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light fires at night (to push back the void)

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19.

 

 

Andrew startles awake and realizes that he is alone.

It takes him a moment to remember why it bothers him; it takes him a moment to remember that since yesterday, this bed — along with the entire apartment — belongs to Neil as well.

He rolls to his side and runs his fingers across Neil’s pillow; it’s still warm to touch. It’s that, more than the scratch carved above the headboard, that reassures Andrew that this is not a dream. Neil is here. He is here to stay.

Andrew shifts to lie on his back again. He closes his eyes and listens, but the apartment is eerily silent; he can’t hear the hum of the water in the bathroom or the swish of the coffee machine in the kitchen or the whisper of the TV in the living room. Wherever Neil is, he is quiet. It’s not out of character, but it’s enough to prompt Andrew to open his eyes again and sit up in bed.

He waits for a moment longer before kicking the sheets and the blankets away. He huffs in annoyance when his bare feet touch the floor. There are still two small cardboard boxes in the corner of the room, waiting to be unpacked; another proof that this is real. Neil is here.

Andrew pulls his warmest hoodie over his head, curling his fingers around the fox-adorned sleeves, and steals a pair of Neil’s socks. The retaliation is reasonable; Andrew wouldn’t be padding barefoot around the apartment at all if Neil hadn’t decided to deprive him of his body heat.

Neil isn’t in the living room and he isn’t in the kitchen, either, but Andrew recognizes the familiar ghost of cigarette smoke curling in the air on the balcony.

He gets the coffee machine going and finds two mugs — orange for Neil and black for himself. As he waits for the coffee, he stares absently at the bluish digits displayed on the microwave, counting down the passing minutes of the early morning, and at the Exy magnets on the fridge, one of the few things Neil decided to bring from his old apartment.

He is tired and sleepy, but calm.

Nightmares are an old enemy, one they both have battled a thousand times before. Just a few days ago, Andrew wouldn’t be able to offer anything except for his own steady breathing on the other side of the line. Now that Neil is here, he has plenty of tools at his disposal.

Once the coffee is ready, Andrew picks up the mugs and collects Neil’s hoodie from the couch, and opens the door leading to the balcony.

Neil is there, of course, curled against the wall of the building, with his knees drawn to his chest and a cigarette resting between his fingers. Like this, wearing Andrew’s t-shirt — too loose in the shoulders, and Andrew’s sweatpants — short enough to reveal his ankles, and with his hair sleep-soft and ruffled, Neil looks young and harmless. He looks gentle and quiet and lovable, and Andrew supposes that this is what the Foxes see when they look at him.

It’s not that he doesn’t see it as well, but while he always wants to run his hands through Neil’s hair and to thread their fingers together, it’s not the softness in Neil that he understands.

He understands the stillness. He understands the tension coiled in Neil’s muscles, the odd combination of fury and fear of an animal cornered but unwilling to die.

He understands the silence. He understands the hollow taste of old memories in the back of Neil’s throat, bitter and sour, impossible to swallow down, too heavy to let any words get through.

He understands the exhaustion. He understands being forced to witness the spectacle of your own past as it tries to get a hold of the present and the future.

He understands the ugly jealousy for those who can sleep through the night.

Neil is curled into himself, so when Andrew sits next to him, he stretches out his legs and crosses them at the ankles, just to be contrary. He steals Neil’s cigarette, takes a drag, and then places it neatly between Neil’s motionless fingers. Neil doesn’t acknowledge him.

The sky is slowly beginning to brighten, darkness fading into grey. The street below is still silent, but there is already a delivery car in front of the bakery.

Ten minutes pass before Neil finally moves.

He stubs out his cigarette against the floor and picks up the mug Andrew put by his side. He takes a sip, exhales, and says, “Sorry for waking you.”

“Put this on,” Andrew replies, shoving the hoodie in Neil’s lap and freeing him from the mug for the time being. He takes a sip just to get an annoyed noise out of Neil, winces at the bitter taste and immediately reaches for his own coffee to wash it down.

Neil huffs in irritation when he inevitably traps himself in the hoodie and has to take it off before putting it on again. He blows a breath to get his fringe out of his eyes and Andrew watches him with familiar warmth curling in his chest like cotton candy. Fondness, Andrew thinks, and counts the vowels and the consonants just to have something to do while Neil settles again, pries his mug from Andrew’s hand, and takes another sip of his coffee.

Andrew looks at him for a moment longer, then glances up at the sky. “Talk, Neil,” he prompts.

It takes Neil a while to respond. He places the mug back on the tiles, then pulls his knees even closer to his chest and folds his arms around them, curling as small as he can get. Andrew can by now tell the difference between Neil needing silence and Neil needing encouragement, so he leans into him slightly, pressing their shoulders together, and nudges Neil’s bare foot with his sock-clad one. “Neil.”

Neil glances over at him and rolls his eyes at Andrew’s tone, but then his expression falls again and he looks away. “I had a nightmare,” he says.

Andrew acknowledges that with a quiet hum, but he can tell that Neil isn’t done speaking, so he doesn’t interrupt.

“It was nothing new,” Neil says, then pauses to chew on his lower lip. “It’s just that I can’t tell if it’s a memory or not.”

“Your father?” Andrew prompts when nothing else seems to be forthcoming.

“No,” Neil says quietly. “Evermore.”

They never talk about Evermore, just like they never talk about Easthaven. Both had the potential to break them and yet neither did; as far as Andrew is concerned, there is nothing else to say. He prefers to pretend none of this has ever happened.

“Sometimes I think,” Neil says, “that if I could just remember it, I’d be able to let it go.”

Andrew picks up the cigarette pack lying between them, shakes another one out and lights it up. He watches the smoke for a moment, and then he says, “It wouldn’t help.”

Neil tilts his head, still resting on his folded arms, so he can look at Andrew. He doesn’t reply.

Andrew takes a drag of the cigarette. He pictures the smoke curling in his chest, black and suffocating and deadly. He lets it linger for a moment and then he forces it out of his lungs.

He says, “The most impossible thing always seems like the perfect solution, Neil. If you remembered all of it, you’d give anything to forget it.”

Neil chews at his lower lip again, clearly not quite convinced, but he doesn’t argue. Knowing Neil, he is well aware that Andrew is speaking from experience, and he has no intention of belittling that.

Andrew sighs. “Do you really want to know?”

“Does it matter?” Neil asks, shrugging with feigned disinterest. “It’s not like there is anything —”

“Do you really want to know, Neil?” Andrew interrupts.

“Yes,” Neil says, quiet but clear. “I do.”

Andrew clenches his teeth, but he knows just how inescapable the pull is. To remember and to forget, both equally destructive.

“Give me your phone,” he says.

Neil frowns. “It’s the middle of the night,” he says.

“Witness my remorse,” Andrew replies impatiently. “The phone, Neil.”

Neil huffs, but he passes his phone to Andrew. Andrew takes it and walks into the living room, closing the door behind him. He sits on the arm of the couch and looks at the dark room and at the bluish moonlight flickering in every reflective surface around him.

Kevin picks up after the second signal.

“What,” he says, “the fuck, Neil?”

“Rise and shine,” Andrew greets, just to cause further annoyance. “You have some college debts to pay.”

“Andrew?” Kevin says, and Andrew hears him shuffle around in bed. “What the hell do you want?”

“Pay attention,” Andrew scolds. “I just told you. I’m collecting.”

“Collecting,” Kevin repeats dumbly, suddenly very still, if the lack of background noise is anything to go by.

“Neil has some questions about Evermore,” Andrew replies. “You know someone who has some answers.”

“Jean,” Kevin says quietly, understanding. “Andrew, I can’t —”

“You mistake me for someone who cares,” Andrew interrupts. “It’s your problem to handle, not mine. I kept my promise. Neil’s deal with the Moriyamas is keeping you alive today. If you want to wipe the slate clean, you’ll get Moreau to talk to Neil.”

“You overestimate —”

“I told you already,” Andrew interrupts again. “You mistake me for someone who cares. Handle this and we’re even.”

“Even?” Kevin repeats, and Andrew’s beginning to feel like he’s talking to his own echo.

“Yes,” he says impatiently. “Deal with this and your debts are paid.”

There are two ways this can go now and Andrew is familiar with both of them. He has seen Kevin break a thousand times before, but he has also always recognized that nothing can continue getting broken if it doesn’t mend in the meantime. Whether Kevin has finally mended enough to stay that way remains to be seen.

When Kevin finally speaks, his voice is steady. “I’ll handle it.”

Perhaps his spine has found its way into his back.

“Good,” Andrew says, then hangs up without waiting for a reply.

Before he can turn around, Neil is sliding the balcony door open and stepping inside, their mugs in one hand and the cigarettes in the other. Andrew tosses him the phone and Neil catches it deftly in the hand holding the cigarette pack, without dropping either.

He checks the phone and looks up at Andrew. “Kevin?” he asks. “Kevin wasn’t even there.”

“No,” Andrew agrees. “But Moreau was.”

Neil goes very still. Andrew wouldn’t even notice the tremble going through his body if it weren’t for the mugs in his hand and the way they clatter together before Neil manages to stifle the shudder.

“Yeah,” he says, trying to push the phone into the pocket of his hoodie. His hands are shaking too much to accomplish that. “Yeah, he was.”

Andrew sighs, then plucks the phone and the cigarettes from Neil’s hands and tucks both gently into the front pocket of Neil’s hoodie. He remains close, but he lets his hands fall to his sides.

“It’s up to you,” he says. “You don’t have to ask him anything at all.”

Neil nods. He takes a deep breath and then exhales. “I think it might help,” he says after a moment. “Both of us, actually.”

Andrew shrugs. “I don’t give a damn about Moreau, Neil.”

He takes the mugs from Neil’s hands and turns on his heel. He doesn’t turn on the kitchen lights as he places the mugs in the dishwasher. Neil trails behind him and when Andrew turns around to face him, most of the tension has bled out of his shoulders.

He smiles, a little steadier now. “But you give a damn about me, huh.”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but plays along, pretending this is just an ordinary night, just an ordinary conversation. “You are ridiculous.”

“And yet you like me,” Neil says, unruffled, his slouch nearly nonchalant.

Andrew sighs impatiently, but there is no denying that he prefers Neil at his most annoying to Neil at his most detached. “And yet I like you,” he echoes in agreement, effectively wiping the smirk from Neil’s face.

Whatever Neil was planning to say next, it clearly has lost its way before it could reach his mouth. Andrew tilts his head to the side and enjoys the rare moment of rendering Neil speechless.

After a moment, Neil’s gaze drops to Andrew’s lips, and Andrew feels the familiar thrill somewhere deep in his stomach. It should get boring by now, this affection and hunger and want, but it only ever continues to grow.

“Ready to go back to sleep?” he asks.

Neil’s gaze remains locked on Andrew’s lips for a moment longer, and it seems like he might agree, but then he shakes his head slowly and meets Andrew’s gaze.

“I think I’ll go for a run,” he says.

“Do you want to be alone?” Andrew asks.

“Not really, no,” Neil says, honest. “I just want to get some air. Clear my head.”

Andrew sighs. “Fine,” he says. “Let’s go.”

Neil pauses, raising his eyebrows. “You hate running.”

“I hate you,” Andrew replies, all autopilot. “Running I can handle.”

Neil hums thoughtfully, a teasing smile in the corner of his lips, but his gaze is quietly pleased. Relieved. He steps closer to Andrew and after receiving a curt nod, presses their lips together, soft and warm and familiar. Andrew wants to bury his hands underneath Neil’s hoodie and drag him to bed, but he has made his decision already and he will keep his word.

“You like me,” Neil murmurs into his lips, intolerably pleased. “You like me a lot.”

Andrew huffs. “How old are you?” he asks, and then prevents Neil from answering by kissing him again, pressing their bodies together from head to toe. Three words, five vowels, three consonants. “Go get dressed.”

“You’re holding me in place,” Neil points out, doing absolutely nothing to free himself from Andrew’s hold at the back of his neck and Andrew’s fingers curled in the front of his hoodie.

“Shut the fuck up, Neil,” Andrew says pleasantly, and when Neil smiles again, he plasters his hand across Neil’s mouth. “Get dressed, now.”

He pushes Neil away and towards the bathroom. Neil pretends to zip his lips up, smiles at Andrew again, and doesn’t quite wait to reach the bathroom before pulling both his hoodie and his t-shirt over his head.

Andrew rolls his eyes, doing his absolute best to stop thinking about the easy play of muscles underneath Neil’s skin, and walks to their bedroom to find some workout clothes.

 

 

 

20.

 

It’s raining in Los Angeles.

It’s uncharacteristic, and it sets Andrew’s teeth on edge. He is used to the ever-blue skies and the ever-present warmth, just as he is used to the heavy taste of dust on the tip of his tongue, the burn of dehydration in his throat, the relentless fake cheer of California.

If it weren’t for the rain, Andrew would consider burning it all to the ground.

He has been here many times since joining his team, but the trips from LAX to the hotel and then to the L.A. Exy Stadium are both short enough that he could always easily avoid acknowledging that he is in California. Now, though, he has plenty of time and nothing to do.

In hindsight, he should have told Kevin to organize the meeting somewhere else, maybe somewhere between California and Colorado, but what’s done is done. As soon as Neil is back, Andrew will pull out of this parking lot and never think about this day again. By midnight they’ll be in Nevada.

He doesn’t like staying in the car, but he trusts Renee to look after Neil more than he trusts himself not to kill Jean on sight. He can keep his temper in check when they’re playing against each other, but he doubts he could extend the courtesy when Moreau started talking about Evermore.

He leans back in the driver’s seat, drumming his fingers restlessly against the wheel, and continues to watch the interior of the small café through its large, panoramic windows. It’s getting dark now and the lights inside are on, so he has a clear view of both Neil and Jean, despite the heavy cascades of rain. Renee is the only other person sitting at their table. While Kevin and Jeremy Knox are both present, they’re sitting closer to the entrance.

