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It’s the second day of summer vacation and, with thirty whole days of nothing in front of them, Andrew and Neil are headed for Columbia.

It hadn’t been the plan until the day before. Neil had said goodbye to the Upperclassmen before they left for the airport – Matt and Dan were planning to spend the month with Matt’s mom after a quick detour so Dan could visit her stage sisters, meanwhile Allison had made the decision to spend her time off with Renee and her foster mother – and the dorms had suddenly felt a whole lot emptier with them gone.

Nicky had been the next to leave, almost squeezing the life out of Neil when he was saying goodbye at the airport. Nicky still had the presence of mind not to attempt to hug Andrew but he did give his cousin an emotional smile before moving on to hug Aaron and Kevin instead. With the promise to skype as soon as he’d slept off his jetlag, he was disappearing through the gate.

An hour after Nicky left and they’d returned to Fox Tower, Aaron informed them he was going home with Katelyn for the month. Andrew gave no reaction whatsoever as he continued to pack up his own wardrobe and Kevin’s only response was “Don’t slack on your workouts.” Neil didn’t exactly get along with Aaron and could probably take him or leave him on a good day but he still attempted a smile and told him to have fun. With a final look at Andrew, Aaron nodded, picked up his bag and left.

After they’d finished packing and loaded everything into the trunk of the Maserati Kevin had asked Andrew to drive him to the court so he could talk to Coach. He’d looked wrung out and terrified as he’d abandoned the car in the parking lot and skulked inside on his own. 

Andrew and Neil had been sitting on the hood of the car – Andrew smoking, Neil rolling a lit cigarette between his fingers – when Kevin had approached them a few minutes later and told them he was going to stay at Wymack’s for the month.  Andrew didn’t react but Neil knew he was surprised. Neil was surprised; he didn’t actually expect Kevin to take any action to build a relationship with Wymack beyond telling him the truth.

Kevin left the court in Wymack’s car, leaving Andrew and Neil behind in the parking lot.

As soon as the car was out of sight Andrew had flicked his cigarette butt to the ground and leaned back on his hands to regard Neil with a sidelong glance. “Where d’you feel like running to?”

Neil lifted his eyebrows in confusion, shifting a little to face Andrew. “I’m not running anywhere.”

Andrew had rolled his eyes then, hopping down off the hood of the car to stand in front of Neil. “We can run away as long as we come back.”

“What about Kevin?”

Andrew shrugged, stepping into the space between Neil’s legs where he still sat on the bonnet. “He’ll be with Coach.”

“You’re willingly letting him out of your sight?” Neil asked in surprise. “Do you really trust Coach that much?”

“He doesn’t need my protection anymore and he can’t handle the thought of being away from the court for longer than an hour.”

Neil had sat forward, putting himself in Andrew’s space and feeling a thrill run up his spine when Andrew didn’t lean away. “How long before he tries to call us back?”

“He knew if he decided not to go to Abby’s with us then he couldn’t make us stay,” Andrew said, eyes boring into Neil’s.

“Columbia?” Neil breathed, swaying closer.

The last thing he’d seen before closing his eyes was Andrew’s nod as he’d moved to meet Neil’s lips with his own.

And now, a day later, they’re on the road, leaving Palmetto behind.

They’re not staying away for the full month because Kevin will no doubt have a breakdown at some stage – be it about exy, Wymack, Riko or all three – so they plan to spend the last two weeks of vacation at Abby’s before they can move back into Fox Tower but for now, it’s just them and the open road.

It’s mostly a quiet drive; the radio is playing at a low volume, barely audible with the windows down, but Neil likes it. He likes the peace and quiet of being alone with Andrew, likes the way he can feel all his carefully crafted walls slowly fall away the longer they’re alone together.

It should scare him – it used to – he spent so long running, so long concealing every single part of his personality and becoming someone else that by the time he and Andrew started whatever it is they are, Neil wasn’t sure he even knew which parts of himself were real enough to give to Andrew. Now though, he feels comforted knowing that Andrew knows everything, that he knows every piece of Neil – the real and the constructed – and that he wants to stay anyway.

It’s still hard to remember to let him in all the way but the burning need in the pit of his stomach that yearns to keep Andrew close often outweighs his doubt.

They get to the house before noon and only drop their bags before they leave again to pick up groceries that’ll last them the two weeks.

Neil steers the cart around the supermarket while Andrew seems to be picking items at random off the shelf and dumping them in the cart.

“You know we should probably pick foods that could form some kind of meal?” Neil comments conversationally as Andrew tosses three different brands of cookies into the cart.

“Says the one who can’t cook.” Andrew doesn’t scoff but it’s a near thing as he wanders over to the next aisle.

“I can cook,” Neil protests, more out of an instinctual reaction to defend himself rather than because he’s proud of his abilities.

“You can make edible food,” Andrew corrects, suddenly appearing at Neil’s side again. “Flavours are a foreign concept to you.”

“How would you know?” Neil huffs. “You’ve never tasted my cooking.”

“And I’m not about to,” Andrew quips, deserting Neil once more to rummage through the frozen section.

Neil is quicker than Andrew when they’re paying which earns him a scowl and a muttered percentage increase but he only smirks smugly back and takes half of the groceries to carry to the car.

It feels almost anti-climactic when they return to the house and finish putting away their food and clothes. There’s no Nicky or Aaron begging to go to Sweetie’s or Eden’s Twilight, no Kevin harping on about missed practices. It’s just Neil and Andrew and the silence.

Neil thinks it might be the first time he’s taken a breath in days.

He hadn’t realised it because he’d been so caught up in packing and saying goodbye to everyone but now that it’s over he remembers his self-imposed countdown was meant to be up by now. It’s the end of the school year and five months ago, he thought he’d be dead by now.

Instead he has a team and a future and a home and Andrew.

(The last two might be interchangeable.)

He feels shaky and off-centre at the thought. Everything this year happened so quickly and took so much out of him, he never actually had the time to come to terms with the fact that he’s still alive – he’s still here – beyond acknowledging that he was finally free. It’s overwhelming now that he’s finally letting it hit him.

Andrew shaking a packet of cigarettes at him snaps him out of his reverie and he looks across the kitchen island to see Andrew nodding towards the back door. Neil follows him into the back yard, stopping when Andrew does and attempting to mask his surprise when Andrew opts to lie down on the grass once he’s lit his cigarette.

Neil watches him for a moment but when Andrew shows no signs of moving he lies down beside him. The sky is clear save for a few clouds and it’s warm but not uncomfortably so; Neil takes a moment to close his eyes and focus on his breathing. Once he feels returned to centre he opens them again and rolls his head to the side, taking in Andrew’s profile.

“How’d you know?” he asks eventually.

Andrew blows smoke out of his mouth and turns his head to face Neil. “Know what?”

“That I needed to leave. I didn’t even know that until a few minutes ago.”

“You always were slow on the uptake, Josten,” Andrew huffs, dragging his gaze back to the sky.

Neil considers him for a moment. Even if he didn’t need to shadow Kevin anymore, it must be hard for Andrew not to do it now and yet he left anyway and took Neil away to give him a moment to breathe. He knew Neil might have felt overwhelmed now that he finally had a moment to take in the fact that he was safe. And he gave Neil a place to come to terms with that on his own. Neil has always known Andrew is perceptive but it’s still a shock that he not only noticed but also cared enough to give Neil this.

After a moment’s hesitation Neil rolls fully onto his side, carefully maintaining a small distance between the two of them. “Andrew.”

Andrew looks to him again, expression blank and unassuming, and Neil tentatively reaches out a hand to brush his fingertips over the back of Andrew’s hand where it’s lying limply on his chest. “Thank you,” he murmurs, mouth tugging up in a private smile. He’s expecting Andrew to scoff or make some sarcastic remark; instead he just watches Neil a second longer and nods.

Neil pulls his hand away after a moment but he doesn’t shift back onto his back, content to watch Andrew rather than the sky.

“Did anyone ever tell you you have a staring problem?” Andrew asks, stubbing out his cigarette and rolling onto his side to face Neil.

“No,” Neil says. “Then again, I’m pretty sure it only happens around you.”

“Always so dead-set on making me suffer,” Andrew sighs but the words carry none of his usual bite.

Neil grins, shaking his head. “I think you like it.”

“And why would I like it?”

“Because you like me,” Neil retorts, grin widening at the way Andrew’s jaw works like he’s swallowing down whatever he was initially going to say.

“Who told you that?” he asks instead. “Last I checked, I hate you.”

“You know I stopped believing you like three months ago, right?”

“Only three?”

Neil snorts, lifting his hand before pausing it mid-air. “Yes or no?”

There’s a light in Andrew’s eyes that he doesn’t think he’s seen before when Andrew tells him yes.

Neil smiles, curving his hand over Andrew’s jaw and sliding his fingers into Andrew’s hair to guide him into a kiss. Their kisses are so often bruising, always a fight, this one isn’t though. This one is slow and soft; the gentle pressure of their lips against one another is grounding more than anything. It’s unhurried because it can be and Neil revels in it.

He loses track of time the longer they stay outside but hours have passed by the time they return into the kitchen.

As far as Neil is concerned, it’s a pretty good start to their vacation.

*

When they finally decide to go to bed Neil hesitates.

They’ve shared a bed before and it was fine – Andrew seemed fine – but this is different. Before they didn’t really have an option without making a big deal out of it but now, Neil could just as easily sleep in Aaron or Nicky’s room and he doesn’t want to make Andrew uncomfortable by just assuming they’re sharing. He puts it off at first, taking his time in the bathroom, but he knows he has to say something soon.

He catches Andrew in the hallway, obviously intending to use the bathroom now that Neil is finished, but he dutifully stops when Neil puts a hand out. “Where do you want me?” he asks, deciding to just bite the bullet and ask the question he wants the answer to rather than dancing around the issue. He’s long since learned that the only way he and Andrew work is through unyielding, brutal honesty.

Andrew searches his expression and Neil obediently waits for him to decide what he wants. Eventually Andrew’s fingers twist in the front of Neil’s t-shirt and he tugs gently. “Come on,” he murmurs, walking backwards as he leads Neil into his room.

Neil follows, breath caught in his throat at the inscrutable look on Andrew’s face. They stop at the foot of the bed and Neil waits again for Andrew to make the first move. In the end though, all he does is kiss Neil once before telling him he’ll be back in a second.

Andrew disappears into the hallway, presumably to go the bathroom, and Neil climbs into bed, keeping to the left since he knows Andrew prefers to sleep with his back against the wall. He tries not to fidget while he waits for Andrew to get back, choosing to scan through the messages on his phone that the rest of the Foxes have sent him throughout the day to keep his mind busy. But as soon as he hears Andrew’s soft footfalls returning he snaps the phone closed and drops it on the bedside table, eyes immediately finding Andrew’s when he appears in the doorway.

Andrew stares at him with an indiscernible expression for a moment before slipping inside the room and closing the door behind him. He doesn’t touch Neil as he climbs into the bed and when he finally settles there’s almost a foot of space between them. Neil doesn’t attempt to bridge it except for the hand he carefully reaches out.

Andrew is on his side, facing Neil and watching with lazy interest as Neil pulls his hand into the centre of the bed. He can tell Andrew is surprised though when Neil doesn’t try to hold his hand or pull him closer. Instead he locks his pinky finger with Andrew’s and meets his gaze across the pillows.

Silence reigns between them for a moment until Andrew finds his voice again. “Making me a new promise?”

“If you need me to,” Neil whispers.

“And what does this one entail?” Andrew asks. He tries to sound disinterested and he mostly succeeds but Neil knows better now. He knows Andrew doesn’t speak unless he wants to, doesn’t ask unless he’s interested in the answer.

“It’s always yes for me, I already told you that. But I know it isn’t the same for you and that yes is situational so whatever you need from me, I promise to be that," he murmurs, squeezing his finger tighter around Andrew’s. “If you want me right here or you want me on the couch, I don’t care, just tell me.”

