Neil Josten’s 22nd birthday fell on the final game of his senior year. Of course, neither his age nor the date March 31 were actually correct, but in the interest of leaving Nathaniel Wesninski behind as thoroughly as possible, Neil had adopted the false numbers readily. Who was going to need to keep track of them, anyway? Certainly not Neil, who had all but forgotten that his or any other birthday existed in the whirlwind that had been the Foxes’ journey to semi-finals that year. Despite Holly’s solid presence at his side, and Robin’s earnest attempts to be an impenetrable barrier between strikers and goal, it had been an uphill battle. And each month without his original Foxes scraped him hollow just a little bit more. He was proud of them, glad they were living their lives, that they were busy. It was understandable, he knew, that they had to stay away so long. Understandable, but he didn’t understand it.
The final buzzer sounded, and the Plexiglass court walls practically vibrated with the harsh noise. Neil jogged to a stop at half court, watching the Penn State players as they realized the reality of their win. They were going to the finals. Neil glanced at the scoreboard one more time, even though he already knew what it said. Penn State had knocked them out of the running, but the Foxes had given them a fight. Frustration at the two-point gap left a hot trail through Neil’s chest, but the tightness in his throat had nothing to do with the score. This was his final game on the Foxhole Court, and now it was over. The speed at which the end had arrived was as staggering as it had been simultaneously endless. He was struck by a sudden urge to sit down on the fox paw in the center and turn off all the lights, breathe in the scent of home and never let it go. Maybe he would do it when everyone left. There would be no late-night practice with Kevin, but Neil had the keys. He could get in whenever he wanted.
Neil reached the end of the line of Penn State players. He looked up at the stands through the walls, at the alternating rows and the wave of obnoxious orange peppered with blue which was slowly but surely dislodging itself from the seats. Neil tried to imagine a home team that wasn’t orange and didn’t do a very good job. He would have to get used to the idea eventually, he supposed, seeing as his new team would have their own colors. He suddenly remembered opening the practically-florescent windbreaker in his locker his first day at Palmetto State. He had told Nicky that it could probably be seen from space. With a detached and dull kind of pain, Neil was suddenly, definitely, and achingly sad. And also, somewhere in a dark, hidden corner of his mind, a little relieved. He took a long breath in through his nose and out through his mouth, trying to make sense of his thoughts over the roaring in his ears.
Then someone said his name, close by. Neil looked up, confused. The deafening sound around him wasn’t coming from inside his own head. It was coming from the crowd, from the Foxes’ fans. He stared through the clear wall in front of him at the people nearest to the court, who were shouting and pointing vigorously at something behind him. He turned around, and froze mid-breath.
Because standing at the court door, holding a sign the color of that obscene windbreaker, was Dan Wilds. She was grinning ear to ear. Matt was resting his hands on her shoulders, and Nicky gave a small wave next to them, barely containing his laughter. Allison leaned against the door, smirking prettily beside Renee, who didn’t quite manage to block Kevin’s casual stance. The sign said “Happy Birthday Neil”.
Neil blinked, and they were still there. Still grinning. Still holding that ridiculous sign.
Neil crushed the sign against Dan’s body as he wrapped his arms around her, barely even aware that he had moved across the court. Matt got to him next, lifting him clear off the ground in a bone-crushing hug that left Neil gasping and laughing at once.
“You’re sweaty,” Matt announced, wrinkling his nose but smiling warmly.
“And you stink,” Allison agreed. She dodged Nicky’s arm and planted a firm kiss on Neil’s cheek. Neil looked back at her and Renee, unable to do much else with his nose smushed somewhere in Nicky’s shoulder.
“How are you all even here?” Neil asked, his voice now muffled by Kevin’s jacket. He fell back down on his heels and looked up at Matt, who was wiping Neil’s sweat off his neck. “What about spring training?”
