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Holy Branches

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Andrew knows it’s about to happen; he’s seen riots before. He isn’t usually the center of them, but he’s seen them.

The Foxes have security; they’re closing in on the bus. He should have more faith in that, maybe. Maybe. Or maybe there’s something about how Neil had looked, when he’d entered the locker room—something had been wrong. Something is wrong.

Andrew tries to keep an eye on him. Will the rabbit run? Andrew hopes not, but hope is a butterfly that has no business living in Andrew’s chest. He crushes it. He distances himself from it. He can’t concern himself with rabbits.

Something hits Aaron; Andrew glares at the crowd. How to protect him? How to keep Aaron safe, when he doesn’t even know who’s doing the throwing? And there are so many people here for him to keep safe.

And then:

Chaos.

It happens in the blink of an eye—an eruption of tension, and anger, and bad feeling. Neil goes left, looking half-tugged off his feet, Andrew reaches for him, searches the crowd, but there are too many people, Andrew can’t see who did the tugging, and he throws a punch at someone getting too close to Aaron, he has too many stakes in this fight, takes an elbow to the face for his trouble, feels pain and feels something burst, smashes someone away from Kevin, he doesn’t see Neil at all—

It goes on.

Until it stops.

People don’t, generally speaking, want to get caught in a riot. They run away. And this crowd is no different. For every person ready to fight, there’s ten people who’d rather be home. And with the cops and security already in the mix, the number of people willing to immediately head out skyrockets.

As people stream away, the Foxes pull together, glaring at security guards and cops, pulling in, looking for the safety of their team.

“Head count,” Wymack yells, fighting towards them through the crowd.

Andrew glances around, lying to himself, trying desperately to put off the moment when he’ll have to stop. There’s Aaron, looking just fine; Kevin, equally living; Nicky, the same. Matt, with injuries; Dan; Allison, rubbing her arm; Renee, shaking her hand out, the pain of a punch catching up with her. All together—it was instinct, for this team, to pull inwards. No one would take care of them but each other, so in a riot? Of course they grabbed onto one another, of course they stuck their backs up against each other, of course they found their way back to each other.

Andrew has these thoughts, and Andrew scans the crowd, and Andrew faces facts.

“We’re missing one,” Matt says. “We’re missing—Neil. Coach, we’re missing Neil!”

“He went that way,” Andrew says, calm. Calm. He will stay calm. The rabbit must have run. Neil has no sense of community; Neil wouldn’t have run towards his family. Andrew tells himself this, and Andrew is lying, because Andrew remembers Neil putting himself in knife-reach for Nicky, and standing up to Riko for Kevin, and wandering between rooms to talk to Foxes, and picking up his phone and making the call, and coming back time and time again from his runs, and going to Evermore for Andrew, and thank you, you were amazing, sounds more like a goodbye with every passing second, because Neil knew something was wrong.

Andrew lies to himself.

Andrew sets out, eyes scanning the crowd—every face gets a glance, every face gets a dismissal. Thank you. You were amazing. The look on Neil’s face—he’d hidden it so well, so well, but Andrew knows Neil’s face, both as a consequence of his memory and as a choice Andrew has made, and something was wrong. Panic. Resignation. Acceptance. Determination. All four. Something, something, something, thank you, you were amazing, the rabbit must have run. Rabbits run. It’s what they do. Never mind that Neil hasn’t been a rabbit for weeks now, months. Faces pass; Andrew sees them all, and none of them are the one he needs to see. The rest of the Foxes are behind him, falling behind, looking, looking more carefully, except for Wymack and Kevin, the two who know, the two who know that Andrew can see with a glance what everyone else needs time to process. They’re keeping up with him. Thank you. You were amazing. For closing the goal? No, something was wrong, Neil had taken too long to come up with that, he wouldn’t have said it so quietly, so softly, if he was talking about the game. Andrew sees keys transferred from his own hand to Neil’s; sees a keyring with the old car key on it, not to be thrown away. Sees Neil’s face, flushed, free of the anxiety that usually contorted it, Neil’s eyes on Andrew’s instead of on available exits. Thank you, you were amazing. Sees, like a flashing beacon, bright orange gear on the ground, and all of Andrew’s lies crash down, built on nothing but hope, the most fragile thing in the world, and Andrew runs.

It’s Neil’s gear.

It’s Neil’s, but the man himself is nowhere to be seen.

Neil’s bag. In the pocket: Neil’s cell phone. The things Neil never would’ve given up, not for a minute, not to save himself.

He sees Neil, tugged left by some invisible force, by someone. Taken.

Flips open Neil’s phone.

A text: 0. Just that. Not sent from a number in Neil’s contacts. Not a number Andrew knows—and who does Neil know that Andrew doesn’t? And what does the number zero mean? Andrew flips through his brain, and sees, every once in a while for over a month, Neil’s phone buzz, the look of confusion and annoyance on Neil’s face, the quick taps that indicated not a short answer—Neil is too concerned with grammar for a short anything—but, perhaps, a deletion. Andrew had assumed it was Nicky. But Andrew had been wrong. He knows that. He knows that, now, holding Neil’s cell phone, standing above Neil’s gear, no Neil in sight. Flips to Neil’s call history—two calls, one incoming and one outgoing. A Maryland number.

Andrew can’t breathe.

He’d known this was coming, hadn’t he? He’d known Neil was leaving. Neil wouldn’t stay with him forever. Neil had asked Andrew to break his promise—ah. Of course. The zero was a countdown. A countdown. Neil had known this was coming, had known even when he stepped into the locker room that it was the end, because he’d been getting a countdown. He’d made Andrew break his promise. He had said goodbye as best he could. Had left his things so Andrew would know that, at the end, when it came down to it, Neil hadn’t wanted to go.

Andrew is imploding.

His lungs are no longer functioning; his heart has stopped. He’s failed. He’s failed Neil; he’s failed himself, because hadn’t he promised himself he’d never do this again? Hadn’t he promised himself that he would never again feel this cascading, unstoppable, impossible grief, shredding him from the inside?

“Fuck,” Kevin says, and it’s just a whisper, but it’s enough to remind Andrew of something vital: Kevin knows who Neil is.

“You will tell me,” Andrew says, “everything you know.”

“What?”

“Who he is. Who has him. Where he is. You will tell me this.”

“I don’t—”

Andrew can’t live like this. Andrew can’t survive himself. Andrew can’t survive losing Neil. Andrew is standing in a hurricane, and it’s picking up force. Andrew drops Neil’s phone, turns, and grabs Kevin by the throat, and their height difference isn’t enough to stop Andrew from lifting Kevin off the ground. “You will tell me,” he says through gritted teeth. “Or I’ll fucking kill you.”

And then Wymack, and then Matt, and then Renee, and then Andrew is no longer throttling the life out of the only person who knows where Neil might be.

“Not helpful,” Dan snaps at him, hugging Kevin.

Andrew can’t live like this. Thank you. You were amazing. Neil had known, he had known, and he wouldn’t talk to save himself, wouldn’t tell them what was going on, didn’t trust Andrew enough to speak. Hadn’t Andrew proven himself trustworthy? Hadn’t he at least proven himself capable of keeping a secret? Hadn’t Andrew proven himself worthy of anything at all, anything, anything, anything that could’ve kept Neil here?

