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light fires at night (to push back the void)

Chapter Text

 

perfectly able to hold my own hand
but I still can't kiss my own neck

 

1.

 

The first time Andrew realizes he wants to hear the words, Neil isn’t even doing anything. He’s just sitting there, staring at the horizon with that stupidly dramatic faraway expression of his, and letting the cigarette burn down between his fingers all the way to the filter — an outrageous waste of good nicotine, if you asked Andrew.

Maybe it’s the way Neil always keeps his distance. Maybe it’s the fact that he has been sitting on the roof with Andrew for over an hour, even though it’s September and he’s only wearing a worn-out t-shirt he usually sleeps in and a pair of equally worn-out sweatpants. Even his feet are bare.

Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe Andrew wants to hear the words just so he can shut Neil down, so he can tell him to fuck off and leave him alone for good. Neil would go away and Andrew would finally stop feeling like his skin is coming apart at the seams, threatening to expose the tender flesh underneath, all for Neil to see.

Maybe, maybe.

Neil tilts his head to the side to look at Andrew, keeping the rest of his body perfectly still. His eyes are ridiculously blue. He doesn’t ask, just looks at Andrew, patient in the way most people stopped being a long time ago, if they bothered in the first place.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Andrew tells him, even though, technically speaking, he was the one looking, and he might have even been looking like that.

Neil’s lips curl up, like he has a retort on the tip of his tongue, but he obediently looks away. He brings the cigarette to his lips and takes a single drag. He exhales slowly, smoke rolling off his lips and curling in the air, and Andrew wants, with an intensity that still makes his head spin, and what he wants has nothing to do with safety.

Neil is a knife at Andrew’s throat, sharp blade digging into skin.

And Andrew doesn’t know how to step back.

He stubs out his cigarette, annoyed.  Then he steals Neil’s.

Neil turns his head towards him again, watching as Andrew brings the cigarette to his mouth and curls his lips around the exact same spot Neil’s lips touched just a moment ago. Andrew inhales, holding Neil’s gaze and watching Neil’s pupils dilate, and keeps the smoke in his lungs for a moment before stubbing out this cigarette as well, letting it scald his fingertips as he presses the ashes into the concrete.

There is no gentleness left in Andrew’s soul, no kindness. There is only cotton-like emptiness, a void that feels like presence rather than absence, and it fills his mind to the brim. There is no room for emotions, and there most certainly is no room for feelings.

And yet there’s room for Neil.

Maybe it’s because Neil has been trained to keep his head low, to keep his shoulders hunched, to keep his elbows close. Maybe Neil has learned to occupy so little space that he can find enough room for himself even in Andrew’s thoughts.

Maybe, maybe.

Someday, though — someday Neil will learn to keep his head high.

Future, Andrew thinks. Three vowels, three consonants.

It’s been a while since he had to take this word apart.

At present, Neil is looking at Andrew like looking is enough. That, too, is new. In Andrew’s experience, people want more regardless of what they get.

Hope, Andrew thinks. Two vowels, two consonants, denotatum: nonexistent.

And yet — here Neil is. Two vowels and two consonants himself.

Keeping his distance. Keeping his word.

And Andrew hates him for it.

He doesn’t want to be known like this. He doesn’t want to be understood. He doesn’t like having yet another part of his makeshift armor stripped away. Sometimes just knowing that Neil knows is enough to make Andrew consider never speaking to Neil again, but then Neil does one of these stupid things he tends to do — like look at Andrew with that quiet wonder of his or smile at Andrew with that ridiculous, inexplicable fondness — and Andrew feels tethered.  Not to Neil, not to the ground, but to that part of himself that always held back just enough when he put a razor to the battered skin on his wrists.

Sometimes Andrew wonders if he made Neil up.

“Hey,” Neil says, apparently done with the silence for now, but his voice is still quiet and content, not demanding. He is trying to pull Andrew out of his thoughts for Andrew’s benefit, not for his own. It’s not a “yes or no” that would imply there is something he wants. It’s not an “are you okay” that would imply that the thing he wants is a comforting lie. It’s just a word — a thread for Andrew to follow if he wants to get out of his own head.

Andrew picks one end.

“Yes,” he says, firm and oddly loud in the empty space between them. It’s not a prompt or a question, it’s an answer, even though Neil hasn’t — will not — ask the question.

Neil blinks at him, clearly confused, his brow furrowing briefly and teeth tugging at his lower lip, pulling at the scar on his cheek. Andrew watches him impassively, holding still against his instincts which are — as always — telling him to either take initiative or pull away.

He waits.

Finally, Neil’s gaze drops to Andrew’s lips and then travels back to Andrew’s eyes, questioning. Andrew doesn’t nod, but he doesn’t look away, either.

It’s nerve-racking to wait, but less so than Andrew expected. Neil doesn’t take anything for granted and he doesn’t make assumptions. He doesn’t guess. He learns. And for reasons yet unknown, Andrew wants him to learn.

Neil keeps one of his hands on the concrete and the other in his lap, and he doesn’t move closer. Instead, he leans in only a little bit and stops, his gaze flickering from Andrew’s lips to his eyes so many times that Andrew finally snaps an impatient, “Yes, Neil.”

Neil swallows, his throat moving with it, and then his eyes fall shut and he leans in the rest of the way with a quick intake of breath, like he’s jumping into a waterfall.

And then they are kissing.

Andrew spends a lot of time reminding himself that there is nothing between them except for physical attraction — this is something they both want, something they both can have. Something to pass the time and make life a little less boring. It’s convenient.

Neil is attractive and unique enough to hold Andrew’s interest, but predictable enough not to be a threat. Neil’s lips are soft, his body lean, his touch controllable. This is all Andrew needs from him — from anyone, really.

It’s a lousy lie at best.

It’s harder to fool himself in moments like this — moments when Andrew shouldn’t want Neil around. Right now Neil’s lips aren’t soft — they’re chapped after hours of sleep. His morning breath is terrible, since he didn’t waste time brushing his teeth before following Andrew to the rooftop. There is nothing conventionally beautiful about Neil’s scars — about the marred skin and the way it remains too smooth to touch, strange and unfeeling.

Right now, Andrew shouldn’t want to be touched — not after that particular nightmare — and he is certain that if someone else as much as brushed past him, they would end up with a knife in their gut. And yet here he is, kissing Neil out of his own volition, because somewhere along the way touching Neil became more comforting than not touching him.

Andrew should walk away from this while he still knows how — but perhaps he already doesn’t know how.

He changes the angle of the kiss and taps two fingers against Neil’s wrist — and almost without a pause, Neil’s fingers travel to Andrew’s hair. Andrew exhales shakily when Neil’s fingers curl around the nape of his neck, but Neil never tries to hold him in place, never retaliates for the way Andrew’s fingers keep digging greedily into his body.

Maybe it’s not Andrew’s skin that’s coming apart at the seams; maybe it’s the last layer of his armor.

He has never expected to find anything beneath it.

These days there is a softness to their kisses that Andrew doesn’t quite understand. It’s not obvious, not really, but Andrew senses it nonetheless — this strange gentleness that people who consist only of sharp edges shouldn’t be capable of. It’s in the way Neil’s thumbs keep brushing against the soft skin just behind Andrew’s ears, over and over again, in the way his breaths come in short, trembling puffs against Andrew’s lips, in the way his pulse goes racing the second Andrew touches him.

It’s also, frighteningly, in the way Andrew’s hands tend to sneak towards Neil’s out of their own volition, in the way he can’t stop contemplating the idea of threading their fingers together, of bringing Neil’s hands to his lips and kissing the inner sides of his wrists.

This isn’t desire — desire Andrew understands.

He pulls back from the kiss and can’t help resting his forehead against Neil’s for a fraction of a second. Neil blinks up at him, his gaze still slightly glazed over and his lashes impossibly long, and suddenly Andrew wants to hear the words, all three of them, breathed into the barely-existent space between their lips. He wants Neil to say them and he wants Neil to mean them.

It doesn’t make sense.

They are just words. Eight letters, five vowels, three consonants.

Andrew doesn’t remember ever hearing them — but he remembers wishing to hear them. He has never meant to start wishing again. They’re nothing but words. They don’t hold any meaning, like a phrase in a language you can’t speak doesn’t hold any meaning.

There are some words that Andrew can’t stand, that he never says out loud. Then there are some words he can’t help dissecting, cutting into smaller pieces and inspecting at every turn, searching for a meaning and never really finding it.

Two vowels, two consonants. Home, hope.

Love, hate, need.

Neil.

Neil doesn’t say the words. Instead, he nudges his nose against Andrew’s, playful and affectionate, and Andrew has to pull back and look away, because it’s too much. Neil is too much. The feeling rekindling in Andrew’s chest over and over again, like a flicker of flame on a lighter almost out of gas, is simply too much.

“One hundred and ten,” he tells Neil, his voice strained.

In his peripheral vision, Neil nods in solemn acceptance.

Andrew keeps his eyes on the very center of the rising sun.

Two vowels, two consonants.

He isn’t even sure what he’s measuring anymore.

 

 

2.

 

Andrew dreams in detail.

He knows that most people do not; for most people dreams are a collection of abstract, senseless images, a tangle of emotions and hopes and fears, a worthless blur. Most people have imperfect memory; their minds struggle to fill in the blanks and never get anything right. Most people wake up and feel alright again.

Andrew’s memory is flawless.

There is always a movie rolling in the back of Andrew’s head, on a constant loop, like he’s a spectator in an old, dusty cinema he can never leave. Sometimes the lights are so bright that he can barely see the images on the screen, can barely make out anything at all; sometimes his heart beats so loud and strong and alive that he doesn’t hear the sounds, either. Sometimes his skin is thick enough to be an armor, to protect him from the echo of unwanted touch.

Sometimes, though, the lights simply have to go out.

The movie starts rolling and Andrew remembers every single detail, the colors of the wallpapers, the shadows dancing on the ceilings, the words, words, words, the silence, the cold tiles in too many bathrooms and the nausea in his stomach, the blood, the water in too many showers running cold, the footsteps and the sounds of countless locks clicking shut, white sheets drying in the sun, pressure on his wrists, smell of foreign sweat on his skin. The movie goes on and on and on, because time runs differently in dreams, because it’s easy to fit years into minutes and decades into hours, to play the same memories over and over and over again. There is no escaping, no running away, no closing your eyes — and no opening them, either.

And then he hears, “Andrew.”

Andrew opens his eyes, suddenly hyperaware of his surroundings. The room is so bright that for a second he can’t make out the familiar scratch just above the headboard of the bed, the one he carved there with a knife a long time ago, and a surge of panic rises to his throat, but then he blinks again and the scratch is there, clear and sharp.

