“Okay, okay, okay, okay,” Nicky said. “No, shut up, I’ve got one.”
“Like you got—” Matt doubled over, laughing, “—that guy’s—”
“You got his dick stuck in your braces,” Allison crowed, her martini tipping dangerously. A drop of glimmering golden liquid teetered and splashed onto the leaf litter. The fire in the centre of their circle crackled within a haphazard ring of stones, making the shadows dance. Fox Tower loomed in the distance, glowing silver in the light of the nearly-full moon.
“Fuck you,” Nicky glowered. “I am going to sick Andrew on you.”
Neil snorted, taking a tiny sip of his beer and glancing up at Andrew. He met Neil’s gaze from his perch lounging on a fallen tree with a tiny quirk of his eyebrows. Neil hid a grin and leaned back against Andrew’s knees as the others continued to argue.
“No, shut up! Shut up!” Nicky shouted, pitching forward. “Okay, here’s one. Never have I ever had sex in a stadium.”
Allison rolled her eyes as she took a swig. The rest of them sat scattered across the forest floor, laying on blankets they’d carried over from the dorms. Slouched dangerously against a drooping sapling, Kevin made a low grumbling sound and took a long pull from a bottle of peach-flavoured vodka. Neil was about fifty percent sure he was just drinking at this point and ignoring the game, though he wouldn’t exactly be surprised if this one was true.
“Gross,” Matt said. “Oh my god. That’s so unsanitary.”
Dan pursed her lips and patted his arm conciliatorily before she took a sip of her beer.
“Noooo,” Matt whined. “Ew. Why?”
“It was before we met,” she said. “Well. Okay. We’d met once, for recruitment. Anyway, it was one of the cheerleaders.”
“Damn, girl,” Allison said appreciatively. “Guy or girl?”
Dan smirked at her and winked. She was slightly too drunk to pull it off and ended up just exaggeratedly blinking at Allison.
“Oh, we are definitely talking about this later,” Allison said.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Nicky said, pointing a wobbly finger across the fire. It wavered several inches to Neil’s left. “Neil didn’t drink!”
Neil started as all eyes suddenly turned on him. “No?”
“No way,” Nicky said. “I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah! Yeah, there was that game—”
“—in November, Against, uh—”
“Breckenridge!” Allison leaned forward triumphantly. “Andrew made that impossible save with thirty seconds on the clock and you guys were in the showers for like forever.”
“Ew,” Aaron said. “Stop it. I don’t want to know about this.”
“Don’t be a killjoy, asshole,” Nicky said. “Seriously—”
“That’s my brother you’re talking about,” Aaron grumbled. “Your cousin.”
“Neil,” Allison said. “Fess up. Them’s the rules.”
Neil stared at them for a long moment. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said.
“I call bullshit,” Allison said. “No way I believe you guys were in there that long and nothing happened. You are a filthy little liar.”
“Don’t know what to tell you.”
“Ugh,” Allison said. “The point of the game is that you’re supposed to tell the truth. Come on. Nicky told us that terrible story about the ER—”
“Not to mention your dislocated sex shoulder,” Matt interjected.
Allison shot him a glare before turning her vicious stare back on Neil. “Which means you have to tell us about your sexcapades. Only fair.”
Neil raised one shoulder. “Nothing happened.”
Allison rolled her eyes. “I hate you. You’ve only drank like once.”
“I can fix that,” Matt said. “Never have I ever gotten kidnapped.”
Dan groaned, shoving his shoulder. “Cheap shot,” she said.
Neil snorted and took a drink. “Fine,” he said. “My turn.” He tilted his beer for a moment, cutting Matt a sly glare. “Never have I ever gone skinny-dipping in the campus pond.”
“Hey! That was a secret!” Matt glowered, taking a swig of his rum and coke. “I told you that in confidence.
“Ooooooh,” Allison shrieked. “Dan!”
“What?” Nicky said, delighted. “Dan? You too?”
Dan wiped her mouth and raised a challenging eyebrow. “Hey, Matt?
“What happened to ‘never telling anyone?’”
“I’m sorry,” Matt pleaded, flopping over to lean his spiky head on Dan’s shoulder. “I never told him you were there.”
“Holy shit,” Allison said. “How did you not get caught?”
“It was like, frosh week,” Dan said. “Campus security had waaay more shit to deal with than a couple idiots going swimming.”
“We did have to—”
“Shhhhh,” Dan said, pressing a finger to his lips. “Shhhhhhhhh. Shh.”
“You guys are fucking crazy,” Allison said. “I love it. Renee, you still with us?”
“Hm?” Renee said, looking up from where her cheek was pillowed on Allison’s thigh. “Of course.”
“You’re falling asleep,” Allison said disapprovingly. “You’re not allowed to fall asleep on me.”
Renee rubbed her forehead and stifled a huge yawn. “Would you prefer I slept on Kevin?”
“Useless,” Allison muttered, but she allowed Renee to snuggle back against her side in the pile of blankets they’d assembled. “You sure you don’t want to go to bed?”
