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Two times for the past

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The second the call connects Nicky appears a little nonsensical on screen, waving his phone frantically through the grainy quality. He leads with a near desperate, “I have news!”

A pause and then Andrew drawls, “Lovely to see you too, Nicky,” slow and sarcastic. The hand he’s running through Neil’s hair only slightly betrays his levelled indifference.

Nicky sighs, all drawn out and put upon. His eyes flit down to Neil, his next target, and he waves an accusatory finger to the camera.

“Do you want to know?”

Neil stifles a smile, tilts his head up like he’s considering it. He settles for a cheery, “Not particularly,” and it’s muffled slightly from where he’s cushioned in Andrew’s lap.

Nicky glares pointedly and Neil responds with a sleepy yawn, snaps his mouth shut just before Andrew pokes his finger in.

“You guys suck,” Nicky pouts and he taps at his phone a few times, before clearing his throat. “Five reasons Andrew Minyard and Neil Josten are our ultimate OTP.”

Neil frowns at the screen, his features scrunched into something nonplussed. He’s addressing both Nicky and Andrew when he asks, “Who or what is OTP.”

Andrew’s hand stills in Neil’s hair and he meets Neil’s eyes with a flat look. Neil shrugs with an air of innocence. “What?”

“Oh, honey,” Nicky sighs. “One true pairing? Come on. I know pop-culture isn’t your strong suit but surely some part of your career shone light on this.”

“OTP is an Exy thing?” Neil asks, shuffles closer to the laptop with renewed vigour and jabs a finger at grainy Nicky on the screen. “Explain.”

Andrew remains unimpressed. He digs a finger into Neil’s scalp and Neil turns to blink at him, slightly befuddled. Andrew pokes him again, firmer this time, before he concludes, “It’s hollow in there.”

Neil huffs.

“Number one,” Nicky begins, unfazed by their usual disposition. “That time Josten was photographed wearing Minyard’s jersey.”

 

1.

It was unlike Neil to run late, but in this instance he’s hardly to blame.

He curses at the shitty dryer in their apartment complex for giving up on him like this, has half a mind to kick at it in annoyance, but concedes when a rare voice of reason convinces him it would solve absolutely nothing.

He bolts back upstairs instead, his sopping washing leaving a wet trail on the floorboards as he does. Slams the door behind him, before throwing the clothes onto the kitchen counter to deal with later.

The clock ticks in the stilled quiet, a taunting sort of reminder that Neil really does need to hurry the fuck up. He huffs in annoyance and heads into the bedroom to consider whatever there is in his closet.

It’s quite the tragic array.

And the thing is, Neil usually doesn’t give a shit about what he wears. Would very happily live in his faded t-shirts and threadbare sweats, but ...

Andrew likes Neil in nice clothing and Neil likes that Andrew likes things. Something rudimentary in him vows to never deny Andrew of anything ever.

The Kevin voice in the back of his mind unhelpfully tacks on a comment about keeping up appearances. He shudders at the memory of an exasperated phone call -- Why the fuck are you on the cover of Exy Digest wearing the same running shoes I bought you during your first year of college? I will throttle you! Use your six figures for good.

All things considered, Neil figures he fairs better when he his appearance isn’t razed by his outfit of choice.

He weighs his options, though they aren’t exactly assorted. Frowns at the only two items on the rack, both pitifully dangling from their hangers.

The first is a gag-gift courtesy of Nicky, from a couple years back. It’s a shirt with ‘If lost return to The Foxhole Court’ printed across the front, in a distasteful neon orange. It isn’t really an option at all, though he does love the shirt.

The second is the sad looking Christmas sweater Bee had knitted last year, a matching set with Andrew’s. It’s soft, and thoughtful, so he obviously kept it, but it’s mid-July and he thinks of Andrew’s face if he shows up to the airport wearing it. Decides that’s not an option either.

He is physically recoiling at the final option of simply showing up scars bared and shirtless, when it comes to him. Darts into the sitting-room to make sure he wasn’t simply fantasising, but -- aha.

Lo and behold, there, strewn across the coach cushion, is Andrew’s jersey.

Neil momentarily pats himself on the back for his occasional disgustingly needy tendencies, wherein he curls up with the jersey in moments of weakness. A pitiful - slightly embarrassing admittance, but he’s won himself a suitable item of clothing in the process, so he really can’t bring himself to mind.

Hastily tugs it on and grabs a pair of shoes he bought last month thank you very much, Kevin before he darts out of the door with a thud.

 

“I thought you wore that to get under my skin,” Andrew admits, taps a thoughtful finger on Neil’s cheek and he can feel Neil’s face stretch as he grins.

