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Math, Exy and Middle Ground

Chapter Text

Neil paid for his coffee and turned around to find a blond man behind him.

“Hey, Aaron,” he nodded at him, but the five-foot guy just glowered back at him, and Neil stopped.

Since when did Aaron start wearing armbands?

Looking at Neil’s hesitation, the man rolled his eyes. “I’m not Aaron,” he said, tone curt and clipped.

Oh. OH.

**

Andrew watched the stranger’s reaction with annoyance.

Blue Eyes’ brows rose a fractional amount, and something flitted across his face but he schooled his expression into a blank mask before Andrew could figure it out.

Interesting

“Well, not-Aaron, you’re in my way,” the man said. The audacity. He was a couple of inches taller than him, and had long messy auburn hair that he had tied into a knot.

“Did no one tell you that hipsters went out of fashion four years ago?” Andrew snarked, feeling vaguely annoyed, as though the stranger’s mere presence irked him. He couldn’t decide why.

The man smiled at that, and somewhere in his head, a voice that suspiciously sounded like Nicky said “Nice”. “I must have missed the memo,” he said, blue eyes thawing from icy to amused.

Andrew huffed. “Good to know.” And then for some inane reason he added, “I’m Andrew.”

At that, Auburn Hair tapped two fingers to his temple in a salute and responded with “Neil” and walked toward the door.

Andrew usually felt relieved when people did not recognise him, but this time, he felt a small twinge of disappointment as he watched Auburn Hair’s – Neil’s  – retreating back.

**

Neil cursed internally.

What was this, a James Bond movie? Who even salutes like that anymore?

But then he hadn’t expected to run into Andrew J Minyard at the university’s coffee shop at 7am on a Thursday either. And he had certainly not expected him to introduce himself.

When his mother had died and after he had buried her near the sea in California, Neil had very briefly considered getting back to Exy, but her voice rode over his instincts and he had dialed Stuart Hartford’s number and flown to London. Now, 10 years later, with his father dead, Lola dead, and the Butcher’s empire dismantled, he was back in America, this time pursuing a doctorate in mathematics and teaching at the university. But he still remembered how it felt once to have an Exy racquet in his hands, the thrum of adrenaline when he slammed a goal and the single-pointed focus needed to win a game. That’s why, despite not having touched an Exy racquet in 17 years, he could perfectly recall every player of every team that played the sport, and spout game stats in his sleep.

He might be a math nerd now, but he’d always be an Exy junkie at heart.

Which was why, as he walked toward the door of the café, cup of plain black coffee clutched in his left hand, he decided to make a stupid decision.

“That was an abysmal save against Philadelphia yesterday. But, hey, good game.”

**

Andrew felt like the floor was tilting. He planted his feet more firmly on the linoleum tiles lining the café’s floor. He plopped into the nearest seat and frowned at the vase of wilted flowers on the table. By the time he collected himself, he found Aaron sitting in front of him, shuffling a stack of papers, frown in place on his face.

“Did you think my save yesterday was abysmal?”

 

Aaron looked up at that, his startled expression morphing into a frown. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“Since when do you discuss Exy with me?”

“Since now. Was it?”

Aaron frowned. He knew he could deny having watched the game, but it was a fact well known that Aaron Minyard never missed his brother’s games.

It was also a fact well known that he had no choice but to be honest with Andrew.

“It was adequate. Why?”

 

Andrew toyed with the sugar packets on the table, his expression brooding.

“No matter. But your friend didn’t seem to think so.”

Now Aaron was fully confused. “What?”

“Auburn hair, blue eyes.” Smart mouth, he wanted to say. “Running outfit. Ordered a plain black.”

Aaron narrowed his eyes. “A lot of people order plain black, Andrew. Just because you feel the need to add three spoonfuls of sugar in your drink every day doesn’t mean everyone wants to.”

Andrew was tempted to throw said sugar in his face, but stayed silent.

“Neil. His name is Neil.” But Andrew already knew that. He wanted to know more. He had no idea why.

“He teaches math at the university. And he is also doing research.”

 

Oh a nerd, then. Shit did I say that out loud?

 

“Yeah, he’s a nerd, but he’s helpful and doesn’t ask too many questions and he’s easy to get along with,” Aaron said, sipping his tea, something akin to fondness colouring his voice.

Andrew was intrigued. Aaron didn’t do fond. A few years ago, Aaron was as bitter and broken as he was, both of them coming out of traumatic experiences of their own, still navigating a bond that was foreign to them. Aaron had mellowed, thawed and the distrust in his eyes had dimmed, and sometimes his smile reached his eyes. But that still didn’t explain Aaron’s tone.

