Neil had always hated being surrounded by people and felt anxious when confined, so it was completed paradoxical that he loved the underground. It was the anonymity that he loved; the surety that he was just another nameless nobody in the pulsing crowd. He also took comfort in the knowledge that, despite his facial scars, he was never the most stare-worthy person in a New York city train car. There was always going to be someone way weirder, for instance the man halfway down the car who was pulling live goldfish out of his rucksack.
Therefore, Neil's commute, which should have been the most stressful part of his day, had inexplicably become almost soothing.
Neil had spent the remainder of his money on a plane ticket and moved to New York after his mother's death three years ago, needing to get away and start somewhere fresh. There wasn't a lot of work available for a man without a high school diploma, but he'd snagged an overnight job stocking shelves in a supermarket and a couple jobs as a busboy at a shitty breakfast diner and at an even shittier sports pub. He made enough money to eat most days of the week, to afford a MetroCard and a cell phone, and to pay rent on a practically-condemned flat that he shared with six other people.
With less than seven hours until his evening shift at the pub started he was commuting home, practically dead on his feet after working sixteen hours straight. Swaying slightly with the movement of the train, he blinked sleepily and thought about how his life was a dead end. He had no prospects, nothing to look forward to. He was going to barely scrape together an existence until the day he died. He was nothing and no one and would always be so.
As the train pulled away from the station, Neil felt prickles along the back of his neck, indicating that he was being watched. It wasn't completely unheard of - people did frequently stare at his scars - but his sense of danger was piqued. He felt hunted, like he was prey.
A surreptitious survey of his fellow passengers identified the culprit. A vaguely-familiar blond man was watching him, with a gaze so penetrating and understanding that Neil panicked.
When he came back to himself he was in an unfamiliar alleyway, leaning against the bricks and gasping for air.
He shook his head at himself in disgust. He wasn't on the run anymore, there wasn't anybody left to run from. His father and his father's associates were all dead or in prison. Nobody knew who he was. Random gawking strangers should not be able to make him hit the flight option of his fight-or-flight response so hard that he dissociated.
He pulled out his phone to figure out where he was, and swore when he saw that he'd lost over an hour in his blind panic and that it would still take him a good forty-five minutes to get back to his flat.
It wasn't until he was back in the underground, passing adverts for New York's exy team, that he realized why the staring man had been sort-of familiar. He stopped by a life-sized poster of the blond man from the train: Andrew Minyard, starting goalkeeper for the New York Foxes. Neil didn't know much about exy, but he liked it well enough. He often saw snippets of games at the pub.
He rubbed his eyes tiredly. He'd lost a good hour and a half of precious sleep because of a glimpse of a minor celebrity. Thanks, brain, he thought ruefully.
During their time on the run, Neil's mother had drilled the importance of varying his schedule into him. It was more difficult now that he had regular shifts, but he still liked to make minor adjustments to his commute that meant he rarely travelled the same route at the same time each day. Given the population of New York he assumed that his chance meeting with Andrew Minyard wouldn't ever happen again, which is why it was so surprising that he noticed the man staring at him again about a week after the first incident.
This time his fight-or-flight response landed firmly on fight. It was midday on a weekday so the train wasn't overly crowded as he stalked over to the highly muscled but short man.
"What are you looking at?" he demanded.
"Your face," replied Minyard in a bored tone.
Neil was taken aback by the straightforward answer. He self-consciously touched his scars.
"No, not those," said Minyard. "Although they do add a certain something."
"Are you taking the piss?" asked Neil, puffing himself up in anger.
Minyard just shrugged. "You're very pretty," he said, "and your accent is hot. I'd blow you."
"Pardon?" said Neil, feeling completely off balance. This conversation had certainly gotten away from him. "Just… what? I'm not…" he trailed off.
"Gay?" suggested Minyard.
"Anything," corrected Neil. "Anyone. I'm sure you have scores of people who want to be in your bed."
"Probably," said Minyard absently. "You're assuming you know who I am, then?"
"You play goal for the Foxes," said Neil. "You're passably talented, I suppose."
Something like amusement passed through Minyard's eyes, but his face didn't change expression. "Minyard has a twin brother, maybe I'm him."
"Your biceps look like they belong to a professional athlete."
"Hmm," said Minyard. "I want to hire you."
Minyard gave a blatant look to Neil's threadbare clothing. "You could probably use the money."
"You're offering a job to a stranger on the underground? Yeah, that's not sketchy at all," said Neil sarcastically.
"We'd sign a contract," said Minyard. "It'll pay better than whatever below-minimum-wage-under-the-table job you have now." He fished a business card out of his inside jacket pocket and handed it to Neil, who took it automatically. "Think it over and give me a call."
He started making his way toward the sliding doors.
"You didn't even tell me what the job is," Neil called after him.
As the doors opened Minyard turned back to look at Neil. "Arm candy," he said and then disappeared into the crowd on the platform.
Neil wasn't sure if this was Minyard's stop or if he just wanted to have the last word. He eyed the business card thoughtfully.
Neil was both incredibly curious and incredibly strapped for cash so he determined very quickly that he would call Minyard and ask for more details. If he got even a tiny inkling that he'd end up in a bathtub full of ice missing his organs or sold into sexual slavery he would run and never look back, but if there was a chance that Minyard was offering a legitimate job that paid more than he was currently making he had to know.
He waited four days before he called, not wanting to seem overly enthusiastic. He called right after he finished his shift at the diner, the same time of day that he'd previously encountered Minyard.
"What," said Minyard flatly when he answered his phone.
"Uh, this is Neil," said Neil, then, when he realized that he'd never told Minyard his name, "Um… pretty face from the underground?"
"I remember," said Minyard. "Did you consider my job offer?"
"I need more information," Neil hedged.
"How much are you going to pay me?" said Neil, which was really the most important thing for him to know. If the pay was good enough there was very little that he wasn't prepared to do.
Neil had to stop himself from choking when Minyard told him the salary he was offering.
"What will you have me doing? Killing people?" asked Neil.
"I have various events that I'm required to attend as part of my contract," said Minyard. "I will pay you to attend as my plus-one."
"That's it?" said Neil incredulously. "Surely you're rich and famous enough that you don't have to resort to paying for company."
"My companions must conform to my very specific requirements," said Minyard. "It's easier to get what I want by hiring someone."
"What very specific requirements?" asked Neil suspiciously. He'd known there had to be a catch.
"If you're interested in learning more I'll pass your number along to my assistant. He can go over the contract and what's expected of you."
"I… yes," said Neil. "I'm not committing to anything yet, but I want to know more."
Neil waited for a response, but the call disconnected. He wondered if his rubbish phone dropped the call or if Minyard had decreed that the conversation was finished. He strongly suspected the latter.
hi!!!!! :DDDDDDDDD its nicky :P
Neil stared at his phone in confusion. He didn't usually receive texts and he didn't know anyone named Nicky.
I think you have the wrong number, he texted back carefully.
lol u andrews hot guy from the subway?????? he sed to text u bout contract XD
You're Minyard's assistant? I'm Neil.
""""""""""asistant"""""""""" did he call me that???? >:C
nm can u meet tmrw????? im free after noon \o/
Neil wondered if Minyard's assistant would be more coherent in person. He didn't have a shift at the pub tomorrow so after he finished at the diner he'd have time to meet up with Nicky without having to give up on sleep for the day. He texted back a suggestion to meet at a coffee shop near the diner; it was a pretty pretentious place with $7 lattes, but they also currently had a promotion where their small, black coffee only cost 75 cents a cup. It was also public enough that he probably wouldn't be murdered.
uwu ok!!!! ill be the mexican guy w a sparkly rainbow on my shirt 
Neil was a little late getting to the coffee shop the next afternoon, but nobody matching Nicky's description was already there. He'd had to make a stop at an ATM on the way there. When he'd first moved to the city he'd kept all his cash on him at all times, like he'd done with his mother. It had taken less than a week living in his neighbourhood before he was mugged, so now he deposited his pay into his bank account as soon as he received it.
He bought a cup of the cheap, plain coffee and wished that he could spare the money to buy something to eat. Taking a seat, he sipped his coffee as slowly as possible, wondering if Nicky was going to show up or not.