“To the bus,” Wymack snaps. “We can do this on the bus. We can’t do this shit in public. I’ll drive us to the hospital, and Kevin will talk.”

Andrew picks up Neil’s stuff. Matt reaches out a hand, and Andrew snarls at him wordlessly. This is all he can do. All he can do is keep this safe until Neil gets back.

Andrew ignores the voice in his head that suggests: Maybe Neil isn’t coming back. Maybe Neil is gone.

The second they’re on the bus, Andrew turns on Kevin.

“His name is Nathaniel Wesninski,” Kevin says hoarsely, no further prompting needed. “His father, Nathan Wesninski, is Kengo’s right-hand man. The Butcher of Baltimore.”

Andrew can’t breathe. I never understood his fascination with knives. Not Riko. Nathan. The Butcher. Kengo’s right-hand man. Neil had said his father was a gopher, just that. Kengo’s right-hand man.

“He was supposed to go to Tetsuji,” Kevin says. “When he was 10. He practiced with us; he was supposed to come back the next day and play again. To demonstrate that he could learn from Tetsuji. If he couldn’t, Nathan was supposed to kill him. His mom took him and ran. He never should’ve come here.” Kevin’s getting hysterical. He has no right, he has no right. To Kevin, Neil is nothing. He has no right to grieve the loss of a teammate when Andrew is grieving the only person in the world who knows his secrets and doesn’t care. “He knew it was dangerous, he knew I could’ve recognized him, he knew the Moriyamas would have their eyes on me and he knew he’d be standing right next to me, he shouldn’t have come and he knew he shouldn’t have come.”

Andrew had told Neil not to run. Had needled him. Called him a rabbit, called him a runaway, and told him to stay. He’d been so gorgeous—Andrew had been attracted to him like nothing else—and had been such a puzzle, there for Andrew to solve, letting little things slip, the French, the German. Andrew had gone through his things, once. Had noticed an odd pattern—tags folded twice, on the top layer of shirts. Had considered, for half a second, leaving the tags folded, but had wondered—so curious—wondered if Neil would notice. And then Neil had returned, had opened a door Andrew knew full well was locked—lock-picking skills, and oh-so-much money—and had turned to Kevin. Neil had known Kevin wasn’t the problem. But he’d also known he couldn’t get through to Andrew. So smart, Neil had been—still is. Still is.

Andrew remembers seeing his eyes—his real eyes, ice blue, a shock after the brown, changing his face completely. And then, the second time—the second time they’d gone to Eden’s, Andrew hadn’t asked him to take his contacts out. Neither had Nicky. But Neil had taken them out all the same. Running, running as far and fast as he could, but Andrew had been curious, and Neil had given him that gift, that trust, and Andrew hadn’t understood what it had cost Neil to do so. Not entirely. Andrew hadn’t known what Neil was running from. Neil hadn’t told him.

“He said—he said that you and he hoped his notoriety would protect him. And maybe it would’ve worked,” Kevin says, crumbling, “against Riko. And maybe the Moriyamas would’ve held out until they could take him quietly. But his dad—his dad doesn’t care about quiet. And his dad doesn’t care about exy, or about Riko having to meet us on the court to prove himself.”

Andrew had been wrong. Andrew had been so wrong. Andrew had been more wrong than he’d ever been in his life.

“He should’ve been Court,” Kevin whispers, and it’s the last straw.

Andrew can see Neil, dead.

Dead.

Never again annoyed, never again buzzing with adrenaline, never again to talk about exy or about anything else at all, at all, all the things Andrew should’ve heard from Neil himself and will never know. His mom took him and ran—where is she now? Dead, presumably. Andrew will never get to ask. Neil will never smile again—not that he’d done that often, but it was always a thrill. Andrew can still feel Neil’s whole body beneath him, the trust Neil had put in Andrew more heady than the skin contact; Andrew can, in his head, on repeat, stand up and see Neil, hands still above his head where Andrew had put them, flushed, pupils blown out, lips puffy, but even Andrew’s perfect memory is twisting, Neil dead, bloodless, not just bruised and battered but fatally injured, eyes glassy and flat. Andrew twists away and heads for the back of the bus, ignoring the way Dan’s breath hitches, ignoring Matt’s hopeful platitudes. He can see Neil’s face, pressed against the top of the seat, can see the tiny changes in expression as Neil talks about back alleys and car rides spent watching for cops as his mom sped towards someplace less dangerous—never towards safety, that would be too much, but someplace less dangerous. Andrew holds onto that as he slides into his seat.

Neil is dead.

The head start—Andrew could try, but Andrew doesn’t have his car. He could steal one, but it’s a long way to Baltimore, and cops would catch him before he got there. And even once he got to Baltimore—where would he go? He has no directions, no address, just Baltimore, too big. By the time he gets there, Neil will be dead.

They arrive at the hospital.

Wymack watches the Foxes file out, and looks back at Andrew.

Andrew stares at him.

His injuries must not be too bad, because Wymack doesn’t make him get off the bus.

“I’m locking you in,” he says, and he knows. Andrew knows he knows. Wymack is holding it together, because there’s eight other students relying on him, but that’s all he’s got, and the second he’s alone, he’ll be a wreck. Neil is dead, and if he’s not dead yet, he will be before anyone can get to him. And what are they supposed to do? Call the cops? They’d have to explain how they know what they know, and then Kevin’s in danger, and then they’re all in danger. And to what end? The cops aren’t any more likely than anywhere else to know where Neil is.

Hours pass, and Andrew falls, drowns, head under water, incapable of swimming. He’s tearing apart at the seams, and he can’t put himself back together, can’t sew himself up, can’t take what’s hurting him and shove it down—it’s all-encompassing, knowledge that Andrew can’t escape, can’t forget. Neil is dead. Neil knew, Neil knew so much about Andrew’s life, Andrew’s past, and yet—where was the pity? Nowhere. Where was the disgust? There was none. Neil had never backed down, never looked away. It’s terrible, the realization that Andrew had liked that—had relied on that. Like it made Neil safe. Like it didn’t make him more dangerous than anyone else. And now Neil is gone, and Andrew’s all alone with all his secrets and his knives, and he’s falling, falling, drowning.

Wymack does make him get up, a few hours later; makes Andrew sit in the waiting room with him. Andrew can’t breathe, can’t think, must not feel, armors himself with everything he’s got. Grips his wrists and feels, not his scars, but his knives, his useless, useless knives, meaningless, worthless, never enough. He should’ve grabbed Neil. The second he saw Neil disappear, he should’ve headed after him. Andrew should have been there. Let him fight his own fights? Fuck that—Andrew should never have let him go. Andrew should’ve chained Neil to him. Andrew should’ve tightened his grip. Neil knew this was coming, Neil didn’t want Andrew to fight for him—no, that’s not it. Neil is the martyr no one wants. Neil didn’t want Andrew to get hurt fighting for him. Andrew’s jaw clenches around a scream, around the screaming void in his chest, cuts it off at the pass, he should never have lived. He should’ve cut deeper. Wymack’s phone rings, and Wymack answers, goes tense, and Andrew knows—they must have found Neil’s body, and Andrew can practically see it, knows what Neil would look like dead. Wymack says:

“He’s alive?”