Seeing his furrowed brows, Aaron sighed. “He helped Katelyn with something when we joined the university. She likes him a lot, and I couldn’t find a reason not to.”

Ah, that explains it.

Andrew changed the subject. “So, how’s she doing?” He and Katelyn had patched things up once they had finished college at Palmetto, but a tense air still cocooned them when they met. “She’s fine. Stressed. But then, all med students are,” Aaron shrugged, then narrowed his eyes at Andrew, “Why are you asking about Neil?”

Andrew shrugged, struggling to remain nonchalant, “Ran into him at the counter. He called my save abysmal.”

At this, Aaron let out a laugh and Andrew glowered at him.

“That is just like him,” he said, elaborating when Andrew looked at him questioningly, “Neil loves Exy. Something about being unable to play after he turned 10. But he’s a walking Exy machine. It’s annoying really,” Aaron said, sounding anything but.

 

Somehow this only pissed off Andrew more. Before Aaron could start asking uncomfortable questions he had no answers to, Andrew stood up, pushing his chair back.

“I’ll see you around,” he said churlishly.

“Come home for dinner tomorrow,” Aaron said, and Andrew was sure he detected a smirk somewhere in his voice.

If he slammed the café door a little harder than usual, then no one had to know.

**

Four hours after he had downed his coffee in the morning, Neil realised that he told one of the best goalkeepers in Exy that their save had been sub-par. He groaned and rested his head on a stack of books next to him. “Who does that? Who criticizes their Exy idol the first time they run into them?”

“Mr. Josten, do you need something?” the librarian’s voice rang out from behind him.

He sighed, “The ability to disappear, the ability to turn time, or the ability to shut the hell up would be nice.”

“Fantasy section,” she snapped, and turned on her heels.

Neil buried his hands in his face, knocking his glasses aside.

If he ever met Andrew Minyard again, he would explain himself, but he hoped he wouldn’t get the opportunity. The man was famously contrary.

Or was he?

Chapter Text

“Milk and sugar with two shots of caramel sauce. And whipped cream.”

“It’s 8am,” came an incredulous voice from Andrew’s left.

He turned to find the object occupying 80% of his thoughts for the past 6 days seated amid stacks of books and papers strewn haphazardly.

“Astute observation, Neil,” he retorted, balancing his over-sweet coffee concoction along with a doughnut and moved to his table. Neil cleared a bundle of papers and two books to make room for Andrew.

“What are you working on?” he asked, blowing on his coffee to cool it.

“Why don’t you put your astute observation skills to use,” Neil said, a smile twitching at the ends of his lips, pulling them up. Not that Andrew noticed, no, not at all.

Andrew scowled, drawing a laugh out of Neil. Outside, leaves fell, a steady indicator that autumn was around the corner. The silence between them stretched like taffy – and Andrew wanted to reach out and taste it.

“You know, I don’t think my save was actually bad,” he said, voice teetering on the edge of petulance. He watched with interest as the tips of Neil’s ears turned pink. “But Aaron tells me you’re an Exy junkie, so I wonder why you’d pass a flawed judgment like that.”

At that, Neil smiled – sharp and cunning. “Have you been talking about me, Andrew?”

This time, it was Andrew’s ears that turned red. “Shut up.”

“Never.”

They both looked at each other for a beat, before Neil’s phone rang, shattering whatever they had been sharing.

“Yes, uncle Stuart.”

And Andrew nearly fell off his seat. First, was that a British accent? Second, who even used a flip phone anymore?

“I’m doing fine. Yes, I’ve been eating my meals. I am not twelve, uncle Stuart. What? Of course I had breakfast. YES a granola bar counts,” Neil snapped into the phone, sounding surlier by the minute.

“Okay, okay I’ll be safe. Bye,” he hung up and sighed. “What,” he asked, looking at Andrew with narrowed eyes.

**

Neil sighed, taking in the tiny specimen of an Exy player sitting in front of him. He hadn’t meant to use his British accent in Andrew’s presence but it had jumped out. He looked at the clock – 8:45am, it read. He had 45 minutes to get to class, but for some reason, felt strangely reluctant to leave the café.

It’s the answer papers I’ve got to grade, he thought. Maybe it’s Andrew, said a snide voice in his head that suspiciously sounded like the librarian. Oh damn it.

“What,” he glowered at Andrew, who only shrugged in return.

“Did no one tell you that flip phones went out of fashion 14 years ago?”

“What are you, the fashion police?”

“No, but I know pathetic when I see it.”

Neil scowled.

“Honestly. How do you survive on a flip phone?”

