and Richard were the best parents he’d ever had. Will ever have. He needed to keep them.

Andrew forced himself to get up, the world dizzying for a moment before righting itself. He thought of the Wymack siblings, the one good thing in his life that hadn’t been ruined yet, and hoped that their dad wouldn’t mind it if he came over early.

His bedroom door didn’t lock, and a part of Andrew wanted to laugh at the irony of it. For safety reasons . Too bad Cass couldn’t promise that her son would respect Andrew’s privacy the same way she and Richard had.

The thought of undressing in his room, of being vulnerable, made Andrew feel ill. Somehow he managed to drag himself into the bathroom to change and wash the invisible dirt off. Scrubbed raw, he pulled on the loosest and thickest clothes he could find before making the inevitable attempt downstairs. He had to stop after the first two steps, belatedly remembering that he had left his phone in his room, and then struggled the rest of the way down, using the railing to keep himself from falling.

Somehow, Andrew managed to make his face blank enough in front of Cass and Richard that neither of them said a thing. He said he wasn’t hungry enough for breakfast, and forwent a jacket in place of leaving the house as soon as possible.

(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 a crumpled set of sweats. “Oh, you’re early,” he said. “Merry after-Christmas. Dad and Dan went out to get McDonald’s for breakfast. Kevin’s still sleeping.”

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

(Andrew hated himself.)

Neil closed the door after him as he bent down to pull off his shoes, and pain shot through his body. He couldn’t hold back his flinch nor his grunt, and looked up to see Neil’s smile fading 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 because something unreadable flashed across Neil’s face before he 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 and he was supposed to be pretending everything was normal, so he nodded his head okay and trailed Neil to the stairs.

Going up was agonizing. It ached every step, and before long Andrew’s legs were too shaky for him to ascend without clutching the railing for support. There was no way for Neil to not notice, but thankfully he didn’t say anything. Instead, he took each tread just as slowly as Andrew, for which he was quietly grateful.

They were both silent passing by Kevin’s room, and Neil let Andrew into his room before pulling the door closed behind them. Anxiety flared up within Andrew, a new feeling of being trapped that he fought to push down, and he stumbled over to Neil’s desk chair before he started having a panic attack. Thinking about Drake, the claustrophobic darkness, and being stuck beneath a body wouldn’t do any good.

“Andrew,” Neil said softly, stepping towards him carefully. He cast a glance at his bed, where they usually sat, before collapsing his legs under him and seating himself cross-legged on the floor in front of Andrew. It put Andrew higher, made Neil look more vulnerable than he felt, and somehow managed to comfort him. Neil looked at him sadly, like he knew.

The sky outside Neil’s window was pale, almost greyer than blue. It looked just as chilly as it had felt, earlier, and Andrew was suddenly aware that he was shivering under the team hoodie. He refused to look at Neil, and instead focused on the ugly siding of the neighboring house.

For a while Neil seemed to struggle for words. “Something’s wrong,” he finally settled on, which was both true and not a question.

Andrew answered anyways, in the honesty his friends deserved after all these years. He nodded, still looking away.

“You’re hurt,” Neil continued.

Andrew paused, hesitated, and nodded again.

He glanced back for a moment to see that Neil had closed 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.”

That would’ve have made too much noise.

“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, and he seemed to stiffen in response. “What did Drake do to you?”

It was easier to look out Neil’s window than at the boy in front of him. Andrew’s 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 back at him, maybe wanting to drink in one last look at his best friend before being kicked out of his room and life forever, maybe wanting to see the disgust on his face.

Neil had a habit of never doing what he expected. Instead, once he caught Andrew’s eyes, he scooted closer and very carefully 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, familiar instead of horrifying. Andrew remembered the way they’d knock their bodies together, of how comfortable their post-game hugs were despite the gear and sweat.

“Do you need anything?”

No , Andrew meant to stay, because he also remembered Cass and Richard, and his dangerous hope for a home. His body was a traitor, and said, “I can’t go back tonight.”

Weaknesses like that were dangerous.

Neil didn’t take the open shot. He knew Andrew too well for that. “You haven’t told anyone else, have you.”

Instantly Andrew grabbed at Neil’s hand and squeezed. “You can’t tell anyone,” he said, panicked and nauseous at the idea. He was fifteen, he was close, he couldn’t lose them -

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 moment, Andrew refusing to look at Neil and Neil refusing to look away. Stop staring , Andrew wanted to say, but couldn’t bring himself to.

“Make another deal with me,” Neil finally said. It was their game - little trades like candy for Exy, homework help for distracting Kevin when he’s being particularly obsessive. Neil’s hand was still tightly clamped between both of Andrew’s, and the tiny twitch of his fingers prompted him to release them. Neil brought his hand back 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’ll find somewhere else to sleep and you’ll be safe.”

Andrew’s body tensed, and he was terrified of what his end of the deal would be. Neil wasn’t ostracizing him like he’d expected, and it was only a matter of time.

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

What ?” Andrew demanded. Abby owed Fox’s Sweet Shop , but was away most holidays and Andrew didn’t know what Neil was aiming for. He’d 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 safe 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 eon 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.

