Cough, cough, cough.
When the realization settled in, Neil knew he was fucked. He knew from the moment he forced his eyes open and felt like death itself.
He knew when his legs felt wobbly as he went to the bathroom, when his head was pounding, his ears ringing, and his eyes still heavy with sleep. Nobody else was in the dorm, both Andrew and Kevin had gone to class already.
He couldn't do anything about it. They had a match against the Trojans today — Kevin's favorite team of all time. A team made up of smiles and sunshine. There was no way he would miss out on that.
The Foxes needed Neil on the court, and he didn't want to disappoint any of them. So he ignored the protest in his body, he’d be feeling better in no time anyway.
He was fine.
Slipping on his shoes, he headed out for a run. Despite the fact his lungs felt like they would collapse any minute now, he still ran. He urged his legs to keep up the tempo, run the familiar route across roads, on the sidewalks, past the little cafes and shops, waking up to a new day.
Only until he'd run several laps around campus. until his vision was so blurry he couldn’t see straight, did he stop. When he did, his throat was screaming for water. He decided to call it quits and went to the dorm, only to leave for Calc 2 half an hour later.
On other days, cracking intense problems motivated him to keep improving, keep finding ways to riddle his brain. But on that day, feeling all sick and feverish, there was nothing he wanted more than to curl up in the soft blanket Nicky got him last Christmas and take a small nap. Or a long one.
He hated days like this. He kept feeling like someone would shove him in a car and put a lighter to his cheek at any moment, he couldn’t help but focus on his weaknesses, exposed. He felt unhinged when he was sick—he had no idea what was going to happen.
Everything around him was a blur. The way the students walked from class to class, chattering away with their friends, giggling and laughing. Everything moved too fast for Neil's eyes, while it simultaneously seemed to drag on, like an uncomfortably stretched out slow-motion video.
The professor’s voice was monotone — a robot would sound more excited — and Neil couldn't remember the last time his eyelids felt like fifty pound dumbbells. He pillowed his head in his arms and tuned out the droning lecture.
There was a light tap at his shoulder.
He jolted up, startled, he felt blood pumping in his ears—
—The professor was standing beside him, an eyebrow raised. He noticed all the empty seats, the quiet lecture hall, and realized he overslept.
It took a few moments to regain his thoughts and get his breathing in check, but when he did, he simply went with 'I'm sorry'.
That earned him a displeased look. Shaking their head, the professor countered, "You look rather pale, Josten. Are you feeling well? I know you are not one to lack attention in my classes."
"I'm fine." At the skeptical look, Neil continued, "It's just a small headache." It was only a half-lie.
He could see he wasn’t fooling either of them, but since the professor didn't prod any further, Neil deemed it a success. "Very well. I expect you to catch up on your missing assignments."
"Will do. Thank you, sir."
He packed up, putting everything in his bag and made for the exit. He still felt queasy, so he stuck to the wall, hand light against it, just in case. Each step sent a jolt up his nerves. He gripped the strap of his bag tighter, making sure he wouldn’t lose it. He felt lightheaded and dizzy and so, so tired.
He was fine.
Ten hours until the Trojans match.
Ten hours of practice.
Ten hours of suffering in pain.
When Neil entered the locker room, all the Foxes were there, already changed and ready to take on Jeremy and his army of sunflowers.
Nobody said anything about Neil, and he thought his façade was working until he locked eyes with Andrew, who promptly raised an eyebrow at him.
He could fool anybody, except for Andrew. He’d always somehow find a way around his veneer.
Neil didn't reply to Andrew's silent question and instead went to change.
"Are you going to just stand there?" A sharp voice entered the locker room. Neil realized he'd been staring at the contents of his locker for longer than he'd thought. It must've been a perplexing view: Neil, fully-changed, zoning out in the empty room, instead of antagonizing Aaron on the court. It was uncharacteristic of him, to say the least.
"Sorry, Coach." His voice came out more strained than he intended it to. He started to move, but Wymack stopped him when he saw him hold onto the wall for balance.