“No,” Renee said. “I’m fine. You guys keep playing.”
Allison blew out a noisy sigh, but nobody really believed it. Renee had been back from a spring break holiday with Stephanie for two days now and the jetlag was clearly getting to her, but she refused to be left out.
“Kevin, your turn.”
Nicky rolled over, snapping his fingers in front of Kevin’s face. “Earth to Kevin.”
Kevin swatted his hand away with a glower. “Whatever. Fine. Never have I ever…uh.” He waved a hand around as he searched for words. “Gone to McDonald's.”
“You cannot be serious,” Dan said. “Never?”
Kevin shrugged. “Andrew always goes to Burger King.”
“Yeah, but like—”
“Man, Edgar Allen really was a nightmare,” Nicky said with false solemnity. “I’m surprised you made it out alive.”
Kevin kicked him clumsily and he laughed and squirmed away as the others all drank, muttering mutinously. A small smile pulled at Kevin’s mouth, pleased to have finally one-upped them. Neil rested his head against Andrew’s knee and took a sip, noting as he did that Andrew drank simultaneously. He claimed not to be playing, but Neil was watching the timing all the same. There had been at least a couple sips Neil was pretty sure weren’t coincidences.
“You guys all suck,” Aaron said. “Never have I ever failed a midterm.”
Everyone groaned and Aaron had to duck under a hail of popcorn. “No bringing up classes on party night, seriously, man,” Matt protested.
“Drinking in your pyjamas is not party night.”
“He’s got a point there,” Allison allowed.
“Just drink,” Aaron said, brushing an M&M out of his hair.
Matt grumbled but did as he was told. Allison rolled her eyes and joined him, as did Neil, Dan, Nicky and—
“Kevin!” Nicky shrieked. “No way. You’re like a robot. What class?”
“Statistics,” Kevin said sourly. “Stupid…math.”
“Why didn’t you get Neil to help you?” Dan asked. “Neil does all my calculus homework. He’s wonderful. And pretty. And very smart at math.”
Kevin shook his head. “It was last year. Neil wasn’t…”
“A real person yet?” Nicky offered.
“Thanks,” Neil said.
“A Math major,” Kevin corrected. “He was still studying Spanish, or whatever.”
“Ohhh,” Nicky said. “Yeah, that would be a problem.”
“Wait, it’s my turn,” Allison said, pushing herself further upright. She swayed dangerously, then narrowed her eyes and pointed at Neil. “We’re still targeting him, right.”
“Jesus,” Aaron muttered. “Could you guys seriously—”
Nicky clapped a hand over Aaron’s mouth. “Yes,” he said. “Definitely. Make the boy drink.”
Aaron shoved him off and sulked at the edge of the fire, nursing his drink. “Alright,” Allison said. “I've got it. Never have I ever—told Andrew I love him.”
“Oh, come on,” Nicky said. “That’s unfair.”
Renee smiled from her nest of blankets and reached for her drink, a brightly coloured mix that Matt had poured into an old pasta sauce jar because they’d run out of glasses. Nicky grumbled sourly and took a drink of his own mix.
“Drink, bitch,” he said when he finished, pointing menacingly at Neil.
Neil plucked at the tab of his beer. It made a soft aluminum plink in the silence.
“What the fuck.” Nicky said. “What the fuck. You’re not fucking serious.”
“Christ, Neil,” Dan said. “It’s been like, a year.”
“What the fuck.”
“Oh my god,” Allison said. “Like, we knew you were repressed, but damn.”
“What the fuck,” Nicky said again.
Neil didn’t move. “I didn’t realize the game allowed for follow-up questions.”
“Oh, come on—”
Allison cut off sharply as Renee pushed herself up onto one arm. She didn’t say a word, but everyone very abruptly fell silent.
“Killjoy,” Allison mumbled.
“It’s Dan’s turn,” Renee said calmly, settling back down.
“Right, okay,” Dan said. “Um…never have I ever…gone surfing?”
“Laaaaame,” Allison said.
“I know, I know,” Dan said, shoulders slumping. “I couldn’t think of anything.”
“I’ve got one. Never have I ever given head,” Allison said, then immediately tossed back her head and took a long pull of her drink.
“You’re confessing?” Aaron asked.
“It’s not even your turn,” Kevin grumbled.
“Shut up and drink, losers.” She tipped her cocktail glass at them with an accusatory glare. “Or are you telling me you’re not a giver?”
There were some mutinous grumbles, but nearly everyone eventually drank. Neil tilted his head back, meeting Andrew’s gaze.
He raised an eyebrow at Neil and he let the corner of his mouth tick upwards in response. Andrew held his gaze and slowly raised his whiskey to his lips. The tips of Neil’s ears went hot at the liquid look in Andrew’s eyes and he looked away just in time to spot Allison watching them with a curious glint in her eyes.
“Nicky, you’re up!” Allison said, turning away and trying to smack him to get his attention. She missed, nearly falling on top of Renee.
Nicky slapped at her hand a second late. “Who made you god of games night?”
“I did, obviously.”
“Children,” Dan said.