Andrew takes a deep breath.

He can feel the sleeves of his shirt brush against his skin. The back of his shirt sticks to his spine, drenched in sweat. He can feel the sharp texture of the sheets beneath his fingertips, and ever so slowly, he unclenches his fingers and tries not to wince when his wrists ache in phantom pain. He registers the cold air filtering through the open window, the warmth of the blanket curled around his legs, finally the lack of knives underneath the pillow.

He swallows, shifting to lie on his back, and stares at the ceiling just to avoid looking at Neil, even though he is aware of Neil’s presence; he can hear Neil’s quiet breathing and he can almost feel Neil’s gaze on the side of his face. He doesn’t scold Neil for staring only because he can’t really force himself to speak. The lights are brighter now, but the memory of the darkness is fresh in his mind and all of his senses suddenly go from hyperactivity to complete numbness.

Neil recognizes the silence and reacts accordingly.

“Do you need me to go?” he asks quietly.

Andrew briefly thinks about saying “no” — but today is not a day for steps forward.

Neil is lying on his side, as far from Andrew as he can possibly get, but his hand is resting on the mattress between them, and if it were a different day, Andrew would consider reaching for it. As it is, he drags his gaze back to Neil’s eyes and nods.

“Okay,” Neil says, and Andrew watches him only for a moment longer before going back to staring at the ceiling again, because looking at Neil is easy, but being seen in return is sometimes the hardest thing in the world. 

He listens as Neil gets out of bed and pulls on the shirt Andrew helped him out of only several hours ago. Neil doesn’t sit at the edge of the mattress to lace his boots and he moves quickly and more quietly than he usually would. Andrew notices it all. He doesn’t acknowledge it, though.

Neil collects his training bag and leaves the room, closing the door without making a sound. Andrew considers reaching for his cigarettes, but they are all the way across the room, and Andrew can’t quite force himself to tear his gaze away from the comforting blankness of the ceiling.

Instead, he reaches over to the nightstand and pulls his knives out of the drawer. He places them underneath his pillow. He will need to remove them before Neil comes back to sleep here, but for now, they can stay.

His mind is blank, still exhausted from the nightmare, so it takes him a while to notice that there is a cigarette pack lying on the mattress where Neil slept, along with a lighter. Neil must have tossed them over before he left. Andrew refuses to acknowledge the quiet warmth that hums somewhere in his chest as he reaches for the cigarettes.

He smokes three in a row, staring at the smoke circulating around the room, and daring the disabled smoke detector to react.

But he can only stay still for so long.

He considers going to the roof, but Neil would inevitably find him there. He considers taking a shower, but the idea makes his skin crawl.

Instead, he sits at the edge of the bed and methodically places each and every knife underneath his armbands, and then leans down and puts on his boots, focusing on the familiarity and simplicity of the motions, the control he has of his surroundings.

He puts on the first piece of warm clothing he finds — which happens to be one of Neil’s stupidly bland, oversized grey hoodies — and leaves the room with nothing except for his wallet and the keys to the Maserati. He only makes it halfway downstairs before he grits his teeth and returns for his phone — he might not want to bring it along, but since Neil isn’t in his immediate proximity, he will inevitably get himself into trouble before the day ends, and Andrew — well, Andrew clearly can’t have that.

For the next couple of hours, Andrew simply drives ahead. He is only vaguely aware of the direction, but he realizes before long that he is making a large circle around the city, which works for him just fine. He doesn’t listen to the radio, but he rolls down the windows and rests his elbow against the door and lets the wind fill the silence. It’s a sunny day, with little to no traffic, and the air is clear enough that he can see the horizon.

He drives fast enough to keep his mind busy with paying attention to the road, but not as fast as he used to back when it was his only coping mechanism. He has no intention of wrecking his car and he also — surprisingly — has no intention of wrecking himself.

When he goes back to the city, the sun is already setting, but Andrew still doesn’t feel like seeing any of the Foxes, or even Neil, so instead of driving to the campus, he chooses a large, empty parking lot nearby, stops the car, locks the door from the inside, shifts to the passenger’s seat and rests his feet on the dashboard.

He lights a cigarette, pulls the hood over his head and the sleeves over his knuckles, rests his head against the comfortably smooth leather, and closes his eyes.

Cars, with their lockable doors, expensive windows, and tanks full of flammable gasoline, have always been a safe haven, even if only a temporary one.

Now, though — now Andrew doesn’t have to leave. There are no promises weighing him down. He doesn’t have to leave, but he can.

Choice, Andrew thinks. Three vowels, three consonants.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, only that it gets darker and darker as the sun sets and the night begins. The over-saturated movie is still rolling in the back of his head, so Andrew forcibly drags his thoughts away and focuses on the only thing he can actually focus on — his surroundings. There is nothing in the car capable of holding his attention, except perhaps for the hoodie he is wearing — warm, worn-out, and unmistakably Neil’s. It smells a little bit like Neil’s soap and a little bit like Neil’s skin, and it’s soft underneath Andrew’s fingertips.

Andrew spends a lot of time thinking about Neil, even if he would never admit it to anybody, because Neil still is a puzzle he doesn’t quite know how to solve. He understands Neil well enough now to recognize that there is darkness inside him too, just like there is darkness in Andrew, but Neil has never tipped over the edge that Andrew fell over years — if not decades — ago. Neil is not beyond living this life the way most people live it — the way Andrew never will. Neil might still end up with an adorable house in the suburbs, with cute pets, a set of board games, and a set of boring friends.

And yet Neil continues to follow Andrew around even when Andrew pushes him away, like they are two objects on intersecting orbits, like they’re pulled together by gravity.

Andrew lights another cigarette just as he hears a knock on the window.

It’s Neil — because of course it is. Andrew has been thinking about him and he thought Neil into existence, just as he must have done the first time around — this is the only way Neil makes sense.

One of these days Andrew will have to wake up.

Before he makes a conscious decision to move, he is already reaching across the driver’s seat to open the door for Neil, and Neil rounds the car and slips inside without making a sound. He is dressed in his workout clothes and his hair is slightly wet from the drizzle. He must have jogged all the way here, impossible as it sounds.

“What are you doing here?” Andrew asks when it becomes clear that Neil will not explain anything unless asked to do so.

“Finding you,” Neil says, leaning back in the driver’s seat and offering Andrew a smile, like his answer makes any sense at all.

“I didn’t need finding,” Andrew tells him. “I wasn’t lost.”

“No,” Neil says, infuriatingly agreeable. “I suppose not.”

He reaches over to the small backpack he brought with him and offers Andrew a large bar of chocolate and a token apple.

Andrew raises both eyebrows at the fruit.

“Kevin says hi,” Neil says, shrugging.

He runs his fingers through his hair, messing it up even more, and then shakes his head like a dog, ignoring Andrew’s glare and getting water everywhere.

“What did you tell him?” Andrew asks finally, more out of curiosity than anything else.

“That none of this is any of his business?” Neil says. “Something like that, anyway. Maybe not in so many words.”

“And he said ‘hi’,” Andrew deadpans. Something inside him loosens slightly with every word they exchange, as if the tension he couldn’t quite get rid of is finally bleeding out.

“Well, he said ‘fuck you’ to me, but he’s always liked you better,” Neil says.

Andrew hums, tossing the apple to the back seat and opening the chocolate; it’s his favorite kind. It must have been picked by Neil. “Well, that’s unreciprocated.”

He knows that Neil’s lips will be curled up in a smirk before he even glances up. Neil holds his gaze, his blue eyes bright and clear in the dimmed yellow streetlight.

“So you like me better, huh,” he says, fearless even though Andrew is doing his best to glare him into silence.

“That would imply that I care about you at all,” Andrew says.

Something passes through Neil’s eyes, a ghost of a reaction he doesn’t quite manage to hide, and Andrew knows instantly that for a reason he doesn’t know, this time Neil failed to see through Andrew’s halfhearted lie. Andrew’s past is a minefield, but so is Neil’s — Andrew should have known that by now. Clearly, these are the words to be avoided. Andrew won’t be repeating this mistake.

He looks at Neil and leans over the console, saying, “Yes or no?”

This is something he can always offer. He isn’t good at words, but he’s good at this.

But Neil says, “No.”

And that’s — that’s a first. Andrew blinks before he can school his expression into indifference, but this simple refusal has sent his heart racing, as if he hasn’t spent the last few years trying to feel anything at all. It shouldn’t matter that he doesn’t know how to navigate this — there shouldn’t be anything to navigate — but it matters.

“Okay,” he says, reaching for the keys — now lying on the dashboard — to pass them to Neil, but Neil’s hand, hovering over his wrist, stops him in his tracks.

“That’s not what I meant,” Neil says firmly. “I don’t need reassurance. I already told you. I don’t expect you to do anything you don’t want to do or feel anything you don’t want to feel. We're good as we are.”

And that, right there, is the center of the problem, and the exact reason why Andrew has spent the last few hours driving — running in circles, but never away. It’s not that he simply doesn’t want to be seen — it’s that he doesn’t want to be seen by Neil. Neil’s presence is the only variable that has recently changed. Andrew had never cared before.

The thing is, Andrew doesn’t just want to hear the words — he wants Neil to mean them. He wants to let himself believe that Neil will not run away, that he is here to stay. He wants to let himself believe that Neil is something — the first thing — he will get to keep.

He could make it into a deal, but he has learned by now that deals like this never work. It didn’t bring him and Aaron closer, if anything, it tore them apart, because Aaron didn’t care to do his part. This can’t be a deal, but it can’t also be a sacrifice on Neil's part; Andrew has no interest in these.

He takes a breath and makes a tiny step in the only direction he has never chosen before. He says, “I do.”

Neil blinks at him, confused. “What?”

“Care,” Andrew says, through gritted teeth.

It sounds odd in his own ears, but it doesn’t sound like a lie, even if the long-faded bruises on Kevin’s neck are a proof that it’s a hell of an understatement.

Two vowels, two consonants.

A truth.

He can almost see Neil repeating the word in his head before his gaze softens.

“Okay,” Neil says.

“Okay,” Andrew echoes, leaning in towards Neil without a conscious decision to do so.

Neil hums, so close that Andrew can feel his breath on his own lips. He wants to close the distance between them, but he is still waiting for a ‘yes’, or for whatever else Neil chooses to say.

What Neil chooses to say is, “Kiss me.”

Andrew nods, because he can’t quite come up with a response with all the tension building and building between them, and then he slots one hand behind Neil’s neck and presses their lips together.

It would be funny — if it weren’t so terrifying — how quickly his heart goes into overdrive.

