It’s always yes. That was Neil’s mantra when Andrew asked the question. When Neil asked, he still got a one-word answer.
He was happy that he did, that they hadn’t moved past asking for every action. When they were together, Neil stopped what he was doing to ask whether he could move on. It gave him a moment to look at them, look at what they were doing, and appreciate it. Their compatibility, their flow, their music that they make. He could assess every jut of bone, every rounded muscle, every raised scar and swollen bruise, everything about Andrew that he got to keep drinking in.
Sometimes it was no, and that was okay.
Neil could deal with it when it was no, but he couldn’t always be alone.
As a child, he was never touched unless it was necessary or violent. The most loving contact he could think of was sleeping back-to-back beside his mother, waiting for something to hurt them. So now, every time someone touched him--be it a grace of Andrew’s knuckles against his own, a pat on the shoulder from Dan, Allison’s fingers against the back of his neck while she cut his hair--he wanted more.
Neil wasn’t stupid. He knew why, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He hated himself for following after Andrew’s fingers, for wanting to do well so Dan would congratulate him like that again, for feeling empty when Allison brushed off his neck and announced that his hair was done.
Some days were worse than others, when he felt so hollow that he needed contact. He would go to Andrew first, ask yes or no? He got a yes often enough. Even if that yes only extended to kisses and shoulders bumping together as they sat beside each other on the couch, it was enough. When he got a no in response, it was different.
Sometimes their bad days collided. Neil needed touch and Andrew needed not to be touched. At first, on these days, Neil would try dealing with the empty, dreading feeling by hugging a pillow or curling up in his comforter. He even tried the Kevin Day method of drinking to forget, but that didn’t work as well for him. If anything, it made him feel worse.
In the middle of his second year, it got bad. Neil wanted more contact and Andrew got further downward swings in the winter. This year it was worse than usual and he said no more often than yes. Neil slept on the couch some nights because Andrew didn’t even want to be in the same room as him.
He sat on the roof sometimes, hoping the colder-that-usual wind would sweep him away. It once started raining with cold, heavy drops and Neil didn’t move. He came back to the dorm soaked and freezing and Nicky dragging him to Abby in case he had hypothermia.
“I know what hypothermia feels like, Nicky,” Neil protested.
“Yes, and you make us all very sad because of it,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Come on, we’re going to Abby’s.”
He was dragged along, finding himself in the passenger seat of the shitshow of a car that Nicky had gotten over the summer, despite Neil’s protests that he was capable of driving the maserati. They got to Abby’s fast enough and she didn’t seem to be busy, letting them in and making hot chocolate for Nicky, coffee for Neil.
“What were you doing out in that rain?” she asked, looking out the window at the distant, long-retreated clouds. She went back to examining Neil’s frozen but mobile fingers. He had been wrapped in one of her larger sweatshirts and bundled in blankets. His hair was still a little damp.
Neil could only shrug in response. It was easier than trying to come up with words to describe his feelings of loneliness, of wanting to feel something heavy and promising against his body. The rain provided that but he didn’t want to say it, too busy enjoying Nicky’s knee pressing into his side where he sat sideways on the couch and Abby’s fingers about his wrist. He didn’t inherently trust either of them, but he trusted them more than he did last year and he trusted them enough for this and thinking the word trust so many times when it didn’t apply to Andrew was giving him a headache. Then he was thinking about Andrew and he tried his damnedest to hold back tears, knowing that the other two would say something about it.
Still, Abby noticed his crinkling chin and shaking hands. “What’s wrong, Neil?”
He just shook his head, trying to jostle free the lump in his throat and shake the urge to sob. “I’m fine,” he mumbled. “Just cold.”
Nicky got up right away to get more blankets and Neil wished he hadn’t. His left side was empty now. Abby had moved to checking his toes, which meant removing his socks, which Neil wasn’t a fan of. He grit his teeth and powered through until she put new, dry socks back on his feet. She took his pulse in his wrist before standing up, hands on her hips.
