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strawberry sweetness and light (doesn't taste like lies)

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The first time Nicky asks him about it, he says, “I am not interested.”

Because it is the truth.

The second time Nicky asks him about it, he says, “I do not have the time or energy for it.”

Because it is the truth.

The third time Nicky asks him about it, he says, “I am already dating someone.”

This is a lie.

Nicky’s face unfurls like a clearing sky, eyes widening and jaw dropping. “You don’t say! Who is it?”

Andrew’s mind flies in a thousand different ways, grasping for an answer, a diversion, another lie. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses Neil walking out of the locker room, hair damp and bag slung over his shoulder.

“Neil,” Andrew tells Nicky, and Nicky gawps, shocked and famished for more information.

“I am dating Neil,” Andrew says, and Neil is close enough to where they’re standing to stop in his tracks and raise an eyebrow in question.

Nicky glances over his shoulder at Neil, then turns back to Andrew. 

“You lucky man!” he gushes. “I thought Neil isn’t gay!”

“He isn’t,” Andrew says, ignoring Neil’s probing gaze. 

Nicky’s face contorts with confusion. “But he’s dating you?” He jerks his neck in a headshake. “Forget it - it doesn’t matter. But Neil!” He looks back at Neil, who is now leaning against the wall behind them, arms crossed over his chest. He flutters his fingers at Nicky, smiling placidly.

“Wow!” Nicky beams, rivaling the sun’s brightness. “That’s amazing news!” He rushes to Neil, claps him on the shoulder, and hurtles down the hallway towards the exit, fishing out his phone. “Wait ‘till everyone hears this.”

In the silence that ensues, Andrew stares at the far wall and continues to do so when Neil replaces Nicky.

“So,” Neil says, casual voice betraying nothing, “we’re dating?”

“Of course not,” Andrew says, unblinking. The wall is very interesting, very bland and safe.

He sees Neil shrugging and adjusting the strap of his bag. “Okay then.”

*

Kevin intercepts him on the way to the gym soon after. Andrew isn’t surprised.

“You’re dating Neil,” he accuses. 

Andrew remains stoic and unresponsive. Kevin remains nettlesome and righteous. 

“So you finally went for it,” he says, and something in Andrew’s throat jumps at that. “I suppose that it would be good for you to flush it out of your system. But if either of you let this hinder your game, I swear I’ll -”

“You’ll what?” Neil cuts in, materializing at Kevin’s elbow. 

“I will make sure there are consequences,” Kevin hisses. 

“Oh, away with your empty threats.” Neil waves his hand as if he can dispel all of Kevin’s ire with the gesture. “You know I won’t let anything get in the way of my performance. My life literally depends on it.”

Kevin’s lips flatten into a dour line “I’ll hold you to that.”   

After Kevin disappears into the gym, Neil asks, “Are we dating or not?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Andrew says, indifferent. 

“But you told Nicky we are.”

“And?”

“And,” Neil says with a patience that he seems to afford Andrew and only Andrew, “you never do anything without a reason. Why are you lying?”

“It is easier this way." 

"Is it?"

"Nicky will stop trying to get me to date," Andrew says, and leaves the rest for Neil to figure out.

It doesn't take long for Neil to catch up. He has always been smarter than people give him credit for.

"And Allison will stop setting me up for blind dates and hounding me about my lack of interest in everybody." Neil hums, considering. His pale eyes give him the appearance of cruelty, as harsh as the scars on his cheeks."So we'll be helping each other out.”

“I don’t need your help,” Andrew says, reflexive.

“Don’t you, though?” Neil waits for an answer that doesn’t come. He shrugs, careless. “But I agree that it’s easier this way. A lie for your peace and mine - sounds pretty ideal."

"Then we have nothing further to discuss." 

Andrew shoulders his way past Neil and doesn't look back.

*

They are met with a lot of disbelieving stares and, in Neil's case, inquisitive questions. 

"How did it happen?" Matt asks in the locker room, right before practice. 