About thirty-five minutes after their agreed upon meeting time, a tall man in a pink shirt with a glittery rainbow clattered into the shop. He was wearing oversized sunglasses with rhinestones and an impractical number of scarves. Neil's first thought was that if he ever did start harvesting people's organs he was going to hire Nicky as a first contact in order to put his victims at ease. The man gave off such an air of daffy harmlessness that it was hard to imagine him being dangerous in any way.
Nicky peered over the top of his sunglasses and zeroed in on Neil.
"Neil, I presume," he said. At Neil's nod, he flung himself into the chair opposite where Neil is sitting. "God, Andrew was right. You are cuuute."
"Uh," said Neil, nonplussed.
Nicky just waved him off and started digging through his bag. He pulled out a slightly crumpled stack of papers. "Here's the standard contract, made by a lawyer and everything," he said. "This morning I realized that you'd need a paper copy, which meant that I'd have to print it, which stumped me a little. I mean, who has a printer at home anymore? Do you have a printer at home?"
"Uh, no," said Neil. He didn't bother mentioning that he had almost no possessions. He had his wallet, cell phone, keys, a sleeping bag, and eight outfits. All of which he carried around in a duffel bag so that his roommates couldn't steal them.
"See?" said Nicky. "So then I had to find a printing place, which ended up being this whole big thing." He shook his head. "Anyway, you read through that while I get some coffee."
Despite the legalese, Neil was able to follow the contract easily enough. The first part mainly seemed to be a non-disclosure agreement: Neil was not to reveal that he was being paid and there were harsh penalties if he did so or if he disclosed any information about Minyard to the media, even indirectly. The second part outlined Neil's compensation and what he would be expected to do. He was required to attend a certain number of events per month. There seemed to be stipulations for everything: how much advance notice Minyard had to provide Neil before an event (two days or else Neil would be entitled to overtime pay), what Neil would have to wear (all clothing was to be provided by Minyard), how much availability Neil had to have (he could already tell that he'd have to drastically cut down on his hours at the pub, if not quit that job altogether). A large portion of the second part was also devoted to making it clear that no sexual or intimate contact was required but could occur if agreed upon by both parties. The final section covered how the contract could be broken. If Neil violated it there were monetary penalties, but either party could decide to cancel the contract at any time. Minyard was required to pay Neil a severance if he were the one to opt out, while Neil had to give two weeks' notice.
All in all it seemed pretty straightforward: Minyard wanted Neil to pretend to be his boyfriend in public and would reward him handsomely for doing so.
"Any questions?" asked Nicky lazily. He was drinking a latte out of a cup that was almost the size of his head. He had also bought about twelve different pastries that he kept offering to Neil.
"Uh, well, I guess the main thing I'm wondering-" started Neil, before he was cut off.
"Wait," said Nicky, holding up his hand. "Stop. Oh my God, did you always have that accent?"
"Yes," said Neil testily. "I grew up in England."
"Oh my God you're hot and you have a British accent? Kill me now. If I weren't married and you weren't Andrew's I would so totally be DTF."
Neil wasn't quite sure how to respond to that.
"Anyway," said Nicky, waving his hand and sipping his latte, "you were saying?"
"Right," said Neil. "My question is: why? Minyard's rich and famous and attractive. He led me to believe that he had some weird requirements but this all seems straightforward."
"Okay, first of all you have to call him Andrew. If he's your fake boyfriend you can't call him by his last name," said Nicky. "Second of all, the minute you understand how Andrew's brain works be sure to fill me in. I mean, I know the sudden need for a public boyfriend is because he's determined to do the opposite of what Kevin says."
"Kevin Day? Andrew's teammate? They've been friends since college, although don't ask me how since Andrew goes out of his way to spite Kevin. I was half-convinced that they were hate fucking, but Kevin's publicly dating a terrifying woman who would break him in half if he were cheating on her and would in no way consent to being anyone's beard. Besides, Andrew doesn't share."
"Kevin Day was mixed up in all that Moriyama business, wasn't he?"
Nicky suddenly turned serious. "Don't mention it," he said. "No, seriously, don't. No one's going to tell you anything about that and it's the fastest way for Andrew to drop you."
Neil nodded. It wasn't his favourite topic and he probably knew more about the downfall of the Moriyamas than Andrew did, anyway. After all it had been Neil's mother and uncle working with British Intelligence and the FBI to bring down the crime family that Neil's father worked for.
"Anyway, this whole thing started because Kevin's been bothering Andrew forever to bring a date to team events and Andrew's always declined. However, after Andrew came out Kevin made a comment about how it was smart of Andrew not to bring a boyfriend out in public so as to keep his sexuality on the DL. Which, of course, made Andrew, being the contrary fucker he is, decide to bring a date to every single event that he could in order to shove his sexuality in everyone's faces."
"So that's the reason he wants to hire someone instead of just finding an actual boyfriend? Because it's just for spite?" asked Neil.
"Eh," said Nicky, tilting his hand back and forth. "Probably partially. He's very private so I can't imagine him wanting to put a spotlight on an actual relationship. But also…" he trailed off and looked around and when he started speaking it was in a lower tone. "Okay, I know you don't know him at all and I don't want to let anything slip that he'd rather you not know, but here's the thing about Andrew: he had a hard time growing up and he's worked long and hard on getting to a point where he's okay. And I strongly suspect that hiring you as a fake boyfriend is his way of making himself comfortable with an actual relationship."
"Like practice?" asked Neil.
"Yeah," said Nicky. "Practicing for something he wants while simultaneously annoying Kevin? It's a win-win for him. Look, I know it seems a little weird, but Andrew's a good guy to have in your corner. He's a little standoffish and hard to get to know, but he's honest. This isn't a scam."
Neil already knew that he was going to sign - the money was too good to pass up - and nothing that Nicky was saying was raising any red flags. He still didn't understand why exactly Andrew had approached him, but maybe it was exactly as it seemed. That Andrew found him attractive and assumed he'd jump at the chance to earn easy money.
He read through the contract one last time to double check that there wasn't anything concerning in it and then signed. He still felt a little swoop within him at seeing 'Neil Josten' written out on a legal document: a real name that belonged to him.
"Great!" said Nicky enthusiastically. "I'll get Andrew to sign it as well and then email you a copy. I'll also bring a hard copy next time I see you."
"Will I be seeing a lot of you?"
"Probably! Even though I'm not actually Andrew's assistant - I'm his cousin - my current job is being a trophy husband, so I end up doing all the things that Andrew doesn't want to do for himself. Also, I attend all his home games and you're going to be coming to those from now on, so we'll see each other there. Oh!" Nicky literally started wiggling in excitement. "I'm going to get you a Minyard jersey to wear! It's going to be soooo adorable!"
"Great," said Neil flatly. "Well, you have my number…" he said as he got up to leave.
"I sure do! I'll probably be in contact really soon. Also, you'll definitely be going out this coming Saturday, so you should cancel any plans."
"Ta," said Neil, and made his escape.
'Really soon' in Nicky-speak ended up being less than two hours. Neil had made his way back to his flat and had just managed to lock himself in his room, curl up in his sleeping bag, and fall asleep when his phone started binging incessantly.
Squinting angrily, he glared at the screen and found twenty-seven messages from Nicky, most of them emojis judging by the number of empty rectangles that showed up. There were only two messages with actual substance: first that Andrew had signed the contract and Nicky had emailed Neil a copy, and second that Neil needed new clothes for his outing on Saturday and Nicky wanted to set up a time to take him shopping. Since Neil assumed that Nicky's version of clothes shopping would take about 1000 times longer than Neil's own shopping trips, he suggested they go on Thursday which was the one day a week he had the morning off from his diner job.
They met at the same coffee shop but this time Nicky arrived first and had a mountain of food waiting for Neil. Neil wasn't about to turn down free food and decided he liked Nicky's blatant desire to feed him.
He enjoyed Nicky's style of shopping much less. He felt like a dress up doll, trailing after Nicky in and out of stores, trying on everything that was handed to him, and attempting not to wince at the price tags. Nicky barely paused for breath, chatting to Neil about his time in college with Andrew and Aaron (Andrew's twin) and Kevin. Nicky and his cousins had been recruited to the exy team at Penn State, mainly due to Andrew's talent, and Kevin had transferred there after the FBI investigation into the Moriyamas' criminal dealings had shut down the college exy team that they owned. After graduation, Andrew and Kevin were recruited by the Foxes, Aaron was accepted to medical school at Columbia University, and Nicky married his German boyfriend who had moved to New York for a job.