Everything in Andrew pauses.

Wymack looks at Andrew. “He’s alive. Neil’s alive. Oh, shut up,” he says to the phone.

Andrew can’t open his mouth yet. If he does, he won’t say anything useful. And he can’t distract Wymack. Not now. Not from this.

“We want to talk to him,” Wymack says.

Andrew feels his lungs expand for the first time in hours. Wymack knows what’s important.

“Why not?”

His heart contracts.

“He’s one of us. He’s one of ours.”

A pause.

“If we go, will we be able to see him?”

Silence. Wymack’s whole body is tense. He’s furious. Relieved and furious. Andrew is being torn in half.

“Fine,” Wymack snaps. “We’ll meet you there.” He snaps his phone shut, and Andrew watches his arm tense, like he’s going to throw it.

He does not.

“Who?” Andrew asks.

“A minute. I don’t want to talk about it in here. We’ll talk when we get on the bus.”

Andrew grabs his elbow.

“Andrew. He’s alive. The rest is for on the bus.”

Andrew stands and goes outside. He lights a cigarette. He forces himself to inhale the smoke. Neil’s alive. Neil’s alive. Neil’s alive, alive, alive, and everything else Andrew can handle. Andrew can go get him, wherever he is; no pig can stop him. What will Neil look like, now? Last time he came back with new hair and no contacts and a new tattoo; maybe this time he’ll come back different, too, a new person to memorize. Andrew’s brain tells him: Neil will be missing parts. Animals don’t go to the butcher and come out whole.

Andrew smokes his cigarette to the filter.

He’s shaking a second into his hand when Wymack walks out, followed by the Foxes. Andrew leads the way onto the bus and stands there in the aisle, waiting, forcing everyone else to crowd into the front few seats. No one seems to care. They’ve all got eyes on Wymack.

“I got a call from the FBI,” Wymack says, and Andrew’s brain grinds to a halt.

He can’t fight the FBI.

He flicks that thought aside. For Neil? For Neil, he can.

“They’ve got Neil in custody. In a hospital. They want to question us. We’re supposed to meet them at a hotel in Baltimore.”

“When are we getting Neil back?” Dan asks. Andrew feels an unaccustomed gratitude towards her.

Wymack swallows. “They say we’re not allowed to see him.”

“Bullshit,” Dan says, shooting to her feet.

“We play nice,” Wymack says. “We answer questions.”

“We’re not telling them shit about shit,” Matt says hotly.

“I didn’t say we spill all our secrets,” Wymack shoots back. “I said we play nice. What would you tell anyone who isn’t a Fox? They have no reason to think we know anything. They have no reason to think we’re lying. And I know all of you—except Andrew—can lie through your teeth. Andrew, I know you can figure out how to lie through your teeth. We never saw anything suspicious. Neil wasn’t into anything bad. He wanted to play exy and he was good at it and then he was taken, and it doesn’t make any sense to keep us away from him. Yes?”

Silence. No one bothers agreeing; with or without the warning, Andrew knows full well they never would’ve said anything. Foxes gravitate towards each other, and it has very little to do with whether or not they like each other, and a whole lot to do with the fact that they hate the rest of the world.

They get on the road.

Andrew sits in the back of the bus, Neil’s stuff on the seat. He’s keeping an eye on it until Neil can come get it.

Neil is alive.

Neil is alive, alive, alive. Andrew breathes it in. Thank you. You were amazing.

It will not be a goodbye. Andrew won’t let it be. It can be a see you later. That’s acceptable. A see you soon, even better. That’s fine. Then Andrew can rip Neil apart for lying to him and leaving him. That’s fine. Andrew can do that. Andrew can do that. Thank you. You were amazing.

Andrew watches the scenery go by outside, and Andrew has a problem, and that problem is that he can only lie to himself for so long. He’s a fan of the truth, and it often suits him, but when he needs to, he can lie. He can sit in his own head and lie. He loves Neil, and it’s a problem, because he can’t lie to himself anymore, can’t dance around it, can’t point at it and call it a stupid feeling that will pass with enough time and cigarettes. It just is. And that’s a problem, because it’s highly possible—probable, even—that Neil loves Andrew back, and Andrew is nothing to love. Neil should go find someone else, someone who can put him back together, someone who can be the answer to all Neil’s problems, like Erik for Nicky, instead of just being another problem for Neil to cart around. Andrew feels his knives like splints, keeping his bones straight, doing their level best to help him heal, but they won’t work, he won’t heal. He’s dead inside, and when he’s not dead all he can be is a raging monster, and the concept of trying to love Neil, the way he deserves to be loved, is fucking ridiculous. Andrew can’t do that. Andrew can’t be what Neil needs, let alone what he deserves.

Andrew is going to scream. Everything a mess, everything a wreck, and he’s sitting here alone in the back of the bus because the only person who ever cared enough to sit next to him when there were other options available has been fucking kidnapped.

Eventually, they make it to Baltimore, and then to the hotel.

They’re greeted by interchangeable feds—not that Andrew can’t tell the difference; it’s just that he doesn’t care—and taken into different rooms for questioning.

“When are you going to bring Neil to us?” Andrew asks when they sit him down.

“We’re not,” says the agent. “It would be too dangerous. How did you meet Nathaniel Wesninski, alias Neil Josten?”

Everything about that is horrible, so Andrew doesn’t answer.

The rest of the interview works precisely the same way.

The fed asks a terrible question; Andrew doesn’t answer. The fed gets frustrated; Andrew reiterates his request to see Neil; the fed denies it. The fed threatens him. The fed threatens many things. Andrew feels his blood boiling, his stomach coming up his throat, unsatisfied grief and useless rage boiling up in him until he can’t even open his mouth to ask about Neil anymore, because he’ll—

The interviewer refers to Neil as Nathaniel, and Andrew remembers how absolutely sick Neil had looked when he gave Andrew his name, and Andrew can’t stand it anymore. Wherever he is, they’re calling him Nathaniel, they want to stick that name to him and make him choke on it, and Andrew can’t stand it. Who does Neil have? Neil is tired of being no one, and now they won’t even let him be that, and he doesn’t have his family waiting for him, he doesn’t have anyone waiting for him, just a bunch of pricks calling him the wrong name and Andrew pulls out a knife, grabs the fed by the tie, and pulls him across the desk until the knife is pricking the fed’s throat.

That’s it for questioning, which is nice, but the feds raise a fuss, and take his knives, and then they handcuff him to Wymack, and Andrew is about to chew his own hand off. Neil is somewhere, Neil must be close, they’re all in Baltimore and Neil is within driving distance and Andrew can’t just go get him and the fucking feds won’t bring him here, and Andrew’s handcuffed to one of the only people he’s ever respected enough not to hurt. Everyone else is in here, too; all silent, all furious. All, clearly, having asked to see Neil, too. All rebuffed. But Andrew’s the only handcuffed one.

He’s going to commit homicide.

He can’t stay still. Wymack throws him a glare as he paces, uselessly, forward and backward, incapable of so much as turning around, his stomach and fists clenching, useless, useless, hell on earth, no wonder Neil made Andrew break his promise, Andrew could never have kept him safe, Andrew can’t do a goddamn thing, impotent rage crawling over his skin like unwanted hands, and Andrew would pull his own bones out of his body and beat the feds with them if he didn’t think it would make it harder for him to hunt Neil down once they get out of here.

