Neil hung up his phone by flicking it shut as hard as he could, but it did nothing to stop the trembling in his hands. He needed to get away, he needed to escape his thoughts, and so he dropped the phone back into his pocket and started to run.
Five minutes before he had been halfway through his morning run when his phone started buzzing in the pocket of his sweatpants. He stopped and fished it out to check who was calling him. It was the spring semester of his second year at Palmetto, and unlike the previous year he no longer tried to ignore the small device which tied him to the other Foxes. He had grown used to their need for instant contact with him, and had even started to enjoy the constant string of texts they sent him about how their day was going. Also with his new position of vice-captain he had more responsibilities to his team, and couldn’t afford to ignore a call in case it turned out to be an emergency.
Though the moment he recognized the number calling he thought he should have ignored the buzzing and kept running. He wished he didn’t have to receive calls like this at all, but knew he had to answer it anyways. So he pressed his thumb down hard on the accept call button, and held his phone up to his ear without saying a word.
“Hello Neil, this is Special Agent Browning.”
After his conversation with Agent Browning he had run until he could just barely move his legs anymore. At which time he found a secluded spot, it might have been a park of some kind, and sat down in the grass and finally let himself begin to process what Browning had told him. An unknown amount of time later when his legs felt less like mush and his thoughts had spiraled so deep that he needed to stop thinking altogether he got up, and started his run back.
Hours later he made it back to Palmetto’s campus just as the sun was setting. His legs just felt numb now as he slowed to a walk, and made his way through the student parking lot.
He was nearly back at Fox Tower when a voice called out and startled him. “You lied to me.”
Neil spun around a second later when he realized he recognized the voice. It was a testament to how badly Browning’s call had affected him that he hadn’t even noticed that he’d just walked passed Andrew’s car, or that Andrew himself was leaning against it smoking.
Neil took in Andrew, and let the emotions that accompanied the familiar sight wash over him and help calm his frayed nerves. Andrew’s face looked as impassive as ever, but there was a small pile of cigarette butts at his feet which betrayed how long he had been standing there waiting for him to return.
As Neil walked back to stand in front of him he thought about what Andrew had just accused him of, and decided he wasn’t sure he was ready to have that conversation with him yet. Even though he doubted Andrew would let him go for long without an explanation. “I don’t know what you mean, I haven’t lied to you in months,” Neil told him as he came to a stop directly in front of him with just a few inches left between their bodies.
Andrew very obviously did not like his answer if the way he dropped his unfinished cigarette to the ground, and stomped it out hard with his boot was anything to go by. When the cigarette was nothing more than a smear of ash and paper on the concrete Andrew looked up at him and said, “You’re lying to me now, you told me you weren’t going to run anymore.”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed since I sleep in the bunk below yours, but I get up and go for a run every morning.” Neil countered pettily.
“This wasn’t just a morning jog. This was you running from something. You skipped classes, ignored all of your calls and texts, and even missed your precious Exy practice.”
Neil hadn’t really realized until he saw the sun beginning to set how long he had been gone for. He had felt his phone buzzing in his pocket all day, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to reach for it again after that first call this morning.
When he went for too long without responding, Andrew reached into Neil’s pocket and pulled out his phone. He flipped it open and held it up in front of Neil to show him just how many missed calls and text he had ignored.
It was a lot.
Neil didn’t respond, he couldn’t. There wasn’t anything he could say to Andrew to justify his actions. They were the actions of the person he had been when he had first arrived at Palmetto, not who he was now. He had been selfish today and hadn’t even spared a thought for the people who cared about him now, and who were obviously worried about him being missing for a whole day.
Andrew flipped his phone shut and shoved it back into the pocket of Neil’s pants. “Your teammates who are more inclined towards the dramatics got so worked up that they forced Wymack to call the number Agent Browning had left behind and report you missing. Turns out their worry didn’t bother him in the slightest since he talked to you this morning. Of course that didn’t make them feel any better, since hours had already passed.”
Neil knew he shouldn’t be, but he was still surprised by how far the Foxes had gone in their search for him. It made him feel all the more shittier, and to add on top of that he had made Andrew doubt his promise to not run anymore.
Neil knew there was no point in putting this conversation off any longer, he owed Andrew answers. “Browning called me this morning to tell me that Jackson Plank had been apprehended during a sting operation in Baltimore. He had apparently been meeting with a group of people for unknown reasons. The group won’t talk, but Browning believes everyone there had some kind of connection to my father.”
Neil continued to tell Andrew some more of the details Browning had told him about without waver. Once Neil was finished Andrew was silent for a while before saying, “That doesn’t explain to me why you ran.”
“I did run,” Neil confirmed, “but I had no intentions of not coming back. I just didn’t realize how much time had passed while I had been thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” Andrew asked.
Neil ran a hand through his hair, trying to figure out how to concisely explain the thoughts that had been plaguing him since that morning. “It’s almost been a year since Baltimore, since I became somebody real, and for some reason Browning’s call reminded me of how fragile everything can be still. It would only take one of my father’s men trying to get revenge for him to take me out, or for Ichirou to decide I’m not worth it anymore and get rid of me.”
“Ichirou is not going to change his mind about you, and I will not let any of them touch you again. So next time you get an unwanted phone call find a better coping mechanism for dealing with it,” Andrew told him.
It was reassuring to hear Andrew tell him that, even if he wasn’t positive those things would always remain true. It also made Neil smile for the first time that day, because out of everyone he knew Andrew had no right to talk to him about coping mechanism. “Says the person who sits on rooftops and chain smokes.”
“Shut up,” Andrew said as he reached out and placed his hand on the small of Neil’s back. He used it to pull Neil forward to close the small distance between them. The then brought his other hand up to cup his jaw. He ran his thumb against Neil’s lips once before pulling him down and crashing their lips together.
The kiss was harsh, and Neil knew it was Andrew’s way of letting him know just how worried he had been today. Soon though their kiss softened to something slow and gentle.
Much too soon Andrew pulled back, and said, “Let’s go inside before the others start arranging a search party for you.”
Neil stepped back out of their embrace, turned to face Fox Tower, and said, “Sounds good, I’m ready to be home.”