Seeing Neil for the first time after being apart always feels a little like heartburn. Andrew very much thinks he should be used to this after a year of living in pockets of time between Colorado and South Carolina, but Neil steps through the door to his apartment and Andrew’s chest aches with want.
Neil has no reservations about making himself at home in Andrew’s space, filling the silence with a presence so loud it makes Andrew yearn. They have spent long enough watching each other’s backs that Andrew doesn’t try to hide the way he tracks Neil’s every move. Neil is a good actor, or a good liar, or some combination of the two that makes no difference to Andrew, so he wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been looking.
Neil kicks his shoes, drops his bag, and flops onto the couch, spreadeagled and with his leg overlapping Andrew’s at the ankle, the same way he always does. But Andrew is looking and it’s been five years. He knows what to look for.
Neil’s movements are familiar in their casual indifference, but Andrew can see the way he tilts slightly to the left, how he calculates every breath around the position of his chest. Andrew is looking, as he always is, but for the first time in years, Neil is hiding.
“I didn’t expect you to still be up,” Neil says into the crook of the arm draped over his face, exhaustion evident in every line of his posture. Andrew drops his hand to rest on Neil’s thigh and presses his thumb into the dimple at the side of his kneecap. Yeah right, it says and Neil’s smile peeks out from behind his forearm. Andrew always stays up to greet Neil’s arrival. It’s what they do.
“The Lions weren’t impressed when I took off at the first sign of a break. Something about it not being team spirit.” Neil lets his arm slip away, tilting his head to watch Andrew watch him.
“But what do you care?” Andrew says when it becomes apparent Neil has lost his train of thought.
“But what do I care,” Neil agrees. “They’re lucky to have me at all.”
Andrew snorts. “Don’t let Kevin hear you getting all bigheaded.”
“Kevin wouldn’t want me selling myself short,” Neil says, affecting surprise, “Haven’t you heard? I’m going to be Court.”
Andrew digs his thumb into Neil’s knee again but it isn’t a reprimand, not really. He has long since stopped denying Neil a future and, more recently, stopped denying his place in it. It’s a work in progress but they both know he would follow Neil anywhere, to the ends of the Earth or to the Olympic Court.
Neil struggles against a yawn for several seconds before losing and letting his eyes drift closed in the wake of it. Andrew’s thumb releases its pressure and takes to rubbing light circles into Neil’s skin instead, delighting in the way Neil’s muscles relax beneath his touch.
“There’s a perfectly good bed just two rooms away,” Andrew offers and Neil hums in agreement but makes no move to get up. If anything, he slackens further into the dip of the couch cushion. Andrew bites down on the inside of his cheek and looks away, willing his frenetic heartbeat into a standstill. He knows better than to let himself be caught up in Neil’s web of lies, even if it’s been a long time since Neil spun one just for him. He tries not to think about the implications of that.
“Take off your shirt,” he says conversationally, giving Neil’s leg one final squeeze before forcibly moving his hand away. It’s like a mousetrap, how quickly Neil goes stiff again at the first pressure against his façade. He sits up straight and watches Andrew, who watches him, and they play tug of war in the push and pull of their gazes.
“What?” Neil asks, but it comes out full of everything else. He sounds too open, too secretive; too brash, too easy. He must know Andrew doesn’t believe it for a second.
“I’m not blind, Josten, even without my glasses. Take. Off. Your shirt.”
“It’s nothing. I’m fine,” Neil says, and Andrew can’t tell if it’s habit or a poorly-timed attempt at a joke. He stares at Neil for several loaded seconds.
“It wasn’t really a request,” he says, which they both know is bullshit. If Neil said no, he would find another way to get the answers he wants that doesn’t involve asking more than Neil can give. But Neil isn’t saying no, he just isn’t acting on the yes resting under his tongue.
