There are fingers intertwined with his. They belong to a calloused, scarred hand, which in turn belongs to a powerful arm made of strong muscle and vicious cuts. All of this leads him to Neil, so solid next to Andrew, lying on the ground of the rooftop in hiding.
In hiding with him.
Andrew came up here about an hour ago, seeking quiet and refuge. He had pulled Neil’s hoodie string on the way out and like a magnet he came. So they’ve just been lying here.
Neil’s thumb trails against Andrew’s skin and it’s like existing in a bubble. Andrew’s eyes are closed but he can feel Neil staring at him. It doesn’t feel as heavy as it used to, it doesn’t disconcert him in the same way it used to. It just warms the side of his face like a small sun.
Andrew’s hand twitches in Neil’s and he can feel his answering huff of laughter against his hair.
“I’ll stop staring.”
It’s been so long since either of them had spoken that Andrew had almost forgotten what the timber of Neil’s voice felt like this close.
Neil just laughs again.
Existing in a bubble.
He’s not sure how much time passes, because he makes the active decision not to be. But at some point he moves closer to Neil, close enough that he can feel the fabric of his shirt against the bare skin of his upper arm and it’s all warm.
It’s all quiet and still.
“Why do you never just cuff your pants?”
It’s such a sudden disruption to the stillness between them that Andrew opens his eyes to say –
“Your pants. They’re always falling apart because they’re too long, why don’t you just cuff them?”
Why was he even thinking about it? How does he even know what cuffing is?
“I didn’t realise you cared so much about fashion.”
Neil rolls his eyes at this, and rolls onto his side to look at him and do so properly.
“It would save you a lot of whining from Nicky. And Aaron for that matter.”
“And I suppose you have no vested interest in this at all?”
“Well I’d rather you not trip and break your face.”
Andrew doesn’t know what to say to that, partly because Neil’s own face is so sunlit and partly because he’s such an asshole.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
But Neil pulls himself up into a sitting position, his hand leaving Andrew’s slightly colder when it slips away.
“Can I?” he asks, nodding down at the still fresh hems of Andrew’s black jeans.
The concept of it really is what makes him say yes.
When he feels Neil grip the denim it’s gentle, careful not to brush Andrew’s skin until Andrew nudges his ankle that little bit closer. Neil looks up at him then, eyes so blue and so startlingly serious. He rolls the fabric up carefully, just out of the way, neat. He looks up at Andrew again as he moves on to the next hem, like he needs to check still that this small act of nothing is okay.
And maybe he does.
“There. Done.” Neil says then, one dimple just shining through with his quick smile.
Nothing much is happening at the time.
Andrew is sitting at the broken window as he so often is on rainy days, staring into nothing. The Foxes are watching movies in another dorm, and Andrew is left to his silence.
And then the text comes in:
Heads up, there was an incident but I’m fine. Up in 5.
Neil and Kevin had gone for an afternoon run despite the rain, for reasons beyond Andrew’s comprehension, and now he has five minutes to imagine the damage.
He didn’t mention Kevin, which suggests he wasn’t involved. He said he was fine which means he definitely isn’t. Fine is such a relative term after all.
He’s picturing Neil with a broken limb, he’s picturing him with a broken face.
He’s picturing Neil and he knows so well how much pain that boy attracts.
If he thinks about this logically, he knows that Neil probably is fine. He hasn’t been gone that long so he can’t have gone to a hospital. His use of the word fine has admittedly improved. He texted Andrew from his own phone which means it can’t be that extensive.
Up in five he said.
It’s been six minutes.
“Neil’s a fucking idiot.”
Kevin is banging open the door and agitated. He looks wet and annoyed and pinched with something that could be fear or worry. He’s fine but he’s not happy, so where’s –
“It wasn’t my fault and I’m fine, so it doesn’t matter.”
Andrew stands despite himself and looks. At Neil’s face with a new graze beneath his burns. At his irritated eyes and his hair still untouched auburn, at his arms at his legs at his torso as it heaves with air and annoyance, at his wrist wrapped in a splint. The pinch of pain between his eyebrows that he can’t seem to hide.
He’s not fine.
He’s not beyond repair but he is damaged.
He’s standing right in front of Andrew.
