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Neil Josten was a fourth-year senior, very nearly a fifth-year senior, at Palmetto State University in South Carolina. He was captain of his Exy team, the PSU Foxes, and an orphan. He was also the boyfriend of Andrew Minyard, goalkeeper for the South Carolina Sharks, the state’s home team. They’d been together for three years, since the summer between Neil’s freshman and sophomore year, and they’d managed to keep it pretty much a secret. Neil hadn’t been looking for a relationship at nineteen years old, he was more invested in trying to fit in with his team and not a make a mess of the first place he’d ever been able to really call home. That first summer, before practices started, Neil’s friend Seth had dragged him home to Columbia to stay in the shitty apartment his older brother owned and let Seth stay in on college vacations. From there, Seth had dragged Neil to a club called Eden’s Twilight, mainly because ‘the girls are hot, and the drugs are cheap’ every night. Neil parked himself at the bar to drink soda and count down the hours until they could go back home, or he snuck outside and sat under a light over the footpath to read in the sticky summer air. It was the sixth night, a Friday, when Neil had met Andrew. Seth had moseyed onto the dance floor and Neil had found his way attempting to get to the bar when someone shoved him from behind and he’d wound up half slamming, half stumbling into Andrew’s back. He hadn’t known it was Andrew until the blond turned around to push Neil back a few steps and glare at him. Neil had braced for some form of verbal abuse, common enough to receive from drunk men in bars, but Andrew had just settled on glaring at him.

*** Nearly 3 years prior ***

Neil knew who it was the minute he stopped enough to pay attention. Andrew was five feet tall even, blond hair somewhat unkempt and dark and damp from the clubbing atmosphere, his black shirt straining against his broad shoulders and biceps. Infamous Sharks’ goalie, Andrew Minyard, age twenty-two, jersey number three. Learnt to play Exy in juvie, was recruited by the Sharks at only nineteen years old straight off the Fox’s starting line his freshman year, and the only keeper in Exy history to score a point of his own from his place in the home goal. Neil didn’t really follow the pro-league, more content to follow the NCAA Class 1 league, but he knew who Andrew was.
“Sorry, I was pushed,” Neil muttered, making sure to keep the space between them that Andrew had enforced.

“Are you even old enough to be in here?” Andrew snapped back.

“If we were in Europe, or Australia,” Neil answered. Andrew’s eyebrow quirked in annoyance.

“So, no,” Andrew said, turning towards a tray of drinks behind him on the bar. Neil wouldn’t have admitted aloud, but the easy dismissal of a pro Exy player kind of stung.

“Just because you’re twenty-two doesn’t mean you get to be all high and mighty,” Neil shot back, probably not his finest comeback, but it made Andrew turn around with calculating eyes.

“You know who I am.” It wasn’t a question, and Neil realised his mistake.

“Whatever,” he mumbled.

“No, go on. Tell me more about myself,” Andrew drawled, leaning back against the bar and crossing his arms against his chest. There wasn’t really much Neil could say, mainly because there wasn’t much the media could report on when it came down to Andrew. They’d tried to dig up dirt, but all they’d found was his long history in foster care, his stint in juvie for assault and battery, his cousin in Germany who’d been his guardian, and his twin brother Aaron who was in medical school at Columbia University. None of that was exactly news, the Sharks had made it clear who they were recruiting and said they had a good reason for recruiting him so young. Because Neil was at a small loss, he just crossed his arms in return.

“There’s nothing to share, you’re a mystery,” he managed to say.

“You couldn’t even tell me my name, how boring,” Andrew said.

“Why? Did you forget it? Maybe you should stop drinking,” Neil quipped, a small smile tugging at the left side of his mouth. Andrew’s eyebrow quirked again, and that time Neil sensed interest more so than annoyance.

“Smart mouth,” he observed.

“People don’t tend to use ‘smart’ as an adjective for me,” Neil admitted.

“No, I can see that they wouldn’t,” he agreed. “But who are you?”

“Neil,” he answered. “Neil Josten.” He wasn’t sure why he was even still talking to Andrew, or why Andrew was talking back, the blond did have a reputation for being a standoffish asshole with no patience. Neil himself didn’t like people as a general rule and definitely had an attitude problem, especially when challenged or in crowded, loud spaces.

“And how old are you, Neil Josten?”

“What’s it matter to you?”

“You know my age, and my name. I am missing one truth to make it equal,” Andrew pointed out. Neil wasn’t sure that logic mattered in a place like this, but there was no harm in sharing the truth.

“Nineteen.”

“And how did you get in here?”

“How does that make the answer sharing even?”