Neil let out another sigh and picked his books up. “I don’t know, Andrew. Some of us just do,” he said, not missing the way Andrew’s face went blank for a moment. Huh.

“Anyway, I have class in half an hour. I’ll see you around?”

Andrew was still blank. “Andrew?”

“Give me your phone.”

Huh? Neil blinked for a few seconds before he gave his phone to Andrew. He watched as Andrew quickly typed something in and threw it back to him.

“Text me when you’re done with class. We’re getting you a new phone,” he said, leaving a spluttering Neil in his wake.

**

                                                                                                     Unknown number

3:15pm Hey asshole. I’m done.

 

Andrew looked blearily into his phone. Who the hell? He then remembered. Neil.

Shit. What was he thinking. Shit. Shit. Shit.

He had no idea why he had pulled that stunt in the morning, but he knew that he wanted to see Neil more often. And, who in their right minds used a flip phone anymore?

                                                                                              

                                                                                                     Idiot

3:15pm Hey asshole. I’m done

3:25pm Wait near the café. I’ll be there in 15.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Andrew spotted Neil at the entrance of the coffee shop, dressed in a dark blue button down tucked into tight black jeans that hugged his thighs. Shit

“Is that a Maserati?” Neil gawked before getting in, and Andrew couldn’t help but feel a little smug. He turned his blue eyes on him, and Andrew felt like he was being X-rayed. “Is this a date,” he asked, voice serious and somber, and Andrew almost drove into a wall.

“What?” he snapped.

“I asked if this is a date, Andrew. Christ, has your comprehension taken a hit now?”

“Shut up. I was just surprised.”

“Well?”

“Do you want it to be?”

Andrew looked on as Neil paused, his cheeks suddenly pink. “I’ve never done this before, so I really don’t know dating etiquette and I don’t even know if I’m dressed appropriately and oh god what do I do if you want to kiss me or something-”

“Neil,” Andrew said calmly, stopping his panicked monologue, trying hard not to keep images of him kissing Neil’s plush mouth out of his head. “We are just going out to get you a phone. It can be whatever you want it to be. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Am I clear?”

Neil took a deep, shuddering breath. “Okay.”

“Good. Now will you shut up, I need to concentrate,” Andrew retorted, even as Neil turned to look out the window with a soft smile.

Andrew was in trouble.

**

“I absolutely did not need that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Andrew, I don’t need an iPhone.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Andrew.”

“Why, yes, Neil, that’s my name. 10 points to Gryffindor.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“God, are you two a pair of kids,” Aaron asked tersely. “How old do you think you two are?”

Neil and Andrew had the grace to look a little ashamed. They were at Aaron and Katelyn’s place for dinner, and now Aaron was rethinking the decision to invite them.

“Let them be, Aaron. Do you want more dessert, Neil?” Katelyn asked him gently.

“No, but I think Andrew does,” he smirked, looking at the back of his blonde head. Andrew scowled, but held out his plate for a third helping of chocolate pudding.

“Idiot.”

“You are.”

“No, you.”

“Will you two shut up for one minute?!”

“Sorry, Aaron,” they chorused.

“Neil, do you want to go out with us for drinks this Friday? My cousin and some of our friends from Palmetto would be coming,” Aaron asked.

“What? Who’s coming,” Andrew asked. “Kevin, Matt and Dan. I think Eric would be there, too.”

They turned to Neil, who had gone suspiciously quiet.

Andrew took in his blank face and white-knuckled grip on the table and then called out, “Neil?”

“Um sorry,” he said, clearing his throat, “I don’t drink.” Andrew didn't miss the way undiluted fear had flashed in his eyes, turning them into pools of blank ice.

“So?” Andrew said.

“Um.”

“How eloquent. You’re coming. And we’re getting you new clothes.”

“What? What’s wrong with mine?”

“You look like a professor.”

“I AM a professor, Andrew.”

“Bo-ring.”

Aaron sighed. “Is it me or do you see a married couple bickering too?” he turned to Katelyn wearily.

She just laughed.

**

Andrew did not miss the way Neil stilled when Aaron had mentioned Kevin’s name. Friday was going to be interesting, but he couldn’t help the smidgen of worry that rose in his mind every time he thought of it.

His phone pinged.

                                                                                                           Idiot

11:47pm Goodnight, Andrew

 

Idiot.

What was Friday going to bring?

Chapter Text

3pm

He ran, and ran and ran – like the wind was out to get him, like he could outstrip every single hand that had touched him. He ran, out of breath and frantic, along empty dark roads, sirens blaring in the background.

Wait. Sirens?