A fed reenters the room, ignores Andrew’s glare, and looks at Wymack. “Move the bus. We’re bringing him here, and we don’t want anyone to put two and two together too fast.”

“Leave me here,” Andrew says. He holds up the fist chained to Wymack. “He can’t drive a bus cuffed to me. Leave me here.”

“It’s a bus,” the fed says. “Yes, he can. Just drive it around the corner.”

“Let’s go, psycho,” Wymack says. “Faster we go, faster we get back.”

Andrew snarls, and he’s losing it, he knows he’s losing it, and it’s killing him—he should be under his own control. Nothing else can be, but he should be. Even when everything else is crumbling, he should be capable of holding himself together, holding himself apart, but he can’t spar, and he can’t cut, and he can’t stab, and he can’t drive, and he can’t grab Neil and run, and all he can do is follow Wymack out to the bus and do his level best not to impede Wymack in the all-important task of driving the bus around the corner and hiding it someplace the press won’t be able to spot it, which isn’t going to work for more than ten minutes anyway and they all know it. And then he and Wymack have to walk back, and the world is crumbling around Andrew and he’s falling apart with it, and all he wants is to kill someone, but that’s a lie, too, because what he wants is Neil. And Neil isn’t—

There’s a new car in the parking lot.

Andrew breaks.

Up the stairs. Wymack stumbles, trying to keep up with him, and almost tears both their arms out of the sockets, but fuck, Andrew can’t slow down, Andrew can’t stop, Andrew can’t even slow down long enough to get the fucking door open, he slams his shoulder into it like maybe that’ll do it, and then he gets the door open, and there’s Neil, and the relief is enough to drown Andrew, enough to take him down—

A gun. Just a flash of one.

But Neil sees it, too, and grabs the fed’s arm. Which should be fine. But it’s not. It’s not fine. Because Neil’s hands close around the fed’s arm, and Neil tugs, and then Neil is hunched over, hands curled into his stomach, making a hissing noise that reminds Andrew of a leaking pipe, and then he makes noises that sound like they’re supposed to be words, and Andrew has his hand on Neil’s neck. Hand on Neil’s neck. Still alive, but Andrew can feel how tense he is, feel all his muscles straining. Neil tries to straighten—no, that won’t do. Andrew catches his shoulder, pushes him down, meets him on the ground. Neil cradles bandaged hands in his lap, still hunched over, each breath still rough, but alive. Alive.

“Leave it,” Wymack says, and he’s not talking to them, so Andrew doesn’t care. It’s all he can do to look at Neil, to see him alive, hear him breathing, even this harsh pained breath that makes Andrew want to—

Andrew smooths his face. He can do that. He is under his own control.

Neil looks up at him.

Blue eyes. That’s good. Right? That’s good. Andrew grabs his chin. Bandages, bandages, everywhere. Neil’s hood is still up, but Andrew sees auburn hair peeking out—still Neil, then. But those bandages. Neil’s hands. And Neil’s hands are so calloused from exy—Andrew chooses not to think about what could hurt his hands just yet. Just looks, instead, taking in the scenery. Neil’s eyes dart across Andrew’s face, and that’s a good sign. Neil’s eyebrows pull up in the center.

“They could have blinded you,” Neil says softly. “All that time fighting and you never learned how to duck?”

Andrew stares at him. Neil is covered in bandages, escorted by the FBI, and he’s going to talk about Andrew? Andrew is not the important one here.

He’s still working one-handed—he has no time to get furious about the handcuff right now—so he releases Neil to push his hood back, out of the way, to give him a better look at the bandages. It’s killing him. What’s under there? There’s one over Neil’s tattoo—what, did they give him another one?

He drags a finger along the line of the other bandage—he can’t start with the tattoo. He can’t stop touching Neil. He pulls the bandages off, and Neil barely twitches, and Andrew looks at the brand-new stripes Neil has across his cheek. Stitched up. They’re clean. They’ll scar, but they’re clean. It’ll heal. It must have hurt. Andrew tucks that away. He can think about that later. Neil is alive; pain is not worse than death. He rips off the other bandage.

Neil winces.

Andrew freezes.

Pain is not worse than death.

He tells himself this.

He says it, and it’s true, and it is also true that as much as Andrew hated seeing Neil with the number 4 on his cheek, Andrew hates this much, much more, because that must have hurt, it must have been hell, it must have been unbearable, and because Andrew can now imagine what might have happened to Neil’s hands. Andrew wants to vomit. Andrew wants to go back in time several hours and refuse to leave the locker room. Andrew wants to strangle whoever did this, and put Neil in a padded room and lock the door, and all the grief he no longer needs is rage, rage, burning him alive—no, that’s not the right word to use, because Neil has been burned, and it makes no sense to Andrew. Moriyama, Wesninski—they’re all the same. Tattooing Neil and then burning it off is a pissing contest, and the fact that they made Neil the toilet makes Andrew want to slice them to pieces, shred them, destroy them, and instead, he’s sitting here, staring at Neil.

Wymack says “Christ, Neil,” but doesn’t step forward. As it should be. A bed creaks, and Wymack says “Don’t”—as it should be. No one can come closer. No one else can touch Neil; Andrew doesn’t trust any of them, not in the slightest. Friends, family, Foxes—they’ll want to fawn over him and take him away and Andrew can’t. Andrew can’t let Neil go. As gently as he possibly can, he presses two fingers to warm skin to turn Neil’s head; Neil lets him, and lets him stare. Lets him examine the horror that is, now and forever, Neil’s cheek; at best it will fade, but it’s not going anywhere. More scars. More, and Neil can’t hide these under a shirt, Neil can’t hide anymore. That should have been a victory. Andrew wants to be sick. He drops his hand and grabs a fistful of Neil’s hoodie—it’s the most violent thing he can do without hurting Neil. His rage is eating him alive. It requires an outlet.

“I’m sorry,” Neil says.

Andrew’s fist is back and ready to go before Andrew even knows what he’s doing. I’m sorry? An I’m sorry doesn’t cover the hours of grief, the hours of rage, the hell Andrew is living in. I’m sorry from Neil? Neil taking responsibility for—Andrew used to apologize, too. He’d known it would never work. He can’t breathe. He can’t live like this. He wants, so badly, to punch Neil, to make Neil feel what Neil has made Andrew feel, but he can’t, he can’t do it, he can’t indulge Neil’s desperate desire to be forgiven for something he didn’t do—for something he did do, by virtue of not telling Andrew what was going on, by virtue of knowing full well he was going to be taken and not telling Andrew.

Andrew has control over himself. He relaxes his fist. “Say it again and I will kill you.”

“This is the last time I’m going to say it to you,” says one of the feds, whom Andrew can’t believe is still there. “If you can’t stow that attitude and behave—”

A flash of fury—but not from Andrew. From Neil. Neil cuts a look at the fed that could slice a man to the bone and says, “You’ll what, asshole?”

Andrew could live and die by Neil’s every word. Andrew threatens to punch Neil, threatens to kill him—Neil says nothing. A fed tries to reprimand Andrew? There’s Neil. It’s a miracle that will never stop happening in Andrew’s head—a meaningless one, one with no sense to it, but a miracle just the same.

