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Ever after all

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They officially retire three weeks after Neil turns forty-four.

It is a big relief to Andrew. He threw his knee out seasons ago now, and although a steady stream of rehabilitation had seen him return to the court it had never quite bent right again. He’d stayed on the team because standing in the goal took sufficiently less effort than running the field, but he’s getting to be old and tired now and the joint of it aches after hard games.

He’d stayed so long only because he would never leave Neil to play a game alone. Now that Neil is done though, Andrew is all too happy to set his racquet down.

Kevin is near inconsolable. He’s not exactly young himself and inches closer to his own retirement with every season, but he’s significantly more world-blind and less damaged than Neil. Andrew’s fairly certain Kevin’s traded years off his life just to make sure he stands on the field a little longer.

“The oldest player on Court is forty-nine,” Kevin tells Neil at their retirement party, hand shaking around his seventh drink and words slurring at the edges, “and he’s half the striker you are.”

Neil lets Kevin cling at his shirt like he can hold Neil to the game with his fingertips alone and there’s an amused fondness in his eyes as he takes Kevin’s vodka-and-juice from him before he can drop it. “Yes, Kevin. You’ve said that already.”

“If you upped your training by an hour a session you could probably stay for another year,” Kevin insists, like at their age Neil stands a chance in hell of lasting four hours of training a day. Kevin himself can only stomach three before he needs to call it quits.

“Why don’t you go sit down,” Neil says, still trying to hold back his smile, and Kevin blinks sluggishly up at him and tries to hold to his shirt tighter but lets Neil steer him over to his less-than-amused wife.

Andrew watches from the sidelines, a cigarette in one hand and his own drink in the other. The room is a crowded thing, full of their teammates and the Foxes alike, but Neil cuts a clear figure through it all. People smile at him as he passes, catch him for conversation and farewells and goodwishes, and Neil only flinches a little when Dan gets him in a surprise hug.

There’s little traces of lightening at his scalp these days; not grey yet, but obviously not red. He doesn’t quite look old but he doesn’t look young and Andrew enjoys the sight more than he’d thought he ever could.

All those years ago neither of them had truly believed that Neil could age; that he would ever be allowed to. For all that they’ve suffered these quiet changes are their reward.

Andrew blows a mouthful of smoke out and watches as Neil works his way across the room back to him. When he’s close enough to touch he reaches for Andrew and draws him in for a small kiss.

(it’s not something they usually do in public, but it is busy all around them now and they’d barely seen each other all night. There’s something that tastes like whiskey on Neil’s lips too, and Andrew supposes that might have eased him to affection somewhat.)

“How’s Kevin?” Andrew asks as Neil pulls back and Neil sighs and rolls his eyes at him. He settles into lean on the table beside him and Andrew passes him the last of his cigarette wordlessly.

“Still in denial. I think he’ll take it better when he’s got more blood than vodka in his veins.”

Andrew hides his smirk behind the rim of his glass. “You’re taking this better than he is.”

Neil doesn’t bother to hide his smile at all. “Maybe I’m just waiting until we’re alone to get emotional over it.”

Andrew looks at him from the corner of his eye.

Like this with smoke curling from his fingertips and an honest affection in the blue of his eyes Neil looks more human than Andrew has often seen him. There’s no bitterness there, no angry resignation, just a content quietness.

Exy has been Neil’s life since the first time he’d held a racquet, but it’d been hooked to a countdown; it was a happiness that he could only have for so long before it destroyed all of him. He could have Exy or he could live, and Neil had chosen Exy.

And then he’d been allowed to have both.

This right here – the friends and family filling the room to the corner, the memorabilia emblazoned with his name that decorates the walls, the permanent callouses in his palm from the sport – was something he’d never thought he’d have.

Neil had long since made peace with own mortality. He could never begrudge the end of a life that he’d never expected.

Andrew doesn’t say any of this. Instead he takes his cigarette back from Neil to suck in one last lungful before stubbing it out in the sugar holder behind them and says, “I’m done for tonight.”

Neil doesn’t hesitate when he says in return, “nobody’s out by the back door right now. Ten bucks says they don’t even notice us leaving.”

“The Foxes have made you into a gambler,” Andrew tells him and Neil laughs; it’s a small huff of a noise that makes the air in Andrew’s lungs shiver.

