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Neil Josten walked hand in hand with his sister down the block as she told him the names of all the bugs she had seen at the park. He nodded along as she spoke, listening to her excitement. His other hand held a leash for his dog who was trained perfectly not to need one, but the park happened to have a strict leash policy, even for service dogs. As they rounded the corner onto their street, Athena abruptly stopped her sentence halfway through, perking up at the sight of a moving truck in front of their building. Neil had heard the week before that the apartment across the hall from theirs was for sale, but he had never expected anyone to move in so quickly. Apartments in New York City moved fast, but Neil knew that his one had been priced well above market value and he’d been looking forward to some time with no one else living on his floor. He had specifically chosen this building three years ago because there were only two flats per floor and the elevator required a key fob to work, meaning the chance for unwanted visitors making it into his house was slim. The stairwell was the weakest point of entry, but the building owners had thought of that too, reinforcing the doors in addition to adding key fobs that only opened the door to the owner’s specific floor.

“Do you think they have kids?” Athena asked as Neil sized up the moving truck. It was the smallest size. That added in with the fact that they were just a few blocks from NYU made him think not.

“I don’t know, maybe,” he answered, trying not to crush her dreams of having a playmate close by.

“Can we meet them today? Please, please please,” she begged, looking up at him and pouting with her big blue eyes.

“Why don’t we let them get settled and introduce ourselves in a few days?” In the meantime, Neil planned on asking some of his contacts for any information they could find on the new neighbors.

She made a face at him but didn’t argue as he led her inside the building. Stopping in front of the mailboxes, she looked over the names. 4A had been blank for two weeks but now read Andrew Minyard. Athena took her time sounding the name out, at 6 years old she was only beginning to learn to read, but she was already the best in her class by a long shot. After a few tries under her breath, she said it aloud. Neil wasn’t sure exactly how Minyard was pronounced but he cheered with her anyway.

They made it all the way to their apartment without seeing any movers. When he let Zeus into the apartment to do a check before they walked in he was sure someone would come out to greet them but no one did. Zeus trotted out and collected his treat for a job well done, before turning and sniffing at the neighbors’ open doorway. Neil froze; he didn’t want to meet his new neighbors because his dog barged into their house, but Zeus was well mannered and after sniffing and determining there was no threat he trotted back into the apartment like nothing had happened.

Neil had gotten Zeus at 18 after being diagnosed with PTSD. He didn’t feel like his mental health was bad enough to warrant a service dog at the time, but he had been in the process of legally adopting his two-year-old sister then and both the lawyer he was working with and his therapist assured him it would help his case. He had been raising her himself in FBI safe houses since she was born and didn’t completely understand why it was just then becoming a problem the state was involved in.

When he left the protection of the FBI he was given a new name and new papers, as was Athena. They had been offered witness protection but after their time in safe houses, Neil wanted to get out from under the government’s control as much as he could. By that point, all of his father's inner circle had been taken down so the threat to his life was no longer imminent. The leading agent had still done what he could to offer them safety. Neil felt uncomfortable with having his name on Athena’s birth certificate, especially when no mother was listed, but he was told it was a normal procedure with adoptions. Since their mother died in childbirth with only a fake ID on her, Athena’s original birth certificate listed no mother or father. On the new one, Athena’s birth date was changed to a week earlier, thanks to Agent Browning, who had said if they had missed any of his father’s people they wouldn’t think to look for that. Once they had left the building that day they were officially Athena Ember Josten and Neil Abram Josten. For the first time in his life, Neil was free to do whatever he wanted. Funded by his mother's life insurance policy and the reward money for information leading to the arrest of 13 of his father's people, he moved to New York City.

It took them a week to meet their mysterious neighbor. The first few days Athena waited like Neil had asked her, hoping to run into them, but on the fourth day her patience ran out. She started demanding they go out to the park or the convenience store, even the dry cleaners once, just so they would have to ride the elevator down and back up, which would give them more chances to meet. The background check had surprised Neil, as did an interesting car accident investigation, but nothing came up that worried him, so he let his child drag him outside every few hours hoping to catch a glimpse.

A short blonde man, wearing all black in the middle of July, was checking his mailbox when they walked through the front door of their apartment building. Neil recognized him from a photo he found during his background check. Athena nearly ran into him, walking backward and telling a story about how she did a cartwheel at gymnastics.

“Watch where you’re going Athena,” Neil reminded her right before she hit him.

Her eyes went wide and she turned around. “Where do you live?”

“Athena!” Neil exclaimed exasperated, putting his hand on his face for a moment.

Andrew glanced at Neil then turned toward Athena. “Here. Where do you live?”

“I live here, too!” she grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the elevator. “Come on!”

Neil closed his eyes and took a deep breath before following. He couldn’t tell if he was more embarrassed by her actions or annoyed that she had completely disregarded his lessons on stranger danger. Regardless, he and Zeus followed them into the elevator and he tapped his wallet on the sensor while Athena leaned forward and pressed the fourth-floor button. She swung her hand, still connected with Andrew’s, and continued her story about gymnastics.

The door opening prompted her to pull Andrew toward their front door instead of his. Neil followed, getting his keys from his pocket and then unlocking the door. He ushered Zeus forward and waited for him to come back.

“We have to wait for Zeus to check the house before we go in,” Athena explained to Andrew, swinging their hands back and forth again.

Andrew quirked an eyebrow in response. “Why?”

“He’s a special dog! He has a job to do!”

“Oh I see,” Andrew said, clearly feigning to know much more now while obviously not being all the wiser. “Is he good at his job?”

“Yeah! He’s the best! He keeps us safe!”

While she spoke Zeus came back giving Neil the all clear. Athena started to pull Andrew into the house, but Neil put a hand out to stop her.

“Did you ask him if he wants to come?” Neil asked, pulling out the dad voice that he hates using.

“He’s my friend; he wants to come,” she said, raising their connected hands, “See?”

“But did you ask him? Did he give you a verbal approval?” he paused for her to speak, however, her only reply was to make a face at him, “Do you even know his name?”

“Yes, I do. His name is Drew. Can we go now?”

“Did he tell you that or did you read his mailbox and assume it’s okay to give him a nickname?”

The two stared at each other for a few moments before she gave in.

“Fine! Mr. Andrew, would you like to come over to my house?” As she spoke, she gave him her best pouty face and stuck her lip out. Neil rolled his eyes at her antics.

“Sure, why not?” Andrew replied, surprising Neil.

Neil looked at him shocked, “Are you sure? You don’t have to”.

“He said yes! Move!” she said shoving past Neil and dragging Andrew with her.

“Athena, he’s going to have to leave if you can’t be nice”.

“Sorry,” she quickly said and cracked her best convincing smile.

Neil let it slide despite the fact that she didn’t sound sorry at all, assuming her excitement was overriding her manners. He figured she’d realize her new neighbor could not live up to the hype she’d create around him soon enough.

Their apartment was fairly large for the area. The front door opened into a large space that was serving as the living room, dining room, and kitchen. To the right was a hallway that led to two average sized bedrooms and a more spacious master suite. Neil had had no idea how to furnish a home when he’d bought the apartment at 19 years old so he’d hired a decorator. The woman called the style Scandinavian Minimalist, which meant mostly grey and earthy tones with very little clutter. At first, Neil thought it looked too much like a magazine page, but once Athena had added an Elsa blanket to the couch, Barbies and G.I. Joes to the coffee table, and a fair amount of scribbling to the dining table, it started feeling like a home.

Athena told Andrew to sit on the couch while she showed him all of her dolls and told him the drama of the week. Neil went to the kitchen and started making dinner, a process Athena usually loved to help with. As he cooked he listened to her tell the tale of Skipper borrowing Barbie’s favorite shoes and then losing them, only for them to find out evil Barbie had stolen them. When she got to the climax of the story, Barbie and evil Barbie’s fight, he looked over and caught Andrew’s eye, giving him his best “I know, right?” look. For his part Andrew was doing well nodding along at the right elements, seemingly engrossed in the drama. Dinner was done a little before Athena’s story so Neil let her finish before calling her to the table.

“You eat dinner at 4:30?” Andrew asked, his tone full of judgment.

Neil rolled his eyes. “She’s six, she eats dinner at 4:30 and is in bed asleep by 7:30. Do you want some or not?”.

“Sure,” he said and turned to Athena, “If I had known your dad could cook I would have come over sooner.”

Athena laughed so hard Neil thought she was going to fall off her chair. “He’s not my dad, silly! Neil’s my brother!”.

“Oh really?”

“Mhm, right Neil?”

“Well legally I’m your dad, but yes I am your brother,” Neil said as he cut up her pasta and passed the plate to her.

“Mr. Andrew, did you know that there are five thousand types of ladybugs?”

“I did not, that’s impressive, what else do you know about ladybugs?”

Neil shot him an annoyed looked for the question, which Andrew ignored, choosing instead to listen intently. Soon enough she ran out of ladybug facts and decided to interrogate Andrew instead.

“How old are you?” she asked starting off easy. Neil hoped dinner was done before she got to her weird questions like what’s your eighth favorite color and 15th favorite dinosaur, both of which she had asked his advisor once.

“23,” he said coolly. Neil slyly eyed him up for a moment. Short and blonde, muscular and serious. He somehow looked both older and younger than his actual age.  

“Are you in school like Neil?”

“No I graduated,” he said leaning back in his chair, clearly settling in for the long haul.

“Do you have a job?” she asked leaning toward him.

“Yes, I play Exy.”

“That’s not a real job,” she said. Neil had to take a deep breath and cover his face at that comment; insulting someone’s job was worse than her weird questions.

“I agree.”

“I don’t like Exy,” she pointed her fork at him to make it clear she was serious.

“Neither do I,” Andrew said equally seriously.

“Why is it your job then?”

“It pays well.”

“That’s not a very good reason.”

“It is to an adult.”

Neil laughed, the comment overriding the embarrassment he felt at Athena insulting Andrew’s job. Neither one paid him any attention, which gave him a chance to observe them both. Athena didn't normally take to adults quickly, she had clearly inherited his distrust of people, but for some reason, she seemed to like Andrew.  

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

Andrew raised his eyebrow at that question, “Not at the moment, Officer.”

Neil raised an eyebrow, thinking, he hadn't had the time or energy to follow exy since Athena was born, but he did know there were some openly gay and bi athletes in the sport. However, he was fairly certain Andrew Minyard was not one of them.   

“Don’t look at me like that! Boys are allowed to have boyfriends!” she yelled, louder than necessary with Andrew sitting next to her, clearly not catching the meaning of his words.

“I know," Andrew said nodding. Something in his expression shifted, but Neil couldn't figure out what it was.

“Okay good,” Athena said proudly, sitting up a little straighter. 

Neil cut her off before she could ask another question, “Athena, I think that’s enough questions, eat your dinner”.

She stuck her tongue out at him. When she started eating again, Neil took his plate to the sink and rinsed it off, with Andrew following him.
Andrew stepped close, backing him into the sink, and spoke in a low voice “You know, you really shouldn't invite strangers into your home.”

“Andrew Joseph Minyard. Five feet tall, the first-year goalie for the New York Knights. Impressive juvie record, no criminal record, no speeding tickets, one parking ticket 3 years ago. One brother, one cousin, no other family. Your mother died in a car accident which you survived, sorry your brother survived, did I miss anything?”

Andrew’s face stayed the same throughout Neil’s entire speech, but he blinked slowly when he said ‘you survived’ which was enough of a tell for Neil to assume he guessed right.

“Oh, someone did his research.”

Chapter Text


 

Turning the steering wheel sharply to the right for a moment, Neil lost control of the Honda Civic his mother had stolen as he tried to switch lanes. Downtown Portland was hard to navigate on a clear night, but with the pouring rain, he couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of his car. He regained control and scanned for another hospital sign, his mother screaming in the seat beside him. He’d already ditched everything they owned, besides his binder, in a dumpster behind a construction site three miles back and his only option was to reach the hospital before they caught up with him.

His mother screamed again, biting her hand, as another contraction began. Neil had no idea how long ago her labor had started, but he was certain something was wrong. After they had gotten away from his father in Seattle, she had crawled into the back and told him to drive while she had been stitching herself up. The moaning had started an hour later and the screaming an hour after that.

Spotting the sign for the Emergency Room, Neil sped up. When he reached the parking lot, he let the car coast to a stop in front of the sliding glass doors, throwing himself out of it as soon as it stopped moving. Mary didn’t seem to notice anything as she screamed in her seat. The nurses had either seen or heard something since one came running out before he’d even reached the doors.

“My mother's 36 weeks pregnant and she’s been stabbed and I think she’s in labor,” he said calming, silently thanking his shock for keeping him composed. His statement was punctuated by another scream.

Within moments, a stretcher was being rushed past him, a plethora of nurses and doctors in tow. Neil blinked and the stretcher was being rushed past him again this time with his mother on it, still screaming. Someone stood next to him. A voice was coming from somewhere. The voice was coming from the person next to him? Probably. He couldn’t hear a thing, only his mother’s screams he’d been listening to for the past hours, still ghosting through his head.

   No, the voice was definitely coming from the person standing next to him. They were talking to him. He should respond. Something felt sticky on his hand. He looked down and saw blood dripping off his fingertips. The person, a woman, said something in an almost painful high-pitched voice. Neil couldn’t understand it.

“I- My mother-” He was at a loss for words. “Ma’am, I think I’m in shock,” he said keeping his eyes on his hand as his vision blurred.

A gentle arm wove around his waist, pulling him close, giving him something to lean on. The nurse led him inside the hospital, down a hall, and into a room with a bed; something didn’t look quite right. The woman was still talking. He nodded. She pushed up his sleeve and inserted an IV needle into his arm. He startled but continued looking at the walls. They weren’t real. They were curtains. That’s what was off about the room.

Suddenly a paper was placed in his line of sight. It said, “Can you hear me”. He nodded his head and the paper left his line of sight. It came back a moment later and said: “Are you comprehending what I am saying?”. He shook his head no. Everything seemed muffled as if his head was trapped underwater. The paper appeared again, “Are you going to pass out?”

Neil blinked at that and everything came back into focus. The lights were too bright and the noise level was significantly too loud.

“No, Ma’am,” he said, turning his head to look her in the eye.

“Can you understand me now?” she asked slowly, keeping her voice low.

“Yes, Ma’am”.

 "Can you tell me your name?"

“Nathaniel Wesninski,” Neil said taking a deep breath, “I need to speak to a police officer”.

“We’ve already informed them about your mom; they’ll be here soon,” she said and smiled, placing a hand on his arm, probably to comfort him, but he flinched away.

“Ma’am, you don’t understand. I’ve been missing for 6 years”.

The nurse gasped, looking incredibly concerned.

“How old are you, Nathaniel?”

“16, Ma’am”.

She muttered 16 under her breath and waved another nurse over. The man’s face stayed even as she whispered into his ear, but Neil could read the tension in his body. He left without saying a word. By the time the nurse turned back to Neil, she had her face under control, going so far as to smile at him.

She gestured to his arm. Looking down, Neil realized the sleeve of his shirt had been cut off to display a long but shallow cut on his bicep that had already been cleaned.

“As I was saying, another doctor looked at this while you were zoned out and we agreed this needs stitches. Are you okay with that?”

“Are you a doctor?” Neil asked; the woman blinked at his confusion.

“Yes, I am. My name is Doctor Cross”.

“Okay.”

“Natha-”

“Don't call me that, please.” The look on his face must have been a sight because she blinked at him again and leaned away.

“Okay, what would you like to be called then?”

“Neil, like Natha-Neil get it? Or Abram that’s my middle name. Or anything other than that name.”

“Okay Neil,” she smiled at him leaning forward again, "may I stitch up your arm?”

“Yeah okay,” he nodded too, just in case his tone made it seem like a question.

 

A female police officer and an older lawyer looking women entered the room as Dr. Cross was finishing cleaning up his arm.

The officer smiled at him. “Hello, Natha-”.

Doctor Cross cut her off, “He would prefer to be called Neil”. The officer nodded reassuringly.

“Hello Neil my name is Sargent Brant,” she smiled at him again gesturing to the woman beside her, “and this is Mrs. Lorde from Child Protective Services. She’s here to serve as you and your sister’s guardian until we can speak to your mother”.

Neil laughed at the coincidence of two people named Lorde and Cross saving his life. He didn’t believe in god, but he felt something bigger than himself happening in the hospital that night. He froze, his laugh ending suddenly, as her words settled in the air.

“Sister? I have a sister? Can I see her?” He looked between the three women in the room trying to decide who was in charge of the situation.

“Did no one tell him?” Mrs. Lorde asked, clearly directing her question at the doctor.

“He was in shock, he didn’t understand or respond to anything we said or did for almost an hour,” said Doctor Cross to the woman, before she turned toward him, “Neil, at the moment your mother is still in surgery and your sister is in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The doctor classes her at about 36 to 37 weeks gestation, which is what you told us when you got here, do you remember that?”

Neil nodded hoping she would continue.

“Okay good, going with the 37-week estimation she is technically early term and the trauma your mother sustained was very stressful for her so she needs a little bit of extra care right now. All things considered, the baby is doing very well. Your sister weighs 5 pounds 2 ounces, which is great.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“Yes, she is perfectly healthy, just a little stressed, like you, yeah?” Her tone made it sound like she was talking to a child, but given what she’d seen so far throughout the night he couldn’t blame her. “Okay Neil, I’m going to leave now so these women can talk to you.”

Without thinking, he grabbed her hand and held it as tight as he could. He may not know her, but she’d kept him safe when he was out of it, and his natural distrust of cops and CPS told him she was the safest person in the room.

“No,” he said, his voice so small he barely heard it himself.

Whatever she saw in his face must have convinced her because she turned to the others and asked if she could stay. The two women whispered to each other for a moment, then gave their consent. Neil patted the bed next to him with his free hand and the doctor sat down. His death grip on her hand never lessened as Sargent Brant asked him about his name, birthday, place of birth, and the same information about his mom. Finally, she took his fingerprints on his free hand and left the room with a promise to come back in the morning.

“In the morning? What time is it? Actually, what day is it?” he asked the room after the Sargent had left. He could see at least two police officers stationed outside of his room, which made him feel both safe and less secure.

“You came in at 7:04 pm, on July 14th,” Dr. Cross paused to look at her watch, “it is currently 9:37 pm on July 14th”.

“Can I see her now? My sister?” He stood up to make his point, only to be caught by the IV; he looked down at it confused. “How long will I need this?”

“I’ll go see about getting you a room, and I’d like that IV to stay in at least until you’ve eaten something.”

He nodded and she left the room, leaving him only with the CPS woman. He answered that he was fine when she asked how he was feeling and ignored all of her other attempts at starting a conversation. The next twenty minutes felt like the longest of his life as he waited to hear if he could see his sister. Finally, Dr. Cross came back in with two police officers following her.

She took a deep breath before she started talking. “Okay Neil, given your status as a person under police protection, we are going to be breaking some rules tonight. We have a room reserved for your mother in the maternity ward, which we are going to be placing both you and your sister in. There will be two armed guards at the door at all times, by request of the FBI. The police have verified your identity and your mother’s and someone will be here tomorrow to talk to you more, but for now, we can get you settled. Fair warning, your sister is on oxygen and has an IV, it looks scary but she is doing very well”.

Neil nodded and stood to follow her to his room, “Wait, my binder! I have to get something out of the car!”

Dr. Cross turned around and grabbed a plastic bag then handed it to him. “You were holding this when you ran in, do you remember that?”

“No but thank you,” he peeked inside to verify it was his binder. When everything looked as right as it could from a quick glance, he looked up at her. “Can I see her now?”

She smiled at him and held out a hand, “let’s go meet your baby sister Neil.”  


 

 

Chapter Text

As he opened the door to the roof Andrew heard someone talking. The voice was faint at first but came into focus as he listened. He couldn’t make out the words yet, but he was sure that it was his new neighbor Neil talking. Slowly he closed the door, making sure that it made as little noise as possible, then took a quiet step forward.

 After his first step was silent Andrew took another, inching forward until he could look around the wall and see where Neil sat among the roof garden. Once he had Neil in his sights he stopped and leaned against the corner, listening to the conversation.

 “Hmm? Yeah, he’s cool, Athena’s loves him,” Neil said to the phone and taking a drag of his cigarette. “No, I’m not smoking in the house. I’m on the roof... Bro chill I have the baby monitor and she’s sleeping. It’s no different than parents chillin in the back yard when their kids are asleep... It is to the same thing! I can step out for five minutes it’s fine. Would you rather I smoke in the house?”

Despite his words, Neil sounded playful to Andrew. The embarrassed parent he met a few days ago was gone, turned into something more his age. At first, he had seemed older than Andrew, maybe 25 or 26, but now seeing him in a baggy t-shirt and a snapback, with dark curls flowing out the sides, he seemed incredibly young. Neil was facing the sunset and away from him, but Andrew was sure his bright blue eyes would look incredible with his new attitude.  

“That’s what I thought. Stop judging my parenting until you have kids, then we can talk... mhm... yeah so Athena loves him and she keeps asking me to invite him over again. I don’t know man, she doesn’t normally take to adults quickly... Why would I be worried about letting him near her? He doesn’t have a criminal record I checked...”

Interesting Andrew thought, realizing that Neil was talking about him. The man sitting in front of him must be made of tougher stuff, or be significantly stupider than he originally thought if he was okay letting Andrew near his child again.

“Oh how scary, he may have killed someone when he was a kid. Don’t get on a high horse about alleged murder. Okay? He’s fine,” Neil said, letting the sarcasm in the first three words shine through.

However, the rest of the paragraph is what caught Andrew’s attention. What kind of man would say that? Most people gave him a wide berth. Few went out of their way to interact with him, and even fewer were okay letting him near their children. In fact, he could count on one hand the number of times he had interacted with a child since being arrested for the first time at 13-years-old. Excluding, of course, his peers in juvie, who no one would mistake for children despite their young ages.   

“Bro, I understand that you’re just doing this because you care, I really do, but Do Not tell me how to parent my child. Anyway, he’s standing about ten feet behind me and listening to our conversation so I have to go... mhm bye, talk to you later.” Neil hung up and took another drag of his cigarette. Without turning around he spoke again, “Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s rude to eavesdrop?”

“How did you know I was there?” He asked, walking forward and sitting a few feet away from Neil.

“You’re not as stealthy as you think you are.” Neil took a final drag of his cigarette and ground the stub on out on the roof.

They sat in silence for a moment, watching the sun set over the park across the street. The roof of his new apartment was a good two stories higher than the roof of the dorm building at Palmetto and tested Andrew’s fear of heights more than he was used to. This was the fifth time he had gone to the roof to smoke, but it still set him on edge just as much as it had the first time.

“Do you come up here a lot when she’s sleeping?” Andrew asked, pulling out his own pack of cigarettes and lighting one.

“Why? Are you planning on breaking in while I’m up here?” When Andrew didn’t answer he continued on, “because if you are, you should know that I will shoot you if I catch you.”

Andrew side eyed him for a moment, then turned to face him. He blew smoke in Neil’s face as he began to speak. “I’m beginning to think I underestimated you. I looked you up, and from what I can tell Neil Josten does not exist.”

“That’s actually good to know, thank you,” Neil said nodding his head thoughtfully.

“What are you running from?” Andrew asked, cutting away the bullshit. He could play coy and let Neil dance around the subject, but he got the feeling that he would appreciate this more. Also, he was not the kind of person to sugar coat things.

“I’m not running anymore,” the tone of his voice said he was done with the conversation but Andrew had a lot more questions. He opened his mouth to ask another, but Neil cut him off before he could speak. “Athena would like you to come to dinner on Friday. We’re having poutine.”

“What the hell is poutine?” Andrew asked, letting Neil get away with the subject change. He took another drag of his cigarette as he waited for Neil to answer.

“It’s the Canadian dish. Basically, you just put cheese curds and gravy on french fries. Okay, it kind of sounds gross when you say it like that, but it’s actually really good,” Neil said. He looked out over the park making a face that Andrew could only describe as thoughtful and mildly adorable if he was being honest with himself. “Hmm that’s not a full meal, I might have to grill some burgers or something too.”

“I don’t like meat,” Andrew said too quickly, then realized he hadn’t agreed to come yet.

Neil turned to him shocked, “Are you vegetarian because the pasta we had the other day had meat in it.”

“No, I don’t like any meat that tastes like meat,” Andrew clarified.

“Oh okay? Good. What would you like to eat then?” Neil asked, clearly offering to make something else for him.

“Chicken strips,” Andrew stated, not fully believing that Neil would actually make something else just because he asked.

“I can do chicken strips,” Neil said nodding again thoughtfully, “but won’t that taste like meat?”

“Not if I add enough ranch or honey mustard.”

Neil made a face that said he didn’t believe him and stood up, putting his pack of cigarettes back in his pocket. “See you on Friday then.”

Andrew watched him walk away and waited until he was almost to the door before calling out, “4:30?”

Neil didn’t turn around as he called back to him, raising his voice just enough to be heard. “Yeah.”

A few seconds later he heard the door click faintly as it opened, just a small sound because of the key card. Neil must have been incredibly listening closely to hear it while talking on the phone as Andrew suck up on him. There is definitely more to Neil Josten than he is letting on, Andrew thought as he finished his cigarette.  

With the season months away, preseason barely started, and no family around to annoy him the rest of the week dragged. His new cat King, which he adopted when his therapist Dr. Dobson implied it would help with his empty nest syndrome, provided some entertainment. As did his Skype sessions with his cousin and brother. However, he found his thoughts drifting to his attractive neighbor. He had said he wasn’t running anymore, but the lack of a background and the fact that he had done such an in-depth check on Andrew suggested something was up. Andrew knew a sob story when he saw one and this guy and his kid clearly had one.

On Friday, he decided to show up a bit early to see if he could catch them off guard, but when he knocked the door swung open within seconds and he was greeted by an overly excited six-year-old.

She grabbed his hand pulling him forward, “Andrew! Andrew’s here!”

Athena led him into the kitchen where Neil was standing in front of a fryer taking chicken strips out of the basket, then put a few more in. On the stove sat a pot of gravy, making the entire kitchen smell amazing. The counter next to the stove held a large basket of fresh french fries. On Neil’s other side there was a plate of flour mixed with something that looked like bread crumbs, as well as a bowl of milk.  

“Did you make chicken strips from scratch?” Andrew asked not believing the sight in front of him.

His cousin Nicky was the only person in his life who had made him a specific food just because he asked, and even then it was never completely from scratch like this. The idea that Neil went out of his way to make him something was unsettling.

Neil looked up from the fryer for a moment with a raised eyebrow, “Yeah, why? I already had the oil heated for the fries.”

Andrew hummed in response, leaning against the counter to get a better view of the food. Beside him, Athena climbed on a stool to watch as well. After a few minutes, she got bored and started to fidget, reaching towards the basket that held the food inside the fryer.

Neil reacted quickly grabbing her wrist, “I told you I’m not going to the ER tonight, stop touching things before you get hurt.”

Judging by the look on his face and the tone of his voice that was something he’d said more than a few times tonight. She glared at him for a moment then huffed out a breath.

“What did you do today?” She asked turning to Andrew.

“Hm? I went grocery shopping,” he said looking down at her round face and big eyes. For a passing second, he felt the need to protect this child from the cruel world. He wondered if he had ever looked that young and innocent.

“Oh,” she said deflating a bit, probably thinking that wasn’t exciting enough, “what did you buy?”

“Cereal, cat food, milk, pasta, batteries.” Andrew listed, noting that if an adult had asked he wouldn’t have answered. Apparently, he had a soft spot for children, or rather he knew what it was like to be a child treated poorly by adults.

Athena asked him what else he bought, so he continued to list every single item, as Neil moved around them grabbing plates and silverware. By the time he was done Neil had two plates set out with chicken strips and poutine on them, and a third plate waiting to be made.

“Here, try this,” he said lifting a gravy and cheese covered fry to Andrew’s mouth, “and tell me if you like it.”

As he closed his mouth around the fry his lips brushed Neil’s fingers accidentally while they made eye contact. For a moment he felt something between them, but then Neil looked away and asked if he liked the food.

“Do you like it, Andrew? Poutine is my favorite food!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty good,” Andrew said turning toward her so he didn’t have to look at Neil anymore.

Athena went to the table and sat down, while Neil started making another plate behind him. Standing in the kitchen was awkward, but going to the table and waiting to be served felt like an even weirder choice. Neil got out three small sauce cups, the kind Andrew had only seen at restaurants and filled one with ketchup then set it down on the plate with the smallest serving sizes. When he was done he stepped around Andrew, giving him a weird look, to get to the fridge and pull out a glass jar.

“Is this okay?” he asked holding the bottle up so Andrew could see, it was the overly expensive ranch he’d never bother to buy before, “I don’t have any honey mustard right now.”

Andrew stared at the bottle for a moment then nodded. This was the nicest meal he’d ever been invited over for, and it hadn’t even started yet. Neil filled the two remaining sauce cups with ranch, then returned the bottle to the fridge, coming back with a bottle of peach lemonade.

Who the hell is this guy? Andrew thought as he watched Neil pour a glass of juice. Who buys 5 dollar ranch dressing? And why does peach lemonade even exist?

“Do you want some?” Neil asked facing Andrew.

Andrew eyed the lemonade for a second, hoping his perfectly curating mask of no emotion was holding up and nodded again.

“Can I have some?” Athena asked from the table.

“No,” Neil replied curtly.

Athena leaned forward over and placed her hands on the table glaring at Neil. “Why does he get some and I don't?”

“Because he is a grown up and won't chug it and then only eat half his dinner because he filled up on juice,” Neil replied as he started to pick up the plates.

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m pretty sure,” Neil said, three plates perfectly balanced on his arms. Nodding towards the two cups of juice he added, “would you mind grabbing those?”

Andrew debated drinking the entire glass of juice before eating just to be petty but decided against it. Instead, he waited, watching Neil walk to the table and set the plates down without dropping a single fry. Once the table was set without a disaster, he picked up the glasses and took his seat at the table. Somehow he ended up sitting next to Athena and across from Neil. Athena had started eating as soon as her plate was placed in front of her, but Neil waited for Andrew to sit down and hand him his glass first. Dinner started off as a quiet affair this time, apparently, the interrogation was over.

The food was amazing. If he hadn’t seen Neil cook it he would have accused him of getting take out. The fresh fries were better than anything he’d ever had before. The gravy was a bit salty by itself, but it evened out when combined with the unsalted fries. The chicken was chicken, not his favorite food, however, the ranch made it worth it. After trying the expensive one he had no idea how he’d be able to go back to the hidden valley in his fridge.

As they ate in silence Andrew realized he felt comfortable in someone else’s space the for first time in a while. He took a moment to look over the apartment, taking stock of Zeus sleeping in the corner by the fireplace, the nest of blankets on the couch, the fort in front of the window. It looked like the all American dream. His thoughts were interrupted by a small hand tapping his shoulder.

“Hey, Andrew?” Athena asked, leaving a bright red ketchup fingerprint on his black shirt, “hey, Andrew?”

“Yes?” he replied, surprised he hadn’t felt the need to flinch away from her touch.

“What’s your favorite dinosaur?” she asked throwing another fry in he mouth.

“Triceratops,” he took a sip of his juice, “or the giant shark one.”

“Meg el- mega- megadon?” she tried, looking annoyed at her failed attempts.

“Megalodon,” Neil said.

Athena pointed at Neil, beaming, “Yeah that!”

Andrew nodded. He thought of attempting to smile at the child, but neither of them had minded his blank face so far. “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”

Athena smiled at him like he’d given her an award. “I like the stegosaurus! Neil likes the velociraptor! He says they’re like evil turkeys.”

“Evil turkeys?”

Neil sighed looking embarrassed, “Yeah cause they’re the size of turkeys but they’re also predators. Like imagine being chased by a turkey that wants to eat you. That's a velociraptor.”

Laughing, Athena shook her head, “no silly, people weren’t alive then.”

“You haven’t seen Jurassic Park then,” Andrew said. He took another bite as he watched Athena laugh.

“What's that?”

“It’s a scary dinosaur movie,” Neil paused to chew on the inside of his lip, “I think you’re too young to watch it.”

“Okay.”

Andrew looked at her surprised that she agreed without any further argument. As he watched her go back to eating he wondered if this was a normal dinner for them. Silence with just a bit of talking in the middle.

When they were done eating they all cleared the table together, but Neil left the dishes sitting on the counter.   

“Can we watch a movie?” Athena asked, bouncing into the living room, “Andrew too!”

Neil checked the time on his watched and frowned, “It’s already five thirty. Ugh... Okay... Let’s go have you take a shower and brush your teeth and then we can watch a movie.”

He started walking toward the hallway, but Athena ran in front of him and put her arms out to stop him, “I can do it!”

“You’re going to do it all by yourself?” he asked. She nodded her head dramatically and smiled up at him, “Okay go for it.”

She ran down the hall loudly, causing enough commotion to make Zeus stir from his sleep. Neil rubbed his forehead and sat on one one of the couch, patting the seat cushion, which Zeus took as an invitation to curl up next to him with his head on his lap. Standing off to the side Andrew watched as they settled in and Neil started petting Zeus.

Catching his eye Neil tilted his head. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

“I do not have anything better to do” Andrew shrugged. He took up perch on the other end of the couch and continued to watch the dog. He refused to admit he was watching the man as well, keeping his gaze low enough that he wouldn’t be taken for staring.

Neil seemed to follow his line of sight anyway, “You can pet him if you want to.”

Andrew thought back to the first time he saw Zeus in a vest and remembered that Athena had said he has a job to do. “Isn’t he a service dog?”

“Yeah, he is,” Neil smiled at him, a small genuine smile, “it’s okay though, we’re at home so he can relax. Don’t pet him if he’s wearing his vest though.”

Zeus seemed to be asleep, Andrew figured he couldn’t distract him if he was already asleep so he slowly reached a hand out and touched him. After a few moments, he moved his hand a little to the side. Neil watched the world’s slowest pet without saying anything. When he took his hand away he felt Zeus stir and stilled.

“It’s okay,” Neil said calmly like he was talking to a child, “you’re scared of dogs aren’t you?”

Andrew remembered dogs barking outside his window every night for weeks scaring him as a small child. He remembered being bitten once and then blamed for antagonizing then the dog, despite the fact that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He remembered being chased by a dog once and hiding behind his foster mom who was sweet and kind and actually soothed him, only to be made fun of by the other children later.  

“I am not not scared of dogs,” Andrew said, and it was the closest he would admit to being scared of them.

Neil nodded, taking his statement for what it was, “I’m scared of knives.”

“Didn’t ask,” Andrew said rolling his eyes. He didn’t want Neil to think he cared, but it did help him feel at ease knowing he wasn’t the only one sharing something personal.

Before either of them thought of something else to say Athena walked out wrapped in a bright orange hooded towel. Andrew barely controlled his eye roll when he saw that the hood was decorated with a fox face.

“Go get dressed,” Neil said sounding exhausted.

“I’m too wet!” Athena pouted.

“You can take a shower all by yourself but you can't dry off?” Neil asked incredulously.

Athena nodded her head and stuck her bottom lip out in what should have been the most ridiculous pout Andrew had ever seen, but when coupled with the fox towel and her bright blue eyes it was incredibly adorable.

“Come on Baby Bear,” Neil said as he stood up and gently pushed her toward her bedroom, “let's get you dressed.”

Zeus opened his eyes when Neil stood up and watched them leave, then turned and looked at Andrew before closing his eyes again. Slowly Andrew reached out and touched him. He didn’t move at all, so Andrew kept his hand there even as the heard footsteps approaching.

Neil sat tried to retake his place on the couch, but Zeus refused to move. Huffing Neil pet his head and whispered to him until he moved just long enough to Neil to sit down before plopping his head in his lap again. The whole time this was happening Andrew kept his hand on Zeus’ back, which meant that when Athena walked out clad in purple unicorn pajamas the only place for her to sit was under Andrew’s arm, against his chest.

“Athena I know you’re tired, but you still need to ask,” Neil chided.

Athena looked up at Andrew with her intense blue eyes and yawned, “Mr. Andrew, can I sit with you?”

As soon as he said yes she laid her head against his shoulder, snuggling as close as she could. Andrew thanked his new cat for testing his boundaries constantly for the last two weeks because he was sure that even a week ago he wouldn’t have been able to handle this much contact.  

Once she was settled Neil turned on the tv and started scanning through Amazon Prime. “Bug’s Life or Nemo?”

“Bugs life!”

Neil looked at Andrew for his approval and pressed play once he nodded. “She woke me up at 5:30 this morning so she’ll probably fall asleep before the movie’s over. You can move her if she gets too much.”

Andrew looked down at the small round face smiling up at him and decided that he could sit with her through the whole movie. In response to Neil’s comment, he just grunted which made Athena laugh.

As the movie caught her attention she absentmindedly brought a hand up to his chest and grabbed a handful of his shirt. Andrew tracked the movement and checked in with himself. He noticed every point of contact between them and felt only slightly uncomfortable. Stepping out of his comfort zone with touch was never easy, but at that moment he felt like it was okay.

Chapter Text


 

The doctor led Neil to the gift shop, after buying him a snack at the cafeteria, showing him a very limited number of clothing choices, while she explained that he needed clean clothes and a shower before he could hold his sister. Something about germs and a potentially underdeveloped immune system was mentioned, but he wasn’t completely paying attention. Mrs. Lorde paid for the clothes, which made Neil feel uneasy, but he decided not to argue, assuming it would delay him on his way to see his sister. While she was at the cash register he decided to ask the question he’d been dreading since he walked in the door.

“She’s going to die, isn’t she? My mom?”

Dr. Cross gave him a sad smile. “I honestly don’t know Neil. She’s been in surgery for 2 and a half hours and I know that sounds scary, but it’s surgeries take a long time”.

Mrs. Lorde returned with the bag of clothing then, effectively silencing Neil’s reply. He still didn’t trust her, even if she was his legal guardian for the time being, so he nodded to show he had been listening. As they walked Doctor Cross explained to him that in Oregon at 16 he was old enough to make his own medical decisions, however, the doctors would be making medical decisions for his sister, with the help of the caseworker, until his mother was able to. Once they got to the elevator he stopped listening to her completely. The two police officers tasked with protecting him had been following a few feet behind them until that point but caught the same elevator. Being trapped in a small space with his IV and four adults --two of whom were carrying weapons-- sent fear bubbling through him. He grabbed Dr. Cross’ hand again, squeezing hard. She squeezed back and smiled at him.

 

The room was larger than Neil expected, he’d never been in a real hospital room before, and the ones on TV looked nothing like this. It was a suite more than a room and housed a hospital bed, a window seat, a table with two chairs, a recliner, a weird clear basket on wheels he assumed was for babies and had its own bathroom.  Both women entered the room with him, leaving the police officers outside the door.

“There’s some soap and shampoo in the bathroom for you,” Dr. Cross said smiling, “we don’t have anything fancy on hand, but it should get you through the night”.

“That’s okay, thank you,” Neil said opening the bathroom door and seeing a small shower.

As he gathered his new clothes for a shower he noticed a small wardrobe in the corner of the room. The IV tangled with the plastic bag and he glared at it, wishing he could pull it out.

“Here,” Dr. Cross said, holding out her hand to him, “this bag is about done, so we can unhook you for a few minutes. Be careful not to pull the cannula out please.”

“Is that what the weird needle thing sticking out of my arm is called?” he asked, putting his last bit of energy into keeping the tone of his voice even.

Dr. Cross laughed. “Yes, that’s what the weird needle thing is called. The bandage on your arm is waterproof so that shouldn’t be a problem, but try not to let the water hit it. It will still hurt. Have a nice shower, your sister should be here by the time you’re out.”

Neil nodded, finished gathering up his clothes, then grabbed his binder before heading into the bathroom. As he locked the door he set his head on the wall and took a deep breath. He gave himself a few minutes to fall apart in peace, breathing deeply the entire time. After counting to twenty slowly he stood up and turned toward the shower, jumping as he caught his own reflection in the mirror. Blue eyes shined back at him and he remembered that he had taken out his contacts when he threw all of their belongings away.  

The shower was better than anything he had used in a long time. The water pressure was amazing, and the water stayed hot through the entire shower, something he hadn’t experienced in years. When he cut off the shower he could hear the sound of people talking mixed with the beeps of a heart monitor. It took him a second to realize the beeping meant either his mother or his sister was in the room. Neil dried himself off and dressed as quickly as he could, rushing to see them, and pulling the stitches in his arm more than he should have in the process.

As he opened the door the voices stopped, he slowly walked out and glanced around the room. Mrs. Lorde and Dr. Cross were still there, with a new woman joining them. The new woman had her hand inside a big clear plastic box with holes in the sides. Despite the fact that the three women were blocking the view, Neil knew she was holding his sister's hand.

Dr. Cross offered him a bright smile. “Hi Neil, come meet your baby sister.”

Neil slowly stepped closer, into the gap left by Mrs. Lorde stepping away, taking every step carefully. Inside the cot was a small baby dressed in only a diaper, surrounded by wires, with her hand wrapped around the nurse’s finger.

“What’s all that stuff?” Neil asked gesturing to the cot and wires.

“This is an incubator,” said Dr. Cross, “it helps her stay warm. In her nose, she has a nasal cannula giving her a little bit of help breathing. The little patch on her chest keeps track of her heart rate and breathing.”

“Are you sure she’s going to be okay?”

“Yes, she’s going to be just fine,” she turned and pulled a chair over. “If you want to you can hold her.”

Neil froze for a moment, he’d been out of his element all day, but holding a baby, especially one as fragile looking as his sister, scared him more than anything else had. However, he still sat down and let the doctor and nurse show him how to hold her without pulling on the wires, and how to support her head properly. When they were done Dr. Cross slowly lowered the baby onto his chest. She was warmer than Neil expected, so small he thought he would break her if he breathed too hard. She let out a small sigh as Neil rested his hand on her back and he felt a sudden rush of emotion he couldn’t name.

He had never loved anyone or anything before. Not his terrible father nor his heavy-handed mother. As he sat with his baby sister on his chest he thought he might finally know what love feels like.

Before he knew it, his eyes were drooping and the nurse was carefully taking his sister from him. She said something about a feeding schedule but his brain was too tired to comprehend it. After he climbed into the bed Dr. Cross set up a new IV bag. As she worked she explained to him that nurses and doctors would be coming in and out of his room all night to check on him and his sister. She said she was going to be finishing her shift soon, but she would come to check on him tomorrow afternoon when she came back. After she left he drifted off the sleep to the sound of the heart rate monitor.  

His sleep was interrupted multiple times throughout the night, with doctors and nurses checking on his sister and his IV but he barely registered it with how exhausted he was. When he finally woke up to a tall brunette woman sitting in the recliner talking quietly it was almost 10 am. She was humming some toon facing away from him and startled when he spoke.

“Who are you?” He asked looking around the room for an exit.

She turned to look at him and smiled cheerfully, “Oh hello Neil! My name is Heather and I’m your nurse for this morning. I’m feeding baby, but if you hit the call button on that remote next to your arm someone will come in and get you breakfast. Or you can wait for me, either way”.

Neil tried to get out of bed but got his hand caught in the IV again. He huffed in annoyance and grabbed the stand to pull it along with him. As he pulled a chair from the table over the to recliner he tried to convince himself this new nurse was safe. Hospital staff had multiple shifts every day, he knew that, but he would still feel better if one of the people from last was there instead of a stranger. He watched as Heather finished up feeding his sister and put her back in the cot. She gave the baby a pacifier and she started to suck on it.

“Why’s she doing that?” Neil asked concerned, “is she still hungry?”

“Hmm? Oh no, she’s doing that for comfort,” Heather said smiling at him.

“Why does she need to be comforted?”

“Being a baby is tough work, everything is big, bright, and new to her. She’s brave though, barely any fussing so far. I think she knew you needed some sleep.” She smiled at Neil again making him uncomfortable, no one smiled that much for no reason.

Heather moved around the room tidying up the feeding supplies then started playing with another IV bag. Neil tried to tell her that he didn’t need another one, but she insisted he did, saying he hadn’t had anything to drink since he got to the hospital and had barely eaten. She must have pressed the call button when he was looking at the baby because another nurse came in as she was changing the IV and gave him a menu to look at. He tried to say he wasn’t very hungry, but both nurses told him the food was free and he could eat as much as he wanted. He only gave in because they threatened him with pediasure.

As he waited for his eggs, toast, bacon, muffin, and hash browns the second nurse came back in and handed him a paper bag. It had hospital pajama pants and a hospital gown in it. After looking in the bag he put it in the wardrobe, hoping he’d have a chance to go to the gift shop again before having to resort to those. Heather noticed him discard the clothing but did not mention it. Instead, she sat in the chair and held the baby’s hand.

“What’s her name?” Heather asked quietly, looking at the infant like she was the most important person in the world. “I’ve just been calling her baby girl.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think my mom has one picked out,” Neil said, suddenly noticing that no one had mentioned how his mom was yet. He figured the longer the wait the worse the news, and it was already been more than 14 hours since they came into the ER.

“Okay, I’m going to call her Kiwi until she has a real name.”

Neil laughed, surprised by the ridiculous nickname. “What? Why?”

Heather smiled at him, “Well everyone deserves a name! We can’t just call her baby. How sad is that?”

“Okay fine, we can call her Kiwi,” Neil said settling into the recliner and placing his hand into the incubator. He leaned forward to get a good look baby just waking up, “hello little Kiwi, I’m your brother.”

Beside him, Heather laughed. She smiled with her entire face and Neil thought she might not be faking it, she might actually be the kind of person who can just smile.

Neil was about to ask if he could hold her when the other nurse came in with the food. Heather pulled the bed table over to the chair and lowered it down so he could eat without leaving his little Kiwi. As he ate, he watched Heather change Kiwi’s diaper and wrap her in a swaddle. When she was finished she settled down in the chair next to him holding the baby. The two seemed to be having a staring contest, but when Neil asked Heather said it was because newborns can’t see very well so she had to get close to the baby’s face.

By the time he finished eating it was almost noon and no one had mentioned anything about his mother. He had accepted that she was going to die last night when she refused to go to the hospital, but not knowing for sure was starting to eat at him. He kept himself in the moment by watching the nurse and the baby interact. It surprised him how much the baby moved, he had always thought that babies didn’t do much, however, this baby was constantly moving her arms and legs around.

After a little while he got up the courage to ask to hold her again and Heather handed her over with no hesitation. In his arms, she felt sturdier than she had last night. Neil wasn’t sure if it was because she was in a swaddle, or if it was because he has properly fed and hydrated for the first time in weeks. Heather told him to talk to her, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Eventually, after Heather pestered him to talk to her again, he settled on telling her the story of Snow White.

Halfway through the story Dr. Cross came into the room. She said hello, then smiled at him when she saw what he was doing.

“We nicknamed her Kiwi!” Neil said blushing.

“That’s adorable!” Dr. Cross said. She paused and her expression shifted as she spoke her next words, “I have some news about your mother, can nurse Heather hold her for a few minutes?”

Neil hugged the baby closer, careful not to hold her too tightly. He looked from her face to the nurses, and finally back to the doctors. “No. She can’t. Not right now.”

Dr. Cross took a deep breath, “Neil I think it would be—“

Neil cut her off, “She’s dead, I know.”

Heather pulled her chair closer to Neil’s and put one hand under the swaddled baby while the other started stroking his hair. It took him a moment to understand why, as a tear dripped off the tip of his nose he realized he was crying. With both hands holding the baby he let the tears flow without wiping him. He wasn’t sure why he was crying, he didn’t think he really loved his mother or that she loved him, but he was still upset.

He shifted lifting the baby closer to his face and smiled at her through the tears. Heather adjusted her hand so she was still helping support her while Dr. Cross kneeled in front of them and dabbed a tissue on his cheek.

“Athena. That’s her name,” Neil said. With Heather supporting her head he freed his hand and stroked the length of her tiny nose. Athena’s blue eyes slowly closed at the action, so he repeated it.

“Wisdom?” Dr. Cross asked.

“No,” Neil shook his head, “Courage.”


 

Chapter Text

The cat climbed onto his lap and started kneading his leg as soon as Andrew sat down with his stemless wine glass full of fruity pebbles. She was a rescue who had been declawed as a kitten, so the action wasn’t painful. However, it did remind him how terrible people could be. As she settled down and started purring he turned on the TV and scanned for his Sunday night show.  

In college, Andrew and his brother Aaron had gotten into the habit of watching a rerun of the latest episode of Ancient Aliens on Sunday nights, since it aired on Fridays in the middle of their Exy games. When they graduated in May they had decided to keep the tradition going by starting the episodes at the same time and texting each other their thoughts.   

Andrew started the episode and texted Aaron a few minutes in.

hair guy is WILD tonight

Wtf you know I don’t have cable until tomorrow

slipped my mind

Don’t watch it without me

too late

FACETIME ME THEN

that sounds like a lot of work

As soon as the “read” symbol appeared under the text his phone started ringing. He answered it and stared at the mirror image of his own face that was his twin.

“Hello?” he said, raising his eyebrows questioningly just to annoy Aaron.

“Catch me up! What’s happened so far?” Aaron demanded.

Katelyn’s face came onto the screen as she pressed her cheek against Aaron’s to get a view of his phone. Andrew flipped the camera view to the tv when she waved at him and started explaining the episode so far. He set the phone down against his cat so he could eat his cereal, but Aaron complained that the purring was too loud so he held it in his hand instead. The three watched the show, mocking everything from the science to the scientist’s outfits.

When the commercials started Andrew muted the TV. Normally they would discuss how absurd every aspect of the show is. However, they had missed their Wednesday night catch up because Aaron had to go to some scholarship dinner so he and Katelyn had decided to make this a two-in-one facetime.

“How’s your apartment?” Aaron asked as soon as the first advertisement started playing.

“It sure is an apartment,” Andrew replied slightly annoyed at the turn in the conversation. Sunday’s were for mocking tv shows and Wednesday’s were for catching up. They were separated for a reason.

“How’s your new neighbor?” Katelyn asked.

Talking to her was a new thing he was trying since Aaron had proposed to her at their graduation. He hated her solely because she was dating Aaron. In fact, his closest friend had told him they’d probably get along well if he stopped being so petty, but that didn’t help much.

“He’s kind of weird,” Andrew had texted Aaron about both of their dinners, but since last week’s call was canceled they hadn’t spoken about it yet, “his daughter really likes me though.”

Aaron laughed at that and tried to muffle it with his hand, forgetting that Andrew could see him on the phone screen, “Are you sure she’s not just being nice?”

“After dinner on Friday we watched Bugs Life and she fell asleep on me,” Andrew said with a slightly cocky tone in his voice that he knew Aaron would catch and Katelyn would not.

Katelyn smiled at the camera, “Oh that’s so precious, did you take a picture?”

“No, I did not take a picture.”

Andrew was saved from their replies when the show came back on a moment later. On the next commercial break, he asked Aaron how he liked his summer internship now that he was settled in. He liked hearing that his brother’s life was happy and domestic. Aaron and Katelyn where both studying at Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Aaron wanted to be a pediatrician while Katelyn wanted to be an OBGYN. Andrew had been offered starting goalie for the Pennsylvania Mavericks, but Aaron had said he didn’t want Andrew to regret going with such a low ranked team when he had better offers. They agreed that Andrew would try out the top-rated New York Knights for a two-year contract, and then if he still wanted to he could transfer. The drive from NYC to Philadelphia was only two hours, without traffic, which is what finally sold Andrew on the idea.

When the episode ended, they all said good night and Aaron ended the call by saying I love you and hanging up immediately. Having not met until they were 16 years old, and after both being raised in toxic, abusive environments, they were not yet at the point where they were comfortable saying that to each other. Andrew waited a few minutes then texted Aaron “you too” knowing he would understand.

He started getting ready for bed, with the cat following in between his legs, without looking at his phone. He hoped Aaron wouldn’t reply because he wasn’t ready to deal with that, yet he also hoped that he would because this was the biggest single step their relationship had ever taken. After 7 years of knowing each other, they were closer to acquaintances than they were brothers, but the new distance between them seemed to be bridging that gap.

After he got in bed he allowed himself to look at his phone. The first thing he saw was that Aaron added a heart reaction to his message, which he ignored because it was probably Katelyn’s doing. The second thing he saw was a text from Neighbor Neil Josten.

Hey do you work on Wednesday morning?

No

Could you do me a favor and watch Athena from about 7 to 8:30? I have an appointment I forgot about and can’t bring her to.

Yes

Thank you so much! I’ll buy you a coffee and a pastry for breakfast.

white chocolate mocha & a fruit danish

Neil didn’t text back immediately so he put his phone on Do Not Disturb and tried to go to sleep. The cat took a few minutes to settle into the spot at the end of the bed, which meant he had a few minutes to think about his overly trusting and overly attractive neighbor and his child. Andrew had not been left alone with a child since he was about 11 years old and had no idea how to handle the situation. He figured Athena was smart and kind of bossy and would just tell him what to do.

The next morning he woke up to the sun shining through the blackout curtains because the cat had pushed them apart so she could sit in the window. She seemed to be sleeping in the towel he had put on the windowsill so Andrew rolled over to get the sun out of his eyes. He checked his phone to get the time and saw that Neil had texted him again.

Can do!

are you really going to trust a stranger with your child?

My regular sitter is out of town so my options are you or a random babysitter from the internet. At least I’ve met you.

Andrew felt like Neil was being careless with his child’s well being, but decided not to comment on it. He knew Neil had done a background check on him, and that Athena was comfortable with him so his hesitation was pointless. The problem was that he also happened to know first hand just how terrible adults could be to children.

He went about the rest of his day without thinking of either of them, focusing instead on finding a good gym nearby that would allow him some sort of privacy from Exy Fanatics. The first one he went to was crossed off the list before he made it in the door because two people leaving the gym recognized him on the street. He knew his old teammate Matt from college was from New York and that his mom was a Professional Boxer in the city, but he didn’t feel like reaching out to him to ask for suggestions because Matt was ridiculously friendly and would take it as a sign that they should talk more.

By the end of the day, he was tired and annoyed that he hadn’t found anywhere worthwhile. A little before 5 he threw some tortilla chips and cheese on a plate and microwaved it for dinner, adding some sour cream and pico de gallo to make it a “real meal” as he settled in for his weekly call with Nicky. When Nicky moved back to Germany after college they had set up a schedule where every Monday Nicky skyped Aaron at 4 pm and talked to him for an hour then skyped Andrew at 5 pm. The time difference meant that for Nicky the calls were at 10 and 11 pm respectively.  

The call was going smoothly, mostly Nicky talked while Andrew ate his food, until the cat jumped up on the couch and tried to climb onto his lap. Andrew shooed her away but she tried again and meowed in his face when he said no.

“Awwww he’s so precious, who does he belong to?” Nicky cooed from the computer screen.

“Cat go away,” Andrew said as he pushed her off the couch for the third time, “she is mine. I adopted her the day after I moved in.”

“And you didn’t tell me? Andrew, how could you?! Does this mean I’m an uncle now? Or like a grandpa? Oh my god, she is so cute, what’s her name?”

“Her name is Cat and I did not tell you because I knew you would make a big deal about it,” Andrew said coolly.

“Seriously Andrew? You getting a cat is a big deal! I’m worried about you being alone in a big city, let me have this,” he looked like he was going to say something else along those lines but blinked twice quickly then tilted his head, “wait did you say her name is Cat? That’s not okay! You have to name her!”

“No,” Andrew said trying to stop Nicky from doing something stupid.

“Fine if you won't name her then I will!” Nicky said excitedly. “Oh! Oh! I have a good one, go get her so I can christen her.”

As Andrew moved his plate to the coffee table the cat climbed onto his lap and started purring.

“She’s so beautiful! I love her so much! Is she soft? I wish I could pet her. Okay, are you ready?” Nicky said it like it was a question, but Andrew knew he’d continue no matter what he did so he stayed quiet, “Her name is King Fluffikins! Isn’t it perfect?”

On his lap, the cat was purring in her sleep, perfectly content to take over his personal space. In fact, she’d been invading his space since the moment he walked into the rescue, which is why he’d chosen her in the first place.

“I will accept King but I am not calling her Fluffikins,” Andrew conceded.

“For real? Yes! Thank you, thank you so much!” Nicky turned away from the screen for a moment then turned back smiling even more, “Okay Erik says it’s time to go. Bye King, I love you! Bye, Andrew, I love you too!”

“I don’t hate you,” Andrew said emotionlessly.

On the screen, Nicky thanked him and started crying softly. Erik walked up behind him and wrapped his arms around him comfortingly.

Smiling Erik reached over to turn off the camera, “Thank you, Andrew.”

As the screen went black, Andrew looked at his own reflection. He’d have to call Bee soon. While his admission to Nicky was not as strong as the one to Aaron last night it was still a big step forward. In the past, the most he had done was thank Nicky for not being a terrible guardian.

Maybe distance really does make the heart grow fonder, Andrew thought sarcastically, rolling his eyes, as he turned on Brooklyn Nine-Nine reruns to watch for the rest of the night.

Tuesday brought team meetings, PR consultations, and the official start of Andrew’s social media career. He and Aaron had saved the handles AJMinyard and AMMinyard on Twitter and Instagram back when they were in high school, but neither of them used the accounts often. He had to follow all of his teammates from college and all of his current teammates. The Fox group chat was probably blowing up about it, but he had muted that conversation long ago.

By midafternoon he was done with work and had nothing better to do than look up cat training videos. An apartment to himself had been his dream for years, however, it turned out that an empty house was eerie instead of peaceful like he had imagined. Sitting criss-cross on the floor for two hours with a clicker and an unenthused cat turned out to be more entertaining than he would care to admit. That added another thing to his list of Bee conversation topics. He hated admitting she was right, or more he hated admitting that he had been wrong, about getting a cat.  

The alarm blaring at 6:30 on Wednesday morning woke him up quickly. After five years of waking up at 6 am to work out in college he was annoyed by how quickly his body forgot how to function that early. Two months out of school and he’d already lost his edge. He made a pot of coffee and watched the cat squeeze herself between a throw pillow and the couch cushion.

