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I.

Neil hadn’t considered himself oblivious until this very moment. There’d been moments where he’d doubted himself, mostly due to his mother’s fury, and Andrew’s manic taunting during his freshman year. Even Nicky and Wymack had pointed it out at least once or twice, though their accusations had more to do with their own curiosity and confusion. 

But only now, with Andrew’s heated glare on him, is the only time he’s ever really felt it. 

What ?” Neil asks, for the third time during their second water break. The first two times, Andrew had refused to acknowledge him, simply glaring for another moment before turning away with a huff. 

He turns to Renee reluctantly, seeking direction or guidance, and trusting her to understand Andrew when he doesn’t. She hums, a smile playing on her lips as she watches Andrew go, before she turns back to Neil. 

“How often does he tell you when he needs something?” Renee asks, and Neil groans at the indirect answer. 

“Is that what he wants? To tell me something?”

She hums again, consideringly, revealing nothing. Neil turns back to squint at Andrew, smile quirking up unwittingly when he catches him glancing back. Renee makes a small noise of approval beside him, then says, “I think so,” with a laugh. When Neil turns back, Andrew’s flipping her off. She returns it neatly with a smile.

“Ask him,” she says, and he nods resignedly at the simple advice. On the days that Andrew doesn’t grit out his comments directly, Neil has to look between the lines and ask questions without hesitation. It’s worth it to untangle all the tension between them that isn’t named, all the aggressions that Andrew holds close to his chest and refuses to let see the light of day. 

Practice goes by even slower than usual, with Kevin delivering his criticism and Dan and Renee cutting him down and mediating as much as they can manage. Neil can barely feel his legs by the time they drag themselves off the court, and the rest of the team seems to be in similar shape.

Neil glances back at Andrew before he disappears into the locker rooms, watching Renee gesture towards him casually as she says something. At the last moment before the door swings closed, he catches Andrew’s gaze as it flicks towards him. The half-second of contact reassures him immediately, turning the twisted, worried knots of his heart back to normal.

Nicky throws a glance at him, reassurance coated in the lines of his exhaustion. He must’ve noticed the rigidness to Andrew’s attitude, the way he shut down more than usual and was almost vicious in the downswing of his racquet. Neil sits on the bench until everyone disappears, still uncomfortable with using the showers while the freshmen are adjusting. Even despite the solid barricades of the stalls, he can’t shake off the feeling of curious, vicious eyes.

Once everyone leaves, he finds a dry stall and undresses quickly. The water runs down his sore body as he leans his head against the wall, mind running in circles as he tries to imagine what Andrew might want. Had he done something to upset him? Just as he reaches another frustrating dead end, the locker room door slams, jolting him from his thoughts. 

“Andrew?” he calls, straining to hear his response over the rush of the water in his ears. He frowns when he receives no reply, unable to control the fierce skip of his heart at the silence. He waits another moment, and then a spike of relief runs through his chest when he sees Andrew’s bright socks, a Christmas gift from Nicky.

“What?” he says, voice quiet. Neil hears the strain in his voice over the boredom, and for a moment, he lets a pleased smile break free to echo the pride in his chest. Being able to hear the undertones to Andrew’s voice is a novelty, something that never escapes either of them and still makes Neil grin unwittingly.

“What took so long?” Neil finally asks, cutting off the water to step out into the main locker area. Andrew stares at him for a long moment, leaning back against the lockers and making Neil’s blood sing with excitement. He unwraps his towel slowly, turning away to pull his boxers up and hook his shirt on over his shoulder. He grabs the knee braces he had on earlier, clipping them in place.

“Neil,” Andrew says, after Neil pulls on another pair of Allison’s shorts. He turns back to look, taking in the way that Andrew’s eyes drop to his feet and back up again slowly. It makes his face burn with recognition, knowing that look always leads to something else , something more . Better. 

“Yes,” he says, before Andrew can ask, and he lets out a huff in response as he rolls his eyes at Neil’s eagerness. 

“Come here.”

Neil does, closing the distance between them as quick as he can, eager to be closer, to erase that glare from earlier. Maybe he talked it through with Renee, Neil muses, as he steps within reach of Andrew’s hands. He doesn’t move though. Neil frowns at his impassive face.

“Andrew,” he says, voice soft. A subtle encouragement, because Andrew hates to be blatantly prodded. 

“Neil.” Nothing is given away in those words, and his expression doesn’t change. 

“What?” 

Andrew’s eyes shift, nearly imperceptible to anyone who doesn’t notice him. He should know by now that Neil notices everything, though. His gaze drops to Neil’s legs, and Neil watches carefully, trying to deduce the clench of his jaw. 

“My legs?” 

It’d make sense if that’s what he was angry about. At practice the day before, Jack had taken a swing for the ball and missed, catching the backs of Neil’s knees instead. Wymack threatened to bench him unless he wore braces to support his knees, and Allison lent him a few pairs of shorts so the fabric of his longer shorts wouldn’t snag on the brace buckles. 

“They’re fine, Andrew,” he says, adapting his standard answer of, “ I’m fine ,” knowing it might irritate him more. 

“You said that when you were smothered in bandages and half dead,” Andrew says, seeing through Neil’s amended answer. He adds, “But I know you’re fine.” His voice turns apathetic once more, verging on derisive. “You’re playing the same as always.”

Neil pauses, unsure of what to do with the lack of context given. “Then?”

“Then?” Andrew mocks dryly. “Then what?” He turns away slightly, eyes dancing downwards again, over the braces. 

“Then what ? You’ve been weird all practice.” 

“I thought you only had eyes for your game.”

Neil huffs. “And you. Those are the only things that have kept me alive for so long.”

Andrew steps forward, wrapping his fingers around the back of Neil’s neck. “Keep saying shit like that and I’ll kill you myself.”

Neil stares back, unflinching, knowing the threat to be as harmless as the fingers creeping along his throat. “Renee told me to talk to you about it.”

“She told me the same,” Andrew replies, still not giving anything away, still looking close. His free hand comes up, brushing the loose strands of Neil’s hair out of his eyes before coming back down.

Neil huffs again. “So? What did I do wrong?” 

Andrew raises an eyebrow, looking genuinely confused by the question. “You did nothing wrong.” 

“Then what?” Neil asks, voice snaring on the edges of his frustration. His exhaustion is bone deep and creeping up on him, finally rendering him too tired to think properly. Being around Andrew invigorates him enough, but even that effect is fading. “Tell me so I can fix this. There’s no point in you being upset at me if it’s something I can fix.”

