"Dad!" Kevin shouted up the stairs.
Neil groaned and rolled over, burying his face in his pillows. Perhaps if he didn't answer Kevin would forget that he existed.
"Dad!" Kevin shouted again, louder this time. "We're out of poptarts!"
Neil admitted defeat, sat up, and rubbed his eyes. "Did you check the cupboard by the fridge?" he called back, his voice gravelly from sleep.
"You mean the cupboard where we keep them?" asked Kevin, far too sarcastically for this early in the morning. "Yes. And before you suggest it, yes, I already checked the other cupboards. We're out."
"Eat oatmeal instead."
"We're out of that, too. And there's no coffee."
Neil flopped back against his pillows. "Fine," he said, and then heaved himself out of bed. "We'll go to Andrew's before your bus comes. Give me five minutes."
"Take ten and brush your hair for once."
"Hey, who's the parent here?"
"Sometimes I wonder," Kevin muttered, barely audible.
Neil was ready and down the stairs in seven minutes. He clapped his hands together. "Alright, time to go. What's the hold up?"
Kevin emerged from his bedroom in his school uniform, wearing a heavy backpack and carrying his exy racquet.
Neil pointed to the racquet in confusion. "It's Tuesday," he declared. "...isn't it?"
Kevin sighed the most put upon sigh that anyone had ever sighed. "I have extra practices now because of playoffs, remember? I told you at least twice."
"Did you put it in the calendar?"
"Amateur mistake," said Neil. "You really should know about my goldfish memory by now."
"Maybe I'm hopeful that you'll grow as a person," snarked Kevin.
"I have no idea who you inherited your optimism from," said Neil, leading the way out of the house. "Can't be my influence." He locked the door behind them. Palmetto was such a tiny and safe place that almost no one ever locked their doors but Neil's formative years meant that he would never be able to handle leaving his possessions completely unprotected.
They traversed the front yard of their home, passing Neil's beat up old Honda and the painted sign that read 'The Jostens'. Kevin had made it when he was nine.
"I finish up at the inn early on Tuesdays," said Neil. "I can pick you up after practice so you won't have to catch the bus home."
"Are you sure you'll remember?" asked Kevin waspishly.
"Of course, I could forget my clearly ungrateful son on purpose…"
"Sorry," muttered Kevin. "I would like it if you picked me up."
"While we're in Columbia we can stop for secret Five Guys for dinner."
"Secret Five Guys?"
"If Andrew knew that I'd fed you takeout for dinner this week twice by Tuesday he'd give me that super unimpressed and judgmental look."
"The one he gave you that time he found out we had cookies for dinner?"
"That's the one. If he asks, I'm feeding you vegetables tonight."
"He'll never believe that," said Kevin. "You're the one who always says that if you're going to lie at least make it a believable lie."
"Maybe don't repeat that. I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm corrupting you."
Like everything in Palmetto, Andrew's was within easy walking distance. It was located just on the far side of the town's main square. Neil pushed open the diner's door making the bell above it jingle to signal their entrance.
Andrew was standing behind the diner's counter. His eyes narrowed when he saw the two of them. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Coffee," replied Neil.
"No food at home," said Kevin.
Andrew's eyes somehow narrowed ever further at Neil as he poured a cup of coffee. "You told me that you were going to go grocery shopping yesterday."
"I did say that, yes," admitted Neil, upon reflection. "But, well…"
"Goldfish memory," supplied Kevin.
Andrew rolled his eyes and gestured to an empty table, coming around the counter to take their orders. "What do you want to eat?"
"Coffee," said Neil again, reaching for the cup that Andrew had poured for him.
"You're only getting coffee if you also order food," said Andrew, holding the mug out of his reach.
"Carbs," said Neil. "Just… carbs covered in carb syrup."
"And you?" Andrew asked Kevin, finally relenting and handing Neil his coffee.
"Protein?" said Kevin. "Coach Rhemann said that I should try to bulk up if I want to attract college scouts."
"I'll make you an omelette," said Andrew. "It's going to have vegetables and you're having a side of fruit."
"You never make my dad eat fruit or vegetables," complained Kevin.
"Your father is technically an adult," said Andrew dryly. "He's also barely over five feet tall and he's probably going to be the first person in the twenty-first century to die of scurvy. Do you really want to use him as a role model in this instance?"
"Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, Shorty," said Neil.
"I never claimed that I followed a balanced diet," said Andrew with a significant look at Kevin.