“I ordered a cat tree last night, it should be here tomorrow,” Andrew said to the cat. He’d read an article saying talking to pets was good for loneliness, not that he would admit that he was lonely.

King poked her head out of her makeshift hideout and meowed at him. I don’t see how this is supposed to help, Andrew thought as he put his shoes on and headed next door. As he knocked lightly he realized shoes weren’t a necessary part of this endeavor. He was crossing the 6 feet between their two doors on the carpeted landing that only they had access to, not actually going somewhere.     

Neil opened the door on the third knock and waved an arm toward the living room instead of greeting him. Andrew walked in and sat on the couch, still dressed in his pajamas; a loose gray long-sleeved shirt and black plaid pajama pants Aaron (and Katelyn) had given him for Christmas last year. Armbands and knives safely tucked away in his bedside table. Andrew felt off-kilter without them, yet he still had decided that they were unnecessary for babysitting. Even if Athena never noticed them, he still felt better knowing they weren’t near her.

Neil walked over to him and placed a sound only baby monitor in front of him. “She didn’t fall asleep until after 9 last night because she took a twenty-minute nap in a taxi. I don't know how twenty minutes mean she goes to bed an hour and a half later than usual but that’s what happened. She might sleep until I get back, but if she does wake up she’ll probably stay in her bed and call for me. If she wakes up you can read to her or something, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. I’m bringing breakfast, so don’t feed her please.”

Andrew wondered if he realized he was rambling. He cringed internally at the last word, but let it go. Calmly he eyed the baby monitor and then Neil. “You know what? You are kind of paranoid, you should see someone about that.”

“Where do you think I’m going?” Neil asked walking to the door, Zeus along with him. “Good luck I’ll be back around eight thirty.”

When the door closed Andrew got a whole two minutes to close his eyes before the baby monitor crackled.

“Daddy?” a hoarse voice called from the machine, “Neil?”

Andrew took out his phone and sent Neil a text.

you jinxed me, she just woke up

Sorry not sorry

Good Luck

“Dad, daddy, dad,” Athena called over the monitor, “Neil, NEIL. Can you come in here?”

Taking a deep breath Andrew stood up and walked down the hall. At the first door, he realized he did not know which room was Athena’s. The hall had three doors on one side and two sets of double doors on the other, none of them were decorated in any way giving him clues. He walked to the end of the hall and looked around the corner. Hidden from the sightline of the rest of the hallway was a door wrapped in blue and purple paper and covered in stickers. Andrew opened the eccentric door and was met with a perfect vision of every child's dream room.

The bed was lofted with a tent covering the top making it look like a tree house, a ladder on one end and a slide on the other. The bottom of the bed was also covered in a tent, but this one was styled as a cottage with a pink door flap in the middle and two frilly windows. Next to the ladder, against the wall sat a large bookshelf covered in children's books and family photos. A large dresser with 12 handprints labeled from 6 months to 6 years faced the bed and a large rocking chair was tucked into the corner. All in all the fairly small room was packed with large well-loved furniture, giving it a cozy cottage feel.

“Good morning,” Andrew said from the doorway.

Athena’s head poked out of the opening over the ladder. She looked Andrew over frowning, “No I don’t wantchu, go away.”

Andrew nodded his head, “okay, I will go sit in the living room and you can come to get me if you need something.”

“Noo,” Athena whined, tears filling her eyes. She raised her arms toward Andrew like a baby wanting to be picked up.

Slowly he walked into the room. He was treading on thin ice in his own mind. She had specifically said that she did not want him in her room, yet she clearly needed comfort. When he got to the edge of the bed he stopped, the height of the loft put them eye to eye.

Athena reached out and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close, and cried into his shoulder. Andrew had never been comforted when he was crying after his third birthday and had no clue what he was supposed to do now. A few movie scenes came to mind, but they all involved parents with their children, not a random babysitter they barely knew. He let her cry on him for a few minutes until she seemed to start calming down then pulled back just enough to see her face.

“Can we go sit on the couch?” he asked.

“No,” she said, leaning back into her bed and pulling his arm along with her.

“Can we sit in the rocking chair then?” Andrew asked, realizing that she wanted him to climb into her bed with her and attempting to redirect the situation.

She pulled on his arm again, “No chair, come on.”

Andrew thought for a moment and tried a different approach, “Athena, I don’t want to sit on your bed.”

Athena started crying again. “Okay,” she said between sobs.

Rubbing his face with both hands he sighed. He had no insight into what was the right thing to do in the situation, but he had about a hundred examples of what not to do from his own childhood. He counted to ten and by the time he finished he knew the only thing he could do was what she asked. She was small and scared and asking him to sit with her, he could do that.

After another breath he took off his shoes, “Would it help if I sat with you?”

The little girl nodded her head and rubbed tears from her eyes. One step at a time Andrew slowly climbed the ladder. While he did that Athena scooted over to the other side of the bed, giving him room to sit down. As he got comfortable with his back against the wall next to the opening he figured she’d sit next to him and maybe lean on him like she had done last time. Instead, as soon as he was settled she climbed onto his lap, threw her arms around his neck, and tucked her head under his chin.

Andrew stilled at the first touch, not daring to move in case he did something wrong. After a few minutes, she stopped crying, after a few more he thought she might be asleep.

“Are you awake?” he whispered.

She didn’t reply immediately, eventually, she nodded against his chest. He thought about asking her what was wrong, but from what he remembered about children there was a good chance that she wasn’t even sure herself. Rather than chance making her more upset, he wrapped an arm around her so she wouldn’t fall and reached over to the bookshelf, grabbing one of the picture frames.

The one he grabbed showed a profile view of a younger Neil wearing a baby carrier on his chest looking out over the view of a mountain hiking trail. Strapped to his chest Athena had her head turned toward the camera with her eyes closed and a soothie pacifier in her mouth.

He held the photo so Athena could see it and tapped Neil with his thumb, “Who is that?”

“Neil,” Athena mumbled into his collar bone.

Andrew tapped the baby in the photo next, “And who is that?”

“Me.”

“Really? How old were you?” Andrew asked trying to get her to open up. For once he was glad for his perfectly monotone voice because the question would have come off as condescending otherwise.

“I don’t know, a baby,” She lifted her head to look at him, keeping her arms around his neck, “how old are babies when they learn how to walk? I couldn't walk yet, that’s why I’m in the carry thing, see?”

“Some babies can walk when they are nine months old and some babies do not walk until they are over a year old,” Andrew said remembering a passage from a psych book he read for a college class.

Athena laid her head back down on his chest, “Oh.”

Andrew picked up another picture frame with Neil holding Athena on his shoulders in it and repeated the questions. They were on their fourth picture frame when Zeus trotted into the room followed by Neil.

Neil smiled when he saw them snuggled up together on the bed, “Good morning Baby Bear.”

Athena pulled Andrew tighter, “I don’t like you today.”

“I’m sorry,” Neil said stepping up to the bed and rubbing Athena’s back, “I still love you.”

“Go away.”

“Were you upset when you woke up and I was already gone?” Neil asked with a tight smile.

Athena nodded against Andrew’s chest.

“I'm sorry. How about this, next time I’ll wake you up and tell you I’m leaving,” Neil paused for her to answer but she didn’t move a muscle if Andrew had to guess he would say she was glaring at Neil. “Are big emotions hard in the morning?”

Andrew felt her nod against his chest again while Neil rubbed her back and wiped her cheek with his thumb.  

“What does Daniel Tiger say?”

“Grown-ups come back,” Athena said, the sound muffled by his shoulder.

“Yeah baby, grown-ups come back,” Neil smiled at her brightly. “Okay! How about breakfast in bed to make up for it?”

Neil didn’t give her a chance to answer, he leaned in and kissed the side of her head then headed out of the room. When he kissed her he leaned into Andrew’s space, giving him a chance to accidentally smell him. What the fuck, Andrew thought, that man has no right to smell that good this early in the morning.

Athena interrupted his thoughts by turning around in his lap and leaning her back against his chest. As she moved Andrew realized that Neil hadn’t been concerned at all about finding him sitting in her bed. He wondered if that was a normal thing to do to comfort children. Relief rushed through him, which made him realize that he had been worried about it in the first place. Athena started playing with his fingers, bending them and watching the different muscles in his forearm move. As he watched her he decided he was going to call Bee as soon as he left because the last hour left him with a lot to decompress from.

When Neil walked in he was carrying a proper tray table, it reminded him of clique breakfast in bed scenes from TV commercials. Andrew never thought he would have a life domestic enough to see one in action. Neil set the tray down over Athena’s lap and Andrew saw that the large to-go cup had his name on it and the small one said Athena. He would have laughed at how ridiculous the situation was if he remembered how to laugh.

Neil leaned in and whispered something in Athena’s ear, giving Andrew another chance to accidentally smell him. The cologne scent was familiar but light enough that Andrew couldn’t place it, he knew it would bother him until he figured it out. When Neil left his personal space he didn’t go far. He climbed up the slide gracefully and sat at the other end of the bed, picking up a book that had been left under the covers.

Pulling the bookmark out Neil started reading out loud, in what Andrew assumed was some sort of tradition. Athena leaned forward and started eating her cheese danish so Andrew attempted to do the same with his apricot one. Quickly he learned eating with another person sitting on your lap was not an easy task. Every time he wanted something from the tray he had to carefully reach around her so he didn’t spill hot coffee on her, but she was smiling and following along with the story–a complete 180 from her earlier behavior–so he put up with it.

When they finished eating Athena asked him to play with her while Neil took the tray to the kitchen. Andrew decided he needed a break from people, and the overwhelming morning so told her he had some chores to do and couldn't stay. Athena walked him to the door and gave him a big hug.

"You're coming to dinner on Friday right?" she asked as he opened the door to leave.

Andrew looked up at Neil, who just shrugged, "Sure, why not?"

Athena smiled at him and waved while he walked across the landing, only closing the door when he waved back and closed his. As soon as he was alone he dropped to the couch and let himself begin to decompress. Once he was settled in with the cat curled up on the center of his back he got out his phone and called Bee.

 

Chapter Text

Waiting for Athena to finish getting dressed Neil started his third cup of coffee for the morning. He browsed through his phone, checking various social media sites that he didn’t even like using. His post of Athena and Zeus sleeping together on the couch from the other day had seven likes on Instagram, which would seem small normally, but his was set to private and only seven people followed him. He didn’t get the appeal, but he knew some of the people who helped him, and by extension Athena, get to where they are now liked to keep up with them.

Down the hall, a door opened and slammed shut, followed by small footsteps echoing through the apartment. Athena stopped in front of him with a jolt, wearing a white linen jumpsuit with pastel blue stripes.

Neil thought about the early August heat and debated asking her to change, “It’s going to be hot today bug, are you sure you want to wear that?”

“Yes! Blue stripes!” Athena replied, spinning around, long dark copper curls flowing behind her. 

“What’s the hair situation today?” Neil asked.

“The braid with the pigtails!” Athena all but yelled at him. 

Neil guided over to the couch grabbing a spray bottle and comb from the counter on the way. She stood between his legs and sat still while he got to work wetting her hair and weaving it into two perfectly shaped french braids. He started over twice after realizing they weren’t tight enough. It had taken him two years to be able to do this hairstyle perfectly, and now it was one of Athena’s favorites. As he was finishing up his phone dinged. 

“Gigi says she’ll be here soon,” Neil said securing the hair tie to the first braid, “can you go get the sunscreen?”

When he was finished with the second hair tie Athena ran toward the bathroom as fast as she could. Neil called after her to slow down, but he knew she wouldn’t when she was this excited. When she didn’t come back immediately Neil got suspicious. Zeus nudged his knee keeping him grounded.

After a couple of minutes, Athena came out wearing a pink and white floral baseball hat backward and carrying the sunscreen. Neil looked at the hat, combined with her hair and jumpsuit and barely managed to control making a face. She looked silly, but who was he to judge. He took the sunscreen from her and started applying it to any visible skin.  

“A hat?” he asked sucking his cheeks in to make a fish face at her.

“Yeah, I want to be like you!”

Neil pulled her in for a tight hug and kissed the side of her head, “Aww Baby Bear that's so sweet.”

When Neil pulled away Athena reached up and straightened his black and pink floral vans snapback. Neil laughed and kissed her forehead, which made Athena laugh too. 

When Gigi arrived she rang the doorbell Neil buzzed her up. She knocked on the door and Athena ran to answer it, throwing it open and hugging her. Gigi, formally known as Randy Boyd, was a tall muscular woman with warm bronze skin. She owned the gym Neil attended self-defense classes at when he first moved to the city and had decided to basically adopt him one day when she found out he was a single father because he had to bring Athena to class with him. She was also the only person besides the FBI agent assigned to his case that he’d ever let babysit Athena, before Andrew anyway. He had been taking the class while his toddler was in preschool, but a snow day canceled her class and he’d found himself in a gym surrounded by college girls swooning over his baby, and Randy helping him out of that particular mess. In the years since then, she’d become a mentor to him, helping him navigate childhood illnesses, college, and kindergarten sign-ups.  

Behind the hugging, pair stood her son Matt. Neil had met him about a year later, and they’d become close acquaintances, or distant friends while Matt finished college and then moved on to play professional Exy. Neil didn’t think they were particularly close, but Neil had never had a real friend before so he wasn’t the best judge of the situation.

“Hey Matty B,” Neil called to him from his perch on the barstool in the dining room, “what brings you by?”

“Just wanted to hang if you’re free,” Matt called back giving Neil his patented million-watt smiles.  

Neil laughed, Matt’s smiles were always infectious, spreading to everyone around him, “Sure why not? It’s not like I have anything better to do on a Monday morning.”

Matt cheered, “Yeah Buddy! Let’s do this!”

When Randy stood up from the hug Athena grabbed her hand and waved goodbye to Neil, “Come on Gigi, we’re going to be late.”

Gigi was the name Athena had given Randy the first time she’d watched her a couple of years ago. Athena had a hard time saying her name and had gotten so upset about it that Randy had said she could call her whatever she wanted to

“I don’t think so,” Randy said fingering one of Athena’s braids, “wow, your hair looks so pretty today.”

“Thank you! Do you like my hat?” Athena asked tipping her head forward. 

“Oh, that’s so cool! It matches Neil’s,” she said grinning and turning to Neil, “alright we best be off. You too have fun! And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Matt’s laughter followed them out the door, filling the landing with a sense of joy. He settled in on the couch while Neil put away his laptop, plans of working on his summer research shelved for another time.  

“You know what I don’t get bro?” Matt leaned back into the couch until he looked like he was going to slide off. “I don’t get how you can go from ‘Damn Daddy’ to ‘Stoner Kid’ seamlessly.”

“What?” Neil asked confused.

“Like half the time I see you, you look like you just stepped out of a business meeting at a Fortune Five Hundred company, and then the other half of the time you look like a 17-year-old heading down to the skate park to smoke weed behind the dumpster.”

Neil blinked at him, pursing his lips and raising an eyebrow until Matt continued. 

“Don’t get me wrong it works for you, but like... you're wearing knee-length jean shorts that aren’t even hemmed. Did you cut those yourself?”

Neil continued to stare at him, making a face and sticking out his tongue then huffed out a laugh.

“And then what is that shirt? A black tank top with a colorful pocket is amazing, you can’t go wrong with that, but then... like BRO... then you paired a rainbow pocket with a floral snapback and bright pink vans. What kind of look are you going for her bud?” 

“Maybe a look that says I’m comfortable,” Neil tapped his shirt, then his hat, then repeated the gesture as he spoke. “Black, black. Pink and green, rainbow. That matches.”

Matt laughed so hard he almost fell over, “One day you’ll let me teach you about fashion.”

Neil joined him on the couch and they took a few minutes to catch up. Matt texted Neil fairly regularly, but Neil only responded if Matt asked a question. When they first met Neil had explained it’s not personal, he just doesn't like phones. However, that meant that Matt had a lot of small, unimportant things so tell him like his favorite restaurant has bendy straws now.

A few minutes into the conversation Neil got a text. He picked up his phone and read it then responded, which Matt gave him a weird look for.

Milk?

Are you asking if I have milk? Because if so then yes I do.  

Not even a minute after he sent the text there was a knock at the door. 

“It’s open,” Neil called from the couch not bothering to get up.

“Who’s here?” Matt asked as the door opened. Andrew walked in without looking at either of them carrying a bowl of cereal, “Oh, hey Monster.”

As Andrew pulled the milk from the fridge Neil turned to Matt with an annoyed look on his face, “Excuse me? What did you just call him?” 

“Uhhh... Monster? It’s a nickname from college. His group was The Monsters, but he was specifically Monster,” Matt said.

“That doesn’t sound like a nickname to me, Matthew. It sounds like you and your friends were bullying a group of people for being different from you,” Neil pulled out his dad voice, something Matt had never seen him use before, “you know what? You’re both adults, you can figure it out for yourself. But Do Not say anything like that in front of Athena. She looks up to you and she will think it’s okay, and it’s not.”

Matt sunk into the couch and crossed his arms over his chest, “Okay sorry.”

“Don't apologize to me,” Neil scolded, “Apologize to Andrew.”

“Sorry Andrew.”

Andrew looked up from his bowl of cereal and cocked his head to the side, pursing his lips. He took a bite and pointed his spoon at Matt when he was finished with it. “I do not care about it. Nicky does though.”

Matt sat up straight and wide-eyed, looking at Andrew, “What?”

“Nicky. Cares.”

“Fuck uhh okay, I’ll umm,” he pulled out his phone and started messing with it while Neil looked between the two. 

After a couple of minutes, Matt put his phone away, “How is he by the way? Nicky.”

Andrew shrugged, taking another bite of his food and staring at the wall. Neil chewed on his lip and waited to see where the conversation was going.

“How’s Aaron?”

Andrew continued facing forward, but side eyed Matt, “Ask him.”

Realizing what was happening Neil spoke up, “Hey Matty, I thought you said you went to college together for like four years, how do you not know anything about him?”

“I’m trying to get to know him but he always does this!” Matt threw his hands in the air and let them fall to his lap dramatically.

“He doesn’t like talking,” Neil claimed confidently. 

“What?”

“He doesn’t like talking. Mostly he just listens. If you ask him a question he always answers it, but even then half the time it’s with a nod or something instead of a verbal answer.” 

“What?” Matt repeated.

Neil turned toward Andrew who was frozen with the spoon halfway to his mouth and staring back at him. “Help me out here?”

Andrew put the spoon down and chewed on the inside of his lip. “No one’s ever noticed before.”

“No one’s noticed?” Neil asked confused, Andrew shook his head. “That’s the first thing I noticed about you.”

“What the fuck... I feel like an asshole now,” Matt ran a hand through his hair, “Fuck man, I’m sorry.”

Andrew looked directly at him for the first time that morning, “You are an asshole.”

“Also... while I’m apologizing,” Matt tapped his fingers on his arm looking uncomfortable, “I’m sorry for talking shit about you going to therapy.”

Andrew looked away from him showing no emotion so Neil spoke up.

“Jesus Christ. Matthew Donovan Boyd.”

Matt threw his head back on the couch and groaned. “I didn’t think about it! Everyone else did it too! Well, not Renee but she’s a saint.”

“That doesn't make it okay,” Neil chided.

Andrew got up and threw his empty bowl in the sink then walked up to Neil. Once he was standing close enough that they would touch if either of them took half a step forward he glared at him. “I do not need you to protect me.”

The two stood that way until Matt broke their staring contest.  

“Can we go to the gym? Now I want to punch something,” Matt asked.

“Yeah sure,” he turned toward Andrew, “do you want to come?”


From the outside, the gym looked small and dingy, with a poorly labeled door in the side of a brick building. It hadn’t even made Andrew’s list last week when he was looking for one, but on the inside it was huge. It took up the basement and first floor of an apartment building a few blocks from his new apartment. The inside was lavish. Walls covered in signed jerseys from famous plays from every New York City team. Andrew recognized two NBA players on treadmills when he walked in the door and a tennis player lifting weights. All of the equipment was the latest high-end piece, some of which he’d never seen in person before. Doors along the side of the main room led to locker rooms, bathrooms and a couple of offices, however, the last door said Nurse's Office and had a sign that claimed there was a registered nurse on site 24/7. 

Neil, Zeus, and Matt walked straight toward the stairs at the back and headed down to the lower level. As they walked people called out to them, smiling and waving. Matt always smiled and waved back enthusiastically, while Neil just raised a hand in a quick wave. Andrew followed a few steps behind them listening to the whispers of surprise at seeing him, but no one called his name or waved at him.

If the upper floor was lavish, the basement was homey. Half of the floor was one open room with exposed beams and a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by benches. Two doors stood at the end of the room, behind the ring, with schedules for pilates, yoga, and self-defense classes posted on them.

Zeus stayed with Andrew while Matt and Neil wrapped their hands and headed into the ring. Matt took his shirt off and threw it to the side before entering. Andrew expected Neil to do the same, but instead, he turned around and looked at him with an interesting look on his face. It was somewhere between scared and concerned. After a long pause, he seemed to come to a decision and slowly took off his shirt, folding it and setting it down gently. 

He kept his eyes on Neil’s face until he turned around and started practicing with Matt. They boxed slowly and smoothly, having fun and getting a light workout. Nothing like the scrappy fights Andrew got into when he sparred with his friend Renee. He watched their form and moments instead of inspecting Neil’s scars. They seemed to be fairly evenly matched to the untrained eye, but Andrew could tell that Matt was holding back. Being the son of a boxer, and a professional exy player, he could knock almost anyone off their feet with one well-placed blow. There was a 50 50 chance he’d beat Andrew if they fought together. Where Matt had the natural skill and years of training Andrew had a rough upbringing and no qualms about breaking the civil rules of boxing.

“Enjoying the view?” Neil asked from the ring while Matt took a drink of water.

Andrew looked around the room dramatically, “What view?”

Neil’s laughter filled the room, echoing off the brick walls and exposed ceiling. At the sound, Matt looked up at Neil with a bright beaming smile. He jumped up and walked over to Neil, smiling the whole way. 

Once they were boxing again Andrew let himself look at the scars. They were all old and partially faded, and yet they looked harsh and painful. Most of them were slashes and cuts, a stretch of skin on his chest look mangled in a way he couldn’t place. The perfect iron mark on his shoulder made Andrew feel anger in a way he hadn’t for a long time. As he looked over the scars, creating a full picture in his mind, Zeus whined and bumped against his knee.

Neil froze mid punch and turned to Andrew, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, why?”

“Hmm, are you sure?” Neil climbed out of the ring and walked over to them, dropping to his knees next to Zeus. He lowered his voice so Matt couldn’t hear him, “because Zeus says otherwise.”

Andrew looked between Neil and Zeus, then up to Matt in the ring, “What is he for?”

“PTSD from childhood trauma,” Neil gestured to his scars, “as you can see.”

Andrew nodded, taking time to find words to make Neil see he’s okay without giving away anything about him. He reached out toward Neil’s shoulder, stopping a breath away from touching it, “Your burn. It made me angry to see it.”

“Ahh, okay. Just angry?”

“I am not sure yet. I will let you know later,” he said in what he hoped would be a clear dismissal. 

A door opened behind them and Andrew heard footsteps approach. He watched as Neil’s face lit up. Seconds later he was knocked onto his butt as Athena crashed into him. She placed both of her tiny hands on his cheeks and kissed his nose.

Neil wrapped his arms around her waist, “Hi Baby Bear, how was your tea party?”

“Gigi let me eat a cupcake!” she said, grinning mischievously.

Randy Boyd waved at Neil behind her back and turned to walk up the stairs. She did a double take when she saw Andrew, but recovered quickly and offered him a wave on her way out.

“Wow! What was a cupcake doing at a tea party?” Neil asked.

“I got peach tea and little teeny tiny cakes,” she put her hands in front of his face about two inches apart to show how small they were, “and then! And then at the end, Miss tea lady gave me a cupcake! And Gigi let me eat it!”

“Woah that’s so cool! Did you say thank you?” Athena gave him an exaggerated nod and he gave her a high five “nice, did you bring me anything?”

“No! You’re playing with Matty!”

“Oh okay. Well, I’m going to go play with Matty some more then, can you babysit Andrew for me?”

“Yes!”

When Neil let go of her she tried to climb onto Andrew’s lap, but stopped herself and asked first. As soon as he said okay she sat down and watched Neil get back into the ring. She was fine when they started up again but flinched when Matt hit Neil the first time. 

“Hey bug,” Andrew said offering her his hand, while Zeus bumped her knee, “it’s okay. They are not actually hurting each other.”

“Looks like it.”

“Yes it does,” Andrew stood up and set her on the ground, keeping their hands together. He pointed to a stack of yoga mats in front of one of the doors at the end of the room. “Look there are some mats, can you show me your gymnastics?”

“Yeah!” she dragged him over to the mats and stopped, letting him take one down, “Watch me! I can do the splits!”

Chapter Text

Athena took her time and taught Andrew how to do a cartwheel while they ignored Matt and Neil boxing. His first few tries felt a little bit too close to falling, and he almost called it quits, but he didn't want to disappoint the bright-eyed child instructing him. By his fifth try, he had it down pat and was able to do it without feeling sick.

Randy came back a few minutes later to watch Matt and Neil box, critiquing their technique and turning it into boxing lessons. When she was done helping them out she came over and started cheering Athena on as she practiced her summersaults. Andrew watched the two interact forever amazed at the encouraging, affectionate way that adults could interact with children when they wanted to. Or maybe this was normal, and the negative interactions he was used to were not.

He had checked out the gym a bit while he was walking through it earlier and was wondering what kind of membership program they had as he sat with Randy. The thought of asking her for something was unsettling, she had thanked him for his unconventional help with Matt’s sobriety in college, but his actions had been harsh and verging on cruel and he had no idea if she’d be willing to do him a favor now. However, the gym could be worth it, even if he had to see her regularly, he was used to being around people who didn’t like him anyway. A gym full of professional athletes could be extremely useful for him. Not only did it give him a better chance of being able to get in and out without being accosted by fans and paparazzi, but it also gave him a chance to learn from a wide variety of skill sets. As he thought about the pros and cons Randy turned to him and looked him over.

“Thinking about joining?” she asked cooly, continuing when he didn’t respond right away. “Neil wouldn’t have brought you here if he didn’t think you’d use it.”

“I was under the impression that he just invited people over haphazardly,” Andrew said side eyeing her.

“He’s a picky man, Andrew. He doesn’t let just anyone into his daughter’s life.”

Andrew turned to her and raised an eyebrow, narrowing his eyes at her, “Excuse me if I do not believe you.”

Randy laughed brightly, the same contagious laugh her son had, “Believe what you want dear, it doesn’t change the truth. Athena’s picky too, I’ve never seen her take to an adult this quickly.”

She smiled kindly at him, like she had more to say, but wanted him to figure it out for himself. He blinked slowly at her thinking her words over. They had practically kidnapped him the first time they all met, then they had invited him over for dinner the next two Fridays in a row, and he’d even babysat Athena once. None of those things screamed picky people to him, however, the idea that they genuinely liked him was even more foreign.

“Anyway, why don’t you stop by tomorrow morning and we’ll get you all set up with a membership, normal fees are 60 dollars a month, but I’ll give you the friends and family discount. I still owe you for what you did for Matt your freshman year. I don’t think he would have made it through college clean without you.”

He sat there for a moment surprised by Randy’s mention of what he knew had to be a negative event for her. Athena sauntered up to them then saving Andrew from replying, instead he nodded to show he had heard her. She climbed into his lap and rested the back of her head against his collar bone.

“Hey, Andrew?”

“Yes?”            

She started playing with his fingers, then held his hand, “What’s for lunch?”

“I do not know,” he said confused, “ask Neil.”

“I can’t,” she whined, “he’s in the shower.”

Andrew glanced around the room, noticing that Neil was missing and Matt was wiping up something in the middle of the ring. He hadn’t thought he’d been so focused on their conversation, and trying to figure Neil out, that he would miss him leaving the room.

Randy laughed again, “Maybe if you ask nicely Andrew will help you convince Neil to take you somewhere.”

Athena sat up in his lap and turned to him, smiling, “Can we? Please? Neil never ever ever lets me eat fast food!”

Andrew winced internally at the word please, barely managing to keep the reaction off of his face. “How about this, if you promise not to say please to me, I’ll help you.”

“Okay!” Athena shouted.

“What’s wrong with the word please?” Neil asked from somewhere behind him.

Sneaking up on Andrew was impossible. He always knew exactly who was in the room and how close they were to him. The fact that Neil had left without him noticing bothered him. The idea that Neil snuck up on him without him noticing concerned him.

Andrew flinched slightly, just enough that he was sure Neil noticed, “Nothing in general. But I would prefer it not be addressed toward me.”

“Okay,” Neil shrugged ambiguously, “so where are we eating? I heard you two planning to gang up on me.”

“McDonald's! McDonald's!” Athena chanted, Andrew decided to join in on the third time making Neil and Randy both laugh, “McDonald's! McDonald's!”

Neil grabbed Athena’s hand and gently pulled her off Andrew’s lap, giving Andrew a clear view of a script tattoo of the word Athena on the inside of his left bicep.

“Alright you two hooligans, let’s go.”

Neil waited for Andrew stand up, then led them out of the gym, waving his and Athena’s connected hands at Randy as they left, while his other hand was holding onto Zeus. Andrew expected Athena to let go of his hand since she was now holding Neil’s but instead she hung onto his hand tighter. They passed Matt at the stairs and said their goodbyes. Athena asked why Matt wasn’t coming and Neil said that he had more work to do at the gym, but that they’d see him again before he left town. As they left the building Andrew imagined they looked like an odd version of a picture-perfect family holding hands and walking together.

 

McDonald's was not Andrew’s first choice for fast food, in reality, he only ever ate there when one of his family members was hung over and craving it, but he’d agreed because Athena was excited about it. He wondered if the soft spot he’d developed for her over the last few weeks would transfer to other children or if she was special. It was mandatory for him to treat all children well, but he had a feeling that his interactions with her went beyond that. Part of him wanted to pull back and stay away from them for a little while, but he recognized that that was a leftover reaction from his childhood. His chat with Bee last week had reminded him that it’s okay to push his own boundaries, as long as he knew his limits.  

At the restaurant he watched Neil pick at a salad while he and Athena ate their cheeseburgers like normal people. Neil didn’t complain, but it was clear he preferred his own cooking to that of an underpaid fast food worker. Zeus sat quietly tucked under the table, touching Neil’s leg the entire time. While they ate Athena filled them in on all the extravagant details of her morning tea party. The most important of which was that she and Gigi were the only people there not wearing dresses.

“We can get you a dress if you really want one,” Neil said looking more than a little put off by the idea, “but you’ll have to wear shorts under it, and you won’t be able to do a lot of your flips and tricks in it.”

“I don't want one! I want everyone else not to wear one too,” Athena said harshly.

“Well, we can’t tell other people what they can or cannot do with their own bodies,” Neil replied with a little bit of his dad voice seeping into the statement.

Athena wrinkled her nose at him, giving her a bunny rabbit pout. “Is Andrew coming school shopping with us?” she asked changing the subject.

Neil looked at Andrew and tilted his head to the side, “I guess he can if he wants to.”

Target in the middle of the day in early August was surprising calm until they got to the school supplies section. Those isles were overrun with children of all sizes being wrangled by exhausted adults. Neil asked them to go look around while he grabbed whatever was deemed a necessity for the beginning of first grade. With Zeus providing a barrier between him and the crowd he managed to get through the section relatively quickly compared to the other parents. While they waited for Neil Athena kept a strong grasp on his hand. She pressed against his side every time someone walked past them, using him to shield her from the crown in the same way that Neil used Zeus.

The first time Andrew thought it was an accident, but after the third time it happened, he realized it was because he made her feel safe. He put his on her shoulder and gave it a small squeeze, Athena leaned into the touch and rested her head against him. Andrew was used to people using him to protect themselves from the world, but this was the first time that someone, a child even, was doing it solely because they trusted him. In the past, it had been because of promises, or because the person thought he was bigger and badder than whatever frightened him.

By the time Neil collected them, ready to check out and head home, Athena was practically glued to his side. When Neil saw them he smiled sweetly and led them through the store without commenting on it.

Three large bags of school supplies would have made the subway ride home nearly impossible, so Neil hailed a taxi. Andrew offered to part ways there, letting them take the ride for themselves, but Athena insisted he join them. Neil claimed the front seat while Andrew, Athena, and Zeus squeezed into the back. The drive home was short, but Athena still managed to fall asleep on his shoulder.

Pulling up to the apartment didn’t wake her up, nor did Neil climbing out of the car, so Andrew unbuckled both of them and picked her up. As he adjusted his hold of her Neil giggled to himself.

“She’s had a big day,” Neil said guiding Zeus toward the lobby door, “I guess she just couldn’t take all the excitement.”

Andrew let Neil get all the doors, and press the elevator buttons, as he carried her up to their floor. Neil opened his apartment door and let Zeus go ahead of him. Andrew followed them both in, walking straight over to the couch and settling in. He sat down sideways, leaning against the back of the couch and adjusted Athena so she could stretch out against his side.  His original plan was to sit there for a couple of minutes and then sneak away, instead he woke up half an hour later to the sound of someone shuffling around in the kitchen.

“Oh I’m sorry,” Neil whispered just loud enough to be heard, “I didn't mean to wake you up.”

Andrew glared at him for a moment they laid his head back down on the pillow. Athena sighed against his chest and he let her breathing lull him back into a half asleep state.

 

After the impromptu nap, Andrew managed to sneak away, using his weekly skype session with his cousin as an excuse to leave, but not before promising to come to dinner on Friday night. Back is his own apartment the Skype call was focused on how Nicky had gotten a random text from Matt Boyd apologizing for how he had treated them in college. Andrew decided not to mention that he was the reason that Matt had texted him, choosing instead to let Nicky believe that Matt had realized things on his own. He spent the rest of the night watching reruns of Bones on TNT and playing with King.

The next morning he woke up to a text from Matt congratulating him for joining what he claimed was the “best gym in the whole world”. Andrew showered slowly, letting the water relax him, before making his way to the gym. Randy hadn’t given him a time, so he showed up at 11:30. Half because he didn’t want anyone to get any expectations about him, and half because he slept terribly after taking a nap in the middle of the day.

He was greeted by both Randy and Matt when he knocked on the poorly marked door. Matt wanted to take him on an in-depth tour of the gym right away, but Randy shooed him off and took Andrew to her office.

The room looked more like a living room than an office, with leather couches and end tables covered in coffee cups and file folders.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said sorting through the closest stack and handing him a small folder, “I’m pretty sure I spent more time here than I do at home these days.”

They sat on one of the couches together and she explained the paperwork. Most of it was the average contract with monthly membership fees and a “don't be a dick” code of conduct, however, this contract had an extra section about leaving professional athletes alone and a clause forbidding people from asking for autographs while in the building. She offered to cut the price in half for Andrew, claiming she owed him, but he told her to save it for someone who needed it.  

After they finished Matt came back and took the chance to offer a tour again. Andrew thought he was trying to hard to be nice after what had happened yesterday morning, but there was also a good chance that he actually wanted to show him around so he accepted. The tour was not as long and drawn out as he expected, instead, Matt showed him all of the important stuff like his locker and which weights and machines were the best, then left him alone to explore.

Around one he headed off to another mandatory team meeting, that went over all of the information they all already knew. He was least excited by the fact daily practice was officially set to start the following Monday at 7 am.

   

Chapter Text


 

It turned out that hospital rooms were a lot harder for Neil to sleep in when he was well rested and fed. The exhaustion from the last two days gone and he was wired to run. The only thing keeping him glued to his spot was the sleeping infant in the corner of the room. The nurse next to her and the police officers stationed at the door would be easy to get past if he really wanted to, but the idea of leaving his sister to fend for herself paralyzed him. Logically he knew that she would be safer without him. A blue-eyed baby girl with no parents would be adopted into a good home in a heartbeat, no questions asked. 

He wanted the best life possible for her, and he genuinely doubted that he could give her that. As far as anyone knew she didn’t exist. Nathan may have been close enough to stab his mom, but she was wearing baggy clothes and moving just as quickly as she always did. There was no way anyone in his circle got a good look at either of them, so the baby was safe. And with the FBI showing up so quickly, and his mom being labeled as a Jane Doe, it would be nearly impossible to a crooked officer to find out anything useful and sell it to the butcher. 

Neil came to the conclusion that she would be better off without him seven times as he tried, and failed, to get some sleep. But every time he was sure he made up his mind to leave her she would whine or cry, or hiccup or coo, and he was back at square one. He knew he had to leave her to keep her safe, but he knew he could never do that, not while she was the only thing keeping him from falling apart.

By the time Heather came back at 8 am he had decided to stay, for a little while at least. It gave him a chance to get his strength back and rest up for the road ahead. He could leave at any time, there was no point in rushing it now. Especially not when he still had stitches in his arm. A few weeks, maybe a month, what difference would it make in the long run?

So far Neil had yet to be left alone with his sister, so when the overnight nurse left the room for a few minutes before Heather came in to relieve her he decided to steal her seat and check on his baby. She was sleeping with the weird green soothie pacifier in her mouth. At some point yesterday someone had explained to him why they kept her in only a diaper and gave her a pacifier so often, but he’d had forgotten most of it. 

He wanted to pick her up and hold her, feel her breathing so he would know she was okay, but he had no idea how to do that with all the equipment she was hooked up to. Maybe Heather would help him. The other nurse wasn’t as friendly as she was and he’d been afraid to ask because every time he got up in the middle of the night she’d tell him to go to bed and threaten him with sleeping pills. Well, she’d offer him sleeping pills, but after the second time, he’d said no, it had started to seem like a threat. 

When Heather walked in Neil had his hand in the incubator and was stroking the baby's small arm. She smiled at him and handed him a menu to look at for breakfast. The decision-making process went a lot faster now because he knew she would keep bothering him until he’d ordered what she considered to be enough food. 

After breakfast, she showed him how to change a diaper and wrap her in a swaddle. He wanted to learn how to make a bottle too, but by the time they got to that Athena was getting fussy so Heather did it by herself while Neil held her. He expected Heather to feed her, but when she was done she just handed the bottle to him. The confusion must have shown on his face because she handed him a pillow and started adjusting his arms into the right position. 

Yesterday he had thought it was weird that Heather stared at Athena so closely, but now he got it. Her bright blue eyes were looking up at him as she drank and he couldn’t help but stare back at her. Her eyes started to droop closed slowly, only to pop back open again a second later. He had never seen anyone fight sleep so hard. 

Quickly he learned that babies sleep a lot. By the time lunch rolled around she was on her third nap of the day. He also learned that she hated being in the incubator, but the only other option was that he held her skin to skin and he was not willing to do that, at least not with other people in the room to see his scars. 

Instead, he sat next to her cot and talked to her about anything he could think of. Stories of the Swiss Alps and the London underground led to tales of ocean views and mountain hikes. At first, he only spoke in English, as he got antsy to move around other languages come too. He told her about Paris in French and about Frankfurt in German. Heather asked what he was talking about a couple of times, probably bored sitting in a room with nothing to do, but she never asked him to explain, she knew the stories weren’t for her. 

Heather was getting ready to leave just before dinner when Mrs. Lorde came in followed by an intense looking man in a suit. Immediately Neil stood up, pulling his hand out of the incubator with enough force to rock it and wake the baby up, and hid behind Heather. 

The man and Mrs. Lorde stared at him while Athena wailed in her cot. For a moment no one moved, then Heather reached an arm behind her back, pinning Neil to her, and shuffled to the side until she could reach the cot. Neil moved with her, poking his head out just enough that the large man was in his sight at all times. Mrs. Lorde must have followed his line of sight because she was the first to speak up.

“Well,” she said forcing a tight smile on her face, “I apologize for barging in on you like that Neil, you all were clearly not expecting us. We will be right back after a little discussion in the hall.”

She turned to walk out of the room, whispering to the suit who did not want to leave until he turned too. When they were out of the room Neil stepped away from Heather as she calmed the baby by placing a hand in the cot and ran his hands through his hair tugging at the ends. 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I wasn’t trying to scare her. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident. I swear. I’m so sorry. I really didn’t--”

“Neil. Hey, look at me Buddy,” Neil looked at the hand she was holding out to him. Her palm was face up, calm and inviting.  He placed one of his hands in hers and she slowly pulled him in for a hug. “It’s okay, you didn’t do anything wrong. Do you understand that?”

Neil nodded his head and she held him tighter. “You did not do anything wrong.”

They stood there, hugging until Mrs. Lorde came back in a few minutes later. Heather helped him sit down in the recliner while Mr.s Lorde got him a glass of water. When he took the glass from her he realized that not hands were shaking. Then he realized that the rest of his body was too. Heather knelt down beside the chair and helped him hold his glass so he could take a drink without spilling it. She took the glass and handed it to Mrs. Lorde so she could stay on his level as she wrapped an arm around his shoulder and ran a hand through his hair. 

“That was Agent Browning,” Mrs. Lorde said through her tight smile, “he wanted to ask you a few questions, but we both agree that could wait another day.”

Neil stared at his hands, watching them sake as she talked. Then he placed one in his lap and the other in the cot. As he touched Athena’s hand she curled her fingers around his and held on tight. 

“Would you prefer a female Agent ask you questions?” she asked.

He kept his eyes in the baby but nodded his head. After taking a couple deep breathes he felt more settled and his hands stopped shaking. Heather was still petting his hair like he was a child, but he couldn’t find it in himself to complain about it yet.

“Can I ask why?” she said stepping closer and kneeling down to his level.

Neil looked at her while she moved, then turned his focus back to the cot. “My father is not a good man.”

“I know that,” she said calmly, “but you’ve been away from him for six years, right?”

“No. He hunted us across the U.S. and then across the Atlantic and back. He stabbed my mom two days ago and now she’s dead,” he gently pulled his fingers away from Athena and placed them over the bandages on his left arm. “He cut me. He did this. Now. Not just then. It didn’t end six years ago.”    

Mrs. Lorde nodded, keeping her composure, “Thank you for telling me that. Is there anything else I need to know right now?”

“I can... I can show you...” Neil said playing with the hem of his shirt, “you probably have to take pictures or something right? Like document it?”

Both women shot him concerned looks. 

“Document what Neil? Did someone hit you?” Mrs. Lorde asked. “You don’t have to show me anything if you don’t want to. We can have a doctor come in tomorrow and talk to you if that makes you feel better.”

Neil looked at Heather and chewed on his lips for a moment, deciding that he wanted to give his sister the best start he could, even if he had to leave her later. “You said skin to skin will help her?”

Heather looked confused but agreed with him. 

“Then I want to do that... but... I have to... I can’t until...” he took a deep breath and steeled himself for their reactions, “but I have to take off my shirt to do that... and it’s not pretty.”

“I see,” said Mrs. Lorde, “why don’t we do this tomorrow then? That way you can sleep on it and decide what you’re okay with.”

“No,” Neil said, having already made up his mind. “I want to do it now so I can hold her.”

Heather patted his arm, “Will holding her help you feel better? Athena is doing great, so if this won’t help you as well there’s no reason to do it now.”

Neil nodded, “I want to hold her.”

Heather stood up and turned toward the supplies, taking out everything she needed to feed Athena again. Neil realized that it would take a little while for Athena to be fed and ready to be held and he hoped that he wouldn’t lose his nerve by then. While he waited Mrs. Lorde left the room for a moment and came back with a clipboard and another nurse holding a camera. 

“Do you want to do this now while you wait?” Mrs. Lorde asked him gently.

Neil said okay and the two women sorted through paperwork for a moment then Mrs. Lorde informed him that she would have to record all of the injuries that he had when he came into the hospital, and any that he may have gotten while in their care. Finally, she introduced the other woman as Detective Sutton, the female agent assigned to his case until one from the FBI could be sent over. 

As Neil took off his shirt he watched for any reactions from the two women. Mrs. Lorde closed her eyes for a few seconds and chewed on her cheek but other than that neither one reacted. Neil zoned out for most of the interaction as the detective asked him to move this way and that way and took pictures. Mrs. Lorde stood beside her writing on her clipboard intently. 

Heather turned away as she fed the baby, giving Neil some semblance of privacy. The gesture wasn’t worth much when he had two other people inspecting him, but it still meant the world to him. Whatever effort it took her not to look at him meant that to her he was still whole, unbroken even if she would see it eventually.   

When they were done with the documentation a few minutes later Detective Sutton tried to ask him a few questions, but Mrs. Lorde quickly asked her to leave, citing that that was a big enough step for one day. She left just in time for the end of the feeding which meant that Heather had to turn around at some point. 

Neil sat down in the recliner and took a deep breath. “Can I hold her now?”

Heather turned around and smiled at him, looking him in the eye and nowhere else, “Of course!”

Slowly she placed the baby on his bare chest as he leaned back slightly in the chair. As soon as they were settled Athena let out a sigh of contentment. Neil took a deep breath and let himself smile, closing his eyes and enjoying the feeling of warmth she radiated as Heather placed a soft blanket over the both of them. Neil was careful not to fall asleep holding her as he felt the peace she brought into his life wash over him.


 

Chapter Text

The rest of the week passed quickly as Andrew prepared for the start of the season. He bought groceries and new workout clothes, finally figured out how to ride the subway, tracked the fastest route to practice, then found the least populated route even though it took longer. During his weekly catch up with Aaron he asked Katelyn about how her nephew was doing, which led to a very excited five minute speech about him starting preschool soon and how big he’s getting. 

Later that night Aaron texted him and said that that had made Katelyn’s entire week. Which was not the point, the point was to show Aaron he pays attention. Andrew had no idea how such a small gesture went such a long way in his relationship with both his brother and his soon to be sister-in-law. He realized logically that when they eventually got married she would be his legal family member, and he was trying to get that fact to set in emotionally. 

For the first 16 years of his life, family didn’t exist to him. Then family was an abusive mother and an abused brother. Eventually family became a doting cousin and reluctant brother. It had taken a few years for that to set in which was why he was trying to get used to the idea of Katelyn now, so that when they got married, he’d be ready for what it meant. 

 

By Friday Andrew was almost welcoming the start of practice. The last month with nothing to do but the occasional meeting had left him bored and when he was bored he felt like being reckless. So far he’d managed to stop himself from doing anything too out there, but the longer he went with no routine the more he wanted to do something that would definitely get him in some sort of trouble. After all, he only had so much self control. 

The idea that there was now a small child looking up to him helped, slightly. 

Friday night brought his weekly family dinner with the Jostens. Once again Neil made a meal completely from scratch. This time performing his magic to make lemon chicken and roasted garlic green beans. 

“Hey Andrew! Look,” Athena said as she put a finger on one of her teeth and started moving it back and forth, showing that the tooth was just starting to wiggle. “I have a loose tooth!”

“Woah, that’s so cool,” Andrew said mildly disgusted, once again thankful for his expressionless demeanor. 

Athena was teaching Andrew a lot about himself. Having not been around children for years meant he was out of the loop on certain things, like how gross loose teeth were to look at. 

“Last time I lost a tooth I got FIVE DOLLARS from the tooth fairy!”

 “What? The tooth fairy gives out five dollars now? When I was a kid all I got was a quarter,” Andrew replied. 

“It’s cause of inflation,” Athena said confidently. 

“Oh, is that so? A quarter 17 years ago is the same as five dollars now?” Andrew asked. 

“Uh huh,” Athena mumbled, taking a bite of chicken. 

“For some reason that math does not seem right to me,” Andrew said. 

Neil laughed, “Maybe all the tooth fairies unionized.”

“That’s not how unions work dumba—“ Andrew barely stopped himself from calling Neil a dumbass, and faked a cough. “If they unionized they would get paid more, not pay out more.”

“Well then maybe the market value of teeth increased,” Neil shot back. 

Andrew leaned forward, intrigued by Neil humoring the conversation. “Okay, then what is the value of a human tooth? What are the tooth fairies doing with them? Why do they need so many?”

Athena clapped her hands together and jumped up, “They’re building houses!” “Exactly, the demand for building supplies has increased, so they are willing to pay more for the same product,” Neil said smiling. 

“Of course, basic supply and demand. But, humor me here, what if the demand has decreased since the last time she lost a tooth?” Andrew asked. 

Neil rested his chin on his hand and cocked his head to the side, “Well in that case then the amount they are willing to pay for each tooth would decrease.” 

 Andrew tapped the tip off his nose twice and pointed at Neil, “You got it chief.”

 “So Athena,” Neil asked, “how much do you think a tooth is worth now? Has it gone up or down? Or stayed the same?”

 “Hmmm, I think it stayed the same,” she said after a moment of thought. 

 “Why do you think that?” Andrew asked. 

“Because the other day Sybil lost a tooth and she got five dollars too. So it stayed the same for a long time and that means it’ll stay the same for a bit longer.”

“That’s fair,” Andrew contended, “what are you going to do if you get five dollars?” 

Athena patted his arm in excitement and nearly jumped out of her seat again. “I’m going to put it in my piggy bank and then, when I have forty dollars, I’m gonna get a big Lego set.” 

 

After dinner Neil took Athena down the hall to take a shower while Andrew sat with Zeus. He felt settled into this new routine and reluctantly hoped it would continue. With his season starting soon and school for the other two starting in a week and a half he wasn’t sure how their Friday night plans would go. 

When they returned, Athena was wearing pajamas with Lego ninjas on them. They settled on watching Moana after a debate about the best Disney princess. Neil and Andrew both said Mulan but somehow Athena still won. Andrew sat at one end of the couch and Athena curled up next to him, pulling his arm around herself and resting her head on his chest. Neil sat at the other end and Zeus took up a similar position next to him. 

As with the previous movie night, Athena fell asleep on him before the end. Unlike the previous movie nights, Neil didn’t pick her up when the movie ended. 

Neil looked at the pair and smiled, “Do you want to carry her to bed?”

“You need to lift more, Josten,” Andrew said as he shuffled her around. “Can’t even pick up a small child. Jesus. That’s pretty pathetic.”

Neil laughed brightly watching as Andrew carefully picked her up and started walking down the hall. He followed them all the way to the bedroom then stopped to lean on the doorframe and watched as Andrew lifted the sleeping child nearly above his head to put her in her lofted bed. 

Lifting the weight was easy, but trying to get her through the doorway without hitting her head or her legs on the bed frame was surprisingly difficult. Andrew wondered if there was some trick to it that Neil wasn’t telling him. Once she was past the frame he gently placed her on the bed and tucked the blanket around her. 

He pressed a small kiss on her hair and whispered, “Good Night, Baby.”

When he turned around Neil was gone. Andrew took his time walking down the hall so he could look at the family photos he’d never bothered with. The few times he’d been down the hallway before, he’d thought that this would be temporary friendship and they’d get tired of him soon enough. However, it looked like the opposite was happening, like they may be starting to like him more. 

Almost all of the images were of only Athena, showing her growing up from an infant to a toddler to now. The only two pictures with Neil were in the same frame showing him with a woman in scrubs. In the first they were both making funny faces and in the second they were both bent over laughing. 

Neil never came looking for him, so he went to find him instead. The man in question was sitting on a stool at the peninsula bent over a laptop. He seemed to notice Andrew was standing there but he didn’t greet him, or even look up, so Andrew leaned against the wall and observed him. 

He was wearing his unhemmed cutoff shorts again, this time paired with a grey plaid button up. He’d been hat free through the evening, letting his wild and dark curls free, but now he had a black SnapBack on backward keeping the hair out of his face. 

“Whatcha working on?” Andrew asked. 

“We’re finishing up our summer research project this week so they can present it next Saturday,” Neil said without looking up. 

“They? Why aren’t you presenting it?”

That got Neil to look at him, with a confused look on his face, “It’s a two day thing in Jersey.”

“So?”

“So I have a six year old. I can’t just run off to another state whenever I want to.” Neil said sternly.

“Getting a babysitter for one night wouldn’t kill you. When’s the last time you did something for yourself?” Andrew challenged. 

Neil tensed. “I’ve never left her with anyone overnight. I think the longest anyone else has watched her is like four hours... If you’re not counting school.”

“Happy Mom, Happy Baby,” Andrew said. Neil glared at him but didn’t answer. “You need to do things for yourself. If you’re stressed and paranoid you’ll make her stressed. Kids are more perceptive than you think.”

“I’m not stressed. What do I have to be stressed about?”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Go present your research. Leave Athena with Randy. It’ll be good for her to get away from you for awhile.” 

“What does that mean?” Neil asked, clearly offended. 

“It means what it means,” Andrew said blankly. 

Neil closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Well Randy’s out of town next weekend so it doesn’t matter.”

“Then I can watch her,” Andrew suggested, mildly annoyed with himself for getting into this situation. 

“What.” Neil said it like it was a statement and not a question. 

 Andrew walked up to Neil and tapped the counter next to him twice, “It’s one night, I think we’ll both be able to survive that.”

“Ummm.... okay...” Neil said sounding unconvinced, “I’ll email my team and see what they want, I already told them I can’t go so we’ll see what they say. I guess?” 

Andrew left him there, looking extremely uncomfortable, and went back to his own apartment. The cat met him at the door and walked with him all the way to his bedroom. It was still too early to go to bed so he sat on the bed with King curled up in his lap and watched YouTube conspiracy videos until 1am. 

 

Monday was a mess. He woke up too early and couldn’t go back to sleep, which put him in a bad mood for the 7am commute to practice. After an hour long workout the coach sent all 24 sweaty athletes into the lounge for a meeting, which was as gross as it sounds, then sent them off to work with their sections. Defence got home while offense got away. The two groups discussed plays and then ran them for the rest of the day. In between, they took regular breaks for rest, water, and meals, until they all stumbled home tired from exertion.

Tuesday and Wednesday followed the same path. The only reason it bothered Andrew was because it was clearly a team bonding exercise as much as it was a skill exercise. He didn’t need to bond with his team to work with them. During discussions he always responded to direct questions, but overall stayed out of the conversations. 

On court was different. He called out to his teammates and kept his line solid. His job was to defend the goal, and he was paid well for it, so he wasn’t going to let anyone make that job more difficult. Not even his own backliners. His teammates loved it. Everytime he called out to them they responded by quickly and smoothly incorporating his suggestions into their plays. 

They all caught onto the fact that he didn’t want to chat with them and he was thankful for that. He thought of them as coworkers not friends, which was apparently a weird view to have in professional Exy. It seemed like everyone else on the team was in one huge friend group. 

He told Aaron as much on their Wednesday night chat and Aaron asked him to try to make at least one friend. It was probably the closest Aaron would get to admitting he was worried about Andrew so Andrew decided to play along. 

The week dragged on as he got used to waking up at 6am while going to bed way later than he should. By Friday he was exhausted and ready to sleep all weekend. The only hitch in his plan was that Neil had texted him on Monday and said his team was happy to have him along, since he did most of the writing of the report, and he would have to leave Saturday afternoon, returning on Sunday around dinner time. 

The only light in Andrew’s week was looking forward to his Friday night dinner date with Neil and Athena. He told his coach he had an appointment and left work an hour and a half earlier just so he would make it home in time for the 4:30 meal time. When he got to his floor and started to walk out of the elevator, he had barely taken two steps when the door to his left flung open and he was greeted by an excited child. 

She dragged him in the house, showing him the paint set they had set up on the coffee table and the unopened lego set in front of the fireplace. 

“Neil said since I had a fever this morning and a sore throat that I can’t go to the park all weekend so we get to do this instead,” Athena said sounding a bit rougher than usual, “and guess what else! The couch pulls out into a bed and Neil said I can sleep there tomorrow if I want! We’re gonna have so much fun! Aren’t you excited?”

Andrew eyed the paints as he thought about the light colored furniture, “Yep, this looks super fun and not at all like it will end in a disaster.”

Athena laughed, “You say really weird stuff sometimes.”

Dinner was served soon after and Andrew learned how bad her sore throat really was. She barely ate anything Neil put on her plate and he resorted to making her a can of soup instead. Andrew had no idea how she kept her happy attitude while she was in so much pain. 

After dinner, she fell asleep just a few minutes into the movie, which was weird because she could normally make it almost to the end. Neil asked Andrew if he wanted to carry her again, but this time he led him to the master bedroom and tucked her into Neil’s full sized bed.

“Should I cancel my trip?” Neil asked nervously, “What if her fever comes back? You know what, they can do it without me, I’ll just stay home.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, “It’s a cold, she’s fine. What makes you think that I can’t handle a cold?”

“It’s nothing against you, it’s just that she’ll feel better if I’m here. And then if she needs to go to the doctor I can take her right away.”

“I’m not sure if you know this but I am a big kid and I can also take her to the doctor. And feed her and give her cold medicine. And care for her in general. Need I remind you that she is very excited about spending a weekend with me?”

“Okay but what if-“

“Stop. You’re working yourself up for no reason. She’s okay. Kids get sick, it happens, but you made a commitment to your team and you need to trust that other people can help you while you follow through with that commitment. Okay?” Andrew said sternly, letting a small amount of judgment into his voice.

Neil didn’t look at all convinced but he relented, “Okay.”

“Now that we are done with this stupid conversation I am going to go home and get some sleep because I am not sure if you’ve heard, but I have big weekend plans with a six year old. Apparently I have to learn how to paint by tomorrow afternoon.”

Neil laughed, “I don’t think she cares if you can paint.”

“Oh, so you’re saying she won’t judge my art?” Andrew asked.

“She definitely will, but she also mocks professional art so don’t take it personally. The Mona Lisa is her least favorite painting because,” Neil raised his hands to add air quotes to his words, “she looks ‘too grumpy’.”

 Andrew huffed in a way that almost sounded like a laugh, “Good night Neil.”

“Good night, Andrew, see you tomorrow,” Neil called to him as he walked away.

 

The next afternoon Andrew knocked on the door thirty minutes before he was asked to arrive. Half because he was bored of sitting in his apartment waiting and half because he was sure Neil would be trying to get out of going. No one answered the door, and he didn’t hear anyone call out like they normally did when they were both occupied so he tried the handle. He was surprised to find it unlocked as he pushed the door open and called out to them. 

