One, two, three. That’s how many kids Mrs. Harris is currently fostering. Andrew is the third, and the oldest, which means he has to do most of the chores and look after the other kids and to make sure everyone eats, and to keep Mr. Harris happy, so he doesn’t hit anyone. No one ever praises him for this, or thanks him, or acknowledges at all. He’s not sure why they would. Children should be seen and not heard, after all, obedient and quiet and helpful. Andrew does his best, because after seven years he’s figured out the fastest way to get hit is to say something smart.
Mr. Harris is a big man, with cruel eyes and heavy hands. Andrew does not like him, does his best to keep out of reach, out of sight when possible. Andrew is a pro at getting out of the way, at this point, making himself quiet and small and unnoticeable. Being noticeable means you are a target, and being a target is the worst thing you can be. It’s easy to make excuses usually, one of the babies needs a nap, he wants to go play outside, he needs to work on homework, no really Mr. Harris (call me Steven, kid) you wouldn’t want the school calling and asking why my work didn’t get done would you?
Andrew is quiet at school too. The other kids think he is weird, will watch him from the playsets muttering and laughing behind their hands at his ill-fitting clothes and worn out backpack. One day a girl with shining red hair walks up to him and asks why he talks so funny. He’s sitting on the ground, digging little bugs out of the trenches they’ve dug themselves, so he picks up one of the insects and dumps it and a handful of dirt on her clean smooth copper hair. She screams, high and loud, and Andrew claps his hands over his ears, overwhelmed by the sudden noise.
His brain feels fuzzy, for a moment, like the sound is enough to cancel out the rest of the world, and when his eyes start working again there’s a teacher crouched down at eye level, false concern in her eyes, asking why he threw dirt at Jenny, that was very mean young man. Andrew doesn’t respond. Children should be seen and not heard. No one wants to hear your excuses Andrew, why don’t you just shut the fuck up and stop being a whiny baby, Andrew.
She is still talking, trying to get him to respond, to say what he did, to give her something to get him in more trouble. He will not give it to her, he does not care.
She pulls him up roughly by his arm and pulls him over to the bench where the other teachers sit. He’s being punished, she says, for playing too roughly with a girl.
She shouldn’t be special just because she’s a girl. Andrew thinks, but he does not say that because the teacher does not care. When the teacher is not looking, he slides under the bench, scrapes at the dirt under there, looks for more little bugs to pull out and watch burrow back into their tiny fragile homes.
There aren’t any. Boring.
Later, Mr. Harris stops him, hand tight and sweaty around Andrew’s wrist, and asks, Hey kid how old are you again? Andrew has been here for one month, as of two days ago. Andrew is not entirely sure Mr. Harris knows his name.
I’m seven, Andrew tells him.
Ah, gonna be all grown up soon I bet, huh kid, you’re already mature for your age aren’t ya?
There is something in his voice, something in the way his hand grips Andrew’s arm, the way his eyes gleam as they glance Andrew up and down, that makes Andrew’s stomach suddenly hurt very badly. He tries to tug his wrist out of Mr. Harris’s grip without making it obvious what he is doing, but he can’t, he’s stuck, full of a kind of visceral fear he hasn’t felt since the first time a foster mother locked him in a closet.
Mr. Harris is waiting for him to respond, eyes expectant. Andrew doesn’t know what to say.
Well Susan took the girls out to go see a movie tonight, so it’s just me and you kid. Why don’t you grab me a beer and we can have a boys night huh?
This is the only moment Andrew wastes time on wishing he could forget. Could go back and erase. Wishes he’d pulled free of that grip, wishes he’d jumped out the window, run out the back door, hid in the garden, wishes he’d kicked and bit and screamed and cried until it stopped and he could be safe from everything that was to come next. He will never forget it. He’s sure that even if his memory weren’t unfortunately perfect, this would be etched into the folds of his mind for the rest of his life.
He goes and gets the beer. He sits tentatively on the couch, as far away as he can get from Mr. Harris.
The first praise he ever gets from an adult is when Mr. Harris asks what movie he wants to watch. He says a name.