Kevin looked back and forth between Andrew and Neil. "I'll eat the fruit," he said sullenly.
Neil had definitely not planned on becoming a parent when he was eighteen. It was especially unexpected given that he was a virgin at the time (not that he wasn't a virgin ten years later when he’d been twenty-eight and would probably still be a virgin at thirty-eight if his life kept its current trajectory).
It was all Kayleigh Day's fault. She'd been his friend almost from the first minute he'd arrived at the Nest, brittle and traumatized. He was to have been given to the Moriyama family on his tenth birthday, a young boy with the potential to become an exy star. His mother hadn't wanted to give him up to the mob family, instead stealing both him and millions of dollars and disappearing into the night.
She'd managed to keep them free for four years before his father tracked them down, killed her, and sent Neil to the Moriyamas' exy training facility. There he'd met Kayleigh, another person who belonged to the Moriyamas. She was a couple years older than him and had taken him under her wing.
A couple years later she'd gotten pregnant. She never said anything about the circumstances that had left her pregnant nor who the father was and Neil wasn't about to ask about what she was clearly reluctant to discuss. Once Kevin was born she'd gripped Neil's wrist tight enough to bruise and extracted a promise from him that he'd protect Kevin if anything happened to her. He could never have expected how much that promise would shape his life.
When Kevin was two years old, Kayleigh had walked into an FBI building and told them everything she knew about the Moriyamas' criminal dealings. In the chaos that occurred when the FBI raided the Moriyamas she had been killed. Neil had made a split-second decision to take Kevin and run.
He raided the last supply cache of his mother's that he knew about. There was just enough money to get them new identifications and to buy an old junker of a car. He packed the two of them and their meagre belongings into the car and drove, feeling a kinship with his own mother for the first time in years.
He fell into a fugue state. He had no idea how long he drove but when he became aware of his surroundings he was in a tiny town in South Carolina and Kevin was screaming bloody murder. He circled the town square until he came across a diner. The paint was chipped and peeling and through the large windows he could see shabby decor, but the sign above the door was new - it read Andrew's in cherry red paint - and it was open despite the late hour.
Neil changed Kevin's diaper in the back seat of the car, something he had only done a couple times in his life before. It didn't end with either of them happy or smelling nicely. He then entered the diner with his still-screaming toddler, used the washroom to clean them both up a bit and found a table.
Luckily the place was almost deserted, meaning he only got dirty looks from a single diner customer as they hastily made their exit. The man who approached the table was short, blond, and wearing an apron, indicating that he worked there.
Andrew, not that Neil knew his name yet, actually owned the diner. He was barely twenty-one and had recently co-inherited the diner with his twin brother, Aaron, from their father who they'd never met. Aaron had wanted to sell the business to help pay for his college education. Andrew had had no prospects or ambitions. He had needed something to live for and his decision to try running the diner himself had provided that.
Andrew had taken one look at Kevin and Neil and had picked Kevin up bounced him on his hip a couple times and then said, "Stop crying," so seriously that Kevin's shrieks had subsided into hiccups and whimpers as he stared curiously at Andrew's face.
Neil felt the uncharacteristic desire to hug and kiss the strange baby-whisperer. "How…?" he said in relief that Kevin was quiet.
"Practice. I grew up in foster care; there were always little kids around."
"He's hungry," said Neil. "We haven't eaten in… awhile."
Andrew nodded. "What do you want me to bring him?"
"I… applesauce?" guessed Neil. "I don't know; what do two-year-olds eat?"
Andrew gave him a hard look. "Did you kidnap this child?" he asked, angling himself so that he was between Neil and Kevin.
Neil started laughing hysterically. "Yeah," he managed through his giggles. "I stole him from the mob." That made him crack up again. Then the whole story had come tumbling out: his promise to Kayleigh, her death, and his subsequent flight.
Andrew had listened impassively; his lack of a response helped settle Neil's nerves. He brought food to Kevin - chicken nuggets and mushy carrots and a cup of juice - and coffee and pie to Neil.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do," summed up Neil, burying his face in his crossed arms on the table.
"A man named Wymack owns an inn just outside of town," said Andrew, his face still calm. "I heard that he's hiring seasonal workers. And a woman named Renee operates a daycare; she offers subsidies for people with low incomes." He gestured at the building across the street. "Wymack will probably have a room for you but if not the Boyd family owns apartments that they rent out for cheap; they're tiny but clean and in good repair."
Neil stared at him. "Why are you helping me?"
