Something was off. Andrew was used to Neil trailing out of the locker room well after everyone else. Andrew was used to Neil reading into everything too much and interpreting Andrew’s actions and motivations as what he wanted to believe they were. Andrew was used to Neil giving him that look he didn't deserve and didn't want. He was used to Neil acting like he had moved mountains for him when he really hadn't done much of anything. He was used to Neil extremely overvaluing the importance of exy.
But something was different this time.
Thank you. You were amazing.
Maybe, Neil was really just talking about exy. Maybe, there was nothing off after all and Neil was just upping his game with a new look to stare at him with and a new way to try to find more humanity than there really was left in Andrew.
But something felt wrong.
Neil was too late out of the locker room. He was reading too much into Andrew putting effort into the game. He was staring at him too much as if it was the last time he thought he was ever going to see Andrew’s face. He was acting too much like this was an urgent matter that Andrew needed to be thanked for right then. He was overvaluing the importance of this exy game way too much.
So instead of answering or ignoring Neil, Andrew turned and left the room.
He hoped that Neil would think that he was just avoiding Neil showing his feelings too much, especially in front of the team. Maybe, if he was lucky, Neil would give him some space and it would buy him enough time to figure out what was going on so he could stop it.
Andrew made it partway down the hallway and then a security guard stopped him.
“Have you seen Neil Josten?” He asked. “Someone is looking for him.”
“No,” Andrew said because there was no way he was telling this man where Neil was and because there was no reason this man should be asking for Neil's whereabouts. No security guards at any courts they’d been to had asked about any players before and this was like confirmation for Andrew that something was going on. “What do you want with him?”
“I don't mean to alarm you, but we have reason to believe that he is a security risk,” the security guard said.
Andrew's expression and tone remained the same as he stated, “You’re here to take him away. You’re not a real security guard.”
The guard’s jaw clenched. Clearly, Andrew was right.
“You’re here to punish him for taking the money,” Andrew said. “If you want to punish him, take me instead.”
The guard set his hand on his gun but didn’t pull it out yet. Like he was considering if it was worth having to explain why a player had been shot in the hallway after a game.
“Take me instead,” Andrew insisted. “Kill me. Torture me. Whatever you want. If you want to make Neil pay for the money he stole, hurting him and killing him won’t do it. He’s a martyr. He doesn’t care about dying for other people. It’s worse for him if you take me instead and make him live with it.”
The guard didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t stop Andrew. So he kept talking and hoped he could convince him.
“He’s in love with me,” Andrew said. “If I get hurt or die because of him, he’ll never forgive himself. He’ll never be okay with knowing I took his place because I’m in love with him too. Take me before he ever finds that out. Let him find out when I’m already gone to hurt him more. He grew up waiting to be found and die for it. You think he’s afraid of that? He’s expecting it. He let himself hope for a life and future with me in it. He knows I wanted one with him too. Take me and take that away from him and make him hurt for it. He’s let himself be tortured for weeks to try to protect me. I’m the way to hurt him.”
He said it all without a hint of emotion in his voice. He was just presenting the facts. Torturing and killing Neil would not hurt him as much as torturing and killing Andrew and letting Neil live with that consequence would.
To try to convince the guard, Andrew had told him truths that he hadn’t wanted to admit to himself, let alone someone else. He hadn't told Neil any of this. He probably never would now. But he had to bear the truth now in front of this stranger sent by the Moriyamas to save Neil. Neil would be more hurt this way, but at least he would be alive and safe. Neil could hate Andrew all he wanted, just as long as he stayed alive.
The guard considered for a moment and then said, “Fine. You’re coming with me. But say one word or make one wrong move on the way out and we’ll kill you both.”
Neil waited a couple minutes after Andrew left before he left the Foxes behind. He knew he didn't have much time, but he waited as long as he could because he didn't want Andrew to be there to watch him be escorted out of the building by his father’s men.
But when he went down the hallway, there was no sign of anyone waiting for him and there was no sign of Andrew.
Neil walked around and explored the hallways, not sure if he was looking for his would-be captors or for Andrew, but there was no sign of either and Neil was starting to panic.
He leaned outside to check from the doorway if Andrew was out there smoking. He wasn't.
So Neil headed back inside and didn't care about subtlety anymore. He needed to find Andrew and make sure that he was safe. He headed back inside and rushed through the hallways, screaming out Andrew’s name as loud as he could until the Foxes came to see what all the commotion was about.
“Where’s Andrew?” Aaron asked. Normally, Neil would be annoyed at the accusation in his tone, but this time it was justified.
“They took him,” Neil said because the evidence was making it pretty apparent. “They were supposed to take me and leave you all alone, but they took him instead.”
“Who?” Aaron asked with an edge to his tone.
“My father's men,” Neil said because hiding the truth about him didn't matter anymore.
None of it mattered anymore. Not now that his father was out of prison and his men had found Neil and Andrew was gone.