Why don’t you say please, kid?
Good job, kid, you better learn your manners if you’re gonna stick around here.
Later, Andrew is in the shower and the water is finally running clear and his stomach hurts and his body hurts and he doesn’t—
Andrew thought hitting was the worst thing adults could do to him. He was wrong. He thinks about telling Mrs. Harris, about telling his teacher, but— they’d think he was gross. They’d punish him. They’d tell him he was bad, or lying or mistaken. Like they always did when other kids tried to hit him or steal from his backpack or take his food.
He doesn’t tell anyone. Children should be seen and not heard.
Andrew is twelve and he does not trust when people compliment him. Especially the way he looks, how small he is or the color of his hair or the shape of his mouth. He hates it, hates when people touch him or try to hold his hand or ruffle his hair. He wants to be left alone, to be ignored and swallowed by an endless void, so no one can ever look at him or touch him or tell him oh you’re so pretty like that again.
Cass is— different. Cass dresses him in pressed slacks and button up shirts for church on Sundays, and tells him how handsome he looks. Tells him he’s really a good kid he just needs someone on his side. Tells him that she’s sure he tried his best after she gets calls from the school that he didn’t do his homework again. Tells him that she understands why he’s angry when he starts fights during lunch period, tells him she gets it, tells him she’ll help him through it. That she loves him and wants to keep him he just has to be patient for a little bit while we get all the paperwork sorted, alright sweetie?
Andrew does not like being called sweetie, but he does not tell Cass that, just nods his head and lets her ruffle his hair, lets her put her arms around him and kiss him on the forehead and whispers I love you sweetpea. It feels like sunlight. It feels like the only thing that’s worth it. Andrew is so tired of moving, he is so so desperate to stay still. To be like everyone else, with a family that loves him, that wants him.
And then there is Drake, who wants him too. Drake is Cass in inverse, compliments and insults bleeding from his mouth in a single breath, hot behind Andrew’s ears, sliding down his back like sweat, like fear. Andrew gets stomach aches a lot now. When he goes to the nurse at school she looks at him with concerned eyes, gives him bandaids and tylenol, and does jack shit about anything else. Andrew would resent her, if he weren’t grateful, grateful that her inaction allows him to scrape along, to keep this thing he needs so badly to have. (Later, he is no longer grateful, but he is too bitter and apathetic at that point to find the place in his heart where anger might be.)
Drake laughs, the first time he sees the cuts. Says, Aw, AJ I didn’t know you liked pain so much, I’ll have to make sure to keep you happy.
Sometimes when they are in public Drake will grab his wrist just slightly too high, and smirk when Andrew flinches away from the sting.
But Cass, sweet loving blind Cass, showers him with her care and her smiles and her gentle touches and Andrew soaks it up, desperate and hurting, and the more he hurts the more he needs to stay, because otherwise what was the point of hurting in the first place? (Sunk cost fallacy, he later learns, is the term for it. When you have put so much effort into an unachievable thing that you refuse to stop, insist on continuing to chip away at the concrete wall with your single fork, because surely, surely, it will be worth it in the end.)
But like always, Andrew is forced into a corner, forced to reckon with the fact that the situation is not sustainable, cannot proceed as planned. That he can’t have Cass, can’t have a family, can’t have love and praise and sunshine.
Andrew does not care that Aaron is his brother. He has a family (does he?) he insists to himself, it doesn’t matter, it’s just some kid who happens to look like him. What’s the big fucking deal? But when Drake finds out he is so delighted and Andrew spends two hours in the bathroom dry heaving and smearing blood onto the floor.
Andrew has made his choices. He has weighed the good and the bad and decided what he is willing to take, how much he is willing to be hurt, (because if you want something, you have to give up something else, there is no such thing as charity).
But he cannot do that for someone else. He cannot decide for Aaron, that being hurt is okay. Cannot allow this boy who looks like him — but is not his brother — into a position where he might experience even a tiny amount of the suffering that Andrew has experienced.
