Neil is the first off the court at the end of practice that day, uncharacteristically eager to hit the showers and get the hell out of the stadium. It’s been a particularly gruelling day at the end of an already taxing week – a home loss to the Panthers followed by a run-in with a rogue Moriyama operative spewing thinly-veiled threats and generally making a nuisance of himself – and Neil really just wants to go home and call Andrew and breathe.
“Hey, Josten!” Carter calls after him as she runs to catch up, her bandana askew and her ponytail swinging wildly behind her. “You got a minute?”
Sighing internally, Neil looks back at the sound of her voice and slows down to wait for her. He tries to keep his reflexive wariness from showing on his face as he returns her tentative smile; from the way her face lights up, he thinks he just about manages it.
He doesn’t know Carter, doesn’t really know anyone on the team yet, but she seems nice enough. She’s a striker like him, and she’s good – energetic and light on her feet, with excellent aim and an ironclad spine. Despite Neil being new to the line and the team and the league, they already make a solid team. Kevin would probably disagree, but Neil has long since learned to tune him out.
Carter starts talking as soon as she draws level with him, jogging in place even though she looks about as tired as he feels. “You know that Rebels goalie– Minyard? Didn’t you play together in college?”
Neil keeps his face carefully blank, out of habit more than actual distrust. “Yeah, I know him,” he says noncommittally. “What about him?”
“I thought we could go over some strategies. The Rebels game is coming up in a couple weeks – never a bad idea to get some insider knowledge.” Carter grins and winks at him conspiratorially, but she’s obviously serious underneath the joking veneer. The Boston Rebels currently rank several places above them in the league; a win against them would be good news, and the team is desperate for anything that could give them an edge.
“Sure, though I don’t know how much use I’ll be,” Neil answers with a shrug, hearing the blandness in his own tone. “I never played against him, and he didn’t put too much effort in at practice.”
Carter frowns at his wry reply, obviously confused. “I thought you two were friends?”
Neil grins, more to himself than to her, careful not to show too many teeth. “We were never friends. I’m pretty sure he hates me.”
Except for how it isn’t.
That’s how it starts. A throwaway comment, nothing more.
But it’s Exy, and it’s them, so of course that isn’t where it ends.
A few days after his conversation with Carter, Neil is approached by their unusually serious-looking captain. On the court, West is dangerous, 6’4 of solid backliner muscle and absolutely lethal in a brawl; off it, he’s unfailingly good-natured and ridiculously approachable. He reminds Neil almost uncomfortably of Jeremy Knox.
“Hey, Josten,” West starts, then falls silent, running a hand through his hair in an uncharacteristic show of uncertainty.
“What’s up?” Neil asks cautiously once a few seconds have passed and it becomes clear West doesn’t know how to go on.
West fidgets once before meeting his eyes and finally spitting it out. “Is Minyard going to be a problem for you?”
Whatever Neil had been expecting, it wasn’t that. He blinks as he stares up at his captain, feeling unpleasantly wrongfooted. “What?”
“Carter told me what you said – she was worried.” At Neil’s uncomprehending look, he sighs and clarifies, “Obviously Minyard has a… history. And with what happened with you and that Moriyama kid–”
Neil stills, surprised for a single, disorienting second; then, abruptly, he is furious. It must show in his face, because West holds up a placating hand, stalling his outburst and looking somewhere between apologetic and concerned. His voice is almost tired when he says, “Just– tell me there’s not gonna be an issue.”
Neil forces himself to take a deep breath, trying to keep a lid on his anger. He couldn’t care less what people think about him, but the fact that everyone still sees Andrew as volatile, as unpredictable, as crazy, and refuses to look further – it’s enough to make him want to lash out, without regard for the consequences. He tries to remind himself that they don’t know any better, that Andrew doesn’t care one way or the other what anyone believes, that being seen as dangerous might actually be useful, but it’s almost impossible to rein in his temper.
“I’ll be fine,” he finally grits out, and winces; his voice is sharper than he wants it to be, an edge of venom coating his words. If West notices that too-obvious crack in Neil’s control, he wisely doesn’t mention it, just nods once in acknowledgement and awkwardly pats Neil’s shoulder before turning to leave.