Andrew looked over to where Kevin had fallen asleep as soon as he'd finished eating. He was dangerously close to mashing his face into his leftover carrots. "The kid deserves better than staying with the mob or being shoved into foster care by the feds," he said with a shrug. "Even though you're clearly a disaster you're probably his best option."
"Gee, thanks," said Neil. Then he caught Andrew's eye. "No, seriously, thank you," he said earnestly.
Andrew shrugged again and avoided looking at him, as uncomfortable with the genuine emotion as Neil was.
Once he'd finished his third slice of pie Neil bundled Kevin back into the car and headed to the inn that Andrew had mentioned. It was the middle of the night so it probably wasn't the best time to ask for a job but he also needed somewhere to sleep.
Wymack himself was working behind the reception desk. He looked up as Neil and Kevin entered, his expression curious and wary. "Welcome to the Foxhole Inn," he said. "How can I help you?"
"Andrew Minyard said you might have work for me?" Neil blurted out. "...Also a room for the night?"
Wymack silently regarded him. He could imagine how he had appeared: an eighteen-year-old in grubby, threadbare clothing, dark circles under his too-old eyes, clutching the hand of a two-year-old who was trying to hide behind his legs. Something understanding and tired settled in Wymack's eyes.
"Yeah, kid," he said gruffly, "I've got work for you."
He set Neil and Kevin up in a closet-sized room that he said was reserved for staff - Neil would later learn that Wymack made a habit of hiring down-on-their-luck people. It wasn't the most ideal place for someone with a toddler but it would serve well enough until Neil made enough money to afford rent.
The next morning Neil trekked back into Palmetto proper to find the daycare that Andrew had mentioned. Wymack gave him directions to the town's main square where he found a cheerful little cottage with a handmade sign that read 'Miss Renee's Dance Studio and Childcare'.
Miss Renee was much younger than he was expecting, only in her mid- to late-twenties. Her hair was dyed a white that was only found in nature on senior citizens and the tips were coloured in alternating rainbow pastels. She appeared kind and harmless but there was something about her eyes that made Neil's skin crawl as she assessed him. He was already wary enough about letting Kevin out of his sight; leaving him with someone who made him feel uneasy was out of the question. Then her whole face shifted and she softened. Neil remembered that both Andrew and Wymack knew and approved of Renee and although he didn't completely trust either of them he also didn't believe that either of them would put a child in danger.
Kevin, who had spent the whole morning asking Neil for his mom, held his hand tightly and surveyed the other children solemnly. His eyes kept returning to the brightly coloured trucks.
Renee smiled sweetly. "Wymack called me to tell me you were on the way over," she said. "Neil and Kevin, right?"
"Yes," said Neil, stopping himself from squeezing Kevin's hand too tightly. "Wymack's given me work but I don't have a lot of money right now…"
"That's fine," Renee assured him. "We can work something out. Do you have his vaccination and medical records?"
"Yes," said Neil. He'd brought all of Kevin's new papers with them. His vaccination and medical history may have been fabricated two days ago but it was accurate.
"Alright, why don't you come with me and we'll fill out all the paperwork?" said Renee, treating him with kid gloves. "Kevin," she said kneeling down to his level. "Do you want to play with the trucks?"
Kevin bit his lip and glanced up at Neil with uncertainty. Neil nodded and tried to look encouraging. "Trucks?" he asked.
It took a lot of gentle nudging and encouraging smiles but eventually they got Kevin settled and distracted by the trucks. Then Neil was faced with a daunting amount of paperwork, filling out sections on emergency contacts and medical issues and allergies. He kept checking over his shoulder, worried about Kevin being out of sight.
"You seem overwhelmed," commented Renee.
"He's been raised solely by his mother up until now," said Neil scrubbing a hand through his hair, keeping to the story that he was Kevin's biological father. Although he'd already blurted out the truth to Andrew he had no plans to clue anyone else in. "She's… gone now and left him in my care. I really wasn't expecting this."
"Hmm," said Renee looking at him thoughtfully. "You know, there are several of us in town that are running from our pasts."
"Oh, I'm not-" started Neil quickly.
Renee held up a hand to forestall his denial. "I don't need to know anything you don't want to reveal," she said. "I only mention it because I haven't always been this and I wanted to promise you something: if anyone comes for Kevin, if anyone tries to hurt him, I will stop them."
Neil felt his shoulders relax. He wasn't sure why this offer of violence decreased his tension but it did. He could see that Renee was more than her kind exterior - he had no doubt that if anyone threatened one of the children under her care then she would slice them open from throat to groin.
