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Andrew is getting coffee at his friendly neighborhood Starbucks when he unexpectedly sees the guy he’s been obsessively jerking off to for the last couple of weeks. This isn’t one of this ‘hey could that be…’ situations. There is no mistaking this guy for anyone else. Auburn hair, hypnotic blue eyes, and a lean build. There is no way this is anyone but EverythingButt10.

He grabs a seat across the seating area with a direct view of the guy and pulls out his phone, flipping to the Grindr app. He looks at the last message the guy had sent—a picture of his hand on his abdomen, streaked with cum. The end of a very successful sexting session. Andrew looks from that photo to the real thing, 10 feet away with his nose buried in a Portugese language book. He thinks for a few seconds and then types out a message: I’m thinking about holding you down by your wrists. I bet I can wrap my fingers all the way around them.

Over at his table, the guy pays no attention at all to the phone sitting next to him. It doesn’t buzz or light up; he doesn’t act like he’s gotten a notification. Andrew’s phone, on the other hand, does buzz. He has a response from EverythingButt10: what would u do with me while I was at ur mercy?

At the table across the room, the phone stays in its position. The guy definitely isn’t texting Andrew jerk-off material. Red flags raise in a cascading wave in his mind. Maybe it really isn’t the same guy. Andrew taps into his profile and studies the pictures of him. There’s a candid of him leaning against a balcony somewhere, the wind tugging at his hair. There are a couple of—not selfies, not exactly, but photos someone close has taken with his obvious knowledge. And then there’s the one Andrew had thought was just the right side of a tease: the guy, clearly on the campus track, in tiny shorts with his shirt pulled halfway up his chest so he can use it as a towel for his face. His body is half turned, but you can see the outlines of his abs. The running shorts are tight and the angle on his ass is, well, it’s very, very good. He looks back up at the guy at the table and yes, that is definitely the same person. Unless he has a twin, which Andrew well knows is not totally out of the realm of possibility.

There’s very little Andrew likes less than being tricked, but not knowing things does make the cut. He stands, throws his messenger bag over his shoulder, grabs his coffee, and stomps over to slide into the chair across from the guy. He looks up at Andrew with a flash of calculated flight or fight in his eyes, but he quickly smooths this over and affixes a look of polite interest on his face. “Can I help you?”

“Are you on Grindr?” Andrew asks. Bluntly.

“Uh,” the guy says, looking more confused. “I don’t know. What is it?”

“It’s a hookup app gay men use.”

“Oh,” he says, frowning. “No, I’m definitely not on that.”

“Because you don’t do gay men?”

The guy shrugs. “Because I don’t do hookups.”

Andrew wakes his phone up and shows the screen to the guy across the table. “Is this you?”

The flight or fight appears on the guy’s face again. “Um,” he says. “Yes. But I didn’t….”

“Catfishing,” Andrew says.

The guy just looks even more lost.

“Someone is using pictures of you to lure men for sex.”

“But...why?” the guy asks. “What could possibly be the benefit of that?”

“You’re hot,” Andrew says, shrugging. “Maybe they aren’t.”

“Sorry. Wait,” the guy says. “I’m Neil. Who are you?”

“Andrew.”

“Okay, Andrew,” Neil says. “So they use pictures of me—” he shudders—”and then what? The other guy would have to be really drunk or unobservant to realize it wasn’t me when they met up.”

“You’re too shy to meet right now. You want to keep everything on text or phone.”

Neil blinks at him.

“It’s what they told me,” Andrew says, waving his phone again. He’d been fine with it, honestly. He hadn’t been able to swipe right on Neil’s profile fast enough. He is undeniably gorgeous. Andrew hadn’t even bothered reading any of the bio first. He’s not great face-to-face with new people either, though, so the reticence had actually been in the pro column. Neil—well, not Neil—claiming that he hadn’t done much yet and was looking for someone he could trust for the first times had been...appealing. His willingness to cede control had been attractive. Andrew had been attracted. And now he’s looking at the object of all of those fantasies and realizing how off so much of it had been, compared to the real thing. For one thing, there’s nothing shy about Neil. Wary, yes. Wilting, no. He’s sharp. Andrew can practically see the gears turning quickly and smoothly in Neil’s head. There’s a spark of something else there, too. A stubborn defiance he thinks he recognizes as an echo of his own. His response to someone sitting across from him—that brief flash of mingled panic and strategy—that was interesting, too.

“What else did they say?” Neil asks. He makes a demonstrative but aborted reach for Andrew’s phone. “Can I see?”

Andrew hesitates. The problem here is that he’s exchanged dozens of messages with fake-Neil over the last couple of weeks. About 93% of them are sexually explicit. Sitting across from the real person and watching him read about the things Andrew has fantasized about doing to him will be odd. Odd is maybe an understatement. But it could be interesting. And what the fuck does he care, actually? He hands the phone over.

Across from him, Neil scrolls back through a couple of pages and then seems to change his mind, scrolling all the way to the top and starting there. He makes an indignant noise after only a couple of swipes with his thumb.

Deflower?” he asks, clearly not expecting a response.

Andrew leans back in his chair as Neil gets into the meat of the sexting, watching closely for his reactions. Neil’s ears turn a little pink. He swallows hard a couple of times. Andrew is pretty sure he sees Neil start to look at him at least once, but he seems to rein in the impulse before they can make any kind of eye contact. After a few minutes, he clears his throat and hands the phone back to Andrew.

“Could this be about me?” Neil asks. “Could someone be doing this to me instead of as me?”

Andrew considers. It actually is a little odd how many pictures there are of Neil, how very clearly his face had been rendered in all of them. It would be incredibly hard to pick Andrew out of a lineup based on his Grindr profile. But not Neil. He’s impossible to miss if you see him in person. “Yes. If he’s prolific enough, it might be about raising your profile on campus. Are all of the pictures actually of you?”

“No,” Neil says, shaking his head. “The ones in the profile are, obviously, but none of the naked ones. Anyone who really knew me would know that.”

Andrew raises an eyebrow.

“Scars,” Neil says. “I have a lot of scars. There is a zero percent chance I would take and send nudes.”

That unfortunately crosses one easy answer off the list. If Neil had sent those photos to someone they—no, not they—Neil could start there for the source of this. Still, it makes Andrew feel a little better about his part in the situation. If he’d been shown nudes of Neil without his actual consent, that would be very bad. That would be 50 minutes in an office on a couch bad.

“Look again,” Andrew says. “Do you recognize the dick? The hands?”

“No,” Neil says, without bothering to take the phone again.

Andrew raises his eyebrows. That sounded awfully certain. Either Neil is a dick aficionado or he has a memory as good as Andrew’s.

“I won’t recognize it because I won’t have seen it,” Neil explains. “He wasn’t lying about that part. I remain flowered.”

Andrew keeps his face completely blank. Neil’s flips from wary to speculative and then to neutral in the space of a blink.

“I’ll give you my number,” Neil says. “Can you let me know if he decides he wants to meet up or call you—maybe knowing his number would help?”

Andrew hands his phone over again so that Neil can enter his contact information. The ironic thing is that he came into this shop wanting to fuck Neil and he’s leaving it still wanting to—and now with Neil’s actual phone number. It’s just that everything in between got completely turned upside down.

He still thinks he could wrap his fingers all the way around Neil’s wrists.

___

It doesn’t occur to him until after he’s home that he hadn’t asked the right question. That this is also a reason to text Neil is not the worst thing.

A: you want me to keep messaging with him?

He’s not sure what answer he wants to get. There’s a part of him that wants to stop because whoever is doing this is perpetrating a massive violation. There’s a much bigger part of him that wants to continue so that he can fuck with this guy as much as possible. He considers his range of motivations and finds, to his relief, that there’s no desire to keep doing it to sustain the fantasy. The guy in the pictures had been hollow, an abstract concept. All give. None of the spirit. No one who’d met Neil in real life would be satisfied with that version. And the messages aren’t even coming from him. They’re coming from some other sick fuck who needs to realize the error of his ways.

N: oh right
N: you don’t have to if you don’t want to
N: I didn’t think about that

A: I’ll do it
A: if I can have fun with it

Three pulsing dots appear, disappear, and then appear again. Finally, his phone buzzes.

N: okay
N: yeah
N: you’re doing me a favor

A: have you thought about who it could be

N: yes but I don’t know
N: the pictures are from friends social media
N: other than that I’m invisible

A: invisible?

N: blend in
N: don’t draw attention to myself

Andrew scoffs, then ignores the quizzical lift of Aaron’s head. If Neil thinks he blends in in crowds of shitty college sophomores with generic frat guy looks, he has to be delusional or genuinely the least observant person Andrew has ever met.

A: no

N: ??

A: you do not blend in

He gets no response from Neil, so he switches back to Grindr and considers the last message not-Neil sent. He types the first few words carefully, then commits and hits send:

FuckOff: can I be honest with you?

EverythingButt10: of course

FuckOff: I have this fantasy
FuckOff: but I know it’s weird
FuckOff: are you allergic to bees?

EverythingButt10: no
EverythingButt10: ??

FuckOff: good
FuckOff: we should fuck in a room full of bees

EverythingButt10: 🐝 🐝 🐝?

FuckOff: yeah
FuckOff: I want you to ride me
FuckOff: so I can watch when you get stung

For a minute he wonders if he’s pushed this guy too far. Probably not even a catfisher would play along with this bizarre of a fantasy.

He’s low-key smug when the message finally comes through.

EverythingButt10: okay I’m in
EverythingButt10: ur dick is worth bee stings

Andrew clenches a fist triumphantly.

FuckOff: you don’t think it would feel good?

Of course it wouldn’t fucking feel good. It’s a goddamn bee sting. He feels an intense surge of satisfaction when the response comes through.

EverythingButt10: ur right
EverythingButt10: where do you want me?

Andrew maybe has a little too much fun fleshing out this scenario with the imposter. By the end, he has not-Neil pretending to orgasm as he is stung simultaneously by half a dozen bees drawn to his moaning and the smell of sweat in the room. Andrew is comfortably flopped on his couch, snacking on the pile of Cheez-Its on his chest.

He pushes away the baffling temptation to show Neil.

___

Neil is suddenly everywhere.

Andrew spots him before both his 11:00am and 2:30pm classes on Tuesday, walking into buildings near Andrew’s. He looks out his dorm window and catches a glimpse of him jogging around campus. When he’s in the dining hall, scanning the crowd for Aaron and Nicky, he sees Neil in a far corner being affectionately manhandled by an enormous jock at a table populated by beautiful, laughing people.

He knows he doesn’t usually pay much attention to the assholes around him, but he has no idea how he managed to miss Neil. It’s like he has radar now. Like his eyes are newly trained to spot the bright auburn of Neil’s hair.

He never reaches out, though. He doesn’t want to be invasive. It’s only been a few days and he’s not really sure Neil wants the reminder just yet. And ultimately, they have nothing to talk about. They are not friends.

It becomes moot when he finds himself on Neil’s running route, sitting behind his dorm and smoking a cigarette out of sight of meddlers and complainers. The building backs up to one of the perimeter roads, so he supposes he shouldn’t be surprised when he sees Neil approaching with a handful of other runners.

Neil slows to a jog and stops in front of Andrew, waving the others on. A couple turn their heads and watch for a second, but they’re quickly moving out of sight.

“Hey,” Neil says. He barely looks out of breath, but Andrew offers him his mostly full water bottle anyway. He watches Neil drink and refuses to allow himself to look at his legs.

“How are you?” Neil says, a little awkwardly, once he’s finished off half the bottle.

“Do you care?” Andrew asks.

Instead of giving immediate and effusive assurances, like most people do, Neil tips his head to the side and looks at Andrew, considering. He comes to a conclusion and shrugs. “Yes.”

“I’m not running,” Andrew says. He waves his cigarette up and down from Neil’s feet to head. “So I’m doing better than you.”

Neil eyes the cigarette in his hand and the mostly empty pack at his side. “Can you?”

Can he. Andrew feels that little spark of interest flare back up. He deadpans, “Let’s hope we never have to find out.”

Neil smiles at him—a flash and then it’s gone—and bounces on his toes a couple of times. He looks down the road to check on his friends and seems pleased to find them out of sight. Because they’re running well or because he and Andrew are alone now?

“Are we still having a lot of sex?”

Andrew doesn’t choke on his inhale, but it’s a very near thing. He realizes what Neil means but that second’s delay is embarrassing. “Here,” he says, digging his phone out and opening up the message page. “See for yourself.”

Neil seems to hesitate, but he does take the phone and start scrolling. He raises very surprised eyebrows at Andrew after only a few seconds. “Bees?”

“You said I could have fun with it,” Andrew reminds him.

“Ah,” Neil says, looking like something suddenly makes sense to him. “That’s what you meant.”

Andrew stares. What else could have—oh. His chest buzzes with irritation. “I’m not going to keep jerking off to someone I know isn’t real and is probably actually a manipulative dick.”

Keep might have been the wrong word choice there. Or maybe the perfect one. He waits for Neil to react, but he just flushes slightly—probably in guilt, Andrew realizes after Neil starts talking.

“Sorry,” Neil says. “I don’t really know how all of this works.”

“I want to see how ridiculous and depraved he’s willing to get,” Andrew says, shrugging. “And it’s somewhat amusing. Coming up with the weirdest shit I can.”

Neil nods, handing the phone back. “I’ll let you know if I think of anything bizarre enough. But I should go catch up with the others.”

Andrew waves his cigarette hand dismissively. To his deep, deep surprise, Neil smiles at him before turning to go. This time, Andrew indulges himself and watches the lines of his body as he runs.

___

That night, Neil texts him a picture of someone in a full bee costume posing sexily. Andrew doesn’t do laughing out loud, but he does huff out enough of an approximation that Aaron’s head swivels to eye him suspiciously.

“What?” Aaron asks.

Andrew ignores him.

A: didn’t realize I hit so close to home

N: I think we’re all surprised

A: you’re not a bee
A: or maybe you are
A: how annoying are you?

N: depends who you ask

A: who should I ask?