 


 

The story was that Andrew had joined Neil on his morning run and pulled a muscle. Neil, who was an almost concerningly good liar, thought of everything, from Andrew’s still-damp hair from his shower, limping gait, and need to borrow a few painkillers. Andrew was vaguely impressed, and suffered through Kevin’s scolding lectures about the importance of proper stretching silently.

He suspected that Kevin would’ve demanded that he come to watch them condition anyways, if the others hadn’t teamed up to defend him. Neil and Dan pointed out that it wouldn’t do Andrew any good if he couldn’t regularly ice himself, and Wymack protested that it was more likely for Andrew to strain himself.

(Andrew had the feeling that Wymack knew they had lied, but couldn’t imagine a reason for why he’d play along.)

Finally Kevin stopped fussing and he and Dan left, Neil staying behind to keep Andrew company and prevent another injury that Kevin was convinced would happen. He sat at their dining table and watched Neil and his dad throw away their food wrappers, picking at the fries they’d left for him.

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

Wymack’s eyebrow went up, in an almost performative way. He looked at Andrew sadly, as if he could figure out what was wrong - why Andrew would want to spend his holidays with another family - before finally delivering the verdict with a sigh. “As long as the Spears know, he said. “I don’t want them to think he’s gone missing.”

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 before you call Cass,” Neil said, digging through his drawers for suitable clothes to give Andrew as pajamas. Despite Neil being slimmer, the two wore the same sized clothing and Andrew was doing his best to suppress the blush that rose at the idea of wearing Neil’s clothes . He watched Neil from his reclaimed spot on the desk chair, but found his eyes already drooping sleepily.

“Why?”

A t-shirt was tossed onto the bed, followed by a pair of sweatpants that Andrew specifically remembered 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 we were in the middle of our Harry Potter marathon or something.”

Andrew leaned back into the chair, spinning 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 natural talent,” he said to the ceiling. “Could’ve been a con-artist in a past life.”

Andrew was thinking of something more like a runaway, but he wasn’t sure why. He counter-span himself, and studied all of the little sticky-note doodles littering Neil’s desk. They spent the rest of the day lazing around - watching videos online, talking about anything that came to mind, making fun of Kevin’s sniffles and teasing him about an impending cold - and then finally turning on Prisoner of Azkaban once Neil had calculated that the series would take them late enough.

It wasn’t really a surprise that Neil’s advice was sound when he finally called Cass part way through Order of the Phoenix . Neil gave him an impish grin, but stifled his laugh when Andrew swatted him to stay quiet.

“Are you sure?” Cass asked for the upteenth time. “Drake’s leaving 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 were hoping to finish the rest of the movies tonight, so it’ll be late by the time we’re done.”

He could imagine Cass’ frustration, even though he felt completely opposite. “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 given the chance to be independent.

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

Good, Andrew thought. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning in time to say goodbye,” he promised instead, a queasy feeling in his stomach.

Cass sighted into the mouthpiece of her phone, but Andrew’s admission had its intended effect. “Alright. Be careful, okay. Text me when you’re coming home.”

“Okay,” said Andrew. “‘Night.”

“Good night, Andrew,” Cass said, and Andrew pressed the “end call” button. He tossed his cell phone onto Neil’s bed in frustration as Neil got up to find him a new pillow case.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t drool,” he said to lighten the mood, switching around the pillows anyways and grabbing a blanket. Andrew gave him a little half-smile in response. Neil continued, “Make sure you can lock and unlock the door, ‘cause short of passing you a screwdriver underneath 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. Even if it didn’t hold it was loud, and the security of having a locked door, even this far away from anyone like Drake, made him more grateful than ever for Neil.

He left so Neil could change, then the two of them made their way into the living room. Neither Kevin nor Dan had anything to say 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 made a face, but finally agreed to sharing Kevin’s twin bed.

They made themselves comfortable as Dan popped in the disk for the first part of Deathly Hallows . Andrew, who had gotten up in the morning feeling 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 because he didn’t really want to fall asleep there. By the time Nineteen Years Later ended, only Dan and Andrew were awake, and the two of them were tasked with watching Neil and Kevin stumble up the steps and making sure they were able to cram themselves onto the same bed.

“G’night, Andrew,” Neil mumbled sleepily. Kevin only grunted from the other side of the makeshift pillow barrier that they 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 lazily waved goodnight to him and didn’t seem to mind his lack of response. Andrew went into Neil’s room, twisted the handle to lock the door, and surveyed the bed, which was neat enough if not for the slightly rumpled sheets.

Andrew crawled in, and was surprised to find that what he had always assumed was a lump of blanket was actually a small plush fox, roughly eight inches tall. Its fur was matted but soft, and a small grin teased the corner of Andrew’s mouth as he carefully placed it beside his pillow. Silly as it was, with the way the fox was angled it almost looked as if it was gazing over the room like some sort of guardian.

He laid down and inhaled. The bed smelled like Neil’s soap and shampoo, the cheap, fruity stuff he liked to get on sale, which was absolutely nothing like whatever Drake used. After shifting around, Andrew found himself comfortable laying on his side, back pressed against the cool wall. At last he closed his eyes to the dark outline of Neil’s fox.

Within a few minutes, he managed to fall asleep.

 

Chapter Text

Morning came and everything was different.