"Naturally," Neil answers, taking his jersey out of his locker.

"When did you guys start dating?" Dan demands in the lounge area, right before a team meeting. 

"It started before I realized it," Neil answers, taking his seat beside Andrew on the couch.

"So who fucks who?" Jack sneers at the front door of Fox Tower, right before they could all enter.

"If you ask anything that intrusive ever again, Andrew will cut off your tongue and I'll personally shove it down your throat," Neil answers, taking control of the situation before any bloodshed occurs.

Neil is good at it, expertly maneuvering the situation to his favor and giving vague, trite answers that could not be disputed by contradicting facts. 

Andrew is used to guarding secrets and omitting information about himself, but he isn’t an active liar. While he internally flounders for one ruse, Neil concocts a hundred. There is a reason why Neil does all the answering, Andrew’s taciturn and unapproachable nature aside.  

Neil fields the questions with a poker face and a sarcastic bite and everyone nervously laughs and says, I see, even though they don't. Their curiosity is ostensibly sated, but Andrew can still see the scrutiny with which he and Neil are regarded, how Allison's eyes linger on them in suspicion, how Dan balls her fists and swallows the urge to ask if Neil is being mistreated or not, how Renee's smile is careful and indulgent. 

Even in their dorm room, Andrew doesn't let his guard down, Kevin's deprecatory glare and pursed lips following him when Kevin thinks he isn't paying attention.

He is always paying attention.

Which is why he immediately notices the pair of eyes trailing after him and Neil as they walk to the car for a grocery errand. 

He grabs Neil's hand, his cold fingers twisted around Neil's palm. 

"We’re being watched," he says. 

Neil's steps don't even falter, his composure untouched. "Allison," he confirms, head slightly tilted in the direction of her Porsche.

Their hands remain linked when they reach the Maserati, Neil turning to face Andrew. 

"Can I touch your cheek?" Neil asks, quiet as mist. 

Andrew inclines his head in a nod, deliberate and slow. “Yes.”

Neil cradles the side of Andrew's face, ducking his head closer. From where Allison is sitting in her car, it would look like they are kissing. 

Andrew holds his breath for one second, two seconds, three -

Neil leans away from Andrew. His cunning blue gaze cuts to the side like it can scan the area for any more prying eyes. 

"This should satisfy her," he says, his hand disappearing from Andrew's skin.

Andrew breathes in, air flooding his lungs like a dam bursting. The side of his face tingles, prickly hot. 

*

“Is he what convinced you to break our deal?” Aaron asks one night at Eden’s Twilight.

Kevin has fallen asleep on their table, head nestled in his arms. Nicky has had one drink too many, scrambling for the bathroom while Neil follows him to make sure he doesn’t drown in his own vomit. 

Aaron has gotten bolder these days. A few sessions with Bee and one visit from the cheerleader to his dorm room while Andrew was around - and he has suddenly remembered where he misplaced all the dissatisfaction he harbors towards Andrew. 

Perhaps bashing someone’s skull in with an Exy racquet has changed him. Or perhaps it was the gruelling summer, long hours spent in a courtroom, their secrets spilled like the insides of a gutted fish.   

Andrew traces the rim of his glass with his index finger. The strobe lights flash purple and red, in time with the thud of the music. Across the table, his twin studies him. 

Andrew decides to humor him; maybe it is time to try out those brotherly squabbles they like to show on television.

“You forget that you repeatedly broke the terms of our deal,” he says, factual. “Have you considered that perhaps I saw no reason to uphold it any longer when you seemed insistent on disrespecting it?”

The skin around Aaron’s eyes goes pinched with anger. “You would have kept the deal regardless,” he spits. “I know you.”

“Do you?”

“I know that you would tear the world down before you ever go back on your deals. Neil is the only explanation for this exception.”

Andrew takes a shot of his drink and slams the glass back down on the table. The surface is sticky with spilled alcohol, glistening under the pulsing lights. 

“This isn’t a matter I wish to discuss with the likes of you.”

