Andrew approaches the math and sciences building wearing a look of extreme hostility. He’s always hated both subjects and is glad that in the course of pursuing his major he’s never had to enter the building. That Aaron is there more often than not with his girlfriend and his secret geeky friends makes Andrew’s aversion even more severe. Normally he keeps to the other side of campus where the art kids and the students enrolled in subjects like social sciences, history, English, education, and languages hang out. But today is Monday and Neil is in his afternoon calculus class so here Andrew is, leaning against the brick wall of the building, smoking a cigarette and glaring at anyone who gets too close.
Minutes crawl by and Andrew checks his phone. Neil is over ten minutes late and Andrew can’t imagine a benign reason for this delay. Their rivalry with Edgar Allan is burning hotter than ever and, by this point, it’s clear that Riko has a major hate on for Neil; all the more reason for them to be cautious and stick together. Andrew sends Neil another text but of course he gets nothing in reply.
With a heavy sigh Andrew stubs out his cigarette and enters the building. It’s cold inside and smells like science. He walks up to a group of students who are studying in the lounge area and demands, “Where’s the calculus classroom?”
One kid, Raj – Andrew remembers him from an unfortunate philosophy class they had shared freshman year – looks up and gapes in confusion.
“Aaron?” he asks hesitantly.
“Wrong.” Andrew is tempted to pull out a knife and start cleaning his nails like a proper movie badass.
“Oh god. Andrew! I’m sorry, I—”
“Look,” Andrew leans into Raj’s space. “Do you know where the class is or not? I need to pick up my teammate.”
“Y-yeah,” Raj nods. “It’s on the second floor, left hallway, third room on your right.”
“Lovely.” Andrew stalks away and hears the group erupt into furious whispers. He catches a few words: probation, fight, knives, Exy, medication. Andrew ignores it. He’d like to see how these soft children would function after what he’s been through. He regrets the thought almost instantly; no one deserves to grow up like he did.
With his head messed up and his heart worried about Neil, Andrew hurries up the stairs, jogging towards the classroom. The door is open and he hears voices drifting out into the hallway. A man’s voice carries; he has a faint British accent and he sounds young. Andrew peeks in and finds Neil standing at his professor’s desk, the two of them bowed over some sheets of paper, the professor pointing out various things and Neil nodding along. Neil makes a quiet suggestion and his professor lights up, beaming at him and giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
Andrew decides that he’s not a fan of the professor, even if he is stupidly handsome for a guy who does math all day.
Displaying tact that would have shocked his entire team, Andrew knocks politely on the doorframe, startling both Neil and the teacher.
“Andrew!” Now Neil is the one beaming, his pleased surprise genuine. “What are you doing here?”
“Renee couldn’t make it so I said I’d pick you up after class. Did it run late?” Andrew stares at the teacher as he asks this, searching the man’s face for guilt.
“Not at all,” the teacher replies. “Mr. Josten has been acing all the assignments and tests this semester so I thought I’d show him some more challenging work.”
This is the first Andrew has heard of it. Every time he catches Neil doing homework Neil is either asleep with his face planted in his textbook or he’s doodling in the margins of his notes. He had assumed that Neil’s academic performance would be subpar at best.
“Is that so?” Andrew asks. He studies Neil, seeing him in a new light.
“Quite.” The professor looks absurdly proud, as if he had anything to do with Neil being exceptional. “I’ve been trying to get Mr. Josten to switch to a mathematics major. There are many different careers that I think he would enjoy if—”
“He plays Exy,” Andrew interrupts. Neil shoots him an annoyed glance but Andrew continues. “He’s a jock, most likely he’ll go pro after college. He doesn’t need all this.”
The professor gathers his papers together into a neat stack and adjusts his glasses, shifting them up. His expression is mild, kind, and that grates on Andrew’s nerves even more.
“I’m sure your right,” the professor says softly. “Neil is a competent and intelligent young man, and, according to you, he’s also athletically gifted. I’m sure that whatever career he pursues he will excel in it.”
Neil ducks his head, the tips of his ears turning pink. The bashful look is foreign on him. Andrew’s never seen him like this, and especially not around a grown man; Neil tends to avoid them like they’re the plague.