N: my dorm mates
N: they usually say some baby forest animal
N: baby deer
N: but that’s not sexy

A: speak for yourself

N: we’re learning a lot about each other tonight

Andrew huffs again. Aaron stares again. Suspiciously. “Who are you texting?” he asks.

“No one.” Andrew pins him with a hard look intended as a helpful suggestion that Aaron mind his own business. Aaron bears the weight of it for a few seconds before ducking his head back to his textbook.

A: not a baby deer
A: maybe a rabbit

N: why a rabbit?

A: everyone thinks they’re cute
A: but they bite the shit out of you and run off

N: I can’t decide if you and and my friend Allison would get along or not

A: let’s never find out

Allison. One of the objectively very attractive women at that table with him in the cafeteria? Is she the girlfriend? Andrew struggles to picture Neil with a girlfriend. Stop it, he tells himself. If Neil was interested he’d had the world’s widest opening back at that coffee shop.

N: what are you?

A: porcupine

N: also cute but will hurt you if you get too close?

A: I have a lot of knives

N: armbands?

Andrew stares at his phone. Most people, he’s pretty sure, assume that he wears them in some lame attempt to seem tough. His deadpan answer about it helping people tell him apart from Aaron fools only the dumbest. The truth is more complicated and more personal and no one’s fucking business, but he’s surprised that Neil would have spotted them as potential sheaths. He should have known. Neil seems to be always fucking watching.

Frustrated with himself, he taps over to his Grindr app and sends a new message.

FuckOff: let’s say I had a kiddie pool full of m&ms

___

It pains Andrew to follow Aaron into the library. It’s a hellscape of hormones and whispering and, more often than not, weeping. Aaron had insisted he had to show up for some study group here, though—Andrew translates that easily to some girl he shouldn’t be talking to and follows instead of letting Aaron run off unsupervised.

He does allow it when Aaron peels off and takes a circuitous route through the tables. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to leave Andrew in the dark about what he’s doing, but the point isn’t that Andrew should have to watch him all the time. The point is that Aaron should hold up his end of their deal on his own. And if he doesn’t, then there are consequences. Embarrassing ones, if Aaron’s complaints from High School remain the same.

Instead, Andrew takes the elevator up to one of the areas that’s usually more deserted.

It doesn’t even really surprise him to see Neil there already, his head in his hand, staring resignedly at the book in front of him while his other hand fidgets with a pencil. His stupid hair is all lit up by the window behind him and he is very annoyingly chewing on his bottom lip. Andrew hesitates a moment too long—Neil must feel eyes on him because he looks up suddenly, eyes flirting quickly around the room before they land on Andrew. His shoulders soften and he half-smiles, which Andrew takes as the obvious invitation it is.

He slides into the chair across the table from Neil and drops his backpack heavily onto the floor.

Neil drops his head back to his hand and taps the pencil rapidly against the book he’s clearly not really reading.

“Sitting still must be incredibly difficult for you,” Andrew says drily.

“Kinda,” Neil admits. “Worse when it involves reading this.” He flips the book closed, leaving his index finger inside to mark his spot. It’s Moby Dick.

Andrew nods. “Overrated. You should get the audiobook.”

Neil blinks at him with what might be astonishment. “The audiobook,” he breathes.

“That’s a basic college hack,” Andrew says. “Don’t look at me like that.”

Neil just grins at him. He pushes the book aside and folds his hands together in front of him, leaning forward across the table. “How’s our sex life?”

He really needs to stop saying shit like that. Andrew resists the urge to throttle Neil and passes his phone over, opened to the messages.

Neil scans the screen quickly and then looks up, his nose wrinkling. “M&Ms? Wouldn’t that be incredibly gross?”

“Yes,” Andrew says impassively. “Why didn’t I think of that.”

Neil smiles at him again.

“Stop bothering me,” Andrew says. “I need to study.”

Instead of sputtering with the outrage of someone showing up at his table and then telling him to stop bothering them, Neil hands the phone back. He shoves Moby Dick away probably a bit too emphatically and pulls out a Statistics textbook.

They’re still sitting there, working in comfortable silence, when Aaron steps off the elevator and into Andrew’s peripheral vision. Andrew quickly and efficiently shoves his books back into his bag and stands up. He waits until Neil blinks up at him to rap his knuckles on the table as a goodbye and go collect Aaron.

“Who was that?” Aaron asks, once he’s been herded into the elevator.

“No one,” Andrew says.

“Is this the same no one you’re texting all the time? Or a different no one?”

Andrew does not particularly care for Aaron’s bitchy tone.

“Which would you prefer?” he asks in his most pleasant voice. It’s not very convincing.

Aaron narrows his eyes. “He’d better stay no one.”

Andrew ignores him.

___

The next time he sees Neil, Andrew is leaning in a breezeway, his foot propped against a pillar for balance, reading about one of the special breeds of assholes featured on Reddit and staying out of the sun between classes. The athletics hoodie Neil has on is such an offensive orange that Andrew almost doesn’t see past it—he doesn’t register that it’s Neil until he’s right in front of him. The same enormous jock has an arm draped over Neil’s shoulders and seems to be talking enthusiastically at him. Boyfriend, then? Andrew remains skeptical. The hand on him might be a little proprietary, but Neil’s body language sends a different message.

He quirks an eyebrow at Neil when their eyes meet. Neil doesn’t stop walking, towed along in the wake of the still-talking guy who has probably a foot and a half on him; he does turn his head, though, and look back at Andrew until he’s out of sight.

Andrew feels something clench in his gut. Stop it, he tells himself again. So some of Neil’s body language seems like an invitation. So some of his texts seem a little flirty. Andrew would need way more than a vibe to go there. When he ducks back to his phone, the Reddit thread doesn’t hold his interest. He taps over into his messages and sends one to Neil before he can overthink it.

A: you’re nailing the Ahab/Moby Dick size difference
A: I won’t make a harpoon joke
A: too cheap

He doesn’t get an answer until the last seconds before his class starts. He should be putting away his phone but he holds onto it instead, ignoring the clear signs of paper shuffling and throat clearing coming from the front of the room.

N: spoilers

A: Dumbledore lives
A: Tyler Durden isn’t a split personality
A: Jigsaw watched from a different room

That night, under the hot spray of his shower, he braces a hand against the wall and lets himself think about Neil for the first time since they met in that coffee shop. When he closes his eyes, he doesn’t see any of the Grindr pictures. Instead, he sees the unexpected warmth in Neil’s glacial blue eyes, the reddening of his bottom lip every time he bites it, the way he’d leaned across the table in the library. The water runs in rivulets over his face and into his gasping mouth. He jerks himself and doesn’t think about any of the filthiest possibilities—he thinks about getting Neil under him, fully clothed. He thinks about sliding his hands up Neil’s thighs until his fingers slip under the hems of his running shorts. He thinks about spreading his palms out on Neil’s ribs and mapping his chest. His whole body goes tight and his hand slips on the wall but he catches himself, coming hot across his knuckles as he pictures nothing more than kissing, Neil’s hands gentle in his hair, on his jaw, his mouth soft and pliant.

After, he props himself up against the wall and lets the water wash the evidence off his fingers. That was fucking ridiculous. He needs to rein himself in.

___

He tries very hard to avoid seeing Neil the next couple of days. He takes different routes than the ones that usually offer him a glimpse. He stays out of the library and the coffee shop.

So, of course, he spots Neil running down the sidewalk when he’s driving Kevin back to their dorms. Unconsciously, he slows—this must alert Kevin to something happening, because he looks up.

“Stop the car,” Kevin says, immediately after they pass Neil.

Reluctantly, Andrew eases to a stop and rolls down the passenger side window. Neil comes even with them and eyes them warily, then jogs over and ducks, his forearms braced on the bottom of the window so he can see into the car.

“Josten,” Kevin says. “What are you doing?”

Andrew is a little taken aback, both that Kevin apparently knows Neil, and by the near outrage in his voice. He keeps his face blank.

“Running,” Neil says evenly. “Hey, Andrew.”

Kevin looks at Andrew accusingly, then back to Neil. “Don’t you run enough already?”

“Don’t you talk enough already?”

Andrew snorts.

“You can’t just run,” Kevin argues. “You need other forms of dynamic exercise.”

“Like your intramural soccer team?” Neil asks.

“Yes,” Kevin bites out. “It would improve your agility. The two of you are so stubborn.”

Neil’s eyes lift to meet Andrew’s again. He smiles. Andrew feels his stupid heart skip a beat.

“You too?” Neil asks.

“We’d never lose with him the goal,” Kevin says irritably. “But we’d be the best if we had both of you. How do you even know each other?”

“Grindr,” Andrew says flatly. “Goodbye Neil.”

He sees the twitch of amusement on Neil’s face as he revs the engine slightly. Neil straightens, backing away from the car; Andrew peels off the curb and towards the dorm probably faster than he should. He can’t really be sure whether he’s fleeing or showing off.

“I didn’t know you knew Neil. How do you know him?” Kevin asks. Andrew thinks he might be pouting.

“I told you,” Andrew says. “How do you?”

“He’s on the track team,” Kevin huffs. “Riko and I were trying to recruit him last year. Sometimes they run relays around our Thursday night practices. He’s really fast.”

“And now Riko wouldn’t be there to steal your toys.”

Kevin flushes and redirects his attention to the side window. “I want to destroy him.”

After he turns this new information over in his head a few times, Andrew has an idea. One simple deal that would net him manifold benefits.

A: I have an offer for you

N: I’m listening

A: if you join Kevin’s team he’ll leave me alone

N: and?

A: and I’ll help you deal with the imposter

N: ominous

A: whatever it takes
A: remember the knives

N: meet me tomorrow? coffee? library?

A: coffee. same place. 1:30

N: okay

“Kevin,” Andrew calls. It takes a minute, but Kevin pries himself out of his bunk and pokes his head into their living room. “If I can get Neil to join your team, will you stop trying to talk me into it?”

He watches Kevin do the math in his head. He’s not sure why it’s so difficult—Andrew is never going to join, so Kevin gains nothing by keeping the right to bring it up constantly. Neil is probably also not going to join on his own. This is the only way he gets a win.

“Yes,” Kevin says. “If you drive me to practice.”

“Deal,” Andrew says. He turns his attention back to his phone, dismissing Kevin. If Neil joins Kevin’s team, he ends up more in Andrew’s orbit. He also gets backup with this weird catfishing situation. Andrew gets more of Neil and less of Kevin bitching. He also gets to beat the shit out of whatever asshole is pulling this scam. Not to mention, knowing Neil is a student athlete knocks the idiot even further away from his claim of invisibility. There are undoubtedly way more people who know who Neil is—and have an opinion on him—than Neil would ever realize. It’s a good deal. He needs someone to watch his back. It works for everyone.

If, that is, Neil agrees.

He’s feeling pretty fucking good about his choices, so he opens up Grindr and taps on not-Neil.

FuckOff: have you heard about camouflage body painting?
FuckOff: and how do you feel about public sex?

___

He doesn’t see Neil at first when he steps into the coffee shop. He’s quickly evolved the ability to have eyes on Neil within seconds, and this is not a giant room, and it is also already 1:35. Andrew feels a tiny spark of irritation that Neil might be later than he is, and then a big, broad dude shifts a little to the side and Andrew sees just a bit of red. Neil is frowning at the guy, his posture defensive, his eyes narrow. Andrew shoulders past a couple of people waiting in line and heads that way.

“This is fucked up,” the guy is saying. “You think you can just say that shit to me and then act like you don’t know who I am?”

“I don’t. But if I did, I can’t imagine how you think any of this would make you less repulsive,” Neil says. His voice is icy. There’s a dangerous edge to it that sends a little thrill down Andrew’s spine.

The guy reaches out and grabs a handful of Neil’s hoodie, jerking him closer. It looks more like he’s going to throw a punch than go in for a kiss; either way, Andrew doesn’t like it. He’s there seconds later, wrapping his fist in the guy’s jacket and yanking hard enough that he lets go of Neil’s hoodie and stumbles back, spinning in an attempt to find his footing.

“Don’t touch him,” Andrew warns.

The guy regains his balance and draws himself up to his full height, sneering down at Andrew. “Do you know what your boyfriend is doing behind your back? Do you know what a slut he is?”

Andrew knows his face is promising pain. He tells himself sternly not to pull a knife. Yet. “Fuck off. You got catfished. Go cry about it somewhere else.”

“Sure,” he scoffs. “Keep telling yourself that.”

Andrew watches to make sure he leaves, then turns to face Neil. Neil shifts his glare away from the retreating back and onto Andrew. “I can fight my own battles.”

“Good for you,” Andrew says. “Go get me a coffee.”

By the time Neil slides into the chair across from him and hands over a cold, blended sugary monstrosity, the murder has drained from his eyes.

“How many times?” Andrew asks.

“Just twice,” Neil says, shaking his head. “You and him.”

Andrew’s eyebrows go up.

“Sorry,” Neil says. “I just mean, being recognized. Only you and him.”

Andrew nods. He’s not sure if this latest development will make Neil more or less likely to agree to his deal.

“You sure you want to get involved in this?” Neil asks.

“Yes. Are you agreeing?”

“I don’t know,” Neil says. “This feels weirdly official.”

“I take deals very seriously,” Andrew says. “I always hold up my end. I expect you to hold up yours. And I’m not afraid of any of these pricks.”

“Okay,” Neil says. He sets his shoulders and lets out a breath. “So you’re offering me...what? Protection? Do you think I need protection?”

“I think you didn’t tell me you’re a college athlete,” Andrew says. “I think that makes it much more likely to be personal. I think that makes it bigger gossip or scandal if it becomes common knowledge. I think someone probably has an agenda.”

Neil watches him silently for a moment. Andrew meets his eyes steadily, tries not to wax rhapsodically to himself about the depths of their color, the copper flecks around his pupils.

“And what do you get out of this?” Neil asks, breaking the silence. “Making Kevin’s intramural sports dreams come true? I don’t even play soccer.”