Andrew cracked an eye open to find his phone ringing. He sighed and turned it over to find ‘Idiot’ flashing at him from the screen. He rolled over and groaned. It was 3pm, and Andrew had no idea when he had fallen asleep. Kevin would pop a vein if he knew how Andrew was spending his off-season.

You need to work out, Andrew. Keep yourself fit, Andrew. Well he had run enough in the dream, it should count for something.

He reluctantly called Neil back. In the week that he had known Neil, he’d only texted him a couple of times, never called.

“Hello.”

What?”

“Oh shit. Were you sleeping?”

“No, Neil I was signing the Treaty of Marseilles.”

“What? Oh you’re joking.”

Andrew sighed. Idiot.

“What do you want, Neil?”

“Can’t I call a friend just to ask them how they are?”

“We aren’t friends. And we saw each other barely two days ago. And forgive me if you don’t seem to be the type who just calls whenever they feel like it.”

Neil let out a sigh, but stayed silent.

“I can hear you thinking from here. What is it?” Andrew asked, not unkindly.

“I- I can’t come today. To meet yours and Aaron’s friends.”

Andrew had expected as much. “They aren’t my friends. It’s alright if you don’t come, but may I ask why?”

**

Neil fumbled with his pen. How do you explain to someone the debilitating anxiety that curled around your mind when you were asked to be social? Neil hated social events, gatherings, meet-ups of any kind. He hated the whispers, the snide comments and general pity that people seemed to telegraph to him with their eyes when they saw the scars mottling his face.

He hated the looks his students sent him in class, but he could quell their unnecessary questions with a single flick of his eyes. His co-workers, however, were an entirely different story. They had made it their mission to invite him to one party a week at least.

Neil, it’ll be fun. I don’t know what fun is, Brenda.

Lots of booze, my man. I don’t drink.

Heyyy, let’s get you some tonight huh. I am not interested, Neil wanted to scream. But that was why he left early post classes every day, and hunkered down in the library, out of sight.

“- Neil. Neil. NEIL.”

He snapped out of his thoughts. He had zoned out. The therapist uncle Stuart had made him see would use terms like panic and attack, but he’d rather not go there.

“Sorry,” he spluttered, gasping as he drew a painful breath of air, “I zoned out.”

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

But he wanted to. His mind begged to differ, though.

“Um I don’t know how to explain this-“

“You don’t have to. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Neil said, fidgeting with the cushions on his settee.

“Okay but tell me this.”

“Yes” Neil asked, trepidation filling his veins like ice.

“How do you feel about ice cream?”

And Neil laughed.

**

4:30pm

Neil was in the midst of cleaning up – aka throwing everything out of sight – when the bell jangled. Silently cursing himself, he picked up a cat toy from the floor and opened the door.

Andrew looked sleepy, hair a mess, sweats hanging low off his hips, scowl taking up residence on his face. He quirked an eyebrow at Neil and pushed a white bag at him and went past him into the apartment.

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” he began, but Andrew cut him off. “If you apologise, I’ll take out your kneecaps.”

“Kinky,” Neil deadpanned, and Andrew just glared at him. At that moment, an orange-and-white cat chose to rub itself against his ankles.

“You have a cat.” It was more of a statement than a question but Neil knew the distinction anyway.

“Cats. I have two.” Andrew held out a hand to the second black cat that had now cautiously made its way to him.

“That’s King and Sir,” Neil said, making his way to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee.

“Weird names, Josten,” Andrew remarked but plonked on the floor in the middle of Neil’s too-small apartment with its one room and kitchenette, and Neil felt his heart lurch sideways and truly did not know how to place the feeling.

“Yeah, well, they were named at the pound before I took them in,” he cleared his throat before asking, “Sugar and milk, yeah?”

Andrew nodded, his attention now fully on the cats. Sir had now clambered onto his lap, while King hung back, still suspiciously sniffing at Andrew’s socked toes. “I like them,” he said, taking a mug from Neil along with the bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Neil sat down next to him, balancing black coffee and a croissant on his lap, and took a deep breath when Andrew cut in with, “I hate heights. My favourite place anywhere is the roof.”

Neil took a long look at him, taking in his hazel eyes, the slope of his forehead, the furrow between his eyebrows and thought of their permanence, the shell of his ears, his button nose and finally at his lips.

“What do you mean?”

“Truth for truth, Josten.”

And Neil felt like he had sucked the air out of his lungs, out of the room along with the four words.

**

5:15pm

Sitting on the floor of a one-room apartment with two cats in his lap and a startled blue-eyed pipe dream in front of him was not how Andrew envisioned his evening to go. This felt like falling, he should leave and never look back, but he realised that his feet had left the ledge long ago.