Neil stares after West as he walks away, his mind racing. His anger melts away more with every slow, measured breath he takes, leaving only confusion in its wake.
It only takes until the next game for things to escalate.
After a three-hour flight up from Atlanta, they play the Rangers at their New York stadium, and it’s an easy win. Neil scores four times and is roped into talking to the press alongside their captain.
The first part of the press conference is uneventful. West is charismatic and amiable as usual, joking around with the assembled press while still managing to give them more than enough actual material to work with. Neil sticks to what is expected of him, mostly keeping his answers brief and clear-cut, if somewhat impersonal.
They’re nearing the end of the press conference when they are asked about their upcoming game against the Boston Rebels. Since the Hawks are slowly edging into play-off territory after their win tonight, the already high stakes are only getting higher. West gives a perfectly professional answer, complimenting the Rebels on their season so far but leaving no doubt about his own team’s ambitions and their intention of bringing home the victory. After he’s done, people turn their attention to Neil, knowing his troublemaker reputation and likely hoping for something juicier.
“We can defeat any team in the league. And we will.” Neil grins as he says it, brazen and confident, knowing exactly how cocky he looks as the cameras flash obnoxiously around him.
The reporter who originally asked the question smiles at him approvingly, then tucks her hair behind her ear and asks, “What about Minyard? You know him from your college years, you were his captain for two years, is there any sense of rivalry between the two of you?” Even though Neil is fully aware she is trying to get a rise out of him, there’s a sly edge to her tone that he appreciates. She reminds him, inexplicably, of Allison.
He knows he shouldn’t engage – despite what people may believe, he has received media training, and he also possesses at least some common sense. It’s still tempting, though – Neil is an instigator at heart, has long since admitted to himself that keeping his head down, while a necessity at the time, had never really been his style. He sneaks a glance at West, who looks mildly apprehensive but is trying to keep his expression unconcerned, and makes his decision. As he leans close to the microphone, he feels himself smirk.
“Minyard may think he’s hot shit, but I can take him.”
It’s obviously a joke, but the press room erupts into chaos, everyone talking over each other at once, demanding clarification and asking follow-up questions as the cameras flash. Out of the corner of his eye, Neil sees West sigh in defeat. It only makes him grin wider.
The team flies back to Atlanta the same night, getting in well past midnight. Neil doesn’t bother to check his phone before falling into bed. He’s asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow.
He wakes up to missed calls from Matt and Kevin and a barrage of text messages from the Foxes: a string of excitable gibberish from Nicky, an undecipherable overabundance of emoji’s from Allison, vaguely concerned messages from both Matt and Dan, and a tersely disapproving text from Kevin.
There’s nothing from Andrew, and he’s barely awake as it is, so Neil responds to all of them with a string of question marks and leaves it at that. Then he switches his phone to silent and goes for his morning run. The crisp morning air and the steady rhythm of his feet on the pavement wake him up better than coffee ever could, no matter how much Andrew scoffs about it.
He turns back after forty-five minutes, not feeling particularly tired but careful not to wear himself out too much after last night’s game. Coming back to his silent apartment, he turns on the television to one of his favourite spots channels and is immediately greeted by the sight of his own face over the headline ‘MINYARD-JOSTEN RIVALRY: FROM TEAMMATES TO ENEMIES?’. Neil snorts and switches the television off again, shaking his head in mild disbelief. The texts from his former teammates suddenly make a lot more sense.
He checks his phone again, scrolling past several new messages without reading them. Most of the Foxes have texted back, and some of his current teammates have reached out as well (Carter’s message seems to consist entirely of exclamation marks), but Neil is really only interested in one specific person. He clicks on Andrew’s name as soon as it pops up.
Idiot, the message just reads. The lack of explanation would have been a rebuff from anyone else, but even from hundreds of miles away, Neil can practically see the amusement curling in the corner of Andrew’s mouth as he types out the one word. He smiles fondly at his screen, his thumb hovering over the call button until he remembers that Andrew is already at morning practice. He sends back a winky face instead, knowing exactly how much it will make Andrew roll his eyes.