“Shut up,” Nicky said. “Okay. Uhhhhhhhh. Okay. Never have I ever…” a wicked grin spread across his face, “gotten busy in a car.”
Allison cackled and threw back a drink. Dan and Matt smirked, linking arms and tossing back their drinks at the same time.
“Oh my god,” Nicky said. “In the truck? Are you telling me I’ve ridden in a truck where Matthew Boyd has been naked? I must be dreaming.”
Allison whacked him on the head. “That’s enough out of you.”
Dan winked roguishly. “You’ll never know.”
“It was the truck,” Nicky said. “It must have been the truck. Oh no. Was it the bus? Please tell me it wasn’t the bus. That’s crossing a line.”
Dan chucked a handful of leaves at him. A few blew into the fire, flaring up and crisping black. “It wasn’t the bus, dumbass.”
“Wait,” Allison said. “Still no, Neil?”
Several pairs of eyes turned on him. Neil raised an eyebrow.
“Come on,” Allison said. “All guys that have sports cars want to hook up in their cars. I have a sports car and I want to hook up in my car. Seriously?”
Aaron groaned. “I have to ride in that car every day,” he said. “I don’t want to know who’s had sex in it.”
“Don’t be such a prude,” Allison said.
“You seem to be in luck though, because apparently nobody has sex in it,” Dan observed.
Neil rolled his eyes at them. “I think it’s Matt’s turn.”
“How are Andrew and Neil the most vanilla couple on this team,” Allison grumbled.
For a protracted, frozen moment, nobody said anything. The memory of Aaron’s trial—and Andrew’s testimony—choked the cool night air. Guilt shot across Allison’s face and she looked away.
“Sex in a car doesn’t seem very comfortable though, right?” Nicky said hastily. “Like, cramp city.”
“Totally,” Dan said, a little too loud. “Like, a lot of trial and error to find a good—”
“What happened to no follow-up questions?” Aaron demanded. “I don’t want to know.”
“Aw, come on Aaron,” Allison said, her brief lapse already covered up with her usual haughty mask. “Surely you could use some ideas now that you and Katie—"
“Matt,” Neil interrupted. “Your turn.”
“Right, right,” Matt said. “Shit, I had one.”
“Did it have to do with your truck?” Nicky asked helpfully.
“Shut up,” Matt said. Then his eyes zeroed on Neil. “Right. Never have I ever blabbed on something I swore to secrecy.”
“I never promised anything,” Neil said. “You told me about the pond like five minutes after you got back.”
“It was implied!”
Neil rolled his eyes but drank to appease him. “My turn,” he said. “Never have I ever watched Shrek.”
“It’s a classic.”
“No, no, Neil, you’ll love it. Oh my god, Andrew is totally Shrek. Isn’t Andrew totally Shrek? Like, if he was tall. And green. And had a bad Scottish accent.”
“Get outta my swamp!” Matt shouted and everyone dissolved into laughter, taking sips of their drinks.
“Next movie night, yes?” Dan said, then gasped. “We can marathon them!”
“Yessss,” Nicky said. “I’m so excited. Should we watch it now? We should—”
“Patience,” Allison said. “If we watch it now Neil will fall asleep in the first five minutes.”
“You’re so right,” Nicky said, then turned a pointing finger at Neil. “Next movie night. Promise?”
“Promise,” Neil said, paused, then took a very tiny sip of his drink.
Nicky squinted at him suspiciously. “Was that like, a drink? Or a drink.”
“Is Neil manipulating movie night?” Dan asked. “Neil. How could you?”
The corner of Neil’s mouth tugged upwards. “I saw about half an hour of it at an airport once.”
“In Portuguese,” he said. “Which I don’t speak.”
“Hmmph,” Allison said, eyeing him. “So, you’re not manipulating movie night?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Brat,” Allison muttered. “Kevin?”
Kevin didn’t move, slumped against his precipitously leaning tree. “Kevin? Nicky, check if Kevin’s dead.”
Nicky shuffled towards him and reached in, but before he touched him a great snore rose from Kevin’s body.
“Okay,” Allison said. “Not dead, but he does lose the game. Who’s next?”
“Me,” Aaron said.
“Don’t sound so excited about it,” Nicky said, amused.
“Can you lose never have I ever?” Dan asked.
“If you pass out, yeah.”
“Or if you’re a huge sourpuss,” Nicky said, shooting a sideways grin at his cousin.
“Fuck you,” Aaron said.
Renee finally roused, blinking blearily. “I’ll take Kevin back to the dorm,” she said, her words broken in half by a jaw-cracking yawn. “It’s late.”
“It’s eleven-thirty,” Allison said.
“Hmm.” Renee shivered, drawing a blanket around her shoulders. “Kevin. Kevin, let’s go.”
She scrunched up for a moment as if gathering warmth, then hauled herself up with an audible groan. Allison rearranged herself grouchily in her new deficit of blankets as Renee stumbled around the fire to nudge Kevin’s side.
He startled awake. “Whassgoingon?”