Neil nodded jerkily and finished filling out the forms. When they returned to the main room, Kevin was sobbing loudly, calling for both his mother and for Neil. Neil wasn't sure if his distress was because another boy was touching the trucks or because Neil had left him. He took a step in Kevin's direction but Renee stopped him with a smile.
"I'll handle this," she said. "You have to get to work."
Neil swallowed heavily and left. He had to stop himself from turning back several times and had to take deep, even breaths to stave off hyperventilating.
Once he got back to the inn he was given a quick tour and was introduced to several other staff members before he was sent outside to perform various late autumn maintenance duties on the grounds. He spent the afternoon raking leaves. By the time it was time to pick up Kevin he ached everywhere, somehow more exhausted than after an all-day exy practice.
Kevin clung to him when he arrived, relieved that Neil hadn't abandoned him forever. Neil had never been a fan of physical contact but he found it easy to hug the small boy tightly. He stroked Kevin's back and murmured promises into his hair: that he wasn't going anywhere, that he would protect him, that he would always come back for him. Less than a week previously Neil couldn't have imagined ever making such promises to anybody and meaning them but he was responsible for the well-being of a tiny human now. He was going to do his best to keep his promises.
He headed to Andrew's for dinner as he had no clue how to feed the two of them otherwise. The diner was busy enough that Andrew didn't have much time other than to take their order and nod hello. Kevin had a little toy dinosaur that Renee had given him; he made it walk along the edge of the table and pretended to share his food with it. Neil sat back and listened to Kevin whispering to his toy with his baby lisp and fought the urge to burst into hysterical tears because this was his life now.
It got easier. It didn't take Neil long to realize that the residents of Palmetto had collectively decided to adopt him and Kevin.
Matt was the pastry chef at the Foxhole Inn. He had been friendly and welcoming from the moment he met Neil. His family owned quite a lot of real estate in Palmetto which was how Neil had easily acquired an apartment costing far less than he suspected was market value.
Matt's girlfriend Dan was manager at the town's grocery and general store. She always gave Neil a 'single parent' discount when he shopped there, making the cost of the frankly ridiculous number of diapers he had to buy manageable.
Neil wasn't quite sure what Allison's actual job was: she was a heiress and ex-socialite who seemed to do anything that amused her. She cut his hair and fixed his car and knitted him sweaters and was the reason that Renee was able to offer child care so cheaply.
And then there was Andrew. Neil continued to eat almost all his meals at Andrew's diner. Andrew was often grumpy or prickly with his customers but seemed to have a soft spot for Neil and Kevin. He was the only one in town that Neil had shared their true history with and he never betrayed Neil's confidence. He became the one person that Neil always turned to, the biggest source of support and stability in his life.
It had been Andrew he'd called the first time that Kevin was really sick when he was three. Andrew had come over with supplies from the pharmacy - children's Advil, and a thermometer, and throat lozenges - taken one look at Neil's panicked face and sighed.
"Children get sick," he said. He'd helped Neil get the medication into Kevin and stayed to keep watch over him while Neil got some much needed sleep.
When Kevin was five he unilaterally decided that he was going to call Neil 'dad' so that he'd be more like the other kids at school. Andrew had calmly listened to Neil's tirade about how he was only twenty-one and wasn't actually Kevin's father - was it bad to let him think he was? - and how Kevin didn't even remember Kayleigh anymore. He'd then popped Neil on the back of the head and informed him that he was being ridiculous, and that was that.
Andrew helped Neil move into the small house he'd managed to scrounge up enough money to put a down-payment on when Kevin was eight. It wasn't much, but it gave them more room than the tiny apartment they'd been living in for six years and there was a big yard for Kevin to run around in.
It was also Andrew who Neil called the next day when Kevin's first act in the new yard was to climb a tree and fall out of it, breaking his arm.
Kevin was the one to call Andrew when he was ten and his enthusiasm for the new sport they'd learned at school (exy) had sent Neil into a panic attack. Andrew had gripped Neil by the back of the neck and listened to him talk about how he had once loved exy and how Kayleigh had loved exy and how it had killed her.
"Exy didn't kill her. Psychopaths killed her and they are all in prison or dead and you and Kevin are safe," replied Andrew, letting Neil lean against him. "I will never let anything happen to either of you so you may as well let him play the stupid sport or else you'll never get another moment of peace around here."