When he pulls back, suddenly aware that he has both of his hands on Neil’s face, cradling his jaw, Neil is watching him with a calm expression that makes Andrew feel much more exposed than it should.

For once, he chooses to do nothing about it. Instead, he reaches for the keys and drops them in Neil’s hand.

“Drive,” he says, fixing his gaze on the windshield. 

To his credit, Neil does as he is told.

They leave the empty darkness of the parking lot. The streets leading them home are all brightly lit.

 

 

3.

 

They win the championship for the second time. It’s a tough game and they only beat their opponents by one point, but when the final buzzer resonates across the court, the victory is theirs. Andrew exhales and lowers his racquet, and automatically looks to Neil, who has already ripped off his helmet and is currently being crushed in Dan’s fierce embrace. Andrew supposes it’s only fair, since Neil was the one to score the winning goal, and the rest of the team must believe the same, because they follow Dan’s lead. Andrew can barely see Neil in the crowd, but he doesn’t mind; he might not like the Foxes, but they are the closest thing Neil has to a family, and they will keep him safe for the time being.

Andrew watches only for a moment longer, waiting patiently until Neil catches his gaze, and then he jerks his chin towards the locker room. Neil holds his gaze and gives a nod, and even all the way across the court Andrew can see his expression soften into a more quiet sort of happiness, something meant only for Andrew’s eyes. It’s an acknowledgement and an understanding, a question and an answer, and it settles Andrew more than the score on the board does.

He holds Neil’s gaze for a moment longer before picking up his racquet and turning on his heel to head for the locker room.

Renee catches up to him with practiced ease, her smile wide and happy, her pastel ponytail a complete mess.

“Hello there,” she says, falling into step by his side. “You played very well tonight.”

Andrew looks at her blankly, unwilling to explain himself. Exy is first and foremost a means to guarantee Neil’s continued survival. It’s also a means to pass the time. It will never become anything more significant, Andrew simply isn’t capable of caring about it the way his teammates do.

Renee doesn’t seem deterred by his silence; she never is. “I’m glad for you,” she says softly. “Both of you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Andrew says, which isn’t even exactly a lie. He doesn’t know — and doesn’t really want to know — what the Foxes see when they look at him and Neil, but he is pretty sure that whatever it is, they’re getting it all wrong.

“It’s okay to enjoy it, you know,” Renee continues. “Even if you’re just passing time. It’s okay to feel good about winning.”

“Again,” Andrew says, sharper this time, as the hit came too close to home, “our mutual understanding would benefit from you actually making sense from time to time.”

Renee simply smiles at him. “Ice cream tomorrow?”

“Only if you buy your own,” Andrew replies instantly. “And bring that purple plastic spoon you stole.”

“I stole the pink one,” Renee says. “The purple one is on Neil.”

She has the audacity to wink at Andrew and then she walks away towards the girls’ locker room, bumping shoulders with Allison, who offers Andrew a nearly polite nod.

Andrew manages to shower and change before the rest of the Foxes return to the locker room, and so he drops on one of the benches and tips his head back against the lockers to wait for Neil.

Naturally, Neil shows up last, still drenched in sweat, and apparently in the middle of an argument with Kevin.

“I’m just saying,” Kevin argues, “that you should work on long passes!”

“Maybe you should work on your footwork,” Neil snaps back, apparently angry enough to actually argue back instead of ignoring Kevin altogether. “It’s not my fault you can’t catch.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t throw!

“Can’t you just let it go?” Matt asks. “We won. It’s not that big of a —”

“It is that big of a deal!” Neil and Kevin snap in unison.

Andrew sighs and opens his eyes, annoyed with the noise. “Go shower, Kevin,” he says quietly, without moving from his spot. “Now.”

Kevin bristles like an angry kitten, but Andrew only needs to gaze at him for several seconds before Kevin throws his hands up in the air and leaves the room, followed reluctantly by Matt, Nicky, and Aaron.

Andrew closes his eyes again and doesn’t flinch when Neil drops on the bench by his side, his shoulder nearly but not quite brushing Andrew’s.

Not a day for collective showers, then.

There is a quiet sigh as Neil relaxes by his side and leans against the lockers, and the silence in the room — muted only by the hum of the showers and the familiar pattern of Neil’s breathing — is making Andrew’s eyelids feel heavier and heavier.

When he opens his eyes again, the hum of the showers is no longer there, but Neil is still by his side. Andrew blinks and looks quickly around the room, realizing that he must have fallen asleep and that the Foxes have already left. Neil is still dressed in his gear, which means that he hasn’t left Andrew’s side.

Andrew doesn't know what to do with that knowledge. 

“Time?” he asks, tilting his head to look at Neil, who is looking back with a calm expression.

“You’ve only slept for fifteen minutes,” Neil says. “I told the rest we’ll meet them in Columbia later.”

“You could have woken me up,” Andrew says.

“I could have,” Neil agrees, unconcerned. “Wait for me?”

Andrew nods and keeps his eyes forcibly open as Neil collects his clothes and leaves the room. He returns minutes later, his t-shirt clinging to his skin and his ridiculous orange socks probably getting wet, and collapses on the bench again to dry his hair with a towel.

Andrew continues to watch him in silence until Neil drops the towel carelessly on the bench and leans against the lockers again, so close that Andrew can feel his breath on his lips.

“Thanks for today,” Neil says quietly, his eyes skimming over Andrew’s face, like he can’t quite decide where to look. Andrew is familiar with that particular dilemma.

“Stop reading into it, junkie. I’m just doing my job,” Andrew says.

“And doing it pretty damn well,” Neil says, his smile a little crooked and so ridiculously gorgeous that Andrew can’t help leaning in just a little more.

“Yes or no?” he says quietly, his entire attention focusing on a droplet of water running down Neil’s temple, over his cheekbone, and across his scars. He thinks about Neil’s winning goal, the impossible shot that had no right to end up in the goal and yet ended there all the same. He doesn’t know why the thought is so terribly distracting or why it makes heat curl in his stomach, but it is and it does.

He shifts his gaze to Neil’s eyes only to discover that Neil’s gaze already dropped to his lips.

“Always yes with you,” Neil says, equally quiet, his shoulders loose and his gaze clear.

“Except when it’s a no,” Andrew reminds him, echoing his own words, and this time Neil simply nods in agreement.

Andrew raises one hand and brushes the droplet of water away with his thumb and then drags the thumb across Neil’s lower lip. Neil lets him, his gaze calm on Andrew’s face, and then he presses a kiss to the pad, his expression turning playful for a moment before clearing again.

Andrew can’t look at him anymore, but he can’t look away, either, so he slides his hand to Neil’s jaw, tilts his head slightly, and finally, finally slots their lips together, swallowing Neil’s pleased hum.

Before he can change his mind, he grabs Neil’s hands and places them on his waist, and then runs his fingers through Neil’s wet hair, just as he planned to do from the moment Neil walked into the room. Neil’s lips are soft and giving, and it should be perfect, but —

— but it’s not quite enough.

Andrew hums in frustration before tearing his lips away and glaring at Neil. “Keep your hands exactly where they are,” he warns and waits for Neil’s nod before shifting on the bench, swallowing hard, and throwing one leg over Neil’s knees to straddle his lap.

He catches Neil’s surprised intake of breath and glances at him to make sure that his ‘yes’ hasn’t turned into a ‘no’ before tilting Neil’s head back a little too roughly and kissing him furiously on the lips.

Neil’s fingers curl instinctively into the material of Andrew’s hoodie, but he doesn’t move his hands at all, keeping them right where Andrew needs them to stay.

This really isn’t the place for this, considering that the doors aren’t locked and even though the court should be completely empty by now, someone technically can still walk in on them — but right now Andrew really couldn’t care less.

The only thing he can focus on is the heat of Neil’s lips, his own racing heartbeat, and the way Neil tilts his chin up into the kiss, trying to inch a little bit closer, like he wants Andrew just as much as Andrew wants him, impossible as it seems. 

Somehow, Andrew’s thoughts drift to the game again, to that last impossible goal, to Neil’s unrelenting stubbornness, to the happiness on his face and the joy in his eyes, to that unapologetic display of talent and skill.

He clutches at Neil’s shoulder, trying to shuffle closer, considering the possibility of letting Neil slide his hands underneath his hoodie, considering the possibility of bringing back that awed, happy expression to Neil’s eyes.

For the first time ever it occurs to him that maybe he wants Neil to say the words because he wants to try saying them back.

The thought stops him dead in his tracks, with one hand still clutching at Neil’s hair and the other kneading at his shoulder.

He has to leave, now.

Neil opens his eyes to look up at him, his expression suddenly anxious, and his hands fall away from Andrew’s sides to rest flatly on the bench.

Andrew stares back at him for a moment, bewildered but doing his absolute best to keep it off his face, and then he moves to stand up and shoves his hands roughly into the pockets of his hoodie, turning his head away. He can tell that he is blushing, and that’s almost as bad as thinking the words was.

“Let’s go,” he says, sharper than necessary.

Neil frowns. “Did I —”

“You didn’t,” Andrew interrupts him, taking another step back. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”

Neil doesn’t catch up with him right away. Andrew has enough time to go through his bag and find his cigarettes and then to light one up. He leans against the car, forcibly relaxing his shoulders, and wonders quietly why he thought this was a good idea, what was the point of building all these defenses if he’s just going to hand Neil the keys.

Neil shows up several minutes later, when Andrew is going through his second cigarette, and he looks uncertain, his expression wary as he picks absently at the strap of his bag.

After a moment of hesitation, he leans against the car by Andrew’s side, still fiddling with his bag, his gaze fixed firmly on the ground.

“Can you tell me what happened?” he finally asks.

Andrew exhales, irritated. “Nothing happened,” he says, which prompts Neil to look up at him and raise an eyebrow. Andrew huffs a little, but Neil deserves better than a blatant lie, so Andrew corrects his response. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” Neil says, accepting the truth as easily as he dismissed the lie. He drops the cigarette and grinds it against the concrete with the heel of his boot. “Columbia, then? Or are we going home?”

It genuinely surprises Andrew how much he wants to choose the second option. There would be no one in the Tower now, no one to disturb them, and Andrew would have all the time in the world to coax every possible noise out of Neil and then maybe even let him return the favor.

But what he really wants from Neil right now is not something Neil should be expected to offer, so Andrew looks away from him and says, “Columbia.”

In his peripheral vision he can see Neil nod quietly, but before Andrew can fish out the car keys from his pocket, Neil shifts slightly.

“Andrew,” he says, “yes or no?”

He’s obviously looking for reassurance.

Sometimes Andrew still forgets that the bone-deep understanding between them is only worth a damn if they continue to communicate. Neil might know him better than anyone else in the world, but he can only ever know what Andrew chooses to tell him, nothing else.

