The first time it happens catches Neil completely off guard. He’s at the gym with Kevin for their afternoon workout when Kevin says, “Look, there’s Andrew.”
Andrew Minyard is one of Neil’s only non-exy acquaintances on campus. He’d heard of him long before he met him—he’s somewhat infamous at Palmetto State—because he was involved in some sort of fight club with Renee and had once stabbed Kevin. It had been a little surprising that Kevin was the one to introduce them (and that he called Andrew his friend) but then again Kevin’s a broken person. He probably sees stabbing as a normal overture to friendship.
Kevin starts waving at Andrew to get his attention, but Andrew either doesn’t notice or pretends not to (Neil’s money is on the latter). He keeps his focus on the weights he’s lifting, a look of supreme concentration gracing his normally expressionless face. Neil checks the weight he’s deadlifting and—oh. That’s about the same as what Neil weighs. He realizes that Andrew’s probably capable of bench pressing him.
That’s when it happens. He spikes a sudden fever, his chest becomes tight, and it feels like a family of snakes has taken up residence in his guts. He absently clutches his stomach, wondering what is happening to him. Most of his attention is still on Andrew.
Kevin gives up on getting Andrew to join them and resumes talking at Neil. Neil nods along without taking in anything he’s saying and takes a step to follow him. His sudden, unexplained illness also affects his spatial awareness because he finds himself running into a wall.
“Neil? What are you doing? Are you okay?” asks Kevin, sounding more annoyed than concerned.
“I don’t—I think I’m sick,” says Neil. “It must be something I ate.”
Kevin immediately goes into damage control mode. They have an exy game on Friday and he’s insistent that Neil can’t be sick. Then he realizes that he and Neil get their food from the same cafeteria and starts grilling Neil about every single thing he’s eaten today.
Neil answers Kevin’s increasingly panicked questions, getting more and more irritated, until he realizes that he’s actually feeling fine now. He tells Kevin as much but Kevin’s not willing to take any chances. He forces him to go back to their dorm to rest and decrees that he’s going to go talk to the cafeteria staff (which can only result in them getting purposefully poisoned).
Neil looks for Andrew as he’s ushered out of the gym but he seems to be gone. There’s another weird pang in his chest, so Neil lets Kevin take him home.
The second time it happens, Neil begins to see a pattern. He’s between classes, cutting across the quad when he catches a glimpse of a black-clad blond figure that’s at least a head shorter than most people surrounding him.
“Andrew!” Neil calls, much to his own confusion. He hadn’t been planning on saying anything before the word slipped out. “Hey, Andrew!” he yells again, speeding up into a jog to catch up with him.
By then, Andrew has heard him and has come to a halt beside the ostentatious fountain, watching Neil run up to him without reaction.
Neil’s strangely out of breath when he comes to a stop beside Andrew; he spends full exy games running, there’s no reason he should be panting from a short jog. His lungs don’t listen to reason; they feel tight all of a sudden, as if absorbing the oxygen from the air has suddenly gotten more difficult.
“Hey,” Neil says again, realizing that Andrew’s waiting expectantly and Neil has no idea what to say. “Are you going for lunch?” He immediately wants to punch himself in the face.
Andrew pointedly looks at the student cafeteria that he was clearly heading to and then back at Neil. “No,” he deadpans. “I started making meat pies out of my victims, à la Mrs. Lovett, and I want to sell them in the caf. They’re probably better than the usual gruel.”
Neil laughs, too loudly. His laugh doesn’t sound like his own: it’s forced and unnatural. His temples begin to sweat; he thinks he’s spiking a fever again. Before he can think of anything to say, someone knocks into him from behind. He’s pushed forward a step into Andrew, who acts as a solid barrier and easily supports Neil’s weight.
Neil’s breath leaves him completely. He covers by turning and glaring down the person who ran into him. “Hey, asshole,” he says. “Watch where you’re going.”
The asshole in question is one of the douches from the football team. He’s been giving Neil’s teammates a hard time this year; even if Neil didn’t hate him on principle for being a football player, he’d hate him for the way he’s been harrassing Dan, Renee, and the other female members of the team.
The football douche’s face twists into a sneer and he puffs up like he’s about to hit Neil. It won’t be the first time Neil’s been hit this year, but usually he has to run his mouth a little first. Maybe he can convince Coach it isn’t his fault when he shows up to practice with a shiner later; he’s barely provoked him.
Andrew sidles around Neil, looking up placidly at the football douche. He twitches his hands toward his armbands, where reliable gossip around campus claims he keeps his knives.