The shopping trip concluded with a trip to a hairdresser, Nicky deciding that Neil needed a more fashionable hair style. Once that was finished, Nicky insisted on feeding Neil again (who'd probably eaten more in the past few hours than he had in the entire past week).
It was when they were saying goodbye and Nicky was shoving all the carrier bags at Neil that he realized his predicament.
"I can't take these," he said in realization.
Nicky gave him a look like he was a particularly adorable but brain damaged puppy. "Who did you think all the clothing was for?"
"No, I mean I have nowhere to keep it," explained Neil. "I don't have a wardrobe or closet, so I won't be able to hang the suits up and my roommates will definitely steal clothing this expensive."
A mixture of emotions played over Nicky's face. "You need better roommates," he said. "But no matter. I'll keep it at my place. Actually," he continued, warming to the topic, "that's a better idea anyway because then I can help you get ready! Ooo, and you can meet Erik! I'll text you my address. Come by at five and I'll feed you dinner; I think they're only going to be serving canapés at the fundraiser."
Nicky, as he had been doing all week, texted Neil frequently all day Friday and Saturday morning. Neil was not really sure of what the appropriate relationship between him and the guy who was paying to fake date him's cousin was supposed to be, but he was pretty sure that this was atypical for this type of arrangement. He found himself wanting to remind Nicky that he was not really Andrew's boyfriend so there was no reason for him to be so friendly and welcoming, but he'd gotten to know Nicky well enough that he was pretty sure that Nicky's response would just be confused question marks.
He enjoyed dinner at Nicky's more than he thought he would; Erik was kind and calm and controlled some of Nicky's wild exuberance.
"I think my accent is going to get an inferiority complex if you keep paying Neil's so much attention," said Erik jokingly after Nicky's fifth or sixth comment about how sexy Neil sounded.
"Aw, don't be jealous; you know my heart belongs to you. Besides, it's not like Neil can speak German and that's what I really want in a man."
"Actually…" said Neil.
"Really?" asked Erik in German.
"Yes," replied Neil in the same language. "I lived all over Europe and picked up several languages."
"Wait," said Nicky. "Wait, wait, wait, wait. This might be the most important question I've ever asked. Do you speak French?"
"Of course," replied Neil in French. Nicky whimpered and Erik rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
After they finished eating, Nicky hopped up from the table. "Let's get you ready for your date!"
"Why are you excited? It's not a real date," said Neil. "It's a business arrangement."
"You're so cynical," complained Nicky. "Do you even have a romantic bone in your body?"
"No," said Neil.
"That's good," said Erik placidly. "He and Andrew can't be a believable couple if he's all sunshine and roses."
"Fine," grumbled Nicky. "Let's get you ready for your business arrangement."
When he arrived, Andrew gave Neil a slow once over and then turned on his heel and strode away without saying a word.
Nicky gave Neil a little push. "Have fun!" he called.
Andrew led Neil out of Nicky's building to where a very expensive car was double parked.
"You have a car?" blurted Neil.
Andrew looked at Neil, then back at the car door he was opening, then back at Neil. Somehow, without moving a single facial muscle, he managed to give Neil an incredibly judgmental look.
Neil flushed, but climbed into the passenger seat. "It's just, if you have a car why were you on the underground?"
"Car was in the shop," said Andrew succinctly, as he pulled the car out into traffic without checking his mirrors. Honking echoed behind them.
"Surely you can afford an Uber?"
"I've had bad experiences when other people were driving." Andrew sped through a light that was changing from yellow to red.
"They follow the rules of the road?" Neil asked sarcastically.
"Don't be so afraid to die."
"Oh that's not worrying at all."
Andrew didn't respond, but he did signal his next lane change.
They sat in not-uncomfortable silence, before Neil remembered that he had a couple questions. "Should we come up with a backstory or anything?"
"Won't people wonder about our history?"
Andrew shrugged one shoulder. "I haven't told them anything. You can say what you want."
"What if I want to tell them that I'm a career criminal?"
"Watching Kevin's head explode might be mildly amusing."
"Nicky told me that you hired me to spite him," said Neil. When no response came, he pressed, "Well?"
"Well what? I didn't hear a question."
"Why go to all this trouble?"
Andrew was silent for a short time. "I made a promise."
"Uh uh, that's not how this works," chided Andrew. "I answered your question now it's your turn to answer mine."
"I wasn't aware that conversations had rules."
"You'll learn. When I asked if you were gay you said you weren't anything. What did you mean by that?"
"Just what I said," said Neil. "I've never really been attracted to anybody or interested in dating or romance."
"So if I asked to kiss you…?"
"I'd say no. The contract was very clear that I didn't have to."
"Hmmm," said Andrew, with something like approval. Neil felt like he'd passed some sort of test.
"Where are we going, anyway? Nicky wasn't very clear."
"He rarely is. It's a fundraiser for the children's hospital. The team supports it so all the players are required to attend."
"How late do you expect we'll be there?"
"Already tired of the charade?"
"No, but I have a shift starting at one. I didn't know whether to call out sick or not."
"So dedicated and hard working."
"More like pragmatic," said Neil. "When you get tired of me in a couple weeks, I'm still going to need a source of income."
"Is that a lack of faith in my commitment or in your ability to hold my interest?"
"I'm a twitchy, anti-social nobody who you've randomly hired to be charming in social situations. It's not going to take long for you to realize that I'm not who you want."
"You might be surprised," said Andrew. "I'm notoriously stubborn." He paused for a couple beats. "I'll make sure you get to work on time."
They lapsed into silence once more.
When they arrived at the venue Andrew unbuckled his seatbelt but didn't open the door, despite the antsy valet waiting to park the car. There was a line of tension through Andrew's shoulders that hadn't been there before, so Neil stayed put.
"I don't want you to reciprocate," said Andrew slowly, "but I will touch you casually as if we are in a relationship. Yes or no?"
Neil watched Andrew's face and thought about Nicky's theory that this was practice for Andrew to become comfortable displaying his sexuality in public. "That's fine," he said. "I can't promise that I won't flinch if you don't telegraph your movements."
Andrew's eyes flicked almost imperceptibly to the scars on Neil's cheek before nodding and exiting the car. He tossed his keys to the valet and rounded the car, reaching out to grab Neil's wrist and lead him into the ballroom. It was richly decorated with wealthy people milling around and sharply-dressed servers carrying food and drink through the crowd. Neil felt completely out of his element.
Andrew made a beeline for a server with a tray of what was probably champagne. He let go of Neil to pick up a glass.
"I don't drink," said Neil in an undertone, but the server still heard him.
"Everything in the coloured glasses is non-alcoholic," she said.
Neil nodded his thanks and selected a pink glass which turned out to hold the type of sparkling juice that his mother had always referred to as vin d'enfants.
Andrew turned towards him and took a sip of his drink, faintly wrinkling his nose in distaste.
"Not a fan of champagne?" asked Neil.
"The least they could do is serve me hard liquor after forcing me to be here."
"What does your team actually require you to do at an event like this?"
"Buy a ticket. Show up. Be seen." Andrew nodded slightly in the direction of a woman who was keeping to the outskirts of the crowd, camera in hand.
"Am I going to be photographed?" asked Neil, his skin crawling at the thought. He knew it didn't matter; that his picture could be published on the front page of the New York Times without consequences since no one was looking for him, but he couldn't suppress his instinctive horror.
Andrew reached out to grab Neil's wrist again, squeezing hard enough that it almost hurt. "Probably not," he said. "You're nobody."
Andrew's calm indifference worked to soothe Neil's fraying nerves and he calmed down.
"So we just stand here for a couple hours?"
"People will attempt to converse," said Andrew. "They never learn."
Andrew's prediction came true almost instantly. They were constantly being approached by the other attendees. Some of them were exy fans and looking to talk with Andrew, some were Andrew's teammates who came over to say hi and express curiosity about Neil, and some were just people who were mingling. Neil had no trouble discerning which people were Andrew's teammates since he was very slightly more personable towards them (as in, he gave terse one or two word answers to them instead of ignoring them completely).