Andrew woke up to light filtering into the room, even though he usually kept his blinds firmly closed. Then there was that moment of disorientation, when he realized the wall wasn’t where it was supposed to be. As he slowly woke up he noticed dozens of other tiny things - the vaguely citrus-scented quilted blanket, a small stuffed fox at his head, an excited gerbil squeaking in the corner of the room. It took a few minutes for Andrew to blearily remember he was in Neil’s bed, and another to remember that it had nothing to do with wishful fantasies.

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 proved to be an excellent reminder that Andrew’s body was still horribly sore. Either because of a night’s rest of because he was getting used to it, the pain was slightly more tolerable, and Andrew entertained the thought of just staying there until someone came for him. It was warm and comfortable and he wasn’t looking forward to having to move. Andrew shoved his face into the pillow and sighed.

As if summoned, a gentle 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 trying to make pancakes, so come down if you want any.”

Andrew managed to make a vaguely affirmative grunting noise and buried deeper into the pillow as Wymack’s receding footsteps faded away. Finally he took one last resigned breath and flipped around. Careful to minimize movement, Andrew slowly rose from the bed, hissing at the cold air.

He hefted Neil’s blanket - which was thick and so, so warm - around his shoulders and shuffled to the door, briefly pausing in front of Nicky to give his fur a quick pet. There was no way to arrange the blanket so the bottom wouldn’t drag across the floor, but it was too cold for Andrew to consider leaving it behind.

The stairs, easier to handle than the day before, were another tedious trip that Andrew had to stumble through, each step punctuated by a resounding thump . Before long, a flour-covered Neil came out of the kitchen to check on the noise. By the grin on his face and the way his 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?”

“Nearly a C+,” Neil said sourly, referring to the mandatory course both of them had to take freshman year. “The teacher didn’t like me.”

Most teachers weren’t fond of Neil’s backtalk, Andrew didn’t say. Instead, Dan called from the kitchen, “Neil!”

“Coming!” He shouted back before turning to Andrew, his wide smile fading into something more unsure. “You were okay last night?”

“Yes,” Andrew said honestly. He’d slept well, better than he could have imagined, and woke up feeling safe. Neil’s face softened and he jogged back to the pancakes as Andrew adopted a slower creep into the dining room.

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 carefully seated himself in the one mismatched chair that had been pulled out for him the night before. Despite the loud bickering coming from the kitchen (and a little bit of burnt smell), 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 right 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 his nose. Those thoughts had been what got him into the whole mess.

Their breakfast was fairly quiet - Andrew and Dan both made fun of Neil for falling asleep during the climax of Deathly Hallows Part Two the night before - and it was easy to imagine what life would have been like if this was the start of every morning. The pancakes tasted good enough drenched in maple syrup, and Neil chugged a whole glass of milk like it’d help him grow any taller (even though he had already surpassed Andrew). They were interrupted by a loud noise 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.

Finally Kevin came into the kitchen, banging his elbow into the doorframe. His hair was plastered up and messy, and he squinted furiously at everyone else.

“You breached the pillow barrier,” Neil informed him, breaking the silence. “And then you wrapped yourself around me like an octopus. I couldn’t breath.”

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

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

“Fuck you too,” Kevin told the rest of them as his dad sighed out 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. As Kevin dumped a plate of fresh fruit onto the table, Andrew’s ringtone started. Everyone else at the table quieted for him.

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

She started the call 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. The last thing he wanted to do was say goodbye to Drake, 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 back 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 and wondered if the Wymacks would mind if he just curled up and died on there.

“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, even though he really should have after everything Neil had done for him. Andrew shrugged, which he knew Neil would take as an “Okay”, and relinquished the blanket around his shoulders.

“Wait a sec,” Neil said before racing up the stairs. He came back down in less than sixty of them, wearing his usual grubby jeans and team hoodie, carrying Andrew’s clothes, and passing him the bottle of painkillers.

The walk back to the Spears’ house was quiet until they turned the block. “You know it’s not your fault, right?” Neil asked.

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

It was an obvious evasion, and even though Neil stuck out his tongue at Andrew, he didn’t press. “Dan bought him for me a few years ago, when she found out about - nevermind. I like him,” Neil said, in a flippant tone 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,” Richard said in surprise over his mug of coffee. “We didn’t hear you. Sleep well?”

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

Cass soon came into the room looking frazzled. “Hi, Andrew. Good morning, Neil. Sorry about the mess, Drake’s still packing to leave. His stuff always ends up everywhere.”

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

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, who was thankfully mostly hidden by his usual baggy clothes, before he turned back to Andrew and smirked. Rage swept through him and Andrew wanted nothing more than to step in front of his friend, 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, knocking his shoulder into Andrew’s. The touch jolted him 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 horrible churning in his stomach.

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 Drake left, always keeping himself within a foot of Andrew and interrupting them when Drake suggested privately saying goodbye. He charmed Cass and Richard, like always, and soon they were distracted enough that they didn’t notice every time Andrew flinched.

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 Cass and Richard before driving off. Andrew wasn’t sure what he would’ve done if he had to walk on shells around all of them too.

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, and Neil stood by and waited until Andrew got his laptop and chose where to sit. He didn’t say 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 nearly an hour, making an excuse of Neil’s intrusion throughout Drake’s farewell. Neil eventually got him to pause a compilation as he went downstairs to ask for a glass of juice.