“However,” the professor continues, “professional sports are an arduous undertaking, though athletes are generously compensated for their efforts. Would it not be good planning to have a fall back plan?”
Andrew’s never planned for a future and he can’t imagine scared, runaway Neil mapping out a five-step plan to success. Before he can tell the teacher what he thinks Neil speaks up.
“Thank you, Dr. Fahiym. I really appreciate you taking the time to show me some new problems and for giving me advice on my major. I’ll definitely take what you said into consideration when planning for next semester.”
Andrew doesn’t recognize this version of Neil. He talks like an adult and carries himself like he wants to impress his teacher. Dr. Fahiym shakes Neil’s hand and gives him a few booklets to take with him. Neil thanks him again and turns to join Andrew.
They don’t speak on the way out of the building. Neil’s knuckles are white where he’s got his book bag strap clenched in a death grip. His mouth is set in a hard line and his blue eyes look capable of shooting laser beams.
Once they are safely back in Fox Tower Neil leaves Andrew and returns to his room, slamming the door behind him. Andrew stands in the hall wondering at Neil’s sudden display of temper. He has some good guesses as to what is really bothering Neil but decides to wait him out. When Neil’s ready he’ll talk about it, with an unsmoked cigarette cupped in his hands, and his eyes trained on Andrew’s face.
Neil doesn’t broach the subject that night after their late practice with Kevin. His anger has dissipated and now he’s just sad and quiet. He kisses Andrew slowly, his fingers buried in his hair. Something about Neil’s eyes in this moment reminds Andrew of the sea. It’s complicated and Neil is distracting so it takes Andrew longer than usual to figure it out. Neil’s gaze is distant and detached, like kissing Andrew is the one thing keeping him anchored as he drifts away, bobbing up and down, pulled by an unseen and insidious current.
Andrew pushes Neil to the roof and hovers over him. All they do is kiss and Andrew wonders if that’s enough or too much, wonders if he’s able to reach Neil at all.
Nothing changes but gradually Neil’s lost-at-sea vibe goes away. He spends more time doing math homework and Andrew notices the pamphlets on his desk from the career office, each one marked with a helpful stickie note from Dr. Fahiym. Neil keeps them in a tidy pile on his desk, making them stand out from the rest of his mess.
Matt must have noticed them as well because after one of their practices he tells the rest of the team, “Did you all know that Neil is a secret math genius?”
Kevin and Nicky both scoff and Aaron rolls his eyes.
“Very funny,” Nicky says as he towel dries his hair. “Everyone knows that Neil is a member of the Useless Jock Club.” He tries to hug Neil but Neil ducks under his arm.
“I’m serious!” Matt protests. “I’ve seen his tests. Straight 100s or sometimes he gets over a hundred if there’s extra credit. Plus his teacher leaves him all these notes and smiley faces on there. It’s not fair.”
Allison perks up. “I smell a bet!” she sings. “Here, Neil.” She grabs her phone and, after a few moments of searching, tosses it to him. “Solve this.”
Everyone gathers around Neil as he carefully copies the problem onto a notepad. Just looking at the complicated arrangement of numbers and letters makes Andrew’s eyes cross. It looks like a pointless exercise. Nothing useful. And Neil is all about cultivating useful talents to help him survive.
Neil finishes scratching out the problem and his lips curl into a smile. It’s like Allison has just given him a fun puzzle to solve, not a migraine-inducing conundrum. Andrew sits on the arm of Neil’s chair and watches as he diligently works through the problem. His handwriting is neat and precise, and each step is clearly broken down line by line.
Andrew looks around at the group, cataloging their reactions. Aaron looks grudgingly impressed, Kevin looks confused, Renee is smiling like she gets whatever the fuck Neil is doing (she doesn’t), Dan is mouthing shut up shut up and looking like she’s watching an Exy play by play, Matt looks proud, Allison is looking like a smug bitch, and Nicky looks like he’s about to say something inappropriate.
“Is anyone else getting turned on by this?” Nicky whispers. Andrew glares at him. “I’m just saying! Smart is the new sexy! Neil, how are you doing this? You’ve probably had more blunt force trauma to the head than the rest of us combined.”