“Not exactly,” Andrew says. He takes a long, loud sip of his coffee through the straw. “You join, he leaves me the fuck alone about it.”

The corner of Neil’s mouth lifts. “So you’d rather get in a fistfight for me than play soccer for him?”

“Yes,” Andrew says flatly. “One is much more fun than the other.”

Neil laughs quietly. “Is there a time limit on this or am I just supposed to be Kevin’s sports bitch forever?”

“One season,” Andrew says. “You play for one season even if I figure out who this asshole is before it ends.”

“And if you don’t?”

“One season,” Andrew says again, shrugging. “I’ll still hold up my end if you don’t play a second.”

Across from him, Neil drops his eyes to his coffee cup and turns it carefully with his hands. Andrew lets him think. He can tell there’s a part of Neil bristling at the suggestion he might need help. There’s something more considering in his expression too, though. More strategic.

“Okay,” Neil says, lifting his eyes. “Yes. I’m in. But I can’t promise I’ll be any good.”

Andrew feels incredibly pleased with himself. Kevin gets to appease his hard-on for Neil, in a manner of speaking. Neil gets someone to watch his back and help figure out who’s pulling this shit. Andrew gets peace and quiet, to beat the shit out of a guy using sex to victimize someone, and, of course, more insight into this inscrutable boy he can’t stop thinking about. Everybody wins.

“We should talk about your history,” Andrew says. “Anyone you might have pissed off. Or rejected.”

Neil shakes his head at him, looking blank. “The first list is endless. The second is nonexistent. Maybe you should come over. My suitemates probably pay more attention than I do.”

Andrew nods. He would not be surprised to find out that Neil ‘I’m invisible’ Josten notices less than 1/8th of people’s actual reactions to him. “Where do you live?”

“Brady,” Neil says. “We’re all usually home after 7 most nights. Except Fridays.”

“I’ll come tonight. Text me directions.”

Neil pulls out his phone, hesitates, grimaces, and then sighs. “They’re a lot,” he warns. “Not in a bad way. Just…a lot.”

___

Neil is not wrong. They are a lot.

The enormous jock answers when he knocks, flinging the door wide and beaming at Andrew. He just stands there, in the doorway, smiling, until Andrew figures out the jock is waiting for him to say something.

“Neil,” Andrew says.

The giant doesn’t move, but he does turn his head and call “Neil!” over his shoulder at a volume level that leaves Andrew’s eardrums thrumming.

He’s never seen someone look so friendly while being more or less a brick wall. He stares blankly at the guy’s still smiling face until Neil appears, ducking under his tree trunk of an arm easily and brightening when he sees Andrew.

“Hey,” Neil says. “Let him in, Matt. This is Andrew.”

“Nice to meet you,” Matt says. He extends a hand. He’s still smiling. He still hasn’t moved.

Andrew stares neutrally back at him. He does not take the hand.

“Matt,” Neil huffs. He’s probably half Matt’s weight, but the mountain moves easily when Neil elbows him out of the way. He shoves again when Matt remains halfway blocking the door, putting his back to the jock’s enormous chest and pushing, visibly exasperated, until Matt relents and Andrew can actually walk unobstructed through the door.

To his right is a kitchen bar with two stools. Past that is the living room. Hallways extend to either side. He knows this layout. Four bedrooms, four occupants. They’re two to a room in his building.

“So,” Neil says, releasing Matt so that he can shut the door behind them. “Where do you want to do this?”

“Do what?” Matt asks. He looks and acts like an overgrown puppy, but Andrew senses a deep wariness beneath the display of straight, white teeth.

“Someone is pretending to be me on some app,” Neil says. “Andrew’s going to try to help me figure out who and why.”

“Some app?”

“Grindr,” Andrew says flatly.

Matt’s smile gets impossibly wider. “Oh, wow. So, Andrew. What’s your cunning plan?”

Andrew shuts his irritation down as hard as he can. “Motive, I guess,” he says impassively. “Who he’s pissed off. Who he’s turned down.”

“Everyone,” Matt volunteers. “For both questions.”

Andrew raises an eyebrow at Neil, who lifts his hands helplessly.

“You shouldn’t really talk to Neil about this,” Matt says brightly. “He has no idea. Come join us in the living room. I’ll get you a drink. Beer?”

Andrew has never been more sure that he was being kept away from someone than he is at this moment. Neil seems amused, but Matt’s probably right about him being oblivious—he looks more like he thinks Matt is too eager to help than like he thinks Matt is keeping them apart and well supervised. Andrew isn’t sure if it’s protectiveness or possessiveness. Maybe both.

“This way,” Neil says, gesturing towards the perfectly visible living room. “Allison and Renee are already out here.”

Andrew stops between the kitchen and the living room, looking from the right hallway to the left and back again.

“I’m down there,” Neil says, pointing to the left. “If you want a tour.”

Matt appears suddenly, shoving a beer towards Andrew and folding a massive hand over Neil’s shoulder. He shuffles them both towards the couch cheerfully, making introductions as he goes. The blonde is Allison—who looks entirely too put together in a silk pajama set. Renee has pastel hair and her legs folded under her like some kind of zen master. She’s petite, pale gold skin, deep brown eyes. She smiles at him sweetly, her hand going up to toy with the cross around her neck.

Andrew is no more fooled by her than he is by Matt.

“Here,” Matt says, gesturing Andrew into the empty seat at one end of the sectional. “Guests get the best seat.”

The one next to him must be the second-best, then, because Matt drops into it. He’s not sure how they’d describe the one left over for Neil, but Andrew thinks as far away from him as possible is pretty accurate.

Despite himself, he is almost amused.

“So, our Neil,” Matt says, grinning at Andrew. “We love him, but he’s kind of dumb.”

“Hey,” Neil protests.

“Dense,” Allison says. “He’s dense.”

Neil looks more willing to accept that descriptor, but Renee pipes up in a soft, calm voice. “Recognizing that there is a wide range of possible feelings about him is not Neil’s best-honed skill.”

Oblivious idiot. Got it.

“So what’s this about Grindr?” Allison asks.

Andrew turns his head to catch Neil’s eyes. “You didn’t tell them.”

Neil shrugs.

“Tell us what?” Allison asks.

“Something about a gay fish,” Neil says.

He is being deliberately obtuse. Andrew narrows his eyes.

“Someone is catfishing as him on Grindr,” Andrew says flatly, his eyes still locked on Neil. “Someone on campus. It seems elaborate.”

Neil,” Allison says accusingly. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” Neil says. His eyes widen a little into an expression of such pure, untouched innocence that Andrew knows without a doubt that he’s full of shit. “You guys sometimes overreact.”

“They’re pretending to be into some very weird stuff,” Andrew says pointedly. “It’s probably personal.”

“Gotcha,” Matt says. “Thus, enemies and scorned lovers.”

Even from his rear mezzanine seat, Andrew can see Neil roll his eyes.

“Plentiful,” Allison declares. “Both categories.”

Neil says, “I don’t think—” but he’s cut off by Allison’s dismissive hand wave.

“He gets hit on all the time,” she says. “He never fucking notices. I pity the entire campus.”

“And enemies,” Matt says. “He has a mouth on him like you would not believe.”

Andrew’s eyes go involuntarily to Neil’s mouth. He’s gnawing on his lower lip again. Andrew glares, then turns to Renee, waiting for her more measured assessment.

She smiles again. “Neil doesn’t have much of a filter,” she admits. “And the people he usually confronts are probably the most likely to retaliate. As for the other thing, Allison was right. He’s just incredibly dense.”

“One of the cheerleaders tried to give him her number at my game a few weeks ago. He told her he didn’t need it because he had no reason to call her,” Matt says, beaming.

“Is that being an asshole or being dense?” Andrew asks.

Neil flushes. “I mean, I probably would have just said no thank you if I’d realized.”

“We can try to make a list,” Allison says skeptically. “But I’m not sure how helpful ‘hot waiter at Friday’s’ or ‘that poor girl who giggled non-stop while helping him pick running shoes’ is going to be.”

Renee pulls her chain out straight as far as it will go and runs the cross from one side to another. “We can probably think of a few who reacted badly. With enough coaching, Neil might have a few more. As for the people who may be pissed at him for other reasons….”

“The entire baseball team?” Allison volunteers.

“Every single Math TA?” Matt offers.

“A few weeks ago I told a guy I could only stand to spend five more minutes with him if I was under anesthesia,” Neil says. “Does that count?”

Andrew feels himself trip headfirst into something unfamiliar. There’s a weightlessness to it that he doesn’t trust. What goes up always comes down.

When he eventually leaves, Neil follows him, saying “I’ll walk you out” loudly before anyone can intervene and escort Andrew to the door.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Matt break into another wide smile. He has no excuse to follow and be a chaperone.

Instead of leaving, Andrew sits on the steps in front of Neil’s dorm and gets out his cigarettes. Neil drops next to him, a few inches away, and stretches his arms out, propping them up on his knees and crossing them at the wrists. The streetlights crown him with a bright, harsh halo.

“You weren’t wrong,” Andrew says, mumbling around the cigarette he’s trying to light.

“They’re a lot?”

Andrew nods. The lighter clicks on and he breathes in the fire of it until his lungs burn. “Are you with Matt?”

“Matt?” Neil asks. “Uh, romantically? No. He’s like an older brother. Or some Norman Rockwell version of a dad sometimes.”

Andrew isn’t nearly as convinced of that as Neil sounds, but he drops it. He straightens one leg out and smokes, refusing to give himself more of Neil than what he gets in his peripheral vision. He’s close to done with his first cigarette when Neil almost speaks, stops, almost speaks, and stops again. Andrew is world class at waiting people out, so he ignores the false starts, pulling his cigarette far enough away that he can look at it, flicking his thumb nail over the tip of his middle finger.

“All of that stuff,” Neil finally says. “That you said to not really me. Him. Do you actually want to do it?”

That Is the last fucking thing he would have expected to come out of Neil’s mouth. Andrew feels something that someone else might call panic spike inside of him. Could Neil have possibly phrased that question in a more torturously ambiguous way?

The low buzz of desire cranks up to a frenzied wail. His hands ache to reach out. His brain screams at him to get up and leave as fast as possible. Schooling his face into indifference, he examines the advancing embers of his cigarette and absolutely does not look at Neil. The urge to lean over and kiss him, to pull him close, swells. He thinks he might capsize under it.

He breathes through his nose until he thinks he can talk without sounding like Neil’s question has thrown him into a violent spiral in the space of seconds. When he’s confident enough, he grinds out the cigarette beside his foot and says, evenly, “Probably not the stuff with the bees.”

Neil pauses, then laughs, a little awkwardly. “Yeah,” he says, bracing his hands on his thighs for leverage to stand. “That’s probably smart.”

Fuck. Fuck. The screaming in his head alternates—loudly—between he is hitting on you, you can have this and you need to get the fuck out of here right now, you cannot handle this.

The decision is made for him. Neil steps back and up onto the landing.

“I’ll text you that list,” Neil says. “And protect you from the group chat.”

Andrew keeps his eyes trained on the ground beyond his shoes. He’s not sure what he’ll do if he looks at Neil right now. He nods jerkily, then pushes up onto his feet. “Good,” he says. “Later.”

___

Andrew spends the night staring at his ceiling and overthinking to the soundtrack of Kevin’s gentle snores, trying to sort out what he wants and why Neil’s question threw him for such a loop.

Everything he knows about Neil tells him that Neil never does what he did that night. Neil, who has basically no radar for subtle flirting, who seems to view most people as obstacles or hazards, who is paranoid and uncomfortable when someone actually notices him, who has to be obnoxiously pushed until he even realizes there’s a need for a rejection. That’s the guy who put himself out there for Andrew. That’s the guy he walked away from. Andrew is not an idiot. He knows he will never get that opening again.

That’s not to say he has regrets, exactly. He was too surprised by it. He wasn’t in the right headspace to do anything, not even just kiss a boy on the steps. He really fucking does want to, though. He’s just not sure how. Totally physical and temporary? That’s what he has always stuck with. The Neil-urges in his head don’t look like that, though. He wants to lock them together inside of one of their bedrooms and lay him out and spend hours memorizing every inch of him.

This is not something Andrew usually wants. Neither is studying with someone at the library. Neither is sending dozens of texts a day to the same guy. Rein it in, he tells himself again. Don’t get attached.

He gives up on sleep around four a.m. and reaches for his phone. The last text in their message thread is Andrew saying he was heading over to Neil’s place. He doesn’t know what to say now to get them back into the normal rhythm of their now near-constant texting without awkwardness. Is that what he wants? Consistent non-sexual contact?

To stall, he finds Allison’s incredibly popular social media accounts and scrolls through them. Neil has no online presence of his own, but he frequently appears in Allison’s posts. She’s good at showing him off, Andrew has to admit. At least half of the hundreds of people in her comment sections seem to keysmash declarations of love for Neil anytime he pops up.

Andrew watches the entirety of a video in which Allison expertly applies eye makeup to Neil, who sits patiently and hands her things as she asks for them like she’s a surgeon on a medical drama. At the end, Neil obediently looks straight at the camera. His eyes glow against the eyeliner and mascara, the shadow doing something to the blue of his eyes that makes the color almost impossible. He looks amused and indulgent and so fucking gorgeous that Andrew has to hold his breath to deal with it. He scrolls through the comments and finds himself in helpless agreement:

I would literally die for him

someone tell me where this man lives so I can go lloyd dobler his ass

this is great but I need more post-running pics so I can imagine myself licking all of the sweat off his body

why is he not my boyfriend????

There is no hesitation this time when he opens his messages with Neil and sends one word.

A: yes

___

Neil rarely texts before noon on Thursdays, so Andrew doesn’t panic when he wakes up late for his 10:30 class and doesn’t have a response. He’s aware that his own message had been about as torturously ambiguous as Neil’s question the night before, so he doubles down on not panicking. Not that he would panic. Mild interest, maybe.