The football douche falters slightly in the face of Palmetto State’s own psychopath. “Got others fighting your battles now, Josten?” he sneers.
Andrew doesn’t say anything; he simply unsheaths one of his knives and flips it idly.
“Whatever,” says the football douche, backing away.
Neil’s mysterious illness has gotten worse in the last few moments. He’s definitely overheating now, his skin flushed. His breathing has become even more laboured and there’s a burning sensation in his chest. He tries to hide his affliction, not wanting Andrew to think he’s weak. “You didn’t have to do that,” he says, forcing the words past his dry throat.
“I hate jocks,” replies Andrew.
“You don’t have to protect me,” Neil presses.
“If he broke your face, Kevin would be insufferable,” says Andrew indifferently. He meets Neil’s eyes for a fraction of a second. “Besides, I like your face the way it is.” It’s possible he’s caught Neil’s sickness as his cheeks are also turning red. When Neil doesn’t say anything more—for the first time in his memory he’s at a loss for words—Andrew turns and continues on his way, leaving Neil standing by the fountain.
Once is coincidence; twice is a pattern. Neil thinks he might be seriously ill and it’s somehow connected to Andrew Minyard.
The next time it happens, Neil is more or less prepared. He shares a class with Andrew, Introduction to Criminal Justice. Neil chose it as an elective because he thought it might be interesting; Andrew’s a criminal law major so he has to take it.
They don’t sit together. Neil tends to sit at the back of classes: somewhere he can go unnoticed by the lecturer and doodle to his heart’s content. Andrew always takes a seat near the front; between his height and his nearsightedness (that Neil found out about serendipitously—Andrew refuses to wear his glasses in public), he probably needs to be close in order to see anything.
Neil’s been enjoying the class so far, although sometimes it hits a little close to home. A lot of things the professor covers forcibly remind Neil of his father but then he remembers that his father is dead and can’t hurt him ever again. It’s cathartic.
Just as Neil is starting to like the lecturer he does the worst thing he could possibly do: announce a mandatory group project. The man doesn’t seem to realize his danger—he’s just taught them about crime to give everyone ideas and then made an announcement like that.
The class bustles as everyone looks around, trying to catch someone else’s eye, not wanting to be stuck working with that one weird kid who tucks his jeans into his socks. Or likely with Andrew. Neil averts his eyes from the girl who immediately turns toward him—he thinks her name is Marissa and she’s been completely impervious to all his hints that he’s not interested in her (or in anyone). Glancing away from her, his gaze lands on Andrew who turns as if he can feel Neil’s eyes on the back of his head.
He raises an eyebrow in question. Neil takes it to be an invitation to work together and he nods, relieved to have a partner he doesn’t hate. He’s not surprised when the symptoms of his mysterious illness kick in; he hasn’t failed to notice that they only appear around Andrew.
What he’s not prepared for is Andrew rolling his eyes and wrinkling his nose in distaste at the assignment. Neil stops himself from laughing in shocked delight—any expression on Andrew’s face is unexpected and precious. His lungs seize completely and his stomach curdles and he experiences the strongest desire to just—he doesn’t even know. Slam Andrew’s face into the floor or something.
The sudden violent turn of his thoughts surprises him. He’s never really thought of himself as a violent person—sure, he generally wants to set anyone holding up the Starbucks line on fire, and wishes that the guy who pedantically questions (and tries to mansplain to) the prof in his stats class would drop dead, and he absolutely wouldn’t mind pushing the football douches down the dorm stairs, but he’s pretty sure those are all normal urges. Judging by other people’s expressions, he’s not alone in wishing those types of people bodily harm. But this sudden, visceral need to stab Andrew’s face so he’ll stop making Neil’s chest feel like it’s caught in a vice is new.
In the past, he’s spent time worrying that he inherited something of his father’s other than his hair and eye colour. He hasn’t noticed anything before, but maybe his serial killer genes just haven’t kicked in until now. Maybe taking a criminology course has brought them to the fore. It even makes sense that his apparent target is Andrew—he’s clearly the most dangerous and competent man on campus.
Well, Neil doesn’t care. He’s not his father, he’s better than that, and his stupid genetics can’t make him otherwise. Besides, he’s most likely not a serial killer.
He’s probably just dying.
It continues to happen more or less constantly whenever he’s in Andrew’s presence after that. Neil carefully tracks all of his symptoms, trying to figure out what is actually happening. He’s no closer to an answer, but his recent increase in contact with Andrew gives him a lot of experimental data.