This felt like falling. Like dying and coming back to life. Like satisfaction and curiosity battling their way across his mind.”

“I get antsy around people,” Neil said, quietly, offering up his words like they were something precious, and Andrew would be damned if he treated them any other way. Somehow an admission of truth from Neil felt invaluable, like something that should be treated with the reverence it deserved.

Andrew tilted his head, gesturing him to keep talking.

“I don’t like crowds. I don’t like drinking or partying, and loud noises spook me. I’ve tried to overcome it, but meeting a group of new people leaves me nauseated and shaking for days after that,” he said, absently scrubbing at the scars on his face. “It’s not worth it.”

“You do know that no one can force you to do anything you don’t want to, right?” Andrew retorted. “Learn how to say no,” he bit out, feeling angry at the people who would put Neil in such a situation, at people who didn’t know how to respect consent, at his own invisible scars marking the topography of his mind.

Neil just nodded, his coffee now cold. “I try.”

Andrew took in his ashen appearance and shaky hands and said, “The best part of an Exy game is when the final buzzer sounds.”

That did the trick. Neil’s head snapped up and he looked at him incredulously. Fucking junkie.

“You’re a professional Exy player.”

“Yeah, so?”

“What do you mean, yeah so! What? WHAT?” he squawked, sending King shooting into the kitchenette. Really how tiny was this place, Andrew thought, taking in the double bed and the two tables cluttering a corner of the room, the rest of it taken up by two quashy armchairs and shelves and shelves of books. Nerd.

“Calm down, junkie. I’m an Exy player, doesn’t mean I have to like the sport,” he remarked, unaffected by Neil’s outrage. Now that he noticed, Neil’s cheeks seemed pink. The tips of his ears, peeking out from behind his curls, positively red. “What,” Andrew asked, suspicion colouring his voice.

“Um,” Neil cleared his throat again, looking vaguely embarrassed.

“Your eloquence astounds me, Josten.”

“Shut up, Andrew.”

“What is it?”

Neil just got up and went to a cupboard and took out a heavy binder and held it out to Andrew.

It was crammed with snippets about Exy, player stats, match reviews, photos, and loose sheets with remarks written in Neil’s sloped handwriting. He saw Kevin’s picture a couple of times, some of Matt and Allison. “What-” Andrew began and then stopped abruptly, the binder now open to a picture of him, Exy racquet clutched in his right hand, scowl intact.

“You’re my favourite Exy player. Ever.”

He heard Neil, but felt the floor tilt. This felt like falling.

He pulled Neil down by the collar of his faded grey shirt and he tumbled onto his lap, pushing them both to the floor.

**

6:00pm

Neil fell. He felt rather than saw Andrew flipping them over, pinning his wrists to the floor above his head. “Yes or no,” Andrew asked, voice a low thrum against his throat, and felt his heart go into overdrive.

“Yes,” he breathed out, and felt Andrew’s lips on his, searing and harsh absolutely amazing. He kissed like a man drowning and Neil was his last lifeline. He kissed as though he was falling, and clutched at Neil with desperation. And Neil loved every second of it.

Minutes – or hours or years or eons – later they broke apart, breathing heavily, and Neil looked up at Andrew, wrists still pinned to the ground by him and said, “I don’t swing.”

In a flash, Andrew was off of him, angry and hurt. “You said yes.”

“I know. Hear me out. I haven’t really felt anything for anyone in all these years. But now, I’m not averse to this,” he said, pointing between them and Andrew snorted.

“I don’t know what I’m doing but I know that whatever it is, I like it and don’t want to stop,” he said and took a deep breath. “I don’t know if I’m gay or bi or pan or if I want a relationship or something casual, but I know I want you, whatever you’re willing to give me, that is,” he finished, fingers nervously brushing against the scars on his face.

Andrew moved to where he was sitting and took his hands in his. “I have rules,” he said, voice low and quiet, and Neil nodded to show that he was listening.

“I don’t like being touched. I haven’t really explored relationships precisely because of this. If there has to be anything between us, then you’ll have to respect my boundaries.”

“Yes. Anything.”

“Don’t be so sure of yourself.”

“Don’t underestimate me.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

They stared at each other, unmoving, hazel locked into icy blue, fingers tangled, the space between them as deep as an ocean. And then Andrew broke the silence.

“So, I’m your Exy idol, huh?” he smirked.

“Shut up, Andrew.”

And Neil felt Andrew pull him onto his lap, felt his fingers in his long hair, and felt a hand at his hip, holding him possessively, and felt minutes turn into a puddle of mush because what did time even mean anymore?

**

9:00pm

“Pick up the phone, Josten.”