Neil fists his hands in the hem of his shirt, pointedly evades Andrew’s glare, and tugs it up and over his head. Andrew’s chest bottoms out. The cartography of Neil’s torso is familiar, the way dark skin gives out to a mesh of mottled scars and puckered wounds. Andrew could map every inch of it with his eyes closed.
The despondent blue of fresh bruising isn’t wholly unfamiliar, but nor is it a welcome addition. Andrew wants to touch it, but his hands stay steady in his lap. He doesn’t trust himself not to press down, down, down, not to bend and break and burn the only thing he can reach. Neil is looking at him again but Andrew can’t afford to look away from the discoloured patches under his ribcage, just in case. Just in case Neil crumbles before his very eyes.
“Who,” Andrew says, a choked question abandoned midway through delivery.
Neil shrugs and looks away, then looks back all too quickly like he can’t decide which is safer.
“It was just a bit of fun,” Neil says, though his nonchalance falls several steps short on believable.
“Fun,” Andrew echoes, and the word tastes ashen in his mouth.
“Hazing, I guess.”
“The Lions did this to you?”
“It was just a bit of fun,” Neil repeats and in that moment, Andrew hates the word. He is a spring coiled tight around the one thing he holds close and Neil is making a show of releasing the catch.
“What did they do?” He can’t tell if knowing will make the violence easier or harder to contain under his skin, but he knows he will snap if he doesn’t find out.
“Nothing, really. They had me tied up, but it wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know I would panic.”
Andrew can taste his heartbeat, a pulsing anger in the back of his throat. He swallows against it but his chest constricts and he wonders if his hands have ever known anything but the shape of violence, but the weight of a knife.
“You are transferring teams,” he says because it’s the only thing he can think with any sense of finality.
“Andrew, I have a contract.”
“I don’t care.”
“Okay. Well, you know who does care? The Moriyamas.” Andrew’s glare snaps back to Neil’s at that, and Neil returns it with equal weight. “I think the bruises I’d get from them might be a little worse than this if they found out I turned down a contract because of a silly bit of fun.”
“It isn’t silly when your safety is concerned.”
Neil laughs hollowly. “And you’d be the expert on keeping me safe, I suppose.”
“Well it’s not like you do a very good job of it,” Andrew snaps.
“I managed just fine for eighteen years. Your concern is misplaced. I didn’t need you then and I don’t need you now.”
Andrew caves and falls apart. He slams his walls in place reflexively, holding himself together between brickwork and mortar. He was foolish to think he could have this, to think he could have anything at all. But he knows the pattern of his breakdowns better than he knows how to open himself up and let Neil climb inside. Fighting is familiar. Breaking is an unfortunate side effect.
“Whatever,” he says, the word freezing over before it has so much as left his lips, and he leaves the room before Neil can retaliate.
Staring at the double bed in his bedroom isn’t much better. It is full of Neil, from the creases in the linen to the stray hoodie abandoned over the left pillow. It feels hot to the touch and cold in all the cracks, like winter is creeping between their bed sheets, and Andrew has never done too well with snow. He cannot take it. He grabs his pillow and the spare blanket rumpled at the end of the bed and storms out with ice filling his veins.
Neil is still sitting on the couch, watching the doorway, and his presence is so obnoxious it bursts at the seams. Andrew gives him several seconds to catch on and, when no recognition is forthcoming, steps forward to dump the bedding onto his abandoned spot on the couch.
“Move,” he says without looking at Neil. It’s hard when he is the loudest thing in the room, taking up so much space Andrew has to breathe him in just to release the tension in the air.
“What are you doing?”
Andrew scoffs and makes a point of glaring into the back of the couch despite the weight of Neil’s gaze, despite the way his eyes betray him with subconscious darts to his left.
“It’s one in the morning, Neil. Most people like to use this time to sleep.”
“I’m not taking your bed, Andrew. I’ll sleep on the sofa.” Neil’s voice is laced with exhaustion, like he has sewn all his energy into keeping his gaze sharp and left nothing to knit himself together. Andrew doesn’t have to look at him to feel his stitches come loose; they snap like twigs under Andrew’s fingers.