Neil was not the best at small talk but he was worlds better than Andrew. He gave polite, if abrupt, answers to people's questions until they inevitably lost interest. The most common question he fielded was, "And what do you do?" He generally told them he was a waiter, but sometimes he said barista to mix it up. At this, most people's faces fell into polite disinterest as they realized that he didn't belong here, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. It made his temper flare hot.
"And what do you do?" asked a pompous woman in an incredibly condescending manner.
"I'm an international jewel thief," said Neil, taking a sip of his drink.
The woman stared at him, waiting for the punchline.
"He's quite talented," Andrew spoke up, joining the conversation for the first time all evening. "Are those pearls real?"
The woman literally clutched her pearls and took a step back, her fast twisting in shock. Neil waited two beats before he started laughing. The woman laughed along nervously, before leaving them alone.
Neil started to make a comment to Andrew, but the other man had his eyes fixed on something behind Neil. "Took him long enough," he muttered.
Neil turned to see who Andrew was looking at and caught sight of Kevin Day coming towards them. Andrew stepped closer to Neil and proprietarily placed one of his hands on Neil's lower back.
"Andrew," said Kevin icily when he reached them.
"Kevin," replied Andrew, before inclining his head slightly to the unimpressed woman at Kevin's side. "Thea."
"And who's this?" asked Kevin, pulling himself to his full height and looking down his nose at Neil.
"This is Neil," said Andrew blandly, "my boyfriend."
Kevin huffed impatiently. "I can't believe you're going through with this. Did you just drag in the first person you met on the street? For all you know he's a gold-digging sellout. What does he even do for a job?"
"He's a porn star," said Andrew. Thea choked on her drink and Neil could almost see steam coming out of Kevin's ears. It really couldn't be healthy for his face to be so red.
Neil shifted his eyes momentarily to Andrew before holding out his hand for Kevin to shake. "Gay porn star, actually," he said.
Kevin opened and closed his mouth a few times, at a loss.
"Is there good money in that?" asked Thea conversationally, shaking his hand when Kevin couldn't seem to manage it.
"Pretty good," said Neil. "It was hard to work my way into the industry, but once I thrust into the spotlight everything's been coming along well."
Thea's lips quirked.
Kevin scoffed. "Porn stars aren't named Neil," he said derisively.
"Well my last name is Zantakesit, so…"
"You're trying to convince me that your actual name is 'kneels and takes it'," repeated Kevin incredulously, his face darkening with anger. "Andrew," he said tightly, "can I talk to you for a minute?"
Andrew gestured between them. "We're talking now."
"Alone," said Kevin with a hostile glance at Neil.
Neil watched the two of them walk to a corner of the room. There, Andrew stared blankly into the middle distance while Kevin worked his way into a rant, complete with waving arms.
"You're not actually a porn star, are you?" asked Thea.
"No," said Neil.
She gave him a once over. "Pity."
Neil jerked his thumb towards where Kevin was still talking at Andrew. "Is it weird for you that Kevin's acting like a jealous wife?"
"Jealous wife? Hmmm," said Thea. "I probably would have gone with 'jilted lover'."
Neil smiled. "It doesn't bother you?"
"Why should it? I'm not threatened; I know exactly where Kevin sleeps." She cocked her head. "Don't be worried; it's not like that between them. Kevin has an obsessive personality and in college he became obsessed with Andrew's career."
Andrew and Kevin returned then, Kevin still huffing angrily. As he reached for a glass of champagne, Thea caught his eye and raised her eyebrow. He slumped, dejected, and selected one of the coloured glasses instead.
Neil couldn't help flinching a little when a hand suddenly touched his back. Andrew retreated instantly and sent Neil a questioning glance.
"It's okay," said Neil, and the hand returned, lightly trailing up his back until Andrew gave a brief squeeze to the back of his neck.
"We should go," said Andrew, "it's after midnight."
Neil was surprised that so much time had passed without him noticing, but was glad to be leaving. He explained to Andrew that he needed to get his duffel out of the boot and change before making his way to the metro. Andrew just sent him a flat look and told him that he'd give him a lift. Neil changed quickly in the back and then climbed into the passenger seat. They didn't speak, except for Neil's quiet directions to the supermarket where he stocked shelves.
"Well that was much less terrible than I had been anticipating," he said when they'd arrived and Andrew was idling.
"It was slightly less boring than usual."
"Glad to be of service," said Neil, getting out of the car. "Goodnight, Andrew."
About an hour later, the free audiobook recording that Neil was listening to on his phone (thank you, Librivox) paused when his new email alert went off. Curious, he pulled out his phone to check who was sending him an email at this time of night. He smiled widely when he saw the subject line.
Andrew Minyard has deposited money into your account.
The following Friday Neil attended his first exy game. He ate dinner with Nicky and Erik beforehand (Neil still wasn't complaining about Nicky's transparent desire to feed him, even though Andrew's deposit meant that he'd eaten two meals every day that week). As threatened, Nicky forced him into an orange Foxes jersey, which clashed terribly with his hair.
There was a box reserved for the Foxes' friends and family. Neil vaguely recognized some faces from the benefit. Nicky greeted everyone exuberantly and introduced Neil as Andrew's boyfriend which drew some curious stares. Neil quickly lost interest in what Nicky was talking about and let his mind wander, eavesdropping on a nearby conversation about the Foxes' playoff chances.
"They've got the strongest defense in the league!" a man was arguing. "With Minyard and Dermott in goal and Moreau, Muldani, Alvarez, and Boyd as backliners their opponents can't even buy a goal."
"Offense is weak, though," said a nearby woman.
"Kevin Day is arguably the greatest player to ever play the sport and Knox is no slouch, either," retorted the man, hotly.
"But they're only two players, they can't be on the court all game," said someone else. "Gordon has some flashes of brilliance, but he's too streaky and he and Day have no chemistry at all. Wymack should stop playing them together."
"If they did pick up one or two talented strikers they'd be unstoppable," conceded the first man.
"They don't even need to be superstars," said the woman. "Look at Reynolds and Wilds. They're rarely featured on the highlight reels, but they're solid, dependable players."
A woman who had just entered the box laughed. "Let Allison hear you call her solid," she said.
"Renee!" shrieked Nicky directly into Neil's ear. "Neil, you have to meet Renee! Be nice to her; she's a sweetheart."
Neil turned to the newcomer, a small, well-muscled woman with dark eyes and white hair. She was smiling gently but her eyes were hard and assessing. Neil had the feeling of being surveyed by a predator; this woman was in no way as harmless and innocent as she was trying to project. She regarded him for a few beats and then nodded once, her smile spreading to her eyes.
"Thank you Nicky. You must be Andrew's boyfriend," she said, offering her hand to Neil.
"Neil," he said, shaking quickly.
"Renee was on the exy team at college with us," supplied Nicky. "She played goal with Andrew." He dropped his voice to an audible whisper. "We thought that they were dating for awhile."
Renee laughed. "We aren't exactly each other's type. I'm sure Andrew is better off with Neil."
By then the game was about to start, so they took their seats to watch the action.
"Are you a big exy fan?" Renee asked.
"Not really," admitted Neil. "I grew up following football. Or soccer as you heathens call it."
She started explaining the game to him, pointing out certain strategies that the Foxes were employing.
"Do you still play?" he asked.
"Oh, no," she said. "I had fun playing, but it was only ever a means to an end. I'm not like Kevin, who lives and breathes the game, or even like Andrew who claims to hate it but secretly loves it. I just needed a college degree and playing exy let me afford that."
"But she still comes to the games to spend time with meeeee," said Nicky in a sing-song voice.
Renee laughed. "That's certainly part of it. And also that many of my dear friends play for the Foxes."
"You know more of the players than just Andrew and Kevin?" asked Neil.
"Many of them," she said, nodding. "I work at a not-for-profit here in the city that supports survivors of domestic abuse and several of the Foxes have been generous with both their time and money."
Neil didn't quite know how to respond, but Renee seemed to realize that and skillfully turned their conversation back to the game.
"I'm glad Andrew found you," said Renee, once the game had finished.
"I think I am too," replied Neil.