The Foxes looked confused. They didn't know about Neil’s father, except for Kevin who looked like he had taken an exy racquet to the gut.
“I was supposed to be the one to die,” Neil said. “It was always supposed to be me. They asked for me. Why would they take him?”
Aaron was yelling at him, but Neil barely registered it. He didn't need Aaron to tell him it was all his fault. He already knew that and the realization had taken all the air out of the hallway.
Andrew was going to die because of him. Andrew was going to die for him.
Andrew was under the impression that the men who had come for Neil but taken him instead and the woman they had passed him off to worked for the Moriyamas. It wasn't until he was already in the basement of Nathan Wesninski’s house with a man with Neil's hair and Neil's eyes holding a knife to him that he even considered that Neil coming clean about his parents’ deaths might not have been the truth after all.
“So,” Nathan said as he slid his knife over Andrew’s cheek just deep enough to draw blood. “You said my son is in love with you.”
Andrew felt his stomach drop. All this time, he had thought that Neil was lying to the world but at least he was giving Andrew pieces of the truth. But it turned out Neil had just been feeding him even more lies and Andrew felt like an idiot for ever believing him.
Neil knew where Lola and his father's men would take Andrew. He knew the police couldn't stop his father and save Andrew.
He had to go home. To Baltimore. To the house that he and his mother ran away from in the middle of the night all those years ago. Neil was never supposed to go back to the same place twice, but this was the one place his mother would be the angriest to find out he was even considering returning to.
But he had to go. He had to face his father who had always been his greatest fear because it turned out that he had one fear that was even greater now.
He couldn't let the Foxes know what he was planning though. He couldn't risk them trying to stop him or slowing him down. This was his father, his mess, his responsibility.
So, when they were finally left just waiting in the police station for updates that were never going to come, Neil stood up and told the team he was going to use the washroom.
He planned on getting as far from the station as fast as possible. If he was lucky, the team would just think he needed some time alone to process what had happened and wouldn't realize that he had left yet. He hoped no one at the station would stop him on his way out.
But, of course, Kevin just had to get up and follow him and grab Neil's arm the moment they were alone in the hallway that led to the washrooms.
“I know what you're doing and it's suicide,” Kevin told him. “You're just going to end up getting yourself killed too. You can't go back there. He is going to kill you.”
Neil tried to jerk his arm away, but Kevin held on tight.
“You can't go back there,” he continued. “I won't let you. I'll scream and tell everyone your plan.”
“I knew that I would be dead in a few months when I didn't run,” Neil pointed out. “You knew that too. You said you'd help me.”
The muscle in Kevin's jaw twitched. He didn't loosen his grip.
“He knows who I am and where I am,” Neil pointed out. “I’m dead anyway. I was always supposed to be dead. I'm the only one that stands a chance of saving him. Let me do this.”
Kevin kept hold of Neil’s sleeve, but it was clear from his expression that he didn't know what to do.
“Andrew protected you and now you are too coward to let someone else help him while you're sitting safely,” Neil accused.
“You protected me too,” Kevin pointed out.
He didn't let go. Clearly, he was torn between not wanting to let Andrew die and not wanting to potentially lose them both instead of just one. No matter which decision he made, someone’s death would be on his conscience. Neil needed to convince him that his death was better for everyone.
Neil gritted his teeth together and then told him, “I am asking you to help him and not me. This is my father. This is my problem. I am the one that should have to die. Not him.”
Kevin looked terrified. He looked terrified for him. That was hard for Neil to stomach.
Kevin was still hesitating far too much and every moment he spent convincing Kevin was a moment closer to when the Foxes would come looking for him and a moment longer that Andrew was missing, so Neil knew he had to push Kevin further.
“If you make me stay here when I could try to save him, I will hate you forever,” Neil threatened. “And I will kill myself and then we’ll both be dead anyway and that will be on you.”
Neil knew that it was beyond unfair, but he wasn't in a position to worry about fair. None of this was fair and he needed to say whatever it took to take the guilt off of Kevin for letting him go, even if the words it took were truly awful.
Kevin's eyes were getting watery. Neil didn't think he was going to give in, but then Kevin's jaw clenched and he took a deep breath and said, “Fine. I'll give you a five-minute head start and then I'm telling them.”
He finally let go of Neil's sleeve and Neil was in too much of a rush to get to Andrew before it was too late to thank Kevin for keeping his secrets, or for letting him do this, or for training him every night, or for his friendship, or for caring whether Neil lived or died, or for any of it.
It wasn't until Neil was already on a bus that he realized he hadn't even said goodbye. He hadn’t even given Kevin a bad one. He’d given him nothing at all.