“You think I’d let you in this bed if I didn’t already believe that?” It’s sounds cold when Andrew says it but the slight pause before he speaks and the way his pinky finger is twisted around Neil’s in a death grip gives him away. He’d needed Neil to say it out loud, Neil knows he did. “And what am I meant to be promising back?”

Neil shrugs, letting his gaze sweep down to their hands. “Don’t shut me out. If something happens or you need space- I want to do whatever you need me to but don’t shut down. Even if you can’t explain right away, just promise you’ll tell me why when you can. I meant it when I said I won’t let you let me be like them but that only works if you tell me when something is wrong.”

Andrew is silent for a long time but Neil is willing to wait him out. He loosens his grip on Andrew’s hand slightly in case Andrew wants to pull away but he doesn’t try.

Silence settles between them but after a few seconds Andrew nods and whispers, “I can do that.”

Neil nods back and allows himself to smile, letting go of Andrew’s hand and turning away to switch off the bedside light. It takes a second once he’s returned to his original position for his eyes to adjust in the darkness but once they do they settle on Andrew.

He hasn’t moved and if Neil thought Andrew could actually see right now he’d think he was being watched.

“Can I kiss you?” he asks and Andrew doesn’t reply except to shuffle forward and find Neil’s lips in the dark.

The kiss is a promise in itself. It’s reassurance. It’s yes.

“I hate when you surprise me, Josten,” Andrew mutters against his mouth before drawing back, still close enough that Neil can feel his breath on his face. 

Neil only grins, shaking his head slightly. “I don’t think you do.”

Andrew huffs but doesn’t say anymore as he retreats back a few inches to his own side of the bed.

Neil knows it means he’s won this round even if they aren’t playing games anymore. He feels his body relax in increments the longer he lies next to Andrew, still not entirely used to having the weight of another body on the mattress with him since he stopped running. He thinks he likes it though, likes the comfort of knowing Andrew is near, of knowing Andrew is letting him near. It’s closer than he’s ever willingly let anyone else.

Neil intends to protect that with everything he has.

*

Neil keeps his promise for the next two weeks.

He lets Andrew draw the lines and very firmly stays within them. He’s thankful for the escape now, not least of all because he needed it for the sake of his own mental health. It gives them an opportunity to explore their boundaries away from prying eyes and invasive questions.

They can kiss until their lips are numb with no fear of interruptions. Andrew can push Neil down on the couch or catch him against the wall or the kitchen counter and no one will walk in. They can shower together and walk around without their armbands on when they feel brave enough. It’s amazing.

It’s a learning curve for them both – for Neil, this is entirely new territory and for Andrew, it’s a case of testing his own limits – but Neil is grateful for it. They don’t push much further than they’ve gone before. There are plenty of times throughout their stay where Andrew pushes Neil down and gets him off; sometimes he stays to finish himself off, sometimes he excuses himself to the bathroom or kicks Neil out of the room. But Andrew doesn’t let him touch him and Neil doesn’t try.

Neil isn’t really worried about them going much further when it comes to having sex though. He knows he wants to – which in and of itself is a surprising and unexpected feeling – but he’s happy with the pace they’re at. Andrew has too many demons to work through and Neil is still far too unsure of his own limits in regards to what he’s emotionally ready for and what he’s not for him to really try to push Andrew to take things a step further.

Mostly he’s thankful they spend the two weeks getting to know each other a little better. Not necessarily in the learning each other’s life stories sense – though they do have long, meandering conversations, trading cigarettes on the back porch while they watch the sunset – but in becoming comfortable with one another’s bodies.

Neil starts to get used to having another body in the bed with him and by the end of the two weeks he thinks Andrew does too. He still needs space some mornings but overall he never shies away from Neil. They become less hesitant with their touches. They still ask the patented “Yes or No?” most of the time but Neil gets better at reading Andrew, at figuring out when his touch will be accepted and when it won’t.

By the time the two weeks come to an end they’re not noticeably different just…better, more settled.

*

Kevin is still in one piece by the time they get home which is more than Andrew expected, honestly.

He’s at Abby’s with Wymack when they arrive and he skips the warm welcome in favour of interrogating them both about what training they’ve been doing. Andrew ignores him completely and takes his bag to the room he’s claimed as his own in Abby’s house; he can hear Neil giving some half-assed excuse that is about to turn into an argument any second now – typical.

Neil must escape eventually, however, because Andrew hears his footsteps before he appears in the open doorway, bag slung over his shoulder.

Andrew lets his eyes slide over him for a brief moment before returning to the task of placing his clothes in the chest of drawers in the corner of the room.

“So which room is Nicky’s?”

That pulls Andrew up short. He feels himself freeze but forces himself to continue putting away his clothes as he mildly asks, “Why do you care which room is my cousin’s?”

“Because no way in hell am I sleeping in Aaron’s room,” Neil scoffs, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. He’s completely unaware of the effect he has on people. Andrew is certain if Nicky were here right now he’d probably be salivating over the easy confidence in Neil’s slouch and his tousled hair from driving home with the windows down. Andrew, on the other hand, generally just gets pissed off every time he looks at him.

When he realises Neil’s intention, he just about refrains from rolling his eyes even if there’s a secret part of him that appreciates the way Neil never assumes, never takes. Andrew told him they could share a bed in Columbia but he never said anything about when they were staying with Abby.

He drops the sweater in his hands into the open drawer and moves to the doorway until he’s standing in front of Neil. The way Neil is slouched puts them eye to eye and Andrew watches Neil watch him for a moment before he reaches out and takes Neil’s bag from him.

“You’re staying in here,” he says, taking a step backwards into the room and taking in the expression that flits across Neil’s face as he pushes off from the doorframe.

Neil follows him further into the room and what frustrates Andrew more than anything else is that he doesn’t know what to expect. He doesn’t know if Neil will fight him on it or if Neil will keep them walking until Andrew’s backed up against the wall and proceed to kiss him until his knees are weak. In the end he does neither of those things. He stops when Andrew does, allowing a few inches of space between their bodies and slowly lifts his hands – slow enough that Andrew can tell him to stop if he feels like it – and cups Andrew’s jaw between his palms.

“Are you sure?” is all he asks, eyes searching Andrew’s for a lie or hesitance, no doubt.

But Andrew is sure, has been for weeks now. He told Neil ages ago that this is okay because Neil stops when Andrew tells him to; it’s more than anyone else has given him. But not only that, Neil asks, Neil makes Andrew talk and proves himself time and time again.

It might take Andrew a little bit longer before he’s completely at ease but the slight anxiety he feels at the thought of sharing a bed with Neil or doing anything with Neil is almost always comforted by Neil’s presence – which in itself is a difficult concept to get his head around. He knows he won’t be okay any time soon but Neil knows that too and doesn’t expect him to be. It’s enough to make Andrew want to try, to make him want to try and push past the fear and enjoy the closeness.

So he nods, careful not to dislodge Neil’s hands, and says, “I’m sure.”

Neil smiles – he’s starting to do that more, Andrew notices – and briefly presses his forehead to Andrew’s before releasing him. “Okay.”

He slips his bag out of Andrew’s hand then and moves over to the dresser to empty his clothes into the drawers. Andrew takes a moment to process what just happened before shaking himself and picking up the rest of his clothes to join him.

It gives him a peculiar sense of déjà vu for something that hasn’t happened yet.

Technically they live together and have been living together since Neil and Aaron switched rooms but standing beside Neil and watching their clothes sit side by side inside the drawer gives him a vision of a life a few years from now where they’re doing exactly this. Where their clothes get so mixed up they can’t even tell who’s whose anymore.

The thought momentarily horrifies him because this time last year Andrew’s only plan for his life was to survive, was to find something to convince himself surviving was worth it.

But now he sees a future, however hazy it might still be. He sees a future with Neil and he knows deep down Neil is helping him to believe that surviving is worth it.

It’s ironic, he thinks, that the boy who was so dead-set on his own future being cut short is the person that’s making Andrew think a future might be possible.

*

Kevin and Wymack stay for dinner and Kevin stares imperiously at both Andrew and Neil until Neil cracks and agrees to go to the court to practice after they finish eating. Andrew rolls his eyes and calls Neil a junkie and a pushover and firmly quashes the little flicker of excitement that builds in his own chest at the thought of getting back on the court after two weeks away.

The drive over is mostly silent. When Neil asks Kevin how things with Coach are going Kevin clams up but eventually admits they’ve talked. He doesn’t say what about or if things or better or worse but Neil doesn’t push and Andrew stays silent. There’s a part of him that objectively wants this for Kevin because he can recognise that Kevin needs it but until Kevin decides he needs to have a breakdown about it again Andrew’s not involving himself.

As soon as they’ve changed out and lock themselves into the court Andrew can feel the air change, can feel the anticipation rolling off Neil in waves as he gets into position. He’s fucking worse than Kevin sometimes.

Still, Andrew takes his place in goal and rises to the challenge that Neil and Kevin pose, taking turns firing shots against him.

Kevin wastes half his breath critiquing and complaining about how out of shape Andrew and Neil are after two weeks without practice but Andrew can tell he’s enjoying himself. Mostly because it’s two hours before either Neil or Kevin actually attempt to stop.

Kevin continues his laundry list of all the things they did wrong as they make their way to the changing room. Andrew tunes him out after the fifth time he starts off on a tangent about Neil’s footwork.

He’s still talking by the time they’re all showered and changed and Andrew honestly would’ve thought living with their coach would’ve given Kevin a worthy opponent to discuss exy and nothing but exy for the last two weeks but evidently not.

He only finally shuts up when they’re in the car and Andrew interrupts him. “Am I taking you to Wymack’s or are you staying at Abby’s?”

Kevin goes silent and Andrew meets Neil’s gaze out of the corner of his eye but continues manoeuvring out of the parking lot.

“Wymack’s,” Kevin mutters eventually and Andrew nods.

The drive is silent after that.

*

Abby fusses over them when they get home. Neil has never stayed at her house and Andrew knows she’s been dying to mother him since Baltimore, if not earlier. She offers them every food and drink in the kitchen but after Neil politely declines everything and Andrew just shrugs she sighs and tells them they can have the living room.

“I feel bad taking her living room,” Neil says as he seats himself on the couch, drawing his legs up underneath himself.

“Abby prefers to read in her bedroom,” Andrew says because she does. Abby hardly ever watches TV unless it’s her soaps with Nicky but Andrew has seen the stacks of books in her room and it’s where she’d always retreated last summer if they’d gotten too rowdy for her. Andrew’s pretty certain she enjoys the time to herself.

Neil bites his lip like he’s not sure but he still accepts the answer and switches on the TV. Andrew sits next to him, a comfortable distance away but still within arm’s reach. Neil turns on some sitcom but it becomes abundantly clear he’s not paying attention after he spends at least five minutes staring at the side of Andrew’s face instead of the TV.

“My face is hardly more interesting than whatever dumbass show you put on,” Andrew comments, dragging his gaze away from the TV to look at Neil.

Neil shrugs, mouth tugging up in a smirk. “Yes or no?”

Andrew considers him for a moment. Abby’s upstairs and likely won’t come back down for at least an hour. The TV is loud enough to muffle any noise and the door is closed. It’s probably the closest to alone they’ll be for the next couple of weeks and Neil’s hair is starting to curl since he never dried it after the shower and his eyes are wide and filled with something Andrew can’t pinpoint. And Andrew wants-

He says yes before he’s even consciously aware of himself leaning in but a moment later their lips are slotting together and Neil is exhaling through his nose. As soon as his hands curve around Neil’s jaw to guide him Neil’s own find his hair. His fingers twist through the strands and Andrew suppresses a shiver when Neil’s grip tightens.

Instead he focuses on deepening the kiss, on pushing forward enough that Neil gets the hint and lies back. Andrew follows him down, situating himself in the space between Neil’s legs and biting down on Neil’s lip before giving himself a second to breathe.