Andrew’s face barely changes, except for the surprise that flickers through his eyes. When he speaks his voice is carefully laid flat, tone arching despite his attempts. Neil, despite his tiredness, reads amusement in it.

“You think I’m upset with you.”

“You’ve been glaring at me all practice,” Neil huffs, turning away. Andrew lets him go collect his things, trailing behind slowly. 

“Glaring?” 

“I need to buy you a mirror so you can se-” Before he can finish his sentence, Andrew crowds in behind him, letting his hands hover over Neil’s skin.

“Yes or no,” he breathes against the shell of Neil’s ear. Neil wants to say no , out of spite, but then Andrew would disappear, and Neil can’t find it in him to be spiteful around Andrew. 

“Yes,” he whispers back, catching Andrew’s mouth with his own, pressing their lips together and forgetting the question only for a moment. 

Neil mumbles, “ Andrew ,” into the kiss, pressing forward once more before Andrew pulls back. “Andrew, tell me.”

“I hate you,” Andrew says, evading. Neil scoffs, leaning in, pausing just before his lips touch skin. “Yes?” 

Andrew squeezes his hips in warning, but mumbles a quiet yes, the word so close that his lips brush Neil’s. He kisses him slow, just once, before he moves to Andrew’s cheek. “Tell me,” he whispers, dropping a kiss onto Andrew’s cheek, letting his mouth trail down to his jaw. 

Neil ,” Andrew warns, but he doesn’t say no, so Neil keeps moving, trailing open mouthed kisses down Andrew’s jaw, the spot just behind his ear, the lines of his neck. One hand comes up to sink fingers into Neil’s hair, pulling taut. 

“Tell me,” he repeats, focused intently on the way Andrew shivers at his breath. “You said I need things spelled out for me.” His irritation falls away as he lets himself get caught up, pressing kiss after kiss to Andrew’s throat to wind him up.

“You’re an idiot,” Andrew hisses, grip tightening on Neil’s hip as a strangled sound falls from his mouth. Neil huffs and pulls away, ignoring Andrew’s sour look. They wait in silence - Neil waiting him out, Andrew waiting until Neil gets bored of asking.

By the glare on Andrew’s face, Neil’s sure that he’s hoping he gets bored. Andrew rolls his eyes after another long beat of silence, drawing out his sigh until he runs out of breath. Neil waits patiently.

“Your shorts,” he says simply, and Neil frowns, looking down between them. 

“My… shorts. Allison’s shorts?”

Andrew nods and turns away, leaving Neil to figure it out on his own. He frowns again, looking down at them while Andrew busies himself gathering their things from his shared locker. They’re not a particularly ugly color - blue isn’t Andrew’s least favorite. He used to make vague comments about Neil’s running shorts, pointing out the unnecessary mesh fabric on the outside. 

Used to, because Neil figured out how much he secretly liked them. Andrew had gone on defense, denying and veiling his comments, until Neil coaxed out his real meaning, and that had been that. He flushes, drawing in a breath when he realizes. He looks up to catch Andrew tense, caught. 

“You like them,” Neil says slowly, testing to make sure he’s right. Andrew shrugs, slamming the locker shut and shoving his bag into Neil’s chest. He smiles, and Andrew makes a low sound, turning away, which makes Neil smile wider. 

“You do . You were staring ,” Neil teases, something that’s become second-nature to him since he realized how easy it riles Andrew up. 

“I didn’t ask you,” Andrew says, pulling his keys from his bag. “Hurry up or I’ll leave you here.” 

“I think you like looking at me too much to leave me behind,” Neil calls, and Andrew scoffs, turning to walk out the door.

His car is running when Neil gets out to the parking lot, but he hasn’t left yet. The sight makes a grin spread across Neil’s face. 

 

II.

“Oh, fuck .”

The wall shudders under the force of the bedframe and Neil grits his teeth. 

Shh. They’ll hear us, baby.” 

Andrew shuts his eyes tightly, gripping Neil’s hand tighter. Neil leans towards him, offering support, but Andrew just shakes his head.

“Oh my god. Don’t stop .” 

Neil grabs the remote. Turns the volume up louder on the t.v.

He looks at Andrew’s stubborn expression, rolling his eyes when Andrew glares at him. Neil squeezes his hand tighter in response. He waits another moment for the bed to creak in the room, and then makes a point of pressing the buttons harder, making sure that Andrew notices that the volume can’t increase anymore. 

“Who do you think is doing the fucking?” Andrew remarks crudely. His eyes are sharp and annoyed, and Neil wants to laugh but settles for a grimace when he hears Aaron’s voice again, Katelyn shushing him uselessly. Andrew looks vaguely ill at the notion, but he sits tense, refusing to move. 

“We don’t have to stay,” Neil urges, tugging gently on Andrew’s hand. “Dan’s having a movie night. I think everyone else is there.” 

In response, Andrew stares at the t.v. harder. Neil stares at him until he turns, scowling. 

“Andrew.”

He hums, eyes boring into Neil’s. They both wince when Aaron’s voice hits a strained high note, and Neil wants to throw something at the wall. 

“You don’t want to sit here and listen to your brother having, what sounds like, his first sexual experience.” Neil’s comment is rewarded with a rare flicker of a smile in Andrew’s expression, but it disappears quickly under disgust when Aaron makes another noise. 

“Hey,” he tries again, reshaping his approach. Andrew’s eyes flash, and he threatens to pull away. Neil holds fast, bringing his other hand up to Andrew’s jaw, waiting for his slight nod before touching lightly. 

“He’s doing fine. He’s fine,” Neil repeats, trying his best to be gentle, but not placating. The last thing Neil wants to do is make him feel like he’s being lulled, like he should step away for only a moment because there’s no way he’s unsafe. 

“Andrew. She’s not going to hurt him.” 

“You don’t know that,” he says simply, but there’s a vicious edge to his voice that makes Neil’s gut twist. It’s not rage, not like it used to be, but care . Or maybe it’s both and Neil is the only one who's bothered to tell the difference. He cares about Aaron, still. Neil is proud of him for trying, for not abandoning feelings and family alike, after so long. But…

“I don’t,” he responds, and Andrew’s gaze becomes more intent. “But the risk is always there. And he can take care of himself. Do you really want to sit here? I’ll stay here with you, but we don’t know when they’re going to stop-” 

Neil is prepared to say more, but then Katelyn starts making noises. Or maybe it’s still Aaron. Andrew’s question seems more valid with every second that passes, and Neil can’t be entirely sure. Andrew stands, unfolding his legs and walking towards the door with Neil behind him. 