“It doesn’t, I’m just curious,” Andrew answered easily. Neil pressed his lips together and stared him down, not in the mood to give information free to a stranger, no matter how good at Exy he was. When Andrew’s gaze took Neil in from the top of his auburn curls to the worn, scuffed shoes he had on, then back up to his face, Neil managed not to squirm. Andrew turned back to the counter and Neil thought it was over, but Andrew just grabbed two shot glasses from his tray and handed one to Neil who’d taken it with hesitant fingers.

“Truth for truth, shot for shot,” Andrew said. Neil hadn’t expected that, nor really knew what to do with that. Why he accidentally had Andrew’s attention, Neil wasn’t sure, and he was even less sure about what he could or should do with said attention.

“I don’t drink.”

“You’re still boring,” Andrew muttered, but he’d taken Neil’s drink back.

“Then why are you talking to me?” Neil asked. Andrew didn’t look impressed by that comment.

“Because you’re less boring than anyone else.” Neil watched Andrew turn and flag down the bartender he’d come to learn was known as Roland. “Soda, for him,” Andrew ordered, tilting his head in Neil’s direction. Roland followed the gesture and his face broke out in a warm grin.

“Hey Red, the usual?” He asked. Neil felt a little like a rabbit in the headlights. Was Andrew Minyard, pro Exy player and lowkey legend, buying him a drink? Why did Neil like that idea just a little bit?

“Yeah, Roland, thanks,” he said, but his attention was on Andrew. When the drink was placed on the tray, Andrew lifted it effortlessly and walked past Neil, clearly expecting him to follow. After only a moment of bewildered hesitation, Neil did, but mainly because the opportunity to talk to a pro player was too good to pass up. Andrew walked to a table in the back, away from the raised dais where the DJ was playing music and as far from the speakers taller than Andrew himself was. Neil faltered when he saw Kevin Day sitting at the table with mild impatience on his face, as if he couldn’t understand why Andrew had taken so long receiving the drinks. Honestly, Neil should have expected him to be there. Kevin was another Shark, and one that everyone knew was close to Andrew, they were rarely captured in the media far away from each other. Kevin did a double take when he saw Neil and Neil just shrugged with one shoulder.

“Nathaniel?” Kevin demanded. Neil winced a little at the use of his birth name and Kevin seemed to register the mistake, but before he could fix it, Andrew shot Neil a dark look.

“I thought you said your name was Neil,” he mocked.

“It is,” Neil promised. “Nathaniel was the name my parents gave me, I changed it when I was eighteen and let out of the foster system.”

“Yeah, I did know that. I’ve seen some of your games,” Kevin said, which was maybe as close to an apology as the older man got. Neil was too surprised to react, after all it had been Kevin who’d gotten Neil into Exy when they were kids. Neil had been eight, Kevin eleven or twelve, and they’d been in the same foster home for a few months. Kevin had taught Neil how to play for those six months and the sport had wormed its way into Neil’s very existence. He’d watched Kevin’s success from a distance, saw him get adopted by Tetsuji Moriyama and become a star. Even after Tetsuji’s abuse became public knowledge, Kevin had still stepped forward to play with the Sharks the same year Andrew had been recruited.

“You play Exy?” Andrew asked, looking infinitely more bored now and twisting a glass on the table in front of him.

“Is this part of your game?” Neil checked.

“What game?” Kevin demanded. Andrew ignored him, and for the moment Neil did too, more interested in keeping Andrew’s piercing gaze.

“No, it isn’t,” Andrew said, instead turning to look at Kevin. “What team does he play for?”

“No fair!” Neil complained.

“You learnt things about me from outside sources, all’s fair in love and war.”

“Which is this then? Love or war?” Neil wasn’t sure where the question came from, but Andrew shot him an appraising look before repeating to Kevin the same question about Neil’s team.

“Oh, well, he’s a Fox, actually. Great potential, most improved freshman striker…”

“Got it, thanks,” Andrew said in his casual dismissal and Kevin shut up, not even letting Neil appreciate the compliment. “A Fox huh? So, you’re as fucked up as the rest of us then,” Andrew mused, turning his attention back to Neil who felt hot under his heavy gaze.

“Well yeah, did you not hear about the foster care?” Neil pointed out. Andrew sat up straighter, seeming to have decided something, and nodded his head.

“Okay, I am still willing to play the game. Truth for truth. Kevin, I think it’s about time you went and danced,” Andrew said. Neil wasn’t sure what it was he felt at the prospect of being left alone with Andrew, but he liked the way it felt as it unfurled in his stomach. Neil wasn’t used to that piercing, considering gaze in those honey-coloured eyes, but he wanted to keep the attention on him. This at least beat sitting on concrete re-reading the Hunger Games on his small phone screen, and maybe he could earn some pointers about pro Exy. Kevin left, grumbling all the while, and taking as many drinks as he could carry with him.