“Should’ve known exy makes you hot,” Andrew huffs against his mouth, preventing Neil from responding by dragging him into another bruising kiss.

“Sue me,” Neil laughs when their mouths detach. His laugh comes out on an exhale, easy and relaxed, and the sound momentarily makes Andrew pause. He’s not sure he’s ever heard Neil laugh before. Neil’s leg hitches up but doesn’t latch around Andrew’s waist, just presses against his hip. It’s a gentle reminder that Neil is still aware of Andrew’s boundaries and Andrew kisses him all the harder for it.

“Fucking junkie,” he bites into Neil’s jaw, trailing heated kisses along his skin until his lips make their way back to Neil’s.

Neil’s fingers twist in his hair and his tongue is insistent against Andrew’s and Andrew feels like there’s fire in his veins when he flattens his body against Neil’s. Even with their clothes muting the sensation, he still feels winded by the contact. It scares him more that it’s not enough, that he wants to push closer and hold tighter and kiss deeper.

Neil is making these breathy little noises against Andrew’s mouth; he probably doesn’t even realise he’s doing it but they’re driving Andrew insane. Every time their mouths realign he tries to coax the noises out of Neil, tries to drag them out for longer. He knows they can’t last much longer like this on the couch; Andrew’s hands have already migrated from Neil’s jaw to underneath his t-shirt to trail over the raised ridges of Neil’s scars and if he wasn’t so acutely aware of where they were right now that t-shirt would probably already be halfway across the room.

So with as much self-control as he can muster he drags his mouth away from Neil’s and rests their foreheads together while they both catch their breath. Neil is panting beneath him, fingers absently petting Andrew’s hair now rather than tugging on it. Andrew relaxes under the feeling of it – not that he’ll ever admit it.

He waits for Neil to meet his gaze, sees his eyes are still burning with need, and simply says, “Bedroom.”

*

Waking up in the morning Andrew has a moment – always a tiny, miniscule moment – where he forgets it’s Neil in bed with him. It only ever lasts a second while he pulls himself out of sleep but for that second he’s always gripped with an ice-cold fear, with a need to react, to lash out and reach for his knives.

He never does because another second will pass and he’ll remember it’s Neil.

Andrew hates that one second with his entire being.

He fucking hates it because he hates associating his past with Neil. Because he trusts Neil and he feels brave enough to fall asleep next to him but every fucking morning it’s like a glaring red flag reminding him that he isn’t better. That no matter how much he trusts Neil, Andrew’s past will always find a way to get to him, will always find a way to try and ruin his progress.

But then Neil will wake with a start at the slightest noise or shift on the bed and Andrew will remember he’s not the only one dealing with trauma. He’s not the only with a past that lurks in the back of his mind like a monster under his bed waiting to jump out.

It’s almost comforting when their eyes meet and all Andrew sees is a mirror image of understanding and resignation.

Andrew might be fucked up but Neil is too and the fact that they’re both fighting so fucking hard to have this, to create good feelings in places that have been corrupted with bad, it makes him they might actually make it one day.

Today he just sighs and moves a little bit closer to Neil. He stops when he feels their knees knock under the covers and his head has transferred to Neil’s pillow instead of his own. Neil watches him with tired eyes that speak of far more than a sleepless night. It’s the kind of tired you feel when you get sick of jumping at shadows every five minutes.

They don’t talk and they’re not touching except for their knees but they’re close enough to breathe each other in, to use the proximity and the feeling of one another to wash away whatever thoughts the night might’ve dredged up.

When they’ve both settled a bit Neil reaches out and taps the tip of Andrew’s nose with his index finger, so gently Andrew hardly feels it. Andrew knows his expression goes blank with surprise but he doesn’t say anything because the action almost causes Neil to smile.

“Go back to sleep, idiot,” Andrew tells him, voice barely above a whisper and half muffled by the pillow.

Neil only shakes his head once and tips his head just that little bit closer. “I don’t want to.”

Andrew doesn’t want to either. But he also doesn’t think he’s ready to get up and talk or kiss or anything like that. Neil seems to understand though.

“Let’s just-“ Neil murmurs, eyes roaming over Andrew’s face before they settle on his gaze again. “Let’s just lie like this for a while.”

Andrew’s throat feels dry with an emotion he’s not quite sure he has a name for yet and he nods. “Okay.”

*

If there’s one good thing about the exy practices Kevin insists upon every night of their vacation it’s that Andrew’s usually too exhausted afterwards for his mind to start working overdrive about sharing a bed with Neil. He can barely stand as it is, leaning against his locker with his eyes closed while he waits for Neil to finish his shower.

Kevin is already waiting in the lounge, probably poring over Wymack’s notes about the new recruits for the millionth time.

The sound of the shower cutting off makes Andrew open his eyes and a few minutes later he’s graced with a slightly damp, fully clothed Neil.

“Okay?” Neil asks, holding his gaze for a moment before throwing his towels in the hamper and moving to his own locker.

“Mm,” Andrew hums. His shoulder’s aching a bit and he could do with a fourteen hour nap but still.

He must’ve closed his eyes again without realising because the next thing he knows Neil is standing expectantly in front of him.

Andrew clears his throat and pushes himself off the lockers but Neil blocks his way. “Forget how to use your legs?”

Neil ignores him and holds out his hand. “Hand them over.”

“What?”

“Your keys,” Neil elaborates. “You can barely keep your eyes open; I’m driving.”

“Like fuck you are,” Andrew scoffs, shouldering past Neil who obediently takes a step back before falling into step alongside him.

“I have my own key, you know,” Neil says casually. “And I’m faster than you on a good day. If I got to the car first you’d have to let me drive.”

“Or I could stab you,” Andrew intones.

Neil pulls him to a stop again as soon as they’re in the hall, moving to stand in front of him and fixing Andrew with a look. “Let me drive.”

Andrew considers fighting him but then he can’t even remember why he’s fighting him in the first place. Maybe it’s because Neil is trying to do this because he cares and that’s still something of a foreign concept. Or maybe it’s because it’s his natural reaction to fight back, to not make Neil think he can get Andrew to give in so easily.

But really, Andrew’s known since Neil walked into the changing room five minutes ago that he wouldn’t be driving home.

Swallowing down the retort on his lips, he wordlessly hands over his keys.

The corners of Neil’s mouth lift up just a bit as he raises a hand to tug on a random strand of Andrew’s hair. “Let’s get Kevin and get out of here.”

Andrew doesn’t reply because he doesn’t trust his voice to sound as emotionless as he wants it to right now so instead he circles his fingers around Neil’s wrist and leads him towards the lounge.

Kevin doesn’t say anything when Andrew climbs into the passenger seat and Neil takes a seat behind the wheel – not that Andrew expected him to; he’s the only Fox that hasn’t made a comment about the two of them since everyone found out. Probably because if he did say something it would be about how difficult it is to be a gay sports star and then Andrew would choke him again. Look who finally learned some self-preservation instincts.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep but the next thing he knows he’s opening his eyes to the soft murmur of Neil’s voice calling his name. Blinking sleep out of his eyes, he sits up, feeling a little disoriented as he takes stock of where he is. They’re still in the Maserati, now parked in Abby’s driveway, he realises.

He looks over the console and finds Neil watching him. “Okay?” he checks and Andrew nods around a yawn, absently rubbing at his eyes.

Neil carries Andrew bag into the house, evading Andrew when he tries to take it off him. He could easily yank it back but it’s about five steps to the front door and Andrew’s still half asleep so he lets it go.

They’re quiet as they move through the house since Abby’s most likely asleep; Andrew sets about getting changed for bed while Neil disappears into the bathroom. Overall it takes about fifteen minutes before they’re both settled and Andrew can crawl under the covers, gratefully sinking into the mattress as soon as he’s comfortable.

They lie in silence for a minute and that’s all it takes for Andrew to realise he won’t be going back to sleep any time soon.

He’s hyperaware of Neil next to him - lying on his stomach with his arm under his head, turned towards Andrew.

All Andrew has to do is roll his head to the left and their faces are only inches apart. He can just about make out Neil’s features in the dark. It doesn’t make him want him any less.

“Yes or no?”

Neil barely has the “Yes” out of his mouth before Andrew is moving. Neil rolls onto his back just in time for Andrew to climb on top of him, hands flying to Andrew’s hair to pull him down.  Their lips crash together and Andrew feels his brain switch off.

It’s different to the apathy he normally experiences; his emotions always feel muted, like he’s fighting through this cloudy fog. With Neil, it’s like he feels so much his brain can’t keep up. It doesn’t leave him emotionless, it leaves him tingling and if his brain was working at full capacity he’d be horrified at such a thought. As it stands, he’s too preoccupied with the way Neil’s mouth on his sends a jolt through him all the way down to his toes.

He doesn’t plan it but somewhere between kisses, Andrew’s hand finds Neil’s. He intends to pin Neil’s arm to the bed, intends to push closer and kiss and bite a path down Neil’s throat until he’s whimpering. Instead his fingers lace with Neil’s as their kisses begin to slow.

He lets the kisses linger, dragging his mouth slowly against Neil’s and drawing it out. It has the desired affect if Neil’s full body shiver and the way his fingers tighten around Andrew’s are anything to go by.

“Andrew,” Neil mumbles, the rest of whatever he’d been planning to say lost to Andrew’s mouth.

Andrew lets his free hand drift away from Neil’s jaw, fingers trailing up over the raised scars on Neil’s arm until he finds Neil’s other hand. Folding their fingers together shouldn’t send his nerve-endings firing the way they do but Andrew’s long since realised his body has fucked up reactions when it comes to Neil.

It’s easy to get lost in the numbing feeling kissing Neil elicits, he’s almost glad they’re holding hands – it gives him something to hold onto. Andrew’s never felt a need to kiss the way he does with Neil. It’s not that he hasn’t enjoyed it with other people when it’s been his choice but something about kissing Neil- it’s like a compulsion, he just always wants to be kissing him. Always; to the point where he doesn’t even care if they do anything more or not because Andrew had been walking around with a constant itch under his skin for months after they met and it dissolved the minute he and Neil first kissed.

It hasn’t come back but that’s mostly because Andrew refuses to go long enough without kissing Neil to let it.

“I thought you were tired,” Neil breathes out on a laugh when Andrew pulls back to catch his breath.

“Do you want me to stop?” Andrew asks, letting his forehead lean against Neil’s while he waits for the burning in his lungs to stop.

It’s dark but Andrew’s eyes have adjusted enough to see the grin on Neil’s face as he tips his chin up and whispers, “No.”

He smudges a kiss on the corner of Andrew’s mouth and his fingers flex in Andrew’s and Andrew doesn’t think he can look directly at him right now.

He settles for returning to his earlier plan and starts mouthing along Neil’s jaw until he reaches his neck. It’s as much a distraction for Neil as it is for himself while he lets go of one of Neil’s hands to run his fingers along the waistband of Neil’s pants.

It’s easy when he’s got his hands on Neil to focus on Neil’s pleasure, to pay attention to the uptick in Neil’s breathing and the soft, involuntary sounds he makes. To focus on Neil’s right hand still holding Andrew’s left and Neil’s mouth by his ear. It’s even easier when he does push Neil over the edge, when he bites down on Neil’s pulse point and twists his hand just the right way to have Neil freeze underneath him.

It’s okay as long as he focuses on Neil – it’s perfect as long as he focuses on Neil. The problem is that as soon as Neil blows out a breath underneath him and relaxes into the mattress Andrew suddenly becomes focused on himself again.

That’s the part that’s hard. Because as soon as he focuses on himself it becomes near impossible to shove the memories away. Because there were times when he was younger and they touched him but his body didn’t understand that he didn’t want to be touched. He spent the longest fucking time hating himself for it – he hated himself even more when he realised he liked boys after everything they did to him. It means that sometimes the thought of chasing his release with Neil still in the room makes his skin crawl because he can’t always help it when that self-hatred seeps in again.

“Andrew.”