“Well, you don’t have hypothermia or frostbite or anything else that Nicky was panicking about,” she said with a smile. “Not easy to get those in South Carolina, even if it is fifty degrees out with a windchill of fuck it’s cold.”
“It’s a windchill of thirty-five actually, colder than usual,” Nicky provided, walking out with another armful of blankets. Neil refused them, curling into the ones he had already. He hugged them closer and watched as Nicky lay one across his own lap and sipped at his hot chocolate.
Neil thanked Abby and went back to the dorms with Nicky, forcing him into the passenger seat this time.
“Aw, Neil, you don’t like how I drive?” Nicky teased.
Nicky just pouted and let Neil take them back to the Tower, where Neil fell asleep on the couch instead of bothering with Andrew.
He woke up feeling worse. Turns out Andrew did, too. Kevin was blending a smoothie, making himself louder than necessary, and brewing a pot of coffee because he knew Andrew’s nature first thing in the morning. It seemed he was standing in the way too long and turned to see Andrew scowling up at him, five feet of eye bags and bed head. He jumped a little and moved so he could get a mug.
Neil was already sitting at the table with his coffee. He watched as Kevin had the good sense to take his smoothie and leave the dorm. After he did, Andrew collapsed into the chair beside him and leaned most of his weight onto his elbows.
Andrew glared back. It wasn’t genuine. Neil itched to reach out, to brush his fingers across his cheek, to kiss him and see if the painted-on scowl would melt away, but he knew better.
“I don’t know if you’re mad at me or yourself right now.”
“You never know much of anything, Josten.”
Neil rolled his eyes and took a long sip of his coffee before looking back over at Andrew. His hands were both clenched around his mug and he was staring straight ahead, unflinching. His face was an apathetic mask.
“I want to touch your hand. Yes or no?”
His mouth turned down momentarily. “No.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
This took a second longer. “No.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I don’t care.” Andrew didn’t look as Neil stood with his cup, stood by the sink as he took his final sip and put the mug on the edge of it, then walking out of the kitchen. He didn’t watch Neil’s fingers tearing at his already scarred, dry knuckles, slowing coaxing out pinpricks of red.
Neil left. He got dressed now that their room was empty, pulled on his running shoes, and left. He ran and didn’t know where to, didn’t know how far, and he didn’t have his phone or a map or any knowledge of landmarks in the direction he was headed. There was a burn in his chest when the sun was at its peak, but he didn’t stop. They were already near the border, but he was still shocked to see that he had crossed into North Carolina.
He had left around seven in the morning. It had been forty degrees but now it felt like sixty, and his body was burning up from a day of running. He had a faint memory of throwing up on the side of a backroad. He stopped at a fire station in a town that he didn’t bother figuring out the name of and asked if they had a phone.
“You in trouble, kid?” an older man doing desk work asked him.
Neil was panting and sweaty but shook his head.
“I won’t rat you out, I just want to help.” He had a hard but kind face. Neil didn’t like him.
“I just need to call someone to pick me up.”
He nodded and pointed him to an ancient payphone on the wall outside, handing him some change for it. “It’s all yours. Let me know if you need more time.”
Neil nodded and payed for the call, going through to Wymack.
“David Wymack,” he said, answering the call.
“Can you pick me up?”
He just sounded exasperated. “Where the fuck are you, Josten? We have four search teams out for you, myself included.”
He couldn’t make himself feel bad. He looked at the sign on the old brick building. “Oakman fire department.”
“Where is fucking Oakman?”
“I’m tempted to say North Carolina.” He tried his best not to huff heavy breaths into the receiver. The phone beeped and he put in more change. He still had a handful of quarters.
“And may I ask how you got there?” he asked, sounding like he was speaking through clenched teeth.
“I was going for a run,” he shrugged, knowing that Wymack couldn’t see him.
“Going for a run,” he muttered to himself. “You stay put, I think Matt is closest to you. Don’t fucking move or you’re benched until that wood has an imprint of your ass, you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” he confirmed, hanging up the phone. He really wanted Wymack to come get him, but Matt wasn’t the last person he wanted there, at least.