“No, you pick up.”

“No, you.”

“You.”

“Shut up.”

“Okay it stopped.”

By the time they had broken apart from each other, the sun had gone down, drenching the room in subtle evening light, and traded truths hung between them, bartered in secrets and near darkness.

Aaron had called them nine times, Katelyn once, but neither of them felt inclined to pick up the phone.

“I’ll apologise later,” Neil said, nosing at Andrew’s neck, who suppressed a shudder.

He had told Andrew about the time he had run to the UK with his uncle, life in danger, but resolutely refused to talk about his scars, and Andrew knew better than to push. In turn, he had told Neil about the time Nicky found him and introduced him to Aaron, about Tilda and her death and eventually, about Exy.

They lay in amicable silence after that, glowing and sated. This feels like falling, Andrew’s thought, contentment nibbling at his heels in contrast.

“Will you meet me for breakfast tomorrow,” Neil asked, turning to look at him, eyes still bright blue in the dying light, and Andrew’s stomach flipped.

“I don’t wake up before 11am, junkie.”

“How about 10am?”

“No.”

“Andrew.”

“Fine. 10am. If you call me a minute before I’ll block you.”

“Fine,” Neil grinned and Andrew had no option but to wipe it off his face with a kiss.

**

10:15am the next day

“Is this a bookstore? I thought you said breakfast,” Andrew squinted at the red-brick building with vines climbing over its façade, front window crammed with books.

“Shh. Patience,” Neil said, fiddling with his phone, and Andrew gave him an appreciative onceover. Grey slacks, black tank top and a faded teal denim jacket. He looked good and Andrew struggled to keep himself from saying it out loud.

He followed him into the building and found a rather cozy café amid towering shelves stacked with books. What was this place?

Before he could voice that thought, however, he heard someone call him. He turned to find Aaron, Katelyn, Nicky, Erik and Kevin seated at one of the tables, and simultaneously felt Neil stiffen beside him.

“Andrew I can’t believe you bailed on us,” Nicky shouted, bounding over to them before stopping to look at Neil. “My my who is this hottie?”

“Back off Nicky,” Andrew snapped, and Neil shifted uncomfortably next to him.

Nicky put his hands up in a gesture of surrender and led them back to the table. Andrew shot Neil a worried look, but he seemed to follow them anyway.

But before either he or Neil could address any of them, Kevin spoke up, horror twisting his features, voice a set of strangled syllables, “Nathaniel. Nathaniel Wesninski.”

He felt Neil freeze, and then he turned and ran.

Chapter Text

The library was quiet, save for the footsteps and rustling of papers, and the loud ringing of blood in Neil’s ears. He pillowed his head on his arms and took a deep breath. Counting to a hundred in three languages didn’t help, sucking in a deep breath every five seconds didn’t help, telling his brain to shut up didn’t help. He took another shuddering breath anyway, and it felt like a knife through his lungs.

Six hours he had been in the library. Six hours ago Kevin Day had taken one look at his face and blurted out the two words he swore he would never hear again.

Nathaniel Wesninski had died 17 years ago, giving way to a string of aliases before Neil Josten came to be. Nathaniel Wesninski had auburn hair and blue eyes and had loved Exy with everything he had. Nathaniel Wesninski had harboured dreams of playing Exy all his life – however long that would be. He had dreamt of being Court one day. Between his father’s abuse and his mother’s frantic protectiveness, Nathaniel Wesninski sought refuge in Exy.

And one day, when he was 10 years old, after a particularly satisfying scrimmage with Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama, his mother had forcibly yanked him out of the ground, bundled him into a car, and drove. Drove farther and farther from his father’s hands, the bloodlust, and the varied equipment that gave him his scars.

They hadn’t stopped for another 7 years. He had been Alex, Stefan, Chris and hundred other people in between. Until Nathan Wesninski had caught up with them and killed his mother.

“…NEIL.”

He jolted out of his panicked reverie and raised his head to find Andrew looking at him. He shoved a sandwich at Neil and said, “Eat.”

“But-”

“I said eat, Josten. What part of that can you not comprehend?”

Neil took a bite of the sandwich and swallowed harshly. It tasted like cardboard, and chalk. But that was probably him.

“I’m sorry.”

“If you apologise, I’ll shave your head.”

Neil gasped and dragged his hand through his curls. “No, you won’t.”

“Try me.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes and then Andrew said, “Have you been in here all this time?”

Neil nodded, feeling suddenly weary. “I didn’t know where else to go. How did you find me?”

“I asked.”

After a beat of silence, Andrew continued, “You don’t owe anyone any explanation. Kevin won’t bother you.”