Neil’s voice snaps him out of his thoughts and it’s only then that he realises he’s holding himself rigid above Neil.

“Are you okay?” he asks. It’s soft and soothing and his fingers squeeze around Andrew’s where they’re still locked together.

“I need to- bathroom.” He feels frustrated that he can’t explain himself but Neil seems to understand anyway.

“Okay,” Neil murmurs. “Do you want me to sleep in the spare room?

Andrew considers saying yes but ultimately he knows he doesn’t want that. He wants Neil here. “No,” he whispers. “I’ll be back.”

He makes quick work of himself in the bathroom and washes his hands without looking in the mirror.

Neil hasn’t visibly moved when he returns to the bedroom but he looks slightly less dishevelled than he did a few minutes ago. He doesn’t say anything as Andrew gets back into bed but he lies down properly when Andrew does. He can tell Neil wants to do something though, like he wants to reassure Andrew somehow.

It’s that knowledge that makes Andrew reach his hand out. After a slight pause, Neil’s hand meets his in the middle and their fingers fold together like they had earlier. It’s probably not as close as Neil wants to be right now but even in the dark, Andrew can still see the understanding on his face.

He can see the this is enough and the this might not be a major step for other people but it is for us.

“Go to sleep, Neil,” he whispers when he can’t deal with Neil’s eyes on him any longer.

“You too,” Neil says but he obligingly closes his eyes after quickly leaning down to brush a kiss over Andrew’s knuckles.

Andrew allows himself five seconds to trace over Neil’s features before swallowing the lump in his throat and closing his own eyes.

*

Neil spends every spare minute of the last week before the rest of the Foxes return alone with Andrew. Practice with Kevin still takes up a significant chunk of their days but Abby usually leaves them alone whenever they’re at the house and Neil lives for those quiet moments. He got a taste for it in Columbia and now he doesn’t really know how to live without it.

Right now they’re in Abby’s living room, watching some DVD they found that most likely belongs to Nicky. They’re sitting at opposite ends in the couch with popcorn and whatever the hell else Andrew bought at the store sitting on the cushion between them and Neil is silently dying over Andrew’s commentary.

Andrew is scathing in his remarks, making comments under his breath every few minutes about how stupid the main character is or why a joke isn’t funny and Neil basically gives up on paying attention to the plot after about ten minutes to listen to him.

It takes him a little bit by surprised when Neil realises he’s happy.

He knows objectively that’s he’s been happy the last couple of months, that he’s slowly learned to feel that way from the moment he met the Foxes but it just- it’s a shock when he realises that in this moment with Andrew he feels completely and utterly content. His mind is devoid of worry and he’s almost laughing.

He can’t even remember the last time he properly laughed.

Andrew’s foot persistently prodding his leg makes him look up. “Where’d you go?”

Neil shrugs, a rueful smile playing on his lips. “Nowhere. I’m happy right here.”

Andrew’s eyes narrow before he mutters out, “Hundred and nineteen percent.”

Inexplicably, that only makes Neil’s smile widen and he turns back to the TV so Andrew won’t see it. Andrew doesn’t say anymore but he leaves his feet on Neil’s lap. Neil is surprised at first before that feeling – happiness – blooms in his chest again. He’s about to let his hands drop onto Andrew’s legs but he stops himself, letting his hands hover in the air. “Can I?” he asks, casting a glance at Andrew’s face.

“Mm,” Andrew hums, eyes only staying on Neil long enough to watch him curve his hands around Andrew’s ankles before he’s focused on the TV again.

In the end all it takes is Andrew’s startled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” at something happening on screen to make Neil crack and let out a laugh, a real one.

He can feel Andrew’s eyes on him afterwards but he doesn’t say anything.

(The amount of sarcastic one-liners coming out of his mouth doubles though.)

*

“I’ve been thinking.”

“A dangerous habit,” Andrew comments, blowing out a plume of smoke and watching it spiral into the air until it disappears. They’re sitting on the hood of his car in Abby’s drive. A part of Neil surprisingly longs for the roof at Fox Tower. He can still remember feeling slightly sick the first time he followed Andrew up there. Now it feels like their own little safe haven and the hood of the car is a lousy substitute in Neil’s opinion.

He rolls his eyes, “Shut the fuck up.”

Andrew make a sound somewhere between a scoff and a huff - Neil’s started to think it’s his version of laughing. Neil loves that sound.

“I’ve been thinking, we should learn another language.”

It surprises Andrew. He can tell because Andrew pauses with his cigarette midway to his mouth. He turns his face to Neil, eyebrows raised in silent question.

“Nicky and Aaron speak German.”

“So?”

“So don’t you want to be able to talk shit about everyone in a language only we understand?”

Andrew makes that sound again; the almost laugh.

“I’m serious,” Neil presses. “It’s gonna be chaotic once we move back into the dorms especially with the new recruits. And you know how nosy the rest of the team is; I just- I want something that’s ours.”

Andrew is quiet while he considers it, eyes absently trained on his cigarette until he drags his gaze up to meet Neil’s. “What language?”

Neil shrugs, secretly thrilled he managed to convince Andrew so easily. They have three days until they move back into Fox Tower. Nicky is home tomorrow and Aaron and everyone else will be back two days later. And all this time alone has made Neil certain of one thing – he’s going to take every chance to make sure their relationship stays theirs. “What language do you want to learn?”

Andrew ponders the question for so long Neil is convinced the conversation is over but then seemingly out of nowhere he says, “Russian.”

They buy their first phrase books the next morning.

*

Moving back into Fox Tower is chaotic but, inexplicably, Neil loves it.

It was only a month but he genuinely did miss the Foxes while they were gone and something in him settles knowing they’re all safe under one roof again. Meeting the freshmen is slightly awkward with most of them either incredibly intimidated or hiding behind a brick wall of bad attitude so once Neil has introduced himself with Dan and gotten them safely to their rooms he leaves them be.

Andrew meets him in the hallway when he’s done and Neil gratefully takes the offered escape.

The air is colder up on the roof but Neil feels himself relax as soon as he steps through the door. Andrew doesn’t say anything until they’re both seated, lit cigarettes in hand.

“First impression of the fresh meat?”

Neil lifts a shoulder, staring out into the parking lot; it’s still busy with students from other teams coming back early. “They’re all pretty monosyllabic right now; guess we’ll see if that changes once they’ve had time to settle in.”

“You say that like you weren’t impossible to talk to for at least three months,” Andrew scoffs, regarding him with an unimpressed look.

“Because you and I had so many opportunities for heart to hearts in the beginning,” Neil snorts, returning Andrew’s look with a pointed stare of his own.

“You were difficult.”

“So were you.”

“You didn’t make it any easier.”

“Neither did you,” Neil shoots back, satisfied he’s won when he sees Andrew scowl.

“How long do you think it’ll take them to realise we’re together?” he asks then – mostly because it’s been on his mind ever since Allison brought it up five minutes after she walked in the door.

“We’re not together,” Andrew answers without missing a beat.

“Literally or figuratively? Because I’m pretty sure we are, in fact, sitting next to each other and subsequently together right now.”

“Not for much longer,” Andrew retorts, purposely eyeing the ledge.

“Push me down and I’ll drag you with me,” Neil reminds. “Anyway, stop avoiding the question. How long?”

Andrew sighs. “There’s already a bet, isn’t there?”

“Yep.”

“Did you put any money on it?”

“Nah, I wanna see how it plays out,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette and leaning back on his hands.

They fall into silence after that but eventually when Andrew’s burned through his cigarette he turns to face Neil. “They’re probably all self-absorbed idiots, I give them until Nicky or Allison slips up.”

Neil doesn’t even bother trying to hide the grin that spreads across his face.

*

Their first night back finds them all – minus the freshmen – in the girls’ room to catch up. Neil is content to sit on the floor subtly leaning against Andrew and listening to everyone’s adventures rather than really contributing to conversation.

He missed them. He literally missed just being around them, he didn’t realise how much comfort he gleaned from them until they were gone. Listening to Matt and Nicky’s boisterous laughter and Allison and Dan yelling about new bets across the coffee table, seeing Renee’s serene smile as she watches over them and Aaron sitting in the corner looking like he doesn’t know why he associates with any of them, even Kevin drinking himself into oblivion somehow puts Neil at ease.

He still doesn’t expect it when Renee turns to him and Andrew and asks, “So, what did you get up to while we were away?”

All conversations immediately halt and Neil feels all eyes in the room – except Kevin – turn to them; even Aaron is watching them closely. Neil knows Andrew won’t answer so he shrugs and answers for both of them. “We spent a couple of weeks in Columbia and then came home to practice with Kevin before you guys got back.”

He knows they all know this; they’ve kept in contact all month. Then again- maybe Neil never mentioned he and Andrew went to Columbia alone? The six gaping faces staring back at him suggests he probably didn’t.

Allison is the first to break the silence with a devilish grin. “I see how it is. A romantic getaway for two?”

“To the house in Columbia?” Neil asks, perplexed.

Nicky snorts and, surprisingly, comes to their aid. “I’m with Neil. That place isn’t exactly a luxury honeymoon suite or anything.”

“You at least got a little frisky at the club you guys always go to?” Allison presses. “Or even had a date night at that restaurant? What’s it called? Sweetie’s?”

They hadn’t, actually. If they drank it was usually in the comfort of the living room or the backyard. And they usually either got take-out or Andrew cooked them dinner. Honestly, they didn’t leave the house that often. They still found ways to occupy their time. He doesn’t particularly feel like sharing that piece of information with the Foxes though.

At both Andrew and Neil’s blank faces Allison throws her hands up in defeat. “You two are impossible.”

Conversation thankfully moves on after that and everyone pretty much stops paying attention to them – though Matt does catch Neil’s eye and gives him a thumbs up in question; Neil nods in answer and Matt beams before looking away.

The rest of the night passes without incident with everyone making their way to their own rooms sometime after 2 a.m. Kevin stumbles into their dorm behind Andrew and Neil and immediately ambles past them to crash into his loft and probably conk out until his alarm goes off in the morning.

Andrew only quirks an eyebrow at him in acknowledgement before leading Neil into the bedroom. They get changed and take turns in the bathroom and it feels exactly like every other night for the past month except they’ll be going back to sleeping in separate beds tonight. Neil doesn’t expect the pang of longing and disappointment in his stomach when he realises it. It might’ve taken a while to get used to sleeping next to Andrew but now that he has, he doesn’t really want to stop.

It’s not like Andrew is miles away – he’s only in the bunk above Neil’s bed – but it still feels weird.

Andrew stops at the base of the ladder up to his bed when he returns to the bedroom so Neil does too. They’re silent at first and Neil figures Andrew is trying to gauge whether Kevin is asleep yet or not. When he seems satisfied they’re relatively alone and that Kevin is dead to the world he raises his hands, sliding them over Neil’s jaw and into Neil’s hair to pull him down into a bruising kiss.

Andrew’s back bends with the force of it and Neil grabs onto one of the ladder rungs for balance, his other hand reaching up to twist in Andrew’s hair. Andrew bites down on his lip in response and Neil just about stifles the groan that escapes at the action.

Ever since he met him, he’s been convinced Andrew Minyard would be the death of him. At first he always thought he’d get on Andrew’s bad side and get a knife to the gut for it. Now he’s sure of it, it’ll be the kisses that kill him in the end.

He thinks it’ll probably be worth it.

Andrew pulls away eventually, darting back in for one last press of lips before leaning back. His eyes bore into Neil’s for a moment before he lets one of his hands fall from his hair to catch Neil’s chin between his thumb and his forefinger. And with the ghost of a smirk on his lips, he whispers, “Night, Junkie,” and turns to climb up the ladder.

Yup, it’ll definitely be the kisses.

*

The first week back at practice isn’t the cakewalk Neil had been hoping it would be.