There’s a scrape on his elbow too. All cleaned up nice and easy. His hair smells like rain. He’s looking at Andrew like this whole thing is stupid. But there’s something in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders, in the way he’s leaning into Andrew’s orbit.
He reaches out and just, doesn’t quite touch the scrape on Neil’s arm. His skin there was smooth before. A rarity. And now there are butterfly band-aids.
“What happened?” he says, quiet and contained like always. Like there’s nothing different about this moment.
Because there’s not. Not really.
“He slipped in a puddle and fell. Sprained his wrist.” Kevin replies, equal parts disdainful and something else he can’t put his finger on. There’s something strained in his voice.
Slipped in a fucking puddle. Andrew should really just cut his losses. Except he has a feeling he can’t anymore. There’s a slim chance it’s too late. Instead, he looks into Neil’s exasperated eyes and wonders what he’s missing here.
“I know it was stupid.”
“Oh look at that, it’s self-aware.” Andrew says, mostly by accident.
“Yeah I get it, I’m an idiot. But I’m fine, actually fine, nothing to worry about.”
“And who says I was worried?”
He knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it, and Neil’s perfectly raised brow and smug smile only proved him right.
Kevin meanwhile, is twitching. He’s thrown himself onto the couch but there’s still tension in his shoulders and Andrew is really starting to think he’s missing something.
And then –
“He almost got hit by a fucking car.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Neil you need to be more careful-“
“I’m fine, this is nothing! It wasn’t even that close - ”
Hit by a fucking car.
“Because you were lucky.”
Almost got hit by a fucking car while Andrew sat here. Staring out of the window waiting.
“Can one of you tell me what the fuck happened.”
It’s meant to come out as a question, but something has flat-lined in him somewhere. And they’re both looking at him like he’s just spilled a secret he shouldn’t have.
There’s a quiet moment. And then Neil sits slowly on the edge of the desk, and explains.
“When I fell, I fell into the road. A car was coming, but we both moved out of the way.”
“Abby patched him up.” Kevin says, shoulders sagging on the couch.
Andrew is abruptly tired.
So he goes to the freezer. Sits next to Neil on the desk and eats his ice cream, tries not to look at him, tries not to feel pulled to him, tries not to catalogue all the new pains on his body no matter how small. Tries not to look at the splint on his slender wrist, so deceptively delicate looking.
Neil keeps staring at him and Kevin keeps staring at Neil.
Andrew can hear his pulse in his ears.
That night, he means to sleep alone in the top bunk. But he finds himself crawling in next to Neil instead.
“Hey, you good?” Neil’s voice is almost a whisper.
“I’m not the one who almost died today.”
He expects Neil to roll his eyes but he doesn’t.
“It wasn’t as close as Kevin makes it sound.”
Still too close.
“You won’t be able to play.”
Neil sighs and shuffles more onto his back.
“No I won’t, but it’s not for long. And I’ve had worse.”
Oh Neil, that does not make this better.
His pulse is still raging in his ears.
“Yes or no?”
Neil turns his head to look at him and smiles, a little surprised maybe, a little concerned.
“I’m a yes if you are.”
Andrew pushes closer, and kisses him. Kisses him until it’s Neil’s pulse he feels, until it’s Neil’s breath caught in Andrew’s throat and not his own. Kisses him until the night starts to set into their bones.
And when Neil falls asleep, Andrew can still feel it. His pulse and his kisses, and the knowledge that this could have been gone.
He doesn’t sleep that night.
“So we stole these chairs from the dump behind the Tower, you wanna ride?”
Nicky and Matt, freakishly connected these days, have their hands on two wheelie chairs of dubious origin, brought up the elevator with them all the way to Andrew’s door.
“You don’t know what fun is.” Matt says.
“No as in…no you don’t know what fun is or…” Matt seems to be losing steam, and if Andrew is lucky (which he isn’t) that means he’ll go away soon. Neil, standing beside Andrew, is considering the chairs with a tilt of his head.
“No as in no, it’s stupid.”
“I’ll do it.”
Neil sounds curious, kind of excited.
And before Andrew really knows he’s going to, he says -
Nicky looks at Andrew, Matt looks at Neil, and Andrew just stands there feeling something titling in his stomach.