Andrew can let him assume that he is to blame for something that wasn’t his fault at all — or he can do something about it.

He rolls his eyes, partly at Neil and partly at himself, but he shifts so he can face Neil. “Yes, junkie.”

Neil leans in and kisses him, a barely-there brush of lips that makes Andrew even more annoyed and prompts him to grab the back of Neil’s neck and press their lips together more firmly, a reassurance and reaffirmation in one. It’s ridiculous how much effort it takes to keep the kiss short and to the point, but Andrew forces himself to pull back before he can end up spinning them around and pressing Neil against the Maserati.

“So we’re fine, then?” Neil ask when they both get into the car, and one day Andrew is going to strangle him, he really is.

“Aren’t you always fine?” he says, putting the car into reverse.

Neil just continues to look at him.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him. “Yes, we’re fine.”

“Okay,” Neil says, and only when he finally leans back in his seat Andrew realizes just how much tension he must have been holding in his body for the last several minutes.

Ridiculous, Andrew thinks vehemently, but there’s a part of him that is quietly pleased that Neil cares so much, that he asked, that he waited for an actual answer instead of accepting the evasion like anyone else would.

Ridiculous.

 

 

4.

 

Andrew is sitting on his bed, staring at the patch of sunlight on the dusty floor.

He is thinking about letting Neil go.

All he needs to do is choose not to reach for his car keys, choose to just stay here in silence for several more hours, until Neil has enough time to run far enough to never be found again. Andrew doesn't doubt that Neil could do it. He could fool the FBI, could find a way to leave the country, could find a way to keep himself alive. This is something they both excel at — survival.

The longer he thinks about it, about the life after Neil, the closer to the surface his rage runs. He isn’t angry at Neil, not exactly — it would be like blaming Neil for his nightmares, or for the way he counts exits from every room — but, oh, he is angry. He is furious, in a way he doesn’t remember ever being before.

If Neil’s father were alive, Andrew would bury him six feet under with his own two hands, no shovel necessary.

In the end, this is what prompts him to move — the knowledge that Neil hasn’t chosen this, just like Andrew hasn’t. It’s a coping mechanism like a razor cutting through skin is a coping mechanism, and Andrew no longer mistakes the victims with the perpetrators, even when it comes to himself.

He briefly considers texting the Foxes, but he knows that drawing attention to Neil’s actions might bring the FBI running, and that’s the last thing Neil needs. He texts Wymack, instead, to let him know that he and Neil will be skipping tonight’s practice, and picks up the car keys.

The only comforting thought is the knowledge that Neil has decided to run and hasn’t been kidnapped; if the latter was the case, his old duffel bag would still be hidden underneath the mattress of his bed, and it’s not.

Andrew doesn’t search the campus; he already knows Neil is not here. He only tries to call him once before heading to the parking lot, climbing into his car and setting off. He throws the phone on the passenger’s seat, forces his thoughts into submission, and methodically goes through the list of all possible places Neil could have visited.

It's a long list, and Andrew absolutely loathes being forced to talk to strangers, but he does it all the same. 

Neil is nowhere to be found, though, so Andrew buys two energy drinks and a lot of chocolate and continues to drive around in circles, trying not to think too much and ignoring calls from Betsy.

When he finally thinks about the airport, it’s dawn, and he has been driving around for twelve hours straight. He parks nearby, looks for a long, long time at the ‘departures’ timetable, and on a whim decides to check the observation deck.

And that’s where he finds Neil.

He is standing by the panoramic window, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and he is staring at the sky, or maybe at the planes currently moving around the airport, preparing to take off. His bag is hanging on his shoulder, his posture absolutely terrible, and his hair hidden underneath a snapback. Still — Andrew has no trouble recognizing him.

Instead of stepping next to Neil, he sits down on one of the plastic seats by Neil’s side, making as much noise as he possibly can, and stretches his legs. Then he looks up at Neil, who is staring at him like he’s never seen him before.

“Andrew,” Neil says, then stops, like he has no idea what else to say.

“Neil,” Andrew responds, pocketing his phone and giving Neil an unimpressed glance before turning his gaze on the planes. He almost likes the way they look on the ground.

Neil remains motionless for another long, long moment before finally letting out a sigh and dropping to the seat by Andrew’s side. He curls up sideways in the seat, and Andrew can feel his wary gaze on the side of his face.

“I’m sorry,” Neil says.

“No, you’re not,” Andrew tells him.

“I am, though,” Neil insists, missing the point.

“No,” Andrew repeats patiently, turning to look at him, “you’re not.”

It’s not Neil’s fault, not really, and the bottomless rage in the pit of Andrew’s stomach isn’t directed at Neil, not really. What is, is. Neil has as many sharp edges as Andrew does; they would never fit together otherwise.

“Okay,” Neil says. “Can we stay for a while?”

“Yes,” Andrew says. “Did you eat?”

Neil frowns, like it’s a difficult question, but eventually shakes his head. “No, not really.”

“Go get us something, then,” Andrew says, stretching out in his seat and closing his eyes.

He can sense Neil’s hesitation, but he refuses to tag along. He thinks — hopes — that Neil won’t run again, but he can’t know for sure until he gives him the opportunity. Finally, Neil moves; he is quiet, but Andrew is used to that and can hear through the silence.

It’s a struggle to keep his eyes closed, to keep himself from checking if Neil took his bag, if he used the opportunity and ran away. But Andrew is nothing if not stubborn, and he forces himself to simply wait.

The wave of relief that crashes into him when he hears Neil return should be surprising, but it isn’t. Being around Neil is often like standing at the edge of a roof and taking a step forward only to realize that the concrete stretches out farther than he expected.

He opens his eyes and meets Neil’s gaze.

“Here,” Neil says, handing him a croissant and a cup of coffee. He has the same set, but he toys with the wrapping for a long moment instead of eating.

“What is it,” Andrew says, more an order than a question, taking a sip of the coffee.

Neil shrugs, but when Andrew pins him with his gaze, he sighs. “Did you tell the others?”

Andrew watches him for a moment. “Does it matter?”

“I don’t know,” Neil says. “Did you?”

“No,” Andrew says. “They probably think we fucked off to Columbia.”

“Oh,” Neil says. “Good.”

He unwraps the croissant and takes a small bite, staring off into the distance, and Andrew watches him for a long moment, cataloging the comforting lack of changes.

“Why the airport?” he asks, reluctant to break the silence, but too curious to resist. “If you had bought a ticket, the FBI would have been all over you in seconds.”

Neil tilts his head to the side and gives Andrew a long look. “You either overestimate them, or heavily underestimate me.”

Andrew raises his eyebrows. “How would you do it, then?”

Neil looks back for a long moment before reaching for his bag. He fishes out a passport and hands it to Andrew. Then he looks away.

The person in the picture is definitely Neil, but with black hair and brown eyes, and the name at the bottom is Michael Francis Smith.

“Weren’t you supposed to give all of these to the FBI?” Andrew asks, surveying the passport. It looks legitimate, slightly worn down, real.

“I was,” Neil says, sounding unruffled. “Did I? No.”

Andrew gives him an unimpressed glance. “How many did you keep?”

“Two,” Neil says, without hesitation. “One to leave the country, the other one to disappear in the country I end up in."

“Smart,” Andrew says blankly. “Color me impressed.”

Neil sighs. “It's not like I wanted to leave, Andrew."

“Why did you, then?” Andrew asks. “What happened?”

This time, Neil does hesitate. “There’s just… There’s so much tying me down here. There are so many strings to pull. My mom would kill me if she knew. She always told me not to get attached to anyone or anything. She would be so mad.”

“Why today, though?” Andrew insists. “Surely you must have known all of this for ages."

“It’s her birthday today,” Neil says at length. 

Andrew blinks, not following. “And you… what? Decided this could be a gift?”

Neil winces, even though Andrew is certain he managed to keep his tone even.

“Not really,” Neil says, slowly but methodically crushing the croissant in his lap. “We just… We never celebrated it, you know? She wouldn’t let me. She usually got me something for my birthday, but when I tried to do the same, she would get really, really angry with me. She told me that I should just focus on staying alive, that she didn’t sacrifice everything to save me just so I could get myself killed trying to buy her a birthday card.”

“And?” Andrew prompts.

“And I just threw it all away,” Neil says in a rush, almost frustrated. “All her sacrifice. To play a sport.”

It occurs to Andrew that by sharing all of this, especially the name in his fake passport, Neil has willingly closed one of his emergency exits.

He cut off one of his own escape routes just because Andrew asked.

And that’s why Andrew says, “If she cared about you at all, Abram, don’t you think she’d be glad that you’re safe?”

Neil sighs. “She wouldn’t consider this safety.”

Andrew reaches out slowly, his hand hovering over the scar on Neil’s shoulder. “And this was?”

Neil looks away, but doesn’t reply, and his silence makes something like anger stir to life in Andrew’s chest.

“If you want to run, then run. I won’t stop you,” he says. “But if you’re doing this just to please a ghost, you better hope I never see you again.”

Neil doesn’t reply. He simply looks at Andrew, his gaze searching; Andrew has no idea what he’s expecting to find. Eventually, though, he reaches for his bag again and rummages through it only for a moment before pulling out another passport.

Without a word, he extends his hand to Andrew.

Andrew looks back at him.

Neil doesn’t withdraw his hand.

“I can’t promise I’m giving them up for good,” Neil says. “Maybe one day, but not now.”

“Why give them to me, then?” Andrew asks, and he sounds more unsteady than he’d like.

“For safekeeping,” Neil says, like it’s that simple. “Hold on to them for me.”

Slowly, despite himself, Andrew takes the passport, but doesn’t open it to check the name. “And if you need them?”

“Then I’ll let you know,” Neil replies. “You can check.”

“Maybe one day,” Andrew says, echoing Neil's words. He puts the passport away. “Are you ready to go now?”

Neil gives a small nod, but he doesn’t move, and Andrew doesn’t move either. He glances around, but there is still nobody on the deck, and so he reaches out and cups Neil’s jaw in his hand. Neil doesn’t pull back, his gaze steady, but Andrew doesn’t lean in to kiss him. Instead, he brushes his thumb against Neil’s scars and then against his lips, and pulls his hand back.

“Stay,” Andrew orders, like it’s that simple.

“Okay,” Neil agrees, like maybe it is.

 

 

5.

 

“You really like him, don’t you,” Roland says because, like most people in Andrew’s life, he very clearly has a death wish.

Andrew pointedly ignores him, playing restlessly with the decoration of his drink. The club is crowded tonight and it’s making Andrew more uneasy than usually.