Neil had plenty of time to think on his way to Baltimore and to Andrew and that weighed on his mind. He thought that he would be worried about dying on his way to his father, but that was only a faint buzz in the back of his mind compared to his worry about Andrew and his guilt for all the things he had never told him and for not getting to his father’s men first and for not saying goodbye to Kevin and for all the things he hadn't been able to say to the Foxes before he left because he couldn't have them guessing that he was saying goodbye and leaving to try to die in Andrew’s place. He couldn't risk them figuring it out and trying to stop him. He wouldn't let anything get between him and the possibility of somehow saving Andrew from the horrible fate he was going to face because of him.
Neil knew his plan was not without its faults. He knew that him wanting to save Andrew could turn into a two for the price of one deal, but he had to try and he wasn't convinced he wanted to make it out of this if Andrew didn't anyway.
Neil made his way to Baltimore any way he could as fast as possible, traveling by bus and by hitchhiking.
When he finally made it there, he went straight to his old house and tried to swallow the lump in his throat as it towered before him.
That house was the worst place Neil had ever been. It was filled with horrible memories and fear that overshadowed any glimpses of happiness he might have ever felt there.
There were police cars outside on patrol, probably waiting and hoping to catch his father doing something illegal. By now, they had probably already been tipped off that Nathan’s son wasn't so dead after all and was on his way there.
Neil wasn't stopping anyway. He had to risk it.
Maybe, it was that he knew how to sneak in and out of the house and all the secret passageways his father had installed so he entered undetected. Or maybe, the officers outside the house saw him and just wanted to let things play out and see if they could use a missing person being last seen entering the house as an excuse to catch Nathan in the act or to see what else they could find once they had reason to enter the house. Either way, Neil made it inside the house without anyone stopping him.
Neil never thought he would be back there. He definitely never thought he would come back of his own free will. And he certainly never thought that he would end up breaking in to get back inside.
He knew this was a bad plan, but it was the only one he had and he had to do something.
As he stepped through the house, Neil’s heart hammered in his chest and he was terrified.
Neil was always scared. Life on the run meant constant fear, but this was worse. This was something else. This was pique fight, flight, or freeze and sheer unadulterated panic.
He was utterly terrified of his father and of what he was going to find when he got downstairs. The possibility that he might be too late or that he might not be able to save Andrew, even if he wasn't was too late yet, was too much to bear. All of the fear was too much.
Running had always been Neil’s instinct. His mother had made sure of that.
But Andrew had changed that. Andrew showed him he didn't have to run. He could fight for a shot at life instead and that had made his new impulse to run to Andrew instead of away when fight or flight kicked in. Now, he couldn't call Andrew to come to get him.
Now, Neil had to go to Andrew himself and it was Andrew’s life he was fighting for, not his own.
So Neil ignored the churning in his stomach and headed toward the door to the basement.
Every step felt like it echoed throughout the entire house, loud as a shotgun blast. He was sure his father must know he was there. He was sure that any moment, one of his father's men would grab him.
But when he made it to the basement door and opened it, Nathan turned around and looked up like he was surprised and annoyed to have his attention taken away from his work.
As he stood in the doorway, Neil's heart clenched and his stomach dropped. Andrew was alive, but it was clear that Nathan had been playing with him for hours already.
Andrew had never been so unhappy to see Neil before and that was not because the sight of Neil always brought him pure joy.
Neil was always the martyr and Andrew couldn’t stand it. He had come here to save Neil. All of it was worth it knowing he was the one being tortured and he was the one going to die instead of Neil, but then Neil just had to show up anyway and make Andrew’s sacrifice worthless.
“Three hundred percent,” Andrew told him on sight. “You were supposed to stop being a martyr. Coming here is the stupidest thing you have ever done. And there is plenty of competition for that spot.”
“You were supposed to stand at my side,” Neil argued because, of course, even now he was arguing. “Not fight my battles for me.”
Neil wasn’t really in any position to argue when he’d cut Andrew out of the picture and hadn’t let him stand at his side, but Nathan cut their conversation short before Andrew had time to tell him that.
“Nathaniel,” he said and Andrew thought at least Neil’s birth name was one real truth. “How nice of you to join us. Why don’t you come downstairs? Close the door behind you.”
It was clear the invitation was non-negotiable. Andrew forced his face to remain blank as Nathan held a knife to Andrew’s face. It was both a threat and a promise.
“Let him go,” Neil said. “Keep me instead. The deal was I come to you and my team is safe.”
“The deal has changed,” Nathan responded. “But I’m so glad that you’ve joined us. It’s good that you’re here to hear him scream.”
Andrew glared over at Nathan.
“Do what you want with me. Torture me. Kill me. Whatever you want,” Andrew growled out. “But let him go. Let him have to live with it.”
Neil looked sick. Andrew didn’t care.
Nathan turned his attention back to Andrew again as he said, “No, I think I’ll kill him. But I will let him watch you die a slow and painful death in front of him before I start in on him too.”
Neil spoke in German to Andrew, even though he must have known that it would only make his father angrier. It was bad enough that they were both going to get tortured to death. It was worse that Neil thought any time, let alone right then, was a good time to tell him, “I love you.”
