When Andrew has to choose, he’s a man. It’s easier that way, anyway, because the world doesn’t really understand the word neither. He’s been told his whole life he’s a man, so a man he is. He has muscles like a man, a deep voice like a man, plays sports like a man, so he’s a man. It’s an easy choice.
When Andrew gets to choose, they’re nothing.
The first person they told was Betsy. It wasn’t their first meeting, or their second, but somewhere before they reached their mutual understanding, back when they were still on rocky terrain together. Andrew doesn’t like therapists and Betsy doesn’t like murderers, so it took them a while to make things work.
Betsy was talking about penguins, because she had watched a documentary about them the night before. Andrew didn’t care. Their head hurt from dust and Columbia and flashing lights and maybe Roland too, a little bit, enough to grate. Andrew didn’t pay any attention at all until the end of the session, when Betsy said “I’m looking forward to next week, Andrew. You’re a very thoughtful young man.”
What Andrew wanted to do was laugh, because “Andrew” and “thoughtful” didn’t belong in the same galaxy.
“I’m not a man,” they said instead, and their heart was beating a little bit faster, even though they didn’t care, they didn’t, because no one’s opinion mattered except their own, and even then it was a toss up. They knew they were smiling, all teeth, cold and predatory. It was the medication, but it was also their natural state; part beast, barely leashed.
Betsy smiled back, but hers was real. She nodded once.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Andrew said before Betsy could say something inane and sterile like thank you for telling me or I’m proud of you . They hated how close they sounded to saying please.
Betsy nodded again, and held the door open for Andrew to leave. They did.
Renee brings it up of her own volition. They’re doing laps of the court during practise, Renee filling Andrew’s silence with a discussion of genetically modified vegetables. Andrew is half tuned in, Renee’s gentle voice lulling them calm.
“I think people find a moral issue with genetic modification when really there is none,” Renee says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing nature. I think nature itself is built on change, nature is fluid.” She’s quiet for half a lap after that.
“Before I transitioned, people told me I couldn’t change who I really was. That my nature was to be something other than myself. But that turned out not to be true, after all.” Renee sighs and Andrew can feel her glancing at them. “I don’t want you to think I’m equating being an engineered tomato to being trans.” Three more paces of silence. “I’m just trying to say that no one else can decide whether you are natural or not except you.”
Andrew considers this. “Being natural is overrated,” they finally say.
Renee tilts her head. “Maybe,” she said, “but you don’t have to be natural to be good. And you don’t have to be good to be natural either. You can be both, but you don’t have to be.”
“I’m neither,” Andrew said, and, before Renee could comment, “I’m not one or the other, and I don’t want to choose to be one or the other.”
“You don’t have to choose.” Renee’s carefully not looking at Andrew and they’re grateful, or as grateful as someone like Andrew could really be. “You can just be you.”
Andrew’s mouth ticks up at that.
“I don’t think the team would want that. Too many of them would end up in hospital.”
They haven’t been them, not really, not in a long time. They don’t know who they are anymore, under the blood and the bandages and the sneer. The last time they felt like themself was when the metal of Tilda’s car warped next to them and all they could hear was her scream, long and high and thin. They were smiling then, too. Andrew feels like they’re always smiling and never meaning it. The pull of muscle and the show of teeth feel familiar, but there’s no joy underneath it. Their smile feels more warning than delighted. Idly, Andrew wonders whether they’ve ever felt delight. Maybe when they hurt the people who hurt Nicky. Maybe when Tilda’s casket was lowered into the ground. Maybe never.
They know that who they are isn’t what everyone else sees. They know that there will always be a divide between the inside and the outside; that people wouldn’t respect them as who they are, even if they knew. Renee thinks that Andrew can exist as who they are, but she’s the patron saint of lost causes.
They walk the rest of their laps in silence, and when Kevin calls for practise to start again, Andrew heads to the goal without saying a word.
Neil is an unexpected variable. He’s something that Andrew can’t understand, and it itches. He wants to know Andrew, and what’s worse, Andrew wants him to know them too. They try to shove it away in a mental box marked TO OPEN NEVER, but lying to themself was never Andrew’s strong suit. They manage to keep it (gender, feelings, the way their breath still catches when they kiss Neil, every time) tucked away and silent for almost six months of being whatever they are. Andrew thinks that’s a pretty good stretch, considering Neil’s insistence on hunting out things that are going to hurt him.
Neil finds out by accident. He has his head on Andrew’s stomach, his eyes closed. Andrew draws patterns on his scalp. There’s noise coming from somewhere, probably their laptop; they feel, for want of a better word, peaceful. Peace doesn’t belong in Andrew’s life, but it seems to be here anyway. The other shoe drops soon enough.