Another trade, then, he must lose something to gain something.
Andrew loses Cass. Aaron does not contact him again for a long time.
It is not a victory but it is enough for now.
Andrew is fifteen, and there is an irony that behind bars is the safest he’s ever been.
Andrew knows he’s gay. Has caught his gaze lingering on toned stomachs in the showers, or found himself admiring the way a boy’s jaw tightens when in the middle of an argument in the cafeteria.
It has not been information he has felt like acting on. Andrew still does not want anyone to touch him. He still gets nightmares, of hands running down his sides, grabbing and pulling and bruising him inside and out. He finds himself waking at the smallest noise, flinching when a gate clangs or someone coughs too loudly. He’s gotten sent to solitary more than once for punching people who have tried to grab him.
There is a boy. He is tallish, all long gangly limbs. His nose is too big and he has a tendency to stutter over his words and every time he ends up on cleaning duty with Andrew he goes bright red in a way that makes something stir hungrily in Andrew’s gut. Occasionally when they are out in the yard the boy will come over to the picnic table Andrew has perched himself on top of and just start— talking. About himself, what he did to get in, what he hopes they have for lunch tomorrow, what he thinks about the guards, gossip about other inmates on and on. Andrew suspects the boy is just prone to word vomit, but he doesn’t find it as annoying as he might. Andrew never talks, but he lets his eyes rest on the boy’s face, and does not stop him either.
Later, when they are alone in the laundry room, Andrew kisses a boy for the first time. It is wet, and incredibly clumsy, and there are too many teeth and not enough coordination, but he pins the boy’s hands back into the wall and eventually the kiss smoothes out into something resembling enjoyable and Andrew feels—
He wants— but he does not know how to have. Does not know how to consolidate this insistent need at the base of his gut with the fact that he thinks if someone tried to touch him, even if he wanted them to, he would probably try to kill them before they could get their hands under his clothes.
So he makes do with what he has. He pins boys to the wall and he learns how to kiss, how to get someone gasping, pupils blown wide and face flushed with pleasure. But— he doesn’t like it when they talk to him.
Once, a boy — tall and wide, with a handsome face and a charming grin — says oh that’s good, you’re so good for me baby and Andrew gets off his knees and punches him hard in the gut before walking away. hey the guy yells, face flushed red with anger and embarrassment, bent over in pain with his dick still hanging out, what the fuck was that for?
Do not speak to me like that is all Andrew can think to say. Logically, he knows why it set him off that way it did, but— his actions weren’t entirely purposeful. That troubles him, stirs in his gut in a miasma of anxiety and paranoia.
Don’t talk he says to the next one, and does not allow himself to lose control like that again.
Andrew is twenty two years old, and he is not stupid enough to think that Neil means nothing to him.
Andrew doesn’t care about compliments. He knows he is objectively fairly handsome, height aside. He dresses well, he’s fit, he’s an athlete — he is comfortable with the way he looks and the way he is. It doesn’t matter. Neil is— enough. Everything else is inconsequential. Neil does not comment on his looks. Neil says things like You’re amazing and Choose us and I want to stay and that means more than any shallow observation ever could.
Neil is the one that initiates the conversation, however.
It starts because of Nicky, because Nicky is always oversharing his dogmatic ideals about how romance should look with Neil.
“There’s really nothing better than when Erik tells me I look sexy Neil, just like, instant validation right there. I don’t know what I’d do without him honestly.”
Andrew is perched on the desk, smoking out the cracked window. Neil is trying to watch an Exy game, seated in the beanbag chair next to the couch and clearly doing his best to tune Nicky out. Nicky is either oblivious, or ignoring it, as he natters on about pet names and love languages and whatever other bullshit he’s read in Seventeen magazine this week.
“That’s great Nicky,” Neil says, the sarcastic edge to it just hidden enough that Nicky blasts right past it.
“I know! I really don’t get you and Andrew, like, you’d barely even know you guys like each other! Honestly I’m still not sold that you do—”
This is enough for Neil to get visibly annoyed, and he finally pulls his gaze away from the screen to glare hard and say, “I don’t give a fuck about what you think about my relationship, Nicky.”