“Bedtime,” Renee said, leaning down to scoop his arm over her shoulders. He hung there like a wet rag as she tried to haul him upright. “A little help here, Kevin.”
Neil aimed a kick at Kevin’s ankles, but he was just too far away to reach. “Wake up, asshole,” he said. Kevin glared at him through squinted eyes and made a nominal attempt to straighten up. He switched his glare to the bottle in his hand and took a swig, then tossed the bottle into the fire.
“SHIT!” Dan shouted, scrambling backwards. “Kevin, you fucking moron, there’s still alcohol in that!”
“Kevin, I swear to fucking god—”
Neil was already on his feet, hand outstretched to grab Nicky and drag him away. The others scattered, ducking behind trees as the fire lapped around the glass bottle, an inch of vodka glimmering in the bottom. Neil pulled Nicky behind a fallen log and ducked, watching the fire.
“Nice going, genius,” Aaron said sourly from a few feet away.
“Shut up,” Kevin groused.
“You just made our fire into a fucking bomb.”
“There’s barely any alcohol left in there!”
Neil ignored their bickering, watching the bottle. Despite the others’ worries, it wasn’t sealed, so it was unlikely to actually explode, just flame up a little when the alcohol lit. The glass might shatter though, which could be dangerous depending on how cold it had been beforehand.
The stick they’d been using to prod the fire lay a few feet away, one end blackened from soot. Neil gauged the distance to it, pulling his hoody up to his nose.
“Neil,” Andrew hissed from behind a nearby tree, spotting the movement, but it was too late.
Neil ducked out from behind the log, holding one arm up just below his eyes to shield his face. Immediately, everyone was shouting again—
“Neil, you insane freak get back—”
“What are you doing??”
“You’re going to get us all killed you stupid little—”
Neil ignored them all, grabbing the stick. He turned his head away from the fire as much as he could without losing sight of it and scraped gently at the bottle. He heard the soft clink of it sliding down and hitting one of the rocks at the edge and nudged the stone aside with his sneaker before carefully drawing the bottle out of the embers and into the dirt.
For a long moment, nobody even seemed to breathe.
Neil squinted out from under his arm. The bottle was a solid six inches from the flames, and nothing glowed to indicate the fire had gotten inside. He let out a relieved exhale and used his shoe to drag it a few more careful feet away. “It’s not going to explode,” he said. “We’re fine.”
“Honestly,” Neil said, “it’s—"
Andrew broke from the trees, grabbing Neil by the shirt and dragging him backwards by several steps. Neil went without resistance, giving him a look that was equal parts exasperated and amused.
As if Andrew’s movement was the catalyst, everyone exploded out of the woods, clamouring loudly and berating Neil for his recklessness. Neil tolerated it for a minute before he ducked out of the swarm. The motion pulled Andrew along, his hand still twisted tightly into Neil’s hoody.
“Nothing was going to happen,” Neil said.
“You don’t know that,” Nicky said.
“It could literally have gone Molotov cocktail on you at any moment,” Aaron snapped.
“That’s not how Molotov cocktails work.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Matt said. “Have you seen a Molotov cocktail in real life? Oh my god, you have! Was it cool?”
Neil stared at him for a long moment. “No,” he said slowly. “It was terrifying.”
“Right,” Matt said. “Yeah. Obviously.”
There was a moment of silence.
“…Anybody else have the strong urge to make a Molotov cocktail right now?” Allison asked.
“No,” Neil said firmly. “You are drunk. We are not making Molotov cocktails.”
He extricated himself from Andrew’s grasp and went to check on the bottle. It had already cooled down enough to touch, so he splashed the remaining alcohol on the fire, making it flare up (and Matt gasp loudly) before passing it to Renee.
“Thank you,” she said, Kevin still hanging off one shoulder like an overgrown child. “I’ll make sure it gets somewhere safe.”
“Oh, come on, Renee, you can’t tell me you’re still tired after all that!”
Renee gave Allison a flat look. “Please don’t blow anything else up.”
“We didn’t blow anything up,” Allison grumbled.
“Yet,” Matt said.
“No,” Neil said again.
“I am going to bed,” Renee said. “Now sit down and be quiet.”
“Spoilsport,” Allison said. Renee looked towards the heavens for a moment as if searching for strength. Neil didn’t think she found it, as she shook her head and tugged at Kevin to make him move. Soon their figures were only a vague shadow in the dark, and then they were gone.
The remaining seven found their spots again, fetching new drinks from Matt’s cooler when their old ones were found upside down in the dirt. Andrew pulled Neil back to their log, his eyes speaking volumes.
“Martyr,” Andrew muttered. Neil pressed his lips together and gave him a flat look. Andrew’s eyes were hooded like he was trying to look unaffected, but Neil knew his tells too well to be convinced. He settled beside Neil on the blanket, his back to the log, and Neil shifted until their shoulders were pressed together.
“Alright, you two, stop making eyes at each other and focus up. Some of us are trying to get drunk here,” Allison said. “Aaron, you’re up.”
“Wait, we’re still playing?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
Aaron shrugged. “We almost got blown up.”
“No reason to stop a good thing. Get on with it.”