Neil opens his eyes, just barely, and carefully hoists himself up so he’s not touching Andrew. Andrew can still feel his breath on their stomach where their shirt has ridden up.
“Are you going to punch me in the face if I say I love you?” Neil says, quiet but resolute, the way he is when he completely and truly believes in what he’s saying, and when what he’s saying is usually completely and truly stupid. This is no exception.
Thirty seconds later Andrew is in the bathroom with the door locked and their hands pressed firmly over their face. They’re sitting in the empty bathtub. The cold plastic feels good through their jeans.
“Drew?” Neil’s voice comes through the bathroom door, and somehow doesn’t sound surprised or scared or how someone should sound if they just freaked Andrew Minyard out enough for them to run away. People think Andrew doesn’t feel anything, which is only half true. Andrew feels too much, so they switch it off when it starts to overwhelm them. As is happening now. Andrew takes a deep breath, and feels completely blank.
They realise in that moment that they are going to tell Neil what they are, even if it means losing him. Neil should know, and Neil should be able to leave him. Because the man Neil thinks he loves doesn’t exist, and he should know that. He should know.
“Josten,” Andrew says, and their voice is flat, calm, detached from their body.
“Can I come in?” Neil says. He still sounds like he’s taking it in his stride, which is one of the reasons Andrew tolerates him. He doesn’t flinch at anything.
Andrew heaves themself up and opens the door to Neil’s vaguely confused face.
“I’m sorry if you didn’t want me to say that,” Neil starts, but Andrew holds their hand up to stop him.
“You don’t love me. You think you love who you think I am because I’m the first person who’s ever shown you a minute amount of affection or even decency. Don’t,” they say to drown out Neil’s beginning of a protest. “You are a junkie with attachment issues and codependency and I am not what you think I am. Your idea of me is a man. That is not who I am.”
“Okay?” Neil says. He seems more annoyed that Andrew cut him off than shocked at Andrew’s revelation. “I don’t know why you think that changes anything.”
Andrew scoffs. “You don’t know who I am.”
“Andrew,” Neil says, exasperated. “Of course I know you. Gender doesn’t change that. I’ve been so many people in the past ten years, but you still know who I am, now, just like I know you. Andrew,” he says again, firmer. He takes Andrew’s hand and hovers it over the hem of his hoodie. It’s an echo of forever ago, when Andrew felt his scars. Everything is different this time.
“Yes or no?” Andrew asks. Neil rolls his eyes.
Neil guides Andrew’s hand under his hoodie and t-shirt and higher than the scars on his stomach. Andrew’s hand brushes scratchy fabric on Neil’s chest. Almost the texture of bandages, but not quite. Andrew flattens their hand and feels out the shape of it, almost like a crop top, but tighter. A binder.
“I’m trans,” Neil says. “And you know who I am, and you know that doesn’t change who I am. So what if you’re trans too? I know you; I know you and I love you, if you’ll let me say that. If you won’t let me say it then I’m going to stay thinking it for the rest of my life. You are the person who protects me and gives me a home. That’s not going to change because you’re a man or a woman or neither.”
Andrew’s hand is still on Neil’s chest, warm from his skin. They are looking at the tiled floor by Neil’s feet. “I’m neither,” they say. “I’m not a man or a woman. I don’t like… I don’t want people to call me he.”
“Then I won’t,” Neil says, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. Andrew’s heart feels like the aftermath of a fire. “Can I still call you Andrew?”
“Okay.” Neil takes Andrew’s hand from under his sweater and kisses it. “Come back to bed. You’re missing the best episode. They play paintball again.”
Andrew is silent until they and Neil are sandwiched under the comforter with their laptop propped up between them, the Community theme music playing tinnily.
“Would you kill me if I ate your beans?” Neil asks. His eyes are half closed. He gets sleepy when Andrew plays with his hair.
“The beans would be one of many grievances I have with you, Josten. I doubt it would tip me over the edge.”
“I want to tell the team,” Andrew says.
“What?” Neil looks up at the apparent non-sequitur. “That you wouldn’t kill me over beans?”
Andrew flicks him in the forehead. “That I’m non-binary, idiot.”
“Okay,” Neil says. “That is your choice and I am very proud of you.” He says it in a deliberately patronising tone and then starts to laugh. Idiot , Andrew thinks. Idiot who makes me feel warm inside . Instead of saying this, of course, they shove Neil’s shoulder and pretend to scowl.
“Will you help me.” It’s meant to be a question, but Andrew never really sounds like they’re asking. Probably because they never care about the answer, unless it’s Neil.
“Yeah, duh,” Neil shoves their arm in retaliation. “How?”
