“There you are.”
He didn’t know he wanted to be found until Nicky peaked into the court lounge. He didn’t know he wanted Nicky to the the one to find him until his jaw started to tremble with relief.
“Hey,” was all Nicky said as he lowered himself to sit next to Neil on the floor behind the couch. “Renee told me what Allison said.”
Ah, so that explained why he’d been looking for Neil in the first place. Neil's hands tightened around the tube of paper in his hands. It was soft and pliable, almost cloth-like from how many times it had been rolled and folded and flattened. “It’s fine,” he said. “You didn’t have to come look for me.”
“Yes, I did,” Nicky countered.
Neil let out a shaky sigh and wished that Allison’s words were all that had gotten to him. That it wasn’t issue upon issue on a bad day. That Andrew hadn’t been a part of it. That there hadn’t been a one-two punch and a sickening realization.
“That’s not a real word, sweety.”
“It explains how I feel. My feelings- my relationship with Andrew…”
“What relationship.” Two
Issues on issues on a bad day. Neil didn’t cry with tears anymore but the rest of his body remembered the motions of wringing him like a towel- chest squeezing, jaw shaking, arms stiff. He twisted his hands around the rolled paper. It was so mangled it no longer even crinkled.
After a few moments of silence, Nicky slowly, slowly reached over and took the paper. Neil let him and didn’t understand why. It was a private, personal thing.
Maybe that was why.
- Neil Abram Josten
- Exy player
Aubor Aubar Aborn Brown RedReddish brown hair Boyfriend
- Math major
Nicky looked at the paper for a long time and Neil looked up at the pictures tacked to the wall. Time and growth stopped Nicky from smothering Neil but it was still Nicky and his face betrayed every emotion. His brows wrinkled, his eyes squinted and then widened. His face went slack and then smoothed over and that was a new one to see.
“There’s a lot to unpack here,” he finally said, voice quiet and soothing. Neil felt his face go hot.
“Alright, Bee,” he said, aiming for biting and failing. Nicky didn’t look offended, just blank. He was chewing on the inside of his cheek.
“The first thing I want you to know is that your sexuality is real and nobody gets to tell you that it’s not or that you’re not or that it’s wrong. It’s really important to me that you know that.” He turned his head to meet Neil’s eyes for the first time. Neil only nodded because he didn’t know what else to do. It didn’t feel appropriate to tell Nicky that that made it worse and he’d been trying to be more appropriate after too many awkward silences at team dinners and movie nights.
Nicky nodded back. “I’ll be honest, though- I don’t really know exactly what the word means. Could you tell me?”
The way Nicky was speaking was so unlike himself. He was measured and scripted and Neil wondered if he heard these things in Germany or Reddin. Neil didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to say it again and be told it wasn’t real ( Nicky would never …) and he didn’t want to face the reality of his situation. He wanted to sit behind the couch and look at the faces of the foxes frozen in time. And he did, for a little while. Nicky did, too. Patient. When he finally spoke, his voice was tight.
“It, uh, it means that I only experience sexual attraction after I’ve developed a strong emotional connection with someone.”
It felt like a confession. Part of him wanted to elaborate and make this connection with Nicky, but then he started to think about Andrew and his cheeks hurt and his hands clenched. It seemed to be enough for Nicky, who bumped their shoulders together.
“Thanks for sharing that with me. And not that anyone’s opinion on it matters, but I think that sounds exactly right for you.”
“Your opinion matters,” Neil said. His throat felt tight around the words, started to hurt. They sat in silence again as Neil tried to control his breathing. Eventually, Nicky’s thumb rubbed over the crossed off number 5 on the crinkled list. He braced himself.
“Something else happened,” Nicky guessed. “Allison makes catty comments all the time. Something she said wouldn’t make you feel like this.”
Neil didn’t ask how Nicky knew what he was feeling because he was right.
“Andrew said something.” It wasn’t a question because Nicky didn’t have to ask. Neil shook his head at himself and wiped at his dry cheeks as if he actually shed tears.
“He wasn’t wrong. It’s my fault for not listening when he said we weren’t a this .” He hated what he was feeling. He hated that he was feeling and all the complicated implications that followed along. He hated that it hurt and why it hurt and he hated himself for not being able to suppress these emotions anymore. That was one thing about being real that he didn’t need. Without the distraction of running and fighting for his life, emotions were something he felt much more often and- worse yet- more strongly.
