"Hey Doe!" said Jonesy, a particularly annoying but relatively harmless mouth-breather, as he took a seat across the cafeteria table from Andrew. "What's going on with your brother?"
Andrew looked up, pausing his chewing. There were only five people he could think of that knew that Aaron existed, which must mean that-
"God, Jonesy, if you were any slower you'd be stopped," muttered Doyle, pushing Jonesy along the bench so he could take his seat. "They're not related."
"If they're not related then why do they have the same last name?" asked Jonesy, sounding both belligerent and triumphant.
"Are you actually dumber than a box of rocks?" demanded Doyle. "Doe's the last name that they give to kids that don't have a real last name."
Jonesy appeared to think about this. It looked painful. "Who's 'they'?"
Andrew swallowed his food and snapped his fingers to get the two boys' attention. "What's Neil done now?" he asked. He directed the question at Doyle. They weren't friends by any stretch of the imagination but they also weren't enemies.
Doyle shrugged. "I dunno. He got called out of class. We thought you might know why."
He and Neil were bunkmates that had formed a tentative alliance despite the fact that they really didn't know each other very well yet. Neil had only arrived two months ago.
"During history?" asked Andrew, combing his mind for anything that had happened lately that would justify Neil being exempted from their highly regimented lives.
"No, math," said Jonesy.
That brought Andrew up short. Missing two classes and lunch without being injured or in trouble was unheard of and, as far as he knew, Neil wasn't injured.
Jonesy leaned forwards across the table. "Carrera said that Feds were here for him."
"Carrera also said that his brother makes millions playing in the NBA," said Doyle dismissively. "How many times have I told you not to believe anything he says?"
"But he saw them," protested Jonesy.
"You mean he saw a guy in a suit and decided it was a Fed," said Doyle. "It could be anybody: a cop, a lawyer, maybe his CPS caseworker." He turned curious eyes on Andrew. "You don't know?"
Andrew shook his head.
"Oh!" gasped Jonesy in realization. "Maybe they figured out who he is!"
The mystery surrounding Neil was well known and hotly debated all through the juvenile detention facility. It intrigued Andrew, especially since Neil himself didn't seem to have any answers. He claimed to have no memory of his life before he'd been found wandering - aimless, disoriented, and covered in burns - along the highway. He'd been thrown in here for arson when police had found a burnt out wreckage of a car and admin had assigned him a name and a birthday.
Doyle was watching Andrew shrewdly. "Do you know who he is?"
Andrew shook his head again. He had suspicions, of course, but nothing he was willing to share.
Doyle huffed in annoyance but subsided, likely correctly assuming that getting any more information out of Andrew would be impossible.
Andrew spent the afternoon distracted. He wasn't quite sure why he cared. Sure he and Neil were technically allies, but he wasn't sure why he'd even agreed to the arrangement. He should have been smart enough to give Neil a wide berth. He was mouthy and obnoxious and seemed to like instigating trouble. He would have gotten hit a lot more often if Andrew hadn't taken to standing menacingly behind his left shoulder: everyone here already knew that Andrew was vicious and packed a mean punch if provoked.
He didn't see Neil until dinner time when he found him sitting calmly at their usual table.
"Where have you been all day?" he asked.
"Cops," said Neil succinctly. "Wanted to try to jog my memory again."
"How'd they do that?"
"Threats, mostly," said Neil wryly. "I'm not sure why making me hate them is their method to get me to cooperate."
"Why are they so interested in you?"
Neil slumped in defeat. "Who knows? Something about the car I supposedly torched. It's a dead end. They haven't been able to find where it might have come from and the plates were fakes. I wish they'd stop trying to figure out who I am," he added, almost as an afterthought.
"Don't you wonder?"
"Apparently I decided to literally set fire to the only thing that connects me to my past. That really doesn't make it sound all that promising. I think I prefer being amnesia-ridden Neil Doe."
Andrew didn't like Neil's obvious distress and tried to think of some way to cheer him up. "We have rec time after dinner. If you ask the athletics coordinator I'm sure he'll let us practice exy," he offered.
"You'll play with me?"
"It's less boring than the other options," Andrew hedged.
Neil's resulting smile appeared in Andrew's dreams that night. He woke to find a sticky mess in his boxers, much to his disgust.
