Neil paid for his coffee and turned around to find a blond man behind him.
“Hey, Aaron,” he nodded at him, but the five-foot guy just glowered back at him, and Neil stopped.
Since when did Aaron start wearing armbands?
Looking at Neil’s hesitation, the man rolled his eyes. “I’m not Aaron,” he said, tone curt and clipped.
Andrew watched the stranger’s reaction with annoyance.
Blue Eyes’ brows rose a fractional amount, and something flitted across his face but he schooled his expression into a blank mask before Andrew could figure it out.
“Well, not-Aaron, you’re in my way,” the man said. The audacity. He was a couple of inches taller than him, and had long messy auburn hair that he had tied into a knot.
“Did no one tell you that hipsters went out of fashion four years ago?” Andrew snarked, feeling vaguely annoyed, as though the stranger’s mere presence irked him. He couldn’t decide why.
The man smiled at that, and somewhere in his head, a voice that suspiciously sounded like Nicky said “Nice”. “I must have missed the memo,” he said, blue eyes thawing from icy to amused.
Andrew huffed. “Good to know.” And then for some inane reason he added, “I’m Andrew.”
At that, Auburn Hair tapped two fingers to his temple in a salute and responded with “Neil” and walked toward the door.
Andrew usually felt relieved when people did not recognise him, but this time, he felt a small twinge of disappointment as he watched Auburn Hair’s – Neil’s – retreating back.
Neil cursed internally.
What was this, a James Bond movie? Who even salutes like that anymore?
But then he hadn’t expected to run into Andrew J Minyard at the university’s coffee shop at 7am on a Thursday either. And he had certainly not expected him to introduce himself.
When his mother had died and after he had buried her near the sea in California, Neil had very briefly considered getting back to Exy, but her voice rode over his instincts and he had dialed Stuart Hartford’s number and flown to London. Now, 10 years later, with his father dead, Lola dead, and the Butcher’s empire dismantled, he was back in America, this time pursuing a doctorate in mathematics and teaching at the university. But he still remembered how it felt once to have an Exy racquet in his hands, the thrum of adrenaline when he slammed a goal and the single-pointed focus needed to win a game. That’s why, despite not having touched an Exy racquet in 17 years, he could perfectly recall every player of every team that played the sport, and spout game stats in his sleep.
He might be a math nerd now, but he’d always be an Exy junkie at heart.
Which was why, as he walked toward the door of the café, cup of plain black coffee clutched in his left hand, he decided to make a stupid decision.
“That was an abysmal save against Philadelphia yesterday. But, hey, good game.”
Andrew felt like the floor was tilting. He planted his feet more firmly on the linoleum tiles lining the café’s floor. He plopped into the nearest seat and frowned at the vase of wilted flowers on the table. By the time he collected himself, he found Aaron sitting in front of him, shuffling a stack of papers, frown in place on his face.
“Did you think my save yesterday was abysmal?”
Aaron looked up at that, his startled expression morphing into a frown. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“Since when do you discuss Exy with me?”
“Since now. Was it?”
Aaron frowned. He knew he could deny having watched the game, but it was a fact well known that Aaron Minyard never missed his brother’s games.
It was also a fact well known that he had no choice but to be honest with Andrew.
“It was adequate. Why?”
Andrew toyed with the sugar packets on the table, his expression brooding.
“No matter. But your friend didn’t seem to think so.”
Now Aaron was fully confused. “What?”
“Auburn hair, blue eyes.” Smart mouth, he wanted to say. “Running outfit. Ordered a plain black.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes. “A lot of people order plain black, Andrew. Just because you feel the need to add three spoonfuls of sugar in your drink every day doesn’t mean everyone wants to.”
Andrew was tempted to throw said sugar in his face, but stayed silent.
“Neil. His name is Neil.” But Andrew already knew that. He wanted to know more. He had no idea why.
“He teaches math at the university. And he is also doing research.”
Oh a nerd, then. Shit did I say that out loud?
“Yeah, he’s a nerd, but he’s helpful and doesn’t ask too many questions and he’s easy to get along with,” Aaron said, sipping his tea, something akin to fondness colouring his voice.
Andrew was intrigued. Aaron didn’t do fond. A few years ago, Aaron was as bitter and broken as he was, both of them coming out of traumatic experiences of their own, still navigating a bond that was foreign to them. Aaron had mellowed, thawed and the distrust in his eyes had dimmed, and sometimes his smile reached his eyes. But that still didn’t explain Aaron’s tone.
Seeing his furrowed brows, Aaron sighed. “He helped Katelyn with something when we joined the university. She likes him a lot, and I couldn’t find a reason not to.”
Ah, that explains it.
Andrew changed the subject. “So, how’s she doing?” He and Katelyn had patched things up once they had finished college at Palmetto, but a tense air still cocooned them when they met. “She’s fine. Stressed. But then, all med students are,” Aaron shrugged, then narrowed his eyes at Andrew, “Why are you asking about Neil?”
Andrew shrugged, struggling to remain nonchalant, “Ran into him at the counter. He called my save abysmal.”
At this, Aaron let out a laugh and Andrew glowered at him.
“That is just like him,” he said, elaborating when Andrew looked at him questioningly, “Neil loves Exy. Something about being unable to play after he turned 10. But he’s a walking Exy machine. It’s annoying really,” Aaron said, sounding anything but.
Somehow this only pissed off Andrew more. Before Aaron could start asking uncomfortable questions he had no answers to, Andrew stood up, pushing his chair back.
“I’ll see you around,” he said churlishly.
“Come home for dinner tomorrow,” Aaron said, and Andrew was sure he detected a smirk somewhere in his voice.
If he slammed the café door a little harder than usual, then no one had to know.
Four hours after he had downed his coffee in the morning, Neil realised that he told one of the best goalkeepers in Exy that their save had been sub-par. He groaned and rested his head on a stack of books next to him. “Who does that? Who criticizes their Exy idol the first time they run into them?”
“Mr. Josten, do you need something?” the librarian’s voice rang out from behind him.
He sighed, “The ability to disappear, the ability to turn time, or the ability to shut the hell up would be nice.”
“Fantasy section,” she snapped, and turned on her heels.
Neil buried his hands in his face, knocking his glasses aside.
If he ever met Andrew Minyard again, he would explain himself, but he hoped he wouldn’t get the opportunity. The man was famously contrary.
Or was he?