“Fucking hell, Neil, will you just accept help for once in your life?”
“Kevin Day, so help me God, if you touch my wheelchair you are a dead man.”
Kevin held his hands up in defeat, then crossed his arms with a sigh and watched as Neil stubbornly pushed his chair halfway down the street to find a patch of curb he could cross. Neil took his time just to spite him—he was in no rush to go to this stupid party Kevin had bullied him into attending with him, and making Kevin wait was one of his favourite things to do in the whole world.
“Okay, so, which of your abominable friends should I prepare myself for?” Neil asked as Kevin rang the doorbell. “The conspiracy theorist who refuses to wear deodorant? The one who told me she knew a good cosmetic surgeon? The anti-vaxxer?”
“They’re not my friends, they are my colleagues,” Kevin grumbled. “Actually-”
“Actually, this elevator is not big enough for your ego,” Neil said, peering into the small cabin. “Race you.”
“It’s not a race if you take the elevator and I take the stairs,” Kevin huffed.
Neil briefly deliberated turning his chair around like a normal person, then grabbed onto Kevin with one hand instead and used him to turn his chair, ignoring Kevin’s spluttering. He wheeled himself into the elevator and made a point of looking at his watch as the door slid shut.
“Last one to the top is a loser!”
There was a scuffle as Kevin ran for the stairs and Neil smirked. The elevator was old and cranky, and it reached the fifth floor at about the same time Kevin emerged at the top of the stairs, red-faced and panting.
“You’re getting old,” Neil told him, clucking his tongue.
“Fuck,” Kevin gasped, “you.”
“Alright, gramps, let’s get this over with, then. Do you think I can get both the conspiracy theorist and the anti-vaxxer off my back if I make something up about how the flu was created by the FBI to combat overpopulation?”
“I told you,” Kevin said, exasperated. “This isn’t a work party-”
“Yeah, yeah, you always say that, and then we inevitably end up getting kicked out of the bar because you get into a screaming match with the World War II enthusiast.”
The door at the end of the corridor was open and Neil went through, scrunching up his nose at the strong smell of mulled wine that hung in the air and the sound of yet another awful cover of Last Christmas blasting from the speakers. Someone had done their best to liven up a barren hallway with drooping tinsel garlands and a leftover plastic Thanksgiving turkey wearing a crumpled Santa hat. Most of the guests were clustered in the dimly lit living room, while the more sparsely populated kitchen was overcompensating with glaringly bright light bulbs and an array of mostly demolished snacks.
“Charming,” Neil commented drily, snatching a carton of orange juice from the drinks table and nestling it in his lap.
“That’s for mixing—never mind,” Kevin said. He looked around the room, squinting at the people and craning his neck. “Where is he? I wanted to introduce you…”
“Oh, no,” Neil said, stopping his chair. “No, no, no, no, no. Kevin, no.”
“What? You don’t even know-”
“Remember what happened last time you tried to set me up with someone?” Neil said, snapping his fingers at him.
“She wasn’t so bad,” Kevin said mulishly. “How was I supposed to know she was deathly allergic to peanuts? And anyway, that’s not why I… Oh, shit.”
“What?” Neil said, whipping around. A tall, curvy figure detached from a nearby group and sauntered over, carrying a glass of champagne like it was a weapon. The light of the crappy electric candles undulated over her, making her look like some otherworldly candy cane queen in her red and white dress.
“Neil,” she said, a peppermint-sharp smile glittering on her mouth. “How good to see you again.”
“Allison,” Neil replied, toasting her with his carton of orange juice. “Slumming it with the lowly masses, huh? How’d your season go? Oh, wait, terrible.”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me that my team is full of incompetents,” Allison said, pursing her lips. Then she made a show of looking at the air around Neil’s chair like something was missing. “Where’s your minder?”
Neil looked at where Kevin had been standing a second ago, but it seemed he’d spontaneously developed the ability to teleport at the sight of his ex-girlfriend. He shrugged and took a sip from his orange juice, immediately spitting it back out into the carton.
“Delightful,” Allison muttered. She clicked her red nails against her glass. “If you see him, tell him I have a suit for him to wear to the Day Spirit Gala.”
“Tell him yourself,” Neil said. “You have his number.”
He’d never understand why Allison still insisted on dressing Kevin for events. They’d broken up almost a year ago, much to the continued frenzy of the press. Kevin avoided her almost as much as he avoided Jean and Thea, which in turn only served to infuriate Allison more. Neil sometimes wondered if there was such a thing as the secret language of clothes and the outfits Allison sent him were all just carefully constructed “fuck you”s. Kind of like flowers, but in reverse.
It was either that, or they were imbued with a slow-acting poison that would eventually kill him.
Neil left Allison to her champagne and made a slow circuit of the room, ignoring the looks people sent him and the way some of them nearly tripped over themselves in their haste to make room for his chair. There was no sign of Kevin’s horrible friends, but he found Renee setting up a board game in the corner. The two of them slunk around the edges of acquaintanceship like two street cats warily circling each other, and when Renee had the gall to smile at him Neil put on his merriest grin and saluted her in turn. There. That would throw her off.
Another circuit of the room yielded a mistletoe wreath bestowed upon his head by a very emotional drunk girl wearing a velvet suit, a joint scrounged from a stoner in a Scooby Doo t-shirt, and a lighter with a naked woman on it pick-pocketed from someone’s jacket in a moment of inattention. With his bounty, Neil made for the balcony doors he’d spied behind the curtains on his first round, and found himself outside in the freezing cold, looking down at the snow-muffled city below.
There was one other person on the balcony, but it was better than sharing a stuffy room with a bunch of strangers.
“Great party,” Neil said, trying and failing to light his joint with the naked woman. “Shit. Piece of crap.”
He tossed the useless thing over the railing and turned to his partner in solitude, about to ask for a light. He’d seen the trail of smoke out of the corner of his eyes, though it was hard to make out in the darkness. The words shrivelled up and died on his tongue when the man tilted his head and the low glimmer of light from the window caught on his face.
“Imagine,” Andrew Minyard, number three, goalkeeper for the New York City Tigers and best exy player in the history of the sport in particular and the world in general, said. “Walking along the street, minding your own business, and out of nowhere a cigarette lighter strikes you on the temple, killing you instantly.”
The joint dropped out of Neil’s mouth. He hastily picked it back up, spinning it around his hand as he fought for composure.
“Death comes for us all,” he settled on saying.
“And for some it comes in the form of pair of anatomically improbable breasts falling from the sky at a lethal speed.”