He glances at the dance floor where Nicky seems intent on torturing Andrew and everyone else in the club by teaching Neil how to dance. Neil doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself all that much, but Nicky is keeping his hands to himself, and Neil can fight his own battles, so Andrew lets them be.

“Well?” Roland prompts.

“Don’t you have something to do?” Andrew asks. “Somewhere to be, maybe?”

“You’re the one sitting at my bar,” Roland points out, passing a drink to one of the customers without sparing them a glance.

“Well, not for much longer!” Andrew says faux-cheerfully, turning to slip from his stool, but Roland rolls his eyes at him and places another drink on the bar.

“On the house,” he says. “And no more talking about Neil, I promise. No need to run."

Andrew sneers in annoyance, but he settles back on the stool. “What about you?” he asks, choosing to throw a punch of his own. “Met somebody?”

Roland shoots him an amused glance. “I have, actually. Do you want to hear about it?”

“Not particularly,” Andrew says, his aggression deflating. 

Roland seems neither surprised, nor offended. “Either way,” he says, “I’m happy for you.”

Andrew glares at him, but without much venom. “Do I also get a blessing?”

Roland snorts. Andrew watches him impassively, following Roland’s skillful hands with his gaze, the same way he would do in the past. He can still remember being attracted to Roland, but there is no trace of it now.

And yet all he needs is to glance at Neil from the corner of his eye and his heartbeat picks up instantly.

Roland watches him with a slightly amused expression that tends to make Andrew feel like he can read his thoughts. He places another drink on the bar.

“I don’t have a blessing for you,” he says, “but I have a drink for your boy. He’s getting the hang of that whole dancing thing, so I’d go there if I were you. Plenty of people here would happily steal him from you.”

“You can’t steal a person,” Andrew tells him. “Or own a person, for that matter. Neil can do what he wants.”

“Did you practice that speech? I almost believe you,” Roland says.

“I almost care,” Andrew replies. “See you around.”

He slides off the stool and heads towards the dance floor.

Neil does seem to be doing better; he still isn’t a great dancer by any means, but he definitely has a body to make up for it, and Andrew couldn’t possibly count the people who are watching him right now, even if he cared to try. Neil, obviously, has no idea, and for a brief moment, Andrew pities all those poor souls who probably tried to get Neil’s attention with a classic “Wanna get out of here?” and got Neil’s confused “I just got here” in return.

He stops pitying them the second Neil notices him, because he is too busy watching Neil’s expression go from uncomfortable to relaxed and pleased at the mere sight of Andrew.

It will most likely never cease to amaze him.

Neil stops dancing and instantly gravitates towards Andrew, who can almost feel the general disappointment in the air as people begin to look away. Nicky shoots him a sly smile over Neil’s shoulder and Andrew glares him into submission before turning to Neil.

“Are we leaving?” Neil asks, sounding hopeful, so Andrew nods easily and puts the drink in Nicky’s hand.

Nicky pouts excessively. “Already?”

“You can go back with Kevin,” Andrew tells him, glancing back towards their table, where Kevin and Aaron seem to be arguing about something. “He won’t be leaving for a while. And probably can afford a cab.”

Nicky frowns, concerned. “You won’t mind?”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but manages to find a little more patience. “I won’t mind,” he says. “Neil?”

“I’m ready to go,” Neil says.

When they make it outside, Andrew drops the keys to the Maserati in Neil’s hand, since all Neil drank was water, and he settles into the passenger’s seat. Neil takes way too much time readjusting the seat and the mirrors for someone who is nearly as short as Andrew is, and he smiles infuriatingly when he notices Andrew’s glare.

“Are we ever going to leave?” Andrew asks.

“We’re not of the same height,” Neil says airily. “I can’t drive like this.”

“I will stab you, Neil.”

“So you keep saying,” Neil says, but finally turns on the engine and pulls out of the parking lot.

Andrew would never admit it to anyone, but most of the time he lets Neil drive simply because it gives him plenty of time to watch Neil without being watched in return. Neil’s hands are steady on the wheel, his expression focused, but his shoulders relaxed. He looks as good driving as he does doing pretty much anything else, but watching him drive a ridiculously expensive car is still a worthwhile experience. 

They make it to the highway when Neil says, his tone light, “So, Roland, huh?”

Andrew blinks himself back to consciousness and then has to blink some more because there is no way in hell they’re having this conversation. Not even Neil can possibly be that blind.

But there is no way to misinterpret the question, even if there is no trace of jealousy in Neil’s tone.

Andrew doesn’t say anything.

Neil offers a shrug when he notices Andrew’s silence. “It’s not a big deal,” he says, eyes focused completely on the road. “As you keep reminding me, this —” he gestures between them “— is nothing.”

Andrew stares at him. The thing is, he can’t tell if he is being played, or if Neil is truly this clueless. It doesn’t really matter, though — and that might just be the most frightening part.

“Pull over,” Andrew says.

Neil deigns to look at him. “What, now?”

“You started it,” Andrew points out. “Pull over, Neil.”

Neil sighs, but he flicks on the turn signal and pulls over into the first empty parking lot on their right. There is a dusty factory of some kind at the end of the parking lot, and they're most likely on a private property, but Andrew doesn’t pay attention to any of it as he throws the door open, steps out of the car, and waits for Neil to join him.

Neil is dressed in the clothes Andrew picked for him, clinging to him like a second skin, and a jacket of his own choosing, and he looks infuriatingly good. He stops in front of Andrew, his expression cautious, streetlight playing in his hair.

Andrew runs his thumb down the zipper of Neil’s jacket and says, “Yes or no?”

Neil’s eyes dart first to Andrew’s face and then to the empty space around them. “To getting stabbed in an empty parking lot?”

Andrew glares at him some more. “Possibly, if you don’t stop being stupid.”

Neil bites his lip, inevitably drawing Andrew’s attention to his mouth.

“What am I being stupid about?” Neil asks.

Andrew clenches his teeth. “Yes or no, Neil?” he repeats. “To making out in an empty parking lot, if that remains unclear to you.”

Neil exhales. “Yes.”

“Alright,” Andrew says, pulling at the clasps of Neil’s jacket and tilting his chin up instead of spinning them around. He silently dares Neil to say or do something about it, but Neil simply follows his lead, careful not to press his body against Andrew's until Andrew tugs harder at his jacket and leans back against the car, giving the clearest permission he can give without breaking the kiss.

Neil tentatively changes the angle of the kiss and tangles his fingers in Andrew’s hair. Even with his perfect memory, Andrew can’t possibly recall how many kisses they’ve shared by now, and it infuriates him to no end that each and every one of them feels just as intoxicating.

Andrew is the first one to pull away and all he needs to do is draw his chin back for Neil to instantly step away, even though Andrew’s hands are still clutching at his jacket.

Andrew could probably just leave it at that, and Neil would eventually understand what it was supposed to mean. Andrew could push away from the car and open the door, and Neil wouldn't question him at all. 

It’s the way Neil’s hands drop automatically to his sides, acknowledging Andrew’s need for personal space without a pause, that prompts Andrew to stay where he is and look up at Neil.

“This,” he says, through clenched teeth, using his chin to gesture between them, “has never been nothing.”

Neil blinks at him, clearly caught off guard, but before Andrew can push him away — or actually stab him just to be finally done with this — Neil looks away and nods. Suddenly Andrew feels a jolt of fear at what Neil’s going to say next, whether he’s going to respond with a confession of his own.

But all Neil says is, “I know.”

Andrew exhales, letting go of Neil’s jacket. “Good,” he says, and firmly tells himself that he isn’t disappointed. “Now that we’ve got that covered, can we leave?”

Inexplicably, Neil doesn’t point out that it was Andrew who wanted to stop in the first place, but simply nods and rounds the car to get behind the wheel.

Andrew watches him warily from the corner of his eye for a long time, but Neil seems perfectly content to let the matter drop, so Andrew closes his eyes and lets himself sleep.

 

 

6.

 

Neil hates looking in the mirror — Andrew knows that. It’s impossible not to notice. When they happen to brush their teeth standing side by side — which always happens accidentally and is not, regardless of what Nicky has to say about it, their routine — Neil always stares absently into the sink. When he is shaving — which, again, is not something that Andrew pays attention to — he uses the side mirror that’s small enough to keep him from seeing his eyes.

Andrew knows this, because Andrew spends most of his time observing his surroundings, and Neil is, well, around.

Still, Neil is a functional human being, someone who was on his own for a long time and had to survive somehow, so Andrew doesn’t immediately make a connection between Neil’s aversion to mirrors and the fact that his hair is now long enough that Kevin orders him to tie it during practices — which, naturally, Neil completely ignores.

It’s only when Andrew finds Neil fumbling with scissors that he finally connects the dots.

The bathroom door isn’t locked and the light is off, so Andrew pushes the door open with his shoulder, initially intending only to grab the hoodie he left there and leave. What he doesn’t expect is to find Neil standing in front of the mirror, scissors in hand, his expression grim.

Andrew raises his eyebrows and leans against the door frame, and waits for Neil to meet his gaze in the mirror.

“What?” Neil asks, sounding uncharacteristically on edge, as he runs one hand through his hair, messing it up even more.

“A riddle, Neil,” Andrew says. “What is it: two legs, two hands, cuts hair for a living?”

Neil rolls his eyes and places the scissors on the edge of the sink.

“I hate hairdressers.”

Andrew sighs, because he can already tell where this is going, but he’s refusing to just let it happen without putting up a fight.

“Does this have something to do with your one man war on the fashion industry?” he asks, picking up his hoodie and pulling it over his head.

Neil actually turns around to glare at him. “Funny.”

“That’s me,” Andrew deadpans. “Why do you hate hairdressers, Neil?”

Neil offers an uncomfortable shrug, glancing to the small mirror by his side and immediately looking away. “You know why.”

Andrew sighs again, but really, he knew this was coming from the second he opened the door, so he might as well just get it over with.

“I really do hate you,” he informs Neil. “Sit down.”

It’s Neil’s turn to look confused. “What?”

“I don’t like repeating myself,” Andrew says, gesturing to the closed toilet and locking the bathroom door. He turns on the lights. “Well?”

Neil gives him an odd look, but sits down quickly enough, looking up at Andrew with barely concealed curiosity. Andrew grabs the scissors and stands in front of Neil, whose legs fall open to give him more room. Andrew runs his fingers once through Neil’s hair, pulling it back just to let it fall back on Neil’s face. Neil huffs in annoyance. Andrew definitely doesn’t smile.

“Yes or no?” he asks.

“Do you even know what you’re doing?” Neil asks, looking up at Andrew through his adorable fringe, and really, fuck him for making Andrew think the word ‘adorable’.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Andrew tells him with a shrug, clicking the scissors.