Neil appeared from the hallway, carrying a duffle bag, “Shh she’s sleeping.”

He pointed to the couch, which had the bed pulled out and the cushions off to the side leaning against it. It looked like there was just a pile of blankets on the bed, but after a second the blankets moved and he realized that she was sleeping in them. Neil told him to make himself comfortable as he finished packing. 

Andrew looked around for a place to sit, but the only option was the bed because the table had been shoved closer to the peninsula to make room for it, which meant that there was no way to sit at the stools or table. Slowly he walked forward and sat at the edge of the bed, trying not to wake her up. He knew from the two times that he had carried her to bed that she slept soundly, but he wasn’t sure how her cold would affect that. 

As he sat he thought about Neil trusting him with a child, and a sick child at that. He had talked Neil into this situation and he knew that if anything went wrong it would mean the end of their relationship. Before he got pulled too far into the dark places of his own mind, Athena saved him. She rolled over, bringing her pile of blankets with her, and landed with her head in his lap. He felt her forehead, noting how clammy it felt, then started stroking her hair. 

Neil found them like that a few minutes later and smiled. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” he said in a whisper.

Andrew nodded, continuing to pet her hair.

“Okay, call me if you need anything, but if you have a medical question, like her fever spikes or something call the advice nurse first. The number is on the fridge along with all her healthcare information. She hasn’t had a fever since it broke this morning, but she still has to take the medicine because of the sore throat and cough. Umm, what else?” Neil rambled nervously, obviously concerned about leaving her. “There’s shredded chicken and stuff for tacos in the fridge, but she’ll probably just want soup or Mac and cheese, which are in the cupboard next to the fridge.”

He turned and looked around the room, running his hands through his hair. Zeus walked up and nudged at his knee.

“She’s fine,” Andrew said trying to offer Neil some of his calm, “everything will be okay.”

“What if you get sick?” Neil asked.

“Then I get sick and we can be sick together,” Andrew said. Neil tried to interject but Andrew kept going, “I have been sick before and I will get sick again, it is not a big deal.”

Neil looked annoyed but gave up fighting with him and sat on the floor next to the edge of the bed. The position put him right next to Athena’s sleeping face. He patted her hair and whispered gently trying to wake her up. Zeus laid down next to him and scooted closer until his head was on his lap. 

“Hey baby bear,” Neil said a little bit louder, “time to wake up, Schmusebärchen.”

Andrew was slightly thrown off by the German term of endearment. Athena snuggled closer to him, wrapping an arm around his leg. He gently lifted his knee until he could get an arm around her then he lifted her up, with the blankets still wrapped around her, and sat her on his lap so she was facing Neil. She wiggled a bit, but settled quickly against his chest with her head tucked under his chin.

Neil’s face lit up, “Hi buggy, good morning. How do you feel?”

She groaned and reached a hand out, pushing his face away.

Neil laughed, “Okay baby, you can go back to sleep, but I have to go now. Can I have a hug?”

Athena leaned forward and hugged him, looking still half asleep. Neil kissed her hair and then her forehead before taking both of her cheeks in his hands and looking her in the eye.

“I love you. I love you. I love you,” he said holding her face as she sleepily blinked at him, “I’m not letting go until you say it back.”

“Mmm love you too,” she said.

As soon as Neil let go of her face she flopped back against Andrew’s chest. Neil smiled at them both. “Bye, I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Have fun.”

Neil collected his duffle bag and Zeus and headed for the door. He paused to say goodbye again before leaving and blew Athena a kiss. 

When the door closed behind him, Athena settled farther into Andrew’s lap. They sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the quiet. Andrew leaned farther back into the couch, which acted as a headboard for the pull-out bed. 

“Hey Andrew,” Athena said with a raspy voice, “can we watch a movie?”

Andrew knew that she was normally only allowed to watch movies on Friday nights, but he decided to ignore that. “Sure, what movie do you want to watch?”

“Ponyo,” she said digging through the blankets to find the remote.

As she moved, Andrew saw that she was wearing a onesie with foxes all over it. Since her bed looked like a cottage and a cabin he was sure that Neil just went with some sort of forest theme for her, which foxes fit, but he was equally sure that one of them had chosen that outfit for today just because he was a Fox. 

Andrew put the movie on and they settled back down, with Athena curled up next to him instead of on his lap. The opening credits played and Athena sat up.

“Where’s my bunny?” She asked, digging through the blankets.

“What?”

“I need my bunny,” she whined.

Andrew glanced around the room as she continued to dig through the bedding. Then he leaned over the bed to look under it. Sitting a few inches from the edge he saw a flat gray stuffed bunny.

“I found it,” he said as he sat up.

“Bunny!” She yelled, then started coughing.

Andrew patted her back until she stopped, then got up and poured her a cup of orange juice. She drank half the cup in one go when he handed it to her. The two then settled down on the pull-out bed and watched the movie. It was one Andrew had seen before and he quoted all of the Father’s lines, which Athena thought was hilarious. Halfway through the movie, Neil texted him to give Athena more cold medicine, which she took without any complaining. Andrew thought that said a lot about how poorly she felt, because he knew from experience that that stuff was disgusting. 

By the time the movie was over, it was past their normal dinner time, but Athena still said she wasn’t hungry. Andrew made himself two burritos and queued up My Neighbor Totoro. While they watched the movie, he handed her pieces of shredded chicken and lettuce every few minutes. She fell asleep on him before the movie ended, but by then she had eaten most of his second burrito. 

Andrew was trapped under her as she slept. He didn’t want to disturb her by moving, especially since he didn’t have to carry her to her own bed. After a few minutes, he pulled out his phone and started scrolling through twitter. Around 8, Neil texted him.

How is she?

Andrew responded by sending a selfie of her sleeping on his chest. 

I’m trapped. 

She looks so peaceful

I’m hungry. How do I move her?

She’ll wake up before you starve to death. 

Probably.

What if I have to pee?

Hold it.

Andrew sent him back an emoji of a hand flipping him off. 

Are you going to sleep with her?

Neil asked the question like it wasn’t a big deal. Andrew hadn’t even considered sleeping on the pull-out with her because it wasn’t even an option in his mind. Apparently he took too long to respond because Neil texted him again. 

You don’t have to. But if you don’t she’ll probably get up in the middle of the night and come find you. 

The guest bed has clean sheets and so do both of hers if you want to sleep somewhere else. 

Or my bed I guess, but that’s covered in clothes and stuff.

Andrew thought about it for a moment. The pull-out was basically the same size as a queen bed which meant he could put a good amount of space between them. Then, if she woke up in the middle of the night, she wouldn’t freak out about him not being there. 

I’ll just sleep here 

Okay thank you. Don’t forget to give her another dose at 9. Good night.

When it was time to give her the medicine, Andrew slowly rolled her off of himself and got up. He helped her sit up a little and brought the cup to her mouth, she swallowed it all without ever opening her eyes and he was sure she didn’t even wake up through the whole process. 

He laid down on the other end of the bed, tired and ready to sleep. His night wasn’t restful, however. Between her coughing fits and her kicking him every few minutes, he barely got four hours of sleep by the time she woke up at 7 am. 

Andrew got up to make her breakfast, but she demanded to take a bath. He texted Neil to ask if that was okay and Neil told him he had to sit with her the whole time so she didn’t make a mess or destroy something. Even with Neil’s permission he felt weird about it, but she was already grumpy enough and he didn’t want to deal with her throwing a fit if he said no.

She led him to her bedroom after he had given her some more medicine and made her eat some oatmeal, which was a fight in and of itself, and they picked out white fairy pajamas for her to wear. Then they went to the bathroom and she pulled out all her favorite bath toys while Andrew ran the bath. 

Before the bath was even half full, she stripped down and climbed in, without caring that he was there at all. He couldn’t even imagine being so carefree as a child. Most of his foster homes had been group homes where one bath was run and each child was placed in the tub and scrubbed then rinsed off again in less than a minute each. But by her age, he had been bathing completely by himself. 

He sat on the closed toilet and watched her play for a few minutes. Eventually, she instructed him to sit on the floor so they could play together. He ended up on his knees with both his arms in the tub playing with hot wheels. 

When they were done she pulled the plug and stood up so he could wrap her in a towel and lift her out. He helped her dry off and then had to help her get dressed because the pajamas kept sticking to her damp skin. He felt weird about touching her while she was naked but he was also incredibly thankful that she had such a safe life that she felt comfortable letting him. 

After the bath, they settled on the pull-out bed, with the tray table Neil had brought them breakfast in bed on a few weeks ago and opened a Lego Friends set. Andrew felt like having ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ legos was stupid, but Athena loved that these mini figures were taller than the regular ones. 

“Look,” she said, holding up a lego princess, “it’s me!”

“Wow, it looks just like you. How did they do that?” he asked.

She laughed, “Magic duh Daddy!”

She continued building her set and didn’t seem to notice the name slip, but Andrew did. 

After the lego tree house was finished, Andrew asked what she wanted for lunch. She said she wasn’t hungry, but when Andrew handed her a bowl of Mac and cheese half an hour later she ate the entire thing. While he was cleaning their dishes after lunch, she went into her room and grabbed a big book of fairytales. 

She settled on the pull-out bed and waited for Andrew to finish. When he sat on the bed, she snuggled up to him and handed him the book.

“Hey Daddy? Can we read the one about the frogs?” she asked.

Andrew was sure that she was only calling him that because she was sick and missed Neil so he let it slide again without commenting on it, “Sure, I like the princess and the frog.”

He opened the book and started reading, coming up with new voices for each character and changing the princess’s voice when she turned into a frog. Athena loved it and laughed every time he tried to do a girls’ voice. For the next story she wanted Snow White, claiming it was Neil’s favorite. She fell asleep before he was even half done reading it, but he finished reading it aloud anyway hoping she was dreaming about the story. 

Neil found them like that an hour later, curled up together on the pull-out bed with Andrew reading to the sleeping child. He smiled at Andrew while he took off Zeus’s vest, then they both climbed onto the bed together. Zeus settled by Andrew’s feet while Neil sat down on Athena’s other side. 

“How was she?” he asked, barely more than a whisper while he ran his hand through her hair.

“Good,” Andrew answered. 

Athena shifted and snuggled closer to Andrew while Neil looked at her with love in his eyes. 

“She called me daddy a couple times though,” Andrew said after a moment.

Neil laughed, “Did you watch Peppa Pig? She always calls me ‘Daddy Pig’ after we watch that.”

“No,” Andrew said raising an eyebrow.

“Huh,” Neil said looking slightly confused, “I guess she just likes you then.”

“Does it bother you?”

Neil looked up at him taken aback. He took a moment to respond, “No, should it? Does it bother you?”

“No.” Andrew said.

“Okay, if it does you can ask her to stop.” Neil said still looking confused.

“It does not bother me.” Andrew said coolly. 

“Then it doesn't matter?” Neil asked. 

Athena stirred between them. She looked up at Andrew and smiled sleepily, then turned toward Neil. She blinked at him twice before she seemed to realize he was home. Once she did she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

He hugged her back and kissed her hair, “Hi Baby Bear, did you miss me?”

“Mhm,” she said into his chest, “guess what! Andrew said we can have subway for dinner!”

Andrew put his hand on his forehead, “I said if Neil wasn’t home by 4:30 we could have subway for dinner. It’s 3 and he’s home so you have to ask him.”

Athena looked up at Neil with her big blue eyes, “Can we? Please?”

“Sure,” Neil said pulling out his phone, he typed something out then handed his phone to Andrew, “I know everyone who works at the subway down the block, write what you want and I’ll go pick it up.” 

Andrew read over the text of Neil and Athena’s orders, plus the overly friendly greeting Neil put at the beginning and added his own choices to the text. Neil told them all about his fancy presentation while they waited for the food. When Neil got a reply, he left, leaving Zeus with them, only to come back a few minutes later. 

“Normally I have to go pick it up from the shop,” Neil said as he grabbed the breakfast tray, “but they offered to bring it to the building since Athena’s sick.”

Neil passed out the food then pulled out his phone and asked Athena to smile for a photo so he could send it to the staff. She added a thumbs up to the pose. A few minutes later Neil got a reply and he showed them a photo of two women in subway uniforms giving the camera a thumbs up.

“They said they hope you feel better soon,” Neil said reading from his phone.

Athena smiled, “Tell them thank you!”

After they ate Athena settled back down on Andrew’s chest and they watched another movie. Athena really wanted to watch Spirited Away, and Neil let her, but he said if it was too scary she had to tell him. 

They started out the movie with Athena sitting on Andrew’s lap and holding her bunny. Within a few minutes she was clutching Andrew’s hand. By half way through she was holding Neil’s hand too. They kept asking if it was too scary for her, but she said it’s wasn’t every time. By the end of the movie, she had Andrew’s arm wrapped around her waist and had pulled Neil so close that he was pressed thigh to thigh and shoulder to shoulder with Andrew. 

Andrew was slightly uncomfortable with how close he was, and judging by how tense Neil was he was too, but they both put that aside to help Athena feel safe. When the credits rolled, Neil scooted away from him as quickly as possible and said that movie time was over. 

He got up and started setting up the paint set on the tray table. Athena crawled off of Andrew’s lap to watch him, which gave Andrew the chance to stand up and step away from the bed. Athena complained when she saw him, but he used his cat as an excuse to go home and got ready to leave.

When he entered his apartment King was sleeping on the couch and didn’t react to him at all. He checked her food and water, seeing they were still half full because he had overfilled them when he left the day before. He went back to the couch and lifted the cat up, laying down while still holding her. Once he was settled, he left her go and she laid down on his chest. Settling in for a night to decompress from 26 hours with a sick child, he turned on the tv to King’s favorite nature video. 

He almost forgot about his call with Aaron, but remembered at the last minute. Luckily his laptop was sitting on the coffee table and he could open it without getting up. Katelyn told him how cute he looked with his cat and he glared at her. He was glad when the show started because they all focused on it instead of on him and his cat. After the call, he turned the nature video back on and let himself zone out and decompress, half asleep for the rest of the night. 

 

Chapter Text

The first day back after a bank holiday always annoyed Andrew. Getting an extra day added onto his weekend made him less inclined to get up for work the next day. It didn’t help that Labor Day was on a Monday, meaning Tuesday became the most annoying day of the week after it. It also didn’t help that he turned off his alarm instead of pressing snooze and then woke up with less than five minutes to leave the house. 

He opened the door at 7:30 fully prepared to be annoyed for the rest of the week. While he locked his door something clicked behind him and he heard the Josten’s leaving their apartment. Athena greeted him as enthusiastically as she always did, and he waved back at her, slightly put off by her brightly patterned overalls and clashing striped shirt. 

“Someone’s not a morning person,” Neil said significantly too cheerfully for so early in the morning. 

“That’s okay!” Athena said grabbing both of their hands, “let’s go!”

Neil turned to lock the door and Andrew realized what he was wearing for the first time that morning. His usually tattered shorts and shirt were replaced by a nice pair of gray trousers and a blue checked button-up. He looked like some sort of business casual model, even his crazy curls were tamed. It was as annoying as it was hot. 

“What the hell are you wearing?” Andrew asked when he turned back around.

Neil looked down at himself quickly, then looked up relieved, “Oh my god, don’t do that! I thought I forgot pants or something for a second.”

Athena patted his arm, “Don’t worry I would have told you.”

“Thank you, baby,” Neil said smiling and turning toward the elevator, “Okay, come on, press the button we need to go.”

The three, plus Zeus, rode the elevator together and then started their walk. They went the same direction for a few blocks, then Andrew had to turn while the Josten’s continued straight. Before he could leave them Athena started pouting. 

“Can I have a hug?” She asked, pushing her bottom lip out and magically making her eyes even more big and blue. 

“Sure,” Andrew said hesitantly. 

She wrapped her delicate arms around his waist and squeezed tightly. Watching her smile up at him he patted her back twice, the best he could do to hug her back at that moment. After parting she waved at him until he was around the corner, he looked back at her a couple of times, and she smiled like it was the best thing to ever happen to her.

He thought of that interaction for the rest of the trek to work. Never in his life had someone been so genuinely happy to be in his presence and he wasn’t sure what to think about it. The easiest explanation was that she was still little and really had no idea what an appropriate reaction would be. She probably did that to everyone, he thought, ignoring what Randy had told him a couple of weeks ago about Athena not taking quickly to adults. 

His workday dragged on as he thought it would. Self-fulfilling prophecy. It dragged on because he thought it would. Really he should know better than to make a claim like that so early in the morning, his excuse was that he didn’t have his coffee. 

The next morning he left for work a little bit earlier, closer to his normal time, and missed seeing the Josten’s. He wondered if they always left at 7:30 and if maybe he could walk with them again. Seeing a child so happy to see him so early in the morning helped him get out of bed the next day.

Worked dragged on as he sat through meetings and consultations on Wednesday. He thought college Exy was bad enough, but professional was worse. Dieticians and physical trainers wanted to discuss his diet and tweak his gym workouts while public relations wanted to give him social media training. As the only rookie on the team this year he had to sit through senseless discussions while everyone else trained. For the first time in his life, he would have rather been playing Exy than doing this.

A little after three his phone buzzed and he pulled it out, ignoring the other people in the room who were trying to talk to him.

Athena’s mad at you. 

Why ?

She knocked on your door because she wanted to dance with you, and you didn’t answer.

At work

Yeah I told her that. She didn’t care.

  Tell her I will come over before bed and dance with her, if that’s okay with you

You don’t have to. I just thought it was funny.

I will

Okay? See you then I guess.

“Minyard? Everything good? Is this something important?” His coach asked.

“My neighbor,” Andrew said, letting them read into that that they wanted.

“Do you need to go?”

Andrew checked his phone again, knowing there was nothing new to see, “I can deal with it later.”

 

He got home a little after five and started making dinner for himself. Despite the fact that cooking was his least favorite chore he made a few okay chicken breasts. His first thought was that Neil would have done better, but he shoved that thought out of his head. 

King settled down on the couch and he joined her, taking his plate with him. As soon as he started eating again his laptop chimed, Aaron’s profile picture flashing on the screen. He answered the call and started complaining about his day of meetings without greeting either his brother or Katelyn. They both seemed amused by it, which was slightly annoying. A knock on the interrupted the call a few minutes in. 

“It’s open,” Andrew called. He’d left it unlocked on purpose after his smoke break. 

Athena barged in and ran up to him, holding her hand out. “Look, Andrew! I lost my tooth!”

Andrew leaned over and looked at her hand, “Nice. Did you pull it out by yourself?” 

“Mhm,” she nodded, “I’m a big kid I don’t need help.”

On the screen Aaron cleared his throat, scaring Athena, who jumped at the noise. She turned around quickly and took a couple of steps back so she was standing in between Andrew's legs. Andrew leaned forward, moving his arm around her so he could point at the screen. 

“That’s my brother, Aaron. And that is his girlfriend Katelyn,” he said. 

She waved at them excitedly, “Hi, my name is Athena.”

“Does your dad know you’re here?” Andree asked. 

“Yep,” Neil said from the doorway. 

Andrew had no idea how long he’d been standing there or how he managed to sneak up on him again. Ever since he managed to do it at the gym Andrew had been paying more attention to where he was, but Neil was sneaky enough to keep doing it. Andrew wondered if Neil was doing it on purpose, or if he was naturally talented, while Athena showed the camera her tooth.   

“That’s so gross,” Aaron said.

“I know,” Athena replied smiling widely and showing off the new gap in her teeth, “it’s so gross and cool!”

“Yeah, it is!” Katelyn cheered with her. 

Neil stayed in the doorway while Athena chatted about how much money she would get from the tooth fairy, and what she was going to do with it. Andrew kept his eyes on the screen because they would notice if he didn’t, but his mind was focused on Neil standing in the doorway. He didn’t enter Andrew’s apartment, even when he spoke up to throw a comment into the conversation. Andrew wondered why for a moment. Was it just because he hadn’t been invited in?

When she was done talking Andrew told Athena that he would come over when he was done, but she said she wanted to listen. She climbed onto his lap and leaned back against his chest while he wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her from falling. 

“Are you going to keep her?” Neil asked from his perch.

“Apparently,” Andrew replied. 

“Okay, then I’m going to go do some homework.” He pointed at Athena and made a stern face, “be back by Midnight Young Lady.”

Athena laughed so hard she started to fall off of Andrew’s lap, he caught her quickly and repositioned her, this time keeping his arm around her waist. He picked up the conversation where it had left off before she interrupted and ignored the looks both Aaron and Katelyn were sending him. Athena sat patiently through the entire conversation, nodding along occasionally. When Andrew finally said goodbye and hung up she jumped up and grabbed his hand.   

“It’s almost bedtime we can dance now!” she informed him.

“It’s not that close to bedtime.”

“Andrew,” she whined, bouncing up and down on her feet like she wanted to stomp, “you said you would dance with me.”

“Hey,” Andrew said calmly, “what’s this attitude for?”

“I want to dance,” she said, continuing her whiny voice. 

“I understand that, is there a nicer way to ask?”

Athena made a face at him and started to move like she was going to stomp her feet, but she froze instead, looking past him with wide eyes. 

“Well,” Neil said from the doorway, “is there?”

Athena huffed, and spoke with a nicer tone, “Can we maybe dance now?”

“Sure, thank you for asking nicely,” Andrew said as he turned to grab his phone and start some music. 

Neil was faster and blasted Shake It Off before he had even grabbed his phone. Athena threw her hands up in the air and started kicking her feet out in every direction. After a moment of solo dancing, she grabbed Andrew’s hands and started pulling hi along with her. He wiggled his shoulder slightly, otherwise staying still, while she jostled his arms about. Andrew thought he heard Neil laugh from behind him, but he wasn’t completely sure. Athena pulled him into the living room dancing in a way that conflicted with the beat of the music, while Neil leaning on the doorframe. They continued to dance to the same song on repeat until Neil said it was time to get ready for bed. 

Andrew followed them into their apartment and made himself at home on the couch while the other two got ready for bed. He wasn’t sure why, but something about their apartment felt more inviting to him than his own one did. Athena ran out and gave him a hug before being tucked into bed and he felt weirdly calm about it. She was slowly breaking down his barriers, he realized. He hadn’t flinched at all when she climbed onto his lap a few hours earlier, and he was becoming a part of her everyday routine. He considered putting some space between them all, but couldn’t commit to the idea. 

Neil came back a few minutes later and settled on the other side of the couch like he always did. They sat in silence for a few minutes and Andrew was beginning to wonder if Neil was falling asleep when Zeus trotted out. 

“Is she asleep?” Neil asked him, digging a treat out of his pocket and handed it to him, “good boy Zeus.”

“I am pretty sure that’s not how you are supposed to use a service dog,” Andrew said side-eyeing him. 

“Oh, you’re an expert now?” Neil asked playfully. Andrew only shrugged in response so he continued. “Athena is one of my biggest worries. If he’s with her I don't worry as much, he keeps an eye on her. Like when I go smoke for a minute or take the trash out, I have to leave him with her or I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Neil tapped his finger on his knee a few times, chewing on his inner cheek. “He does stuff just for me too though. Like he checks the house for intruders every time we come home, and he guards me while I sleep or shower. And he has a few things he can do when I have a panic attack. And-”

“That was a poorly placed joke, I apologize,” Andrew said interrupting whatever Neil was about to say. “You do not need to explain yourself, I should not have questioned it.”

Neil looked at him, eyebrows drawn together and a slight frown on his face, “Okay. It’s not a big deal?”

“If you want to talk about it you can, but you do not have to explain yourself,” Andrew repeated, making his point clear. “Not to me or anyone else.”

Neil nodded, “Yeah okay. Thank you.”

They turned the topic of discussion to safer subjects and discussed their degrees. Andrew’s degree in criminal justice would probably never be used, but Neil’s soon to be degree in Mathematics would hopefully become a doctorate eventually. Neil talked about how important education is and his hopes for Athena. Andrew watched the way that Neil talked about his plans and goals for his daughter with awe. The man clearly cared for her more than most people cared about their children. He wanted her to be happy and kind above all else, such an admirable goal. By the time Andrew went home, it was a little after Midnight and a good two hours after his bedtime. 

 

As soon as he walked into practice the next morning he knew it was going to be a long day. There was a team dinner planned for that evening, one that he was only required to show up for half an hour. He was already tired from staying up late when all eyes turned on him. No one spoke, but half the team was already in the lounge and they all stared.

“What,” he said gruffly.

“So Minyard,” his captain, Mariah Emmerson, said from the couch, “you know how we’re all supposed to go to Lane’s house for dinner tonight? Well, his kid’s sick, so we were all wondering if we could do it at your place.”

“No. Why not cancel it?” Andrew asked.  

“The thing is, all the food’s already been ordered and we have enough drinks to serve the team for a week. So, you don’t even have to do anything,” She said giving him an unconvincing smile.

“Then it could be at anyone’s house,” Andrew said standing his ground.

“Not to play the rookie card, but you are the only rookie here and-,”

Andrew tried a different route since she was clearly not going to give in just because he said no. “My two-bedroom apartment can not hold 24 people.”  

“Oh, the coaches aren’t coming. And Lane can’t obviously, and then Bennet’s still on maternity leave, so it's just 19 people! That should be okay right?”

“I have four chairs,” Andrew bit his tongue, annoyed that she wasn’t respecting his clear no.

“We can make it work. Come on Minyard,” she said putting on a childish out, her voice near a whine,  “I’ll let you out early for a week?”

She seemed to have realized that demanding something from him wasn’t going to get her anywhere. Half the people on his old team hadn’t figured that out after five years, and she did in one conversation. He decided to agree, but only if she could make it work his while. 

“I want five paid days off that I can take any time throughout the season, in addition to my normal sick pay and vacation days,” he said not expecting her to agree to his terms.

She jumped up and walked over to him throwing out her right hand for a handshake, “It’s a deal! Thank you so much!”

 

18 people following him home on his commute was not ideal under any circumstances. There was no way for them all to fit in the same subway car so he joined the group chat he’d so far managed to stay out of and texted them directions. The food and drinks were set to be delivered at 6:30 by some company the team had paid. Mariah took care of having the address changed so all he had to do was let them all into his house and play nice for the evening.      

As the elevator door opened he heard someone throw open the Josten’s door too. He walked out, followed by the four teammates who had managed to stay close to him and saw Athena hiding behind the door, poking her head out. 

He crouched down in the doorway to be eye level with her and suck out his hand, “What did the tooth fairy give you?”

“Five dollars! But they’re all weird,” she said digging a hand in her pocket. She pulled out five gold coins and handed them to him.

“Wow, Sacagawea dollars. These are really special,” he said, aware of the people watching him.

“Neil said I could put them on the bookshelf and he’d trade me for five real dollars,” she said smiling. Then she dropped her voice to whisper, “who are all these people?”

“This is part of the team from work,” Andrew said. He gave her all of their names and they waved at her. “They’re coming over for dinner.”

“Can I come too?” she asked.

“No, sorry. We aren’t going to eat until after you go to bed”

“Can I come?” Neil called from somewhere in the house.

“No,” Andrew called back, “you know enough professional athletes already.”  

Neil laughed, calling Athena back into the house. She waved at him before closing the door, and he promised to come to dinner the next night. Turning back around he ignored the looks of his teammates while he unlocked the door to his apartment. He walked in, assuming they would follow, greeting the cat and picking her up. His teammates did follow behind him, oohing and awing at his apartment. Over the next half an hour the rest of his team showed up, bringing wine. They complimented all his style, how comfortable his furniture is, and how pretty the view is. He suspected that the real reason they had to have dinner at his house was so that they could check him out more.

King ignored all of them, opting to hide in the bedroom instead of dealing with their senseless babble. By the time the food arrived and was set up along his peninsula, they were both ready for everyone to go home. 

The two stools, four chairs, and the three-person couch he had were taken quickly, meaning the remaining members of his team had to sit on the floor. Luckily no one complained about it because he was already on edge and would have kicked everyone if they did. Andrew sat at the table, taking up one of the few chairs, eating his pasta silently while everyone in the room chatted together. He wasn’t even half paying attention to the conversation until his door creaked open and the conversation stopped. He looked up just in time to see Athena poked her head into the room. 

Her eyes widened when she saw how many people were looking at her and she froze. Andrew held out a hand to her, noticing that she was about to cry.

“Hey baby,” he said calmly, “come here.”

She walked over to him slowly, weaving between the people on the floor. As soon as she reached him she climbed on his lap without hesitating and dropped her head onto his shoulder. 

“What’s wrong, bug?” he asked, not meeting the eyes of anyone staring at him.

Athena mumbled something he didn’t understand into his shoulder and he asked her to repeat herself.     

“I can’t sleep,” she said, her eyes drifting closed,

“Where’s your dad?” he asked, concerned about how Neil would react to finding out his six-year-old snuck out of the house.

“Shower,” she mumbled.

“Okay, let's get you back to bed,” Andrew stood up, adjusting his hold on her while Zeus trotted in. “Don’t worry Zeus I’m taking her back.”

When he looked up Neil was standing in the doorway, hair dripping wet, haphazardly dressed, and breathing quickly. 

He smiled tightly at the group and apologized for the interruption while Andrew carried Athena past him. She was asleep on his shoulder by the time he made it to her front door, Neil following closely behind him. Neil and Zeus staying in the living room while he carried her down the hall and into her bedroom. Lifting her into her bed was slightly easier this time, he’d figured out just how to rotate her so that she didn’t hit the railing. 

When he walked back out of the room he saw Neil laying on the floor with Zeus laying sideways across his chest. Neil had his eyes closed but he was breathing quickly still, and Andrew thought he might be shaking. Instead of leaving him to deal with it himself he sat down by his head. 

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

Neil opened his eyes and looked at him. “No,” he said through gritted teeth. 

“Okay, do you want me to leave?”

“I don’t care,” Neil said. He ran a hand through Zeus’s hair and opened his mouth to speak again, but closed it quickly. A few seconds later he repeated the action, “Can you talk?”

Andrew told him who was over for dinner and how he ended up in the situation. When he was finished he told Neil about his commute home, how only four members of his team managed to stay with him, and how much King hated having them all in her space. Neil looked slightly less ill when he was finished, his breathing returned to normal.  

“I didn’t even finish my shower,” Neil said running a hand through his still wet hair, “Zeus started whining so I got out to check and then I found my door open and kid missing.”

Andrew watched at Neil’s breathing picked up again and Zeus nudged at his face. 

“I didn’t have a good childhood,” Neil continued, digging his hands into his hair, “and people tried to kill me a lot of times. And people tried to kill me in my sleep a lot of times too. So coming out, and finding my child who had been asleep when I went in, gone.”

He stopped talking and didn’t continue, but Andrew got the point anyway. His mind had gone to the worst-case scenario because he knew from experience just how bad the worst case could be. Andrew slowly reached over and pried Neil’s hands out of his hair. 

“Go finish your shower, I will wait here and keep watch.”

Neil seemed to suddenly realize that Andrew was really there and he sat up quickly, Zeus sliding down his chest to his lap. “No, you’ve wasted enough time go back to your party.”

“Neil, go take a shower,” Andrew said looking him in the eye so he’d know he meant it.

Neil got up slow with Zeus pressed against his leg as he walked down the hall. Halfway there Neil turned around and looked at Andrew.

“Could you sit outside the door?” he asked quietly.

Andrew got up without saying anything and followed him down the hallway. He expected Neil to go into his bedroom and use the ensuite bathroom, but instead, he went into the one filled with children’s bath toys in the hallway. Zeus followed him in and he locked the door behind them. Andrew settled down on the floor leaning against the door. He pulled out his phone and texted his captain saying he was going to stay next door for a while. Mariah texted him back quickly to ask if they should leave, which he was grateful for. He said they could stay for a while and put his phone away. From his position he could just see Athena’s door, so he kept his eyes on it while he listened to the shower running. 

Neil came out about ten minutes later looking significantly better than he had when he went in. He said he had some homework to do, but Andrew told him to go to bed. They stared at each other for a moment before Neil relented and headed toward Athena’s room

“I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight if I’m not with her,” he said rubbing at his eye.

“Goodnight Neil, I’ll lock the door on the way out.”

“Hey, Andrew? Thank you. You know for...,” he waved his hand in front of him a couple of times, trying to the words, “just thank you.”

Andrew nodded at him and headed back down the hallway. He locked the door handled, trying it from the outside just to be sure. When he walked into his apartment everyone was eating dessert and the dishes from dinner were already cleaned and put away.

“Hey!” Mariah called when she saw him walk in the door, “we saved you some cake.”

He accepted the cake from a backliner and sat down in the chair he had left earlier. He was surprised no one had taken it when he left, and he was equally surprised that no one asked what happened. 

After dessert, the team worked together to tidy up his apartment and collect all of their trash so they could take it out when they left. While everyone else grabbed their bags to head out one dealer stayed back.

“Hey, was that dad okay?” asked Brad Hunt, who Andrew had never spoken with before, “I’d be freaking out if my kid did something like that.”

Andrew nodded, “He’ll be fine.”

“It was nice of you to stay there for a while, I can’t even imagine what must have gone through his head,” Andrew nodded again, which Brad took as an invitation to continue, “I see you, Minyard. You’re a good guy underneath all that glaring.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, and Brad laughed.

“Goodnight, Bud,” Brad called to him as he walked to the door.

“Goodnight,” Andrew returned, making Brad laugh again.

Chapter Text

Friday’s were the best day of the week by far, not because it was the last workday, but because Andrew got to go over to the Josten’s and have a proper home-cooked meal. The company didn’t hurt either. On his way home he was almost excited to get there. His team had asked a few questions when he got into work and only stopped when Brad spoke up, which was frustrating. He didn’t need some random person thinking they were his friend and helping him out like that. Halfway home, his phone buzzed.

We aren’t watching a movie tonight. Athena’s in trouble for last night.

Okay

She’s pissed about it, so I would really appreciate it if you backed me up here.

Of course

Thank you so much. 

I have a headache. I just want to go to sleep. 

How long until you’re home? 

10 minutes 

 

As he knocked on the door, he heard Neil call that it was open. He walked into the apartment and saw Neil standing at the stove stirring something while Zeus slept by his feet. The house was peacefully quiet. 

“Where is she?” he asked, walking into the kitchen to get a better view of the food.

Neil plopped the spoon down on the spoon rest and wiped his hands off on his pants, “In her room playing.”

Andrew looked him over, noting how tired he seemed, “How do you feel?”

“I have never yelled at her before,” Neil said, holding up his hand showing his pointer finger almost touching his thumb, “and I came this close to doing it when we got home from school.”

“You’ve never yelled at her?” Andrew asked incredulously, he was sure even good parents yelled at their kids sometimes. “That’s not a realistic standard to hold yourself to.” 

Neil ran his hands through his hair, “I don’t know. I just know how I was raised and I don’t want to do anything even remotely close to that.”

Andrew nodded and took a moment to find his next words, “You need to ask for help when you get overwhelmed then. You can’t expect yourself to always be at 100 percent.”

“Do you want to talk to her?” Neil asked, “by all means go ahead.”

“Okay. Is the food done?” Andrew asked, Neil nodded at him, “Go take something for your headache and lay down. I can feed her.”

Neil tried to argue but Andrew looked at him with an eyebrow raised until he backed down. Neil went to the couch and laid down, followed by Zeus who laid between his legs with his head on his thigh. Once Neil was settled Andrew went down the hall in search of the child. 

He found her in the third bedroom that he had never been in before. It served as a playroom, with a twin-sized bed crammed in as well. Athena was sitting in front of a wooden dollhouse redressing a barbie. Andrew sat down next to her movie a Bulbasaur build-a-bear out of his way.

“Don’t touch him,” Athena said without looking away from what she was doing, “he’s bad.”

“He’s bad? What did he do?” Andrew asked.

“He’s just bad,” Athena said.

Andrew took a deep breath, “Is that what Neil told you? That you’re bad?” 

“No,” Athena said finally looking up at him, eyebrows drawn together in confusion.

“What did Neil say then?”

“He said that I can’t go to your house without asking and I can’t watch a movie,” she said.

Andrew pulled the Bulbasaur into his lap and patted its head, “Do you understand why?”

“Because he was scared, but that’s not my fault that he was scared. Why can’t I watch a movie?” she asked throwing her toy down.

“Hey,” Andrew said, brushing her hair out of her face so he could look her in the eye, “don’t hurt your toys. It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hurt something on purpose, you still need to pay attention to your actions. Yeah? You did something that scared your dad, and even if that’s not what you meant to happen it still did. Remember when Neil left when you were asleep and it upset you?”

“Yeah,” Athena mumbled, leaning into his hand.

“Do you remember what Neil did? He apologized and said that next time he would wake you up first. He didn’t mean to upset you,” Andrew said, putting the stuffed animal down and pulling her onto his lap instead, “but he still tried to do something to make it better. You didn’t mean to scare him, but you did, and now you need to take responsibility for that.”

Athena laid her head against Andrew’s shoulder and sighed, he wrapped one arm around her, then ran a hand through her hair. 

“You’re not bad, Bug. Everyone makes mistakes, and when you do you might need to apologize for them,” he paused giving her time to reply, when she didn’t he continued, “are you hungry?”

She shook her head no. Andrew let her sit for a minute and process everything he had said. He had no experience with any sort of positive parenting and was taking a guess about what to say when he had spoken. He made a mental note to buy a parenting book, or borrow one from Neil if he had any. 

After about five minutes he picked her up and forced her to stand up so he could get up as well. They walked to the kitchen when Andrew started getting out plates and Athena grabbed the silverware. He looked over and saw that Neil was in the same position he’d left him in, with an arm thrown over his eyes. Andrew dished Athena and himself some food and put the rest in the oven to stay warm until Neil was ready to eat. 

Dinner went a lot smoother than he expected. Athena seemed to be feeling better after their talk and snuggle session. She told him everything that happened in her first week of school, including how everyone reacted to seeing her new gap in her teeth. After dinner, she helped him clear the table and rinse off the plates. She insisted on putting them in the dishwasher herself, so he let her. He wanted to encourage her helpfulness as much as he could before she realized it’s not cool to do chores. 

They went back into the playroom where she told him all about the dramatic story of the week. It was almost the same as the plot to frozen, but with jello instead of ice. Andrew thought it was hilarious that she decided a barbie who could turn things into jello could be dramatic. 

Neil found them around 7. He settled in the doorway, watching them play until Athena noticed him. 

“Hey Baby Bear, it’s time to get ready for bed,” he said.

Athena got up from her seat on the floor and walked over to him, giving him a hug when she reached him. She looked up at him with her eyes wide and slightly wet.

“I’m sorry for scaring you,” her lip shook as she spoke. 

Neil picked her up and hugged her tightly, “Thank you.”

Andrew went out to sit on the couch while the other two got ready for bed. Half an hour later Neil came out and found him scrolling through Instagram on his phone. 

He took up his usual spot on the couch, “She wants you to say goodnight.”

Andrew nodded, standing up and walking to her door. He stood there for a moment to check if she was already asleep. When he heard her moving around in her bed, he walked to the opening and stuck her head in. 

“Goodnight,” he said. 

Athena smiled at him. She put a hand on either side of his face and leaned in to kiss his nose, “Mu-ah! Goodnight.”

Andrew stared at her for a moment, completely surprised by the kiss, “Thank you.”

He closed her door on the way out and walked back to his seat. Flopping down on the couch he rubbed his face for a moment.

“She kissed my nose,” he said.

“What? Neil asked.

“She kissed my nose,” Andrew repeated.

Neil laughed, “That’s cute.”

Andrew watched him settle down further into the couch, leaning on the armrest. He played with his armband, debating where or not he should just go home. Neil looked at him for a moment with his mouth in a thin line while he chewed on his cheek.

“How many calories do you eat in a day?” Neil asked.

“Excuse me?” Andrew said slightly offended.

“Sorry, you couldn’t have been following my line of thought,” Neil said, color rising to his cheeks, “I cook based off my caloric intake. I run five miles a day and box twice a week. But you work out basically all day every day, so you probably need more than I do, right?”

“35 hundred. I eat a lot of small meals throughout the day so dinner does not have to be overly large,” Andrew said.

“Three thousand, five hundred. That’s not too much,” Neil looked at the wall, head cocked to the side like he was deep in thought, “what do you normally eat for dinner.”

“Whatever is fast and easy. I hate cooking,” Andrew said.

Neil looked at him, clearly concerned, “what? That’s ridiculous. I cook every night.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, “good for you.”

“No, I meant,” Neil rubbed a hand over his face, “I mean you can come over whenever you want to, it doesn’t have to be a Friday. Well, we only watch movies on Fridays, so that’s different, but everything else is the same.”

Andrew looked at him, examining his face for any hit of a lie. He seemed to be telling the truth, but Andrew couldn’t figure out why he would make such a big offer. Andrew nodded his head, “I’ll think about it.”  

“No pressure,” Neil said smiling at him, “just if you want to.”

 

Over the next few weeks, Andrew started coming over for dinner more often. The first week he only came one extra time and left soon after dinner was finished. The second week he had meetings that went late so he missed their normal dinner time, but he stopped by when he got home at 6 every night and Neil handed him a plate and sent him off to relax by himself. The third week he ended up coming to dinner every night, not completely by choice, but because Athena had opened the door when she heard the elevator ding every day and he couldn’t say no to her excitement. 

Neil seemed to have developed the ability to read him. He knew when Andrew could handle hanging out for a while and when he just wanted to be alone. Andrew tried to pay him for the food, which Neil had rejected outright. Then he offered to do the dishes, but Neil had rejected that offer too. He said he didn’t need the money or the help. 

The first week in October he found a way to be helpful without Neil immediately rejecting him. He found out that Neil was having to rush from dropping Athena off at school to his weekly therapy appointment. Andrew offered to walk her to school so Neil could make it to his appointment without having a stressful morning. Neil hesitated but ultimately agreed after he saw how excited Athena was. 

The walk to school should have taken fifteen minutes according to google, but walking with a six-year-old meant they walked slowly and stopped to pick up cool rocks or look in shop windows every few steps. Athena held his hand as they walked. 

“What are you going to be for Halloween?” She asked, smiling up at him. 

“An Exy player,” he said. 

Athena laughed, “No silly you’re supposed to dress up! You’re an Exy player every day that’s not dressing up.”

Andrew looked down at her bright blue eyes, “What should I be then?”

“Hmm,” she scrunched her nose up and stuck her lips out in a hilarious thinking face, “how about a Vampire? Cause then you could have pointy teeth.”

“I’ll think about it,” Andrew said. 

Athena put her hand on her hip, “I know that means no.”

“It means I will think about it,” Andrew said as he walked through a crosswalk holding her hand tightly, “what are you going to be for Halloween?”

Athena skipped next to him, “I’m going to be a ladybug! And Neil’s going to be a college kid because he’s always a college kid. It’s so boring. That’s why you can’t be an Exy player. Cause then I’d be the only one dressing up.” 

“Don’t your friends dress up?” He asked. 

“Yeah, I guess, but we don’t go trick-or-treating with them,” she said. 

She waved at her friends, losing track of the conversation. When they arrived at the drop off spot and he lost her attention completely. She hugged him quickly then ran ahead to join her classmates, with her backpack bouncing with every step. 

The rest of his commute to work felt a little lonely without her hand in his. Andrew didn’t want to admit it but he was kind of missing her. He didn’t think much of the conversation until he was on his way home from work and saw a text from Neil.

Athena says you’re coming with us on Halloween. Did she ask you about that?

We talking about costumes, now that I think about it she did imply I was coming

If you want to come you can

How does that even work in NYC?

We hit up every shop on the way home from school and the neighborhood, which takes a couple of hours. She’s still pretty little, last year she was tired and ready to go home by about 4. Then we watch a “scary” movie for her age. She wants to try the live-action Alice in Wonderland because last time she tried to watch it she couldn’t finish it.

We’re done at noon on Halloween, so I should be able to make that

Sounds good, she’ll be so excited.

 

The next Saturday, Andrew headed out to find a nice red cape to wear for a costume. Athena had been giving him suggestions for costumes every night at dinner since she found out he was coming and her expectations were huge. While Neil was in the bathroom they had decided to play a trick on him, which meant Andrew also had to find grey trousers and a blue-checked button up in Athena’s size too. 

He went to the gap first, knowing he could find exactly what he was looking for there. He expected one or two options in children’s sizes for a nice button-up and was shocked to see a wide variety of professional-looking clothes in miniature form. Andrew quickly found the exact print he was looking for. The pants were slightly harder because the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ sizes didn’t translate perfectly. The two items cost him nearly 60 dollars, and he thought it was completely absurd that clothes, that would be ruined or grown out of in a few months, cost almost the same as adult clothes. 

Andrew pushed that from his mind as he went into a Halloween store. He perused the costumes for a few minutes not finding anything worthwhile and settled on going with his original idea. The cape he picked out was black velvet on one side and red silk on the other. There were cheaper ones, but he liked how this one felt and the weight of it. Andrew was not opposed to spending money on expensive clothes, but he only did so when he knew they would last through years of regular use. The cape and the outfit he’d gotten for Athena were one-use items. He knew he enough money that he wouldn’t even notice the difference, but his mind was still stuck in poverty mode. 

Until he had started college and been given a monthly stipend from the university almost all of his clothes had come from hand-me-downs or a second-hand store. As a foster child, he took what he could get because he didn’t have a choice. Once he had moved in with Nicky, he had been allowed to wear whatever he wanted but within their budget. Nicky had worked two jobs to keep them afloat and buying clothes as cheaply as possible helped with that. Nicky had always taken them to sales at Target and the mall, but both he and Aaron knew that they would get one pair of jeans on sale there for the same price they could get three used. Shirts were slightly easier and they could usually find them in the Old Navy clearance section for a similar price as Good Will.

Thanks to his Professional Exy career he had close to six figures in his bank account, even after buying an apartment in New York City, helping Nicky with the cost of moving to Europe, and helping Aaron pay rent while he was in school and doing an unpaid internship. Old habits were hard to kick, and he still felt weird about spending more than ten dollars on a Halloween costume.

Once he was home, with his purchases in the wash to sanitize them, he settled down on the couch and talked to King about his day. She looked at him like he was stupid when he mentioned feeling weird about spending money on clothes and he decided that would be the next thing he would work on in therapy: letting to go of some of his useless habits leftover from his time in Foster Care. 

 

Halloween should never be on a school night, Andrew thought as he helped Athena prepare her costume on Tuesday, October 30th. She roped him into it while Neil washed the dishes because she didn’t want Neil to get a hint of their little prank. After helping Athena get her Lady Bug outfit and red tights ready for the next morning, he helped her change into the outfit he’d gotten her at the Gap. They finished it off by tucking her long hair up into a backward floral hat and putting her pink vans on. 

Andrew went into the kitchen first, then waved Athena in when he saw that Neil was still busy. She walked into the kitchen with her hands in her pockets dressed as a mini Neil. His shirt for the day was a solid colored button-up, but he was wearing the same hat, shoes, and pants that she was. Athena cleared her throat, making Neil jump. He turned around, eyes widening when he saw her outfit.

“Guess who I am,” she said, smiling brightly.

Neil laughed so hard that he had to lean on the counter for support, “Hmmm... are you me?”

Andrew stood off to the side and watched as Neil laughed harder than he had ever seen an adult laugh in his life. When he started to tear up, holding his stomach and bending over, still laughing Andrew managed to crack a smile. By that point, Athena was laughing too. 

“Yeah!” she twirled around in a circle, “how do I look?”

“Pretty good,” Neil said between laughs.

“Athena, remember what I told you,” Andrew said, interrupting her giggling fit.

She stood up straight and put a serious face on, “The derivative of 5X is 5.”

Neil reached out and pulled her in for a hug, knocking her hat off in the process, “That’s right Baby Bear, the derivative of 5X is 5.”

Neil picked her up and threw her over his shoulder, causing her to erupt in a fit of giggles.

“Hey,” she complained, punching his back.

“Bath time!” he said. He threw a look over his other shoulder at Andrew, “Are you coming?”

The bathroom was not big enough for two adults, a child, and a dog, but they all crammed in. Neil sat on the toilet lid and started the bath while Athena undressed. She climbed in when she was done and demanded Andrew play with her. He walked over and knelt in from of the tub like he had last time, sticking his hands in the water he splashed Athena a couple of times. After a few minutes of playing with Athena and her Hotwheels, he saw Neil eye his armbands. Neil didn’t question it out loud, so he didn’t offer an explanation, Athena didn’t seem to care, anyway. 

After the bath was over, Andrew said goodnight and left, using having to get his own costume ready as an excuse. Catching Neil looking at his armbands bothered him a way it never had with anyone else before. It was easy to hide his scars in the locker room showers without wearing his armbands because no one looked at anyone else too closely, so this was the first time someone had seen him interact with water while wearing them. The way Neil had looked at him with a question is his eye, but not said anything made Andrew feel like he knew, at least a little bit. Neil had scars too, which Andrew had never asked about, he had seen Neil pause and look at him before taking his shirt off at the gym. Maybe Neil didn’t know and just thought it was another of Andrew’s weird quirks. He put a sweatshirt on before going to bed, feeling uncomfortable in his own skin after that interaction.

The next morning work flew by, half because it was only a four-hour day and half because he was looking forward to trick-or-treating with the Jostens. As soon as he got home, he changed into a long-sleeved shirt, ripped black skinny jeans, and threw on his cape, the red side facing out. Neil had texted him that he could come over anytime after 11:30, so he went next door as soon as he was finished. 

The first thing he noticed when he walked in the door was that Neil was wearing a new pair of unhemmed shorts, this time in black instead of denim. He eyed the shorts until he was sure Neil saw him looking then sighed. 

“Why does everyone hat my shorts?” Neil asked.

Andrew sighed again and raised an eyebrow at him.

“Whatever Mister Judgy Pants, how are your ripped jeans okay, and my not.”

“First of all,” Andrew said holding up a hand so he could count on his fingers, “mine actually fit. Second, my pants are hemmed. Third, the rips are on the knees and do not hinder the function of the pants. Fourth, these are actually fashionable. And last, it’s cold outside and you are going to freeze dressed like that.”

Neil huffed in annoyance but didn’t argue any further, “Did you eat lunch? Actually, I don’t care if you already ate, I made you a sandwich. Here.”

Andrew took the plate Neil shoved at him and watched as Neil went down the hall. Once he was out of sight, Andrew sat at the table and started picked at his sandwich. It looked good and knowing Neil he probably bought the most expensive lunch meat available so he decided to eat it. 

By the time Neil came back out Andrew was already done with his food and had rinsed his plate and put it in the dishwasher. He had changed, so he was wearing a maroon sweater and black jeans. The thing that got Andrew most was that he was gelled his hair back.

“What are you supposed to be?” Andrew asked.

“I don't fucking know,” Neil said, frowning and rubbing at his face, “are you ready to go?”

Andrew grabbed his phone and his wallet from the table and headed for the door. On his way out, Neil shoved a roll of bags in his pocket and woke Zeus up from his afternoon nap. The three headed off to pick their child up from school. Without Athena, the walk went a lot faster than it had the few other times Andrew had done it. They made it to the school in just under 14 minutes and got to watch the children rush out as the bell rang. Neil waved at the teacher, who then let Athena run to him. Her red wings with black polka-dots bounced as she ran, while her red tutu flittered in the wind. 

She grabbed Andrew hand first, while Neil switched which had he held the leash with, then she grabbed his hand as well. She swung their combined arms back and forth as they crossed the street and reached their first stop of the day. Neil helped her dig her basket out of her backpack.  

“Remember, you say Trick-or-treat to ask for candy,” Neil said.

“I know, I know,” Athena said.

“And you have to say thank you every time,” Neil reminded her, “we need to be kind to the people giving us free candy.”

She clapped her hands together, “Say trick-or-treat and thank you. Okay, I got it.”

Neil had her say it one more time to be sure then set her off to talk to the woman outside the shop. They repeated the process all the way home. Athena walked hand in hand with both of them, then let go running ahead and politely saying trick-or-treat, as soon as she had the candy and said thank you she ran back and grabbed their hands again. They walked around a few extra blocks on the way, to make the day more successful, but Neil was right about her endurance. By 4:30 she was hungry and complaining her feet hurt. 

Andrew didn’t want to listen to her whine for the rest of the walk home so he picked her up and carried her. She got a kick out of being taller than both of them, laughing the entire time he held her. When they got back to the house Neil assigned Andrew to sort through the candy while he reheated some pasta he had made earlier in preparation for the busy day.

“Can I eat one now?” Athena asked.

Andrew was sitting on the living room floor with her basket of candy dumped out in front of him, “no, Neil said we have to check them first.”

She sat on the floor next to him, “What are you checking for?” 

“See this one?” he held up a candy bad that was partially opened, “we can't eat this one because it’s already been opened.”

“Why not?” she said, leaning forward to get a better look.

“Because it could have gems or bugs on it. It was outside all day remember?”

“Ewww,” she said, making a face, “I don’t want bugs on my candy.”

“That’s why I am sorting it,” he said.  

Andrew heard Neil laughing at the conversation from the kitchen. He sorted the rest of the candy while Athena went off to help Neil set the table. They all finished at about the same time. Andrew stretched as he stood up, feeling stiff from sitting on the floor bent over a pile for a few minutes. In the end, he only had to throw away a few pieces of candy, much to Athena’s excitement.

Despite it only being Wednesday Neil followed their normal Friday night plan and had Athena shower and brush her teeth after dinner. They tried to watch Alice in Wonderland, but Athena got too scared just a few minutes in. They settled on watching a tv series called Vampirina instead. The choice of entertainment didn’t end up mattering for long because Athena fell asleep.

Neil carried her to bed this time, leaving Andrew and Zeus to themselves. Over the last couple of months, Andrew had grown enough that he could pet Zeus without hesitating first and had even started to enjoy his silent company. When Neil came back and sat down Zeus plopped his head in his lap like he always did. Andrew thought about his armbands and Neil’s reaction to them last night.

“How long did it take you to be comfortable showing your scars?” Andrew asked.

“Hmmm,” Neil ran his hands through Zeus’s hair, “I took my shirt off because skin to skin contact is really good for babies, not because I was ready to. I don’t know that I am comfortable showing them, even now every time a new person sees it still bothers me. I guess I just got used to being uncomfortable.”

Andrew took a second to process that. Neil had seemed so nonchalant when he took his shirt off at the gym. 

“I have some scars too,” he said eventually.

“Your arms?” Neil asked.

Andrew nodded, playing with the hem of his sweater.

“It’s a process. Sometimes you’ll be okay showing them and others you won't. Being a little uncomfortable is okay, but don’t push yourself,” Neil said.

Andrew nodded again, “Do you want to see?”

“No,” Neil said clearly, “if you want to show me you can, but I don't need to see. That’s your choice to make, not mine to ask of you.”

Andrew studied his face. He looked honest and open; the conversation didn’t seem to be getting to him. When he finished his assessment he nodded.

“Do you want to see how Vampirina ends?” Neil asked.

Andrew shrugged, which Neil accepted as a yes. He pressed play and snuggled up with Zeus, getting a contented sigh in return.

Chapter Text

Andrew sat with Athena on the couch and helped her with her reading homework the day after Halloween. They had finished dinner a little while ago, so Neil was putting the dishes in the dishwasher as he listened to the other two chat. Andrew must be having a good day, he thought, because he normally left soon after dinner, but he decided to stay today. Although they may have had more to do with the fact that Athena asked him to read with her, and he seemed to have a hard time telling her no.  

After her homework was completed she ran to her room to get her nail polish. Despite the fact that Neil had warned him against it, Andrew agreed to let her paint his nails as a reward for doing her work. 

Neil booted up his laptop to get some work done while the other two debated color choices. Equations filled his mind, canceling out the noise of the other two. Used to working with the sound of Athena in the background he has mastered the art of half listening, so he could quickly help her if she needed it, but it didn’t distract him from his tasks. He felt bad for her sometimes, growing up as an only child could be lonely, especially only having one parent around to spend time with. He tried to include her in chores when he could, or do them after she went to sleep, but all too often he found himself asking her to go play so he could get some task finished. 

Having Andrew around helped more than he cared to admit. It gave him a chance to do homework without staying up all night, or finish cleaning up after dinner while she did her reading so they got two tasks done at once. Even when Andrew only stayed after dinner once a week it still helped immensely. 

Neil finished his assignment and closed his computer. Walking over to sit on the floor with them he saw than most of Andrew’s fingers were a mess of color so he took a detour to grab the nail polish remover first. On the way back he saw Zeus laying down in the bedroom and remember he hates the smell nail polish. Ignoring the cold weather Neil opened the window to allow the poor pup to get some fresh air. 

“Have you ever painted your nails before?” Neil asked as he sat down on the floor with Athena and Andrew.

“I have in fact. Usually black though,” Andrew said. 

Neil rolled his eyes. Naturally, the man who dresses head to toe in black every day would paint his nails black too. Neil had no idea how Andrew could mock his clothing choices while doing that. Apparently, Andrew’s monochromatic wardrobe was fashionable, while his own comfortable one was not. It really made no sense. 

Athena focused intently on the nails. She was an artist who could not be bothered with conversation while she worked. To Neil, it seemed like she should be finished, every nail was already covered in color, but she opened another bottle and began slathering glitter on too.

“What are your teammates going to think?” Neil asked. He watched Andrew’s face carefully while he answered. The man never made it clear if he liked his team or not and Neil was hell-bent on figuring it out.

“Why should I care?” Andrew said. He looked like he meant it too. 

That was not the answer Neil was expecting, he tilted his head and pursed his lips trying to figure the mystery out. He swore Andrew’s eyes glanced down to his mouth for a moment, but he was so deep in thought he couldn’t be sure. 

After the night that Athena had snuck over to his team dinner, Neil had tried to apologize but Andrew wouldn’t let him. Next, he had asked what the team thought about it and Andrew had said it didn’t matter. That had started Neil’s quest to find out if Andrew like his team and over a month later he had gotten nowhere closer to the answer. He could always give up and ask him directly, but that would ruin his fun. 

