Andrew is not one for sidelong glances.
For all his calculated shrewdness, for all his steely-eyed silence, he is impossibly direct:
He stares head on or does not look at all. He shakes out a cigarette and smokes it to the filter.
Neil is content to let his burn.
Shades of gray, Neil thinks, do not exist for Andrew—he has not been afforded the luxury of careful discernment.
There is yes and there is no. There is family; there are strangers. There is Renee, who is interesting, there is Bee, who is useful; and then there are foxes, and then there is Coach, and Roland, and Abby, all of whom make up the backdrop of Andrew’s life and few of whom register on his subconscious hierarchy.
Neil’s still figuring out where he fits in. He pushes and prods verbally; has carved out a space for himself with sharp-tongued acuity and headstrong wit.
He's memorized the outline of Andrew’s key; has emphatically traced its shape into the tender flesh of his palm. He slowly maps his way across Andrew’s skin:
A key at the sinewy juncture where neck meets shoulder. A key at the steady thump of his femoral artery. They're on the rooftop where the ground meets the sky and the setting sun gleams orange between buildings, behind trees; where Neil takes Andrew’s hand and Andrew lets him keep it.
There's something inevitable about it, something visceral. The skin stretched taut and white across scarred knuckles; the short, thick fingers and blunt square nails. Andrew’s palm is wider than Neil’s and equally callused, and he observes with affected detachedness Neil’s concentrated path: thumb brushing the jutted bone of his wrist, ghosting a path over fingers and interdigital folds.
“Your single-mindedness is unattractive,” Andrew declares.
Neil traces the crooked length of Andrew’s fate line and flicks his glance up to his eyes. Andrew’s pupils are dilated. “And you call me a liar.” He says breezily.
“You are a liar.”
“I'm a runner, too. But here we are.”
Here they are. Neil sits cross-legged on the edge of a building, wind tousling his hair and whistling through the crevices of cracked, faded brick; eleven stories high and no human life dotting the campus below.
Palmetto State is empty. It's summer now, mid-June, all but half of the foxes remaining.
The days are long and impossibly bright. The sun beats hard on his scalp and tinges it red—the tip of his nose, the nape of his neck, the sensitive skin of his ears. He sweats through cotton t-shirts and runs through drills with Dan; scrimmages with Andrew and Kevin by morning and night.
Aaron’s with Kaitlyn in Georgia. Nicky’s in Germany with Erik. Matt is here, his pickup truck loaded with gear and draped loosely with black tarp; Allison is back from visiting Renee and she carries with her a gallon of water and moisturizing sunscreen, which she persistently applies and reapplies to browned shoulders and cheeks even in the midst of practice.
Neil is home.
He wakes at dawn and runs down winding, empty streetways painted with bright orange fox tracks. Tight-limbed and panting he jogs past closed storefronts, coaxing his sore muscles loose and slack; he rounds the campus library and rounds it again.
He climbs five flights to his dorm and sits down to coffee. He watches Andrew’s back as he knocks around the kitchen, intentionally loud in blatant disregard for Kevin: bleary-eyed and hungover still, audibly complaining, and the door slams shut and Kevin hits the shower, his displeasure conveyed and duly ignored.
There's weeks until they convene: a full fox lineup of just over eighteen and new players to envelop into their chaos, new problems to fix, a first-class rank to maintain.
The hazy summer drags on. Neil soaks it in as he goes.