He checks his hoodie pocket for their dorm key, not trusting anyone to open it when they come back. They pause just outside the dorm, Andrew turning to face Neil, still gripping his hand loosely. “You want to sit through a movie with the Foxes,” he says, not a question, but still seeking confirmation. 

Neil shrugs, recalling the horror of being in the dorm. “We don’t have anywhere else to go? Unless you want to go to the court. But, we’d have to take Kevin or he’d throw a fit about it.” Neil frowns. “I’m pretty sure he’s watching the movie too. Matt said something about a historical drama, so yeah.” 

Andrew looks contemplative for a half second, then nods slowly, and gestures towards Dan’s room. Neil follows, staring curiously down at their joined hands. Normally by now, there would have been a mutual agreement to let go, some uncommunicated assent about being uncomfortable in front of the others. Neil watches as Andrew leads them forward, grip tightening minutely around Neil’s hand. 

He pauses outside Dan’s door. Neil lifts his gaze from their hands to stare at Andrew questioningly, which he returns with a quirked brow. 

“Is this… are you fine? We don’t have to.” 

Andrew rolls his eyes, dropping Neil’s hand without ceremony. Neil frowns, unsure of his response, of the strange tug in his chest. Andrew knocks on the door, and before Neil can figure out exactly what he wants to say, the door opens and Nicky ushers them inside, face a mixture of confused surprise.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Allison purrs from the floor. Renee glances up and smiles kindly, making Neil’s stomach turn just the slightest. The sight of her on Allison’s lap softens her, but her keen eyes take in everything. Neil can’t help but be convinced that she knows what he’s feeling, even if he doesn’t yet. 

He turns to Andrew and notices that they’re watching each other carefully; Renee’s expression is a question, and Andrew’s eyes are the answer. 

Matt gets up from his spot on the couch and disappears into his bedroom, returning with two water bottles. “Whiskey’s in the freezer,” he says, gesturing at Andrew, who shakes his head slightly in response. Matt shrugs, half smiling, as he tucks himself back between Dan’s legs. Their contrast in size has no effect on their position, as Dan wraps her arms around Matt’s chest and brings him closer. 

The sight makes Neil’s chest swell and burn with some unknown feeling, but he stifles a smile regardless, looking at Andrew to choose a spot on the floor for them. It’s only when he glances in his direction that he realizes Andrew’s already watching him, eyes narrowed in a silent question as he takes a seat by the edge of the rug. 

Neil stares blankly, a bit drawn in by Andrew’s expression. By everything, really. Sometimes, he gets carried away just watching, marvelling at the effect that it has on him. To be reminded of all he has - and all he’ll ever need. Andrew takes every racing thought in his head and clears them, just with a look. 

Andrew grumbles something under his breath now, though it goes unheard. Neil smiles and gets his face pushed away softly for it. Someone screams on t.v. and Neil turns just in time to see someone with a mask, soaked in blood.

“I thought you were watching historical dramas,” Andrew says dryly, eyes not moving from the screen as he retracts his hand. Neil looks back at Matt in question, eyes darting helplessly over the intertwined forms of he and Dan. That feeling burns again in his chest, making his lungs feel almost useless. 

“We were,” Dan shrugs. “Then Kevin passed out in my bed.” 

“Tired or drunk?” Andrew interjects, and the sound of his voice, no matter how flat or dry, makes the feeling in Neil’s chest expand without fail.

“Both,” Nicky offers through a laugh, and Allison snorts. The sound tugs Neil’s eyes back to her, helplessly, and he takes in the joint sprawl of she and Renee, their bodies overlapping comfortably. He’s unable to look away for a short moment, stare darting over their comfortable position, the way no one else’s eyes seem to be lingering on them. 

Andrew’s stare is heavy on the side of Neil’s face, curious and burning, and Renee tilts her head at him in silent acknowledgement. Neil nods back, settling to look at the screen again. He still feels Andrew surveying his face, but he just presses his arm a bit harder into Andrew’s, hoping it suffices as enough for now.

Later . He’ll tell him later. If he can manage to figure out what he needs to say in the first place. 

He watches the movie for a while, huffing silently at the Foxes commentary, secretly relishing in the fact that he’s the only one who can see Andrew’s face at this position. Like this, he doesn’t have to worry about anyone else seeing the quirk of his mouth, or the relaxed expression on his face when his lips part in genuine surprise. 

Neil feels that weight in his chest grow heavier still, and he tries to untangle the knot of feeling in his body discreetly. It only works until the end of the movie, and then Andrew’s standing up to the protest of only Renee. 

“We’re watching another one,” she says, insistently, and Andrew shakes his head, turning to Neil with a considering expression. It says, we can stay, if you want

“Up?” Neil asks, and Andrew nods. Nicky stares at them, most likely trying to decode the message, and Allison buries her face into Renee’s neck. Neil feels choked at the sight, and he turns towards the door with a mumbled goodbye. 

Andrew follows just as promptly, ignoring the confused questions of the others in favor of crowding against Neil’s back. He nudges Neil towards the stairwell at the end of the hall, hand hovering just over his back. The night air bursts over his skin, soothing the burning of his skin. Neil takes a greedy breath of it, avoiding Andrew’s eyes until he gets himself in control, trying to put a name to his thoughts.

He catalogues his reaction - the shortness of breath, strange tightness in his chest, Andrew’s gaze making him feel clumsy and desperate. The click of Andrew’s lighter makes him reach out for a cigarette on instinct - his hands are shaking.

Andrew grabs his wrist quickly, turning it over, and Neil is shocked briefly by how casual the touch is. As if Andrew hasn’t made a habit of asking, over and over, if he’s okay. He looks up, meeting Andrew’s eyes.

“What is the matter with you?” Andrew asks. The smooth roll of his voice elicits that strange feeling in Neil’s chest again, burning again, feeling full of water. 

“I don’t know,” he responds honestly. He sounds breathless even to his own ears, and Andrew tightens his grip before asking, “Is this okay?” 

Neil nods, unsure of why the question feels more tense than usual. 

Andrew asks, “Is this something I can help you with?” 

Neil pauses, unsure, and Andrew takes his silence in stride, taking a drag of his cigarette with his free hand. He loosens his grip until their hands are intertwined loosely between them. 

Neil scrambles desperately for a useful answer, something to explain how he feels, and Andrew plays patient.

“No one ever looks at them differently,” he starts. Frustration tears edges in his tone. “Like earlier, everyone was all cuddled up together. And no one said a single thing about it.” 