They played their game, some of it even in German. They took turns answering and asking questions, or sometimes just volunteering a truth. Neil was brutally honest about things he rarely, or never, spoke about, and he could tell that Andrew was doing the same. Sometimes their laughs startled them both, teasing and taunting when they could, and sometimes they sat in a shared silence as they processed their own truths and the other’s. Each sentence, each confession, settled inside themselves, right alongside their own stories. Neil didn’t bat an eye when Andrew said he’d killed his mother or when he bared his forearms. Andrew, in turn, didn’t flinch when Neil showed him his own scars and outlined all the cruel things he’d been forced to do as a child before finding himself in the foster system. Andrew didn’t drink nearly as much vodka as Neil had been expecting him to, and Neil got his wish of keeping Andrew’s attention the entire time.
It wasn’t until closer to sunrise than Neil had expected did the game come to an end, and it only ended because Seth and Kevin came stumbling over together, both looking equally drunk and weirdly blissed out. Neil opened his mouth to ask if they knew each other, but Andrew’s voice, directed at him, made him close his mouth.

“Give me your phone,” Andrew said in German.

“Why?” Neil asked.

“Because I’m not a waitress in a nineteen fifties diner who is going to write her number on a soggy napkin,” Andrew snapped. Neil smirked and dug his phone out of his pocket, unlocked it, and handed it over. Andrew programmed his number in and sent himself a text message so that he had Neil’s number too.

“Call me?” Neil asked in English, voice dripping with mocking. Andrew ignored that and stood to help his drunk teammate out of the club. Neil rose to do the same.

“Kevin Day sucked my dick,” Seth said with a smug grin. Neil cringed and looped his arm around Seth’s waist.

“I really didn’t need to know that, what the fuck Seth?”

“He was good, thanks for asking,” he grumbled back, near enough incoherent with his inebriation.

“I knew him as a kid man, shut up,” Neil complained.

“Whatever. Was that Andrew Minyard?” Seth slurred as they finally started walking.

“No, his twin brother,” Neil lied, without really needing to think about it. Even after hours of truths, he was still too used to lying for it to taste sour on his tongue. It didn’t matter though; Seth didn’t remember anything the next morning.

*** Nearly 3 years later ***

Andrew’s face was a little blurry and pixelated on Neil’s laptop screen, but his voice was loud and clear, and that’s all Neil really needed just then. He missed Andrew, as he always did when they were apart, but he knew it was only two more weeks until the start of summer and the start of four weeks of just the two of them in Andrew’s apartment in Columbia.
"Are you nervous for the game?" Neil asked. Andrew made a noncommittal noise as he searched for something off camera. Neil watched him put a handful of rainbow candy in his mouth before his boyfriend responded.

"Why would I be nervous? It's just Exy," Andrew replied around the food in his mouth. Neil shook his head in exasperation.

"Because it's the Championship! Your fourth Championship out of the six years you've been playing!"

"Yeah, exactly. I've done this three times before, it's whatever. I can't wait for it to be over," Andrew said. Being a professional athlete really was just a job for him, and Neil still didn't understand it.

"Why do you want it to be over so bad?" Neil asked. The camera cleared just enough for Neil to feel the full weight of Andrew's stare.

"Because then I get a month off to spend with you, dipstick," he answered after a minute. Neil laughed, albeit a little embarrassed. He'd been so excited about the Championships and dumbfounded by Andrew's apathy, he'd forgotten about the month to come. Next week was the game, and the week after was finishing exams and packing the dorm, and then Neil was free to climb into Andrew's shiny black car and do anything he wanted.

"Okay, fine, fair enough," Neil admitted. Andrew rolled his eyes and the camera blurred again. From what Neil could see, Andrew was in some sort of lounge or communal space in the house the team had rented in Virginia. They were spending the week preceding the game close to the Raven's Nest where the game would be played, not wanting to be flying around too much too close to the game.

"You're such a-" Andrew was cut off by laughing as some of his team came into the room.

"Is Minyard talking to his girlfriend?" Someone cooed, a voice familiar enough to Neil after three years of video calls, phone calls and watching Shark games. Andrew glanced down at the laptop, away from Jeremy Knox, and Neil saw him raise an eyebrow.

"Am I too old for 'yo mama' jokes?" Andrew asked, his tone bored. Neil snorted and shrugged with one shoulder.

"You're as tall as a twelve-year-old, you could make it work," he teased.

"Thin fucking ice," Andrew growled.

"Be nice, Andrew," a second voice chided. This voice was even more familiar, and Neil smiled.

"Hi Kevin!" He yelled, even though Andrew was wearing headphones. Andrew winced, but pointed at the screen and looked up.

"Hi Kevin," he said, passing on the message. A moment later, Kevin's lanky frame came into view and he crouched down next to Andrew's chair with a smile, yanking one of Andrew's headphones out of his ears and jamming it into his own. A move like that, from invading personal space and crossing privacy lines to snatching out the headphones, would lead to anyone else being physically incapacitated for a while. Because it was Kevin, Andrew just settled for a cold faced glare that was easily ignored.