Andrew felt sick. This was a worse blow than anything Nathan could have done to him. Neil was confirming what Andrew already knew and what he desperately wanted to be true and what he desperately wanted not to be true. Andrew was glad Neil had said it for just him to hear.
He wished Neil hadn't said it at all.
Andrew didn’t say it back. He didn’t say anything.
All of this was too much and he wasn’t used to feeling that many things. It was overwhelming. They were both going to die and he hated Neil so much for coming here and getting himself killed too.
“You love me too,” Neil said, still in German. “You don’t have to say it. I know. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
Andrew couldn’t tell Neil how important he was to him. Not now. Not like this. Not when he was the angriest he had ever been at Neil. He had been able to get the words out to save Neil, but he couldn’t get any of them out to tell Neil to his face. It was a relief and a nightmare when Neil said that he knew anyway. That only annoyed Andrew more because Neil was right.
Nathan was letting them talk for now. He was probably hoping that whatever they were saying would make things more painful for Neil. But the whole time they were talking, Nathan traced his knife over Andrew’s face, not quite deep enough to draw more blood yet, but a constant reminder that he would soon.
Andrew didn’t let Nathan distract him. He kept his eyes focused on Neil’s.
“Thank you,” Neil said. “For everything. You were amazing.”
Andrew’s jaw clenched at hearing those words out of Neil again. Once had been unsettling enough.
Andrew was relieved that Neil didn’t try to say sorry for dragging him into this mess. Andrew had made his own choices when it came to Neil and he couldn’t stand that word anyway.
Apparently, Nathan decided they’d had enough time to talk because he turned to Neil and ordered, “Sit. Now.”
Andrew didn’t expect him to listen and when Neil did, Andrew was even angrier at Nathan than he was at Neil because not once had Andrew seen Neil Josten just shut up and listen to what was told. Andrew was furious about whatever Nathan had done to him before that made Neil terrified into submission so easily now.
Neil hadn’t wanted to take a seat when his father told him to, but he knew that his father never asked anyone to do anything and his instinct was to listen to his father out of fear, even after all these years. He knew he was dead. He knew he signed on for it, but he figured maybe if he listened to his father, it wouldn’t be quite as bad for Andrew. Besides, it wasn’t like he was going to leave Andrew behind to try escape. If Andrew was dying because of Neil, then Neil was dying with him.
Even if Neil could let himself leave Andrew and try to escape, which he definitely couldn’t, then he’d still get caught by his father’s men upstairs. Andrew was already injured and Neil had never been a match for his father so it wasn’t like Neil could kill him and try to get them out of there and hope that they could get past the men upstairs.
Neil was powerless and terrified, so he sat down just like that.
Neil was used to Andrew having expressions forced onto his face against his will by drugs. He was used to Andrew having no expression at all and acting like he felt nothing. He was still haunted by the way that Andrew had laughed after Drake because of his medication.
Andrew had never cared about his own well-being. It had always been a joke to him and that had been utterly horrifying to Neil. But even more horrifying was that when it came down to it, Andrew screamed like anyone else, even though Neil was sure he didn’t want to.
Even though Andrew signed up to die and he made a point of how much he didn’t care what happened to him, Nathan was the Butcher. He was talented. He knew how to keep people alive for so long, dragging out the death and torture just to make sure that his victims suffered for as long as possible. He knew how to make people feel pain like they had never felt before.
Despite what others seemed to think, Andrew was human. He couldn’t just stay blank-faced and indifferent in the face of torture. So he screamed and Neil couldn’t bear it, but it just kept happening. Neil didn’t know whether to hope his father would drag Andrew’s death out so that maybe by some miracle someone could get there in time to save Andrew or if he should hope for his father to just put Andrew out of his misery already because it was bad enough that Andrew was going to die for him, but he shouldn’t have to go through this too.
Neil was afraid that Andrew couldn’t take much more. He was afraid that he was going to have to watch Andrew die. He didn’t want Andrew suffering longer, but he wanted a chance at Andrew living.
So he told his father, “Just kill him.”
It was a gamble, but at the same time, Neil’s father had never listened to him.
It was really a matter of whether his father realized what he was doing and laughed in the face of it.
Luckily, it worked. Nathan stopped cutting Andrew and backhanded Neil across the face hard.
“You do not tell me what to do,” he growled out. “I will make him suffer as long as I want and you will watch.”
Nathan might have been too mad that Neil had the nerve to backtalk to realize that Neil was trying to keep Andrew alive longer and shift the attention onto himself instead, but Andrew figured it out. Neil could tell by the way his jaw clenched.
“You need to learn a lesson, Nathaniel,” his father snarled in his face while Neil tried and failed not to flinch. “But don’t worry. We’ll go back to your boyfriend afterward. Before you’re dead so you can watch the life leave his eyes.”
Andrew spit out blood, then growled out, “You’re a terrible father. You couldn’t even stop your own family from running away.”