He did not like boys. Drake and the others hadn't broken him that much. Despite what they said he did not like it, he did not want it, he did not enjoy it.
This was a fluke. Neil was nothing and nobody and maybe Andrew had played exy to cheer him up but that didn't mean he cared about him at all.
Andrew woke, breathing through his panic. The dream had been a memory but he could still feel all the rage and shame of his fourteen-year-old self as if it had happened yesterday. He let his eyes dart around the room, grounding himself in the present. He was in the house he shared with his brother and cousin in Columbia, South Carolina. The door was locked, he was safe, and he'd come to terms with his sexuality years ago with the help of the therapist at juvie. It had been three years since he realized his attraction to Neil, two years since their first kiss, and almost one year since they'd last seen each other.
Andrew closed his eyes and told himself that he wasn't allowed to think about Neil. He'd tried to put him out of his thoughts numerous times since he'd learned that Neil had disappeared but he hadn't yet been able to do so. His photographic memory worked against him as it always did, spitting out memories that he would rather forget. At least the memories involving Neil were usually pleasant, unlike the memories from his life before juvie that usually turned up as nightmares.
He should have never expected anything from a lying runaway. Neil had known that he'd moved to Columbia and that he'd changed his last name to Minyard; since all Andrew knew was that Neil was planning on running away from the foster home he was headed to after he was released and change his identity, the ball was completely in Neil's court.
There was always the possibility that Neil's past had caught up with him, but Andrew's mind shied away from considering that. It was easier to be hurt and angry that Neil hadn't kept his promise than it was to imagine him slowly rotting in an unmarked grave.
With that thought he heaved himself out of bed, heading to the washroom for a cool shower to wash off the panic-sweat from his dream. Andrew absently noted the damage to the washroom that Aaron caused during his forced detox last month. They should probably see about fixing it but it was too hot to even think about manual labour. Although it was just after dawn, the July morning was already uncomfortably muggy.
After he dressed he padded down the stairs in search of coffee and breakfast. Nicky was already awake and was skyping with Erik at the kitchen table. Andrew was more fluent in German than he'd led Nicky to believe - Neil had taught him so they could converse without anyone knowing what they were saying - so he skirted the room and headed out onto the back porch for a cigarette.
He was just stubbing it out when the door slid open behind him and Nicky came out. He took a seat next to Andrew and handed him a mug full of cream and sugar with a little coffee.
"You're up early," he said.
Andrew made a noncommittal noise.
"I'm going to make breakfast in a bit. What do you want?"
"Eggs? I can make eggs," said Nicky almost desperately.
Andrew didn't have anything against his cousin, he just felt that they had incompatible personalities. Nicky was talkative and earnest and in need of constant validation. He was also trying very hard to be a parent to Aaron and Andrew. Andrew didn't know how to tell him that he'd already provided everything they'd required (a legal guardian and a safe place to live) and that Andrew had outgrown needing a parent when he'd given up on Cass. Who was another person he wasn't allowed to think about.
"Anyway, I have news," said Nicky. "One of my coworkers knows a guy who works at a club called Eden's Twilight and thinks that I can get a job there that will pay a lot better than working at Sweetie's. So I was thinking that we could head over and check out the club tonight?"
"Alright," said Andrew. He could use the dual-numbing sensations of alcohol and loud music. And Aaron could probably also use a night out, as long as Andrew kept an eye on him to make sure he was only consuming alcohol.
"Great," said Nicky, pathetically grateful that Andrew had responded. "I'll get started on breakfast."
Andrew lit another cigarette.
Aaron stopped sulking in his room to grace them with his presence that afternoon. Nicky insisted that he was grieving, which Andrew didn't understand. Tilda had been objectively terrible and Andrew had made a promise to protect him, what had he been expecting? Aaron was now safe with Andrew and Nicky and was no longer dependent on drugs, but his anger was palpable.
Andrew remembered meeting Aaron for the first time face-to-face when Luther had brought him to visit. Andrew already didn't trust Luther by then, the man having told him that he was wrong about Drake, but he was curious to meet the brother for whose safety he had given up all hope of a mother.