“Your potential reaction was definitely a contributing party,” Neil smirks, dripping with smugness and Andrew lifts his knee to jerk Neil slightly.

“You are awful. I will--“

“Eee!” Nicky interrupts, in a ridiculously drawn out squeal, gesturing between the two of them like he’s a golfer, or something. “Too. Darn. Cute,” he whines and it’s stagy enough to prompt Andrew to hover the mouse over the end call button.

“No, Drew. Bad.” Neil scolds and Andrew arches a brow, but he concedes, reluctantly moves the mouse away from the button.

“Number two,” Nicky sings and he’s grinning. “This Josten + Minyard twitter interaction.”

 

2.

Neil Josten @njos10 • 5m

What is a tweet

Matt Boyd @matt_boyd

Replying to @njos10

Everyone welcome my buddy Neil to twitter!

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @matt_boyd

Help me.

Andrew Minyard @aminyard

Replying to @njos10

who granted you unmonitored access to social media.

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @aminyard

Andrew?? I didn’t know you made tweets

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @aminyard

Can anyone else see our conversation right now?

Andrew Minyard @aminyard

Replying to @njos10

yes. do not say anything you wouldn’t want kevin to hear.

Kevin Day @kevinday

Replying to @aminyard @njos10

Follow this advice every time you make a tweet and you’ll be fine.

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @kevinday

Hey Kevin your game was sloppy last night but that overpass was killer I had literal goosebumps, I could’ve kissed you.

Andrew Minyard @aminyard

Replying to @njos10 @kevinday

interesting choice of words

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @aminyard

Haha, sorry babe

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @aminyard

Shit. I just called you babe on the internet.

Neil Josten @njos10

Replying to @aminyard

How do I delete a tweet??

Andrew Minyard @aminyard

Replying to @njos10

you’re really nailing this twitter thing, aren’t you?

 

Neil’s expression is grimaced into something reproachful. “I still hate twitter,” he says, sagely and Nicky nods sympathetically from the screen.

“You’re a lot better at instagram,” Nicky agrees. “Less words. Although ...” and he grins, “Number three: Josten’s reference to Minyard in his WIRED autocomplete interview.”

 

3.

The lights are warm on Neil’s face and his skin feels disgustingly clammy. If he wasn’t keenly aware of all the eyes on him, he would definitely be unleashing on the urge he has to twitch in his seat.

He can feel himself growing hot and momentarily wonders if the thin layer of makeup that was dusted onto his face earlier will melt off. Doesn’t particularly care what he looks like in general, but the powder does a clean job at minimising the severity of his scars and with cameras so close, he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t grateful for it.

“Ready, Neil?” A voice calls from behind the camera and Neil sticks his thumbs up in confirmation, clears his throat and swallows. He curses himself for not accepting the water he was offered earlier.

“Ok great. Quiet on set! Camera ready?”

“Camera rolling. Take 1.”

There’s a sudden clap that Neil forces himself not to flinch at and then, “Action!”

“Hey guys! I’m Neil Josten and today I’m doing the WIRED autocomplete interview!”

They call cut and Neil accepts the large cardboard print he’ll be using from a set-runner. Waits until they call for action again, slaps a grin on his face and continues.

“This will be fun! Ok ... let’s see,” he says, pulling back the tape. The faux intrigue is entirely for audience benefit, he really could not give less of a shit about what people think of him.

“Is Neil Josten,” he starts, makes eye contact with the camera in anticipation, before turning back to the cutout, “...Gay.”

And Neil laughs in suprise, then. Can’t say he was expecting to start with the speculation of his sexuality, of all things. Feels something close to relief that it’s a question he can laugh at and not something invasive regarding his ignominious past.

“Well,” Neil begins, considers how to phrase his answer in a way that won’t leave his manager homicidal.

“You all know Andrew and I went public at the Olympics. I never specified what I identified as, because it didn’t feel like anyone else’s business, you know?”

And he smiles, “I like Andrew, and only Andrew. So. Let’s just stick with that.”

 

“Gross,” Andrew scoffs, at the same time Nicky airs a dreamy sigh. Andrew shifts his disgust from Neil to the laptop screen and pointedly ignores Neil’s laugh from next to him.

Nicky smiles fondly, face between his palms. “That interview was great,” he muses. “You were so pleasant the entire time, it was very unwonted.”

“I had a basic script to follow,” Neil agrees, then frowns at the memory of it. “I still don’t know why they asked all those questions.”

“That is essentially how an interview works,” Andrew says, helpfully.