Nathan ignored him. Neil tried to plead with Andrew to stop with his eyes, but Andrew didn’t.
“How do you expect anyone to respect you or listen to you after that?” Andrew asked.
Nathan ignored him. Andrew might be mildly annoying to him, but Neil knew Nathan had wanted to hurt him for much longer. Neil’s smart mouth and defiance had been making Nathan Wesninski bubble over with anger for years. Andrew trying to anger him wasn’t going to outweigh Neil’s need to be taught a long overdue lesson, no matter what Andrew said and somehow that was almost comforting.
That didn’t stop Andrew from trying. He called Nathan all the nastiest things he could think of, but Nathan didn’t even budge. Instead, he used his knife on Neil.
It was everything Neil had been afraid of for years and he couldn’t catch his breath. All he could feel was panic.
His screams started faster than Andrew’s did. His father knew just how to make sure he screamed. Still, it was better than listening to Andrew scream and it was better than watching Andrew die for him.
Andrew’s voice was strained from the screaming and the blood, but he kept on threatening Nathan. Neil could hardly hear him over the sound of his own screams.
Neil lost track of time. Everything went out of focus and everything was pain.
Then there was a loud bang and his father stopped and turned his head.
Neil knew how dangerous hope could be. He let himself feel it anyway.
For a moment, Neil didn’t understand what was going on. There were too many people flooding down the stairs. There were too many guns. Then, he saw his Uncle Stuart and hoped he was there to help him, not to get in line to kill him.
Neil wasn’t worried about getting shot in all the gunfire, even though Andrew and the other Foxes had taught him what it was like to actually live and he desperately wanted to. But all he had room to worry about at that moment was the possibility that Andrew could get caught in the crossfire and die after he was so close to being safe.
Then a bullet hit Andrew and he fell to the ground and Neil screamed even louder than he had before. His throat felt like it was bleeding, but he couldn’t stop screaming.
There were too many people and there was too much was going on. Neil didn’t have a clear view of Andrew anymore. He couldn’t tell where he had been hit and Andrew had already lost a lot of blood before he’d been shot. Now, Neil really didn’t care about getting out of there alive.
But then Uncle Stuart executed Nathan and all of Nathan’s men were either dead or had fled and suddenly Neil had a clear view of Andrew again and it was just them and Uncle Stuart left.
Andrew was still on the floor. He probably hadn’t had the energy to get back up, but he was safer there anyway, too low to the ground to get hit by another stray bullet and just another body on the floor. His eyes were on Neil again and Neil could tell he was alive from the way the labour of his ragged breath made his chest move. Andrew was still alive and that was something.
Neil rushed over to Andrew to see where he was hit. He was relieved that it was just Andrew’s shoulder and was terrified all at the same. He applied pressure to the wound and hoped that Andrew would make it out of this. Neil had been shot before and survived, but Andrew had already lost a lot of blood and there was something dazed in his expression that Neil didn’t like.
Uncle Stuart was talking to Neil, but Neil didn’t catch most of what he said. He was too distracted trying to help Andrew and shock had put a cloudy film over Neil’s ability to concentrate.
When the FBI burst in, Neil couldn’t make himself care about the guns and the questions. Someone pulled him off of Andrew and he thrashed in their grip until he ended up with someone else helping hold him, but then paramedics were there helping Andrew while other ones took him to an ambulance.
“Stop fighting us,” one of them told him. “We’re here to help you. You’re only going to injure yourself worse.”
As they loaded him into an ambulance, a paramedic asked him, “Where all are you hurt?”
Neil didn’t answer. His injuries didn’t matter. All that mattered was telling them to take him to the same hospital as Andrew.
Neil woke up in a hospital, handcuffed to the bed. FBI agents tried to use the life on a run he’d had to live to survive against him so that they could get more information on Nathan Wesninski and everything Neil knew about him and his men. Neil wouldn’t agree to tell them anything until he saw Andrew and the Foxes.
The agents tried to ignore him, but Neil was determined and, eventually, they gave in anyway.
It took a few days, but when Neil and Andrew were in good enough condition to leave the hospital, Neil finally got to see Andrew.
Andrew was already in the van when Neil was escorted to it and he looked better and worse than the last time Neil had seen him at the same time. His arm was in a sling from his gunshot wound now. At least, he didn’t look like he was bleeding out anymore, but he was covered in bruises and bandages that were covering up what would definitely become scars later. Seeing the bandages that covered Andrew was so much worse than the bandages Neil had on his own face and arms and hands.
As Neil got into the van, Andrew studied him like he was trying to determine if he was alright, as if Andrew wasn’t the one who had left the basement more injured. From what Neil had heard the agents complain about, Andrew had only had one condition for his cooperation and he had been as stubborn about it as Neil had been with his requests. He had wanted to see Neil too.