“What? Why on Earth would Andrew say you’re not together?” Nicky momentarily forgot the calm demeanor he’d been trying to present and gave Neil a bewildered look. Neil felt his lip curl over his teeth.
“Because we’re not . He’s always said we weren’t a this. You need two people who want to be in a relationship to actually have one and it’s always just been me and I wasn’t supposed to do this . Mom was right -”
He stopped. He brought up his knees and dug his fingertips into the sides of his mouth to keep his lips from pulling into an anguished snarl. He felt raw and ugly with vulnerability- consumed with both the desire to keep himself secret and safe and the desperation to be known.
Everyone always got twice as interested and equally up in arms when he mentioned his mother. This time was no different. Nicky was putting in a valiant effort to be a presence Neil would allow close. He didn’t go in for a hug but his body betrayed his desire to. Neil was grateful that he didn't. Hew as feeling too much and his skin felt over sensitive like a fever, like every hair on his body was raised.
Issues on issues. Layers of problems and a broken psyche and a racing mind that was puzzling together the memory of February in a picture that suited it’s anxious needs. Was it Allison’s comment or Nicky’s assurance? Was it Andrew’s dismissal of his feelings or was it the betrayal his feelings indicated? Was it his mother’s hands ripping out his hair or the fear that she’d been right?
His body seized again, desperate to squeeze something out of him. Tears would have been best but instead it was air. He gasped and choked and held his breath in a vain attempt to hold himself together.
“I’m just having a really bad day,” he choked out, to reassure either himself or Nicky that this would all pass eventually. Nicky didn’t hug him but he did put a hand on Neil’s knee. He was less sure of himself but next to Neil’s breakdown he was the epitome of composed.
“I- I think you really need to get all this out, Neil. Do you want me to call Bee?”
“ No .”
“I could call Andrew, he’s hom-”
Neil let out a broken noise to cut off that idea. That small part of him desperate to be known recognized that he did want to talk. But he didn’t trust Betsy around him and he didn’t trust himself around Andrew.
“I was- I was so excited to have this word for my list because I knew there must be one- I couldn’t be the only person like this. And it hurt when Allison said it was fake because it was like she was saying I was fake. And… and then Andrew- it wasn’t the first time he’d said that. It’s my own fault for not remembering and then- and then I realized that Andrew probably only agreed to what we do because there were no feelings and he’s always said- but if I can only do… what we do after I have feelings then that means I’ve been lying- I’ve been tricking him. We’ve- we’ve done- and I- I realized I can’t win . Either Allison was right and I’m back to square one of being a nothing or she’s wrong and I’ve been tricking Andrew and lying to him this whole time . And mom always said that feelings and relationships were bad and dangerous and it hurts so much because I think she was right .”
Neil inhaled, long and shaking and deep. His face was hot and he felt just as embarrassed as he did relieved to take this- this box and put it outside of himself for someone else to rifle through. Then a new wave of fear hit him because Nicky was Andrew’s family and he’d just admitted to something terrible. He whipped his head to stare at Nicky, eyes wide and burning and finally, finally close to tears. He didn’t understand the expression he was facing.
“Nick, I- I never meant- I’m so- I promise I- I’m sorry .”
“Do not apologize,” Nicky said fiercely. Neil seized up in fear even as Nicky gave in and gathered him up in his arms. “I am so sorry you’re going through this, Neil. Nobody deserves that. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I lied to Andrew so that we could be together,” he moaned into Nicky’s shoulder.
“I trust Andrew enough to never allow himself to be taken advantage of ever again. You might have said no feelings back in February but given that you were going to die and were completely oblivious, I don’t think Andrew has been under any assumption that what you to have now is anything but real and honest. And don’t forget that I’ve looked after them since high school. I see how he is with you, how he looks at you.”
“Don’t say that.”
Would it be worse? If Andrew returned his feelings and still said they were nothing? He didn't know. He was too fried. Finally, finally, numbness began to take over. He bundled all of his emotions up and tucked them neatly back into the box. Sharing had made it lighter. Maybe there was something to it after all. Catharsis, his mind supplied. God, he was exhausted. That, at least, was an easy thing to hide. He pulled away from Nicky’s embrace and cleared his throat.