“All done!” Athena declared as she put the cap back on the last bottle.

Andrew examined his nails, turning his hand this way and that, looking over every detail. “It’s perfect bug thank you.”

Athena smiled, gathering up her supplies, “Neil, can clean it up a little bit.”

She went off to down the hall carrying everything except for the remover. Neil opened the bottle and dipped a q-tip in it, offering it to Andrew.

“I was told this was a full service,” Andrew said as he held out his hand to Neil.

Neil took it and gently started removing the extra polish from his skin. Andrew’s hands were softer than he expected. They had calluses from weight lifting and Exy, but his skin wasn’t dry or cracking. They sat silently while Neil worked cleaning up the mess his child had made on Andrew’s hands. 

“My birthday’s on Sunday,” Andrew said when Neil was almost finished.

Neil looked up at him confused, “I thought your birthday was in November.”

“It is November.” Andrew eyed him for a moment, causing Neil to blush at the fact that he forgot Halloween is the last day in October. 

Neil turned his focus back to the task, trying to ignore Andrew’s eyes on him still, “oh, yeah.”

“Come clubbing with me tomorrow,” Andrew said.

“I don’t drink.” Neil looked up at him, hoping his face conveyed that he was serious. He didn’t take kindly to people constantly trying to get him to drink.

“That’s fine. They have soda and water,” Andrew looked him in the eye when he spoke.

“Did you mention your birthday is on Sunday right before asking just so I would have to say yes?” Neil asked.

“Perhaps,” Andrew shrugged, “I used to go out almost every weekend in college and I have not gone since I graduated. It’s not like I have anyone else to go with.”

“Are service dogs even allowed in clubs?” It was a stupid question and Neil knew it.

Andrew gave him an annoyed look for a moment, “Legally, yes they are.”

“If you promise not to try to convince me to drink and promise not to trick me into drinking I will go,” Neil said, letting his dad voice slip in slightly. Every time he went to an event for his major someone tried to get him to drink, even attempting to claim a clearly alcoholic drink wasn’t spiked once or twice. He’d left more than one event early because of it. 

“I promise,” Andrew said as he put his free hand over his heart.

“I’m serious Andrew. Alcohol fucks with my anxiety meds.”

Andrew nodded, “I promise I will not ask you to drink anything with alcohol or drugs in it or try to trick you into it.”

Neil looked him over, trying to find any sign of a lie. “Okay.”

He finished cleaning the paint off of Andrew’s skin and then got up to see what Athena was doing. Anytime she left him alone for more than five minutes without him asking her to he got suspicious. Surprisingly, he found her in the playroom carefully putting her nail polish into the box he’d made for her. She said she was worried about breaking them and he smiled at how considerate she was being. 

 

Neil didn’t know much about clubbing, but he was aware it was a late-night activity.  He got to give Athena dinner, watch a movie with her, and tuck her into bed before having to get ready to go. Luckily Randy was available to babysit on such short notice, and surprisingly okay with staying over until midnight or 1 am. Andrew had texted him early that morning to tell him not to worry about clothes because he had it covered and that they would be back by 1 at the latest. 

Andrew stopped by at 9:30 pm to give him his outfit. He thrust the large bag into Neil’s hands and pointed him down the hall. Andrew was already dressed in a stylish black jacket, with a black turtleneck underneath, his ripped skinny jeans from Halloween, and shinny black shoes. After looking over that outfit he was worried about what he would find in the bag. 

He should have known that Andrew knew him better than that though. His bag held black skinny jeans, with only one rip at the knee, a while floral button-up, and a denim jacket. Neil dressed quickly, surprised both by how well it all fit and how comfortable it was. 

Neil met Andrew in the living room where the other man looked him over. Andrew walked up to him and rolled the sleeves up on the jacket, before giving his nod of approval. They were saved from talking when the doorbell rang, and Neil turned to buzz Randy up.  

The taxi ride to the club was quiet. The driver had eyed Zeus when he heard where they were going but he didn’t make a comment. At the club, Neil expected to have to stand in line, but Andrew walked right up to the bouncer and was let hin with no question. Neil heard people in the line complaining, he followed Andrew without looking back.

The club was dark and crowded, loud enough that Neil could feel it in his chest. Zeus walked pressed against his leg, serving as a comfort and a buffer. A few feet in the door Andrew stopped and looked around, he headed straight for the VIP section just as Neil spotted it. The fasted path to the opposite back corner was probably through the crowd, but Andrew stuck to the perimeter, walking around them instead. Once they made it all the way around the crowd Andrew stopped and talked to the second bouncer guarding the stairs up to the VIP section. Neil couldn’t hear what they said but they were waved up after the man checked his clipboard. 

The upper level was quieter, it probably helped that they were as far away from the DJ booth as they could be. Andrew paused at the top of the stairs and looked around the room again. Neil took a moment to look around too. The area had its own bar, as well as a plethora of couches and chairs. He saw a couple of models he recognized from magazines at the store, then he saw a few guys he knew from the gym. A basketball player Neil had boxed with a few times waved at them and Andrew waved back, the man then pointed toward an empty table in the corned and Andrew nodded. It suddenly made sense how Andrew got in the door without being questions and made it into the VIP section. While he was a professional Athlete his first season as a Pro hadn’t started yet, but he did go to the same gym as a variety of other high profile people in the city. 

They headed for the table and sat down. Andrew left his jacket on, so Neil did too. Zeus settled down under the table on Neil’s feet, staying out of the way and offering him comfort at the same time. Neil wondered if Andrew, or the basketball player whose name he couldn’t remember, had somehow warned the club about Zeus because no one had stopped him and asked if he was a service dog. Before they even had a chance to look around the room a woman in a short skirt, carrying a tray of drinks walked over.

“Hey Boys,” she said with a low voice that was probably supposed to be seductive, “what can I do you for?”

“We’ll go up when we decide,” Andrew said, ignoring her obvious attempt at flirting.

“Of course, let me know if you need anything,” She said, offering him a smile and a wink.

Andrew waited until she turned around and rolled his eyes. As Andrew looked around the room Neil noticed his nails were still painted bright, glitter-covered, colors. He laughed, causing Andrew to look at him with a raised eyebrow. 

“I didn’t expect your nail polish to last through work today,” Neil said, nodding toward his hand.

Andrew huffed, “I took it easy today. Couldn’t have my mani ruined right before going out. I would not have had time to fix it.”

Neil laughed again, feeling himself relax into it, “oh no, of course not. That would have been a disaster.”

“See you get it.” Andrew tapped his finger on the table, “do you want anything to drink other than water?”

Neil shook his head and Andrew got up, heading toward the bar. Neil watched as he spoke to the bartender, who looked over at him for a moment and nodded. Andrew watched the man make his drink and pour the water, then he carried them to the table himself. Andrew set the water down in front of Neil.  

Andrew sipped from his own up, “It’s just water I watched him.”  

“Thanks,” Neil said. He held the glass in his hand, Andrew was so thorough that there wasn’t even ice in it. 

Andrew put his glass down and carefully picked up Neil’s from his hand. He took a sip then handed it back.

“Just water,” he said.

Neil laughed, “I believe you.”

“You really should order your own drinks when you go out,” Andrew advised him.

“Sure,” Neil said. He knew all about club safety. He also knew that Andrew promised to keep his drinks clean. “What exactly do people do at clubs?”

Andrew blinked at him slowly, raising an eyebrow. “Drink, get high, dance, hook up with strangers, whatever.”

“None of that sounds like my idea of a good time,” Neil said.

“What is your idea of a good time?” Andrew asked leaning forward. When Neil shrugged but didn’t answer he continued. “I like feeling the music in my bones.”

Neil closed his eyes for a moment, letting the sound fill him up, “I get that.”

“You never answered my question,” Andrew said.

“I like playing sports, Exy mostly but sometimes Soccer. Anything where I can run. And then I like Math and spending time with Athena,” Neil paused to think of something else to add to the list.

“You play Exy?” Andrew asked, “You never mentioned that before.”

“Oh... umm yeah... a few guys from the gym play pick up games sometimes. It’s not like anything formal. I don’t keep up with the season or whatever, it’s just for fun.” Neil was slightly embarrassed. For a second he’d forgotten Andrew was a professional Exy player and not just his friend.

“Our first game is on the 10th, would you like to go? I can get you into the private family viewing area,” Andrew said, looking calm and relaxed.

“Umm.... yeah. Are you sure though?” Neil said, “wouldn’t your family rather go?”

Andrew nodded, “I am sure. They are busy anyway.” 

Andrew explained how Neil would be in the same room as all his teammate’s family members, and how long sporting events could be. After that, they talked about the best ways to get there and when to leave early so he wouldn’t get stuck in crowds. Athena didn’t care about sports other than gymnastics, but Neil said he would ask her if she wanted to come, after Andrew said she was welcome too.  

“Does this bother you?” Andrew asked waving a hand vaguely toward the room.

The change in subject confused Neil for a moment, but he understood after he looked out over the dancefloor. “Not as much as I thought it would. Up here away from the crowd and the DJ it’s pretty nice. The only thing that could make it better is a clear exit.”

Andrew pointed toward the red glowing Exit sign above the back door.

Neil laughed, “No, I meant a clear path to the exit.”

Andrew nodded and finished his drink, “Are you ready to go?”

The taxi ride home was peaceful. Neil nearly fell asleep against the window, only managing to stay awake thanks to Andrew kicking his leg. At the club, the music had kept him from feeling how tired he was, but in the car his body realized how late it was.

Andrew said goodnight as soon as the exited the elevator, and they unlocked their doors at the same time. Zeus went in ahead of Neil, as always, but Neil followed straight behind him, seeing Randy reading a book on the couch.

“You’re home early dear,” Randy said as she looked at her watch, “It’s only 11:30, did everything go alright?”

“Hmmm? Yeah, everything’s fine, I’m just tired. Way past my bedtime.” Neil said, offering her a tired smile. 

Neil walked her to the elevator and gave her a hug. He walked back in the house and locked the door before heading straight for sleep. He poked his head into Athena’s room and listened to her snore lightly first. In his room, Zeus had already taken up his spot at the foot, so Neil changed and brushed his teeth quickly, then climbed into bed.

 

Sunday morning came faster than he expected. After spending all of Saturday focused on spending time with Athena, feeling slightly guilty for leaving her at home on Friday night, he nearly forgot about Andrew’s birthday. The first thing they did after eating breakfast was head to the grocery store. As soon as Athena found out what day it was she demanded that she be the one to cook Andrew his birthday dinner. Neil texted him to ask if that was okay and he got a succinct ‘yes’ in return.  

Athena picked out dino-chicken nuggets, with roasted green beans and Kraft mac and cheese. She demanded that she make it herself, while Neil decided to make a cheesecake. After picking up all of their ingredients they headed home to cook. 

Neil liked to let his cheesecakes cool for at least six hours, so he got started baking right away while Athena played in the living room. Once his cake was in the oven he joined her. He helped her build a lego castle for her knights to reside in. 

“What does Andrew want for his birthday?” she asked as they were building.

“He said he doesn't want anything,” Neil said.

Athena jumped up, “I have to give him something!”

Neil watched as she ran to her room, Zeus following thanks to her excitement. A few minutes later she came back carrying a pack of construction paper and a box of markers. She spread them out over the table and asked Neil for the scissors. For the next hour, they sat there cutting out hearts and stars, drawing portraits, and writing heartfelt messages. 

The final product was a blue card with a drawing of Athena and Andrew holding hands on the cover. The cut out pieces surrounded them, and she had Neil carefully trace each one with a glitter marker to make them sparkle. On the inside, she wrote “Happy Birthday Andrew! I love you this much”, with a drawing of herself holding her arms out wide. She signed her name at the bottom, then made Neil sign for himself and Zeus. 

By the time the castle was build and the cards were finished it was time to start making dinner. The process was equally frustrating and worrying for Neil as Athena wanted to do everything her self. He let her put the tray of green beans in the over, but he had to take it out. While that was roasting he let her fill the pot with water and stir in the pasta, however, when it came to draining it he made her stand back so he could do it. As soon as it was back on the stone she was on her stool pouring in the pre-measured ingredients and adding the cheese packet. Athena took her time stirring them until she was sure they were perfectly blended together. After the green beans came out of the oven Neil slid the tray of chicken nuggets in.   

The timer went off just as there was a knock at the door. Athena ran to get it while Neil took the tray out and set it on the counter. 

“Happy Birthday!” Athena called as soon as the door was open. She wrapped her arms around Andrew’s waist and hugged him.

Andrew patted her back, “Thank you. Oh, that smells good, what’s for dinner?”

“I made it all by myself,” Athena said, looking rather proud. 

She grabbed his hand and dragged him into the kitchen. The space was crowded, with three people and a dog, but it didn’t feel like too much for Neil as he watched Athena explain all of her food choices. Andrew reached out and grabbed a green bean off of the tray, earning him a light smack on the hand from Neil. He sent them off to play while he plated the food. 

“Come on,” Athena said, “I have a card for you!”

Neil smiled to himself, enjoying the enthusiasm Athena had for celebrating other people. She made Andrew sit on the couch and climbed on his lap. Once settled, she showed him the card and read the front out loud. Carefully she went over every detail on the cover before opening it. Athena read the inside to him too. Andrew buried his face in her shoulder, so Neil couldn’t see his reaction, but it seemed like it may have been a bit overwhelming to him.  

Athena patted his hair, “Neil said you didn’t want anything, but you have to get a birthday present. Everyone deserves one.”

When Andrew lifted his head up he looked just as cool and collected as he always did. Neil wondered just how hard he had to try to keep that up, or if it was a learned response. Andrew thanked her then pulled out his phone, clearly taking the focus off of himself. 

“Look,” he said as he showed her the screen, “I put a picture of my beautiful painted nails on Instagram, and everyone loved them.”

He read her a few positive comments until Neil called them to the table for dinner. Neil couldn't remember when or how it started but Andrew always sat next to Athena and he always sat across from them. It may have started back in July when they first met, or it could have been a more recent development, but it seemed like it had always been that way. Even the few times they had as gone out to eat together they ended up still sitting in that arrangement. 

“Wow,” Andrew said looking over his plate, “this looks amazing. Are you sure you made this yourself?”

“Mhm, Neil only did the stuff I’m not allowed to,” she said beaming. 

As they ate Andrew praised every part of the meal. He even asked her to teach him how to cook. Neil thought it was a bit over the top, but Athena was enjoying every second of it. After dinner, they cleared the table together and Athena told Andrew they had a surprise for him. 

She grabbed his hand and dragged him back to his seat at the table, then climbed on his lap. Neil carefully pulled out the cheesecake, setting it right in front of them. 

“I don’t have a candle,” Neil said as he took his seat across from them. 

“That’s fine,” Andrew said, leaning forward to get a look around Athena.

“Can we still sing?” she asked.

Andrew rolled his eye behind her and gave her permission. She sang loudly all by herself, and Neil swore he saw Andrew crack a small smile. 

He handed the knife over to the birthday boy, letting him choose how big the pieces were. Neil almost laughed at the sight of Andrew trying to cut a cake while leaning over Athena who refused to leave his lap. Andrew served them all fairly small pieces, claiming he was taking the rest home for himself. 

Athena laughed, “Of course you are silly, it’s your birthday cake.”

“Oh, that was a joke,” Andrew said.

“No, that actually was the plan,” Neil said as he shoved the cake toward him. “By the way, I have been working on this since 8 am so if you don’t like it keep it to yourself.”

In the end, it took some convincing but Andrew did finally take the rest of the cheesecake home with him after he helped tuck Athena into bed and she kissed his nose good night.

Chapter Text


 

The beeping of the heart monitor and the nurses puttering around the room all night became a comfort as Neil tried to sleep after almost a week in the hospital. Mrs. Lorde had somehow managed to wrangle the FBI into giving him a few days to himself. The guards were still posted at the door, but no one was bothering him for information anymore. Neil knew that would end eventually, but he didn’t get a chance to enjoy it because he had too many doctor’s appointments to keep. 

The hospital got his medical records from Maryland and his new pediatrician was appalled to see that he hadn’t had a vaccine since he was four years old. The new doctor was nice enough, but Neil really only trusted her because Dr. Cross went with him to his first appointment and told him they were friends. He hadn’t believed her at first, but when they had their consultation, she had photos of the both of them smiling at a Christmas party on the wall.

Once the consultation was over, and he’d had a proper physical?, his new doctor set him up with a vaccine plan to get him caught up on everything. Neil was annoyed that he couldn’t just get them all at once. The plan stretched out over nearly two years, mostly because the HPV vaccine had three doses that had to be spaced out. Neil was amazed he needed less than ten vaccines to be completely caught up. He was glad his mother had managed to keep him up to date until he was four; if she hadn’t this whole ordeal would have been a lot worse.   

The doctor laid out a vaccine plan for Athena as well. She explained every injection to him despite that fact that the state would be making all of the decisions about her care until he was 18. If they even allowed him to be her guardian at all.

Next up, Neil was sent to a nutritionist. She was young and new, but the more experienced one was male so Neil didn’t complain. After looking at his chart for a worrying amount of time, she carefully explained to him that he was malnourished and that she wanted to put him on a special diet to help him get the nutrients he needs. The plan included slowly increasing the size of his meals, starting with a weekly meal plan she made, and leading to Neil being able to pick his own foods for every meal. First, he had to take some classes on nutrition, diet, and exercise.   

Neil hated being away from her for every appointment. He was sure that he would return one time and she would be gone. As far as anyone was concerned, he had no legal claim over her. At best, he was her half-sibling, but he was also a minor and involved in a criminal case. The only reason they were even kept together, as far as Neil could tell, was because Mrs. Lorde fought for it. He had no idea why she was helping him. Everything his mother had told him about Child Protective Services and the FBI had been wrong so far. 

Mary and Nathan had beat a distrust of state officials into him from an early age. Neil began to wonder what else his parents had lied about. Even after they’d escaped from their Baltimore home, Mary insisted that Neil could not trust anyone to help them.  She isolated Neil, told him that he couldn’t survive by himself, hid pertinent information from him, and continued to hit him. By 12, he was both larger than her and stronger than her, but he had never fought back, not physically at least. He had allowed himself small moments of rebellion, like talking to other kids at the park or letting a shy girl kiss him once after school, but those moments were never worth the punishment that came after them. 

After six days in the hospital, Neil began to realize that the lesser of two evils, was still an evil. He’d ran from his torturous father, but stayed with his heavy-handed mother. On Thursday night, Neil had barely managed to eat half his dinner. Heather and his new nutritionist were both disappointed, but no one yelled at him or scolded him. The nutritionist told him to try to eat a little more before bed, and Heather gave him a hug and said she was proud of him for giving it a good try.

Neil clung to her as his eyes teared up. He shoved his eyes onto her shoulder so neither woman would see him, but they could probably tell anyway. The shaking and sniffling were a dead give away. 

“Neil?” Heather said quietly. “Are you okay?”

Neil sniffled, standing up straight and wiping his eyes. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

Heather blinked and tilted her head, “Said what?”

“That they’re proud of me,” Neil said. He fixed his eyes on her shoulder, waiting for some sort of judgment to come. 

“Oh honey,” she said as she pulled him in for another hug, “I am so proud of you. You’re working so hard to learn how to take care of yourself and your sister.”

Neil hugged her back tightly, starting to cry again. This time he let the tears come as he felt conflicting emotions. On one hand, he was grieving his mother and trying to find out what the world would do to him without her protection, and on the other hand, he was just beginning to comprehend how manipulative and abusive she had been. 

The next morning led to an appointment with a psychologist. She was quiet and kind, the session was just an introduction, which was normal apparently, but Neil still told her more about himself than he had anyone else. He told her things like his favorite color was gray and that he hated green peppers. It was all superficial, trivial information, but Neil had never talked about himself so much in one sitting. The woman smiled at him and told him some little things about herself too like her favorite color was yellow and she also hated green peppers. 

Neil decided he could trust her, not because Dr. Cross or Heather told him he could, but instead because his mother had been wrong about everything else so far, so she was bound to be wrong about this too. It was his biggest act of rebellion yet, and despite the fact that his mother wasn’t there to see it, it was also the most thrilling. As the session was winding down, Neil told her he didn’t know who he was and she challenged him to find two more things that he liked before their next session. 

As Neil had been learning to care for himself over the last few days, he had also been learning to care for Athena. Six days in, he was at the point where he could pick her up by himself without worrying, however, he still had to ask the nurse first and be supervised by someone. Heather told him it wasn’t personal, it had more to do with his age and the fact that Athena was under state care. 

The other nurses didn’t let him do as much as Heather did. They let him hold his sister for a few minutes at a time, watching him closely the entire time, while Heather let him do almost everything, under her guiding hand, of course. She let Neil hold her as much as he wanted and let him change diapers and feed her, too. Heather always had to administer medications and prepare the bottles, but she always let Neil watch.

Friday afternoon, Mrs. Lorde came for her usual visit, asking him how he was feeling and how all his appointments were going. She made a few notes on her paperwork and asked him a few more questions. Neil was fairly certain that she had access to all of his records, but he appreciated that she asked him instead of digging through the files. The whole thing was going well until she said some people had a few pictures to show him.

Detective Sutton, the same one from a few days ago, and the male FBI agent, who had startled Neil, came in the room then.

The man introduced himself as Agent Browning, then took a seat near the door, close enough to hear the conversation, but not close enough to be a part of it. The detective pulled a chair up to their table and opened a file folder. She placed a tape recorder on the table, then put two pictures down directly in front of him. 

One showed a sickly pale woman with bleach blonde hair, hollow eyes, and a cruel smile, while the other showed a similar-looking man. They’d both aged about fifteen years in the last six since Neil had seen them, but he knew exactly who they were. It took every ounce of courage in his body not to recoil away from them. They were just photos, images on paper. But Neil could hear their inhuman laughs echoing through his mind. His father never laughed while he worked, not unless the person he was working on truly pissed him off. But the siblings always did. 

Neil tapped her face first then his, “Lola Malcolm, Romero Malcolm.”

“Can you tell me where you know them from?” asked Detective Sutton.

Neil chewed on his cheek for a moment. His biggest act of rebellion so far had been telling a therapist his favorite color, answering her question would make that look like a spark compared to a forest fire. Answering her question would change everything. 

He hadn’t been on the record when he implied his dad killed his mom, but this was permanent. If he told her the truth he could not go back from it. He’d have a target on his back until every single one of them was dead. Or he was. And Neil knew the odds were not in his favor. 

He looked over at his sister, sleeping peacefully in her cot. His little Kiwi was swaddled up with a pacifier in her mouth. He had to do it for her, he had to make sure the world was a better place for her to grow up in.

Neil tapped the pictures again, “Lola is on clean up. She gets rid of the bodies everyone creates. I’ve only seen her kill someone once. Romero is like her bodyguard, he makes sure anyone who catches onto her is never seen again. Jackson Plank is always with him. He’s about 5’11”, black hair, brutal face, like his nose has been broken more than once. Jackson does all the heavy lifting for them. Like carrying bodies or acid.”

The detective pulled out two more photos and set them down on top of the two already in front of Neil.

“That’s Jackson,” Neil said pointing to the one who looked almost savage. The other photo seemed homely and professional, the man in it looked unassuming. He had a bit more weight to him, which Neil knew to be steroid-fueled muscle, a fashionable beard, and was wearing a sleek sweater. Neil stared at the man for a moment, making the final decision to give them everything. His heart was racing and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t spoken to father’s title since they ran.  He pushed the panic down. “That is Patrick DiMaccio, he's second in command, answering only to Nathan Wesninski. DiMaccio plays at being Wesninski’s bodyguard, but he’s more like his right hand. He kills quickly and efficiently, silencing anyone who speaks out against the Butcher.”       

“You’re doing great Neil,” said Mrs. Lorde, “we only have one more question for tonight.”

“You’ve mentioned both Wesninski and the Butcher,” the Detective said as she placed a large photo array in front of him. “Do you recognize any of these men?” 

Neil zeroed in on his father without seeing any of the other faces on the chart. He placed his pointer finger over the man’s dead eyes. Neil felt like he was being watched and knew DiMaccio would be sent after him if he answered, but he couldn’t quit now.

“This is Nathan James Wesninski. The Baltimore Butcher. Born April 20th, 1967. I have personally seen him kill seventeen people.”

 


 

Chapter Text

The week leading up to the first game of the season was long and frustrating. Between practice, promotional meetings, photo shoots, and watching old game tapes from their first opponents Andrew barely made it home in time to tell Athena goodnight and help her with her reading homework, let alone eat dinner with her and Neil. He’d taken to zoning out on the couch with Sir and Zeus while Neil tucked Athena into bed, then staying there for a few hours while Neil finished his homework. He could have gone to his own apartment to lay down and watch TV, but he was missing the sounds of pages turning and keyboards clacking from the years he lived with Aaron and Nicky. 

Without them around, living in a big apartment he’d found other ways to fill the silence. Like always having the TV on, but when he was stressed and missing his family, like now, those familiar sounds really helped. Andrew would never admit that he missed either Aaron or Nicky, and he absolutely would not say he was disappointed they were both missing his first game. They were all meeting for Thanksgiving in a few weeks anyway and Andrew had been the one to convince them that they didn’t need to come to the game, yet he still found himself wishing they were going to be there. 

Games were on Saturdays, and he was thankful for that. It meant that the Friday night routine he’d gotten used to over the last few months could continue, at least when he had a home game. However, this specific Friday night he was kept late at work to ‘go over a couple more details’ for nearly an hour. Which meant that even with Neil changing dinner time to 5:30, instead of 4:30, he was still going to miss it. 

Andrew felt all of the tension leave his body as he stepped out of the elevator on his floor. One step took him out of the deathtrap, and one more brought him to the Josten’s door. 

He raised his hand to knock on the door but Athena threw it open before he had the chance to touch it. Andrew had taken to texting Neil when he was on his way home, to make sure they didn’t hold off dinner waiting for him if he was going to be late. She was already in her pajamas, hair in two perfect french braids. Athena jumped at him and he just managed to catch her and pick her up before she fell. 

“How was work?” Neil said from the kitchen just as Athena grabbed Andrew’s face and kissed him on the nose. 

Andrew walked in and set her on a chair, letting the door slam behind him, “Long and boring.” 

“I made stir fry," Neil said. He placed the plate in front of the chair Athena was standing on and she stole a snow pea.  

Andrew half-heartedly swatted at her hand, “Hey that’s mine.”

As she climbed down off the chair she laughed and stole another one. Andrew reached down and tickled her side, making her laugh even more. He used the distraction to take a seat at the table before she could try to steal anything else. The flaw in his plan was that the distraction only lasted for a little while and she climbed on his lap as soon as he was done laughing. Neil told her to let him eat, so he didn’t steal anything else, but that did not stop her from pouting and looking up at him for her giant blue eyes. Andrew only lasted a few bites before he gave in and handed her another pea pod. 

By the time he finished his meal, she had eaten more of the peas than he had. Next up Andrew wandered over to the couch with Athena in tow so she could do her reading homework. As a first-grader, she got no homework other than a small book every week she was supposed to read out loud, for some reason, she only liked doing it with Andrew. On days when he didn’t stay after dinner to hang out they still did her reading together because it had become part of her routine. 

With everyone fed and all of the homework done they were finally able to start their Friday night ritual, however, it was almost 7 pm by that point and Athena had to go to bed at 7:30. Neil curled up on one end of the couch, Andrew on the other, with Zeus and Athena between them. They settled on watching two 20 minute episodes of Muppet babies. The show was silly and Andrew was surprised how much he liked lounging on the couch with Athena tucked against his side watching a show made for toddlers. Their movies were usually good enough that they kept his focus and he didn’t spend the entire time thinking about exactly how much weight from another person was resting on him. This show was not particularly good and he didn’t really like it, so he had no distractions and got the chance to fully connect with his emotions brought on by the situation. Andrew was surprised to find that not only did her weight not bother him, but he actually liked it. Athena was warm and comforting, every time she laughed she patted his hand, and when she was really into the show she played with his fingers. 

After a few months of hanging out with the Josten’s, he knew he was okay with Athena treating him like a couch, but this was different. Andrew was no longer just putting up with it, instead, it was becoming relaxing. 

Next, Andrew thought about why that was. He wasn’t like them and he wouldn’t let himself be, so he had to know why he was enjoying it. It took a few minutes for him to figure it out, but then Zeus stretched out and kicked his arm a few times and that didn’t bother him either. At any other point in his life being suddenly hit at all would have gotten a strong reaction, especially when he hadn’t seen it coming, but now Zeus was just another part of his day. That’s when it finally clicked for him. Neil and Athena and Zeus were becoming part of his family. He’d somehow gone from just tolerating them, to looking forward to seeing them, to the three of them being the highlight of his day, without even realizing it. 

Somehow the Josten’s had reached the same level as Renee and Katelyn in just a few months. They weren’t at the level of Nicky and Aaron, that is to say, he didn’t love them yet, but yet was the keyword here for Andrew. With neither Nicky nor Aaron being able to come to his first game, Andrew was glad that Neil, Athena, and Zeus were. 

 

Andrew had to be at the stadium by 4 pm, even though the game didn’t start until 6. Neil didn’t particularly want to show up two hours before the event, but with game-day traffic always being hell in New York City, and with this being the first game of the season, he didn’t really have a choice. A car came to pick up Andrew at 3:30, because the Knight’s were that extra, and Neil managed to hitch a ride for his entire family with. The ride to anything but quiet, Athena asked Andrew all about what happens at Exy games, excited in a way that only small children could manage. As Andrew explained everything to her again--they’d both talked to her about it throughout the week--Neil was silently excited to. He’d never been to a real Exy game before, just his little league ones, and he was dying to feel the atmosphere. Neil was also glad that they had seats in the family area because as much as he truly wanted to experience the game in the stadium, he didn't think he would be able to handle the crowds. Years on the run left his anxious when he had no clear exit, and large crowds were easy to hide in but equally easy to get lost in.

They arrived early enough that Andrew was able to walk them up to the family area himself. The room was huge, it ran from the first fourth to the third-fourth, with a row of couches in front of floor to ceiling windows looking out over the court. Behind the couches were high tables, with all of the stools facing the windows. Against the back wall was another row of couches, from there people wouldn’t be able to see the game, but they’d be able to chat easily. The room was above all of the other seats, forming the ceiling for them, and almost even with the court so that if he looked down Neil could see the home benches. Directly across the court was another set of windows exactly the same for the opposing team’s family. Neil was shocked by how big it was, he thought it could easily hold a few hundred people and he was suddenly nervous about the size of the crowd he could expect. Purple and gold covered every inch of the stadium. From the court floor to the ceiling and everything in between. Even the seats Neil could see were alternating purple and gold rows. 

Zeus whined and bumped his leg, pulling him out of his own head. There was no point in getting worked up before the game even started. While looking down at Zeus and running a hand through his soft fur Neil saw Andrew look over at him from the corner of his eye. Andrew was kneeling down to Athena’s height in front of the large window pointing out at the court, talking to her about where he would be and connecting some of the things they’d told her over the last week to the space. The room was nearly empty so far, just a few people milling around, but the doors didn’t officially open until 4 pm. A security guard collected Andrew two minutes till, and he patted Neil’s back as he followed the man out. 

Athena took the chance to run around the large space, while Neil grabbed the table in the corner. He thought about telling her to settle down, but the few other people didn’t seem bothered, and he’d rather she got her energy out now as opposed to during the game when people were trying to focus. Thanks to Andrew’s warning about how long they’d have to wait before the game started Neil loaded his bag with coloring books and comic to keep Athena busy.      

As they waited Athena colored a picture for Andrew, and then made him a card to celebrate his first game, while Neil read one of his textbooks on his phone. He was aware of the room filling up over the next hour as they sat together quietly, but he kept himself from looking around every time he heard another group enter because he knew it would make him more anxious. Sitting on the stool meant Neil’s feet didn’t touch the floor and he had to kick his legs every few minutes to feel for Zeus. 

Some kids, a little older than Athena, walked in and she begged to go play with them. Neil didn’t want to pack up their stuff and take it with him just to talk to an adult for a 30-second talk. He looked around the room, realizing there probably weren’t even a hundred people spread out across the entire half-court long room and decided he could leave their things. As he got up both Zeus and Athena followed along behind him. When they reached the table that the woman, with perfect blonde curls and a knight's t-shirt on, was setting up on Athena ran over to the couch and started introducing herself to the two kids. 

Neil laughed, “Well, I was coming over here to see if my daughter could play with your kids, but I guess there’s no point now.”

The woman laughed too, she waved her hand in a dismissive gesture, “Oh it’s fine, they know anyone in this room is okay. I’m Gemma Hunt, by the way, Brad’s wife.”

“Neil Josten,” Neil said shaking her hand, “Minyard’s neighbor.”

“Oh,” Gemma said as her eyes went wide, “is she the one who interrupted the dinner party?”

Neil rubbed his hand over his face, “Yes, that was my daughter, Athena. Please tell me that it didn’t become a thing.”

“No, you’re good. Brad just told me about it when he got home. Said he’d have a heart attack if one of our kids did that.”

A relieved laugh escaped Neil, he didn’t want to be known as the dad who’s kid ruined dinner before he’d even met the team or their families. 

“My daughter Violet, she’s 7. And my son Aiden, he’s 5.” Gemma gestured toward her children as they made their way over.

“Can I pet your doggie?” Aiden asked.

“Oh no honey, he’s working. We can’t pet dogs while they work.” Gemma said without missing a beat. 

The three kids accepted that answer and ran off to play.

“Thank you,” Neil said, smiling at her, “I usually have to be the bad guy and explain that.”

Gemma looked toward the table with Neil’s things and asked if that’s where they were stationed, then moved her bag over to his table without telling the children. They seemed to be getting along and they were only three couches away if they needed anything. For the next hour until the game started Gemma filled Neil in on all the team insider information. She told him who always had the best snacks and who always brought an extra jersey or t-shirt in case someone forgot. She pointed out everyone by name, which Neil forgot almost immediately since there were a good 75 names to keep track of. She even told him who came to every game, every home game, or just a few every season. They both ordered some food from the caterer for the kids, with enough time for them to finish eating by tip-off, and continued their conversation. Normally Neil hated a gossip, but he loved getting to know everything about the team without having to talk to more than one person. 

The pair missed the teams coming out to do warms ups, too caught up in their conversation, but there was no way to miss the loud announcement of the starting line ups. Everyone in the room took a seat on the couches, while the children all sat on the floor in front of the windows. Neil heard Athena cheer when Andrew’s name was called and he couldn’t help but sit up a little straighter. Gemma’s husband was also on the court, so their conversation came to a halt as the ball was thrown into play. 

Right as the game started a man walked into the room and walked over to their table, carrying a small baby with noise-canceling headphones no. Gemma quickly introduced Neil to Derek Bennett, husband to one Amy Bennett, a backliner on maternity leave. Despite the fact that she couldn’t play yet, Bennett still dressed down with the team and sat on the bench. Derek got up and walked around the room, rocking the baby a second later.

Professional Exy was better than anything Neil had ever seen before. The crowd reacted to ever move the players made, while the ball was expertly moved between players. The Knight’s scored seven minutes into the game and the room went wild. The opposing team, dressed in tacky neon yellow and blue tried again and again to make a goal, but every time they made a shot Andrew swatted it away like it was nothing.

The teams seemed to be evenly balanced as the ball went back and forth across the court, but their goalies were a different story. The opposing goalie was good, probably amazing if Neil was honest, but Andrew was perfect. Andrew didn’t let in one goal the entire first half, while his team managed to score three. 

Half time was 30 minutes long and Neil took the chance to take Gemma’s son Aiden to the bathroom while she took both Athena and Violet. It surprised him how willing he was to let his daughter go with her, and how will she was to let her son go with him. Neil realized it was probably a normal thing since both of their children were getting a little too old to go into the opposite gender’s bathroom, but it was still weird for him to trust another person like that so quickly. When they got back Neil got each of the kids some popcorn. 

Athena faded quickly as the second half started. She was clearly still excited and trying to stay awake, but she was getting grumpy too. When Aiden fell asleep on one of the couches Neil decided to call it and pack up. Athena was still awake, but he didn’t feel like carrying her out of the stadium. As Athena said goodbye to her new friend Violet, Gemma stopped Neil and gave him her phone number, in case he needed a friend on the team. He had no idea what that meant, Andrew already was his friend on the team. Maybe she meant a friend to watch the games with if he ever came again? It had been a long day and Neil didn’t think he was reading too much into it when he realized that could be what she meant. Gemma seemed to think he’d be coming to another game and he didn’t know why. Andrew had invited him for the special event, there wasn’t a reason that Neil could see for him to do it again. 

Athena dragged her feet as they exited the stadium. There weren’t as many people as Neil expected in the lines at the various food shops, it seemed people truly stayed in their seats the entire time the ball was in play. Catching a taxi outside of the stadium was easy, if they were fast they’d have enough time to take Neil home and make it back before the stadium was empty, so they’d get two fares. Neil buckled Athena in and watched as she fell asleep betting Zeus. 

When they got home the taxi driver helped Neil by holding his bag and Zeus’s leash as he carefully picked Athena up, managing not to wake her. Once he had everything in hand he tipped the driver extra for the help and walked Zeus around the block so he wouldn’t have to take him out again later.  

Carrying Athena around the block, then in the elevator and through the house was tiring, especially since he was already exhausted from the exciting day. Neil managed to wake Athena up enough to brush her teeth and change her clothes before he put her to bed and she passed out again. He smiled as he watched her sleep, proud of how well she had done at the game, playing with her friends and not being distracting to the other adults. 

Neil settled on the couch lying down, while Zeus laid between his legs with his head on his thigh. He scrolled through Instagram for a few minutes then posted a picture of Athena standing in front of the window at the Exy game, looking at Andrew who could be seen in the goal below. Then he texted Andrew a picture of Athena in the same position at the window but smiling at the camera instead of looking at the game. 

Athena was falling asleep and we had to leave early

We both loved the game, thank you

You’re amazing by the way 

Snuggled up on the couch Neil fell asleep until his phone buzzing woke him up an hour later and he made his way to bed. Once in bed, snuggled up with Zeus again Neil read the message.

Thanks for the picture, glad you both enjoyed it, let me know if you ever want to come again   

Chapter Text

The week after Andrew’s game felt like the longest week of Neil's life. Senior year midterms were kicking his ass as he tried to juggle being a good father and a good student. Andrew was a big help, hanging out with Athena when he got home and putting her to bed so Neil could head to the library and put in some real studying time. Sadly Andrew had his first away game that weekend, and he had to leave on Thursday. 

To make up for it Andrew being gone on Friday night Neil and Athena had a sleepover in the living room, complete with movie theater-sized boxes of candy and kettle corn as they watched Coco on the pullout bed. Athena and Zeus fell asleep together in the middle of the movie, while Neil managed to make it to the end and turn the TV off before following along too. He had underestimated how tired he was after his midterms.

Neil was lucky enough to go to a lovely school that gave him the entire week of Thanksgiving off. He used that time to catch up on sleep, get ahead of his studies, and start his thesis. Technically, his thesis wasn’t due until May, but being ahead of schedule never hurt anyone. Athena still had school on Monday and Tuesday, which gave Neil a lot of time to do research at the library without any interruptions.  

Andrew got home late Monday night, just long enough to sleep in his own bed and repack his bag before he was off again on Tuesday night to visit his brother in Pennsylvania for the Holiday. Athena was devastated that she missed five dinners with him because of his away game, only to miss another three because he was going out of town. 

Andrew was just locking his door when they got home from school on Tuesday. Athena gave him a huge hug when she saw him, then pouted as he said goodbye while entering the elevator. She was in a foul mood all night and Neil couldn’t really blame her. He hadn’t realized how much Andrew had become a part of their everyday routine until the man up and left for a week. Even Zeus seemed a bit annoyed by the drastic change, but that may have just been because Neil and Athena were having a rough time adjusting.    

Going into Andrew’s apartment a few times a day to feed the cat, clean her box, and play with her was odd for Neil. He took his job as a cat sitter very seriously and snuck over after Athena was in bed a few times to snuggle with King. Neil was not a cat person, he’d never spent time around cats as a kid and as an adult, he worried about hurting them. Zeus was big, he could roughhouse with him, or use him as a pillow without worrying, but King was so small and fragile looking. 

Since Andrew had left Athena had been reading to Neil instead. Neil thought it was nice. They snuggled up on the couch together and work their way through the book every night. It was fun to see how much more confident she got with each reading.   

“Can I call Andrew?” Athena asked after dinner on Wednesday. “I have to read to him.”

Neil looked at her over the dishes, “I can help you read tonight.” 

“No, only Andrew can,” Athena said. She looked very upset about the idea of reading to Neil again when she really wanted to read to Andrew. 

“Buggy Andrew’s visiting his family,” Neil sighed. He didn’t want to deal with a meltdown, and he knew she was really missing him. Athena had taken a few photos and asked Neil to send them to Andrew, and he had replied in kind, but they hadn’t really spoken since he’d left nearly a week before. “You can call and ask, but if he doesn’t answer or says no, you need to respect that.”  

After Neil unlocked his phone and pressed facetime on Andrew’s contact Athena stole it from him, running over to sit on the couch as it rang. Andrew answered it on the fourth ring.

“Andrew!” Athena yelled at the screen.

“Hi bug, what are you doing?” Neil heard Andrew say. “Does your dad know you have his phone?”

“Yes, he’s over there,” Athena said, pointing at Neil. She looked confused for a moment, then turned her body away from Neil, letting him see the screen. Then she pointed over her own shoulder, on the wrong side which was adorable, to try to show Andrew where Neil was. 

Neil rarely let Athena use his phone, and even then it was only to talk to someone. He realized she had no idea how to rotate the camera to show what she wanted to, so she was finding clever ways all by herself.

Andrew looked to the side for a moment and nodded, “Okay good.”

“Can I read to you? Neil doesn’t listen right.” Athena said.

“Yes, one second.” Andrew started walking and Neil could see his background changing from a living room to a hallway, and finally to a bedroom.

Someone called out to him as he closed the door on screen, but Neil couldn’t make out what they said.

“Who’s that?” Athena asked.

“My cousin Nicky,” Andrew replied. He sat on the bed then put on his listening face.

For a man with almost no facial expression, he had a good listening face. Neil had noticed it when Athena first asked if she could read to him. It was odd because it was the same as his normal face, but something was different. Andrew looked younger somehow, his eyes softened just a little bit. He tilted his head slightly to the right and just barely chewed on the inside of his lip. The expression wasn’t just for when Athena read to him, it happened anytime a child talked to him. Once at the tiny park across from their apartment, a little boy had told Andrew a long story about some kids show Neil couldn’t remember, and Andrew had kept his listening face the entire time. 

The weirdest thing to Neil was that it was only for children. Andrew never softened like that for adults. If an adult talked to him he just blankly stared at them, more people never tried twice. At first, Neil thought it was just adult strangers, but then at the gym, Andrew had looked just as bored talking to Matt and Randy. Even when he talked to Neil, he kept his face neutral.

Neil clued back into the conversation as Athena put her book down and ran into her room with his phone, telling Andrew about the crafts she had made at school since he left. He followed behind her, stopping in her doorway, and listened to his daughter catch Andrew up on all the incredible things he had missed. 

Nearly an hour after the call started Athena was beginning to run out of things to say, Neil was about to ask her to say goodbye when Andrew spoke up.

“Do you want to meet my family?” he asked her.

Athena nodded and looked over to Neil, who had migrated to the rocking chair. Neil gave in because she looked excited, and Andrew had suggested it, so he patted his knee. Athena climbed up while Andrew left the bedroom on screen and went back to the living room. 

Andrew flipped the camera, putting his hand in view and pointing to the various people. “That’s my cousin Nicky, and his fiance Erik. That’s Ka-”

Athena cut him off, “Katelyn and Aaron! I talked to them before!”

“You remember? That was almost three months ago,” Andrew said. 

Neil thought he almost sounded shocked. He wasn’t in frame and Neil would have killed to see his face at that moment. Was he still expressionless or would he look shocked? What would shock even look like with Andrew’s composure? 

“Do you like being a twin Andrew?” Athena asked.

Andrew flipped the camera back around so he was on the screen. “Sometimes.”

“Cause you don’t ever have to talk to someone you don’t want to. If they say ‘Hey Andrew’ you could just say ‘I’m Aaron’ and then they wouldn’t talk to you anymore.” Athena said. Neil felt her laugh with her whole body.

“That’s pretty smart,” Andrew said as someone laughed in the background. 

A hand covered the camera and then Nicky was on screen. “So Athena, how did you come up with that?”

“I dunno,” Athena said, leaning back onto Neil’s chest, shy all of a sudden.

Nicky followed up by asking her a few questions about her favorite things before diving in and asking her about Andrew. He wanted to know what Andrew’s apartments was like, how soft his cat was, anything she knew about him. When Athena let slip that Andrew ate dinner with them every night, Nicky’s face lit up like he’d just won the lottery. 

Andrew ended the call soon after that. It was getting late and Athena still needed a shower, so Neil was thankful that he didn’t have to be the bad guy and end the call himself. After showing Athena, reading her three stories, and tucking her in Neil was finally done for the day. He had no homework for once, with nothing to work on he settled into bed with Zeus and queued up Teen Wolf on his laptop. 

how is King?

Oh she’s great. Hasn’t even noticed you're gone. Nightly parties with all her friends, the usual

good to hear

you’re a better cook than my cousin btw

Nice, I’ve always wanted to be a better cook than someone’s cousin

They went back and forth for a while, Neil talking about how much he managed to get done while he was off and Athena wasn’t. Andrew didn’t say as much, what little he did say was mostly complaining. Neil got the impression that he was scared of flying with how much he had to say about terrible flights and hating airports.

Neil didn’t realize how much he had missed his nightly hangouts with Andrew until then. They weren’t saying anything worthwhile, and it was just texting, but it was still really nice. Neil suddenly wished he’d gotten a bit of time to talk when they had facetimed. He could call again since Athena was in bed and Andrew said he’d told his family goodnight already, but something felt weird about that. Talking to Andrew while lying in bed, with Andrew somewhere a few hundred miles away doing the same thing felt too intimate. 

Before he knew it two episodes had played without Neil even noticing. He looked up from his phone as the theme song played on the third episode, slightly confused. How had he gotten so caught up in texting Andrew that he had missed two full episodes? Neil shut his computer and put it on the bedside table. He curled up with Zeus again and smiled as he texted Andrew goodnight, then drifted off to sleep.

Thanksgiving was a weird holiday. Every holiday seemed weird to Neil since he hadn’t grown up celebrating them, but this was the weirdest. The story behind it didn’t make much sense, and the timing was off. A harvest based holiday should be earlier in the season, not late November. It could have just been that Neil was in a bad mood because they were having an unnatural cold spell with a high of 27 F. Athena wasn’t any happier as they made the trek across town to Randy Boyd’s sky rise apartment.

Athena jumped on Randy as soon as she opened the door, giving her a tight hug. Neil followed behind them as they walked in and shed their extra layers in the entryway. Randy lived alone now, divorced with her son grown, and had nowhere for them to put their things. Neil stacked it all in a semi neat pile, next to another pile of jackets. It looked like Matt was already there.

They heard laughter coming from the kitchen. Athena grabbed Randy’s hand and led her through the house like she owned the place. It smelled amazing, Thanksgiving was the one holiday were Neil didn’t have to cook anything. Matt picked up Athena and cheered when he saw her, making Neil smile. He offered Neil a calmer treating and introduced him to his wife.

Dan Wilds was a fierce woman. Neil knew all about her from what Matt and Randy had told him and he was intrigued. The first female captain in college Exy, managing to take her team to the finals multiple times, even winning once, was someone to be awed. Despite knowing Randy for three years and being friends with Matt for two, Neil and Dan had never actually met before.

“You missed my wedding,” Dan said to him foregoing a greeting.

“Who schedules a wedding on a Tuesday? And in the middle of finals week?” Neil said, slightly challenging her. “Honestly, I’m surprised anyone managed to make it.”

Dan laughed, “All the important people were already in town for Matt’s graduation. Besides it was the week after finals, not the week of finals.”

“Maybe for your ridiculous school, but for mine your wedding took place exactly in the middle of my most important test.”

Dan laughed again, “Oh, I like you.”

Neil heard Athena in the other room, and went to go see what she was doing. Everyone else followed along to, like he was going somewhere exciting instead of just the living room.

“Gigi look! That balloon is a big as a house!” She said as she pointed at the parade on the TV. 

Randy walked over and sat with her and they started talking about what was happening in the parade. Neil turned and saw that Dan had wide misty eyes and he couldn’t figure out why.

“Oh my God,” she whispered, “she already has a grandma name.”

Matt patted her back, “We don’t have to use that one.”

“No, I love it,” Dan smiled up at him. 

Neil felt weird watching their moment until Dan’s words clicked for him. “Are you two going to have a baby?”

Dan looked over to him with wide eyes as her brows shot up, “Shh. Shush. Oh no.”

She clamped a hand over her mouth while Matt smiled at Neil and rubbed her back.

“This is a secret and you can’t tell my mom, but we’re trying,” Matt said with a proud grin. He looked so excited, Neil knew he would be a good dad. “We’re in a good place, and we own a house. I have a few million in savings already. Getting pregnant can take awhile, you know? And even if it happens right away Dan will be 26 by the time the baby’s born and I’ll 25, that’s not too young.”

“I mean you got a good ten years on me, I was 16,” Neil laughed.

Matt looked concerned for a moment, like he thought he said the wrong thing, so Neil patted his arm as he laughed. Dan smiled too as she pulled Neil in for a hug. He froze for a moment, then relaxed as she patted his back and let go. Everyone in this family was a hugger, apparently. 

The rest of the day was relaxing. They finished the parade together, watched some football—one of Neil’s least favorite sports—and then set the table as a group. Another thing that confused Neil about Thanksgiving is that everyone ate dinner so early. No rational person would make a holiday where everyone had to eat dinner at 3 pm. 

The food was amazing, even better since he didn’t have to cook it. After they ate Matt fell asleep on the couch and Neil decided it was time to pack up. He gave Randy a big hug as she tried to fill his arms with leftovers and extra pie. While he waited for Athena to say her goodbye’s he sought out Dan, since he couldn’t say goodbye to a sleeping Matt. 

“Good Luck,” he said with a wink.

Dan punched him in the shoulder, then pulled him in for another hug. She ruffled his hair when she let go.

“I see why Matt thinks of you like a little brother now,” Dan said.

“He... what?” Neil asked. He had a hard enough time thinking of Matt as his friend, and somehow Matt saw him as family?

She ruffled his hair again, “You’re a good kid, Bro.” Dan laughed almost hysterically and pulled him in for another hug before looking at him with a faux stern face. “Keep your grades up. Don’t do drugs.”

Neil was still confused, but he didn’t get a chance to ask as she started laughing again. The journey home was just as cold as the trek there and Neil was glad to finally be in his own space again. He made Athena a hot chocolate as she snuggled on the couch with Zeus, then made himself a nice cup of tea.

 


 

 

Thanksgiving was officially to be labeled the worst holiday. Since the facetime the night before Nicky had not let him rest about the Josten's. He wanted to know everything. Andrew was exhausted just from listening to it. After answering the first two questions, he told Nicky the more he asked, the less he would answer. Unfortunately, that didn’t help the situation at all.

By Thursday morning, Andrew wasn’t even talking to his cousin. Instead he made a point of talking to Erik as much as he could. Andrew didn’t even like Erik. He could never truly like the reason his cousin moved halfway across the world, but he had to admit he wasn’t too bad. 

As Andrew ignored Nicky’s questions, he asked Erik about his job and his family. Erik was a quiet man, enough so that Andrew wondered how he and Nicky got along so well, but once he started talking about something he cared about he didn’t stop.  The conversations with Erik were about ten percent Andrew asking more questions and eighty percent Erik talking.

Aaron and Katelyn were stuck talking to Nicky in the meantime, which led to Aaron sending him dirty look every few minutes. They both loved their cousin dearly, but sometimes he was a lot to handle. After a few months of being apart, after spending 5 years together almost every day in college, Nicky had a lot to say. 

They all pitched in to make the special meal. Erik was on turkey, while Aaron and Nicky made the sides, and Andrew was stuck making a pie with Katelyn. They were pushed out into the dining room for prep, while the other three dominated the kitchen.

“Can I ask you a question?” Katelyn asked, keeping her voice quiet. Apparently this wasn’t a conversation for the others.

Andrew nodded without looking up at her and she continued. “Do you want kids?”

He turned his head to her and raised an eyebrow.

“It’s just that you’re really good with that little girl. I mean I’ve only seen it over Skype, but I can just tell,” Katelyn said. She smiled at him for a moment then looked back down to her work. “I just think you’d be a good dad is all.”

Andrew nodded to show he had been listening as he thought. He didn’t really want kids. He didn’t used to think he would be particularly good at raising one, but then this hot dad and his vibrant daughter had started worming their way into his head. 

“Do you?” Andrew asked. When she looked at him confused he rolled his eyes. “Want kids?”

“Oh I don’t know.” Katelyn looked toward Aaron in the kitchen, a soft smile appearing on her face. “We haven’t talked about it. If it happens it wont be for like ten years. I’m not risking my career. Once we’re stable though, maybe.”

“Does Aaron?” Andrew asked. She kept looking at him and it was making Andrew slightly suspicious. This was already the longest conversation he had ever had with her. 

“He hasn’t out right said it, but yeah. I think he does.”

“You should probably talk about they before you get married,” Andrew suggested.

“Andrew Minyard are you trying to cause problems in my marriage before it even starts?” She asked. She sounded slightly annoyed and Andrew liked that on her. Katelyn had always been too scared of him to ever challenge him before.

He hadn’t been trying to start problems anyway. “Would you rather find out that’s a deal breaker now? Or in three years when he’s ready and you’re not?”

Katelyn didn’t answer him. Instead she turned to her own work and ignored him for the rest of the project. Once the turkey was out and the pies were in they started setting the table. Aaron asked Erik to carve the turkey and Erik said no, he wouldn’t take that from him in his own home. They went back a forth for a minute, arguing playfully, until Andrew took up and did it himself. The other two both looked relieved, it seemed like neither one of them had wanted to do it. 

The food was okay. After a few months of Neil's cooking he had a newfound appreciation for truly homemade meals. Really it was probably the best thanksgiving of Andrew’s life, but he kept thinking of what Neil could have done with it. 

While everyone was eating Andrew decided to bring up an earlier topic, since Katelyn hadn’t seemed keen on doing it.

“Hey Aaron,” Andrew said without sparing Katelyn a glance, “do you want kids?”

Aaron nearly choked on his food. Nicky patted him on the back as he laughed. It took a moment for him to recover, as he took a drink of water, then a little while longer before he could looked at Andrew.

“Maybe once we both get settled into our careers career,” Aaron said as he blushed. “I can’t imagine it for at least ten years. We’re 24.”

“Well,” Nicky said, looking more nervous that Andrew had ever seen him, “we weren’t going to say anything, but since Andrew brought it up... umm...”

Erik placed his hand over Nicky’s and gave him a comforting smile, “We were thinking about adopting, after we get married of course.”

“Congratulations,” Andrew said. Everyone looked at him in shock, surprised that he was the first one to speak up about it. Everyone knew he and Erik weren’t the best of friends, but they didn’t seem to realize he still wanted whatever would make his cousin happy.

Aaron and Katelyn offered their congratulations next. They talked about the wedding, which was planned for the following summer. Erik had wanted to get married as soon as Nicky graduated, but Nicky was rational for once and said they should wait a year and get used to living with each other again. After almost two years of Nicky getting Andrew and Aaron through high school, then another five years of Nicky staying in the US for college they’d been in a long distance relationship for nearly seven years. From what Nicky had told Andrew he was loving being back in Germany, but he was still glad they held off the wedding for a year.

Andrew went to the guestroom after dinner. Nicky and Erik had gone to take a nap after they all did the dishes together, and Katelyn and Aaron wanted to watch a movie together. They had invited him, but he didn’t really want to stay and be an awkward third wheel. 

He texted Neil to check on his cat, or at least that’s the excuse he used. Really he just wanted to be back in his own apartment, in his own bed, with his own people. He hated traveling, so of course he had a job that sent him away every other weekend, that added into visit his family left him exhausted. Around Aaron and Nicky and their fiances Andrew was always the left out fifth wheel. They tried to include him in everything and sometimes that just made it worse.

Andrew loved his family, and when they all lived together they had't bothered him too much. This visit was so rough because he hadn’t seen either of them in person since he’d moved and they had so much time to make up for and so many things to talk about. It was too much crammed into too little time. 

Neil texted him back immediately and they went back and fourth as Andrew watched a flat earth documentary on his laptop. Sometimes Neil wouldn’t reply for five or ten minutes at a time, because he was busy enjoying time with his daughter, so Andrew needed something else to fill his wait.

They talked about nothing really. Andrew learned that Neil’s favorite color is gray, but a cool gray not a warm gray. And he told him his favorite color is green, but a pine green not a kelly green. They learned useless little facts about each other, yet it was the most Andrew had shared with another person in a long time. 

He drifted off to sleep that night thinking about how nice it was to be able to say pointless things just because.

Chapter Text

 


 

It only took another couple weeks for Neil and Athena to be released from the hospital and into state care officially. Technically, they were in state care the entire time they were in the hospital, but it didn’t really feel like it to Neil. It felt like Heather and the other nurses and doctors were in charge of him. Detective Sutton came back a few times during that time to ask him more questions, and the intimidating FBI agent always shadowed her.  

Neil didn’t get all the details—he knew Mrs. Lorde was keeping a lot of stuff from him—when he found out that he was going to be moving from Oregon to somewhere else. They wouldn’t even tell him where he was going. Only that Athena was coming too. As he got more and more frustrated with the situation, he asked more and more questions. Eventually, he found out that he was being moved to a ‘safe house’ where an Ex-FBI agent would serve as his and Athena’s foster mother, her husband who still worked for the FBI would be there too, but Neil chose to ignore that. 