Aaron’s nostrils flare, his jaw tight. “Then maybe I’ll bring it up next Wednesday, see what Dobson has to say about it.”

It is a pathetic attempt at a threat, as petty as Andrew’s words had been. 

Andrew doesn’t waste his breath on a reply. 

*

The first time was spontaneous. The second time is calculated.

On the trek from the car to the stadium, to the lounge, to the locker room, to the court - Andrew holds Neil’s hand.

The number of witnesses goes from one to more than a dozen in a single morning, and Andrew considers his mission accomplished. Now he won’t ever have to deal with his cousin’s meddling; he hasn’t known peace ever since Nicky discovered his sexuality a few months ago.

Sheena sniggers. "A psycho and the son of a killer. You two deserve each other.” 

Everybody neatly ignores her.

Wymack’s voice booms across the court. “None of you are getting paid to dawdle around and gawk. Start warming up before I make you run fifty laps.” 

“Coach,” Nicky says, “none of us are getting paid at all.”

“And with good reason. Now get.”

“But we do get a scholarship, so in a way, we are paid,” Matt tells Nicky in a hushed, consolatory tone. 

Neil detaches his hand from Andrew’s and goes further away to start his stretches. Andrew feels his absence like a torn limb. He stands where he is, because Wymack is looking at him like he wants to say something.

“So,” he says, eyes darting to Neil, “you and Josten. I would say that it’s about time, but then I already promised that I won’t go anywhere near your personal business.”

Andrew feels the faint twitch of his eyes, the constriction in his throat. Impassively, he says, “Wise choice, Coach.”

With a roll of his eyes, Wymack flaps his hand in a shooing gesture. “Scram.”

The third time is instigated by Neil. Andrew is surprised, but he also isn’t. Neil’s focus is knife-bright and keen, sluicing through flesh when you least expect it. 

“It’s Ruby’s girlfriend,” he says, right before he slips his palm against Andrew’s, their fingers laced together. Easy as breathing. 

Ruby is a freshman on their team. Neil keeps an eye on the girlfriend, waits until she passes them on her bicycle before he says, “Ruby’s told her about us. She’d find it weird if we acted cold with each other.”

Andrew acknowledges this with a grunt. He watches the bicycle path that cuts between the anthropology and social sciences buildings. Then he counts their steps to the food court, where Neil has promised to buy him a crepe in exchange for some extra hours in the goal during night practice. 

The girl has long disappeared, but Neil keeps his fingers intertwined with Andrew’s for the remainder of their walk.

*

They eat lunch together on the quad when they can, where passing students can see them as clearly as they see the sprawling verdant grass and the scalding yellow sun. 

When they sit on the roof of Fox Tower and a car pulls into the parking lot, Neil scoots closer, their shoulders touching and their thighs a hair's breadth apart. From below, in the hazy purple and dreamy pink of dusk, they would look like a double-headed creature, two separate beings fused into one. 

After practice and matches, Andrew sits Neil opposite him on a bench and peels off his gloves for him, finger by finger. When they have gathered a bigger audience, Neil takes Andrew's hand and presses his lips to Andrew's knuckles in gratitude, head bowed and eyelashes fanned over his cheeks.

At night, they retreat to the bedroom at the same time, leaving Kevin to stew over his notes at his desk in the living room, earphones parked firmly over his ears. They click the door shut and Neil snorts in the dark, commenting on how tense Kevin looked when he assumed they were going to have sex. He bids Andrew good night and climbs into his own bed, the sheets whispering under his weight.

The dubious glances taper off, and the charade goes well until it doesn’t. 

They’re in the Maserati, the sky the color of ripening peach. Andrew is making Neil listen to some of his favorite songs, because he can no longer stand the fact that Neil only knows music from the seventies and eighties. Neil has his eyes closed, head resting against the window. Andrew knows he is listening raptly; he taps a finger against his knee, along to the swell and dip of the melody. The setting sun has turned his hair into a blazing corona, and Andrew finds it impossible to look away. 