He returned and Andrew watched as he deliberately poured the whole cup onto Andrew’s sheets.

“Guess they’ll have to be washed,” he said in a tone that was less than innocent.

“Clumsy,” Andrew muttered half-heartedly, scooting over and clicking the play button again. At Neil’s insistence, they switched to Exy videos until he had to leave.

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

“Of course,” Neil said. “Anytime.”

(Andrew’s mattress was still damp that night and his ass was doubly sore from sitting on the floor, but he was okay , and that was enough.)

 


 

They were feeling particularly lazy, so Cass and Richard had voted in favour of take-out. As Cass left to get Indian - the spicy curry, which Andrew liked, as well as more milder things for less masochistic tastebuds - Richard caught Andrew’s attention.

“Are there any problems with Drake?” He asked, and Andrew couldn’t tell him that his son was a rapist.

He wondered how many of the Spears’ other foster children Drake had touched, and couldn’t look Richard in the eyes as he quietly said, “No.”

“Are you sure?” Richard pressed, and for a moment Andrew wished that he wasn’t so kind, wasn’t a dream come true. “I’m not mad, it’s just that you seemed to be avoiding him and -”

Andrew interrupted him. “It’s fine,” he lied. “I’m just used to avoiding 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, alright? You know it would mean the world to Cass if you and Drake can get along when we finalize the adoption papers.”

Andrew thought of Drake’s upcoming Marines training and absence. He thought of the promise of a permanent home that would be worth it, and sold himself away. “Okay,” he said.

Andrew Joseph Spear , he told himself, and it sounded right .

 


 

“We better not be practicing today,” Andrew warned Neil, voice deadly in its calmness. He was cold and miserable, the past few days of not exercising enough to make him reluctant to restart. Neil froze for a moment.

“Um, yeah, of course not,” he said convincingly, breath blooming out and swirling up, nose not quite rosy against his skin, but not not . He didn’t look at Andrew and laughed nervously, for effect. “We could play a round of Mario Kart?”

Andrew hummed in response. He bumped his shoulder into Neil’s as they passed the intersection leading to the community center court, and pretended to be unmoved by Neil’s pout and kicked-puppy expression. It cracked into a laughing grin that the bright afternoon light seemed to make glow, and they stumbled into each other almost drunkenly the whole way to the Wymacks’ house.

Andrew helped himself to their hot chocolate mix (which he suspected had been bought specifically for him) as Kevin came into the room. He took one look at Andrew, who was making himself right at home, to Neil fiddling with the TV before opening his mouth to yell at them about skipping practice.

“But Mario Kart,” Neil said, holding the disc box out tauntingly. “Who knows, today might finally be your day to win.”

Practice ,” Kevin spluttered out pathetically. He already looked hooked.

“Mmm, your loss.”

Fire seemed to crackle in Kevin’s eyes and he stood taller. Andrew sipped his hot chocolate and watched in amusement as he tried to stare Neil down.

“Not this time,” Kevin promised. “I’m grinding you to dust.”

Andrew thought that was unlikely, since Neil was ridiculously fast both in the real world and on the virtual race track. Dan groaned in frustration.

“Not fair,” she said. “I have to write applications. You’ll have to kick their asses for me,” she told Andrew, and he simultaneously nodded and rolled his eyes.

Kevin passed him a controller as Dan stomped up the stairs, and the three of them made themselves comfortable on the couch. Before long, vulgar words and empathic insults could be heart throughout the living room. Neil - who apparently played recklessly both on and off the court - barely stayed on the track but still built up a good lead as Andrew devoted his time to picking up items to knock him down a bit.

“You suck,” Neil told Andrew, referring to the sudden flash of lightning on his screen. Having lost all chances of winning, he reached out to pinch Kevin’s side in retaliation for his dirty tactics - it was a lot harder to play when there was someone a good twenty pounds heavier and ten inches taller 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 - and 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 those thoughts aside and distracted himself with trying to shove Kevin onto the floor.

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

 


 

Abby came back into town on the twenty-ninth.

And even though Andrew still didn’t really want to talk to her, he turned to Neil expectantly once he heard the news.

“I told her,” Neil said, taking a deep swig from his water bottle. They were taking a quick break, Andrew bent over panting while Neil stood above him, barely fazed. “She wants to see you later. At one.”

“Fox’s?” Andrew asked.

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

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

“If you mean whether or not she believes you, Abby does. She’s the nurse for Dad’s team, so she’s used to seeing kids who have been abused, even if she doesn’t want to.” Neil looked like he was going to say something else and bit his lip. “She’ll probably smother you, though.”

Andrew snorted, even though a tiny part of him thought that sounded nice. He swallowed down his the lump in his throat, stomach already turning, and finished the rest of the jog with Neil, who complained about Andrew slowing him down to half his usual pace. They suffered through Kevin’s paranoid demands to stretch after, and Andrew was so nervous about his looming appointment that even the little hints of revealed skin where Neil’s shirt lifted couldn’t distract him much.

He barely tasted the food they got after, fast food ordered across a counter so servers didn’t have to smell their sweat. Andrew tore everything into little pieces, and finished much slower than Neil, and then the two of them were walking to Fox’s.

