Finals season arrives like a hurricane and Aaron is completely overwhelmed.
Studying isn’t hard. It’s propping open a textbook, copying down notes, highlighting key ideas and reading up on the main terms. Aaron can do this in his sleep. Even if he doesn’t have quite the memory that his brother has, Aaron is pretty okay at studying.
Finals, though, are another matter entirely. Exy season has finished, allowing everyone to start cramming in order to pass their courses so they can actually stay on the team next year. Nicky has been in a panic spiral for the past week. The upperclassmen have taken him under their wing, which is a good thing because Aaron might have resorted to locking his cousin out of their dorms for some peace and quiet. Even Kevin has stopped trying to drag people to the court with him. Aaron, meanwhile, has started camping out in the library and burying himself in textbooks.
The thing is, he knows his stuff. He’s spent the semester reviewing his notes and acing his tests. Even if he fails—which he won’t—he’ll do alright. But that’s the other thing. Aaron doesn’t want to do alright. He can’t just do alright. He needs to keep his GPA high if he ever wants to get into med school.
Katelyn understands his struggles, but she’s also commented more than once on the heaviness of his eyebags and the amount of caffeine he’s been inhaling. He doesn’t want her to worry. They study together, sometimes, since they share a lot of the same classes. But Katelyn is the type to read her notes aloud to herself. Aaron needs complete silence. He misses her when she’s not around, but he knows his mind lets her be more of a distraction than not. So he ducks his head and drowns himself in the human anatomy and pretends he isn’t checking their text thread at every break.
The dorm is empty, for once, so Aaron has his stuff spread out across the living area. There are textbooks on the couch, notebooks on the table and the floor. His laptop is on his lap. He’s deep into rereading a chapter when he becomes aware of the lock jiggling and then the door swinging open.
Neil stands there, a hand on the doorknob that he just broke into. He blinks at Aaron. Aaron blinks back.
“What the fuck?”
“Hello to you, too,” Neil says. He steps into the dorm, shutting the door behind him. “You look like shit.”
“Matt’s not here,” Aaron tells him.
“I know. I’m just here to grab something.”
Aaron squints. “You couldn’t have knocked?”
“Didn’t know anyone would be here.”
“I live here, too, asshole.”
Neil ducks into the kitchen and rummages through the cupboards. Aaron turns back to his textbook, but he’s lost his place. He rubs at his eyes. There’s a migraine starting to form but he needs to at least finish this unit, or he’ll fall behind on the schedule he made.
Something clunks onto the table. A steaming microwaveable meal. Aaron looks up at Neil, who stares back at him impassively.
“You won’t be passing any exams if you’re passing out,” Neil says.
“I don’t need your help,” Aaron bites out.
“No,” Neil agrees. "But Andrew would be upset if you starved to death after all his effort in keeping you alive."
Aaron scoffs. "Andrew doesn't give a shit about anything."
Neil just looks at him. There's something almost like pity in his eyes. If Aaron wasn't so sleep-deprived, he would punch the guy.
"Believe whatever you want," Neil says. "But don't say I didn't warn you if Andrew decides to knock you out and take your exam himself."
Aaron scowls. That happened exactly once in high school when Aaron caught the flu and Andrew, probably out of sheer stubbornness, did not. He waves Neil off. "I doubt one microwaveable meal is going to save me, but thanks."
"Fuck you, too."
Neil flips the bird at him. Aaron waits until the door slams before picking up the box of soggy pasta. It’s gross, but it’s warm.
Aaron is no stranger to nightmares. He used to go looking for his mother, when he was still young and stupid. Now he’s less young though not less stupid, but still, he knows better than to look for comfort in someone else. It’s not a problem if he just wakes himself up. There’s always a textbook within reach to keep his mind quiet. He’ll just chug coffee in the morning.
Katelyn’s said that he could text her any time, even in the middle of the night, which makes him fall for her that much more—but he knows he won’t do that. Can’t. His pride is much too high, and he doesn’t want to wake her for something so trivial.
So it’s four am on a Saturday night—morning, now, he supposes—and he’s shuffling downstairs bleary-eyed and shivering not from the cold. The house is quiet and dark. Kevin’s snores can be heard from the kitchen. Aaron flicks on the light and stares blankly at the fridge.
He doesn’t know how long he just stands there. Long enough for his skin to go cold. Eventually, he manages to walk over to the counter and start the coffee. He goes through the motions without really registering any of them.
His hands are shaking.
He’s on his third mug of coffee when someone enters the kitchen. Aaron blinks. Neil blinks back. It’s brighter now; the sun has come up without him noticing. Kevin’s steady snoring has broken off into incoherent mutterings in between snores.
“You’re up early,” Neil says. “Can’t sleep?”
“Nightmares?” Neil guesses. “Katelyn told me.”
Katelyn and Neil aren’t friends, but they’re definitely more civil than Aaron and his brother. A good thing, probably, since Andrew still barely talks to him even in their sessions with Bee. The fact that they talk enough for Neil to know that Aaron has nightmares, though... He glares.