Neil huffed out an aborted laugh and pulled the collar of his turtleneck up over his mouth. He was glad for the darkness now, even if there was no real chance of truly hiding the scars on his face. He’d watched every single match Andrew had ever played in his life, even the ones from college; some of them live. He rarely gave interviews and never said much, and some nights Neil had indulged in some serious online stalking just to wring what sparse facts were known about Andrew Minyard from the internet. Most of it was speculation about the trial of his brother and his bumpy college days, but every once in a while, Neil found some hidden gem. Andrew’s cousin’s Facebook page had proven a treasure trove of casual information, like his favourite ice-cream flavour (panettone, from an Italian restaurant they’d gone to for Nicky’s husband’s birthday) or the fact that Andrew never wore clothes gifted to him unless they were black but would accept Nicky’s traditional Christmas present of quirky mismatched socks. All it had taken was setting up a fake account in Kevin’s name and sending Nicky a friend request.
None of his stalking had prepared him for actually meeting Andrew in person, though.
Neil had never been one of those fans waiting around outside the court, hoping for a glimpse, a smile, an autograph. He’d been content watching Andrew play, and digging for little insights into his life from the safety of his couch. Sometimes he’d imagined what he would tell Andrew if he ever met him, which usually involved a play-by-play analysis of his latest game, but now that he actually had the chance words eluded him.
He watched Andrew breathe out a steady stream of smoke as snowflakes settled in his light-infused hair. The muffled sounds of music and voices from the party suddenly seemed miles away.
“There are worse ways to go,” he finally said, letting the stretched-out silence snap back to its original, semi-comfortable state.
Andrew hummed, snuffing out his cigarette in a dirty saucer that was balanced precariously on the railing.
“Zombies,” he offered.
“Not my first thought, but okay,” Neil said, still playing with his unlit joint. The paper was getting soggy under his fingers, but if he put it in his pocket, he’d have nothing to do with his hands.
“Boring deaths don’t count,” Andrew replied.
“Fine,” Neil said. “But zombies are predictable. How about getting kidnapped and experimented on by aliens?”
“Outdated. They don’t need to kidnap and experiment on humans anymore,” Andrew said. “Everything there is to know about us is right here.”
He held up his phone and shook it before slipping it back into his pocket.
Neil thought about an assault charge, a murder trial, panettone ice-cream and mismatched socks.
“Tell me something your phone doesn’t know.”
“Why should I?” Andrew asked, looking at him out of the corner of his eye.
“Because telling a complete stranger is easier than opening up to people who give a fuck about you?”
Andrew made a noise that Neil thought might be a laugh. Or what was left of a laugh after you deboned it, stripped it of its structural integrity.
“Ask me something, then.”
There were a million things Neil wanted to know, all jostling for space in the back of his mouth. He silenced the ones that were about Exy, and sifted through what little was left.
On the court, Andrew always seemed unbreakable. Both immoveable object and unstoppable force. Like there was nothing and no one that could touch him.
“What are you afraid of?” Neil asked.
Andrew thought about it for a moment, then said: “Heights.”
“Right,” Neil said, stomach swooping a little as if he was the one scared. “That’s why you’re hiding out on the balcony. Got it.”
“I am not hiding,” Andrew said. “Just… avoiding the inevitable.”
“You mean death?” Neil grinned.
Andrew shot him an unimpressed look.
“Your turn,” he said.
“Point Nemo is the area of the ocean that is furthest from land on all sides. It’s so far away from everything that sometimes astronauts aboard the International Space Station are closer to it than any human on earth. It is often used as a spacecraft cemetery,” Neil recited dutifully. After a pause, he added: “When I was a child, I plotted to run away to Point Nemo. I was going to live in a submarine with a cat called Miss Clementine and only surface once a year for supplies. In the end I only made it as far as the coast, though.”
Andrew was silent for so long that Neil started to fidget with his joint again. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he grabbed the carton of orange juice and held it out.
Andrew looked at the carton, then at him, and Neil felt a tiny thrill shiver down his spine at the intensity in those eyes. He’d seen them described as hazel on the internet, though right now, in the night, they looked almost supernaturally green.
“You have a parasite on your head,” Andrew said, eyes flicking up to the mistletoe in Neil’s hair.
“It’s a fashion statement,” Neil replied. Andrew’s lingering gaze made him uncomfortable, so he pulled his collar up over his mouth again and chewed on the fabric. When that wasn’t enough to relieve the tension, he pulled his armrests up and punched them down again, repeating the process a few times until he felt it was safe to look back at Andrew.
He was still watching.
“What?” Neil said.
“I can’t figure you out,” Andrew said. “But I will.”
Warmth flooded Neil’s stomach like stadium lights.
“Better get to it, then,” he joked, looking at his watch. “I promised my roommate I’d stick it out for an hour, and that hour is almost up.”
“Or you could stay,” Andrew said, casually.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because talking to a complete stranger is easier than opening up to people who give a fuck about you?” Andrew ventured, wiping his thumb over his mouth and erasing a small quirk at the edge. Neil had seen pictures of the rare Andrew Minyard smirk—it was always crooked, lips turning up at one side while the other was clamped firmly down, like one of those games where you hit things and another one popped up in a different place. It was a devastating thing to see live.
“Maybe I turn into a pumpkin after midnight,” Neil said. “Have you considered that?”
“You’re halfway there already,” Andrew said, indicating the orange windbreaker slung over the back of his chair.
“I was gonna spray paint my chair to match,” Neil said mournfully, using his feet to push and pull his chair backward and forward in a little rocking motion. “But my roommate banned me from any more wheelchair mods after the superglue incident.”
“Fascinating,” Andrew commented. He lit another cigarette, taking a deep drag, then pointed it at Neil’s lap where he was still holding the joint. “Are you going to smoke that?”
“I used my last pair of anatomically improbable breasts to kill a random passerby, remember?”
Andrew tossed something at him and Neil’s arm snatched it out of the air before his brain registered that it was his lighter. It was heavy and intricate, not something you could buy at a gas station at 2 AM.
Neil raised his eyebrow.
“What if I hadn’t caught it?”
“Death comes for us all,” Andrew shrugged. “What is one more dead passerby in the grand scheme of existence?”
“We’re all specks of dust in the eye of the universe,” Neil grinned. “There and then gone. Utterly insignificant.”
“Butterflies live, on average, one month, and can go their entire butterfly lives without seeing a human, or snow, or a car,” Andrew replied, dragging his finger through the snow that had piled up on the railing.