Even though the federal agents left Neil with an uneasy feeling in his stomach as they drove to see the rest of the Foxes, he was relieved just to be in the same space as Andrew again.
Apparently, Andrew trusted the agents about as much as Neil did because he spoke in German to cut them out of the conversation as he told Neil, “You are the biggest idiot I have ever met. I don’t know how you fit so much stupid into such a small package.”
Neil wanted to banter with him. He wanted to point out that Andrew had sacrificed himself too and that he was even shorter than him.
Instead, he responded in German, “They want to put me in witness protection. They want to take me away from you and the team.”
“They’re not taking you,” Andrew snarled out. “They’re not making you someone else again. You are Neil Abram Josten. That’s who you are. Tell them you are staying. Don’t give them any information unless they let you stay. I won’t let them take you away.”
Neil was in awe that even after Andrew found out that he had been lying to him even more, Andrew still wanted to take on the FBI just to make it so that he could stay. Neil couldn’t believe Andrew really wanted him to stay. He doubted the Foxes would feel the same.
Nicky’s reaction to their injuries was most obvious when they first arrived in the hotel room. All the Foxes looked horrified, but Nicky audibly gasped and was choked up on sight.
He tried to head for them, but Andrew warned him in German, “Hug me and I’ll stab you.”
Nicky stopped in his tracks, but it looked like it physically pained him.
Kevin sat down the moment he saw them, like his legs had suddenly failed him.
Aaron’s reaction was more subtle horror. He didn’t even look at Neil. His eyes were far too focused on Andrew to look anywhere else.
Neil waited for his team to start yelling at him but to his surprise, they didn’t and when Andrew insisted that the FBI agents couldn’t take Neil away, the whole team chimed in with their agreement and insisted that they weren’t letting anyone take Neil away and they weren’t going anywhere without him.
Neil couldn’t believe that they were all supporting him like this. They really wanted him to come back after he and Andrew were done answering the agents’ questions.
Apparently, Allison thought it would be a good idea to break the ice in their last few minutes before they would have to go back to be questioned again by asking, “So, how long have you two been together?”
Aaron and Nicky looked shocked.
“Oh, come on,” Allison insisted. “Obviously, they’re together. Why do you think they went all Romeo and Juliet for each other?”
Andrew glared at her and Neil was a little grateful on Allison’s behalf that they were leaving before Allison’s mouth could get her into any more trouble.
Andrew and Neil were inseparable during the questioning. Neil told the whole truth to Andrew like he promised him he would one day and when they got back to PSU, Neil told the rest of the Foxes too.
Even though it was late and they were all exhausted by the time that they made it back to the Fox Tower, Andrew headed past the third floor without stopping so Neil followed him.
When they reached the doorway to the roof, Andrew tried to shoulder it open with his good shoulder but he couldn't pull off the trick to get it open with one arm in a sling, so Neil stepped in and opened the door for him. Andrew said nothing as he stepped through it and headed over to the edge of the roof.
He pulled his carton of cigarettes out of his pocket before he sat down, then he set it down so that he could open it with one hand. It took him longer than usual but, eventually, he got a couple cigarettes out. He held both between his lips as he lit them, then he put the lighter away before handing one over to Neil.
Neil wasn't sure where he stood with Andrew at the moment. He knew that Andrew had told him to stay and so he had. He knew they had been inseparable while the FBI questioned them. But he didn't know if Andrew could get past the lies for their rooftop visits to be anything more than smoking again.
Neil turned the cigarette over in his hand over and over again, watching the smoke curl, as he waited. He wouldn't push Andrew. They didn't have an expiry date to worry about anymore and Andrew's comfort in these situations had always been more important than anything else. Neil could wait. Neil would wait as long as it took.
Andrew smoked his cigarette nearly all the way down before he finally stubbed it out. Neil wondered if they were going to get up and go back inside. It was late.
“Yes or no?” Andrew asked as he finally turned to look at Neil.
“It's always yes with you,” Neil told him.
“Except when it's no,” Andrew countered as if he thought there was any chance in the world that Neil was going to turn him down now.
Neil leaned closer until their noses were practically touching as he said, “If you have to keep asking because—I’ll answer as many times as you ask. But this is always going to be yes.”
“Do not ‘always’ me,” Andrew warned.
“Don't ask for the truth if you're just going to dilute it,” Neil told him.
He expected Andrew to argue, but he didn’t.
Andrew used the hand of his good arm to angle Neil's chin where he wanted it and then leaned in to close the distance. Neil was aware that Andrew was kissing him to shut him up, but that didn't matter. Andrew had asked yes or no before he'd wanted to stop Neil from talking and Neil couldn't complain as Andrew's tongue worked against his own.
Since they had gotten out of the hospital, Andrew had only let Abby tend to his injuries. She was the only one allowed to change his bandages with no one else there.
When they were back at PSU and Andrew needed to take a shower before the team went out for breakfast together, Andrew kicked everyone out of his dorm so that he could go for a shower without having to deal with any of them while he taped chunks of garbage bags over his bandages.
