Neil is late to practice.
Andrew doesn’t notice at first, too busy trying to make Kevin as angry as possible without leaving the goal. Neil had been right behind him when they left the dorms, hair mussed and face flushed but somewhere in between the dorms and the court, he had fallen behind. Andrew assumed he had just stopped to talk to someone, but the longer Neil’s missing, the more unsettled he feels.
He can tell Dan feels the same way, sees it in the way she’s fidgeting on the half court line, in the way she takes a break to run up to Wymack.
But they don’t say anything and practice goes on, although Andrew has half a mind to storm off the court to drag Neil’s ass where it belongs. Kevin grows increasingly irritated if the way he slams balls against Andrew’s net are any indication and even Nicky seems unsettled, judging by the way he shifts around Andrew with uncertainty.
The second practice is called to an end, Andrew is beelining off the court. He thinks if he had to stay there one second longer, he might have lost it.
He’s rushing to his bag, rummaging through until he pulls out his phone.
No new messages. No missed calls. Nothing to indicate Neil has tried to contact him in any way.
Andrew feels a clenching in his chest, a rush of terror he hasn’t felt since Baltimore. Wrongness is crawling under his skin and Andrew dresses out as fast as he can, phone already held up to his ear.
It rings once, twice, three times. No answer. Andrew hangs up, tries again. No answer.
Andrew’s fist clenches around the phone and he’s already on his way out the door and making his way to the dorms. He enters his room, not surprised to find it dark. The door was locked but he doesn’t rule out foul play. He’s doing a cursory sweep of the bedroom, curtains drawn and shoes still strewn about the floor where Neil kicked them aside.
He’s about to shut the door and scour the rest of campus when he freezes. Andrew’s eyes have landed on a lump in his bed, something that wasn’t there when he left. He moves forward silently, heart beating in his lungs and pulls the blanket back.
His breath catches in his throat.
Neil’s curled under the blanket, fists clenching the fabric tighter and his face is smoothed away of all worries. He looks younger than Andrew can remember seeing in a long time and his breathing is steady.
He seems to notice the absence of something, because his face quickly tenses and it’s only a matter of minutes before he’s blinking awake. “Andrew?” He asks, sleep coating his words making them rough and stumbling. “What time is it?”
Andrew wants to worry his lip, wants to clench his fists, wants to shake Neil and ask him what he was thinking. “5:30,” he finally says after doing none of those things.
Neil seems to be taking longer to process his words than normal but within the minute he’s sitting straight up in bed. “Practice?” He asks, and Andrew shrugs tightly.
“Fuck,” Neil hisses angrily, slamming his hand against the wall. He doesn’t seem to feel any pain and the look on his face is darker than anything Andrew has seen in a long, long time. “I wasn’t going to... It wasn’t supposed to be...” He’s stumbling over his words, a thick wave of rage trembling underneath each syllable.
Andrew says nothing, more because he’s not sure what to say. Neil is supposed to be the one who’s more put together, more able to tape his fractured pieces back into a semblance of normality. Andrew’s not sure what to do with this heated broken anger.
“Dinner?” He finally suggests, trying to take Neil’s mind off whatever he’s trying to get out. Also, he ran more laps than he would have liked and could probably eat a whole horse if he were given the chance. He thinks he might mention that in front of Kevin, just to see the light in his eyes flare up.
Neil blinks at him, hair sleep ruffled and eyes fiery, but he nods tightly and rolls out of bed. He’s wearing Andrew’s sweatpants and an old hoodie from Andrew’s freshman year, shoes untied. He looks tired and confused and angry and Andrew doesn’t know what’s wrong or how to fix it, but they make their way down to the Chinese restaurant on the corner pretending like nothing is changing and nothing is wrong. Andrew hopes that maybe this will be all it takes.
Except Neil skips three more practices within the month and Andrew feels like his whole world is teetering on the precipice of disaster. Neil is irritable, quick to snap, and downright mean. He’s made the freshmen cry more than once and any attempt at pleasantries with Kevin are long gone.
In fact, Andrew thinks the only person Neil isn’t completely insufferable around is himself. Which isn’t to say much, because Andrew and Neil are never alone. Not anymore. They’re always with Nicky or Dan or Matt or even Kevin and Neil seems to loathe being around anyone who isn’t Andrew.
And anytime Andrew and Neil are alone in the same room together, Neil is skittish. Jittery. Like he never knows what Andrew’s going to do next, when Andrew knows Neil knows him better than anyone. He hates it.
He hates the way he can see the rage bubbling up underneath Neil’s skin every time he’s on the court and the antsy way he creeps around the room when Andrew is present and the downright harsh comments he tosses the way of his team.
Andrew doesn’t know what to do. And he hates it.
He’s sure Neil would be benched if it weren’t for the fact he’s playing better than ever. He scores on Andrew every chance he can get and Andrew starts to suspect Neil has something else going on beyond the vicious pleasure that crosses his face when he does.
Everything comes to a head on a Wednesday.
“I’m fine,” Neil snaps at Nicky after Nicky asks him what’s wrong for about the twelfth time within as many minutes.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Aaron snaps from where he’s lounging on the couch. Neil stiffens, his back to Aaron and Andrew and Andrew wishes he could see Neil’s face. He’s torn between defending Neil and staying impartial when Neil shoves to his feet.
