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feel your burn inside my lungs

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There are few reasons to stay in Millport, when all is said and done. The surplus of abandoned buildings does nothing to combat the dried-out husk of an atmosphere, and the heat presses on all sides like a flaming cage. Nicky swears up and down that he once cooked an egg on the sidewalk.

There’s the old rec center, boarded up only to be broken into several months later by desperate hands. There’s the library that was never boarded up at all and still boasts one librarian named Bee.

And there’s the Foxhole Court.

Painted a lurid orange, the Foxhole Court apartment complex burns a hole into the dusty, baked hillsides of southern California like a garbage fire. The outer gate screams when pushed open; the inner courtyard rattles when doors screech shut. Window screens always threaten to pop out or tear apart entirely, and the washer works as often as it doesn’t. Sometimes the clothes lines dump whole loads into the center planter.

The insides of the apartments are no better. Nails point out where stained beige carpet meets kitchen tile; the ceiling bears dangerous cracks and stains in the bathroom. The garbage disposal always groans like an old man choking down his last meal, and the bedroom stinks like old shoes no matter how long the skylight is kept open.

Some might call the Foxhole Court dirty. Some definitely call it depressing. Neil calls it all home.

Mary taught him to fear homes, once. She called them places of habit the way other people spat slurs, and told Neil that falling into habits was the quickest way to get killed. It was better to move as soon as you got comfortable and never look back, better to throw away your old identity for a new beginning somewhere else. It was better to be unhappy, but alive.

Running Millport’s dilapidated streets, Neil begs to differ. He’s alive now more than he’s ever been.

He leads the team over hills and through intersections, around potholes and underneath washed-out billboards and marquees. The sun barely peeks over the edge of the world, dropping long shadows at Neil’s left while the sky clears of nighttime clouds and dew evaporates in thick, sizzling waves. The whole world is waking up.

They slow to a stop in front of the Court and fan out over the pavement: Renee and Allison, serene even in layers of grime; Matt stretching for the clouds with Dan at his side, grinning; Kevin already ushering Nicky and Aaron to squat on the curb and stretch with him. Everyone’s chests heave in the wake of their cool-down run.

Neil licks his lips and tastes the sweat that dampens his skin. He loves the way his blood sings after a good run, the way his muscles ache like they want to keep moving forever. He’s awake, conscious of his body but not fearful of it the way he’d been for so long. He’s comfortable.

All of that comfort fizzles away the second his eyes land on the Foxes’ shortest member. He stands with guarded grace, skin flushed pink from their morning exertion; a black tank hugs the sharp cut of hidden abs and a broad, built chest like a second skin, dampened with sweat. As Neil watches, his dark eyes snap over and meet his in one single, hawklike movement. All the blood in Neil’s veins pulses.

Andrew.

He doesn’t know when or how it happened. Andrew’s eyes have always cut him apart with knife-like precision; since that first night on the roof, Neil hasn’t been able to go anywhere without the other knowing exactly where he is and how to get him back. He’s a second, lighter shadow, flitting at Neil’s peripheral senses where he can’t quite reach, dancing in the tail-end of Neil’s dreams as he comes up from sleep. Neil’s long grown used to his antics.

But now there are other things to contend with. The way Andrew’s gaze rests heavier than usual on Neil’s sweaty skin. The way his hands sometimes tug on Neil’s auburn curls and stay there, warm against his scalp. The way he picks Neil apart with just a few words, opening him up to expose the pulsing, soft meat beneath his outer shell.

The way he slipped his hands, questing but careful, over the planes of Neil’s wet body like he wanted to take him apart under the moon.

One of Andrew’s eyebrows lifts like he can read Neil’s thoughts. Neil flushes and rips his gaze away.

Maybe he’s just being paranoid. Whatever the strange twist in his gut is, he resolves to stay away until it smoothes itself back out.

But it’s never that simple.

He’s folding laundry on the livingroom floor when Nicky bursts through the screen door and announces he’s been invited out with them that Friday.

Neil stares up at him. “What? Where are you going?”

“Out,” he says, like it’s obvious. “For some fun in the next town over.”

It sounds like a terrible idea. Neil, for all of his comfort in the Foxhole Court, knows better than to flaunt his very-alive existence where watchful eyes can see him. Being in Las Vegas isn’t going to stop Nathaniel from killing Neil in his sleep.

“I don’t know.” He plucks old lint off a fresh towel. “I might be busy that night.”