When Kevin was twelve and had gained a slight understanding of genetics he had tentatively asked Neil how it was possible that two people who looked like Neil and Kayleigh - who had enough skin pigment between them to make a piece of white paper slightly beige - had produced a child like Kevin who had skin a couple shades darker than tan and who, due to his last growth spurt, already matched Neil in height.
Neil had explained Kevin's origins to him and Kevin had reacted with shock and hurt, claiming that he didn't know who he was anymore and that his whole life had been a lie. He'd run to Andrew's, taken a seat at the counter and told Andrew all his woes about how he didn't know who his real father was.
Andrew had listened with a blank face and then had said, "Your father is the man who would do anything for you. Who gives you shelter and makes sure you're dressed and fed. The one who goes to all your exy games and helps you with your homework and loves you unconditionally. You know exactly who your father is."
Kevin's chin had wobbled. Andrew had escorted him home where he'd sobbed into Neil's shirt and begged him never to leave him. Neil assured him that he hadn't been planning on it.
It had been Andrew who'd given Kevin a sex ed lesson when he was thirteen after Neil had admitted that his own sex ed talk had just been his mother smacking him upside the head and saying, "Don't." He'd made Neil listen in and had been very thorough. When he'd mentioned the asexuality spectrum Neil felt as if a lamp had come on in a very dusty room in his head.
Andrew had helped Neil weather all of Kevin's dating adventures: serving them all consolation pie when Kevin's very first girlfriend had decided she liked one of his classmates better after a week of dating; and again when Kevin came home crying after the first boy he'd kissed pretended it never happened; and again when he got crushes on two of his friends who then began dating each other; and again when the guy he had a summer fling with left town.
The latter had actually been Andrew's own nephew, Nicky. Technically he was his cousin but he was nineteen years his junior. He'd been living with Andrew's twin, Aaron, and his wife, Katelyn, since his own parents had decided to send him to a gay conversion camp and Aaron had sued them for custody. Katelyn had decided that Nicky should stay with Andrew for the summer so that he'd have exposure to an adult role model who shared his sexuality. He and Kevin had hit it off, much to Neil's displeasure. He and Andrew had actually argued about it - they bickered a lot but Neil could count the number of serious arguments they'd had on one hand even if he cut off a couple fingers - Neil pointing out that Kevin would be heartbroken at the end of the summer and Andrew being of the opinion that fifteen-year-olds should be having fun, not super serious relationships.
Neil had avoided Andrew's for a week. He felt off kilter until he went back and the two of them ignored that they had argued at all.
Andrew had been there for everything in the fourteen years since Neil had come to Palmetto, offering someone solid for Neil to depend on and receive comfort from (or, more often, offering a reality check when Neil was being too dramatic). If Neil was looking for a hug and someone to tell him that he was doing great he went to Matt; for everything else he went to Andrew. Sometimes when he looked at Andrew his stomach felt molten in a way he didn't understand. It was almost like an itch under his skin, but then Andrew would look at him with one eyebrow raised and Neil would shrug and everything would settle. He knew that Andrew wasn't going anywhere.
When Kevin was fifteen he'd received an exy-based scholarship to a prestigious private school in Columbia (the nearest city to Palmetto). There had been a town-wide celebration. Neil very rarely consumed alcohol but he'd gotten happily tipsy that night.
"I couldn't do this without you, you know," he told Andrew very earnestly.
Andrew forced Neil to drink some water. "Yes you could," he said. "But you don't have to."
After his breakfast of delicious carbs, Neil made Andrew give him another coffee in a takeaway cup and decided to wait with Kevin at his bus stop. The bus took a little less than an hour to get to Columbia, a commute that Kevin made willingly to play exy at a high enough level that he may be able to earn a college scholarship. Neil didn't have the funds to send him to college otherwise.
Once the bus left Neil walked back home in order to pick up his car and head into work.
He'd slowly worked his way up at the Foxhole Inn until four years ago, when Wymack had decided to step back from the day-to-day operations, he'd been appointed as manager. He wasn't sure if he ever would have chosen going into the hospitality industry if it hadn't been his only choice, but he excelled at his job. He found that he was quite talented at getting people to do what he wanted.
The phone was ringing incessantly once he made it into work.
"Jean, the phone," he said to the day receptionist (night receptionists were usually younger staff that were low in the hierarchy - Neil had worked numerous night shifts while Kevin slept in the staff chambers when he'd first started).
"Yes," said Jean idly, his French accent even more pronounced than usual. "It rings."