“Thanks for listening, Nicky. I’m gonna head out.”
Neil didn’t give him the chance. He shot to his feet, pretended his vision didn’t white out, and strode out of the lounge with another thanks thrown over his shoulder. Down the hall, out the side door. His eyes felt puffy and itchy. Must be a ragweed allergy or something.
He made it to the roof of Fox Tower after a circuitous route around campus. He could recall every step of the way but he had no idea how long he sat up there. The sun was only just starting to set but it wasn’t a great time marker considering he didn’t know when he’d left the court. He still felt drained, physically as well as mentally. Was that normal? Why would people willingly allow themselves to go through things like that?
The quiet was nice. Helpful. Of course, that meant it couldn’t last. He heard raised voices from an open window below and was annoyed until he realized it was just one voice. One familiar voice. One voice loud enough to be articulate and two voices too low, only loud enough to be indistinct murmurs.
“- and you will sit your butts there until i’m through with you .”
It sounded like Nicky was scolding a child. Neil privately hoped it was Aaron for the amusement of it.
“ -should be ashamed… high order for people like… how fucking… Neil was… ”
Hold up. That was his name. Neil sat forward to listen to more actively. He could guess what was happening and the embarrassment was burning.
“ -obviously...I don’t care… And if you can’t do that… Now…. misery, because he’s really fucking... ”
“Don’t even get me started… where do you get off telling someone… can’t even admit you want to date Renee… last person to make those decisions…”
Neil jolted a little when he realized how far over he’d been leaning as he tried to hear what else was being said. Pathetic. He already knew everything that could be said, there was no use eavesdropping. Nicky might feel like he occasionally had some sort of authority over the twins but it was all just an act on both sides. He would front at parenting and sometimes Andrew would let him. It was how the expressed affection. Some might call it the bare minimum, Neil thought it was nice.
The sky started to turn orange and then bright pink and then dark purple. He liked it. It was peaceful and quiet just like he was feeling now. His thoughts and memories seemed clearer but he pushed those aside and took a deep breath and held it as he imagined taping up boxes and setting them up in piles in an attic. Tomorrow was Saturday. Practice in the morning. Practice in the afternoon. There was an Exy game next Friday against a team with a strong defensive line.
“I can tell by your face that you’re thinking about Exy. It’s nauseating.”
Neil was surprised but his body didn’t react so he pretended that he’d heard Andrew coming. He stared straight ahead as the trees became silhouettes against the darkening sky and bugs started swarming around the street lamps. Andrew sat next to him, lit up a cigarette, and joined in the silence.
When the sky was fully dark and the stars were trying to come out, Andrew pulled out a piece of paper that had been folded twice into a square. Neil didn’t need to look closely to know what it was. Embarrassment and anxiety flared up inside of him but he quickly boxed it up with everything else.
“Did you read it?” He asked as he reached over and took the list, careful not to touch.
“Nicky told me what it was.”
Nicky needs to mind his own business , he thought and then immediately felt guilty- Nicky had been exactly who Neil had needed early. Then, he felt frustrated for feeling guilty. Then he felt nothing. Neil picked up the lighter Andrew had placed between them and lit the corner of the paper. It took longer than it should, the paper soft and coated from all the constant handling. When it caught, he held it until the last possible second. It felt appropriate. It felt like California. It felt like nothingness. He was nothing again. They were nothing.
“Care to explain your disappearing act and why Nicky thought it was his job to chew me out for it?”
No, he didn’t actually. He was finally feeling clear-headed and was able to see how some of his thoughts hadn’t been logical and he didn’t want to start opening the boxes and go through it all again. Because not everything had been illogical and justified or not, he didn’t want any part of it anymore.
“I was just having a bad day,” he explained away, hoping it was a good enough answer. And might have gotten away with it if Andrew didn’t have a small pile of black ash between them to prod at.
“Burning yourself up is an awfully rabbit thing to do for just a bad day.”
“The list wasn't me. It was stupid. I had a bad day and now it’s fine.” Drop it he almost said. (He didn’t know why he stopped himself short.)
“A bad day doesn’t send you crying in a corner instead of the court.”