Neil was about to say something about how lucky those butterflies were when the door was shoved open behind him and someone stumbled into the back of his chair. Neil could smell their wine-soaked breath close to his face for a moment before they righted themselves with a drunken giggle.
“Whoops, sorry. Hey, it’s snowing! Everyone! It’s SNOWING!”
Neil tried to manoeuvre his chair to get away from the sudden outpouring of drunk people onto the balcony, but it was hard in the small space. He accidentally and not-so-accidentally ran over a couple of feet, and when he finally escaped back into the living room there was no sign of Andrew anywhere. He tried to shove down the disappointment—his hour was up, anyway. The bubble he’d shared with Andrew on the balcony had burst, and it was time to put on his jacket and turn into a pumpkin, and find Kevin so they could go home.
The only memento that remained was the heavy weight of Andrew’s lighter in his pocket.
Neil was, strictly speaking, in possession of a phone.
He used it mostly to order food, play Angry Birds, and make doctor’s appointments whenever Kevin sat on him and refused to get off until he did. If his phone happened to be charged otherwise, he kept it on silent, because there was no one in the world who had any reason to call him, and if they did, they could damn well tell his voicemail.
So, when he had a missed call from an unknown number but no message stating the caller’s identity and intent, Neil ignored it.
There was another call the next day, which Neil also ignored, until a message came through from the same number. Neil stared at the blunt “it’s Andrew” on his screen until it went dark, then called him back.
“Andrew who?” he said as soon as Andrew picked up.
“Minyard,” Andrew’s voice said, sounding a little scratchy. There was a rustling of fabric and Neil checked the time on the oven clock—it was past noon. “Fucking finally.”
“Are you in bed?” Neil blurted out.
There was a tiny pause on the other end, then some more rustling.
“I take it that was not meant as an invitation to phone sex,” Andrew said, and Neil felt his face grow hot.
“Uh, no. Sorry to disappoint?”
Andrew cleared his throat.
“It’s my day off,” he said.
“And you’re just going to waste it sleeping all day?” Neil teased.
“There are other things you can do in a bed besides sleeping.”
“Like ponder the futility of human life?” Neil suggested, pulling the collar of his sweatshirt over his smile.
“Something like that,” Andrew said around a badly suppressed yawn.
They were quiet for a moment.
“What are you doing?” Andrew asked.
“Stuff,” Neil said. He was lying on the sofa with a blanket tucked around him and his legs propped up on a hot water bottle, trying to will the pain out of existence without much success. Usually, he and Kevin went on a run in the park on Saturdays, where Kevin would try to beat his own high score and Neil would put his chair through its paces until it rattled and creaked. He’d still woken up at their normal time today, but life had taken one look at him and pinned him down with a hefty dose of useless agony, so Kevin had gone to the gym without him.
“Like what,” Andrew asked.
“How did you get my number?” Neil countered, shifting on the sofa.
“Renee has my number?”
“Was she not supposed to?”
“No,” Neil said, feeling unbalanced. “Yes. I don’t know. Why?”
“Why did you ask Renee for my number?”
There was a muffled sigh, a creak of bedsprings as Andrew sat up. He muttered something that sounded like “growing soft,” then said, louder: “Because out of all the guys Kevin has thrown at me, you are the first one who isn’t an Exy-obsessed idiot. Also, you stole my lighter.”
“I didn’t steal it,” Neil said, brain rattling around in his skull too hard to even contemplate the rest. “You gave it to me and then disappeared.”
“I want it back,” Andrew said. “Have coffee with me.”
“Fine,” Neil replied, feeling suddenly too hot and pushing the blanket off himself. “When?”
“Now?” Andrew asked. “In an hour?”
Neil contemplated his pinned-insect state and wiggled his toes experimentally. The pain was still there, of course, threaded through him in complicated patterns like macramé. He’d been planning to just stay right there until Kevin got back and then watch the Bears vs. Hawks game on TV and then transfer from the couch back to his bed.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” Andrew echoed. “Starbucks, by the park.”
The line went dead before Neil could bleat yet another “Okay,” and Neil dropped his phone on the floor and sighed. He should probably get dressed.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, Neil had managed to scrape himself off the couch and into his chair, wrestle himself out of Kevin’s old Tigers jersey and into Kevin’s slightly less old grey wool cardigan with orange elbow patches, and push himself out of the house and to the park. He was still wearing his fleece-lined sweatpants, because he could not be fucked to go through the ordeal of changing them today, but he’d shoved a beanie on his head to hide the atrocious state of his hair and wrapped a scarf around his neck and the lower half of his face.
He leaned into the last corner, his breath puffing out in front of his face despite the scarf, and was surprised to see Andrew waiting outside for him with two takeaway cups in his hand.
“Let’s walk,” he said, handing one of the cups to him.
“It’s cold,” Neil grumbled, wedging the cup between his thigh and his armrest.
“Too crowded,” Andrew muttered, gesturing at the coffee shop as they passed it. Neil frowned, something niggling in his chest.
“I can handle it.”
“I meant for me,” Andrew said, scowling at his coffee, his nose pink from the cold. Neil deflated.
They entered the park, moving slowly as Neil pushed his chair with one hand and took sips of his drink with the other. It was just plain coffee, no sugar or milk, and Neil spent a few moments obsessing over whether Andrew had consulted Renee on his preferred order as well before dismissing it.
“What else did Renee say about me?” he asked casually, tucking his blanket a little tighter around his thighs. The cold made his legs ache even worse and his wheels were picking up a lot of gunk from the muddy ground, but it was still good to get outside the house, breathe some fresh air.
“Nothing,” Andrew said.
Neil took another sip of his coffee, then let his chair coast to a stop.
“Kevin,” he said.
“Kevin?” Andrew asked.
“You said he throws guys at you.”
“He labours under the delusion that I would care more about Exy if I had a partner who was invested in it.”
“Who cares about Exy?” Neil joked, trying to make his face do the opposite of screaming me, I care about Exy.
“Kevin,” Andrew pointed out, swishing the dregs of his coffee around in his cup, though he sounded mollified at Neil’s reaction.
“So, he’s been trying to set you up.”
“Yes,” Andrew sighed, long-suffering.
“And that’s why you were hiding out on the balcony at the party.”
“Avoiding the inevitable,” Andrew said, pointedly looking Neil up and down.
“Yeah,” Neil said, his mouth dry. He’d been aware, in some faraway fashion, that Kevin and Andrew were old acquaintances. Kevin knew most of the major Exy players both from his time on the court and in the press rooms and everyone knew Kevin even though he’d quit playing after his injury, but for some reason Neil had never considered the fact that Kevin was in any way actively involved with Andrew’s life.