He was determined to do it himself, but it was more of a challenge than he had been expecting. Eventually, he gave in and texted Renee to come tape the rest of him up.
As soon as all of his bandages were covered, he kicked her out too. He struggled through his shower on his own and then struggled his way back into his clothes and sling. He refused to ask for any help with anything else. He would not show any weakness and he would not invite potential for help that might involve someone else thinking that it was okay to touch him.
He let Neil help him with some things, but that was because Neil had a way of knowing when Andrew needed help with something that he wouldn’t ask for but that it was within his comfort level for Neil to help with. Neil’s hands weren’t exactly in the greatest condition, but at least he had two arms he was allowed to move so when Andrew decided he didn’t need something because he couldn’t open it, Neil would open it for him.
Andrew left the dorm room, still struggling to get his sling on properly. His shoes were still untied. That didn’t matter though. He could handle it.
Nicky frowned when Andrew entered the hallway, still fighting with his sling.
“Let me-” He started, but Andrew cut him off before he could finish.
“Don’t touch me.”
Nicky’s frown deepened. “Just let me tie your shoes.”
Andrew narrowed his eyes at Nicky in warning.
“I am not a child,” Andrew told him. “I do not need you to tie my shoes for me.”
“I know you don’t need my help,” Nicky pleaded. “But do me a favour. Let me tie them so I don’t have to worry about you falling down the stairs.”
“Fine,” Andrew gritted out.
Maybe, it was because Nicky hadn’t said please. Or, maybe, it was because Nicky was making it out like Andrew would be doing him a favour and not the other way around. Or, maybe, it was because his shoes had already been threatening to slide off of his heels with every step on his way out of the dorm.
Nicky looked beyond relieved as he crouched down to tie Andrew’s laces for him. Andrew stopped messing with his sling for a moment as he kept an eye on Nicky.
When Nicky stood up again and took a couple steps back, Andrew went back to trying to make his sling sit right. Apparently, Aaron thought that just because he had given in to Nicky meant that suddenly he was accepting unprovoked help.
“Here,” Aaron said as he took a step forward and adjusted Andrew’s sling for him.
“I don’t need your help,” Andrew insisted.
“I’m hungry,” Aaron grumbled. “I didn’t feel like waiting and watching you fight with it for ten minutes while we all wait to leave.”
Andrew glared at him for good measure, but a small part of him was glad to have the sling in the right place and maybe it wasn’t quite so bad if it was just Aaron adjusting it for him.
“Are you sure you should be driving with your sling?” Nicky asked from the backseat on the way to the diner.
Andrew could hear the nerves in his voice, so he made his voice dangerous as he asked, “Don’t you trust me?”
“Yes, of course, I trust you,” Nicky told him. “I just-”
Nicky didn’t get to finish his sentence because Andrew purposely swerved and Nicky cut himself off with a yelp.
“That’s what I thought,” Andrew said.
“I do trust you,” Nicky insisted. “You’re just injured and I wasn’t su-”
Andrew turned the radio on and cranked it up to drown Nicky out. He wasn’t interested in hearing about how his injuries made him less threatening and less capable and less reliable.
At the restaurant, the Foxes planned out a trip together. Even Andrew agreed to go, although Neil was sure that had something to do with the fact that he wanted to go and he was grateful for that like he was grateful for all the things Andrew did for him.
Neil’s hands were still sore and when the food came, he struggled to cut his own breakfast up but he refused to accept help. He planned on cutting Andrew’s up for him after, but Kevin beat him to the punch. He quickly retracted his hand when Andrew one-handed wielded a knife at him in warning though.
“Don’t touch my food,” Andrew warned.
“I thought you’d want my help,” Kevin said.
“You thought wrong,” Andrew retorted.
Andrew started slowly but surely cutting his food one-handed. Each cut made a horrible clattering sound against the plate, but Neil wasn’t sure that wasn’t intentional.
He thought Andrew’s food must be getting cold while he was taking so long to cut it, but it seemed like Andrew wanted the team to know he was still capable of wielding a knife. So when Neil finished cutting up his own food, he started eating instead of pressing his luck to see if he was allowed to help.
The week at the cabin was nice. Andrew and Neil shared a bedroom. Andrew gave in and let Neil help him with more, but he only let Renee change his bandages. He let Neil sit there and talk to them while she changed them though and Andrew could tell that felt like something to Neil by the way he looked at him.
Then, Renee left to get Jean and Neil and Andrew still had bandages that needed changing and the Foxes still had days left at the cabin. Andrew looked after Neil's for him, but he wouldn't let Neil change his for him in return.
So, when they needed changing and he couldn’t look after them all himself, he went to Aaron and tried to ignore the way his eyes went wide as he removed the old bandages.
“Why can't your boyfriend do this?” Aaron questioned.