"It's your job to answer it."
"No," said Jean, making a note on their reservation calendar. "People are being particularly stupid today. I will not talk to any more of them."
"You will or I'll schedule you for nights and make you work the children's birthday party we're hosting in two weeks," threatened Neil.
"You would not," Jean said in exaggerated affront.
"Watch me," said Neil, pointing at the phone.
"You are the reason that I have to go to therapy," muttered Jean, reaching for the phone.
"That's not even remotely true," said Neil. He headed into the small office behind reception to lock up his valuables.
"Hello, Foxhole Inn," said Jean into the phone. "Ah, they hung up."
"Next time answer it before it rings twenty-seven times," said Neil, heading to the kitchen to make sure everything was on track for the coming weekend.
Although it was an inn, the Foxhole's main business was as an event venue. It was close enough to Columbia that people in the city didn't have to travel too far for a 'rustic' location. It was quaint and picturesque and they offered catering. Business was booming and it was only picking up as they headed into the spring and summer wedding season.
"Neil!" cried Matt as he walked into the kitchen. "Come look at my practice cake!"
"After I get some coffee," said Neil, heading to the percolator.
"Wait," said Matt, blocking his access. "How many cups have you already had this morning?"
Neil squinted in thought. "Not more than three," he said. "Andrew never lets me have more than three."
Matt steered him away from the coffee pot and over to where he was making cakes in preparation for the upcoming wedding that weekend.
"Cruel," said Neil. "If you were a single parent you'd understand how much coffee I require to function."
"I understand that one day your heart is going to explode from too much caffeine and I will have to be the one to tell Kevin that you're dead."
"Eh, he's sixteen. He should be self-sufficient by now."
Matt peered at him closely. "I can't tell whether you're joking or not."
"Which answer will get me more coffee?"
"Imagine what Andrew's reaction to your coffee-related death will be when he eventually dies and catches up to you in the afterlife."
Neil paused. "Good point. Show me your cakes."
Matt proudly showed off his work. "Are you going to the town meeting tonight?" he asked after he finished going through his display.
"Don't I always?" asked Neil.
"Dan wanted me to double check because she needs Andrew to agree with her proposal to put in a stoplight on the street outside his place."
"What does that have to do with me?"
Matt shook his head fondly, looking at Neil like he was a puppy. "He's never going to agree unless you ask him to."
"What if I don't want a stoplight?"
"Then you can deal with Dan either nagging or being passive aggressive at you from now until the end of time," replied Matt.
"That is a persuasive argument," said Neil thoughtfully. "I'll consider it."
Neil busied himself with his duties for the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Kevin from school. It was a familiar drive. He made it fairly regularly: whenever he needed something that tiny Palmetto didn't have.
Kevin was waiting outside for him. He got into the car talking a mile a minute about exy practice. Neil listened absentmindedly as he drove them to dinner. He noticed that Kevin was mentioning both Thea and Jeremy an awful lot which probably indicated burgeoning crushes. Hopefully they wouldn't start dating each other like the last time Kevin had had crushes on two of his friends simultaneously.
"Oh!" said Kevin, cutting off his run down of all the drills they had done. "I can't believe I forgot! The local news channel is doing a story about the growing popularity of exy and they're going to film a segment at our game in two weeks and interview some of us!"
"Wow, you're going to be famous," said Neil, internally wincing at how insincere he sounded. He'd never really mastered how to be enthusiastic without sounding sarcastic.
Luckily, Kevin was too excited to notice as he barrelled on, "Coach put my name forward as someone to be interviewed. They said that they're going to come to our place and talk to me and my parents!"
"You mean 'parent'," said Neil.
"I assumed Andrew would be there, too."
"Oh," said Neil, blinking in surprise. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."
Kevin watched him silently for couple moments.
"What?" asked Neil.
"You know, I used to think you were hiding it from me for some reason," Kevin scoffed. "Like how you didn't tell me right away that you weren't my biological father; you saved it until I was older."
"What?" repeated Neil, now confused.
"And then I realized that you were both private people and you probably wouldn't announce it and I was okay with that. Plus you're ace so that explains the lack of sleepovers."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"But now I think that you actually don't know," said Kevin, the volume of his voice rising in pitch.
"What don't I know?" said Neil in exasperation.
"That you and Andrew are in love with each other!" exploded Kevin.
Neil could only blink stupidly for a minute, completely poleaxed. "We're not…" he tried. "I… Andrew's not…"
Kevin looked at him pityingly. "How can you not know? You've been dating for as long as I can remember."