Athena looked significantly less fragile with the IV and nasal cannula removed. On their last night, Heather stayed late, and they had a little going away party. They snuck extra mango slices from the cafeteria and watched cliche black and white movies on the TV. Mrs. Lorde was there too, but she just read her book in the corner and let them mess around with the disposable camera she’d brought in. Neil took pictures with his favorite doctors and nurses and some of Athena by herself. Then Heather took a few of Neil holding Athena. It was the most fun Neil had ever had in his life. He couldn't remember a single other time he got to mess around, take photos, and eat whatever he wanted. When Heather had to leave Neil was significantly sadder than he had expected to be. He’d never had to say goodbye to someone he liked before, and suddenly the idea of never seeing her again was terrifying. 

Heather was the first person he truly felt safe with after his mother died and he was instantly faced with the fact that she was just a nurse. She had only ever been just a nurse. Leaving the hospital was even more frightening. Not only was he leaving to go somewhere new but he wasn't going to know anyone once he got there. Detective Sutton had explained witness protection to him, and he knew logically it was safer with fewer people knowing who he was and where he was going. However, that didn’t stop the anxiety he felt about the situation.    

The therapist he was working with at the hospital had given him a few ways to calm his breathing and take control of his thoughts after he’d had his first panic attack. As he packed his bag to leave the hospital, none of them were working. He had three pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, seven t-shirts, three long-sleeved shirts, ten pairs of boxers, thirteen pairs of socks, two pairs of shoes, a jacket, a sweater, and a hoodie. More clothes than he had ever had in his life, including when he still lived in his father's house. It was too much for him to fit in the duffel bag Mrs. Lorde gave him and he panicked as he tried to decide what to leave behind. The idea of asking for a second bag never occurred to him. Mary only let him have one duffel bag no matter what.

Neil sat on the floor with his head on his knees, focusing on his breathing, as he tried to shove the panic aside. 

Most of his clothing was gifts from the doctors and nurses and he didn’t know who’s gifts to keep and who’s to cast aside. Not knowing where he was going made the decision harder, as he couldn’t plan on the weather.

“Neil?” asked a high pitched voice. He looked up and saw it was the new nurse he never bothered to learn the name of since he was leaving, anyway. “Are you okay?”

He didn’t trust his voice, so he just nodded his head. The woman didn’t look convinced as she looked down at him. 

“It looks like we need to get you another bag, doesn’t it?” she smiled at him.

“Another bag?” Neil asked. He felt like she was trying to trick him.

“I’ll go see what Mrs. Lorde can do,” she said without loosing her wide grin. “Do you think a suitcase or a backpack would work better?”  

When Neil didn’t answer she asked him to pack Athena’s clothes instead while she went bag hunting. It took Neil a moment to catch his breath and stand up. Athena was still sleeping in her cot and he felt relieved at the sight. His little freak out hadn’t woken her up. 

If Neil thought he had too many clothing items, Athena’s wardrobe was something else completely. She had five zip-up pajamas sets in preemie, which she was close to growing out of, five more in newborn, and seven more in 0-3 months. She also had multiple onesie's and leggings in each of those three sizes. The good news was that her clothes were significantly smaller than his and they all fit in one diaper bag. The last things Neil added into her bag were the fox wubbanub pacifier that he had picked out in the gift shop, and the deer one Heather had picked. 

The nurse came back a little while later with a yellow hard side carry-on suitcase. She packed a second diaper bag full of baby things; like formula, diapers, cream, washcloths, and a couple of pacifiers. She told him the social worker coming to pick them up would have everything else already, like bottles and a car seat, the hospital just needed to provide the things that were special to Athena’s case. From what she said, it sounded like Athena had special cream and formal because she was so small and sensitive, and then she had smaller than normal diapers because she wasn’t quite 6 lbs yet. 

The world of babies made little sense to Neil, but he’d learned enough to know that Athena was extra small and would have probably still been small if his mother had made it to 40 weeks. He blamed the same genetics that had made him stop growing at 5 feet 3 inches tall. One of the doctors had told him he could still grow more, lots of boys did after 16, but he knew it wouldn’t happen. He’d been taller than his mother at 11, the fact that he’d made it this tall already was a miracle. 

The next morning Mrs. Lorde came and picked them up right after breakfast. Neil was showered and ready to go with his duffel and new suitcase. Athena made a big fuss about being put into the car seat. She cried until Neil gave her her fox wubbanub pacifier, then continued to cry with it in her mouth as soon as Mrs. Lorde lifted the car seat off of the chair. 

It was easier to calm her down once they were in the car. It was odd to see her in car seat and a real outfit after she’d spent so long in the hospital dressed in just a diaper and connected to multiple different wires. Neil sat in the back and held her hand while she stared at him until the car lulled her to sleep. Neil watched as Downtown Portland went by the windows and they ended up at the local DHS office. Mrs. Lorde left Neil’s bags in the trunk and grabbed only the bag with the diapers and formal for Athena. She let Neil carry Athena, still in her car seat, into the building. 

Agent Browning was there again with a tall woman who had curly, unruly long black hair. She walked with a cane despite the fact that she couldn't have been older than 45. Neil ignored them both when they entered the conference room, in favor of taking Athena out of the car seat. The adults all sat down and waited while he carefully lifted Athena so her head was resting on his shoulder and gently rocked back and forth to put her back to sleep. Once she was out Mrs. Lorde looked at him expectantly.

“This is Kenneth Browning, Neil. You’ve met him a few times,” Mrs. Lorde informed him. She was clearly waiting for him to say something, but he refused to say anything until he knew what was going on. Eventually, she took the hint. “And this is his wife Debora.”

“You can call me Deb,” the woman said with a smile. Her voice was rougher than he expected. After only talking to nurses, doctors, and cops who had all used their softest voices on him he was a bit relieved. She pointed to her husband, “And you can call him Ken.”

Neil nodded his head. He wasn’t particularly comfortable calling adults by their nicknames, but he also didn’t want to upset them by not doing as they asked. He listened to Mrs. Lorde as she explained that they would be in charge of getting him to the next place he was going. She didn’t seem to know a lot about where that would be, but she stayed until he said he was comfortable talking to the Browning’s alone. 

Once she was gone Mrs. Browning—Deb, Neil was supposed to call her Deb—explained to him that they weren’t just taking him to the next place, they were going to be his foster parents until he was ready to move on. She said a lot of sweet things, about caring to him and Athena and the life they would have, but what Neil held onto most was that she wanted to be his only foster mother. This woman who had never met him before wanted to be his mother for as long as he would have her.

There was a weird amount of paperwork to be done by the adults and it took a couple of days to get everything sorted. Neil and Athena stayed in a hotel with the Browning's in the meantime. It seemed like they had already done all the paperwork to be his guardians, so he had no idea what everything else was and Deb wouldn’t talk to him about it. She said it was just FBI nonsense. 

Agent Browning, Ken, didn’t talk to him much, but he did tell him that every one of the people he had given them information on had already been arrested, and a few more lower-level people that Neil hadn’t know about had been taken in as well. Neil didn’t feel any safer though, he knew there had to be people hiding in the dark, waiting for him to resurface so they could take him out. 

By the end of the week, they were set to fly out. No one told Neil where they were going, but he assumed that was because they didn’t know either. After everything his mother had told him he had no idea what a government safe house would be like. The ones his mother had had were all dirty and little more than an empty room with no windows, yet he knew the one they were going to would be nothing like that.

While they waited for permission to leave for their next destination Neil wasn’t allowed to leave to the hotel room. It was more boring than the hospital had been, at least there he had lots of people to talk to and appointments to keep. All he had to keep him entertained was a TV with limited cable and Athena. Deb taught Neil how to use a baby wrap. He had to practice tying it over and over for an entire day before she let him put Athena in it. The process was frustrating, but worth it in the end. If he wrapped it too loosely or too tightly Athena could get hurt. They had a baby carrier that Neil was excited to use because he could just put it on like a backpack and slide her in, but she was too little for it to work yet.

 

They caught a private airplane a couple of days later. Having the entire flight to themselves was weird. The plane had armchairs and full tables for them to sit at. Neil realized he had to be a very important witness for the government to go this far out of their way to keep him alive, but he refused to think about it. The flight was timed perfectly, so that Athena was asleep for both the take-off and landing, but the car ride after was another story. For such a tiny baby she sure could get mad fast. 

She screamed and cried for almost twenty minutes straight in the car seat. Neil had no idea where she was getting all that energy from and by the end, he just wanted to join in too.   

They ended up on a farm in a small town in Connecticut. The house was big and white with old windows and an even older barn out back. Neil got his own room with a queen-sized bed, a full desk, and a huge bookshelf. Ken and Deb stayed in the master bedroom on the first floor so Neil could have the entire second floor to himself if he wanted. There was a nursery too, which Athena would get to move into eventually, but for now, they put a cot in both Neil’s room and the master bedroom.

As they got settled Neil was allowed to take care of Athena more and more. He wanted to have her in his room every night, but Deb reminded him that he was just 16 years old and shouldn’t be forced into that level of responsibility. During the day Athena spent the most time with Neil, while he took placement tests for every subject so he could start studying to get his GED. 

Due to the safe house status both Deb and Ken were forced to stay home with him instead of working. It was annoying at first, Neil didn’t feel like he needed a babysitter, but he got used to it quickly. For the most part, they left him alone during normal school hours and let him work on his studies. Ken worked out in the barn making furniture with the old woodworking tools he found out there. While Deb fixed things around the house, staying close by in case Neil needed help with some subject or another. 

Mary had given him workbooks to keep him quiet while they were on the run, and occasionally put him in school, so Neil knew a lot about random things. The hardest part was connecting it all. He learned that he was actually way above the average high schooler in math, but a bit behind for his age in English. While Neil had a strong reading level, he had almost no practical knowledge for writing. When he wrote he threw long sentences together with three of four comas randomly placed wherever he felt like a pause would be nice.

During the evenings Deb thought Neil how to cook. She started with the basics and they worked up from there. Quality time was a weird concept for Neil. He couldn’t remember ever spending an evening with his mother where they were both able to relax completely. Whenever Deb felt like Neil had spent too much time studying, she would send him out to the barn to help Ken on his latest project. 

Ken didn’t talk to Neil much at the beginning. At first, he thought it was because Neil had jumped the first time he saw him, but he quickly learned it was because Ken was just a quiet man. When they worked together he talked a lot, however, explaining shop safety and walking Neil through every little step on all of their projects. They made Athena a bookshelf for her room, then a highchair for the dining room. It turned out Ken had lived on a farm as a kid and taken Shop every year in school, so he knew how to make everything properly. 

“What do you want to build next?” Ken asked him as they placed the bookshelf in the nursery. 

“Can we make her some toys?” Neil asked. “I didn’t have a lot of toys growing up.”

“Sure,” Ken said.

He made Neil research how to make baby-safe toys. Neil was sure that Ken already knew all the information, but he looked everything up, anyway. 

“Okay let’s start with a set of blocks,” Ken suggested. 

Neil stretched out squares, rectangles, and triangles on a piece of walnut. Ken cut the first few shapes out on the scroll saw, then let Neil try it. When he finished, the lines weren’t very straight, but Ken looked excited anyway.

“Nice job!” Ken cheered. “I can't believe that was your first time!”

Neil looked at the blocks then back at Ken, “They’re not very pretty. The lines aren’t even close to even.”

“That’s what sanding them and oiling them is for.” Ken patted Neil on the back and he managed not to flinch. “This is a great start.”

At the end of the day, Neil put nine shiny dark brown wooden blocks on Athena’s new bookshelf. Ken was right, they did look good after they were finished.

        

By the end of the second month on the farm, Neil was well settled in. He no longer jumped when Deb called for him or when Ken moved too quickly. His nightmares were getting worse though. The therapist at the hospital had warned him this could happen, she had said something about trauma catching up with a person once they were finally safe and able to start processing it all. He had a weekly phone call with an FBI therapist to help with the adjustment.

Neil knew that newborns didn’t do a lot, but as Athena grew, she learned a something new almost every day. Neil jumped up and clapped his hands the first time she smiled at him. She started sucking her thumb when he talked to her and he thought it was the cutest thing he had ever seen. As he studied, he read aloud to Athena, explaining every concept to her. She cooed back at him and they would have silly little conversations distracting him from his work occasionally.  

“What’s this?” Neil asked Athena, holding up her favorite blanket in front of her.

From her position on the floor she lifted her head up to look at it. He booped her on the nose with it and pulled it back again as she laughed and blinked dramatically. Her facial expressions always made him laugh too. Neil liked how responsive she had become at almost three months old. 

“Yeah?” Neil asked as he did it again, “Is that funny?”

Neil carefully lifter her up as Deb called for him from the kitchen. It was time to make dinner, so Neil carefully strapped Athena into the baby carrier and started making a salad, while he watched Deb pull the chicken out of the oven. 

One of the things Neil liked about living with the Browning's was that they let him take care of Athena as much as he wanted to. For the most part he always wanted to, occasionally Deb had to force him to take a break, but in general, he was in charge of her. Now that they had a good routine going she was allowed to sleep with him almost every night. 

"You don't always have to hold her," Ken said as he walked in the kitchen.

Neil rolled his eyes, "Watch this."

He carefully took Athena out of the baby carrier and walked to the baby swing by the dining room table. After adjusting the straps he put her down in it and buckled her up, then gave her her pacifier. She settled into the swing and smiled as it began to calmly rock her. Neil turned to go back to the counter and she started crying. He turned back around to her and smiled,  which made her settled down again. As quietly as he could he began walking backward away from her, so she could see his face the entire time. Within three steps she started crying again. 

Neil turned to Ken and raised an eyebrow at him.

Ken laughed, "Okay you win. I can hold her while you cook."

Ken unbuckled her as she cried and raised her to his shoulder. It didn't help at all. She cried louder and turned her head away from him. Neil walked over and raised his hands up so her could take her. Athena leaned toward him and settled down again as soon as she was in his arms.

"It's okay Baby," Neil said as he bounced on his toes. "Mean Mister Kenneth won't bother you any more."

"Well she certainly plays favorites, doesn't she?" Ken laughed.

"It's because you smell like paint thinner Dear," Deb said, "Don't take it personally."

Ken raised his shoulder and smelled his own shirt, making a face and laughing when he realized she was right. He left the room, hopefully to shower and change before dinner, while Neil stayed with Deb to help out. 

It was nice to have a set schedule, but what Neil really appreciated about living with the Browning's was that he got a close look at a healthy relationship. They respected each other boundaries, while still managing to be playful with each other. They set rules for Neil, but they still gave him more freedom that he had ever had. Not for the first time Neil realized just how traumatic his childhood had been. Yet the reflections gave him a chance to grow.

Deb and Ken were giving him everything he needed to heal while helping him learn how to be a kid again and also showing him how to raise a child. 


 

Chapter Text

Before he left Aaron’s house in the middle of the night to catch a flight Andrew was forced into a makeshift family Christmas, since his cousin would be back in Germany for the Holiday and his brother was spending it with Katelyn’s family. She had invited Andrew to come too since he didn’t have a lot of other options, but when Andrew found out that Neil and Athena would be spending Christmas at home just the two of them he couldn’t help but want to do the same. Neil had invited him to come over before he even heard that Andrew had no plans, and after he found out the menace got Athena involved and they teamed up on him. Andrew didn’t have the ability to say no to her pouty face in general, and when the alternative was going to Katelyn’s he did even hesitate before saying yes. It helped that he had a home game on the 22nd, an away game on the 29nth, and another home game on the 31st, plus a team dinner on the 23rd. Making the end of December an incredibly busy time to be an exy player, and really giving him no time to head down to South Carolina. 

By the end of the weekend after Thanksgiving, Andrew had his first holiday season as a real adult completely planned out. Exy games, team events, family dinners, and a night reserved for building gingerbread houses. It all felt surreal. Neither Andrew nor Aaron liked Christmas, so they’d mostly treated it like another day in college. For the first time, Andrew was actually looking forward to the Holidays. 

December felt like it was building up to something big. Like when he was a kid and the whole month revolved around Christmas. It was happening again, only this time Andrew had no idea what it was leading up to. 

 

Nicky and Erik flew home the day after Black Friday, with just enough of a layover in New York City to take a taxi to the stadium and catch the first half of Andrew’s home game before they have to head back to the airport. Two weeks later, on December 8th, Neil and Athena managed to make it to his next home game as well, even if they had to leave just after half time because Athena fell asleep again. When he signed the contract to join the Knights Andrew went into it thinking he would never have someone on his side. There would never be anyone in the family box rooting for him. Yet, here he was, three home games into the season and there had been two people he cared about at every home game so far (and an occasional dog). 

 

Due to the annoying game schedule, and the even more annoying travel schedule, Andrew got Sundays and Mondays off now, and sometimes even Tuesday if they had traveled far. With Neil cooking his dinner every night he was home, and refusing to accept payment for it, Andrew had to find another way to pay him back. It had taken a little while, but one night Neil had let slip how much he hated cleaning the bathrooms. On one of his days off in mid-November, while Neil was taking a midterm, Andrew had snuck into his apartment with his spare key and cleaned both bathrooms. It had taken Neil two days to notice, a testament to how stressed he was. They never talked about it again after Neil thanked him the first time, but Andrew continued to sneak over once a week on his days of while Neil was in class and clean. 

Which is how Neil ended up walking into his apartment to find Andrew dressed in orange Fox shorts and a light grey Palmetto shirt. 

“Come here you big dumb baby,” Andrew said as he leaned down to try and grab his cat, who was hiding under the dining room table. He had no idea how she’d managed to get past him when he went to grab his phone from his own apartment, but she had. And then he’d spent the next five minutes chasing her around the Josten’s apartment as she took in the new scenery. 

Behind him, Neil cleared his throat. Andrew barely controlled his flinch, he still had no idea how Neil managed to repeatedly sneak up on him.  

“Big dumb baby?” Neil asked with a confused look on his face.  

Andrew leaned down, managing to capture the cat finally, and stood up again. He cradled her in his arms like she was an infant. “She big. She dumb. She baby.” 

Neil laughed, dropping his bag in the doorway and finally entering the house, with Zeus following behind him. 

“Hi King,” he said in his baby voice as he reached out to pet her. “Are you causing trouble?”

Andrew rolled his eyes as she purred. King was an older and very lazy cat, and he had never expected her to be so much work. Zeus came up and inspected his arms after Neil took his vest off. The two animals weren’t friends, but they weren’t enemies. Zeus didn’t bother with other animals, part of his training was to ignore them because they distracted him from his job. Once he was satisfied that she wasn’t going to bother Neil Zeus paid her no attention. Andrew moved the cat so she laid against the back of his neck and she settled down instantly, purring in his ear. 

“Lunch?” Neil asked. He started pulling out containers from the fridge, making Andrew a sandwich too when he nodded. Andrew was more than capable of making his own sandwich, but Neil didn’t seem to be able to make just one. He always made something for Andrew even if he didn’t really want it.

“Do you want to hear about the most awkward tutoring session ever?” Neil asked once they were seated at the table with their plates. King was still on Andrew's shoulders while Zeus was settled at Neil’s feet.  

Andrew nodded, careful not to dislodge king as he took a bite.

“Okay so my second class was canceled today and Ryan caught me on my way out of the department and begged me to take his tutoring session because he double booked. And I said yes because I had nothing better do to. Then he tells me he’s supposed to meet this girl in the coffee shop.” Neil ran his hand through his hair and Andrew could tell he was worked up. He didn’t usually talk this fast, or this much. “Which is weird because most of the tutoring happens in the math department so we can use the whiteboard, but anyway.”

Neil paused to catch his breath, while Andrew took another bite. Andrew had been planning to ask Neil to go to his team dinner with him soon, and the light in Neil’s eyes made him want to do it now. He was still in his nice blue checked button-up and grey slacks. Andrew had no idea why Neil always dressed up for class. They had to be tailored. There’s no way that Neil managed to find both a shirt and pants that hugged his slim waist so well. 

“I get there and this girl stands up as soon as I walk in and greets me, so I’m like cool she’s ready to work and I ask her a couple things about math because Ryan was in such a hurry he didn’t even tell me what class this was for,” Neil continued, still talking almost too fast to be understood. “And then! And then she started asking me about my degree and she says, ‘you have a daughter right?’ Naturally, I’m stunned. I don’t talk about Athena at school, only my advisor and the other math tutors know about her. I literally said ‘what the fuck, who are you’. Which, yeah not my brightest moment.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, tilting his head to the side. He hadn’t been paying much attention to Neil’s long speech, but suddenly it was very interesting.

“Long story short,” Neil said as he rubbed his hand over his face. “Ryan’s been trying to set me up on dates and I’ve told him no every time so he tried to trick me into a blind date. Which put me in the very awkward position of telling this nice girl that I don’t like women and I would very much appreciate if she kept that fact to herself.”

“You’re gay?” Andrew asked. Neil had never once shown interest in anyone while they had been hanging out, but Andrew had never asked. He was private about his sexuality, even if he had hinted at it the first time they met and Athena asked, so he respected that Neil didn’t talk about his either.

“No, I’m uhh...” Neil looked a bit flustered at the turn in the conversation. He’d wanted to rant about his coworker and Andrew had instead asked him a very personal question. He was about to take it back when Neil continued. “Do you know what Asexuality is?”

Andrew nodded, choosing to stay quiet because he didn’t want to say the wrong thing again.

“Do you know about demisexuality?”

“That’s where you don’t feel sexual attraction unless you have a strong emotional bond with someone?” Andrew said. 

Neil nodded. “Yeah so... I don’t know for sure because I’ve never gotten that far, but I think that’s accurate for me. When I was like 14 or 15 there was this girl and I was kind of starting to like her after a few months but then my mom found out and made us move. Then my freshman year I shared a ton of classes with this guy so we ended up doing homework together a lot, and by the end of the year I kind of had a crush but he switched majors. It’s only happened a few times... and I have to finish school and I have Athena so I’m not really looking for anything. And even if I was I’d want them to be apart of Athena’s life for a while before I’d even started to consider any sort of relationship.”

Andrew nodded. He’d wondered before if Neil was ace, just based off of his reactions to some things in movies and tv shows. The last thing caught his attention though and he had to ask. “Like me?”

Neil smiled at him and chuckled a bit. He looked calmer than he had when he first started his tirade. “Yeah like you... Are you done? I’m about to go to pick up Athena, do you want to come?”

“I have a few more things to do, I will see you when you get back,” Andrew said. He couldn’t think straight with Neil right in front of him at that moment. 

As soon as Neil and Zeus where gone Andrew pulled out his phone and dialed his brother’s number.

“Hello?” a female voice said. Andrew looked at the screen to be sure he called the right person.

“Hello,” he said keeping the annoyance out of his voice. Katelyn was always picking up Aaron’s phone. “Is Aaron there?”

“He’s in the anatomy lab right now, no phones allowed,” Katelyn said cheerfully. She was the kind of person who had a specific ‘on the phone’ voice. “I can tell him to call you when he gets back.”

Andrew grit his teeth and took a deep breath. “You’ll do.”

“Oh? Do you need something?”

“Neil just implied he likes me,” Andrew said calmly. He didn’t feel calm at that moment, but he would do everything in his power to keep that fact away from Katelyn.

“That’s your neighbor, right?” Katelyn asked. “Do you need advice on how to let him down easy or something?”

“No Katelyn. I’m gay.”

Andrew heard Katelyn gasp into the speaker. “Oh okay, I didn’t know that. Do you like him then?”

“Yes.” Andrew rubbed his face with his palm. This was a bad idea, he shouldn’t have called Aaron for advice and he definitely shouldn’t have talked to Katelyn instead. 

“What’s the problem then? You like him, he likes you. Sounds good to me.”

“The problem is that he has a child and he is still in school. He is not looking for a relationship. I was about to ask him to go to a team dinner with me, but then he implied he likes me.” Andrew ran his hands over the cats fur to help calm himself. “And now if I ask him to come it will weird.”

“I don’t think so,” Katelyn said, drawing a snort out of Andrew. “Hear me out. If you change the way you act now that you know that would be weird. He knows you, right? You hang out all the time and eat dinner together like every night. You said you were going to ask until he said that, if he really knows you then he’ll understand that.”

“Yeah right.”

“Andrew come on,” Katelyn said with a more annoyed tone. “Maybe he’ll surprise you.”

“Whatever, I have to go,” Andrew said. He needed to put away the cleaning supplies before they got home and he’d already wasted too much time talking on the phone. “Don’t tell Aaron.”

Katelyn hummed, “What part of this am I not supposed to tell Aaron about?”

Andrew ran his hand over the cats fur again, feeling her purring. “Any of it. I will tell them I’m gay. I do not want them to hear it from someone else.”

“Them? Does that mean Nicky doesn’t know either?” Katelyn asked. She seemed genuinely surprised.

“Correct,” Andrew said as he hung up the phone.

Neil and Athena got back right as he was finishing up putting everything away. Athena jumped at him and he caught her in a hug. Even after a few months of this it was still weird to him how excited Athena got every time she saw him. It was like she couldn’t help but jump at him every day after school. Andrew spun her around once before he put her down. He didn’t miss Neil’s subtle smile as he watched them. 

Athena showed him her new artwork, then dragged him over to the couch to get an early start on her reading homework. She climbed onto Andrew’s lap and slowly made her way through each page of the book. Since it was Monday she had a new one. Andrew knew from experience that she would be able to cruise through the book by Friday night. 

After Athena was tucked into bed that night Andrew and Neil settled down on the couch to watch tv. They were slowly making their way through House, at the pace of one episode a night. While Neil queued up the next episode Andrew turned to him and watched him for a moment.

“Do you want to come to my team dinner on the twenty third?” Andrew asked.

Neil shrugged, “Sure.”

Andrew was stunned for a moment. Neil didn’t even pause to think before answering. He eyed him for a moment, “There’s a dress code. Semi-Formal, and team colors.”

“The only suit I have is a dark grey,” Neil said as he finally considered the topic at hand.

“I have to pick something up for myself this week anyway. Send me your measurements and I can get you something too,” Andrew said. Half because he wanted to dress Neil again and half because he was worried about what Neil would come up with on his own. Purple and gold could easily go from classy to horrific. 

Neil looked at him for a moment, considering before he turned back to the tv and played the episode. “Yeah okay.”

 

The rest of the week went by too quickly as Andrew prepared for yet another away game. Andrew had underestimated just how frustrating traveling as part of his job was going to be. In college away games only took them out of town overnight once or twice a season, meaning he’d never gotten used to living out of hotels rooms.The rest of his team seemed to love getting away for four days every other weekend. Most of them went out and explored the new cities, while Andrew stayed in his hotel room. 

The few team members that stayed behind were the ones who were either parents or boring to hang out with. In one case, the teammate was both.  Andrew ended up hanging out with Brad more than he had expected to during this specific away game. They hadn’t hung out during the other two, but they were both more on edge this time. While the rest of the team was excited that Christmas was just a little over a week away Andrew and Brad were annoyed they were taken away from their homes and children during the Holiday season. 

Andrew wasn’t sure how it happened, but he ended up with Brad siting on his couch watching some stupid vampire movie and eating room service. It had taken a while for Andrew too see past his happy exterior, but Andrew realized that Brad wasn’t a bad guy to hang out with. They mostly just existed in the same space doing their own things, rarely talking to each other. 

Andrew texted Neil about what he’d gotten Athena for christmas, while Brad typed away at his own phone as well. It was a weird sort of friendship they’d fallen into, but Andrew kind of liked it. 

Once they won their game and headed home Brad sat next to Andrew on the plane and talked non stop about his children. He seemed like a good dad. He clearly loved his kids and hated being away from them for days at a time, especially so close to Christmas.

When they got off the plane Andrew had never been more happy to see New York City. He grabbed his bag, said goodbye to Brad, and headed straight for his apartment. During the trip he’d done everything he could to keep from thinking about how much he actually missed Athena, and maybe even Neil and Zeus, but listening to Brad talk for a few hours about how much he missed his own kids brought everything to the front of his mind. At no point in his life did Andrew ever think that he would miss another person so much. Ever since she’d ended her nightly phone call the night before with “I love you daddy, when will you be home?” Andrew had been running on autopilot. All he wanted to do was see her. 

It was almost enough to push him over into a small mental break down but he managed to fight it off, which was really the main reason he’d hung out with Brad. being left alone with his thoughts at that point would have been a terrible idea. All he knew now was that there was a little girl waiting for him and he wasn’t going to make her wait any longer than he had to.

As the elevator dinged at his floor, doors slowly sliding open Andrew heard the front door swing open. Athena threw herself at him as soon as he saw her, causing them both to fall backward into the elevator door frame for a moment. 

“Athena,” Neil said from somewhere out of sight, “let the poor man exit the elevator before you attack him.”

Andrew lifted Athena into a hug, shouldering his bag, and carried her into her apartment without even looking at his own door. 

“I missed you,” she whispered into his ear.

“I missed you too buggy,” Andrew whispered back. 

He dropped his bag at their front door and used his now free arm to hug her even tighter. She smelled like artificial peaches and vanilla, meaning she was probably playing with the scented body spray that was so strong it always gave Andrew a headache, but he didn’t care at that moment. 

From the kitchen Neil smiled at the two of them as he called them to the table. Zeus came over and sniffed at Andrew’s leg while he put Athena down, which was the closest thing he would get to an acknowledgement that the pup had missed him too. Even though they’d been texting for the entire trip Neil still asked how it went, which got Athena to demand to know everything.

When Andrew went back to his own apartment that night nothing felt right. It was too dark and cold, even with the heat turned up and King snuggled up between his legs.

Chapter Text

“Come on! Hurry up! We’re going to be late,” Athena called as she jumped on the couch.

Andrew walked over and wrapped an arm around her waist. On the next jump, he tightened his hold and swung her so he could gently guide her to the ground. She stuck her tongue out at him and continued jumping up and down. Andrew was almost to his wit's end with her. It was one of those days where he had to repeat everything he said multiple times before she noticed he was talking to her. He knew it was because she was excited about his game and that Christmas was just a few days away, but he was still new to this childcare thing, and her energy exhausted him. Neil said sometimes he had difficult parenting days, but this was the first time Andrew had gotten the chance to see it up close. Andrew had had to ask her to put her shoes on six times before she complied with him, and now she was acting like everyone else was making them late. 

Neil walked down the hall, saving him from having to chastise her. Andrew hated having to do that, even after being in her life for so long Andrew still had a hard time being firm with her. He was good at consoling her and helping her with her homework, but scolding was a different story.  

Athena was wearing Andrew’s actual gold home jersey. A few games ago one of his teammates had gotten the smallest amount of blood on it and for some reason, he wasn’t allowed to wear it again after that. After he had washed the blood out he gave it to Athena as an early Christmas present. She looked adorable in the oversized shirt and leggings. Neil, on the other hand, looked horrendous in his favorite floral snapback, poorly fitted jeans, a muddy gold shirt, and purple vans. For such an attractive man, who knew how to dress up well for work and school, he had an atrocious sense of casual fashion. It was almost like Neil purposely dressed in the worst way possible.    

Andrew wanted to go into his closet and pick out something better for him to wear, but they were running late, and that was a bit too personal. Dressing him up for a fancy team dinner or a special birthday event was one thing. Dressing him up for an everyday outing was another thing entirely. 

The drive to the stadium was cramped, with three people, a driver, and a dog in sedan, but it was the kind of cramped Andrew had grown used to. His life now existed with all of them sitting on the couch together, not because it was the only option, but because they all wanted to be close together. Athena was always pressed against him, never Neil or Zeus, and Andrew had grown used to her weight. He wondered if he would be okay with a different weight against him, or if he would be unable to stand it like in the past. 

At the stadium, Andrew walked the Josten’s up to the family viewing area to see them settled. By now Neil and Athena could both walk there by themselves, after doing it twice before, but Andrew liked walking them up. He had to put up with a few random people who were already in the room wishing him good luck but it was worth it when Athena hugged him.

“Good luck daddy,” she said with a smile, “you’re gunna to do great! I just know it.”

Andrew hugged her tightly. “Thank you bug. Have fun with your friends.”

Behind her back, Neil smiled and wished him good luck too. Andrew had to pry Athena off of himself when he had to leave and she promised to watch the entire time he was on the court.  

The lead up to the game was routine at this point in the season. They changed out and ran some drills, then Andrew and the other two goalies took turns defending the home goal when everyone else took shots at them. Andrew always played better when Athena was up in the stands watching him. From the goal, he could see the window she stood behind, but it was too far away for him to be able to make out any details, even with his contacts in. By the time they left the court to start the game, he was feeling ready for anything. 

As his name was called he lifted his stick up, walking on court with his head held high. Andrew settled into position and felt a rush of adrenaline as the doors locked and the buzzer rang out, signaling the start of the game. With Neil and Athena were watching him he knew he would give it his all tonight. Andrew put a good effort into all of his professional games, but having the Josten’s looking down on him gave him the extra boost he needed to completely lock down the goal. It took more than seven minutes for the ball to finally make it’s way over to him, but when it did he smacked it away so hard it went straight to his striker on the 3rd fourth line. He did the same thing the next time the ball came close to him. 

At one point his backliner sent the ball back for him to shoot up the court. It was a risky move if the pass failed it would count as a point for the other team, but Andrew never missed a pass. That move led to another goal, giving Andrew an assist. By the time the buzzer rang out, signaling the end of the first half, the Knights were up by five, and their opponents had not scored a single goal.  

Half time gave Andrew a chance to look at his phone. He sat on the bench catching his breath with Brad while the rest of the team went over their plan for the second half. Brad was listening intently, while Andrew tuned them out. Unless both other goalies were injured during the second half there was no way he was going back in. Just before they were set to go back out Andrew got a text from Neil saying they were heading home. A second later Brad got a similar text from his wife Gemma. With five subs Brad was unlikely to go back in as well, meaning they had the rest of the game to sit together in silence.

It turned out that silence was more like Brad cheering on his team, jumping up for every goal, and being an overall annoyance as Andrew sat silently. Somehow Brad was still less annoying than their other teammates who did the same things.

The game ended with a Knights win and a score of 2-8. Andrew didn’t get called up for an interview so he was free to head home after showering, changing, and saying goodbye to the rest of his teammates. He had the same driver on the way home as he’d had on the way to the stadium. The man let him sit in silence without asking where the Josten’s were and he was thankful. Shutting down the goal completely was more difficult at the professional level than it had been in college. By the time he got home, he was exhausted and ready to sleep for at least 12 hours.  

Andrew settled into bed with his cat and his laptop, opening up soap making tutorials on youtube before looking at his phone. Neil had posted a picture on instagram and tagged him in it. It showed the backs of three children, all in different Knight’s jerseys, with their hands pressed up against the glass windows watching the game below. Neil had captioned it ‘Minyard’s biggest fans’. Andrew liked the photo, then opened up his messages, it appeared like Neil had sent him every thought he had during the game. 

Woah nice save

AMAZING

Was that pass legal?  

I guess it was

That was the best save I’ve ever seen. If you don’t make it into the Exy hall of fame by the end of the season I’m going to riot

WFT YOU LOCKED DOWN THAT GOAL LIKE IT WAS NOTHING

There were a few more messaged but Andrew scrolled through them all until he got to the bottom without really reading the random nonsense. He rolled his eyes at Neil’s enthusiasm for the game.

who knew you were such a fanatic?

Neil replied quickly with more praise, including some of his other teammates as well this time. They talked for a few minutes, but they were both too tired to keep track of any more conversations. Andrew was actually proud of the way he had played for the first time in a long time. He wasn’t sure if it was because of Neil’s reactions or just because he had played better than normal, it was a weird sensation either way. 

 

Andrew took the next morning slowly. He didn’t have to do anything until the team dinner, so he took the opportunity to relax around the house with King. They both fell asleep on the couch after lunch while watching planet earth. A few hours later his phone vibrating against the coffee table woke him up. It was Neil asking him about how he was going to tie his tie for some reason.

After picking up their suits a few days ago Andrew had dropped Neil’s off with him and kept his own. He figured it was better for them to get ready separately, like they had at his birthday, because he only had so much self-restraint. Watching Neil get dressed would use it all up before they even left the house, and Andrew knew he was going to need a lot of self-restraint if he was going to get through this dinner.

Andrew made his way to the bathroom and took a long shower. He took the blow dryer to his hair, then styled it with a texturizing spray to give it volume all night. Taking is time getting ready, Andrew slowly dressed and sprayed himself with a subtle cologne. It had taken him a while to find one that fit the one Neil always wore well, but it was well worth it in the end.

At 6 Andrew knocked on the door. He was met with the sight of Neil in a perfectly tailored suit. The sight took his breath away. Neil smiled at him and he left like he might never catch his breath again. A dress code of ‘team colors’ had given Andrew a fair amount of wiggle room. He dressed himself in black slacks and a black shirt with a dark purple suit jacket. Meanwhile Neil was dressed in dark purple slacks, a dark purple shirt, and a black suit jacket. They matched well already, but to pull it all together Andrew had picked them both out the same gold tie. 

Neil had mentioned the night before that someone at the game had asked him how long they had been dating, he didn’t say what he had replied. Neil hadn’t sounded upset by the question and Andrew wondered what he thought about the idea now. It didn’t matter when they were dressed like this. There was no way anyone on his team was going to think they weren’t dating when they were wearing matching suits. Andrew had half a mind to ask Neil to change into his gray suit when Neil grabbed Zeus’s leash and walked past him out the door. 

“Goodbye,” Athena called from her seat at the kitchen table.  

“Bye Baby Bear! I love you,” Neil called back.

Andrew waved at her. “Bye buggy.”

The dinner was held in some fancy hotel ballroom. The kind of space that was meant for proms and weddings, not team meals. Andrew held out his arm to Neil as they approached the door and was surprised when Neil took it. The man was looking around the building in awe. It was like he had never seen anything so fancy. 

“Let me know if you get overwhelmed,” Andrew said as they walked into the ballroom, “we can leave at any time.”

Neil looked him in the eye and smiled. It wasn’t his normal controlled smile, it was smaller and more intimate, just for Andrew. He’d gone into the evening thinking they were going as friends, but with the way Neil was looking at him now Andrew wondered if he was wrong. 

“Thanks,” Neil said keeping his voice low so only Andrew could hear. “I think I’ll be okay as long as I stay close to you.”

They’d talked about how Neil didn’t like crowds before, and Andrew had a hard time believing he would be enough to keep Neil calm. Zeus trotting beside him was sure to be a bigger help than Andrew ever could be.

As they took their seats Andrew noted that they were the only same-sex couple in the room. Even his teammates who had come with friends instead of partners had brought an oppisite sex companion for the evening. They were also the best dressed couple in the room. All of the other men were wearing plain black suits with either purple waistcoats and gold ties or just a purple and gold tie. The women were more varied, with a variety of different gold and purples dresses. However, no matter how extravagant their dresses were, they could not make their partner’s suit look more interesting. Even Brad’s suit was a let down. He landed in the waistcoat group, but it wasn’t anything special when at least six other men were wearing almost the exact same thing.

Neil leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Is there a prize for breaking the mold? Because I think we’d win.”

Andrew huffed out a short laugh. “I know we would win.” 

“What’s so funny?” Gemma asked. Somehow the only teammate Andrew talked to was sat across from Andrew. And his wife, the only team family member Neil talked to, was sat across from Neil. Whoever made this seating chart had been paying a lot of attention to their interactions.

“Straight people are boring, you all dress the same,” Neil said as he waved a hard toward the rest of the long table.

Gemma and Brad both burst out laughing, while Andrew pinched the bridge of his nose. It was going to be a long night with these three. Brad tried to defend himself, but there wasn’t much he could say once his wife pointed out that someone else was wearing the exact same waistcoat he was. 

The meal itself was pleasant. Neil and Gemma kept the conversation going throughout the entire event, mosting discussing children and parenting. Brad got sucked into a conversation with the man next to him, so Andrew ended up listening to Neil and Gemma chat. He threw in a comment every now and then because it made Neil smile. Andrew took the chance to really look at Neil. Most of the time they spent together was in the comfort of their own apartment building or occasionally their gym. This was the first time he’d gotten a chance to see Neil in not just a formal setting, but also in an adult social setting. 

“Do you think he realizes no one’s paying attention?” Neil whispered when one of the assistant coaches got up to start the speeches. The three course meal had ended and they were waiting for dessert to be served so they could all go home. First the coaches had to give their speeches thanking the team for a ‘strong start to the season’ and calling out each individual player for something they’d done well in a game. 

“He probably hates this as much as we do,” Andrew said.

“No, you’re wrong,” Neil said as he leaned closer to whisper in his ear, putting his arm aground the back of Andrew’s chair. Andrew could feel his breath on his neck as he spoke and it sent chills down his back. “Look in his eyes, he’s enjoying having us all trapped here.”

Andrew huffed out another laugh. It had been a long time since he’d laughed properly, but Neil was doing everything possible to make it happen tonight. The worst part was that Neil didn’t even know he was doing it.

“I bet this is the highlight of his year,” Neil said. He was still just a few inches away from Andrew, whispering lowly. “He probably makes his speech as long as possible as payback for all the times the team pisses him off during the season.”

If they weren’t in public, surrounded by every single one of his coworkers, Andrew would have kissed him then. Neil’s whispering in his ear, hot breath ghosting against his skin, was driving him crazy. Thankfully dessert was brought out just then, saving him from doing something he may actually regret later. Regret was a useless emotion, but if Andrew did something that ruined his relationship with Neil he knew he would regret it forever.

Chapter Text

Christmas Eve brought a new sense of peace to Andrew’s life. He woke up late, to the rain hitting the window, after getting home late the night before. They hadn’t left the hotel until nearly midnight, significantly later than either of them were used to staying up thanks to their early mornings. In the backseat of the taxi, Zeus had snuggled up in between them as Neil tried and failed to stay awake during the drive. Half asleep Neil was very entertaining to watch. He’d leaned against the elevator wall and rubbed his eyes on the ride up, then struggled to get his keys in the door of his apartment. Once Andrew had watched Neil stumble into his own apartment, greeted by a very happy Randy Boyd, he’d said goodnight at the door and gone to his own apartment to pass out after barely managing to change into something more suitable for sleeping. 

The plan was to have a sleepover at the Josten’s so they could wake up bright an early together on Christmas morning, but he had a few hours to kill before then. Nicky called around 11 am to wish him a Merry Christmas. Then Aaron called a few minutes after that phone call had ended. This was his first holiday since he met Aaron that he wasn’t spending it with him. 

Andrew supposed that was a normal part of growing up. Living in different cities hours apart with busy lives, it wasn’t easy to get time to visit each other. They’d missed celebrating their birthdays together, and now they were going to miss Christmas. Thanksgiving together was nice, but it didn’t mean nearly as much as the other two holidays would have. They’d already opened presents together on Thanksgiving, but it still felt like there was an Aaron and Nicky sized whole in his day.

After a slow morning thinking about his family, Andrew was not in the best mood when he headed over to the Josten’s around 4 pm. King was laying across the back of his neck as Athena opened the door and threw herself at him. With the cat on him he didn’t have the chance to pick her up like he normally would have, but he did still manage to keep her from falling on the ground. She wrapped her arms around his hips tightly, making it nearly impossible to walk. 

“Ready to build some gingerbread houses?” Neil asked from the kitchen. 

The room smelled soft, warm, and sweet. Like vanilla and cinnamon mixed with something a little spicier. The smell combined with Athena’s arms still wrapped around his waist lifted Andrew’s mood instantly.

“Did you make the gingerbread yourself?” Andrew asked incredulously.

“Hmm?” Neil hummed looking up from his work at the kitchen peninsula. “No, I just made the people. I’m not about to spend all day baking food that no one will eat.” 

Andrew shut the door and set the cat down on the ground, watching as she pranced over to the fireplace to lie on the warm tile with Zeus. There was a small fake tree sitting in front of the window near the fireplace that both animals ignored completely. He’d never seen Neil light the fire before and he had to admit it added to the ambiance. Athena let go of his waist and dragged him over to the barstool.

“Close your eyes,” Athena said to him.  

He complied with a dramatic huff. Andrew felt her bump into him a few times as she moved something around on the counter. 

“Okay, you can open them!” she said with a laugh. “Surprise!”

In front of Athena was a brightly colored Candyland themed building kit. While in front of Andrew sat a dark Halloween themed one. He laughed to himself for a moment as he looked over the box. 

“Where did you even find this?” he asked.

“Do you like it?”   

“I love it,” Andrew said, putting his arm around her shoulder for a hug. 

“I picked it out for you!” 

Neil put on some Christmas music as they each worked on their own gingerbread building. When they were finished they lined them all up on the counter, with Andrew’s spooky-looking one in the middle of Neil’s normal one and Athena’s candy-covered monstrosity. After taking a few pictures with the houses Neil shooed them both away so he could finish making dinner. Andrew posted a picture of their three creations on Instagram with the caption ‘Guess Which One Is Mine’. While all of his social media pages were run by his PR team, for the most part, he was getting better at posting little things about his life. Management claimed it would make him more relatable and boost his fame, but Andrew didn’t really care about any of that. In general, he just posted things that Athena liked and read some of the nicer comments to her.

“Someone has to kiss me right now!” Athena yelled as Andrew was looking at his phone. 

When he looked over she was standing at the end of the kitchen counter, right under some mistletoe he had somehow missed when he walked in.

Neil laughed. “That’s not how it works and you know it.”

“I’m going to die,” Athena whined, “if no one kisses me when I stand under the mistletoe.”

“Oh no! Andrew, did you hear that? Athena is dying,” Neil said dramatically, putting the back of his hand on his forehead like he was going to faint. 

Andrew laughed quietly. When he saw that Neil was making no move to help her, he stood up and put his phone in his pocket. As he walked over to Athena she pouted, sticking her bottom lip out theatrically. He picked her up and wrapped both arms around her waist, planning to kiss her cheek, but she turned and kissed him on the lips at the last second. Andrew must have made a face because Neil laughed at them. Athena took the chance to hug Andrew tightly and whisper in his ear. 

“You have to kiss Neil now,” she said as quietly as she could.

“Oh?” Andrew whispered back, turning his head slightly so he wasn’t looking at Neil as he spoke. “Why do you think that?”

“Because you’re my daddy and he’s my dad and dad’s are supposed to kiss.”

Andrew hugged her a little tighter, adjusting his hold so he could tilt his head closer to her ear. “Buggy, do you think we are dating?” 

Athena laughed, “No silly, you're married.”

She kicked her legs and wiggled free, running off down the hall as soon as her feet hit the ground. 

“What were you two whispering about?” Neil asked as he turned to the sink to drain the pasta water. 

Andrew walked up right behind him, on his right side so he could turn back to the stove without hitting him with the hot pot. 

“Apparently we are supposed to kiss,” Andrew said. It took more effort than normal to keep his voice even. 

Neil chuckled, “The mistletoe?”

“No, we’re married and married people are supposed to kiss,” Andrew said, making sure to look Neil in the eye, “or so I’ve been told.”

“You should have told me sooner, I would have worn something a little bit nicer than a ratty old sweater.” Neil moved the pot on the stove, eyes widening as he looked at his left hand. He held it up for Andrew to see. “Oh no! I’ve lost my wedding band.”

His comment startled a full-blown laugh out of Andrew. Neil smiled at the sound, laughing quietly to himself. 

“That’s a good sound,” Neil said quietly as he slowly leaned in, giving Andrew plenty of time to say no or step back, and pressed a chaste kiss to Andrew’s cheek. “You should let yourself laugh more often.”

Andrew blinked slowly, looking Neil in the eye as he thought. Neil smiled at him, but Andrew could tell it was a tense, self-conscious smile. He lifted his hand to Neil's cheek, watching his reaction as he rubbed his thumb over Neil’s sharp cheekbone. Neil gasped at the movement and opened his mouth slightly. The moment was charged as they looked into each other’s eyes. Andrew leaned forward as slowly as Neil just had moments before. He was about to ask if he could kiss Neil when tiny footsteps sounded on the floor, alerting them to Athena’s quick approach. Andrew let his hand fall back down to his side but stayed just a few inches away from Neil. 

“Can I have some juice?” Athena asked.

Taking a deep breath Andrew turned away from Neil and grabbed a cup. He went to the fridge, opening it and pulling out the bottle without turning back to Neil. Once the juice was poured he returned the bottle to its rightful place, then handed Athena her cup. She drank the entire thing quickly, handing it back to him when she was finished, before running back down the hallway. Andrew turned back to Neil with the cup still in his hand. Neil gave him a small, shy smile.

“Later,” Neil said, his voice low and smooth. Andrew raised an eyebrow at him, making his cheeks turn a lovely pink color. “I’m pretty sure you owe me a kiss.”

Sitting through dinner was one of the hardest things Andrew had ever done. He forced himself not to look at Neil any more than he normally would, which led to him focusing on that so hard that he barely paid any attention to the conversation going on around him. At first, Andrew thought that Neil was either less affected than he was, or better at faking it, but then he realized that they were both letting Athena carry the entire conversation throughout the meal. She talked about all the cool things she was hoping to get tomorrow for a little bit, then turned the topic to how excited she was that they were going to have a sleepover in the living room. Andrew had almost forgotten he had said he’d build a fort with her after dinner. He chastised himself for being so caught up in his own thoughts. 

Building the fort turned out to be a lot easier than Andrew had expected. He and Neil pushed the dining room table to the wall so they could pull out the bed, then Andrew and Athena lined two chairs up on each side of the bed while Neil hunted down a king-sized quilt he had stashed somewhere. Andrew explained to Athena that they had to make the bed up first before building the fort, or it would be impossible to make the bed. Despite his warning, she still tried to do it the way she wanted, which resulted in them having to start over after a good ten minutes of work. 

In the end, the bed was made, with the quilt draped over the backs of the chairs, with a large textbook on each chair to keep the blanket from falling on them. They left the foot of the bed open as a doorway, but it doubled as their light source since it faced the beautiful fireplace. The fort was a bit too warm for Andrew, with the fire and multiple blankets surrounding him, but he put up with being overheated for Athena. Neil let her get away with not washing her hair, so her shower was quick and she was bundled up against Andrew’s side with a new picture book in no time. As he read she leaned her head on his shoulder and snuggled her stuffed bunny. Watching her drift off to sleep as he read was so peaceful, Andrew barely noticed the sounds of Neil doing the dishes in the kitchen.

To be sure she was completely asleep before he moved her and crawled out of the fort Andrew read the book again. He pressed a kiss to her hair as he moved her off his shoulder and onto the pillow. She curled around it, hugging her rabbit tightly to her chest and sighed in her sleep. 

“Is she asleep?” Neil asked quietly when Andrew exited the fort awkwardly. He was standing at the end of the counter looking through some sort of old handwritten cookbook.       

“Yes.”

Neil looked up at the mistletoe hanging right above his head, then back at Andrew. Andrew took one step forward, then another, pushing Neil back into the counter. He placed his hands on the counter top on either side of Neil’s waist. Shyly looked Neil down at him. Their three-inch height difference meant Neil had to tilt his head down a little bit, while Andrew had to tilt his up. 

“Yes or no?” Andrew asked just before their lips touched.

“Yes,” Neil panted.

Kissing Neil was more intense than kissing anyone else had ever been. Andrew didn’t know if it was just because he hadn’t kissed anyone in over seven months, or if Neil was special. With Neil’s mouth still pressed to his, he didn’t care enough to try and figure it out.

“Bedroom,” Neil said gruffly when they broke the kiss to catch their breath. 

Andrew stepped back and let Neil take his hand as he pulled Andrew down the hallway behind him. Once they were in the bedroom, with the door tightly closed, Andrew walked Neil back into the door and kissed him again. Carefully, without breaking the kiss, Andrew grabbed one of Neil’s hands and brought it up to his hair. Neil latched onto it like it was the only thing keeping him tethered to the earth, while Andrew ran his other hand down Neil’s free arm, lacing their fingers together when he was finished. Originally he had done it so he wouldn’t have to worry about where Neil’s hand was, but as Neil squeezed his hand it became so much more than that.

Eventually, Andrew got tired of standing and used his grip on Neil’s waist to turn them and walk Neil backward until his knees hit the bed and he sat down, breaking the kiss. Neil stared up at him with wide blue eyes.

“Scoot back,” Andrew said, knowing his voice was going to be hoarse.

Neil quickly obeyed, moving until his back was against the headboard. Andrew looked him over once, enjoying the blush the crept over Neil’s face as he did so. Impulsively, without giving himself time to second guess the decision Andrew stripped off his shirt. He tossed it on the ground, then caught Neil’s foot and pulled until the man was laying down on the bed instead of sitting up. The action must have caught Neil by surprise, because he laughed, brightly and unrestrained. Andrew crawled over him and settled straddling his hips. Neil slowly looked over Andrew’s exposed chest, ignoring his now bare forearms, then sat up just enough to peel off his own shirt. 

As soon as Neil’s hands were clear Andrew leaned down and caught his mouth again. He guided Neil’s hand back into his hair, then laced their fingers back together, pinning Neil’s other hand above his head. Neil hummed into the kiss, giving Andrew a new sense of urgency. 

Andrew unlaced their fingers, bringing Neil’s hand down to join the other one in his hair, then ran his now free hand down Neil’s chest. The action drew a whine out of Neil, just needy enough for Andrew to realize just how far they’d gone. He took his hand off of Neil’s chest, using it to reclaim the hand he’d just placed his own hair then rolled off of Neil. The man whined again, lightly pulling at their joined hands. 

“Why’d you stop?” Neil asked. Voice breathy as he panted. 

“I was getting dangerously close to the point of no return,” Andrew said as smoothly as he could manage, Neil hummed in response meeting his eye. “Was that your first kiss?”

“Why?” Neil asked, looking self-conscious and worried. “Was it bad?”

“No.”

“That was my first real kiss. The other two were... not anything like that,” Neil said.

Andrew raised his eyebrow at him in question. Slowly Neil guided Andrew’s hand to his mouth and ghosted a kiss on the back of it. Then he did it again, but lighter somehow. So light that Andrew would have missed it if he wasn't watching closely.  

“Like that,” Neil said.

“Neither of those count as kisses.” Andrew rolled his eyes.

Neil laughed lightly. “Then yes Andrew, you were my first kiss.”

Andrew took in a sharp breath when he heard Neil say it out loud. He’d suspected given what Neil had told him about his sexuality, and how uncoordinated Neil had been at the beginning of their kiss, but hearing Neil say it out loud was something else. Andrew rubbed his free hand over his face and sighed. When he opened his eyes again Neil was staring at him. He sat up only to have Neil pull on their still joined hands.

“We need to get ready for bed,” Andrew said, ending their intense moment.

Neil swallowed. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Andrew brushed Neil’s curls out of his face, “you did not do anything wrong. I do not think it’s a good idea to go from your first kiss to where this was clearly headed.”

“Okay,” Neil said as he let go of Andrew’s hand and ran both of his through his hair. “You’re right... ummm... there’s a new toothbrush in the bathroom somewhere, and ummm... shorts are in the third dresser drawer if you want something else to wear to bed.”

Andrew grabbed a pair of shorts from the dresser then headed into the bathroom. He leaned against the wall and took care of himself, trying not to imagine Neil on the other side of the door doing the same thing. After washing his hands he changed and brushed his teeth, spending more time than usual on the process in order to give Neil plenty of time to sort himself out. 

When he exited the bathroom Neil was lying in the same position on the bed, but he had one arm thrown over his face, and his pants were unzipped.

“Okay?” Andrew asked.

Neil nodded, “Yeah.”

Andrew walked over, running his hand over Neil’s side up to his neck as he sat on the bed. “Neil?”

“I’m fine.” Neil chuckled nervously. “It’s just embarrassing.”

“Look at me,” Andrew requested, careful not to use a demanding tone. He waited until Neil complied before continuing. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I won’t judge you, I was doing the same thing you were anyway.”

Neil sat up and pressed their foreheads together. “I know... Next time can we stay together?”

“Next time?” Andrew asked, raising his eyebrow.

“Don’t be a dick,” Neil said. He reached his hand out to touch Andrew but Andrew caught his hand instead, lacing their fingers together again. 

“I’ve never let anyone touch me before,” Andrew said as he looked down at their hands. “It’s not bad, just go slow.”

Neil stood up, smiling at Andrew as he collected his pajamas and went into the bathroom to get ready for bed. Andrew asked if he could borrow a shirt through the door, then dug through Neil’s dresser to find one soft enough to sleep in. When Neil was done in the bathroom they walked back into the living room together, taking turns carefully climbing into the fort. Once they were settled on either side of Athena Zeus climbed up, laying in between Neil’s legs. King would join them at some point Andrew was sure. He’d put a litter box in Neil’s hall closet just for her.

 

It felt like seconds later when Andrew was woken up way too early by a significantly too excited child.

“Daddy wake up it’s Christmas,” she shouted in his ear. To her credit, it did sound like she was trying to whisper, but everything was too loud for Andrew at 6 am. Neil climbed out first then carefully removed the top of the fort. He told Athena to wait until after he’d taken Zeus out before she got up, so Andrew wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. She fought him for a second, but gave in and hugged him back when he refused to let go. Andrew rested his head on her shoulder and was almost asleep again when the front door opened and Athena jumped up. He rubbed at his eyes as he sat up. Sleeping in his contacts was never a good idea. Neil caught his eye and laughed until Andrew flipped him off behind Athena’s back. 

There were only a few presents under the tree. Two for each of them. Apparently Neil hadn’t celebrated as a child and wasn’t big into the holiday. Andrew hadn’t asked why when Neil told him because he’d had this odd, sort of pained, look on his face.   

Neil grabbed all the packages and dumped them onto the center of the pull out bed, right in front of Andrew. Athena climbed into his lap while Neil settled down next to him. 

Athena opened the Polaroid camera Andrew had gotten her first. She was so excited that she almost forgot about the package Neil had given her, which was full of various different films to go along with the camera. Neil helped her open it and set it up right away. First she took a picture of Neil, then one of Zeus sitting at the end of the bed. Andrew helped her take a selfie of the two of them together. 