A sedan pulls into the lot next to them. Neil’s eyes snap open. 

“Cooper,” he murmurs. Someone from the soccer team, who lives on the same floor as they do. Rumors spread like wildfire here; at this point, every student at Palmetto State and their mother would have heard about Andrew and Neil. 

“Come here,” Andrew says, leaning over the console. 

Neil obeys, meeting him in the middle. There is a line on his forehead that indicates utmost concentration, a look that is usually reserved for games or life-threatening situations. 

Andrew lifts his hand towards Neil’s face, Neil’s eyes following its movement. His fingers slide above Neil’s ear, his own skin pale and lifeless when buried amidst the burning brightness of Neil’s hair. 

He can feel Neil’s measured exhales against his mouth, the tickle of Neil’s bangs against his brow like a piece of summer grass. The rapid pounding of his own heart drowns out the music pouring through the speakers. It makes him absently wonder if it could splinter the walls of his ribcage. 

Against the sandpapery hoarseness in his throat, he asks, “Yes or no?”

Neil blinks, slowly, the intensity of his features flickering out like the beat of a moth’s wings. His face rearranges into something Andrew doesn’t recognize. 

Quietly, he says, “Yes.”  

Andrew has imagined kissing Neil in a thousand different ways, under a thousand different circumstances. When he was drugged and grinning so wide his cheeks hurt, he had imagined yanking the collar of Neil’s shirt and crashing their lips together until they bled. When he was told if it meant losing you, then no, he had imagined going on his tiptoes to mouth against the bruise blooming at the corner of Neil’s lips like a trampled flower. When he uttered the words, you are always going to be nothing and I am not your answer, he had imagined how easy it would be, to catch Neil's face in his hands and plant a firm kiss on Neil's maddening mouth.

Reality is nothing like his childish imaginings. 

Unlike everything else about him, Neil's lips are soft. They're a little chapped and slightly distracting, but the warmth of his skin under Andrew’s fingers is even more so. 

His mouth tastes like the strawberry candy Andrew flicked at him earlier. 

Andrew’s mind - usually loud and crowded - is silent but for one thought: I am kissing Neil Josten

It is the silence that makes him stop, makes him back away and reconsider, because he refuses to believe that this - that Neil - is his answer.

He had experienced it before, in brief, obscure snatches; his fingernails in the hollow of Neil's throat, his hand on the small of Neil's back, his finger on the edge of Neil's cheekbone as he told him don't look at me like that.

They weren't supposed to mean anything, these fleeting touches, or the tranquility that followed. 

He didn’t know what to make of them then, and he certainly doesn’t know what to make of them now.

Neil’s eyes open, gradually, like morning mist dissipating. His lips, parted in the form of a half-kiss, are startlingly red. 

Andrew’s hand has slid down to Neil’s neck, and he feels it - the thrum of Neil’s pulse, right under his fingertips. He draws back, retracts his hand, disregards the heat resonating in his cheeks.   

“We are not dating,” he says.

“I’m aware,” Neil says dryly, like Andrew is a fool for having to even state the obvious out loud. He inhales like he wants to say something else, but changes his mind and presses his lips together. Then he looks out of the window, eyes razor-sharp once more. 

“Cooper’s gone, I think,” he says.

Andrew feels himself giving the barest of nods. He slumps back against the seat, vision glazed over.  

The music plays on.

*

The next time they kiss, they are at the mall. 

Andrew takes Neil out to buy him clothes, and Nicky has somehow decided to tag along. While they meander through the racks, Nicky regales them with stories of his classmates, talking at the speed of twenty miles a minute, hands blurring in a flurry of gestures. He sends Andrew a jubilant grin when he sees their joined hands, suggests a few articles of clothing for Neil that Andrew vetoes.  

Nicky wanders off, lured by a colorful and gaudy display near the register. Andrew drags Neil around the store by the hand, yanking shirts and jackets off the racks and throwing them at Neil to hold. He picks out a few pairs of jeans before delivering Neil to an empty fitting cubicle with nothing but the pile of clothes and a blank stare. Neil rolls his eyes and slams the door shut. 