“Is that what you want? To cuddle up ?” Andrew’s tone is mocking, almost scathing, but Neil can catch the curiosity layering it. He cares, even if it’s not obvious. 

“I want to be able to fucking hold your hand without anyone freaking over it. Dan and Matt were all over each other, Renee and Allison too. But I wouldn’t even be able to hold your hand, or be close to you without them calling us out, or saying something about you.” 

Andrew is silent, staring at Neil’s face, while Neil keeps his gaze firmly planted on their hands, refusing to be embarrassed by his annoyance. “We can do those things,” Andrew says slowly, like he’s not quite sure of  how true his words are. “I doubt they’d notice.” 

“They always notice when I say something,” Neil grumbles back, and Andrew squeezes his hand at his tone, like he always does when Neil gets frustrated. For a moment, there’s silence again, and then Andrew lets go of his hand in favor of tilting Neil’s chin up, holding steady so Neil won’t pull away. 

As if he ever would when Andrew’s staring at him like this. 

“You don’t have to say anything.” 

Neil stares blankly at him as the words sink in, then frowns. “Yes or no, Andrew. I’m not going to touch you without asking first.” 

When Neil expects his fingers to tighten, Andrew loosens his grip instead, fingers trailing almost softly down Neil’s jaw, tracing upwards to the scar on his cheekbone. “You don’t have to,” Andrew repeats, eyes on Neil’s. For just a moment, his guard lowers, and emotion floods his face clearer than day. 

It’s a devastation of the harsh lines in his expression, the way it all collapses into the warmth pooling in his eyes. Neil’s always taken aback by it, a little breathless. Words fail him, even as he knows exactly what he needs to ask. 

“You don’t always have to ask,” Andrew starts, voice a little quieter than usual. Always a reminder of the way he holds Neil up, with promise and strength. Neil’s chest swells, and the feeling is familiar to him, in the context of Andrew, even without a proper name. 

“Just this,” Andrew continues, holding up their joined hands. “Or this,” he says, trailing his thumb along Neil’s cheek. His tone is more begrudging now, as he gives more away. Neil is in awe at the explicit permission in it, the way he’s giving this much up for Neil. 

“Andrew,” he starts, voice a little shaky, overwhelmed. “You don’t have to.” 

“But you want it?” he interjects, and Neil nods too fast, giving away his gratitude. 

At this, finally, Andrew breaks their eye contact, turning to peer at the stars. “You are allowed to ask me for things. This is…” 

His voice falters, splintering helplessly, and Neil wants to stay here in this moment forever, or here, with Andrew forever. The word blooms in his chest, makes him feel ridiculously like he’s untethered from his body. 

He decides on, “I know you,” and Neil hears, “you are not like them,” even if it goes unsaid. 

He can only wait so long before the joy creates fissures in his chest, escaping him in the form of a smile. Andrew turns to look at him again, giving Neil a flat look despite the emotion in his eyes. 

“You want to hold my hand,” he teases, insistent and truly joyful, and Andrew huffs.

“I’ll throw you off this roof,” he mutters. Neil squeezes his hand and laughs, leaning into Andrew’s space enough to see the slight flush on his skin. 

“You’d come with me. We’re already holding hands,” he grins, and Andrew kisses him, first to shut him up, and then just because he wants to. 

 

III.

It’s so good, for so long. It always is with Andrew, even on his bad days. Everyday, Neil feels luckier to be here, to have this, and then a month after the movie night, he wakes up feeling wrong . Every breath he takes is punched out, oxygen leaving him in such a rush that he has to gasp for breath; his skin burns, too tight and pinched like it’s on backwards. His mind is racing, danger at the forefront of it, coaxing him out of bed. 

He can hear his mom’s voice in his head, urgent but always whisper quiet - Don’t think, just go. Leave everything behind. 

On autopilot, he grabs his clothes from the dresser, as silently as possible. Looks for his duffel bag blankly, and when he can’t find it, his breaths start to come faster. His thoughts race ahead, terror prickling at every raw edge of his old scars. He traces his fingers like his mother taught him, looking for a smooth edge, proof that he’s not all scarred. 

Except, he looks down, and sees the scars on his hands. Even circles spread across his knuckles and the back of his hand; the familiar crisscross of a knife’s edge littering his skin. The whisper turns to a scream, turns to run

It’s his own voice this time, as he turns towards the door. He runs. 

A step out the door. He’s in a hallway. He’s at Palmetto. He’s not safe, he needs to run. These are truths. 

His breath is coming - fast, too fast. He needs to match his footsteps to the pace of his heartbeat, to go until he can think again. One step, another. Away, away, away.

Something catches hold of his wrist, and without thinking, he turns and swings. 

The hit doesn’t land. All the blood in his body turns to ice as he struggles, as the grip on his wrist is tightened.

No ,” he whispers. Always quiet, voice flat and steady. If you cry, his mother says, he’ll be angrier that you made a scene.  

A hand clamps on the back of his neck and he waits to be struck, bowing his head, keeping silent despite the ragged breaths he can’t help. His mind is a flurry of fear, of wanting to die to get it over with, and every desperate piece of him that wants to live. 

“Neil,” someone says. The familiar order sends him to his knees, even if the voice is unfamiliar. Kneel, means a knife to both shoulders, a couple of deep scratches for whatever he did. He places his hands to the floor and bows his head.

The hand around his neck gets looser then, becomes a cradle instead of a vice. He hears someone say it, over and over again. He doesn’t know what he did this time, only that it’ll be over soon if he listens. Kneel , kneel, kneel. 

“Abram.” 

The name sparks a memory in his brain - first his mother, then a secret. He remembers a trade; his name as insurance, to promise to keep Kevin safe, even while Andrew was gone. 

Andrew . Neil remembers Andrew. Holding him down, saving him, over and over again. Teaching Neil everyday that living isn’t about being scared to die - it’s about taking up space. And he does. He has family, now. He has Andrew. 

He jerks his head up, meets his eyes. Hazel, sparking angrily, helpless to pull Neil from his head.

“Andrew,” he croaks, forcing the name out over the unintelligible sprawl on his tongue, everything he’s desperate to say flooding his weak mouth. He’s still caught in his tangle of fear, with his heart still running too fast and his thoughts still swimming wildly. 

But here’s Andrew, pinning him down. On a day like this, when fear becomes primary again, when it’s been years since he had a gun at his hand. It’s not pinning , he thinks, as his breathing slows gradually, as the other Foxes come out at the noise. 

Holding in place. Not hiding me, but holding me up until I can stand on my own.