He hadn’t cried , Neil wanted to say but he felt doing so would come across as defensive. Instead, he snapped, “I said it’s fine ,” and willed himself not to start shaking again.
“Just because your new thing is saying it’s instead of I’m doesn’t make you any less of a liar.”
A liar. A runner. A fool. A nothing. The boxes were cracking open and Neil tried desperately to tape them back up. He felt his breath speed up without his permission and couldn’t will it to slow back down.
“Why are you pushing ,” he ground out, because Andrew was an instigator, not a pusher. He stopped when he was told and- Neil realized a second too late that he hadn’t actually said no or stop or don’t .
“Why are you avoiding the question?”
“I’m not . I had a bad day, okay? Is that allowed? Do I need your fucking permission or something?” It was happening again. His cheeks hurt and his throat was closing. His fists shook so he shoved them under his thighs. He closed his eyes and looked for a bigger, stronger box. He couldn’t find one.
“A bad day is a stubbed toe not a nervous breakdown.”
“Shut up ,” Neil finally burst loudly. “What do you want from me?” He kept his eyes closed, squeezed shut like blindness could encompass more than just his sight.
“I want the truth.”
“I gave it to you.”
“You gave me a flimsy excuse.”
“Don’t ask for the truth if you’re just going to dilute it.”
Opening his eyes wasn’t necessary to know that Andrew recalled those words. It was probably unfair of him to try and derail the conversation with that memory but he didn’t care. It gave him a moment of peace to try and get himself back under control. He counted to measure his breaths and focused on the sensation of the cool fall air in his nose and the smell of the browning leaves and the brush of the breeze in his hair. FIve seconds in, hold for three, five seconds out. Thirteen second cycles. Twelve breaths. Two minutes and thirty six seconds before Andrew took the thirteenth breath with him and spoke again.
“Trying to convince yourself something is the truth does not make it so,” he said in a soft, even tone. It was only the contrast that made Neil realize the bite and frustration of before. He’d been so caught up in himself that he’d missed it.
“You seem to already know this truth you’re looking for so why don’t you tell me since I’m apparently too stupid to figure it out on my own.”
Andrew’s frustrated sigh was barely audible over the ruffling leaves and passing pedestrians. “Look at me.” Neil kept his eyes closed. “Neil. Look at me.” Neil kept his eyes closed. The concrete was hurting his knuckles. “You don’t need to have a bad day to excuse your feelings. You’re allowed to just have them.”
“What feelings.” A split second, he heard his own tone echoing from hours ago. What relationship .
“I don’t know because you won’t fucking tell me.”
“God, you’re being so fucking annoying , Andrew.” Annoyance was easy and so was talking as long as he kept his eyes shut. “What do you want to hear? That I feel like shit ? That I’ve been sleeping with a dumb list under my pillow trying to figure out who I fucking am? That I’m either nothing or a lying asshole who can’t spell auburn ? That I’ve been trying all day to stop feeling like this and it was working -”
“You can’t stop yourself from feeling .”
Oh, that was rich coming from Andrew. “Why not?” he bit out.
“Because you’re not a sociopath.”
“Neither are you.”
Andrew’s entire person was focused on feeling and wanting nothing. He didn’t have monopoly over numbness and Neil didn’t understand why Andrew was trying so hard to force this.
That was a lie. Yes he did. He just didn’t want to because letting it happen meant the hurt would continue.
“You’re allowed to feel like shit,” Andrew said.
“Thanks for your permission.”
“Why do you feel like shit?”
“Because I’m having a bad day.”
“ Dammit, Neil ,” Andrew growled out. Neil felt his lip curl into a snarl. He squeezed his eyes tighter.
“What the fuck do you think a bad day is? I woke up feeling like shit and then shit things happened and I felt like worse shit. I’d say that’s a bad day. Sorry it’s not up to your standards of what counts but hey, I wasn’t stabbed or tortured so I can’t complain, I guess.”
“What shit things happened,” Andrew pressed.
“Shit like I woke up sad. Shit like people important to me telling me that things that are important to me aren’t real. Shit like my scars hurt . Shit like my mom being right. Shit like I don’t know what about me is real because it’s all lies and fire. Shit like I can’t- I can’t stop .”