"Hey kiddo!" Kevin said. Neil waved hello and opened his mouth to ask if he was nervous about the game coming up but was interrupted.

"How come Kevin gets to talk to your girlfriend? How come he can know who she is, but we can't?" Jeremy complained. It wasn't a new complaint; he'd asked often enough over the three years for Andrew to start coming up with more and more obscure reasons. Today, he seemed content to go with the basic.

"Because I don't like you," he said.

"You say you hate Kevin at least once a day," Jeremy pointed out.

"I do hate Kevin, but I'm stuck with him. You are inconsequential at best," Andrew replied coolly before turning his attention on Kevin. "What are you doing here?"

"As you can see, we've kidnapped Jean and we wanted to know if you'd come to the movie with us," Kevin answered. Jean Moreau was in NCAA Class 1 like Neil, and he played for the Fox's biggest rival, the Ravens. Like Kevin, Jean had been abused and groomed by Tetsuji before an end was put to the corruption, and like most of the Ravens who had been taught to want nothing more than Exy, he'd stayed on the team. Even under new coaching and management, some of the Ravens- Jean included- remained mean, arrogant and, well, some of the best players in the league. Kevin was one of the few who abdicated. He was recruited as a freshman from the Foxes with Andrew. It had taken Neil a year to realise both men were finishing their degrees online, and he'd celebrated their graduation with them the previous year.

"No, I don't want to go to a movie with you. I'm going to help this idiot with something," Andrew said, waving at the screen. Neil frowned because he had no idea what Andrew was talking about, he hadn't asked for help.

"Oh yeah? Hot, Minyard," a third voice said, one Neil usually only heard from the other side of a helmet.

"Fuck off Moreau," Andrew said, voice scathing. There were rumours about the nature of Jeremy and Jean's relationship, but when Neil had asked Andrew about it, his boyfriend had just asked how the fuck he was supposed to know. Kevin had just reminded Neil his own relationship was a secret, he shouldn't be asking questions like that, which Neil supposed was fair even if it was annoying.

"Helping with what?" Kevin asked, looking at Neil who shrugged.

"Fucked if I know," he said.

"Your report, idiot. You've procrastinated it for a month and it's due next week," Andrew said. Neil winced, but only because it was true.

"Shit, Minyard, you're dating a college student? What a devil," Jean drawled.

"Get the fuck out of here, Moreau," Andrew snapped.

"Does that make me a devil too?" Jeremy cooed off screen, then the unmistakable sound of kissing made Andrew roll his eyes.

"Y'all just outed yourselves, I hope you're aware. Now get the fuck out, don't you have a movie to see?"

"She can keep a secret, can't she?" Jeremy asked. Andrew and Kevin looked at Neil, who was feeling extremely smug right then.

"Fuck you both, I obviously won't tell anyone," Neil told them.

"Yeah, you're safe," Kevin said to his friends. "And we're off, have fun with your report!" He added, dropping the earphone and standing up after Neil said goodbye. Neil knew when the trio had left because Andrew looked back at the screen and seemed to make himself comfortable again.

“Have you written any of it?” He asked.

“The report?” Neil checked, which just earnt him a bored look. “Uh, half I guess?”

“Send it to me, I’ll proofread the first half while you write the second,” Andrew suggested. Neil moaned, although he didn’t really mind and appreciated the help.

*

It took two and a half hours, but he managed to get the assignment done. Andrew answered questions and used his more refined research skills to help, as well as proofread and edit for him, but when he wasn’t needed, Andrew read a book with his knees pulled to his chest while he waited. They did this a lot, just spent time on video calls while they worked on independent projects, letting the other bounce ideas of them and helping if they could. It was nice, Neil just enjoyed the sense of familiarity and comfort, but it was even better when they could do it in the same place. When the pro-season was on, Neil tried to spend every other weekend in Columbia with Andrew because they had their individual home games, but it never felt like enough.
“I did it, can I jump off a bridge now?” Neil muttered, submitting the report. Andrew clapped slowly.

“Took you long enough,” he said. Neil held up his middle finger, but he wasn’t sure Andrew saw it clearly because it didn’t receive its usual sarcastic response or returned gesture. Neil wanted to be with him so bad, in that moment his chest ached.

“Hey, I was thinking…” Neil began. Andrew started shaking his head as if he already knew what Neil was going to say.

“No, Neil, don’t even ask,” he said firmly. Neil sighed, hugging his arms around him.

“You don’t know what I was going to say,” he mumbled. Andrew rolled his eyes up to the ceiling as if asking for strength.