Neil ignores them all and scrawls a few more letters and numbers before sitting back and pushing the paper to the center of the table.
“Done.” He looks at Allison and she blows him a kiss.
“Aced it, baby,” Allison coos. “Looks like we officially have some brains on this team.”
“Hey,” Aaron snarls.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Allison says, not sounding sorry at all. “Where are your straight A’s Mr. Science Guy.”
“I’m getting A’s in all my classes,” Aaron answers. “Neil’s only good at math.”
“Sour grapes,” Dan pipes up. She wraps her arm around Neil’s shoulders. “That was impressive as fuck, Neil. Remind me to hit you up next time I need some math done.”
They don’t talk about the math thing until the weekend when they’re sitting at the kitchen table in Columbia. Neil looks tired but present, wearing a soft grey sleep shirt and a pair of Andrew’s sweatpants. He’s drawing doodles in the condensation on the side of his cup of orange juice. Not doodles – formulas – or whatever the shit fancy math problems were called.
“You got mad at me,” Andrew says, “when I told your teacher that you were only good for Exy.”
Neil stops his absent tracing and blinks at Andrew.
“What was that about?”
“Oh, you mean besides being annoyed that you were rude to one of the few people who actually thinks I’m more than my ability to run around on a field scoring points?” Neil snaps.
Andrew bites the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. It’s always delightful to watch Neil go from placid to feisty in no time flat.
“Were you really mad at me for being rude?” he asks. “I’m rude to everyone, Neil.”
Neil sighs and tugs his fingers through his messy hair. “It’s just… you think I’m an idiot. I mean, you’ve literally called me that. Multiple times. And everyone else thinks that, too, though most of them won’t call me that. Kevin likes trash talking me more than anything… your brother probably thinks I’m too stupid to function. Wymack says I’m a… well it’s not nice.” Neil’s fire is gone and he’s left sounding bleak and pitiful. “But Dr. Fahiym didn’t even know I was here on a sports scholarship! He’s been helping me and showing me that if I wanted to I could have a career in math.”
Neil goes quiet. He holds onto his glass of orange juice with both hands, smudging his work. Andrew tries to wait him out but he can tell Neil is on the verge of shutting down completely so he prods some more.
“Okay. So you’re smart in math. Why are you looking like you want to die?”
Neil doesn’t answer right away. Then he whispers, “I want more than this, Andrew.”
“More than what?” Andrew scoots forward and grabs Neil’s chin, tipping his head up.
Neil swallows and his eyes get glassy. “I want to finish this semester and come back in the fall. I want to major in math and I want to play Exy. I want to graduate. I want—” His voice cracks and he swallows again. “I want to matter.”
Andrew moves closer and hauls Neil over onto his lap. Neil straddles him, holding most of his weight off of Andrew’s thighs until Andrew tugs him down. They’re past that. Neil rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes, sniffing.
“Neil.” Andrew strokes his shoulders, his back. “You matter.”
Neil puts his arms down. His face is red around his eyes and the tip of his nose and along his cheekbones. Neil is a pretty crier. Andrew’s not surprised.
“You’re enough and I appreciate you for trying.”
More tears escape the corners of Neil’s eyes and his lower lip trembles.
“Dammit, Andrew,” Neil mutters, his voice thick. “Why are you being nice?”
Andrew kisses Neil’s chin, his mouth, his cheek.
“I made you cry,” Andrew answers. “Seems only fair that I make you stop crying.”
“Ah.” Neil tilts his head back as Andrew kisses his throat. “That is fair.”
“Smartass,” Andrew says.
Neil laughs and Andrew feels it, Neil shaking against him. “Did you just call me smart?”
“I called you an ass, too,” Andrew reminds him.
Later that night while Andrew is trying to lull himself to sleep he replays their conversation. He remembers the early days, when he was suspicious of Neil and determined to unearth his secrets. He had said something about Neil’s loose ends not adding up and Neil had replied that he wasn’t a math problem. Andrew told Neil he would still solve him but here he is, months later, still mystified by Neil Josten. It isn’t a bad thing.