Over the next few weeks, the media takes the story and absolutely runs with it. Neil is surprised by the force of the reaction, though he thinks perhaps he shouldn’t have been. After all, people thrive on drama, and Andrew and him are two of the most well-known faces in professional Exy; interest is especially high because they both tend to keep their private lives away from the spotlights.
Before they know it, people around them are being involved as well. Neil catches the tail end of an interview with Matt on ESPN late one night, fresh off the court after a hard-fought victory against the Denver Lions; when asked about the rivalry between his two former teammates, he keeps an impressively straight face, commenting that Andrew and Neil have always had a “unique relationship” before turning back to game analysis; he calls Neil, laughing, as soon as he leaves the press room. Kevin categorically refuses to talk about anything not strictly Exy-related; when pressed, he stiffly remarks that their teamwork had never been a problem. Aaron, when approached by fans and reporters on twitter, doesn’t respond beyond telling everyone to fuck off.
Of course, there’s no shortage of “unnamed sources”, giving the scandalous details that no one else is willing to give, describing violent infighting and petty jealousy among the Palmetto State Foxes and between Minyard and Josten in particular – Dan gets offended on his behalf, fuming on the phone about loyalty and attitude and professionalism, but Neil can’t find it in himself to care; everyone who matters has his back, and that’s all he needs.
Neil himself can’t get through a single interview without someone mentioning the rivalry. Though it gets somewhat tedious after a while, he just grins and doesn’t correct anyone’s assumptions – the rumours are inaccurate but ultimately harmless, and he knows they won’t believe him anyway.
Carter seems to have taken it upon herself to shield Neil from the world as much as possible, taking his place for press duty and viciously shutting down any reporter who won’t take no for an answer. Her protectiveness is unnecessary – Neil is more than capable of taking care of himself, and they both know it – but he appreciates it all the same, oddly touched by the gesture.
Curiously, none of the other Hawks ask him about the supposed rivalry directly, although Neil catches some of them talking about it when they think he can’t hear. Either they are satisfied with West’s calm assurance that it won’t interfere with the game, or they are too intimidated by Neil to ask. Neil frankly doesn’t care enough to figure it out.
Andrew, true to form, doesn’t comment at all – the few reporters who dare ask him about the rumours get nothing but an unimpressed glare in response.
By the time game day finally comes around, the collective excitement is an almost palpable presence, the air thick with frenzied anticipation.
It’s a home game for the Hawks, and their Atlanta stadium is packed to the rafters. It’s mostly Hawks fans in red and white, but they’re accompanied by a substantial group of Rebels supporters sporting their team’s black and orange. During his customary lap around the court before the start of the game, Neil sees several large banners referencing the Minyard-Josten rivalry and smiles despite himself.
Neil pretends not to notice his teammates sneaking glances at him while they put on their gear. He barely hears Coach Anderson’s pep talk or his final recap of the game plan, distracted as his mind thrums with something close to – but not quite – nerves.
Although he talks to Andrew on the phone almost every day, today is the first time in over a month that they will actually see each other, and it will only be from opposing sides of an Exy court. Andrew’s team is flying in and out on the same day; there won’t be time for him to come back to Neil’s place.
They walk onto the court to tumultuous noise; the roar of the crowd is deafening, and the stadium seems to shake with the rhythmic thud of thousands of feet against floorboards. Neil stops to look up at the towering stands with a familiar mix of awe and excitement; the sight is still just as breathtaking as it was the first time he set foot onto the Foxhole Court half a decade ago.
Someone brushes past him on the way to the court, jarring him out of his reverie; though he doesn’t look back, the muttered “Junkie” is enough to give his identity away. Neil stares after Andrew, firmly ignoring the way his heart flutters in his chest at the sight of him. Carter catches his gaze from a few feet away, cocking her head meaningfully in Andrew’s direction as she bounces in place; Neil just shrugs and shakes his head in response, feeling himself start to grin.
Oh, this is going to be fun.