"Neil, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Neil replied. Wymack glared at him, knowing about his 'fines' and 'okays'. "I've been standing for so long my legs went numb."
It was a stupid excuse, but it somehow did the trick. Neil hated lying to him, but really, he was fine. He'd feel better as soon as he got onto the court. Running drills with his Foxes always sent a surge of adrenaline through his veins. They made him feel so alive.
"Then get your ass on my court."
Neil stepped out to the court, the bright orange colors and lights insulting his vision even more. Before, he thought he could never get enough of the orange, but right now, enjoying it, even for a fraction, felt impossible.
The Foxes were already running laps, so Neil went ahead to join them. They ran five laps before Wymack called for a short break.
Neil could usually run ten laps before feeling the burn build up his calves, but now his legs were shaking and his stomach ached. He placed a hand to his abdomen and pressed in, trying to rid it. Nicky's ecstatic screams a couple feet away did nothing to help.
All the loud sounds were only getting worse as the practice dragged on.
The attack on his ears didn't stop during their scrimmage or when Kevin was yelling orders at him.
"Can you go any slower than that?" Kevin demanded, swinging his arms furiously to prove a point.
Neil gritted his teeth, trying to block out the yelling, pounding, and ringing, all at once.
It didn't work.
Andrew noticed and his eyes narrowed into slits. It was obvious he suspected something, but he didn't bring it up, so Neil didn't say anything either.
He was fine.
They went on like that until five. By then, Neil felt like he was going to fall apart right in the middle of the court, his body feeling more like a sack of potatoes, ready to fall and spill its contents all over the floor.
I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, the words echoed in his mind, but didn't work.
Stupid body, Neil thought. And then, Andrew would beg to differ.
His lungs were on fire, his joints were burning, he felt like he couldn't move—like his feet refused to carry his weight anymore. And suddenly, he understood Andrew's fear. Andrew wasn't afraid of heights—he was afraid of falling.
Neil was gasping for air, drained of energy and his hands on his knees. The only thing he could hear was his rapid heartbeat loud in his ears, everything else was indescribable like he was underwater and looking up through the surface.
During the match, Neil pushed all his thoughts away—he zeroed in on the ball, ignoring every outcry his body sent out. It was only Exy, Exy, Exy, and winning.
He ran for his life, scored like he'd never tried before. It was a tie, the scoreboard reading eight-eight. At the last five seconds, Neil swung his racquet as hard as he could—
The goal lit up red and the crowd went wild. Nine to eight.
The Foxes won. They beat the Trojans.
Neil turned, taking off his helmet and holding it under his arms. Face dripping with sweat, he flashed Andrew a wide smile all the way down the court.
Andrew’s performance surprised him—he was once again shocked at how much talent there was. It was the first time since last year’s final that Neil saw Andrew actually show effort, or slight interest, in something other than Neil. In exy, no less.
Suddenly, Neil felt a wave of heat flow through him and his smile fell.
Andrew knew what was wrong before it hit.
Neil’s world tilted a bit sideways, and then he was falling. His hands let go of his racquet and helmet, both clattering to the ground. The black spots in his vision took over everything and then he was weightless.
Neil opened his eyes and promptly closed them back again. He squinted, trying to get used to the blinding light. He tried getting up and failed miserably.
There was something wet on his forehead. Abby was next to him, lips pursed disapprovingly. She was holding a cold washcloth to his forehead.
The Foxes were scattered in a circle around him, worry evident in all their features.
Neil tried to lift himself up on his elbows. He turned to Abby. "Did we win? We won right? What's the score?" His voice was cracked and raspy.
"Neil," Abby's voice was stern, ignoring his question, "you went on the court, and played, with a one hundred and two-degree fever."
"Are you stupid?" Kevin scolded him.
"I'm sorry," Neil said quietly and spat out his favorite line, "I'm fine."
Kevin gave him an icy glare.
Someone grabbed Neil by the collar and lifted him up to rest his back against the hard wall. He saw Andrew at his level with disguised worry in his eyes that only Neil could see.