Neil forces his eyes back down as Andrew holds out a hand to keep Nicky at bay. He hears whispers still, but they’re reassurances. Andrew’s and Dan’s voice. Kevin’s too, in his awkward, concerned way. Nicky’s panicky, fluttery tone rising above it, in German.

“Abram,” Andrew says, quiet against his ear. “Let’s go inside.” Neil shivers at the proximity, leaning closer, trusting Andrew to be the safest thing in his chaos. He nods numbly, trying to restore feeling in his skin, to let Andrew’s hand be the point of contact where heat leeches back in. 

He’s not sure what Andrew says to the others, but no one follows them back into the dorm. From there, he’d led to the shower. Andrew turns on the water, shoving him in fully clothed. 

It’s a bit hotter than lukewarm, and Neil is thankful for the steam of it, lets it roll over his shoulders and loosen the residual fear still crawling under his skin. Andrew stares at him, concern still taking over his features in minute ways. 

Wordlessly, he steps in besides Neil and wraps his arms around his shoulders, tucking him close against his solid chest.

“Neil,” Andrew grits, and he nods, not trusting his voice yet. They’d practiced this, Neil recalls. The little things that normally needed a verbal agreement were arranged more slowly - no sudden movements on Andrew’s end, and no hesitation on Neil’s. And it's worked, enough for both of them. 

Enough for them to do this, for Andrew to move his shaking hands down to the hem of Neil’s sleep shirt and peel it off, and then remove his own. Neil sighs at the feeling of bare skin, lets it remind him of being human, of being still. 

Here, in the shower. The only things touching him are water and Andrew, and he’s here. Alive. 

“You are still here,” Andrew says, a reminder. Neil nods, and Andrew guides his hands down to wrap around his neck so they’re chest to chest, or as close to it as they can get. “You are Neil Josten,” he whispers, voice steady and knowing. 

“I am not going to let anything happen to you. Not ever again. You are safe here. Say it.” 

But he can’t, not right now. He can’t believe it if it’s himself; he’s not even entirely sure that he believes Andrew either. 

“Say it again,” he whispers, needing it more than anything, pushing more than he’s sure Andrew can take. His voice sounds raw and afraid, but still. Andrew holds him tighter, and Neil feels how big the sacrifice is, how even now, their closeness makes him want to fight back. And he fights it, for Neil.

“You’re Neil Josten. You play Exy for PSU. This is your second year of college and you’re thinking of changing your major to focus on math.” Andrew goes on, bringing out the safe space of his new life to light again. "You are safe. Nothing is going to hurt you in here."

Neil nods, breath slowing down. His hammering heart thuds slower and slower, until he's calm again. 

“Everyone who has ever hurt you is dead, and I am never going to let anything happen to you again.” 

Neil shuts his eyes and presses a little harder against Andrew’s skin, wanting to thank him endlessly for this, for being safe. Finally, he lets his tears fall, and he lets himself believe in Andrew’s words a little bit more. 

 

IV.

There’s something glinting in the locker room lights, sitting inside Neil’s locker. 

Neil opens it quizzically, catching sight of the red packaging through the grates. He glances at Andrew first, frowning, but he’s busy opening his own box. 

Neil pulls the box out, unwrapping the ribbon and tugging the lid off. Just as his opens, he hears Andrew mutter, “ What the fuck .” Neil casts a glance in his direction, watching curiously as Andrew stares at a box of chocolates. He opens his own, finding it stuffed with, what looks like candied fruit. 

He raises one of the orangey treats for inspection, gaining Andrew’s attention in the process. Neil shrugs, and Andrew raises his eyebrow back. Neil looks around, catching Nicky’s bright grin, and Matt looking over interestedly, holding his own package. 

Aaron’s holding a similar box, a frown etched deep into his features. 

“Happy Valentines!” Nicky sings. He’s glowing . Neil has seen him look happy before, but never like this. It makes his chest feel tight suddenly, and a small smile comes to his face. The feeling is so unfamiliar that he wipes it away quickly, but one glance at Andrew tells him that he saw it anyway. 

“Happy Valentines Day,” Matt says, grinning along with Nicky. Aaron choruses him, and Kevin walks in late, holding his own box with an uneasy look on his face. His stare shifts to everyone else, holding their own stuff, and the tension melts off his face. 

“Nicky?” he asks, sighing quietly when Nicky nods brightly. 

“Did you get the girls?” Matt asks, and Nicky hums, grabbing his backpack from his locker. 

“Earlier, during the water break. I got into the locker room. Gotta go, have a video call with Erik in a bit!” He bounds out quickly, leaving the locker room quiet. Matt and Kevin clear out next, both with plans of their own. Neil and Andrew leave soon after that, Aaron staring wordlessly at them. 

Later, when they’re on the roof, Neil brings it up. 

“Aaron was staring at you, earlier,” he says, as Andrew fiddles with his lighter. He adds, “It’s too early still,” as Andrew glares at his cigarette pack. They’re both trying to quit, and all the advice given is to try smoking later in the day. 

“He wants to go out with his cheerleader,” Andrew mutters, bitterness staining his tone. Neil watches him carefully, snatching the cigarette carton from his hands. “Katelyn,” he reminds, a steady step in the right direction that Betsy encourages as much as she can. Andrew had mentioned it once, in passing, but Neil stuck with it, bringing it up as much as he could. 

“With Katelyn,” Andrew allows, glare pointed now at Neil. “He can go. I’m not his keeper.” 

Neil slides him a disbelieving look, which seems to amuse Andrew, taking the edge off his bitterness. “He’d go even if I told him not to,” he adds, and Neil’s heart clenches painfully in his chest. He steps closer to Andrew, bumping their shoulders together. 

“I know,” he says simply, because Aaron has never been comfortable with the things he can’t understand. Even now, after doing extensive therapy, he grits his teeth at the thought of Andrew being with a man. Neil supposes that it’d be just as difficult to understand Andrew’s strict care - that he must think it’s Andrew trying to deprive him of happiness. 

“Then he shouldn’t be looking for my permission.” 

Neil hums in assent, letting the topic drop. After a moment, Andrew sits down, pulling the box of chocolates from his hoodie and pulling a few out. He offers one to Neil, rolling his eyes when he rejects it with a pursed mouth. 

“I forgot it was Valentines today,” Neil says absently, and Andrew turns to look at him so fast that Neil flinches, turning to glance behind them. A flicker of something passes over Andrew’s face, but then it disappears under Neil’s scrutiny. 

What ?” 

“Nothing,” Andrew replies, turning back to look at the skyline. “I thought I saw someone come up.”