Aaron rolled his eyes at her loftiness, thinking for a couple seconds. “Never have I ever used a fake ID.”
“Ohhhhh,” Dan said, drinking. “That’s a low blow.”
“You guys go to Eden’s like, every week,” Matt said. “How do you not have a fake ID? Like, just in case?”
Aaron shrugged. “Who’s gonna believe it, anyway?”
Matt nodded, commiserating. “You are very tiny.”
“Thanks,” Aaron said drily.
“So like, does Neil have to drink for every fake ID?” Allison asked. “Or just like—”
“Yes,” Nicky said immediately. “Totally.”
“Hey,” Neil protested.
“Nope,” Aaron said. “Drink, asshole.”
Neil snorted. “After everything I’ve done for you people. Fine. Gimme a minute.”
“One,” Allison counted as he took his first sip. “Two. Three. Four. Five, six, seven—Jesus, Neil. Eight. Nine?”
“I told you it would take a minute,” Neil said, wiping his mouth. “Shut up.”
Allison did not shut up. She counted him all the way till twenty-two, when he finally placed the beer on the ground, empty. His stomach felt fizzy and he made a face.
“Here you go, babe,” Allison said, passing him her cocktail. “You earned it.”
Aaron smirked into his drink. Neil considered dumping his new drink on him in retaliation, but took the high road and allowed Aaron to be smug. In the name of team cohesion.
“I can’t decide if it’s easier to play with you guys, or like, way worse,” Allison mused.
“What do you mean?”
“Like, standard questions don’t apply. The classic ones. Like, ‘never have I ever walked in on my parents.’ Half of you guys don’t even have parents. It’s so inconvenient. On the other hand, y’all have done some fucked up shit. So.”
“‘Never have I ever been kidnapped’ probably doesn’t work in other groups,” Matt said.
“Or ‘Never have I ever seen a Molotov cocktail in real life,’” Dan said.
“Exactly,” Allison said. “Never have I ever sent a sext to the wrong person.”
Nobody drank. “Ugh,” Allison said. “Doesn’t count. Do-over.”
“You can’t just—”
“Do. Over,” Allison said, jabbing her finger at Nicky threateningly. He stuck his tongue out at her and for a second Neil thought he was going to have to intervene if they started slap-fighting each other.
Fortunately, both were too lazy to move. “For real this time. Never have I ever kissed someone whose name I didn’t know,” Allison said.
Neil tapped his fingers on the stem of Allison’s cocktail glass for a second before raising it to his lips.
“Sure, that’s what makes you drink,” Allison grumbled.
Nicky gasped theatrically. “Neil! Who?”
“I don’t know,” Neil said. “Isn’t that the point?”
Dan snorted and Matt snickered. A pout pulled on Nicky’s lip. “Come on. Give me deets. Just a little? A teensy—”
“I was in Montreal,” Neil said. “There was a festival. It wasn’t very exciting.”
“Not exciting? It was at a festival! Neil was at a festival!”
“With a French guy.”
“Girl,” Neil said. “But—"
“Stop being a killjoy. Did you at least get some…uh…maple syrup? They do maple syrup in Canada, right?”
Neil snorted as the others bickered, though technically Nicky was right. The girl had approached him with maple taffy—hot maple syrup poured over snow and scooped up on a popsicle stick. He’d been sitting by a tent waiting for his mother to return with food and the girl sat next to him. They’d shared the taffy, then they’d shared a kiss, then his mother had reappeared and the girl had melted away, never to be seen again.
Allison cut over the others. “Technically wouldn’t Andrew have to drink for Neil, since we didn’t know his real name till like, March?”
“I already knew his name,” Andrew said.
Nicky jumped. “Really? How?”
“You guys and your ‘asking,’” Matt said. “I’m convinced this is some kind of…psychic power of persuasion or something.”
“Neil never does anything I ask him to,” Nicky sulked.
“I went to the mall with you on Boxing Day,” Neil said. “It was horrible.”
“We got some good deals, though,” Nicky said reflectively. “We should do that more often. I have good taste and an eye for sales, and you have pointy elbows and an amazing death glare. We’re a perfect team.”
“I think everyone is ignoring Neil’s sordid past,” Matt said. “We were talking about Neil’s sordid past.”
“Sordid,” Neil said flatly.
“Oh!” Dan struggled upright, flailing. “It’s my turn, right?” She pointed at Neil threateningly. “Never have I ever had a one-night stand.”
She immediately drank, which slightly killed the weight of her threat. Allison, surprisingly—or perhaps not—did not drink, though Nicky did.
“No good,” Allison said when Neil didn’t move. “Neil is a one-trick pony.”
“Ew,” Dan said. “That phrase…no. Don't like that.”
“Fuck off. Nicky.”
“Fine, your majesty,” Nicky said. “Uh. Um.”
“Too long,” Allison said. “Matt.”
“Hey!” Nicky said. “I was getting there.”
“Get there faster.”
“Shut up. Never have I ever had sex with a girl.”
