Neil’s nightmares are never fun.
He had them as a child, his father had never enjoyed being woken to his screaming, and, of course, when he had them in his early teens his mother had beaten him into staying quiet when he woke up, barely making a sound. He had told Andrew this one day, when Andrew had a nightmare and had woken him by moving slightly as he woke. That night, Neil told Andrew about his nightmares (a truth on credit), and Andrew had asked how Neil had never woken him with his nightmares. That night, Andrew had forgotten his own nightmares to the rage that always brewed in his eyes when Neil mentioned Mary or Nathan hitting him.
This was why this nightmare is so different, because for the first time, it wasn’t him getting hurt, it was Andrew being hurt by a mixture, or maybe an amalgamation, of all his demons, Nathan, Lola, Riko, if you could name them they were there. It is hard to wake quietly when you’re seeing the only person you’ve ever truly loved get beaten to death by your father. Which is why, tonight, Neil doesn’t wake quietly and just stare at the roof, in fact he does more than just wake with a small start, he wakes with a scream, high and terrified, probably waking up the whole floor, and proceeds to run to the bathroom to dry heave. Icing on the fucking cake right?
Andrew is by his side; he knows that, because his unholy shriek has even managed to wake Kevin who is standing in the doorway of the bathroom fretfully. Neil had probably scared Andrew by waking him so suddenly. All he did was bring Andrew pain, why would he stay with him? Neil wants to run, he wants to run so badly, but then a hand settles on the back of his neck and he can suddenly breathe. Since when has his ability to breathe been so directly connected to this beautiful blonde man who would look bored to anyone except Neil? Neil can see the concern in his hazel eyes. Whatever Andrew sees in Neil’s eyes has him tensing up with a terse, “Kevin go back to sleep.” That was met with a minor complaint and probably some comment about Neil playing Exy in a couple hours, the hulking shadow in the door was gone to continue snoring.
Once Kevin has left, Andrew slowly takes Neil’s hand as if waiting for him to push him away, when in reality, all Neil wants is to hold him closer, closer, keep him safe. He thinks he might understand how his mother had felt when she slept on the same mattress as him while they were on the run. The difference right now is that Andrew is safe and he needs to focus on this because if he ever compares himself to his mother in front of Andrew he knows he’ll get an earful, or at least Andrew’s version of that which is passive aggression and getting Nicky to get the Upperclassmen to set him straight. Andrew’s opinion on Neil’s mother had been made abundantly clear, when Neil had mentioned that she broke his ribs for kissing a girl one time in passing, and Andrew had frozen up and almost broken his own knuckles against a wall in his rage at a dead woman. Neil could never hate his mother in the way the foxes tell him she probably deserves, but he can sort of understand where Andrew is coming from.
As he gets older he starts to understand just how unfair on Aaron he once was. He could see now that Andrew came into Aaron’s life and took the only person who he thought loved him away. In doing this, of course, Andrew gave Aaron a better future, and a family who truly loved him, but of course it would still have been very painful to lose his mother and then feel like he was being shut out because he didn’t understand his brother’s motive.
When Neil first met Aaron, he was blinded by his jealousy and his feelings for Andrew, along with his obsession with Exy. But now, with his world so much better, with a purpose he never would have found had she lived, he still finds himself missing, and mourning his own mother. Nowhe understandswhy Aaron missed Tilda, even though she was a terrible human being and mother. Andrew didn’t understand so much, but Neil could also understand why he couldn’t and because of this, any mourning he felt for his mother was kept private, just within him, once in a while, when he is reminded of the good sides of her.
He’s let his mind wander, this happens when he’s not particularly focused on anything and he jumps when Andrew hands him a mug of tea. It’s hot, probably close to scalding, but he wraps his hands around it because the sting helps him clear his head enough to stare at Andrew and read the questioning look in his eyes.
“They hurt you.” He whispers, knowing that once he says it, once he lets Andrew know, yet again, just how much he means to him, he couldn’t take it back. “They hurt you and I… I couldn’t get you out in time, I couldn’t get to you.” He’s trying not to panic or cry, Neil Josten does not cry, he has not cried since he was probably 6 when his father took an iron to his arm and branded him.
“I am right here.” Andrew is looking at him with that quizzical and slightly confused look in his eyes that he gets whenever Neil says anything that shows just how far he will go to protect Andrew, just how much he loves Andrew although he won’t say it to him yet. “They are not here, Neil. They are dead. You are Neil Josten, you’re an idiot who plays Exy and I'm the person that puts up with you. A person who is perfectly healthy minus my worrying tendency to continue putting up with you.”
Neil feels a smile spreading over his face, which he quickly hides behind his tea mug as he takes a sip. Andrew sees it anyway, because Andrew always sees, and he glares at Neil with as much ferocity as a very sleep ruffled and tired 5-foot blonde can muster. As per usual, it has no effect, but that’s okay that’s how they work. With their banter finished, Neil falls back into his thoughts. He can’t say he feels better but he knows Andrew is currently safe enough and that’s okay. Unfortunately he can still hear his fathers voice, Lola’s voice and the hiss of a lighter on skin. Andrew shifts as though he senses Neil’s mood drop and he puts on some rerun of Exy, making Neil smile as best he can at him as they curl up on the couch, barely touching but close enough to feel each other there. Andrew drifts off eventually, Neil is grateful, he hasn’t been sleeping lately, but Neil doesn’t sleep any more that night, not really paying attention to the Exy on television, his thoughts not really on anything, just sitting in the fuzz of remembered pain and tiredness.