Neil stares, feeling unsettled by the sudden moment, and Andrew’s easy response. After it passes, Andrew is more quiet than usual, flicking his gaze between the clouds and Neil, thumb still flipping open the lighter cap. The rhythmic clicking eases Neil, but Andrew seems to grow more tense the more he does it. 

Finally, Neil holds out his hand, and Andrew hands it to him, glaring. 

“What is up with you?” Neil asks. Andrew shifts his glare to the floor. 

“Nothing. I’m going to nap.” He stands up promptly, not waiting for Neil to follow. Neil sighs, leaning back against the roof’s ledge with the lighter and cigarettes. He lights one reluctantly, letting the smell of smoke wash away his worry, trusting Andrew to figure out his hesitations.

Maybe he just needs to talk to Aaron. 

When he goes back in, Nicky’s on Skype with Erik, who waves sedately when he catches sight of Neil in the background. Nicky turns to him with an eager expression, but he’s a lot more settled than usual. 

Neil is silently grateful for Erik’s presence. 

“Have you seen Andrew?” he asks, and Nicky’s face flashes with surprise, before he covers it with an unconvincing placidity. 

“Nope. He didn’t say where he went.” 

Neil frowns. Andrew’s main places are the roof, or their room in the dorm. If he isn’t there, and Nicky doesn’t know where he is, Neil isn’t quite sure either. He slinks toward the room, opening the door after knocking and receiving no answer. It’s empty. A bolt of panic shoots up Neil’s spine suddenly, before he wills it away. He trusts Andrew to be safe. He’s probably talking with Aaron, sorting everything out. It’ll be fine. 

Instantly though, his thoughts turn towards the worst possible scenario. Andrew, caught up in something troubling. Andrew, in a fight, or hurt. Andrew, gone . Neil breathes slow, tracing the scars on his fingers, trying to gain some semblance of peace. 

He pulls out his phone and messages, where are you ? Leaving it at that, he huffs, pulling out his homework. Nicky’s voice rings in from the living room as he moves into the kitchen. The clattering of dishes pulls Neil from his to check his phone. No reply. 

He opens up Aaron’s contact information, staring reluctantly at the keyboard, before he types out, Andrew with you?

He sends it. Waits five minutes, and checks again, finding nothing. 

His worry begins to gnaw holes in his heart, as he leaves his phone behind, stumbling into the kitchen to find Nicky baking something. He feels guilty for interrupting Nicky’s date night suddenly, but the reminder that Andrew hasn’t texted back sends his heart into a fluttering mess. 

He goes back to the room reluctantly, checking his phone with a sick feeling in his stomach.

The new message notification lights up as soon as he picks it up, from Aaron. 

No?

Fuck. Fuck. 

It’s fine. Andrew’s fine. He could have just needed to talk to Betsy about something - Neil is no stranger to his emergency visits. But Andrew tells him when he needs to, always . He’s never gone off like that, or not texted back within minutes. Neil calls him, thumb between his teeth, worrying at the same strip of cuticle. 

“Neil,” he answers, voice mildly surprised. 

Andrew ,” he breathes into the phone, and Andrew hums in response. Coolly, like he hasn’t been gone for - Neil pulls his phone away from his ear to check the time - six hours. 

“Are you hurt? What’s wrong?” His voice changes instantly at the sound of Neil’s distress, and Neil grunts in frustration. 

“Where are you? You’ve been gone since like twelve. It’s about to be six . Aaron had no idea where you were either and-”

“Neil. I’m okay.” 

“Then where the fuck are you. Disappearing like that, and you tell me all the time not to disappear. Do you have-”

“Junkie.” 

Neil’s voice dies in his throat at the nickname, but more so when he registers Andrew’s tone of voice. He sounds uncharacteristically apologetic, and his words are lacking their usual bite. 

“I was worried,” Neil says, softer now. He lets himself sigh in relief, finally dropping his shoulders. “Come back to the dorm already? Or are you busy?” 

“You know the stairwell by the roof? The one on the opposite side of the unlocked door.” 

Neil hums into the phone again, distracted by how relieved he is.

“Come here.” 

The line goes dead suddenly, and Neil stares at the phone in his hands before rushing out the door, following Andrew’s instructions. It’s a short walk to the end of the hall, then left out past the big plant that Nicky has named affectionately after Wymack. 

The door has a sign on it that reads, out of order . Neil frowns, pushing it open and blinks in surprise at the sight of the dorm room sheets stretched between the stairs and the wall. They’re stuck to one side with tape, and Neil huffs at the unexpected sight. He continues down onto the landing, tucking his head into the sheets. 

Andrew is there, sitting on a pile of blankets with his laptop open, staring at the screen stubbornly. Neil takes a breath when he catches sight of a few small battery operated candles. Andrew still doesn’t look at him, but the redness in his ears is indication enough that he heard. 

“Andrew,” he whispers, voice failing him in his surprise. It’s so unlike Andrew that he nearly laughs, but that’d ruin the fragile moment. He looks up finally, face plastered into a smooth mask of blankness, and Neil can’t help his grin as he moves to sit next to him. 

“What’s all this?” he asks, as Andrew holds his hand out silently. Neil takes it and squeezes in appreciation. This finally draws Andrew out just a bit - Neil can hear the steadying breath he takes, steeling himself. 

“Earlier…” he grits his teeth as his voice halts. Neil strokes over the back of his knuckles carefully, easing down to rest his head on Andrew’s knee. In this sprawl, Andrew’s hand immediately finds a place in Neil’s curls, carding gently through his hair to ground himself in being vulnerable. 

“When Nicky brought up Valentines. You looked excited.” 

That’s all the truth he offers. Neil looks up at him, searching for the rest of the truth in Andrew’s face. He gets a soft look in return, the type of vulnerability that puts Andrew's expression on guard. The only difference is that the tense lines of his face have smoothed into something less apathetic, and his eyes are full of something that Neil feels acutely, every time he thinks of Andrew. 

“So what?” 

Andrew puts his hand over Neil’s mouth, muttering, “ Unbelievable .” Neil presses a kiss to his palm, smiling at the fake disgust in Andrew’s expression.

“So,” Andrew starts, “I wanted to do something. For you.”

It clicks in Neil’s head, a truth that makes him dizzy with fondness. In all honesty, it should have registered sooner, when Andrew disappeared, but his worry overshadowed everything. Nicky’s sly grin makes more sense in this context.

“Andrew Minyard, is this a date ?” 