Andrew doesn’t really care to know what Neil is doing. If he’s looking at him differently. If he’s looking at him at all.
The quiet goes on a bit too long. The titling of his stomach gets worse. He doesn’t know, what to do next.
So in the end, he just sighs and says “Don’t blame me if you sprain something else”.
“Yeah, fine.” Nicky says, tugging Neil away by his undamaged wrist, shouting for Aaron as they go.
That’s how Neil ends up racing down the hall with Matt behind the wheel, and it’s how he ends up almost immediately crashing into a wall.
“Oh fuck Neil! Oh shit.” Nicky gushes, rushing over, still partly laughing.
For fucks sake.
“Relax it’s fine.” And Neil is partially laughing too.
The noise rouses Kevin, and everyone else, and suddenly Andrew is watching a crowd of Foxes take off down to the parking lot for ‘more space’.
He watches Neil get swallowed up in them and he can feel himself standing outside of it all, a spectator. He wants to pretend that he doesn’t need to follow. But he does.
In the end, he’s sat on the grass watching grown athletes compete in wheelie chair races, screaming at the top of their lungs and accusing each other of cheating.
Mostly, he’s watching Neil tear off down the parking lot on a wobbly chair, laughing like he’s just discovered youthfulness, looking like he doesn’t how to process something done for fun and not to live or die.
And Andrew wonders why the sight of it is so captivating, why it sets something moving in his chest, why he flinches every time it looks like they’re going to lose control.
It still surprises him, being able to feel more than one thing at once. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.
“He’s going to figure you out you know.”
Renee, sat beside him, band aids in hand and eyebrow arched in gentle judgement.
Because he does. Neil isn’t used to existing to other people, not quite yet, even now. He’s not used to mattering. But oh is he a fast learner.
“And whenever you’re ready to talk about it, you know where to find me.”
She smiles, knowing and unyielding. And then there’s a cry of pain somewhere down the parking lot.
Then she’s off, beatific smile and all.
When did he become so transparent? When did he become so easily rattled? This is not Baltimore, this is not the mafia, this is not a mountain of secrets on the verge of collapse. But Andrew couldn’t sleep last night, staring at Neil’s splinted wrist, at his scraped skin.
Neil runs past him with Renee the turncoat gripping the seat as hard as she can, and he looks like he’s having fun.
And none of this is actually bad.
But Andrew has become suddenly and acutely aware of how much he would do to keep Neil.
And now he can’t seem to turn it off.
A Neil unable to play Exy is one of the most insufferable and dangerous kinds.
He’s sulking at them from the side-lines of practice.
They’re two thirds of the way through, and for the past hour Neil has been moving around the glass walls of the court, sitting on the benches with nothing to do, twitching and driving Wymack insane.
And Andrew is just uninterested. In all of this. He is in no mood for stickball today, it bores him. He just keeps hitting the ball back and watching them scurry around to get it like puppies. And Neil just keeps wasting away on the benches.
It only becomes a problem when Neil decides he wants to stand by the goal. He’s been watching for a while, but now he’s moving slowly towards the court. Glass or no, Andrew can feel his stare. He knows what Neil is watching.
It’s not the game, not the lacklustre performance of some team members, not the small spat between Matt and Kevin. He’s watching Andrew. And like a complete fucking idiot Andrew tries, works better, hits harder, shows off a little bit more and he can feel Neil start to simmer.
He wonders how the glass hasn’t melted with the force of his stare and he wonders what the fuck he’s doing.
But he just keeps doing it. And Neil’s eyes keep burning in his direction and now Andrew can’t stop himself from looking back.
By the end of it all Andrew is freshly showered but his skin feels too hot, just a little bit. And Neil is right there, right there and burning.
“Your addiction to this game is sickening.” Andrew says, watching the others file out of the lockers because he can’t look at Neil anymore.
But he knows he’s smirking.
“Well what else do I have to do?” He asks and he’s just a fucking fire.
“Come on.” Andrew says, more irritated exhale than anything, and tugs at the strings of Neil’s hoodie. Pulls him, grin and all, towards the corner between lockers people tend to forget is there.
“Yes” is the only sound out of Neil’s mouth before Andrew has him against the wall.