“You were going to ask to come to Championships, again, like you do every year. Don’t make me outline, again, the reasons why you can’t,” Andrew said. He was right, which just annoyed Neil a little more.

“There has to be a way,” Neil grumbled.

“You don’t have a car, you don’t have money for a flight or a ticket, you don’t have anywhere to stay because you can’t stay with me here, and it’s not like I can pick you up from Palmetto and my car is still in Columbia so, no, there really isn’t a way,” Andrew reminded him, going through the list the same way he had every year. Neil wished he wouldn’t. They were both imtelligent, they should be able to find a way, but it wasn’t like Neil was going to ask Andrew with his pro-salary to bankroll the trip and Andrew wasn’t going to offer. He might have, but Neil had made it very clear from the start that he didn’t want Andrew’s money, he didn’t want to feel like the relationship was uneven or that he owed his boyfriend something. Frustration or hurt or something must have shown on his face because Andrew’s expression softened.

“I’m sorry, baby. I wish you could be here too,” he said quietly. “I will be there at four in the afternoon on your last day, okay?”

“Okay, yeah,” Neil agreed. “I love you, even though you’re a jerk.”

“You love me because I’m a jerk,” Andrew corrected with a quiet laugh. Neil smiled a little bit and nodded his head, but before he could say anything back, he heard the front door of his dorm open and his two roommates and best friends come in. He looked past the laptop to the bedroom door in the direction of the noise and frowned.
“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb?” Andrew guessed. Neil turned his frown on him.

“Be nice,” he chided. “Yes, Matt and Seth have come home.”

“And that is my cue to leave,” Andrew said. Neil had to actively work to keep his bottom lip from sticking out because he didn’t want to say goodbye yet. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I don’t want you to go yet,” Neil complained.

“Too bad. Talk to you tomorrow,” Andrew said, moving to end the call, but he paused. Neil raised an eyebrow in wait. “I love you too, by the by,” he added. Neil smiled and nodded his head, heart soaring. He knew Andrew loved him, but he didn’t say it very often.

“Bye, handsome,” Neil said. Andrew inclined his head in acknowledgement and the call ended, a moment before the door was pushed open.

“Neil-y poo!” Matt said in a singsong voice. He had lipstick on his lips from his goodnight kiss with Dan, and Seth looked to be in good spirits, which probably meant he and Allison were on good terms.

“Talking to your pretend boyfriend again?” Seth teased, gesturing at the laptop on his legs.

“Yeah, something like that,” Neil replied. The team knew Neil had a boyfriend, they just didn’t know who it was, and that only seemed to prove to Seth that Neil had made it all up so that they would stop setting him up with people in his sophomore year.

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked, leaning against the doorframe.

“Boyfriend won’t let me go to the Championship game,” he answered. Matt frowned in concern and Seth burst out laughing.

“I didn’t know you let anyone tell you what to do or not do,” he cried.

“Yeah, Neil, it’s not healthy to have a partner tell you what to do like that,” Matt said gently. Neil snorted and shook his head quickly.

“No, not like that! He just reminded me why I can’t go, also known as… I can’t afford it,” Neil assured him.

“Isn’t he loaded?” Seth asked. Neil hummed in a non-answer. “Then ask him to pay.”

“No, I don’t like asking him for money,” Neil replied.

“Because he doesn’t exist, right, I completely forgot,” Seth said, smacking his forehead with the palm of his head in a typical ‘stupid me’ move. This was why Andrew called him ‘Tweedle Dumb’.

“Even if he did pay for my flight and ticket to the game, I have nowhere to stay in Virginia,” Neil said, ignoring him.

“Will he be going to the game?” Matt asked.

“Well, yeah…” Neil replied carefully.

“Stay with him?”

“Can’t, not allowed to,” Neil said, and hurried to fix it when Matt gave him another concerned frown. “Not his decision, he’d have me there if he could. He’s just not allowed.”

“Strict family or something?” Seth asked, rolling his eyes- probably at himself for humouring the conversation.

“Or something,” Neil said. Seth shrugged, apparently bored, and left the room in search of beer or food or both. Matt was looking at Neil with consideration written into all of his features. Neil shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, looking anywhere else but at him.

“We could go,” he said eventually. Neil snapped his attention to his tallest friend, eyes narrowed.

“Excuse me? Go where?” He demanded. Matt smiled and moved forward, resting his forearms on the side of Neil’s top bunk.

“To the Championship game. I can buy the tickets and the flights with no issues, and my mom has a small apartment in Virginia from when she was training there a few years ago,” he said.

“Matt, I don’t want my boyfriend to pay for that shit, why would I let you?” Neil asked, trying to catch all the little pieces of hope trying to build in his chest and reminding himself to stick to his guns.

“Come on, man! It would be fun! You, me, a Championship game, and a weekend off campus? It’s a great idea, let me do this,” Matt said, a smile splitting his face in half. A couple of pieces of hope slipped out of Neil’s grip and ballooned behind his ribs.