Nicky gives him a look. “Doing what, playing Yahtzee with the upperclassmen? Come on.” He raises his eyebrows and gives Neil what he probably thinks is a winning smile. “Andrew specifically invited you.”

All the more reason not to go. Andrew doesn’t do favors like he doesn’t do manners or eating fresh food; if he’s specifically inviting Neil anywhere, it’s because he wants something out of him. Something he doesn’t want the others to have.

When Neil fails to respond, Nicky resorts to pleading. “It’s only for a couple of hours,” he wheedles, toeing at the fresh stack of dishtowels. “Please? We’ll come back if you’re really not having a good time.”

A blatant lie, Neil thinks, and by the look on Nicky’s face he knows it too.

But what does Neil have left to lose? Andrew promised to protect him. There’s no place safer for him to be—not anymore.

“Okay,” he tells him. “I’ll go.”

.

He’s almost forgotten by the time Friday evening rolls around. August’s arrival brings hot winds and skin-cracking sunbeams, afterimages of daytime heat pressed into the nighttime pavement. Every day is a battle with the sun: to get up and practice before it rises, to get where they’re going before it whips their backs open, to get home once it’s sunk back into the hills. Neil fills his days with community work and applying lip balm, chugging water in between unloading grocery shipments or picking up trash with the upperclassmen.

It’s only when he comes home on Friday that he remembers. Andrew leans against the railing outside his apartment, a cigarette between two fingers and a black plastic bag in his other hand. The sun splinters light over him like a broken yolk, lighting up his hair and eyelashes in gold. Neil stares, stunned for a moment.

Andrew hands over the bag without a glance. Neil peeks inside—he knows better, now, than to just take them and go—but everything is black. He looks up.

“You don’t have anything appropriate.” He’s dispassionate enough for Neil to almost believe what he’s hearing. “You dress like you’re one step away from living in an underpass.”

He swallows. “Is this—”

Andrew doesn’t say anything. Neil brushes his hands over the fabric. It feels soft, expensive in a way that none of his things ever have. He’s not sure what to do.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Andrew mutters. “It’s nothing.”

It doesn’t feel like nothing. Having Nicky give him secondhand swim trunks is one thing; having Andrew hand over new clothes he personally bought for Neil is another thing entirely. The idea of going inside and putting on these clothes feels—strange. Is this for Neil, or is it for Andrew?

“Thank you,” he murmurs, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Andrew doesn’t say anything at all.

When he tries everything on, he’s almost disturbed at how well the shirt hugs his body. The pants fit his thighs so tightly that he’s sure he’ll rip them if he leans over too fast. There’s no way he’ll be able to run anywhere without ripping a seam right between his asscheeks.

Not that he’d run from Andrew, but it’s good to keep his options open. Just in case.

He meets the others outside the gate. Nicky’s smile curls crooked at the sight of him, eyes scraping over the corners of Neil’s body that he’s tried so hard to hide.

“Oh, wow. You clean up good. Don’t you agree, Andrew?”

“You look less homeless,” Aaron supplies.

Andrew’s eyes give him a quick once-over before looking away. “We’re going.”

The Maserati is impressive—unnaturally clean, perfectly polished and undented, still with an almost full tank of gas—and when Andrew turns over the engine, Neil can barely hear the engine purr. He ends up wedged between Kevin and Aaron in the backseat, and they’re off before Nicky can turn on the radio.

The world beyond Millport is just as ugly as the town itself. Brown lots give way to open brown hills; shrubbery grows in uneven patches, stretching gnarled hands up to the night sky. They weave around potholes and race down bumpy, bedraggled pavement so fast Neil can feel it in his teeth. Dust kicks up in their wake.

Andrew rolls all of the windows down the second they leave Millport’s city limits. Wind rips through Neil’s hair and slices the warmth from his skin. Nicky sticks his whole head out the window, face upturned and laughing. Radio bass rattles in their chests like a nest of bees.

They never pass anyone on the road. Nobody dares to waste gas for a night out to nowhere.

Neil pinpoints their destination by the sudden wave of thick, muggy heat that pours into the car. Sea brine layers his tongue like syrup; heats builds between his back and the car’s interior every time he leans back. On the electronic dashboard, the temperature gage steadily ticks back up into the low 80’s and sits there.

They’ve hit the marine layer.