They went around the pond, past the spot where a class of seniors always practiced tai chi on Saturday mornings, then followed one of the smaller paths that snaked between the trees.
“What did Kevin tell you about me?” Neil finally asked, using a sturdy tree trunk to push himself around a bend in the path.
“Just naturally paranoid. So?”
“Nothing,” Andrew said again, eyeing him. “He said you were my type.”
Neil laughed, nearly inhaling his coffee in the process.
“Hilarious,” he drawled.
“Not really,” Andrew said, and Neil made the executive decision to pretend he hadn’t heard that in order to preserve whatever mental functions he still had left.
He aimed his empty coffee cup at one of the bins and landed it perfectly, startling a few birds that were pecking on the ground.
“Now what?” he said. “We’ve had coffee, made fun of Kevin, and successfully frozen our asses off.”
He glanced at his watch—it was almost time for the pre-game interviews. If he hurried, he’d make it home in time for the first half.
“You still have my lighter,” Andrew said.
“Damn,” Neil grumbled. “I was hoping you’d forget about that.”
“I never forget anything.”
Neil sighed and patted his pockets, then remembered he’d transferred the lighter to his bedside table. Not for any particular reason, just—it was nice to look at, that was all.
“Whoops,” he said. “Must have left it at home.”
“Looks like we will have to do this again,” Andrew said. His voice was perfectly even, but somehow it still sounded like a question.
“Looks like,” Neil said.
They stopped at the end of the path, which had the sort of barrier that pedestrians and cyclists could walk through by weaving between the two bars. The gap wasn’t big enough for Neil’s chair, so he grabbed the outer edge and pulled himself through the shrubbery on the sides, grumbling as droplets of melted snow rained down on him. Cleaning out the wheels was going to be a pain later.
The exit led onto a quiet street with a bistro on the corner. Neil hadn’t eaten much yet today, and his stomach growled as the potent scent of fried garlic wafted over.
He glanced at his watch again, then at Andrew, who seemed in no hurry to leave.
“I have rules,” Andrew said when they’d settled at a table, tapping his fingers on the menu.
“Yeah, me too,” Neil said. “Rule number one: don’t tell Kevin.”
“Obviously,” Andrew snorted.
Neil had sent off a quick text earlier to let Kevin know that he’d be late, and he could still feel his phone buzzing in his pocket as Kevin tried to get an answer for why he was out in the first place and what could possibly be so important he’d miss a game over it.
He slipped his hand into his pocket and turned it off.
“Excuse me,” someone said, approaching their table with a napkin and a pen, face shining excitedly. “You’re Andrew Minyard, right?”
“No,” Andrew said boldly.
“No… o-oh,” the person stammered, taken aback. “You’re Aaron?”
Andrew waved at them dismissively instead of explaining himself.
“Well… could you sign this, anyway? You could just write your last name-”
Neil muffled a laugh in his sleeve. The person dithered for a moment, twitching and opening their mouth a few times, then they wandered off with their still-unsigned napkin. They must not have been a big fan, or else they would know that Andrew didn’t give autographs—except, occasionally, to children. The only reason Neil had one hidden away in the bottom of his old duffel bag under his bed was because he had, in a fit of madness, once bribed some random kid a game to get him one, but he wasn’t going to mention that to Andrew.
“So, Aaron,” he said.
“My twin,” Andrew huffed. “Unfortunately.”
“For him or for you?”
“Both,” Andrew said, rearranging his cutlery and napkin in a bizarre pattern in front of him. “So. Rule number one: no Exy talk.”
As he said this, someone switched on the TV mounted over the counter. It was muted, but Neil immediately recognised the commentator. He forced himself to look away from the pre-game stats rundown and tucked his hands between his legs for safe-keeping.
“Sure, no problem,” he lied.
Andrew looked at him, with that same, intense gaze from the balcony, though his eyes looked more brown in the daylight, carrying reflections of the tiny, twinkling Christmas lights dripping down the window beside their table.
Neil looked away and rocked his chair a little, trying to keep his eyes from straying back to the TV. The waiter brought their sandwiches—tuna, egg and mayo for Andrew, which Neil scrunched up his nose at, and grilled cheese with tomato confit for Neil. It was perfectly crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, with the sharp tang of Dijon mustard and the fruity sweetness of the tomatoes, and Neil inhaled it in about two minutes flat.
“Hungry?” Andrew asked, amused. He had opened the two halves of his sandwich and was using a knife and fork to cut them into small, bite-sized pieces, separating the tuna and the eggs onto the different halves. Noticing Neil watching him, he deliberately speared a wilted lettuce leaf and stuck it in his mouth.
“Not anymore,” Neil said through his napkin.
Out of all the scars he had, the one that ran from the bottom of his eye down to his chin was maybe the one he hated the most.
It looked gruesome, pulling at his lower eyelid and cutting down through the corner of his mouth. Even years after the fact it still gave him trouble. Sometimes he drooled without noticing it. Eating certain foods was hard, and some days his eye felt dry and itchy and irritated no matter what he did.
It was also the most visible one. He couldn’t hide it, not completely. He felt it when he ran his hands over the skin, and sometimes picked or scratched at it when he was anxious.
He tossed his crumpled napkin on the plate and forced his hands away from his face, flicking a glance to the TV when Andrew was distracted arranging the pieces of his sandwich in a different pattern. The Hawks were in the lead—they always came out strong but tended to lose steam later on in the game, whereas the Bears coach liked to keep her best players back for second half, which was why they were an interesting match.
God damn it.
“So,” he said, clearing his throat and tearing his eyes away from the screen again. “Any other rules I should know about?”
“You’ll find out when they are relevant,” Andrew replied, examining a morsel of toasted bread on his fork. Christ, he was a slow eater. Neil started rocking his chair again, trying to get rid of some of the restlessness in his legs.
“Tell me something else your phone doesn’t know.”
Andrew chewed his bite of sandwich slowly.
“I hate snails.”
“Snails,” Neil echoed.
“Hate them,” Andrew repeated, scraping his fork over his plate. “Gross. Slimy. Suspect.”
“Right,” Neil grinned. “I’ll refrain from taking you to a French restaurant, then.”
Andrew shuddered slightly, then leaned back in his chair.
“Now you,” he said.
Neil narrowly stopped himself from saying I think the Rockets are seriously underrated as a team and would be in the running for the title this year if their strikers could pull their heads out of their asses long enough to score.