Nicky lunged over, clapping a hand firmly over Neil’s mouth. “Don’t ask questions like that. Do you know how hard it was to convince Kevin to miss a whole weekend? He only came because we promised he could practice on the court after we all went to bed.”
“Personal day,” Matt explained casually, wrapping an arm around Dan’s shoulders. “Told my coach it was an important family occasion.”
Neil’s heart stuttered in his chest. Family occasion.
“We’ve also been planning this for a while,” Renee admitted. “Aaron had an important exam, but he and Katelyn say ‘happy birthday’.”
“I —“ Neil was cut off by a bright flash coming from his left. He whirled in time to see the errant reporter lower his camera, only to try and hide behind it again when he saw the smile drop from Neil’s face.
“Trying to have some privacy here, asshole,” Neil spat. “Don’t you have anything better to do —“
“Just one picture,” Kevin announced loudly before Neil could say any more. He shot the reporter his Press Smile. “Just one,” he assured Neil.
It was not one. There were about ten of them, and all of the reporters took multiple shots. When they had finally moved off at Kevin’s urging and Neil could blink without seeing spots, he turned back to his family.
“Thank you, guys,” he said. The phrase didn’t seem like enough, but it was all he had to give them at the moment. “This…this is amazing. Best birthday present ever.”
“Speaking of amazing…” Allison said slowly, smiling wickedly around the syllables of “amazing”. “Don’t thank us yet.”
“Your real present is waiting back in your room in Fox Tower,” Dan explained.
“Real present?” He looked up at their faces for a clue. All he got were cheeky grins like the one Allison was sporting. And then the answer hit him.
“No way.” The words came out a whisper. “Really?” It couldn’t be. There was no way they had managed it. It was a long flight! Neil didn’t even dare to hope.
“Oh, my god. Look at his face!” Nicky was beaming. “It’s fucking adorable.”
“Shut up,” Neil told him, but there wasn’t any heat behind it.
“The real deal, kiddo,” Matt promised. “Now go shower and meet us at Fox Tower. We ordered food. Go!” he said more forcefully when Neil didn’t move. “He’s not a patient man, you know.”
Neil didn’t need to be told again. He raced off the court and dodged half-dressed Foxes in the locker room, throwing his gear in his locker unceremoniously and slamming the door shut in his haste to get to the shower. He stood under the cold water, not wanting to wait for it to get warm. As he scrubbed himself clean, he didn’t hear Coach quietly picking his gear off the floor where it had fallen when the locker door didn’t catch. He did hear him tell someone else to do press duty though, for which we was eternally grateful.
Getting to Neil’s car and then out of the parking lot was interminable because of all the people trying to leave the stadium at once. Neil slammed on his horn more times in fifteen minutes of traffic than he had since getting the car in the first place. He tapped his fingers on the wheel in an uneven rhythm, trying to work off the nervous energy and wishing he had just run from the stadium to Fox Tower. It might have defeated the point of his shower, but it also might have meant getting home faster.
Approximately seven years later and feeling like he’d aged ten, Neil reached the parking lot in front of Fox Tower. Two spots down was Andrew’s Maserati. Neil’s heart started beating double time in his chest.
He raced up the stairs two at a time and skidded to a stop in front of his own door. He tried the knob and found it was already open. Dorm locks didn’t stand a chance against Andrew.
The other Foxes were scattered around the room, parceling out the takeout food and arranging themselves around the coffee table, where Matt was attempting to play music off his laptop. At any other point, Neil might have felt a wave of nostalgia at such a familiar sight, or wondered why these grown-ass people wanted to eat on the floor instead of somewhere with real chairs. But he barely even saw them.
Andrew was sitting on Robin’s desk by the far wall. At the sound of the door opening, he flicked his cigarette out the window and slid to the floor. He looked as bored as ever, but Neil didn’t care. He didn’t care that all the Foxes were staring. He didn’t care that his heart was about to leap out of his throat. Andrew was here. In front of him. Dressed in black and hands in his pockets and blonde head tilted slightly to the side and with a quiet fire lurking just behind his eyes. Just like he had never left. And he was saying the word “yes”.