"I'm going to kill you."
Neil's eyes drifted to Andrew’s face. He didn't look worried, his usual mask of apathy still in place, but Neil could see the tension in his shoulders. "I'm sor—"
"If you finish that I'll make sure you never play Exy again," Andrew threatened, tone deadly serious, his eyes raging not with anger — but with concern.
Neil was quiet, then remembered, "But we won, didn't we?"
Dan placed a hand to her forehead, shaking her head like she couldn't believe him, and Matt chuckled.
"Exy fanatic," Aaron mumbled. He didn't look particularly worried about Neil's health. Aaron never cared about Neil.
"I don't care about the fucking game," Andrew’s tone left no room for argument. "Why the fuck did you go out on the court when you are sick."
"I'm not sick," Neil said. He wasn't sick.
"No," he insisted. "I'm not sick. I'm fin—"
Andrew dug his finger into Neil's cheek, getting impatient with his answers. "You have a one hundred and two-degree fever. Do not lie to me."
Neil shook his head, persistent. "I'm not sick. I want to play."
"Admit it. You are sick," Andrew growled, hands clenching tighter. "And you are not playing until Abby clears you."
He turned his head away so he didn't cough in his face. He realized belatedly that only proved Andrew's point further.
Andrew ordered, "Explain." His main focus was Neil. All Neil.
"I..." he gestured weakly with his hand, struggling to grasp the words and make up an excuse, "wanted to play."
"Bullshit!" Kevin yelled in fast French, face turning full of fury. "You passed out! Your health could've gotten worse! Don’t you realize how long you’d be out of the game then?!"
"Kevin," Neil said quietly, in English, almost a whisper. His ears were ringing again. "Don't yell, you asshole."
Neil's voice was so small and weak that Kevin just stared at him, mouth open, while Andrew shot daggers at him.
Andrew turned his attention back to Neil and shook him gently — well, as gently as he got. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Even Neil himself didn't know the answer to that question. After a few moments of racking his brain for an answer, he said, "I thought I was okay."
"You have to trust us, Neil," Renee said from where she was sitting on the bench
"We're family," Nicky added, a dry smile on his face.
"They're both right," Matt said, "don't even try with your 'I'm fine' bullshit because no one’s buying it anymore.”
"How nice, Matt," Neil muttered, but there was a slight curve to his lips.
"Nobody wants you passing out again." It was simple. Just like that. But it made Neil feel so many emotions at once.
Emotions that crawled up all the way to his heart and settled there. It was such an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling that Neil forgot to breathe for a second.
He stared hopelessly at Andrew, who let out a deep sigh. "I thought I was the one who's shit at talking."
Neil shivered. It was only a slight shudder, but Andrew noticed. "What the fuck is the problem now?"
"Cold," Neil muttered, teeth grinding against each other. "So cold."
"Why's he cold?" Nicky asked Abby, looking slightly confused.
"A fever, or rise in body temperature, of even just a degree or two can stop a virus's ability to spread. As the temperature inside the body rises, heat flows out of it faster so in turn, the body works to generate heat to warm itself further by contracting and relaxing muscles — hence the shivering," Abby explained. Nicky stared at her, still processing the facts she just threw at him.
"Right," Abby continued, "if anyone sees Neil holding a racquet, or even on the inside court while he's still sick, you have the right to bench him forever."
"That's not fair," Neil whined. Andrew popped the back of his head. More carefully than usual, though.
Allison smiled, immediately placing a bet. "He's like a mini Kevin. I bet Neil's only going to last three days."
Kevin looked unimpressed.
"He is a mini Kevin," Aaron corrected. "He can barely keep his hands off his racquet."
Nicky burst out laughing. "I bet he'll last two days."
Neil groaned. "Are you all seriously placing bets on me?"
Matt grinned at him. "Of course we are."
"Oh!" Nicky jumped up in excitement. "I bet Kevin's going to be the one who benches him."
"That is not funny," Kevin said nonchalantly, looking even more unimpressed.