Andrew leaves the windows open even when Kevin begins to complain about the smell. The Maserati whips around bends at an impossible speed, pulling Neil’s heart up into his mouth, and then there’s suddenly city , real city life, rising up to pull them in.

Neil does his best to track the city layout. Everything is a mess of neon and neon afterimages, bodies moving and upturned dust over metal beams and boarding. A dull shine sticks to every surface like half-dried sweat; as he watches, the air turns to liquid on the corners of the car window and beads in tiny, glittering jewels. Humidity chokes the breaths in his lungs.

They park a block over from Eden’s Twilight and walk the rest of the way. The sidewalk spills people onto the street like spare change, forcing their group close to stay in sync. Neil walks right on Andrew’s heels, and even with the city’s fog over everything, he can smell his cologne in small, spicy wafts.

Eden’s Twilight itself stretches up and out, spanning two floors and forcing a line of black-and-leather clubgoers that runs to the end of the block. They bypass everyone in favor of Aaron greeting the bouncer. The guy wrangles him into a complicated handshake and then they’re inside.

The interior is a madhouse. Neil avoids people like he avoids his mother’s advice, opting to hide in Kevin’s six-foot shadow rather than risk getting bowled over. Andrew secures them a table and then immediately disappears. The others sit down to wait.

“So,” Nicky says after a moment of silence. “Ever been to a club before?”

Neil shakes his head. Between running for his life and hiding in small spaces with a gun between his thighs, there wasn’t exactly any time for going out on the town. Or going out anywhere.

The longer he sits there, the more he fails to see the appeal. The dance floor is a giant cesspool of sweat and flailing limbs; the bar is a sticky, crowded mess of shoving bodies. Under the black lights, everyone throbs in shades of purple that make his eyes hurt. Why did he agree to this?

Having Andrew across the table only makes things harder. Ruffled and gleaming with heat, he sucks in all of Neil’s attention and puts him on high alert, drawing bodily consciousness like a black hole. Neil can feel his eyes on him even when he pretends not to notice, tipping back his Coke to swallow too fast. Bubbles burn with anxiety at the back of his throat.

“I’m going to dance,” Nicky announces. He’s already tipped back several shots in quick succession. “Anyone else in?”

“Me,” Aaron says. He gets up and follows, leaving the rest of them to drink in silence.

Or—Kevin and Neil. Andrew is getting up too, eyes flicking over the dancefloor to the bar beyond it.

“Going somewhere?”

“No.” He sinks into the crowds in an instant. Then, it’s just Neil and Kevin.

The silence that follows would be stifling without Kevin’s single-minded focus on getting drunk as fast as possible. Neil taps on the side of his Coke and wonders, again, why he agreed to this. What does Andrew want from him? Why drag him all the way out here if they’re not going to talk?

Or does he want something else?   Neil frowns. Andrew’s never struck him as the dancing type. He doesn’t even keep a tune. What would Andrew want to come to a club for?

By the time Andrew reappears, Neil’s gone through all of his potential motivations. Killing? Probably not. Interrogating? Probably more likely—but they’ve kept to their game, and Andrew seems content to wait him out.

Something else?

Neil twitches. Across the table, Andrew lifts one eyebrow. He seems somehow more ruffled than before he disappeared, his hair mussed and his fingers tapping impatiently over the table surface. Finally, he scowls.

“This isn’t going to work.”

Kevin stills. Neil blinks back at him. “What?”

“We’re leaving,” Andrew says tersely. “Kevin. Go get the others.”

“But we just got here—”

Andrew fixes him with a glare that would peel paint. Kevin goes.

Neil cocks his head. Andrew never shows too much—ash on the surface, embers underneath—but now he seems raring to smash something. His gaze flicks away from Neil and back again; his brow creases, lips pressed into a thin line. Knuckles curl and uncurl around the edge of the table. It’s the most emotive Neil’s ever seen him.

He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing at all. Kevin comes back with the others and they’re away, back into the night like they’d never come in the first place.

.

Andrew doesn’t pull around to the Court’s garage. He stalls the car at the front gate and nudges Nicky roughly. Nicky lifts his head and blinks, slow and sleepy. “Huh?”

“Get out.”

Nicky sits up. In the backseat, Aaron stirs and gives his twin a suspicious look. Kevin continues to snore. “What’re you—”

“Are you deaf?” Andrew’s voice slices through the dark. There’s no music on now. “Get out of the car.”