Neil didn't end up seeing Andrew after the game which left him feeling vaguely disappointed. He wasn't entirely sure why he felt that way, but he assumed that getting paid for attending a professional sports event and not even having to do anything 'boyfriendly' was making him feel slightly guilty. That was the only reason he had that could explain the relief he felt when Andrew called him on Saturday after he finished his shift at the diner.
"I have a team get-together on Monday evening," he said without preamble. "Are you available?"
"I can be."
"I'll pick you up at five."
"Okay," said Neil. "I'll be at my flat; I'll text you the address." He paused. "...You do know how to text, right?"
Andrew hung up without any further comment or discussion.
Neil waited outside for Andrew to pick him up; he was fairly certain that Andrew's expensive Maserati would not fare well parked for any length of time in his neighbourhood. Luckily Andrew arrived on time, saving Neil from having to loiter. Andrew eyed Neil's flat distastefully and looked pointedly at the CONDEMNED sign in the building across the street. Neil was not about to let a rich exy star make him apologize or feel bad for his poverty or shit living situation. He gave Andrew a challenging look until Andrew started driving without comment.
"It's a team get-together?" he asked once they started moving.
"Team and significant others."
"No," said Andrew. "But most people go. I wouldn't, but my coach knows how to effectively bribe me."
"Is that all it is?" asked Neil. "Renee says that you secretly love what you do."
"Renee is an incurable optimist," said Andrew. He paused for a beat. "My high school coach pointed out that exy was growing exponentially in popularity. Colleges are practically throwing scholarships at anybody passably talented and the professional teams pay their players exorbitant salaries. I care very little about exy but it provides me with a comfortable life."
"Fair enough," said Neil easily. "People have done worse things for money." He grinned at Andrew's side-eye. "So. Teammates. Any pointers?"
"Several of them are nosy and having been asking me for information about you and how we met. Since I've told them nothing, I assume that they'll bother you."
"Does it actually matter to you what I tell them or can I just keep saying whatever the hell I want?" asked Neil.
"I don't care."
"Excellent. I've always wanted to pretend to be a spy."
"And how did we meet?"
"Isn't it obvious?" asked Neil, wiggling his eyebrows. "You're my Bond girl."
"Pussy Galore?" said Andrew sardonically.
"More like Dick Galore. That way we both have awesome porn names."
Andrew huffed a little but didn't argue.
The flat (which apparently belonged to the team captain, Dan Wilds, and her husband, backliner Matt Boyd) was quite full when they arrived. Several people called greetings which Andrew ignored. He scanned the room and then staked them out an empty area against the wall, before leaving Neil there and disappearing into the kitchen.
"So you're Andrew's boyfriend?" asked a nearby woman. Neil thought she was Laila Dermott, the Foxes' second goalkeeper.
"Neil," he said, nodding.
"How'd you guys meet?"
"Oh, it was very dramatic," said Neil. "He saved me from being run down by an out-of-control bicycle messenger. He was quite heroic." He paused. "Er, Andrew that is. Not the messenger."
Laila blinked once. "I'm not sure I can picture Minyard as a dashing hero."
"Well I was literally left breathless by our encounter. Of course, that may have been due to having the air knocked out of me..."
She laughed. "And what do you do?"
"He's a mime," said Andrew, appearing at Neil's side and handing him a can of soda. He had a glass of some dark alcohol for himself.
Neil rolled his eyes but used the BSL sign for 'thank you' before taking his soda. He knew about twenty five words plus the alphabet in sign language as his mother had wanted them to be able to still have rudimentary communication if they couldn't speak out loud for any reason.
"Be nice to your boyfriend," chided Laila. "You're lucky he puts up with you."
Andrew had been correct when he said that several of his teammates were curious about him. Neil kept fielding questions about how they'd met, coming up with a different story every time he was asked. Andrew agreed with everything he said, his expression completely deadpan.
"It's either something very embarrassing or very boring," said Allison Reynolds without preamble from beside Neil.
"The way you met," she said impatiently. "It's either embarrassing or boring, or else you wouldn't be lying about it."
"Who says I'm lying?" said Neil. "And there are plenty of other reasons."
"Maybe it's classified," said Neil.
"Maybe he's a pathological liar," said Andrew.
"Maybe it's not actually any of your business," said Neil.
"Maybe I just like secrets," said Andrew.
"Argh, I said one!" said Allison, throwing up her arms. "You little gremlins deserve each other," she added as she stalked away.
Once food was served (it was served buffet-style and consisted only of dietician-approved choices) Dan and Matt started mingling, making their way around the room to speak with their guests. They both seemed excited to meet Neil, showing interest in him personally and not only in his relationship with Andrew. Neil couldn't bring himself to tell absurd stories in the face of their unrelenting earnestness.
"Where were you born?" asked Matt with interest.
"Baltimore, actually," said Neil.
"As in Baltimore, Maryland?" clarified Dan.
"Yes. My parents got divorced when I was very young and my mother took me back to England. We stayed until I was about ten before she had to move for her job but I kept the accent." That wasn't quite the truth. First of all his mother hadn't had a job, just a need to keep them out of his father's clutches. Secondly, he hadn't acquired his perfect RP accent by chance: his mother had hated her own Brummie accent so she'd mercilessly drilled him until RP came naturally.
"Where else did you live?" asked Dan.
"All over Europe," said Neil. "Germany, for a while. France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain."
"Did you pick up any other languages?" said Matt.
"I'm fluent in French, German, and Spanish and I can speak another three or four other languages conversationally."
"I'm starting to believe you are a spy," said Andrew. Matt and Dan sent him questioning glances, but neither Andrew nor Neil explained.
By nine Andrew had clearly had enough and Neil was flagging after so many social interactions so they took their leave, Neil having exchanged numbers with both Matt and Dan who seemed to want to adopt him.
The silence in the car was comfortable and relaxing after an evening of socialization. Surprisingly, it was Andrew who broke it.
"People who can fluently speak multiple languages must be in demand for employment."
"I'm sure they are, but good jobs usually require people to have a college degree or, at the very least, to have completed high school. Also, it requires a lot of time and energy to find jobs, apply for them, and to go to interviews; I'm in short supply of both of those things."
"You didn't finish high school?" asked Andrew.
Neil considered how much he actually wanted to tell Andrew. He noticed that he was instinctively clutching at the iron scar on his chest and balled his hands into fists and forced them into his lap. "My father was not a nice man," he said haltingly. "My mother left him when I was small, which he took as a blow to his pride since he saw us as his possessions. It didn't really matter until I was ten and he decided that he wanted me back. Unfortunately he was quite rich and powerful which meant that he was able to convince authorities that he should have custody of me. My mother took us on the run to keep me away from him. I usually went to school wherever we lived, but we moved so often and lied about my age enough that my learning was disrupted and I never actually graduated. Then my father died and my mother died not long afterwards and I was too busy just making enough money to survive to bother finishing."
Andrew digested this. "I grew up in foster care," he finally said. "I know what it's like to have to fight for everything and how exhausting it can sometimes be to just keep breathing."
Neil didn't respond, but took comfort in how Andrew had calmly accepted some of the ugliness of Neil's past and proceeded to make him feel less alone.
The next few months passed easily. Neil attended exy games; Matt, Dan, Nicky, and, to a lesser extent, Renee and Erik filled up his phone with messages; he and Andrew got to know each other better; and he continued to tell strangers outrageous lies when they attempt to make small talk with him.
He had claimed to be a sky-diving instructor, a marine biologist specializing in sharks, and a restaurant critic. Once he'd pretended he could only speak Portuguese and he said insulting things to people while smiling so they were unaware.
He thought his accent helped him get away with some things: it was the only explanation he could think of for why someone had believed him when he'd said that his name was Sir Bartholomew Edmund Raymond Charlestonbury the fourth, duke of Neilsbridge (but that he just went by Neil) and that he worked as an archaeologist-slash-treasure hunter. Andrew had then claimed that Neil had discovered the lost city of El Dorado and found dinosaurs there. That had been at a particularly dull benefit.
Neil found himself more often than not looking forward to his outings with Andrew and who he got to be when they were together. Not the ridiculous professions he fabricated, but being Andrew's boyfriend. It was a nice break from his less-than-stellar everyday existence. He couldn't believe that it had only been five months since they'd met. It felt both longer and shorter than that.