It had been strange, seeing a more beaten down version of himself. Andrew had hit rock bottom years before but his time in juvie had been paradoxically good for him, providing him a relatively safe place to sleep, a more-or-less competent therapist, and a trusted friend; Aaron still looked like he was dangling over an abyss. His hunched shoulders, shadowed eyes, and general jumpiness reminded Andrew of Neil when they'd first met. Andrew had protected Aaron by getting himself removed from the Spears' house but he'd never considered that Aaron had his own monsters at home.
"How was meeting with Fuckface Luther and the twinyard?" asked Neil when Andrew joined him in the cafeteria.
"You're not funny."
"You're mistaken; I'm hilarious," retorted Neil with a little smile on his face that Andrew wanted to kiss. It would have to wait until later: there was enough background noise that their conversation couldn't be overheard but far too many witnesses.
"He had suspicious bruises; I think someone's hurting him," said Andrew, effectively wiping the smile off of Neil's face.
"Luther?" he asked.
"Not based on their dynamics. It's probably his mother: he's acting like you used to."
"My mother only did what she had to-" started Neil hotly.
"We are not having this argument again," said Andrew, cutting him off. For all that the two of them understood each other Andrew would never understand Neil's insistence on excusing his mother's abuse. Neil's past (which he absolutely did remember) had been told to Andrew in small chunks: tiny stories whispered in the night that made Andrew's hands curl into fists in anger for all that had been done to Neil. They'd agreed to disagree a while ago on the topic of Neil's mother.
Neil's jaw clenched but he let it go. "What are you going to do?" he asked instead.
"Nothing," said Andrew. "What can I do, locked in here?"
Andrew thought the topic was settled but Neil was uncharacteristically quiet all evening, even through exy practice.
"You know," he said thoughtfully as they prepared for lights out, "with your class marks and extracurriculars you could apply for early parole. You'll get out of here in six months if you get into fewer fights."
"I'm just finishing the fights you start."
"Well, I could start fewer fights, then."
"Unlikely," said Andrew, "Besides, I'm not leaving you here; I made you a promise to have your back."
"If I'm starting fewer fights, then I'll probably be able to get early parole, too. I'll only be here for a couple months without you. I'll be fine."
"And go where when you get your parole? You think they'd just let you wander away while you're still pretending that you don't have a memory?"
"They can't keep me here forever," said Neil flippantly. "They'd put me into foster care."
"Need I remind you about my experiences in foster care?"
"I wouldn't stay."
"Where would you go?"
Neil shrugged. "Wherever you are."
Andrew's breath caught. He'd often wondered if Neil would stay with him once they were released but he didn't want to let himself hope. "Won't the police look for you?"
"A known flight risk without a real identity and burned-off fingerprints? I can't imagine they'd put a lot of resources into finding me. We both know how easy it is to slip through the cracks."
When Andrew didn't answer, Neil deflated a little. "I know you want to protect him," he said.
Andrew stepped forwards and gave him a bruising kiss. "I'll think on it."
Andrew had been released last July. Neil had written him a couple letters before disappearing completely following his own release in late September. Andrew had postponed dealing with Tilda by a couple months, wanting Neil's input on his plan to get rid of her. By January he'd given up on Neil keeping his promise to follow him; it had taken him another couple months to organize her fatal accident. Then he'd had to wait until they had a secure house and a holiday from school before he could force Aaron to go through withdrawal.
"We're going out tonight!" chirped Nicky when Aaron stalked into the living room. Nicky was playing a video game and Andrew was sitting in the window seat, reading.
Aaron just grunted and picked up the second controller. He and Nicky amused themselves for the rest of the afternoon killing zombies. Nicky even managed to draw Aaron into conversation several times.
Eventually Nicky suggested that they order in dinner. In his attempts at parenting he had rules for how often they were allowed to order in instead of cooking (which they took turns doing), but he was clearly in a good mood from the twins' almost-friendly behaviour.
The doorbell rang not long after Nicky placed the order.
"That was fast," he said, perplexed, but got up to answer the door. "You're not dinner," he said once he'd opened it.
"No," said a familiar, amused voice. "Is Andrew here?"
Andrew looked up sharply, not wanting to believe his ears. It was probably wishful thinking, brought on by his earlier dream.
"Why?" asked Nicky suspiciously.
Andrew dropped his book, feeling dazed as he strode into the front hall.
