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Things You Said When You Were Scared

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“Don’t get involved,” Andrew said as he crossed the room, heading straight for the couch where he’d left his pack of cigarettes. He was in an unusually bad mood, one that piqued Neil’s curiosity enough to stir the pot.

“That sounds like my line,” Neil replied, pulling their door closed before leaning back against it. He watched as Andrew tapped the pack against the heel of his palm before one lone cigarette fell loose and frowned as he added, “Why don’t you like him?”

Andrew’s gaze was a darker shade than usual, and even though he humored Neil with a raw look of annoyance, Neil stood his ground, crossing his arms over his chest. “Well?” he asked, when the answer didn’t come readily enough.

“I don’t trust him.” Andrew stated, his body looking all angles as sunlight caught him from behind. He was a shadow, it seemed, and Neil watched him retreat to their bedroom, where he heard a window grind open.

Neil sighed before rubbing his eyes, tired from a long day. His hair was still damp from an after-practice shower, and he hadn’t dried completely, leaving his shirt with wet spots that clung to his skin. It was annoying, and so he wrestled his shirt up and over his head, feeling less self-conscious these days now that he and Andrew had grown more comfortable with each other, learned to share each others’ space.

I don’t trust him.

The words repeated, and Neil found he wasn’t surprised. Andrew didn’t trust anyone. Neil remembered a time where he’d been the same, and wondered, briefly, what inside of him had changed. He supposed it had been desperation, the want for things he’d never had, if only for a brief period of time. It had mattered so much that he’d been willing to die for a small taste of it - of family, of friendships - of exy.

“Hey,” Neil called as he ventured into the bedroom, leaning against the door frame as if waiting for permission to go further. “I’m being serious. What has you worried?”

A plume of smoke erupted from Andrew’s lips and Neil watched a breeze catch it through the window screen. Andrew didn’t turn around, but his body language was easy enough to interpret. Squared, stand-offish, tense.

The whole of it resulted in Andrew stating, “You shouldn’t talk with him.”

Neil frowned. “Okay. That might be hard, considering he’s my substitute.”

This time, Andrew did tip his head, just enough that Neil could see the light catch Andrew’s eyes from outside. They were hard, focused.

Eventually, they flickered to Neil.

“Don’t get involved.”

Rolling his eyes, Neil tossed his shirt onto the bed and waved Andrew off, deciding to leave it at that. If Andrew had concerns he felt the need to address, he supposed it was best to trust the other’s insight and move on.

It bothered him, not knowing what had Andrew upset.

It bothered him more that Andrew’s eyes darted from his scars so quickly that Neil considered putting back on his still-wet shirt.

“Don’t follow me,” Andrew stated, stubbing his cigarette out on the windowsill, just before squeezing past Neil to leave the bedroom and then the dorm room altogether.

Neil’s pulse found an unfamiliar rhythm, and somewhere down the hallway, he heard a clock tick away the day.

***

“Where go?” Nicky asked, catching Neil as he jogged down the stairwell. He was dressed casually for the night, one hand occupied with a bag of trail mix, the other busy digging chocolate bits from it.

“A run,” Neil said, though he guessed that much was obvious. “Might head to the court.”

Nicky tsk’d and shook his head, feigning disappointment. Bangs fell across his eyes, forcing him to blow them back as he said, “You know coach doesn’t like you running around on your own, right? Especially at night?”

Neil, already dressed for the exercise, shrugged. “I have my phone on me.”

“Is it charged?” Nicky questioned, raising an eyebrow speculatively, lifting a handful of trail mix to his mouth.

Neil thought on it, and when he suspected Nicky had a point, he simply smiled and waved. “By Nicky. Have a good night.” His tennis shoes pounded against the linoleum stairs, and from behind him, Nicky shouted, “Text me when you get back!”

The sentiment had Neil smiling, if only briefly; all of the Foxes had made an effort to keep better track of him, and he was still learning how to handle the responsibility of checking in with other people. Typically he only worried about keeping Andrew informed, but since Andrew had ducked out earlier, Neil suspected it was a good thing he’d run into Nicky on the way out.

It was fall, and autumn rolled in with cool gusts of air that had trees whispering. The pavement felt heavy under Neil’s legs and it occurred to him that he hadn’t really eaten a lot - he’d skipped dinner, wondering about Andrew, trying to figure out what he had about the newbie Wymack had dragged in days previous.