The tickle at the back of his throat didn't worry him at first, but it soon morphed into a full blown cough. He'd not been allowed to be sick when he was younger, so he did what he'd always done: ignore it until it either went away or became so bad that it incapacitated him.
On the day that he had another team get-together with Andrew he woke up aching and soaked, having sweat through his nightclothes. He was pretty sure that he was fine but the Foxes, being professional athletes, were all what Neil considered to be hypochondriacs and had barred anyone showing even the slightest hint of illness from their gatherings. He texted Andrew to let him know that he was unwell, stripped down to his pants and went back to sleep.
He awoke again sometime later, burning up and with a pounding headache. He was almost ready to admit that he was actually sick. There was a weird musical tone somewhere in his room that he couldn't identify, but every time it occurred he felt like a spike had been driven into his brain.
Blessedly the noise stopped, but then a scratching sound started coming from his door. He knew that it should worry him - was someone breaking in? - but he couldn't muster up anything. If someone was coming to murder him then at least his head would stop hurting.
His door swung open and Neil moaned against the light, curling himself deeper into his sleeping bag.
"Neil," said a vaguely familiar voice.
Neil risked cracking an eye open. "Andrew," he said. "I texted to let you know 'm sick."
"No, you texted me the word 'dying' along with some gibberish and several not-English words and then you didn't answer your phone for several hours."
"Oh," said Neil, hacking a cough. "That seems irresponsible."
Andrew made a sound in his throat.
"I'm sick," said Neil pathetically.
"I see that," said Andrew.
"I'm not allowed to be sick."
"Everyone gets sick, Neil."
"Mum'll be mad," muttered Neil, before registering who he was speaking with. "Why are you here?"
"To pick you up," said Andrew as if he were stating something obvious.
"I can't go to the thing, I'm sick."
"We've covered this."
Neil squinted in confusion. "Then why-"
Andrew cut him off. "I'm not leaving you here; plague rats probably live in this building and the mould can't be good for you."
Neil just blinked at him stupidly.
"Up," said Andrew with enough command in his tone that it broke through Neil's stupor.
He sat up and stared down at his bare chest in consternation, knowing that something was wrong but he wasn't quite sure what. Sitting up made him dizzy so he collapsed back into his sleeping bag. "Why is everything the worst?" he whined.
"Up," Andrew repeated, yanking him up and shoving a t-shirt and sweats at him. Neil somehow managed to get dressed without too much help, Andrew wrapping him in a hoodie despite his protests.
"Too hot," muttered Neil.
"It's forty degrees outside; you're wearing a sweatshirt."
"Forty degrees is hot," argued Neil. "With this fever, I'm probably forty degrees. Bloody Americans with your bloody temperatures that make no sense."
"Let's go," said Andrew, completely ignoring Neil's incredibly valid point.
Neil tried to stand, but was once again overcome with dizziness. He could feel Andrew supporting him and propelling him forward without much input from Neil.
"Andrew, did you get him? Is he alright? Thank God you're back, this neighbourhood is sketchy. I can't believe you made me guard your car like a dog," came Nicky's shrill voice once they got outside. All his words ran together and Neil had trouble understanding him.
Nicky opened the back door of the car and Andrew deposited Neil, who was now shivering uncontrollably, onto the seat. He tossed Neil's duffel, which he had thankfully thought to bring with them, onto the seat next to him.
Andrew covered him with a jacket and gave him an unreadable look. "Do you need a doctor?"
"No insurance," said Neil. "I'm sure I'm fine."
Andrew huffed but didn't argue. He slammed the door and circled the car to get into the driver's seat.
"You really should have health insurance, Neil," said Nicky as the car started.
"I don't know if you noticed," groaned Neil, "but I'm actually pretty bad at life."
"That is obvious," said Andrew.
"Wait, you're not here illegally are you?" said Nicky, looking around as if someone could possibly overhear him and dropping his voice to a stage whisper. "Are we going to have to hide you from ICE?"
"He was born in Maryland," said Andrew, which shifted Nicky's attention away from Neil and onto Andrew.
Neil laid his head back and let the familiar hum of an engine lull him into sleep.
He woke with a start when the door he was leaning on was wrenched open. "Still alive?" said Andrew, looking down at him.
"Unfortunately," rasped Neil. He blinked around at their surroundings. "Where are we?" It seemed to be some kind of garage.
"My place," said Andrew, starting to pull Neil out of the car.
"Your place has a private, underground car park?" said Neil, trying to be helpful but he kept have to close his eyes to stave off the dizziness. "In this economy?"
Nicky laughed as he collected Neil's bag. "Come on, let's get some cough syrup into you. You sound like you gargled gravel."
Andrew propelled Neil over to the elevator, which was far fancier than any elevator Neil had ever seen.
"God, you're just disgustingly rich, aren't you?" said Neil once he was propped against the elevator wall and able to open his eyes without falling over.
"Rich enough to buy pretty boys," said Nicky playfully.
"Nicky," said Andrew with a warning burr in his voice.
"But why?" said Neil. "All you do is run around and play with a ball. And you don't even run. And they pay you millions. I can run. I'm really fast. I'll show you." He wavered slightly on his feet. "Maybe not now. It's still not fair."
"No, but life often isn't," said Nicky. "Now, stop talking. You're making my throat hurt in sympathy. I'm going to make you tea with honey."
"Never met an American who can brew a decent pot of tea," grumbled Neil.
"You're illness has made you become significantly more British-y," remarked Nicky.
Once they made it into Andrew's flat Neil was deposited in a chair as Nicky fussed around in the kitchen. Andrew disappeared and returned carrying cough syrup, cold medication, and ibuprofen.
"You shouldn't take that on an empty stomach," said Nicky. "When did you last eat?"
Neil paused in thought. "...What's today?"
"Tuesday," said Nicky after a pause.
"Ummm… maybe Sunday?" guessed Neil. "Not hungry."
Andrew sighed audibly. He fished a can of something out of his cupboard, poured it into a bowl, and shoved it into his microwave. When it was heated he brought the chicken soup over to Neil. "Eat," he said.
Neil ate, and took his medicine, and drank his tea (with minimal complaining about how weak it was) and then was ushered first to the loo and then into a bedroom by Nicky. He gratefully sunk into what was probably the most comfortable mattress he ever remembered sleeping on and promptly passed out.
Neil woke an indeterminate amount of time later. There was sun streaming through the curtains indicating that it was daytime but other than that he had no idea when it was. On the bedside table there was a box of tissues, a couple bottles of water, medication, a box of crackers, and Neil's phone which had been thoughtfully left plugged in but muted.
Glancing at his phone, he learned that it was Wednesday morning and he had numerous missed calls and texts which he continued to ignore. He was pretty sure his fever had broken but he took another ibuprofen and washed it down with crackers and water anyway. Then he examined the room he was in. It was tastefully decorated but lacking in personal touches, probably a guest room. On the dresser there was a pile of clean, soft clothing, a couple towels, and a toothbrush that was still in its packaging. He could vaguely remember using the loo on his way to bed. He retraced his steps easily and decided to take a shower to wash the fever-sweat off of himself. There were full bottles of body wash and shampoo in the shower stall and toothpaste in the cabinet. He turned the water on as hot as he could stand and let it beat into his aching muscles, surmising that an flat as fancy as this one probably had an unlimited supply of hot water.
Finally, when his skin was all pruned, he got out, dried off, and brushed his teeth. He dressed in the clothing he had found, which was freshly laundered and fit him perfectly. Nicky must have bought it, since he knew Neil's size.
He padded down the hall and into the open concept living/dining/kitchen area. Andrew was sitting on the couch under a blanket watching television.
"Oh," said Neil stupidly, somehow surprised to see Andrew in his own home.
"How are you feeling?" asked Andrew. He was dressed more casually than Neil had ever seen him in a t-shirt and sweats. It was strange seeing him look so restful and at ease.
"Less like death," answered Neil after a too-long pause.
"Nicky left you homemade soup in the fridge," said Andrew with a gesture. "And there's bread if you want toast." He turned back to the television.
Neil made himself a small amount of food as he still didn't have a large appetite. After he choked down a plain slice of toast he hovered indecisively. Was he supposed to leave now? Go back to bed?