“The same goes for you, Nathaniel,” says the other fed, and Andrew can’t handle this anger, this anger that won’t stop coming, that he can’t shove down and be done with, because it keeps being pulled up, dragged out of him. “That’s your second strike. A third misstep and this is over. Remember you are only here because we are allowing it.”

If Andrew shuts him up, Andrew can stop being so angry. And then no one will be allowing Neil to do anything; Neil will be free to sit here and tell Andrew the truth. He shifts—and then Neil scoots and leans closer, puts his hands on either side of Andrew’s face. Except not. Neil isn’t touching him. Andrew gets say over when Neil touches him, and where, and how, even now, even here, even when Andrew had just been touching Neil.

Andrew could live and die by Neil’s every desire. If Neil wants him to settle down, he will settle. He does. Neil gives him a look—thank you—and then his eyes are ice, and he’s looking up at the fed, and Andrew could stare at him for days. Who is this man? Neil tries so hard to be quiet, and passive, and small. So small, except when he’s fighting with Riko, but that’s always been done with fake brown eyes. So quiet, except when he’s arguing with Kevin, but that’s only to be expected—Kevin brings out the worst in people. So passive, especially at night, on the rooftop, when Neil wants so badly to be active, and stays so still, because Andrew asks him for it. Andrew trusts Neil. This is a mistake. Neil is a liar. This fact is embodied in the ice in Neil’s eyes, which says that he fully expects a bunch of feds to jump to his every command; the Neil he’s been pretending to be could never have done this.

“Don’t lie to a liar,” Neil says, like he’s reading Andrew’s thoughts. And he snaps it. The power he puts behind it is reassuring. The feds may think they have Neil; Neil has the feds. “We both know I’m here because you have nothing without me,” Neil says, which is interesting—when did the boy who was tired of being no one become so important? “A pile of dead bodies can’t close cases or play the money trail with you. I told you what those answers would cost you and you agreed to pay it. So take this handcuff off of Andrew, get your man out of our way, and stop using up my twenty minutes with your useless posturing.”

What does Neil know?

This isn’t useless posturing on Neil’s part. The son of Kengo’s right hand man. As far as the FBI knows: the son of one of the most powerful men in this country. A pile of dead bodies. Either Neil’s father is alive and on the loose, in which case Andrew will find and kill him, or Nathan is dead.

The cuff comes off Andrew’s wrist.

He flexes his hand, and places it on his thigh. Freedom. Of a sort. Neil brings his gaze back to where Andrew so desperately needs it to be, and the ice is gone, and that’s interesting. So interesting Andrew almost has nothing to say. What is there to be said? “So the attitude problem wasn’t an act, at least,” he says. It was the quiet that was the act. This confirms Andrew’s suspicions. He was right about something.

“I was going to tell you,” Neil says.

Andrew can’t live like this. “Stop lying to me.” He can’t handle it. He can’t handle it, now, not now.

“I’m not lying,” Neil says, and Andrew wants it to be true so badly. “I would have told you last night, but they were in our locker room.”

“They who?” Asks a fed.

Neil switches to German. He doesn’t even look away from Andrew. “Those weren’t security guards that came for us. They were there for me, and they would have hurt all of you to get me out of there.” Andrew can’t breathe. This is why Neil hadn’t told them. Not because he hadn’t trusted Andrew, but because he was martyring himself. “I thought by keeping my mouth shut I could keep you safe.” Andrew wants to grab him, to say—texting is free. But Neil taps a thumb oh-so-lightly against the bruise by Andrew’s eye, a distraction Andrew can barely afford. “I didn’t know they’d staged a riot.”

Andrew’s heart must be on the verge of giving up the ghost. He’s feeling too many things, too much rage, too much grief, too much retroactive horror. “What did I tell you about playing the martyr card?”

“You said no one wanted it. You didn’t tell me to stop.”

“It was implied,” Andrew says. Stop sacrificing yourself.

“I’m stupid, remember? I need things spelled out.”

Not this, either, not this banter, not this—remembering what Andrew’s said, bringing up old conversations, using Andrew’s own words against him. Neil doesn’t have an eidetic memory. He remembers Andrew’s words on purpose. “Shut up.” He can’t handle it.

“Am I at ninety-four yet?”

“You are at one hundred,” Andrew says. He can’t do this. He’s clenching his jaw so hard he’s giving himself a headache. “What happened to your face?”

He almost regrets asking, Neil looks so sick.

“A dashboard lighter.”

Nicky makes a sound, giving voice to at least a facet of what Andrew is feeling—he can’t hold this much rage inside himself, he can’t just have it, not when he can do so little about it. And then Aaron stands, and Neil turns instinctively to see what’s going on, and Andrew watches the Foxes react—watches Kevin’s reaction, fear for himself paramount—watches Matt try to get up, sees Dan hold him back, she herself incapable of looking.

And then Abby comes towards them.

No.

No, absolutely not. She’ll want to touch Neil, put hands on him, and no one can, no one, Andrew needs to take Neil and close himself away with Neil and hunker down for at least three months, and Abby is going to want to coo over him and get between them and the concept of anyone else putting fingers on the ruins of Neil’s face is too much, too much, too much, what if they hurt him? Andrew grabs Neil, pulls his face around so no one else can see it, and shoots Abby a look that stops her in her tracks. “Get away from us.”

“Andrew,” and she’s trying for soft, she’s trying to be careful, she’s looking for an in. “He’s hurt. Let me see him.”

Andrew knows Neil’s hurt; hurt, and hurting, and Andrew can’t handle it, no one else can touch Neil, no one else can come near him, no one else should even be looking at him. “If you make me repeat myself you will not live to regret it,” he spits, and he doesn’t care that they took his knives, he’ll find a way. It won’t be hard.

Neil tugs, gently, on Andrew’s hair.

Every breath is a struggle.

Neil tugs again.

Andrew stares Abby down.

Neil tugs again, and Andrew can’t, can’t do this, can’t keep not-looking at him, can barely handle looking at him. Andrew lets Neil pull his head back around.

“Abby,” Neil says, not looking away from Andrew, “I just got out of the hospital. I’m as good as I can be right now.”

This is good?

Somehow, applying the word good—even with the qualifier as I can be—makes it all so much worse.

“Neil,” Abby says.

Andrew’s going to kill her. He’ll have to kill her.

“Please,” Neil says.

She steps back.

Andrew relaxes his grip on Neil’s hair.

He can’t stand this.

“Did they tell you who I am?” Neil asks in quiet German, lowering the hand that isn’t in Andrew’s hair.

“They didn’t have to,” Andrew says. “I choked the answers out of Kevin on the way here.” The naked shock on Neil’s face isn’t worth responding to. “Guess you weren’t an orphan after all. Where is your father now?”

“My uncle executed him,” Neil says. He sounds awed.

He presses two fingers to Andrew’s chest. Right over his heart.

Shockingly, the touch is—grounding. Calming. Andrew hates it; he hates it less than he hates everything else right now. Someone is touching his chest; that someone is Neil. Andrew hates how much he trusts Neil.

It’s also—reassuring.