Neil looks pale and tired, which isn’t particularly surprising, considering how little he slept in the last few days. He is wearing Andrew’s hoodie and he keeps tugging at the edges of the sleeves, pulling them over his knuckles just to push them back again, uncharacteristically anxious. His coffee remains untouched.

Renee looks, as always, eerily calm. She doesn’t say anything as Neil and Jean continue to talk, merely keeps glancing between them, patient and attentive, her hands folded on the table.

Moreau looks even paler than Neil, but he seems a little less defensive than Andrew remembers, a little less like an injured animal about to lash out one last time. He seems calmer. Steadier. If Andrew didn’t have his own reasons to hate Moreau, he’d find it satisfying to watch — here is another one of Riko’s projects coming undone. One day, after this conversation is over and another memory is buried, there will be nothing left of Riko, like he never existed at all.

The Foxes one, Andrew thinks. The villain zero.

He goes through another cigarette and by the time Neil moves to stand up, Andrew’s hands are nearly completely steady and his thoughts are clear. The rain, however, continues to pick up in force.

Neil hesitates briefly and then offers Jean a simple nod, leaves some cash on the table and moves towards the exit. Renee stands up as well, pausing for a moment to squeeze Jean’s shoulder and say something to him, and then follows Neil outside. From the corner of his eye, Andrew watches Jean push his coffee away and reach for his jacket, but most of his attention is drawn to Neil, who opens the door of the café and steps outside. He doesn’t move towards the car, though, only shifts to hide from the rain underneath the edge of the roof and shuffles through the pockets of his jacket for his cigarettes.

Before Andrew can turn off the engine and move to join him, Renee steps neatly around Neil and jogs towards the Maserati. She pulls open the passenger’s door and slips inside.

“Hey,” she says, shrugging off the hood of her jacket and smiling at Andrew as she tucks her hair behind her ears, her fingers careful around her pearl earrings. Andrew definitely remembers seeing these earrings on Allison’s ears.

“Hey yourself,” he replies, letting his hand slide from the door handle, but keeping his eyes on Neil, who finally manages to light a cigarette and shoves his lighter into the pocket of his jacket.

“Thanks for doing this,” Renee says. “I think they both needed to talk about it.”

Andrew shrugs. He couldn’t care less what Moreau needs. His only concern is Neil, and Neil doesn’t exactly seem improved.

He wants to ask whether Neil got his answers, but he knows that Renee is not the right person to have this conversation with. Instead, he watches as Jean walks out of the café, accompanied by an uncharacteristically serious Jeremy Knox and a characteristically stressed out Kevin Day. Knox jogs towards his Range Rover while Moreau follows him unhurriedly, clearly not caring about the rain. Kevin, after a brief moment of hesitation, turns towards Andrew’s car.

Andrew rolls his eyes, but he grudgingly unlocks the back door and lets him inside.

“So,” Kevin says.

“So,” Andrew parrots, but he doesn’t want to prolong it, so he adds, “we’re even now.”

Kevin nods, but doesn’t leave. Renee nudges her elbow against Andrew’s side, shooting him an encouraging smile. Andrew rolls his eyes again.

“What, Kevin?” he asks, offering Kevin an acknowledging glance in the rear-view mirror and then getting back to watching Neil, who is going through his second cigarette now.

“What does that change, exactly?” Kevin asks. “Our deal being over?”

Everything, Andrew thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud.

The thing is, in Andrew’s world nothing has ever been free. There was a price to pay for Cass’s warmth, there was a price to pay for Aaron’s and Nicky’s presence in his life, there was a price to pay for Kevin’s promise. If everything had a price, then everything was a transaction, and Andrew learned a long time ago that nothing keeps people from leaving quite as effectively as the weight of an inescapable bargain.

Except there is no bargain between him and Neil. There is no bargain between him and Renee.

And from now on, there is no bargain between him and Kevin, either.

“You figure it out,” Andrew says, ignoring another warm look Renee sends in his direction. “Do you need a drive to LAX?”

“My flight is in the morning,” Kevin replies, shaking his head. “And my cab is already here.”

“Renee?” Andrew asks, keeping his voice steady, even though he is growing impatient. He wants this conversation over and he wants to speak to Neil, now.

“No, thank you,” Renee says. “I still need to talk to Jean.”

She gestures to the Range Rover, waiting patiently in its parking spot.

“Great,” Andrew says. “Out, both of you.”

It sounds harsh, but neither Kevin nor Renee seems particularly bothered. Renee reaches out and squeezes Andrew’s shoulder, once, before pushing the door open. She pulls up the hood of her jacket, but keeps her pace steady as she walks towards the Range Rover.

Kevin catches Andrew’s eye in the rear-view mirror and nods once, and then leaves the car and jogs to the cab waiting near the other end of the parking lot.

The second the Range Rover and the cab leave the parking lot, Andrew picks up his car keys and pushes the door open.

The rain is warm and sticky like a melted popsicle, and Andrew barely stifles a grimace as he walks towards Neil, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket.

Neil doesn’t look up at him, but shuffles to the side so that Andrew can fit beside him in the tiny space beneath the roof. The rain is still growing stronger, but there is little to no wind, so Neil’s clothes look relatively dry. When Andrew leans against the wall next to him, Neil drops his cigarette and grinds it against the concrete with the heel of his boot.

“Well?” Andrew says when the silence begins to feel heavy. “Did you get your answers?”

“I guess,” Neil says, fumbling for another cigarette. Andrew takes the pack out of his hands, slides one out and lights it up before passing it back to Neil, whose hands continue to shake.

Neil actually smokes through this one instead of simply letting it burn.

“It was real,” Neil adds after a moment. “The nightmare.”

“Do you want to tell me?” Andrew asks.

“I want to drive,” Neil replies, stubbing out the cigarette against the wall of the building with uncharacteristic ferocity before letting it drop to the pavement. Since he doesn’t ask for the keys, Andrew extends his hand, palm up, and offers them without prompting.

Neil takes the keys without hesitation, but Andrew doesn’t miss the way he manages to avoid both touching Andrew’s skin and meeting Andrew’s gaze before he steps into the rain.

When they get in the car, Neil stares at him pointedly until Andrew sighs, put-upon, and buckles up. Only after he is done, Neil turns on the engine, pulls the car into reverse, and leaves the parking lot.

The second they reach the interstate and the traffic thins out, Neil presses the gas pedal nearly all the way to the floor. Under different circumstances, watching it happen would cause a thrill of excitement to run through Andrew’s veins, but now all he feels is a sharp pull somewhere deep in his chest.

Concern.

Two vowels, five consonants.

He barely even registers the moment they leave California and then wordlessly accepts that they won’t be staying in Las Vegas. Neil keeps his eyes fixed on the road and his hands are steady on the wheel, and the silence isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but Andrew wants it to end all the same. He alternates between watching his own reflection in the window and watching Neil from the corner of his eye, and tries not to doze off.

They’ve reached Utah by the time Neil lets the car slow down, and it’s past two a.m.

Andrew is drowsy with sleep, but he keeps his eyes forcibly open and focused on the road; while Neil seems completely awake and alert, Andrew doesn’t like the idea of letting him do this — whatever it is that Neil is doing — on his own.

The road is empty and dim, and if it weren’t for the Maserati’s headlights — the cold, fierce light cutting through the thick darkness — the whole journey would feel like drifting in outer space.

The faint, reddish glow of the dashboard controls reflects in Neil’s eyes and deepens the scars on his face, and Andrew feels a heavy weight somewhere deep in his chest, the familiar pull of irresistible fascination, but right now it’s easily overshadowed by worry.

His imagination is creative when it comes to terrifying things, and it has been working restlessly for days now, trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that Neil’s nightmare entailed.

Neil does not frighten easily, Andrew’s restless mind reminds him, ever-cruel.

“We can stay in St. George,” Neil says, interrupting Andrew’s thoughts; it’s the first thing he has said in the last five hours. His voice sounds a little hoarse.

“Okay,” Andrew says.

He continues sneaking glances in Neil’s direction until they enter the city and Neil picks the first motel on their right, pulling into the nearly-empty parking lot and turning off the engine. He doesn’t move to open the door, so Andrew doesn’t move either, but whatever Neil was meaning to say, he clearly decides against it, because after another long moment he drops the keys in Andrew’s hand and leaves the car without a word.

Andrew takes their bags and lets Neil handle the rooms, and several minutes later Neil returns and takes his bag from Andrew’s hand.

Andrew follows him to their room, trying to focus on keeping his feet from tripping over one another, and he only pauses for a brief moment at the sight of two narrow beds separated by a nightstand. He doesn’t question it, the same way he wouldn’t question a verbal “no”, and he drops his bag on one of the beds and flops back on the mattress, considering the idea of falling asleep like this, without even kicking off his boots.

Californian rain is still gnawing at his skin.

It’s Neil’s quiet voice that jolts him awake again.

“In the nightmare,” Neil is saying, his voice quiet but steady, “Riko made me use my father’s knives.”

Andrew swallows. It sounds very loud.

He briefly considers whether he should sit up or pretend to sleep; whether Neil would find it easier to talk to him if he didn’t have to hold his gaze. In the end, he does sit up, because he needs to make sure that Neil is not doing something stupid and self-destructive as he speaks.

Neil isn’t doing much of anything, though. He is sitting on his bed, still in his jacket, with one knee drawn up to his chest and his chin resting on top. He is fiddling with the frayed ends of his jeans and his gaze is fixed on the wall.

“He told me to hurt Jean,” he says, absent and terrible and far-away.

Andrew has not foreseen this scenario, but in hindsight, there is nothing surprising about it at all. Neil would never care that much about his own well-being.

“Did you?” Andrew asks.

“No,” Neil says, glancing up at Andrew just to look away again. “So Riko did it for me.”

“He hurt you as well,” Andrew points out.

Neil neatly sidesteps the comment. “He warned me,” he says. “He said that if I don’t follow his orders, he’ll do whatever he asked me to do, only ten times worse.”

“Neil —”

“I knew he’d keep his word,” Neil interrupts. “I knew I could spare Jean some pain, but all I cared about was keeping my hands clean. Preserving that one last line between me and Nathan.”

Andrew sighs, irritated and out of his depth, because he hates being helpless, and there is nothing he can do here. There is no one to threaten and no one to kill. “What is it that you want from me, Neil? Absolution?”

Neil snorts. “I don’t know,” he admits, and it sounds hollow. “Maybe I just want you to punch me in the face.”

He sounds like he means that, too. Andrew grits his teeth, slides off the bed and steps closer to Neil before dropping to a crouch directly in front of him.

“Look at me,” he orders. When Neil complies, his gaze wary, Andrew says, “Having two equally shitty options is not a choice. You were just a pawn and the game was rigged.”

“But —”

“It’s over,” Andrew interrupts. “Moreau is alive. Riko’s dead. Stop letting a ghost play with your head.”

Neil sighs, then lets go of his knee and lets both of his feet rest on the floor, taking down one of the defenses between him and Andrew. He finally looks into Andrew’s eyes.

“How can you tell me it’s not my fault,” he says quietly, “and yet hold Jean accountable for what he did to me?”

His voice is steady, almost calm, but Andrew can instantly tell that this is the heart of the problem.

He stands up, because his legs are beginning to ache, and after receiving a nod from Neil, sits at the edge of the mattress next to him. He shifts to the side and Neil mirrors him without a pause.

“I don’t hold him accountable,” Andrew says.

Neil raises an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. Andrew wants to reach out and smooth Neil’s frown with his fingertips, but he orders his hands to stay still.

“If I did,” he says, “do you really think he’d still be alive?”

Neil swallows. “But —”

“Do you, Neil?” Andrew interrupts. He means it, too.

Neil looks at him for a long moment, as if searching for a lie, and then he exhales and just as the air leaves his lungs, the tension leaves his shoulders. He slumps forward slightly and before Andrew can question himself, he reaches out and places his hand on the back of Neil’s neck, giving the slightest of tugs, easily resistible.

Neil doesn’t resist. Instead, he tucks his head in the crook of Andrew’s neck, his body sagging against Andrew’s. Andrew runs his fingers through his hair, ignoring how uncomfortable the position is, ignoring his own exhaustion, ignoring everything except for the steady rhythm of Neil’s breathing against his skin.

“Stay?” Neil asks.

Always, Andrew thinks, and it no longer sounds like a knot of incompatible vowels and consonants.

It’s a truth.

He maneuvers Neil until they’re mostly horizontal, limbs tangled on the tiny bed, Neil’s head resting against Andrew’s shoulder and his nose still tucked against Andrew’s neck, their bodies pressed together from head to toe.

A few years ago Andrew wouldn’t let himself fall asleep like this. Now all he does is take off his armbands, just in case, and drop them by the bed. Then he buries one hand in Neil’s hair and winds the other around his waist, pulling him closer.

When Neil’s breathing evens out, he presses a kiss to the top of Neil’s head.

 

 

 

21.

 

“We’re not getting a dog,” Andrew says, for what feels like the billionth time. “Neil.”

He regrets every single decision that has led him to this moment. He regrets opening that text from Bee, all those years back. He regrets having listened to her advice and checking out the animal shelter. He doesn’t regret the hours spent walking the dogs, because the dogs are alright, but he regrets mentioning it to Neil, and he sure as hell regrets the results of that slip.

“Look at them, though,” Neil says, his eyes almost as wide as the puppy’s he is holding in his arms. “Just look.”

“I am looking,” Andrew says. “For fuck’s sake, Neil. Put the dog back on the ground.”

Neil pouts, but he complies. He looks almost more heartbroken than the dog does, and Andrew absolutely refuses to let it affect him.

It’s a sunny day, only two weeks into autumn, only four months since Neil has moved in with him, and Andrew already can’t imagine living without this. He can’t imagine waking up without the warmth of Neil’s body pressed against his own, he can’t imagine making morning coffee without a lazy make-out session against the kitchen counter, he can’t imagine a single part of his life without Neil in his peripheral vision.

Which is the exact reason why Neil is here with him now, dressed in Andrew’s leather jacket, and with an obnoxiously orange scarf draped loosely around his neck.