Inexplicably, Neil smiles. “Yes,” he says.

Andrew nods and picks a comb from underneath the mirror. Neil’s hair is soft to touch, slightly wet after the shower he must have taken earlier, and Andrew runs his fingers through it thoughtfully, pleased with the way it contrasts with his own skin and pretending it’s all a part of the cutting process.

Then he gets to work.

At first, Neil remains rigid, but then his shoulders slowly lose tension and he exhales.

“My mom used to do it for me,” he tells Andrew quietly. “Cutting and dyeing and all of that.”

Andrew hums in response, because he doesn’t really want to talk about Neil’s mother, not when he has a sharp object in his hands. He pushes Neil’s head back slightly and Neil looks up at him, his expression open and content, and it occurs to Andrew how intimate this moment is. He wouldn’t do this for anyone else. The possibility wouldn’t even occur to him. And yet he doesn’t mind this — doesn’t mind the silence in the bathroom, Neil’s quiet breathing mixing with his own, the lack of space between them, Neil's soft hair underneath his fingertips, the fact that Neil’s knee is brushing against his own.

“She hated it when I looked like him,” Neil continues, his gaze darting away. “She would dye my hair every two weeks just to avoid seeing the roots.”

Andrew clenches his teeth, but he manages to continue with the chosen patch of hair instead of dropping the scissors altogether and storming out of the room. “You look nothing like him,” he says finally.

Neil smiles lopsidedly. “That’s a lie.”

Andrew exhales and puts the scissors in the sink. He tilts Neil’s head back roughly and glares at him, a part of him still not quite believing how trusting and calm Neil is under his touch. Neil blinks at him slowly, unbothered in the slightest by his own bare throat and the collection of knives hidden underneath Andrew’s armbands, as if he knows as well as Andrew does that Andrew would sooner slit his own throat than Neil’s.

Having a perfect excuse to study Neil’s profile, Andrew spends a long moment doing just that.

He remembers the pictures. He knows that Nathan’s eyes were almost the exact same color as Neil’s, that the color of their hair is pretty much the same.

But he is not lying when he repeats, “You look nothing alike, Abram.”

“But —”

“I have an eidetic memory,” Andrew snaps, harsh. “I’m right and you’re wrong, understood?”

Neil looks at him for a moment longer, as if searching for a lie, before his expression softens into something cautiously hopeful. It’s hard to believe that it was Andrew who caused that.

“Okay,” Neil says, and Andrew nods, picking up the scissors again.

He finishes his work in silence and waits for Neil to stand up and reluctantly examine his reflection. As predicted, he shoots Andrew a surprised look.

“You’re actually good at this,” he says, sounding impressed. “You’ve done this before?”

“No,” Andrew says, and considers leaving it at that. But then he finds himself saying, “Cass used to do it for me.”

Neil expression is a complicated tangle of emotions, but Andrew doesn’t bother deciphering them. It’s a pact of sorts between them; Andrew doesn’t talk about Neil’s mother, and Neil doesn’t talk about Cass. It works and keeps a lot of arguments from happening.

The only problem is, Neil has never met a status quo he hasn’t completely fucked up. 

Now, he runs his fingers through his hair, glances up at Andrew and says, “I know it’s my mom’s fault, in a way. That I can’t look at my own reflection.”

One day, Andrew is going to murder Neil. He really is. Or marry him. Either one.

He drops the scissors in the sink for Neil to deal with, but he has never walked away from a challenge, and he is not walking away from this one, either.

He says, “I know that Cass was making it up to me for things she chose not to see.”

Saying it out loud is like slashing a knife across his wrists.

Andrew has not expected that.

This particular truth had been decaying in his heart for a really, really long time, and sharing it is like ripping open a festering wound and letting out dark, oily blood.

It makes Andrew think of the way Cass never questioned his armbands, even when he cut himself so deeply that blood actually left a stain on the tablecloth. It makes him think of the way she would accept his pathetic excuses, even when he ended up in the hospital. It makes him think of the long summer days, of sheets drying in the sun, of love that had a price tag all along.

It’s sickening.

But it’s also long overdue.

By the time he looks up, Neil’s expression is schooled into careful neutrality, but one of his hands is extended. He doesn’t move closer, though; if he tried, Andrew would most likely end up pushing him away.

But all Neil says is, “Yes or no?”, and he looks pointedly at his extended hand.

Andrew doesn’t say yes, but he extends his own hand. Neil doesn’t try to tangle their fingers together; instead, he curls his fingers into the sleeve of Andrew's hoodie. Andrew looks down at their hands to avoid looking at Neil’s face, and feels dark, hysterical laughter bubble in his throat, because he really should know better than to let himself do this again. The laughter dies out, though, when it occurs to him that for him, this is it.

There won’t be anything after this.

“The roof?” Neil asks quietly, and Andrew nods, letting himself be tugged out of the bathroom.

Halfway across the room, he manages to say, “You’re cleaning up that mess later.”

“Sure,” Neil says, which sounds like a complete lie, but for now, Andrew lets it go.

It’s cold on the roof, but Andrew has his lighter and his cigarettes, so they sit on the edge and smoke for a while in silence, shoulders pressed together.

At some point, Neil’s head drops to Andrew’s shoulder, and Andrew simply lets it happen. He runs his fingers idly through Neil’s hair, and he can feel the words on the tip of his tongue.

But he doesn’t say anything.

 

 

7.

 

These days Andrew lets Neil fall asleep in his bed nearly every night, partly because he got used to the familiar weight on the mattress by now, and partly because it seems to annoy Kevin — who probably still firmly believes that Andrew and Neil are purposefully making their Exy careers more difficult by not being straight.

There is a part of Andrew that’s awaiting Kevin’s inevitable outburst and Neil’s inevitable reaction with nearly giddy excitement. Still, no matter how many times Andrew lets Neil stay, Neil never assumes that he is allowed to do so without Andrew’s explicit permission, and perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Andrew anymore, but it does.

The lights in the bedroom are off now; Kevin is watching something on his phone, with his obnoxiously large headphones on, and Nicky seems to already be asleep. They both wandered inside several minutes ago, forcing Andrew to stop kissing Neil and get the door. Neil smiled at Andrew almost smugly as he brushed past him on his way to the bathroom, and Andrew rolled his eyes at him, and then glared daggers at Nicky who only needed one look at Andrew’s kiss-swollen lips and tousled hair to connect the dots and offer thumbs-up.

Andrew listens as the shower cuts off, and his gaze inevitably drifts to the bathroom door when Neil steps outside and pushes the door close with his bare foot. His oversized, bland t-shirt and black sweatpants have no business making him look so good, but they do, and it annoys Andrew to no end. The annoyance is only second to the ever-present, confusing warmth in his chest, which Andrew chooses to call want.

Neil directs a small smile his way before reaching for the ladder, and Andrew sighs internally before snatching Neil’s wrist and giving a small tug.

“Stay,” he mutters, moving towards the wall, and Neil’s gaze softens slightly as he offers a quiet nod and slips underneath the blanket.

Kevin stares determinedly at the bunk bed above him and turns up the volume until Andrew can hear the sounds of the Exy game he is watching all the way across the room. They could probably get away with an entire make-out session without drawing his attention, but the idea makes Andrew defensive — this isn’t for anybody’s eyes but their own.

Instead, he moves farther back until Neil can settle comfortably on his side, facing Andrew but not touching him. He looks pale and exhausted after their late-night training, but a smile is still playing on his lips and Andrew looks at him for a moment, gaze assessing, until Neil gives a small nod and Andrew instantly presses their lips together. He plans to pull back right away, but Neil’s lips part slightly on an exhale, and Andrew finds himself pressing closer instead, breathing in Neil’s content sigh. He brushes his fingertips against Neil’s jaw, coaxing him into deepening the kiss, and then lets his hand travel to Neil’s throat and lower, to tangle in Neil’s t-shirt. He lets it rest there, knuckles brushing Neil’s chest.

Neil runs his fingertips gently over Andrew’s wrist, just once, before settling into the pillows again.

“Sleep,” Neil says quietly, the way most people would say Goodnight

It’s funny how this one little word and the soft material of Neil’s t-shirt underneath his fingertips have the power to make Andrew’s eyelids feel so heavy, but they do.

The truth is, once upon a time Andrew would hardly ever get any sleep in the dorm. All it took to wake him up was someone shifting on their bed, someone breathing out too loudly, a piece of furniture creaking in the silence. It was impossible to let his guard down with three other people in the room, even if none of them posed any real threat to him.

The truth is, it’s disconcertingly easy to sleep next to Neil. It used to be hard in the beginning, as all Neil needed to do was shift in his sleep to send Andrew's hands flying for his knives, but now, after countless months of this, it’s easier to sleep in the dorm with Neil by his side than it is to sleep without him.

It’s not rational, Andrew knows it’s not, it’s just a pipe dream and a childish hope, but with his back against the wall and his hand clenched in Neil’s t-shirt, he feels safe.

Two vowels, he thinks, keeping the word at arm’s length, two consonants.

Neil has already closed his eyes and his breathing has evened out, so Andrew gets to watch him without being watched in return. It’s nearly dark in the room, but the dim light from the streets is enough to get by. Andrew watches Neil’s auburn hair curl against the dull, grayish white of the pillow, watches the way Neil pulled the blanket all the way to his chin, instinctively curling into himself for warmth. He watches the barely-there freckles on Neil’s nose, the soft curve of his parted lips. His scarred cheek is pressed against the pillow, so Andrew moves on to examine Neil’s long eyelashes, casting scattered shadows on his cheeks, the way his brow smoothed out in his sleep, the content expression on his face.

He thinks about the way Neil let him press himself into the mattress just moments ago, about the way he looked up at Andrew, so calm and so trusting, and kept his hands resting on the pillow until Andrew told him how and where he can touch. He thinks about the way Neil’s eyes always fall close at the first press of their lips together, about the way Neil touches him, always with the pads of his fingers, never using his nails, so absurdly mindful that just looking at him makes something warm and unfamiliar curl in Andrew’s stomach.

He thinks about the violence hidden on the other side of their eyelids and about the violence lurking on the other side of their control. He thinks about their jagged edges fitting together somehow, not to make something whole, but to make something kinder.

He thinks about the words, eight letters, five vowels, three consonants.

When he glances up, he catches Kevin’s gaze over Neil’s shoulder. Kevin is watching him with an unreadable expression, so Andrew gazes back, quirking his eyebrow in a silent challenge. When Kevin doesn’t instantly back down, Andrew raises his hand and runs his fingers ostentatiously through Neil’s hair, causing Neil to hum softly in his sleep and curl closer.