Neil, like so many others, will lose patience with Andrew eventually. He’s good about Andrew’s problems now; how good will he be with it in three years, when Andrew’s on the verge of graduation and still isn’t normal? How good will he be with it in a month, when Andrew’s ability to handle skin-to-skin contact is still next to nothing? There were others, who wanted to fix Andrew, who wanted to make him better. Who thought that, given enough attention, Andrew would bloom like a fucking flower, smiling and laughing and skipping with them through fields of mentally healthy daisies while holding their hand.

They couldn’t fix him. They weren’t the answer to his problems; there was, is, no answer to his problems. And they got frustrated. And they left. And Andrew had never been hurt by this, because Andrew had known better than to let them in in the first place. He’s failed, this time, to keep Neil out; but he doesn’t have to let Neil in any farther. Neil will leave, just like everyone else, and nothing will change, and that’s a comfortable knowledge Andrew can hang onto.

Neil inhales. “I spent my whole life wishing he would die, but I thought he never would. I thought he was invincible. I can’t believe it was that easy.”

This strikes Andrew as being naïve. “Was it easy? Kevin told us who he worked for.”

“My uncle said he was going to them to try and negotiate a ceasefire. I don’t know if he’s strong enough to bargain with them, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t have risked it without real ground to stand on.” This strikes Andrew as more solid reasoning. “Promise me no one’s told the FBI about them.”

Andrew’s heart hurts again, but differently. “No one’s said a word to them since they said we couldn’t see you.”

The look on Neil’s face will haunt Andrew until the day he dies. He knows this.

Neil opens his mouth. Clears his throat. Tries again. “But why? I’ve done nothing but lie to them.” Andrew agrees. “I willingly put them all in danger so I could play a little longer.” Kevin had done that first. “They got hurt last night because of me. Why would they protect me now?”

There are many answers to that.

Fortunately, they are all easily summed up. “You are a Fox.”

Neil drops his eyes. Andrew can see his jaw working, can hear his breath, can feel how hard Neil is working to keep it together, and Andrew feels sympathy all the way down to his core. “Andrew,” Neil says, in a voice Andrew can’t handle, “they want to take me away from here.” No. No, no. “They want to enroll me in the Witness Protection Program so my father’s people can’t find me. I don’t want—if you want me to leave,” he says, switching halfway through, pulling the martyr card out and waving it in the air, “I’ll go.”

It would kill Neil. Figuratively—in terms of Neil Josten ceasing to exist, and that cannot be—and literally; who understands better than Andrew what it’s like to be ripped away from family? Who understands better than Andrew what it’s like to love, and to be removed?

This will not do.

Andrew feels calm. This is something he can act on.

Neil will remember—of course he’ll remember; he remembers the time he spends with Andrew—and Andrew remembers, of course, so he hooks two fingers in Neil’s collar and tugs. They may not be home, but here’s Neil, and there’s the Foxes, so they can be their own little traveling home. He feels Neil relax, and, yes, Neil remembers.

Andrew switches to English. “You aren’t going anywhere.” For Neil, one meaning; for the rest of the Foxes, tired and furious and exhausted from hours-old grief, another. “You’re staying with us. If they try to take you away they will lose.”

Dan, Dan, the object of so much of Andrew’s gratitude, says “Take you away. To where?”

Matt, whom Andrew respects: “Are we talking about ‘away for some questioning’ or ‘away for good’?”

“Both,” the fed says, and Andrew calms himself. He doesn’t need to do much work, for this part.

“You can’t have him,” Nicky says, and how lucky Andrew is to have him as a cousin. “He belongs with us.”

“When people find out he is still alive they will come for him,” the fed says. Andrew will have to keep his knives sharp and Neil within reach; both of those things are doable. “It is not safe for him here anymore, and it sure as hell isn’t safe for you. It is better for everyone if he disappears.”

Andrew rejoices; what better to tell the Foxes than one of you is in danger, combined with we can keep him safer than you can, combined with worry about your own safety?

“What part of ‘go to hell’ do you need us to explain to you?” Allison asks—and if she’s onboard, the rest of them will be, too. None of them have suffered more for Neil’s presence than she has.

“We’re all legal adults here,” Matt chips in. “We’ve made our decision. Unless he wants to stay with you, you’d better bring Neil back to us when you’re done with all your questions.”

“’Neil’ isn’t a real person,” the fed says, and Andrew flexes his self-control. The Foxes will win this one; he doesn’t need to murder a fed, which will jeopardize Neil’s freedom. “It’s just a cover that let Nathaniel evade authorities. It’s past time to let him go.”

“Neil or Nathaniel or whoever,” Nicky says, and Andrew forgives him the use of the name that Neil hates so much, “He’s ours, and we’re not letting him go. You want us to vote on it or something? Bet you it’ll be unanimous.”

“Coach Wymack,” the fed says, “talk some sense into your team.”

Andrew can breathe again.

“Neil,” Wymack says, and Neil looks away from Andrew, up, to look at Wymack, and whatever he sees on Wymack’s face comforts Neil. “Talk to me. What do you want?”

The whole room goes silent—when Neil speaks, he’s working against a tangle of emotions that must rival Andrew’s. “I want—I know I shouldn’t stay, but I can’t—I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to lose any of you. I don’t want to be Nathaniel anymore. I want to be Neil for as long as I can.”

“Good,” Wymack says, and Andrew’s lungs inflate, deflate. “I’d have a hell of a time fitting ‘Wesninski’ on a jersey.”

Everything else is irrelevant. Coach wants Neil; Neil will stay. Wymack goes back and forth with the fed for a minute; Andrew gets bored. He can’t keep dealing with this. He tugs on Neil’s hoodie and switches back to German. “Get rid of them before I kill them.”

“They’re waiting for answers,” Neil says, an apology and explanation rolled into one. “They were never able to charge my father while he was alive. They’re hoping I know enough to start decimating his circle in his absence. I’m going to give them the truth, or as much of it as I can without telling them my father was acting on someone’s orders.”

Andrew searches for a solution—do they have to take Neil away? Can’t they do it in this hotel? Hell, can’t they do it here, now?

“Do you want to be there for it?” Neil asks.

That’s a solution.

“It’s the story I should have given you months ago.”

Andrew’s straining heart finds a rhythm that isn’t quite smooth, isn’t quite calm, but is getting there. “I have to go. I don’t trust them to give you back.”

Andrew stands; Neil follows him up. Andrew watches him, over-conscious of his presence, as he talks to the Foxes, nothing interesting, but clearly things Neil needs to hear, needs to say, and thus vital.

And then Allison says: “I’d rather find out exactly why and when you two hooked up than think about this awfulness any longer, so let’s talk about that on the ride back instead.”

It’s almost a relief to hear her say it. A million secrets Andrew’s been keeping, and half of them have just been spilled, and he no longer has to care about it.

Aaron looks back and forth, waiting for a denial; Andrew and Neil say nothing, and his face goes blank. Nicky tries to speak, shuts his mouth on silence for the first time in his life, and looks at Neil. Kevin shows no surprise; how often has he returned to the dorm room to find Andrew not there? It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that Neil isn’t going back to his room after their practices, or to put two and two together. It also wouldn’t take a genius to realize that Andrew would only entrust both car and Kevin to someone Andrew loved and trusted wholeheartedly. Kevin must have known, the first night Neil drove Kevin to night practice without Andrew, what that meant.  