They’re both accompanied by five dogs. Andrew knows all of them by name, but he knows that Neil would never let him live it down, so he refers to them by their breed. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t a great decision either, if his plan was to prove how little he cares.

“You clearly like dogs,” Neil accuses. “So why not? Look at this one.”

He picks up another dog, a fluffy Pomeranian named Jedi, and shoves it in Andrew’s face.

“Are you always so exhausting?” Andrew asks, stepping back and ignoring the betrayal in Jedi’s eyes. He decides to bring her an extra snack next time he visits.

“Stop evading,” Neil says, stubborn as ever. “Well?”

Andrew sighs. “We travel a lot, Neil. Who would walk the dog in our absence? Feeding, fine, someone could do it. But the rest? Dogs hate being alone. Don’t you think it would be a little cruel?”

Neil watches him for a moment longer, his expression contemplative. Then he says, “Okay.”

“Okay?” Andrew repeats warily, surprised that Neil gave up so easily.

“Yeah,” Neil says. “Good arguments. We’re not getting a dog.”

Andrew narrows his eyes, but Neil looks back calmly, clearly very aware that Andrew can’t figure out his track of thought.

For the lack of any better options — and because he’s been wanting to do it for a while now — Andrew tugs Neil down by the scarf to kiss him. Neil melts into the kiss, but it doesn’t quite work with the way he can’t stop smiling, so Andrew gives up after a moment and pushes him back lightly before turning on his heel to walk towards the shelter.

Neil grins even wider when he catches up with him, but he doesn’t say anything for the rest of their walk, so Andrew is nearly relaxed by the time they enter the main building of the shelter and pass the leashes to one of the volunteers, and he even leans down to pet a dog or two.

That is, until Neil asks, “Can we see the cats?”

Neil,” Andrew says.

Neil smiles at him brightly. “I just want to see them. Come on.”

“I can show you around,” the blonde volunteer — Kelly? — says, ignoring Andrew’s glare with practiced ease. “Come on.”

She leads them out of the main building and into another one, filled with smaller cages. The sheer amount of meowing and purring makes it nearly impossible to think, which, Andrew can admit, might be useful sometimes.

Kelly leads them past the cages and into a large, open room. The second they slip inside, at least fifteen cats are crowding around their feet and several of them attempt to climb their legs, nearly all of them purring and demanding attention.

Neil’s smile is nearly blinding.

“We’re not getting a cat, Neil,” Andrew says wearily, but Neil has already knelt down and allowed four cats to climb into his lap.

“Okay,” he says, picking up another cat and settling it on his knee.

By now most of the cats have abandoned Andrew and Kelly and are crowding around Neil, trying to climb into his lap and get him to pet them. Neil does his absolute best to pet every single one, letting the rest play with his scarf. He looks happy and pleased and excited.

Andrew is so, so annoyed.

It takes him a moment to realize that not all the cats are playing or trying to get Neil to pet them; one of them is sitting at the very top of the cat tree and staring at everything around it impassively.

It’s the ugliest cat Andrew has ever seen. It must have been black at some point, but most of its fur is gone, and its left eye seems to be damaged. Its right ear is ripped at the edge.

“A cat fight?” Andrew asks.

Kelly stands up to follow his gaze and shakes her head, her ponytail swishing in the air. “No,” she says. “Chemicals and a knife.”

“Who?” Andrew asks.

Kelly shrugs, a sad smile on her face. “You know how it is. Police closed the investigation before they even opened it.”

The cat gazes back at them, uninterested and unconcerned. Andrew looks back.

“What’s its name?” he asks.

“King,” Kelly replies. “He’s only two years old.”

“Only?” Andrew echoes.

Kelly looks away. “We’ll need to put him down. He needs a surgery, one we can’t afford, especially considering how lengthy the treatment is.”

“What kind of a surgery?” Andrew asks.

“For his eye,” Kelly replies. “It’s probably a tumor.”

“Would the surgery help?”

“It would,” Kelly says. “But we have plenty of cats that have priority, because they’re still healthy and pretty enough to be adopted. He’s at the bottom of the list. He gets his painkillers, but that’s it.”

Andrew turns his gaze back to the cat, who is watching them both, uncaring, unmoving and unimpressed. Relatable cats are not something Andrew has ever wanted in his life, but he is acutely aware that nearly all of his arguments against dogs don’t really apply here. He is also acutely aware that he has never been on this side before, capable of actually fixing a fucked-up thing, rather than being the fucked-up thing.

So he says, “Neil.”

“Mmm?” Neil hums, still focused solely on the cats crowding his lap.

“Pick one and we’re leaving,” Andrew says.

Neil startles at that, and the cat he is currently petting meows in annoyance.

“What?” Neil says, sounding genuinely surprised.

“You heard me,” Andrew says. “Pick one.”

“But —”

Andrew gazes at him in silence until Neil seems to accept that Andrew is neither joking, nor willing to discuss his decision, and then he smiles brightly. He doesn’t hesitate before picking a cat — a fluffy, white mess of claws, teeth and purring nonsense, and he scoops it up in his arms.

Andrew nods and turns to Kelly. “We’ll be taking these two.”

Kelly blinks at him. “You mean Sir and…?”

“And King,” Andrew confirms.

Kelly smiles at him, wide and bright, before she has to blink and look away. “Okay,” she says. “Just wait here for a second, I’ll have it all organized.”

She leaves, closing the door behind her.

Neil moves to stand by Andrew’s side, still petting the white ball in his hands, apparently unconcerned that Sir is chewing restlessly on this thumb. Together they look up at King, who looks back at them for a moment before turning around and instantly falling asleep.

“I do see the resemblance,” Neil says lightly.

“Shut up,” Andrew advises him. “We’re never talking about this.”

“About what?” Neil says obediently. “We need to get him down.”

“Glad you volunteered,” Andrew says. “Give me this,” he adds, pointing to Sir.

“What? Why?” Neil asks, holding the cat closer to his chest in a rare show of possessiveness.

Andrew gives him a bored look. “I can’t reach King.”

“And I can?” Neil asks, indignant. “I’m only a little taller than you are.”

“You’ll think of something,” Andrew tells him, extending his hands. “Well?”

Neil glares at him, but he puts Sir in Andrew’s arms. It’s still a white ball of nonsense, but Andrew has to admit that the persistent purring is kind of nice.

King is awake and back to watching them by the time Neil finds a stool and climbs on it to reach him, and he hisses loudly at Neil. Neil pauses at that, with his hand still extended, and Andrew pretends he doesn’t watch as Neil lets King sniff at his fingers before he tries to touch him. He is careful and patient, and it shouldn’t surprise Andrew, but it does.

King takes his time. He examines Neil’s hand, sniffs at it, looks impassively at Neil, and then, only then, grudgingly allows Neil to pet his head.

“Hey there,” Neil says quietly, and King continues to stare at him, but he lets Neil touch his chin, and several minutes later he lets Neil lift him gently into his arms.

King spares Andrew a glare over Neil’s shoulder before semi-accidentally nuzzling into Neil’s neck, and when Neil steps down and smiles at Andrew, his expression is triumphant.

Andrew silently dares him to say something about resemblance again, but Neil clearly has developed some survival instincts, because he stays quiet. He pets King gently, keeping his hold careful and light, and when King gives a soft, defeated purr, Andrew decides that he can’t watch this any longer.

He ignores Neil and turns around with Sir in his arms to leave the room, and pretends not to care about the fact that Sir’s purring changes from simply content to content and inquisitive and then excited as they go farther and farther away from the cages.

Sir is a bizarre cat. He seems healthy, if a little overweight, but there is something distinctly wrong with his face, as if he hit a wall at a very high speed or — Andrew supposes — as if someone tried to cross breeds that should not be crossed. The only thing Sir seems to be interested in is being petted and purring loudly, and Andrew lets himself wonder for a moment why Neil chose this particular ball of fluff and affection, but he supposes that the answer is not that hard to guess.

In the meantime, King has fallen asleep in Neil’s arms, and he has stopped purring, but his paws are kneading unconsciously at Neil’s shoulder, and Andrew must be glaring again, because Neil shoots him an amused glance and says, “You can’t be jealous of a cat.”

“Shut up,” Andrew says. “You’ll be looking after them on your own.”

“Sure,” Neil lies, without caring to sound like he isn’t lying. “Look, he loves you already,” he adds, pointing with his free hand to Sir, and Andrew stills for a moment at his choice of words and the ease with which they slip from Neil’s tongue.

If Neil notices, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he presses a kiss to King’s head and then puts him gently in the box that Kelly prepared for them.

Andrew dumps Sir in Neil’s arms and looks through the documents prepared by yet another volunteer before signing them all and taking the small bottle with King’s painkillers.

The cats are meowing by the time they reach the car, and Andrew rolls his eyes when Neil tries to both pet them and keep them in the box at the same time throughout the entire journey to the apartment.

King ends up falling asleep on Andrew’s pillow, so Andrew ends up sharing the second pillow with Neil. All in all, it’s not as bad as it could be, at least until Sir climbs on Andrew’s shoulder using nothing but claws and sheer determination.

It ends up being worth it, though, when Neil smiles wider and wider and then smothers his laughter against Andrew’s neck.

 

 

 

22.

 

In hindsight, Andrew should have seen it coming.

He has always known, rationally, that his past is not going anywhere, and not just due to his eidetic memory. He has always known that his apathy will forever be lurking in the shadows, waiting to crawl back into his life.

He has known that, rationally, and yet when it happens, it’s still unexpected at best, maybe because he finally has everything he has ever wanted and he should be alright now.

But he isn’t.

Neil notices, of course, because it’s impossible to hide anything from Neil. He notices that the nightmares are back. He notices Andrew’s exhaustion, heavier now than it has ever been. He notices the silence and the stillness and the apathy.

At first, he doesn’t intervene. He is simply there, a steady presence by Andrew’s side, close enough to touch, but never touching without permission. He continues to make meals that Andrew continues to pick at, hardly ever able to swallow down much of anything, and he continues to talk to Andrew in a quiet voice, even though Andrew has no answers to offer.

Andrew knows what is happening, but there is no rationalizing the way he feels, or, to be more specific, the way he doesn’t feel.

He continues to go to practice, but other than that, he spends most of his time curled up on the couch and staring into space, letting the cats crowd his lap.

He feels empty and hollow like blown glass, thinned out to the breaking point, all his defenses cracking under the relentless pressure of discomfort. He wants to rub at his skin until he reaches flesh and blood and bone, the last place where he has never been touched. He wants to stay still until the world ends.

He ignored the nonobligatory practice this morning, but he ordered Neil to go without him, and he hasn’t moved since then.

He hears the door click, but he recognizes Neil’s footsteps, so he doesn’t get out of bed. He realizes distantly that it’s late, that he should be up by now, that it must be past noon if Neil is back from practice, but he feels exhausted.

When he opens his eyes again, it’s to meet Neil’s gaze across the pillow. Neil is lying on his side on top of the covers, fully dressed. Concern is lurking in his eyes, but his expression is soothingly blank.

“Hey,” he says quietly.

Andrew simply looks back. The words are there, somewhere, but it’s too much work to get them out. Neil won’t walk away because of the silence, even if his passports are always waiting for him underneath the nightstand. He won’t.

“Can I touch you?” Neil says, extending his hand to hover over Andrew’s hair to specify his intentions.

Andrew nods and closes his eyes when Neil’s fingers slide into his hair. Neil spends a long time doing nothing except for this; his touch careful and soothing, predictable. Finally, his hand stops moving, his thumb resting just behind Andrew’s ear, massaging gently.

“How about a shower?” he asks quietly, and Andrew tenses minutely before forcing his muscles to relax.

He doesn’t respond, so Neil’s hand slowly resumes its motions as Neil lets the matter drop for the moment. He is persistent, but he is also patient, and he doesn’t ask for more than Andrew can give.

“Breakfast, then?” Neil says after another long moment, but when Andrew doesn’t respond to that question either, he lets the matter drop as well.

Andrew opens his eyes and watches him, searching for the signs of disappointment or frustration, but finding none. Neil simply continues to pet his hair, steady and unwavering in his support, clearly concerned but doing his best to project calm.

After a while, he reaches to the nightstand for his copy of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” and resettles on the bed until he can hold the book with one hand and pet Andrew’s hair with the other. Andrew pretends he doesn’t notice that Neil always glances at him before turning the page, making sure that Andrew had enough time to read it, too.

After they reach the end of another chapter, Andrew says, “A shower.”

His voice sounds hoarse from disuse, but Neil pretends not to notice. He nods, slowly withdrawing his hand.

He rolls out of bed and rummages through Andrew’s clothes until he finds his preferred sweatpants and hoodie and clean underwear, then picks up a fresh towel from the drawer.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he says, and then leaves the room. Andrew hears the quiet sound of the hinges of the bathroom door, and then the hum of the water when Neil sets about filling the bathroom with steam.

Andrew forces himself to kick away the sheets and stand up. He is distantly aware that his clothes are clinging to his skin, sticky with sweat. Just as distantly he acknowledges his lightheadedness, caused by too many skipped meals.

Neil is waiting for him in the bathroom, which looks suspiciously clean and smells suspiciously nice. There is also a collection of Andrew’s favorite shower gels that he hasn’t bought himself.

“Do you want me to leave?” Neil asks, pushing away from the sink and handing Andrew the towel.

Andrew considers him for a moment, then shakes his head. He doesn’t necessarily want to be touched right now, but he is also aware that Neil’s touch has helped in the past. If he has to, he can always ask Neil to leave, and Neil will do just that.

“Is touching okay?” Neil asks again.

Andrew frowns. It’s not the touching he minds right now, but he can’t make the words leave his mouth.

“Yes,” he says. “Just…”

He doesn’t say anything else, but Neil doesn’t move, patient and encouraging.

“It’s okay,” Neil says. “Whatever it is. Tell me.”

Andrew grits his teeth, but manages to force the words out. “Don’t look at me.”

He expects at least a flicker of confusion, but there is none. The second the words leave Andrew’s mouth, Neil offers a nod and closes his eyes.