“Yes?” Neil echoed, almost choking on the word.
“Do you have a fucking hearing problem?”
Neil crossed the room in three quick strides and kissed him. He had been moving too fast and his aim wasn’t quite perfect, but the kiss was. He was dimly aware of Nicky cheering and Allison hooting and Dan and Matt laughing. But that was so far away, so unimportant next to the feeling of Andrew’s lips on his, of Andrew’s hands clutching fistfuls of his jacket and the way Andrew’s jawline felt so familiar under his palms. God, he had missed this. He had missed it so much.
Too quickly, Andrew pulled away, but he stayed close, raking Neil’s face with his eyes like he was going to have to describe it for a sketch artist later. His face was its usual stony mask, but Neil could feel his heartbeat through his own shirt. That was all the proof he needed that Andrew had missed him too.
“Two hundred and ten-fucking-percent, Josten,” Andrew growled.
Neil grinned. “Should have killed me when you had the chance.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Y’all flirt so weird,” Nicky complained from behind Neil. Andrew tore his eyes away from Neil’s with not-quite-invisible effort to glare daggers at Nicky over Neil’s shoulder. Neil ran his thumbs along Andrew’s throat very softly, hoping it would be enough to keep him present and prevent him from pulling a knife. Neil felt rather than saw Andrew relax under his hands, but he was still glaring at his cousin.
“If I find out there’s a picture on your phone,” Andrew told Nicky, “I will start sending body parts to Erik in the mail.”
Nicky held up his hands in surrender. “None, I swear.” No one moved. “I swear!” Nicky repeated, a little more frantically.
“Can we eat?” Dan piped up, louder than was probably necessary.
“Let’s,” Renee agreed. “I’m starved.”
The prospect of food effectively diffused the tension, and the Foxes settled themselves around the room with their takeout. Andrew took up the leftmost beanbag chair, and Neil stationed himself in front of it so he could lean back onto Andrew’s shins. Matt fed a piece of chicken to Dan, who had fought Nicky for a good thirty seconds before relinquishing the other beanbag and joining Renee and Matt on the couch. Kevin produced alcohol from somewhere and set about distributing it.
“Alcoholic,” Allison taunted.
“Takes one to know one,” Kevin muttered. He passed a mug to her with a scowl.
“Now, kids, behave.” Dan snuggled further into Matt’s lap so that he had to move his plate far away.
“Babe, I have to eat,” he complained.
“Everyone shut up.” Nicky ordered from near the door. He shut the lights, and for a brief moment there was only the dusty glow from the streetlights through the window. Then a tiny tongue of flame escaped from a lighter, and Nicky was holding a cupcake with a single lit candle in it. The frosting was orange. Of course.
Only Nicky and Allison could really carry a tune, and Andrew didn’t sing at all, but they managed to make it to the end of the song without any significant trauma and with only a few extra “oo-oo”s and dramatic note shifts at the end from Nicky.
Neil stared at the little cupcake in his hands, content to just look at it for a minute.
Andrew dug his knee into Neil’s back. “Make a wish, dumbass.”
Neil bit his lip to hide a smile as he looked over the flame at the people sitting around him.
“I’m really at a loss,” he admitted. “All the things I usually wish for are right here.”
Nicky screwed his face up into something exaggerated and fond, placing a hand over his heart.
“Dude…” Matt said softly, apparently not needing to add anything else.
There was a half-second of silence where even Kevin looked touched, and then Andrew let out a rude snort from behind Neil and blew out the candle himself.
“Meet me at the hotel when you’re done being a sap,” he said. The Foxes listened, frozen in the dark, as Andrew walked to the door and slammed it behind him.
It was only when Nicky finally got up to turn on the light that they realized Andrew had taken the cupcake with him. Along with the rest of the box.