Instead, he offered: “I don’t like sweets.”
Andrew narrowed his eyes at him, as if trying to suss out a lie. After a minute, he nodded and leaned forward again.
“Good. Because I’m not sharing.”
He waved down the waiter and ordered a chocolate lava cake with fudge sauce and vanilla ice-cream. Watching him demolish the entire thing was almost as fascinating as watching him shut down the goal on court. Andrew brought the conversation back to aliens, and Neil completely missed the end of the first half of the Bears vs. Hawks game. Kevin was probably already texting him his analysis, but Neil found he was actually content to just sit there in their dim corner lit by shimmery string lights, listening to Andrew talk about documented UFO sightings in the last century.
When they finally parted, the day was drooping heavily into evening. Neil watched Andrew get into a cab, its taillights disappearing down the street until it turned the corner and was gone.
Keeping Kevin in the dark as to why he’d missed the game was even more fun than actually watching the game would have been, Neil decided.
Kevin moped all of Sunday and employed every tactic he could think of to get it out of Neil, who cheerfully told him to get fucked every time. On Monday Kevin had to go into the office for his monthly meeting with Wymack, and Neil opened his thesis document and changed the font a few times before clicking out of it again.
When he switched his phone on to look for something to order for dinner, he had a message from Andrew that just said put me out of this misery. He huffed a laugh and checked the time—practice would have ended about twenty minutes ago—then hit call.
“Too late,” Andrew greeted him.
“Good day to you too,” Neil grinned. “Wanna blow this popsicle stand?”
“Thought you’d never ask. Meet me at the Strand in half an hour.”
Neil looked down at his trusty sweatpants-and-hoodie combo, briefly debated getting spruced up, then shrugged. If Andrew had a problem with his outfit, he’d just have to deal. After some internal debate, he finally compromised on splashing some water in his face and working a little bit of Kevin’s ridiculously expensive product into his hair. At least he didn’t need to shave as often as Kevin, whose five o’clock shadow liked to show up as early as lunchtime some days.
The Strand was packed. Neil hung around the discount carts outside, eyeing up the one selling off Exy books for a reduced price. He’d been itching to get his hands on the Knox biography-
“I changed my mind,” Andrew’s voice piped up behind him. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
“Sure,” Neil said, feigning interest in a paleo cookbook to cover up his Exy-related lapse. “I don’t read much, anyway.”
He followed Andrew, who seemed to have a destination in mind but wasn’t telling Neil what, passing by harried Christmas shoppers and lavishly decorated window displays. A group of carollers was singing with more enthusiasm than skill on the opposite side of the street, lights twinkled everywhere and snatches of Christmas music wafted out of doorways. As they walked, tiny, there-and-then-gone snowflakes started to whirl around them, settling on Neil’s lap.
Neil wanted to ask Andrew how practice had been today, what they’d done, if the Tigers’ team captain was as surly as she seemed in interviews. He wanted to know if Andrew’s new racquet was even heavier than the last one and how he was coping with it. The Tigers’ stadium was enormous—had they decorated it? Was it as breath-taking empty as it was on game day? Did it smell the way Neil imagined, like floor polish and new court shoes and the faint memory of crowds filling the seats?
He was so busy not asking any of these questions that it took a moment for him to register the red sign and the giant hand curving out of the building in front of them.
“Madame Tussauds? Really?”
“Do you have anything better to do?” Andrew asked him.
Neil opened his mouth, then closed it again.
They found the end of the queue, moving slowly but steadily forwards, and Andrew paid for both of their tickets despite Neil’s protests.
“We have a brand new special exhibit room!” the attendant chirped at them with a plastered-on smile. “All about famous Exy players!”
She didn’t seem aware that Andrew was currently one of them, and Neil muffled his laughter in his collar as they went inside. Andrew rolled his eyes and led them on a circuitous route through the museum, avoiding the Exy room though they passed by the entrance several times.
“Why are wax figures and mannequins so creepy, anyway?” Neil mused. “They’re just harmless objects. And yet.”
“Uncanny valley,” Andrew said. “Acceptance of humanoid objects drops the more closely but imperfectly they resemble humans.”
“Is it because they look like corpses?” Neil asked, squinting up at an unsettlingly skinny wax model posing on a runway.
“That’s one possible explanation,” Andrew hummed.
“A reminder that death comes for us all,” Neil grinned. “Does looking at your brother make you think of your own mortality, too?”
“It certainly evokes feelings of eeriness and revulsion,” Andrew said dryly.
By the third time they passed the door to the Exy room, Neil couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s just have a quick look. Is there one of you in there? Did they not satisfy your vanity, is that why you don’t want to go in?”
“You are on thin ice,” Andrew warned.
“I didn’t even say the E-word,” Neil grinned. “We don’t have to talk about it. I just want to take a picture of Kevin’s man-crush for him. What was his name again?”
“Jeremy Knox,” Andrew said sourly. “Fine. You get two minutes.”
The room was set up like a miniature Exy court, figures of players posing with their racquets and uniforms, some mid-throw or running, their sculpted muscles bulging with the movement. Neil was delighted to find a statue of Kevin looking constipated next to his mother, and pestered Andrew into taking a picture of him making an exaggerated Kevin-face next to the statue. He managed to snap a few more of Jeremy, Thea, Allison, and his future husband Matt Boyd, who, okay, was maybe Neil’s man-crush just as much as Jeremy was Kevin’s. Except Neil didn’t drool over Matt’s quads, so he still felt justified in making fun of Kevin for it. Maybe he’d make a collage. Or life-sized cardboard cut-outs that he’d leave around the apartment when Kevin was in the bathroom.
Just as they were leaving, Neil finally spotted the holy grail of wax sculptures, standing stoic and bulky in front of a goal painted on the wall behind him, with his arms crossed in front of his wide chest.
“Wow,” he said, rolling up as close to the exhibit as he could get. “Can’t believe I’m standing right in front of the great Andrew Minyard. Looks like he’s glaring directly at me, trying to set my soul on fire. Best moment of my life.”
“Should have said no,” Andrew grumbled, pulling his beanie hat lower as a group of giggling girls walked past.
“What happened?” Neil grinned. “Did Kevin bully you into it?”
“Kevin wishes he could bully me into things,” Andrew snorted.
Andrew’s jaw flexed like he was grinding his teeth before admitting: “My agent sent an email. I may have neglected to read all of it.”