Andrew swallows, then reaches for the hem of his hoodie and pushes it over his head. He takes off his pants, too, before reaching for the hem of Neil’s t-shirt. Neil jumps at the touch, but he relaxes instantly and doesn’t open his eyes.

“Okay?” Andrew asks.

“Yes,” Neil replies easily.

He keeps his eyes closed as Andrew finishes undressing them both, and doesn’t open them when Andrew pulls him into the shower. Andrew exhales at the heat of the water against his skin and steps closer to Neil. Without a word, he presses the bottle of shampoo into Neil’s hand and then rests his forehead against Neil’s shoulder.

“You can touch,” he murmurs.

Neil offers another nod. He doesn’t seem to have much trouble moving around with his eyes closed, and Andrew supposes that there is a story behind that, but he doesn’t want to break the silence at the moment. He lets Neil wash his hair and then he returns the favor, pleased with the way the tension in Neil’s body uncoils at every brush of Andrew’s fingers.

He lets Neil wash his body, still with his eyes closed. He feels safe and warm and content, at least until he registers the heavy pull of arousal in the pit of his stomach and a wave of nausea runs up his throat. He forces it down, but he doesn’t manage to conceal a shudder, and Neil instantly drops his hands.

“It’s fine,” Andrew manages. “I just need —”

“I know,” Neil says. He doesn’t reach out to touch Andrew again. “I’ll make you something to eat.”

He steps back and out of the cabin, leaving Andrew alone. He stays in the shower until Neil puts on his clothes and leaves the bathroom, closing the door behind him, and only then he rests his head against the tiles and turns the water as cold as it can go.

He is shivering by the time he gets out of the shower and puts on the sweatpants and then his hoodie, but his thoughts are a little less murky.

He discovers that Neil has opened the window in the bedroom and changed the sheets. The cats are already perched on the pillows and Sir starts purring the second he notices Andrew. King spares them both an annoyed glare before going back to licking his paw.

Andrew closes the door to the bedroom and pads to the kitchen, where Neil seems to be making pancakes. He is even wearing an apron. It is, naturally, orange.

“There’s also hot chocolate,” Neil says when he notices Andrew. “But only if you eat the pancakes first.”

Andrew rolls his eyes, but he sits obediently at the kitchen island and accepts the first pancake, frowning at the sheer amount of fresh fruit accompanying it.

“All part of the deal,” Neil says, pointing to the fruit with his spatula.

“Terrific,” Andrew mutters, but he devours the first pancake before Neil has the time to make the next one. After a few minutes, King saunters into the room and jumps on the kitchen counter, directly disobeying every single command Andrew has ever given him, and headbutts Neil in the elbow, purring furiously when Neil doesn’t immediately acknowledge him. Andrew glares at them both for a moment before Sir decides to join them and curls on the stool next to Andrew, absolutely content to simply exist.

Andrew eats two more pancakes before he is allowed to have his hot chocolate, and then three more after that, and then scrolls through the messages he received from Aaron and Renee, and through the missed calls from Nicky. Neil sits at the opposite side of the kitchen island and sips at his tea, looking content. When Andrew is done with his food, Neil places his mug on the counter.

He says, “I called Betsy.”

Andrew stills. After a moment, he forces himself to put down his mug as well. “Why?” he asks.

“She gave me a number for a therapist she knows here in Colorado,” Neil replies. “She thinks you would be able to work together.”

“Why?” Andrew repeats, still steady, but he can hear the demand in his own voice. He doesn’t want to be having this conversation, he doesn’t want a new therapist, he is tired.

Neil chews at his lower lip. “Because I can’t help you,” he says eventually. “I want you to feel better, but I can’t help you.”

“It’s not the flu, Neil,” Andrew snaps. “This is who I am.” He pauses, but the irrational sense of betrayal pushes the next words out of his mouth anyway. “You’re better off leaving than trying to fix me.”

Whatever careful gentleness was present in Neil’s voice before, it evaporates now. In the blink of an eye, Neil switches from patience and softness to conviction and steel.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “You could quit Exy, you could stop leaving the house, you could stop talking to me altogether and I still wouldn’t go anywhere. This isn’t about me and it isn’t about us. It’s about you.”

“Then it’s my choice, not yours,” Andrew replies. “I don’t belong to you.”

Neil swallows. “No, you don’t,” he acknowledges. “But you also don’t belong to this.”

“This,” Andrew echoes derisively.

“Your nightmares,” Neil says. “Your memories. Your mental illness. Take your pick.”

Andrew clenches his jaw. “As if you’re a paragon of mental health yourself.”

“I never claimed to be,” Neil says, and just like that, the steel in his voice melts away again. “But I have you, and that’s enough. It never worked like that the other way around.”

It takes a while for the words to actually register in Andrew’s mind, and when they do, he still can’t make sense of them for a moment.

When he does, all he says is, “You’re an idiot.”

Neil rolls his eyes, then moves to slide off his stool. “Right. Whatever.”

Andrew has no intention of letting him leave, so he catches Neil’s wrist. He jumps off the stool and rounds the kitchen island to stand in front of Neil.

“You’re an idiot,” he repeats.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Neil snaps.

Before he can push past Andrew and out of the kitchen, Andrew places a hand on his chest and says, “You help.”

Neil huffs, annoyed and disbelieving and avoiding Andrew’s gaze, so Andrew catches his chin between his thumb and forefinger and forces Neil to meet his gaze.

“You help,” he repeats. The words feel heavy on his tongue, like they might drop back into his throat any second now, but he pushes them out. “This,” he says, gesturing between them, “is everything.”

He can see Neil’s throat work as he swallows, and for a second he considers all other words that are still unsaid, but he has time to say them. There will be years and years after this, plenty of time to use and to waste, and Neil isn’t going anywhere. He was never going anywhere.

Andrew says, “I’ll make you a deal.”

“I’m listening,” Neil says quietly, though he seems busy maneuvering his hand, his wrist still in Andrew’s hold, until he can thread their fingers together.

“I’ll see the therapist Bee recommended,” he says. “But only if you do, too.”

Neil rolls his eyes. “I told you I don’t need —”

“And I told you you’re an idiot,” Andrew interrupts. “Do we have a deal or not?”

Neil glares at him some more, but eventually he huffs, annoyed.

“Fine,” he says. “But you’re taking me for a drive later tonight. And call Nicky, will you? I talk to him often enough as it is.”

“Deal,” Andrew agrees, pretending that he doesn’t know it’s all for his benefit.

“Deal,” Neil echoes and brings Andrew’s hand to his lips to press a kiss to his knuckles.

 

 

 

23.

 

“So,” Micky, the Denver EC’s starting backliner, says, “you and Josten, huh?”

Micky happens to be one of the people on their team that Andrew doesn’t completely ignore. He used to play for the Trojans back in the day, but he keeps his sunny personality to himself and he brings sweets to practice, so Andrew has decided to acknowledge his existence in exchange for unlimited access to Skittles and M&M’s.

He is reconsidering that decision now.

He puts his bag on the floor and folds his arms across his chest, raising an eyebrow.

It took their team exactly eight months to figure things out. By now they all know better than to antagonize Andrew, and Andrew doesn’t really care what they think as long as they keep their thoughts to themselves. He is used to the way their eyes linger on him and Neil, but as long as everyone keeps their mouth shut, he can handle it. When they choose to speak out — not so much.

“A problem?” he asks pleasantly.

“A solution, more like,” Micky says, unconcerned as he turns his back to Andrew and starts packing his bag. “That way you don’t get a plus one invite to the wedding, and I save, like, two hundred dollars.”

Andrew watches him for a moment longer, but Micky seems completely oblivious to the fact that he nearly got murdered in a locker room, so Andrew lets himself relax.

“We’re not coming,” he tells Micky.

“Well, Josten is definitely coming,” Micky says with a shrug. “He told me. As for you — think about the cake.”

Andrew narrows his eyes. “You can’t just win me over with sweets every time.”

“Can’t I?” Micky asks, like that’s news to him, and he swings his bag over his shoulder. “Too bad. I was thinking tiramisu and those tiny cupcakes with pink-and-white frosting that Amy makes —”

“Stop talking,” Andrew interrupts. “Fine.”

“Aw,” Micky says. “Cool. I’ll send you an invite and everything. And a cupcake.”

“Fuck off,” Andrew advises him, but accepts the Skittles Micky offers him.

“See you around,” Micky says, leaving the locker room with an obnoxious salute.

Andrew huffs, still a little on edge even though his wariness was misplaced, and double-checks his bag before picking it up and leaving the room.

Neil is waiting for him by the Maserati, toying with their apartment keys, his bag resting on the ground by his feet. His hair is still slightly damp from the shower and Andrew curls his hands in the pockets of his hoodie to keep himself from reaching out. Soon, he promises himself, and lets himself imagine the way he’s going to run his fingers through Neil’s hair the second they are alone and behind closed doors.

“Hey,” Neil says, smiling at Andrew, easy and pleased.

He hasn’t stopped smiling for days now, ever since they won the semi-finals, and Andrew should be getting bored of it by now, but instead he still has trouble looking away. There’s a new kind of peace in Neil’s eyes and a lack of tension in his body, and he looks more content than ever, even though they still have one big game ahead of them before the season ends. Andrew has no idea whether Neil’s mood should be attributed to the therapy sessions he attends but refuses to talk about, or the Denver EC’s recent progress, and he prefers not to ask.

“We just saw each other,” he says, feigning indifference.

“Killjoy,” Neil says, but his smile doesn’t fade, and Andrew steps closer to him than he really should, considering that they’re in a public parking lot. Neil doesn’t seem to mind, though.

“You’re driving,” Andrew says, dropping the car keys into Neil’s hand.

“Because you like watching me drive?” Neil asks, cheerful, obnoxious, and infuriating.

“Because it keeps you from talking,” Andrew tells him.

Neil hums, eyes gleaming. “There are other ways to keep me from talking.”

“Do you want to end up on the cover of tomorrow’s newspaper?” Andrew asks him, stepping a little closer just to watch Neil’s pupils go wider and his breath hitch. Andrew leans in so their lips nearly brush and says, “Body found in the parking lot by the Denver’s Exy Court…”

Neil tips his head back and laughs out loud and it’s such a gorgeous sound that Andrew has to step back before he actually ends up kissing Neil against their car in a public parking lot.

Before he can walk away, though, Neil’s fingers curl around the sleeve of his jacket, so Andrew stops in his tracks and moves to face him again, tilting his head in a silent question.

“Would it be so bad?” Neil asks, peering up at him, his careless slouch nearly making him shorter than Andrew.

“Would what be so bad?” Andrew asks.

“Ending up on the cover of tomorrow’s newspaper,” Neil says, his gaze fixed firmly on Andrew’s eyes.

It takes Andrew a moment to understand what he means.

He sighs. “Give me the keys,” he says.

Neil complies without a pause and lets go of Andrew’s sleeve.

Andrew pulls the car out of the parking lot and into the street, locking his hands tightly on the wheel and wondering if they’d tremble if he allowed them to relax.

Neither of them says anything until they’ve made it out of the city and onto the interstate.

“You want to come out,” Andrew says eventually, opening the window on his side and lighting up a cigarette. His hands are steady now; his thoughts are anything but.

“I don’t want to have to,” Neil replies. “But since we would have to — yeah.”

“Why?” Andrew asks idly, rolling the cigarette between his fingers and forcing himself to pay attention to the road. “Haven’t you listened to Kevin at all?”

“I have,” Neil says, shrugging. “I just really don’t care.”

Andrew glances at him from the corner of his eye. “What about the Moriyamas, then?”

“What about them?” Neil asks. His hands are folded neatly in his lap, his gaze fixed on Andrew’s face, as if he expects the stillness to conceal the uncertainty in his eyes.

“Since it can affect your career,” Andrew replies, “and since it will definitely affect your sponsorship deals, it seems like something they might consider relevant.”

“Not if we win the league,” Neil points out.

“Wrong. Besides, we haven’t won yet,” Andrew replies. “And you’re evading the question.”

“So I might make them less money,” Neil says. “Less is still more than none, and that’s how much they’re gonna get if they choose to kill me.”

“True,” Andrew allows. “But it doesn’t make the call any less risky.”

“I don’t care,” Neil says, fiercer now. “They don’t own me. It’s not their decision.”

“You really do have a death wish, don’t you?” Andrew says, tossing the cigarette out of the window and lighting another one. “Why now?”

Neil offers a shrug, glancing away.

Andrew sighs. “If you expect me to go through with this, I want some answers, Neil.”

Neil licks his lips. “Because I want to,” he says. “I want to be able to kiss you hello if we both feel like it, without worrying about the paparazzi. I want to be able to hold your hand. I want the journalists to stop asking about my relationship status. I want this to stop being a secret.”

Andrew considers it for a long moment. “How would you want it to happen?”

“We should probably warn the management first,” Neil replies. “Then we could tell the media.”

“Tell the media,” Andrew parrots, without heat. “You want a press conference?”

Neil shrugs. “I thought about an interview, actually. With a journalist we both can stand.”

Andrew considers it for another long moment. “You really want to do this?”

“Yes,” Neil replies. “But only if you do, too.”

Andrew knocks the ash away and brings the cigarette back to his lips.

He wonders if the journalists will drag out his past and whether they’ll ask him about it. He wonders if they’ll transform all of this into yet another spectacle to be endured, just like Aaron’s trial had to be endured. He wonders, but he knows that there is no running away from this. He has made his call a long time ago, the second he chose to become an Exy player, the second he agreed to the fame. Their team already knows, the management already knows. Sooner or later the media will know as well.

He’d rather they learn about it on their terms.

“I mean it,” Neil says quietly. “I want this, yes, but only if you want it as well. If you don’t, I won’t ask again, I promise.”

Andrew sighs, stubs out his cigarette, and chooses the exit from the interstate which will allow them to turn around and drive back home. Then he pulls into a gas station, parks the car facing away from the station store, and turns off the engine.

He drops the keys into Neil’s hand. “Your turn.”

“Okay,” Neil says easily, and just as promised, he doesn’t press the matter any further. Andrew pushes the door open, looks around the empty parking lot and the nearly empty road, and before Neil can move past him, he curls his fingers in the clasps of his jacket.