“I’m going for a run,” he says monotone, already dressed in his running shoes and jogging pants. He’s wearing Andrew’s hoodie and if everything weren’t so fucked up, Andrew would be interested in exploring just how attracted to Neil he is right now.
Before he can think anymore on the topic, Neil’s out the door, slamming it behind him. They sit in silence for a moment, only the sound of the movie they had been attempting to watch playing quietly in the background.
“What was that?” Andrew finally asks, deliberately keeping his voice even. “Are you fucking stupid?” He definitely thinks there might be some crack to his mask, especially considering the way Aaron’s eyes are narrowing in on him.
“He’s been a nightmare for weeks, Andrew,” Aaron retorts cooly. “How is it fair for him to take out whatever grudge he has on us, on me, on Nicky, on you?” Andrew doesn’t answer, just meets Aaron’s eyes cooly.
It’s always been like looking into a mirror, although Andrew’s never cared to stare for too long. He’s not sure he’ll like what he’ll find and Aaron’s eyes glitter at him challengingly.
his inner voice is hissing at him. But Andrew wants to protest. Something about this isn’t right.
Neil is his family.
And he wouldn’t give up on Andrew.
Neil hasn’t returned by the time Nicky and Aaron trickle out of their room and he hasn’t returned by the time Kevin emerges from wherever he’s been watching videos on Exy moves. Kevin starts to ask where he is but Andrew cuts him off with a particularly pointed stare. Worry is starting to churn in his stomach, but Andrew takes a few deeper breaths to calm himself.
Neil will come back. He always does.
So Andrew heads to bed, lays on his back and stares at the ceiling. He’s still not asleep when the door to their room swings open and Neil comes in. Andrew recognizes the lightness to his steps, the way he rummages through what Andrew assumes is his backpack on the desk.
He leaves again, barely pausing in front of where Andrew’s prone. But Andrew gets up, following him this time. He tracks Neil up to the roof, hesitates just a moment before he swings open the door. But this has gone on long enough.
Neil is sitting on the edge of the roof, back slumped and smoke drifting away from him. He seems to actually be smoking, and he doesn’t make any indication that he’s heard Andrew or aware someone else has joined him.
Andrew sits next to him, close enough so their thighs could touch if one of them shifted just slightly. He waits until Neil glances over at him, face closed off, eyes dark, and takes the cigarette from Neil’s hand. No resistance and no response. He stubs it out angrily and reaches out to take Neil’s chin in his hand.
Neil flinches almost imperceptibly when Andrew’s fingers touch him. Andrew wouldn’t have noticed except he’s fine tuned to pick up details like that. He lets his hand drop away, but Neil keeps his eyes on Andrew’s face.
Like he’s committing him to memory.
“What is it?” Andrew finally breaks the silence, his voice almost obscenely loud.
Neil blinks. Once. Twice. He’s already turning away by the time he speaks. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Andrew snaps, fury rising up within him. “You’ve been off for weeks. Don’t you dare lie to me, not about this.”
Neil stills. He’s barely breathing. “I...” His voice gives out. “I got a call. The first day I missed practice.”
“Ichirou.” Andrew’s voice comes out flat, without effort for him. It’s not a question. Neil gives a sharp jerk of his head. He takes a wild breath, ragged, and it’s like everything has been fast forwarded. Everything from the cold wind to the way Neil is trembling next to him seems more real, like a filter has been ripped from over his eyes.
“He’s watching me. Says I’m too distracted. I’m not going to make Court and then where will that leave me?” Neil’s voice breaks on the mention of the Court and he shifts ever so slightly so he’s more firmly wedged against Andrew. “I just...” Neil trails off, still staring into the distance. “I just want them to be safe.”
Andrew shakes his head, confused. “What are you talking about? They’re fine.”
But Neil’s already making noises of protest. “He’ll hurt them. If he’s watching me, if he thinks I hate them and they hate me, it’ll be fine. No one will miss me when I’m gone.”
Andrew feels the urge to laugh, to shake Neil, to make him see sense. “You’re even dumber than I thought,” he sneers. “What about me?”
Neil glances at him, face more open and wounded than Andrew can bear to look at. “I don’t know. I tried. I wanted to try. But I couldn’t. I can’t. I don’t know what I would do.”
“Neil,” he says, and when Neil stares back out at campus, “Neil.” His hands are fettered around Neil’s wrists and he’s pulling Neil in before he knows what he’s doing. “Yes or no.”
Confusion flickers across Neil’s face, but he’s saying yes like he’s always done. Andrew surges forward, kissing him hard, like he hasn’t done since the morning before Neil missed practice. “So fucking stupid,” he murmurs against Neil’s mouth when he pulls away and Neil moves forward like he’s chasing the words.
“You have a home, Neil,” he explains, something that shouldn’t need to be explained. “No matter what comes next, you’re home.”
A part of Andrew twists in pain at the way Neil’s face falls open, at the way he slumps into Andrew still shaking.
They stay on the roof all night. Neil eventually falls asleep, head in Andrew’s lap. But he stays awake, watching the rise and fall of Neil’s chest and the sun rising in the east. He watches Neil wake, eyes bleary and presses a kiss to the crook of his nest.
Andrew still aches, but maybe in a good way. He watches Neil fold back into the embrace of the upperclassmen, sees Neil’s glance toward him over his shoulder.
Neil is home, he thinks. His home. And hearing Neil’s laugh, for the first time in what feels like years, he doesn’t think that scares him quite as much.