Kevin finally rolls his eyes and lies back down, his gaze once again fixed on the bunk bed above him.

Andrew runs his fingers through Neil’s hair one more time, for good measure, and then settles back on the pillow and closes his eyes.

Safe.

 

 

8.

 

“You know,” Renee says, her voice carrying across the empty training room, “we don’t need to fight in order to talk.”

Andrew doesn't move from the floor and doesn’t say anything, partly because he still hasn’t managed to catch his breath. Fighting against Renee is as exhausting as it has always been, which is outrageous considering that Andrew actually does his cardio these days. 

He thinks about her words, though. 

Fighting is what glued Renee and Andrew together, and it consequently should be the only thing keeping them from falling apart. Andrew doesn’t know how to speak to the person Renee is, only to the person she once was, the person who throws punches impossible to avoid and only ever fights dirty.

It’s the darkness that Andrew recognizes, not the light. Without it, they might as well be strangers.

Renee sits by his side, legs drawn to her chest, chin resting on her folded arms. She looks small and harmless like this, but Andrew knows that if he reached for his knife, she would have a hand around his throat in a blink of an eye.

Right now, she poses a threat of a different kind. 

“So,” she says, quiet and gentle, “how are you, Andrew?”

“I’m fine,” Andrew snaps impatiently, and then gives himself a mental slap on the forehead for giving up more information than he intended — namely that he spends too much time around Neil.

Renee doesn’t miss it, of course.

“Last year, right?” she says, and Andrew tenses slightly, because he hates thinking about it.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Renee tells him, and damn her for reading his thoughts so easily.

“I’m not worried,” he spits out, glaring at the ceiling, because it makes him angry that he cares so much, that Neil made him care so much. It’s a foreign feeling, a dangerous one, because Andrew should by now know better than to get attached. It’s so much harder to let go, later.

“Andrew,” Renee says, and it’s her tone — almost scolding — that gets Andrew’s attention. “You are giving him way too little credit, you know? He doesn’t deserve that.”

“What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” Andrew challenges, staring impassively at the ceiling.

“Do you want to be right?” Renee asks.

Andrew gives her a withering glare, not bothering to move his head from the ground. “No.”

“Good,” Renee says. “Have you thought what you want to do after graduation?”

“Stop,” Andrew replies instantly. “We’re not doing this.”

“You can’t exactly run away from this decision,” Renee reminds him, not unkind. 

“Watch me.” He makes a show of glancing at his bare wrist. “Speaking of, your plane leaves in two hours.”

Renee sighs. “Alright,” she says. “Are you staying here?”

“Not indefinitely,” Andrew tells the ceiling.

“Alright,” Renee repeats. “I’ll call you when my plane lands.”

Andrew offers nothing but a nod.

He doesn’t get up from the floor and doesn’t even move his head to watch her go; he continues to stare at the ceiling until the door closes behind her.

Then he texts Neil, puts the phone on the floor next to his head, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t fall asleep, but he feels safe here, so he lets his thoughts drift until he hears the recognizable sounds of Neil’s footsteps.

Neil drops into a crouch by Andrew’s side and Andrew watches him watch the knives, still scattered carelessly on the floor. He picks one of them absently and plays with it for a moment, looking around the room. He doesn’t glance down once, but the knife dances smoothly between his fingers.

Andrew distinctly remembers Neil telling him that he doesn’t want Renee to teach him how to fight.

“I want a truth,” Andrew says, looking up at Neil. Throughout the last three years, their game has changed; they still trade secrets, but they’re more willing to volunteer them, too. Andrew can usually get Neil to share anything simply by asking; sometimes he grants Neil the same courtesy.

Now Neil’s hands still and he looks down at Andrew, tilting his head to the side. “Ask.”

“Why won’t you take the knives?” Andrew asks. “Next year I won’t be here to watch your back.”

Neil blinks at him, nonplussed. “I already told you,” he says. “I don’t want to be like him.”

Like Nathan. Or like Nathaniel. Either way —

“He’s dead,” Andrew replies. “You’re alive.”

Neil hums noncommittally. He looks down at the knife in his hands, then looks away.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Neil says. He is staring at the far end of the room and he looks a million miles away, but his voice is steady.

“Talk,” Andrew says.

“We’ll split the knives,” Neil says, looking at Andrew once again. “But you let me watch your back.”

All Andrew can manage is a flat, “What.”

Neil rolls the knife between his fingers, but he doesn’t look away from Andrew. “I told you once that I want to be the kind of person who would go back for you.” He pauses. “I am now.”

Andrew clenches his jaw, glaring at Neil, because Neil is too naive and too blind to realize that there’s nothing to go back for here. There’s not a single part of Andrew that can still be hurt and therefore there is not a single part of Andrew that needs to be protected.

“I don’t need you,” Andrew says, less indifferent than he’d like.

Neil shrugs, unbothered. “You still have me.” He puts the knife back on the floor without making a sound. “Yes or no, Andrew?”

“I can’t look after you if you look after me,” Andrew tells him. “These are mutually exclusive.”

“Not really,” Neil says, sitting down on the floor and crossing his legs. “I think they’re complementary. Besides, that deal is over, remember?”

Naive, naive Neil.

“What would you protect me from?” Andrew asks him idly.

“Anything,” Neil says without hesitation. “Everything.”

“You’re such a child,” Andrew says. “I told you many times not to make this into something it’s not. Do you need me to spell it out for you again? I don’t need you.”

“You also once told me it’s not a ‘this’,” Neil says and Andrew can hear the smugness in his voice. “You’re not as good of a liar as you think you are.”

Andrew grits his teeth. “Why, Neil? Why do you care?”

Neil gazes back at him. “Don’t make me say it if you don’t want to hear it,” he says simply.

Andrew looks at him for a moment, wondering what kind of truth Neil would share if Andrew chose to ask.

Instead, he simply exhales again, looking up at the ceiling. “Take the knives or don’t take them. I couldn’t care less. We’re done talking.”

Neil doesn’t move. “You do care,” he says. “And I’m still waiting for my answer.”

Andrew tilts his head to look at him and meets Neil’s defiant gaze. “Do you have a death wish, Neil?”

“If you give me a no,” Neil says, without bothering to acknowledge Andrew’s threat, “I won’t bring it up again. But I want an answer, not an evasion.”

Andrew glares at him some more, but Neil is not — has never really been — afraid of him. He looks back with calm resolve, waiting for Andrew to make the call.

Andrew thinks about Neil’s holidays in Evermore. He thinks about the scars all over Neil’s body, about the sacrifice Andrew has never asked for and never wanted.

It’s a promise for a promise, give for give and take for take.

It makes mathematical sense, even if Andrew still can’t quite wrap his head around the concept. Nobody cared about the math before. People take and take, and that is all.

If that’s not true, Andrew is unsure whether he understands the world at all.

“There are eight of them,” he finally says, going back to staring at the ceiling. “Pick four.”

It’s not a yes Neil wanted, but it must be enough, because Neil stands up and starts collecting the knives. When he is done, he places four on the floor by his side and offers four to Andrew.

Andrew picks himself up to a seated position to face Neil and considers him for a moment.

Neil isn’t smiling, but he seems calmer now. Andrew watches him for a little longer before extending one of his hands, palm up, and glancing pointedly at the black armband.

It takes Neil only a moment to understand and he gives Andrew a questioning look that Andrew returns with a steady gaze of his own.

Neil picks one of the knives and slides two fingers underneath the armband to figure out where the knife needs to be placed. Andrew looks away, waiting for the cool touch of metal, but it never comes. When he glances back at his hand, Neil has placed two knives in their sheaths already, shielding Andrew’s skin from the blades with his hand. Every time Neil’s fingers brush against Andrew’s scars, he has to keep himself from pulling away, but Neil works quickly and efficiently, and soon enough he is done with both armbands and places Andrew’s hands back in his lap.

Andrew flexes his hands to feel the cold of the knives against his skin and exhales.

Neil continues to look at him for a moment before raising his hand, slow enough that Andrew could easily evade him if he wanted to. He runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair.

He runs his fingers through Andrew’s hair and murmurs a quiet, “Thank you.”

Andrew replies with an equally quiet, “Don’t say stupid things.”

And if he shifts his head slightly to press the corner of his lips against the inner side of Neil’s wrist, it’s nothing but an accident on his part.

 

 

9.

 

The Foxes drop out in the semifinals.

It’s a tough game and there is only so much they can do with several of their best players benched or carded, and when the game ends, they are two points behind.

The mood in the locker room is subdued and Andrew finds that for some reason it affects him too. The Foxes gather for a short meeting and then decide to go to sleep early, but Andrew feels too restless to sleep, so after stubbing out his third cigarette and watching Neil’s breathing even out, he puts his boots back on, grabs his phone, and leaves the Tower.

He doesn’t really know where he’s going until he reaches the stadium, and then he fishes out the keys from his jacket and opens the door before he can question the impulse.

He goes through the corridor leading to the court, suddenly very aware that today he played here for the last time in his life. The thought doesn’t really make him nostalgic, but there is a tug of almost-wistfulness in the vicinity of his heart and that’s — surprising. Andrew has expected that leaving would not be nearly as easy as he’d like, but he has always thought that his attachment to Neil would be the only problem. He has never expected to miss this stupid court.

The main lights are off, but the automatic emergency lights are enough to go by. Their eerie glow shines through the plexiglass and creates long shadows that travel across the freshly-cleaned floor. If Andrew were more sentimental, he might have tried to recall the sounds of the game, the shouting and the clash of the racquets, and compare it to the heavy silence surrounding him now. As it is, all he does is look around the court for a few minutes, thinking about nothing in particular.

On a whim, he picks up one of the training balls and toys with it for a moment, weighing it in his hands, before he drops to the floor in the middle of the room and lies down on his back to stare at the dark ceiling above the court.

He throws the ball idly above his head and catches it with his other hand, and the pointless exercise is enough to quiet down his mind. He still hasn’t decided whether he wants to play Exy professionally when he graduates. Several teams approached him already, but Andrew didn’t give them any answers yet.

He has never considered his future, because the word lost its meaning a long time ago. It was an abstract concept, yet another word in a language Andrew simply did not speak.

Happiness. Dreams.

Vowels and consonants and nothing else.

Andrew throws the ball as high as he can without moving from the ground, and watches it lose momentum, come to a stop, and lose its fight against gravity. It falls right into his extended hand and Andrew curls his fingers around it and squeezes until his wrist aches.

When he hears footsteps, he expects to see Neil.

It’s Aaron instead.

Andrew has no idea what Aaron is doing here and how he got here, but Aaron doesn’t seem surprised to see him. He shoves his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and walks a little closer, but he stops several feet from Andrew, ever cautious, like Andrew is a feral animal.