“Fine,” he says. “I want to get this over with, too.”

Neil nods, his expression serious but soft around the edges. Andrew tugs him a little closer.

“It’s not like they can say anything we can’t handle,” he adds.

“True,” Neil says easily. “Are you going to kiss me or what?”

“Or what,” Andrew decides, then gives him a small shove and lets go of his jacket. “Get behind the wheel, Josten.”

Neil doesn’t move away from the door. “Eager to get back home?” he asks, a lazy smile curling up his lips.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him, but Neil has a lot of experience in making Andrew do whatever he wants.

“You know,” Neil informs him conspiratorially, completely unbothered by Andrew’s glare, “technically speaking, we’re both already home, if home really is where the heart —”

Partly to shut him up, but mostly because he wants to and because Neil isn’t exactly wrong, Andrew presses their lips together, pushing Neil against the door of the car, just as he wanted to do at the parking lot by the Exy Stadium.

Neil smirks into the kiss, clearly pleased with himself, but the smirk gives way to a small, surprised sound when Andrew tilts his head just right and drags his teeth across Neil’s lower lip. Neil has a lot of experience in pushing Andrew’s buttons, but Andrew also isn’t exactly new to this, so by the time he pulls back, Neil’s body is completely pliant against his own and Neil’s breathing is ragged.

“Fuck,” Neil murmurs, chasing after another kiss. Andrew indulges him by pressing their lips together one more time, pleased with the enthusiastic response he gets, and pulls back.

He runs his fingers through Neil’s hair. “Eager to get back home?” he parrots.

“Shut up,” Neil says, flushed and annoyed.

“You still have to drive us there,” Andrew informs him airily.

“Shut,” Neil repeats, “up.”

Then he falls silent, his gaze fixed on Andrew’s face, and Andrew doesn’t quite understand the reason behind it until he realizes that there is a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. It’s not a grin he recalls from his days on medication and it’s not a lopsided smirk that sometimes accompanies his mocking remarks. It’s simply a smile, content and carefree, and Andrew did nothing to smother it.

Neil reaches out, slow and questioning, and traces Andrew’s lips with his fingertips.

Andrew thinks about pushing his hand away, but somehow he ends up shifting his head until he can press a kiss to the inner side of Neil’s wrist, still holding Neil’s gaze. There is nothing accidental about it this time, and Andrew doesn’t care to pretend otherwise. Neil’s response is a small shiver.

“Let’s go home,” Andrew says quietly.

“Yeah,” Neil agrees, for once without putting up a fight.

Once they are on the interstate, the road between them empty and basking in the last glimpses of sunlight, Neil catches Andrew’s hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles.

Andrew’s skin is still tingling long after the sun sets.

 

 

 

24.

 

Neil doesn’t talk about New York.

At first, Andrew thinks it’s because there is nothing to talk about. Neil never learned to get along with his old team, especially after he up and left to watch over Andrew in the hospital. He never really explained where the black eye came from, but Andrew can tell it had something to do with him. Regardless of the reason behind it, Neil never really made friends in New York, and he always seems to take a lot of pleasure in crushing the New York City EC on the court, even if he never celebrates his goals out of respect for the fans.

He also doesn’t seem like he has any trouble adjusting to living with Andrew, and his mood has definitely improved since they moved in together.

And yet Andrew can’t shake the feeling that something is off. Maybe it’s because he realizes that something would definitely be off if their situation was reversed; while Andrew prefers living with Neil to living without him, he got used to his apartment.

It’s his space. It’s a place he carved out of the universe that never wanted him, a place he molded into something familiar and safe. Regardless of how much he wants Neil here, nothing changes the fact that the apartment is his in a way it isn’t theirs.

He spends enough time thinking about it to end up mentioning it to his — their — therapist. He still refers to her as Not-Bee in the privacy of his own mind, but he can tell from the perspective of an adult who actually wants to recover, that she is good at her job and that she is worthy of his trust.

It’s her advice that brought him here, accompanied by a sleepy and unhappy Neil.

“Why are we in the suburbs?” Neil complains.

He has been continuously annoyed — and annoying — since they lost against Kevin’s team two days ago, and Andrew doesn’t really expect it to change until their next game. Neil’s mood and his Exy career are by now so entangled that Andrew has long since given up on trying to make Neil separate between the two.

“Andrew,” Neil complains again, until they leave the clean, terrifyingly pedantic neighborhood behind and turn into a side road and stop in front of a lonely house.

Andrew parks the car, ignoring the suddenly silent Neil, and pushes the door open.

There is a ‘for sale’ sign by the gravel path leading to the porch, and Andrew passes it without sparing it a second glance, joggling the keys he received from the estate agent. She insisted on accompanying them at first, but all it took was Andrew’s last name and his attempt to leave the office for her to reconsider.

He is halfway between the sign and the porch when he hears the passenger’s door of the Maserati click open and then shut. Neil jogs up to him and catches Andrew’s sleeve.

“Andrew?” he repeats, questioning now.

“Come on,” Andrew replies.

Since Neil continues to stare at him, completely still, Andrew sighs and threads their fingers together, and then brings Neil’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss to the inner side of his wrist.

Neil swallows thickly, but finally offers a nod and falls into step beside Andrew when he moves towards the door.

The house is far enough both from the road and from the other properties that Andrew can hear nothing except for the hum of the wind, the rustle of the leaves, the crunching of the gravel beneath their feet.

The porch is small and the steps creak under their boots. The house is brand new, but it already looks settled between the trees and next to a small garden.

It doesn’t remind Andrew of anything. The houses he lived in were far smaller than this one, surrounded by their mirror reflections, and they always looked worn-down. This house, though clearly designed to belong, looks untouched.

He pushes the front door open, letting Neil into the open space of the corridor. There is no furniture in the house and all the walls are painted in white, but the floors are already finished and the electricity is already installed. The house is brimming over with warm, muted sunlight.

He leads Neil through the bedroom and the guestroom first, separated by a spacious bathroom, and then into the kitchen open to both a small dining room on the one side and a significantly larger living room on the other side.

There is one more room in the attic, but Neil only spares it a glance or two before trailing back to the living room. Andrew isn’t surprised that it drew his attention; the room has panoramic windows with a view of the garden stretching behind the house, and a glass door leading onto a terrace.

Andrew watches Neil watch the room for a long moment before speaking up.

“According to Wymack, keeping this place warm will cost a shitload of money, courtesy of the windows, but it’s not like we can’t afford it.”

That gets Neil’s attention.

“You asked Wymack about this,” he says, disbelieving.

Andrew shrugs. It does, in hindsight, seem like an odd decision; it’s not like he couldn’t check it online. Still, Wymack’s reaction was interesting to witness; Andrew has never before been on the receiving end of anyone’s fatherly instincts. Or — he amends, thinking about all those nights spent getting drunk under Wymack’s watchful eye — he has never before acknowledged it.

“Can we even afford this place?” Neil asks.

“Yes,” Andrew replies simply.

Neil frowns. “Even if we pay equal halves?”

“Halves are always equal,” Andrew says and receives an annoyed huff for his efforts. “But yes, Neil, we can.”

There would be no point in this otherwise.

Neil narrows his eyes. “Why now? What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Andrew says, shrugging. “We don’t have to pick this one. There’s no rush.”

“I like it,” Neil says immediately, shaking his head to keep Andrew from backtracking.

Andrew offers a simple nod, even though he is quietly pleased.

He has, as a matter of fact, spent quite a lot of time thinking about this.

The house is far enough from the nearest neighbor that they wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered by anyone. They could sit on the porch and smoke and make out without anyone watching them. They could go on a midnight drive without drawing anyone’s attention.

The door to the house is enforced, as is the door in the back, and all windows have locks. The bedroom is large enough that if they wanted to, they could fit two beds there, for the nights when one of them can’t handle being touched, but doesn’t want to be alone.

The guest room could probably be adapted for the cats, though Andrew doubts this would keep them from trying to sleep with him and Neil.

The living room vaguely reminds him of Neil’s old apartment, the large windows letting in a lot of light, and Neil clearly thinks the same, if his slightly wistful expression is anything to go by.

He turns to look at Andrew. “I know why you’re doing this,” he says eventually. “And you don’t have to, okay? I’d be fine living absolutely anywhere as long as we live together.”

He looks earnest and serious, but it only makes Andrew’s conviction grow stronger.

“I know I don’t have to,” he says, holding Neil’s gaze. “I want to.”

“Yeah?” Neil says, soft and content, because even after all these years, hearing that Andrew wants something always seems to please him.

“Yes,” Andrew confirms.

Neil smiles and leans in, careful as he always is to give Andrew ample time to pull away, and then slots their lips together, and for a brief moment, Andrew can see the rest of their lives. He can imagine waking up to the heat of Neil’s body and brushing their teeth together, he can imagine driving to practice and then coming back home and making dinner for both of them, he can imagine their cats playing in the living room and trying to escape through the terrace door.

He can imagine all of this happening on the loop, with only minor changes, for the rest of his life, and not a single part of it seems boring.

“Hey,” Neil murmurs, pulling back just to brush his lips against Andrew’s forehead, and Andrew never cared much for the gesture until Neil, but now it causes all tension to bleed out of his body and he sways slightly until he can rest his forehead against Neil’s shoulder.

It still strikes him as unreal, sometimes — how far they have come.

Neil raises his hands, keeps them hovering by Andrew’s side, so Andrew gives a small nod. “Yeah,” he hums, and Neil shifts closer.

This still doesn’t come naturally to either of them, not really. It’s a little easier when they are about to fall asleep and don’t have the strength to question the impulse, or when they’re sharing a blanket on the couch. They hold hands, they exchange casual touches, they kiss without the intent of taking it further, but hugging is still foreign.

Maybe it will always be — but maybe it won’t.

Andrew keeps his arms hooked loosely around Neil’s waist, but he lets himself relax into the familiar heat of Neil’s body. Neil’s hands are nowhere near that still; one of them is running through Andrew’s hair, a soothing, rhythmical gesture Andrew has grown used to, while the other is traveling up and down Andrew’s spine, applying pressure from time to time.

It might never come naturally to either of them, but it doesn’t make it any less pleasant.

They only spend several minutes like that, but it might as well be several hours, because Andrew feels drowsy and sleepy and absolutely doesn’t want to do anything else for the rest of the day.

He sometimes still thinks that it should scare him, how much he has learned to rely on Neil and how much he has learned to trust him, but instead, he feels as though an enormous weight was lifted off his shoulders.

He is used to being needed. He is used to being needed for protection, he is used to being needed on the court, he is used to being needed to get his hands dirty and to get the job done.

He is used to being needed. He isn’t, however, used to being wanted — at least not in the way he would like to be.

Neil doesn’t expect anything. He doesn’t need Andrew, not the way people usually do; there are knives underneath his armbands and there are skills forever burned into his muscle memory. He has learned to watch his back at the age of ten. He has his own passions, he has people he can count on. He doesn’t need anything from Andrew except for his continued existence.

For once, it’s enough to just be.

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to give him everything Andrew would never think to give anyone else.

“Yes or no, Neil?” he murmurs into Neil’s neck.

He can feel Neil shift slightly as he looks up and around the room again, even though it’s clear that he has made up his mind already.

Still, he says, “Always yes with you.”

 

 

 

25.

 

They win the Olympic gold.

They win the Olympic gold, and Andrew kisses Neil in front of billions of people.

They have been out for over two years now; their team knows, the media knows, their fans know. Some seemed to have a problem with that, some seemed to care very little, some seemed bizarrely excited. Ichirou Moriyama cared enough to call Neil, but not enough to kill him, and as far as Andrew is concerned, that’s all that matters.

They discussed the kiss itself, several days earlier, so when the final buzzer sounds across the court, and after Neil manages to get out of the crowd of their screaming teammates and stops in front of Andrew, Andrew asks again, “Yes or no?”

Neil says, “Yes.”

It’s a short, firm kiss, a confirmation more than anything else, but then Neil presses their foreheads together for a moment, and Andrew knows that this will make newspapers. He doesn’t mind, unlike Kevin, who shoots them a stern look all the way across the court.

One medal ceremony, three interviews, four phone calls, several text messages, and one official afterparty later, they are all stuck in a dim hotel bar with the team, and Andrew wants to finally leave. Neil, dressed in a dark navy suit and with his hair actually styled for once, doesn’t exactly help matters.

Kevin, sitting by the bar next to Andrew and nursing his third glass of champagne, shoots Andrew a grim look.

“Was the kiss really necessary?” he complains, following the line of Andrew’s gaze.

“Jealous?” Andrew asks, without caring to look away from Neil, who easily catches his gaze and smiles, familiar and content, from where he is talking to one of their teammates.

Kevin huffs. “No,” he says. “But your life would be much easier if you stopped pissing off your sponsors.”

“Do I look like someone who strives to make their life easy?” Andrew asks. “Where is Thea, anyway? Don’t you have your own relationship to supervise?”

Kevin shoots him a look. “She isn’t here.”

“Figured that much,” Andrew says. “Stop nurturing your alcoholism and call her, then.”

Kevin narrows his eyes. “Since when do you care enough to suggest that?”

“Oh, Kevin,” Andrew says, with an exaggerated sigh. “We’re friends now, remember? That’s the kind of shit it apparently entails. Condolences to us both.”

Kevin blinks at him, clearly caught off-guard, and Andrew quickly gets bored with his stunned silence. “Shoo,” he says, waving his hand. “It’s around five p.m. in California now. Get a move on.”

“Yeah,” Kevin says eventually. “Yeah, okay. You’re right.”

He slides off the stool, absurdly careful, but he seems steady on his feet. He pushes his drink towards Andrew, then reaches out to touch his shoulder, changes his mind, and offers an awkward wave. Andrew watches him until he enters the elevator, his phone already in hand, and then offers himself mental congratulations for handling the problem without breaking Kevin’s neck.

He looks around to search for Neil and nearly startles when he discovers that Neil is already standing behind his back.

“Hey,” Neil says. “What’s up with your son?”