“Bring it up. I don’t have to be there. I just want them to know.”
“Okay.” Neil seems thoughtful for a moment. “Kevin is going to be so pissed that she’s not the only one anymore.”
Andrew snorts at that. Neil’s not wrong, because Kevin is, above all else, an insufferable drama queen. “She never was.”
The rest of the team find out not long after that. It’s during a break in practise; the upperclassmen are sprawled across the couches, Kevin is standing huffily by the water fountain. Andrew is sitting next to Neil with their hand on his knee. Nicky and Aaron are arguing about whether dogs should wear shoes. Nicky is insistent that their paws need protecting.
“Ask Andrew! Ask him, seriously, he’ll agree with me.”
“Yeah, only to fucking piss me off,” Aaron snaps, but he’s cut off by Neil.
“Them,” Neil says, and then nothing else. Andrew’s hand tightens in a way that they know only Neil notices.
Aaron turns his haughty stare to the two of them. “What?”
“Ask Andrew what they think,” Neil elaborates, parsing his words as if speaking to a child. Andrew at least gets a flicker of joy out of Neil’s dismissive tone being directed at their brother.
Aaron seems about to say something else, but Nicky shushes him. Andrew computes that Allison and Matt have stopped their idle gossip, and Kevin has angled herself towards them too. They breathe in short, measured bursts.
Nicky speaks before Aaron can say something that will inevitably escalate into a micro aggression.
“What? What do you mean? Andrew?” He says, even though Neil is the one who had been speaking to him.
Andrew knew this moment was coming, even if they never really believed that they would tell anyone. They thought it could be a secret, forever, and no one would ever understand them, or know who they are. But it’s out in the open now. They only have to say the words.
“I’m non-binary,” Andrew says, and the room is really quiet now. Surprisingly, or not, Allison is the first one to react.
“That is most bodacious, my dude,” she says with a completely straight face. Nicky lets out a burst of nervous laughter.
Dan smacks her on the arm. “First of all, you have absolutely never seen Bill and Ted. Second of all, dude is totally a gendered term.”
“Not in the twenty first century, grandpa,” Allison says.
“Maybe we should ask Andrew how they feel about the term before using it,” Renee cuts in gently. She gives Andrew a nod and a reassuring smile. Andrew bristles slightly because they don’t need to be handled with kid gloves over a term used largely by surfers and/or minecraft streamers.
“Your delusion that you are a nineties kid is more offensive to me than the rest of what you said,” Andrew says eventually. Allison rolls her eyes and goes back to doodling on Matt’s forearm, only after whipping her head around to Dan and saying “of course I’ve seen fucking Bill and Ted, any self respecting lesbian has.”
“What is the correlation there?” Matt asks. He sounds genuinely bewildered.
“Keanu Reeves,” Allison says without lifting her head.
“Wait, Andrew,” Nicky cuts in hurriedly. “How does a non binary samurai kill their enemies?”
“What?” Aaron says.
“They slash them,” Nicky says, and then holds his hands out as if to say, I am a genius . “Get it? Do you guys get it? Because it’s like, they slash them are the pronouns but also-”
“Oh my god, fully shut up,” Allison groans.
The room swells back into action after that. Andrew refuses to comment on the morality of dogs wearing shoes. Kevin gets pissy that Nicky brought a brownie bar to practise. Neil takes Andrew’s hand in his and laces their fingers together. And the team knows. They know who Andrew is, and the world hasn’t ended. Andrew is safe, here, with them, even for a little while.
When Andrew thinks of their gender, they feel a sense of otherness. They are amphibian; capable of life on land and sea. Not reptile enough to soak up the sun and not fish enough to breathe underwater- a strange mix of both and neither, with none of the perks that comes with being one or the other. The feeling lessens when they’re with Neil, with Renee, with Kevin sometimes, too. They would never tell Kevin that. Her head is too big already.
Andrew has never felt a sense of belonging. They chased it as a child, and gave up when it became apparent that it was never going to come; it was stupid to think that they would ever belong, really, that they would ever feel safe, or wanted, or at home. It was stupid, until Betsy smiled at them. Until Allison painted their nails yellow, white, purple, black; until Neil asked them to do his injections; until Kevin tossed a package at them and they opened it to find a padlocked necklace engraved with they/them . Now, it doesn’t feel so far out of Andrew’s reach. Maybe it’s irresponsible, to feel this way- maybe they’re setting themself up for failure, for disappointment. But Andrew is, at their core, reckless. And this time, it’s worth it. It’s worth it, to sit in the space they have carved out with their own fingernails, the peace and family they’ve skinned their knuckles for, to belong there.