Quickly getting bored with waiting, Andrew tugs a few sweaters off their hangers and lets them fall to the floor in a puddle of knitted fabric. 

The lock clicks open and the door swings inwards to reveal Neil in a tasteful combination of skinny jeans, white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket that matches the one Andrew has in his closet. 

“Well?” Neil prompts. 

Andrew runs a thumb over his lips, examining Neil from head to toe. Elevator music tinkles through speakers on the ceiling like wind chimes. He steps closer until their shoes are touching, then fixes the lapel of Neil’s jacket, right over his collarbones, his fingers moving with clean efficiency.  

Like a tsunami, the need to kiss Neil crashes into him urgently, suddenly. 

This is a lie. 

He has wanted to kiss Neil ever since that morning, after Neil scored on him during practice, lips split wide in a triumphant smile. He has wanted to kiss Neil ever since Neil struggled with the strap of his helmet, teeth digging into his bottom lip in frustration. He has wanted to kiss him ever since he took it off, the sweat turning his hair into the color of rust, his cheeks flushed pink and his eyes glittering like sunlight bouncing off the surface of the ocean.

It is truly an accomplishment, how Andrew has staved it off until now.

Maybe he just wants to kiss Neil without an audience to witness it. Maybe he just wants to kiss him without a single thought spared for the rumor it would spark. 

So he tightens his hold on Neil’s jacket and asks, “Yes or no?”

Calmly, Neil glances around, eyes sharp and alert.

"Is there somebody -"

"Yes," Andrew cuts in.

Something shines through Neil’s eyes, there and gone like the flash of a blade under the sun. He says, “It's a yes, then.”

Andrew pulls him forward. His skin buzzes, restless, the noises in his mind amplified just before his mouth meets Neil's. 

Then, miraculously: silence.

*

Slotting kisses into their schedule is perturbingly easy.

In the kitchen, right when Kevin wants to rifle through the fridge. In the car, right before the others pile into the backseat. On the roof, shrouded by cigarette smoke, his hand on the back of Neil’s neck, the stars reeling above them.

Sometimes, Neil doesn’t know what is happening until Andrew has his fingers twisted at the front of his shirt, until Andrew murmurs yes or no? into the ridge of his jaw. Other times, he says a precise and crisp yes before Andrew can even open his mouth.

Neil's pupils dilate when he is about to be kissed. 

It molds him into something delicate and gossamer-soft, all his viciousness evaporated and whisked away by his hooded eyes and inaudible sighs.

More, Andrew thinks, when they are kissing. This is not enough.

These are dangerous thoughts for a man who has never really had anything permanent in his life. Greed wells up in him like a rising tide, higher and higher each day. 

His own avarice is probably going to drown him.

This is what he is thinking about as he scoops ice cream into his mouth, Neil’s ankle hooked around his foot under the table. 

Nicky is saying one thing or another about the latest Lady Gaga song while Aaron peppers in scornful remarks at the appropriate places. He becomes especially bristly whenever they’re at Sweetie’s, what with Andrew now barring cracker dust from entering their Friday night excursions. 

Kevin and Neil are on the other side of the table, waist deep in a discussion about the game they saw on television before leaving for Columbia. 

Neil shifts, his foot moving away. Andrew moves like he is a man dying of the cold, like Neil is his only source of heat. He stretches his leg out, pressing his foot against Neil’s ankle. Neil’s eyebrow quirks up by a fraction, and - with a swift glance at Andrew’s face - he reaches across the table and places his hand on top of Andrew’s without a pause in his nauseating speech about Exy.  

Three pairs of eyes land on their hands. Andrew curls his toes against the inside of his boots, satisfaction pooling in his chest like the ice cream that is melting on his tongue, syrupy and sweet. 