"We're not dating," said Neil.
"He's practically my second father," said Kevin. "You spend all your free time together. He comes to movie night and cares about our well-being and he's the only person you ever flirt with. What did you think was going on?" He shook his head. "I can't believe you're this stupid."
"Hey," said Neil in warning, his nerves a little raw. "I don't care how annoyed you are, you don't speak to me like that."
Kevin crossed his arms petulantly and stared out the car window. Neil let him, as it felt as if a hive of bees had been tipped over in his brain. He'd always known that he relied on Andrew, that he felt safe with him, that he depended on him, but it couldn't be - it couldn't be love, could it? And certainly - certainly - Andrew didn't love him. He just… spent all his time with Neil and didn't date anyone else. It was just friendship. Like with Matt. Obviously it was different than his friendship with Matt - all friendships were different from each other. For instance, if he thought about Matt one day moving away and leaving him behind he didn't feel as if all the air had been sucked from the room. And he never really missed Matt when they were apart for less than a day or felt the urge to make sure that his attention was completely on Neil. And he'd never imagined Matt moving in with him… Holy fuck he was in love with Andrew. How come nobody had ever bothered to tell him?
Well that was… fine. It was. It wouldn't change anything. He could act completely normally with this new information buzzing under his skin. No one would know about his sudden revelation.
He somehow managed to get himself and Kevin fed (it was easy since Kevin was still sullenly ignoring him) and back to Palmetto even though his head was in the clouds.
Kevin stomped out of the car as soon as they got home.
"There's a town meeting," said Neil as soon as it became clear that Kevin wasn't following him towards the town's main square.
"I'm going with Laila and her mom."
"You have homework."
"I'll do it later," whined Kevin.
"Make sure you do," said Neil. "And be home by ten."
Neil was a little antsy stepping into Andrew's but he thought he was covering it well.
A wrinkle of concern appeared on Andrew's brow as soon as he saw Neil. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing," said Neil, both too high-pitched and too fast. Andrew just continued watching him expectantly. "Nothing, it's nothing," repeated Neil. "I just have to talk to Matt before the meeting," he invented. "About traffic lights."
"Alright," said Andrew. "You're twitchy because of… traffic lights." His tone conveyed his extreme skepticism and his expression said that he'd let Neil get away with the evasion for now but that he was expecting a better explanation soon.
The town meetings were held in a small gazebo in the main square where Renee's dance classes held their recitals. Neil sent Andrew to claim a couple chairs for them.
"Not Kevin?" asked Andrew.
"No, he's annoyed with me," said Neil. "He thinks I'm too stupid to associate with."
Neil was expecting a joking jab from Andrew, but he just gave Neil another piercing look. "You're fighting?" he asked warily.
Neil and Kevin had only had a few serious fights: when Neil had initially forbidden Kevin from playing exy, when Neil had revealed that he wasn't Kevin's biological father, when Neil had put his foot down and said that no Kevin could absolutely not get a tattoo on his face. Kevin was very rarely actually angry with Neil.
"It's nothing to worry about," said Neil. He took off to corner Matt.
"What's going on there, Neil?" said Matt. "Your eyes have gone all frantic." Neil was perhaps not doing as good of a job at hiding his newfound knowledge as he had foreseen.
Neil stuttered for a minute. "Uh… Me and Andrew… it's not… I mean…"
Matt's eyes widened. "Oh my God," he muttered. "Oh my God, did you finally figure it out?"
"Figure what out?"
"That you're married!" said Matt loudly.
Neil hushed him. "I think I would know if I were married."
"As good as," shrugged Matt. "Do you know how long we've been waiting for you two to get together? We used to bet on it but you took so long we gave up."
"We're not together," said Neil. "He doesn't… I mean, Andrew doesn't feel that way about me."
"Oh, sweetie," said Matt, patting Neil on the head. "My sweet summer child. You can't possibly be that oblivious."
Dan called the meeting to order from the lectern, cutting off any response from Neil. Andrew still had the concerned forehead wrinkle as he watched Neil take his seat beside him. Neil tried to smile to reassure him, but that only made the wrinkle deepen further.
Neil did not pay attention to a single thing that was said during the meeting. Dan tried to get his attention once.
"Huh?" he said, blinking owlishly at her. Kevin glared at him from across the room.
"Leave him alone, Dan," said Matt with laughter in his voice. "He's had an epiphany."