“I’ll come,” Seth said from the doorway. Neil frowned at him, and even Matt looked surprised. Seth shrugged and for once in his life looked a little bit embarrassed.

“I’ve always wanted to go to a Championship,” Seth admitted. “Would be fun to go with you guys. I can get my own flight…”

“And I can get your game ticket,” Matt said easily, saving Seth from having to ask. Their usually obnoxious friend flashed a grateful smile.

“So, we leave on Thursday? Be there for Friday night’s game, and come back Sunday afternoon for the last week of the school year?” Seth said.

“Sure, let me get my laptop,” Matt agreed.

“Wait! I haven’t agreed!” Neil said, grabbing Matt’s arm before he could walk away.

“Well, now we’re vetoing your chance to agree, and you just have to come,” Matt said, pulling his arm away. “You want to go, and this will be fun. Besides, for Seth yeah? You saw that face.”

“Fuck off, Mathew,” Seth snapped, leaving the room. Neil wrinkled his nose at his friend, but his resolve cracked. He nodded weakly and jumped from his top bunk to follow them out into the living room. He swallowed his excitement as Matt logged into his computer, the realisation that he would actually be able to see Andrew play in person, in a Championship game, hitting him.

“Can we… can we sit close to the away goal?” He asked quietly as Matt opened up the ticket website. Seth snorted and threw a wadded-up wrapper at Neil, and Matt smiled fondly as he shook his head.

“Does your boyfriend know about your ridiculous crush on Minyard?” Matt teased. Neil felt himself getting hot in the face.

“What?” He asked, not really all that surprised that his voice was an octave higher.

“You’re not subtle, Neil,” Matt teased. “He’s your goddamn lock-screen. And you know his stats off the top of your head.”

“Yeah, and for like a month after you met him at Eden’s you blushed whenever he was mentioned at training or whatever. And you spent a lot of time looking at the pictures of him on the wall in the lounge at the stadium,” Seth added. Neil really, honestly, had not realised he’d been so obvious, and he was both embarrassed at being caught out and grateful they just thought it was a celebrity crush.

“You said you didn’t remember that night!” Neil said, glaring at Seth who grinned.

“Of course I remember that night, no matter how drunk I got,” he said.

“Because Kevin gave you a blowjob,” Neil muttered. Matt choked on air.

“Kevin Day?” He demanded. Neil couldn’t tell if he was mortified or jealous. Seth looked smug as he nodded his agreement.

“Anyway,” Neil said pointedly. “My ‘crush’ on Andrew aside, can we sit near the goal?”

“Yeah man, I got you. If we’re going to a game, we’re getting good seats as close to your little crush as we can get,” Matt assured him. Neil wasn’t sure if he was calling the apparent crush little, or if he was calling Andrew little, and he decided not to ask.

*** Friday night ***

Neil hadn’t told Andrew he had found a way to make it to the Championships. He knew his boyfriend hated surprised, but this was an opportunity too good to pass up. He’d thought that maybe Matt would get them seats behind the goals, up in the stands where Andrew wouldn’t see him, and then he could send him a text asking to see him over the weekend with a picture of him at the game. Super cheesy, maybe a little funny, without any real in-game surprise. However, Neil realised Matt hadn’t followed that particular game plan as they slid into their seats at the front row, directly behind the plexiglass wall with Neil sandwiched between Seth and Matt on the goal line Andrew would be defending. All Andrew would have to do was look to his left and Neil would be right there. Neil could put his hands flat against the glass if he leaned over the barrier- granted no referees were walking by at the time. Neil looked over the barrier and to the left where the empty away benches were, swallowing some of his anxiety and excitement. This was going to be fine, fun even, and he’d been excited all week for it. Andrew would get a surprise, but he wasn’t going to get mad about it. He hoped.
“Thought I’d give you the best chance to be recognised,” Matt teased with an elbow in Neil’s side, yelling to be heard over the roaring crowd.

“Who knows, maybe you’ll leave here with a real boyfriend,” Seth added.

“Or without one,” Neil muttered, watching as the Sharks filed into their benched section to seriously loud applause while the Virginia Vultures arrived on the home side. The teams were let on for drills, and Neil sunk as low in his seat as he could, watching Andrew’s every move and hoping not to get noticed. Apart from not wanting to surprise Andrew in general, not like this, he also didn’t want to risk throwing him off his game. Perhaps by the grace of God, Andrew didn’t pay the audience any attention as he did the warmups and drills, too busy arguing with Kevin and destroying his attempts to score. Andrew filed off with Kevin in tow and Neil let out a quiet sigh, they were both second half players- known for destroying point gaps, shutting down the goal and scoring last minute trick shots- so Neil let himself relax and watch the first half without thinking about the last twenty five minutes of the game.