*

After Aaron, Nicky, and Kevin stagger out of the Maserati and collapse into the house in a drunken stupor, Andrew stares through the windshield and says, “It will be suspicious if you sleep in the living room tonight.”

Because it is the truth.

He feels Neil looking at him, eyes intent and glittering. 

“Okay,” Neil says finally, stainless and impartial.

After changing his clothes, Andrew sits on the bed and leans forward, elbows on his knees, fingers steepled in front of his mouth. The moonlight streaming in through the window drenches the carpet in silver, making it look like a frozen pond.

He has shared a bed with Neil before, back in spring when they were at the mountains. Paranoia and relief had warred inside him ever since Baltimore, and it had culminated in an internal truce of fierce protectiveness. He had shadowed Neil, kept Neil close to him at all times, slept near him at night so he wouldn’t wake up with a shiver rattling through his bones, reckless with the shape of Neil’s disappearing silhouette. 

Sleeping next to him on the floor with the rest of their teammates had been one thing, but sharing a bed with a whole room to themselves had been another.

They are both polite during sleep in a way they never are when they are awake. They had woken up that morning in the same positions that they went to sleep the previous night, on opposite ends of the king-sized bed. The distance might have been shrunk a little, if Andrew had possessed more courage.

Like the coward that he is, he is now offering a little more of himself to Neil under the guise of security, in the name of protecting and prolonging their deception. 

When Neil returns from the bathroom wearing one of Andrew's old sweatshirts, he reports that he couldn't find any sleeping bags from the closet down the hall. He shrugs and says, "I've slept on concrete before. A carpeted floor is basically a mattress to me."

Andrew catches his hand, fingers clenched around his gnarled knuckles.

He can do this for Neil - wants to do it for Neil. Maybe he also wants to do it for himself. 

"You can sleep on the bed," he says. 

Neil's eyes are as dangerous as his tongue. They can effortlessly pierce through skin and one's pride, but like a surgeon's scalpel, they know to cut where it can heal. 

His eyes puncture through Andrew's opaque face, searching for clues. 

"If that's alright with you,” he says slowly.

He doesn't say, if that's what you want. Maybe he knows it would be met with the usual I want nothing, the mantra stale and platitudinous. Maybe he is sparing Andrew, saving him from having to face the truth brewing inside him.

Neil is kind and merciful in ways that he can never understand.

Andrew takes up one side of his full-sized bed - comparably small from the one they shared in the cabins. He lays on his side, expels a soundless exhale across the pillow, and closes his eyes. Minutes crawl by before he feels a dip in the mattress, the cautious movement of a body shuffling under the covers. 

Andrew holds his breath for one second, two seconds, three -

"Andrew," comes Neil's voice, soft as feathers. "Can I kiss you?"

Andrew opens his eyes. Framed by the glow of the moonlight, Neil appears both near and distant, both dreamlike and real; a suggestion of a boy. Unfathomably, Andrew feels devastated by the sight, would have crumbled to his knees if he had been upright. 

Equally quiet, he says, "Yes."

He watches Neil bend down, his heart thundering as it prepares for the collision of lips and teeth.

What he receives instead is a trembling kiss to the cold skin of his cheek. 

*

On a chilly night in Palmetto, lightning crackling across the skies and the wind rattling like a hungry beast outside the windows, Andrew leaves the dorm room and overhears, what does Neil see in him and there’s this girl in my class who’s really interested in Neil, do you think he’ll consider her when he breaks up with the monster?

Andrew sags against the wall, head tipped back. A cigarette dangles from his lips, unlit. His mind whirls around the lie he has spun for the past few weeks, the illusory comfort he has eked out of it. In the end, it all unspools around Neil.

It had been dishonest from the start, but there have been moments where he lets himself pretend that Neil might want him the same way he wants Neil, that when he places a hand against Neil’s chest and pushes him against the Maserati, Neil would always respond eagerly to his kiss, that when he peels his eyes open in the morning, Neil would always be near him and tentatively plant a kiss to his forehead.