To Neil, there was nothing stranger about him than any of the others - they all had secrets, they all had pasts, but they also all had a love for Exy which brought them together. The new striker was energetic and excited; talkative in a way that gave Nicky competition. He’d been over the moon when Wymack had asked him to join - he, like most of the world, had followed the Fox’s journey, and been left saturated in the excitement that a complete underdog had risen to become a legend.

“Maybe he just doesn’t want another junkie around,” Neil breathed to himself as he rounded a corner, making his way to the court. It was dark out, and a few lampposts flickered hazily. There was a serenity to it, to peaceful roads and the occasional passing pair of headlights, matched with the sloping spill of pavement that lead to the main lot.

Neil’s lips dipped low when he saw Andrew’s car parked, and he slowed beside it, leaning forward to catch his breath. His eyes narrowed as he squinted up at the arena, wondering why Andrew would come here of all places - and then remembered, with an air of annoyance, that Andrew had told him not to follow.

It seemed ridiculous to turn around and head back to the dorms, and so Neil took a breath and picked up his jog again, hoping he might run into Kevin and that they’d do a few drills. He’d gotten into the habit of practicing late, and now, it was impossible to sleep early. Frenetic energy always seemed to bubble beneath Neil’s skin, and he itched to be in motion, to lose himself to the physicality of being on the court, of being in a place where everything was dependent on him reacting.

The air conditioning was cool and nipped at the sweat on Neil’s forehead, and he slipped down the lower hallway and made his way to the locker room entrance, pausing briefly to check for voices. He heard nothing and so he entered, surprised to find the lights off, and the room completely quiet.

The solidarity had him sighing, though he remembered Andrew’s car and raked his fingers through his hair, eyes landing on the door that led to the actual court. He drifted towards it and tugged it open, surprised to see the lights on in full force, and Andrew laying flat on his back in the center of the slicked, paneled floors.

Neil would have left, but Andrew’s head lifted at the sound of the door creaking open - and so he simply ventured forward since it seemed stupid to turn tail and leave.

“I told you not to follow me,” Andrew said, and Neil watched as his head fell back, until he was laying just the way Neil’d found him.

Neil snorted. “You never told me where you were going.”

“You saw my car.”

Andrew knew Neil’s route, and so there was no reason arguing a true point. Instead of replying, Neil pocketed his hands in his hoodie and stepped across the court, stopping when he was only inches away from Andrew’s shirt, which was big enough to be splayed out and around him.

“Why are you sleeping on our court?” he asked.

Andrew’s expression pinched. “I’m not sleeping,” he said. “I was waiting.”

Neil looked around, half expecting to see someone, finding it strange to be in the center of the arena when it was completely empty. It was almost difficult to remember what it felt like for it to be packed, a sea of orange and white shirts and foam fox paws, cacophony of cheers and vicious shouts.

“Oi,” Andrew said, and he shifted just enough to nudge Neil’s heel with his knee. When Neil glanced down, Andrew was glaring up at him.

“Junkie?” Neil supplied.

“The worst,” Andrew agreed.

A comfortable silence settled between them before Neil took a deep breath and sighed. “I take it the newbie didn’t show?”

It wasn’t like Neil was stupid; with all of Andrew’s suspicions, it made sense that he’d try and draw the kid out, get some answers. Since promising Neil to steer clear of drugs in Columbia, it appeared this was Andrew’s new method of feeling people out, and Neil wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about it.

“He showed,” Andrew said, and he looked irritated to admit it. It was amazing how well he wore that look, how much Neil was drawn to his emotional spectrum; maybe because he’d been given the offer to see what was below the surface, and so making sense of it all was like a special gift given only to him.

“He’s not in your trunk, is he?” Neil licked his lips, tossing a lazy look downwards. “Is this the true test of our relationship? Are we burying a body together?”

Andrew opened his mouth to reply, and almost immediately his lips drew back together. His head lulled sideways and like earlier, anger seemed to seep out.

It was unexpected and confusing.

Neil crossed his feet below him and sank to the ground, sitting idly, hands still in his pockets. He decided to press because he wasn’t sure what to do otherwise.

“I didn’t really follow you. I mean, I saw your car, but I was already here, so…”

Andrew sighed. “I’m not going to practice with you.”

“I don’t really feel like practicing anymore.”

That single-handedly drew Andrew’s attention, and he let out a long groan before pushing up onto his elbows. His hair was mussed, and he looked tired, as if he’d been staring up at the lights for a long time.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Neil wasn’t impressed. “Okay, new rule. If I can’t say I’m fine, then you can’t either.”

A sudden sharpness took over Andrew’s expression but it faded as quickly as it came, and then he sank back to the floor, dragging an elbow up and over his eyes.