Neil looks at Andrew. “Ready?”

“Waiting on you,” Andrew says. Possibly, he’ll be waiting for quite some time—Neil will get tired of him eventually, but until then, Andrew will try. He doesn’t have to let Neil in; Neil’s already inside, and he has shut the door quietly behind him and made himself at home on the floor, waiting for permission to perhaps move to a couch.

A fed tries to disinvite Andrew; Wymack re-invites him. Wymack talks to Neil; Neil nods; they leave and get into the back of an SUV.

“Can I really be Neil again?” Neil asks in German.

One day, maybe, Andrew will ask about this self-crisis. I don’t want to be Nathaniel anymore. I want to be Neil Josten. Can I really be Neil again? What happens in Neil’s head, when he becomes Nathaniel? “I told Neil to stay,” Andrew says. “Leave Nathaniel buried in Baltimore with his father.”

Andrew’s permission—which should be nothing, mean nothing, nothing—lifts a weight from Neil’s shoulders. Andrew watches him turn his palms upwards, and watches him perform a familiar gesture—Neil traces the shape of a key into his skin. The shape of the key Andrew gave him.

It’s enough to get Andrew through the next several hours, which are terrible.

No home for them; no rest for the wicked. They hole up in windowless offices full of feds, and Neil spills his guts, which is somehow worse than Andrew would have expected. Neil, freed from the restraints of secrecy, seems to have little concept of when he’s saying something horrifying; he discusses, in precisely the same tone, long cross-country drives and the time he was stabbed with rusty barbed wire. No, he did not get a tetanus shot; he seems more bothered by the question, as though it’s ridiculous, than he does by the idea of his mother prioritizing hiding over Neil’s health. He gives up his every name and residence—and even that is new information; Andrew hadn’t realized there had been international travel involved—with the same ease with which he recounts violence performed by his father’s people. Although, calling it ease might be the wrong word—it’s more that giving up his past identities is equally as terrible to him as the time he’d watched a woman named Lola dissolve a body in acid. And he gives it all away without breaking a sweat. Andrew pays attention to all of it. He’s particularly interested in the names Romero and Jackson; names for faces, faces he’ll remember forever.

Andrew doesn’t get to see Neil’s arms or hands; any time a doctor is allowed in to check Neil’s injuries, Andrew is kicked out, his only comfort being that the room they’re staying in has no windows and only one door, and that if Neil and the doctor are in there for more than ten minutes, Andrew has the ability to kick the door in. It’s also reassuring that ten minutes is the span of time it takes; That’s probably how long it would take for a competent and rushed doctor to clean and dress two arms, two hands, and Neil’s cheeks. It’s possible, then, that that’s the extent of Neil’s injuries.

Andrew only speaks to insist on Neil’s return; he’s not sure how much it helps, but he and Neil hold their ground. Andrew digs his heels in any time they mention Witness Protection; even besides the fact that it’s not what Neil wants, there’s the possibility that Andrew would find himself following Neil into that program, which would mean leaving Kevin behind. He sees the thought occur to Browning, more than once, to offer to bring Andrew into Witness Protection as well; what’s one more person, if it will stop the arguing and protect a man who can testify? Andrew argues stridently against Witness Protection for Neil; Neil will escape, the Foxes will make a stink, and so on. All reasons hold true for Andrew, too, and Browning doesn’t raise the topic.

The feds give Neil his name back.

Neil can’t sign fast enough.

Andrew sees Neil’s scars, later; sits there, helplessly, a hand on Neil’s neck, as Neil panics, as Neil goes back to Lola, while Abby does what Andrew can’t and says soft things and runs her fingers through Neil’s hair. Andrew can’t do it. He can’t be that soft. He can’t be that gentle. The best he can do is not painful. The best he can do is stare at Neil’s arms, taking in every detail of the horror there, while Neil stares at Andrew’s face, and is somehow comforted by it. The best he can do is sit in the back of the bus while Neil tries to doze off in the seat in front of him; the best he can do is glare at any Foxes who try to come check on Neil. The best he can do is sit there and listen to Neil’s breath jerk and pull as he hits his injuries; sit there and watch Neil’s calves, hanging over the end of the bench, twitch, as Neil tries and fails to fall asleep. The best he can do is open a fucking protein bar, because Neil can’t do it. The best he can do is keep Kevin away from Neil when Neil needs space. The best he can do is so little, so very little, and he waits, expectantly, for Neil to walk away, to decide that he’d be better off spending time with someone who could say the kind words Andrew is incapable of finding. Better off spending time with someone who could say any words at all, because Andrew can’t do it, can’t even open his mouth. He has nothing left.

It turns out he’s good for something else, though. He’s already seen Neil’s torso; no one else has. He can cover up Neil’s injuries before a shower, which no one else can do. He’s already seen most of what Neil would want to hide; he, therefore, can help Neil shower. He can be useful. He can do this.

It’s as he’s sitting there, waiting for Matt to get out of the way so Andrew can pull Neil’s shirt off, that something horrifying occurs to him.

It hadn’t come up in Neil’s day-long confessional; the specific injuries he’d sustained were only important, according to Neil, when they slowed him and Mary down. A leg injury was bad; the gunshot was bad. Most everything else went largely unmentioned, hinted at in the violence Neil had described in the most general of terms.

All of Neil’s scars are on his front.

Andrew has been hit; not by a gun, but by hands. He knows something about wounds. Those who turn and run away get hit in the back.

All of Neil’s scars are on his front.

He didn’t get those scars by running away. This leaves two options: Either he was caught at close quarters, or he turned and fought back.

Andrew hates both these options.

He covers Neil’s open wounds thoroughly. Possibly more than necessary. The thought of water and soap getting on them, of Andrew’s shitty taping job causing Neil more pain, is too much. Unbearable. Untenable.

Andrew joins Neil in the bathroom, all Neil’s scars on display. Andrew has seen them before; he’s felt them before. Andrew’s had his hands all over them. All on Neil’s front. Andrew thinks about Neil’s arms, proof that Nathan’s people love torture and don’t have some kind of odd torso fixation, and about the fact that Nathan and his people had caught up to Neil more than once but never managed to capture him, and about the fact that no one had even known Neil existed—no one had ever seen this violence, ever seen evidence of it. Neil wouldn’t let himself, generally, be caught in close quarters with an unknown person. Neither Mary nor Neil himself would let Neil get into the kind of situation where Neil could be caught at close quarters with an ax murderer. Except that Andrew remembers bursting backstage at the Kathy Ferdinand show, finding Riko closing in on Neil, Neil trapped—but that hadn’t been a failure on Neil’s part. It had been because he was protecting Kevin. Choosing Kevin’s survival over his own—an act that, now that Andrew knows the truth, seems wildly stupid, even for Neil. Andrew decides that he’d been wrong. Neil isn’t a runaway; even that was a lie.

Andrew presses heavy fingers to Neil’s scars.