Things are much smoother between the original Foxes but the freshmen put a noticeable dent in the progress they’ve made over the year. Neil’s enjoying it because he’s missed the court and he’s missed his family but he certainly doesn’t enjoy feeling like they’re back at square one. Kevin is brutal with the freshmen while Neil and Dan try to be a slightly more encouraging force – though Neil still hasn’t really learned the value of tact, as Nicky and Matt delicately put it - but by the end of the week things still haven’t started to settle into a routine.

They decide to go to Columbia – mostly because Kevin looks close to popping a blood vessel if he spends any more time in the vicinity of the freshmen and Nicky keeps complaining they haven’t had family bonding since he came home. They’re on the road by eight thirty with Andrew and Neil in the front seat and Aaron, Nicky and Kevin in the back. Nicky chatters the whole drive with Neil or Aaron occasionally offering a reply but he doesn’t seem to mind.

They stop by Sweetie’s first to get their customary ice-cream sundaes. Andrew eats his own monstrosity in record breaking time and finishes the rest of Neil’s when Neil catches him eyeing the bowl and decides to just push it towards him. Nicky looks dangerously close to cooing when he notices them but one look from Andrew shuts him up.

Eden’s Twilight is thronged with people when they arrive and they have to elbow their way through the crowd to find a table. They’re just commandeering extra stools from neighbouring tables when Andrew appears and taps Neil on the shoulder to come to the bar with him. It’s so packed Roland only sticks around long enough to pour their drinks and crack a joke or two before he’s hurrying down to the other side of the bar to serve someone else.

Neil clears a path through the crowd with Andrew at his back, holding the tray high above his shoulder to avoid any drinks sloshing over the sides of the glasses.

When they get back to the table Aaron and Nicky gratefully take their drinks, downing two shots in quick succession with Kevin. That’s usually Aaron and Nicky’s cue to disappear onto the dancefloor and Kevin’s to switch from shots to his own concoction with a highly inaccurate vodka/mixer ratio but surprisingly, Kevin allows himself to be prodded by Nicky into joining him on the floor when he and Aaron leave.

Andrew watches them go disinterestedly, sliding the last two drinks off the tray and setting one in front of Neil. Andrew swirls the scotch in his own glass a couple of times before taking a swig and setting it down again. Neil is a little more prone to sipping even though the taste is just as strong and it still burns his throat on its way down.

They drink in silence for a while, idly watching the club goers around them. It’s around the time that Neil’s glass empties that his gaze catches on Andrew and stays there. His hair is practically glowing in the neon lights of the club, fluffed up in a way Neil isn’t sure is purposeful or not. His pale skin looks almost translucent and stark against his black clothing – his black clothing that clings to him like a second skin – and Neil suddenly feels overcome with a need to touch him.

Andrew must notice him staring because he casts Neil a sideways glance before doing something of a double take and swivelling around on his stool to face Neil.

“What.” It’s not a question and the way Andrew looks like he’s almost gritting his teeth says he’s suppressing something.

Neil doesn’t know what his own expression looks like but from the way Andrew’s eyes darken, he can guess.

Acting braver than he feels, he slips off his stool and steps into the space between Andrew’s legs – which fall open to accommodate him as soon as Neil moves closer. He settles one hand on Andrew’s knee but it’s only to keep his balance while he leans closer – at least that’s what he’s telling himself.

“Can we go out there?” he asks when his mouth is close enough to Andrew’s ear for him to hear it.

Andrew shudders. It’s barely noticeable and Neil probably wouldn’t even see if he weren’t standing so close – if he couldn’t feel him.

“Where?” Andrew grinds out.

Neil nods in the direction of the dancefloor and watches Andrew’s face carefully for any shift in his expression.

When Andrew pushes him away he assumes it’s a no. He’s about to apologise and return to his seat but then Andrew’s hopping down off his own stool, grabbing Neil by the wrist and towing him into the crowd.

He doesn’t really know where they’re going; he’s never been in this part of the club except for his first night here and the memories are still hazy. But they get further into the crowd he thinks they’ might be moving towards the left-hand wall.

People are grinding and writhing all around them but all Neil can focus on is Andrew’s hand clamped around his wrist, at the way his skin is burning at the contact.

Suddenly there’s a break in the crowd and Neil realises they’ve reached the outskirts of the dancefloor. He doesn’t get much time to process this before Andrew uses the hand on him to spin them around and begin walking Neil back against the wall.

Neil can finally see Andrew’s face after staring at his back for the last five minutes and he can’t help but grin at what he sees. Andrew’s expression is filled with intent and when Neil’s back hits the wall and Andrew is suddenly pressed against his front he can see the full effect he’s having on Andrew.

It’s baffling and he doesn’t understand it in the slightest; he doesn’t get how or why Andrew could want him this much. But Andrew’s pupils are so blown the hazel of his eyes is practically non-existent and he keeps subtly trying to inch closer even though there’s already no space between them.

Andrew’s hands slide over Neil’s chest first and it’s already enough to leave Neil’s lungs heaving but when Andrew trails his fingers lightly over Neil’s throat and lets one hand drift further upwards to fist in his hair, Neil is sure he stops breathing altogether.

Andrew drifts closer, forehead briefly rolling against Neil’s before he tries to capture Neil’s lips in a kiss. Neil evades him, just enough that the kiss falls off centre, just enough to see Andrew’s brow furrow and to see him glare at Neil when his eyes flash open. Neil feels his lips tug up in a smirk, feels thrilled at the thought that Andrew wants him so bad.

“Hundred and twenty percent,” Andrew glares.

Neil laughs, fingers sliding into Andrew’s hair to keep him close. “Kiss me.”

Andrew bites down on his lip in retaliation, bites the smirk right off Neil’s face, before slipping his tongue into Neil’s mouth and Neil is weak. He clutches Andrew’s hair – hard enough that he’s sure it probably hurts but Andrew isn’t protesting – and exhales shaky breaths through his nose as Andrew’s fingers travel back down his torso.

He loves running his hands through Andrew’s hair in moments like this, loves the feel of the soft strands between his fingers, but his hands are itching to move, to feel more of Andrew beneath his palms.

“Where-“ he pants, dragging his mouth away from Andrew’s lips and mouthing along his jaw. “Where can I touch you?”

Andrew’s breath is harsh in Neil’s ear as he cranes his neck to give Neil better access to his neck. Neil doesn’t push him while he decides. “Anywhere above the waist,” he breathes out eventually, hand twisting in Neil’s hair once again to drag him back into another kiss.

Neil sighs into his mouth and slides his hands over Andrew’s shoulders. It’s a whole other level of dizzying being able to feel Andrew like this. And it’s not just feeling the planes of Andrew’s chest and arms under his palms that leaves him short of breath but the knowledge that Andrew trusts him, that he’s letting him in that little bit more.

They kiss until Neil can’t even remember where they are anymore. The room fades away around them - it could be full or deserted and he wouldn’t notice; the music is nothing more than a faint pulsing in the background. All he can focus on is the bite of Andrew’s fingers on his jaw and in his hair and the way his lips have gone so numb they’re tingling.

It isn’t until his own hands are fisted in the back of Andrew’s shirt that Andrew moves his mouth away. Neil chases it with his own until Andrew’s forehead falls to rest against his and Neil opens his eyes. Andrew’s eyes are still closed and his shoulders are heaving while he tries to regulate his breathing. His eyes still haven’t lost that spark of need when they finally do flicker open and they linger on Neil’s lips for so long Neil almost pulls him into another kiss but Andrew’s words stop him.

“There’s a storage closet out the back by the kitchen,” he mutters, leaning into it when Neil can’t help himself and kisses the underside of his jaw.

He considers Andrew’s unspoken offer. They could and Neil has no doubts it would be enjoyable but then he knows how much Andrew values privacy and how, even though it might feel good at the time, Andrew still sometimes needs time to himself afterwards.

Kissing in the crowded club is already a big enough step for them, Neil decides; they don’t need to push things any further tonight.

He unclenches his hands from the back of Andrew’s shirt and lifts one to brush the hair that’s fallen in Andrew’s face back off his forehead. Andrew’s hooded eyes don’t leave Neil’s face the entire time and Neil knows the fire from earlier hasn’t ebbed. He still wants Andrew just as badly.

But mostly he wants him in a bed that feels like home.

So he realigns their foreheads and, in the space between their mouths, he says, “Take me home.”

*

The others grumble and complain about being forced to leave early but one look from Andrew in the rearview mirror and they go silent.

Neil tries not to look at Andrew too much on the drive home but he finds it hard to keep his eyes off him. He’s decided Andrew looks beautiful in every light – in the neon of the club, in the grey of the clouds on top of Fox Tower, in the flashing orange of passing headlights. The darkest, shadowy boy he knows is the most blinding spot of brightness in Neil’s life. Go figure.

They make it back to the house in record time and Andrew barely spares a glance at Nicky, Kevin and Aaron when they slump in the living room. They left too early to give them a chance to sober up which means they’re still completely trashed and just about functioning.

Neil just pauses long enough to make sure the front door’s locked before hurrying after Andrew up the stairs to the sound of a lewd comment from Nicky.

He’s barely through the door to Andrew’s bedroom before he’s being slammed up against it. Andrew’s mouth is on him in a second with a mumbled, “Still yes?”

Fuck yes,” Neil breathes, raising his hands and letting them hover on either side of Andrew’s waist. “Still yes?”

“Yes,” Andrew says firmly, taking hold of Neil’s wrist and settling Neil’s hands on his sides.

That’s all the prompting Neil needs before letting his hands travel over the expanse of Andrew’s back. Andrew only hums against him, angling his head and deepening the kiss.

They kiss mindlessly for a few minutes, for long enough that Neil starts to feel like time is slipping away from him again. They’re pressed so close and he can feel Andrew growing hard where his crotch is pressed against Neil’s thigh but Neil doesn’t dare try to push anything further. He knows to wait for Andrew to make the first move.

When he does it’s the last thing Neil expects.

Andrew turns his face away to break the kiss and clamps his hands on either side of Neil’s face to hold him in place. “You can get me off,” he says, eyes boring into Neil’s with an unreadable expression. It’s said softly, not quite a question but not quite an order either. It’s permission, that’s all.

Neil feels himself go entirely still as the words sink in. “Is that what you want?” he asks slowly, hands absently rubbing circles on Andrew’s back.

Andrew stares at him for an indeterminable moment and nods his head. “Touch me.”

Neil swallows hard, letting his hands drift lower until they’re resting on the waistband of Andrew’s jeans. He pauses, trying to gauge Andrew’s reaction but his expression hasn’t changed. He does clamp a hand around Neil’s wrist though but he starts speaking before Neil has time to get worried.

“Can you take off your shirt?” he asks, eyes trained on Neil’s chest like he can see through the cotton. “I- no one feels like you.”

Neil hears what he doesn’t say. The If I panic, your scars will remind me it’s you.

Silently, Neil lets go of him and raises his arms. He feels goosebumps travel up his skin in the wake of Andrew’s hands as he drags Neil’s t-shirt up over his head and he just about suppresses his shiver. Then they’re standing there, both laid bare in their own ways, and Neil should feel vulnerable. Instead, he feels the safest he’s felt in a long time.

Andrew is safe.

Tell me if you want to stop,” he whispers and then he lets his hands drift back to Andrew’s jeans with a feather light touch. Andrew stays silent the entire time Neil unbuttons his jeans and undoes the zipper and he can feel Andrew’s eyes on his hands. He only pushes the jeans down enough that they won’t be in his way and when he doesn’t opt to pull Andrew’s underwear down with them he glances up to see the quiet relief in Andrew’s eyes.

Instead he slips his hand inside Andrew’s briefs and grips him; it’s the first time Andrew makes a sound. He releases his breath on a quiet gasp and it momentarily makes Neil pause because he’s never heard that sound before. But Andrew’s eyes are still sharp on him and his hand is still moulded to the hot iron scar on Neil’s shoulder so he slowly begins to move his hand.