“I don’t need you to guide me,” Andrew said, because he was a little scared and didn’t want Neil to see.

“Then I’m not,” Neil told him, which meant that he was up until then. “Abby wants me to take shift while she’s gone.”

Andrew scowled, and found his body doing an uncomfortable oscillation between feeling soothed and agitated by Neil beside him. The shop bell tinkled as they entered. Abby called out a greeting from behind the counter, coming out as Neil went to take her vacated spot.

“Hi, Andrew,” she said. “I hope you’re doing better now.”

She was nice enough to do this on her holiday, Andrew told himself, and forced his hand to offer a tiny wave. His throat felt closed-up, and he silently followed Abby through the door out into the parking lot. He slid into the passenger’s seat carefully, because for the most part the sitting-down actions were the only ones that hurt anymore, and hoped that he managed to hide his wince. The sad look of pity on Abby’s face said otherwise.

She resorted to friends’-mom-talk throughout the drive - those impersonal, mainly school-related questions that relaxed Andrew just because they were easy to answer. Abby didn’t ask anything invasive, didn’t say anything that doubted his words, and kept to small talk about the holidays and his team’s Exy season.

“I’m glad that high school games are stricter with checks,” she told him. “College games have a horrifying amount of injuries and fouls.”

“You must not have seen Neil play, then,” Andrew said weakly. “He’s a fucking mess.”

Abby laughed and didn’t argue.

She slowly parked into a stall at the university campus, pass already out on the dashboard. If any of the few remaining students wondered what a five-foot tall high school student was doing there, no one said anything as she led Andrew into her office and told him to wait while she got the text 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 went back to chattering about impersonal topics as she took blood and tissue samples. Used to Andrew’s monosyllabic answers, she asked him about 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 wash 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, other than an awkward, “Thanks.”

“Before you leave, take this,” Abby told him, passing Andrew a business card once they’d 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 with a professional is a lot better than keeping it in or unloading everything onto Neil.” The retort died on Andrew’s tongue as he guiltily realized how much he’d been burdening his friend. Abby continued, “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 too hard about what Abby had said.

“I already asked.” Abby shot him a look when he started at that. “I didn’t tell Betsy anything about you, only mentioned that I knew someone in a hard position who could use her help and she agreed. In fact, she recommended giving you her cell number.” Abby grabbed back the card long enough to scrawl down a number off her 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 had 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 goal he had had for the past fifteen years. Somewhere, the Wymack sibling 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 carefully typed out 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 earlier, but Cass and Richard turning to him was.

“Happy New Year, Andrew,” Cass said, pulling him into a hug that he immediately tried to struggle out of. Richard copied her, but ruffled his hair messy 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 had typed in a little heart which made him grin. The messages from both Allison and Seth were pretty tame, and Andrew rolled his eyes at the emoji Exy racquets Wymack’s kids had 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.

 

Chapter Text

Fifteen years.

Fifteen years, twelve foster families, and a set of papers that could give Andrew the home he’d waited his whole life for.

Everything felt unreal, like a dream just a touch too vivid to trust. Cass signed the paperwork first, the tail ends of her name becoming illegible squiggles, before Richard followed suit. There wasn’t a spot for Andrew to sign - which was probably for the best, because his cursive was pretty shitty anyways - and everything was placed carefully on top of Cass’ work stuff so she could submit it in the morning.

It was almost too easy. Andrew kept expecting one of them to suddenly yell “Psych!” or to finally wake up. But he didn’t and they didn’t and it was almost guaranteed that their application would be accepted and god , Andrew wanted this so much.

They took him out to dinner, to a nice, pricey restaurant as some sort of preemptive celebration. Andrew felt light and floaty, the promise of a permanent home and parents who wanted him closer than ever, and he was so distracted he nearly didn’t taste any of the food. He shuffled his green beans onto Richard’s plate, and smiled when they were in turn passed over to Cass, who kept them but gave Andrew her tomato slices. And they were laughing and smiling and the longer Andrew sat there, the more it sank in that he was going to be adopted and the more it felt like he’ll just start flying right out of his chair.

“Are you excited?” Richard asked, which was uncharacteristically patronizing of him but Andrew was too happy to care. “You’re about to officially join the family.”

(Andrew liked how he said it, like Andrew had been part of the family the whole time.)

“Yeah,” he croaked.

“Think you could get used to the name change?” Cass asked him. “We’ll have to talk to your school once the paperwork is accepted.”

(Andrew liked her surety too.)

“I could get used to it,” he said. “It’s only two more letters.”

They laughed, and started talking about maybe fostering another child once Andrew was settled. They still had another bedroom, and Andrew was a little excited for that too. He wondered if they’d be like him, used to being passed around like a cruel game of hot potato, and realized he wouldn’t mind either way. Andrew stopped contributing after a while, still in a daze, but he memorized every second of the night, from the flickering light of the tables’ candles to the fraying edge of his napkin.

And then they were done, all of Andrew’s greens eaten, the bill paid, and thin coats back on. Andrew was pretty sure he was still smiling, because he felt it fade when Cass said, “It’s too bad Drake couldn’t be here for this.”