They sneak out around the crowd with little effort. Most of the guests are too drunk or occupied to notice the stars of the show creeping past the walls and Neil and Andrew still have the grace of athletes and the stealth of two men raised on secrecy.

Outside is colder than Andrew thought, but it’s also silent. There’s a thrum of stifled noise leaking from the building behind them, and he fancies that if he places a hand to the bricks he’d feel it in his palm, but it’s almost comforting.

“So was the party entirely awful?” Neil asks, digging his hands into his pockets and smiling even as his breath fogs the air.

It hadn’t been. “Yes,” Andrew says anyway, and Neil obviously doesn’t believe him for a second.

Neil rolls his eyes at him and leans back against the wall. Andrew joins him. They’re standing close enough for their arms to brush and Andrew sidles in a little closer because Neil is pleasantly warm and although Andrew’s wearing long sleeves he’d not thought to bring a jacket.

“We’re going to have find something else to waste our time on now,” Neil says after a moment. “We’ll drive each other mad if we’re trapped in the apartment together all day without burning off any energy.”

“I’m sure we could find something to do to burn off energy,” Andrew says flatly because Neil left it open to him and he knows Neil finds his deadpan humour endlessly endearing. Neil doesn’t even have the good grace to look surprised when Andrew pulls him down to his level for a kiss.

He doesn’t miss the careful way Neil used to treat him to avoid stepping over his boundaries, but he thinks he might miss the way he could startle an awed look into his eyes just by reaching for him.

(he likes the easy way they now know each other’s space more though. The newness of Neil’s reactions to him had been fun all those years back, but the familiarity between them is so much better; the casual way one of them will move and the other will follow.)

Neil still kisses like he used to, though. Warm lips, an unconscious smile at the edges of his mouth, and the silent promise that he never intends to kiss anybody but Andrew for the rest of his life.

When they pull away the cold air stings at Andrew’s still-hot lips. He thinks about kissing Neil again just to keep warm, but even now kissing Neil is terribly distracting. If he starts something here, he might not be able to make himself stop, and they’re really too old to be having public sex.

Besides, the wall would probably hurt his back and the ground looks filthy.

“You’re staring at me again,” Neil says, fingertips tracing down the back of Andrew’s neck. The absent way he maps patterns at his nape tells Andrew that Neil doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

He thinks again about maybe pushing Neil to the wall and sinking down to blow him.

Neil probably wouldn’t protest but Andrew’s bad knee would.

Instead he says, “we could get a dog.”

“What?”

“A dog,” Andrew repeats. “Four legs, fur and a tail.”

“I know what a dog is,” Neil says. “Right now?”

Andrew gives him a bored look. Neil doesn’t even bother to look properly scolded.

(tonight Andrew is obviously going to have to put serious effort into making Neil’s expression appropriately desperate. He thinks he might even know a thing or two to bring that old surprised awe back to his eyes. He looks forward to trying.

Just – not right now.

He’s cold and his knee hurts.

Later, though. Later.)

“King Fluffkins and Sir Fat Cat probably won’t want to share us,” Neil points out.

“I don’t like to share either,” Andrew reminds him, “but I let your cats sleep on the bed.”

“I don’t even know if you’re complaining about sharing me or the bed,” Neil sighs. “And you’re the one who brought them home.”

Andrew doesn’t bother answering either of those accusations. “You’ll have to clean up after the dog, though.”

“Why am I the one who has to look after it? You’re the one who clearly wants it.”

Andrew ignores that accusation too and pulls away. He lights up another cigarette as Neil falls quiet. The conversation doesn’t so much as lull as it does slip into an easy for later stillness.

A long moment later Neil asks quietly, “will you miss it?”

He doesn’t say too at the end because that’s obvious and he doesn’t specify what he means because Andrew isn’t stupid.

He thinks of Juvie and holding his goal keeping position just because it was better than doing nothing, of the angry viciousness and medicated delirium that had haunted him through the sport in college. He thinks, of course, about Kevin and the promise that tied them together and eventually brought them Neil and the way it changed everything.  

He thinks of how Neil had come into his life with Andrew’s racquet to his gut, how Neil’s racquet had been the one to crush Drake’s skull.

He thinks about the years on the Court; the unmitigated burn of a loss, the fire of a win even though Andrew had thought his blood to cold to catch on a flame.