“Before sunrise,” Andrew deadpans, “he is your son.”

Neil snorts, then drops his forehead to Andrew’s shoulder to stifle a fit of hysterical laughter.

Andrew shoots him an amused glance and offers him his water. Neil takes a sip, still unable to stop laughing, and then leans around Andrew to place the glass back on the counter.

His lips brush against the tip of Andrew’s ear, taking advantage of the fact that with Andrew sitting near the end of the bar, nobody is currently paying any attention to either of them, and even though the gesture is clearly meant to be teasing, it nearly causes Andrew to shiver. Pride and happiness is a deadly combination on someone as stupidly gorgeous as Neil.

“We’re leaving,” Andrew decides, picking up his glass and turning around on his stool to face Neil.

“Oh, are we?” Neil says, clearly pleased with himself.

“Me and the champagne,” Andrew clarifies, which earns him another huff of laughter from Neil.

“My bad,” he says with a grin.

“It is,” Andrew agrees, before using Neil’s tie to tug him down for a kiss.

Neil offers no resistance whatsoever and Andrew draws him closer, sliding his fingers into Neil’s hair and letting Neil’s hands rest on his knees. He is distantly aware of the wolf-whistles, courtesy of their teammates, but he doesn’t care enough to open his eyes and so he flips the bird in the general direction of the noise. He can feel Neil smiling against his lips and decides that he doesn’t want to stay in the bar any longer.

“Let’s go,” he says, pulling back from the kiss and sliding off the stool.

“Leaving us already, Josten-Minyards?” Micky asks, clearly cultivating his death wish.

“It’s Minyard-Jostens,” Neil corrects seriously, pushing past Micky and towards the elevator.

“What?!” Micky says, nearly dropping his glass. “Neil, what?!”

Neil salutes him, shamelessly stealing both the gesture and the smirk from Andrew, and then drags Andrew into the elevator by the sleeve of his jacket.

“I absolutely hate you,” Andrew informs him the second the door closes.

“He started it,” Neil points out, like the five-year-old he is. “And I don’t think you do.”

Andrew huffs an annoyed breath and walks out of the elevator. He can feel Neil’s gaze on his back, but he refuses to glance back, and he fishes out the key to their room and pushes the door open without waiting for Neil.

“Why does it bother you so much?” Neil asks, his gaze sharp and inquisitive, and Andrew absolutely can’t let him figure it out.

“Shut up,” he says, entering the room.

Neil continues to watch him for a moment longer, and then his expression clears, and Andrew doesn’t want to know what kind of conclusion he has reached.

Neil says, “Make me,” and then he contradicts himself by kissing Andrew first and pushing the door shut with his foot.

The kiss is quieter and more tender than Andrew has expected, but he doesn’t try to deepen it right away, allowing the gentleness. He shuffles closer to Neil, then huffs impatiently at the layers of clothing and pushes the jacket off Neil’s shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.

Neil hums into his lips, and Andrew tugs at Neil’s tie, letting the silk slide between his fingers as he walks Neil back in the general direction of the bed.

He pushes Neil down on the mattress and then prevents him from lying down by holding on to the tie. Neil doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest, his gaze calm and patient as he looks up at Andrew, his hands resting on the mattress by his sides.

Neither of them cared to get the lights, but the city glow is enough to go by. For once, the dark doesn’t bother Andrew at all. He looks at the play of blue and yellow lights travelling across the room and at the play of shadows on Neil’s face, behind the curtain of his eyelashes, in the corner of his eyes, under the jut of his lower lip.

He kicks off his boots and shrugs off his jacket, and then he climbs on Neil’s lap, with one knee on either side of his hips, and he kisses Neil on the lips. Neil’s fingers curl into the sheets, but he doesn’t try to touch Andrew, only tilts his head into the kiss and makes a content noise.

“You can touch,” Andrew tells him, pulling back from the kiss to finally get rid of Neil’s tie. He takes his time untying the knot he tied himself, earlier today, while Neil moves his hands from the sheets to Andrew’s waist and then his back.

“Okay?” he asks.

Andrew hums approvingly in response and dips his head to kiss Neil’s neck, undoing the first two buttons of his shirt. Neil makes a small noise, and his hand splays on Andrew’s back, unconsciously trying to push him closer, while Andrew undoes the rest of the buttons and tugs the shirt off Neil’s shoulders. Then he pauses, because Neil’s hands are still trailing up and down Andrew’s back, and it’s impossible to get the shirt past his arms.

“Off,” Andrew huffs, pulling back from another kiss and giving Neil’s shirt an irritated tug.

Neil bites his lip to keep himself from smiling, but he ends up smiling all the same as he complies and lets go of Andrew to shrug off the shirt.

“Better?” he teases.

“Shut up,” Andrew tells him and immediately leans in to bite at Neil’s neck in retaliation.

Neil shivers, but before Andrew can push him back in order to get a better access to his collarbones, Neil uses his temporary distraction to press a kiss to the underside of Andrew’s jaw, and Andrew doesn’t quite manage to stifle a shudder.

It’s ridiculous. It should be familiar by now — the way Neil’s chapped lips feel on his overheated skin — but there clearly is no getting used to this. Andrew tips his head back, baring even more of his neck for Neil, and hums at the feeling of Neil’s teeth dragging against his pulse-point, just enough to make all of Andrew’s thoughts dissolve into a puddle of pleasure.

“Fuck,” he murmurs, conflicted between wanting to take off his own shirt and not wanting to stop Neil from kissing his neck, but before he can make a decision of any kind, Neil pulls back.

Andrew opens his eyes — when did he close them? — and glares at Neil.

Neil seems unconcerned. Instead of leaning for a kiss, he reaches for one of Andrew’s hands, and Andrew frowns at him, puzzled, but doesn’t resist. Neil takes Andrew’s hand between the two of his own, and then begins to undo the cuffs, infuriatingly unhurried.

Andrew watches him do it, annoyed but oddly captivated, until Neil says, soft and gentle, “Hey.”

Andrew looks up at him, already frowning, because there is a weight to Neil’s voice that hasn’t been there in a while.

He tilts his head to the side in a silent question.

Neil takes his time with the cuff and when he is done, he brings Andrew’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss to Andrew’s knuckles, all of this while holding his gaze.

“Thank you,” Neil says, the same weight still present in his voice. “You were amazing.”

Andrew freezes.

For a brief moment, all of his thoughts stagger to a halt and he is back in that damn locker room, with Neil looking at him with a smile on his lips and a goodbye in his eyes.

If his body weren’t frozen, he’d push Neil away and stand up and slam the door on his way out, but before his muscles register the command, he realizes that there is no trace of mockery in Neil’s eyes, only tentative tenderness.

“Hey,” Neil says again, and once again Andrew lets him meet his gaze. “It’s not like that. I’m not going anywhere. I just realized I never told you exactly what I meant, then.”

Andrew grits his teeth, but he doesn’t protest when Neil takes his other hand and after a cursory glance at Andrew begins to undo the cuffs, too.

“You meant goodbye,” Andrew says, and there is fury lurking in the tremor of his voice. “And thank you for the game.”

“Yes,” Neil agrees. “But not just for the game.”

He continues to look at Andrew with that quiet, hopeful expression, so Andrew pushes away his resentment for a moment.

“For what else, then?” he asks, knowing that this is the question Neil has been waiting for.

As expected, Neil smiles at him, grateful and relieved. He finishes undoing the cuffs and reaches for the first button of Andrew’s shirt, letting his hand stop just short of touching Andrew’s skin and waiting patiently for Andrew’s curt nod.

“For the keys,” Neil says, calm and collected, like he has considered all of this before. “I never had a home before you. I never had anywhere to go back to.”

“They were just keys, Neil. Get over it,” Andrews says, echoing his old statement, but he does nothing to push Neil’s hands away. He keeps his own hands in his lap, easily keeping his balance on his legs alone, and watches the play of shadows across Neil’s face every time he closes his eyes.

“Were they really?” Neil asks, not because he believes that — by now Andrew knows that he doesn’t — but because he enjoys being annoying. He undoes the first button of Andrew’s shirt and looks up, waiting for his answer.

Andrew glares at him, but he still believes that the only way to pay for honesty is with a truth, so he looks away and says, “No.”

Neil hums, unsurprised but pleased all the same. He reaches for the second button of Andrew’s shirt.

“I also meant thank you for the trust, and the honesty,” he says, quiet. “Nothing about me felt real until I started trading truths with you.”

“Nothing about you is real,” Andrew snarls, an old defense against vulnerability, and Neil barely manages to stifle a flinch. Andrew notices nonetheless, and just like that, his annoyance is gone. Before Neil can look away, Andrew catches his chin and keeps him still. Neil avoids his gaze.

“It’s not like you’re wrong,” he dismisses with an exaggerated shrug, masking his hurt as easily as he would mask a physical injury.

“Stop,” Andrew tells him, then waits for Neil to look up. “You are real, of course you are real.” He pauses. “I just sometimes find it hard to believe.”

Neil’s expression goes from careful blankness to the familiar understanding. He reaches out again, but instead of undoing another button, he traces his fingertips against the tip of Andrew’s ear.

“I’m not a pipe dream,” Neil says.

“Sure you are,” Andrew disagrees, then tilts his head to the side to nestle his head in Neil’s hand. “Doesn’t matter, though, as long as you are not going anywhere.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Neil promises, and then tilts his chin up and presses their lips together. Andrew hums, pleased with the development, and kisses back, letting his hands rest on Neil’s shoulders as Neil undoes the remaining buttons of his shirt.

When Neil breaks the kiss again, Andrew nearly huffs in frustration, but then Neil presses a kiss to his shoulder, quiet and chaste, and all fight goes out of Andrew’s body.

“I also meant,” Neil says, “thank you for the kisses.” He pauses and looks up at Andrew, a smile once again curling in the corner of his lips. “Though I guess you enjoy them as much as I do.”

“Thin ice, Neil,” Andrew warns him, but he softens his own threat by kissing Neil again.

Neil smiles into the kiss. One of his hands migrates to the scar on Andrew’s stomach, tracing it with absurd gentleness and making Andrew feel centered and settled and indestructible.

He gives Neil a push and Neil doesn’t resist him at all as he topples back on the mattress, with Andrew now hovering over him.

“Hey,” Neil says, content and smug and pleased, and Andrew thinks, I love you.

He says, “Eight hundred and ten.”

 

 

 

26.

 

There is nothing special about the day.

Andrew knows this, because he’s run through the calendar in his head two times already, and came up empty. There is nothing special about the day at all, and yet there is something odd in Neil’s behavior, something Andrew can’t quite pinpoint.

Not that he has the time to consider it at length, not with the warm weight of Neil’s body against his own, with his hands underneath Neil’s loose t-shirt. His lips are tingling from kissing, but he doesn’t particularly want to stop, so he ignores it. They’re getting progressively more horizontal, even though the kissing began with Andrew sitting up against the pillows and Neil straddling his lap, but Andrew doesn’t mind that, either.

He puzzles over the breakfast Neil made for them both and brought to bed; it clearly wasn’t an impulsive decision, considering the ingredients. He has planned this.

Neil’s lips taste of chocolate and strawberries, just as Andrew’s own, and it drives Andrew up the wall that even after so many kisses the taste still lingers on the tip of his tongue.

The other part that bothers him is that there is no urgency in this.

It’s not like they never kiss without the intention of taking it further, but it’s unlike Neil to give up his morning run just to make out in bed. Andrew is quietly suspicious, even though he enjoys himself too much to complain and risk reminding Neil that he has other things to do.

Neil breaks the kiss for a moment, and Andrew can’t help glaring a little, but he stops glaring when Neil smiles, soft and carefree, and picks up another strawberry and dips it in the chocolate. Andrew considers saying something about getting chocolate all over the sheets or maybe about how ridiculously cliché this whole endeavor is, but he can’t get a single word out of his mouth as Neil brings the strawberry to his lips and eats it in two excruciatingly slow bites. He leans in later, but Andrew doesn’t feel like waiting, so he meets him halfway, cradling his jaw as he chases the taste lingering in Neil’s mouth.

He feels like he is floating, suspended a thousand miles above the ground, for once uncaring about the pull of gravity.

I love you, he thinks, unable to recall the difference between vowels and consonants, unable to think about anything except for the press of Neil’s lips against his own, the touch of Neil’s hand on the side of his neck, the weight of Neil’s body resting in his lap. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Neil breaks the kiss again, but before Andrew can draw him back in, he dips his head and presses his lips to Andrew’s jaw. He shifts in Andrew’s lap, briefly reminding them both of their arousal, but there is still no urgency in this, maybe because neither of them is interested in bringing it to an end. Neil kisses his jaw again, but doesn’t move to his neck as Andrew has expected.

Instead, he meets Andrew’s gaze again, and then leans in and brushes his lips against Andrew’s right cheek. It’s only a ghost of a touch, a question more than anything else, and Andrew swallows before giving a terse nod. He used to dislike this kind of tenderness, back when all tenderness seemed dishonest, but he has learned by now that when it comes to Neil, gentleness doesn’t serve to disguise violence.

Neil’s lips brush against his cheekbone again before moving to Andrew’s brow, causing Andrew’s eyes to flutter shut. He presses another kiss to Andrew’s right eyelid and then the bridge of his nose and the center of his forehead, before moving to the other side of Andrew’s face, his touch soft and butterfly-light. When he reaches Andrew’s jaw again and once again doesn’t move to his neck, Andrew huffs in annoyance and tightens his hold on Neil’s hair.

Neil pulls back without a pause, waiting for Andrew to look up. “Wanna stop?” he asks, his words sliding together, warm and honey-like, his eyes hooded.

Andrew shakes his head, then tugs Neil closer again, directing his head until Neil gets the clue. He lets out a soft, breathless laugh, but before Andrew has a chance to get annoyed, Neil’s lips finally brush against his neck, and Andrew’s body — the traitor — gives a pleased shudder.

He can tell that Neil is smiling against his skin, but he has neither the patience, nor the willingness to do anything about it, so instead he tips his head back and rests it against the headboard, giving Neil as much access to his neck as he can.