“I know that,” Neil huffs, flicks his bicep. “I just mean all those google questions,” and he’s gesturing like he’s pulling back tape from cardboard. “I don’t know why people google me in the first place.”

Andrew sighs, like it pains him. “Oh I don’t know, Neil. The whole pro athlete thing, possibly. Or perhaps your tendency to rouse and incite scandal. Maybe just the general shape and size of your ass in paparazzi shots. Who knows what they go looking for.”

Neil blinks at his words, let’s them register. “My ass,” he parrots, intelligently and Nicky chokes on his unsubtle laughter. He meets Andrew’s eyes, all serious, accuses, “You look at me on google.”

Andrew regards him, deadpanned and Neil’s words hang between them for a few seconds. Eventually he folds his arms and says, “That phrasing seems unnecessary.”

Neil smirks and leans back onto the couch cushions. “I haven’t googled you.”

Nicky tilts his head through grainy quality, “Like ever? He’s your boyfriend, though ...” And he scrunches his nose in contemplation, settles on, “That’s weird.”

“Yeah, never. Why would I?” Neil shrugs, “I live with him,” and he pokes Andrew’s chin to prove it. Thinks for a second, “I googled Kevin once.”

“That is weird,” Andrew decides.

“It’s not,” Neil defends. “I needed his updated stats.”

“Could’ve asked me,” Andrew huffs, a little haughtily and Neil bites back a smile. “I know them.”

“I know you do, babe,” Neil soothes. “Very impressive.”

Andrew glares, aims for murderous but it’s faux exasperation at best and entirely betrayed by the crimson that paints the tips of his ears.

Neil pats his cheek fondly.

Nicky clears his throat and both Neil and Andrew turn to glare at the screen in almost comical unison, he throws his hands up in a surrender, phone clattering on the desk as he does.

Andrew watches with concealed amusement, motions for Nicky to continue and Neil is smirking as Nicky ungracefully scrambles for his phone.

“Number four,” Nicky reads, almost stuttering with excitement. “The fact they’re total hashtag-cat-dads.”

Neil grins, raises an arm in triumphant glee, “I fucking knew it! I told you it would pay off.”

“Commendation from a buzz-feed article?” Andrew drones, dead, uncaring. Mimics Neil’s fist pump, “Oh boy!”

 

4.

“C’mon, Drew.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Matt and Dan have one for theirs, look,” Neil pouts, shoves his phone under Andrew’s nose and Andrew barely glances at it, uninterested, continues reading his book.

Neil huffs and flops backwards onto the bed, drops his phone in the process. The movement jostles Andrew and the cats and Sir wails, offended. Neil makes eye contact with him and runs a hand through his thick fur in apology.

“You want an instagram account, don’t you Sir?” Neil asks, voice soft and Andrew huffs a laugh. Neil grins up at the sound, traces his expression the same way he has a thousand times.

“He won’t answer you,” Andrew advises. Folds his book page and places it on the nightstand, moves a sleeping King out of his lap and crooks a finger towards Neil.

Neil goes, practically wriggles across the bed until he’s flushed against Andrew’s chest. Sighs, contented when he feels the brush of Andrew’s fingers against his scalp, wriggles some more.

It’s comfortable silence for a beat, and then,

“Would it make you happy?”

Neil stills. Adjusts himself so he’s looking Andrew in the eye and smiles.

“Stop that,” Andrew grumbles, pushes Neil’s face away like it offends him, then pulls it back, gives him an expectant look.

“Yeah,” Neil offers, plainly, feels warm all over. He bunches his hands into the material of Andrew’s sweater almost like he’s holding on to ... this. Like he’s stopping himself from floating away.

Andrew nods. “Well, then. I suppose.”

And Neil can’t bite back his grin. Isn’t sure if it’s coaxed by the fact he gets to share ridiculous photos of their cats with the world, proof that this life he has is tangible – that it’s real. Or maybe because Andrew gave into his ask so easily at the whistle of his happiness. Imagines Nicky’s reaction, the imitation of him cracking a whip and breaks out into pleased laughter.

“You’re laughing at me,” Andrew accuses and Neil is quick to shake his head no, lifts a palm to bracket Andrew’s face and brushes a thumb across his freckles.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he says, and sobers slightly, giggles trailing off into something else, something simpler.

And then, Andrew smiles.

It’s a barely there thing, more a quirk of the lips, but it’s enough to make Neil’s insides positively molten. Even after all these years, he feels the pieces Andrew offers him like the butt-end of a struck match.

He is contended with his fate as Icarus.

 

“I was so happy you let me name your children,” Nicky sighs, content. “I finally felt like I was a part of the family.”