Neil opened his mouth to say something but Andrew cut him off with a Yes or No, and proceeded to place his hand at the back of Neil’s neck and rubbed slow circles.

“Thank you,” Neil breathed out, and Andrew squeezed gently in response.

**

Andrew wanted to kill Kevin Day. Or worse, he wanted to hide his Exy racquet.

“He’s the Butcher’s son, Andrew.”

“The Butcher’s dead.”

“But the Moriyamas…”

“HOW is this affecting you exactly?” he had snapped, even as Aaron, Nicky and Erik looked on, quietly.

He had stormed out, and Aaron had restrained Nicky from going after him.

Five hours later, and multiple threats later, here he was, in a goddamn library, trying to bring a red-haired idiot back from the edge.

Nothing seemed to be working. Neil looked gaunt, hair a mess, his jacket held tightly closed, hands shivering. He did the only thing he knew. It felt like falling.

“I met Aaron when I was 13.”

Neil blinked at him, reading glasses making him look owlish. Owlish, but cute, a distant part of Andrew’s brain supplied unhelpfully.

“I lived in a string of foster homes until then and not one of them was good. That is why I have issues with boundaries.”

“Andrew-”

“Aaron’s mother and I were in the car when it crashed into the median. I was driving.”

Silence.

“I have a fear of heights. I hate airplanes. My favourite colour is purple.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Yeah, Andrew, why?

“Because I want you to know my truths.”

When Neil looked nonplussed, he said, “You don’t owe me anything.”

Neil looked into Andrew’s eyes, blue into hazel, and whispered, “My father was the Butcher of Baltimore.”

“I know,” Andrew retorted. “He’s dead now.”

At Neil’s white-knuckled grip on the table, he slowly took his hands into his.

“You are Neil Josten, math nerd, snark extraordinaire and lover of libraries. You are here in Chicago. You are with me. You are safe.”

Neil’s lips twitched and Andrew felt like he was breathing for the first time.

 “Yes or No,” Neil asked, and Andrew leaned in.

He was definitely breathing for the first time that day. For some reason, it felt like Neil was, too.

**

“So, I have to ask you something.”

They’d broken apart for air, and Neil felt steady and balanced after seven hours.

Andrew gave him a look. “What?”

Suddenly, he felt nervous, and scrubbed the back of his neck with his fingers.

“What is it, junkie?”

“Will you go on a date with me?”

“Oh I thought you were going to ask me to marry you.”

Neil just spluttered.

“Kidding. I will.”

“What, marry me?” Neil yelped.

“Not right now,” Andrew retorted, and pulled him back in.

Neil just gaped at him before the kiss took him under.

Time was a construct when Andrew Minyard was with him. Nothing except them made any sense, and Neil was content to not figure it out right away.

It could wait. Everything could wait.

“No kissing in the fiction section, Mr. Josten.”

Damn you, Rebecca.

They broke apart and turned to find the librarian glaring at them.

“Is the fantasy section okay?”

“No that’s for when you complain about your Exy idol, Mr. Josten,” she snarked, and squinted at Andrew. “Unless, this is the one. But the library is off limits. Step outside if you’re going to snog,” she huffed and left.

If Neil had turned a vivid shade of red, then nobody except Andrew had to know. He kissed it off, anyway.

Chapter Text

Three months later

 

“How did your thesis thing go?”

Neil looked over at Aaron, who was halfway up a ladder, struggling to reach the top of the window.

“Thesis defense, you mean.”

“Yeah, yeah. That,” Aaron grumbled, shaking the duster a little too vigorously, coughing.

“It’s all done. I’ll be getting my PhD soon,” Neil grinned, relief palpable in his voice.

“Hey, Aaron. Looks like Neil will become a doctor before you,” Andrew drawled lazily from the couch, and Katelyn burst into laughter while Aaron scowled from atop his perch.

Neil was still getting used to having people around him, but he found that he didn’t mind this, whatever it was. Of late, he felt something warm slice through him every time he caught Andrew surreptitiously looking at him, and he struggled to put a name to it. Aaron and Katelyn had accepted him into their fold easily and Neil didn’t know how to feel about that, either. He got on well with Nicky and Erik too, considering their unfortunate first meeting.

The last time he had met Nicky, it was before he had left for Germany. He had given Neil his number while Andrew scowled. Neil would have teased Andrew about it, but the prospect of actually texting Nicky had filled him with dread, until Andrew put a hand on his neck and calmed him down.

“I can hear you thinking from here,” Andrew muttered, nudging Neil’s thigh with his toes.

The word family had crossed Neil’s mind multiple times in the past few months, but he took a deep breath and pushed the panic down.