Still, he positions himself in his now usual spot in the breezeway after class and waits for Matt and Neil to wander by. He spots Matt’s height and breadth and obnoxious orange t-shirt first; Neil is staring at his phone and chewing on his bottom lip. Probably, Andrew realizes, figuring out what to say in response to that.

Fuck texting.

He reaches out and snags Neil’s sleeve when he comes within arm’s length, quickly pulling him past the current of aggrieved-looking people between them and to his side. It takes all of three seconds for Matt to notice he’s gone and look around for him, a quick spike of worry on his face. As a very generous gesture, Andrew waits until their eyes lock and gives Matt a two-finger salute, then turns on his heel and tugs Neil back through the crowd. They’re moving against the flow of traffic but Andrew refuses to give an inch, battering his way through with his body and keeping Neil close behind him in the wake. He finds a reasonably secluded nook and pulls Neil into it, turning once they round the corner so that his back is to anyone who might wander in.

He really looks at Neil for the first time and sees that he’s watching Andrew with open curiosity.

“Hi?” Neil says.

Andrew ignores that and backs Neil against the wall, leaving a little space between their bodies. He slides one hand onto Neil’s face, palm against his cheek, fingers sliding into his hair.

“Can I?” he asks, very quietly, into the scant inches between their mouths.

Neil breathes a “yes” and Andrew kisses him before the ‘s’ can trail off. It’s incendiary. Something molten washes down the inside of his chest and burns hotter when he swallows Neil’s first tiny gasp.

Neil’s hands lift and then drop again. Andrew doesn’t want him thinking about anything other than his mouth, so he stops long enough to wrap his fingers around Neil’s wrists—the tips do touch—and pull them over his shoulders.

When he goes back, Neil is already there to meet him, his bottom lip slick, his body arching off the wall enough to press against Andrew’s.

Andrew takes the opening and wraps his arms around Neil’s waist, greedily holding him close and imagining he can feel the matching hammering of Neil’s heart against his chest.

He’d picked this moment for a reason; they only have a few minutes until they’ll both need to rush to class. He’s grateful for it now, that enforced time limit. He could too easily lose hours like this.

When he forces himself to pull back and give up Neil’s mouth, conscious of the passing time, Neil looks blown apart. His lips are red, his pupils wide, color high on his cheeks.

Andrew feels a powerful rush of satisfaction.

“Class,” he says, tracing fingertips along the curve of Neil’s bottom lip, the edge of his jaw. “You’re going to be late.”

Reluctantly, Neil drops his arms from Andrew’s shoulders and checks his watch, grimacing.

“Go,” Andrew says, stepping back. “Let’s see how fast you really are.”

___

Andrew lays flat on his back in the grass while Kevin invests himself in his two newest projects: teaching Neil soccer drills and trying to get him to yield before Kevin’s captaincy.

Andrew thinks the first would be going a lot better if he’d drop the second.

Unless, of course, it’s just coincidence that Neil gets a lot worse at the drills when Kevin starts in with his cutting criticism.

Most of the time, when Kevin’s worked himself into a real lather, the ball somehow finds its way to Andrew, bouncing a little when it hits his side. It keeps happening no matter which direction Kevin is trying to get Neil to kick the ball.

Andrew lazily throws it back every time. The couple of times Kevin starts sounding like he’s going to try to recruit Andrew to man the goal, Neil shuts it down and reminds him that he’s only here if Kevin leaves Andrew alone.

Andrew can’t wait to get his hands on him again.

“Fine,” Kevin says after an hour or so, when the sunset is rapidly giving way to the night. “That’s enough for today.”

Andrew grinds out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and heaves himself to his feet.

Kevin says, “I just need to put up this equipment.”

“Fun,” Andrew says. He tugs on the end of Neil’s sleeve and starts towards the parking lot. “See you later.”

“Later?” Kevin blinks. “You’re my ride.”

“Ah,” Andrew corrects, waving a finger at him. “I agreed to drive you to practice.”

Kevin stares until he gets it. He deflates. “Asshole.”

Andrew puts him in the rearview as soon as he has Neil buckled into the car next to him. The drive to Neil’s dorm is only a few minutes, but Andrew swings into the lot and parks instead of pulling up in front of the entrance.

He leaves the air conditioning on, engages the parking brake, and slides his seat back as far as it’ll go. Neil watches quietly until Andrew reaches for him, tugs at his shirt, says, “Come here.”

Neil climbs over the console easily and is settling into Andrew’s lap in seconds, straddling him with his hands braced against the back of Andrew’s seat. Andrew runs his hands up Neil’s thighs, smooths them over Neil’s hips, up his chest, stopping when he can wrap a hand around the back of Neil’s neck and pull him into a kiss.

It knocks him off his feet again. He doesn’t think there’s going to be any reining this in.

___

He knows he’s supposed to be doing something about this catfishing situation. It had pissed him off before on principle but he’s furious about it now, about some asshole out there not only pretending to be Neil, not only making however many men on this campus think they know what having him would be like, but also getting it so fucking wrong. There is an edge to Neil that makes Andrew’s head spin. There’s nothing timid or trembling about him. He’s not naive and needy and easy to throw around. He’s light enough to manhandle, but only if he lets you—Andrew can feel the strength in every inch of him, steel that forms itself perfectly to Andrew’s body.

He definitely doesn’t beg for cock.

Andrew knows he needs to get back to not-Neil on Grindr, but he’s spent the last three days pushing the real Neil against walls and cars and beds and kissing him senseless every chance he gets. He hasn’t had the heart to go deal with the reality of that asshole in the aftermath of Neil’s mouth.

It makes him twitchy, though—wondering if any of the guys whose eyes linger on Neil around campus believe they can have him, that they already have him. He spends a lot of time making murder eyes at people who seem a little too interested. Neil, of course, remains oblivious. He seems to think the promise of homicide on Andrew’s face is endearing.

Andrew rolls off of Neil and onto his back, breathing heavily at the ceiling. Neil has to leave for track practice in fifteen minutes. Andrew will probably need all of that time if he wants to exit this room with any sort of dignity intact.

“Phone,” he orders when Neil climbs out of bed to get ready.

Neil tosses it at him, amused, and turns his back to Andrew so he can change his shirt.

There are scars on him, Andrew knows. He’s felt them, but he hasn’t seen them yet. It will probably be soon; he can’t imagine they’re going to stay fully fucking clothed forever.

He unlocks his phone and sees, with some surprise, that he has a message from not-Neil: I miss u.

He feels a sudden wave of rage.

“Neil,” he says. “I want to send him a picture.”

“Hmm?” Neil asks.

“The imposter,” Andrew says. “Of us.”

Neil turns back to face him, tugging his shirt down over his stomach. “Why?”

Andrew shrugs. “It’ll make him angry.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“People make mistakes when they’re angry.”

Neil considers this, the gears turning, then arrives at a decision with that characteristic finality Andrew likes so much about him. He’s an instigator at heart, and this is Andrew starting shit. “Okay.”

He tugs Neil back down onto the bed when he gets close enough, rolling them until they're face to face. He takes a minute to appreciate Neil’s still fucked-up hair, the warmth of him pressed against Andrew, the stubble burn still fading around his mouth. He realizes he’s maybe staring when he sees the corner of Neil’s mouth lift in amusement.

“Shut up,” Andrew says. He swipes to open his phone camera and holds it away from them. “Kiss me.”

Neil lifts his hand to the side of Andrew’s face, his calloused fingers somehow impossibly gentle. He leans in and carefully, almost sweetly, slides their mouths together. When Andrew gets the shot he stares at it for a minute before cropping it so that you’d have to know it was Neil to...know it was Neil. The last thing he wants is more potentially compromising pictures of this man out in the world. He opens his Grindr app and types, his fingers precise and vicious on the screen.

FuckOff: I have to tell you something
FuckOff: but you’ll be upset

The response comes through quickly, like he knew it would.

EverythingButt10: u can tell me anything

FuckOff: I hooked up with your avatar

He sends the picture and stares at it in the message window. Neil’s fingers are darker than Andrew’s face, honey against Andrew’s fair, un-tanned skin. They curve gently around Andrew’s jaw. There’s a softness to it that he doesn’t know how to process.

Neil is ready to go before Andrew gets a response, grabbing keys and lacing shoes, shaking off the languor of the last hour of kissing and donning his usual focus and energy.

Andrew’s phone doesn’t buzz again until he has his hand on the door of his GS.

EverythingButt10: you’ll regret that
EverythingButt10: both of you

FuckOff: andrew. sloan hall. come get me asshole

___

“I’m just saying,” Aaron says, “where the fuck are you all the time?”

“Maybe he has a girlfriend,” Nicky coos. “Did you meet someone? Does this mean Aaron gets to go to the ball?”

“I will kill you both. Shut the fuck up.”

Aaron narrows his eyes to slits. Andrew ignores him and saws savagely at the food on his plate.

He is absolutely hiding this thing with Neil. If Aaron knew, he’d pretend it was some big thing that entitled him to have a relationship with some shitty girl who will inevitably lure him back into the car crash that was his life. Nicky would try to wedge himself in, probably freak Neil out by adding him to the family Christmas card. If they did that kind of thing.

Andrew is sticking with the basics. They have explosive chemistry. Andrew wants to touch him all the time. They have a deal. Neil is one of his now and he would be even if they weren’t hooking up. Neil isn’t pushing for anything more. It works.

He has just finished congratulating himself on his handling of the situation when a cloud of perfume and golden hair collapses into the seat next to him.

“Andrew,” Allison says brightly. “I keep missing you, but here you are. I have some follow-up questions.”

Across the table, Aaron and Nicky both lean forward—Aaron’s face is watchful and deeply suspicious; Nicky’s is rapt.

“No,” Andrew says flatly. “Go away.”

Allison immediately changes tactics. “Hi,” she says, turning her attention to the other side of the table. “I’m Allison. How do you know Andrew?”

Aaron, his expression dripping with disgust, points at his face.

Nicky beams and leans closer, flattening his palms on the table just a few inches shy of Allison’s hands. “We’re cousins,” he says. “Me and the twins here. That’s Aaron. I’m Nicky. And you’re gorgeous.”

“Adorable,” Allison says. “Andrew and I met—”

Andrew stands so fast his chair nearly topples and crashes to the floor behind him. “We’re leaving.”

He drags Allison’s chair backwards with her still in it. All three sets of eyes land heavily on him.

“It was lovely to meet you,” Allison says, like this is some kind of social call and she has not just been aggressively evicted from the table.

He starts walking. She follows, because most people do. When he gets around the corner of the building to one of his secret smoking spots, he leans against the wall and stares impassively at her.

“So,” she says. Her smile reminds Andrew of nothing so much as a shark. “We never asked how you met our Neil.”

Andrew lights a cigarette and blows the smoke from his first drag towards her.

“I figure there are two options,” she says, holding up one hand.

“One,” she says, lifting her pointer finger. “You and Neil were already close friends and he confided this upsetting situation to you. Possible, but unlikely when you take into account that he’s literally never mentioned you or brought you around and most of the time you have to pull out his fingernails to get him to tell you anything important at all.”

Andrew says nothing.

Two,” she sing-songs, adding another finger, “you were one of the men who fell for the bait on Grindr and somehow tracked him down in person.”

“Tracked him down,” Andrew repeats flatly.

“We’re a little protective,” Allison says airily. “And if it’s the second option, then it took you very little time to get him into bed. Considering he’s literally never brought someone home before, you can see why we might be interested in the backstory.”

Andrew gives her his least impressed look. “He got me into bed.”

“He—” Allison frowns. “Bullshit.”

Andrew shrugs one shoulder. “I saw him at a coffee shop. It didn’t add up. So I asked.”

“Neil doesn’t do fuckbuddies,” Allison says. “Neil doesn’t do fuck at all. He barely even does buddies. And yet, here you are.”

“Stay out of my business.” Andrew crushes the last third of his cigarette out against the wall. “And never approach my family again.”

“I could tell you the same thing,” she says, eyes finally narrowing into something that matches the substance of her interrogation.

“You could,” Andrew says. “But only one of us should be afraid of what happens if we don’t listen.”

Allison watches him intently, her eyes searching, her expression speculative. Eventually, she sighs. “So that’s what he sees in you.”

___

Something is off. Andrew keeps telling himself that he’s being paranoid and, worse, maybe needy. But the thing is, Andrew is pathetically aware of the rhythms of Neil’s days. He knows what mornings he’ll wake up to an hours-old text from Neil on his way to early track practice. He knows about the Monday and Wednesday stretches where Neil is in back-to-back classes and labs and can only maybe squeeze in something quick between. He knows he can call at 4:15 those days and prod Neil for his blistering analysis of the incompetence of the math TAs.

It’s not that they have a routine. It’s that Andrew knows how to get what he wants. And what he wants these days seems to be more of this blunt, sarcastic jackass.

This is one of the mornings he’s up earlier than Neil. He sends a picture of Kevin sleeping sideways like a toddler and makes it to his 9am class his customary five minutes late. By the time it lets out, he should have Neil’s response. He doesn’t. It hasn’t even been read—Andrew knows this because Neil apparently never cared or figured out how to turn off his read receipts. He waffles a bit then sends oversleeping, Josten?

He should definitely have a response by lunch. He still doesn’t. His messages are still unread.

Stop it, he tells himself. Neil forgot his phone. He’s still asleep. Someone finally smothered him to death. He doesn’t owe you anything. It doesn’t matter if he responds or not.

He calls after his 1:30. It rings once and then informs Andrew that this voice mailbox is full.

Fuck it. He’s going to Neil’s dorm. He’s made it roughly ten steps in that direction when Nicky’s text comes through:

NH: Andrew come home
NH: help

Something is definitely off.

When he makes it back to his dorm he finds the door open, the place looking half ransacked, and Nicky wringing his hands in the little common area.

“They searched it,” Nicky says anxiously. “They got an anonymous tip. We’re fine on the alcohol because I’m 21, or we would have been fucked. Thank God I always hide the weed really well.”

“Anonymous tip,” Andrew echoes.

“That we had a lot of drugs and alcohol we were selling to freshmen. It’s not even true.”