The floaty feeling abruptly ended, and Andrew was back on the ground. He hadn’t forgotten Drake - couldn’t forget him - but at least he’d managed to trick himself into believing it wouldn’t matter as long as Cass and Richard adopted him.

He’d been stupid.

 


 

Andrew had had no intention of calling Betsy Dobson when he left Abby behind at Fox’s. He hadn’t bothered to enter her number into his phone, just slipped the business card into his pocket to forget about later.

If Cass or Richard noticed his silence on the way home, they didn’t comment. It’d been a big day, and he could get away with pretending to be tired. Andrew didn’t say anything to break them of that illusion, because the horrible sinking feeling in his chest and prickle at the corners of his eyes weren’t something they were meant to know about.

Neil, Andrew immediately thought, before remembering Abby’s words. Neil had held him together for the past few days, but he shouldn’t have to.

What might have been anxiety or guilt or a mixture of both bubbled up in Andrew’s gut as he stumbled up the stairs and shifted through his dirty-laundry pile for Dobson’s number. Calling her at home ( his home soon, he thought dazedly) was out of the question - Andrew couldn’t risk Cass or Richard overhearing anything he said. And he couldn’t afford having his text history around for anyone to find.

He fell asleep clutching the card and woke to find it still intact, edges crumpled messily.

Andrew spent the morning groggy and jittery, torn between just going back to sleep, so he’d never have to call, and getting it over with. It took a while to work himself into crawling out of bed, and the grey sky outside reflected his shitty mood.

“I’m heading out,” he announced to Cass and Richard once he’d brushed his teeth and pulled on cleanish clothes. “I’ll be back before dinner.”

“Alright, have fun,” Cass said, as Richard waved to him absentmindedly. A part of Andrew wondered if they might follow up with “I love you” someday, in the same easy way Wymack did to his own kids, but he ignored it.

He walked out to Renee’s house, zipping up his jacket and burying his freezing hands into the pockets. She was still away and wouldn’t come back until the day before school restarted, so Andrew didn’t have to worry about anyone listening in on him as he called Dobson. He took a furtive glance around, but was pretty sure nobody would bother him. Most of the neighbors had already seen him hanging out with Renee anyways, and he hoped that the rest wouldn’t care enough to call the cops.

Andrew had already memorized Dobson’s number, but he took out the grubby card anyways, carefully double-checking the digits. She picked up after only a few rings.

“Hello, Betsy Dobson speaking,” the therapist said into the phone.

It suddenly occurred to Andrew that he didn’t know how he was supposed to conduct an unofficial session, or whatever this was.

“This is Andrew,” he said, not sure when he could start introducing himself as Andrew Spear. “Abby said I could call you.”

Recognition filled and warmed Dobson’s voice. “Ah yes, she did. I have to confess, I didn’t know what you needed to talk about when I agreed, but I hope you’ll be willing to be honest with me anyways. Are you calling to talk now, or to set up an appointment?”

“Now,” Andrew told her. “If you have time.” He wasn't sure if he’d be able to work himself back up to calling again.

“I still have a hour until my next appointment, so if you’re free right now we can attempt to start a session.”

“Okay,” Andrew said. He distracted himself with the Walker’s flower bed, staring at the small weeds working their way through the soil and the sad remains of one of their perennials.

Dobson waited a beat, then when Andrew didn’t continue, said, “I normally record sessions with patients. As this is over the phone, would you be alright with me taking notes?”

“Would it help?” Andrew asked. He didn’t really like the idea, but if it would make him better faster -

“It usually does,” Dobson told him. “Sometimes being able to go over what you’ve said helps me better determine ways to give you feedback, or directions to take things in the next session. However, these are unusual circumstances and I have to trust you to know what’s best for you.”

And that - that was a strange power to have. Andrew had long been used to adults telling him what to do, up until Cass and Richard and Wymack. Dobson shifted a little closer to them in his eyes.

“Notes are okay,” he finally said.

Dobson hummed into the phone. “Excellent. As we begin, it’s up to you whether you would like to keep to a simple introduction or whether you would like to start talking right away. We don’t need to push anything if you don’t want to, so feel free to talk about anything.”

There was something pleasant about her voice, which annoyed Andrew on principle. But he got this far, and even if he didn’t want to talk to some stranger on the phone about being raped, he wanted to be able to vent to someone who wasn’t Renee (whose kind acceptance and support were always unwavering no matter what he revealed) or Neil.

“An introduction is fine,” he said, not quite trusting Dobson despite Abby’s recommendation.

“What would you prefer, Andrew?” Dobson asked, continuing to lead him gently. “Normally I speak with my patients face-to-face, so it will be a little bit different for both of us being unable to see each other. I could tell you a little about myself, if it makes you more comfortable, or you can start talking about anything that comes to mind.”

Absurdly, Andrew’s immediate thought was of the little trade games he played with Neil. Familiarity was good, he knew, and said, “Truth for a truth.”

“Would you like to start or shall I?” There was a note of approval in Dobson’s tone, and Andrew began to like the way she kept giving him choices. Simple ones, but at least it didn’t feel like she was trying manipulate him.

“Your turn first,” Andrew said.

Dobson paused for a moment, like she was trying to think of something. “You could probably find this from a search,” she said, “But I have a degree in psychology. I work mainly as a therapist for young adults and adolescents.”