There’s a moment of confusion where Aaron tries to get out on one side and Neil tries to follow Kevin out the other. Andrew pins him down with a look through the rearview mirror.

“Not you.”

Neil’s stomach flips. “What, are you my chauffeur now?”

Andrew’s expression doesn’t change. “Get in the front.”

This is it , a part of Neil’s brain chimes in irrationally. It almost sounds like his mother. This is the part where he gets you alone somewhere where people won’t hear you, and—

Neil shouldn’t be as excited about this as he is.

The engine purrs quietly when they pull back out onto the road. Millport’s ghosts shift from hulking statues into grey-black-white blurs that meld into the dust and moonlight. Andrew pushes forty and rips through a red light. They’re moving too fast for city streets, but who’s going to get in their way?

The marketplace is a small, pitiful center with several closed shops, an Albertson’s, and a 7-Eleven missing half of its sign lights. Andrew rolls into the parking lot and parks haphazardly.

The interior’s fluorescent lights burn too bright after the darkness of their evening, washing out their black attire into charcoal grey. Andrew heads straight for the Icee machine in the back, fiddling with the pumps half-heartedly. Cherry flavoring spurts and dribbles away into the grate.

Andrew’s eyes flick over to him. “I’m not going to make you one.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to.” Neil shifts, eyeing the machine warily. It rattles like it’s about to explode. “I’ve never had one.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

Deft hands press each of the three flavors into a giant cup, swirling them into a dirty, slush mockery of the American flag. He snaps on a lid before topping off the last bit of space in blue raspberry flavoring. Syrup gleams electric blue where it drips out the top, and when he catches it with his tongue, Neil can see a similar stain on his lips. He tears his eyes away quickly.

They leave 7-Eleven one bag heavier—a goldmine of Hostess cakes and candy, things in plastic wrappers bright enough to burn away the rest of Neil’s vision. Andrew tosses the bag into the backseat after procuring a new cigarette pack and promptly lights up. They get back on the road for a fourth time.

Neil doesn’t miss how they speed past the Court’s neighborhood—he knows Millport well enough to recognize the lazy, circling way Andrew heads for city limits again. “Where are we going now?”

“Do you want to go back home?”

Part of Neil that almost says yes, but he can’t give in to it. Not before he knows what this—dressing him up, taking him out, driving him around—is all about. “Not really.”

Andrew exhales a cloud of smoke and makes a right turn up a hill. “Okay.”

A sign obscured by overgrown hedges rolls past. The paved road turns to gravel, crunching underneath the Maserati’s tires. The ground evens out; the sky opens up.

The airstrip stands out against the earth as a massive tan stripe, stretching impossibly long and almost as wide. There are several forlorn-looking warehouses tucked back on one end, and a single tower, but no planes sit out for them to peruse. The entire airstrip is devoid of any vehicles save for their own.

Andrew pulls the Maserati up at the edge of the airstrip and cuts the gas. When he turns to look at Neil, the moon lights up only half his face through the windshield. The rest remains in darkness, one eye gleaming out of the shadows.

“No interruptions,” he says by way of explanation. Neil’s stomach backflips.

They end up outside on the hood, the plastic bag torn open between them. Wrappers crunch as Andrew unearths a zebra cake and passes pack of Skittles for Neil to chew on. Cigarette smoke curls above their heads and disappears into the stars.

Without the hubbub of strangers and low bass, Neil can hear every breath Andrew takes. He inhabits space almost silently, his movements precise and careful in a way Neil notices because he’s learned to move the same way. With their black-on-black ensembles, the moon cuts them as near-perfect mirror images, marred only by the opposite shading of their hair and eyes.

Neil sucks in a quiet, slow breath. He can smell spice again.

“You want another turn.”

Andrew bites into a zebra cake. “I don’t want anything.”

“It’s my turn in our game,” Neil reminds him, though he’s sure Andrew remembers. Andrew remembers lots of things—maybe even everything. “I get to go first.”

“Then go.”

Neil pours Skittles into his hand and thinks over the last couple of weeks. Living with the Foxes has turned his life from a fast reel of grey images into long, slow scenes of sun and skin, sweat and service to the one thing that gives his life shape. He’s become still inside—mellow like the pools they jump in, even like the rhythm of his breathing when he runs. It’s dangerous; it’s probably going to kill him. He can’t quite bring himself to care.