Drinks went to lips around the circle. Dan crowed when Allison eyed them all suspiciously before taking a measured sip of her new mix.
“Yes! Oh my god, I knew it. You and Renee, right? Oh my god—”
“Shut the fuck up,” Allison said, jabbing a pointed fingernail at her. “No, shut up. You are not spoiling this.”
“Aw, Ally, that’s so great,” Dan cooed. “I’m so happy for you guys.”
“I hate you and everything you stand for.”
“Love you too, babe.”
“Wait, you and Renee?” Nicky said. “Really? I can’t see it.”
“Of course you can’t, you’re stupid about relationships,” Allison grumbled.
“I am not!”
“You literally bet against Neil and Andrew. You lived with one of them. Like, dude.”
“That’s not fair. Andrew and Neil are like, huge weirdos. They don’t behave like people. I don’t even think they’ve ever been on a date.”
“Accept it, you’ve got the worst gaydar of anyone here.”
“No, I don’t,” Nicky said, looking at Aaron for support. “I don’t, right?”
“You kinda do,” Aaron said.
“Oh, God, no,” Nicky said, a terrible realization dawning on his face. “Oh no. I am a gay without gaydar. Oh my god. Guys.”
“Wait,” Matt said. “They’ve never been on a date?”
“I don’t know! Clearly, I don’t know anything! Aaron, hold me.”
“Stop having a crisis, you dumbass, you’re just drunk.”
“Neil?” Matt said.
“Shh, shh,” Allison said. “Matt, it’s your turn—”
“Oh! Never have I ever been on a date!”
“That’s not what I—you know what, I give up on you.” Allison shook her head, taking a drink. “You guys suck at this game.”
Neil twisted the stem of his cocktail glass and glanced sideways at Andrew. His profile was lit up in orange and gold from the firelight. He slid his eyes over to meet Neil’s, saying nothing to help either way. Neil’s eyebrows furrowed, trying to read an answer in Andrew’s expression.
Carefully, Neil raised the glass to his lips. Andrew held his gaze for a long moment, not looking away until Neil had lowered his glass back into his lap.
“Okay,” Dan said. “Okay. Intense eye contact aside. You had to think about that way too long.”
Neil shrugged. He and Andrew didn’t—well, they had never called it that. They just did things together. It probably qualified. And Andrew hadn’t actually argued.
Allison scoffed. “Weirdos.”
“No but seriously!” Nicky said. “They only questionably go on dates! Neil hasn’t drank for a single sex thing tonight. Do you guys even have sex?”
“Nicky,” Neil said irritably. “This stopped being funny half an hour ago.”
“It’s not normal! Like, do you do anything? Wait—never have I ever kissed a guy. Come on, you have to drink for that—”
“You’re being an ass, Nicky,” Neil said. The heat at his shoulder faded as Andrew retreated, his hands going tense on his legs. Nicky didn’t seem to notice.
“You never tell us anything! How are we supposed to know!”
“Hey,” Aaron said apprehensively. “Maybe—"
“Nick, my guy,” Allison started.
“Like, come on. It’s been over a year and we don’t know anything! We’re your friends. I just wanna know if Andrew is—”
Neil dumped his drink out over Nicky’s head.
For a heartbeat, even the fire seemed to freeze.
Nicky swallowed, his eyes suddenly very, very wide. The others didn’t move, hands too tight on their drinks.
Aaron rubbed his forehead in exhaustion.
“Right,” Allison said loudly. “Beer pong, anyone?”
“I think we’re done,” Neil said.
“Shut up, Nicky.”
Nicky flinched, horror and shame colouring his face. Neil pushed himself to his feet and looked down at Andrew. He sat with his spine rigid, his eyes fixed on Nicky.
“Andrew,” Neil said, holding out a hand to block his view. “Let’s go.”
A shiver went through Andrew’s entire body, racing down his spine, only visible because Neil was watching him so closely. His fingers curled into his palms as he dragged his gaze away from Nicky and looked at Neil.
Neil looked back, not saying another word. Andrew searched his face for a long moment, then brushed his hand aside and stood, throwing the blanket over his arm.
They walked back towards Fox Tower in silence. They weren’t quite out of earshot when the others burst into conversation, their voices indistinct but high with outrage. Neil felt a brief, vicious stab of satisfaction imagining the others tearing Nicky apart. He shoved it down and swiped his fob at the back door, leading Andrew up the stairs into the blinding fluorescent light.
Their suite was quiet, which meant Kevin was asleep. Neil headed straight for the bathroom. The smell of campfire smoke was different—cleaner, friendlier—than the metal and meat smoke that haunted him, but that didn’t mean he wanted to sleep in it. He shoved his clothes into a bundle in the corner and stepped under the spray before it had quite heated up.
He let out a shuddering breath. The water beat down on his head, drowning out the rushing of blood in his ears. His fingers turned to claws in his hair as he scrubbed shampoo over his scalp. Nicky was just being nosy. It was nothing new. It shouldn’t bother him this much. Nicky was drunk and stupid and in the morning he would apologize tearfully and they would forget all about it.