"Hey Andrew," Abby called. She gave him a small bottle filled with pills. "Give one of these to Neil once a day."
Andrew nodded before asking Neil, “Can you walk?” Neil tried to get up, only falling in the process. Andrew caught him, rolling his eyes at Neil’s stubbornness before saying, “Stand up. Don’t worry about falling.”
Neil compiled again. And this time, Andrew’s hand was tightly wrapped around Neil’s waist, allowing Neil to put most of his weight on him. Neil was shivering and clumsy, making it harder for him to walk, but Andrew was strong enough that Neil didn’t need to worry. Nicky made a sound in the back of his throat but was smart enough not to mention it.
“Nicky, get me my bag and Neil’s from our lockers,” Andrew said. Nicky immediately ran off the court to get what Andrew needed.
Nicky came back, panting, and carrying two duffel bags. He gave them to Andrew, who hung Neil’s duffle on his shoulder and opened his bag, pulling out a thick, orange piece of clothing. He dumped it on Neil. Neil, confused, pulled the soft fabric from off his head, staring at it from his hands.
Andrew zipped up his bag before telling Neil, "Wear it.”
As he pulled it on, Andrew kept him steady with a hand around his waist and one behind his back, anchoring him to the ground. Neil suddenly felt so much warmer when he wore it. It smelt like Andrew; like home and cigarettes and soap. He loved it.
“Okay?” Andrew asked, and when Neil nodded, he began walking them out with their backs facing the team.
"I'll take care of mysel—"
Andrew interrupted him. "No. I will take care of you. I don't trust you to take care of yourself."
Neil didn’t bother saying anything, because he kind of liked the thought of cuddling with Andrew. They were going back to the car, Neil assumed.
They were half-way off the court when Dan shouted, “Don’t come to practice ‘till you’re better!”
Neil glanced back, scowling but a small smile was threatening to form on his lips. Nicky waved goodbye at Neil, grinning and Neil waved back.
And then Nicky’s mouth was opened in the shape of an O, an inaudible gasp. Kevin's eyes looked like they were going to roll off, Matt was gaping at Neil, Dan and Renee smiling, Aaron looked disgusted, and Allison looked smug.
Neil didn’t get it until he really did.
He was wearing Andrew’s Exy hoodie.
One hundred and thirty-four.
That was how many reasons Andrew had to kill Neil and the number was only rising.
It was peaceful in the car. Andrew kept looking at Neil, observing, watching, making sure he was as okay as he could be in this state.
"Why won't you admit you're sick?" he asked.
Neil was quiet for a moment. Andrew glanced back briefly, waiting for an answer. Then he said, "I.. I get unfocused, you know? My mother always told me to suck it up and tell myself that I was fine. My problems would only cause trouble for us. We couldn’t afford to be sick, it’d lead to worse casualties than just our well-being."
"Your mother is dead," Andrew commented, eyes still on the road.
Why did Neil care so much about his dead mother's advice? Andrew thought it was pointless, very pointless — and he was going to tell Neil that, but Neil looked so vulnerable at that moment, curled up in the passenger seat, sunlight catching on a few stray strands of his hair, turning it melted copper. Andrew couldn't say anything to ruin the quiet moment.
"Old habits die hard, I guess," Neil replied after a while. He looked like he was deep in thought. "And, well, if someone tries to hurt me or you — or the Foxes — I wouldn't have the strength to fight back. I'd be useless."
Andrew clenched the steering wheel. "Don't say stupid things."
One hundred and thirty-five.
Neil didn't say anything more. A few minutes had passed and Andrew looked over to find him asleep again, relaxed and taking in small breaths, fisting Andrew’s hoodie and basically trying to sink in it. So Andrew avoided every pothole and bump in the road, in hopes of not waking him up.
They’d arrived a few moments ago, but Andrew hadn’t moved from his spot. He killed the engine, taking out the keys before turning to face Neil. He was still asleep, and Andrew didn’t want to wake him, now that he was finally getting some rest.