Home. Home on an orange rooftop, beside a goalie with a smoking addiction and hands like sheathed knives. It should be impossible.

“Why?”

Andrew’s cigarette glows cherry-red. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Why me? Why did you let me stay?”

The papers behind Neil’s desk damn him. They’re evidence of a past he can’t quite outrun, a future he can’t quite make it to. No sane person should be able to read them—to see Neil for what he is—and allow him to stick around. Andrew should have kicked him out as soon as he got through it all.

“I told you. You were interesting.”

“Were. Changed your mind?”

Andrew’s eyes fall on him and stick. “Unfortunately, no.”

They look at eachother. The bubbles fizzing in Neil’s stomach crawl up his throat. This close, he can see Andrew’s individual eyelashes, curling silver in the moonlight.

Andrew doesn’t look away. “What will you do if he finds you?”

“Is that your next question?”

“Answer me.”

Neil doesn’t blink. “I don’t know.”

“That’s not a real answer.”

“But it’s the truth.” He’s not a long-term planner the way his mother was; he’s never had to plan long-term for just himself. After Mary’s death, life became a series of plans that all boiled down to making it to the next day, and then the day after that. Everything was touch-and-go, the only way he knew how to live.

Until Millport.

“I don’t know,” he repeats softly. “Everything up to this point has been ‘lie’ and ‘hide’ and ‘disappear’. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve never been allowed to, if I wanted to live. But I..” He tears his gaze away to look up at the stars. “I’m tired of being nothing.”

Silence. Neil risks looking back again, and—stops breathing.

The look on Andrew’s face is nothing like what Neil’s known. The embers burning beneath the surface have always been careful to keep themselves covered, cautious not to burn so brightly. Other emotions have overtaken—sheathed violence, silk over broken glass—but none of them have ever been like this.

Andrew looks at Neil without pity, or sympathy. He looks at him with steady, dark eyes, embers flaring up into whole flames that reach to lick hot trails over Neil’s skin. Bright eyes that say I know you, because I have been you. I know you like I know myself.

They’re mirror images, after all.

“You are a Fox,” he tells him. “You are always going to be nothing.” And then, “I hate you.”

Neil’s mouth twitches despite himself. “Every time you say that I believe you a little less.”

Andrew’s expression darkens further. “No one asked you.”

There are many things in life that Neil doesn’t pretend to understand: pop culture references, the reasoning of regular people, Nicky’s inordinate love of neon colors. He doesn’t bother puzzling out things that don’t matter for his survival, or for his general wellbeing.

Still, when Andrew leans in, Neil finally gets an idea on why he was acting so strange earlier.

The kiss burns hot—a spark that starts at their lips meeting, spreading bright fire outward through Neil’s body. The embers of Andrew’s being fly free, snagging on Neil’s clothes, his skin, his hair—places where Andrew’s hands slide and brush as if they don’t know how to settle down. The tight clothes only make it easier for his fingers to trace old scars, making Neil shiver.

Though his hands press firmly into Neil’s ribs, Andrew’s mouth is surprisingly soft. He kisses with a near-desperation that Neil matches by instinct, and when their tongues brush, Neil tastes cigarettes and something sugary-sweet.

Like everything else, kissing Andrew is all conundrum. Opposites aligning, contrasts layering. Ash on the surface to embers underneath.

His mouth tingles when Andrew finally pulls away. He takes him in—pearly hair and skin; a dark, wet mouth that Neil wants to try touching again. Andrew breathes out slowly. His lips, Neil notices, are slightly puffy.

I did that, he thinks. The tingling in his mouth shoots straight to his gut.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Andrew snaps. He busies himself by ripping into the bag again, tossing aside candies and little bars with twitching, busy hands.

Neil can’t help it. He smiles. “Like what?”

“Like I’m your answer. I’m not, and you sure as fuck aren’t mine.”

“I’m not looking for an answer.”

Andrew glares at him like he doesn’t believe him and crams half a Twix in his mouth. The world around them is quiet, shades of orange and brown turned grey in the absence of light, and the bubbling in Neil’s stomach finally begins to settle.

He doesn’t need to look for an answer. He’s already found one in an orange house, on a dirty court, on a crumbling sidewalk in the middle of nowhere.

Still, he can’t help the way his heart leaps when Andrew kisses him again. He tastes like chocolate and caramel and all the sweet things Neil’s never had—things that he’ll finally be able to try one day at a time.