Andrew solved his dilemma by lifting the blanket, offering Neil half the couch. He slumped down thankfully, already tired out from the small amount of activity that he'd managed. Andrew resettled the blanket and Neil caught sight of his bare arms. Andrew was never seen in public without a long sleeved shirt or armbands and Neil could now see the scars that lined his forearms. He caught Neil looking and gazed calmly back at him.
"You saw my scars," said Neil in realization. His hand went to where the iron had branded him. "You didn't have to show me yours; I know you didn't mean to see mine."
"I do not do anything that I don't want to," said Andrew.
Neil tightened his hand in his shirt. "My father was in the mob. He gave me this one when I was three; I don't remember why. My mother packed us up and left him the next day." He took a deep breath. "The rest I got when we were on the run."
"You were shot."
"His lackeys didn't always care that he wanted me alive."
Andrew ran a thumb down one of his own scars. "I was abused in foster care and I needed an outlet. I haven't wanted to cut myself in a long time and it's been even longer since I did. Once I got to juvie I had a good therapist who found the proper medication to manage my depression."
Neil took in what Andrew offered and then nodded to the television. "What are we watching?"
The combination of illness, a belly full of food, medication, and feeling safe meant that Neil slept deeper and longer than normal. He was awoken early the next afternoon following sixteen hours of sleep by a knock on his door.
He sat up blearily. "Yes?"
It was, unsurprisingly, Andrew. "I have an away game tomorrow," he said. "I will be leaving shortly and returning on Saturday afternoon."
"Okay," said Neil, stretching. "Give me five minutes and I'll be ready to go."
Neil stared. "Andrew, do you know how comfortable this bed is? If you don't kick me out I may stay forever."
Andrew put something metal down on the dresser. "These are the keys to the front door and the building. I've let the doorman know that that you're here and I have a cleaning woman who comes in on Friday afternoons so don't be surprised. Nicky will be by to bring you food tomorrow."
"Are you su-" Andrew raised an eyebrow and Neil cut himself off. "You don't do anything you don't want to," he recited. "Will you at least tell me when I've worn out my welcome?"
"I will not be subtle if I want you to leave," promised Andrew. "Get up now; I made you food."
Andrew had prepared him a bowl of porridge with cut up fruit and watched him expectantly until he'd eaten all of it. Then he showed him how to work Netflix, gave him the password to the Wi-Fi, and left.
Neil sat on the couch and took stock of this newest development. Andrew had invited him to stay indefinitely. He hadn't been expecting it: Andrew was a very private person who guarded his personal space jealously. Giving Neil a key to his home displayed a level of trust that Neil wasn't sure he'd earned. Obviously Neil was going to stay - he would have stayed for the bed alone but that wasn't the only benefit - but he had to take into account the caveat that Andrew could evict him and cut off his income at a moment's notice. He needed to ensure that he could survive that.
He returned to the guest room (which he supposed was 'his' room now) to get his phone. He answered a few of his missed texts - Dan, Matt, and Renee had all inquired after his health - and then opened his banking app. His bank balance was in pretty good shape with how much Andrew paid him, and if he stopped paying for rent and food he'd be saving almost all of his money. He was pretty sure that he'd lost all of his other jobs after not showing up or calling in for several days, but the old lady who owned the diner had a soft spot for him so he could probably get that job back. With his diner job and working for Andrew, he'd be able to build up a respectable cushion for when Andrew threw him out. If he got another overnight job then he'd be in even better shape. Or, he thought, sitting back against the couch and chewing his lip while staring into space, he could use some of his free time to find a better job or build his skills.
Picking up his phone again, he googled how to get a GED in New York state. Within a couple minutes he'd learned that it was free to take the test and he'd found free online study materials and videos. He did some quick calculations: if he kept his diner job and spent two or three hours in the afternoon studying then his evenings would be free for Andrew and he'd be able to get a decent night's sleep. It would be stupid not to take this chance that had unexpectedly been given to him.
He set his plan into motion right away. He called the diner and pleaded his case. The owner wasn't particularly happy with him but she said he could keep his job if he came in the following day at 5:30am. He said he would and then set the alarm on his phone so that he'd be able to make it there on time.
Then he texted Andrew asking if there was a laptop or computer in the flat he could borrow. Once he had Andrew's permission he set up with the laptop at the table and spent the next couple hours working on math. He'd always been good at math when he'd actually attended school but he was rusty. It took him some time to get back into it.
A text message broke his concentration a little after five. He realized that he was sore and his head was aching and that, as he was just getting over an illness, he should take some medicine and get some rest. He dug his phone out from under some papers and saw that it was Andrew who had texted.
"Eat something," he wrote.
Neil smiled and stretched and shuffled into the kitchen for dinner.
Nicky was already in the flat when Neil dragged himself back there after his shift. He was stirring a pot of something fragrant-smelling on the stove.
"There you are!" he chirped happily as Neil came in. "Where were you? You look awful."
"Work," said Neil and held up his hand to forestall the argument he could see Nicky working himself up to. "I had to in order to keep that job," he said. "I promise I'll eat and rest and recover this afternoon."
"Hmmm… okay," said Nicky dubiously. "I'm making you birria to clear out your sinuses."
"You're such a mother," teased Neil.
"Excuse you, I have excellent mothering abilities," said Nicky. "I basically raised the twins alone, didn't I?" He stirred the soup. "This is spicy. I forgot that since you're white and British that you'd probably prefer your food to be bland."
"Hey, British people love spice," said Neil. "We invaded India to steal theirs, didn't we?"
Nicky stared at him.
"Too soon?" asked Neil.
"Too soon," confirmed Nicky. He gestured to the table. "There's some paperwork for you to sign."
"What kind of paperwork?" asked Neil, going to the table and leafing through the pages. "Nicky. Is this…?"
"Andrew has decided to offer his employees health insurance," said Nicky. "Really, it was irresponsible that he wasn't doing so already."
"Uh huh," said Neil flatly. "And he offered you health insurance, too?"
"I'm sure he would have if I wasn't covered by Erik's really excellent plan," said Nicky blithely. "I know he pays for Aaron's. Besides, it'll be good for you to see a doctor."
"I don't need to go to a doctor," said Neil mulishly. "I'm fine."
"When did you last see a doctor?"
That stumped Neil. Probably when they were living in Germany? Maybe when they were still in London?
"Right," said Nicky into Neil's prolonged silence.
"I would have if this stupid country had universal health care," groused Neil.
"Somehow I doubt that."
"That's probably a safe bet."
"Look, if I were you, I'd take advantage of Andrew's sudden generosity and go see every single doctor and specialist that I could," said Nicky with a wink. "You know, like that episode of Parks and Rec?"
Neil shrugged. "I haven't really seen anything that aired in the last decade," he admitted. He'd been up-to-date with pop culture when he'd been a child but really hadn't had a lot of time for entertainment since his mother died.
"Oh my God," said Nicky, filling a couple bowls full of the spicy soup for them. "I know what we're doing this afternoon. I'm going to introduce you to the sitcoms of Mike Schur and your life is never going to be the same."
Living with Andrew ended up being much easier than Neil had expected, although he didn't know why he was surprised as he and Andrew had proven to be quite compatible in all their previous interactions. Andrew had an extremely regimented schedule during the exy season and it complemented Neil's nicely. He had early morning practices, he napped in the early afternoon, had three late afternoon practices a week, and a game every Friday. He ate at the same time every day according to his diet plan and he always made enough for Neil. Neil had taken over making them breakfast before his diner shift.
They spent evenings together, either out at an event or lounging around the flat. Neil felt more settled than he had in a long time. He was better fed, better rested, and better paid than he'd ever been.
"Nicky is hosting on Thursday," said Andrew apropos of nothing one Monday in late November. "We'll eat early because of my diet."
"Okay…" said Neil. "Any particular reason?" He knew that he'd missed Andrew's birthday at the beginning of the month when he'd been sick.
"Thanksgiving," said Andrew. "Nicky is unsurprisingly gung ho about spending holidays together as a family."
"And I'm invited?" asked Neil. Andrew just gave him a flat look. "Don't give me that look. Nicky's aware that our relationship isn't real."
"Aaron is not," said Andrew after a short pause. "He is bringing his girlfriend."