It didn’t really take long for Neil to get into the spirit of things. He started yelling and jumping around, joining in cheers and booing the refs and Vultures with everyone else. Matt and Seth were being just as loud, and Neil couldn’t really remember if he’d ever seen Seth this happy whilst sober. Matt was often happy and jubilant, but every time a backliner did something amazing and skilful, he sighed longingly and pumped the air with his fist.  During the halftime break, all three of them traipsed off to get refreshments and use the restroom, and because of lines they only just made it back in time to watch the teams file on for the second half. Just as Neil sat down, thinking maybe he’d be lucky like he had during the drills, Andrew swung his racquet in the air and followed its trajectory with his eyes, which happened to slide past Neil… and then snapped directly back to him. Neil couldn’t actually see his eyes behind his helmet with the glass wall between them and however much of the court, but his head movement gave it away. Neil couldn’t help it, he grinned at his boyfriend; proud, excited to be there, and more than a little in love and happy to see him. Andrew leaned on his racquet in an almost casual way, shaking his head, but when he pushed the metal safety guard back so that Neil could see his face, he was smiling, just a little bit. Before sliding his metal grate back down, he mouthed something that looked a lot like I hate you. Idiot. Neil’s smile grew so much it hurt and Andrew turned his attention back to the game. Matt and Seth were silent on either side of Neil for the entire exchange, but they started shouting and grabbing his shoulders with excitement the moment they regained their senses.
“He remembered you!” Seth yelled, sounding disbelieving and excited.

“Fuck that’s awesome!” Matt added, both of them shaking him. Neil laughed, managing to shake them off, and he knew his cheeks were pink, his heart threatening to explode out of his chest.

“Yeah, it is awesome,” he agreed.

“Do you think he’ll score tonight?” Seth asked, his grin nearly feral when Neil glanced at him.

“I doubt it,” he said. Not because he doubted Andrew’s abilities because he knew Andrew could definitely score if he wanted to, but he’d hated the attention he received the one and only time he’d done it his second year as pro and had told Neil he didn’t want to ever go through that again.

“Hey, he’s your boyfriend now, you have to be nice,” Matt teased. Neil hid his smile with his drink bottle.

“God, what would your ‘real’ boyfriend say to that?” Seth asked, putting air quotes around ‘real’.

“Somehow, I don’t think he’d care all that much. Maybe laugh at the notion of me being nice just because we’re dating,” Neil answered seriously. Seth snorted and shook his head, and Matt ruffled Neil’s hair fondly, calling him a ‘dumbass’ under his breath.
The whistle blew. Second half began. Neil tried not to stare too hard at Andrew.
Andrew, in turn, didn’t look at Neil again for nearly the entire half. Twenty minutes in, five minutes left to go, an even game of four to four, Andrew was checked illegally by an angry and desperate Vulture striker. Andrew didn’t fight back, but he did snap viciously at him in German and when the Vulture was handed his red card after being hauled off him by three teammates, Andrew yelled some more. Neil had been the first on his feet, yelling foul and calling for a red card when the Vulture went for Andrew. When Andrew was given possession of the ball at the place where he’d been fouled, he turned to where Neil sat and slid his grating up again to wink at him, to tell him that he was okay. Neil sat back down, Matt and Seth frozen on either side of him at the display. They all watched as Andrew slid his grate back down, pointed at Neil and then pointed at the ball. This is for you the gesture said. Neil felt his heart leap into his throat and before anyone could think or react, Andrew smacked the ball with all of his might, the ball blurring and while the opposition tried to scramble after it, the Sharks did their level best to keep them back. Untouched, the ball smacked the home goal and the wall flared up red. Andrew had scored for the second time in his career from his place in goal. Neil leapt to his feet again, screaming and cheering so loud his throat was begging for him to stop, but he couldn’t. Andrew leaned on his racquet again, letting the ecstatic cheering wash over him, and before long he disappeared under the surge of his teammates as they flooded around him. Only Kevin touched him, grabbing him by the shoulders and hauling him into a hug, and Jeremy got a fist bump even if it was reluctant. Everyone else just bounced around him screaming and cheering. The audience of Shark supporters starting a chant of his surname, and it wasn’t until all the referees started threatening with penalties did the Sharks break their near hysterical celebration and get into their starting places. Seth and Matt had to tug Neil’s arms to get him back in his seat for the last four minutes of the game. The Vultures desperately tried to score again, to bring the game back to even so that they went into penalty shootouts, but the Shark backliners and Andrew locked down their half so tightly it was nearly scary to watch. Andrew started getting vocal, yelling orders and berating his backliners, calling pre-emptive moves and shouting out the Vulture striker’s weaknesses. It was only four minutes, but it felt like forever and Neil would have died there happily if he could watch it for the rest of his life. When the buzzer went off to signal the end of the game, Neil flinched violently, and Matt laughed at him.