Neil went back inside to give the man at the desk the remaining change. “Can I wait on the front steps?”
He nodded. “Don’t want to wait in here? It’s getting cold out, it’s already nine.”
He looked at the analog on the wall. It was, in fact, nine o’clock and dark outside. He had noticed, but now it was like a punch in the gut. He had just wasted a day, running and thinking as little as possible, and he still just wanted to hug whoever came to get him because at least another fucking person would be there with him, at least it would be a fox.
“I’m fine, thanks. Kind of overheating, it’s been a long day.” The day didn’t feel like time at all, just the actions he was taking.
The desk man nodded and watched him walk out the door and collapse on the stone steps. For the first time in fourteen hours, Neil let out a breath and let himself feel. His body was aching, screaming for help. He was hungry but he could ignore that. His feet were numb and swollen and his calves were aching, his lungs wheezing with overuse. Every muscle except his arms were in pain, but even his biceps were tired. He leaned back on the steps and let it wash over him.
It turned from waves of pain to tingling numbness. He knew he would feel it soon. He quickly became aware of his dry mouth and sticky skin and how uncomfortable it was, how bad he probably smelled, but it distracted him from any other thought. The only things close to a saving grace were the leggings he was wearing to keep his thighs from rubbing together every time he moved.
Neil lost track of time. He hadn’t fallen asleep, but he dazed and went between seeing if his legs still worked and breathing in the cool night air. He was surprised that Nicky hadn’t magically shown up by now to tell him that he was getting some illness. He was still too warm, so he stayed outside.
Matt showed up within forty minutes, he later learned. At the time, he didn’t know or care how long it took.
“Thank you. Sorry,” was all he could think to say when Matt came to pick him up. Matt was standing over him because he couldn’t move his legs to get up.
“Don’t be sorry. But Neil, you scared the shit out of us. Carry a fanny pack with your phone or some shit, okay?” He waved to a fireman who was walking outside. Neil couldn’t see whether it was the man from the desk. “Thanks for letting him stay here,” Matt said.
The fireman nodded. “Not a problem. Drive safe, okay?”
Matt nodded before picking Neil up and getting him situated in the front seat of the truck. Neil buckled himself in as Matt went around to the driver’s side. He was disappointed that he was let go, because the tingling had long worn off.
They spent the first fifty minutes of the hour-long drive in complete silence as Matt let him stew and quietly listened to some trashy bubblegum pop station. At some point, Matt held his hand open over the console in invitation and Neil took it, playing with his fingers more than holding his hand.
“Any reason you decided to go on this little adventure?” Matt asked, not suddenly but unexpectedly.
If anyone understood, it was Matt. “I’m just frustrated.”
“The baby foxes getting in your way? School? Boy trouble?”
“You make it sound stupid when you say boy trouble like that. It’s more like Andrew trouble.”
“I thought you two were good. I an fight him if you want? Do you want to switch back with Aaron?”
Neil kept his gaze on the road ahead. Matt had turned down the radio and he liked the sound of the tires on the gravel and Matt’s steady breaths.
“He’s not feeling great and it might be messing with him that Betsy is too busy for him to see her whenever like last year. I needed to blow off some steam and ended up running all day.”
Matt stayed quiet for a second before he said, “I understand.” Neil looked over as he continued. “You’ve both had some hard balls thrown at you in life and it’s easier to cope with them together but it isn’t always easy. You and Andrew both need to do some things on your own, have some time to work through it. That’s how relationships of any kind usually go.”
“No, I know.” Neil rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes and saw colors swirling in his vision before he stopped. “I don’t mind that he needs some alone time. It’s my issues.”
“What, you suspect he’s up to something?”
“Well, Andrew is in Columbia now that Wymack told him I was coming to get you and Aaron is with Kaitlyn and we’re only an hour or so away from Sunday, so what do you say we get you back to the Tower and clean you up and we can spend however long you want together? Napping, movies, video games, whatever?”