“I’m in high school,” Andrew told her, mentally judging how much her truth was worth. “I play Exy.”

“Oh? Is your team good?”

“We’re going to play state,” Andrew told her, and was a little proud of the fact.

“That’s great, congratulations,” Dobson said. Cheer filled her voice and there was something about her that seemed honest. “I’m sure you all worked very hard for it. Perhaps you or Abby can keep me updated.”

Andrew hummed non-committedly.

“Would you like another truth?”

“Sure,” Andrew said, pulling his phone away to check the time. He still had a little over half an hour left.

There was some rustling, and then a bit more silence. Finally, Dobson confessed, “I’ve been having chocolate cravings lately. I know that my health isn’t the best, but the weather seems to be calling for something sweet.” She laughed into the mouthpiece, and for some reason the corner of Andrew’s mouth quirked up.

“I like sweets. Abby sometimes gives me some from her shop.”

“A fellow sweet-tooth,” Dobson said cheerily. “What kind do you like? I personally have a fondness for a nice mug of hot chocolate.”

Even though he didn’t think it really counted, Andrew wouldn’t mind one either - it was still cold, and his breath was puffing up around him. “I like candy bars. The ones with lots of sugar.”

“Oh, have you ever tried truffles or the like? The kinds with fillings?”

“No,” Andrew admitted. “Abby doesn’t stock them.”

Dobson laughed again. “Yes, her selection is really quite appalling. I could send you a box sometime. Or maybe have Abby pass it along,” she offered, and that warmed Andrew to her quicker than anything else.

(After all, it’s how Neil and Cass both warmed him to them.)

“That would be nice, thank you,” he said. And then, because he was feeling generous, “I’m being adopted soon.” It felt good saying it, the thought having buzzed in the back of his mind, and the words tasted sweet.

“That’s great, Andrew,” Dobson finally said. Andrew listened for some sort of falsity in her words, something - “ We wanted to keep you but it just didn’t work out,” - that he was only too used to hearing. Betsy Dobson sounded sincere. “Are you happy with your new family?”

Carefully, Andrew said, “I like Cass and Richard. My foster parents.”

Dobson hummed again, and didn’t give any hints to if she’d notice his evasion. The rest of their hour passed surprisingly easy, each of them offering up little facts of themselves. Andrew found himself relaxing, and complained a bit about the quality of Abby’s candy selection ever since Kevin managed to get a word in and -

And even though he hadn’t said a word about Drake, the actual reason for calling Dobson, he felt just a little bit better.

 


 

It was strange going back to school, in that all of Andrew’s secret fears about everybody somehow knowing about Drake didn’t happen. The holidays had felt like an eternity, like Andrew’s entire life had been altered in its wake, and as far as everyone else at school was concerned, nothing changed. There were talks about presents and extended family members and one kid whose entire family went down sick after Christmas dinner, and aside from the team, no one cared about Andrew’s soon-to-be adoption.

They came back to practice a little sluggish. To Kevin’s vocal relief, at the very least Andrew’s friends had managed to stay in shape. While their other backliners and striker subs lagged behind, Allison proudly gloated about cranking out more pushups than Seth during their vacation, and Matt cheerily talked about training at the gym with his mother. Renee only winked when Allison asked her, but she completed the conditioning easily and came into goal like she’d been practicing.

Water break was called and Andrew joined the rest of the team as Matt tried to explain the massive bruise on his cheek, courtesy of a slow block. Then everybody was falling over themselves to come up with better stories about their holiday, and Kevin was loudly boasting about how the Wymacks had studied and figured out Raven-level plays.

“No way,” Seth said, crossing his arms. “The Ravens are notoriously secretive about their training.”

“Notorious,” Allison echoed with an eyebrow delicately raised. “Big word.”

As they bickered, Neil and Kevin moved into the court, ball in Neil’s racquet. “Okay then, watch this,” Neil told them.

Everyone stood by and stared as he flung a ball at the plexiglass walls, and only Andrew and Dan were unimpressed when it landed perfectly in Kevin’s net, without him having to even move an inch. In an instant, Kevin scored on the empty goal. The wall lit up red, and it really did look like a move right from an Edgar Allen game.

Renee clapped, breaking the silence as everyone, coach included, gaped at them stunned. Andrew bitterly thought about how they’d even made him do it - chucking balls in the corner of the goal and expecting him to deflect them into their racquets - and Neil sent a huge grin their way.

“Holy shit,” said Matt. “Teach me.”

Suddenly cones were being set up and Kevin was yelling at everybody about proper form. Seth yelled something back - a particularly creative bit about Kevin’s head being so stuck up his ass he could wear it as a hat - and Neil and Dan were trying to show Renee how it worked as goalie.

Andrew trailed over to them.

“Hi, Andrew,” Renee said warmly once he’d stationed himself right outside the goal box. “I hope you had a good break.”

Andrew shrugged, trying to convey something along the lines of a casual “okay, even though it wasn’t. “Yours?”

“It was good,” Renee told him. “I missed getting to beat you up.”

“You don’t,” Andrew protested. “As much. Anymore.”

Renee laughed, and then when Dan threw a ball at her, swung. The ball bounced off the wall somewhat in Neil’s direction, but he had to chase after it.