Neil pulled his collar back over his mouth, trying to contain the burst of laughter that spilled from him. Andrew made a disgusted sound and walked away, and Neil hurried to follow him out into the lobby.
“Wait, wait, so,” he said, catching up, “did you take me here specifically to show off what a hot-shot Exy player you are? Are you secretly trying to impress me?”
Andrew held up a finger and slipped his phone out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“Deleting your number.”
“Too late,” Neil said. “You’re stuck with me. This was fun. Let’s hang out again soon.”
Andrew muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “You will eat those words,” but Neil was too busy looking through his photos to pay it any mind.
“Baseball,” Neil repeated, looking up at the stadium entrance in disbelief. “You’re… taking me to a baseball game.”
“Yup,” Andrew said. “Fun.”
“Fun,” Neil echoed, like a broken record.
Being inside a stadium that wasn’t an Exy stadium was its very own particular brand of torture. Having to sit still and watch nine very long, very boring innings, at the end of which he still didn’t understand the rules, was pure, unadulterated evil.
“Not a fan?” Andrew asked around a mouthful of hot dog. The thing was oozing mustard, ketchup and pickles, but somehow Andrew still managed to eat it without getting any on his face or coat.
Neil looked down at his fiendishly salty pretzel and wondered if it was solid enough to kill him if he stabbed it through his eye.
“No, what? This is my fun face,” he gritted out. “I am having fun.”
Over the last couple of weeks, they’d hung out more than Neil had perhaps ever hung out with another person, Kevin aside. Neil thought he had done a pretty good job at not breaking rule number one, but sitting there in the cold as they switched the damn field once again his inhuman patience was nearing its inevitable end. He was only a man, after all. Hadn’t he endured enough pain and suffering in his life?
Except Andrew looked like he was actually enjoying himself.
He was dressed head to toe in one of the teams’ colours and lounged in his seat, loose and relaxed, putting away an indecent amount of hot dogs and popcorn and watching the game with hooded eyes. His cheeks and the tip of his nose were flushed from the cold and his hair staticky where it peeked out under his beanie hat. There was a patch of stubble near his jaw that he’d missed while shaving.
No internet rabbit hole had prepared Neil for the fact that Andrew Minyard liked the most brain-numbingly sport in existence.
Neil chewed on his collar, trying to keep his outrage contained, and finally took out his phone to type out a rant on all the ways Exy was vastly superior to baseball and every other sport to Kevin. He sent it off with a few choice emojis, then turned his phone off again and felt pleased with himself—not only had he let off some steam without Andrew noticing, his message would likely also confuse Kevin both with regard to the subject matter and the fact that Neil had texted him at all.
“Go team,” he shouted, waving his pretzel at the field far below.
Only three more innings to go, then he would be free of this hell.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Neil asked, vibrating with barely concealed excitement as Andrew pushed open the doors to paradise.
A few snowflakes fluttered inside with them and instantly melted in the buttery warmth of the store. The air smelled like leather and new clothes and Neil breathed in greedily, taking in the rows upon rows of athleticwear, Exy gear, New York City Tigers merchandise, and related books and magazines. Kevin had taken him to Exites a few times in the past, but it never failed to make him feel like a kid in a candy store. There was something magic about it, and he nearly made a beeline straight for the wall displaying the new Tigers hoodies before reigning himself in.
They were here because Andrew needed new gloves.
“Visiting my brother dearest and his little wife,” Andrew said dismissively in response to his question, heading for the goalie gloves section in the back. Neil tried to surreptitiously take in as much as he could without falling noticeably behind.
“Sounds fun,” he said absently.
“It is not.”
Andrew grabbed two pairs of black gloves from the shelf and started to try them on. Neil was strangely mesmerised by the way he ripped open the elastic and pushed his hands in, wiggling a little until they popped through.
His height aside, Andrew was a man who took up space. From his broad shoulders to his wide, unapologetic stance, the purposeful way he walked (even when they were definitely lost) to the efficient, no-nonsense way he spoke. His hands, too, were bigger than average, and Neil had always had a strange sort of fascination for them. Those hands had denied uncountable goals. They held his racquet like the physical manifestation of a No, blocking balls like he’d been born to do it. Up close, they bore signs of their hard work—callouses and scars, bruises and scrapes. Neil reached out without thinking, taking Andrew’s gloved hand in his.
“They look tight,” he said, tugging on the elastic. “Try the other ones.”
Andrew didn’t take his hand back, so Neil tugged the glove off for him, feeling oddly warm. Andrew’s fingers flexed for a moment, and Neil took the other pair and held one open for him to try on, but they didn’t even make it all the way down Andrew’s palm before getting stuck.
“Your hands are too big,” Neil muttered, pulling them off again. “Is there a bigger size of the first pair?”
When he looked up, Andrew was staring at him with a weird expression on his face. Then he abruptly turned and walked down the aisle, away from the gloves.
“Wait, what about these ones?” Neil called after him, holding up a dark brown pair.
“You can get them for me for Christmas,” Andrew paused just long enough to say, before disappearing around the corner with one last resolute flap of his coat.
Kevin was wearing a suit when he picked Neil up from physiotherapy on the Friday before New Year’s.
“Bowtie or tie?” he asked, holding up the two items in question as Neil hauled himself into the passenger seat, achy and cranky from a long session of doing the same repetitive movements over and over again.
“Whatever Allison sent,” Neil said tiredly.
He leaned his face against the window as Kevin stowed his wheelchair in the back, blinking slowly at the wet glow of the street lamps that were dotting the dusk like thick globs of luminous paint. Kevin slid into the driver’s seat, straightening the dark green bowtie in the rearview mirror, then turned to him.
“How do I look?”
“Like a dick,” Neil replied. “But shiny. Like a shiny dick.”
“Right,” Kevin said, glancing at the mirror again and nodding. “I won’t stay long.”
“You always do,” Neil pointed out, butting his head against the window.
Kevin frowned at him.
Neil shrugged. He was tired of explaining once again that no, he was not okay. He was in constant pain every single day of his life and there was nothing anyone could do about it. On the contrary, it would probably get worse as he aged. No fussing on Kevin’s or anyone else’s part would change that fact, Neil just had to live with it.
“I don’t have to go,” Kevin said, flexing his left hand on the steering wheel.
“Yes, you do,” Neil replied. “I’ll be fine. Now go, before your parking ticket runs out.”
Kevin huffed, but finally eased the car out of the clinic’s parking lot, feeding the ticket into the machine and joining the slow-moving stream of traffic. When they got home he insisted on accompanying Neil upstairs to their apartment, like he was going to suddenly forget how his wheelchair worked, but Neil managed to close the door in his face before he could follow him inside.