“Aaron gave his firstborn the middle name Nicholas,” Neil snorts.

“And you and I are genetically family,” Andrew adds.

Nicky wafts a dismissive hand “Semantics. Blood means nothing, nor does a birth-name, you both know that.”

And Andrew would feel inclined to agree, had the nature of the conversation been different, except ... years protecting his family, years of therapy with Aaron – turned Aaron and Nicky. Years of the three of them learning to be a family ... down the drain.

Nicky feels their bond solidified through the awful names he tacked onto their bastard cats instead.

Fantastic.

“What’s the last one?” Neil wonders and Nicky grins, waves a finger between the two of them.

“I knew you’d come around,” Nicky says, a hand over his heart. “This is why you’re my favourite, Neil.”

Andrew scowls. His own flesh and blood ... semantics indeed.

“Number five,” Nicky starts, uses one hand to drum roll on the desk, “Andrew’s billboard double-take!” He finishes and imitates the crack of a whip.

Andrew’s scowl deepens. “Brilliant.”

 

5.

There is nothing Andrew despises more than the crowds at Times Square.

If it were up to him he would avoid NYC entirely, pretty religious in his belief that any state with a dense population and below zero temperatures should be wiped off the map.

But it’s tradition to spend Christmas with the original Foxes – the location changing each year, and this time around it’s Matt’s family penthouse.

Neil had looked so damn hopeful when he asked and despite Andrew’s grievances towards the idea, he doesn’t have the heart to deny Neil these things.

He shudders at the idea he’s grown soft.

And so now, Andrew is ploughing through an obnoxiously busy Times Square, wrapped up in several layers and choking back his murderous tendencies with every accidental nudge he endures. He’s scowling at the swarm of people ahead of him, cranes his neck since he can hardly see over all the heads -- and then, his eye catches it.

He almost chokes on his own surprise, rather ungracefully stumbling over his own feet and almost dropping his bags in the process. Is immediately disgusted at losing his composure in a way he hasn’t since he was a toddler, but --

Well.

Fuck.

Neil had vaguely mentioned that the shoot he did for Nike would be advertised, Andrew wants to kill him for very conveniently failing to specify that it had been plastered on fucking billboards.

It starts with a still shot of Neil. There’s an Exy racquet over his shoulder and he’s holding it in a way that Andrew distinctly remembers him grumbling about -- They made me hold it wrong, Andrew. It’s ridiculous. It’ll look like I don’t take the sport seriously. There are a pair of compression shorts clinging to his muscled thighs and a tank-top Andrew is certain he would never wear of his own volition.

And he looks good -- so fucking good.

But it’s his face that Andrew can’t look away from.

Neil’s lips are turned up in that smirk. It’s the same one he slips into after he wins a game, the same one he sports before he wields his words to shamelessly tear apart his prey.

Something primitive stirs in Andrew at the sight of it, like there’s no other option than this primal and near ravenous reaction.

Neil, Neil, Neil.

And then, there’s his skin.

More often than not, companies will airbrush Neil’s scars. A hapless condition that comes along with endorsements – they have the right to alter appearances.

And Andrew gets it, really. But it has always bothered him slightly. Neil doesn’t need to be fixed.

Nike, though – seem to agree with the sentiment. Andrew has long ago committed every mark, fleck and blemish on Neil’s face to memory and at ten-times size, he knows for certain they haven’t changed a thing.

It’s that one shot for a few seconds – or maybe longer, Andrew doesn’t know how long he’s been staring – before the screen switches to a few short clips.

Neil swings the racquet, catches a ball, runs at the camera and then finally, smiles. Says, “If no one thinks you can, then you have to. Just do it,” before throwing the ball towards the camera, which shatters in a faux effect.

It fades to black, then restarts and the picture is back.

Andrew is certain he looks absolutely ridiculous right now, frozen and still in the hustle of crowds, vehemently cursing under his breath. He curses Neil for not being more specific about his advertisement, curses Nike for the idea in the first place.

He pulls out his phone, scrambling for it from his back pocket at a speed that is probably slightly demeaning, before he snaps a picture and immediately sends it to Neil.

Not bad, Josten.

And Andrew barely has a chance to register that it’s sent, when Neil texts his response. Andrew’s eyes widen as he skims over the message and he snaps his head up. Turns left and then right, in owlish confusion, blinks back down at the message and scowls.

It’s a paparazzi shot of him, clearly taken and then released a matter of a few minutes ago, because he’s still in the same damn spot. His eyes are closed and his head is tilted upwards. He’s pinching the space between his brows like the billboard is causing him physical pain, but there’s the barest hints of a smile on his lips – slight enough that only Neil will notice it.