Working together on a project means they spend a fair amount of time with each other; they even exchange phone numbers and start texting back and forth. Even after their project is finished and turned in, they continue to send messages to each other.
Andrew isn’t the most reliable or communicative texter. He usually replies whenever Neil sends him something, but it’s generally a single word answer. Neil’s also not known for his prodigious texting skills. Still, he frequently has an urge to text Andrew, to make sure the other man is thinking about Neil as much as Neil is thinking about him.
He hits on a successful strategy before long: sending Andrew pictures of whatever he’s doing. Andrew almost always replies with a picture of his own, sometimes even initiating the exchange.
On the night that everything comes to a head, Neil sends him a picture of his stats textbook, complete with his doodles along the edges. Andrew sends back a selfie of himself reading a book for one of his classes: it’s a terrible angle and cuts off most of his face, but Neil can see his mussed hair and that he’s wearing his glasses. He looks soft in a way he isn’t and completely at ease. Neil knows it’s a privilege to see Andrew with his guard down; he must be one of only a handful that have been granted permission.
His heart feels like it’s going to beat out of his chest and his hands shake as he saves the selfie to a quickly-filling folder on his phone, simply labelled Andrew.
“That’s it,” he mutters, tossing his phone aside. He’s had enough of this. It’s time to figure out exactly what’s wrong with him. He opens his laptop and navigates to WebMD.
He fills out all his symptoms, being as detailed as possible. His first diagnosis is pancreatic cancer. The second is acute liver failure. That option seems less likely, so he researches pancreatic cancer. Maybe it’s one of those easily beatable types of cancer? A quick google search tells him that the five year survival rate is less than five percent.
He sits back in his chair, stunned. It’s not fair. He’s just got his life together, he’s finally safe and happy, and now he has cancer? Fuck that.
He gropes for his phone, dialling Matt. There’s no answer. He texts Matt, call me, it’s an emergency, then tries to phone him again. After five minutes of no answer, he huffs impatiently. This can only mean one thing: Matt’s getting laid. Which is actually helpful since Neil knows where to find him, and he can also get Dan’s opinion at the same time. He doesn’t worry about interrupting them; they’ll have plenty of time to have sex once he’s dead.
He doesn’t bother to put on shoes, slipping down the hall to Dan’s room in his socks. He knocks, once, twice, three times in quick succession. “I can hear you laughing in there; you can’t pretend you’re not home like you did last time,” he says.
Dan opens the door with a glare. Neil’s had it aimed at him too many times to be affected by it anymore. “I know it’s late,” he says, pushing past her. “Oh, good, Matt’s here, too,” he continues, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “I need your help.”
They’re both watching him with expressions of mixed exasperation and fondness. Dan’s clad in a skimpy tank top and short shorts, while Matt’s modesty is only preserved by a sheet. Neil makes sure to regard them closely as he has been ever since this whole thing started to see if anyone else can garner the same reaction that being close to Andrew does. As usual, he is unaffected. Until he thinks of Andrew being naked save for a sheet. All his muscles would be on display—
“What do you want?” asks Dan. Her tone is brusque, but her eyes are warm and concerned.
“I think I might be dying,” announces Neil without preamble. Both Dan and Matt’s expressions go slack. “Or I might be a serial killer,” he adds to soften the blow.
“Why do you think you’re dying?” demands Dan after she recovers from her initial shock. Her eyes have gone flinty, like she’s planning on wrestling Neil’s illness into submission.
“Or a serial killer, let’s not forget that,” says Matt.
“I googled all my symptoms and the internet says I have cancer,” says Neil as steadily as he can. “Or liver failure, but I don’t drink so it’s not that. Honestly, it’s not that surprising. I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long.”
The tension immediately goes out of both Matt and Dan’s shoulders as soon as he mentions the internet. “You don’t have cancer,” says Matt, rolling his eyes.
“What symptoms?” asks Dan. “You’ve seemed fine at practice.”
“I don’t get them at practice, only in class or in my free time. They always happen around a specific person, so that’s why I think I may be a latent serial killer.”
“But what are they?” Dan presses.
Neil thinks about it. “I get these attacks where I get flushed and my chest hurts and it’s hard to breathe.”
“But only around a specific person?” clarifies Matt.
Neil nods. “Sometimes I get nauseated and I lose focus and don’t notice my surroundings.” This part he’s the most worried about; constant vigilance has been literally beaten into him.
“Do you feel unsafe?” Matt asks.
Neil almost scoffs. “Of course not, he’d protect me if there was a threat. I’m safe with him.”