Andrew remembers you’ll regret this.

He remembers both of you.

Wordlessly, he turns his back on the room and heads for his car.

Eight minutes later, he’s knocking hard on Neil’s door until it finally opens. He’s tensed to deal with Matt or Allison, but it’s Renee who appears in the gap.

“Andrew,” she says very calmly. “Hello.”

“Where is he.”

“The track,” she says. “He’s pretty shaken up but he wouldn’t miss practice. Matt drove him.”

Andrew tries very hard to suppress his anger. None of these people would know an adequate transfer of information if their lives literally depended on it. He starts to turn, but Renee holds out a phone to him, one he recognizes as Neil’s. He reaches to take it, but she holds onto the other end firmly.

“I know he’d be okay with you having this. He wasn’t not calling you,” she says. “He just wanted to avoid it all. The passcode is 5149.”

He powers it up on his way back to the car. It takes forever to turn on and load, but when it finally does, Andrew sees what must be hundreds of notifications pop up immediately. He doesn’t open any of them, but the previews are bad enough.

It’s a longer drive to the track. The urgency he feels is in sharp contrast to the smooth leather of his seat, the gleam of his dash, the quiet hum of the engine. Andrew moves through the gears cleanly. He feels like he’s chasing Neil all over campus and he doesn’t like it. He should not have to do this. Neil should have done what Nicky did and called for help. Andrew shouldn’t have to pursue him.

When he gets there, he pulls in next to the giant blue truck that he has come to assume is Matt’s and follows the sound of whistles out to the track. There are about fifty people on the field, a mix of men and women. All of them are on the ground doing core work. They’re still doing core work by the time Andrew spots Matt in the stands. They’re still doing it when he climbs up and sits in the row behind Matt, propping his feet up on the bench next to Matt’s bag.

“Andrew,” Matt says. His usual golden retriever enthusiasm is missing.

They’re still doing core work.

“You can go,” Andrew says.

Matt scoffs. “Yeah, right.”

Andrew looks up when another whistle blows sharply. Everyone gets up and stretches and finally, Andrew can see Neil. His hair is darker, damp with sweat despite the chill in the September air. The shorts, regrettably, are longer than the ones he runs in. Andrew watches as Neil pulls one arm across his chest and stretches it out, then the other. Most of the athletes have scattered to other sections of the grass, but Neil and one other guy stay put. The other guy is making bizarre hand movements and little jumps. Neil is nodding a lot. They look like idiots.

Another quick whistle sounds and then Neil and the other guy are jogging off towards some monstrosity of pads and poles.

He taps a cigarette out and lights it, watching closely. He doesn’t love the look of this.

“Neil’s mostly a distance runner. But he’s training on pole vault 1,” Matt supplies.

“He’s small,” Andrew says.

“5’3,” Matt agrees. “That doesn’t matter as much as core strength and speed. And he’s light. He can fly.”

So this is what Andrew has to thank for those abs.

He watches Neil closely. Neil keeps shaking his arms out like that’s going to loosen him up, but his shoulders are visibly tight. He looks, Andrew thinks, like he’s braced for impact.

“He’s tense,” Matt says. “Which I get. Did you see the messages?”

Instead of answering, Andrew pulls Neil’s phone out of his back pocket and unlocks it. The first thing he does is turn off Neil’s texts and messages. The second thing he does is forward all unknown numbers to voicemail. Then, he starts reading. And listening. From what he can tell, someone put Neil’s phone number up in at least half a dozen places with half a dozen stories. Some of the messages are homophobic, some are over-the-top sexually explicit, some vow violence, some promise sexual assault—too many of these also promise that Neil’s going to enjoy it. Some are screaming at him for being a liberal snowflake who’s going to get what’s coming to him.

Andrew contemplates the virtues of smashing the phone to pieces.

When he looks up again, Neil is holding a pole twice his height. It bows deeply towards the ground at either end.

“It weighs more than he does,” Matt explains.

Andrew tucks the phone back in his pocket and keeps his eyes on Neil, who finally looks up, checking the stands for Matt. When his eyes find them, find Andrew with Matt, his shoulders visibly loosen. It’s irritating. Andrew is a crowbar. He’s not a guy whose presence brings you comfort.

The next hour and a half are spent uselessly sitting in the stands with Matt and getting constant and unsolicited commentary on what’s happening.

He watches as Neil and his teammate take turns sprinting at the monstrosity. At first they just invert their bodies along the pole and hit the pads on their backs. At some point, someone strings a rope—a bungee, Matt says—between the poles. High between the poles. He could sit on Matt’s shoulders and still not be able to touch it.

After that, it’s annoyingly riveting. The first few times, he feels a vicarious spike of fear when he sees Neil falling. Falling and falling.

Matt tells him it’s perfectly safe.

Andrew tells Matt to shut the fuck up.

It should be impossible, what Neil is doing. The bungee gets higher and higher. Neil holds this heavy, quivering pole and sprints. He plants it on the ground and rides the bend of it, twisting his body up and around and over the rope. And then...he falls. He keeps throwing himself at this obstacle and clearing it and falling and getting up and doing it again.

There’s a moment at the apex of his vault where time stops and Neil appears to float, weightless.

It’s beautiful. He’s...

“He’s fearless,” Matt says. It’s almost wistful.

Andrew lights another cigarette in response.

“What is it about you?” Matt asks. “He let you in so fast.”

And the thing is, Andrew has no idea. He hadn’t really known how closed off Neil was until he’d seen him around other people. He doesn’t know what he did or didn’t do that let him waltz right past the barriers. Maybe the same thing that let Neil past so many of his. They’re vibrating on the same belligerent asshole frequency.

He doesn’t answer.

His ass is sore by the time Neil leaves practice and starts jogging up the stands.

“You can go,” Andrew says to Matt. Again.

Matt scoffs. Again.

They both stand to wait. Andrew is pleased he had the foresight to sit above Matt instead of below him. They’re closer in height this way. He shoves his hands into his jacket pockets and wonders how Neil isn’t shivering in his sweat-damp clothes.

“Hey,” Neil says. It’s the first time Andew has heard him sound out of breath outside of the bedroom.

“You were great,” Matt says. “I see you got the 15.”

Neil tips his head a little side-to-side, a so-so motion. “I need to get faster and stronger for the 16. And thank you, really. I’ll see you at home.”

Andrew does not remind Matt that he told him so. He does not allow much of his smugness to show on his face when Matt looks back and forth between them.

“Okay,” Matt says, lifting his hands helplessly. “Later.”

He watches Matt walk away. When the man hops off the bottom row of the stands, Andrew turns to Neil. “You didn’t call me.”

Neil deflates. “There were so many when I woke up. I just...turned it off.”

“Allison has a phone,” Andrew reminds him. “Matt. Renee.”

“But not your number. I couldn’t stand touching it.”

“We’re getting food,” Andrew says. “And changing your number.”

___

The first thing Andrew does once Neil’s phone number is changed is update his Neil contact card. The second is to reluctantly send his number to Renee, who he thinks is the only one of Neil’s dorm mates he might regret killing. Or struggle to kill.

Andrew is all about action. He gets things done. He doesn’t comfort.

Neil seems comforted anyway, somehow. He indulges Andrew’s preference for incredibly shitty fast food and sits with him on the trunk to eat it. They say nothing. He doesn’t assure Neil that he’s going to find this guy and make him pay. He doesn’t offer platitudes about hanging in there or having support. He eats his fries and half of Neil’s and then they get up and get back in the car.

When he pulls up to Neil’s dorm he parks and climbs out of the car, following Neil silently up the stairs and into his apartment. He doesn’t spare a glance for the others as they pass them, instead going straight to Neil’s room and flopping on his bed. While Neil showers he deletes every text message and voicemail, screencapping and sending himself the worst of them.

His own phone has about half a dozen unanswered texts from Nicky and Aaron, but he can only deal with so many human disasters at a time. They can handle cleaning up after the raid themselves.

Instead, he drapes himself on Neil’s subtly textured tone-on-tone navy comforter, which Andrew is 100% sure was selected, purchased, and put in place by Allison, along with the string lights that wrap around the room. He turns his body so his head is just off the end of the bed and props his legs up against the wall.

He’s already way too comfortable here.

By the time Neil comes back, damp, his pajamas sticking to his skin in places, Andrew has his phone looking the way it used to. Except for the wallpaper, which Andrew has changed to a diagram about stranger danger2. It’s a vast improvement over the school spirit shit Neil had on there before.

Neil climbs up onto the bed and mirrors Andrew’s position. One slight difference—he’s flexible enough to have his legs up at a 90 degree angle. Andrew both resents and appreciates this.

“I’m okay,” Neil says.

“Didn’t ask.”

“And yet you’re here,” Neil points out.

Andrew sees Neil turn his head to face him, but he keeps his own eyes on the ceiling.

“Rape threats are not okay,” Andrew says flatly. “I understand if someone wants to beat you to a pulp over your mouth, but not that.”

Neil is quiet for a moment, then says, “It freaks me out when people tell me they’re going to come find me. I wasn’t as worried about what they’d do when they got here, just that they could find me in the first place.”

Andrew finally rolls his head to face Neil. “You’re an idiot. What they do matters.”

Neil watches him quietly. Andrew thinks he can feel layers being peeled away from him one by one. Every tiny movement of Neil’s eyes feels like an excision, revealing things about him he’d never want to say out loud. Eventually, Neil turns back to the ceiling.

“They’re not really coming,” Neil says. He sounds uncertain.

Andrew is firm. “They’re not coming.”

They stay like that for a while, legs up, eyes on the ceiling, until Neil starts dropping in and out of sleep. Andrew awkwardly maneuvers himself out of that position and leaves Neil to tuck himself in.

On his way out, he sees that Renee is still in the living room, curled up next to a lamp with a book in her hands. The light gleams off her hair, making the platinum glow and the pastels darken. Andrew stops when she spots him, looks up, and smiles.

“Do they know about you?” Andrew asks.

“A little. Neil, mostly,” Renee says. “I’m not hiding it.”

Andrew arches an eyebrow at her.

“I’m changing,” she says softly. “I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

“You’ll always be that person.”

She pauses, then nods. “Then I don’t want to do those things anymore.”

“Good luck with that.”

___

Andrew comes home from his last class to find Kevin’s asshole friend Riko in his dorm. It makes the usually stuffy air in the room nearly unbearable. He turns sharply on Kevin, who uncomfortably averts his eyes from Andrew’s.

“Aaron, right?” Riko asks.

“That’s Andrew,” Kevin corrects.

“I’m literally sitting right here,” Aaron says. “You tried to make small talk with me ten minutes ago.”

Something dark flashes across Riko’s face, but he buries it before it takes shape.

Andrew looks at his phone. Neil won’t be home from practice for two hours. That’s a lot of enduring Riko’s ego and Kevin’s bent neck. He looks up and pins Kevin’s eyes down again, demanding an explanation.

“We’re talking about the season,” Kevin says. “Some of the teams have exceptional rosters.”

“Yours isn't bad for a new team,” Riko says. It drips with condescension. “You’ll do fine.”

Fine. Middle of the road. Average. These are the things Riko’s tone suggests. They’re the worst things you can accuse Kevin of.

“I have Josten,” Kevin argues.

“Ah, yes,” Riko says. “Neil.”

Andrew hates the sound of Neil’s name in Riko’s mouth so much more than he could have imagined. He props his elbows on his knees and watches Riko’s smug face glow with satisfaction. He could be over there ripping Riko’s tongue out before anyone knew what was happening.

“He has potential,” Kevin says defensively.

“Yes, well. We’ve yet to see what he can do with a ball.”

“No more soccer,” Andrew orders. No more Neil. “I’m bored.”

Riko smirks. “I forgot we’re all supposed to be pleasing you.”

“I didn’t forget what an arrogant prick you are,” Andrew says pointedly. “Change the subject or get out. Or just get out.”

“Ookay,” Nicky says, sitting up straighter from his slump on the couch. “New subject. Maybe you could finally tell us where you are instead of here all the time, Andrew.”

Andrew levels an unimpressed look at him.

“Oh, how exciting,” Riko says. “Does our Andrew have a sweetheart?”

Kevin pales and goes noticeably rigid on the couch.

Andrew could rip out Riko’s throat right after his tongue. Then maybe go for the heart.

“He might,” Nicky answers, warming to the subject. “There was this very hot girl in the cafeteria the other day. I’m following all of her social media now. She’s a goddess.”

“Is that right?” Riko turns his smug asshole face back to Andrew. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” Andrew says. “New topic.”

“He’s never here anymore,” Nicky says. His tone is teasing. He’s so fucking bad at reading a room sometimes that Andrew is inclined to educate him at the point of a knife. “He’s always texting and coming in late.”

“Nicky,” Andrew says sharply. “Shut up.”

“Ah, young love. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t share, Andrew. Are you ashamed of her?” Riko doesn’t make air quotes around her but he leaves a tiny pause that suggests them anyway.

Fuck this. If these stupid cowards want to put up with an unrepentant asshole for the sake of politeness, they can do it without him. Andrew stands, shoving his phone back into his pocket and digging out his keys. “I’m leaving,” he says, giving Kevin and Nicky his most disgusted and disappointed look. He quells Aaron’s protest with another sharp glance.

“You,” he says, pointing at Riko. “Don’t be here when I get back.”

Nicky laughs uncomfortably. Andrew shuts the door on him and stalks away. Apparently he’s going to watch fucking track practice again.

It’s worth it when, hours later, he gets to roll a freshly-showered Neil underneath him. Neil’s pajama shorts are loose enough that Andrew can pull Neil’s knee up over his hip and run a hand up the inside of Neil’s leg, swallowing the quiet whimper that escapes him when Andrew’s fingers brush the crease of his thigh. He traces lines of muscle under warm skin, memorizing the low noises Neil pours into his mouth.

He can’t seem to get enough of this. The wanting lives in his palms. It has a will of its own. His hands are only quiet when they’re on Neil.