His breathing was speeding up again. His throat hurt. His hands under his thighs hurt.
“Open your eyes, Neil.”
“Because I think I might do something bad if I do.”
“You won’t do anything bad.”
“Yes I will.”
A huff. “What you will do when you open your eyes will not be a bad thing,” Andrew rephrased. Neil’s jaw trembled and he couldn’t say anything past the tightness of his throat. He opened his eyes.
“Neil. Look at me,” Andrew said for the second time that night. Neil turned his head and looked but didn’t see. His vision was watery and distorted as tears gathered and fell. Andrew didn’t reach out to brush them away but he did tug one of Neil’s hands free and massaged the memory of concrete out of the scars on his shaking knuckles. It felt like a bad thing to cry and then it didn’t.
They were silent for a while as Neil cried and Andrew held his hand. Eventually, Andrew pulled out a blank piece of paper and a pen from his back pocket. He used his thigh as a table to write Neil Abram Josten at the top and then a 1 beneath it.
“Shouldn’t that be number one?” Neil asked.
“Your name is just a handful of letters you picked out of a magazine at a Wawa- it has nothing to do with who you actually are.”
“I don’t know what else there is.”
His vision has cleared enough that Neil could see the ring of gold around Andrew’s eyes this close.
“There’s enough,” Andrew said and it almost sounded like a confession. Next to the 1 he wrote Fox .
“You said you didn’t read it,” Neil accused.
“I didn’t say that,” Andrew replied and wrote 2. Top Exy Player .
“You think I’m one of the best Exy players?” Neil asked because he had to.
“It doesn’t say that.”
“...you think I’m a top ?” Neil asked because he had to. Andrew’s mouth twitched and it was the lightest Neil had felt all day.
Andrew wrote a number 3 but didn’t put his hair color, the same way he hadn’t counted his name.
“It gets hard,” Neil offered. “I tried to think of how I am and I couldn’t think of anything. What about… what do you think- I don’t know, my most defining character traits? I’m really fast, too. And don’t forget math.”
“Being a math nerd isn’t a character trait, it’s a flaw,” Andrew snarked and wrote Hothead, Loudmouth, Instigator . Neil snorted and sniffled.
“Tell me how you really feel,” he joked. “What about my best traits?” Maybe he was fishing but a compliment wouldn’t make him feel worse.
“Those are your best traits.”
“They sound like annoyances.”
“You like them.” Neil teased.
“They are literally the only reason we’re dating.”
He said it so straightforward, so blandly, like he had no idea the turmoil he’d just sent Neil into. He kept going on to write 4. Boyfriend, 5. Math NERD, 6. Demisexual . Neils entire body was tensing back up.
“You can’t write that,” he said. Andrew wrote 7 but didn’t fill it in.
“Allison doesn’t get to decide that for you,” he replied like he really had no idea.
“No you can’t- number four.” Andrew’s eyes shot up to his, blanker than ever. “That- you can’t say that just because I- it doesn’t work if it’s just one sided. That’s not…”
Andrew stared at Neil for what felt like a very long time and for the first time in months, Neil had no idea what he was thinking. Then, he raised the pen back up to number 4 and Neil couldn’t breathe when his heart clenched at the thought of Andrew crossing that word out.
But then he underlined it.
Logically, Neil understood, but he was not having a very logical day.
“I have feelings for you,” he said dumbly.
“Yeah,” Andrew replied in a tone that supported that idiocy.
“But you said…”
“Forget what I said.”
“No. I won’t. So forget it enough for the both of us. Number seven, dumbass. Number eight, pain in the ass.” He wasn’t writing any of this. “Number nine…”
“Two in a row. Something on your mind? Maybe we should put that down as my best feature.” Neil teased because he could. He didn’t feel 100% but the reassurance was beginning to settle his blood pressure. Andrew wrote Fucker next to the 7 and Neil almost laughed as he made a grab for the pen. Andrew held it up and away at an angle Neil could easily reach if he pressed against Andrew’s side. As he moved in for it, Andrew snaked his free arm around Neil’s waist and tugged.
“I have them, too,” Andrew said.
“Yeah,” Neil replied.
He felt better but only by comparison. He still felt sad and his scars still hurt but he tucked his face into Andrew’s neck and breathed without counting.