Dan looks amused now. “Tell me more about this guy.”
“He’s a criminal law major who hates jocks, but his general fitness is astonishing, even though all he seems to eat are hot pockets and ice cream. One time I saw him deadlifting my weight at the gym, which is when I had my first attack.” Neil feels a little breathless just remembering it.
“Let me guess: you got flustered and walked into a wall,” says Matt, clearly trying to keep a straight face.
Neil narrows his eyes. “How do you know that?”
“Wait, you actually walked into a wall? I thought that only happened in movies.”
“You know something,” accuses Neil as Matt’s face creases into a grin. “You know what’s wrong with me and you’re not telling me. It’s serious, isn’t it? Oh, god, it is cancer. I knew this life was too good to be true.” He plays it up, hyperventilating a little, knowing that Matt will stop teasing him the moment he thinks Neil’s in actual distress.
“Of course you don’t have cancer, Neil, don’t worry,” Matt caves instantly.
“What do I have, then?” asks Neil, getting down to business.
“A crush, you manipulative child,” says Dan in exasperation.
“No, I don’t,” replies Neil, instantly dismissing her words. He doesn’t swing. He’s never been interested in anybody.
“Yes, you do,” challenges Dan. “You like this guy and you’re freaking out about it.”
“Why else would you want to kiss him so badly?” adds Matt.
Neil opens his mouth to argue again, but images of kissing Andrew assault his brain. He thinks about Andrew pushing him against the wall and holding him there while his biceps flex and—
“Oh, god, I really do,” he says in realization.
“Told you,” says Matt, grinning like a smug asshole.
“Wait,” says Neil. “This is what a crush feels like?” He thinks back over all his recent discomfort. “It’s horrible! Why would anyone do this? It was easier when I had cancer.”
“You never had any damn cancer,” grumbles Dan.
“This is way worse than cancer,” argues Neil. “Now I’m going to spend all my time thinking about kissing him.”
“Or you could do something about it,” suggests Dan.
That would put him out of his current misery at least. “Good point,” he admits. “I’ll see if he’s amenable to kissing me.” Matt says something more, but Neil ignores him, pulling out his phone to text Andrew. I want to kiss you, he types. He considers adding an explanation or some qualifiers, but decides this gets his point across. He hits send and waits for a reply.
He looks up to find Matt and Dan staring at him as if he’s grown a second head. “What?” he asks. “I’ve got to wait for his response.”
“You just texted him and asked?” demands Dan shrilly. “That’s not—”
Neil’s phone buzzes in his hands. Then come kiss me, is Andrew’s response. Neil grins up at Dan and Matt. “He said yes,” he reports.
Matt, looking confused for some reason, asks, “Who is this guy?”
“Andrew Minyard,” replies Neil, getting off the bed hurriedly. He doesn’t have time to answer their questions, he’s got a boy to kiss. “Thanks for letting me cockblock you, it was really helpful.” He leaves quickly before either one of them can do anything beyond squawk indignantly.
He doesn’t notice that he’s still only wearing socks on his feet until he gets outside. Oh, well. It’s not that cold or wet and Andrew’s dorm isn’t far from his. He slips into it by closely following one of the drunken residents returning home from a party.
Andrew answers his knock with a glare that quickly morphs into confusion at the sight of Neil. He looks even more rumpled than in his selfie and Neil’s lungs seize for a moment.
Nothing happens for a beat, Andrew’s expression adorably puzzled. “I’m here for kissing,” Neil helpfully informs him.
“I didn’t think you meant now,” says Andrew.
“Oh,” says Neil, backing up a step and feeling disappointed. “I’ll come back later—” he doesn’t get the sentence out before Andrew’s reaching out to drag him into his dorm room and pressing him against the door. Neil feels himself turn to jelly as Andrew’s strength holds him up.
Andrew leans in, nudges their noses together, and breaths out, “Yes?”
“Yes,” confirms Neil, and then he doesn’t think for a while.
Neil pulls away for a second after thoroughly learning that he does, in fact, enjoy kissing (as long as it’s with Andrew). “I should warn you that a couple of my teammates want revenge on me for interrupting their hookup,” he says.
Andrew stares at him uncomprehendingly.
“Assuming this isn’t a one time thing...?” He waits until Andrew shakes his head in denial before continuing, feeling like his chest might burst. “Then they’ll probably bother us in the future.”
Andrew still doesn’t seem to understand his point.
“Try not to stab them?” he requests.
“No promises,” says Andrew, and reels him into another kiss.