The photo is paired with Neil’s message and Andrew absolutely despises him, the smug little shit.

You’re drooling.

 

“That was the worst moment of my life,” Andrew states, with an air of profound truth and Neil snorts, elbows him in the ribs.

“That can’t be true,” Nicky grins. “You had a very traumatic childhood.”

Andrew shrugs, “And yet ...”

“Drama queen,” Neil smirks and he’s tapping away at his own phone to search for the paparazzi shot. Finds it in his camera roll a few seconds later and waves it around like treasure gold, holds it up to the camera for Nicky to see, too.

“I have refused to support Nike ever since,” Andrew sighs and Neil frowns at the very obvious lie, blinks down at the Nike sweats Andrew is currently wearing.

“And you’re doing a stellar job,” Neil agrees solemnly, squirms when Andrew pinches his cheek.

Nicky watches them with a fond smile, “I miss you guys,” he sighs, all wistful. “I need to come and visit soon.”

Neil nods, is about to respond in suit, but is cut off when Nicky squeals, dramatic, deafening. Says, “Erik is home! I have to go! I love you, meine schönen kinder! Auf wiedersehen, goodbye!” and he’s waving and blowing kisses right up until he hangs up.

Neil sniffs once in the quiet and watches as the laptop screen dims.

Andrew says, “So much for missing us, then.” And it comes out bland, colourless. Neil grins, sort of falls into Andrew’s side until his face is cushioned against his shoulder.

 

It’s later that night when Neil brings it up again, has been thinking as they ate and as he showered, stopped thinking as he fell apart under Andrew’s touch.

But he’s thinking again now, curled up against Andrew in bed. It’s late and they should be sleeping, but neither of them are that tired.

Neil murmurs, “It’s strange,” into the quiet and wriggles at the sound of his own voice, Andrew stills him with a hand on his hip, drags him closer.

“Mm,” Andrew hums, the words vibrating against Neil’s neck. He presses a kiss there. “You think so.”

“Yeah – well – I mean, sort of?” Neil thinks, bites his lip and he turns himself to face Andrew, but immediately misses the contact, shuffles forward until they’re chest to chest.

Comfortable silence hangs between them for a few moments before Andrew gently knocks their heads together. Wraps one of Neil’s curls around his finger, then unwraps it, tugs. “Why?”

“Us – in an article. OTP,” says Neil, grins around the ‘p’ and Andrew huffs a laugh. Neil tracks it with his eyes, flits across Andrew’s features, feeling warm at the twitch of his upper lip and the crease of his brows.

“It’s strange being known so publicly,” Neil admits, shivers slightly, though he’s not cold. “Even now. It’s hard not to panic at the idea of it.”

“I like it,” Andrew confesses, slightly strained, whispered, offering his own shred of vulnerability. He considers for a second, frowns and Neil watches the purse of his lips, feels the small tuft of air that escapes. “I don’t like the prying, or when they speculate, but...” and he exhales, sharply.

“But I like that to them we are just ... us,” and Andrew wrinkles his nose at the admission, toys with Neil’s fingers. “I like that there’s no disbelief to it,” he elaborates, taps a finger against Neil’s hipbone, sighs. “There’s no question of how someone like me – how a monster, could end up with Neil Josten.”

And Neil stills.

The words take him right back to college. He’s entirely reminded of the upperclassmen and their hostility towards Andrew, the distinct contrast in their fixed acceptance of Neil and all his flaws, buckets of deceit and inconsistencies. Their perpetual doubt when their this first began brewing, the firm warnings and casual threats in rectitude, all for Neil, all in defence of Neil.

And Neil will always love the upperclassmen -- his family, but Andrew’s words make something in Neil ache. Realises then, that Andrew’s masked indifference really was only ever that. That despite the fact he swore he never cared, their words might have got to him more than he let on -- more than he’d ever admit to.

A monster, they had said, but Andrew isn’t. Was never one, will never be one and Neil has always been certain of it.

Agrees with Andrew, then. Decides that he likes it too. Likes that to the public, they are just them. Not a monster, or a runaway -- just two people who care about each other.

Just Neil and Andrew.

Neil reaches for him, warm, familiar, maps out his shoulders with his hands, pulls him forward until they’re bracketed into a sort-of hug. He can feel Andrew breathing, steadfast as always, small puffs of air against the side of his face, his arms tighten around Neil’s waist and Neil feels his heart clench at the ease of things.

He draws in a long breath, exhales. Plants a kiss on the freckle behind Andrew’s ear and whispers, “Me too.”