He’s vibrating under Andrew’s hands, his one wrist awkwardly staying as still as possible, his chest heaving all of his air into Andrew’s lungs and Andrew can’t help but drink him in. Can’t help but pull those hands under his own shirt and can’t help but stutter a little anyway to feel Neil’s palms against his skin.
And Neil kisses him with so much of that raw fire, so giving. He flexes his fingers and Andrew nods and then Neil drags them slowly up and up his skin and Andrew’s chest stutters beneath them and when Neil pulls back, only a little, he hovers his lips over Andrew’s neck so Andrew nods harder and then he just starts to shudder.
He has one hand on the wall behind Neil’s head, one hand in his hair.
He can feel his tongue and his teeth and his reverent reverent kisses.
And how is Neil still able to do so much with one wrist splinted? What is Andrew supposed to do now? What is he supposed to do with all of this fire and life gasping under his hands? He can’t imagine how still the world would be without it.
He needs to feel the pulse of it all beneath his own teeth.
So he does.
And the sound Neil makes.
Andrew pushes harder into Neil’s orbit and his heartbeat and he’s just shuddering. He’s so hungry.
And they’re both so alive.
“Can you tell me what that feels like, when you hold his hand?”
He’s not sure.
“I can try.”
She sits, patient.
“It feels good. When I hold his hand it feels good.”
A beat of silence.
“It feels. Comforting. Or, safe. Nice.”
He’s feeling stuck. Exposed.
“Those are all great things Andrew.”
“So what’s unnerving you?”
“That it feels good. And that now I think – I don’t want it to feel like that. It doesn’t seem safe. I don’t know how to keep him safe. Or myself.”
“Do you want to talk through that?”
“Okay. But we can take a couple minutes first if you want.”
Once upon a time, Bee sat Andrew down in her office and taught him how to regulate his breathing through counting. Breathing in through his nose, holding it, and breathing out through his mouth. It doesn’t always work.
It’s definitely not working now.
It’s almost quiet here, leaning against the wall by the library doors. Andrew lets himself slide to the ground, close his eyes, and imagine himself somewhere truly quiet, truly silent. There’s something sort of cataclysmic about that imagining. What would have to happen for such a place to exist? What would he have to lose?
He doesn’t have much in the way of material goods. With the sole exception of his knives, armbands, of course the Maserati, he could lose it all tomorrow and it wouldn’t mean anything. He could replace it all anyway.
But, if he were to consider thinking about it, there may be a few people. Bee, and her costumes and cocoa. Nicky, beaming and brave. Kevin, stubborn and healing. Aaron.
Neil Abram Josten.
If he woke up tomorrow and they were gone, would that be the quiet empty place he imagines? Would it be worth it? Would there be any point to that peaceful place left?
Andrew opens his eyes and stares into the sky so blue and clear. He can feel the breeze against his ankles.
If he woke up one day and just one of them was gone.
What would that world look like?
“Andrew? Andrew are you okay?”
He turns his heavy head to look at Nicky as he slides to the ground beside him. His face is set with the kind of concern Andrew imagines parents must wear. Looking at their poor hurting child, determined to fix it all. To re-make the world better for them.
“You don’t look fine.”
“And what do I look like?”
Bored, empty, sociopathic, pick any placeholder you want he’s sure it’ll fit.
Well then. Andrew has some self-reflecting to do. Because if he’s being honest, and he can’t always tell if he is, he would have to admit that Nicky is right. Because Andrew isn’t used to wearing the truth on his face. Andrew isn’t used to any of this.
And maybe because that in itself is frightening.
Andrew just lets them fall into silence, and they just sit, in the quiet. For a while.
It’s a Friday night and they have no plans, so they’ve defaulted. Kevin is rifling through all of their drawers trying to figure out what to wear, and Andrew watches him flit about the dorms like a fly from his seat on the couch.
“Is Kevin overexerting himself no reason?” Neil asks, sinking into the couch beside Andrew.
“Yes, of course he is.”
Neil is dressed like Andrew imagines danger might dress: deliciously, impractically, and stupidly. There are so many tears in his jeans and all of these moments of skin and leg and who bought those for him again?
It was Andrew.