From Athena, Andrew got a little hand-painted cat bowl, something she must have made for him on one of her outings with Randy. As he opened the box from Neil he realized it must be expensive. They’d agreed to get each other something small and technically Neil had followed that rule, but not in the way Andrew had expected. He pulled out a black Ray-Ban case and opened it slowly. The sunglasses inside had black frames on top with black metal supporting the lenses. When Andrew put them on he realized the lenses were polarized. He’d looked up Ray Ban’s before, and knew that this pair had to cost at least 200 dollars.  

“I thought we said something small,” Andrew said, looking through his new glasses at Neil.

Neil smiled, “Those are small.”

“That is not what it means and you know it,” Andrew said, realizing his glare was ruined by the sunglasses covering it up. “Thank you.”

Neil laughed and opened his own presents. Andrew watched as he took in the soft green sweater he’d gotten for him. 

“Dressing me in your favorite color for a reason, Minyard?” Neil asked with a playful smirk.

Neil didn’t bother waiting for a reply, as he stripped off his shirt and replaced it with the cozy sweater. As the two stared each other down, wearing their Christmas presents, Athena snapped a photo of them, the flash of her Polaroid bringing them out of their little bubble.

“I’m hungry,” she said with a yawn.

Neil got up and made them all French toast, fielding a phone call from his old foster parents as he cooked. Andrew didn’t listen to the conversation. He knew their mother had died when Athena was born, and that they had been taken in by a nice couple, but he hadn’t ask any further questions about the matter. Like what happened to his father. Or Athena’s. Neil had said once that she was his half-sister. King found him on the pull out bed and screamed for her own breakfast, probably annoyed that Zeus was served before she was. 

He knew that they had a lot of things to talk about, but he didn’t bother worrying about it as they settled down on the bed with breakfast on the tray table and watched a movie for the rest of the morning.

Chapter Text

Neil woke up to crying right next to his face, as he often did these days. Athena’s cot was supposed to be in the corner of his room, so she could have her own area and stay close at the same time. However, every night Neil ended up pulling it over to the head of his bed so she was never more than an arm's length away.


He picked her up and soothed her, changing her diaper once she was calm enough to put up with him. In a perfect world Neil would have stayed in his room with her all day, but the Browning’s seemed to think he was depressed when he did that. The large bedroom was his favorite place in the house. It had all of his belongings, a comfortable place to work, and it was always peaceful, cozy. The rest of the house wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t his. Not like his room was.


Before heading downstairs Neil dressed Athena in a blue floral onesie and pink leggings that had a bear face on the back. He loved dressing her in as many colors as possible. She looked cute no matter what, so he liked to have some fun with it.


“Look,” Neil said, holding her up for Deb to see when he got to the kitchen. “She’s got a bear on her butt!”


Deb laughed. “Are you a baby bear?”


She tickled the babies cheeks, making her giggle and scream. The dishwasher was already half unloaded from the night before, so Neil grabbed a bottle from the top rack, after quickly washing his hands.


“What color today?” He asked Athena, knowing her answer would be hard to decipher. “Blue? Pink? Green? Yeah, green sounds good to me too.”


He picked up the green cap and popped the nipple into it. After so long without being able to have color in his life he tried to add as much in as he could. The bottles they’d had when they moved in had boring white caps, but Neil found out there were colored ones on a trip to the store and practically begged for them until Ken gave in. It wasn’t difficult to get Ken to give in, asking twice usually did the trick. Deb had been slightly annoyed when they got home, they already had more bottles than they needed, and they had brought home three more three packs. Once Ken gave in Neil had to convince him to get all three colors. Deb wasn’t mad at Neil though, she made sure he knew that she was only annoyed with Ken for giving in so easily.


After making the bottle Neil took Athena into the living room and sat in the rocking chair, using a pillow to support his arm as her fed her. When she was born, feeding her was easy because she didn’t weigh a lot, but at five months old she was gaining weight and his arm was starting to feel it. Neil liked all the time he spent with his sister, but feeding times allowed for a special bond. She still looked into his eyes the entire time, unless she closed them to drift off, and he felt like she was staring into the very deepest parts of his soul.


“What are your plans for the day?” Ken asked, pulling Neil’s attention away from the baby. He was sitting on the sofa reading the newspaper, looking like a proper grandpa in his giant reading glasses.


“Grammar probably,” Neil said, scrunching up his nose. “I speak three languages fluently, but the grammar of my first language is what’s keeping me from moving up a grade level.”


Ken chuckled. Neil thought he’d be a lot like Santa when he gets old. He already has the laugh down, and the old man glasses.


“Maybe you can help me chop some wood later,” Ken said with another laugh, “if you need a break.”


December in Connecticut was cold. After spending the last winter in Canada Neil knew how to handle it, but Deb and Ken were having a harder time. It didn’t help that their old farmhouse leaked it like a flowing hose. Even with all the repairs Ken had done when they moved in. The main problems were old windows and an outdated HVAC system. Luckily there was a huge fireplace in the living room, and a second one upstairs in the third bedroom they used as an office. Neil liked to do his homework in there so he could keep Athena nice and warm. He started calling it the library after Ken built a bet of bookshelves to go on either side of the fireplace. Neil had spent a whole week organizing the books they found in the barn on it.


The only thing Neil disliked about the fireplaces was the need to chop wood. With spending so much of his time inside, doing school work and caring for Athena, Neil thought he might get away with not turning into a farm boy, but he was wrong. His hands had gotten rough from chopping wood and working in the barn, while the muscles in his arms had gotten bigger. He was starting to fill out too. Neil couldn’t count his ribs in the mirror anymore, and he had to have gained at least 15 pounds since the last time he was weighed at the hospital. Deb refused to buy a scale, she said it wouldn’t do any good to obsess over his weight.


They ate healthy food, it was starting to get heartier with the colder weather, but it was still healthy. Lots of vegetables and lean meats. Deb said he looked healthier I and more settled now, but Neil couldn’t see it. The change had been so gradual that he probably wouldn’t notice until he saw a picture of himself from the early days at the hospital. Ken said he’d probably have to see the photos at some point for the trail, but Neil refused to think about it.


“Earth to Neil,” Ken said, snapping his fingers twice. “Are you okay?”


Neil looked back down at Athena, she was almost down with her bottle and he’d need to burp her soon. “I was just thinking about how much I like it here.”


Ken smiled at him. “I like it too. I’m retiring after this case. Trying to see if I can buy it out from under the government's nose and fix it up for real.”


“It’s got good bones,” Neil said. He was copying what Ken said the first time they saw it. “You could do a lot with it.”


“Don’t I know it.”


Neil set the bottle down on the side table and raised Athena to his shoulder, patting her back firmly.


“You know you’re always welcome with us, right Neil?” Ken had a serious look in his lace suddenly. It was slightly loving too, but mostly serious. “Even after all of the trials are done, you’ll always have a place with us.”


Neil blinked at him for a moment, not completely understanding what he was saying. He’d never had a home before. The four months he had stayed in this house so far was the longest he had ever lived somewhere since he went on the run with his mother. He blinked again, feeling tears come to his eyes.


“Are you sure?” Neil asked.


“Yeah buddy, we’re sure,” Ken said with a tight smile. He patted Neil on the shoulder as he exited the room, giving Neil time to get his emotions under control. Ken knew that Neil still wasn’t comfortable showing vulnerability in front of him. If he ever needed someone to help calm his down after a nightmare to a panic attack he always went to Deb.


The rest of the morning went as normal. After finishing a chapter of his work book Neil fed Athena again and put her down for a nap, in her nursery. He came downstairs to do some reading and then make himself lunch. Deb normally made lunch for everyone, but she was in the office on her weekly update phone call from whoever she got her information from. Neil was not supposed to ask questions about it. Something about it being safer for him if he didn’t know all the details.


Ken knocked on the backdoor to let know he was coming up behind him. The weirdest part of Ken doing all of these things to make feel more comfortable was the Neil never asked him to. He never said you can do this but not that, and never do this but always do that. Somehow Ken just know what not to do, what he could do, and how to work around everything. If his therapist hadn’t assured him that she would not tell anyone what they talked about, Neil would have thought she told them. He was probably just used to making witnesses feel safe while he guarded them, but that didn’t make it any less odd for Neil.


“Deb still on the phone?” Ken asked as he checked his watch. “She’s usually done by 11.”


“She was up there when I put Athena down,” Neil shrugged, “and she hasn’t come down yet. Athena should be up soon, I can knock when I go get her.”


“No it’s fine, if she’s still talking it’s probably important. Thank you for making lunch by the way, you didn’t have to do that.”


Neil shrugged again. “Deb’s busy.”


“Yes, and you’re still the kid here, bud. If anyone should be making lunch other than Deb, it should be me.” Ken laughed, which let Neil know he wasn’t in trouble. He tended to forget he was allowed to ask Ken and Deb for things. Besides, making some sandwiches and cutting up fruit wasn’t exactly a difficult task. “Did you finish that assignment?”


“Yeah, it’s on the table,” Neil said. He sat down and ate his food while Ken looked over his work.


Ken laughed. “Neil, buddy, come on we’ve talked about this. You’ve got to stop mixing British and American spelling together.”


“I don’t understand,” Neil whined. He was allowed to do that now. “How am I supposed to remember which one is which?”


“The extra u’s are British. Honestly, you’d pass if you just picked one. Even if you choose British. But you keep mixing them up.” He moved the book so Neil could see it and pointed to two answers. “Look, you spelled ‘color’ two different ways on the same page.”


Neil glared at the page, and his jumbled spelling. “See this is why I like math. It’s the same everywhere.”


Ken chuckled, rubbing at his eyebrow. “I understand this is frustrating. Why don’t we try to stick with American for a week and see how it goes?”


Neil nodded his head and watched and Ken scanned through the chapter he’d just completed, correcting every spelling mistake with a purple pen. He could see what Ken meant, almost every sentence had a correction and color wasn’t the only word he spelled two different ways on the same page. Some of the misspellings weren’t British or American, they were just wrong. English is a truly cursed language, Neil decided.


A few minutes later Deb came down with a giggling Athena in her arms. She handed her to Neil as she passed him, going to the counter to make a bottle. When she came back, she handed it to Neil and scanned over his workbook. Neil shifted the baby in his arms and gave her the bottle.


“How was the call?” Ken asked after Deb sat down with her plate.


“Long and tedious,” Deb said. She looked Neil over for a moment, then her eyes settled on Athena. “There was some good news, some bad news, and some very unexpected news.”


Ken thought for a moment, running his hand over his chin. “Unexpected, then bad, then good.”


“Excepted first. Okay,” she said as she reached out and held Ken’s hand. She took a deep breath, Neil looked up at her to see a worried look on her face. “Neil, your father killed himself yesterday.”


“What?” Neil demanded. He was careful not to say it too loudly, but he still managed to startle Athena. He raised her to his shoulder and patted her back as he listened to the details.


“After being convicted in Seattle he was moved to Maryland, where he was charged with 78 felonies. I didn’t write down all the charges, but they were very serious and disturbing,” Deb said. She squeezed Ken’s hand tightly as the man scooted his chair closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.


“No, you said he killed himself? He would never do that,” Neil said, confused.
Deb looked at Ken again, having some silent conversation. “All I know it that he was found dead in a locked cell. The video from the hallway showed no one went in or out all night. There’s no record of the cell footage, they’re trying to see what they can find.”


“Are you sure?”


“I am very sure.”


Neil laughed and rubbed a hand over Athena’s back. “He’s dead.”


Ken and Deb shared another look, but didn’t tell him off for laughing. His mom would have. If she’d heard him laugh about someone’s death she would have hit him, told him he was being like his father, and then told him to never do it again.


“The bad news is that the first trial is set for the end of January in Maryland, which should last no more than two weeks. And then there’s another one set for February, and two in March. The good news is we get to come back here between them, and maybe even stay when they’re done. And you’ll be testifying via video chat for the first one. If that goes well, you may be able to do that for all of them. No one wants to put a child in the same room as murderers.”


“I’m not a child,” Neil said defensively.


Deb gave him her patented ‘really?’ look. The way he said it kind of proved her point about him being a child, but he childishly refused to admit it.


“Why don’t we stop talking about murderers in front of our little baby bear?” Ken said.


“That’s what Deb called her this morning!” Neil exclaimed. He lifted Athena from his shoulder and held her in front of his face. “Are you my little baby bear?”


On an average day Neil would have complained about chopping wood, mostly just because he was allowed to complain about things now, but after their discussion he didn’t bother. He wanted to get to let the cold air and manual labor help him sort through his emotions. Either he was a lot softer now or a lot less safe. Only time would tell which. With Nathan dead, Neil didn’t think any of his people would act out, but there was always a chance that someone would try to get revenge for the man.


It wasn’t until they were finished chopping that Neil remembered that everyone in Nathan’s inner circle was already in custody. He laughed when he realized that the low level grunts wouldn’t be loyal enough to try to come after him. For the first time in his life, Neil felt truly safe.


He walked into the house and picked Athena up out of her rocker, dancing with her around the room.

Chapter Text

Waking up alone in his own bed on the 26th was lonely and cold. Andrew had spent all of Christmas next door at the Josten’s, only returning to his own apartment to call his brother after Athena had gone to bed. Neil had lit the fire as they lounged on the pull out bed all day, relaxing and enjoying each other's company. They watched movies, played board games, and build anything they could imagine with legos all day, all without ever leaving the warmth of the pullout. As Andrew sat up in bed, without even his cat by his side, the last few days felt like a fever dream. There was no way that it had all been real. Even with his perfect memory, he couldn’t quite tell where the line between real life and fantasy was. 

His phone buzzed, drawing him out of his own head. 

Cinnamon rolls just went in the oven. 25 min if you want one

Homemade?

Obviously

Who do you think I am?

What time did you get up?

5:45 Athena’s going ice skating with Randy today and she’s very excited

Andrew looked at his alarm clock and saw that it wasn’t even 8 am yet. He got up and showered, changing into a pair of sweats and the sweater Nicky had given him for Christmas. With the cat fed and a strong layer of cat hair covering the ankles of his clean pants, he headed next door. 

The timer was just going off when he opened the door, allowing him to see Neil frantically pull out the baking tray while Athena tried to take pictures of him with her new camera. They all turned out blurry, but she still glued them into the makeshift photo album she was making out of some cardstock and twine Neil had found laying around the night before.  

“Good morning,” Andrew said from the doorway, startling both of them from their tasks. 

Athena ran over to him and grabbed his hand. “Daddy, look! It’s Neil, and that’s Zeus, and look that’s the cinnamon rolls.”

“I see that,” Andrew said looking over the paper, “those are pretty good.”

“Put that away so we can eat,” Neil called from the kitchen. 

While Athena packed away her camera and took it to her room, Andrew went to the kitchen to help Neil. On his way to the silverware drawer, he had to pass behind Neil, placing a hand on the small of his back to let him know he was there Andrew slid past him. Neil froze at the contact, slowly turning to face Andrew.

“Sorry,” Andrew said pulling his hand away.

Neil smiled at him. “No, it’s fine. I just didn’t expect that, you’ve never touched me casually before.”

“Is it okay?”

“Yeah,” Neil said as he carefully pulled the corner of one of the rolls off and offered it to Andrew. “Here try this.”

Andrew carefully took the bite from Neil, enjoying the sweet, gooey treat. He grabbed the silverware as he chewed and helped Neil plate the food. While they were dishing everything up Athena came back, claiming her chair at the table. Breakfast was a quick affair then Andrew did the dishes while Neil expertly styled Athena’s long dark hair into what she called space buns. 

“What are you taking with you today?” Neil asked her when he was finished.

“Gigi’s present and my camera,” Athena said with a smile, very clearly trying to butter him up.

“It’s cold and wet outside. Do you think you can take care of your camera all day?” Neil asked, giving her a chance to realize bringing it was a bad idea. “What if it gets wet? Or you drop it?”

“But I want to take pictures!” Athena whined.

Neil gave her an understanding smile and rubbed her cheek with his thumb. “I know baby bear. You can ask Gigi to take pictures on her phone and then we can print them out.”

Athena pouted but didn't argue. It didn’t last for long, as soon as Neil told her that Gigi was on her way up Athena dropped her frown and started running around the apartment, grabbing all of her gear. Coat, shoes, ice skates, and presents were all located just as they heard the knock on the door. Athena greeted her with a hug, but not the running and jumping kind she always gave Andrew. Seeing how she normally greeted adults she cared for put how much she adores him in perspective. He had heard from Neil and Randy that she like him more than she liked other adults, but seeing it in action was different. Until that point, Andrew hadn’t realized just how much they had all been drawn together. It was easy to downplay the significance and say it was all just because she was an excited six-year-old, but she was twice as excited now and had half the reaction than when Andrew got home from work every day.      

Neil gave Athena a hug and told her he loved her, then she turned to Andrew and pulled on his arm until he knelt down to her height. 

“Bye Daddy,” she said as she hugged him, “I love you.”

Andrew froze, unsure what to do next, until Neil mouthed ‘say it back’ at him. “I love you too buggy, have fun.”

She grabbed his cheeks and kissed his nose, then stood up and walked out the door. Looking rather confused, Randy followed behind her. 

“Thank you,” Neil said when they heard the elevator doors close. “She would have been really upset if you didn’t say it back.”

Andrew ran a hand through his hair, then went to the couch and sat down next to where Zeus was laying. Petting Zeus, he thought about his realization that Athena thought of him as more than another adult in her life, that maybe she meant it when she called him daddy. 

“This is a lot,” he said finally, looking at Zeus instead of Neil. 

“I know, you don’t have to do this,” Neil said. He sat on the couch and started petting Zeus too, carefully avoiding hitting Andrew’s hand as he did so. Andrew watched Neil’s hand for a moment, using the chance to read Neil’s body language from the corner of his eye. His body language read as surprisingly calm.

“Do you like me?” Andrew asked. He finally managed to look up at Neil, just in time to see a confused look cross his face.

“Yes?”

“Do you like like me?”

Neil huffed. “Are you twelve?”

“Yes,” Andrew said as he rolled his eyes, “you know what I meant.”

“Yes, Andrew.” Neil looked him in the eye. “I like you. I am physically attracted to you. I even like your terrible personality.” 

Andrew huffed out a quiet laugh. He placed his hand palm up on Zeus’s side and spread his fingers, silently inviting Neil to take it. Neil did, standing up and pulling Andrew up too. 

“Come on,” Neil said as he started guiding Andrew down the hallway, “Zeus, you too.”

He led Andrew to his bedroom again, closing the door behind the dog and bringing them all over to his bed. First Zeus jumped up, claiming his place at the end, then Neil sat down against the headboard. 

“Come on,” he repeated, patting the spot next to himself. “I feel safer talking here. The living room is too big and open.”

Andrew climbed up, sitting on his feet between Neil’s legs. He fidgeted with his sleeve for a moment, then started to push it up. Neil reached out, stopping just short of touching him, and hovered his hand over Andrew’s.

“I told you, you don’t have to show me,” Neil said softly.

“I showed you the other day. You refused to look.”

Neil laughed. “I had more exciting things to look at.”

Andrew pushed his sleeves all the way up past his elbows and rested his wrist in Neil’s still open hand. Focusing on bright blue eyes, he watched as they traveled up and down one arm and then the other.

“How old were you?” Neil asked, his voice was small and pained.

“Twelve to thirteen.”

“Who?” 

That was the first time that someone had put together the reason Andrew had started hurting himself so quickly. In juvie, the other kids assumed he was crazy and his therapists had assumed he was suicidal. Even his therapist in college had asked why and not who.   

“I did that,” Andrew said, wanting Neil to know the truth.

“Clearly,” Neil said as he looked down at the arm in his hand again. He met Andrew’s eye when he spoke next, “Children don’t hurt themselves for no reason. Someone hurt you first, no?”

Andrew nodded. Finding the right words took a moment. They sat in silence as Neil gave him as much time as he needed to sort out his thoughts. He grabbed Neil’s free hand and gently ran it over the scars on his arm. It was a weird feeling. After years of being covered in long sleeves and armbands, the skin was more sensitive than it used to be. The sensation made Andrew shiver. 

“I grew up in foster care. The system is overcrowded and underfunded. When I was twelve, I moved in with this family and they wanted to adopt me. It was picture perfect, picket fence and all. Then their son came home from the military and he took a liking to me, which made them even more excited about adopting me. However, he liked me a little too much.” Andrew looked down at his arm and ran Neil’s hand over it again. His grip was getting tighter with every pass, but Neil didn’t complain. “It went from wandering hands to sneaking into my room at night. It wasn’t like I could tell anyone. Who would they believe? A marine or a foster kid who’s already been labeled a problem child?”

“Andrew,” Neil started. His voice faltered and he didn’t finish whatever he was going to say. Instead, he watched as Andrew ran his hand over the newly exposed marks again. 

“Shhh, he died in prison when I was in college. Someone else care forward,” Andrew said taking a deep breath. “No more talking.” 

He gave Neil his hand back and moved from between his legs, taking up the spot next to him. They sat in silence as Neil patted the bed, calling Zeus closer to them. Andrew thought he did it for himself, but when he didn’t move to touch the dog, it became clear that it was for Andrew. After petting the Zeus a few times, Andrew remembered how he’d been slightly scared of dogs when he’d first moved to the city. It had been months since he’d felt the need to shy away from one thanks to Zeus. 

“I’ve never been in a relationship before,” Andrew said after they’d sat in silence for nearly half an hour. His hand was warm and his sleeve was covered in fur, matching the bottoms of his pant legs. 

“Neither have I,” Neil said as he turned to look at Andrew.

“We have to do this right.”

Neil looked confused, tilting his head and pursing his lips. “It’s been two days, we have plenty of time to figure it out.”     

“What about Athena?” Andrew asked. Neil didn’t seem to be taking everything as seriously as he should be. 

 “She already thinks we’re married.” Neil rolled his eyes. “I don’t want to tell anyone until I know what I’m doing, because I don’t want to mess anything up. Andrew, if you set a boundary I won't cross it. And I expect the same thing from you if I set a boundary. Other than that I don’t know what we need to talk about.”

Andrew picked up Neil’s hand and pulled it, drawing him in. “Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Kissing was easier than thinking, and after so much talking Andrew needed a moment of peace to clear his head. They kept the kiss short, but it still left them both breathless.

“Does that mean I said the right thing?” Neil asked, raising an eyebrow. 

Andrew rolled his eyes, ignoring the question. “Can I touch your scars?”

He expected Neil to question his motives or ask if he was sure, however, the man pulled his hand back and took his shirt off without ever giving Andrew any sign of hesitation. As Andrew ran his hand over his mottled shoulder, right over an iron mark, Neil began to speak. 

“My mom got married when she was 18, to a man who was 30. She had me at 20. He was a very bad man,” Neil began. He clenched his jaw, slowly loosening it as Andrew moved into examining a new mark. “I don’t mean like just a bad person. He was a psychopathic serial killer. When I was little, I used to think that my mom was just a little heavy-handed because my only comparison was my father, who preferred cutting for punishment, but when I went to live with the Browning’s I realized she was actually abusive as well.”

Andrew rubbed his hand over Neil’s back. It felt interesting, all the bumps and grooves that shouldn’t normally be there, mixed with the normal knots of his spine. The action doubled as a way to calm Neil down. He leaned into the touch as Andrew rubbed small circles across his back.    

“We ran away in the middle of the night when I was ten years old, and my father hunted us down across Europe, Canada, and the U.S. I honestly don’t even know who Athena’s father is. My mom beat me the first time she saw me kiss someone and it was bad enough that I needed real medical attention, so we stayed with this hunter in Canada who had some sort of medical experience.” Neil paused and chewed on his lip for a moment, looking thoughtful. 

Andrew wanted to tell him he didn’t have to say anymore, but he didn’t want to interrupt his thoughts. The fact that Zeus wasn’t reacting yet told him that Neil was doing okay and helped settle his mind. While he waited Andrew picked a new spot to poke at, causing Neil to lean back as he moved his hand from his back to his side.

“I don't even know how my mom knew him. I really thought that guy was her dad for a while, but then there was this gun smuggler and another guy, forger I think, who both look more like her from what I can remember.” Neil let out a hollow laugh. “She always told me not to get attached and freaked out when I kissed someone, and then she went and made a baby. Does that make sense to you?”

“Stress relief,” Andrew replied dryly. Neil shot him a weird look, reminding him that he probably didn’t understand the ‘need’ people felt for sex. “I don’t know how to explain it, but getting off with someone relieves a lot of stress. When I was in college I used to hook up with this bartender. I’d take him in the backroom and we’d make out until he was ready and then I’d get him off and send him on his way. I never let him touch me at all and I never let him watch, but it still did wonders for my mood.” 

“Huh,” Neil hummed. Andrew felt the vibrations with his hand on Neil’s chest. “Still fucking hypocritical.” 

“I agree,” Andrew let out a huff, “can we stop talking about out shitty childhoods for today?”

“Yes. Great Idea.”

Andrew pushed Neil’s bare chest until he was laying down, then carefully laid down next to him, resting his head on his chest. They stayed like that for a while, long enough for Andrew to recognize Neil falling asleep by the change in his breathing and the twitch of his arm. Letting Neil rest meant skipping lunch, which wasn’t a big concern for Andrew. After so much talking he didn’t feel like eating. Other than his therapist in college, and his new therapist in the city Andrew had never shared so much with one person. A few people knew bits and pieces of what he’d told Neil, but no one got the whole story, and never all at once like that.

At first, Andrew hadn’t expected to be able to handle lying next to Neil, let alone using him as a pillow, but it made sense when he thought about it. The last five months had been spent slowly getting used to a weight next to him, then a weight on top of him, as Athena, King, and Zeus all tested his boundaries daily. The thing that surprised him the most was that he was able to use touching Neil as a source of comfort, both when he was talking and when Neil was. The hand on his arm had reminded him he wasn’t in pain as he’d told Neil about the worst time in his life, while the hand he put on Neil’s back kept him focused on the present instead of imagining all the things Neil told him about. 

Neil woke up to his phone ringing a few hours later, alerting him that Athena was going to be home soon. Andrew took the chance to brush the curls out of his face and enjoy watching Neil wake up.

“Hey,” he said with a dopey smile, “you hungry?”

Andrew pushed him off the bed and followed him into the kitchen, noticing that Neil didn’t grab a shirt on his way. After they ate a quick snack together Athena got home and told them all about her adventures of the day. She very proudly informed then that she only fell on the ice three times. 

Later that night Andrew gave her a big hug and tucked her in by himself because he was leaving for an away game in the morning and wouldn’t see her before he left.

“She asleep?” Neil asked when he walked into the living room. Andrew nodded. “You have an early flight tomorrow, right? Go to bed.”

Andrew turned toward the door, slightly annoyed at being dismissed, and startled when Neil called out to him.

“Hey, I meant after you tell me goodnight, babe.”

“Don’t call me babe,” Andrew said, holding out a hand to invite Neil closer. 

Neil gently placed his hands on Andrew’s shoulder. It seemed he was taking the ‘go slow’ direction from the other day seriously. He didn’t ask like Andrew did, but he did give his plenty of time to say no or back away. Neil leaned in for a kiss, letting Andrew close the gap. This time Neil took the lead, opening his mouth to Andrew and deepening the kiss quickly. 

“Did you look up how to kiss?” Andrew asked when they broke apart.

Neil laughed. “No, why? Should I?”

“That was nothing like how you kissed me the other day.”

“In a bad way?”

“No.” Andrew rubbed Neil’s cheekbone with his thumb. “You’re surprisingly good at this for having no experience. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Neil smiled and pressed a kiss to Andrew’s palm. “Good.”

 

The flight to the game, and the game itself went well enough. They won as usual, however, this time without Andrew getting any play time. As the third goalie on the team, and the only rookie, he wasn’t guaranteed to play in every game. Normally he wouldn’t care about missing out on one game, but having to take two flights and miss three days with his new family for a game he didn’t play in left him in a bad mood. He hung out with Brad and texted Neil in his free time, which helped more than anyone had expected it to. 

They flew home the day after the game because they had a special game set for New Years Eve. Randy offered to babysit Athena, claiming she was too old for the New York City ball drop. The free night meant Neil could come to the game and stay the entire time. 

 

Andrew, Neil and Zeus climbed into the car to the stadium even earlier than they did on normal game days. Everyone claimed New York City was a mess on New Years Eve and they wanted to get to the stadium safely and on time. 

“Do you want to tell your team about us? They already think we’re dating,” Neil asked on the way. 

“Are we dating?” Andrew asked, carefully turning the question in Neil. “You said you don’t want to tell anyone until we figure out what we are doing.”

“I said I didn’t want to tell anyone until I figured out what I am doing. Completely different,” Neil said seriously, causing Andrew to roll his eyes. “I don’t know the right words to use, Andrew. Dating and boyfriend seem juvenile, but I don’t feel like partner works for something we decided to do a week ago.”

“I’m not in the habit of sharing my personal life with my team, you don’t have to say anything to them either.” Andrew held a hand out for Neil to hold while Zeus nudged at his knee. “Hang out with your friends and have fun. If they bother you too much you can sit in the locker room lounge. Remember, they don’t know anything’s changed for you, I doubt they’ll ask you anything they don’t normally.”

“You’re right.”

“I know,” Andrew said smugly. 

 

The game was more challenging than the last one, which made having to sit through the first half on the sidelines less annoying. Supporting his team wasn't the chore he made it out to be, but there was always something else he could be doing with that time. Finally, Andrew was put in for the second half. Knowing Neil was still up in the booth watching him was exciting in a way that Exy hadn’t been in a long time. Andrew played his best, managing to completely lock down the goal and score his team another win on their undefeated season. Interviews were easy to avoid, with the excitement of another win and the holiday making everyone else line up to talk. 

Andrew made his way to the family section with the few other teammates who rushed to leave the locker room. When he walked in Neil was chatting with one of his teammate's husband’s and holding a sleeping baby. It took a moment for Neil to notice him, giving him time to enjoy the sight. Andrew got to watch Neil’s face light up as he realized he was in the room, he smiled softly and wrinkled his nose up in the process. It was equally innocent and adorable. Never in his life did Andrew think that someone would look at him like that. As he took the seat next to Neil, he passed the infant over to him.  

“This is Trenton,” Neil said softly.

“The Bennett baby,” Andrew replied. The child in his arms was sleeping soundly, showing no signs that he noticed being passed from one person to another. 

Holding a baby wasn’t a new experience. Andrew had held them a lot as a child, helping out with his foster siblings, but it had been at least 15 years since then. The weight in his arms was different and he was suddenly aware of how fragile the baby was now. He looked up to see Neil smiling at him. 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Andrew said with a glare that probably would have been more effective if he wasn’t holding a small child. “And do not get any ideas.”

Andrew handed the baby to his mother when she walked in, dragging Neil out of the room as soon as his arms were free. Once they were in the car, Zeus safely tucked between them on the seat, Neil started to doze off. It was the first time he lasted through an entire game. Andrew knew that much socializing with strangers added onto being in a large noisy crowd drained Neil. After a quick walk around the block for Zeus, they headed in side. As they stood in the elevator Neil reached out for Andrew’s hand.

“Okay?” He asked.

Andrew looked down at their hands and back up at Neil. “Yes.”

As they exited the elevator Neil pulled Andrew toward his door. “Stay over?”

“Can you keep your hands to yourself?” Andrew asked. Neil gave him an offended look so he tried again. “I tend to punch people in my sleep if they touch me.”

“I still reach for a gun sometimes when I wake up,” Neil said as they walked into the house. “Zeus might bump you, but I sleep like a dead person, completely still.”

Andrew thought about it for a moment and decided to give it a try. He was able to sleep next to Athena with no problems, even though she’d kicked him in his sleep every time. Plus he had never struck out at King and Zeus.

After saying goodnight to Randy, Neil gave him something to sleep in, then they changed together and brushed their teeth in Neil’s master suite. It was all weirdly domestic, but then again most things about Andrew life were in the last few months. Before they said goodnight Neil begged a quick New Years Eve kiss off of him.

Andrew slept about as well as he would have in his own apartment, with fireworks going off and college kids yelling in the street all night. They ended up unable to go back to sleep around 6 am. 

Before Athena woke up, but after Neil took Zeus on a walk outside, Neil and Andrew lounged in bed. Zeus took up his post at the foot, giving them enough room to lay without touching him or each other. After slowly moving his hand to Andrew’s arm, Neil started lightly tracing the scars there. He moved his fingertips across the skin so gently that it sent chills down Andrew’s spine. One of their phones vibrating broke Andrew out of his half asleep trance. 

“Do you have a home game on the 12th?” Neil asked, staring down at his phone. 

“Yes,” Andrew said. 

“There’s a Math conference in DC that weekend. We just got invited last minute,” Neil said. He looked confused and unsure. “Could you watch Athena? It’s Thursday afternoon to Monday.”

“Will you be able to handle leaving her for that long?” Andrew asked, remembering Neil’s reaction to leaving her for just one night in the summer. 

Neil set his phone down and looked Andrew in the eye. “If she’s with you, yes.”

Andrew hooked his finger in the collar of Neil’s shirt and pulled him down for a kiss. “Yes, I take her for the weekend.” 

“Gemma can watch her during the game, or I can talk to Ran-”

“Stop, I’ll sort that out,” Andrew said quickly. “You go be a nerd with your math people.”


With Athena going back to school, and Andrew going back to his regular work schedule the next week and a half passed quickly. Andrew hung out with Brad the entire weekend for his away game, earning them the ‘boring dad group’ title. Then he enjoyed having Sunday and Monday off to spend some quality time with his little family. Neil’s school break gave him all of January off, but he refused to take a break. Instead he headed to the library and worked on his thesis while Athena was in school. Andrew tried to get him to rest, but he said he had trouble sitting at home all day.

 

On the 10th picking up Athena from school was unbelievably easy. He walked up to the school and she ran toward him, giving him a jumping hug when she reached him. The teacher waved to them and said goodbye and that was it. For such a big city they had weirdly lax security. Andrew knew that Neil had told the school he was picking her up, but he’d hoped for at least an ID check. Instead they let him go with a quick glance. 

“What do you want for dinner?” Andrew asked as they walked home.

“McDonald's!” Athena shouted, waving their joined hands as they walked.

“Neil said no fast food.”

“He’s not in charge of you,” Athena said slyly.

“You are so right. He is not in charge of me, but he is in charge of you.”

“That’s not fair.” Athena stumped her feet and pouted, looking up at him with her big blue eyes.

“So that means I can have McDonald's,” Andrew said as she whined, “and you can’t. Should we do that? I will get some McDonald’s and then I can make you a salad.”

“No!”    

She pouted for most of the walk home, until he told her they were having canned beets for dinner if she didn’t pick something. That got her to change her attitude quickly. Once they settled on Annie’s mac and cheese, with hot dogs and carrots (a meal Neil would be shocked at) Andrew was ready to start his first weekend with Athena.    

Chapter Text

Sleeping in Neil’s bed without him felt empty. As he stretched out Andrew was almost surprised that his legs didn’t hit Zeus at the end of the bed. He knew Neil and Zeus would be gone for a few days, however, he still found himself moving to make room for them. King had curled up with Athena while they were reading stories and had stayed after Andrew left. For the first time in months, Andrew was sleeping completely alone.

The morning came too early. Sounds started coming from the other bedroom just after 6 am. Neil had warned him this would happen, but it didn’t make getting out of bed early any easier. Athena wasn’t supposed to get out of bed before 6:45 am, but she usually woke up before then according to Neil. 

After dinner the night before she’d taken a shower and settled down with her barbies, convincing Andrew to play with her for over an hour. Growing up in a time when TV was used as a babysitter, not just for foster kids, but in general,  it was weird to try to find activities to fill the time instead of letting her watch tv. It helped that Neil had given him a long list of ideas. Andrew wasn’t sure if times had changed, or Neil was that one weird parent who only let his child watch two hours of tv a week. The answer was probably somewhere in the middle. 

Andrew let her get up early and made her breakfast before helping her get dressed for the day. It still amazed him how easily she trusted him to help her bathe and get dressed. How she jumped into his hugs and held his hand constantly. How she climbed into his lap to do his homework and snuggled into his side during movies. The whole situation was new to Andrew, none of those things had been part of his childhood, but he found himself enjoying them all once he got used to them. 

The walk to school was one of the coldest mornings of Andrew’s life. Never before had he lived in an area where the high for the day was still below freezing. Athena didn’t seem to notice. She held his glove covered hand with her mitten covered one, swinging their arms back and forth as she asked him about their plans for the weekend.   

“We can watch whatever movie you want tonight. Tomorrow you are going to hang out with Gemma during my game. Then on Sunday, we can do something fun. Sound good?” 

“Can we stay after school and play?” she asked, eyes wide and begging. “Neil never lets me.”

“Is that allowed?” Andrew asked.

“Yeah! Sybil always gets to play after school and I never do.”

Andrew dreaded the idea of hanging out in a loud playground in arctic temperatures, but he knew Athena was missing her friends during the gymnastics winter break. “If it’s not too cold we can stay, but if it snows today we’re going straight home.”

“It’s not going to snow today!” Athena cheered. “Yay, we get to play.”

Either she was lucky, or he was unlucky because it didn’t snow. Andrew left practice early to pick her up and was met with frigid air and bright sunshine attacking his face. He felt stupid wearing a winter coat and sunglasses, but he couldn’t help it. Neil’s Christmas present came in handy as he stood outside the school with the other parents, facing the sun, waiting for his child to run out and greet him. 

The teacher from the day before led a line of 30 or so first graders out of the school. Andrew’s eyes went straight to Athena, where she was holding hands with another girl behind her. They looked like babies when they were surrounded by older children rushing past them to get out of the cold as quickly as possible. The teacher waved to a few other parents, sending their children to them one at a time. Then she waved to him, sending both Athena and the girl she was holding hands with over at once. 

“Hi daddy! Hi Corinne!” Athena yelled at the same time the other girl yelled, “Hi mommy! Hi Andrew!”

“Can we play?” Athena asked.

“In a minute,” Corinne said. 

Andrew turned to look the woman over for the first time. They had been standing together for at least five minutes in the crowd but had paid each other no attention as they were waiting for their children. She was only slightly taller than he was, with an infant in a bassinet stroller, he had originally stood next to her because everyone was giving her a wide birth thanks to the baby. 

She led them a few blocks away to an indoor play area to get out of the freezing cold. Once they paid the entry fee and were settled at a table, both girls started taking their shoes and coats off.

“Andrew Minyard, is it?” she asked once the girls went off to play. “Famous Exy player in our little school, how odd.”

Andrew rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses as he took off his own coat. “What, do you want an autograph?”

“I’m just a bit curious how a little girl I’ve known since she was in preschool started calling a professional athlete daddy.” Corinne took one of the blankets off her sleeping baby and then settled into her chair again. 

“I’ve been told that tends to happen when famous athletes start to parent children,” Andrew said as he took his sunglasses off, giving her a board look. 

Corinne laughed. “How long have you and Neil been dating?”

“Not long enough for her to call me dad,” Andrew replied. He watched as she nodded, pushing her stroller back and forth to rock the baby inside. “I would appreciate it if you kept that to yourself. Exy fans tend to be obsessive and I do not intend to find out how they’ll react to a gay player right now.”

“Of course,” Corinne smiled at him. “It’s so nice that you let her stay and play, Neil never does.”

Andrew nodded to show he had heard her and watched as the girls chased each other. They were playing some sort of monster tag, where Sybil was trying to catch Athena and turn her into a monster too. 

“Maybe you could convince Neil to do a sleepover,” Corinne said. Andrew turned to her and raised an eyebrow. “Last time I asked he said she’s too young, but Sybil’s already had sleepovers with most of her friends. At least once a month she ends up going over to Ellie’s or we have Ellie over.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Andrew said. It didn’t surprise him that Neil was against sleepovers, he’d said the only reason he was okay leaving Athena now was because she was with Andrew. “I doubt he will be okay letting her go to someone else’s house any time soon. She’s only 6.”

“I know. I guess it’s different for us.” She picked up the baby as he started to whine, bouncing him up and down. “Ellie’s parents are divorced and my husband and I separated for a while when I was pregnant with Cormack, so Ellie and Sybil are both used to sleeping somewhere else.”

“Interesting,” Andrew said. It was loud and busy, even in the parent sitting area and he was ready to go home.

She seemed to think he was listening and continued. “My husband travels a lot for work and I needed him home, but he didn’t want to give up his job so we separated. After a few months, I told him I was filing for divorce and he decided to take a paternity leave so we could work things out.”

“How’s that going?” Andrew asked. He didn’t really care, but she clearly wanted to talk about it. 

“He’s never been home for this long before and he’s starting to get resentful,” Corinne said. She patted the baby’s back and bounced up and down again. “I don't know, I think it’s time to admit it’s over.”

“Divorce him,” Andrew said. Her face froze for a moment, with wide eyes and a raised eyebrow. “He refused to stop going out of town while you were pregnant, he’s not exactly a stand-up guy.” 

“Can you hold him for a minute?” she asked, handing over the baby when he agreed. She dug around under the stroller, fiddling with a baby carrier when she sat up again. “I guess you’re right. I just don’t want my kids growing up without a father like I did.”

Andrew held the baby close resting his face on his hat covered head. “How much of a father is he now? Does he cook and clean? Teach Sybil how to read? Play with either of them?”

Corinne took the baby back, strapping him to her chest and swaying in her chair. From what Andrew could see, his little snowsuit was adorable.  

“Not really.” She looked sad now. “Does Neil do all of that?”

“Yes,” Andrew said, he was still amazed at how Neil managed to be a super dad and a super student. “We both do.”

Corinne left to feed Cormack a few minutes later, leaving Andrew to look after both girls. He couldn’t believe a woman he’d just met left her child with him so quickly. It wasn’t easy to keep track of them either, with climbing structures, slides, and various walls blocking the view. By the time she came back, Andrew was exhausted. For some reason, when she was gone he had felt just how much responsibility was on his shoulders when it came to looking after children. They sat in silence after that and Andrew decided it was time to leave within 20 minutes. When Athena was putting her shoes on again Corinne gave him her phone number and told him she’d be okay with Sybil going to their house, even if Athena couldn’t come to hers. 

As soon as they got home Athena asked to FaceTime Neil. She told him all about her day at school, then all about her little play date with Sybil. Getting her to settle down and eat dinner after the excitement of the afternoon and the long conversation with Neil was difficult, but getting her to bed was easy. She passed out on the couch just after the movie started. Andrew let her sleep on the couch, snuggled up with King, until the movie was over then moved her to her own bed. 

watching children run around for an hour is exhausting

Why do you think I never let her stay after school?

because you’re the boring dad and im the cool dad

Neil called him and they talked for a little while about their days. Andrew laughed to himself when Neil said that he wasn’t tired because he sounded drained. A few minutes later Neil proved himself wrong by falling asleep while they were still on the phone. After quickly doing the dishes, Andrew started heading to bed, only to be startled by the skype ringtone coming from his computer. He sat on the couch and answered the call, preparing himself for some bad news. Nothing good could come from a call that happened so late. Due to the time difference, it was already 3 am for Nicky in Germany. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked the still loading screen.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Nicky said with a yawn. “I have to drive Erik to the airport at four and he said I need to be fully awake.”

“Who are you talking to?” Erik asked from somewhere off-screen. Suddenly he appeared, wearing only his tight boxer briefs. Andrew ignored his mostly naked state. “Oh, hello Andrew. Is everything all right?”

“That is my question as well. Nicky called me.”

“Nicholas,” Erik pretended to be annoyed, but the light tone in his voice gave him away. “When I said you need to wake up I meant to drink some coffee, not wake your cousin up.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Andrew said, just to contradict him.

“Yeah Erik, he wasn’t sleeping,” Nicky teased. 

They chatted for a few minutes, Nicky growing more and more animated as the time went on. Erik walked in and out of the frame as he prepared for his trip. It was good to see a little slice of Nicky’s domestic life. Not only was it Andrew’s only role model of a healthy relationship, but it also gave him a chance to make sure Nicky was happy in his new life. Andrew would never admit it, but he was worried about how Nicky would like life back in Germany after so many years with Aaron and Andrew by his side. Little footsteps sounded in the hallway, alerting Andrew to Athena’s presence just before she spoke.

“Daddy?” she said softly, “who are you talking to?”

Andrew held out a hand to her and she climbed onto his lap. He ignored the ‘aw that’s so cute’ that came from the screen as he rubbed her back. She was asleep again before he had a chance to answer the question. 

“Goodnight,” Andrew said quietly, reaching forward to end the call. “I have to put her back to bed.” 

“Wait,” Nicky called out. “Did she call you daddy?”

“Love,” Erik said behind him, “she was clearly asleep. I doubt she could really tell who he was.”

“Okay whatever,” Nicky huffed. “But Andrew, why are you with a kid at like 10 pm?”

“I’m babysitting. Goodnight. Drive safe.” He hoped that showing concern for their safety would distract them from the child and he was right. Nicky and Erik both thanked him profusely and said goodbye. 

Andrew tucked Athena back in bed and finally fell into Neil’s bed for the night. He traded pillows because the one he’d used the night before didn’t smell like Neil anymore and it felt weird to sleep in Neil’s bed without smelling him at all. He forced himself to stay awake for a little while longer, in case Athena got up again. Finally around 11, after he was sure she was down for good, Andrew drifted off to sleep.

Andrew woke up to King curled up on his chest and Athena trying to climb on the bed. He ran his hand over the cat’s soft fur, holding her close as he sat up.
“Good morning,” he said hoarsely. The clock read 7:45 am, surprising him. Either Athena had slept in, or she’d sat quietly by herself for a while to let him sleep.

“Hi,” Athena said with a smile. “Come play with me!”

“Bug, we need to eat breakfast.”

“Not yet.” Athena ran from the room, only to come back a moment later with her arms full of barbies. She climbed up next to him and dumped them in his lap. The action annoyed King enough that she left his arms to go sit at the end of the bed. 

They played for about half an hour before Andrew got up and made some eggs and dished up some yogurt. After breakfast, he started the fire so they could play on the living room floor together for awhile. Athena made up a story about Barbie being the ruler of a kingdom, so he asked her about the laws and government. He came up with some problems for the townspeople to have and asked her how to solve them. It was interesting to see how her mind worked as she worked through her solutions. When she grew frustrated, he offered support and gave her a few options, but refused to help solve the problems for her. 

Before they knew it, it was time for lunch. They ate together and Andrew took the chance to remind her that she would be staying for the entire game with Gemma. After lunch they packed her backpack with her bunny and blanket, then he had her change into leggings and a loose shirt to make sure she’d be comfortable if she fell asleep.  

In the car, she was excited about the game, but once they got there she refused to let go of Andrew’s hand. He tried to reassure her that she would have fun with her friends and barely notice Neil wasn’t there, but it didn’t seem to help. However, as soon as she saw Violet and Aiden that all went away. She ran to them without even looking back at Andrew. 

“Her blanket and bunny are in here,” Andrew said as he handed Gemma the bag. “Coach is going to have my phone during the game, so you can text me if there’s an emergency.”

Gemma laughed. “It’s just a few hours, we’ll be fine. You worry too much.”

Andrew glared at her. “If there is an emergency text me.”

“I will,” she said in an annoyingly sweet tone like she was trying to placate him. “But there won’t be an emergency.”

Athena ran over and gave him a hug before he left, then he was shoved from the world of parenting into the world of professional sports. As he changed out and prepared for the game he almost forgot about his little girl upstairs. They went over plays and tapes for half an hour, heading out to warm up when they were done. After jogging a couple of miles he headed into the goal to practice deflecting shots. 

Soon enough they were ushered off the court so the game could begin. As always Andrew played better knowing Athena was in the box watching him. Neil had sent him a few videos of her reactions to him deflecting shots and he played them over in his mind every time he hit a ball away from the goal. 

By half time they were ahead by three points. Locking down the goal had been a real challenge this time, but Andrew managed it yet again, no doubt thanks to his biggest fan being in the crowd. The second half of the game was a lot rougher. Without Andrew in the goal, they lost three points quickly. It looked like it was going to go into overtime until Emmerson managed to score in the last two minutes. The crowd cheered with the final buzzer and Andrew felt it in his bones. 

He got roped into a quick interview, where he answered the boring questions with as few words as possible. When they gave up and moved on to the next person he walked away as fast as he could without drawing attention to himself. In the locker room, he changed quickly and rushed upstairs to pick up Athena. 

 

Once they were home he tucked her into bed, kissing her hair as she slept curled up with King. Athena knocked on the door a few minutes after Andrew left her room. Barely standing and rubbing her eyes she looked exhausted. Instead of saying anything she walked over and climbed up onto Neil’s bed where Andrew was reading one of Neil’s parenting books. She tucked herself under his arm and closed her eyes, clutching his shirt in her hand.

“Can’t sleep?” Andrew asked softly. Gemma said she had fallen asleep just after seven, claiming one of the couches for the rest of his game. He wasn’t surprised she woke up after being carried down to the car for the ride home and then carried again up to her room. 

Athena nodded her head and yawned. “I miss Neil.”

“Me too buggy.” Andrew closed the book, laying it down on the bedside table and pulled her closer. “He’ll be home on Monday.”

“I want him now, not Monday.”

He ran his hand through her hair, gently kissing her head when he was done. “I know being away from him is rough. Do you want to sleep in here?”

She nodded again. Andrew turned to awkwardly turn out the light on the table while trying not to shove her off the bed. Once the lights were off he scooted further in and guided her over so she was on the inside, closest to the wall. The last thing he needed was to wake up in the middle of the night because she fell. 

With the two of them snuggled close together they could almost forget that they were missing the third member of their family. It never failed to surprise Andrew just how quickly he fell asleep when Athena next to him. 

A kick in his side woke him up a few hours later. Athena was as far away as possible, with her foot wedged in between his chest and the bed, thanks to her kick. Andrew pulled her foot out, causing her to shift around for a moment. Once he was safe from being kicked again he watched her sleep for a while. The gentle moonlight made her look peaceful as she rolled closer to him, sighing when she hit his arm. Andrew scooted closer to her as she hugged his arm tightly. He knew that his arm would fall asleep if she stayed like that, but he couldn’t make himself move her. It wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be to drift off again, even with his trapped arm. 

Sunday morning brought a new sense of frustration with it. Somehow everything Andrew did was wrong in Athena’s eyes, yet she refused to let go of his hand. His apple and cinnamon pancakes were too thick and his eggs were overdone. After breakfast, all she wanted to do was sit on his lap and listen to him read, but his voices were too simple for her. It was hard not to take it personally because he knew she was comparing him to Neil. There was nothing wrong with his food or his reading, it just wasn’t the way Neil would have done it. Normally she liked that Andrew and Neil had different strengths, but today it was a big problem. 

After his quesadilla wasn’t crispy enough at lunch Andrew gave up and put a movie on. Being in charge of a child every day was harder than Neil made it look. Andrew had had no problem when he had watched her for one night over the summer, but having her for four nights was a different story. Logically he knew raising children was difficult, he’d had a few rough parenting moments with her before, but this was exhausting. He had a new respect for Neil doing it all on his own for so long.

“Can I have some juice?” Athena asked about halfway through Cinderella.

“Yes,” Andrew said, lifting her off of his lap. She clung to him and whined in response. “Bug, I have to get up to get you juice.”

“No, I don’t want you to get up, I just want juice.”

“Do you want to come with me?”

Athena nodded her head. She climbed off him and held his hand as he stood up, following behind him as he walked into the kitchen. While he poured the juice she kept a hand on his side and she grabbed his hand as fast as she could when he offered it to her. As Andrew sat on the couch she climbed up onto his lap again, drinking her juice as she rested her head on his chest. A few minutes later she leaned forward and put her cup on the coffee table, reclaiming her place on his chest quickly. 

As much as Andrew cared for her, he was ready for his little shadow to leave him alone for a moment so he could have some personal space again. Before he even finished that thought he was annoyed with himself. He did want some space to himself, but he knew she was doing this because she trusted him. Athena was upset and missing the only parent she had ever known and she was taking comfort in him. Every ‘this is too something’ and ‘this isn’t right’ was because she was being pushed past her limits. 

Andrew FaceTimed Neil while he was making dinner, so Athena could talk to him for as long as she wanted. It was amazing how quickly she perked up. The whining and clingy-ness were gone as she excitedly told Neil she got to sleep with Andrew and he made her her favorite breakfast. 

Neil stayed on the phone with them until they were finished eating. As they said their goodbyes Andrew could read the tension slowly creeping back into Athena. When Neil finally ended the call she burst into tears. Andrew scooped her up and she buried her face in his shoulder. 

“I know it’s hard baby,” he said as he rubbed his hand over her back. “Neil will be back tomorrow, I promise.”

Athena hugged him tighter, sobs slowly subsiding. “I love you, daddy.”

“I love you to bug,” Andrew replied. He found that the more he said it, the more he was starting to mean it. He knew he cared about her, but Love was still a foreign concept to him. It had barely been six months since the first time he said it to his brother, let alone someone new in his life. 

“Bath time?” Andrew asked.

She nodded and they headed down the hall to collect her things. Andrew left the dishes on the table, focusing on making Athena feel better instead. 

They played with Hotwheels in the bathtub. After talking to Neil about it before he’d left, Andrew decided to remove his armbands and see how she would react. It turned out to be even less of a big deal than Neil said it would be. She didn’t even seem to notice as she handed him a car and asked him to race. 

After she was dressed Andrew scooped her up and brought her into Neil’s room, wrapping her in her Frozen blanket along the way. He fetched her special blanket and bunny from her bed then set up his laptop to play Sofia the First. It took her longer than normal to fall asleep, but he wasn’t surprised. As exhausting as their day had been emotionally for both of them, they hadn’t actually done a lot.

Carefully, Andrew snuck out of bed and made his way to the kitchen. It took him a few minutes to clear the table as he stopped and listened for Athena every few seconds. Once he was sure she was out for the night he started the dishwasher and called Neil. 

“Hey,” Neil said through the phone. Andrew grunted out a response and waited for Neil to talk. “How is she?”

“She cried when you hung up.”

“Oh, poor baby. Maybe four and a half days was too long.” Neil’s tone was off and Andrew hated it. 

“Stop,” Andrew said. “You need to take care of yourself too. A vacation is just what you needed. Being a parent and a full-time student is stressful, you can’t be the perfect parent if you are super stressed all the time. This gave you the chance to recharge.”

“Sure,” Neil said, making a sound that sounded like an aborted laugh. “A few hours of math talks and four days of worrying about my daughter is just what the doctor ordered.”

Andrew wasn’t sure if he should be offended by that or not. “You said you’d be okay if she was with me.”

“I am okay. I would have come back early if I wasn’t, but I still worry.”

“Is Zeus taking care of you?”

Neil actually laughed this time. “Yes, he’s taking care of me. I think he’s had a bigger job this weekend than he’s had in the last few weeks combined.”

They talked for a few minutes about Neil’s day and Andrew learned he’d been just as upset about the separation as Athena was. While she had Andrew to make her feel better, Neil had Zeus. Zeus definitely had more training and experience with big emotions than Andrew did. 

 

Athena was nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement the next morning when she woke up.

“Neil’s coming home today!” She said to Andrew as he peeled his eyes open. 

“Yes, he is,” Andrew agreed, “should we do something special for him?”

“Can we make him a card?”

“Do you have any paper?”

Athena climbed over him, grabbing his hand in the process and pulling until he climbed out of bed. She led him to her room, where they sat on the floor and took polaroids together until they had enough to fill once side of a piece of cardstock. Andrew glued all the photos down as Athena drew a picture on another sheet of paper. The picture showed Andrew holding hands with Athena, who was also holding hands with Neil. 

“How do you spell welcome home?” She asked.

“W-e-l-c-o-m-e h-o-m-e,” Andrew spelled out slowly. Her handwriting was better than normal and he wanted to say good job, but the parenting book he’d read the night before said to complement something specific instead of just saying good job, so he thought for a moment. “I like how hard you’re focusing, it’s making your writing very neat.”

He didn’t think he had done that quite right, but then she looked up at him with a blinding smile. “Thank you!”

They set the card on the table to make sure Neil would see it as soon as they walked in the door, then hurried to eat breakfast and get dressed. Somehow they’d lost track of time making the card, meaning they had to rush through the rest of the morning. In front of the school, Andrew gave Athena a big hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before sending her off to her teacher. 

The walk home was colder without her hand in his, reminding him of the first time he had walked her to school so many months ago. Everything had changed since then, yet it felt like nothing had. Like this was always meant to be. 

 

Andrew ignored the jingle of keys in the lock and footsteps in the house, after opening his eyes and making sure it was Neil first. He needed to catch up on the sleep he’d lost over the last two nights sleeping in the same bed as Athena. She was an acrobat in her sleep, managing to get herself into all sorts of positions and managing to kick and punch him at least three times each night.

“What’s this?” Neil asked, waking Andrew from his nap on the couch with King. 

“Read it and find out,” Andrew replied without opening his eyes. 

He heard Neil laugh a moment later, then it went silent again. Sleep was just a moment away when Andrew felt the couch dip next to his hip. Automatically, Andrew curled toward Neil, wrapping his arms around his waist.

“Who would have guessed the mysterious Andrew Minyard is actually a cuddle monster when he’s tired,” Neil teased.

Andrew didn’t have a good comeback in his half-asleep state. “Shut up, it’s nap time.”

Neil kicked off his shoes and laid down, shoving Andrew into the back of the couch. When they were settled Andrew wrapped his arm around Neil again. The position was as close to spooning as Andrew would allow and as close to admitting he missed Neil as he was willing to get at this point in their relationship. The next time he woke up it was to Neil sliding off the couch. 

“Go back to sleep,” Neil whispered, “I’m going to go pick up Athena.”

Andrew sat up and looked around the room. “It’s two already?”

“Yeah, I got home at noon.”

“Oh.” Andrew rubbed at his eyes. “I’ll come too.”

They wrapped themselves in their coats and scarves then headed off to collect their child. Zeus was wearing special shoes, thanks to the below-freezing temperatures of New York, making him look like an alien. Neil covered his ears too, but Andrew didn’t know if that part was necessary or just to make Neil feel better. 