Neil nodded. They pulled into the lot a few minutes later and Matt carried him from the car to the door, taking the elevator up to his room. Neil hugged around his neck as he was piggy-backed into the bathroom and sat on the sink top. Matt disappeared and came back with a clean shirt and a pair of Dan’s shorts for him. He was thankful they had figured out that he and Dan were the same size.
“Can you take a shower?”
Neil grimaced at the thought of standing. He didn’t want to inconvenience Matt like this, he could maneuver cleaning himself, but he couldn’t stand up for a shower.
Without another question, Matt grabbed washcloths from underneath the sink and bar soap from the shower tray, motioning for Neil to tell him what to do.
“I can clean myself.”
Matt nodded and put the soap down, helping him to sit on the closed toilet lid. “Holler if you need anything.”
Neil nodded and watched as Matt closed the door behind him, letting out a sigh. Maybe it was relief, but it was also him being angry with himself. He didn’t care who saw him shirtless anymore and Matt could keep more contact with him and dear god why was he thinking like this? This wasn’t rational, this wasn’t like Neil.
He got to work cleaning himself as best he could. He shimmied out of his clothes, wiped the sweat off his skin, and pulled on Matt and Dan’s clothes quickly. He tried to help himself up but ultimately had to lean completely on his elbows over the sink.
“Matt?” he asked, his voice not willing to raise itself over talking volume. There were footsteps and knocks before Neil called him in and was helped to hobble into Matt’s bed. His legs were almost completely blown out; the “almost” came from the fact that he could put weight on them, but he was sure that would change come morning.
Matt had the whole setup: water bottles, pain medication, the television turned to ESPN as background noise. Neil curled into the sheets he was placed in and Matt kneeled beside the bed. “Do you want me to sleep here or in Aaron’s bed?”
Neil flipped the blankets over for Matt to climb in, loving the feeling of arms wrapping around him. His body warmed nicely as he was held close against Matt’s chest.
“I told Wymack that we were back and you were alive. He wanted to come give you the speech now but I told him to save it for tomorrow. He’ll be less heated by then.”
Neil nodded. After nearly a week of Andrew’s rejection, he was being touched and held and he was relishing in it. He didn’t care what hell Wymack had to rain down on him. He could take it, just like he did every other time. He suspected that Dan and Kevin would have something to say too, and maybe Andrew if he was doing better, but he didn’t care for now. Matt was too warm for him to care.
His arms were heavy and firm and wrapped around him, grounding him to the bed. A soccer game or something equally irrelevant was playing softly, giving just the right background noise for him to drift off and sleep comfortably for the first time in a week.
Neil didn’t think he would be content like this with anyone but Matt. With Andrew, yes, but not right now. Not while they were both unstable and constantly on edge. Matt was solid, more or less over the trauma that made him a fox. He was willing to hold Neil up when Andrew couldn’t and Neil wouldn’t trade one for the other at the moment. He also indirectly drew Neil out of sleep with the smell of coffee and pancakes, which he couldn’t be mad about.
He felt incredibly rested for eight in the morning. He thought about going for a morning run, but he felt like it would be unappreciated. Besides, he couldn’t walk. He stayed in bed for a moment longer before attempting to get up, collapsing on the hardwood floor immediately. The noise must have alerted Matt, who nearly fell through the door in his haste and smiled when he saw Neil in a rumpled pile of blankets.
“Good morning,” he said, smiling. “Coach is going to be here in ten minutes so we’re going to get you to the living room and eat, okay?”
Neil nodded and Matt helped him up. Neil tried to stand on his own but his knees collapsed immediately and Matt caught him. His calves burned and the calluses on the bottoms of his feet ached. It hurt to bend his legs but turned to a pleasant burn soon after. Matt sat him on the couch and Neil pulled his legs up so he was cramped into a cross-legged position.
He was drinking coffee, too nauseous from pain to eat, when Wymack came in. He seemed less angry than he did on the phone the night before.
“Can I ask why nothing gets through that thick head of yours?” he asked after Matt let him in. He had shoved a bottle, what Neil later learned was whiskey, into his arms. It was a thank you.