He doesn’t really know what he’s doing since the angle is different from what he’s used to but Andrew isn’t complaining so Neil just takes his time and experiments. He listens for the upticks in in Andrew’s breathing and tries to coax the little sounds out of him that he always manages to wring out of Neil. It’s when he twists his hand and tightens his grip just slightly that Andrew’s forehead drops onto Neil’s other shoulder and he exhales a shuddery breath.

It’s all the encouragement Neil needs to keep going. He speeds his hand up and curls his free hand into the hair at the nape of Andrew’s neck, using the gesture to ground him in the way Andrew always does for him.

Andrew’s hand is squeezing his shoulder and his breath is coming out in short little puffs of air against Neil’s sternum and Neil doesn’t believe in heaven but if he did, it’s be this.

He doesn’t realise how close Andrew is until his breath catches in his throat and his entire body freezes against Neil and one more tug from Neil is all he needs to topple over the edge. There’s a blissful moment where Andrew slumps against him and Neil turns his face to kiss his temple but all too soon, it’s over.

Andrew pulls back and Neil obligingly lets him go. There’s a split-second where he waits for Andrew to look up and he’s terrified that this has all been a giant mistake but then Andrew lifts his head and he’s almost smiling and Neil feels himself relax.

“Okay?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Andrew nods, briefly staring down at himself and the mess in Neil’s hand before looking pointedly at Neil’s still very-much-interested crotch.

“You don’t have to-“ Neil starts to say but the words die in his throat as Andrew’s steps back into his space again.

“Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

Andrew pulls him into another kiss and his knees turn to jelly.

*

They’ve been awake for an hour and neither have a made a move to get out of bed yet. Neil can just about make out the sound of movement in the kitchen but he can’t tell which one of the others is up yet. (He doesn’t particularly care anyway.)

Andrew is lying on his back in the centre of the bed – rather than his usual spot on the left-hand side – it’s a subtle way for him to say he actually wants Neil close right now. Neil is on his side watching him and trailing his index finger up and down Andrew’s arm; Andrew had taken his armbands off last night when they went to bed and he hasn’t put them back on. Neil feels his heart skip a beat every time he’s able to soothe a finger over one of Andrew’s scars.

Last night was such a big step in so many ways and Neil just feels so- full of something he doesn’t have a name for knowing that it’s unlocked something in them both. Andrew isn’t shying away from him or withdrawing, instead he’s opening up in his own subtle way.

It gets him thinking about how far they’ve come, how much they’ve let each other in in so many ways. It’s been what- five months? And Neil still can’t quite believe he gets to have this. That the most difficult, fucked up, closed off member of the Foxes somehow managed to be the one to unlock all of Neil’s secrets and give him something he’d already resigned himself to never having.

He hopes Andrew understands how much that means to him.

“Hey.” His voice sounds loud in the quiet of the room even if it is rough with sleep.

Andrew cranes his neck to look at him and Neil gets lost for a second in the calm expression on his face. Neil has been seeing it more and more recently. To anyone else it probably just looks like Andrew’s normal apathetic look but Neil sees differently; he knows that face means Andrew feels at ease, feels safe.

“I never got to tell you that time I thanked you-“ He can tell immediately Andrew knows when he’s referring to. There’s only one time where he’s said thank you and it’s counted.

“I never got to tell you,” he repeats, taking Andrew’s hand in his. “I didn’t just mean thank you for the game.”

He raises their joined hands until they’re resting on Andrew’s chest over the covers, mind getting stuck for a moment on the image of their fingers knotted together. How two hands that’ve done so much damage and can wield weapons can hold each other so gently is still something that perplexes him. He sneaks a glance at Andrew’s face and there’s a tightness around his eyes but Neil doesn’t think it’s anger so he continues.

“I meant thanks for all of it,” he whispers, leaning in to brush his lips over Andrew’s shoulder. “The keys…” He squeezes Andrew’s hand, meeting his gaze head on. “The trust and the honesty…” He inches his head closer on the pillow until their noses brush and he can taste the phantom touch of Andrew’s lips. “The kisses…”

After a brief look in Andrew’s eyes he slots their lips together, mouth beginning to turn up into a smile as Andrew lets go of his hand so he can turn into him.

“Keep talking and I’ll never kiss you again,” Andrew threatens even though he contradicts himself completely by mumbling the words into Neil’s mouth.

Neil makes a noise in protest and doesn’t bother stopping the grin that makes its way onto his face. “You like kissing me too much to stop.” As if to prove his point, he pulls Andrew into another long, lingering kiss.

“I’d survive,” Andrew mutters in between brushes of lips.

“Doubt it,” Neil snorts before letting Andrew roll him onto his back and pin his arms to the bed by lacing their fingers together – the handholding thing has been a constant whenever they’ve been alone for the last couple of weeks, Neil can’t get enough of it.

“Hundred and twenty-five percent.”

Neil scoffs and kisses him harder. It’s a strange thought when he realises that yeah, Andrew probably could survive without Neil, in the same way Neil could survive without Andrew.

The difference is, Neil doesn’t think either of them want to anymore.

*

The remaining few weeks of summer practice pass by uneventfully in Andrew’s opinion. The newbies get pulled in line either by Kevin, Dan, Neil or all three of them. Only one or two of them are still posing a problem and Andrew is willing to step back and observe because he knows that’s what Neil wants but if that little shit Jack puts one more foot out of line Andrew will not be held responsible for how he reacts.

Everything settles back into a relatively normal routine beyond that – they practice, they smoke, they sit on the roof and conjugate Russian verbs, they practice some more, they go to Columbia and Neil repeatedly drags him along to spend time with the Foxes. It’s all very…normal.

For Andrew – and Neil – that’s not something he’s used to but he finds himself liking it – or at least, not detesting it.

It’s the beginning of the semester and their first game of the season. It’s an away game against Breckenridge which means they’re all piling onto the bus far too early for Andrew’s liking. The six extra bodies means they can no longer spread out one to a bench and quite frankly, Andrew will be damned if he lets any of the freshmen take his seat at the back so, while everyone else is figuring out seating arrangements, he latches onto Neil’s hoodie strings and leads him down the back of the bus without so much as a glance at the rest of the team.

Neil – who’s still half-asleep after an extended practice with Kevin and some of the freshmen the night before – doesn’t complain and just sits down next to Andrew once he’s settled. Kevin still sits in front of them but a couple of the freshmen steal the seat in front of him to quiz him about the Jackals. Andrew spots Aaron and Nicky sharing a bench behind Allison and Renee near the front of the bus and relaxes back into his own seat. They’re all accounted for, that’s enough for him.

Neil is slouched in the chair next to him, neck crooked at an uncomfortable angle and hood up over his head in a poor attempt at a pillow while he tries to catch a little bit of sleep. Andrew quietly takes stock of the rest of the bus once they’ve moved off but everyone else seems to be either busy with their own conversations or trying to nap. When he’s sure no one is paying attention to them he tugs on Neil’s hoodie.

Neil looks up at him with heavy eyes; he looks seconds away from falling back to sleep.

“I’m only going to offer once,” Andrew says and he watches the series of complicated emotions that flit across Neil’s face before he seems to realise what Andrew means.

“Are you sure?” is all he asks and Andrew just rolls his eyes.

Mouth curving up in a half-smile, Neil gratefully scooches closer and rests his head on Andrew’s shoulder.

It’s a precarious position at first, like neither of them are sure how they’re meant to do this, but then Andrew swallows down whatever anxiety he feels and rests his head on top of Neil’s and he feels them both go pliant.

It’s comfortable in a way that it shouldn’t be and he feels his limbs slowly unlocking the longer they sit together. Neil even gets brave after a few minutes and twines their hands together but Andrew has gotten used to the whole handholding thing now so he doesn’t protest, just adjusts their hands so they sit more comfortably on his lap.

It doesn’t take long for Neil to fall asleep then. Andrew can tell as soon as Neil’s body becomes a dead weight against him.

He spends the next hour with his head resting against Neil’s and his eyes on the scenery rushing past the window. It’s almost enough to make him feel safe enough to fall asleep.

*

Andrew has been waiting for Neil to get out of the bathroom for at least fifteen minutes. He heard the shower cut off twenty minutes ago and Neil only ever takes ten minutes at most to dry off and get changed. Jiggling his leg in a rare nervous habit and staring at the time on his phone he finally gives in.

He throws his phone down on the couch and makes his way over to the bathroom, offering only a perfunctory knock before pushing the door open.

He doesn’t know what he was expecting to find but somehow he’s not surprised when he sees Neil standing shirtless in front of the mirror, staring at his own reflection with a haunted look in his eyes.

He doesn’t acknowledge Andrew’s entrance except to track Andrew’s movements with his eyes in the mirror. Andrew comes to rest behind him, meeting Neil’s gaze evenly in the mirror. He doesn’t like the look on Neil’s face, he doesn’t like how distant it makes Neil seem, like he’s not all here right now.

He needs to touch him, to prove that he is here. He doesn’t know if he’s trying to reassure himself or Neil. Slowly, he fits his hands to Neil’s hips and hooks his chin over Neil’s shoulder so their faces sit side by side in their reflections.

“You’ve overcome too many demons for this to be the thing that cripples you,” Andrew says lowly, thumbs sweeping over the soft, unmarred skin of Neil’s sides. He never means to comfort Neil with soft touches; sometimes it happens anyway.

“I was just thinking,” Neil replies faintly, eyes still focused on his own torso rather than Andrew.

“About?”

“Of all the marks on my body,” Neil mumbles. “Not a single one was my choice.”

It takes everything Andrew has to tamp down on his fury in that moment. Because he understands. Because he can look at his own scars and, though he hates them now, he knows what they were at the time – they were a hurt he could control, a hurt he chose, not one he was forced to endure.

Neil has been left mottled and scarred by his life and if he didn’t hate them so much, Andrew would actually be thankful for the marks. Because they show that he made it, a survivor through and through.

Unsure of the words to make this better, he goes for action instead.

“What about this one?” he asks, lifting up on his toes and leaning in to kiss the side of Neil’s neck where a bruise Andrew had given him the other night on the roof sits, almost faded. He doesn’t do any more than that until he sees Neil’s eyes close and feels his body relax against him. Then he sets about sucking on that same spot just below Neil’s pulse point, until the bruise is back to a deeper purple.

He brushes his lips over the spot when he’s finished, returning his chin to Neil’s shoulder. He hates seeing Neil this way, especially because he knows no one else ever gets to. He knows how much it means that Neil’s letting him in this far; he knows Neil does it because he thinks Andrew is the only person who can handle seeing all of him and still want to stay.

(Andrew doesn’t believe that. He believes that Neil is the compelling, infuriating kind of person who could make anyone want to stay regardless of his past.)

It kills him knowing he can’t really help. He can protect Neil from Riko and his father and anyone else that tries to touch him but he’ll never be able to protect him from his own mind, not really; the same way Neil can’t protect Andrew from his.

Not knowing what else to do, he plasters himself to Neil’s back, sliding his arms around Neil’s middle and covering up most of the scarring on his stomach. He can feel Neil’s muscles trembling beneath his arms.

“That mark is yours,” he says quietly, defiantly. “And it’s the only one that matters.”

“It’ll fade,” Neil sighs, tentatively resting his own arms over Andrew’s. “The rest won’t.”

“Then I’ll do it again,” Andrew tells him.

“That could become time-consuming,” Neil comments, the ghost of a smile on his lips.

Andrew rolls his eyes. “So get something more permanent.”

“Like what?”

“A tattoo,” Andrew murmurs into Neil’s shoulder.

Neil goes completely still in his arms, prompting Andrew to look in the mirror again and find Neil’s gaze. His expression is blank and Andrew can see the cogs turning in his mind as he thinks it over.

“Maybe,” he says finally.

“Okay,” Andrew acquiesces. “Now come on, the mirror is tired of looking at your ugly face.”

It startles a laugh out of Neil - which is all Andrew wanted really. “Thank you,” Neil replies, quickly turning his head to kiss Andrew’s temple before allowing himself to be dragged out of the bathroom.