Fucking Neil breathless when they were signed to the same team, took the championship, made Olympic gold.

He thinks about how empty his hands feel now that he knows he’ll never seriously hold a racquet again.

“No,” Andrew says and Neil laughs.

“Yeah,” Neil says, “me neither.”

They don’t talk again that night, but when they get home Andrew takes Neil to bed and steadily undoes every inch of his composure. If Neil shakes a little more under his hands than usual, Andrew lets him pretend that it has more to do with the sex than it does with the retirement.

(he does bring the awe back to Neil’s eyes though, and when they pass out afterwards like the old men they are, the soft O of Neil’s mouth and the way he’d hissed Andrew’s name carry him into his sleep.)

.

They’ve been retired for two-and-a-half months when Andrew comes home from visiting Aaron to find a dog sitting on his sofa.

He stops at the threshold and stares. The dog stares back.

It’s a pathetic mutt of a thing. If there’s a breed somewhere in that mess Andrew doesn’t have a clue what. Its fur is brown and white and gold and although it looks like it’s been recently washed its ribs still stick out sorely.

One of its ears are missing.

“You’re in my seat,” Andrew tells it. The dog does not move.

“Oh,” Neil says, stepping back into the room. “You’re home.”

Andrew slants him a look. Neil just raises a brow at him, daring Andrew to say something, anything.

“You’re not calling it Exy,” Andrew says.

“I wasn’t going to!” Neil protests, but it is an obvious and blatant lie.

He doesn’t ask Andrew if they can keep it, because that’s never how their relationship has been, and he doesn’t try to stop Andrew when he ignores the both of them to head to the bedroom.

The dog is still there in the morning. And the next one. And the one after.

Andrew doesn’t let Neil name it, because the last time he gave him that trust he named their cats King Fluffkins and Sir Fat Cat McCatterson. Andrew isn’t much in the habit of repeating a mistake twice.

(Neil doesn’t like his name in the end either, but Andrew really doesn’t give a fuck, and besides, Dog is a simple, uncomplicated thing to remember.)

Andrew takes it for walks in the morning, smokes quietly while Dog runs off his energy in the nearby park. With just the two of them it gives the world a quiet distance that Andrew appreciates. In the evening he walks Dog again, but Neil comes with them.

That too is nice. Sometimes they talk and sometimes they just walk in silence, a cigarette each and Dog chasing circles around their feet. If the both of them are feeling affectionate enough for it they might even hold hands when they sit down for a bit, but it’s a rarity more than a norm.

Still, when Andrew was nineteen he’d never imagined he’d hold hands with anybody – or that he’d grow to like the comforting weight of it.

Neil is, and always will be, his exception.

Sometimes there are people out still and sometimes those people recognize them. It doesn’t happen often enough considering they tend to time these walks to be too late or too early for socialization, but it does happen.

Andrew never gets approached when he’s alone, because after twenty years of the public eye his fans have become smart and less suicidal, but although Neil is equally terrifying in his own way he seems tame and personable next to Andrew.

(a rabid wolf would be tame and personable next to Andrew. It’s more a compliment than it is an insult.)

He obliges when asked for autographs but never stays to chat. Partly because he’s never been comfortable with his fame, but mostly because their walks are their time and Neil has made no secret he dislikes being interrupted.

It’s so disgustingly domestic that it ought to make Andrew sick.

Dog doesn’t fill the space Exy had left in their lives, but it was never the reason Andrew had suggested they get one to begin with. For a time, Andrew had thought that Exy might be a glue that kept him and Neil together, but that was a suspicion that had long since fizzled under the weight of too many mornings and too many nights together.

Andrew and Neil have never needed a reason to stay together but Dog and both of their cats give them a stuffing to the endless expanse of their lives.

For two people who had never thought to grow old, two cat, a dog and an apartment with a joint lease is the reminder that to have come this far at all isn’t a natural progression or a miracle; it is something they have earnt with their own two hands.

To Neil, it is the reminder that he has chosen to keep his feet on the ground; that he’s chosen to stop running.

To Andrew, it is the reminder that he has chosen Neil.

To the both of them it’s the promise that they don’t regret any of it.

Neil had never been allowed to grow old and Andrew had never wanted to, and yet they’re here, they’re here.