He merely took Andrew’s hand in his and attempted to ground himself. Aaron and Katelyn were bickering about something in the distance, the remains of breakfast were still on the table, the television was playing some action movie that Andrew was watching with unconcerned interest, and sunlight streamed in through the now-clean windows.

Neil felt something close to contentment. He squeezed Andrew’s fingers and closed his eyes. It wasn’t all bad.

**

Andrew tapped his foot nervously.

One, two, three, four.

He grimaced and kept his offending foot in check. Andrew did not do nervous. He did not, thank you very much. His junkie was asleep next to him on the couch and he was feeling all kinds of warm. He squinted at the sunlight, as though glaring at it would make it go away.

One, two, three, four.

Goddamit. Fine, he was nervous. It was hard, admitting that, even to himself. Progress, Bee would say. Stupidity, his mind supplied.

Aaron plopped onto the table. “So, did you-”

Andrew shushed him hurriedly, gesturing to the sleeping idiot next to him. Aaron raised a single eyebrow in response. “Do it soon.”

“Or what?”

He just smirked. The audacity.

“Do what?” Neil stirred groggily, before his eyes widened. “Shit, did I fall asleep?”

Andrew carded his fingers through his messy auburn hair and thought “I don’t deserve this” for the twelfth time that day. He could hear Bee’s disapproval in his head.

“Yeah, junkie. We should be leaving.”

They said their goodbyes to Aaron and Katelyn and sauntered toward the Maserati.

Andrew took a deep breath, partly to calm himself and partly in a bid to stall some more.

“Neil.”

“Hmm?” Neil turned around, stilling when he saw Andrew looking at him intently.

Andrew chickened out at the last minute and went for “yes or no” instead. He pinned Neil to the hood of his car and proceeded to kiss the questions out of him. Neil looked breathless and debauched by the time Andrew was done and he gave himself a pat on the back for it.

They got into the car, and right before he could start it up, Aaron’s annoying voice popped into his head.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

He didn’t want to do it like this. Neil deserved better, but he didn’t know how else to do it. He didn’t know what the appropriate amount of time one waited before asking, he didn’t know if other people felt this way too – constantly on the edge, close to the sun, alive but also burning away at the same time.

This felt like falling.

“Andrew?” He sounded concerned now. But his voice, as always, was gentle. Andrew hated it. He hated that it made him feel some type of way. That Neil’s tone – usually sharp and biting and unforgiving – turned impossibly soft when directed at Andrew.

Do I deserve this?

He cleared his throat. “You know my off-season is ending.” Who was he kidding, of course the junkie knew.

“Yes,” Neil replied, brows furrowing.

“I will have away matches.”

“Um, yes. I know.” Brows still furrowed. More confusion.

Andrew cleared his throat again and felt the back of his neck grow hot. For fuck’s sake Andrew, get a grip.

“I don’t want to get news that your death trap of an apartment finally did you in.”

Neil frowned. “My apartment is not a death trap.”

Andrew sighed. “Do you have a fire exit?”

“No.”

“A burglar alarm?”

“No.”

“More than one window?”

“Um.”

“The kitchen doesn’t count.”

“Then, no.”

“A working elevator?”

“I take the stairs.”

“Neil.”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”

Andrew sighed in frustration and took it out of his pocket and shoved it at Neil.

Neil looked at the black box in surprise and then shock.

“Andrew, what?” he stuttered.

“Open it.”

“Andrew-”

“Open it, or I’m getting out of the car.”

Neil fumbled with the box for a second before he managed to open it, fingers shaking.

And looked down at a key.

**

A key. A golden key. A copy, a duplicate, but still a key.

He was quiet. He was sure Andrew could hear his heart thundering, as though it was fighting to beat its way out of his chest.

He looked up to find Andrew studying his nails, cheeks tinted pink, eyebrows drawn together in an uncertain frown.

He opened his mouth but Andrew beat him to it. “Will you move in with me?”

Some part of Neil’s brain was expecting the question, but he still felt unsteady. He took out the key and traced its ridges before folding it into the palm of his hand. It was grounding, solid and tethered him to the present much like its owner.

He took the liberty of extending two fingers to Andrew and tilting his chin up.

“Yes or no?”

Andrew looked into his eyes, searching for something he did not know he could want. “Yes.”

Neil pulled him in for a kiss, one hand cupping his left cheek, the other resolutely holding onto the key. His key.

“I will,” he breathed, inches away from Andrew’s lips.

If either of them felt warmth lancing through them – foreign, familiar and new, they didn’t mention it. They would learn to embrace it soon enough.