Warm-ups are over in a flash. Before Neil knows it, West and the Rebels captain are striding onto the court for the pre-game handshake and the coin toss; the Hawks win home court, with the Rebels getting first serve. When the starting line-up is announced, Neil runs onto the court after Carter; he doesn’t think he’s imagining the way the noise picks up at the sound of his name. He watches from his starting position on the half-court line as Andrew makes his way to the goal without acknowledging the crowd at all, and stifles another smile.
The game starts out fast and doesn’t let up. The Rebels have a solid offence but an amazing defence, and Neil and Carter have to work tirelessly for every small opening. Neil’s backliner mark, Ardan Hasan, is huge and absolutely relentless, built like a tank and just about as unstoppable; though Neil is faster and lighter on his feet, his reach is much smaller, making it difficult to gain possession or to pass accurately.
Whenever he does manage to get around his mark – Neil hasn’t grown into the powerhouse striker he is by giving up without a fight, after all – there is still Andrew to deal with, seemingly able to predict his every move. He is a sight to behold, blocking every attempt on goal with effortless skill, and without expending an ounce of unnecessary energy; it’s hard to see his expression through the goalie faceguard, but Neil could swear he’s amused by Neil’s growing frustration.
Neil doesn’t score once against Andrew during the entirety of first half, only managing to find the net after his sub takes his place; Carter isn’t having much luck either. Their only comfort is that the Rebels are also having a hard time scoring on the opposite side of the court, West and Yang keeping the Hawks’ defence together admirably; it only serves to strengthen Neil’s resolve.
At the beginning of second half, both teams are balanced at 2-2. Neil continues to run himself ragged without getting anywhere for a solid twenty minutes before he finally breaks free of Hasan and makes for the goal. Though the angle should have been impossible to block, Andrew almost blocks it anyway; his gloved fingers skim the ball, but his reaction is a fragment of a second too slow, and the goal behind him lights up red.
The crowd erupts into noise, cheering with Neil as he celebrates the point, the din loud enough to drown out the sound of his blood rushing thunderously in his ears. When he passes the goal on his way back to half-court, Andrew stops him by stepping over the goal line and straight into his path, his fingers hooking into Neil’s faceguard as he drags him close. “I have thirty minutes after the game,” he tells Neil, his voice even, his demeanour perfectly indifferent but for the challenge in his gaze.
Neil nods without making a move to back down, dimly aware of the crowd going wild around them. He knows exactly how this looks, and Andrew does, too, though he likely doesn’t care; abruptly, Neil laughs aloud at the absurdity of it all. He doesn’t miss the answering glint of amusement in Andrew’s eyes, even if it’s gone almost as soon as it appears; it makes his breath stutter in his chest, a hot thrill of desire rushing down his spine.
Andrew releases him with a shove, soundly ignoring the referee who comes over to shout at him; when they turn to Neil, who stumbled but regained his footing in the next breath, he waves them off with a wide grin. Carter rushes to his side in a flurry of movement, clacking their sticks together with more force than strictly necessary. “You okay?” she asks, sounding worried and half-angry on his behalf. “The fuck did he want?”
“Just to chat,” Neil tells her, and smiles at her disbelieving expression. He’s still smiling when she eventually shakes her head and turns away.
Neil throws himself at the Rebels’ defence with single-minded determination for the remainder of the game. Andrew is subbed off in the final minutes and both Neil and Carter’s sub Rodriguez manage to score once more, but it’s already too late to change the outcome. The final score is 7-5, Rebels’ favour. As he watches the other team celebrate their win, with Andrew a speck of calm indifference in their midst, Neil wonders fleetingly which of the Foxes bet on that outcome.
Neil finds Andrew waiting for him in the away team locker room. He is alone, the rest of his team having already cleared out, and Neil briefly wonders what Andrew told them to be allowed to stay behind.
Andrew has changed out of his Exy gear; he is dressed head to toe in his usual black, with his armbands peeking out from under his sleeves. His blond hair, still damp after his shower, is curling up a little at the temples. He looks good. Then again, he always looks good. Neil takes a measured step closer, his eyes never leaving Andrew’s face.