“Apparently, it might help if you talk about it,” Neil says.
“What makes you think I want to talk with you?”
Neil shrugs. He ducks around him to pour himself the last cup of coffee. Aaron watches him turn the machine on again. The guy actually doesn’t drink that much coffee, so he’s probably making it for everyone else. Or Andrew, in particular, who is a zombie before ingesting his morning caffeine. Aaron doesn’t believe Neil possesses a single considerate bone in his body; everything he does is functional and for a practical reason. Some part of Aaron can admire that. The more rational part of Aaron just hates Neil vehemently.
“If you don’t want to talk to me, fine. You can talk to Nicky, or Andrew, or even Kevin.”
“No way Kevin has nightmares.”
Neil frowns. “Kevin has nightmares about the Nest. You’re not special, Aaron. Literally every single one of the Foxes have nightmares.”
Aaron doesn’t have a reply to that. He gulps down his coffee. It’s cold now, and it goes down his throat hard and tasteless. He fights against the urge to throw it back up.
He knows, some honest part of him that he doesn’t like to acknowledge very often, that everyone has nightmares. They’re walking tragedies, the Foxes. Childhood memories, conditioned fears. He knows that Nicky sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat and reaches for a phone, long-distance charges be damned. He knows that Andrew’s sleep schedule is more screwed up than Aaron’s own. Neil’s nightmares are etched across his face. Kevin’s, too. He’s seen the darkness that lingers in the eyes of his teammates. It doesn't make it easier to think about. So he just... doesn't.
"Drake," he mutters eventually. "I dream about Drake."
"Good," Neil says. Aaron shoots him an incredulous look but Neil just returns the stare steadily. "Killing someone is supposed to haunt you. Even if you did the world a favour by killing that bastard."
He doesn't realize his breathing has sped up until Neil is in front of him, snapping his fingers to grab his attention. Aaron sets down the empty mug in his hands. It clatters onto the counter, too loud. His hands are shaking.
For a moment, he thinks he sees red splattered over his skin.
His fingers hurt. He realizes he's gripping the edge of the counter, hard enough his knuckles are white. He can't bring himself to let go. He's hyperventilating, some distant part of his brain provides.
He doesn't know how much time has passed but the next thing he knows is that his brother is there. A voice breaks through the white noise in his mind.
“—ron. Aaron. Can I touch you?”
It takes a moment for the question to make sense. He manages a nod. A hand circles his wrist. He allows Andrew to pull his hands from the counter. He watches numbly as his right hand is flipped palm up. Three ice cubes are placed in his hand. Andrew folds his fingers over the ice cubes and then lets go completely. The cold stings. Aaron keeps his eyes on his closed fist. Water drips out and slides down his arm. He focuses on the sharpness of the cold against his numb skin, until slowly, his breathing slows and the ice melts.
He looks up to find Andrew leaning against the counter with his arms crossed. Neil is gone, but Kevin’s sleep noises have gone silent, too. Aaron shakes off the water in his palm.
“Back online?” Andrew says.
“Shut up,” Aaron replies reflexively. He doesn’t look up when he quietly says, “Thanks.”
Andrew uncrosses his arms with an impatient gesture. “Didn’t Bee tell you how to deal with panic attacks?”
“That wasn’t a panic attack.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t a jolly good time, was it.”
“Are you Josten? Because one idiot in denial is enough to deal with. How are you going to be a doctor if you can’t even be self-aware?”
Aaron grits his teeth. “I said thank you.”
Andrew doesn’t look impressed. “Our deal might be done but try not to erase all my hard work in keeping you alive. Take better care of yourself.”
He thought he was done being stunned into speechlessness by his brother. But no, Andrew lives just to spite him. Aaron stands there in the silent kitchen, hand still wet and weariness seeping through his bloodstream, and he blinks at Andrew. He’s completely at a loss on how to respond.
He’s still blinking when Andrew moves, crossing the distance between them. He’s used to Andrew going to extremes to avoid accidental touch at all costs, but instead of swerving around as usual, Andrew stops right in front of him. Then, quick enough that Aaron questions if he imagined it, Andrew leans in and places his hands around Aaron’s shoulders. He squeezes, just slightly, and then lets go immediately.
Aaron is left gaping at his brother’s back as he retreats back up the stairs.
“Wow.” Neil is leaning in the doorway. He’s also looking at where Andrew disappeared. “That was basically a hug from Andrew. Amazing.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Aaron tells him. He dumps his mug in the sink and stomps past a snickering Neil.
He still hates Neil. The guy can't leave well enough alone and his mere presence throws everything Aaron knew about people, about his brother, into complete and utter disarray. But—Aaron thinks about Andrew voluntarily offering him physical comfort, no matter how brief; he thinks about Neil meeting his gaze unflinchingly and refusing to buy his bullshit—but maybe, Aaron thinks to himself, maybe Neil's not so bad after all.