“Short,” Andrew said after the next shot, which dribbled sadly along the floor. “The walls absorb a lot more than you’d think.”

“Got it,” Renee said, determined. She swung hard, and Neil had to duck out of the way. Andrew snorted.

“How about you show me,” Renee suggested, sliding out of the goal with a good-natured huff. She’d done better than Andrew had, the first few times, but it hadn’t taken him long to get the hang of it.

The first shot Dan made was so far into his top-right corner that it was all Andrew could to do stop it, never mind deflect it to Neil. “That one didn’t count,” he told Renee, who made a face at him.

It felt good being back with her, because Renee had always had a calmness the Wymack kids lacked. They traded places every few shots, Neil slowly getting less of a workout until most of the shots at least went in his vicinity, if not quite to him. On the other side of the court, the team was staging a revolution on Kevin and his impossibly high standards.

Andrew still half-expected something horrible to happen, but the only thing eventful was Matt possibly-on-purpose managing to bounce a ball into the back of Kevin’s head.

 


 

That weekend Andrew took an after-Exy detour to Fox’s. Matt and Wymack had joined in, and they’d fooled around with everybody playing different positions. Neil had been a shitty goalkeeper, but Andrew couldn’t help the part of him that died a little at seeing Neil in his gear. He couldn’t remember ever having to run so much, and promised himself that he’d never, ever switch to striker again.

Abby didn’t smile at him as she pressed a sealed envelope into his hands. “You’ll be the first to see the results. Good luck,” she said, and her arms raised in an aborted motion, as if she wanted to pull Andrew into a hug.

Andrew’s stomach was churning, and it felt like his throat had stopped working.

“Thank you,” he finally choked out. Abby had offered to give him the tests for free during her holidays, had given him Dobson’s phone number, would no doubt support him regardless of what his tests said.

Finally Abby’s mouth curved up, and it looked hopeful. “You’re welcome, Andrew. Come to me if you need anything.”

He shook the whole way home, and ran up the stairs before either Cass or Richard could greet him. Buzzing in his ears, heart in his throat, Andrew curled up on the floor at the foot of his bed and slowly tore open the envelope with trembling hands.

He stopped breathing. Then started again.

Andrew’s fingers felt numb as he navigated his phone and called up Neil. The rings seemed to last forever, and Andrew was thinking about how unlikely it was that Neil actually had the sound of his phone on, when he finally picked up.

“Andrew?”

“I’m clean,” Andrew said. “The test results came in and there’s nothing wrong.”

He hanged up before Neil could say anything else.

It felt like the world had restarted, a little. A part of Andrew had been terrified of having to explain an STD to Cass or Richard, another part panicked all over again about how Neil would react (as if his best friend hadn’t stayed by his side enough). And Drake happened , the trauma was still there, but somehow it felt less fresh. Andrew tilted his head to look up at the ceiling and wondered if he’d be able to start talking to Dobson soon.

There was a frantic knocking on his door, and hurriedly Andrew shoved his test results and the envelope under his mattress. “You can come in,” he said, heart beating wildly.

He didn’t have to worry. It was only Neil at the door, and he entered panting heavily (for once), smiling sheepishly as sweat dripped from his hairline into his face and drenched patches of his shirt.

Andrew wrinkled his nose. “You reek.”

“Sorry,” Neil said, coming closer anyways and sitting down beside Andrew when he nodded. “I sprinted all the way here.”

“You shouldn’t have. Now you’ve stunk up my whole room,” Andrew complained, leaning into Neil anyways.

Neil laughed, something huffy and breathless, and said, “I wanted to congratulate you. Also yell at you for hanging up on me.”

“Thanks,” Andrew mumbled again. The longer he sat next to Neil the less noticeably he smelled, and he closed his eyes until he felt Neil turn to him.

“Hey,” Neil said. “I know you normally don’t like hugs, but it always makes me feel better when Dan or -”

“Yes,” Andrew told him. He didn’t normally like the way hugs felt suffocating, didn’t like how he couldn’t remember the last time he’d agreed to one, only that people had done it anyways, but liked Neil and liked how solid he seemed right in that moment.

Carefully, Neil leaned into him and wrapped his arms around Andrew, hands trailing his back. He was still hot from his impromptu run, and Andrew did the same.

They’d hugged before, with layers of gear and too much adrenaline between them. This time Andrew could bury his face into Neil’s shoulder, could run his hands along shoulder blades and the bumps of his spine, could feel every one of Neil’s breaths as they pulled each other closer. Something stung at his eyes, and he told himself it was the sweat turning Neil’s shirt dark.

Maybe it was wrong, Andrew taking comfort in Neil after Drake, when he still couldn’t stop thinking about what his lips would feel like. But Andrew couldn’t force himself to let go.

Finally they pulled apart, and Andrew sucked in a few rattling breaths. His own shirt was damp now, and his skin uncomfortably sticky where Neil had touched him. Like usual, Neil’s head found Andrew’s shoulder.

“Neil?”

Neil shifted, and his fingers absently traced the seams of Andrew’s jeans. “Yeah?”

“If I can’t sleep tonight because of your sweaty stink, the murder-percentage goes up to ninety-two.”

Andrew could probably listen to Neil’s laugh forever.