Andrew leads him to the bedroom, ninety percent sure they have at least a half an hour before Kevin gets back. He pushes Neil down on his bunk and doesn’t stop kissing him until Neil’s scars are the furthest thing from his mind.

*

They’re on the roof three days later and Andrew is just finishing his cigarette when Neil speaks up.

“I want a tattoo,” he says, eyes trained on his own hands like he’s mapping them out for a place to ink.

Andrew casts him a sidelong glance and raises an eyebrow. “Right now?”

Neil’s hands curl into fists and he looks up, gaze resolute. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Andrew says, stubbing out the end of his cigarette and standing up. “Let’s go.”

Coach would probably be the better person to take Neil, maybe even Kevin, but there’s no way in hell Andrew is trusting anyone else to help Neil through this. No way is he going to make Neil explain to anyone else why he needs this – even if Wymack or Kevin would understand better than most people.

Neil follows him down to the car without a word but his expression hasn’t changed once they get to the parking lot. So, with one last look at Neil in the passenger seat, he drives.

*

Neil doesn’t let him see the tattoo.

He lets Andrew in the room while it’s being done – after a quick private consultation with the artist – but he makes Andrew sit on the other side of him and doesn’t let Andrew look away from his face until the thing’s been bandaged up.

It’s tiny, inked on the inside of Neil’s middle finger on his right hand between his first and second knuckle. The bandage reminds Andrew briefly of the ones that had adorned Neil’s fingers and hand after Baltimore. It makes him want to rip it off if only to get the image out of his head but Neil doesn’t seem bothered by it so he keeps that thought to himself.

He waits impatiently while Neil pays the tattoo artist and is briefly thankful Neil is such a fast walker when they make their way across the parking lot in a matter of seconds as soon as they leave the shop. They get seated and buckle up without speaking but Andrew can only take the silence for so long before he cracks.

“Are you going to tell me what it is?” he asks once they’re back on the main road.

“Later,” Neil hums idly and Andrew gives him a look out of the corner of his eye.

“If it’s exy related, I swear to god, Neil-“

“It’s not,” Neil laughs, cutting him off. “I thought about it-“

Andrew scoffs. Of course he did, fucking junkie.

“And I probably will get a fox paw or something someday,” he continues, ignoring Andrew’s noise of derision. “But I wanted my first tattoo to be something else. A reminder, I guess.”

Andrew considers pushing for more information but instead he grits his teeth and pushes down a little harder on the accelerator. He doesn’t know why he feels so anxious about what Neil’s tattoo is. He just- he wants to know what’s so important that Neil deemed it worthy enough to be his first tattoo. More important than exy even. He’s been under the impression nothing mattered to Neil more than exy, he can’t imagine what else Neil could possibly want to permanently ink onto his skin.

When they get back to Fox Tower Neil is barely out of the car before Andrew is grabbing his wrist and dragging him inside. He doesn’t stop on their floor, just keeps going until they’re on the roof. He only lets go of Neil to sit down and Neil dutifully moves to sit cross-legged in front of him, close enough that their knees bump into each other while they get comfortable.

Andrew’s fingers are itching for a cigarette, for something to hold so he doesn’t do something stupid like hold Neil’s hand. He settles for stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “Show me,” he requests.

Neil levels him with an exasperated look before carefully removing the tape and gauze from around his finger. He turns his hand first so it’s only visible to himself but then he lets out a sigh as his shoulders slump and turns his hand over to show Andrew.

It’s a safety pin.

Andrew stares at it - it’s small, just a thin black outline - but closer inspection doesn’t make the meaning any clearer. He tears his gaze away from Neil’s hand and looks at his face instead only to find Neil watching him with his teeth sunk into his bottom lip, anxiety written clearly in his expression.

“Explain.”

Neil takes a moment to seemingly gather his thoughts, eyes dragging away from Andrew to focus on his hand again. “I’ve had to change who I am so many times sometimes it gets hard to remember,” he murmurs, idly flexing his fingers and watching the tattoo stretch. “I’m a bunch of overlapping, tattered personalities combined into one and when I came here I was so close to falling apart…but I didn’t.”

Andrew is starting to see where Neil is going with this and already he feels panic flare up in the pit of his stomach.

“I- you held me together until I was able to hold myself together,” he mumbles. “You let me be Neil; you helped me make that version of me – the version I wanted to be – real.”

Andrew stares at him in shock, feeling the world tilt on its axis – he’d blame it on the vertigo from being up so high if he didn’t already know Neil’s words always had the capacity to have this effect on him. His chest feels like it’s been carved open and he fumbles desperately to latch back onto his control, to his apathy, to make whatever this is stop.

He’s always known Neil leant on him last year, he just doesn’t think ever realised perhaps the extent to which he did. It terrifies him because Neil shouldn’t lean on him – Andrew is far too fucked up and nowhere near stable enough to be that for him. Yet there’s a little voice in the back of his head reminding him that that’s what he’s been doing since the day he vowed to protect Neil. It’s the same voice that reminds him Neil has been doing the same for him since Drake - if not earlier.

His own words become stuck in his throat until the only thing he can think to say is, “I’m not your safety pin.”

Neil’s mouth quirks up in a half-smile and he shakes his head. “Nah, you’re my pipedream.”

“Neil-“

“No,” Neil cuts him off, voice suddenly sharp. “Don’t give me your “this is nothing” bullshit right now, Andrew. I’ve spent the last decade of my life convinced what we have is something I’d never have. I thought I’d never stop running, I thought I’d never have someone who would make me want to stop. My mother literally beat the idea of wanting someone out of me until I was convinced I couldn’t want it at all.

“But I want you,” he says with that stupid awestruck expression he always gets whenever he looks at Andrew like he’s something unreal…like he really is some kind of pipedream. “And against all odds, you let me have you so shut the fuck up and accept the fact that I need you and I’m really fucking thankful you came into my life.”

Andrew stares at him. His expression is blank but it’s not the usual emotionless face he wears; truthfully, he just feels so bowled over by Neil’s words that, for once, he doesn’t know how to respond.

“You’re a fucking trainwreck,” he mutters, finally giving into the desire to grab Neil’s hand to look more closely at the tattoo.

Neil rolls his eyes. “And you’re a car crash; it’s a good thing we found each other.” With that, he tangles his left hand in Andrew’s jacket and yanks him closer. “Yes or no?”

Andrew casts one last glance at Neil’s hand before meeting his gaze. “Yes.”

Neil kisses him like he’s got a point to prove and Andrew wonders absently when exactly his so-called pipedream somehow became his safety pin.

*

It’s about a week later when they’re supposed to be getting up for six a.m. practice that Neil notices Andrew doesn’t get out of his bed when his alarm goes off. It takes him about five more minutes to realise something is wrong.

He comes out of the bathroom, hardly noticing Kevin push past him to brush his teeth, and when he comes back into the bedroom Andrew still hasn’t moved.

Cautiously, he moves back over to their beds and lifts up on his toes to see into Andrew’s bunk. He’s awake, lying on his side with the comforter bunched up between his fingers, and he’s staring at Neil with eyes that don’t really seem to be seeing him.

“Andrew,” he whispers, folding his arms on the mattress to keep his balance and dropping his chin to rest on them.

Andrew doesn’t reply, his blank expression even more worryingly empty than usual.

Neil bites his lip, wracking his brain for anything that’s happened recently to set Andrew off but nothing comes to mind. It’s possible – probable, even – that he had a nightmare. Andrew never makes a sound when he has a bad dream – he’d spent far too long learning how to be quiet – which means Neil usually never knows unless they’re sharing a bed and gets shaken awake by Andrew jolting out of his nightmare.

“Bad day?” he asks, careful to keep his hands to himself no matter how badly he’s aching to reach out and reassure Andrew.

Andrew nods which is enough to make Neil feel almost relieved – at least he isn’t completely lost in his own head.

But that relief is immediately overshadowed by a tightening in his chest. Andrew tries so fucking hard to get better and Neil always feels so helpless when that progress gets reversed. He supposes it’s something that Andrew’s even allowing himself to have bad days now, that he’s not shoving down all the bad thoughts to let them fester.

“Want me to stay?” He’s not surprised when Andrew shakes his head no but he still hates the answer. He understands Andrew’s need for solitude in times like this but leaving him alone never sounds like a good option.

He nods in acquiescence, stretching out his pinky finger on the mattress and moving it just that little bit closer to Andrew. “Promise me something?” he murmurs, swallowing around the lump in his throat when Andrew reaches out a hand and locks his smallest finger around Neil’s. “Call me if it becomes a worse day?”

Andrew squeezes his finger once before letting go and tucking his hand close to his chest once again. “Go to practice, Neil,” he mutters, so low Neil barely hears it but he nods anyway.

“I’ll cover for you with Coach.”

Standing flat on his feet again he forces himself to turn away from the bed and slip on his shoes. When he enters the kitchen alone with his gear bag slung over his shoulder Kevin raises his eyebrows. “Where’s Andrew?”

“He’s not feeling well,” Neil mutters, shuffling past Kevin to pour some coffee into a thermos for the drive over.

“He’s sick?” Kevin demands. “Neil, need I remind you we have a game on Friday and-“

Slamming the coffee pot back down on the counter, Neil spins around and fixes Kevin with a cold glare. “Drop it. He’ll be fine tomorrow.”

Without another word, Neil strides out of the kitchen and grabs his keys. Kevin catches up with him at the elevator, silently stewing and tamping down on whatever retort he’s dying to say. Whatever, Neil doesn’t care. No one is allowed to give Andrew shit today if Neil can help it.

Nicky and Aaron are equally as surprised to find Neil in the driver’s seat when they climb into the Maserati. Neil waves off Nicky’s concern when he mentions Andrew being sick and assures them it’s probably just a twenty-four hour thing and that what he really needs is rest and some peace and quiet. (The last part might be said a little bit pointedly in Kevin’s direction.)

Renee is the only other Fox to come up to Neil and ask if Andrew’s okay after Neil tells Coach he won’t be at practice today. Wymack had looked like he knew what Neil wasn’t saying because he’d accepted Neil’s half-assed excuse without argument. Renee, for her part, just smiles and nods when Neil says he’ll be fine.

“I’m sure he will,” she says warmly, briefly squeezing Neil’s arm before moving away to join the girls on the treadmills.

Practice drags by painfully slowly and Neil has never wanted to play exy less than he does this morning. He even makes it to the showers before the rest of the team when he’s still usually one of the last to hang around out of habit.

He only has one class on Tuesdays and it’s immediately after practice. He sits through it impatiently, spending most of it zoned out and not even attempting to take a single note for the entire hour but as soon as they’re dismissed he’s flying out the door.

He knows Andrew wants to be alone but he also just really needs to make sure he’s okay. Andrew might give Neil shit for never asking for help but he’s just as bad. Neil just wants him to understand it’s okay if he wants to be alone but that he doesn’t have to be.

Their dorm is silent when he unlocks the door – Kevin has classes all morning if Neil remembers correctly – and the drapes are still drawn in their bedroom when he cracks open the door. Dropping his gear in the hallway, Neil slips inside.

He toes off his shoes and leaves them by the door before padding over to Andrew’s bunk. He’s awake and he’s still lying in the same position he was in when Neil left this morning.

“Hey,” he breathes when Andrew’s eyes find his. “I’ll stay out in the living room if you want me to,” he offers quietly. “But I’m here. If you need me.”

Andrew stares at him for an indiscernible moment before he lets out the smallest of sighs. “Get up here, idiot.”

Neil doesn’t need to be told twice, instantly scrambling up the ladder while Andrew pushes himself closer to the wall.

Neil lies flat on his back, leaving enough space for Andrew to move closer to the centre of the mattress again if he feels like it but he stays pressed against the wall. He looks uncomfortable and exhausted and Neil can only look at him for so long before he’s holding an arm out to Andrew in silent offer. He’s only half-surprised when Andrew nods tiredly and allows Neil to slip his hand around the back of his head and pull him closer.