“Hey,” he says softly, feeling himself smile and doing nothing to stop it. Andrew’s expression doesn’t change, but he’s watching Neil with the same familiar intensity he always does, and Neil immediately feels safe, calm and more settled than he has in weeks. How people can look at Andrew and see nothing but a perpetually blank-faced goalkeeper with an attitude problem, he will never understand.
“Good game,” Neil says, and that gets a reaction; Andrew snorts and gets up from his bench, walking toward him and backing him into the lockers. They’re close but not touching; Neil plants his hands against the cool metal of the locker at his back and curls his hands into fists, reminding himself not to reach out. “At least your sub was kind enough to let us score a couple times,” he says, smirking when Andrew narrows his eyes at him in incredulous irritation. “That’s because Beckett is an idiot,” he says dismissively, and Neil thrills the same way he always does when Andrew indulges his Exy talk.
Andrew huffs, but his show of exasperation is contradicted by the way his eyes continue to rove hungrily over Neil’s face, catching on every scar and mark and edge with something between reverence and lethal intent. “That save in the forty-ninth minute–” Neil starts to say; he breaks off on a quiet gasp as Andrew steps even closer, his gaze dropping to Neil’s lips before flicking back up to his eyes. “Yes or no?” Andrew finally asks, his voice low and slightly hoarse in the heavy silence, and Neil is abruptly burning up.
“Yes, Andrew,” he whispers back, too raw and too earnest, and Andrew closes the distance.
Kissing Andrew is one of his favourite things in life, Neil thinks; it’s overwhelming, but in a good way, freedom and safety and anchor all at the same time. Andrew cups his face with one hand and hums and Neil smiles into the kiss, whole and unbroken and worthy. Andrew taps his wrist once and Neil understands without words, years of familiarity building into a language that is all their own; he brings his hand up to tangle in Andrew’s hair, grounding them both in the present as he lets himself float.
Neil leans down to press a gentle kiss to Andrew’s neck, his lips lingering teasingly over his thundering pulse, and smiles helplessly when Andrew fails to suppress his full-body shiver. That’s been happening more and more often lately, Andrew allowing himself these tiny lapses in control, still more walls coming down between them even after years of being together. Neil revels in it; he cherishes every little bit of trust that Andrew will let him have.
Andrew presses closer and wedges his thigh between Neil’s legs, and Neil moans low in his throat and goes pliant against him, flushed and hot all over, every inch of his body dissolving into Andrew’s. He feels his breath hitch as Andrew plucks at the hem of his shirt, a wordless question in his eyes; he whispers his assent into the corner of Andrew’s jaw, sighs shakily at the sensation of warm hands on his skin, tracing his scars with a fluid kind of ease. That is trust. That, too, is trust.
They’re not going to go further than this. Not here; not today. That’s okay. They have time.
They have time.
They both jump when someone bangs on the door of the locker room, loud and unexpected. “Minyard!” a male voice shouts from outside, “Coach asked me to come get you – the bus is waiting outside, we’re leaving in three minutes!” Judging by the sound of fading footsteps, they don’t seem to expect a reply, which is convenient since Andrew won’t give them one anyway.
Andrew closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, an obvious tell for someone who always keeps his emotions so close to his chest. He doesn’t step away from where he’s boxing Neil in, though he does remove his hands from under Neil’s shirt; Neil immediately feels cold without them.
“I’m coming to Columbia in two weeks,” Andrew informs him. He sounds bored, unaffected, but the fact that he’s saying it at all gives him away. There is a game-free week coming up, and Andrew wants to spend it with Neil in the house they both consider theirs – if this is what nothing means to them, Neil will gladly take it.
Neil grins and presses a last lingering kiss to the edge of Andrew’s jaw, breathing in the familiar scent of shampoo and cigarettes and Andrew one more time before reluctantly stepping away.
“I’ll see you then,” he says, soft and steady, a promise; then he stays behind and watches Andrew go, his pace even, his sports bag slung carelessly over his shoulder. He doesn’t look back once.
When Neil leaves the stadium half an hour later, he smiles all the way home.