Andrew drags his hand up, pushing it under Neil’s shirt and higher, until the hem catches on his wrist. “Yes or no?”

Neil’s hands go still in his hair, turn even gentler. Andrew feels Neil’s chest press against his own when Neil inhales deeply. “Yes,” he says. “But it’s not pretty.”

“I didn’t ask your opinion,” Andrew says. “Take it off.”

He watches Neil pull the shirt off, revealing a patchwork of scars across his chest. He feels...nothing. They tell a story that he already knows some of, but other than that they’re just a part of Neil. He braces and drops back down to pull Neil’s bottom lip out from between his worrying teeth, kissing him hard until Neil’s hands break their self-conscious fists and tangle in Andrew’s hair again.

Andrew drags his mouth down, placing open-mouthed kisses on Neil’s sternum, tracing his tongue over one of the looping scars across his collarbone. He moves further, kissing along the ridges of Neil’s rib cage, covering as much skin as he can until Neil makes an impatient noise and tugs him back up to kiss.

He doesn’t think he’s ever been this hard in his life.

Neil kisses him like it’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to do. Head spinning, palms aching, Andrew pushes his hand down and into Neil’s pajamas, wrapping his fingers around him and indulging in one slow, twisting stroke before he jerks Neil off the way he does himself—fast, tight, relentless.

After, when he’s sent Neil off to the bathroom to clean up, Andrew rolls onto his side and half buries his face in Neil’s pillow. He sucks one sticky knuckle into his mouth and comes quickly, tasting Neil on his tongue and filling his lungs with the scent of him.

___

Aaron, Nicky, and Kevin know nothing. Andrew likes it that way. Nicky thinks he’s dating Allison, Aaron thinks he has a new best friend, and Kevin thinks Andrew should join his soccer team.

None of them think he spends at least twenty minutes a day pulling Neil close, pushing his hands under his clothes, and learning how to work him as well as he can work himself.

Neil never approaches him without an invitation. However much their boundaries are falling away when they’re alone, they seem to share a rigidity on the issue of privacy. Neil’s roommates know, because how could they not. But there’s a reason he never comes to Andrew’s dorm.

None of which has any impact on how fast Andrew is out of his seat when he spots Neil walking into the cafeteria with a bruised, swollen cheekbone. He intercepts him a few tables away from Allison and Matt, stepping solidly in front of Neil and grasping his chin. He turns Neil’s face side to side, prods relatively gently at the bruise, and glares when Neil winces.

“Third time was not the charm,” Neil says, shrugging. “He didn’t believe it wasn’t really me.”

“You need a handler,” Andrew says. “Did you even hit him back?”

“I did.” He taps two fingers lightly on Andrew’s solar plexus. “I’m fine.”

“Nothing about you is fine,” Andrew scoffs. “You’re a disaster.”

“You know,” Neil says quietly. “You’re the only one who actually asked.”

It takes Andrew a minute to process this. Once he does, he lets go of Neil’s chin and turns his back on him, heading straight for Neil’s table.

Matt stands abruptly when he sees them. “Neil,” he says, alarmed. “What happened.”

Matt flicks his eyes accusingly towards Andrew for all of half a second before he seems to think better of it.

“It’s fine,” Neil says. “A little disagreement.”

“Over what?” Allison demands.

“Over whether or not he’d promised to fuck a guy,” Andrew says, before Neil can wave it off again. Next to him, Neil’s shoulders slump in resignation. Idiot.

Allison claps her hands together, determined. “Okay. We need an offensive strategy. We’ll convene at our dorm tonight. Movie night and brainstorming.”

Neil looks at him, his face blank, prepared to make Andrew’s excuses for him if necessary.

He hasn’t made a decision yet. Instead of answering, he turns on his heel and walks away.

“We’ll be expecting you,” Allison calls after him. “7:30! Don’t be late.”

Andrew had forgotten that all of this had taken place directly in Aaron and Nicky’s line of sight until he reclaimed his seat at their table.

“Oh my god,” Nicky says, breathless with excitement. “That was Neil.”

“Neil?” Aaron asks, sharply interested. He directs a suspicious look at Andrew before turning back to Nicky.

“Neil from Allison’s Snapchat. They’re roommates. He’s so pretty.”

Andrew watches Aaron put several things together in his head. Seeing Neil at the library. Andrew leaving most nights. Kevin’s endless monologues about his soccer team.

“Kevin’s Neil?” Aaron asks.

“Oh, is he?” Nicky asks, brightening. “Is that how you met Allison? Are they together?”

“No.” To both.

Nicky props his chin on his hand and looks thoughtfully into the middle distance. Alternately, he’s gazing right at Neil and Allison. “I’ve always wondered if Kevin is bi. Or would be, if he wasn’t so single-minded.”

“Kevin doesn’t have time to date,” Aaron says. “If he’s not studying, he’s training. If he’s not training, he’s drinking.”

“Hey, Andrew.” Nicky leans further across the table towards him, his eyes going wide and pleading, his body language calm and contained. “Could you put in a good word for me?”

Andrew’s disapproval must show clearly in his face, because Nicky deflates a little before perking back up. “Maybe I could come tonight. To whatever you’re doing.”

“No,” Andrew says. “Stay away from him.”

Nicky deflates again. Aaron’s eyes narrow even more suspiciously.

Kevin, with his always impeccable timing, appears to drop his food onto the table and his bag onto the floor. “I see Neil,” he announces. “I’ll be right back.”

No, Andrew thinks. Absolutely not. His hand shoots out to grab Kevin’s sleeve and drag him down into the chair. “Hey, Kevin. Look at Aaron’s plate. How many food groups is that?”

___

The display on the cable box switches from 7:09 to 7:10. Andrew calmly takes a sip of his beer.

Both Aaron and Nicky look from the box to Andrew, and then back to the box again when he doesn’t move. Aaron is pretty discreet about it—little flicks of his eyes that he doesn’t broadcast with his head. The effort it’s taking Nicky not to burst with words, on the other hand, could be seen from space.

Andrew takes another long sip.

The display switches from 7:10 to 7:11.

Andrew is curious to find out how long it will take Nicky to break.

The answer is 7:17. He’s almost impressed.

Andrew,” Nicky explodes. “You only have thirteen minutes.”

Andrew arches a questioning eyebrow at him.

“To go to Allison’s,” Nicky says, throwing his hands up. “You cannot be standing that girl up.”

Andrew examines the top of his beer, swirls the last sip around in the bottom of the can, and then finishes it off. When he stands, Nicky practically slides off the couch in relief. Andrew tosses the can in the recycling and opens a cabinet, considering its contents. When he steps back into the living room with a bag of Oreo minis in his hand, Nicky collapses in a paroxysm of anticipation.

Aaron’s eyes flick minutely towards the clock again. 7:19. He has to leave in the next minute or two if he wants to be on time. If he even wants to go. It’s still a toss up; he’s over there a few nights a week, but they usually lock themselves in Neil’s room and fuck around. That’s a continent away from gathering together on their sectional and watching a movie under blankets or some other horrifying group bonding shit.

On the other hand, if Allison comes up with some kind of idiotic plan, he should probably be aware of it.

And how much of this movie is Neil going to want to watch, really, when the alternative is so much better?

Andrew keeps at the cookies, examining each one before he pops it into his mouth.

7:20. If he leaves right now, he should arrive at Neil’s floor at exactly 7:30, accounting for driving and parking.

“You’re killing me,” Nicky moans. “If you’re not going, give me the address and I’ll go.”

When he comes to the end of his cookies and looks up, both Aaron and Nicky are outright staring at him. Aaron’s face challenges him to leave. Nicky’s face begs him to do it.

7:21.

Andrew tosses the empty cookie packet in the trash and grabs his keys from the side table on his way to the door.

When he parks and heads towards Neil’s building, he finds Neil waiting for him on the stairs, barefoot, wrapped in a blanket. The open stairwell glows with an artificial yellow light that unpleasantly outshines the fading sunset. Against it, Neil’s hair is a sickly orange.

It’s 7:34.

“Hi,” Neil says, when Andrew gets close enough.

Andrew eyes him impassively. He doesn’t love the idea of Neil expecting him to come when he hadn’t actually agreed to it. At the same time, he kind of does like that Neil trusts him to show up. It’s an annoying battle between appreciating Neil’s faith in his word and resenting the idea that he is in any way predictable.

Neil tucks the blanket around him tighter and shrugs in response to Andrew’s silence. “I didn’t think you’d trust us to come up with a decent idea on our own.”

“Get up,” Andrew says. “Frostbite isn’t attractive.”

The heat coming off Neil is actually almost blistering when he leans against the wall next to his door and pulls Andrew close. Neil doesn’t loosen his grip on the blanket, so when he’s allowed to wrap his arms around Andrew’s shoulders, the fabric falls around them like a cloak in soft, warm folds.

Andrew slides his hands onto Neil’s ribs and does his best to frown at him. Disapprovingly, he says, “Shameless”

“Yep.”

“Desperate.”

“Yes,” Neil agrees. “Are you going to kiss me?”

Andrew waits a moment for irritation or distaste to bubble up in his chest. When it doesn’t, he thinks fuck it and presses closer. Neil’s mouth is close but he nuzzles instead of kissing him, dragging his hands down Neil’s back to his ass; Andrew splays his fingers and squeezes, fingertips digging into flesh. He hoists Neil off his feet and kisses him.

Nothing has ever sounded better than the noise Neil makes, or felt better than Neil’s legs wrapping around his hips. The flannel of Neil’s pajama pants is cold where it presses against Andrew’s sides, but the contact chases the chill away. It’s almost too hot under the drape of the blanket.

Neil is a solid weight, all muscle, but Andrew feels like he could hold him up forever. He feels incredibly strong and helpless at the same time. Suddenly, all he can think about is fucking Neil like this, his shoulders pinned against the wall, held close by Andrew’s arms around him, Neil’s hips rocking against him. The heat of him. The closeness.

He’s saved from the wildness of his own desire by the door next to them swinging in and open. Renee’s head pokes through, smiling with her usual serenity, apparently unconcerned by the view.

“There you are,” she says, pleased. “We’ve narrowed it down to two movies and we’re hoping you’ll choose, Andrew.”

Reluctantly, he lets Neil drop each foot to the ground. He smooths Neil’s shirt back down and steps away. He never said he was staying for the movie. He supposes there are worse things, though. Like going back to his dorm after 20 minutes and enduring Nicky’s interrogation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that they’ll be able to finish this when it’s over. Or halfway over. It depends.

Brainstorming turns out to be less discussion and more Allison telling them about the plan she’s come up with: replicate the fake Neil profile but stamp the words “fake” and “catfish” over each image.

“It’ll reach the same audience,” Allison points out.

“I don’t know,” Neil says. He looks deeply uncomfortable with this idea. “Won’t it draw more attention to me?”

“Neil,” Allison says, exasperated. “There’s already attention on you. This establishes a competing narrative.”

“But the competition will make it a bigger thing,” Neil argues.

“You should do it,” Andrew says.

Neil turns surprised, betrayed eyes on him.

Andrew says, “It cuts him off at the knees.”

“Last time we did that, I got all of those messages.”

Andrew doesn’t grimace, but it takes a great deal of effort to keep his face blank.

Neil shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t want to be so conspicuous. I don’t want to be a topic of conversation.”

“I guess,” Allison says slowly, “I could just talk about it on social media. A lot of people on campus follow me. I wouldn’t have to be as specific there.”

Neil shifts again.

“You could talk to the administration,” Matt suggests. “Maybe they could do something.”

“Absolutely not,” Neil blurts.

“Problem with authority?” Andrew asks mildly.

Matt snorts. It sounds judgmental.

Renee’s quiet, calm voice smooths over the tension in the room. “Allison calling it out on social media is a good half step. It could also get ahead of any next moves he might make.”

Neil looks unconvinced; Andrew lays a hand on his thigh and squeezes, more commanding than comforting.

“Okay,” Neil says. He sounds neither convinced nor convincing. “But I don’t want to be on video or anything talking about it.”

“Great. No problem,” Allison says, glowing. “Next order of business. Andrew, we have two options: one of those weird new Nicholas Cage movies that is also an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, or Birds of Prey.”

He spends the next two hours tucked into the corner of the couch closest to the door, Neil sitting cross-legged next to him, Andrew’s hand tucked around Neil’s thigh under the blanket. The movie is a hyper-saturated, high concept action movie. It’s good. It’s also low key agonizing, socializing like this, but he has Neil as a buffer against his roommates, Renee is interesting enough to be tolerable, Allison keeps her mouth shut and eyes riveted on the screen, and Boyd’s occasional suspicious looks their way are entertaining.

After, he pulls Neil on top of him in bed and lets his hands roam until Neil is struggling to deny the need for friction. He pushes Neil upright with a hand against his chest and jerks him off like that, on display, skin flushed, eyes fluttering closed, totally unselfconscious under Andrew’s heavy gaze.

___

Andrew is strongly considering a late morning nap. He has this precious two hour stretch when the entire dorm is empty. Nicky and Kevin are in class. Aaron is at his work study. Neil has a class, too, so this time is just Andrew. It’s peak jerking off time. For a couple of weeks there, he spent a lot of it thinking about Neil.

He gets to lounge the way he doesn’t when other people are around—one leg up and over the back of the sofa, the other stretched out to the floor. He watches HGTV. He eats pudding cups with cookies crushed up in them. He looks at porn on his phone in the living room.

It’s fucking fantastic.

He’s scrolling through porny gift sets on Tumblr when a notification from Neil pops up at the top of his screen.

N: class cancelled
N: 👏
N: did I use that right?

Andrew has a brilliant idea that will make today’s alone time a lot fucking better. He wouldn’t be willing to give it up routinely, but the idea of having Neil here, alone, in his own bed, is too good to pass up.

A: no
A: come over
A: sloan 221

He doesn’t bother cleaning up before Neil arrives. Four guys live here. He doesn’t give a shit if Neil has a problem with it looking exactly like that. He does, however, throw a few random bits of dirty laundry into the hamper and brush his teeth.