Andrew curls into him, pillowing his head on Neil’s chest and scrunching up the fabric of Neil’s t-shirt between his fingers like he’d been doing with the comforter. Neil pulls the blanket up around them once Andrew stops moving and gently begins running his fingers through Andrew’s hair. He doesn’t talk because he thinks this might be enough. He thinks maybe Andrew just needs him to be here.

They lie together for a long time – long enough that Neil almost thinks Andrew might actually be falling asleep but then he speaks.

“I can’t make them stop,” he mumbles hollowly, turning his face into Neil’s chest and pressing closer like the pressure against his forehead could physically force the thoughts out. It takes everything Neil has not to lose control. Because nothing he can do will ever take those thoughts and memories out of Andrew’s head. All he can do is try and replace the bad memories with good ones and just be here to hold him when he can’t.

“I know,” Neil replies, throat feeling tight as his hand drifts to the nape of Andrew’s neck – just the gentlest of pressure to keep from floating too far over the edge.

They fall silent again and Neil doesn’t let him go – not even when his phone starts beeping to signal text messages from the team asking why he’s not at afternoon practice. He’ll come up with an excuse later, right now there’s nothing else he wants to but hold Andrew together.

Andrew finds his other hand after a while, dragging it closer until it’s resting on Neil’s chest. At first, Neil thinks he’s going for his scars but when Andrew separates his fingers he knows he’s looking at the tattoo.

Neil slides his hand closer to Andrew’s face to let him get a better look at it so he doesn’t have to move from where his head is still resting over Neil’s heart. He traces the safety pin with his finger a few times, before sighing and folding their hands together.

“Doesn’t seem very true now,” he mutters into Neil’s t-shirt and Neil immediately shakes his head even though Andrew can’t see it.

“Works both ways,” Neil promises, squeezing Andrew’s hand in his. “Try and get some more sleep. I’ll stay here.”

Andrew doesn’t reply but Neil hears it when his breathing eventually evens out some time later. Neil doesn’t remember falling asleep too but he must have because the next thing he knows he’s opening his eyes as Andrew shifts against him.

His gaze locates Andrew first, still mostly in the circle of his arms but leaning up on his elbows now to look down at Neil. The shadows under his eyes aren’t as noticeable anymore.

“Yes or no?” Andrew asks once he realises he’s awake.

Neil searches Andrew’s expression for the earlier emptiness, for any sign that Andrew is only doing this for his benefit, but all he sees is clear eyes and a penetrating gaze. “Yes.”

Andrew leans in and brushes their lips together once, briefly resting his forehead against Neil’s as he murmurs a hushed, “Thank you.”

Neil feels momentarily stunned by the words because Andrew has never said them before. But he swallows it down and forces himself not to freeze because he knows how vulnerable saying that must make Andrew feel and, more than anything, he just wants to make sure he’s still okay.

“Are you hungry?” he asks, mostly because it’s the most innocuous question that comes to mind.

Andrew doesn’t answer but he does get out of bed so Neil takes it as a good sign.

After stuffing his feet into his shoes and pocketing his cigarettes Andrew wanders into the kitchen to collect a pint of ice-cream, two spoons and Kevin’s emergency vodka. Neil gets the hint and grabs the comforter off the bed to follow him up to the roof.

It’s freezing cold up there and the sky has started to darken and ice-cream definitely isn’t a viable dinner option but it’s close enough to normal that Neil feels himself breathe easier.

(If Andrew leans into him a little more than usual while they huddle under the blanket, well, Neil knows better than to say anything.)

*

It isn’t until the second week of October that they have the dorm to themselves for the first night since they moved in.

Neil gets a text from Nicky around midnight saying Kevin is passed out on their couch after an evening spent drinking with him and Aaron. Andrew only pauses in eating his bag of chips long enough to roll his eyes when he reads the message before returning to the task at hand.

They watch a movie since neither of them really feel like going to sleep just yet, with the beanbags shoved together and Neil’s head in Andrew’s lap. But Neil can only handle Andrew’s fingers threading through his hair for so long before he feels his eyes start to droop and mumbles that they should go to bed.

Once they make their way to the bedroom Andrew stops Neil at the end of his bed and nods to the ladder up to his bunk. “Yes or no?”

At Neil’s blank look, Andrew huffs. “Kevin isn’t coming home tonight,” he says emphatically. “Do you want to share a bed?”

Suddenly feeling much more awake, Neil feels a grin take over his face. “You like sharing a bed with me.”

Andrew gives him an unimpressed scowl. “Shut the fuck up.”

Neil laughs, looping his arm through one of the ladder rungs. “Yes, I want to share a bed with you. But it’s not exactly the same size as your bed in Columbia or at Abby’s. Are you sure you’re okay with sleeping so close?”

Andrew lets out a long-suffering sigh before taking a step forward so they’re chest to chest; he nods at their closeness as if to prove a point. “Yes. I’m okay with it,” he insists, darting in once to kiss Neil. “Besides. If I change my mind I can just push you over the side.”

With that, he brushes Neil out of the way and climbs up the ladder. Neil stares after him before letting out a startled laugh. “You always say the sweetest things,” he snorts, climbing up the ladder to find Andrew already lying on his side, against the wall.

Andrew rolls his eyes, holding out a hand to beckon Neil closer. “Come here.”

Neil crawls up the mattress until he can situate himself on his side next to Andrew. The change in proximity is evident as soon as he settles. There’s hardly an inch of space between them, with the tips of their noses almost touching, as Neil takes in the expression on Andrew’s face. It’s still frustratingly hard to read but Neil doesn’t think Andrew is bothered by the closeness and as long as he knows Andrew is comfortable that’s enough for him.

“What do you want to do tonight?” Neil asks.

Andrew meets his gaze evenly until he sighs, eyes drooping as he inches his head forward on the pillow. “Sleep,” he mumbles before slotting their lips together. It’s chaste, as far as kisses go – sweet and lingering and so reassuring Neil doesn’t know how he’s ever lived without this.

“Turn around,” Andrew requests when he pulls away.

Neil nods, not really sure how the back of his head will relax Andrew’s nerves when he wakes up confused as to why there’s another person in bed with him but he still rolls over until his back is to Andrew.

He doesn’t expect it when Andrew presses up against his back, sliding his arms around Neil’s middle under the covers. Neil lies stock still, unsure of what’s happening until Andrew huffs against the back of his neck. “Relax, idiot.”

Neil swallows and forces his muscles to stop tensing, allowing himself to go pliant in Andrew’s arms.

Andrew makes a noise – if Neil didn’t know any better, he’d almost think it’s contentment – when he notices and buries his nose in the nape of Neil’s neck. “I might have to let you go before I fall asleep,” he mumbles, lips dragging over the skin of Neil’s neck and sending a shiver down his spine. “Just in case.”

“That’s okay,” Neil assures, seeking Andrew’s hands from their spot on his stomach and locking their fingers together. “I’m glad we’re doing it this way,” Neil tells him, mouth curving up slightly in a half-smile. “Because we want to and we feel safe; not because one of is hurt or panicking. I don’t want every time I hold you to be us trying to forget. I wanna hold you just because it feels nice.”

“Shut up, Neil,” Andrew mutters but he still squeezes Neil’s hands in agreement.

“Make me.”

“One hundred and thirty percent. Neil, don’t make me punch you,” Andrew threatens, defying his own words by pressing a kiss to Neil’s shoulder.

“Got it,” Neil huffs, glad for a moment that he’s not facing Andrew so he grin as widely as he wants. He ducks his head, staring down at their interlaced hands with a dopey smile until his gaze catches on something. He lets go of Andrew’s right hand, using both of his own to pull Andrew’s left hand close to his face.

“What’s this?” he asks, feeling like the ground is about to drop out from underneath him. Because right there, on the side of Andrew’s middle finger, between one knuckle and the other, is a safety pin.

Andrew is silent behind him but he doesn’t pull his hand away.

“Andrew, what’s that?” Neil asks again. He considers turning around but he realises now their positions might’ve been purposeful - a way for Andrew to show him without having to allow himself be wholly vulnerable.

“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Andrew answers slowly. “You know what it is.”

Neil stares at it in shock, mind reeling. He’s always thought it’d be enough that Andrew knew how Neil felt, that he understood how important he was to Neil and that he’d still want to stick around. He never expected Andrew to return those feelings, least of all vocalise them like this.

Suddenly feeling like he’s touching something precious, he draws Andrew’s hand closer to his mouth, brushing his lips over the spot reverently. Andrew lets out a quiet breath behind him and Neil clutches his hand more tightly in both of his.

He can’t believe he never saw it. The skin is still red around the outside which means it’s fresh; most likely, he skipped class to get it today. It’s the only time they were apart and his goalie gloves would’ve hidden it during practice this afternoon while it was still wrapped.

“Andrew,” he says when not looking at him becomes a little too unbearable. “Can I turn over?”

“Why?” Just hearing his voice, Neil knows Andrew feels overwhelmed right now. Feels vulnerable and hates himself for it but he’s powering through it to show Neil this and Neil just needs to let him know how much it means to him.

Neil smiles a rueful smile, tracing over the safety pin with his eyes, “Because I wanna kiss you until I can’t breathe and then maybe kiss you some more.”

The silence between them is heavy and palpable and Neil almost shakes out of his skin while he waits for Andrew to decide but eventually, he hears a low, “You can turn around.”

Neil begrudgingly lets go of Andrew’s hand but doesn’t waste time in rolling onto his other side. He considers not even bothering looking at Andrew’s expression and just diving right into kissing him but in the end, he holds off. He bows his head until their foreheads are just shy of touching and their noses are brushing and it’s almost too close – he feels himself going cross-eyed trying to look at Andrew - but he doesn’t want to move away.

Neither of them speak at first.

He thinks Andrew might feel just as dazed as he does, eyes flickering all over Neil’s face as if they don’t know where to settle. His throat bobs like he’s swallowing down whatever emotion he’s experiencing right now – or maybe like he’s actually letting himself feel and he’s still trying to get used to it. Neil cradles his cheek in his hand, thumb catching on Andrew’s bottom lip. Andrew’s eyes are sharp on him; he looks like he’s waiting – for the kiss, for a reaction, Neil doesn’t know.

Neil considers all the things he wants to say to him.

I’m never leaving you.

No one’s ever made me want to stay like you.

I don’t think I could live without you even if I tried.

I love you.

In the end, he thinks about what Andrew’s just done for him, about everything Andrew has done for him. About how far he’s pushed himself outside of his comfort zone to reassure Neil and protect Neil and show Neil the things he doesn’t know how to say. He thinks about what words Andrew might want to hear and what words would make Andrew close off.

But there’s only five words coming to Neil’s mind right now and he doesn’t know how they’ll be received. He doesn’t think anyone has said them to Andrew before so he thinks they might be safe. Maybe they could be their words.

Making sure to meet Andrew’s gaze with as much sincerity as he can muster, he whispers, “You make me so happy.”

Happy. It’s a thing Neil hadn’t felt for years before he met the Foxes. It’s a thing Andrew probably can’t even remember feeling. Neil doesn’t know if Andrew’s happy now, or if he’s just- slightly better than unhappy but maybe Neil can be happy enough for both of them for now.

The reaction Andrew has to the words is visible. His face goes blank with surprise and up this close, Neil can see the way his eyes widen slightly and his mouth parts like he’d had a retort on his lips until Neil stunned him silent.

He stares at Neil for an indeterminable amount of time until, eventually, he trails his left hand up Neil’s arm to catch his hand. He slides his fingers into the spaces between Neil’s and Neil can’t help but watch in fascination as their tattoos press together. Holding each other together.

Tearing his gaze away from their tattoos, he looks back to Andrew whose eyes are still watching him carefully.

Then, with a silent swallow and a barely there upturn of his mouth, he says, “Works both ways.”

*