Neil takes his time. He alternates between pressing open-mouthed kisses to Andrew’s skin and brushing his lips against it so lightly that Andrew can barely feel it, and it’s excruciating and unbearable and Andrew never wants it to stop. Neil reaches his favorite spot, the beginning of the curve between Andrew’s neck and his shoulder, and lingers there for a long moment, until the lightness of his touch becomes absolutely impossible to stand.

Andrew licks his lips and has to try several times before he manages to make a sound. “You can, if you want to,” he says, and forces himself to continue. “Leave a mark, I mean.”

Neil pauses, his lips still brushing lightly against Andrew’s skin.

It’s not the first time Andrew has allowed it, even though Neil has never explicitly asked. The first time it happened, Andrew was wary of how much he wanted it, and then grew even more wary when he realized just how grounding the mark was. He has left marks on Neil before and then watched with hungry eyes as Neil traced them absently through his t-shirt, but he has never expected that he would like having one on his own skin. And yet he found himself pressing his fingers to the marks just as he presses his fingers against his scars, making his nerve-endings flare with awareness. This is real. You are real. This is your life and you are still here.

Neil shifts back just enough to meet Andrew’s gaze. There is a pretty flush spreading from the bridge of his nose. “Do you want me to?” Neil asks.

Once upon a time, Andrew would offer an annoyed huff or an even more annoyed retort, missing the purpose of the question. Now, though, he holds Neil’s gaze, and says, “I want you to.”

Neil nods, then brushes his lips against Andrew’s and goes back to kissing down his neck. Andrew has to stifle a shudder at the first brush of Neil’s teeth and waits for Neil to press his lips to the exact spot he has been touching before.

He suddenly can’t control his arousal anymore, but before he can free his hand and slip it into his sweatpants, Neil’s fingers slide between his own. He doesn’t try to stop Andrew’s hand, just follows his movements, and Andrew sighs at the first brush of their entangled fingers against his overheated skin.

He is panting by now, but he can’t force himself to try to play it cool, not with Neil’s chapped lips still focused on marking his skin, not with the sharp pleasure building in his stomach. His other hand keeps a tight hold on Neil’s hair, and he uses it to tug Neil back and into a proper kiss, but he instantly misses the pressure of Neil’s lips on his neck, so he finds Neil’s other hand and maneuvers it until Neil’s thumb is resting over the throbbing mark.

He bites at Neil’s lower lip and Neil presses his fingers against Andrew’s shoulder in an instinctive retaliation, and a small, breathless noise escapes Andrew’s lips. He tightens his hold on Neil’s hand and Neil adjusts to his rhythm, the touch an odd combination of rough and impossibly gentle, making Andrew feel alive and awake and impatient.

When he comes, he can barely breathe through the pleasure, but it doesn’t stop him from kissing Neil again and sliding their still-entangled hands into Neil’s pajama pants. Before he can get creative about taking Neil apart, though, Neil’s breath hitches and he comes, messy and flushed and gorgeous.

Andrew swallows, then disentangles their hands carefully and reaches for the nightstand and the tissue box in the drawer. He cleans his hand and passes the box to Neil, who is still straddling his lap.

Andrew doesn’t really feel like telling him to move. Instead, he coaxes Neil into another long, languid kiss, feeling boneless and pleased and a little sleepy.

“Nap, now,” he murmurs into Neil’s lips, and Neil smiles.

“Okay,” he agrees easily. And then, because he is obnoxious and because his music taste is the combined music taste of everyone he has ever known, he singsongs, “Should I stay or should I go?”

“You should shut up,” Andrew advises him, then pushes Neil off and settles on the mattress. “Stay.”

Neil does, curling on his side and facing Andrew, but Andrew wants more contact right now than just their legs and hands.

“Turn around,” he murmurs, fighting to keep his eyes open for a moment longer.

Neil complies without comment, and doesn’t say anything when Andrew moves closer and then slots their bodies together, sliding one hand around Neil’s stomach and underneath his t-shirt, splayed against the familiar texture of Neil’s scars.

“Okay?” he asks, when he finally settles against the pillow.

“Yeah,” Neil sighs drowsily, nuzzling back slightly before stilling again. “Sleep.”

Andrew closes his eyes, tightening his hold on Neil briefly before letting his body relax into sleep.

When he wakes up, Neil is gone, and his place is taken by both Sir and King, curled together against Andrew’s side. Andrew spends a moment running his fingers over Sir’s fur, ignoring King’s attempts at catching his hand with his paws. Then he notices a mug filled with coffee on the nightstand and sighs gratefully as he takes the first sip.

It’s past two p.m., but they have nowhere to be today. Andrew has a mild headache from sleeping too much, so he collects some fresh clothes and heads to the bathroom. He takes a lengthy shower, basking in the hot water and letting his muscles relax, and puts on his clothes, disregarding the armbands for now.

He finds Neil in the kitchen.

“What are you doing,” he says flatly, leaning against the fridge. He pulls the nearest magnet from the fridge and shifts it so that the tiny ball is flying for the striker’s head instead of the goal.

The corner of Neil’s lips twitches, but he doesn’t look up from the vegetables he is cutting into pedantically even cubes. “Dinner,” he says simply. “Should be ready in two hours.”

Two hours,” Andrew repeats, incredulous. “What is this about, Neil?”

“What is what about?” Neil replies, unconcerned, even as Andrew steps behind his back and peers over his shoulder at the vegetables.

“You’re being odd,” Andrew says.

“I make dinner nearly as often as you do,” Neil replies evenly, reaching for a vegetable Andrew doesn’t even recognize and beginning to peel it.

“Yes,” Andrew agrees. “But it usually only takes you two hours if you burn everything and have to start from scratch.”

“Funny,” Neil says, but he doesn’t seem offended.

“That’s me,” Andrew replies. He kicks Neil lightly in the shin. “Tell me.”

“Bear with me a little longer,” Neil says. “You’ll find out.”

“I don’t like surprises,” Andrew reminds him, petulant, climbing up on his toes and leaning into Neil to nestle his chin in the crook of Neil’s shoulder.

Neil tilts his head slightly so he can brush his lips against Andrew’s temple.

“Indulge me,” he murmurs. “Just this once.”

“Just this once,” Andrew agrees, sliding one arm around Neil’s waist.

Neil smiles down at the vegetables and he gets back to work. It becomes clear very soon that Neil has practiced making all of these dishes before. He rarely needs to check anything in the cookbook — all in French — and his motions are precise. Andrew’s suspicions grow.

Eventually, he gets bored with observing and goes to the living room, curling up under one of the blankets and picking up his abandoned copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” from the floor. Sir immediately shows up to curl in his lap and several minutes later King grudgingly wanders into the room, lies on the floor in Andrew’s direct line of vision, and turns his head away to stare into space. Andrew resumes reading, ignoring the distracting swish of King’s tail, until Neil shows up two hours later.

“Dinner’s ready,” is all he says before disappearing again.

Andrew sighs, wariness warring with curiosity, and pushes the blanket away. The living room and the dining room are separated by the kitchen, and their layout means that Andrew didn’t get to watch the preparations, which is why he blinks at the sheer amount of dishes displayed on the dinner table. Thankfully, there is no candlelight, as the warm afternoon sunlight is cheesy enough.

Still, Neil is smiling and his expression is open and oddly hopeful, so Andrew rolls his eyes instead of complaining out loud and sits down, but he can’t quite push away his unease.

Neil clearly notices, because he smiles a little sheepishly. “I didn’t mean it to be weird,” he says. “I just wanted to make something you might like and I couldn’t decide on one thing.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Andrew says, but Neil’s words have broken the oddly stiff atmosphere, and he can feel himself relaxing. “I can’t even name half of these things.”

“I forgot the names already,” Neil says, shrugging. “I mean, it’s food.”

Andrew snorts. “That’s romantic, Josten.”

He doesn’t expect the food to be particularly good; Neil has learned the basics by now but it’s not like cooking is his passion.

He doesn’t expect it, which makes the surprise even better. By the time they get to the raspberry-chocolate pie, Andrew is willing to reconsider every thought he has ever had about romance and dates and dinners.

They clean the dishes in peaceful silence, Neil scrubbing them clean and Andrew drying them off and stacking them on the shelves, and then Andrew kisses Neil against the kitchen counter, soft and pleased and relaxed. He wants to stay like this forever, but his fingers are itching for a cigarette.

“You go ahead,” Neil murmurs against his lips, reading him like an open book. “I’ll be there in a second.”

Andrew nods and kisses him once more before pulling back and heading for the terrace. He pushes King away with his foot and slides the door closed behind him.

He lights a cigarette and leans against the railing, watching the garden. The trees planted there are still small and frail, but Andrew likes the way the last glimpses of sunlight flicker in the leaves and in the moist grass. He also likes the way the warm light from the living room bleeds over onto the terrace, making him feel safe and grounded.

He hears the swish of the door being opened and Neil’s voice as he orders King to stay back, and then Neil is leaning against the railing by his side. He extends his hand with the cigarette, but Neil shakes his head, so Andrew stubs it out and drops it into the jar by the stairs.

“Well, Neil?” he says after a long moment of watching and being watched. “Spit it out already.”

Neil chews at his lower lip, his eyes lingering on Andrew’s.

“There is something I want to ask you,” he says. “But I don’t want you to think that you have to agree. If you say no, nothing will change between us. Okay?”

Andrew frowns. “What’s the question?”

“Give me your hand,” Neil says instead of replying.

When Andrew complies, Neil takes his hand between his own and presses something against the middle of Andrew’s palm. It’s round, small, and unmistakably made of metal.

Andrew’s breath loses its way someway between his lungs and his lips.

“It would make things easier for us,” Neil says, curling Andrew’s fingers around the ring and then letting go of his hand. “I wouldn’t have to bribe people to see you at the hospital and you wouldn’t have to threaten anybody with a knife. We wouldn’t have to deal with the media questioning just how serious our relationship is. We wouldn’t need to worry about a new team trying to buy one of us off.” He pauses. “But that’s not why I’m asking. I’m asking because I want this with you. I want everything with you. That is, if you’d like that, too. Just think about it, okay?”

Andrew’s emotions, usually muffled and distant, are tripping all over one another, and he can’t make sense of them at all. It’s like falling, only without the fear.

Neil moves to leave, presumably trying to give Andrew some space. Before he can make it through the door, Andrew catches his wrist and forces him to turn around. Neil leans back against the glass, his expression calm, even though his pulse is racing underneath Andrew’s thumb.

Or maybe it’s Andrew’s pulse.

Abby always said not to measure anyone’s heartbeat with your thumb.

Andrew looks over Neil’s shoulder and into their house. He looks at the blankets discarded on the couch, one his and one Neil’s, and at their cats, sleeping together on one of the cushions, King’s tail moving irritably whenever Sir shifts in his sleep, both of them looking healthy and healed. He looks at the coffee table and two empty mugs sitting side by side. He looks at the TV, currently recording Kevin’s game for them to watch later, and at his own book next to the couch.

He looks at the open kitchen and a bowl Neil apparently forgot to clean. He looks at the magnets on the fridge, a little faded now, but still just as annoying.

He looks at Neil’s jersey, thrown carelessly on the armchair, and at his own training bag, resting by the door to their bedroom. He looks at the dozens of different objects they chose and got together.

It’s not just a house — five letters, three vowels, two consonants.

It’s a home.

He looks back at Neil, who is still watching him calmly, even though several minutes have passed. There is no trace of impatience on his face.

Two vowels. Two consonants.

Home, Andrew thinks. Hope.

Neil.

He swallows.

“You haven’t —,” he says, and he sounds hoarse, so he starts over, the ring warming in his hand, “You haven’t actually asked me anything, Neil.”

Neil swallows, but he doesn’t look away, stubborn as ever. He meets Andrew’s gaze, clears his throat, and says, “I want to marry you. Yes or —”

“Shut up,” Andrew interrupts, and then interrupts himself by pressing his lips against Neil’s. “Yes.”

Neil’s breath catches, but then Andrew kisses him again and he melts into the kiss, his fingers winding up in Andrew’s hair. They kiss and kiss and kiss until Andrew can’t feel anything except for the heat of Neil’s lips, and then they kiss some more, until Andrew can’t imagine ever pulling away. He finally does when it gets cold enough that Neil begins to shiver, and all he does is force the door open and push Neil inside and kiss him again.

The ring fits just fine.

 

 

27.

 

Andrew doesn’t quite recall how they ended up agreeing to host this party.

Considering that his memory is as flawless as it has always been, they haven’t agreed at all, but now it’s too late to do anything about it.

It began with Allison noticing the ring that Neil wears everywhere without caring what their PR manager has to say about it. It ends with the Foxes playing a board game on the floor in the living room, with Wymack, Bee, and Abby sharing drinks by the kitchen island, with several of their Denver teammates and Kevin watching an old game on the TV like the antisocial junkies they are, and with Andrew wishing to burn the whole place to the ground.

Neil, on the other hand, seems pleased as he leans against Andrew’s arm and steals Andrew’s drink. He looks unfairly good in a blue button-down Andrew bought him a while ago and in a pair of skinny jeans that should probably be illegal.

Neil takes a sip of Andrew’s drink and then passes him the glass, leaning back against the kitchen counter. They have found refuge in the kitchen, but Andrew doubts they’ll get to stay here for long. He glares around the room.

“I’m divorcing you for this,” he tells Neil.

Neil snorts. “You’d just have to marry me again,” he replies, and he does, unfortunately, have a point.

“At least we got chocolate,” Andrew says, pointing to the stack of gifts in the corner of the room.

“And some granola bars from Kevin,” Neil adds, his lips curled up in a smirk.

“You can have them,” Andrew tells him graciously. “Go deal with the guests. The sooner they’re drunk, the sooner they pass out or leave.”

“Aw,” Neil mocks, leaning even more into Andrew’s side. “And what’s in it for me?”

“A quick death?” Andrew suggests, then catches his chin and draws him into a kiss. “Go.”

Neil licks his lips, holding Andrew’s gaze, and finally offers a nod, pushing away from the counter.