Since there was no one to witness it anyway, he went for the second-best solution.
He first grabbed both of their bags before going around the hood and opening the passenger door. He picked Neil up by the back of his knees and shoulders. He slammed the door shut with his foot and pressed onto the button in his hand to lock the car.
Neil didn’t wake up, only snuggling closer to Andrew’s chest, arms wrapped around his probably still aching stomach. He was sideways in Andrew’s arms, kind of resembling a little ball, and Andrew had to grit his teeth to stop his traitorous heart from possibly exploding from the emotion he certainly wasn’t feeling. He was not.
It didn’t work though. If he was honest with himself, it never did.
Once they got inside their dorm, Andrew gently placed Neil on his bed before dumping their belongings to the floor beside the bed. Andrew sat beside him, letting his eyes wander over Neil’s visibly exhausted form. He was shivering again, eyes closed, eyebrows furrowed, nose pink.
He immediately suppressed the disgusting thought and got to more helpful tasks at hand.
He let himself say, in a rare show of affection, "Nobody will hurt you. I will not let them."
I will. Not. Let them . Neil belonged to him, he belonged to Neil. Andrew would never let anyone take or hurt the one person that made life slightly more interesting.
"Thank you," Neil whispered to him, his voice was shaky and filled with gratefulness.
Andrew bit down on the emotions coming from his heart. Neil opened his eyes and looked at him blearily; looked at him like he had hung the moon. Nobody had looked at Andrew like that, like he was worth something. It caused too many emotions to flare up at once. Andrew only replied by turning around because he could not handle the amount of trust in that gaze.
"Don't leave," Neil mumbled weakly, voice scratchy like nails on a chalkboard.
He went to the kitchen to brew Neil some tea. Green tea, that should do something for the fever and dry throat.
"Drink this," Andrew said a bit later, handing Neil the cup.
He stared at it, but didn't say anything. Andrew sighed and helped him drink it.
Neil made a face at the taste of the hot liquid and gagged. "This tastes horrible."
"Drink it or stay sick."
Once he was done, Andrew placed the cup on the bedside table. He took the repulsively colorful blanket-monstrosity Nicky had bought from Neil’s bed and tucked him in.
Neil tugged softly on Andrew's arm. "Sleep with me."
Andrew rolled his eyes. "I was planning to do that anyway."
Neil turned to face Andrew as he nestled comfortably onto the bed beside him.
"Is it okay if anyone sees us like this?" Neil asked. There was no privacy at all when it came to college athletes.
As if Andrew cared.
"Let them. It doesn’t matter," Andrew replied.
Neil scooted closer to Andrew, looking unsure if it was okay or not. Andrew wrapped his arms around Neil's back and pulled him closer. Closer, closer, closer until Neil was resting his head on Andrew's chest and his chin was on Neil's head.
Neil nuzzled into his chest, purring softly. He was like a giant tabby, only more of a loudmouth. And more stupid. He tangled his legs with Neil's and finally let his muscles relax. Neil was safe. Neil was with him and he was okay. Neil was in his arms, right where he wanted him.
"Thank you," Neil whispered.
"Don't try to do this again," Andrew warned. "I don't want to have the trouble of dealing with you."
I don't want to worry. You taunt life enough as it is.
He could feel Neil's thin smile as if he knew what he was thinking. "Okay."
One hundred and thirty-six .
"I hate you."
Neil only hummed softly.
Thinking Neil’s fallen back into slumber asleep, Andrew pressed his lips to his forehead, giving him a small kiss. Neil let out a happy sigh, a sound Andrew treasured and brought his arms to hug Andrew's waist.
"This okay?" He asked sleepily.
"Yes," Andrew answered.
Neil looked up at his face. He pulled himself up and pecked him on the lips.
"If you get me sick I'll kill you."
Neil smiled and rested his head again. "You're amazing," he told Andrew. "Especially while blocking the goal."
Stupid sports junkie.
Neil was so addicting that it was dangerous. For the both of them.
And quietly, Andrew whispered, "One hundred and thirty-seven."