Neil looked up from his coffee. “Good morning Coach. I’m doing well, yourself?”
Behind Wymack, Matt was trying not to lose it. He had a hand held tight over his mouth to hold in a laugh. Wymack didn’t notice, stepping closer to Neil.
“Do you hold yourself and your team in such low regard? We thought someone took you. No one knew what had happened and we were fucking panicking. No more fun runs, do you hear me?”
Neil nodded, took a long sip, and said, “Loud and clear, Coach.”
“Good. I trust Matt to take care of you. I’ll see you both at practice.” He turned and walked out, fuming the whole way.
“Bye, Coach,” Matt called out the door before shutting it. He put the whiskey on the counter before he returned to the couch to sit beside Neil, arms going around him in an instant. He leaned into the touch, ending up slumped against Matt and practically in his lap.
“Still tired?” Matt joked.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Don’t be. You had a long day.” Neil could feel the vibration of his voice in his shoulders, his chest. He felt alive and real and not anything like heavy rain or burning lungs. This was a thousand times better. Matt was warm and heavy and there.
Neil wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, but eventually Matt was laying on the couch and Neil was draped on top of him, drifting in and out of sleep. Matt was playing with his hair silently. It was ambient and calming and Neil wanted this so much more than he wanted Abby’s fingers on his or Nicky’s knee to his side.
His legs still ached and Neil was surprised he could feel them at all. He had shin splints and his knees and ankles were throbbing from the constant battery. He just wanted to sleep. That’s all. His body needed to recover and he needed to gain back some energy but the thought of food still made him sick.
At two, Matt declared that they needed to get ready for practice.
“I can’t,” Neil said, frowning when Matt stood and stretched, leaving him to lean on the couch. “I blew out my fucking legs.”
“Then you get to watch us and talk about captain stuff with Dan. I think you’ve done more than enough training for now but you still have to show or Coach’ll shit a brick.”
Matt texted Aaron to ask him for Neil’s clothes, going to get changed himself. Aaron showed up a couple minutes later, evidently back from Kaitlyn’s.
“You scared the shit out of us,” Aaron said after throwing a pile of clothes at him. He had brought sneakers too, graciously setting them down on the floor instead of lobbing those at Neil as well. “Andrew tried to kill Kevin, thought he knew something.”
Neil looked down, thinking back. He hadn’t seen either of them since the morning before, when he decided to go for his run.
“I don’t know how many times people are going to make me apologise.”
“You shouldn’t stop apologising,” Aaron shot back. “You’re being reckless. We already lost you once, don’t let it happen again.”
“Didn’t expect something so heartfelt from you,” Neil teased.
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Don’t think it’s for your sake.” He walked out and slammed the door behind him as Matt walked out, dressed with shoes in hand.
Neil shrugged and took off the shirt he was wearing, pulling his own on and relishing in the familiarity of it. He had to lay back to properly change into his shorts while Matt got on his shoes. They were ready to go in time, but Neil still couldn’t walk right.
“Want me to carry you?”
Neil shook his head. “Just help me. I need to stretch my legs out anyway.”
His arm was around Matt’s middle, hoisting himself up and staying there as they left the dorm. He caught sight of the elevator closing, Andrew inside. Their eyes only locked for a half second, but it was long enough to know what Andrew wanted.
They got to the court unscathed. The monsters were already inside, by the looks of it. They went to the locker room so Matt could pick up his gear, but Neil stuck around. Andrew was sitting on the end of the bench opposite him, and Matt knew when to leave.
“I know you’re mad,” Neil said as soon as the door closed.
“I left. I promised no more running. But I got frustrated and left.”
Andrew fixed him with a hard stare before getting up, sitting down right across from him this time. “What was frustrating?”
“You were. I knew you wouldn’t want to talk and we didn’t need to.”
Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “You can’t expect me to care that I’m putting myself first. My concern isn’t whether you’re getting off every night.”
“That isn’t the problem.” The problem was that he was greedy, that he had issues, that he’s the opposite of Andrew and it isn’t okay.
