Andrew sat on top of his desk, staring down at his old ashtray and lighter by the windowsill. He itched for a smoke, and the idea of nicotine making him hazy in this particular moment was more than welcome, but he focused on the lollipop in his mouth. His hand moved up to the thin white stick, to hold it like he would a cigarette, as if that would make the sugary mango flavor turn to ash. Neil walked in, rubbing a towel over his wet hair and searching for a shirt. In the tiny dorm bathroom, he had managed to drop his other one in the toilet. Andrew didn’t look up because he had already set one of his own sweatshirts out for Neil on top of his dresser. It was hard for Andrew to miss the string of curses that had left Neil’s mouth through the thin walls of Fox Tower, and he liked seeing Neil in his clothes, so naturally, he was willing to help. Not that he would ever admit that. Neil appeared beside him after a moment, now clean and and snug inside Andrew’s orange Palmetto State hoodie. He had ultimately been the one to convince Andrew to stop smoking.
A professional exy player can’t play and still smoke like you do, Andrew.
That’s your dream, Junkie, not mine.
Name your price.
I’ll let you know.
Neil had bought him three bags of Dum-Dums the next day and threw them onto his bed. That was a month ago, now, and his cravings weren’t as horrible as they had been. He had never broken his promise--Since Neil had bought him all of those lollipops, he hadn’t smoked, but he had rolled the last carton of cigarettes he had in his hands over and over again, and sometimes he played with his old lighter until the flame just barely licked his thumb.
Andrew was brought out of his thoughts when Neil reached for the ashtray, sent Andrew a meaningful look, and then pushed it out the window. His heart went to his throat. Smoking, as unimportant as he tried to convince himself it was, had grounded him. The heat and acrid taste was the same every time, no matter where he was or who he was around. Neil knew that Andrew was afraid of falling, but Neil had always been the one to push him, though Neil never pushed farther than Andrew’s limits. For a second, Andrew was almost angry. He steeled himself and started to count to five before he realized that Neil was doing him a favor. Neil was doing what Andrew couldn’t make himself do.
“Andrew. Look at me.”
Andrew tore his gaze from the glass that had shattered on the pavement and stared at Neil, waiting to see if Neil had anything else to say to him after that. Neil simply took the lollipop from Andrew’s mouth and put it in his own, crunching away at it until nothing was left but the little stick. He was the one to hold it like a cigarette, then, and he lit the dry end on fire. He sat there, unmoving, staring at Andrew until the flame went out, and then tossed the small remainder of the lollipop out the window, too.
“You hate candy,” Andrew noted, sounding very bored. “Why?”
“Do I have to have a reason?”
“I know you have one, so don’t start with me.”
Neil moved a little closer and raised a hand in front of Andrew’s face. “Yes or no?”
Andrew thought for a moment. Neil’s hands were warm. Like fire. He nodded. “Yes.”
Neil’s hand cupped Andrew’s cheek, his thumb settling over Andrew’s bottom lip, where his cigarettes used to balance. “I don’t want this to end.”
“Everything ends,” Andrew said, hyper-aware of how Neil’s thumb felt on his chapped skin.
Neil stared at him. “You asked me to stay. I’m allowed to ask the same of you.”
Andrew met Neil’s stare. It had been years since Andrew had taken his knives to his skin. Neil made him promise to stop taking cracker dust, so he did. He no longer drank to go numb, and never drank alone. Neil was asking him to give up this last vice because he couldn’t stand to see Andrew be self-destructive anymore.
Neil didn’t even blink. “I know what Kevin’s promise to you was.”
Andrew tensed under Neil’s fingertips. Kevin had promised him something to live for. Cass was his past. Drake was his past. Tilda was his past. Luther was his past. Every fucking foster home was his past. He had found something--someone--to live for. Neil was his future. Andrew didn’t respond.
Neil continued when it became evident that Andrew wasn’t going to answer him. “You have always been holding your breath. You have always been clouding your lungs. Fucking breathe, Andrew.”
“Fuck you, Josten,” Andrew said, looking away and almost choking on the words when they left him.
Neil didn’t even flinch. He saw this coming. He didn’t push Andrew any farther, just removed his hand from Andrew’s face and wrapped his right pinky finger around Andrew’s instead, and Andrew didn’t stop him.
The silence between them was deafening. Finally, Andrew spoke. “Abram,” he began, placing a finger under Neil’s chin to catch his stare again. Those eyes. They were the first real truth. “Tell me to stay.”
“Yes or no, Andrew?”
“Yes,” Andrew said again, staying still when Neil straddled his lap.
Neil kept his hands in the pocket of his hoodie, searching Andrew’s face for an okay before he leaned in and pressed their foreheads together. “Stay with me. You gave me all the time in the world. I want your time in return.”
“The night you were taken,” Andrew began, reaching out to clutch Neil’s forearms. “Why did you say that?”
Thank you. You were amazing.
“I wanted to give you one last truth. I didn’t want to die without you knowing that this is something to me.”
“It’s not something,” Andrew whispered. “It’s everything.”
Neil was quiet for a moment. Andrew didn’t regret anything, but he wondered if he had made a mistake. Sincerity felt like falling. When would you hit the ground? Would someone be there to catch you? Would they hold you after you landed in their arms? Neil pulled back to look Andrew in the eyes again. “I know.”
Andrew kissed him, then, and Neil never tasted cigarettes again.