“Should we help him?” Neil asks, with clearly no intention to do so.
Neil laughs and it sounds like Andrew imagines danger might sound.
They watch Kevin for a while longer, Neil’s fingers tangled in the threads of Andrew’s sleeve and Andrew’s heart rate syncing to the sound of his breathing.
He finds himself staring at Neil’s fingertips. At his splint, doodled on and defaced, all his scars, all his black. He is a warning sign of a person. I am damaged and I am damage.
He looks so vulnerable, sitting next to Andrew on this couch in his mismatched socks, eyes constantly sneaking looks at Andrew’s face.
The second Kevin is out of the room again Andrew kisses him.
“Hey no, none of that. Shoes on we’re leaving.”
Fuck you Kevin.
“Fuck you Kevin.”
Neil, there are some parts of you that will never change.
And then on the way out of the door -
Andrew sighs and says, “Yes Neil?”
Because he can still taste him and he is still looking at his splinted wrist.
Windows down, music loud, clichés spilling out onto the open road.
The path to Eden’s Twilight is littered with bad intentions.
And now they’re all wound up already, skipping Sweeties and squeezing in through back doors left open. Pouring shots, fighting over rounds, pulling each other on and off of dance floors, screaming “Table!” at the top of their lungs.
Except for Andrew.
No, he is sat vigil, nursing his shot like an asshole, avoiding the eyes of Roland who thinks he knows far too much for his own good and truly knows so little. No, he is sat vigil, watching his family amongst a crowd of strangers. A crowd of unknowns and possibilities. In Andrew’s experience, those have never meant anything good.
Tonight, all the lights feel too bright. The music is too loud, the shots are too sour, the people far too present. Andrew wound himself too tight somewhere between the dorms and the back entrance and he is finding himself needing.
He no longer cares to be here.
When he looks over to the crowd, there is one missing.
Three guesses as to who it is.
Andrew doesn’t really have the time to panic, for myriad reasons, but not least because he’s already found him.
He still manages to feel an instant relief when he catches sight of him. Blue eyes sharp jaw ruined hair.
“You wanna go outside?” Neil’s voice always seems to find Andrew when it shouldn’t be able to, even over the sound of emphatic drum and bass.
So Andrew grabs his sleeve and tugs.
Off they go.
He already wants to kiss him.
They’re sat on the steps of a back entrance, because where else would they be. They’re not smoking but they are talking. It’s not even about anything important.
Neil is making fun of him for being clumsy as a kid, Andrew is making fun of Neil for being clumsy now. Neil is trying to explain mathematical concepts to him. Andrew is trying to explain a little explored theory of criminality.
There’s the feeling of 1am in the air, a breeze that he can feel against his ankles, and kisses that he can feel everywhere. Slow and quiet and in-between other things like sentences and silences.
The streetlights feel just right out here.
Neil’s fingers have found the stray threads of Andrew’s sleeves again. He still looks so vulnerable, gazing at Andrew like that from under his lashes.
And Andrew is so vulnerable for needing him.
Andrew blows into his open coffee cup so he doesn’t have to look at her. But the annoying thing about Renee, is that she is so damn patient.
She sits across from him on the bench and fiddles with her sugar packets.
“You’re going to make a mess.”
Renee just laughs a little and rests her head on her arms. Content to wait.
He knows if he needed her to, she would wait forever. Which is why he won’t make her.
“Neil almost got hit by a car.”
Her voice is always so carefully measured. Just the right amount of casual conversation and softness.
“He’s been literally half dead before. A car that probably wouldn’t have actually hit him, that’s nothing. We’ve both seen much worse.”
“And I don’t understand why this is happening now.”
She sits with his frustration for a moment, considers it carefully.
“Have you considered that you just weren’t expecting it?”
“I’m always expecting him to do something stupid.”
She raises an eyebrow in judgement, but there’s nothing sharp about her when she says –
“The last time we almost lost Neil it was to a threat much bigger than even you expected. And he survived, he came back to us. Neil took on the mafia, his father, and he was the one who walked out of it all alive. And then it was over.”
“I think we’re so used to big threats, we forget about the ‘smaller’ ones. We’ve forgotten how to cope with them.”