The burning in Neil’s chest belied him. Something ferocious and protective crackled and rose, choking his lungs, out of proportion with Nicky’s petty prying. The water felt like a rain of pebbles against his skin.
A knock sounded at the door.
Neil started, his foot slipping a little on the tub.
“Can I come in?” Andrew asked.
It took Neil a second to compose himself. He exhaled, wiping shampoo from his face. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s open.”
He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, letting the water run down his face. The door creaked open and Andrew moved around behind the curtain. Neil heard the tell-tale sounds of him brushing his teeth and shook himself, trying to shed the burning feeling with little success.
He rinsed himself off and cut the water when he was done. Andrew passed him a towel around the curtain and he rubbed it over himself briefly before wrapping it around his waist and stepping out of the shower.
Andrew dropped his toothbrush in the cup and turned to face him. His eyes were shadowed with tiredness, but the tension from earlier had already faded. Andrew folded his arms over his chest and studied him. Neil watched him back, not bothering to disguise his expression.
After a moment, Andrew reached up, pressing a thumb to the scar on Neil’s cheekbone. “He is not worth the energy.”
Neil snorted, thinking of the way Andrew’s hands had twitched towards his armbands at the fireside. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
Andrew’s lips flattened, just a little. He tapped his thumb against Neil’s scar again, as if searching for words.
“I am…trying,” he said, and Neil couldn’t help but soften.
“I know,” he said, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Andrew’s. His breath drifted across Neil’s lips, warm and minty with only a hint of bitter whiskey. The discordant note only made him feel more real, more solid. Andrew did try—more than the others noticed, most of the time.
“Do you ever,” Andrew stopped. Neil drew back half an inch to look at him, waiting.
Andrew looked like he was forcing the words through his teeth, eyes fixed somewhere beside Neil’s ear. “Dates. Sex. Is that something you—want.”
Neil stared at him for a moment, so disoriented by the change in subject that he almost wanted to laugh.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” he said. Andrew’s expression tightened minutely, and Neil tipped his chin up with his finger so he had no choice but to meet his eyes.
“I want you,” he said simply.
Andrew twitched like he’d been stung, his nose wrinkling. “You are impossible.”
A smile finally tugged its way free of Neil’s lips. “Too bad, you’re stuck with me now.”
“I will push you off the roof.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Neil said, kissing him to stop any further argument. It was a slow kiss, neither of them having the energy for much more, but Andrew’s hands on his bare sides soothed the dragon in his chest more effectively than any balm.
Neil drew back and cracked his neck side to side with a comfortable sigh. Andrew’s eyes never shifted from Neil’s face.
“Was that really what was bothering you?” Neil asked.
Andrew gave him a flat look. “Nothing bothers me.”
Neil rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help a huff of laughter escaping his mouth. He’d been so busy being mad at Nicky, it hadn’t even occurred to him to worry if his accusations had merit. Trust Andrew to get distracted by the one thing Neil had no doubts about.
“Bed?” he asked.
Neil nodded and reluctantly stepped out of the circle of Andrew’s arms. He saw Andrew strip his shirt off out of the corner of his eye as he left the room, but he didn’t linger.
It wasn’t dark enough in the bedroom to disguise the fact that there were two bodies in Kevin’s bunk instead of one. Renee’s eyes blinked open as light poured in from the hallway. Neil acknowledged her with a glance and turned away to pull on a sleep shirt and boxers.
The sound of a yawn came from behind him. “Drat,” Renee mumbled. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
He looked back and watched her try to wriggle out from where Kevin’s arms were locked around her middle. He grumbled something in his sleep and curled more tightly around her.
She gave up, slumping into the sheets. “Sorry,” she muttered, her voice trailing off into something inaudible. Neil caught the word privacy before her eyes drooped closed again.
Neil couldn’t help but smile. “It’s fine,” he said quietly. She didn’t respond, and he shook his head, sneaking back out of the room. He’d gotten trapped in the vortex of drunk Kevin before; once he had you snared, there was no escape. You just tolerated his clinging and hoped you didn’t get squished in the night.
He poured himself a glass of water and leaned against the counter to wait for. The smell of smoke still drifted over from the blanket Andrew had dumped by the doorway, but it was thin and faded.
He closed his eyes and was about to take a sip when someone knocked at the door.
His eyes pressed closed harder. He didn’t want to deal with this now. He wanted them all to go away and come back in the morning and leave him to stew in his annoyance for a little longer.
“Neil?” Nicky said, his voice very small.
Neil placed his cup on the counter and forced himself to walk over and unlock the door. Nicky stood in the hallway wringing his hands, very different from the loud-mouthed version of himself who had spouted off by the fire less than half an hour ago.
“Can I come in?”
Neil stepped aside in lieu of an answer. Nicky hugged his arms around his middle and slunk in, giving Neil a wide berth. He’d changed into a new outfit, but his hair was still damp from Neil’s drink.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Neil exhaled, reminded himself that Nicky was his friend, and closed the door. Nicky sank down onto one of the beanbag chairs, eyes unfocussed. He fiddled with the string of his hoody, chewing on his lip.