“One hundred and four,” he warns, but there’s a smile hidden somewhere behind his gaze. Neil leans up and Andrew kisses his grin away harshly. Later, Andrew fixes the locks on both doors so no one can come in, and they curl up there on the floor to sleep.

“We can just stay here forever. No dorm to share with the others,” Neil murmurs sleepily, and Andrew presses a kiss to his forehead. 

Neil continues. “It doesn’t even have to be just today.” 

“It’s not just for today,” Andrew says quietly, and Neil blinks slowly, gesturing at him to continue. “Today doesn’t mean shit. We don’t need one day to do special things.” 

Neil’s mind hangs onto his tone, the gentleness of it. How he said we, how it doesn’t matter what day it is. The implication that there’ll be more of this to come, just the two of them doing things for themselves. He thinks of every night in Columbia that they spend together, Andrew being the same as he is now. He’s right - it’s not a special day - it’s just them . A smile curves up along Neil’s face.

“Sleep,” Andrew whispers. Neil shakes his head, but he’s already sinking into a dreamless haze. 

 

V.

As soon as the shower cuts off, there’s a bang from behind the bathroom door. Aaron turns to look at the door, as Andrew sneezes, once. Then another four times, in rapid succession. Neil blinks in surprise as a cough follows, the sound tearing from his lungs. 

Kevin raises an eyebrow, as Aaron continues to stare at the door. Nicky presses pause on their video game for a moment to glance in Neil’s direction. 

“What?” he asks, confused, and Aaron scoffs while Nicky perks up at the chance to explain.

“Andrew never gets sick. Not since I’ve known him at least.” 

Neil shrugs, resuming his homework. “He just sneezed. It doesn’t mean he’s sick.” 

But when the bathroom door opens, Neil catches sight of Andrew shuffling into their room, shoulders hunched forward. He follows, ignoring the eyes on him. He pauses first to knock on the door, receiving a quiet grunt from inside, which is as much consent as he’s getting. 

There’s a lump under the blankets which Neil assumes is Andrew. 

“Andrew.” 

“Hm?” He doesn’t move.  

“Can you come here?” Neil asks.

Andrew makes a disagreeing noise, and Neil rolls his eyes, climbing up the ladder. 

“Nicky thinks you’re sick.” Neil pauses, waiting for Andrew’s assent, but receives no answer. The bundle stays firmly in place, and Neil waits until Andrew peeks his head out silently. His eyes are red rimmed and glassy, half-shut despite his glare.

“Nicky doesn’t know anything,” Andrew says, but his voice cracks halfway through, and he starts coughing as soon as he finishes. Neil runs through every helpful remedy that Abby had forced on him that one time he’d had a cold over the summer. Andrew was in Columbia for the weekend with Nicky and Aaron, taking care of something with the house, and Neil opted to stay behind to run drills.

Except, he’d gotten sidetracked for a day and a half, knocked out on the couch. Abby brought menthol cough drops, soup, and an ice pack for the fever that crept up on him. 

“Stay here. I’ll bring back some stuff,” Neil says, not sure of whether he should offer some sort of reassurance. Andrew’s boundaries might’ve changed - being sick makes him more vulnerable. Neil settles for leaning his weight against Andrew’s leg, and he’s silently grateful when Andrew pushes back against him, if only minutely. 

“I’m not going anywhere,” Andrew mutters back. His voice sounds rough, like it’s hurting him to speak. Neil shushes him, and a spark of amusement shows up behind the exhaustion on Andrew’s face as he leaves. 

He shuts the door behind him, heading back into the kitchen to dig around in the cupboards. 

Aaron comes in and leans against the counter, silently watching as Neil searches for canned soup. He finds chicken stock in the bottom shelf, wonders if he can make anything palatable out of this. Is ice cream good for a sore throat? 

“He sick?” Aaron asks finally, sounding pained to ask. Neil nods, moving to the spice cabinet. He wrinkles his nose at the amount they have stocked, unsure of what to add that’d make it good. He glances at Aaron and he sighs, shoving Neil aside to grab salt, pepper, and garlic powder. 

“It’s like ramen,” he explains, “without the noodles.” Neil watches as he adds those spices, and then grabs a couple of herbs and throws them in too. 

“Does he need anything from the store?”

“A few things. Maybe Abby has stuff?” 

Aaron nods shortly, and Neil says, “Okay.” He grabs the car keys just in case, and heads out to grab whatever he needs. It’s a short trip to Abby’s office, and she has mostly everything - Neil doesn’t want to leave Andrew alone for too long anyway, so going to the store isn’t the best idea. 

He heads back quickly, pulling up his hood when it starts to drizzle, tucking in the bag of things close to his chest so nothing gets damp. 

When he gets back to the dorm, mostly everyone is in the same place. Aaron’s back playing games with Nicky, and he glances at Neil, throwing a look at the stove to indicate that it’s ready. Neil nods gratefully, as he goes to fill a bowl.

He knocks with his foot as he balances the soup in one hand, and the bag of supplies in the other. 

Andrew makes a noise on the other side of the door, so Neil takes it as permission, shutting the door behind him as he enters. Andrew is sitting up now, hair looking more unruly than Neil has ever seen. He barely holds back his snort, only because Andrew looks miserable, tucked into the corner of his bed, laptop balanced on his legs.

“That smells awful,” Andrew says, and Neil rolls his eyes. He gestures upwards and Andrew nods his assent, so he starts climbing up.

“One, Aaron made it the way you like it,” he starts, holding carefully to the bowl as he leans against the ladder rungs.”Two, you’re sniffling like you can’t smell a thing.” 

To further prove the point, Andrew sneezes again, looking extremely fed up. 

Neil hands him the bowl and a plastic spoon from the bottom of the bag. “Are you hungry?” 

Andrew glares at the food, but the way he leans into the steam rising from the bowl is telling enough. Neil busies himself with emptying the bag, pulling out all the contents. “Abby said you have to eat before you can take anything. She gave me some pain relievers and stuff.” 

Andrew nods minutely, and Neil is a bit stunned by his easy compliance. He keeps his distance, staying across from Andrew to keep from making him uncomfortable. If Andrew’s this willing to listen to what he’s telling, without a single argument, Neil doesn’t need to push that line.

Andrew doesn’t catch onto it until later on, after he’s eaten half the soup and a bottle of water, and Neil still hasn’t moved from his spot. 

He turns his tired eyes on Neil, squinting, and he can’t help but shift backwards, scared that he’s crossing a line just being up here with him. He makes to move off the bed, but Andrew sitting up stops him. 

“Neil.” 