Sure enough, Neil 'Fight me' Doe (or whatever the hell his name was now) was at the front door. He'd dyed his too-long hair a muddy brown and he'd acquired coloured contacts, disguising his most distinctive feature.
He looked up when Andrew walked in, his face relaxing and lighting up. Nicky was still blustering, unable to believe that Andrew had a friend.
"You're late," said Andrew, which cut Nicky off and made him turn in surprise.
"You were expecting him?" he asked.
Neil rolled his eyes. "I came as quickly as I could."
"I had to get to Chicago to access one of my mother's caches and an unaccompanied travelling teenager is suspicious not to mention that I didn't have any money; it took awhile. Then I had to go back to California because the only forger worth a damn that I know is there. And then I had to hitchhike across the country to get here. I came as quickly as I could."
"I'm sorry, who are you?" asked Nicky faintly.
"Neil Josten," said Neil. "I'm a friend of Andrew's."
"Friend?" asked Andrew.
"I wasn't sure if you wanted that any more. You might have lost interest and moved on."
Andrew snorted because he hadn't met anyone half as interesting as Neil in his entire life. He gave up pretending that he wasn't relieved to see him and reached out to drag Neil close. He'd grown in the last year; he was now at least a couple inches taller than Andrew's five feet. Andrew fisted one of his hands into Neil's shirt, anchoring him within reach.
"Hi," said Neil, looking at him with soft eyes and a brilliant smile.
"Still Neil?" asked Andrew.
Neil looked sheepish. "I didn't want to change it; it's what you call me."
"What's going on?" asked Aaron, finally wandering in to see what the commotion was about. "Who's this?"
"I'm pretty sure it's Andrew's secret boyfriend," said Nicky, caught somewhere between shock and pride.
Aaron stared blankly for a couple beats before shrugging. "If you're dating then you can't stop me from dating, too," he said. "No more chasing off girls who are interested in me."
"Fine," said Andrew. If any really awful girl was after Aaron then he'd get Neil to get rid of her. It was nice to again have someone he trusted completely at his back.
"So, are you going to be visiting for awhile?" Nicky asked Neil.
"He's staying," said Andrew.
"In town? That's great!" said Nicky.
"He's staying here," corrected Andrew.
"Uhhh… is your parent and/or guardian alright with that?" wondered Nicky.
"I'm an emancipated minor."
"How old are you?"
"My birth certificate says I turn eighteen in March. I'm going into my senior year of high school."
"Oh, you can go to Columbia High with the twins!"
"We only have three bedrooms," said Aaron.
"I can sleep on the couch," offered Neil.
"You can sleep in my room," said Andrew.
"Awesome," drawled Aaron. "Is the food here yet?"
With Neil's sudden arrival Nicky postponed their trip to Eden's Twilight. Instead, Andrew took Neil and retreated to his bedroom shortly after dinner, inciting catcalls from Nicky and a look of disinterest from Aaron. He hadn't been planning on coming out to them yet but at least it hadn't caused any immediate problems. He had a sneaking suspicion that Aaron would become slightly more difficult to deal with.
"I can sleep on the couch," said Neil again. "I know what having a room of your own must mean to you."
"I got used to hearing your noisy breathing all night when we were bunkmates."
"I missed you, too."
"Stop saying stupid things," said Andrew. "Yes or no?"
"Yes," replied Neil, and Andrew proceeded to prevent him from saying anything else by kissing him.
He was rough in his relief that Neil was alive, that Neil had kept his promise, that Neil was here. He rutted against him almost desperately, driving them both to completion embarrassingly quickly.
Afterwards, they showered and changed and returned to lounge on Andrew's bed.
"Having privacy is nice," said Neil lazily.
Andrew hummed in agreement. "I thought you were dead."
"I know," said Neil. "I'm not."
"Don't do it again."
"I'll try my best."
They were quiet for a time, simply enjoying each other's company. Neil gazed at Andrew's face with an expression that made Andrew feel like something molten had oozed into his chest.
Eventually Neil shifted, and spoke, "Columbia High, huh?" he said slyly. "Sooooo… how's your exy team?"
"Junkie," said Andrew, managing to keep the fondness out of his voice. "You're going to cause all sorts of problems, aren't you?"
"I've never caused a problem in my life," lied Neil. "Everything will be fine."