“I hate you,” he said.

“You keep telling yourself that,” Neil sighed, and then he tugged his hands from his pockets and spun so that he could lay down as well. He drew his hands up and behind his head and waited, since he knew it was only a matter of time before Andrew realized he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Aren’t you tired of me yet?”

The question was tired, and Neil found himself sighing as he traced the beams that supported the ceiling. “Nope.”

“Liar,” Andrew said, and it sounded like he believed it.

Neil let his head roll sideways, too distracted by the conversation to remain averted. He followed the sharp turn of Andrew’s elbow to his nose, down to his lips and farther to Andrew’s jaw, where his neck dipped and disappeared into one of his darker graphic tees - compared the rise and fall of Andrew’s chest to his own before rolling onto his side, concerned.

“Hey,” Neil said, not really daring to touch Andrew, but wanting to tug his arm away from his eyes, to see what expression he was trying to hide. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Andrew tossed back.

“Trying to handle whatever this is on your own.”

“Shut up.”

“Make me,” Neil replied, with no real bite. It had Andrew shifting though, dropping his arm before choosing to mirror Neil’s position, so that they were facing each other, and so that Neil could see that whatever fragility he’d sensed had been overshadowed my irritation.

“The new kid likes you,” Andrew stated, matter of fact. He pinned Neil with a particularly ominous gaze, as if daring him to say the wrong thing back - as if he’d admitted something he shouldn’t have, or gone against his own sense of self-preservation to put the thought out and into the open.

Neil wasn’t entirely sure why he deserved that look. Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “…and?”

It was hard to miss the way Andrew’s chest rose and fell, a sharp movement that matched a huff of air that poured from his mouth. “And,” he said, agitated, “he’s a junkie, just like you - he’s got ambition, just like you, he’s got -”

“Are you breaking up with me?” Neil interrupted, feigning hurt.

Andrew snapped, “Don’t be an idiot -”

“Don’t you be one either,” Neil threw back. “I like you. I want you. No one else has ever even been a blip on my radar.”

Andrew groaned and rolled back onto his back, and this time, Neil pushed up to follow. He crawled closer, hanging his head just above Andrew’s. “I get you,” he said, because it was the truth. He wasn’t stupid enough to not know where this was coming from. Months later, still working on boundaries, still trying fighting demons together and having what felt like very little to show for it.

But Neil liked that.

Nothing about it was boring.

Dipping his head lower, he waited for Andrew to give in, to tilt his chin upward to give Neil a chaste kiss. Neil smiled and asked, “Now that that’s settled…”

“I still don’t like him.”

Neil watched Andrew frown and memorized the way it looked; jealousy was a new thing for them, and he thought he might remember the way Andrew wore it.

“For the record,” Neil offered, “I don’t like him either. Not like that, at least. But I am going to have to talk to him. You know. Because he’s my substitute.”

Andrew’s head came back and one of his arms lifted, dragging Neil down into a much deeper kiss. It had Neil’s lips parting and his heart racing - fast enough that Neil sought out Andrew’s other wrist and pulled it forward, pressing Andrew’s palm flat to his hoodie; he hoped Andrew would feel it there, his pulse beating wildly through his shirt.

“Only you,” Neil breathed, when they slipped apart for air.

Andrew’s eyes caught and held his own, as if he was searching for something - and it was a tangible thing when his tension drained.  Whatever he’d been searching for, he found it.

A loud creak echoed through the space, causing Neil to jump, and his attention whipped to the door he’d entered through, where Kevin was now standing, along with the new addition to their team.

“Ugh,” Kevin pointed at Neil, looking terrified. “Not on the court!”

Neil fought the urge to laugh, but warm fingers found his neck and guided him sideways, where Andrew took to kissing him once again.

It was very obviously for the new striker, and so Neil let Andrew take as much as he needed from the moment before they pulled apart.

“You two aren’t allowed here alone,” Kevin stated as Andrew stood and hauled Neil up. “Now get changed so we can practice.”

Neil opened his mouth, about to say they were headed back to the dorm, but Andrew nodded at Kevin and headed towards the locker room, and Neil found himself saying, “Sure.”

In his pocket, he felt his phone vibrate.

Surprised he had charged it, he pulled it out and chewed his lip at a text from Nicky, asking if he was alive.

Ahead of him, Andrew made a noise - Neil hadn’t realized Andrew had been waiting, holding open the door.

Gonna be late, Neil texted as he took a step forward. He added, But everything’s okay.