This gets Nicky stuttering and backpedaling, and Andrew tunes out the conversation again because watching Nicky flounder when he’s been called on his bullshit stopped being entertaining years ago.
Later though, when Nicky leaves to go out to some bar and Kevin is studying in the library, Neil asks him, “You don’t care right? That I don’t—,” and then he doesn’t finish his sentence.
Andrew levels him with a patient stare, waits for Neil to figure out his words, what he wants to ask.
Neil’s eyes are focused steadily on Andrew’s as he thinks, the twist of his mouth betraying his turmoil. He looks like he’s trying to solve a math problem.
“I know we don’t do— in public. I don’t want to. But do you— care that I really don’t comment on the way you look?”
Andrew thinks. They’ve gotten better at this, over the years. Neil’s sexuality has always confused Andrew a little bit, made him defensive some times, or overly concerned others. It doesn’t help that Neil isn’t great at explaining himself, at least when it comes to this specific thing, but they’ve discovered that the best strategy, when Neil is confused, or annoyed, or even simply curious about something, is for him to just ask, and Andrew to answer.
Andrew is still occasionally petty though, so he says, “Do you care that I don’t for you?”
This visibly throws Neil. Andrew would not be surprised if Neil had never considered his own attractiveness for more than a brief moment. Neil seems to walk through life under the impression that he is both average looking and not that interesting, which is honestly laughable at best.
“No? Why would you— I mean? Do you think I’m hot?”
Andrew blinks. “Do I,” he says slowly, “Think you are hot?” he barely adds an intonation at the end of the statement.
Neil seems to realize the idiocy of the question slightly too late. He backpedals, “I mean like— I know you— think I'm— attractive? But I don’t— I’d never thought about it having anything to do with the way I look?”
And that’s interesting, to Andrew, and he has a hypothesis in his head he wants to test.
“Tell me, Neil, what about me you find physically attractive,” at Neil’s look of confusion he adds, "Humour me. ”
And Neil bites his lip and stares at Andrew for a very long time and does not say anything at all. Eventually he tilts his head and laughs a little and says, “I don’t know what that means, could you give me an example maybe?”
“Fishing for compliments now, Neil?”
Neil levels an icy glare at Andrew, “You started it.”
Andrew inclines his head in acknowledgment of this point, as he looks Neil up and down. Andrew’s taste in men has always been varied, but there are a lot of things about Neil that are nice to look at.
“Your eyes,” he starts, “Your hair. Your waist.” Andrew especially likes putting his hands around Neil’s waist as they kiss, rubbing his thumbs into the dips of Neil’s hipbones and feeling him shudder. Speaking of kissing, “Your mouth. Your jawline when you get angry.” He thinks some more before adding, “You should be aware that you are an attractive man Neil Josten.”
Neil looks— thoughtful. He looks Andrew up and down and finally says, “I like your shoulders. And your hands.” He doesn’t continue.
Andrew raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t— I don’t think I really like them because of the way they look, is all,” Neil finally confesses. “It’s because. It’s because it’s you. Because you’re steady and you can hold me up and keep me— present. I like being with you because I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Three years ago this kind of honestly terrified Andrew to his very core. Now, he can examine the emotion, sift through the vaguely unsettled feeling he gets at this confession, accept it and push through it. Bee would be proud.
Still, no need to dwell on it. Andrew stands and pulls Neil off the couch, leads him into the bedroom and locks the door behind them.
It’s only when Neil is settled with his back against the wall, Andrew firmly in his lap and mouthing hotly at his jawline that Neil suddenly makes a noise like he’s remembered something.
“I forgot,” he says, as he noses into Andrew’s throat and sucks hard enough that it’s going to bruise. It causes Andrew to jerk a little, tighten his thighs around Neil, lean hard into the touch without quite meaning to. Neil continues, sounding smug, “I like your neck too.”
Andrew rolls his eyes but doesn’t tell Neil to stop.