"Do you have any guidelines for how I should act around your brother?"
"He was not overly supportive when he learned of my sexuality in college. He's better about it now but according to Nicky he's convinced that you're only with me for my money."
"Well that's rude," said Neil.
"He will likely be rude to you, yes."
"I meant that it's rude to you," corrected Neil. "Does he really think you have nothing to recommend you except for your salary?" He could feel himself getting worked up. "What an arsehole. You're a great boyfriend and anyone would be lucky to date you even if you weren't absurdly wealthy."
Andrew raised an eyebrow at him. Neil cleared his throat. "Anyway, how do you want me to deal with Aaron?"
Andrew's expression was definitely amused. "Just be yourself."
Sure enough Aaron gave Neil a judgmental once over as soon as they met and said, "So you're the boy toy? Don't you feel guilty for taking my brother's money?"
"Not really," said Neil. "Why, do you? I know that it isn't you who's paying for your fancy medical degree or your nice flat."
Aaron's face flushed in anger. "That's different."
"Is it?" asked Neil. "I guess so. I, after all, give Andrew something in return."
Andrew made his presence known, snaking an arm around Neil's waist. Neil wrapped his arm around Andrew's shoulders in response. It was something still relatively new: Andrew had recently given him permission to do it without asking. Neil liked it. It made them seem like a united front.
Andrew and Aaron stared at each other for a couple moments, wordlessly communicating.
"Fine," Aaron eventually grumbled, "but he's an asshole."
"I have a type," said Andrew.
Aaron turned to Neil. "I accept that you're part of his life," he said grudgingly, "but if you hurt him, I'll end you."
Neil laughed. "Points for effort but I've been threatened by the actual yakuza." He could feel Andrew's curious gaze on the side of his face.
Aaron's eyes narrowed. "What is it that you do?" he asked.
"I'm a detective-slash-genius."
"Ha!" said Nicky from across the room. "I knew you'd like that show! Now everyone stop posturing and come pretend to be a happy family."
The day actually went quite smoothly. Nicky, Erik, and Aaron's girlfriend Katelyn were all reasonable, friendly people and Neil decided that in the spirit of Thanksgiving he'd not rile Aaron up on purpose. After they ate Neil lost track of Andrew for a short time until he found him out on the balcony.
"Why are you out in the cold?" he asked, stepping out into the evening.
"Habit," said Andrew, "I used to come out for a cigarette after eating but the Foxes' management made me quit. I like the quiet."
"Do you want me to leave you alone?"
"No," said Andrew.
Neil joined him at the railing, looking out over the city. He leaned over so that their shoulders were pressed together.
"Yakuza?" asked Andrew.
"How'd you know that wasn't just something I made up?"
"I can tell the difference."
Neil felt warmth spread under his ribs at being known. "My father worked for the Moriyamas," he said. He could feel Andrew stiffen in surprise. "He was known as the Butcher."
"Wesninski," said Andrew. Neil flinched. Andrew turned to him and reached for the scars on his cheek. He stopped short of touching them until Neil nodded his acceptance.
"He and some of his lackeys caught up with us when I was eighteen," explained Neil. "He got me away from my mother. He, uh, toyed with me for awhile." Andrew stroked his thumb along Neil's marred skin. "He didn't have me for long before my mother and uncle burst in to kill him. After that my mother went to the FBI and gave them all the information she knew about his organization, which was a lot."
"You told me once that she died not long after your father. Was she killed?"
"No, she had a brain aneurysm," said Neil. "At least she lived long enough to see the Moriyamas and their affiliates go down in flames."
"Like the Ravens."
"The funny thing is that I learned later that the reason my father had decided to get me back from my mother was because he wanted to sell me to the Ravens. They wanted to train me up to be another exy prodigy like Kevin in order to make millions for the Moriyamas." He gave Andrew a lopsided smile. "We probably would have known each other."
"Unlikely," said Andrew. "Kevin told me stories about what went on at the Nest. With a mouth like yours you never would have survived."
"You like my mouth," said Neil. He watched as Andrew's eyes drifted down to his lips. "Hey, Andrew," he said. "You can kiss me."
Andrew's gaze snapped back to Neil's. "Why?"
"Because I want you to," said Neil. Andrew still looked suspicious, so he expanded, "It's not because I think I owe you or that I'm trying to give you what I think you want. You're my best friend and I think our relationship stopped being fake a while ago without me noticing."
"You are an idiot," agreed Andrew.
"You like me anyway," said Neil, smiling as Andrew pulled him into a kiss.
They encountered several hurdles while adding a physical component to their relationship due to Neil's inexperience and Andrew's boundaries but they overcame them without too much difficulty. By the spring Neil felt secure in his place both in Andrew's life and in his bed, no longer worried that Andrew was going to suddenly grow tired of him and ask him to leave.
Which was why he was slightly confused when Nicky handed him a notice of contract termination in early May, about eleven months after he'd first met Andrew.
He'd just gotten home from work and found Nicky making food in their kitchen, which was not an abnormal occurrence. Despite the fact that Neil ate regularly now and had put on enough weight that his ribs were no longer visible Nicky still seemed to think it was his duty to stuff as much food into him as possible.
Neil had quit his diner job a couple months earlier. After he'd received his GED in January, Renee had offered him a job as a translator with her organization. He worked part-time and was looking into starting a couple college courses in the fall.
"Contract termination?" he asked. He wasn't particularly alarmed, just slightly puzzled.
"Well it's not like you need it anymore, right?" said Nicky, slapping Neil's hand away when he reached for the shredded cheese. "There's also paperwork to give you access to his bank account." He looked up at Neil's stunned expression. "He didn't say anything? I swear, that boy."
"If you think about it every step forward in our relationship has involved you showing up with paperwork for me," said Neil. "If Andrew ever decides to get married I'm sure I won't know until you hand me a prenup."
Nicky laughed. "He would do that, wouldn't he?" He shook his head. "You know, a year ago if anyone had mentioned Andrew getting married I would have assumed that they were joking or delusional. But now… he's not demonstrative but I can tell he's happy. I'm really glad you found each other; you're good for him."
"Meeting him was the best thing to ever happen to me," said Neil.
Nicky sniffed. "Damn, Neil, you're going to make me start sobbing."
Later that night Neil had his feet in Andrew's lap as he read a Russian phrase book to add to his fairly pitiful vocabulary. Andrew was watching a documentary about oceans and had his hands curled around Neil's ankles.
"Hey, Andrew," said Neil, recapping his highlighter and putting down his book. "Can I ask you a question?"
"You just did."
"Did we adopt a child without me noticing? If not you're not allowed to tell dad jokes."
Andrew squeezed one of Neil's ankles. "What is it?"
"What made you offer me a job the day we met? And don't say it was my pretty face; I know you don't do things on a whim."
"It was your face," said Andrew. "That day wasn't the first time I saw you."
"I remember," said Neil. "Between the staring and the fact that I vaguely recognized you I thought you were after me. I ran from you."
"You just looked so… defeated. Like you were at the end of your rope and about to fall into a bottomless chasm. I remembered when I felt like that and I was intrigued. It made me want to see you again and when I did you came over to tell me off." Andrew lifted one of his shoulders in a half-shrug. "You were hot and interesting and not homophobic; I knew that Kevin would hate you on sight; and I'd promised my therapist that I'd make an attempt to get to know the next guy I was attracted to instead of just hooking up. I figured that I had nothing to lose by hiring you."
"So what you're saying is that I was so pathetic that the world's most disinterested man took notice and wanted to save me," said Neil.
"I knew I wanted to keep you when you told that woman that you were a jewel thief."
"Ah, yes," said Neil sagely. "Running away, being an confrontational arsehole, and telling outrageous lies: three surefire ways to get a boyfriend."
"Seems to have worked out for you."
"It does make your taste in guys a little suspect, though."
"What about your taste in guys?"
"It's impeccable; I got myself a hot sugar daddy," said Neil smugly.
Andrew unexpectedly yanked on Neil's legs, pulling him down the couch until he was flat on his back. He crawled over Neil, pinning him in place. "Don't call me that."
"But it makes Kevin's eye twitch when I do."
"Well as long as it annoys Kevin," said Andrew dryly and kissed Neil into silence.