Andrew could hear the accusation in his tone as if Neil had done something wrong and that was the reason Andrew couldn't trust him with this yet.
“Don't you want to be a doctor?” Andrew deflected. “Here's your chance to practice and clearly you need it. Your bedside manner could use some work.”
Andrew didn't want the first time Neil's hands touched his bare skin anywhere to be bandaging up wounds. He didn't want to associate Neil's touch with pain and bad memories and scars. He thought that one day, maybe he could be okay with letting Neil touch him more places. He wasn't ready for that yet, but it still felt like they were something more than they had been before. Neil had told him he loved him and, even if Andrew still couldn't say it back, he knew he felt the same. That was already nerve-wracking enough. Andrew didn't need to try out too much at once when he was already overwhelmed. But, obviously, he wasn't about to tell Aaron any of that.
“He tries anything you aren't okay with and I'll kill him,” Aaron said as he taped a new bandage onto Andrew’s side. “I mean it.”
Andrew looked Aaron in the eyes for a long moment, then told him, “I do not need you to protect me.”
“I’ll still kill him,” Aaron insisted.
Andrew couldn't play with his injuries and it should have been a relief. He should have been glad to sit on the bench during practices. It turned out that sitting on the bench while Kevin agreed that it was what was best for him wasn't so fun. It was as boring as playing was. All the fun of irritating Kevin was gone and Andrew was getting a little restless, but he would never admit it.
After all, there were plenty of other ways he would rather prove that he wasn't completely broken and useless just because his shoulder hadn’t healed yet. It really wasn't so bad for Renee to be their only goalie at practices.
And yet, one night, after the team had started all taking part in Kevin's extra night practices because they wanted to beat Riko and when Neil had been cleared to practice again, Andrew drove Renee to the court and made sure that no one knew that was where they were headed.
Neil wanted Andrew to make exy his thing until he figured out something for himself. Andrew didn't care about exy, but he didn't hate the idea of doing the same thing as Neil and having him with him still after graduation. Well, he didn't always hate the idea.
Besides, if the Foxes were going to face the Ravens, Andrew wanted to be on the court to ensure Kevin and Neil's safety. He didn't really believe in revenge or that besting Riko at exy would accomplish anything or be at all worthwhile. What was important wasn't making Riko cry in defeat on the court. What was important was keeping Riko away from his people. But Kevin had been coming out of his coward shell lately and Andrew was proud enough to consider trying for him and Neil since the game was so important to them.
So Andrew brought just Renee with him to test out if playing with his sling was at all plausible, despite the warnings he'd already gotten against the idea.
Renee helped him into his equipment and back into his sling, then Andrew grabbed his racquet and headed into the goal.
He wielded his racquet one-handed as he let Renee take shots on him. She was no striker and he only had one arm he was allowed to move, but Andrew was cursed with natural talent and an eidetic memory so he was able to get the hang of it after a while.
When they were done practicing, Renee made Andrew go see Abby. It was her one condition for helping him and Andrew kept his promises.
Abby told him he was lucky that he hadn’t done more damage to his shoulder and that it was dangerous playing, even with the sling. So Andrew stayed off of the court a while longer. Then he started practicing in small bursts.
Abby kept a close eye on him. She checked on his shoulder after every practice and she and Wymack threatened every day to pull him the second Abby decided the strain was too much.
When it came time for the game against the Ravens, Andrew played one-handed for the second half. His eidetic memory made it easier for him to pick up on what worked for compensating for his injury, even if he hadn't had a whole lot of time to practice playing this way. His shoulder ached throughout the game, but Andrew ignored it and the Foxes narrowly won, thanks to Neil ending the game as a backliner and Kevin ending the game with a last-second goal that put them in the lead.
What really did Andrew’s shoulder in was stopping Riko from beheading Neil after the game. His shoulder was going to take even longer to heal, but it was worth it to stop Riko from smashing Neil's brains in after the game.
When Neil found out that Andrew's recovery time had been extended, he was guilty. He thanked Andrew for playing the game one armed and told him how incredible he thought it was, but Andrew could see the guilt in his eyes that Andrew had played for him. Andrew's shoulder would recover anyway though and Neil hadn't forced Riko to swing a racquet at his head or forced Andrew to stop him, so Andrew warned, “Do not look at me like that. Kevin can't make me practice all summer now. Who's to say I didn't set back my recovery intentionally?”
Throughout the summer, Andrew got better at letting Neil help him with things as he got more comfortable with Neil and loosened up his boundaries just a little bit.
Maybe, one day, Andrew wouldn't need his boundaries with Neil. Maybe, one day, he would even tell Neil how he felt when there wasn't pressure and they weren't caught in a life or death situation if he every truly accepted that Neil was permanent and he wasn't going to lose him. But, for now, Andrew didn't have to worry about that. Neil was legally Neil Abram Josten and he was sticking around. They had time for Andrew to figure that all out and that wasn’t quite as terrifying as it used to be.