He sat in the shower for an age, just leaning against the wall and watching the droplets run down the screen. Then he slouched in front of the TV, watching a recap of last night’s game and thinking about heating up some leftovers without actually getting up.
The doorbell rang.
He frowned down at his phone which had turned itself off because he’d once again neglected to charge it. Maybe Kevin, out of some misplaced guilt or more likely because he was a control freak, had ordered food for him. With a sigh, he heaved himself off the couch and walked a few steps, then allowed himself to crawl the rest of the way and finally pulled himself up on the doorknob to smack the buzzer before sinking down again.
He waited until he could hear steps in the hallway outside and stood up, leaning against the coat rack. Most of the coats on there were Kevin’s and smelled like his aftershave, but Neil’s orange windbreaker was in there somewhere, possibly still infused with the last traces of smoke from Andrew’s cigarettes. There was a knock on the door, and Neil opened it, and stared right into Andrew’s face.
Neil was taller than him.
Just a few inches, but still. Logically, Neil had already known that, but—it was different, in person.
Then he noticed that Andrew was dressed in his own fancy suit and was carrying a dry-cleaning bag slung over his arm.
“Allison got you too, huh?” Neil said, ignoring the way his left knee was wobbling dangerously.
“Come with me,” Andrew said, once again managing to mark it as a question despite the flat tone of his voice.
“To the Day Spirit Gala?” Neil snorted. “No, thanks.”
Andrew looked at him for a moment, then nodded.
“Can I come in?”
Neil opened his mouth and closed it again, further arguments against coming to the gala shrivelling up in his throat. He pushed off the wall and propped himself against the coat rack again, gesturing for Andrew to come in. He wished he’d taken his wheelchair—he felt so much more vulnerable standing on his legs, and he didn’t want Andrew to have to watch him crawl back to the couch.
“Nice,” Andrew commented, looking around the apartment. It was spacious and open, with large windows overlooking the park, the walls industrially bare in contrast to the warm, dark tones of the maroon and navy furniture, the chunky knit throw blankets piled on the couch. The giant television screen dominated most of the wall opposite, but there was also a fireplace with a basket of wood beside it and fragrant green pine branches pinned to the mantel.
“Thanks, it’s Kevin’s,” Neil said dryly, still leaning against the coat rack. His legs were shaking and he cupped one hand around his knee, trying to make it still.
Andrew ran his fingers over the handrail that had been installed along the wall, peered into the bathroom that Neil had left open, still breathing out steam. Stopped in front of the cardboard cut-out of Jeremy Knox that Neil kept finding different spots for just to see when Kevin would crack.
“Why do you want me to come to the gala with you?” Neil asked, even though he really didn’t want to talk about the gala.
Andrew sighed, draped the bag over the back of the couch and tucked his hands into the pockets of his nice coat.
“Isn’t this what we are doing?” he asked, plain and clear. “Going on dates?”
Neil’s mouth was dry. He swallowed, running his hand over the rough wool of Kevin’s jacket, slipping it into a pocket he found and fingering the debris inside, coins and a receipt and a stick of gum.
“Going for a walk is not the same as going to the Day Spirit Gala,” he said.
“People will see you,” Neil offered. “People will see me.”
“They will,” Andrew simply said.
He looked at Neil, and Neil looked back at him, and then Neil’s legs reached their limit and he slid down the wall awkwardly, taking a few coats with him on the way down. Andrew was there in a flash, not touching him, simply crouching beside him with his hands hovering, ready to catch him if he fell.
“Neil,” he said, moving his hands so they were cupping their air around Neil’s jaw instead, “you don’t have to live in that submarine. Go to the gala with me.”
“Well, if it will make you stop begging,” Neil muttered, his stomach lurching sideways. “It’s embarrassing for both of us.”
He reached up and caught Andrew’s warm hands in his own, moving them away from the danger zone of scars and into his hair instead, where they gripped onto the back of his skull, cradling it like a collector studying a rare, breakable artefact.
Neil closed his eyes for a moment, leaning into the touch. He almost expected Andrew to move in and kiss him, but he just continued to hold his head in his palms, stroking his fingertips over the sensitive dip at the base of his skull in tiny circular motions. Then a phone buzzed in Andrew’s coat pocket, shattering the moment, and he moved away to answer it.
“I am on my way,” he said curtly. “I said I would. No. I don’t know.”
Neil caught his attention and gestured for his wheelchair, and Andrew went and got it for him, ending the call with another clipped sentence. He held the chair in place while Neil pulled himself up and into it, instantly feeling more at ease.
“I brought something to wear for you,” Andrew said, letting go of the chair and watching him slouch into his seat in relief.
“Great,” Neil said dryly. “How long do you have?”
At Andrew’s slight frown, he said: “Getting dressed takes a while. And there’s no way I won’t wrinkle a suit. They aren’t usually designed for wheelchair users.”
“They are if Reynolds commissions them for you,” Andrew replied, picking the bag off the back of the couch and holding it out to Neil.
“Reynolds?” Neil asked. “You mean Allison? How did she even get my measurements?”
“Renee,” was all Andrew said.
“Of fucking course,” Neil hissed. “That sneaky-”
“Just get dressed,” Andrew said, sounding both amused and long-suffering. “I promise Renee is not in this bag waiting to jump you as soon as you open it.”
“Well, okay,” was all Neil managed to reply.
He took the bag into the bathroom with him, closing the door firmly behind him, and stared at it for a long moment before unzipping it and starting the arduous process of getting changed.
When he was done, Andrew was leaning against the back of the couch, leafing through one of Neil’s mathematics journals. He looked up as Neil came out and stilled, eyes drifting once over Neil’s body like he was memorising it.
Neil fiddled with the sleeves of his suit jacket, unsure if he’d tucked and fastened everything the right way, but it didn’t feel constricting like he’d expected. There was extra space between the shoulder blades so he could move his arms without trouble, the waistband was loose enough, the pockets were easy to reach and the sleeves were fitted enough that they wouldn’t get tangled in the wheels of his chair, but still moved with him instead of straining.
It felt a little bit like armour.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Andrew said. “You can say what you like about Reynolds but when it comes to clothes she knows what she is doing.”
He held up his hand, and Neil saw that he’d wrapped a burnt orange tie around it, the fabric shimmering in the light.
“So you don’t have to wait until midnight to assume your natural form,” he said, and Neil smothered a laugh in his sleeve and let him loop the tie around his neck and fasten it with deft fingers.