When Andrew finally wakes again, it’s time for morning practice and Neil jumps a little bit when he puts a hand on his shoulder to wake him from his daze. Andrew gives him a look but doesn’t say anything, making his way to the bedroom to half smother Kevin in his attempts to wake him up. Neil doesn’t feel like breakfast so he just continues sitting until Andrew tugs him up to get changed and shoves a bagel in his hand, not allowing them to leave until he eats at least half, and finally, they head down for practice. The drive is painful, even Neil can admit that, phantom handcuffs and the hiss of a car lighter, which has been missing from every one of the foxes’ cars since Baltimore. He almost bolts out of the car when it finally comes to a stop, trying to remind himself that he can in fact get out of this car and it’s his choice, not someone dragging him out. This was going to be a bad day probably.
The common room in the Foxhole Court is filled with his teammates; all chattering loudly, unfortunately Neil listens into the bet they were currently making.
“I bet some dude just walked into Jack and screamed because they saw how ugly his face was.” Nicky laughs along with Allison and Dan, as Jack and Sheena scowl at them from the other side of the room.
“I bet it was one of the football dudes the floor below to be honest, sound carries.” Dan says, while Allison rolls her eyes.
“Don’t be stupid it was obviously someone having a nightmare.” Allison is picking at her nails but her eyes are intently looking over the foxes.
“That wasn’t a nightmare, did you hear that scream??” Lizzy, one of the freshmen, has decided to join the fray. “Honestly, I bet someone died.” All the foxes laugh at that one. But Andrew tenses up as Allison’s eyes find him and Neil, putting his body protectively in front of a Neil in a way which Neil definitely finds endearing, even if it would probably get him killed to say. Allison’s eyes narrow, until she looks at Neil and realization takes over her face. She turns back to the foxes clapping her hands and saying, “New bet! 50 bucks Jack’s a closet gay”, immediately turning everyone’s attention to Jack swearing viciously and letting loose a slew of homophobic comments, to which Nicky responds in kind with comments about straight people, as everyone else gets angry at Jack, and now a whole new buzz is going through the foxes. Andrew relaxes, and when Allison looks back to them, he even nods at her. Neil would be taken aback if the noise in the room weren’t getting to be a little too much and he wasn’t just too tired to feel surprise. He tugs on Andrew’s hand and they head over to their couch, Andrew sits in the middle which makes Neil frown at him, but Andrew shrugs and he trusts him to know his limits, so he sits at the side where he is placed, beginning to relax a little into Andrew, realizing just how tired he is.
Of course, then Wymack has to come into the room ranting about how loud you kids are, and for Wilds and Josten to control your team. Neil hasn’t been scared of Wymack in a long time, but today, a large male striding into a room with an ‘angry’ comment that happens to be telling him off, is too much. He flinches, badly, and feels his skin pale while in his head he hears his father yelling, “Junior, control yourself.” After a young Nathaniel lost his battle to his stomach whilst watching the Butcher do what the Butcher did best. He doesn’t even recognize where he is when he sees a large man reaching for him, he cowers. Instantly, the whole room goes quiet, the sudden silence shocks him a little back into reality and he looks up to find Andrew standing in front of him with his hand around Wymack’s wrist, hard enough to bruise.
“Hands off coach, you know the rules.” Andrew says into the silence. Dan makes an angry noise but Wymack simply looks at Andrew, and then to Neil, who hasn’t been able to pull himself out of the curl he was in, and nods.
“Neil, Andrew, how about you go do some laps,” Wymack steps back and makes sure he puts room between him and Neil, making an apologetic gesture. It makes Neil feel guilty, there’s nothing dangerous or scary about Wymack, his words when Neil first got to Palmetto ringing in Neil’s head. “I am a loud, grouchy old man. I like to yell and throw things. But I don’t throw punches unless some punk is dumb enough to try me first. I have never, ever hit someone without provocation.” It had taken Neil his whole first year to fully believe that statement, but that just made it even more upsetting that he had reverted back to his old ways. He stood stiffly, making his way out of the room with Andrew at his back. Andrew, however, didn’t allow him to go run his laps, but instead continued pushing him out the door. He didn’t put him in the car but instead, lit cigarettes for himself and Neil and walked over to some grass nearby so they could simply sit and smoke for a few minutes. It was not what one would call romantic, but it was perfect. A break from the world, from Exy, and from his fears, just him and Andrew in their own quiet bubble, cigarettes burning down and hands intertwined. Neil rests his head on Andrew shoulder after a nod and just breathes. It’s a bad day, his dreams are a problem, but right now, it’s just him and Andrew. He allows himself to remember that Wymack and The Foxes took him in. This, Palmetto, Andrew, The Foxes, the keys in his pocket, these mean home and tentative safety. His nightmares don’t exist here, not outside of his head.
Neil’s nightmare’s were never fun, and the bad days following them were often terrible. But his friends and family, his foxes, Andrew, these are what keep him sane. Later he would apologize to Wymack and be brushed off with a gruff, “everyone has their bad days kid.” He would spend the evening watching a movie with the foxes, and that night he would go to sleep staring at Andrew, and he wouldn’t feel afraid, he’d feel like he was home.