“You still owe me a dance,” he points out and leaves without waiting for a reply.

Andrew rolls his eyes and then catches Aaron’s gaze across the living room.

He is accompanied by Katelyn, who keeps casting worried glances in Andrew’s direction. Andrew sighs in irritation; it’s not like he didn’t know who Aaron was going to bring when he extended a ‘plus one’ invitation.

Instead of doing anything about it, though, he simply offers a nod, and Aaron nods back. They’ll probably talk before the night ends, but it’s nothing special by now; while they still don’t spend much time together, as they live on opposite sides of the continent, they call each other nearly every week. It rarely lasts longer than a few minutes, but it’s far more that Andrew has ever expected.

Nicky isn’t here, as he couldn’t afford to take the time off at his new job, but he has already both extended an invitation to Germany for Andrew and Neil, and bullied them both into accepting it.

The person who approaches Andrew after Neil leaves is Bee. She is dressed in a simple brown dress and there is a small pendant on her neck. It’s, naturally, a tiny fox.

“Hello, Andrew,” she says. She gestures to the empty space by Andrew’s side. “May I?”

Andrew nods. He opens the cupboard above the sink and finds two mugs, and then goes through the drawers next to the fridge to find the cocoa. Someone else would probably tell him not to bother, but Bee has always been more perceptive than that, and she lets Andrew do every nice thing he ever feels like doing.

She waits patiently for Andrew to make the cocoa and accepts her mug with a smile.

“Thank you,” she says.

Andrew nods again, leaning against the counter. He takes a sip and looks at Bee over the rim of his mug. “How are you, Bee?” he asks.

He still isn’t fond of small talk, but it’s a tradition between him and Bee, and he sees no reason to break it. The words are meaningless, but the intention behind them is not.

“I’m well, thank you,” Bee replies, calm and collected. “The new Foxes are settling in. They are a handful, but nothing I can’t, well, handle.”

Andrew hums in agreement. “Good,” he says.

“How are you, Andrew?” Bee counters, her voice just as soothing as it has always been.

Andrew gives her the courtesy of actually considering the question. He takes another sip of his cocoa and looks around the room. He meets Neil’s gaze across the crowd of people who somehow ended up being a part of their lives, and offers a small smile, a barely-there curl of his lips which instantly causes Neil to brighten up.

King jumps on the counter by Andrew’s side and violently headbutts him in the elbow, nearly causing Andrew to spill the contents of his mug. Andrew glares at him in a quiet fury and King glares right back, his eye now completely healed.

Andrew looks back at Bee.

“I’m okay, Bee,” he says, and he means it, too.

She smiles at him again. “I’m glad,” she says. “I’m very glad.”

She doesn’t reach out to touch him, but she clicks their mugs together before she leaves to join Abby and Renee, currently busy playing with Sir and sneaking him snacks.

That leaves Andrew with Wymack, who takes a swig of his beer, leans back against the kitchen island directly in Andrew’s line of vision and says, “Took you long enough.”

Andrew huffs, partially annoyed and partially indignant, and glares at Wymack’s shoulder to avoid actually meeting his gaze.

Wymack shrugs, waving one hand dismissively. “No, I know, it wasn’t your fault,” he says. “You did your best with all the blatant staring, illegal drugging, and casual death threats.”

Andrew shifts his glare from Wymack’s shoulder to his face, but he supposes that he owes Wymack some patience, considering how much patience Wymack once had for him, so he doesn’t reach for his knives. The point about drugging stings a little, in a way it wouldn’t have in the past, even if Neil has never blamed him for the things he did in order to keep his promises.

Before he can come up with an appropriately scathing response, Wymack’s gaze softens. He takes another swig from his bottle and then places it on the counter.

“The drugging aside, I’m proud of you, kid,” he says. “I’m proud of both of you.”

Andrew has never known what to do with that brand of Wymack’s honesty, so all he does is shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans and offer an uncomfortable shrug, avoiding Wymack’s gaze once again.

Wymack nods to himself, clearly pleased with a mission accomplished, and moves to leave the kitchen.

Instead of simply letting him go, Andrew clears his throat and says, “Thanks.”

He doesn’t specify, but since he has never thanked Wymack for anything, he doesn’t think a specification is all that necessary. Wymack stills, but then he smiles, more at the ground than at Andrew. It looks weary, but it also looks glad.

“Any time, kid,” he says, then pauses and frowns, all for show. “Just don’t make a habit out of it.”

Before he leaves Andrew to his own devices, he reaches out to pet King, and King lets him do it without a single noise of complaint. Andrew decides to withhold his snack privileges for the time being.

It takes several more hours for the crowd to begin thinning out; Wymack, Abby, and Bee leave first, claiming to have already booked a flight back to South Carolina. Most of their Denver teammates huddle together in Micky’s van, and Micky himself steals the rest of Andrew’s orange juice in exchange for excusing Neil and Andrew from morning practice.

The Foxes stay the longest, since it’s absolutely impossible to get them to leave any kind of a party, but finally, even they begin to get ready to leave. Kevin ends up sharing a cab with Aaron and Katelyn, while Matt and Dan take a bus to the airport. Eventually, the only people left are Renee and Allison, whose flight is the last one to depart.

Andrew is collecting glasses when Renee joins him, choosing to help him pick up the bottles and throw away the left-overs. They work in companionable silence for several minutes, with both Neil and Allison notably absent, and then Andrew offers Renee one of the remaining water bottles and they sit on the kitchen island, crossing their legs at the ankles.

“Seems surreal, doesn’t it?” Renee says after a long moment, taking a long sip from her bottle. Her white shirt looks as impeccable as ever and her hair is tucked neatly behind her ears. She is wearing the pearl earrings again.

Andrew doesn’t need to ask her to clarify. He looks around the dim room and at the cats napping on the couch. A flicker of flame in the night tells him that Neil is smoking on the terrace, probably accompanied by Allison. It’s too dark to see their silhouettes.

He knows what Renee means, because he shares the sentiment — he also finds it hard to believe that people so broken could have a life so whole.

“Yeah,” he says, picking up one of the large round cookies Abby brought to the party and taking a careful bite. “But it isn’t.”

“No,” Renee agrees. “It isn’t.”

She leans against his shoulder, only slightly, and Andrew leans into her, just as slightly.

He offers her half of the cookie and she takes it without comment, and they spend another moment sharing the peaceful silence and trying to kick off each other’s sneakers until Renee glances at her watch and sighs.

“Time to go,” she says, and then she uses Andrew’s distraction to rid him of his left sneaker.

Andrew glares, first at the offending sneaker and then at Renee, and hops off the counter to put the shoe back on. Renee waits for him patiently and then walks towards the door leading to the terrace and slides it open. Andrew follows her, shooing the cats away.

Neil and Allison are sitting on the steps leading into the garden, both with their knees drawn up and their heads tilted back to watch the stars. Allison glances back when she hears the swish of the door and she smiles at Renee before climbing to her feet.

She pats Neil’s shoulder and says, “See you around, gorgeous.”

Neil snorts, too old by now to get flustered that easily. “Right back at you,” he replies without standing up. “Goodbye, Renee,” he adds.

Renee smiles at him and then hands Allison her bag. “You don’t need to walk us out,” she tells Andrew. “We’ll go through the garden.”

“Suit yourself,” Andrew responds with a shrug, but he accepts a brief hug from Renee and mirrors Allison’s wordless nod.

They do go through the garden, and Andrew and Neil spend a long moment listening to the way they laugh on their way, trying not to trip in the darkness, Allison’s giggle loud and cheerful, Renee’s bright and clear.

The cab has been waiting for them for a while now, if the impatient honking is anything to go by. As soon as the honking stops and the silence descends again, Andrew sits next to Neil and steals his cigarette.

Neil lets him do it without comment, leaning back until he can rest his elbows against the step behind him, and he tilts his head up to continue staring at the stars. It gives Andrew a great view of his profile, so he doesn’t complain.

He smokes through the cigarette, differentiating between watching the garden and watching Neil, and then he stubs it out against the railing, dumps it in the jar by the stairs, and mirrors Neil’s position.

The stars look just as distant and unreachable as they always have, but Andrew is no longer searching for escape routes.

“My mom always liked looking at the sky at night,” Neil says after a long moment. He sounds a little wistful, but his voice is calm. It’s just a memory. It no longer holds the power to hurt Neil, so Andrew no longer has a reason to resent it. “When I was younger, she used to say that you can only see the stars in the loneliest of places. That if you can see them all, you are truly alone.” He pauses, tilting his head so he can meet Andrew’s gaze. “In her mind, alone has always meant safe.”

“Not in your mind, though,” Andrew says, not quite a question, but not a statement, either.

“No,” Neil agrees. “I’m perfectly safe here with you.”

Andrew holds his gaze and for once doesn’t brush the words away. He says, “You are.”

“And you are safe here with me,” Neil adds, always careful not to take more than he offers to give.

Andrew looks at him, at the familiar certainty that shines in Neil’s eyes and seeps into Andrew’s heart one day at a time, at the constellation of freckles and the battlefield of scars, and there is nothing frightening about the warmth in his chest, about the lack of defenses between him and Neil, about the future and about the forever. There is nothing frightening about life.

Two vowels, Andrew thinks, two consonants.

Home, Neil, life — these are truths.

He says, “I am.”

 

 

+1.

 

When Andrew wakes up, Neil’s side of the bed is empty, and the clock on the nightstand informs him that it’s too early to be awake. Through the window, he can see the grayish landscape of dawn — bare, leafless trees covered in frost, a motionless ocean of mist. The world looks suspended in time, looks quiet, looks half-asleep.

The sheets on Neil’s side are still warm, so Andrew rests one hand, palm-up, on Neil’s pillow.

He waits, looking up at the ceiling without really seeing it.

He is still tired after their game last night, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion, a familiar one. It nests in his muscles and in his bones, but it doesn’t weigh him down.

For once, his thoughts are as quiet as the world around him seems to be. He can smell the faint scent of the detergent they use to clean the sheets, the smell of Neil’s skin and shampoo lingering on the pillow, finally the distant but unmistakable aroma of fresh coffee.

He pushes the sheets and the blanket away and instantly regrets it. He has a sneaking suspicion that Neil has tinkered with the temperature controls again, and while Andrew can admit that he sleeps better when the room is cold, it only works when Neil is around to provide body heat.

Andrew winces again as he places his feet on the floor and pads barefoot to the closet. He steals Neil’s socks and finds his own favorite hoodie, a little worn-out by now, but comforting in its familiarity. He puts both on and after a brief moment of consideration, tugs the blanket off the bed and curls it around his shoulders like an oversized cape.

In the corridor, he almost trips on Neil’s racquet and then actually trips on one of the cat toys. He manages to regain his balance, though, and walks into the kitchen instead of falling through the doorway.

Neil isn’t there, either. There are, however, waffles. Andrew contemplates them for a moment and then steals one. He finds some jam in the fridge and then hip-checks it close, humming contently when he takes the first bite. They taste unbelievably good, as they always do. Andrew steals another one, in retaliation for the traps in the corridor, rearranges the magnets on the fridge, and leaves the kitchen.

He finds Neil in the living room. There are two small steps leading from the corridor to the living room, and they are Andrew’s favorite place in the entire house, because when he stands on top, he is much taller than Neil.

Neil, being Neil, is well aware of that, so Andrew never has any trouble finding him there.

Right now, Neil is standing on the first step, leaning against the doorframe, his back to Andrew, his hair sleep-tousled and his stance loose. Andrew can read Neil’s body as easily as Neil can read his own, so he knows instantly that Neil didn’t have a nightmare, that he isn’t agitated, that it’s alright to touch him. Neil is also aware of Andrew’s approach, if the way he tilts his head slightly towards Andrew is any indication.

Andrew stops inches behind his back and looks over Neil’s shoulder at the all-too-familiar living room. He watches the sunlight filtering through the windows, the patches of light on the wooden floor. Their cats are curled up in the brightest — and most likely the warmest — spot, their eyes closed, tails swishing across the floor from time to time.

Neil is holding a mug, both hands curled around it, seeking warmth. His feet are, naturally, bare, and the hoodie he is wearing has, naturally, the number three on the back.

Neil doesn’t turn around and he doesn’t say anything, but he leans back subtly, giving Andrew the permission he is looking for.

He hooks his chin on Neil’s shoulder and slides one hand around Neil’s waist, sneaking his fingers under Neil’s hoodie and splaying them on Neil’s stomach. They both lean into each other and Neil tips his head back to nuzzle closer to Andrew before straightening again and taking a sip from his mug.

Andrew uses his free hand to steal the mug from Neil in exchange for the remaining half of the waffle. Neil’s nose scrunches up at the sheer overabundance of jam, but he doesn’t complain about the exchange, only leans even more into Andrew, as if in a challenge. It’s no trouble at all to hold him up.

For once, Andrew feels settled in his own skin. His memories are still lurking in the shadows and maybe they’ll never leave, but they are paler now, details of his past finally beginning to blur as the future continues to brighten.

He is home, and home no longer consists of vowels and consonants. Home is the press of Neil’s lips against his skin, the warmth of Neil’s gaze when it meets his own, the unyielding support offered and received. Home is this house, the large windows and the wooden floors, the green of the bedroom ceiling and the Exy magnets on the kitchen fridge. Home is the old, warm hoodie he is wearing, with fox-adorned sleeves, the photographs and postcards glued to the kitchen wall, the messages in Andrew’s phone and the passports Neil won’t ever need.

Home is the steadiness in Andrew’s chest, the hard-won peace of mind.

He looks at the greyish landscape of dawn and at the landscape of cruelty on Neil’s skin, at the study in silence and the study in strength.

He looks and looks and looks, and then he says, “I love you.”

Neil pauses only for a moment, so minuscule that if Andrew didn’t know him as well as he does, he would miss it completely.

Then he says, calm and casual, “I love you, too.”

Andrew takes a sip of the too-bitter coffee and Neil takes a bite of the too-sweet waffle.

When they kiss, it tastes just right.

 

 

 

THE END