Athena yelled when she saw them, running over as soon as her teacher said she could and wrapping Neil in a tight hug.

“Hi Baby Bear, I missed you,” Neil said into her hair.

“Never go away again,” she demanded, ignoring his statement.

“Oh baby, I’m sorry, I can’t promise that.” Neil stroked her hair and hugged her again. “But I can promise I will always try to come back as quickly as I can. Does that work?”

Athena looked at Andrew with her big blue eyes, silently begging for something that Andrew couldn’t put his finger on. “Can I stay with Andrew every time you leave?” She asked.

“If he says it’s okay,” Neil said with a smile.

“Is it?” She was using her pout now, and Andrew wanted to give her everything.

“Yeah bug, I’ll try to be available every time Neil has to go away,” Andrew said, not completely agreeing to it, but not shutting it down either.

Athena smiled at him, shoving away from Neil and wrapping her arms around his waist instead.

“Let’s go home you two,” Neil said.

They both grabbed one of Athena’s hands, walking with her in between them as they headed back to their apartments.

Chapter Text


The trials started with Neil sitting in front of a webcam, answering questions. They had moved to a small two-bedroom apartment in Maryland, a few towns over from Baltimore before the start of the first trial. The move coincided perfectly with Neil’s birthday, which they celebrated with a nice dinner Deb made and nothing else. Neil had asked them ahead of time not to do anything and was glad they agreed. 

The apartment was cramped. Neil almost felt like he didn’t have room to breathe, everywhere he turned there was another person or piece of furniture in his way. It reminded him of living with his mother on the run, despite the fact that they had never stayed anywhere as nice as the apartment. The strict rules—not being able to go outside or even open a window—were what made the connection. It was at once comforting and disconcerting.    

A week after they moved, Deb handed Neil the new iPhone 5. She claimed it had nothing to do with his birthday, and everything to do with keeping him safe. Yet, he couldn’t help but feel that the timing was more than a coincidence. He was still not allowed to go out by himself, not that he wanted to with all the people who wanted to kill him so close. In the past, if he knew someone dangerous was close by he and his mother would have run as far away as possible. Having to sit still and prepare to answer questions about all the horrible acts he had witnessed instead of running felt impossible. Every time he felt like he couldn’t sit there another second he looked to Athena, knowing he could never take her with him and that he could never let her go kept him grounded.

He distracted himself from the move, the trials, and the even more limited freedom, by taking video upon video of Athena. She was starting to babble at him constantly, rambling along with him as he explained his homework to her. Occasionally he thought he heard words in her rambling, though he knew that was impossible. There was no way for a six-month-old to actually say full words.

“As the supply goes up the purchasing cost goes down,” Neil read out of his textbook. “And as the cost goes down the demand increases? Is that right?”

Athena cooed at him from her bouncer, agreeing or disagreeing. It was hard to tell. 

“If the price is lower, people will buy more. I guess that makes sense.”

Neil focused on answering the question on his worksheet, only to be startled out of it when Athena started laughing hysterically. 

“What’s so funny, Baby Bear?”

Her laugh was contagious and for a moment Neil forgot about where he was and why he was there and was able to just enjoy it. When they both calmed down, he started answering the question again only to have the same thing happen when his mechanical pencil squeaked against the paper.

“Do you like that?” he asked her.

Neil pulled out an extra piece of paper and scribbled on it, pressing hard to make sure it continued to make the sound. Her laugh filled the air again, and he pulled out his phone to film it. They took his phone away at the courthouse, but he got it back during the lunch breaks and liked to rewatch the videos of Athena. 

 

While Neil was testifying, there was a special dog at the courthouse he got to spend the day with. The trial conditions meant he had to be in the courthouse, despite the fact that they were doing video questioning. Sitting in front of a camera was uncomfortable, as was the stuffy room and the awkward paralegal. He had to leave Athena with Deb at home during the day, while he was being guarded by Ken and the courthouse security. 

The dog he was paired with was named Izzy, and she was trained to support him while he was being questioned since he wasn’t allowed to sit with other people. She laid down on his feet while he was relaxed, and stood to place her head on his lap when he was tense. She came with him to every pretrial meeting too, giving him something other than the cases to focus on. While she was around, Neil found himself more focused on the moment, rarely ever getting lost in his own memories. Ken said they should think about getting a dog once they were settled since Izzy seemed to help Neil more than anything else had so far, other than Athena.  

Throughout the end of January until the beginning of April, they lived in the small apartment. However, they were able to go back to Connecticut during the breaks between the end of one trial and the start of another or on weekends if they wanted, which Neil usually did, but the drive was almost never worth it. Neil continued to distract himself by focusing on Athena’s development. She first learned to roll over, then to sit up by herself, and was even starting to crawl by the time they went back to Connecticut for good. Deb helped him keep track of everything in a memory book. After being next to her all day every day for the first five months of her life, it was nearly impossible to leave her for the first meeting. Not only was Neil going somewhere he didn’t want to, but he had to leave his baby to do it. Deb would take care of her, he knew that logically, but he couldn’t help the pain in his chest that appeared every morning when he left and stayed until he had Athena in his arms again. It felt like he was missing so much of her life by leaving the house from 9 am to 5 pm. 

For the first time, Neil felt like a real parent going to a real job, even if his job was just speaking to a camera to help put murderers in prison. Neil didn’t understand how normal parents did this every day, he hated every minute away from Athena and couldn’t imagine doing it more often. It felt like there was a piece of his soul missing from his body. The light at the end of the tunnel was that he would get to have every day with her again as soon as all of the trials were all finished. 

When they finally moved back to Connecticut for good, Athena moved into the nursery. She was long past waking up to feed in the middle of the night and there was no reason for her to be in Neil’s room anymore. He’d known it was coming, she was already nine months old, but it was still a difficult transition. Neil was frustrated with the situation, Athena was his only comfort when he woke up sweating in the middle of the night after a nightmare. He was used to being able to check on her without getting out of bed and being a room away was terrifying. There was a baby monitor on his bedside table, cracking with every sound she made, but it was nothing compared to being able to see her sleep peacefully.  

As it grew closer to her first birthday, he was able to relax more. Being back home helped, as did talking about every worry and nightmare with Deb. At first that had been frustrating too, he already talked to a therapist for two hours every week, why did he have to talk to her as well? His therapist said having a support system was necessary, especially since he was having trouble sleeping through the night and going into town set him on edge. Being back in a situation where he wasn’t allowed much freedom had reminded him of the terrors of living on the run while answering all of the lawyer’s questions brought back every repressed memory of his childhood.  

Neil knew regression was normal, he’d had some problems in December, but his nerves had gotten a hundred times worse. From constant stomach aches and random panic attacks to sleepless nights and separation anxiety. Everyone who could have possibly been after Neil was either locked up or dead, yet he still felt like he was fighting for his life. 

Their house was calm and cozy, there were no surprises and no dangers. Anywhere else was chaotic. Neil felt like he was being followed, every shadow making him tense up.

 

After refusing to leave the property for the first month after they returned home, Neil was forced on a hike at the end of May. Ken came home from the store with a brand new baby carrier and a triple pack of sunscreen, refusing to take no for an answer. 

They headed out early on Saturday morning to do an almost five-mile hike through a forest and next to a river. Neil didn’t understand what was so special about this specific area that they had to drive an hour to get there, but they weren’t giving him a choice. Ken had his FBI badge on him and Ken and Deb were both armed with their concealed carry weapons, which only made Neil feel slightly safer than if they hadn’t been. Yes, they were safe from a common street mugger, but anyone who knew what they were doing could take out two trained agents and a teenager without any problems. Neil tried not to think about it as they started down the trail, but he couldn’t get it out of his mind. 

They’d timed it so that they’d get there just in time to eat lunch and let Athena settle down in the baby carrier for a nap before starting to hike. Athena’s weight was heavy and grounding, reminding him of the safety of bulletproof vests on horrific nights. Neil kept a hand on her back so he could feel her breathing as she slept. The extra 20 pounds strapped to his chest wasn’t as difficult to carry as he had thought it would be. He’d never carried her like that for so long and expected to get tired, but it never happened. The hours he’d put in on the treadmill when he couldn’t sleep, combined with the hours in the wood shop seemed to be helping his endurance. 

“Look at that view,” Deb said when they reached a small peak overlooking the river. “It’s beautiful.”

Neil looked out over the calm water. It was pretty, but not extraordinary enough to warrant the trip. As he looked where Deb pointed, he heard Ken snap a couple of photos. The light glistened on the water, looking cool and refreshing. A soft wind blew through the air, keeping Neil from overheating as it tousled his hair around.

“Gorgeous wife, pretty view, happy kids,” Ken said as he patted Neil gently on the back. “What more could a man ask for?”

A snarky comment came to mind, but Neil kept it to himself. He had to admit it wasn’t a bad time, just not what he would have preferred to be doing. As they walked back to the car, he was almost sad to leave the forest for a stuffy car, though he was happy to be that much closer to being home again.

 

The start of July brought a sense of impending doom Neil had never experienced before, even when he was on the run with his mother. With each passing day, he grew jumpier, not managing to sleep more than a few hours at a time as the nightmares grew more intense. The day before Athena’s first birthday, during a particularly rough session with his therapist, they came to the conclusion that Neil had never properly grieved his mother. She was gone, he knew that, accepted that even, but he hadn’t dealt with it. What did that mean for him? And for Athena?

“We’d still be running,” Neil said into the phone. He sat in the giant reading chair in the office, with the door closed for complete privacy. “If she was alive, we would still be running, even if my father was dead.”

The phone crackled. “How do you know?” 

“She told me. Never stop running, Abram, no matter what.”

Being happy was difficult when he knew his mother would never approve of his lifestyle and his choices. Athena was safe and happy, growing like a weed, and learning something new every day. That was all that mattered to him. The idea that his mother would have chosen not to let them live a safe, happy life haunted him. Neil ran his hand over the rough texture of the chair. Focusing on the feeling kept him from getting lost in thought.

“But I think... maybe... she was wrong.”

Neil had acknowledged that his mother could be wrong before, but with something this big, it felt blasphemous. Saying she was wrong about running forever was like saying the sky wasn’t blue. Except, she was wrong. He was infinitely safer the second he stopped running. Pulling into that hospital parking lot had changed everything, taking him from daily danger and pain to complete protection.

After the call ended, Neil spent the rest of the day working on a dollhouse in the barn with Ken. It was easy to turn off his brain and focus on the task. Measure this, cut that, grab the nail gun and the drill. Mindless tasks that kept him grounded in the moment. 

Yet, in his room, alone, with the lights off and thoughts running rampant, Neil couldn’t sleep. He did all the things he was supposed to do: deep breaths, grounding exercises, muscle relaxation. None of it helped. With slow, careful steps, he made his way into Athena’s room, settling down in the rocking chair across from her crib. Watching her sleep was the perfect way to keep the panic at bay. The chair wasn’t the most comfortable place to fall asleep, but it was better than not sleeping at all. 

His breathing came easier as he tried to match it with Athena’s, each breath she took reminded him they were safe. Cool moonlight washed over her, lighting her face just enough for him to see her slight smile. Drifting off to sleep was easier than it had been in months, with a warm feeling in his chest and a slight smile on his face, mirroring Athena’s.

Neil woke up a few hours later to the soft babble of Athena calling for him. She stood in her crib reaching out to him, orange fox hanging from the pacifier in her mouth. He lifted her up and hugged her close, pressing a light kiss to her dark hair.

“Happy birthday Baby Bear,” he said, feeling better than he had in ages.  

Athena laid her head on his shoulder and patted his arm, settling in for a few minutes of rocking and waking up slowly before they started their day. As they rocked Neil nearly fell asleep again, with Athena’s warmth soothing him. He started humming singing an old lullaby in german he remembered leaning at some point.

They had to get up and start the day eventually, but Athena started squirming around sooner than Neil would have liked. He set her down on the floor, watching as she pulled herself up to walk while holding onto the rocking chair. She wasn’t quite to the point where she could walk by herself. While Neil grabbed a diaper and got the clothes ready, she let go of the chair and took a step, only to grab onto it again with the next step. 

Neil was fairly certain she could walk perfectly fine at this point, but she was too scared to let go of the furniture and try it alone. That fear made sense to him. After months of crawling around on the ground, being upright on two feet could not have been easy for her, just learning to balance alone looked difficult.

Neil sat on the ground about three steps away from her and held out his hand. “Come here, Athena.”

She took a step toward him, reaching for his hand, but he pulled it back at the last second. Her eyebrows furrowed and her eyes widened. 

“Come on baby, you can do it.”

She took another small step, still reaching for his hand. This time when he pulled it back she leaned forward to catch it, losing her balance in the process. Neil caught her with ease and kissed her hair. 

“You did it!” He cheered, bouncing her lightly in his arms. “You took two steps!”

After quickly getting Athena ready for the day they headed to Neil’s room so her could get dressed as well. Athena made her away around his room as he moisturized his scars and changed his clothes. He watched her closely, noting every time she let go of a piece of furniture and took a step. According to his count, about a third of her steps were unassisted, but she never took two at a time, she always grabbed the edge of the bed or something else before taking another step. 

In the kitchen, Deb already had the table set for breakfast. Neil walked in carrying his baby to find all of his chores already done.

“Good morning birthday girl,” Deb said as she kissed at Athena’s cheeks and ran a hand through Neil’s hair to fix it. 

“Athena is a liar,” Neil said with a smile. “She can walk by herself just fine.”

“Maybe, we’ll have to test that today,” Ken said from his chair. He was reading the newspaper like it was 1962 instead of 2013. “See if that dollhouse we built her will get her excited about running around.”

Deb put a plate down for Neil and pulled the high chair over for Athena. “Kenneth you need to finish baby-proofing the house today if you’re sure she’s going to start walking.”

Neil sat down and placed Athena in her chair, watching her closely as she ate. He was always the last one done with his meal because he spent half the time eating and half of the time focusing on Athena. 

When they were done eating, they all headed into the living room. Deb and Neil sat a few feet apart with baby toys on each of their laps, encouraging Athena to talk between them. She held Neil’s hand as far as he could reach, then grabbed on to Deb’s outstretched hand waiting for her as she walked. By the third pass, Neil was sure that it was a useless endeavor and it would be a few more days before she was brave enough to walk on her own.

Ken dropped a screwdriver and Deb jumped slightly, pulling her hand just out of Athena’s reach as Neil tried to hand her over. Athena took two steps by herself and then reached out, clinging to Deb’s hand as soon as she could touch it. 

Neil laughed. “You did it, Athena! I told you you could do it.”

Athena laughed too as Deb turned her around and guided her over to Neil’s outstretched hand. Neil kept it just out of her reach as she took another three steps toward him, catching her when he finally stumbled into his chest.

“Good job Athena,” Deb and Neil cheered at the same time. 

They played together for another hour until Athena went down for her first nap. Neil was hoping she would drop down to one nap a day soon, so he could spend more time with her in the mornings before he got into his schoolwork. Thanks to her birthday being in July Neil didn’t have any work at the moment, but it would start again at the end of August and Neil wanted to get the one nap a day routine down pat before that happened. 

While she was asleep Neil got to work in the kitchen. He’d looked up applesauce cake recipe, and he wanted to make it for her birthday cake. Deb stayed in the kitchen to help if he needed it, but he wanted to do as much of it as possible himself. After 11 months of helping Deb with the cooking Neil was comfortable in the kitchen, but they hadn’t done much baking yet. It turned out baking and cooking were completely different beasts. 

By the time Athena woke up the cake was in the oven and Deb was in charge of taking it out. Neil was slightly relieved that the cake was out of his hands and he could focus on taking care of the baby which was more his area of expertise.

They went outside and took a walk around the fields. Neil focused on the hot air and the slight breeze as he told Athena a bit about their mother in German. He found that it was easier to talk about her to Athena in another language. The July heat drove them back inside sooner than Neil would have liked, but he would never risk Athena getting a sunburn or dehydrated, so he dealt with it.

When they got back the cake was done, sitting on the table looking like it was straight out of a magazine. Ken saw them first and told Neil to sit down so they could finally eat the cake before he went and destroyed it himself. Neil laughed and felt some of the melancholy from the walk disappear. Athena was one and walking now. On one hand Neil was sad that his mother never got to see this, but on the other hand, he was proud of what he had managed to do in her absence. 


 

Chapter Text

Waking up was the worst part of the day. Those few minutes where he had to reassess his place in the world and his situation were not pleasant for most of Andrew’s early life. It had gotten better when he had started college, but by then the deal was done. The soft smell of pine alerted him immediately to the fact that he was not in his own bed. A merp from the cat when he moved his feet, and then a huff from the dog cemented that in his mind. 

It had been a long time since Andrew had woken up that slowly. He was warm and relaxed, completely comfortable in the warm blankets. Neil was somewhere just out of reach, but Andrew knew he would make himself known when he woke up. Someone pulled away the blankets, letting ice-cold air from the room attack his shoulders. He pulled the blankets back and Neil came with them. 

Neil’s hair tickled his shoulders, and he opened his eyes to see if he was awake. Andrew wanted to shove his hands into Neil’s hair and get it out of his face, but he couldn’t do that if Neil was still sleeping. It turned out that he didn’t have to do anything, when he opened his eye Neil smiled at him and nuzzled into his shoulder, humming at the contact. 

“Good morning.” Neil punctuated his greeting with a feather-light kiss to Andrew’s shoulder. 

Andrew grunted in response and pulled Neil closer, ever since the other day on the couch he had wanted to try spooning Neil again. The man was like a space heater, and Andrew was always cold, so they made a perfect match. Neil let himself by manhandled into position and hummed when Andrew pressed his chest into his back. 

A light thump came from next door, signaling Athena had woken up too. They had a few minutes before she would get up and bother them and Andrew was going to enjoy every second of it. 

“What are your plans for the day?” Neil asked. His hand was drawing patterns on Andrew’s arm, just hard enough not to tickle. 

“We aren’t getting out of bed,” Andrew replied. Athena had sneezed in his face the other day and he was starting to feel the effects of it. All he wanted to do was drink some hot honey lemon tea and take a nap. 

Neil chuckled. “At the very least I have to take Athena to school.”

“Mhm, and then you’re going to get back into bed and take a nap with me.”

“Is that so?” Neil said, his voice sounded amused. Andrew nodded his head, rubbing his nose over Neil’s shoulder as he did so. “I think I can make that work.”

“Good, because I wasn’t giving you an option.”

The heat of Neil’s body on his chest and the pressure of the animals laying on his feet lulled Andrew back to sleep. When Neil got up to leave he slid out slowly, taking care not to expose Andrew to the cold air of the apartment. With Neil and Athena, both sleeping hot Neil liked to keep the temperature lower at night, which made Andrew the cold man out. Even the pets left him to check out what was happening in the other room. There was no way he was going to get back to sleep until Athena left for the day. 

Andrew buried his nose into Neil’s pillow, breathing in his scent, as he listened to his boyfriend and daughter get ready for the day. It was a weird feeling, realizing he had both a boyfriend and a daughter now. Whenever he thought about it he got a weird warm feeling in his chest. The cat curled up between his legs, adding to the warmth.

It didn’t take long for the noises outside the room to draw closer. As the door creaked open, Andrew shut his eyes and pretended to be sleeping. 

“Shh, he’s asleep,” Athena said.

Footsteps drew near, and the bed dipped as she climbed on. Two small, soft hands caressed his face just before a gentle kiss landed in his nose. 

“Sleep well, Daddy,” she whispered in his ear, breath ghosting over his skin.

Andrew managed not to shiver at the feeling on his neck or the sentiment, which made his heart skip a beat. Not for the first time, Andrew realized just how much Athena loved him. 

He fell back to sleep feeling warm and comfortable in Neil’s bed. A while later he heard the front door open. Neil quietly pushed the door open, letting Zeus past him. They quietly made their way over to the bed. Neil looked Andrew up and down. He must have been a sight, wearing only Neil’s shorts, tangled in the blankets with the cat between his legs, forcing him into an awkward position. 

“Hey,” Neil said with a glint in his eye as he undid the top button of his shirt.

Andrew sat up and reached out and hooked his fingers in Neil’s belt look, pulling him in. He reached up and shoved Neil’s hand out of the way so he could undress Neil himself. 

“How come you wear a button-up just to drop Athena off at school and come straight home?” Andrew asked.

“That sentence is not grammatically correct,” Neil said, drawing a huff and an eye roll out of Andrew. “I have to dress up whenever I got to her school or all of the other parents talk shit about Athena’s teen dad. I made the mistake of telling someone she was my sister and I adopted her when our parents died once. That mom treated me like a five-year-old for the rest of the school year. I’d rather deal with judgment than the pity.”

Andrew undid the rest of the buttons and slid the shirt off of Neil’s shoulder as he talked. “Why do you care?”

“I don’t, but I don’t want it to affect Athena as she grows up either,” Neil said looking slightly annoyed. “You know how people are, anything that makes you different is bad. Athena has me for a dad and no mom, those are big differences.”

Andrew flopped back down on the bed while Neil traded the rest of his outfit for a pair of shirts. When he climbed into bed, Andrew wrapped his arm around his waist and snuggled closer, soaking up his warmth again. “You’re a good dad regardless of what people say about you. Athena knows that too. That’s all that matters.”

“Thank you,” Neil pressed a kiss onto Andrew’s forehead. “I think you have a fever.”

Andrew pushed at Neil’s shoulder until he rolled over, and then pressed his chest into Neil’s back, wrapping his arm around Neil’s waist again. “Blame your daughter, she sneezed in my face yesterday.”

Neil choked back a laugh, making his chest vibrate, which Andrew felt completely with how close they were pressed together. “Welcome to parenthood, children are disgusting.”

Andrew pressed his face into Neil’s shoulder and let his eyes drift shut. The solid muscles of Neil’s back supported him as he drifted off to sleep. 

 

For the second time that day, Andrew woke up after what felt like just a few minutes of sleep. Neil shifted under him. Somehow Andrew had rolled in his sleep so his face was pressed into Neil’s back. He sat up and saw that Neil was lying on his stomach reading a book.

“Sorry if I woke you up,” Neil said giving him a shy smile. “I pulled the blanket down because I was overheating.”

Andrew blinked at him and rubbed at his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Almost noon, you should eat something.” Andrew nodded and watched as Neil got out of bed. Neil turned back to him and looked him over. “What kind of cold meds do you usually take?”

“I only take day quill and ibuprofen.”

Neil left the room without getting dress, with Zeus following close behind him. It was an everyday occurrence for some people, watching their partner walk around in just their boxers, but for Andrew, it was new and exciting. Even when his skin was roasting and his body was aching, seeing Neil acting like this was a part of their everyday life made him smile. 

While Neil was gone Andrew thought about how no one had ever really taken care of him when he was sick before. His cousin had tried when he was a teenager but had eventually given up when Andrew had locked himself in his room and refused to even talk to him. The most amazing part was that Andrew was comfortable with him doing it. Not only was he letting Neil care for him, but somehow he had managed to sleep with Neil close to him, and then he slept on top of Neil, while he was ill. 

Until that very moment, Andrew would have said it was impossible. If someone had asked him the day before if he would be comfortable with Neil taking care of him while he was sick he would have said no. There was no way to predict this, and yet. 

Yet, Andrew was glad it had happened. He felt safe with Neil close to him; he felt safer knowing that Neil was looking after him while he wasn’t capable of looking after himself. 

When Neil came back he took the cold meds and ate some soup that Neil had made. Neil apologized that it was a canned soup twice like Andrew had really expected homemade with five minutes’ notice. Andrew asked Neil to go get his Switch from his apartment and played on it while Neil read for the rest of the afternoon until Athena had to be picked up from school.

Andrew took the chance to sit in the shower while he waited for Neil to return home with her. Since he was at Neil’s apartment he was stuck using Neil’s hygiene products. Everything was labeled for sensitive skin and had no scent to it, leaving Andrew to question even more why he always smelled so nice. When he got out of the shower he saw that even Neil’s deodorant was for sensitive skin and did not have a strong scent. 

By the time Athena walked through the door, Andrew had made it out to the living room. He sat on the couch, wrapped in an Elsa throw blanket and wearing some of Neil’s clothes.   

“Hi Daddy,” Athena said as she shed her coat and shoes at the door, before running jumping onto the couch next to him. “Neil said you’re sick.”

Andrew hugged her to his side and rested his head on her shoulder. “Mhm, but you’ll make me all better right?”

“Yeah!” Athena jumped up to put her things away after Neil called her name and pointed at them, but she came right back to sit with Andrew when she was done. “I can read to you to make you feel better.”

They spend the rest of the night snuggled up on the couch, reading books and playing with barbies while Neil cooked dinner. Athena gave Andrew his next dose of cold meds, claiming she was his nurse and he had to do everything that she told him to. Andrew forced himself off the couch to tuck her in, then found his way back into Neil’s bed. 

Neil leaned in the doorway and laughed. “I thought we agreed to only spend one night a week together.”

Andrew groaned. “I’m too sick to walk home. You can sleep on the couch if you want.”

“You’re too sick to walk the maybe 50 feet to your own apartment?” Neil walked over to the bed and rubbed his hand lightly over Andrew’s back. 

“Yep. Too sick.” He punctuated the sentence with a well-timed sneeze, which made Neil laugh again. “I have to go to work tomorrow and then go to Jersey on Friday.”

“Call in sick again.” Neil pushed at his shoulder until Andrew rolled farther into the bed and gave him some room to sit down.  

“We’ll see. Unless I have a fever, I need to go to the away game and support the team.”

“You’re contagious even after the fever goes away,” Neil said as he rubbed his hand lightly over Andrew back again. “Athena apparently got you sick, and she’s not even sick. Plus, my birthday is on Saturday.”

Andrew focused on the hand rubbing circles on his back, it was probably the most innocent and soothing gesture anyone had ever done for him. “I thought your birthday was in March.”

"Part of the whole 'father is a serial killer' thing. They changed my birthday by two months and Athena’s by a week.” Neil didn’t sound upset at all by what he was saying. He said my father is a serial killer in the same way that anyone else would say my father is an engineer. 

“I don’t think you’re supposed to tell people that.” Andrew turned his head and looked Neil in the eye and Neil smiled at him.

“I’ve never told anyone anything about my parents, other than my therapist and my foster parents.” Neil took his free hand, the one not rubbing circles on Andrew’s back, and ran it down Andrew’s nose, making him close his eyes. “But I think all of this is something that you need to know before you get too involved with us. Athena and I.”

“I know all the important parts,” Andrew said, blinking when Neil ran his hand down his nose again. “You do not need to tell me anything that could be dangerous for you.”

Neil nodded, running his hand through Andrew’s hair. “I’m going to go take a shower. Do you need the bathroom?”

Andrew shook his head and Neil stood up, leaving Andrew hair and his back feeling cold. He snuggled under the covers to make up for the lost warmth, while Zeus guarded the bathroom door and King sauntered into the room, taking up as much space at the end of the bed as she could. After pressing his feet against the cat through the blanket, Andrew drifted off to sleep listening to the soft sounds of the shower. He was somewhat aware of Neil getting into bed a while later, but once he realized who it was he let the fear fall away and was overtaken by sleep again. 

A loud crash startled him awake the next morning. He sat up to find Neil in a staring match with the cat who had just knocked a book off of his dresser. King looked unconcerned by the ordeal, making Neil’s annoyed face almost comical.

“Stupid cat,” Andrew said as he pulled the blanket over his head.

There was no use in going back to sleep, Athena barged in a moment later demanding to know what happened. She climbed over Neil to sit in between them, slowly leaning down and kissing Andrew’s nose.

“All better?” she asked, with a hopeful smile.

Andrew pulled her into a hug, listening to her burst out laughing helped almost as much as her kiss had. “A little bit.” 

“Can you take me to school today?”

Neil sighed, “I think Andrew needs to rest a bit more. He doesn’t need to go out in the snow.”

Athena sighed, snuggling closer to Andrew. “Can I stay home too?”

Her antics made Andrew chuckle, she was almost as good at taking care of him as Neil was, with her hugs and kissing keeping the worst of the illness at bay. “You love school. Go learn something new. If you stay home, you have to take a nap with me all day.”

“I’m too old for naps,” Athena told him proudly. 

“Then I guess you have to go to school.”

Andrew got up with her and helped her get dressed while Neil made them eggs. In the kitchen, he already had a cup of tea and a dose of day quill waiting for Andrew. It was almost surprising how slowly they started their morning, but then again Athena got up an hour before they had to leave for school. She rinsed off her own plate and demanded she put it in the dishwasher herself. The Independence she had gained just in the seven months that Andrew had known her was incredible. When he was a child, chores and independence had been forced, so it was interesting to look at a child learning how to do things at her own healthy speed.

When they left for school Andrew curled up on the couch and waited for Neil to return. He called into work while he waited, letting his coach know he had a full-blown cold now. After being transferred to one of the team’s physicians, he was told to stay home until the following Tuesday because they wanted to limit the exposure to his teammates. Within minutes he had texts from his captain and a few of his teammates asking if he needed anything and telling him to enjoy his time off and get well soon.

Never in his life had so many people genuinely care about his well being. Andrew had canceled his Wednesday night call with Aaron the night before because his sore throat stopped him from talking that much, and all be got in return was a quick feel better and a reminder of which cold meds had interactions with other things he could be taking. In all fairness to Aaron, he was too far away to help, but Andrew doubted he would have offered if he was closer. His team had a bigger response than he expected. Brad even texted him complaining about being the ‘boring dad’ going to the away game. 

Andrew dropped his phone as Neil opened the door, after jumping slightly. He had missed the sound of the key in the lock as he read over the texts from his teammates. Neil sent him a look at he took off his winter gear and turned to Zeus to do the same. 

“What are we doing today?” Neil asked. He sat down on the couch and stole half of Andrew’s blanket for himself. 

They ended up watching old episodes of the Twilight Zone for a while. Eventually, Neil headed off to the gym, claiming he missed his five miles yesterday to take care of Andrew and he had to do ten today to make up for it. While Neil was gone Andrew showered and made himself a quick lunch. Texts came in from both Nicky and Aaron asking if he was feeling any better. They both reminded him to drink lots of fluids and rest up. Aaron even went as far as reminding him that he needed to call into work when he wasn’t feeling well. He was it was a ‘Christmas Miracle’ when Andrew told him he already called in until the beginning of his next work week. 

 When Athena got home from school, she climbed straight into Andrew’s lap and started her reading homework for the night. After reading her book to him twice she ran to her room and came back carrying a storybook for him to read to her. Neil made them all some tea while Andrew started reading, snuggling up to his side when he brought the tea over. As Andrew read his throat started to feel like a pick had been shoved through it, so he made Neil continue the reading while he sipped on his tea and hugged Athena closer. 

For a six-year-old who rarely sat still unless they were watching a movie, she managed to make it through a good hour of cuddles and stories before she got bored and ran off to play. Athena dragged her box of Barbie's out into the living room, dumping them on the floor after Andrew helped her push the coffee table out of the way. Andrew threw out plot twists for her every now and then, making her laugh or yell at him depending on how ridiculous the twist was. 

“Stop,” she told him after the third time he suggested Skipper turn into a Heffalump. “No one is turning into a Heffalump.”

“What if I want to be a Heffalump?” Andrew asked, taking care to keep his face blank. 

Athena stared him down. “Well, too bad. You can’t.”

Andrew did his best impression of an elephant trumpeting, making Athena burst out laughing. She climbed on his lap and covered his mouth as he continued to make obnoxious noises. He could feel her hand vibrating against his face as he pressed his lips together and blew.

“Stop,” she said between laughs, “there are no Heffalumps.”

Neil laughed in the kitchen and started making loud trumpeting noises too. Athena looked between Neil and Andrew with both eyebrows raised. She dropped her hand from his mouth and crossed her arms, drawing her eyebrows together in the best angry face she could manage while trying not to laugh. Andrew ticked her side, catching her when she started to fall off of his lap. Her laughed filled the room again, and this time Andrew let himself join in too. 

After dinner, Andrew sat on the floor while she took a bath. He didn’t feel bad about letting Neil care for him while he was sick, but it did annoy him that Neil had had to do that on top of taking care of Athena. At one point caring for her by himself was the norm for Neil, but for the last few months Andrew had taken on more of that than he’d realized. He usually puts her to bed at least a few nights a week, did her reading homework with every night—making sure to facetime her when he was away for games—and he also watched her regularly so Neil could get his homework done without having to stay up late. The only thing that made him feel better about slacking off the last few days was that Neil’s semester didn’t start until the beginning of February. The good news was that Andrew had cleaned the bathroom before he got sick, so he wasn’t slacking on that part of his job. 

Andrew sat with Athena in the rocking chair and read to her until she was barely awake enough to climb into bed herself. Neil watched from the doorway, giving them their ‘bonding time’, as he liked to call it. Before he left the room, Andrew kissed her hair and let himself feel for a moment just how much she meant to him. 

After giving Neil a quick hug goodnight Andrew forced himself to go back to his own apartment and sleep in his own bed. They had decided at some point that it was best for Andrew to only spend one night a week at their house. Neither of them wanted Athena to get too used to him being there with how much he traveled, and Andrew felt like it was important for them to keep their own spaces with how much time they already spent together. Andrew had to remind himself that they weren’t even a month into their relationship officially, despite what it may at times feel like, and they needed to act like it.

Sleeping alone after two nights with Neil, and four nights with Athena before that was odd. The bed felt cold and empty, even with the cat pressed against his feet. Thanks to the cold meds, he wasn’t awake long enough to think about it for more than a passing thought. 

 

On Friday Neil had to go to a tutor scheduling meeting after dropping Athena off at school, which allowed Andrew to go to buy Neil another sweater without him noticing. Neil was a lot like Andrew, so he knew he wouldn’t want his birthday made into a big event, but there was no way Andrew was letting their first event as a couple to pass without notice. He didn’t count Christmas or New Year's because they hadn’t officially decided anything then. Never in his life had Andrew actually wanted to do something nice for someone as much as he wanted to for Neil, it just wasn’t who he was. However, this felt important, like it meant more to the survival of their relationship than just a birthday.  Andrew wanted Neil to know how much he appreciated him. 

By the time Athena and Neil got home from school Andrew was back in his pajamas, freshly woken up from a nap, and not looking like he had been outside at all that day. 

Andrew walked into their apartment after them just as comfortably as he would have walked into his own. Theirs was more whites and grays while his had more wood tones, making them very different aesthetically, yet he self the same safety in both. 

He helped Neil set out cups of cheese, olives, onions, pineapple, peppers, and assorted meats as they prepared for homemade pizzas. Neil pulled out a can of pre-made sauce and apologized that he didn’t make his own. Andrew couldn’t help but huff at a laugh at how offended Neil looked at the idea. Athena dragged a chair into the kitchen, climbing on it and surveying the spread. 

“I only want pineapple,” Athena said pushing a cup of green peppers away from her. 

Neil handed her a piece of pepper as he started spooning sauce onto the dough he had apparently made earlier. “Eat some vegetables first then.”

She shoved the entire piece in her mouth and smiled up at him. Andrew handed her another piece, and another when she was done with that as they stood in the kitchen and watched her pizza bake. He was sure that with the amount of snaking she did while the main course was in the oven that she would not be hungry when it came out, but she managed to eat half of her personal pizza as well. 

They weren’t allowed to eat on the couch, and the pizza’s all come out at least ten minutes apart, so they ended up eating alone at the table in rounds. Andrew kindly decided not to comment on Neil’s gross pinnacle, green pepper, and olive pizza.

On the couch, after dinner, they snuggled up and watched a movie. Athena sat on Andrew’s lap, hugging his arm, while Neil sat next to him and leaned on his shoulder. The perfect family image was completed when Zeus decided to sleep on his feet.

With the credits rolling in the background, Andrew took stock of his situation, Athena was asleep on his lap, drooling on his arm, Neil slept on his shoulder just a few inches away from her. Warm fuzz on his feet let him know that Zeus was still sitting on his feet. Instead of interrupting them he leaned back slightly, getting comfortable for a long night. 

It didn’t take long for Neil to wake up. Andrew sent him off to bed, following behind with Athena in his arms. Once she was tucked in soundly, he stopped by Neil’s room and told him goodnight before heading back to his own apartment. King met him at the door following behind him and making sure he went to bed.

 

Neil texted him early the next morning to tell him breakfast was ready. They had decided to do a yes day, in which they had to say yes to everything Athena wanted to do (within reason). The idea was to take the focus off of Neil and put it onto making long-lasting memories. 

Andrew walked into the house to find Athena sitting at the table wearing a pirate costume and eating pancakes. 

“First thing she asked for this morning was to dress like a pirate,” Neil said barely holding back a laugh.

“You look lovely,” Andrew said, pressing a kiss to her hair as he walked past her to the kitchen.

Athena stood up on her chair, pointing her fork at Andrew. “I do not look lovely! I look scary!”

“I’m sorry, Captain Hook.” Andrew laughed, rubbing his face with his hand. “Yes, of course, you look terrifying.”

“Thank you.” Athena sat down and went back to eating. 

Andrew turned around to find Neil laughing, he tried to glare, but it had the opposite effect that he wanted. With Neil laughing even harder than before Andrew had to tend to the pancake on the stove before it burnt. 

“What are your plans for today, Hook?” Andrew asked once they were all seated at the table with pancakes and turkey bacon.

“I want to steal a ship and look for buried treasure.”

Neil laughed again, a smile taking over his face. It was a beautiful sight. Andrew wished he let that smile out more often instead of hiding it away behind half-smiles or turning away. 

“I don’t know how many pirate ships we’ll find in the middle of New York City in January,” Neil said.

Athena nodded her head like he’d said something incredibly wise. “I want to go to Target.”

“Target?”

“Yeah, they have pillows.”

Neil was laughing too hard to answer, so Andrew took over. “Pillows?”

“Yes, Pillows.” Athena glared at him. “We need a million hundred pillows.”

“A while million hundred?” Andrew asked.

“Stop copying me! I want to make the biggest fort ever in the world and I need every pillow ever.” 

Andrew nodded while Neil started laughing again. “That sounds very reasonable.”

The trek to Target was not easy in freezing temperatures, but Athena barely noticed. She kept her pirate outfit on, covering it with a fluffy coat and boots for the walk and subway ride. In the store Neil gave her a hundred dollar limit, saying she could get anything as long as it was within her budget. Zeus managed to get away without his hat, however, he was still forced to wear the shoes he seemed to hate. 

They walked around the store for an hour, testing every pillow they found for comfort and structure. Fort pillows needed to be usable for multiple purposes. In the end, they bought five large pillows, a set of purple pillowcases, and a candy bar. Athena asked for the candy bar as soon as they were out of the store. 

Andrew hailed a cab for the way home. He had to sit in the front since the pillows took up his space in the backseat. There was more room there anyway since he didn’t have to share his foot room with Zeus. There were rules against turning service dogs down, but the cab drivers tended to be grumpy about it. 

In the apartment, Athena ripped into the pillows immediately while Neil threw the cases in the washer. Andrew helped her make a pillow fort, which was so much harder than the blanket fort they had made at Christmas. He cheated and used a chair for support when she wasn’t looking. Neil caught him with a mischievous look in his eye, keeping quiet when Andrew put a finger to his mouth and shushed him.

Athena climbed out of the fort and pointed at him. “You have to get in the fort so I can steal it.”

For the next two hours, Neil and Andrew were the poor people constantly having their ships taken over by pirates. Athena asked for Subway for lunch while refusing to leave the fort, so Andrew headed down the block to grab it and came straight back up. 

After lunch, he had to slow down. While he was feeling better, a day of running around town and playing for hours had exhausted him. Athena decided to use her ‘yes day’ to watch an extra movie. Andrew laid down with his head in Neil’s lap on a pillow while Athena snuggled up next to him. They both dozed off while Neil was trapped watching a movie that he did not pick out. 

“What’s for dinner?” Neil asked when they wake up to the credits rolling. 

“Pizza!” 

“We don’t have any dough leftover from yesterday,” Neil said.

“Not homemade pizza, I want real pizza,” Athena said, pulling out her biggest smile.

“Do you mean fast-food pizza?”

Athena nodded her head and laughed, knowing that Neil had to say yes. Andrew had to give her credit, she was a lot better at getting her way than he had thought she would be. Neil signed and got out his phone to call in an order, making Andrew roll his eyes. 

While they waited Andrew went to his apartment and pulled out the sweater he got for Neil. It wasn’t wrapped, or even in a gift bag, he just carried it back with nothing covering it. Neil caught it instinctively when Andrew threw it at him.

“Happy birthday,” Andrew said. He didn’t bother making a big deal out of it because he knew that Neil wouldn’t like it. Instead, he climbed back into the pillow fort to play with Athena. 

When he climbed out again for the pizza Neil was wearing the sweater, looking casual. Andrew ran his hand over the sleeve, feeling the soft fabric against Neil’s hard muscles. 

“This is so soft,” Neil said. “I need four more.”

“Cashmere.” Andrew ran his hand over it again, accepting the quick kiss Neil offered as thanks. “I can get another one if you want.”

“You don’t have to, but I wouldn’t say no if it appeared.”

Athena climbed out of the fort, taking up her place at the table. “I want a soft sweater, too.”

“Got it. Matching family sweaters coming up,” Andrew said. 

Athena loved the idea, talking about it through dinner and asking is Zeus and King could get one too. Andrew had expected her to hate it, the kids on TV always did, but he supposed the kids on TV were based on what adults thought kids were like and not real children. She decided she had to sit on Andrew’s lap as she ate, which meant Andrew couldn't eat properly. He said yes because he had to and because he liked how excited she got over being able to do small things they normally said no to. There was something special in watching her face light up just because he said she could sit on his lap during dinner. 

Andrew sat with her while she took a bath again and let her splash him as much as she wanted. He ended up having to mop up water on half of the bathroom floor and change his clothes, yet he couldn’t find it in himself to be annoyed with how much fun she had. While he cleaned up the water, she was his little helper handing him towels and throwing the soaked ones in the dirty clothes for him. 

Once they were done they curled up on the couch to watch another movie since she’d slept through the last one. This time she sat on Neil’s lap, allowing Andrew to lean against his side with his head on Neil’s shoulder. Thanks to the ill-timed nap, Athena managed to stay up two hours later than normal and demand to watch another movie. Neil let her get away with it, after reminding her that this was a special occasion and won't be happening again. 

She finally fell asleep as the credits rolled on the second movie. Neil carried her to bed, quickly coming back to the couch.

“How do you feel?” Neil asked. 

“Tried, but a lot better than yesterday.”

Neil bumped their shoulders together. “Did she wear you out?”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “You exhaust me.”

“Sure.” Neil chuckled to himself. “I’m going to take Zeus out.”

“Have fun.” Andrew ran his hand through Neil’s hair and used it to push him away. 

While Neil was gone Andrew’s phone vibrated.

We have next weekend off, can we come visit?

Okay

Can we stay with you?

Yes

Thursday to Monday morning?

Okay

See you then

Andrew sighed and leaned back on the couch until Neil came back. Aaron coming meant that he had to deal with the two sides of his life colliding. As much as Andrew never expected his life to turn out this way—with friends, dating, and children—Aaron would expect it even less. Zeus climbed up on the couch with him and Andrew ran his hand through his fur until Neil sat down too. He let himself slide to the side until he hit Neil’s shoulder. 

“My brother’s coming next weekend,” he said eventually. 

Neil looked at him and smiled. “That’s cool. He hasn’t been to one of your games yet.”

Andrew sighed again. “Are you ready to meet my family?”

Neil picked up Andrew’s hand and kissed it. “Are you ready for that? You don’t have to introduce us.”

“I’m not hiding anything,” Andrew said, turning his head to look Neil in the eye.

“There’s a difference between hiding and being careful. I don’t know how it normally goes, but a month seems quick to introduce your family?” Neil leaned forward and kissed his hair. “I don’t mind either way.”

“I’ll think about it.” Andrew turned on the TV and shifted so he was leaning on Neil more, making himself more comfortable. He was kind enough to let Neil pick the show as he shifted around.

Chapter Text

Aaron stepped off the plane carrying both his and Katelyn’s carry-on bags. They hadn’t bothered to pack more than that for just a weekend trip. It was their first trip to the city; they had wanted to help Andrew move in, but their internships started before Andrew’s apartment was ready. The airport was huge and crowded, significantly worse than any airport Aaron had ever been in. He was instantly happy that they didn’t have to wait at the carousel for checked bags.

When they finally made their way outside, it was cold and wet, just as miserable as Pennsylvania had been when they left. There was a black town car waiting for them, with Andrew leaning on it. He looked as bored as ever standing next to a posh looking man holding a ‘Minyard’ sign. 

“Richard, Aaron,” Andrew said as he waved his hand between Aaron and the man. “Aaron, Richard.”

“Hello, nice to meet you,” Richard said as he reached a hand out. Aaron shook it, looking between the two men. “May I take your bags?”

Richard loaded the bags into the trunk while Andrew climbed in the back seat. Aaron followed to separate Andrew and Katelyn and hopefully avoid a scene, then Katelyn sat on his other side. There was a tinted glass divider between the back seat and the front, making this the fanciest taxi ride of Aaron’s life. 

“How was the flight?” Andrew asked. He was never usually one for civilities. Aaron sent him a look as he tried to figure out why Andrew was asking. 

“It was so short!” Katelyn said when Aaron failed to answer the question. “I’ve never been on such a short flight.”

The trio fell into silence after that. Andrew had tried to start a nice conversation, but Katelyn was probably too scared of annoying him to ask a question back, while Aaron was too confused to say anything. New York City was supposed to be the place people lost their manors, not the place people learned more of them. About halfway there, or what Aaron guessed was halfway there after looking up the distance from the airport to Andrew’s apartment, Andrew turned to him.

“Hey Aaron,” Andrew said slowly. “I’m gay.”

Aaron froze and stared at him for a moment until Katelyn kicked his shin. He coughed to cover up his stalling. “Um... Thank you for sharing that with me.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

When Aaron stayed silent Katelyn spoke up. “Is it Neil?”

“Yes, Katelyn.” Andrew sounded annoyed then. Katelyn might not have picked it up, but Aaron did. He knew the subtleties of Andrew’s monotone voice. “And his daughter Athena.”

“Is there anything we should know before we meet them?” Aaron asked, finally finding his voice. 

“Nope.” Andrew turned and looked out the window, sighing as he did so. “He has a service dog, don’t ask why and don’t try to play with the dog while he’s wearing his vest.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Aaron said. It sounded like Andrew muttered something like ‘debatable’ under his breath, but he was still facing the window so it was hard to tell. “I know the rules of service dogs.”

“Congratulations.” 

The conversation ended there. Katelyn perked up at the idea of meeting someone special to Andrew, but Aaron was less hopeful. Andrew hadn’t said if they were friends or if they were dating. With anyone else, Aaron would have assumed dating since Andrew had said it right after telling them he’s gay, but with Andrew, it was always hard to tell. It could be a coincidence. 

They pulled up to the curb in front of a fairly short brick building. New York was known for skyscrapers, yet there wasn’t a single building in this neighborhood over five or six stories tall. That would have been huge in South Carolina, but here the buildings seemed so small. 

Richard helped them get their bags out of the trunk and waved them off with a simple it was nice to meet you, but he asked Andrew to talk for a moment. Aaron walked closer to the door of the building but listened closely to the conversation.

“Are these yours?” Richard asked holding out his hand. “Brad said they aren’t from either of his kids and I haven’t had anyone else in my car.”

Andrew sighed. “Yes, I believe they are, thank you.”

Andrew walked toward them, shoving his hand in his pocket and pulling out a key fob. He opened the door and led them straight to the elevator. Using the fob again he pressed the button for the fourth floor as the door closed. By the time they opened again Andrew was tense, with his shoulders up slightly and his back straight. 

“Aaron, knock on that door,” Andrew said as he turned the opposite direction and put his key in the lock. “I’ll take your bags.”

Aaron handed over his bags and turned to knock as Andrew disappeared into that apartment. He tapped once, and the door was thrown open by a little girl. She had long dark hair pulled up into two buns and was wearing dark green overalls. She stared at him for a moment and turned around running deeper into the house.

“Well that was rude,” a deep voice said. Aaron tilted his head to see around the door and saw the little girl hugging the legs of a short man in a nice button up.

“That’s not Andrew,” the little girl said. Aaron assumed this was Neil and Athena. He hadn’t gotten a look at them while Andrew was face timing them over Thanksgiving, but it was unlikely Andrew would tell him he’s going to meet two people and then give him two different people fitting the same bill.

“I can see that, go introduce yourself,” Neil said. Athena grabbed on to his leg and Neil chuckled. Neil picked her up and carried her over, holding out his hand, Aaron shook it. “Hi, I’m Neil and this is Athena.”

“Aaron and this is-” He turned around to introduce his girlfriend, but she was gone. He felt his face heat up. “Well, Katelyn was here a second ago.”

“I’m sure she’ll be back in a second, come on in.” Neil stepped out of the doorway, letting Aaron into the large open apartment, and nodded toward the dog curled up on the couch. “This is Zeus.” 

“Hello Zeus,” Aaron said, not knowing what else to do. 

As Neil sat down on the couch and placed Athena on his lap, Aaron took a look around the room. There were large windows and a fireplace, as well as a large kitchen and a decently sized dining room table. Aaron sat on the other couch, which covered the bottom on the beautiful floor to ceiling windows. It was a magical place so much better than any apartment Aaron had ever seen; it was even better than his own apartment. Aaron was amazed such a nice place could be found in New York City and he was afraid of how much it must have cost.

“How was the flight?” Neil pulled Aaron out of his thoughts.

“Hmm? Yeah, it was good.” Aaron struggled for something to say next. He tried to remember what little Andrew had told his about Neil, but he was coming up blank. All he knew was that they were neighbors, Andrew watched Athena sometimes, and sometimes they went to his games. For a second he thought Andrew was leading a double life, but then he realized that this was Andrew’s everyday life and he was finally letting Aaron into it. 

Andrew and Katelyn entering the apartment saved him from trying to make more stilted conversation. Neil introduced himself and Athena to Katelyn while she walked over to sit with Aaron and Andrew sat down next to Neil. As soon as he was seated Athena crawled over him and sat on his lap, facing him and burying her head in his shoulder as she hugged him tightly.

 

Andrew hugged her back, Aaron had never seen him hug anyone in his life. Then Andrew rubbed his hand over her back and kissed her hair. There was no way this was his brother. The brother he knew was harsh and uncaring, not gentle and loving.  

“I can’t hear you, bug,” Andrew said.

Athena didn’t lift her head, but she spoke loud enough for the room to hear. “You didn’t knock on the door.”

“I told you this morning that Aaron and Katelyn would.” Andrew patted her back and bounced his knee up and down slightly. “Hmm? What was that?”

“She’s upset that I’m not cooking dinner,” Neil answered for her. “I already told her it’s a surprise.”

Andrew hummed again. “Yes it is, and I need to change out of my work clothes first.”

Aaron could not look away as Andrew gave her another hug and stood up, setting her down on the couch before turning to the door. He didn’t look toward the other couch, which was probably a good thing. There was no way for Aaron to hide his confusion at present. Athena ignored him, turning to pet the dog while Neil and Katelyn talked about the flight and the horrors of JFK. As soon as Andrew walked back in Athena perked up again and ran straight to him.

“Can we have a sleepover tomorrow?”

“Ask your dad,” Andrew said, sending her back over.

She climbed onto Neil’s lap and smiled at him. “Hey, Neil? Can we have a sleepover tomorrow?”

Neil looked at her for a moment, then looked to Andrew who just shrugged. “What did Andrew say?”

“He said I have to ask you,” Athena said as she stuck her lip out.

“Welcome to your first round of go ask your dad,” Neil said with a laugh. “I don’t mind, it’s up to him.”

Athena scrunched up her nose as she climbed off his lap and walked over to Andrew, hugging his leg. “Neil said he doesn’t care. So can we, daddy?”

Daddy? Andrew had moved into his apartment in July, and in November he had called Neil his neighbor and Athena the child he babysits sometimes. Since when was he okay being called daddy? There was no way that they had been dating that long, right? Had Andrew been hiding their relationship the last time they had seen each other? They talked twice a week, at least an hour a time and Andrew had never mentioned being close enough with them for this. To be fair to him, Andrew may have wanted to tell Aaron he was gay in person, but then Thanksgiving could have worked just as well. 

“Did you ask Aaron and Katelyn if they want to have a sleepover?” Andrew said, cutting off Aaron’s line of thought. 

Athena let go of Andrew and walked over to Aaron. She started to climb on his lap until Andrew said her name in a slightly stern tone. Aaron wasn’t sure if anyone else would hear the tiny change in his voice.

“Can I sit with you?” Athena asked.

“Sure,” Aaron said.

She climbed on his lap, facing Katelyn, and gave them a very strong pout. “Do you want to have a sleepover tomorrow?”

Before Aaron could even think of an answer Katelyn replied. 

“We would love to.”

“Yay.” Athena hugged him and Aaron froze, he hugged her back when Andrew sent him a stern look.

“Are we ready to go?” Neil asked the room. He got up and called the dog to come with him while Andrew helped Athena get her shoes on. They were done before Neil came back and Andrew knelt on the ground beside her. 

“Look what Rich found in his car,” Andrew said holding out his hand, showing two small Barbie shoes. 

“My missing shoes!” She reached for them, but Andrew closed his hand before she could grab them.

“These aren’t supposed to leave the house, Athena, we have rules for a reason,” he said calmly. “This rule is to make sure that they don’t get lost exactly like they did.”

“I didn’t take them!” Athena stomped her foot.

Neil walked down the hall, just outside of where Andrew and Athena would be able to see him. He raised his finger to his lip in a silent ‘be quiet’ and leaned against the wall.

“Do you want to try that again?” Andrew asked.

Athena took a deep breath. “I did not take them outside.”

Andrew nodded his head. “I’m not saying you’re lying, but they were in Rich’s car. Maybe it was an accident, and they got stuck in your backpack somehow. A rule was broken, either way, so we need to put these up for a few days, yeah?”

Athena deflated, “Okay.”

Andrew went to the kitchen and put the small toy shoes on the counter. When he came back Athena was still pouting, with her head low and her lip out. 

“Hey,” Andrew said as he rubbed his hand over her hair. “It’s okay. We’ve talked about how everyone makes mistakes.”

Athena hugged his legs, and he picked her up, hugging her back. “I love you.”

“I love you too buggy, even when you get in trouble.”

It had only been a few months since Andrew had said those words to Aaron for the first time, or rather texted them, but he seemed so much more comfortable saying them to this little girl. Aaron wondered how much she had to do with his newfound manners and emotional side. He was clearly learning from somewhere because neither of them had grown up in houses where breaking a rule like that would have been met with such a small punishment. 

Neil made himself known then, which was interesting. He had purposely waited to the side and let Andrew handle that parenting moment by himself. It still wasn’t clear if there was anything going on between Andrew and Neil, but it was clear that Andrew had taken on a significant parenting role for this child.

The walk to the restaurant was cold, and luckily just a few blocks. Neil and Andrew walked ahead of them, with Athena in between them holding both of their hands, and Zeus walking at Neil’s right side. The little family took up most of the sidewalk, so Neil occasionally had to drop Athena’s hand and fall behind them for a few steps as people walked the other way. Aaron held Katelyn’s gloved hand in his bare one, he regretted not packing gloves but her warmth helped. 

In the restaurant, they were led straight through the main seating area and into a backroom made for larger parties than just five people. Neil thanked the hostess by name and asked her how her father was doing, clearly he knew the staff here well. He seemed like the kind of guy who could make small talk with anyone, except Aaron apparently, that had been awkward. 

“How’s the wedding planning going?” Andrew asked as they looked over the menus.

“We booked a place in Palmetto for next December,” Katelyn put her menu down and sighed. “I can’t believe how ahead of time these things have to be booked! My mom’s already on me about being late for picking out a dress. She says planning a wedding in a year is too fast.” 

“Do you need any help?” Andrew’s offer was awkward and stiff. Like he wasn’t sure if he should be saying it at all.

“No, my sister’s helping me plan it. Or she’s planning the whole thing herself really, she gets bored when the baby is napping now that Chase is in preschool.”

Andrew nodded and pushed a coloring page over to Athena. “Let me know if you need anything from the city.”

Katelyn smiled like he’d offered her a million dollars. “We will, thank you.”

Neil asked how their studies were going and Katelyn did most of the talking. Aaron was too busy looking at how their little family interacted. Zeus was sitting under the table silently, like a proper service dog and not a fake one. Not that Aaron thought Neil was lying, but he’d seen more than a few people claim their animals were service dogs just to get them into places they should not be. Athena was seated in between Neil and Andrew, coloring some Trolls pages that Aaron only knew about because Katelyn’s nephew had made him watch the movie three times over Christmas. She was a lot calmer than Chase had been, sitting still in her chair and not interrupting the conversation. 

Andrew caught him looking at her and raised an eyebrow. Thanks to the round table Aaron was sitting next to Andrew while Katelyn was sitting next to Neil. Aaron leaned toward his brother, hoping to keep Athena from hearing him.

“She’s so quiet, are we scaring her?”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “She hasn’t decided if she likes you yet.”

“I like him,” Athena said without looking up from her coloring page. She shoved the page over to Aaron, showing the large ‘Arin’ she had written in the corner. “I colored you a picture.”

Aaron looked the picture over. “I really like this. Especially the green hair.”

Athena smiled at him, showing off the gap in her teeth. “I’m going to make one for Katelyn too.”

When the waitress came to check on them they all placed their orders and Aaron raised an eyebrow when they didn’t order anything for Athena.

Andrew noticed. “She’ll eat off of every plate if we let her.”

Athena patted Neil’s arm. “I have to go potty.”

“You know where the bathroom is, can you go by yourself?” Neil nodded toward the door. 

“No,” Athena whined, “I can’t do that.”

Andrew tapped her elbow. “Come on, bug.”

Aaron and Katelyn both turned toward Neil as soon as Andrew was out of earshot. 