There were coos of interest from the gathered townspeople and Andrew's concerned wrinkle smoothed out, his face turning considering.
Neil didn't become aware of his surroundings again until Andrew nudged him not very gently and he noticed that they were the only two remaining in the gazebo.
"You had an epiphany," said Andrew, with something like amusement in his tone.
"I was made aware that I have some… romantic feelings towards you," said Neil.
"Is that all?" said Andrew, definitely amused now. "That's what's got you all worked up?"
Neil gaped at him. "It's a big deal," he said.
"Have you always been this dramatic?" wondered Andrew, standing.
"Well Kevin is my child and he didn't develop in a vacuum…" said Neil. He looked up at Andrew. "How can you be so calm?"
"This isn't news to me. I worked through this at least a decade ago."
"Are things going to change now?" asked Neil in a small voice.
Andrew pulled Neil up out of his chair and into a kiss. It was short and chaste, lasting only a couple seconds. It wasn't passionate or desperate. It didn't make fireworks ignite in Neil's head. Instead it was warm, and familiar, and felt like something he and Andrew had been doing for years without him noticing.
"Oh," he said in realization. "You could have mentioned that we're married."
Andrew rolled his eyes and left the gazebo.
"Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Neil, hurrying to follow him.
"I thought you knew," said Andrew. "Everyone else seems to, including your son - your son - who is so wrapped up in exy that he's forgotten his own birthday more than once."
"It does make planning a surprise party for him easier," mused Neil. "But I honestly had no idea."
Andrew shrugged. "I decided a while ago that it didn't matter. I wasn't sure that you wanted anything physical to happen between us because of your sexuality and I didn't want to put any pressure on you. What we have is enough. Besides, kissing you isn't going to change how I feel about you."
Neil knocked their shoulders together. "And how's that?"
"You're my family: you and Kevin. Nothing's going to change that."
Neil felt like he was melting. "No one's going to believe that you're a closet romantic," he said.
"Are you going to tell them and ruin my cred?"
"Your cred?" Neil snorted. "No, I think it's something only for me to know."
"Dad!" Kevin shouted up the stairs.
Neil groaned and rolled over, burying his face in his pillows. He felt the mattress shift beside him as Andrew moved.
"What time is it?" Andrew asked, his voice sleep-rough.
Neil reached out to grasp his alarm clock. "Before seven," he replied, squinting at it.
"What time are the reporters supposed to be here?"
"Dad!" shouted Kevin again. "Andrew! We only have five hours to get ready for our interviews!"
"Your son seems to be awake," said Andrew.
"He can be your son before seven in the morning," offered Neil.
"Nope," said Andrew, sitting up and stretching. "You're the one who had the bright idea to steal him from the mob." He briefly rested his hand on the back of Neil's neck before getting up and disappearing into the washroom.
He emerged before long, dressed in sweats and one of Neil's hoodies. He was wearing his glasses and had truly spectacular bed head. He looked sleepy and soft and warm and Neil's insides felt molten. He couldn't believe that he hadn't known what that meant before.
"DAD!" Kevin shouted, more insistently.
"Be there in a minute!" Neil called back.
"Aren't teenagers supposed to be lazy and impossible to drag out of bed before noon?"
"Kevin's probably putting that off until he leaves for college just to spite me," replied Neil. "Or at least until he discovers alcohol and hangovers."
"Seems likely. What do you want for breakfast?" asked Andrew, heading for the bedroom door.
"Mmmm, coffee," said Neil.
"No coffee unless you also eat real food."
"Pancakes?" suggested Neil. "With chocolate chips?"
"If you're not downstairs in ten minutes I'm throwing the coffee down the sink," warned Andrew.
"Cruel," muttered Neil.
"You love me," said Andrew. He hesitated at the threshold to the room. "That was me informing you of a fact, in case you were somehow still unaware." He ducked out the door to avoid the pillow Neil threw.
Neil lay back on his bed, listening to the sound of Kevin's excited chatter that was interspersed with Andrew's lower-pitched responses. He had thought that he had learned everything there was to know about Andrew during their fourteen-year friendship, but the past few weeks had proved that that wasn't true. He knew now what sounds Andrew made when Neil kissed his neck; he knew how hot Andrew's hands were on his bare skin; he knew how Andrew slept at night and how he looked when he first blinked awake. He knew how Andrew kissed him and how Andrew touched him and exactly how Andrew felt about him.
He grinned dopily and then levered himself out of bed, heading downstairs to join his family.