“That was fucking amazing!” Seth yelled; his voice only just audible as he jumped to his feet to cheer the Sharks’ win. Neil let Matt haul him to his feet after him, but he didn’t scream and yell as much as they did, he just watched Andrew. The Sharks were gathering in the middle to celebrate, some were riling up the audience with victory laps, but Andrew stood quiet in his goal, taking off his gloves and helmet methodically and placing them on the ground in the net of his racquet. Neil felt apprehension, nerves and excitement churn in his stomach as Andrew started walking towards him. He stood in front of the glass wall, his blonde hair damp with sweat and one of Neil’s Fox bandanas holding it off his forehead. He knew when Seth and Matt realised the bandana was a Fox one, because they stopped cheering and went silent. Andrew shook his head slowly and smiled at Neil again, putting his ungloved hand on the glass. Neil grinned back, leaning over to put his hand on top of his on his side of the wall, shaking his own head at the cheesy move.

“Proud of you,” Neil said quietly, knowing Andrew would read his lips.

“Idiot,” Andrew said back. “Thank you for coming.”

“Get back!” A referee snapped, hurrying over to tell Neil off. Andrew smacked his palm against the glass, making the ref jump and Neil leaned back with a smug smile at the tall woman. She watched Andrew as he pointed deliberately at Neil, Matt and Seth and then jerked his thumb in the direction of the court over his shoulder. Behind him, partners, family and friends were being delivered to the court doors to celebrate with the team once the official stick smacking and ‘good game’ part was over. It was a pro league Exy tradition, one Neil had never thought he’d be allowed to participate in, but Andrew turned to his things and the team, and the trio in the audience were led to a set of steps by the referee and delivered to one of the court doors where Jean was already waiting. A wife, a husband, and four children were there as well, but they paid no mind to the trio when they arrived. Neil didn’t care, he was nearly vibrating with excitement.

“The fuck are you doing here, Moreau?” Seth sneered.

“My, um, my friend is on the winning team,” Jean snapped, getting more forceful after his initial falter.

“Jeremy will be excited to see you,” Neil said quietly. Jean narrowed his eyes at him but didn’t ask what he knew or how he knew.

“What are you three doing here?” He asked instead.

“Apparently, this fucker knows Minyard?” Seth said, ruffling Neil’s hair.

“You were there the night I met him!” Neil said, pushing his friend away with a laugh. The cheering escalated again, and Neil looked to the court to see the Vultures filing off and the Sharks turning to the respective court doors looking for their friends and family. The celebrations on court with family would only last for up to ten minutes before they were shepherded off so the team could shower and change out and awards and speeches could be made, but that ten minutes was precious to everyone at the doors. Even Matt and Seth had quietened down to take it in as they were let onto the court to join the newest champions. Kids ran towards parents and were swept into the air while crying wives and bouncing husbands ran into waiting arms. Jean made a beeline for Jeremy and there was no hesitation when the Shark grabbed onto Jean and hugged him tightly. Neil turned slowly, seeking Andrew who was already walking towards him.

“Hey, junkie,” he said quietly as soon as he was in reach. Neil didn’t reach out for him, not knowing what would be okay for Andrew in this setting and all to aware that Matt and Seth were directly at Neil’s flank.

“You’re amazing, have I ever told you that?” Neil asked softly.

“What am I going to do with you?” Andrew asked, reaching out to snake his hand behind Neil’s neck and Neil went with him when he guided him closer. Andrew kissed him firmly and Neil only smiled into the kiss for a moment before he melted against him, hands on his boyfriend’s armour and jersey covered shoulders. It took only seconds before Matt and Seth were shouting and yelling obscenities and crying out in disbelief, and only a few seconds more for the Sharks to start reacting too. Neil wasn’t sure he’d ever been this happy in his life and when they pulled away, he grinned so hard it hurt every muscle in his face. Andrew pushed his face away with the palm of his hand but kept his other hand in Neil’s to stop him going away.

“So, not a girlfriend then,” Jeremy said with a laugh, slipping his hand into Jean’s.

“What happened to agreeing with me about it being easier to be straight?” Kevin complained, but he shut his mouth a second later when he caught sight of Seth behind Neil. “The fuck are you doing here?” He groaned after the moment of surprise wore off. Seth didn’t answer, but Neil heard Matt’s laugh get cut off rather abruptly by what he assumed was a glare.

“Stay?” Andrew whispered in Neil’s ear. Neil didn’t know if he meant for the speeches, for after parties, for the rest of the weekend, or just a general request for Neil to stay with him.

“I will,” Neil agreed. For whatever it was Andrew was asking from him, Neil would stay. He had nowhere else he would rather be.