“So Neil,” Katelyn said, pulling out her sweet cheerleader voice. “How long have you and Andrew been dating?”

Neil looked completely unimpressed. “Excuse me?”

“Are you two dating?” Aaron asked.

Katelyn had told him on the walk to the restaurant that they had to be, but Aaron was having a hard time believing it. While Andrew was certainly attached to Athena, he didn’t show any sort of affection to Neil.

“If you want to know anything about Andrew’s life, you will have to ask Andrew.” Neil looked almost bored with their transparent questioning. 

Aaron pursed his lips, it was his turn to look unimpressed. “Andrew doesn’t tell us anything about his life.”

“You talk twice a week for at least an hour at a time.” Neil leaned his chin on his hand and stared Aaron down. “I know he’s told you a lot about his life, you just don’t realize it, apparently.”

“He hasn’t said anything about this.”

“Did you ask?”

Aaron rubbed his hand over his face, this conversation was just as difficult as trying to get anything out of Andrew. “I doubt he would answer.”

“You underestimate him, I’ve never seen him ignore a direct question, even if he does take a little while to think over his answer.” Neil tilted his head and squinted at Aaron. “I’ll talk to him.”

That didn’t make sense. Neil said they needed to ask Andrew themselves, and implied they needed to try harder, then offered to talk to him for them. Talk to him about what? Aaron never got to find out, Andrew and Athena came back before he could think of an actual response. 

Athena climbed on Andrew’s lap after he sat down, pulling her coloring pages over. She sat there for the rest of the meal, ignoring the conversations about grad school, med school, and career goals that Aaron, Katelyn, and Neil carried out. For the most part, Andrew ignored them too, he already knew Aaron and Katelyn’s plans and seemed to know Neil’s as well. Aaron was surprised that Neil wanted to get a doctorate in math, there was no real point in doing that unless he wanted to be a professor, and Neil didn’t know if that job would work for him.

“Don’t be stupid Neil,” Andrew said after Neil made a comment on not knowing if teaching was for him. “You already have more tutoring hours than you do credit hours. You teach half the math department already without a degree.”

“Building on knowledge they already have is significantly easier than starting from scratch,” Neil said with an added eye roll.

“Good thing all college professors build on previous knowledge then,” Andrew countered.

 Neil stuck his tongue out at Andrew, and Andrew almost smiled. It was the closest thing Aaron had ever seen to a smile on Andrew’s face in all the time he had known him. Maybe Katelyn was right, and they were dating, Andrew wouldn’t smile at just anyone.  

The walk back was even colder than the walk there. Aaron walked with his arm around Katelyn’s waist, keeping her close and trying to absorb some of her warmth. When they got back to the apartment building, they all went into Neil’s apartment so Andrew could help Athena with her homework. Katelyn sat on the couch and Aaron kicked her foot so she would spread her legs, then sat down in between them and leaned back against her chest. She wrapped her arms around them like she always did. 

Having grown up in southern California and then South Carolina, Aaron hated the cold. No matter how many layers he wore, the crisp air always got through them. Katelyn, on the other hand, grew up in South Carolina and regularly visited her family in Maine, so she was used to the cold. She was always warm, which matched Aaron’s cold perfectly. 

Watching Andrew read with a child was surreal. Athena climbed on his lap and read some simple little book for school, while Andrew helped her sound out words and gently corrected her when she mispronounced them. Neil and Katelyn had another conversation, something about their wedding, Aaron was too busy observing his brother from the corner of his eye to listen. Their wedding was a year away and Katelyn’s family already had half of the planning done. 

At some point, over the weekend Aaron needed to ask Andrew to be his best man, but with everything about Andrew’s life coming to light, he didn’t know if it would be the best timing. He didn’t want Andrew to think he was only asking because Andrew had grown as a person. He was asking because Andrew was his brother and the only person he wanted standing next to him while he stood in front of a crowd of nearly 200 people for the single biggest moment of his life thus far. Graduating college had nothing on marrying his best friend. 

“Okay bug,” Andrew said, punctuating his sentence with a kiss to her hair. “I have to go home now, Aaron and Katelyn need some rest after their busy day.” 

“I want to take a bath.” Athena ignored his comment. 

“Your dad can give you a bath.”

“No.”

Andrew sighed, so quietly Aaron almost missed it. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a bath tonight. I know that’s frustrating.”

Athena glared at him and turned to Neil, hugging him tightly and burying her head in his neck. It took a moment for Aaron to realize she was crying. Neil stood up and carried her to the door, wishing them a good night. Andrew handed Aaron his keys and turned back to them. He wrapped his arms around them in a huge hug and kissed Athena’s hair again. Aaron put the key in the lock not wanting to invade their moment too much.

“I still love you, bug,” Andrew said just loud enough to be heard.

Athena shoved him away with one arm, not bothering to lift her head. “Go away.”

When Andrew turned around, he had his hand on his face covering a small smile. 

“That’s what I was trying to do in the first place.” He whispered to no one as Neil shut the door. Andrew looked at Aaron as he pushed the door open. “She’s so tired, we don’t normally eat that late.”

Andrew’s apartment was somehow the exact same and completely different to Neil’s. They had the same layout from what Aaron could see, but Neil’s looked cool and modern, while Andrew’s looked warm and rustic. Tan walls, black furniture, and dark wood cabinets made the space look smaller too. A small, long-haired cat walked out and walked around Andrew’s legs.

Andrew leaned down and picked her up, setting her on the back of his neck. “Hello, King.”

The cat’s purring could be heard from a few feet away. Their suitcases were nowhere in sight. Katelyn walked down the hall, disappearing into one of the rooms. While Aaron had been having the most awkward meeting of his brother’s boyfriend and boyfriend’s daughter, Katelyn must have put their stuff in the guest room. Andrew turned to Aaron. 

“Neil said there is something you want to ask me.” It was worded almost like a question, but Andrew’s tone made it a statement. 

Aaron silently cursed Neil and his cryptic ‘I’ll talk to him’ at the restaurant. “Are you two dating?”

“Yes. I already told you that.”

“No, you said you’re gay, paused, and then said you had someone for us to meet. Never once did you say why you wanted us to meet them.” Aaron rubbed his forehead. Talking to Andrew was like solving a puzzle without the picture. “How long have you been dating?”

“Officially? A month.”

“Officially? What does that mean?”

“There are some people who think we’ve been dating for months.” Andrew did not look happy about that idea, probably because he liked to keep everything about his life private. “I will not say who… But you will meet Gemma on Saturday.”

Aaron laughed and rubbed the heal of his hand on his eye. “I’m Andrew I won’t say who thinks that. And then I immediately say who. I’m too tired for this.”

“First room on the left is yours, second is the bathroom. Third is mine.” Andrew glared at him for the mocking but ignored it. “Good night.”

“Good night Andrew, I love you.” Aaron turned toward his room, not expecting a response. 

“I love you too.”

It took every ounce of Aaron’s willpower not to turn around and ask him to repeat it. That wasn’t something Andrew had ever told him in person, he’d only started doing it in texts a few months ago. He wasn’t sure if Andrew would have said it if he hadn’t turned away so quickly, he instantly regretted not giving Andrew time to respond. When he got to the door he turned and looked at Andrew. He looked as blank as he normally did.

“Thank you,” Aaron said with a smile. 

Andrew nodded at him and went to his own room with the cat still on his shoulders when Aaron entered his. He walked straight to Katelyn and hugged her, whispering what had just happened in her ear. She hugged him back and kissed away his happy tears when they parted. 

“I’m so proud of you both,” she said when they were in bed. “When I first met you, I never thought you’d get along, let alone be able to vocalize how much you care about each other.”

Aaron kissed her shoulder and pulled her closer. “I love you so much. Thank you for sticking by me through that, I know it wasn’t easy for you.”

“I love you too, you’re worth it all.”

Aaron fell asleep that night feeling at peace for the first time he could remember.

 

Katelyn and Aaron awoke the next morning to find Andrew sulking around the kitchen before 7 am. He was already dressed for the day, moving at a sluggish pace as he made coffee. Andrew pointed at the cereal on the counter without turning around.

“Dry cereal here, or go to Neil’s and he’ll feed you.”

Aaron rubbed at his eyes. “Do you not have any food?”

“I have cereal.” Andrew turned around, eyeing Aaron and Katelyn’s matching plaid pajama sets. “I eat breakfast and lunch at work, then dinner at Neil’s. No point in keeping the fridge stocked.”

Katelyn made herself a cup of coffee, carefully avoiding getting too close to Andrew. “Are we really having a sleepover tonight?”

“That’s your choice. The big couch pulls out into a bed, but it will not fit five people.”

Katelyn looked at Aaron, giving him a quirky smile. “We could have a sleepover with Athena, so you and Neil can go out tonight?”

Andrew looked up from his coffee, eyeing both of them again. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking as he pulled out his phone and typed out a message. They stood in silence as they waited. It didn’t take long for his phone to ding.

“Okay,” Andrew said as he headed toward the door. He paused, holding it open for them. “Come on.”

Neil’s apartment was even brighter in the daylight. Sunbeams lit up the gray furniture, turning them silver. Place settings were already on the table, forcing them to sit down. It reminded Aaron of being forced into fancy dinners at his aunt and uncle’s as a child, except this time it was turkey bacon and omelets instead of three courses. 

Andrew helped Athena pack her bang and put on her shoes while Neil asked them what they wanted to eat. They both said the food on the table was perfect and started serving themselves. Andrew stole a piece of bacon from Aaron’s plate without even looking at him. 

“Are you taking Athena to school?” Neil looked confused by the idea, despite the fact that he was still in his pajamas and nowhere near ready to head out into the frigid weather. 

“Yeah.” Andrew ran his hand through Neil’s hair as Athena called for him at the door. “Have Aaron look over your thesis today.”

Neil watched them go, looking even more confused. “Do you know anything about advanced calculus?”

“No,” Aaron said, annoyed at being signed up for work on his one weekend off. “But I know APA and MLA pretty well.”

Neil nodded. “You don’t have to look it over. Spend your day out in the city or something.”

“I’m from California, I don’t do snow.” Aaron held out his hand. “Thesis?”

“Andrew says the same thing.” Neil laughed and shook his head. “I’ll go get it.”

Aaron and Katelyn spent the day curled up on the couch together, going through Neil’s thesis. The concepts weren’t difficult to understand, with Neil’s clear writing explaining them, but the actual math was hell to get through. Someone had gone through with a purple pen and made the stupidest edit’s Aaron had ever seen. While most of the edits were for style and word choice, some were for grammar and entirely wrong. 

Before long the fire was lit, and the cat curled up at their feet as they read. Neil sat on the other couch reading a book and failing at ignoring them. Every time Katelyn made a comment about the thesis he would look up from his reading and sigh. Just as they were about to finish Zeus dropped a slobber covered ball on Katelyn’s lap. 

“He wants to play with you,” Neil said, not looking up from his book.

“Is that okay?” Katelyn asked. 

Neil blinked at her. “Yes?”

Katelyn’s face turned pink. “Well, I just... okay.”

She tossed the ball down the hall. Zeus raced after it, toenails clacking on the wood floor with every step. When he came back she did it again, leading to a solid ten minutes of playtime. As soon as Neil stood up Zeus dropped the ball and walked over to him, following him into the kitchen. 

“Shoo,” Neil said as he waved his hand. “I’m just making lunch.”

Zeus sat down on the floor and watched him, making Neil huff. He made them all sandwiches and salad while his furry friend supervised. They both said Neil didn’t need to feed them, but he refused to listen, claiming that guests don’t feed themselves. They had budgeted money for food before they planned the trip, knowing that Andrew wasn’t much of a cook, at this rate that money wasn’t going to be touched all weekend. 

After lunch they went back to Andrew’s so Neil could go to the gym and then get Athena from school. Before he left Neil handed them the cat, letting them know she got into trouble when left alone in his house. Since they were still in their pajamas Katelyn and Aaron climbed back into bed for a lazy afternoon. They caught up on emails and read for fun for a few hours. After internships and school required reading it had been a long time since they were able to read for fun. Neil’s thesis had reminded Aaron how much he liked to snuggle up with Katelyn and read a novel with her. 

They headed back over to Neil’s when Andrew texted them he was almost home. Instead of getting dressed, they simply changed into different pajamas. There was no point in getting dressed if they weren’t going to leave the house. Aaron and Katelyn both needed this weekend to relax and recoup. Neither of them had realized how long it had been since they took a real break. 

A knock at the door sent Athena running. She threw the door open as hard as she could and jumped into Andrew’s waiting arms. He picked her up and hugged her tightly. 

“How was your day?” He said into her hair.

Her response into his shoulder was inaudible. Andrew walked over to Neil and put his forehead on his shoulder. The moment was so intimate that Aaron looked away.

Neil stirred the dish on the stove and bounced his shoulder slightly. “And how was your day?”

Athena sat up in Andrew’s arms and poked his cheek. “Daddy are you wearing make-up?”

Andrew sighed. “Does that answer your question?”

“Photoshoot?” Neil took the pot off the stove and turned the heat off. 

“And interview.”

Athena wiggled until Andrew set her down. “Can I do your make-up too?”

“Maybe next time,” Andrew said with his small smile. “Your dad and I are going out tonight.”

“Can I come?”

“And miss your sleepover with Aaron and Katelyn?” Andrew cupped her cheek. “I promise we’ll take you next time.”

Aaron and Andrew set the table while Katelyn helped Neil get the rest of the food ready. Neil was a significantly better cook than Aaron had expected. After a simple breakfast and lunch, Aaron expected something equally easy for dinner, but Neil pulled out all the stops. He made the creamiest mashed potatoes Aaron had ever had, with roasted green beans and garlic butter chicken. Andrew only eating at his house suddenly made more sense.

After dinner, Katelyn and Aaron did the dishes—after a short argument where Neil tried to convince them not to—while Andrew helped Athena wash her hair. Before he went down the hall Andrew handed Neil a bag of clothes. 

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Neil asked. 

“You either dress like a frat boy or a business major and I’m not going out with either of those people.”

“Business majors are frat boys,” Neil said with a laugh. 

Before long, Aaron and Katelyn were seated on either side of a pullout bed with a six-year-old holding a stuffed bunny between them. Athena insisted on sitting in the middle and picking out the movie by herself. She had Ponyo queued up before Andrew and Neil were ready to leave.

Neil sat at the end of the bed, pulling on her feet until she crawled over to him. He hugged her and kissed her hair. “Be nice to Aaron and Katelyn, remember they’re in charge. I love you baby bear. I love you. I love you. And I’m not letting go until you say it back.”

Athena wiggled in his arms. “I love you too.”

As soon as Neil let go of her, Andrew took his place. He hugged her, blinking when she kissed his nose.

“Bye baby,” Andrew said as he kissed her nose back. “Sleep well, we will see you in the morning.”

Athena wasn’t bothered at all when the door closed behind them. She crawled back up to the head of the bed and settled in. Within a few minutes, she was leaning on Aaron’s shoulder and tugging on his sleeve when he didn’t wrap his arm around her fast enough. Katelyn smiled at him over her head, Aaron stuck his tongue out at her in retaliation. 

By the end credits, Athena was asleep on his chest and Katelyn was spooning her in her sleep. Aaron accepted his fate and closed his eyes, letting the warmth of the other two lull him into a half-asleep state until Athena kneed his ribs. He gently pushed until she rolled into Katelyn, and he was finally able to get some sleep for himself.



The harsh club lighting lit Neil’s white shirt up like the Fourth of July sky. He knew that Neil didn’t particularly enjoy going clubbing last time, but Andrew didn’t care with how pretty Neil looked with the dull neon dancing across his skin. With the bass vibrating in his chest, the cold whiskey in his hand, and the gorgeous man sitting across from him Andrew couldn’t imagine a more perfect moment. 

Aaron and Katelyn’s quick acceptance of his life and his family had surprised Andrew, but looking back, he should have seen it coming. Andrew accepted Katelyn purely because she made Aaron happy, and Aaron was doing the same for him. He had not missed the looks Aaron sent him every time he smiled or did something for Athena. Last night when Aaron was asking about Neil, Andrew had expected some kind of comment or judgment. At the very least an ‘are you sure you know what you’re getting into here? There’s a child involved’ but all he got was love from his brother. 

Neil said Aaron and Katelyn put more effort into correcting his thesis than he had into writing it. Andrew wasn’t sure if Aaron actually liked Neil, but he was putting a lot of effort into the relationship. That was surprising too, the idea that Aaron would accept him was conceivable, but the idea that Aaron would go out of his way to create a real relationship with Neil had never crossed his mind.

“Hey,” Neil said with a smile. “What are you thinking about?”

Andrew ignored the question. “Are you ready to get out of here?”

“We just got here.”

“Yes, well, maybe I have something better in mind.”

With the music so loud Andrew could barely hear himself think, it was almost impossible to keep a real conversation going. An hour in the club was too long when Neil looked like that. They’d said hello to the other athletes from their gym and Andrew had signed more than a few napkins and phone cases, so there was nothing more to do there, anyway. 

The taxi ride was quiet. When they got to their apartment Andrew wanted to head straight up, but they had to walk Zeus around for a while and clean up after him. The elevator ride up was quick, Neil naturally turned toward his own door when they exited. 

Andrew pulled on his jacket sleeve. “They’re all asleep. Come on.”

“I just want to check on her.” Neil turned and blinked his big blue eyes at Andrew. It was clear where Athena had learned that one from. 

“She’s okay.” Andrew reached up and cupped Neil’s cheek with his hand. “Let her sleep.”

Andrew rubbed his thumb over Neil’s cheek, then slid his hand down to Neil’s, pulling him toward the other door. Once they were in Andrew’s apartment, Neil got to work taking off Zeus’s winter gear while Andrew fed the cat. Afterward, they shed their own coats and headed down the hall.

Neil looked around Andrew’s room with a look of awe on his face. It was then that Andrew realized that Neil had never been in his bedroom before. They spent most of their time in the other apartment, and while Andrew has taken Athena to his apartment, a few times so Neil could work in peace, Neil had never taken a real look around the place. 

“Your bed is huge,” Neil said as he placed a hand on the duvet. 

“It’s just a king.”

Neil laughed. “Oh, just a king. I have a double and you have ‘just’ a king.” 

“I would tell you to get a new bed, but we have a perfectly good one right here.” Andrew walked up to him, continuing to come closer until Neil took the last step back and ran into the bed.

Neil tilted his head down, brushing his nose against Andrew’s. “Oh, we have a bed, do we?” 

Andrew felt Neil’s breath on his lips as he spoke. Before he could form a coherent reply Neil leaned down the last bit and kissed him. As usual, Andrew took the lead despite the fact that Neil had kissed him first. He tilted his head up, changing the angle and kissing Neil more urgently than before.  Neil’s hands found their way into Andrew’s hair as he reached down and pulled at the hem of Neil’s shirt. 

“Just kissing tonight,” Andrew said when they broke apart so he could pull Neil’s shirt off.

Neil laughed.

Andrew ran his hands down Neil’s bare sides, making him gasp, then pulled his own shirt off.

“I just think it’s funny that we went from zero to 60 the first time we kissed, and we’ve barely done anything since then.”

“I think we both got a little carried away the first time.” Andrew leaned back slightly and undid his belt buckle, sliding the belt out when he was done. He did not miss the way that Neil’s eyes tracked his movements. “This isn’t a striptease, Neil. We’re getting ready for bed.”

Neil swallowed, bringing his eyes back up to meet Andrew’s. “We were making out thirty seconds ago, can you blame me? I don’t know how you can just turn it off like that.”

There was no way to answer that without letting on that Andrew was just as affected as Neil was. Instead, he leaned forward and kissed Neil again, pushing at his hips until he hopped up onto the bed. The move broke them apart, giving Andrew and Neil the chance to take their pants off, they’d never slept in the same bed without pajama bottoms, but Andrew didn’t bother getting any out. He climbed over Neil and got under the covers, pulling the blanket back so Neil could get in too. Neil shifted closer to him, carefully avoiding touching Andrew.

With their faces just inches apart Neil tilted his head, opening his mouth up for another kiss. This one was slower and slightly more gentle. Despite what Neil may have thought Andrew undressing them both was about, he didn’t want to do more than kissing. After a few minutes, Neil shifted closer bumping his shoulder into Andrew, he tried to pull back, but Andrew followed him. Neil shifted until he was lying on his back instead of his side, guiding Andrew to follow him with his hand in his hair. 

It was like the first time all over again, but with fewer clothes. Andrew took one of Neil’s hands out of his hair and laced their fingers together, pinning Neil’s arm above his head. He pulled Neil’s bottom lip between his teeth, biting down slightly and making Neil chuckle.

“Okay?” Andrew asked.

“Mhm,” Neil hummed. “I like it when you manhandle me.”

“Do you want me to be rougher?”

“No.” Neil shook his head to make his point. “I don’t like rough. You aren’t rough when you manhandle me, you’re... just like... solid and guiding.”

Andrew didn’t have an answer, so he kissed Neil again. He slowed his pace, trying to remember how he was able to kiss someone for hours as a teenager without it leading to anything more. His more recent method of kissing someone just long enough to get them off and then leaving was not an option with Neil. With Neil’s mouth on his, Andrew couldn’t think clearly enough to remember back to when he was a teenager. Instead, he shut off his thoughts and focused on kissing Neil. All of his little movements and whines. The way Neil squeezed his hand and tugged at his hair at the same time. Neil turned his head, breaking the kiss before Andrew was ready.

He panted and took his hand out of Andrew’s hair, running it through his own instead. “Do you want the bathroom first?”

“Are you done?” Andrew asked. He rolled off of Neil and laid beside him. 

Neil whined. “No. I’m not even close to done. But we need to be.”

Andrew nodded. “You can take the bathroom.”

Neil gave him one last kiss before making his way to the bathroom door. When the door shut Andrew rubbed at his eyes. Not for the first time he hated his own boundaries. He wasn’t ready for anything more than kissing, yet when Neil respected his boundaries like that it made him wish he was. Neil was the first person who had touched him without demanding more, and Andrew thought he just might want to get to a place where he was able to give more. Knowing that Neil would stop on his own, even when he didn’t want to, meant more to Andrew than he could admit. He knew Neil would stop if he asked, but this was more than that. 

After quickly taking care of himself, he wiped his hands on a discarded shirt and waited until the sink turned on to knock on the bathroom door. Neil opened it immediately, looking way to put together after a long make-out session.

“Do you have a toothbrush I can use?”

Andrew dug through a drawer and handed him an unused Sonicare one that Nicky had gotten his for Christmas a few years ago.

“I can’t take this,” Neil said as he tried to hand it back to him.

“I have my own.” Andrew picked his up off the charger. “My cousin gave me two because I am ‘too rough’ on toothbrushes. His words. I do not think he realized the brush heads are replaceable.”

“Andrew, this is nicer than my toothbrush at home.”

Andrew took the case from him, taking the toothbrush out and prepping it before giving it back. “There now you have to keep it.”

They brushed their teeth together, then climbed into bed together without putting any pajamas on. 

“How do you sleep in here?” Neil whined. “It’s like seventy degrees.”

 Andrew pulled the blankets off of Neil, stealing them for himself. “How do you sleep in your ice castle?”

Neil snuggled closer to him, throwing his bare leg over Andrew’s blanket-covered ones. The added weight didn’t bother Andrew. He always slept on Neil’s chest or holding him because he wasn’t sure he could handle it the other way around, but with Neil’s leg over his and his head on his shoulder he felt safe.

Chapter Text

Neil yawned and stretched out next to him. It was the first time they’d been able to sleep in together, yet they still managed to wake up early. Andrew waited until Neil was done stretching and attempted to pull him in. Instead of letting himself be caught like normal Neil rolled away and hopped out of bed. When Andrew glared at him he leaned over the edge of the bed for a quick kiss. 

“I have to take Zeus out,” Neil said as he threw some of Andrew’s sweats on. 

So far Andrew had worn Neil’s clothes more than a few times, it was nice to finally see Neil wearing his. As he waited, Andrew wrapped himself up tightly, snuggling into the blanket. King curled up by his feet as he forced himself to stay awake. It only took a few minutes for Neil to return, shedding his clothes as he walked across the room toward the bed. If Andrew had been more awake, it would have been quite the show. 

Andrew opened up the blanket for Neil, wrapping himself around his as soon as he laid down. Neil was warmer than he expected after a walk outside and Andrew stole all the warmth he could. He ran his nose over Neil’s ear and hummed in satisfaction. This was the kind of morning he could get used to.  

“Good morning,” Neil said, his smile making its way into his voice. 

“Mhm.” Andrew poked his side. “It would be if you’d stop talking. Some of us are trying to sleep.”

“No, you’re not” Neil rolled over, so they were face to face, Andrew kept his arms wrapped around him and used them to pull his closer. “How are you feeling about your family being here?”

Andrew closed his eyes, pretending to sleep. “Good, it’s good. Aaron is more accepting than I thought he would be.”

“How so?” Neil reached up and ran his hand through Andrew’s hair. 

“I do not know how to explain it.” Andrew looked Neil in the eye and let a small smile onto his face. “He’s grown up. Less judgmental.”

Neil hummed and closed his eyes, giving Andrew the space to think or end the conversation there. He didn’t know how to explain Aaron’s previous homophobia or that he had spent years hating Erik for taking Nicky away from him. Katelyn wasn’t the kind of woman who would put up with bigotry, but Aaron wasn’t the kind of man who would change just because someone had told him to. Maybe Andrew had underestimated his ability to grow.

Andrew leaned forward and rubbed the tip of Neil’s nose with his own.

“You’ve grown to,” Neil said as he opened his eyes. “Even since I’ve met you.”

There were so many things Neil could be talking about that Andrew didn’t even try to figure it out. The fact that they were even in the same bed, let alone touching was proof of his personal growth. Add to that his communication with his brother and newfound ability to express how much he cared for his people and he was almost a new person. It would have been easy to say it was all thanks to Neil and Athena, but it wasn’t. While they may have helped along the way, Andrew started down that road on his own. He chose to keep in touch with his family over the phone and Skype, and to get a cat and work on his boundaries all before Neil and Athena walked into his life. 

His phone rang as they enjoyed the silence. Aaron and Katelyn wanted to get dressed, so they were bringing Athena over. Aaron even offered to keep her if they wanted a slow morning. Andrew shoved Neil out of bed and followed, throwing on a long-sleeved shirt and some shorts. He’d all but left his armbands behind. Thanks to the cold winter he was always wearing long sleeves and sweaters, and he’d stopped carrying knives when he had started watching Athena regularly. 

A knock on the door gave them one second of notice before Athena threw the door open and ran in. She jumped at Neil and he picked her up, tickling her sides and she hugged him as tightly as she could.

“Hi baby bear,” Neil said as he kissed her hair. “How are you today?”

“Good. I watched Mulan and built a Lego castle and Katelyn made me chocolate chip pancakes and eggs.” Athena leaned back in his arms and smiled at him. “And Aaron let me drink juice with my breakfast.”   

Andrew looked at Aaron, who was leaning in the doorway. “What time did she get up?”

“Like 5:15.”

Neil sat her on the dresser so they were face to face. “Did you tell Aaron you’re not allowed to get up that early?”

“I didn’t get out of the bed.” Athena smiled at him, trying to get away with it.

“Let me guess,” Andrew said, “you watched Mulan while Aaron and Katelyn went back to sleep for an hour and a half and then you made Aaron play Legos with you while Katelyn made you breakfast.”

Athena shrugged. Andrew looked to Aaron, and he nodded, letting them know that’s exactly what happened.

Neil sighed. “Well, then you’re going to have to take a nap today if you want to go to the game tonight.”

“I don’t want to take a nap.” Athena crossed her arms and glared at him.

“That’s okay, we can stay home then.”

“No,” Athena whined, dropping her arms. She slid off the dresser and tried to change the subject. “I’m going to pick out your outfit.”

Andrew ended up with a white tie-dyed shirt over his long-sleeved shirt, while Neil got to wear black sweats and a black sweater. While Katelyn and Aaron got dressed Andrew put the cat on his shoulder and led the way to Neil’s. Zeus was thankful when he finally got his breakfast, while King had no complaints about eating slightly later than normal. 

Katelyn had left out two plates for them, making Andrew’s morning even brighter. Chocolate chip pancakes may not have been the best pregame meal, but they were his favorite breakfast food. Neil ate more eggs than pancakes, leaving his extras for Andrew to steal. While they ate Athena showed them her Lego castle, sitting at the coffee table and adding onto it when she was done.

The rest of the morning went slowly, yet peacefully. Andrew had never thought that a quiet morning in with his brother and Katelyn could be peaceful. They discussed Ancient Aliens theories and their opinions on the flat earth documentary, enjoying each other’s company. Until Neil and Katelyn made sandwiches for lunch everything was going well. 

As they ate Athena whinnied, complaining about the food and asking Neil for juice when she already knew the answer was no. Neil waited until she was done eating, then told her to pick out a book for nap time.

“No,” Athena said firmly. “I don’t want to take a nap.”

Neil smiled slightly and shook his head. “Baby, you’re so tired.”

“I am not tired.” Athena stood up from her Lego's and glared at him.

Andrew caught her arm, gently pulling her closer. “Come on, bug.”

“I don’t want to take a nap,” Athena said, tears falling down her face. She let herself be pulled onto Andrew’s lap without any resistance.

“I know you don’t want to,” Andrew said, patting her back as she cried. “Your body needs sleep though.”

He rubbed her back, copying Neil’s soothing motions from when he was sick until she calmed down. Once she stopped throwing her fit and gave into how tired she was Andrew got up and carried her into Neil’s room. 

Andrew sat on Neil’s bed, leaning against the headboard, patiently waiting for her to fall asleep. Once her breathing evened out, he stopped rubbing her back and sat for a few a while to enjoy the moment. 

A soft camera shuttered, drawing his attention to Neil standing in the doorway. The sound went off again as Andrew glared. He rolled his eyes and flipped Neil off, just as the third shutter sounded. Neil turned and scurried down the hallway like he was scared of Andrew following him. If Athena wasn’t currently asleep in his chest, he may have.



Kaitlyn leaned against Aaron’s chest as they waited for Neil to come back. The novelty of Andrew caring for a child had not worn off yet, it was just as surprising to see him carrying an upset child to bed as it had been to see him with a child in the first place. 

Andrew was weirdly good with Athena. In general, he was bad with people, but it made sense that he would be good with her, all he had to do was the opposite of what had been done with him as a child. Aaron played with Katelyn’s fingers as he thought, watching the light glint off the small diamond on her ring finger. Andrew had been with him when he bought it—not when he picked it out, but when he made the final payment and got to hold it in his hand—all he had said was make sure you both want it first. It had annoyed Aaron then, his brother second-guessing his choice, but it made more sense looking back. Andrew had been looking out for Katelyn just as much as he had been for Aaron when he’d said to make sure they both wanted it. 

Aaron wondered how many other times he had misread his brother’s intentions over the years. Andrew had a whole other side to him that Aaron had never noticed, yet it had always been there. As Andrew made promises to Aaron and Kevin, protected Nicky, and stood up for them he was showing how much he cared. It was a ridiculous way to do it, however, it all made sense now. 

Neil skipped down the hall and threw himself on the couch next to Aaron and Katelyn, holding his phone out for them to see. 

“Look at them,” Neil said, smiling in the stupid love-sick way Aaron knew all too well from himself.

He showed them three pictures. One of Andrew and Athena having a quiet moment together, the next of Andrew glaring at him over Athena’s head, and the third of Andrew flipping off the camera from behind Athena’s back. It showed Andrew’s personality well. He cared more than he would ever let on, and he looked aggressive about it, but in reality, he was gentle and grounding. 

Andrew walked down the hall and held out his hand. “Phone.”

Neil shook his head and shoved it in his pocket. Without missing a beat, Andrew walked over and asked again, still holding his hand out. As soon as Neil shook his head while smiling brightly, Andrew narrowed his eyes. He took the final step, so he was standing with Neil’s knees between his legs and stared him down. When that didn’t work he slid one knee and then the other onto the couch so he was straddling Neil’s legs and pinning his arms down. Andrew patted Neil’s pockets until he found the phone and then started sorting through it without moving.

“Who did you show?”

Neil laughed. If it was anyone else Aaron would have been scared for their life, but Neil and Andrew had a kind of relationship that Aaron had never seen before. Andrew looked just as blank as ever, while Neil’s smile said it was almost a game to him. 

“Aaron and Katelyn,” Neil said as he half-heartedly wiggled his arm where they were trapped between his thighs and Andrew’s. “And I sent the first one to Gigi.”

Andrew glared at him for a moment. He stood up and kicked Neil’s foot, so he would open his legs, then sat down on the edge of the couch between them. Aaron and Katelyn did something similar to each other all the time, but they always leaned back to snuggle up as close as possible. Andrew may have been sitting between Neil’s legs but they weren’t touching at all. After a few minutes, Andrew handed Neil his phone back and stayed where he was. 

With most topics of conversation covered over the last few days, they sat in silence for a while. Aaron went back to playing with Katelyn’s ring. He felt Andrew look over at it every now and then, watching the light dance on the wall beside them. Eventually, Neil said he wanted to take the dog to the park before they left for the game.

When he was gone Andrew turned and looked at them. It felt like he was examining them, but Aaron didn’t know for what. After six months of living with Katelyn, he was used to lounging with her on the couch at any time, it then dawned on him that Andrew had never seen them do that before this weekend. Maybe they both had big changes since they moved apart.

“Katelyn,” Andrew said looking over Aaron’s shoulder. “Can I braid your hair?”

“Yeah, sure.” Katelyn shoved Aaron’s shoulder a few times until he moved his arms so she could get up.

Andrew sat criss-cross on the couch and she sat in front of him, pulling her long hair out of the ponytail so he could do something with it. After parting it down the middle, Andrew tied one side off and started to attempt a French braid on the other side.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Aaron asked after the third time he started over. 

“Theoretically. Neil has shown me twice. However, I have never done it alone before.”

“Oh, here, I’ll show you,” Katelyn said as she reached her arms over her head. With precise fingers, she started a perfect braid at her hairline. “Tighter. See, like this.” 

Andrew undid her braid and started over. Aaron could see where be was going wrong, his braid was looser than hers and he was making the gaps between each twist twice as long. The idea that Andrew, who had once threatened to kill Katelyn, was taking care not to hurt her, or even cause her discomfort, made Aaron laugh. Never in a million years had he expected Andrew and Katelyn to sit next to each other. Yet here they were, touching and braiding hair together. Andrew sent him a glare and Aaron smiled back at him. 

After a few more tries, Andrew got two decent braids to run down Katelyn’s head. None of them mentioned why he wanted to learn. It was clear from Athena’s hairstyles over the last two days that Neil knew what he was doing when it came to children’s hairstyles. Aaron wanted to say it was sweet of Andrew to learn, but he wasn’t sure how Andrew would take it. Neil came back soon after they finished the hair and woke Athena up, ruining his chance to comment.

A shiny black minivan picked them up for the game. Aaron and Katelyn sat in the back row with Athena in between them, while Andrew and Neil sat in the middle row with Zeus at their feet. When they got to the stadium, Andrew led them upstairs to an incredible viewing room. It was high above the court, making the view terrible, but it was fancy enough to make up for it. Neil set their stuff down at one of the tall tables as Andrew said goodbye to Athena and pointed out some of the amenities to Aaron and Katelyn. Neil introduced them to a few of the other early birds, clearly comfortable in the space. 

Once a few other children arrived Athena ran off to play with them, leaving Aaron and Katelyn alone with Neil.

“Have you ever been to a professional game before?” Neil asked.

“Hmm? No. I’ve never been to a college one that I wasn’t playing in either.” Aaron glanced down at the court. “I can play Exy all day, but I hate watching it.”

Neil laughed. “Hopefully tonight’s not too bad for you. Honestly, we don’t watch much of the game. Between looking after the kids and catching up there’s not much time for that.”

A woman walked up to their table and stole the last chair on the other side of Katelyn, nodding at her as she did so. “You brought friends, Neil.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “This is Gemma Hunt. Gemma this is Aaron, and his fiance Katelyn.”

“Oh hello, so nice to finally meet you both! I’ve heard so much about you.”  Gemma dropped her fake smile and rested her hand on her chin. “Actually, I haven’t. Neil and Andrew never tell us anything about their lives. I only know Andrew has a cat because my husband went over to his house once. If you, Aaron, hadn’t been on the same college team I wouldn’t even know Andrew has a brother.”

Katelyn laughed as Neil rolled his eyes again. Aaron looked between Gemma and Neil to try and figure out what was going on. From the amused look on both of their faces it seemed like they were friends and this was just some light teasing. 

“That’s not true. You also know I have a dog.”

“I swear to god Neil-”

Athena climbed onto Neil’s lap and Gemma stopped short, whatever she was going to say much not have been child appropriate. Neil wrapped his arm around his daughter and kissed her cheek repeatedly until she shoved his face away. Once she was clear of the attack, she climbed onto Aaron’s lap instead. He put his arm around her waist so she wouldn’t fall off of the tall chair and waited as she leaned back against his chest. Neil and Gemma picked up their teasing as Aaron focused on the child taking over his space. She rifled through Neil’s bag on the table until she found her crayons and coloring book and started coloring. Athena stayed on Aaron’s lap until the same started and they all moved to the viewing window. 

The game was brutal and the other team managed to score two points in the first fifteen minutes. Neil said as soon as Andrew came on the wouldn’t score another point for the rest of the game. At some point, Athena crawled back in his lap with her coloring book and he lost track of the ball. Sitting on the floor with a child on his lap was not comfortable at all and yet Aaron let it happen. Neil told him he could ask her to move whenever he needed to. Katelyn leaned on his shoulder too, letting Aaron catch a glimpse into the far future. 

He and Katelyn were on the same page about having kids. At least ten years away, once they finished school and got their careers going steady. Nothing would change that plan. Aaron had admitted to himself that he wasn’t sure if he wanted kids in ten years, or ever. Three days with Athena had changed his mind. Ten years out still sounded good, but he knew now that it was something he wanted. Watching Andrew with Athena and then getting to care for her with Katelyn showed him how incredible children could be. Even if they do wake him up at 5 am and throw fits about taking naps.

At halftime, Neil showed them the catering table and made sure they got enough food. Neil helped Gemma get food for her kids and even took her son to the bathroom when he refused to go in the women’s restroom with his mother. Part of the reason Aaron had been questioning having children was that he had never had a positive parenting role model, and now he did. Just a few days with Neil had shown him how positive parenting could be. When he came back from the bathroom Neil took a baby from one of the other dads, Derek, so he could eat. 

Neil caught Aaron looking at him while he bounced the infant lightly on his shoulder. “Do you want to hold him?”

“I’ve never held a baby,” Aaron answered honestly. He hadn’t met Katelyn’s oldest nephew until he was a year and a half old, which was a different situation than the tiny creature Neil held.

“You want to be a pediatrician and you’ve never held a baby? Here.” Neil handed him the child without any hesitation. Aaron tried to copy Neil’s stance and place him on his shoulder. “This is Trenton. He’s 8 months old.”

Aaron blinked at Neil, unsure of what to do next. “Umm… hello Trenton.”

Neil laughed and held out his hands for the baby as he started to whine. “It’s okay Trent, he’s just new to this.”

The baby settled quickly in his arms. Aaron was saved as the game started again, he turned to the wall and reached for Katelyn’s hand.

“You’ve so brave,” she whispered in his ear. “Holding a baby, letting Athena climb all over you. Who knew you were secretly a pro?”

Aaron perked up when Andrew came on the field with the starters for the second half. He paid more attention with his brother on the court. Andrew’s playing style was different than it had been in college. He was always engaged and communicating with his players, were before he had barely picked up his racket to swipe away a ball. The game ended in a win for the Knights. Neil was right, the other team never scored when Andrew was playing. 

When he got up to stretch Aaron noticed Athena was still awake, though she looked like she would nod off any second as she cuddled with Neil on the couch. Aaron got some ice cream from the caterer as they waited for the team to shower and go through their mandatory after game tasks. As soon as Andrew entered the room, they packed up their stuff and headed back down to the minivan to go home. Andrew and Neil rode in the back with Athena, while Aaron and Katelyn were stuck with Zeus in the middle. Aaron had nothing against dogs, but he was uncomfortable sitting with someone else’s service dog. Neil had him for a reason and Aaron shouldn’t get in the way of that. 

Andrew carried Athena up to her room while Neil walked the dog around the block. Before he went into Neil’s apartment Andrew handed Aaron his keys. Katelyn wrapped her arms around Aaron’s waist as he unlocked the door, distracting him by kissing right under his ear.

Once he had the door open Aaron turned around and kissed her properly. She walked forward until Aaron’s legs hit the couch, and then she climbed on his lap. They had been so overwhelmed in the last few days, between learning about Andrew’s other life and then being thrown into it, that they hadn’t taken any time for each other. Their one weekend off had turned into a brotherly bonding trip that no one had expected, leaving them both exhausted. Now that they were alone they took the change to enjoy each other. Aaron slid his hand up Katelyn’s thigh as he kissed at her neck, drawing pretty sounds out of her.

Until the door opened.

“On my couch?” Andrew asked, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “Your room is twenty feet away.”

Katelyn blushed and buried her face in Aaron’s shoulder. “Oh my god, this is so embarrassing.”

“Are you not staying at Neil’s tonight?” Aaron already knew the answer, Andrew wouldn’t have come back if he was.

Andrew walked down the hall. “I do not care what you do in your room, however, I would appreciate it if you keep whatever you do together in your room. Good night.”

Katelyn waited until Andrew’s door shut to sit up. “That was more embarrassing than the time my mom caught us making out on New Year’s Eve in college.”

Aaron laughed. “Andrew has this unique ability to make everything a hundred times more awkward and embarrassing than it needs to be.”

He stood up and set Katelyn down on the floor. They brushed their teeth and changed into their pajamas and climbed into bed. In the end, there was no point in putting the pajamas on because it only took a few minutes for them to be hastily taken off again. 

 

Sundays were the one day a week Aaron and Katelyn tried to save for themselves whenever they could. They made sure to do all of their work during the week so Sundays would be clear, yet it rarely worked out that they got the entire day off. Despite hearing movement around the apartment, they didn’t get out of bed before noon. There was no reason to move. They had no plans for the day as they ate their protein bars they had packed for the flight instead of getting up and making breakfast. Aaron hadn’t told Andrew that they wanted Sunday to relax without any plans, but he seemed to know, anyway. No one knocked on their door to ask about food or to drag them out so some activity. It was a nice change of pace, with Katelyn’s family they had to beg to get a morning to sleep in. 

When they finally get out of bed well after 1 pm, they showered together and got dressed as slowly as they could, enjoying the silence and time alone. Katelyn wanted to climb back into bed, but they both knew the dangers of messing up a sleep schedule, and Aaron was starting to get grumpy and hungry. 

He knocked on Neil’s door when he couldn’t find Andrew in the apartment and found them sitting at the coffee table playing Candy Land after someone yelled it was open. Their little family was a pretty view, Andrew fit right in next to Neil and Athena. Andrew made them get their own food as they finished up the game. The mischievous smile on Athena’s face when she won made it seem like she had cheated, while the finger Andrew held to his mouth said that he had let her win. Neil told them about a few things to do on Sundays in the city that never sleeps, none of it was worth going out in the cold for. 

Neil had made a whole chicken for lunch, with Athena’s help and supervision. Then he made a bone broth when they were done. Aaron and Katelyn had missed the morning trip to the park, as well as the weekly grocery shop, by sleeping in so late. For the rest of the afternoon, Neil worked on the broth and made a rich salmon for dinner. When Andrew went to give Athena a bath Aaron sent Katelyn to have a bath of her own so he could talk to Andrew alone. Athena and Neil said goodnight to them at the door and Aaron was finally alone with his brother for the first time the entire trip.

Andrew grabbed two hard apple ciders from his fridge and sat down on the couch holding one out to Aaron. He accepted the drink and sat down too, fiddling with the lid. 

“Why aren’t you sleeping at Neil’s?” Aaron asked the question that was on his mind instead of the one he was supposed to be asking.

“Would you have been comfortable sleeping at Katelyn’s every night after one singular month of dating?” Andrew looked him over. “That is not why you sent Katelyn away. What do you actually want?”

Aaron took a drink and leaned his head against the back of the couch. “I’m getting married.”

“Yes, I know. In a year.”

“Will you be my best man?” Aaron closed his eyes and waited for the answer.

“Look at me,” Andrew asked. It wasn’t a command like it normally was coming from him. He waited for Aaron to open his eyes to continue. “Is that what you are worked up about?”

“Yeah, I know you don’t like crowds or speeches, but neither do I and I have to be the center of attention all day.” Aaron closed his eyes again until Andrew kicked his foot. “And I just want my brother there with me.”

“Of course I will be your best man,” Andrew said, looking confused. “I thought this would be a ‘do you know what you are getting yourself into with this relationship’ talk.”

“What?” Aaron took another drink. “Why would I do that? You have your life figured out more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Andrew snorted and Aaron realized he made his brother laugh for the first time. “I have nothing figured out.”

“Eh, maybe. At least you’re rich.”

Andrew let out a small yet real laugh this time. “True. At least I’m rich.”

 

Aaron spent the next day sightseeing in the city with his family, while Athena was in school until he had to leave for their airport. Andrew refused to call the day a double date, while Katelyn insisted that’s what it was. Two couples enjoying the city together, it really could go either way. Neil and Aaron stayed out of the discussion, which meant it wasn’t solved by the time they boarded the plane home. 

It seemed like a lifetime ago that Aaron at boarded the plane to New York City, expecting to find his brother as grumpy and unsociable as ever. The Andrew he met was both of those things, but he was also happy. And that’s all Aaron needed to know.  

Chapter Text

The clock ticked second after second as time dragged by, housing meetings that had no merit to Andrew, yet he had to attend. How PR was going to handle Lane’s new baby was discussed for an hour, then they moved onto how Hill’s cheating scandal would be handled this time. Because cheating on his wife once wasn’t enough. Eventually, they would get to his relationship with Neil. Technically, it wasn’t on the agenda for the day, but his kind captain had warned him it was on their radar. 

“Andrew?” Emmerson asked, cutting off the head of PR. “Since we can’t go to Hill’s house tonight, you know with the scandal and all, would you be willing to host the team dinner again?”

“The 20 other people on this team can’t do it because?”

“Everyone already knows where you live,” Emmerson said with her interview ready smile. “I’ll give you two more days off since you’ve almost used up your original five with how often you leave early.” 

Andrew stated her down. “I’m not taking two days for doing the same thing that I got five days for last time.”

“Fine, you can have five days, but they can’t be used during finals or championships.”

“I have to ask before I say yes.” Andrew got out his phone and started typing.

Hill rolled his eyes. “Who the fuck do you have to ask?” 

Andrew decided a phone call would be better if it got him out of the room for a minute. “Some people actually respect their partners, Stanley.”

He went out to the hallway and waited for the door to close before he dialed the number.

Neil answered after one ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, are you home?”

“Yeah,” Neil shuffled some papers. “Just doing some tax stuff.”

“Are you busy?”

“Nope, I can do this later. What’s wrong?”

“Would you mind going over to my house and tidying up?” Andrew ran his hand over his eyes and sighed. “I hate asking you to do this. My team has to find a new place for dinner tonight because some asshole decided to cheat on his wife.”

“I’ll see what I can do. I have to go get Athena in an hour, and then she has gymnastics right after.”

“It should not take too long, just stuff from this morning I didn’t put away. Thank you so much. I promise I will make it up to you on Sunday.”

“Fuck, you’re leaving tomorrow morning, aren’t you?” Neil sounded surprised by that as if Andrew going away every other weekend was a new thing. “That’s annoying.”

Andrew could almost imagine Neil’s facial expression. “Did you forget?”

“No, I just… Wednesday and the 30th were not the same day in my head. It’s fine.”

“You can come too. Free food tonight and on Sunday might make up for it?”

Neil laughed. “Oh, are we going out on Sunday? Is that how you’re going to make it up to me?”

“No, I’m going to cook for you.”

Neil laughed so hard he couldn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t believe you. You can’t cook.”

“Yes, I can.” The door opened and Emmerson raised an eyebrow at him. “I have to get back to work. Thank you, I’ll see you tonight.”

“See you then, have fun.”

Emmerson eyed him for a moment when he turned toward the door. “He said yes?”

“Unfortunately.”  

They walked into the room together and Emmerson informed them that they were going to Andrew’s after work. For once Andrew was dreading the end of the workday because it was just going to be following him home. 

 

This time only Brad managed to keep up with Andrew on his way. They lost everyone else thanks to crowded subway cars, walking quickly, and perhaps some light shoving to make room for themselves. When they walked in, the apartment was sparkling, Neil had done more than simply wash his coffee cup and tidy the living room. King wound her way around his feet and head-butted his leg when he didn’t pick her up fast enough.

“Hi baby,” Andrew said as he placed her on his neck. She started purring instantly. “Did Neil ruin your blanket nest on the couch?”

Brad reached out and let her sniff his hand. “Hello gorgeous, look at those big blue eyes. And what is your name?”

“Her name is King.”

“Hi, King.” 

Andrew stood awkwardly in his living room while Brad, over a foot taller than him, gently cooed over the cat perched on his shoulders. However, Brad did not seem to see the awkwardness of the situation. Neil and Athena saved him as they exited their apartment. 

“Hi, baby.” Andrew accepted his hug and poked at Athena’s large bun. “How was gymnastics?”

Athena sat on the ground and did the splits, a blinding smile taking over her face. “Look what I can do. I can do a cartwheel too, but Neil said not in the house.”

“I’m going to have to side with Neil here.” Athena stuck her tongue out at him and he did it back to her.

He introduced her and Neil to his team as they arrived. Neil knew most of their spouses and children from the viewing room at games, and he’d technically met them at the holiday dinner, but he’d never actually talked to most of them. Once the food arrived, they turned into a lively group. At some point King ran off and hid, having people in her space was not her idea of a good time, Andrew could relate to that. 

Brad and Neil dragged over all of Neil’s chairs and stool, so there was almost somewhere for everyone to sit. It didn’t take long for Neil to get caught up in a conversation about Exy, and at that point, it was impossible to get his attention back. Athena bounced between Andrew’s lap and Neil’s, despite being offered multiple other things to do. Andrew liked having her there, it gave him an easy out of conversations he didn’t want to be in. When she started to fall asleep, he picked her up and carried her to the guest room. Neil smiled and nodded at him as he passed, letting him know that he saw. 

“She asleep?” Brad asked when he came back out. “You can kick us out if you need to.”

Andrew nodded. He appreciated the sentiment. “That child could sleep through a hurricane.” 

Brad laughed. “Yeah, mine can too. I think I’m going to head out soon. I hate not seeing them before they go to bed. Especially since I’ll only get like an hour with them before we leave tomorrow. They’ll already be in bed, but Vi might not be asleep yet.”

“Don’t tell anyone,” Andrew said as he looked around the room to make sure no one was listening. “But that’s the reason I said yes to hosting.”

Brad burst out laughing. “I fucking love you, man. You’re like all mysterious and stoic, but then you’re actually a teddy bear.”

“Take that back.”   

“Nope,” Brad said between laughs. “I gotta go, have a good night.”

Brad leaving broke the spell on the room. A few people left with him, and the others started cleaning up the food and doing some dishes. The nice thing about his team was that they always cleaned up after themselves. By the time the food was packed away, and the dishes were done only a few people were left lounging around sipping wine. Neil was sitting on the couch talking to Jennifer Ward, another goalie, so Andrew walked over and kicked his leg until he scooted over. Andrew sat next to him and leaned on his shoulder, barely noticeable to anyone watching. 

“Ward,” Andrew said in greeting. 

“Minyard.”  

Neil looked over to Andrew and smiled. “Did you know Jennifer major in mathematics too?”

“I did not.” Andrew listened to them talk about math he did not understand, as the few reaming people filtered out. 

Ward left with them, leaving Andrew and Neil alone in an incredibly clean living room considering they’d just had a large dinner party. It didn’t take much to convince Neil to stay over, with Athena already asleep in the guest room it was the easiest option. Once he’d taken Zeus outside, they got ready for bed. Neil used the toothbrush he had there, and Andrew gave him some of the clothes he’d stolen from Neil back for him to sleep in. When Andrew spent the night at Neil’s he always threw his clothes into Neil’s laundry basket and then stole something from his closet to wear the next day. The one time Neil had spent the night as his house he had done the same thing. Even without spending every night together their clothes were becoming mixed together at both apartments.   

Neil sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed Andrew’s hands, pulling him forward until he was standing in between his legs. “Hey, Andrew?”

“Yes, Neil?” Andrew ran his hand up Neil’s arm, settling it on his neck. He was dreading leaving the next morning to spend three nights in a hotel, away from his family. 

“You know what else you could do to make it up to me?” Neil smiled at him mischievously, the same smile Athena used when she wanted something. “You could give me a back massage.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You would choose a back massage over me making you dinner for the first time?”

“You could do both you know,” Neil said as he leaned his head on Andrew’s arm.

“Oh really? Fine.” He reached down and tugged the end of Neil’s shirt off and then grabbed the bottle of lotion from his bedside table while Neil laid down. “You’re really going to drag this out, aren’t you?”

Neil laughed. “Well, I did save dinner for your entire team.”

Andrew climbed on the bed so he could straddle Neil’s hips and dump cold lotion on his back, enjoying Neil’s gasp at the temperature. He spread it out over his entire back and then gently started massaging the skin with his fingertips. Never in his life had he given someone a massage, nor had he ever received one, so he had so idea what he was doing. Neil seemed to enjoy it, humming when his hands worked at a knot and sighing when he prodded at a scar. 

“You can go harder on the knots,” Neil said after a few minutes. He sounded like he was half asleep already. Andrew chose one near his spine and pressed in it with his thumb until Neil hummed again. “A little more.”

Andrew paused. “I don’t want to hurt you.” 

“You won’t hurt me. It feels really nice.”

Andrew looked out at the canvas of scars that was Neil’s back. He did not want to be another person that added to that story. Instead of focusing on what was in front of him, Andrew focused on Neil’s words. This time when he pressed on the knot he leaned into it and was rewarded with another hum.

“That’s perfect.”

Neil closed his eyes and let Andrew work in peace. His humming and sighing started to trail off after a while and Andrew realized he was asleep. He softly ran his hands over Neil’s entire back a few times to rub in any leftover cream, and hopefully, leave him feeling evenly massaged. Andrew climbed off of him and laid down looking at soft eyelashes hitting sharp cheeks. Neil snuggled closer to him in his sleep, laying his head on Andrew’s shoulder while Andrew wrapped his arm around Neil and idly ran his fingers over his arm.

Neil showed an unbelievable amount of trust by even letting Andrew sit on his hips and massage his back. And then he fell asleep. 

The amount of trust that must have taken.

Andrew watched Neil sleep for a few minutes as he thought it over. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft breathing in his ear, the purr of the cat at his feet, the snore of the dog on Neil’s other side. For the first time in his life, Andrew’s bed was full of trust and love. He had wanted to spend the night with Neil watching TV and kissing like they normally did, but this was somehow better. 

 

Without her clock to let her know when she was allowed to get out of bed, Athena woke them up at 5:30 in the morning. Neil hugged her close and went back to sleep immediately. Athena whined and poked him for a few minutes, then fell asleep too. At first, Andrew had thought it was a stupid rule that she had to stay in bed until 6:30 if she was awake, but Neil told him she usually fell right back to sleep and it saved them a lot of meltdowns from her being tired later. 

Once Andrew was awake, there was no going back to sleep. He watched Neil and Athena and savored every moment of it. They looked so peaceful snuggled up together, their breathing and light snores matching up. 

Before long were woken up by the alarm and forced to get ready for the day. Andrew wanted to walk Athena to school, but he knew saying goodbye until Sunday would be easier at home than at school. He headed to work with his travel duffel bag packed and sat through another team meeting before being shoved into vans with everyone else and taken to the airport. 

Being in an airplane was not getting any easier, despite the frequent trips. Neil had sent him a few hours’ worth of videos from when Athena was little, so Andrew entertained himself with those instead of focusing on the flight. Practicing on a new court wasn’t any different than normal, it took them less than an hour to shake off their traveling stupor and get back into the groove of things.

They won their game without even trying, managing a six-point lead by the end. After the game, Andrew and Brad went back to Brad’s room, while everyone celebrated in the hotel bar. Neil had texted him a few of his reactions to the game and Andrew felt something about that. He just couldn’t figure out what. Nicky could never watch the games live because of the time difference, and Aaron was usually busy studying, but they both watched it and texted him the next day. Neil taking the time to watch it live made Andrew’s heart race. 

Brad turned on an old movie and they ordered room service to refuel after the long workout they’d both had. While they waited, Andrew pulled out his phone and looked through some of the videos, choosing his favorite. 

On-screen, Athena ran to the window and tried to pull herself up to see out of it. She couldn’t have been more than two years old, in footed pajamas with the smallest pigtails Andrew had ever seen. The camera followed her as she ran through the room and over to the dining room table. She pulled one of the chairs, scraping it against the hardwood floors. 

“Excuse me, miss?” Neil said off Camera. “What do you think you’re doing? Do you need help?”

Baby Athena ran to Neil, the camera panning down to show his legs as she shoved him. “No, go away.”

She ran back to the chair and started pulling it again. It took a good minute for her to drag it over to the window and climb up on it, pressing her chubby hands to the glass. Neil stepped closer with the camera, bringing the window in clear view.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing out the window.

Athena pointed at the animal standing in the tree line. “Deer.”   

“Do you like deer?”

She nodded and pressed her nose against the window, watching as the carefree deer walked across the fog in the yard.  Neil laughed as the video ended. 

Andrew locked his phone and set it down, thinking about how precious Athena was as a baby. It was sweet to know she had always been independent and to see how much she had grown. 

Brad looked over at him with a small smile. “Sucks being away from them now, but the three months off in the summer makes up for it, I promise.”

Andrew nodded. “I hope so. ”