He doesn’t think Neil is lying to him. He thinks it’s a side effect of how Neil thinks about himself. Neil may be a runner, may be a runaway, but not always. Not all the time. Not often enough. Not when Andrew was in danger, not when Kevin was in danger, not when Nicky wanted so badly to see his parents. He’ll run to save himself; he’ll sacrifice himself for someone else. Who was he protecting, the times when he stood there and faced down people who wanted to kill him? It must have been his mother. Andrew knows something about Mary, knows what Neil told the FBI, but doesn’t know what she was like day-to-day. He can begin to attribute to her some of Neil’s habits, some of Neil’s triggers; the cell phone makes sense, now. He wants to know more. He can’t bring himself to ask.

“Hey,” Neil says.

Andrew looks up.

Neil leans in, slowly, so slowly, and hunger bursts out of Andrew, as strong as the rage that had consumed him for so long, and Andrew opens his mouth for Neil, finds comfort in Neil’s tongue, in the amount of time Neil spends kissing him. Whatever else: Neil is alive. Whatever else: Neil is here, alive, with Andrew. Whatever else: Neil wants to be here, alive, with Andrew.

Andrew feels Neil’s breath hitch on something, some emotion, and the very concept of it is ludicrous. Everything Neil’s been through, and he’s having emotions now? “You are a mess,” Andrew says, placing the words against Neil’s lips.

“What else is new?” Neil says.

Andrew ignores this in favor of turning on the shower. Checking the temperature. He can’t be soft, but he can make sure the water isn’t too hot—Neil doesn’t need hot anything on his skin. Andrew can strip Neil, and if he can’t be soft he can at least be distant, can at least avoid making Neil uncomfortable. He takes off his armbands—this is trust; this is an exchange, scars for scars—and his shoes, and steps into the shower. He washes Neil. He remembers a family he’d lived with, when he was nine, and how religious they’d been; remembers reading about Mary Magdalene, finding out that Jesus was going to die, washing Jesus’s feet. He wonders if she’d been worshipful, if she’d been loving, if her goal had simply been to show her devotion and to avoid causing pain. He knows what the story says. He doesn’t care.

Washing Neil is all of the above.

His version of loving might not be textbook-perfect, but it’s what he has to offer.

He sneaks kisses—or Neil sneaks kisses—or neither of them are sneaking, but there is kissing. Neil’s skin is under Andrew’s hands, and Neil’s eyes are on Andrew, and it’s more than Andrew can handle, and he looks away—a mistake: Neil’s lips find Andrew’s jaw, and then they go running down Andrew’s neck after a drop of water, and Andrew goes weak at the knees, grabs Neil’s waist to hold himself upright, his whole body shuddering as he goes lightheaded.

Neil shouldn’t be able to do that to him. Shouldn’t be able to make every drop of blood in Andrew’s body go straight to his dick. “Your neck fetish is not attractive,” he rasps out, but even he can hear that he’s lost control.

“You like it,” Neil says. “I like that you like it.”

What does that have to do with anything?

And then Neil bites down, and thoughts fall out of Andrew’s head as he turns into it, painfully turned on, ready and willing to die for this man who gives a shit about what Andrew likes.

Neil smiles against Andrew’s neck, and that’s enough, Andrew needs to do something or he’s going to die, needs to push Neil against the shower wall. “Yes or no?”

“It’s always yes with you,” Neil says.

Stupid. Doesn’t he know that’s stupid? “Except when it’s no.”

Neil tilts Andrew’s head up for another kiss. And then, stupid, so stupid, he says: “If you have to keep asking because—I’ll answer it as many times as you ask. But this is always going to be yes.”

Neil can’t possibly comprehend the meaning of always. The length of time that stretches out in Andrew’s head is endless. “Don’t ‘always’ me.”

“Don’t ask for the truth if you’re just going to dilute it.”

That’s enough.

Andrew puts a hand on Neil’s mouth to shut him up and kisses his way down Neil’s body, finding every scar, making it familiar, until he gets so low he goes to his knees and can’t reach Neil’s mouth anymore. He brushes his lips against Neil’s hip, and swallows Neil whole, and is happy to re-learn that, as much as Neil makes Andrew feel like he’s falling apart, Andrew is fully capable of destroying Neil’s self-control: He scrabbles with plastic-wrapped hands at Andrew’s hair, at the slick shower tiles, and then Andrew realizes Neil might literally fall—and as gratifying as that would be, it would distract Andrew from this, and he couldn’t handle that. He puts a hand against Neil’s hip and pins him to the wall.

Neil says Andrew’s name, as Andrew slides his lips along the smooth skin of Neil’s cock.

Lots of people have said Andrew’s name, for lots of different reasons.

For a long time, Andrew had hated his name. He’d heard people say it in too many different ways; he could never hear it said without remembering the times it had been whispered, slimy, into his ear, or the times it had been yelled, furious, in his direction. But Andrew had gotten over that particular problem; he’d had little choice; he didn’t have access to the resources required to change his name—which, regardless, wouldn’t stop people from referring to him by some name, even if that name wasn’t Andrew. A pleasant side effect to being silent and friendless was this: Few people bothered saying his name.

But Neil?

Andrew could listen to Neil say his name forever. Under any and every circumstance. The way Neil says Andrew’s name makes Andrew like his name.

When he’s done, Neil slides down, gasping for breath, flushed, beautiful, so painfully attractive even with plastic taped to his cheeks that Andrew knows that he’s lost. Andrew has lost. Neil has won.

“Do you want—” Neil tries, as he always does, but Andrew kisses him. Worries, for a second, that Neil will pull away—Andrew can still taste Neil on his tongue, and certainly Neil can too. But Neil just grimaces and kisses him harder.

Andrew should kick Neil out. Should handle his own issues in private, as he always does. He hates the idea of getting off with someone else in the room, let alone someone so close to him.

He discovers that he hates the idea of leaving Neil more.

Neil doesn’t look.

He almost does, confused—and then he does not.

Neil holds onto Andrew until Andrew pushes away, and then Neil leaves.

Andrew stands there, in the bathroom, soaked, and thinks about Neil humming when he’d realized what Andrew was doing.

Other thoughts almost hit Andrew’s brain, too, trying to tell him why his skin feels like it’s too much, why his bones feel jagged, why he wants to vomit.

Andrew leaves them behind.

Andrew leaves the bathroom in a towel, and Neil doesn’t look. Scrubs Neil dry and dresses him, and still Neil doesn’t look. Neil loans Andrew clothes, and doesn’t wait while Andrew gets dressed.

Andrew doesn’t know what to do with this—this respect. This trust. He doesn’t know what to do with it at all.

Always.

Always is a very long time.

And Neil is a liar.

Thank you. You were amazing.

Andrew wonders idly if Neil had meant that.

He remembers Neil’s face when he’d said it and decides that, yes, he had.

Andrew’s playing hot potato with his own heart, and there’s no one left to throw it to.

Maybe Neil will take it.

That thought shuts Andrew up.

Fortunately, no one notices when Andrew goes silent. And no one’s stupid enough to say anything about it.

Except Neil.

Andrew pulls himself together. Neil’s been out of his sight for long enough.

He wanders out of the bathroom.

Neil is in the kitchen making coffee.

Andrew is willing to wait. Willing to wait until Neil figures out just how long always is.

Hope is a butterfly in his chest, and he doesn’t slaughter it. Just pushes it down. It can live a little longer.