Maybe he is.

He tilts his head to look at Aaron, his hand still curled around the ball. Aaron shuffles his feet and looks away.

“I thought you hate this game,” he says.

Andrew considers it for a moment, and then he throws the ball in the air again.

“I do, a bit,” he says eventually. He knows that the significance of this particular statement will be lost on Aaron, but Andrew’s secrets are not for Aaron to know and understand, not anymore. Maybe not ever. 

They still attend their weekly sessions, but Andrew has never really expected Bee to fix them, not as a unit. She helped him and she helped Aaron, and that will have to be enough. Andrew doesn’t expect to see Aaron again after graduation. It’s a hollow thought, but not a surprising one.

People leave and leave and leave, because that's just what they do. 

“How did you know I was here?” Andrew asks, because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Aaron is not here by an accident.

“Your boyfriend,” Aaron says and Andrew doesn’t miss the distaste in his voice.

“That’s not what Neil is,” Andrew tells him calmly, his eyes back on the ceiling.

“Your soulmate, then,” Aaron says, and Andrew briefly considers how fitting it is that Aaron is the only one to realize that Andrew doesn't refer to Neil as his boyfriend not because the word is too big, but because it's too small. 

He throws the ball in the air again and this time has to shift slightly to catch it.

“Did you want something?” he asks.

“Yes,” Aaron says. “Your phone.”

Andrew tilts his head again to look at him, but Aaron just stares back blankly, and Andrew knows that getting an explanation would be like pulling teeth, so instead he takes the phone out of his pocket and slides it across the floor. It rotates several times before hitting the side of Aaron’s boot.

Aaron picks it up and flips it open, somehow managing to express a lot of annoyance without making a single facial expression, and types quickly. Andrew watches him impassively, not curious enough to ask.

Several seconds later, Aaron walks over and attempts to drop the phone on Andrew’s chest, but Andrew catches it midair.

“Nobody can lose at Snake that fast,” Andrew comments, and Aaron actually cracks a smile at that. Then his expression sobers up and Andrew finds himself bracing for whatever is coming next. He squeezes the ball unconsciously and then forcibly relaxes his hold. There is no point in this. 

Aaron takes several steps back before he says, “Katelyn and I are taking some time off the campus. I just thought we might not see each other before you leave.”

Andrew exhales, trying to run a mental check on himself and coming up empty. He feels nothing at all. “Well, you’ve seen me now. Mission accomplished.”

Aaron sighs, exasperated now. “Just… call me, if you want. That’s all.”

Andrew considers him for a moment in silence before he says, “I have nothing to say to you.”

“Okay,” Aaron says, sounding resigned, but he doesn’t walk away. He continues to look at Andrew for a moment longer and then he says. “Thanks, by the way.”

Andrew turns to look at him again and all he needs is one glance to figure out what Aaron is talking about. It’s hilarious, really. Once upon a time, it would mean the world. It means nothing now.

“I don’t need your gratitude,” Andrew informs the ceiling, throwing the ball so high up that he loses sight of it for a moment. “I told you already. I was keeping my word. You don't owe me anything. You are free. Congratulations.”

Aaron misses the double meaning again, but Andrew stopped expecting him to pay attention a long time ago. He doesn’t watch Aaron leave; instead, he gets up, leaving the phone on the floor, and throws the ball against the plexiglass. It bounces back with a satisfying thud and lands unerringly in his other hand, so he repeats the motion again until the echo matches his heartbeat and then some more until the steady rhythm is disturbed yet again by the sound of footsteps.

The right ones, this time.

He doesn’t watch Neil approach and doesn’t glance at him even when he senses Neil’s presence by his side.

“Good talk?” Neil asks quietly.

“Will you ever learn to mind your own business?” Andrew asks, throwing the ball again but doing nothing to catch it this time. Neil does it for him.

“You are my business,” Neil says, ever-obnoxious. “So?”

“I told you once to stop wasting your time on worthless pursuits,” Andrew reminds him and looks pointedly at Neil’s hand until he extends it and passes Andrew the ball.

“You also told me that this is a worthless pursuit,” Neil says, and Andrew doesn’t need to see him gesture between them to know what he means.

“You’re especially exhausting tonight,” Andrew tells him, refusing to address Neil’s comment. “How did you know I was here?”

Neil smiles, small and fleeting, and Andrew makes the mistake of looking at him, all soft angles and sleep-tousled hair, dressed in one of Andrew’s hoodies, his hands folded in the pockets, his body radiating warmth. It’s a deception, of course. Neil’s skin is made of steel.

“Maybe I know you better than you think,” Neil says.

“Or maybe you track my phone,” Andrew replies, looking away from him.

“If that’s what you’re more comfortable with,” Neil says with a one-shoulder shrug. “Have you decided yet?”

“Can you talk about anything other than Exy?” Andrew asks in return.

“If you don’t choose Exy, I suppose I’ll have to learn,” Neil replies, unconcerned.

It’s funny how certain Neil is that this thing between them can survive if Andrew doesn’t choose the only thing they currently have in common.

Neil watches him for a moment, and then, because he clearly developed the ability to read minds, he says, “It’s not over until one of us wants it to be over, you know.”

“You really never learn, do you?” Andrew says, throwing the ball against the plexiglass, but Neil doesn’t let him finish the thought.

“You told me this has never been nothing,” Neil reminds him. “Was that a lie?”

Andrew sidesteps the ball and lets it go past them and towards the other end of the court, and then he turns to look at Neil.

“Put your hopes in something else,” he says. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I think that’s up to me to decide,” Neil replies, and there it is again — the steel of his resolve. “Play Exy, don’t play Exy. Study criminal law, don’t study it. It doesn’t change anything. We are not over until you tell me we’re over.” He pauses. “So, are we? Over?”

“You’re infuriating,” Andrew tells him.

“That’s not an answer,” Neil says, his chin up and his gaze fixed on Andrew’s eyes.

And the worst thing is — Andrew believes him. Neil shouldn’t even be alive today, shouldn't have made it so far, but he fought tooth and nail to get here — and here he is. It was his resolve that got him through that year, that got him what he wanted — and here he is, and for some reason, the thing he wants now is this.

He will let Andrew walk away, though, if that’s what Andrew chooses to do. He will let him go even though he already had to let go of so many things.

In a way, it’s like looking in the mirror.

Andrew reaches up slowly and curls his fingers in the front of Neil’s hoodie, and Neil simply looks back at him, giving only the slightest of nods, the permission Andrew is looking for.

He tugs gently until Neil takes a step forward, and then he presses their lips together. Neil exhales through his nose and some of the tension melts away, but his hands stay by his sides, and he doesn’t try to touch Andrew. Andrew flexes his fingers in Neil’s hoodie and uses his other hand to grab Neil’s wrist, to press his fingers against Neil’s pulse-point, searching for the familiar rhythm.

After a moment, Neil tears his mouth away, but he doesn’t try to step back, so Andrew doesn’t loosen his hold. Instead, he opens his eyes and meets the ridiculous blue of Neil’s gaze.

Neil’s lips brush against his when he says, “This isn’t an answer, either.”

Andrew swallows, certain that Neil can hear it in the silence, and gives the only answer he can give.

“We aren’t over.”

He can feel Neil’s smile against his lips and bites at Neil’s lower lip just to remind him that someday there will be an argument which Neil will not win so easily. Neil makes a small sound, but he sounds pleased rather than apologetic, and then he kisses Andrew again, all soft lips and pliant body. There is something different this time about the want unfurling slowly in the pit of Andrew’s stomach, something steady, warm and reliable, rather than desperate.

“You better make it to my team, junkie,” he murmurs against Neil’s lips, wondering how they made it all the way from the center of the room to one side of it, but he doesn’t really care when Neil leans back against the plexiglass and his expression goes through confusion and surprise to finally settle on cautious happiness. “Otherwise you’ll have my future teammates on your conscience.”

“I’ll make it,” Neil says, his voice breathy.

“So sure of yourself,” Andrew muses, but the truth is, he likes this self-confidence on Neil, and he knows that Neil knows it. He slides one hand underneath the hem of Neil’s hoodie and skims his fingers across Neil’s stomach, waiting for the familiar hitch in Neil’s breathing, and with the thumb of his other hand, he traces the outline of Neil’s jaw, the barest hint of stubble.

“Choose your team, and I’ll see you there soon enough,” Neil says, and the fact that he can still form coherent sentences is insulting, in Andrew's opinion. At least he sounds winded now and Andrew can hear the way his nails keep digging into the plexiglass.

Andrew presses another heated kiss to the warm pulse-point on Neil’s neck and tightens his hold on Neil’s hip. Neil arches into him, his body taut with tension, and Andrew continues to nip at the soft skin underneath his ear, pushing his knee between Neil’s legs, until Neil makes a small, desperate sound and tries to inch even closer.

Andrew hides a smirk in the crook of Neil’s neck — and then he steps back.

Neil huffs, frustrated, but doesn't try to follow him, leaning against the plexiglass instead. He glares at Andrew.

Andrew raises an eyebrow at him, pretending he isn’t affected by the blush rising to Neil’s cheeks, by his moist lips, by his disheveled hair.

“Make it to my team, and we can pick this up where we left off,” Andrew tells him, sounding a little more hoarse than he’d like. “I’m told additional motivation does wonders for working discipline.”

Neil glares at him. “You overestimate how much I care about the localization,” he says, his blown pupils and shallow breathing contradicting him completely.

Andrew leans towards him again, pressing one hand against the plexiglass by Neil's head, and brushes his lips against Neil’s ear, nearly smiles at Neil’s answering shudder. “I don’t think I do,” he says. “I’ll see you in the dorm.”

Neil shoots him another glare, but he pushes back from the plexiglass and stalks out of the court and towards the exits. Andrew looks after him for a moment, waiting for his own pulse to stop racing, and then picks up the phone from the floor.

He chooses the newly-programmed number.

“Uh, yes?” Aaron says on the other end of the line. “Andrew?”

Andrew exhales, looking around the court one last time before he turns around towards the corridor.

“You too, by the way,” Andrew says lightly and waits for the surprised catch in Aaron’s breathing meaning that he understood.

“Yeah, well,” Aaron says after a long moment. “Seems that’s what siblings do. Or whatever.”

“Yeah,” Andrew echoes.

He waits a moment longer, but there is nothing left to say, at least not now. He might come up with something someday, though. It surprises him that he wants to.

“Goodbye, Andrew,” Aaron says finally.

Andrew nods, well aware that Aaron can’t see him, and waits for Aaron to hang up.

He pockets the phone and closes the door behind him.

Somehow, it feels less like a farewell now.