Neil has his hood up when Andrew opens the door on him.

Andrew flicks his eyes from Neil’s sneakers to his hands jammed in the pockets of his joggers to the hood obscuring his hair and profile. “You’re an idiot.”

The corner of Neil’s mouth lifts. “I get that a lot.”

Andrew pulls him in anyway. “Living room,” he says, as he tows Neil through it by one of his hoodie pockets. “Bathroom. Bedroom.”

He engages the bedroom lock, double checks, and leans, watching Neil, who’s turning in a slow circle to take everything in. Andrew braces his back against the door and follows Neil’s eyes as they perform his typical survey, evaluate, and plan routine.

“Exits?” Andrew asks.

“Not great,” Neil says. He smiles, though, pouring warmth in Andrew’s direction. Andrew’s stupid heart oozes something glowy. It’s disgusting. “Second floor. Technically could go out through the window, but there’s a decent chance of breaking something on the drop.”

Neil’s hands go to the zipper on his oversized hoodie, tugging the metal tab down absently, his eyes busy tracing invisible escape routes.” You have to cover a lot of ground to get to the door, and then you have to get down the corridor and around the wall to the stairs.”

“Honestly,” Neil continues, shrugging out of his hoodie and toeing off his shoes. “You’re pretty fucked here. If you were in 222, you’d at least have a clear line of sight down the main hallway. You’re blind and cornered.”

“You’re all flight. It’s disappointing. Take off your shirt.”

Neil’s hands go easily to the hem of his shirt, but he’s looking off into the middle distance, his eyes sharp. “It’s still pretty shit for a defensive position,” Neil says, muffled by the fabric over his face. “But if you could keep the corridor clear it’s not the worst for a more aggressive strategy.”

Andrew catches the shirt when Neil drops it and tosses it away. When his hands are free he stops closer, brushing his knuckles against Neil’s hip bones.

“Neil,” he says mildly. “Shut up and get on the bed.”

Neil drops onto it. Andrew settles himself between Neil’s bent knees and runs his hands down both thighs, willfully bunching the material as he goes. He’s not sure he could ever get used to this—the wanting, the being wanted, the specificity of it. Everyone he’s ever hooked up with before could have been anyone. Neil is always Neil.

He realizes he’s been staring mindlessly at Neil’s abs for too long when Neil shifts, dropping his hands to let his fingers curl gently alongside Andrew’s knees. He lifts his eyes to meet Neil’s and finds them watching him, calm, no judgment, no rush.

Andrew reaches behind himself to grab a handful of his shirt and pull it off. “Forty-five minutes,” he says. “Then you leave.”

He feels Neil’s fingers flex through his pajama pants. He spends as much time as he does in the gym so that he’ll never find himself weak and at someone else’s mercy, but the look in Neil’s eyes right now isn’t a bad side effect.

“Hey,” Andrew says. “Eyes up here.”

Neil snaps his gaze back up to Andrew’s face. His pupils are huge, the blue awash with need.

“Hands?” Neil asks. Andrew feels them wind into fists beside him.

He wraps his fingers around Neil’s wrists and pulls them up, over his head, pinning them to the bed. With anyone else, he’d tie them to the headboard. Neil, he trusts to keep them where they’re put. He lowers himself slowly onto Neil, joining their chests inch by inch, soaking in the heat of him, the closeness.

Everything feels more intense. By the time he pushes his hand into Neil’s pants, he’s so hard he’s aching. Neil is wrecked, restless underneath him, his fingers twisted tightly in Andrew’s sheets. He drags a knee up higher over Andrew’s hip and moans, his head tipping back when he arches closer.

“Come on,” Andrew mumbles, his mouth dragging along Neil’s neck. “I’ve got you.”

He almost comes himself when Neil makes a strangled noise and gets off, rushes of wet heat hitting Andrew’s stomach, sliding over his knuckles. He wants, so badly, to reach his hand down and jerk himself off, to come on Neil’s abs and pant his release into Neil’s mouth.

Instead, he rolls onto his back and tries to will himself back under control. That’s the problem with Neil—he’s pulled Andrew in like the tide. Andrew is strong, but even he can’t fight the ocean.

Neil can read him disconcertingly well and he gives a shit and respects boundaries, so he usually only needs a few seconds to get his shit back together; today is no different, though it stretches a few extra seconds. He starts to roll over, giving Andrew the bed the way he usually does, but Andrew reaches out and grabs his shoulder before he can get up.

“Stay,” Andrew says.

Neil stills. Andrew rolls onto his side so that his chest is a breath away from Neil’s back, his mouth pressed against Neil’s shoulder. He pushes his hand into his pajama pants and wraps it around his hard, leaking dick, barely swallowing a whimper.

“Don’t move,” he orders roughly. He gropes for Neil’s face with his free hand, finding it and grabbing Neil’s chin so that he can’t forget himself and look back.

He finds himself edging closer and closer to Neil until the head of his dick brushes against the small of Neil’s back—a tiny, nothing touch that still has precome pulsing over his knuckles as he strokes. He’s moving fast but he can’t keep up with the desperate need for more.

Neil mumbles, “Fuck,” and turns his face into Andrew’s grip.

Andrew is so surprised by the slide of Neil’s tongue against his finger that he bites down, his teeth sinking into skin and muscle, just catching himself before he breaks the skin.

Neil licks along Andrew’s index finger again—Andrew thinks fuck and yes and pushes two fingers into Neil’s mouth. Neil’s lips close around them and he sucks and it’s hot and soft and wet and Andrew comes blindingly hard, making a mess of both of them.

It takes him a minute to come down. When he blinks back into awareness, they’re in the same position, though Neil has pulled Andrew’s fingers out of his mouth at some point.

“Andrew,” Neil says quietly.

Andrew tenses for him to say something he doesn’t want to hear. The last thing he wants to do is talk about this. Neil had better fucking know that.

“I’m starting to think you have a thing for getting me sticky.”

Relieved, Andrew snorts. He lets go of Neil’s chin and gropes around on the dresser next to the bed until he hits fabric; he wads it up and uses it to clean his hand and Neil’s back before tossing it forward for him.

Neil’s up soon, wiped clean. He looks at the fabric, then at Andrew. “This is my shirt.”

“Not my problem,” Andrew says, feigning indifference, like he’s not closely watching what Neil does next. Put it on dirty? Put the hoodie on without it? Take one of Andrew’s? Take one of Kevin’s?

Neil shrugs, tosses the shirt into the hamper at the foot of the bed, and pulls one of Andrew’s shirts out of a half-open drawer.

He knows it’s some kind of outdated masculine possession bullshit that makes Neil wearing his clothes so fucking satisfying. That doesn’t make the way the shirt hangs a little too loosely on Neil’s lean frame any less hot.

“I’m not doing your laundry,” Andrew says.

Neil zips his hoodie on over it, shoves his feet back into his shoes, and looks up. “That’s fine. You’re probably not getting this one back. Did we finish in time?”

“Six minutes,” Andrew says. He’d left himself a fifteen minute buffer—no one should be home for at least twenty minutes. Still, he heaves himself off the bed, puts his own shirt back on, and pulls Neil into a quick kiss.

He sees Kevin the second he steps out of the bedroom—just his head, tipped back over the top of the couch in his customary post-drinking position. He’s home early, because everyone in this dorm is minoring in making Andrew’s life harder.

He knows that he set a time limit specifically to prevent this scene, but he now he finds that he doesn’t actually give a shit what Kevin knows about his sex life, Neil or no Neil. Even if it has only been Neil for a while now. He tugs Neil towards and through the living room by his hoodie and walks right past Kevin without looking at him.

Neil, always so fucking good at following Andrew’s lead, pretends like Kevin isn’t even there.

“Later,” Andrew says. He opens the door and pushes Neil through it, keeping his face blank when Neil looks back over his shoulder at him, smiling and amused. He shuts the door and locks it again, then reclaims his earlier place on the couch and turns HGTV back on.

“So,” Kevin says.

Andrew ignores him.

“I guess he’s on your roster too.”

Andrew turns up the volume on Property Brothers.

___

Hands down, the worst thing about college is the sheer quantity of college students. Andrew avoids as many of them as he can as much as he can. Unsurprisingly, the much rhapsodized about ‘college party’ is his idea of hell. In what fucking universe would cramming yourself into an overly full room where you’re forced to bump against dumb fucks you don’t care about, unable to avoid hearing all the words they keep saying (but really shouldn’t), a good time? Andrew’s personal party strategy is to avoid them. When they’re unavoidable, he grabs a bottle and finds somewhere quiet and remote to smoke. If he’s feeling particularly motivated, he picks someone who looks like they can follow half a direction and finds an empty, lockable room.

None of that would work at this bullshit fucking intramural soccer league season opening party.

Each of those words makes Andrew want to knife someone.

But, of course, Neil and Kevin are here. Which means Nicky wanted to come. Which means Aaron saw an opportunity to get wasted and make goo-goo eyes at some chick while Andrew’s attention was divided—even if he didn’t know exactly how many ways that division went.

They’re at some senior’s off-campus house. It’s a four bedroom that Andrew suspects is currently housing 8-12 people, if the level of video game systems and shitty college jock furniture is anything to go by.

The irritating thing is that he thinks Neil would be completely happy grabbing a bottle and posting up on the staircase landing to watch the party from above. Instead, Kevin is dragging him around to talk to other players; he seems to think Andrew is going to follow them.

He refuses.

Even if it does make him twitchy to have four people at this party and eyes on only one or two of them at any given time.

He knows what Nicky would say: God, Andrew, can’t you just relax and act like a normal college student for once?

He knows what Aaron would say: Can’t you just let other people relax for once?”

He thinks, too, that he knows what Neil would say: Do you want to get out of here?

Kevin would probably say something like: There are a lot of people here who aren’t half the player you could be.

If he has a favorite, he doesn’t think that’s too unreasonable.

He watches Kevin drag Neil to another group, this one with that Moriyama douchebag holding court. If you didn’t know what Riko was really like, you might think he was being friendly. He welcomes them in, all big, beckoning hand gestures. Somehow he manages to separate them—Neil on one side, Kevin on the other. From afar, his smiles look almost real. The hands he keeps putting on Kevin and Neil would seem friendly, casual, good-natured. Kevin endures it, letting Riko keep a hand clasped over his shoulder. Riko’s knuckles look a little too white, even from this distance.

Neil keeps shrugging Riko off. He dislodges the hand on his shoulder, repositions his arm when Riko’s fingers move to his elbow, blatantly moves out of the way when Riko tries to sling an arm around him. He sidesteps the friendly nudges. Andrew would love for this to be an excuse to go stab Riko in the stomach, but he’s pretty sure no one else would agree.

He’s so focused on Neil’s increasingly annoyed face—and Kevin’s increasingly pale and frustrated face—that he doesn’t notice the guy walking up to him until he’s bumped several inches out of his position. He looks up, pissed, ready to start something, only to recognize the guy. Who really fucking should have known better.

“Roland,” Andrew says flatly. “Never do that again.”

“Right, personal space,” Roland says, grinning. “I’m not used to seeing you with all my clothes on.”

“What do you want?”

“Nice to see you again, too,” Roland drawls. “It’s been a minute.”

Andrew reminds himself that it was—three weeks? Maybe four?—when seeing Roland at this party would have been the best thing about it. Now, he’s a distraction. And not a welcome one.

“Not tonight,” Andrew says dismissively.

“You haven’t been around,” Roland says. “We’ve all been wondering if you finally got a boyfriend.”

Andrew turns and fixes Roland with an impassive stare.

“I saw you watching,” Roland says, nodding towards the crowd on the first floor. “Thought maybe you and Kevin…”

“Is this gossip?” Andrew asks. “Is that what you’re here for?”

“I mean,” Roland says, “if not, there are other things.”

Andrew studies him closely. He’s flushed and a tiny bit sweaty. Very drunk, Andrew decides. He puts one hand flat on Roland’s chest and pushes him back a foot.

“You’re drunk,” Andrew says flatly. “And I’m not interested. If I want you, I’ll tell you.”

Roland puts his hands up in surrender and backs off, grinning widely. Andrew shouldn’t burn that bridge. Roland’s decent at doing what he’s told. This thing with Neil will fizzle out eventually.

“Don’t fall down the stairs,” Andrew says gruffly. There. Parting on good terms.

When he turns back to the room, he spots Nicky easily—draped on some jock that might be able to give Matt a run for his money. Aaron is out of sight, but that’s Aaron’s favorite place to be; Andrew isn’t particularly worried. Kevin is in the same spot, tucked into a corner, gesticulating so wildly that beer is sloshing out of his cup. Neil is—not with him. Neither is Riko. The hairs on the back of Andrew’s neck stand up.

He does another scan, but he knows it’s a waste of time. Like it or not, Andrew’s eyes can always find Neil like a compass finds north. It’s effortless. It’s irritating.

Neil didn’t come up the stairs, Andrew knows that much; even distracted by Roland, he would have been angled to catch that. He jogs down the stairs and follows the hallway through to the dining room from the living room. It reeks of Ace body spray and beer. He barges into a downstairs bedroom and interrupts a couple of straights humping. The bathroom is locked—he beats on the door until a woman’s voice tells him to fuck off.

He’s starting to feel uneasy. He sticks his head outside and walks from one end of the back porch to the other. The crowd is sparser out here, though he does spot Aaron huddled on a couch with a few cheerleader types. That’s not a right now problem.

When Andrew pushes back into the house, he heads to the kitchen. One couple is making out on the counter. Some douchebag is making disgusting mixed drinks and forcing his bros to drink them. His lap of the first floor has lasted a minute, maybe two. He might need to go out front.

Andrew’s eyes catch on an open door in the corner. He has to push his way past the making-out couple to get there; when he turns the corner, he finds himself in a laundry room.

Neil is there. Riko has him shoved face-first against a wall. His hand is wrapped tight around the back of Neil’s neck. His other hand is pinning Neil’s twisted arm behind his back—Andrew imagines Neil took a swing at him.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t get off on some of them,” Riko is saying. “I know what Minyard’s into. Did you think I wouldn’t hurt you enough?”