“I—” He pursed his lips unhappily.
“We can talk about it in the morning,” Neil said, taking pity on him. “Just go to sleep.”
“No,” Nicky said. “I screwed up. I don’t want—”
He grimaced again, then straightened his shoulders and looked up at Neil with a determined expression. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“I—” Nicky paused. His fingers twisted into the beanbag, like he couldn’t find the words. Neil took a deep breath and lowered himself onto the second beanbag. It sank under his weight, so thin from the loss of beads that his ass was basically on the carpet, but Nicky looked relieved to have them both at the same height again.
“Okay,” Nicky said. “Okay. So, like, that story I told earlier. About the guy, and my braces?”
“I remember,” Neil said tiredly. ‘Why—”
“Just…okay. So like, I tell that story all the time, right?”
“Sure. It’s funny. I’m cute and people think I’m funny. But like.” He frowned, chewing on his cheek. His eyes wandered away vaguely.
Neil sighed. “Nicky, you’re drunk—”
“I know, I know. But okay. So, I tell that story all the time. And nobody ever really asks why we were in such a hurry that we—”
“Yeah,” Neil said, not wanting a rehash.
“Right. So. I was…sixteen at the time? And we were panicking because we were at my house, and my parents had just gotten home early.”
Nicky nodded wearily, rubbing his forehead. “Yeah. I’d come out to them a few months before that, but they still thought I was fighting it. They caught us, and I was shipped off to conversion therapy two weeks later.”
“I know.” He shook himself, refocussing on Neil. “But that’s not the point. The point is—I don’t tell people everything either. I get it, okay? But you guys—you don’t tell me anything. I don’t need everything. I just want to know that you’re okay.” His voice was very small. “Are you okay?”
Neil pressed his fingers into the beanbag chair beneath him, watching little white beads pop out of a hole in the seam one at a time. “That’s not what you asked, though.”
A frown tugged at Nicky’s mouth. “What?”
“You didn’t ask if we were okay. You asked if we were having sex.”
The look of confusion didn’t lift. Neil sighed. “Is sex the only thing about Erik that makes you happy?”
“No,” Nicky said immediately. “Of course not.”
Neil made a there-you-go gesture. Nicky stared at him for a long moment before groaning softly and rubbing his face into the beanbag. “My brain hurts.”
“That’s because you’re drunk.”
“Yeah,” Nicky mumbled. After a second he squinted, looking at Neil again. “Are you?”
“No. Okay. Are you okay?”
Movement in the doorway drew Neil’s eye. Andrew stopped in the hall, the dim light of the living room casting him in soft, blurry gold. His sweatpants pooled around his ankles and his t-shirt was so worn there were tiny holes speckled around the hems like lace. Neil knew because he’d poked his fingers through, on lazy weekend mornings when they didn’t have to get up for practice.
Neil made a small gesture with his hand to say that everything was alright, and Andrew nodded and melted back into the hallway. Neil watched for a moment longer before looking back at Nicky.
“Yeah,” he said simply. “We’re okay.”
Nicky smiled, pillowing his head on his hand. “Yeah?”
The corner of Neil’s mouth ticked up. “Better than okay.”
“I love you so much,” Nicky mumbled, his eyes drooping. Neil wondered for a moment if he’d even remember this conversation in the morning. Nicky burrowed into his beanbag, sighing happily.
“Hey,” Neil said. “No falling asleep in our dorm.”
“But nothing. Up,” Neil said. He pushed himself up onto one arm and shoved Nicky’s shoulder. “Up, now.”
Neil grabbed Nicky’s shirt and yanked. Nicky fell off the beanbag with a yelp, glowering up at Neil.
“Up,” Neil said.
He chivvied Nicky up and out of the dorm, half-carrying him to Matt’s door. Nicky sighed, resting his cheek on the top of Neil’s head as Neil tried awkwardly to reach around him and knock on the door.
Matt opened it a minute later and Neil foisted Nicky onto him before he could say anything. Matt caught him automatically, but his eyes were on Neil.
“Hey, man, are you—”
“We’re fine,” Neil said. “Make sure he gets to bed.”
Matt’s eyebrows furrowed. Nicky let out a massive, heaving sigh and reached out to pat Neil’s head. He ducked backward, but his mouth couldn’t help quirking up a little at the side. He was, in the end, not very good at staying mad at Nicky.
“Go to bed, dumbass,” he said, turning away to return to his suite, then paused, looking back over his shoulder. “And Nicky?”
“Next time? Just ask.”
Nicky blinked a few times in drunken confusion. The threads of comprehension came together slowly, and he smiled sheepishly when he figured it out. “Right,” he said. “Totally.”
Neil rolled his eyes and trudged back to his room, where Andrew was already waiting for him in his bunk. His hands went up to tug at Neil’s shirt as he climbed in beside him, arranging them nose to nose on the narrow mattress.
“Better?” Andrew said quietly.
Neil touched Andrew’s face, smoothing his thumb across his eyebrow, and breathed out, letting his body melt into the mattress.
“Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to.”