And that’s just it isn’t it. Every threat feels big to Andrew. All of the little ways a person can be taken away without warning. He doesn’t know to reconcile them now.
“That doesn’t seem fair.” Andrew says into his coffee.
“I didn’t think you believed in fair.”
“Then forget fair. Forget fear. He’s real, he’s here, and he’s probably too stubborn to die at this point.”
She has a point there.
“Andrew, it scared you because you care about him. And that’s only a good thing.”
And she looks happy too, tucking her hair behind her ears and smiling warmly across at him. Happy for him.
“When Neil left Baltimore alive, you know who he came back for right?”
“And you. I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”
She sips her coffee and lets that hit Andrew in his solar plexus. Content to wait.
Andrew is lying in bed in the afternoon, thinking of want.
This day has been far too long.
He wants things he can’t have. He wants his feelings to stop, he wants to go back to a time when he didn’t have any, he wants to believe that that time really existed. He wants to not want. He wants to hold Neil’s hand and know he’s alive. He wants to understand why this fear has come back now.
But the bedroom door has opened, and Neil sits on the ground in front of the bed and stares into Andrew’s eyes.
Andrew doesn’t say anything. He just catalogues Neil, eyes catching on the scrape mostly healed on his face, on his splint, on his scars.
Later, he thinks it must have been that moment of hesitation that prompted Neil to say what he does next.
“It scared me you know. The car.” He says.
“I used to live knowing I was going to die soon. So, I made sure I had nothing to lose but myself. But then I met you, and the Foxes and Wymack and now I have so much. Now I have a future. I have this.”
He tilts his head towards him where he lays beneath the covers. The set of his jaw leaves no room for doubt.
“I don’t want that to be taken away. But I think maybe I like that. I like having something to lose. I like having something to stick around for.”
He shuffles that little bit closer, lays his un-splinted wrist against the covers. His voice just gets more confident, just gets more certain, more honest. Neil hasn’t lied to him since a dirty motel room floor.
“I’m sticking around Andrew. I’m staying, with you, for however long you want me.”
Andrew won’t lie to him now.
“Be careful Neil.”
“I will be. As best I can.”
Because they both know their lives are never going to be risk free. They both know that Neil is never going to be risk free. He’s a ticking time bomb.
But he sleeps between Andrew and the wall most nights, and he rolls down hallways on shitty wheelie chairs, and he stands so wild and frightening within those four glass walls. He has survived 19 years on death row.
And he’s here. Looking at Andrew like that.
It’s a heavy thing, to be someone’s something to lose.
“Sorry it took me so long.”
So Andrew falls sleep with his fingertips tangled in Neil’s.
There’s a hand brushing slowly through his hair. It’s gentle and it has permission. There’s the smell of coffee in the air, lemon shampoo on the pillow, the sound of a huff of annoyance and a page turning.
“This is just basic maths.”
He doesn’t need to reply to that. He knows that Neil is sat up next to him reading an advanced mathematics textbook like it’s a fiction novel. Apparently he’s a fucking savant.
But he has such careful hands.
The air coming through the open window is cold and Andrew’s head is as empty as it ever gets. He slept last night, most of the way through. Some kind of pressure had released with each word out of Neil’s mouth and in the end he collapsed into sleep.
He doesn’t really know what time it is.
“Coffee’s still hot by the way.”
He rolls over to look at Neil, poking one eye out above the edge of the blanket to glimpse him. He’s still got a bit of scrape left behind on his cheek, but it looks less stark. Healing. Nothing really against all those scars.
Andrew sits up, back against the wall, accepts the coffee handed to him, looks at Neil a little more through the cloud of steam. It blurs his all edges out. He looks soft. What a concept.
Neil smirks at him because every day he gets better at catching Andrew looking. Every day Andrew catches himself looking a little longer. Every day Andrew becomes a little more honest.
He thinks about Renee. Wise Renee. Thinks about what she said in the café, about small threats and big fears. He thinks about what feels worse. Losing Neil or allowing himself to want him.
Everyday Andrew becomes a little more honest.
“Neil.” He says. “This is not nothing.”
Neil smiles at him then, the bright rare one they’re both still getting used to, the dimple on his right cheek in full force, eyes gleaming blue, muscles unsure how to hold it.