“Funny, I don’t remember giving you an option,” he says, patience slipping from the weak end of his grasp. He kicks lightly at Neil’s foot—not close enough to touch, but the gesture sets alarm bells ringing. If Neil knows anything at all about reading Andrew in fragile moments, he will take it as the warning it is.
Infuriatingly, he does. He leaves just as Andrew wanted, and Andrew hates him for it. Neil has a habit of reading between the lines even when there aren’t lines to read between, and he gives Andrew what he wants without hesitation. It sets Andrew’s blood boiling and his teeth grinding. It’s been five years and some days Andrew still doesn’t know how to take what he’s given without bracing himself for the fallout.
Of course, Neil has always been good at flipping the cards when Andrew finds the pattern of aching all too familiar.
What Andrew doesn’t expect is to wake up to gentle breath at his brow, ghosting over frown lines and dipping towards his hairline. The room is still dark enough that he can’t have been out for more than a couple of hours. Neil is curled on the floor, head resting against the arm of the couch a scant few inches from Andrew’s, and knees tucked to his chest. Andrew notices the dip in his cheek when he bites the inside as they make eye contact.
“Sorry,” he whispers and Andrew feels it in the warmth fanning his face. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Andrew takes in the stiffness of his posture, the tight lines either side of his mouth, the harsh cut of his gaze.
“Have you slept?” he asks, more for show than anything, as he already knows the answer.
“Couldn’t. I don’t like fighting.”
Andrew can’t help but roll his eyes at that because, really. Neil smiles and amends, “I don’t like it when it’s us.”
Andrew rolls onto his back and eyes the ceiling thoughtfully. There is a crack running from the edge of the cornice to a metre and a half short of the light fixing, and he is surprised to find nothing but warmth pulsing back at him when he traces it.
“We aren’t fighting,” he says and it is as much news to him as it is to Neil.
“Okay,” Neil agrees easily, “but I don’t like this either.”
And that seems fair enough. Andrew lets it settle between them, because he doesn’t know how to fix it just yet. It is strange to be someone who fixes, who mends and builds and holds on tight, when he was raised to break. To break his enemies, and his friends, and himself most of all. He wonders if healing always feels like a bruise on every fingertip.
“Your team, your call,” he says eventually. He still isn’t looking at Neil but he hears the answering sigh, feels it tickle just under his ear.
“Thank you. For worrying, and for letting it go,” Neil says. He softens around the edges and folds in the middle, going malleable beneath Andrew’s words. “I promise I’m handling it.”
Andrew turns back to Neil and reaches out a careful hand, a peace offering to seal the collision of their apologies. Neil keens into the touch almost immediately and Andrew digs his fingers into soft curls, cupping the side of Neil’s face and smoothing his thumb over the mottled skin at Neil’s cheekbone.
“I trust you,” he says, and somehow it is enough.
They end up in bed together like second nature and Andrew thinks this is how he knows best to fix things. His fingers curl into the gaps between Neil’s and they are warm, warm, warm in all the cracks. Andrew can feel himself begin to thaw.
“I do,” Neil says drowsily, his breath ruffling the hair from Andrew’s forehead.
“I do. I do need you.”
It’s like a sucker punch throwing Andrew off course just when he got his hands back on the wheel. All the breath leaves his body then bowls back into him in one swift hit. He chokes on it.
“You don’t. Don’t lie to me.”
Neil is silent for a long moment and Andrew half expects him to slip unconscious before his brain comes up with a response. Half expects, half hopes. He doesn’t know which is dumber.
“Okay, I don’t. But I want you,” Neil says and Andrew breathes. The air is a different kind of tight, his breath a different kind of rushed, and his body stuck in a different kind of freefall. This one feels like flying. Andrew doesn’t know how to translate the weight in his chest into words, so he shifts forward instead. He kisses Neil in tandem with the pulse of their hearts and it means
and I you.