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” Neil says immediately, and Andrew slumps forward, tugging Neil’s hand into his lap. His rigid movements still make Neil feel uneasy, like maybe he’s forcing it, but Andrew doesn’t lie. Not to him, at least. 

“You don’t,” he says simply, entirely matter of fact. The undeniable truth. Neil’s heart feels too big for his body, all of a sudden. “Come here,” Andrew adds, when Neil makes no move to come closer. 

He shuffles in next to Andrew, careful to keep a careful distance. Andrew huffs and moves closer, until he’s half on top of Neil, head propped up against his shoulder. Neil’s too stunned to move for a moment, voice failing him as Andrew moves, tension slowly leeching from his shoulders. 

“Andrew-”

“Just this.”

“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I want you here,” he insists, saying the words slow like he doesn’t quite believe them, like he’s not sure how true they are. But he’s finally relaxed against Neil’s chest, and he grabs his laptop to press play, so Neil tries to blink away his guilt. 

After a while, when Neil is falling asleep on Andrew’s chest, he feels Andrew shift, breath shifting to sleep. 

This moment, this trust, is more than he could ever ask for. 

 

+1

The sun feels good on Neil’s skin, and the warmth of the bed keeps him stuck between the sheets. For a moment, he presses closer into the solid warmth at his side, but his eyes snap open when he realizes that he overslept. They’re in the Columbia house, he remembers. Just the two of them.

Andrew’s got his arms wrapped around Neil’s shoulders, and once he realizes that Neil’s awake, he pulls away to regard him.

Looking now, Neil is glad that he overslept. The sun is shining bright into Andrew’s heavy lidded eyes, turning the hazel to gold, every swirl of color illuminated in front of Neil’s eyes. 

“Wow,” he murmurs, blinking hazily. Andrew doesn’t say anything, and his face remains steady, expression placid and content. He’s watching Neil’s face, searching. Neil isn’t sure what he’s looking for. 

The silence stretches between them, flexible, not something that’ll snap. Neil feels as safe in Andrew’s silence as he does in his own. But there’s something flickering behind his eyes, some warmth that is too rare to place. 

“Alright?” Neil asks, after another moment. Andrew nods, then asks, “Yes or no?” 

“Yes. Always,” Neil responds. Andrew doesn’t glare. When he leans in to kiss Neil, he doesn’t push harshly, a reprimand for using the word always that Neil’s all too familiar with. It’s slow and careful, drawing Neil in and holding him close. Andrew’s arms tighten around his bare shoulders, squeezing for just a moment before he draws back, leaving Neil drowsy and seeking. 

“Turn your back to me,” Andrew whispers against his mouth. “Yes or no?” 

Neil presses their mouths together again, the word always spilling out between them, sopping up each reminder, all the horrible times that Andrew’s denial didn't matter. Neil turns unquestioningly, not glancing back when he hears rustling of fabric, not moving when he feels Andrew’s bare chest against his back. 

Neil lets out a surprised sigh, wanting to melt into the warmth but keeping still, trying his best not to make Andrew uncomfortable. This is new territory - to be skin to skin, back to chest - but he knows this feeling of fitting . The way Andrew’s chin finds a place on Neil’s shoulder, his arm coming up carefully to wrap around Neil’s waist. 

He whispers, “Yes or no,” against Neil’s neck, finally moving forward so they’re touching, shoulder to ankle, legs tangled in the sheets. 

“Yes,” Neil whispers back, head tilting back involuntarily when Andrew kisses his jaw, trailing to the back of his neck. A kiss just under his hairline, another one on the nape of his neck. He kisses his way to Neil’s shoulder, pausing to ask for another yes. Neil grabs the hand around his waist, tangling their fingers together and nodding, unable to do anything but marvel. 

“I’m-” Andrew starts, but his voice trails off, and he freezes, mouth barely touching Neil’s skin. Neil turns, searching, and Andrew stares at him. It’s the first time Neil has ever seen him look close to helpless, looking for something to say, but unable. 

He surges forward to press their lips together, cupping Andrew’s jaw gently to ground him. 

Neil pulls away to ask, “Is this okay?” 

“I’m trying something,” Andrew manages, after a nod. Neil taps a gentle finger against his jaw when he feels it clench under his hand, a reminder. “Just something.” 

Neil nods and Andrew drops his head down again, forehead to Neil’s shoulder, fingers stroking carefully along the scars on Neil’s knuckles. Something was the stairwell tent that Andrew made for them on Valentines. Every reassurance between them, on good and bad days, is something . Neil likes this something, the way it crosses out boundaries. It means that they’re comfortable enough to just be .

“Thank you,” he says, and Andrew lifts his head, face a little too open to turn into the glare he’s going for. 

“If you’re finishing that sentence with you were amazing , I’m going to leave this bed right now.” 

Neil grins, unable to hide it this time, and Andrew doesn’t even cover his mouth. “Thank you. Just for being here. For trying something .” His words falter, the spill of them cutting off when he realizes that what he’s feeling has a name. Love. It fits strange in his mouth, doesn’t hold any weight compared to stay , and the keys Andrew gave him to hold him steady. 

Still. How else could he explain everything? The swell of feeling in his chest, gratitude and more. The way he’s never been anybody, until Andrew asked him to stay, until Andrew saw him, and refused to let him go too far. 

“I’m not,” he whispers, fighting to keep his voice steady. Andrew shifts them, turning Neil until they’re facing each other. 

“Did I cross a line?” Andrew asks carefully, voice nearing a dangerous edge. 

How can he put into words how much it means that one of Andrew’s biggest fears is hurting Neil even worse? 

“No,” Neil says softly, shaking his head. His chest feels torn open, like his heart is exposed. He feels like if Andrew kisses him again, he’ll taste the word in his mouth, reject it. Because it’s never meant anything to Andrew - too many people have told him before, only for it to fall flat. 

Neil won’t say it. But he has to make it known, in some way. The feeling is too big for him, too heavy for someone who's never had anything of his own. 

Andrew ,” Neil says, and he grabs Neil’s chin, forcing their eyes to meet. Neil is helpless at the look on his face, the way he mirrors everything Neil’s feeling. 

“You’ve never been nothing,” Andrew says. “You will always be something.” 

The “ to me” is unsaid, but not unheard. There’s more between his words, and more before and after. There’s things Andrew hasn’t said, but feels nonetheless. Words that are meaningless, and words that are so much that he won’t be ready to say them for a long time. 

Neil wonders how they found each other, two battered people with mirroring lives. Not the same, but understanding anyway. 

Neil wonders and lets it go, letting Andrew hold him closer.