Andrew leaned back against the lockers, arms crossed. “Enlighten me.” He had gotten freer with his words lately, but he still had something of a block with expression and looked insanely bored with all this.
At first, Neil couldn’t make words. He was holding back word vomit, trying to come up with an intelligent explanation rather than just throwing a jumble of feelings at him. Andrew waited, watching him open his mouth before changing his mind a few times. They had been trying to talk about things instead of assuming, which Neil would later find out was not Andrew’s idea but rather at Betsy’s suggestion. He felt like it wouldn’t last long, but Andrew wanted to try.
“I don’t like being alone,” he decided. It was unfair to say he wanted to be touched; it was unfair to go into his childhood, because his and Andrew’s lives were tough in different ways and he couldn’t compare them. “We were both having bad days and I snapped and I wasn’t thinking.”
They were sitting so close in the cramped aisle that their knees were touching. “Yes or no?”
“Yes.” Neil closed his eyes and felt a hand on his cheek. He pushed into it without thinking, looking up to see Andrew leaning closer to look at him.
“You don’t care about being alone.”
Neil narrowed his eyes, waiting for him to continue.
“You need contact, you don’t give two fucks about being alone. But you knew that.”
He just nodded.
“Forever a lie.” He stood and held a hand out. Neil let him hoist him up. Andrew wordlessly moved Neil’s arm around his shoulder to bring him out of the locker room. He went the opposite direction of the court.
“Where are we going?”
Neil narrowed his eyes, but he didn’t argue. He got in the car and let Andrew drive as he closed his eyes. He opened them to see Andrew killing the ignition in front of their dorms, letting himself be helped out of the car.
He didn’t say anything until they were in the monster’s dorm, sitting on the bottom bunk of their beds. It was Neil’s, but they usually both ended up there. Andrew was just staring at him as he tried to decide what he wanted to do; he wasn’t sure what Andrew would be okay with.
“Yes or no?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, unflinching. He was firm, not moving as Neil took his hand, looking into their laps as he played with his fingers. “That’s all?”
“Like you said, I just want contact. So unless you want to do something, I guess this is all.” Andrew didn’t have to move much to shut him up, kissing him slowly after they had spent so many days apart.
Neil kept his hands wrapped around the one of Andrew’s he had taken, the other wrapping around the back of his neck. Neil forgot to breathe for a second, fingers tightening around Andrew’s in a plea to stay.
He drew away but Neil kept their foreheads pressed together, not wanting him to leave yet. “Still yes,” Andrew muttered before he kissed Neil once more, quicker this time.
“I just want to sit here for a while,” Neil muttered. “Tired.”
He let Neil organize them so he was free to go anytime, but Andrew let him wrap him up in a hug anyway. The pressure was nice, the feeling of another body beside him, and it was better because it was Andrew. They lay there for a while--Neil didn’t care how long--just trading kisses and sitting in silence.
Neil liked the tactility of people. He liked the feel of Andrew’s hair, the ridges of his scars once he asked to touch them, the bumps of muscle, the warmth of his skin. It was all good, it was all grounding. Even the scratch of stubble on his chin was enough to bring Neil back to earth.
The pain medication had long since worn off but he had endured far worse. Still, Andrew noticed the way he winced when he moved and got up for more medication. Neil felt the empty space next to him, but he had spent a long time with Matt and now Andrew, so he didn’t mind so much. If it was a bad day for Andrew, he didn’t mind being left alone. He just couldn’t keep to himself for a week; it drained him mentally.
Andrew returned, had him take the medication with water, and put the glass on the nightstand when he was done. He promptly lay across Neil, half on the bed and half on top of him. Neil made a happy hum and relished in it as Andrew picked up a book he had been reading from the floor. He ignored the way Neil tangled their limbs together, leaving his hands free to turn the pages.
“Still yes?” Neil asked.
He didn’t say, It’s yes until it’s no. He didn’t need to remind him, just like Neil didn’t need to remind him that it was always yes.