Enamored by the warm touches and shy kisses, Andrew has almost forgotten that he will not be able to keep this. People like him never get to keep anything. 

With this thought weighing on him like stones, he tucks his cigarette in his pocket and trudges to the upperclassmen’s room, where Neil is waiting for him.

The room is dim when he enters, but the television is frozen on the title screen. Members of the Exy team are scattered about in various corners of the room and on the scarce furniture, but his eyes find what he is looking for without difficulty. 

“I saved a spot for you,” Neil says after he steps around the bodies and arrives near the couch. 

“Can we start the movie now?” Matt asks from the loveseat, tone wry but free of any ill-will.

“Sure,” Neil answers, sounding like he couldn’t care less about the movie. Andrew sits in the space reserved for him, right next to Neil on the couch, their shoulders touching and their thighs a hair’s breadth apart. 

“Hey,” Neil says, unerringly quiet, “where did you go?”

Andrew knows he doesn’t just mean it in the physical way. Glancing at Kevin and Nicky who are sitting on Neil’s other side, Andrew says, “Nowhere.”

The taste of what does Neil see in him makes the word come out dull and unconvincing. The light from the television seizes and throbs, flickering over the crease on Neil’s forehead. 

Kevin moves abruptly to reach for a drink, jostling Neil into Andrew’s side. Neil clicks his tongue, throws a rude French word in Kevin’s direction, and tries to squirm a little further away from Andrew even though it is practically impossible to do so with four male athletes squeezed into the couch. 

With the knowledge that this will end soon clotting in his windpipe, Andrew loops a shaking arm around Neil’s shoulder in a way that his body has been starved for. 

Neil tenses for a second, but then eases into the touch, muscles relaxing in minute increments. He sighs into Andrew's neck, head resting on his shoulder. Andrew barely suppresses a shudder.

A blast of lightning spears through the sound effects and the television goes blank. The hush that falls over the room like a curtain is cut short by the deluge of rain and their teammates' outbursts.

Some spring to their feet in search of flashlights, others grope around the darkness for their phones. 

“Smoke break?” Neil asks into Andrew’s ear. 

He gets off the couch and tugs Neil out of the room with him. With the heavy downpour, there is no other place for them to seek refuge than their own dorm room. 

They move carefully, their eyes taking time to adjust to the darkness. Their feet rasp against the floor like the intake of bated breath. 

While Neil locates the rechargeable lamp Kevin keeps under his bed, Andrew clambers on top of his desk and cracks the window open, a gust of air gliding in. The cold lances through his thin layer of clothes, but the scent of the rain is mysteriously soothing.

With the lamp in hand, Neil joins him. The gentle slope of his lips is visible even in the weak light.  

Andrew lights up two cigarettes and passes one to Neil, their fingers grazing. Neither of them flinch. 

Andrew contemplates on the marvel of it all, how they have not burned each other down to ashes. It will probably not take long until they do.

Neil is like a living flame himself, his eyes glowing as if lit by a secret fire from within. He breathes in the scent from his cigarette and stares silently at Andrew, like he is trying to pick his thoughts apart, piece by piece. 

Andrew wonders if he thinks about Andrew as much as Andrew thinks about him, like how when Andrew almost broke Allison’s neck for hitting Aaron, Neil didn’t say, are you crazy? or what the fuck is wrong with you?  

Instead he said, I want to see you lose control.

Andrew thinks about how the world has been cruel to Neil, just as it has been to Andrew. Unlike Andrew, however, Neil’s scars were borne directly out of other people’s depravity, carved into his skin by other people’s hands. Despite knowing what lies beneath the crude and fatigued armor of Andrew’s armbands and destructive apathy, Neil has decided to stay because Andrew has asked him to.  

He didn’t say, my life is not worth risking for you or how could you ask me of that when you could only offer so little?  

Instead he said, I want to go back for you and thank you, you were amazing.

Andrew thinks about how when he had allowed Neil to touch his head the third time they kissed, Neil had threaded his fingers through Andrew’s hair, thumb stroking the skin behind Andrew’s ear tenderly. 