Andrew sees red. He hears Neil’s choked “Fuck you” as he crosses the room to them, pulling Riko back by the hair hard enough that he lets go of Neil in surprise. He takes that moment of shock to throw Riko against the wall, watching with satisfaction when Riko’s face bounces off it. It’s drywall, so it doesn’t do much damage. Andrew will save that task for his fists.

Riko rounds on him. Blood trickles from his nose to his mouth. He spits it out.

Hit me, Andrew thinks. Take a swing. Give me a reason.

“You’ll pay for that,” Riko says.

Andrew flexes his fists. “You keep saying that,” he says flatly. “I think you’re all talk.”

He braces when he sees Riko move, countering Riko’s clumsy shove with a harder one of his own. This time, the back of Riko’s head bounces off the wall. Riko makes a furious noise and pushes off it. He comes back swinging. Andrew dodges it, but the fist clips the edge of his jaw and makes his head spin for a second.

He doesn’t have time to shake it off before Riko comes for him again, but then Andrew is in it. He lets Riko waste energy lashing out, waiting for a clear opening before punching him right in his smug fucking face. There’s something incredibly satisfying about the crunch of Riko’s nose beneath his fist. Riko goes crashing backwards, out of the little laundry room, and rebounds off the edge of the kitchen island. The guy leaning across the counter shoves Riko back when he grabs a handful of the girl’s shirt for balance. He gets his feet under him and swings wildly, his other hand cupping his nose, but Andrew ducks the high shot and aims his next punch right at Riko’s kidney. Riko hunches over, gasping, and straightens enough for an open-handed slap that catches Andrew behind the ear.

Andrew takes a half step back, bracing against the counter for support, and brings one booted foot up to kick Riko just below the solar plexus. He doesn’t aim for the ribs. His foot sinks satisfyingly into Riko’s stomach.

Riko stumbles back out of the kitchen, arms pinwheeling, and takes down a lamp before landing on his back on the floor—the sound of ceramic shattering fills the room, followed by a heavy thud. Riko is gasping for breath; it’s so loud that Andrew belatedly realizes the music and conversation have stopped. There’s a little gurgling noise on every inhale, as Riko sucks in air past the blood streaming from his nose.

Andrew’s head is ringing, his knuckles bloody. He could go another five rounds.

He drops and plants one knee on Riko’s chest, sliding a knife discreetly out of his armband and pressing between Riko’s ribs, where it can be felt but not seen.

“You get one warning,” Andrew says flatly. “You don’t touch him. You don’t look at him. You don’t say his name. I see one picture online that I don’t like, I come for you. He gets one weird message, I come for you. Tell me you understand.”

Riko wheezes at him, eyes narrowed, face set like he somehow thinks he’s won this one. Andrew presses the knife a little deeper into the groove between Riko’s ribs.

Someone says Andrew’s name in what is very close to an anguished moan. He thinks it might be Neil, disapproving, but then Neil crouches next to him and leans in close to look Riko in the face. His expression is carved in ice.

Neil reaches out and gently, almost lovingly, uses his fingertips to trace a short vertical line just to the side of Riko’s Adam’s apple.

“Now I know who you are,” Neil says. His voice is empty of any emotion. It’s a stark contrast to the dreamy whisper of his fingers on Riko’s neck.

Riko blanches. The color drains out of his cheeks, making the red of the dripping blood stand out. Somehow, even with a knife to his ribs, this is the thing that scares him.

Andrew thinks he’s never been more attracted to anyone in his life than he is to Neil right now.

Another anguished “Andrew” skims over the uncomfortable silence in the room. He looks up to see Nicky, stopped at the edge of the small crowd a few feet away. They have the attention of everyone in the room. Neil must spot this at the same time; he ducks his head back down and says, mildly, “I don’t think any of us want to explain this to the cops, do we?” Riko swallows hard. He shakes his head. A different kind of fear passes through his eyes.

Then Neil is up, brushing his rumpled shirt down over his stomach and offering Andrew a hand. He takes it. He’s not keen to let go of the knife just yet.

Andrew uses Neil’s grip on his hand to shove him towards the door first. Neil hesitates when he comes across Kevin on the way out, but Andrew puts a hand between his shoulder blades and pushes him forward. Riko may not be calling the cops, but that doesn’t mean no one has.

Neil pauses again at the top of the porch steps; Andrew is ready to push him again, but he stops, leaving his hand flat against Neil’s back when he sees him scanning the street and the houses around them. Without having to ask, he turns left and heads for Andrew’s car. It’s almost around the corner, where it’s supposed to be safe from drunk idiots trying to parallel park.

Neil stops when they reach it. “Your family?”

“Can Uber,” Andrew says. “Show me your neck.”

He cups a hand around the back of Neil’s head and pulls down so he can look for bruises in the glare of the streetlight.

“I’m fine,” Neil says, voice muffled by the position. He stays put, though, so that Andrew can look to his satisfaction, poking at red spots and moving away when he’s satisfied that Neil’s right.

“We should be looking at you,” Neil says pointedly. “Your hand. He got you on the jaw, too.”

Neil holds his hand out expectantly, waiting and waiting until Andrew relents and tucks his fingers into Neil’s palm. They’re bruised. A couple are split. He feels alive.

“You turned him down,” Andrew says. It’s not a question.

“Yeah.” Neil, surprisingly, sounds almost baffled. “All the time. He and Kevin were relentless with the soccer thing. I didn’t realize any of it was...personal.”

Andrew can’t quite stifle the low, amused noise that rises in his throat.

“I don’t think he’ll come back,” Neil says. “Was it everything you dreamt of?”

It takes Andrew a second to remember that conversation in the coffee shop weeks ago: you’d rather get in a fistfight for me than play soccer for Kevin?

“No,” Andrew says. “Not enough blood.”

Neil looks up from Andrew’s knuckles and smiles. His eyelashes cast long shadows over his cheeks.

Andrew lets himself relax against the side of his car. Neil is using his shirt to dab at the blood on Andrew’s knuckles—entirely unnecessary, but preferable to listening to him fuss about it. Andrew reaches out and slides a hand around Neil’s hip, splaying his fingers and pulling him closer. The cops haven’t shown up yet, but he wants to hang around a few minutes to see if they hear sirens.

His fucking ducklings find them first. He hears Nicky coming from halfway down the block—the thud of his sneakers, the almost audible wringing of his hands, the anxious huffing.

“Andrew,” Nicky calls.

Andrew considers letting go of Neil. No, fuck that. He does reclaim his bloody hand, though, and digs his keys out of his pocket with it.

“Call an Uber,” Andrew says when they get close enough. “Or get in the car. We’re leaving.”

Nicky gapes at him. Kevin hovers behind them, his expression unreadable. Aaron’s is mutinous. Andrew slides his hand a little further onto Neil’s lower back and pulls him closer.

“Holy shit,” Nicky says. “It’s not Allison, is it?”

Neil looks up at him, confused.

“We thought he was dating Allison,” Nicky explains. “But it’s not her. It’s you.”

Andrew says, “We’re not dating,” at the exact same moment Neil says, “I don’t know if I’d call it that.”

Neil smiles fondly at him. Andrew rolls his eyes.

“Neil Josten,” Aaron says. He rolls the name around in his mouth. The look on his face spells trouble. Andrew has had quite enough of that tonight. He can feel Neil’s spine stiffen in response. He has impeccable judgment. What the fuck does that say about Andrew?

“We’re coming,” Nicky says. “I have so many questions”

“I’m staying,” Aaron says. “I’ll call a car later.” He meets Andrew’s eyes steadily, daring him to disagree.

Andrew just shrugs and unlocks the car. He opens the passenger door that they’ve been leaning against and shoves Neil into it, relegating the much taller Nicky and Kevin to cram into the back.

Neither he nor Neil respond to any of the two dozen questions Nicky manages to get out before Andrew pulls up in front of their dorm and pointedly unlocks the doors.

___

He knows it’s coming. That doesn’t make him any happier to see Aaron when he storms into Andrew’s bedroom with his hands shoved in his pockets and a cunning look on his face.

“No,” Andrew says. He goes back to reading Reddit.

“You broke the deal.”

“No, I didn’t.” He can’t read and talk to Aaron at the same time, but he sure as fuck doesn’t have to put down the phone and pay attention to him.

“No dating,” Aaron says. “You should remember. It was your fucking rule.”

“I still don’t see your problem,” Andrew says mildly. “I’m not dating anyone.”

“Bullshit,” Aaron says. He laughs. “Tell me where you are all the time if not with him. If you’re not texting him constantly, show me your phone. Explain to me why you beat the shit out of an acquaintance over him and then made sex eyes at each other. And then tell me that’s not breaking our deal.”

“You’re talking about having a relationship. I’m not doing that. It’s not the same thing,” Andrew says. Neil isn’t some strung out wreck that’s going to lure Andrew back into using. He doesn’t hide his danger behind eyelashes and promises. He’s dangerous in the way Andrew’s knives are, not in the way meth-heads are.

“No shit it’s not the same thing,” Aaron says pointedly. “If I’d tried to pull any of this with Katelyn you’d be shoving a knife in her face instead of standing here talking to me.”

“Who’s Katelyn?” Andrew asks.

“Oh, no.” Aaron laughs bitterly. “No, we’re not doing that.”

Andrew drops his phone face-down on his chest and arches an eyebrow at Aaron.

Aaron rakes a hand through his hair and sighs. “You know. I thought you enjoyed being miserable. I thought that was why you made all of us be miserable, too. But now I’m not so sure.”

“Is that what you are?” Andrew asks impassively. “Miserable?”

Aaron throws his hands up and makes a frustrated noise. He keeps his eyes on the ceiling, like he’s going to find some kind of translator there. “I mean,” he says. “Kind of. I’m not not miserable. Do you never fucking get lonely? You don’t really talk to any of us. You don’t let anyone else in. It’s like you’re happiest when we’re all sitting together in a room silently. And now all of a sudden there’s Neil and I’m thinking—I don’t know. Maybe being miserable was the only way you knew how to be.”

Andrew watches Aaron lurch to a halt at the end of this speech. His eyes aren’t on the ceiling anymore, but they’re not quite meeting Andrew’s. There are uneven splotches of red on his cheeks. He’s made a horrible mess of his hair.

Was he miserable? Is he miserable? Lonely? These aren’t questions Andrew has asked himself in a long time. Loneliness would have implied that he wanted other people around—he doesn’t. Didn’t. They have Kevin now, and that’s good. And he has—he has Neil.

“Are you planning on arriving at a point?” Andrew asks.

“Fuck you,” Aaron says. He runs both hands through his hair this time, then takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and looks Andrew right in the eye. “This can go two ways. The deal is over and I get to spend time with who I want. Or the deal is intact and you stop seeing him.”

Stop seeing Neil. Andrew’s knee-jerk reaction is to agree. He can stop seeing anyone anytime he wants. He doesn’t need or want people. That’s not how shit works with him.

On the other hand...no more Neil. Just thinking about that makes him feel like something vital is slipping past his fingertips. This tightness in his chest is completely foreign. Andrew doesn’t know exactly when Neil became something to hold onto. He’d been all snark and blue eyes and vicious criticism of outsiders. Then he’d been gentle, calloused hands, the warmth beneath Andrew’s body, his favorite fucking flavor. The ease of it had felt too precarious to put any weight on at first, but the more he leans into it, the more solid it feels.

“Fine,” Andrew says. He picks his phone up again.

“...fine?” Aaron asks.

“Go fuck up your life all you want,” Andrew says. “I can’t be the only thing keeping your shit together forever.”

“Fine,” Aaron repeats, dumbfounded.

“Do you want something else?” Andrew asks flatly.

“Yeah, no, nothing,” Aaron says. He backs hastily out of Andrew’s bedroom and gently closes the door behind him.

Andrew waits for that unfamiliar tightness to coil in his chest. He waits for the feeling of letting something very delicate fall out of his hands. It doesn’t come.

 

 

epilogue.

“Okay,” Allison says brightly. “I followed every instruction on your rider to the tiniest detail. There’s a seven pound M&M rainbow sorted by color. I got you the Louboutin black nail polish. I put up eight more strings of lights in Neil’s room. I bought you your own pillow. I got you that fucking special-order ice cream. I threw out Matt’s Crocs. It’s fucking time.”

On the couch, Andrew pokes a spoon into his $25 alcohol-infused ice cream and considers it for a minute. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Renee at the other end of the couch, looking sweetly amused. Matt is on a barstool, but he looks like he’s hanging on every word with such intensity that he’s likely to fall off of it.

“A deal is a deal,” Andrew says. “Do your thing.”

He was right about Matt—the idiot fistpumps and nearly falls off the stool. Neil, close on the couch, makes a softly amused noise and leans into Andrew’s side.

Allison immediately taps a button on her phone, pauses, and then smiles brilliantly at her screen.

“Hey guys,” she says brightly. “I know you’ve all been dying to meet the goth shadow you occasionally see in the background of my posts. I am delighted to tell you that we’ve welcomed another tiny sarcastic asshole into our home. Look.” She taps on the screen, flipping the camera, Andrew assumes, and then aims it at the couch. “This is Andrew. He’s 5’0 even, but he’s very buff.”

Andrew raises his middle finger in her direction.

“See?” Allison coos. “There are two of them now. Neil, how was your day? Did anything exciting happen? Who was the stupidest person you saw today? Tell us who you hate.”

Neil is quiet for a moment. Andrew savors a spoonful of ice cream while he thinks. Then, Neil says, “It was fine. And the answer is my Math TA. It’s always my Math TA. But I don’t want to be predictable, so let’s say it was the guy at the deli who asked what’s in half a chicken3.”

Allison laughs. She turns her sharp, white smile on Andrew. “How about you, Andrew. Same question. Who was the stupidest person you had to deal with today?”

Andrew carves out another pristine curl of ice cream and considers it carefully, letting the silence stretch. He waits until Allison is practically vibrating and then he says, “Neil.”