Maybe it is not just his lips that are capable of softness, this type of vulnerability that leaves Andrew wanting and aching.

A clump of ash falls on the windowsill. His cigarette has died, wisps of smoke trailing from the end. Neil removes the stick from his hand and replaces it with his own, his fingers calloused and slender.

Thunder roars in the distance, racing across the vast expanse of the sky. There is no one in the room but them, but Neil dips his head and presses a kiss over Andrew’s dry knuckles. 

Andrew stamps out the cigarette, clenches his fists against his knees, and decides that enough is enough. 

"We are not dating,” he says.

"We're not," Neil agrees.

"I am not your boyfriend," Andrew says.

"You're not," Neil agrees.

Andrew jerks his head in a sharp nod, eyes riveted to the floor. It's a very interesting floor, very bland and safe.

"You mean more to me than that," Neil says. Andrew's eyes fly up to meet his.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re dating or not - you know I don’t care about all that, and I know that you don’t either,” he continues, voice quiet and sure; the first rays of sunlight at daybreak. "What we have - whatever you want to call it - it means something to me, and I don't want to lose it."

His certainty prickles at Andrew’s skin like a needle. “How can you be so sure?”

“How can I not be?”

“That is not an answer.”

"Then ask a better question."

Andrew's mouth gives a violent twitch in an attempt to quell a grimace.

He grits his teeth, inhales deeply through his nose, keeps his voice from wavering when he says, "How could you possibly want this?"

Neil’s eyes are steely and honest, a coil of intensity in his pupils, but the fragile curl at the corner of his mouth betrays him. 

“Because it’s you,” he says.

Andrew’s jaw clacks shut. He feels an abstruse sense of displacement, as if he had bargained for a candle and had the sun fall into his lap instead. 

A whip of lightning flashes through the shroud of the rain, enveloping the scars on Neil’s face in a momentary sheen of silver and white. 

“If you tell me to leave, I’ll go,” he says, repeating the words he confessed in the space of their battered, mottled faces on the floor of a dingy motel room. “And if you tell me no, I’ll stop. That’s all there is to it.” 

Andrew is silent. He thinks about the keys, the trust, the honesty, and everything in between.

He lacks the whorl of cosmic resplendence needed to keep Neil, who is as brilliant and blinding as a devouring star. And yet Neil’s kisses remain warm and bright, his hands safe and careful, his lips parting on the sigh of a small oh whenever Andrew shares a part of himself with him, eyes brimming with quiet wonder. 

Maybe Andrew will be able to keep this one good thing in his life. Maybe he is brave enough to be able to ask for it. 

He reaches out, knotting his fingers into Neil’s oversized sweater to pull him closer. The fabric is worn and soft in his hand. His heart is loud in his ears and his palms are soaked in sweat and his jaw is clamped tight to keep his expression still. He did not think that he could feel brave and frightened at the same time. 

“I have told you before,” he says, “that I want you to stay. Do not make me repeat myself.”

Neil’s eyes remain steady on him, but they soften, coaxing the air around them into something warm and deeply calming.

“Okay,” he murmurs. “Anything else I should know about?”

Andrew tries to give him a hard, stony stare, but he finds that it requires more effort to do so than it used to. Somehow, he has been immutably transformed by Neil’s presence in his life. So he says:

“This -” he nudges a rigid chin to point between them - “means something to me as well.”

Because it is the truth.

“Okay,” Neil says again. 

Andrew brushes the back of his fingers against Neil’s cheek, cups his face in his hand like he is carrying blown glass. Neil holds his wrist in a loose grip, grounding and unrestricting. 

Outside, the ferocious rain has dwindled to a gentle drizzle. 

Neil looks at him with something he might be able to recognize one day. His eyelashes flutter against Andrew’s cheeks when he slowly closes his eyes. 

Andrew runs a thumb over his cheekbone, drifting it back and forth along the burn scar, and kisses him.

Neil’s mouth tastes like light.