“Wait,” he said as they were waiting for the elevator. “How are we going to avoid Kevin?”
“We aren’t,” Andrew said calmly.
Neil looked down at his suit, smoothing a hand over his tie, and decided that he didn’t actually care if Kevin saw them.
“Alright, then,” he said. “Let’s go eat a shit ton of canapés and have awkward small-talk with strangers. Yay!”
The Day Spirit Gala was an annual charity ball instituted by Kevin’s mother. It was an event for rich people to show off to each other and to the press how rich they were and, even more importantly, how very justified they were in being this rich. Kevin had offered to take Neil a few times, but Neil had always laughed in his face, saying there was nothing he wanted to do less than be paraded around as Kevin Day’s charity case.
With Andrew, Neil didn’t feel like a charity case. They made their rounds, plucking champagne flutes off trays, eating obscene amounts of finger food, and ducking out of range every time someone made as if to come over and talk to them. It was like a very sophisticated game of parkour, and Neil found he was enjoying himself immensely. When someone did manage to approach them, Neil feigned confusion about the identity of his partner—“Who’s Andrew Minyard?”—or insisted it was Aaron instead until the person gave up and left. They ruthlessly rated people’s outfits, and Andrew told Neil all the recent celebrity gossip he was privy to.
“Not by choice,” he muttered, but then had entirely too much fun describing the latest drunken escapade of the Dragons’ new striker for Neil to believe him.
Sooner or later, though, they had to face the inevitable.
Neil had caught Kevin staring at them across the room a few times, but they’d always moved on quickly enough to escape him and he’d always been too busy schmoozing up to some rich old lady to catch them in time. He finally cornered them outside the bathroom—the only wheelchair-accessible one had a broken lock, so Andrew was standing guard outside while Neil was in it.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” Kevin greeted Neil as he came out of the bathroom.
“Tell you what?” Neil asked innocently, rubbing his still-damp hands on his trousers, because they were also out of paper towels.
“You and Andrew!”
“Who’s Andrew? I’m here with Aaron. Aaron, do you know someone named Andrew?”
“Never heard of him,” Andrew deadpanned.
“It’s very rude to assume people’s names, you know,” Neil told Kevin. “What if he’d been a Bernard?”
“Is that why you missed the last few games?” Kevin asked, ignoring him.
Neil cleared his throat pointedly and said, “Games? Oh, you mean the board games we were going to play. Because we both love… board games.”
“Have you been drinking?”
Neil rolled his eyes.
“What if I have? I’m an adult, Kevin, I can make my own terrible decisions.”
“Speaking of terrible decisions,” Andrew drawled, looking at something behind them. Kevin made a strangled sound when he saw Allison in all her gold-sequined glory stalking towards them and attempted to hide behind Andrew, who was considerably shorter than him.
“Don’t look so worried, Day,” Allison said, amused. “I’m not here for you. Neil, honey, you look like a dream come true. If I’d known all it took to get you into a suit was a strappy young Exy star I’d have sent one your way much sooner.”
“Is Renee here?” Neil asked, craning his neck to look for the woman who usually wasn’t far if Allison and charity were involved.
“One day you are going to have to get over your irrational fear of my fiancée,” Allison said, amused. “I expect you at my wedding, you know.”
“I thought you were going to elope,” Neil reminded her. “And she’s terrifying. I don’t know how none of you can see that.”
“She is terrifying,” Andrew said, and Neil made a triumphant noise.
“It’s not technically eloping if you tell people about it beforehand,” Kevin couldn’t resist chiming in. Allison pursed her lips at him.
“You’re not wearing your tie.”
“I’m wearing a bowtie you gave me,” Kevin frowned.
“Yes, last year. This year, I gave you a tie.”
“Told you,” Neil said.
“I like this bowtie. It was fine last year. I don’t understand what’s wrong with it now,” Kevin grumbled, smoothing it down.
“Well, it was nice knowing you,” Neil said, pinching Andrew’s sleeve between two fingers and pulling. “We’ll be leaving now, I don’t want to get blood on my suit.”
“Wait,” Kevin said, panicking, but Neil merely waved over his shoulder and left him to his fate.
Andrew’s agent found them next, demanding he at least speak to a few people she wanted to introduce him to, so Neil wheeled around the venue by himself while Andrew grudgingly went with her. He snuck outside through an open patio door and lit a joint with Andrew’s lighter, turning it around in his hand and watching the smoke disperse. The snow had stopped falling, but the wind was still icy cold, whipping his hair into his eyes.
When he went back inside, Andrew was nowhere to be found. Neil spotted his agent in conversation with the Tigers’ manager and coach, though when he went over to ask them where he’d gone they all looked at him pityingly like Andrew had got rid of him on purpose.
“Excuse me,” a harried waiter said, pushing his wheelchair out of the way as he went past with a coffee cart.
“No, excuse me,” Neil called after him, anger jolting his stomach out of alignment for a moment. “I’m not a piece of furniture!”
But the waiter had already moved on to one of the tables, offering coffee to the occupants with a polite smile, and when he looked back at Andrew’s agent the group had moved subtly on to join some of the other players from Andrew’s team. Neil had hoped that Andrew might introduce him at some point during the evening, but without Andrew there he’d just gone back to being someone’s charity case, and not even a well-behaved one. Well, fuck that noise. His stomach burned dimly as he made his way around the room once more and back out into the hallway to look for Andrew among the guests mingling there.
Half an hour later, he had to concede that there was a distinct possibility Andrew really had abandoned him.
He was just contemplating whether to swallow his pride and ask Kevin to drive him home when he came around a corner he hadn’t previously noticed and nearly wheeled over Andrew, who was sitting on the ground behind a pillar with his tie loose and his hair ruffled like he’d been raking his hands through it.
He cleared his throat.
Andrew looked at him, thunked his head back against the wall and swallowed visibly.
“Hey,” Neil said.
“Hey,” Andrew croaked back, watching him out of the corner of his eyes.
“Too crowded?” Neil guessed, digging out one of the tiny bottles of fancy juice that he’d stuffed between himself and his armrests and scooching forward so he could hand it to Andrew.
“Yeah,” Andrew muttered, swallowing again. He unscrewed the cap on the bottle and drained it. “Couldn’t find you.”
“I was looking for you.”
Andrew rubbed his fingers over his eyes and pushed himself to his feet.
“Come on,” Neil said, “there’s a patio down that way.”
Andrew followed him without protest, and Neil pushed open the unlocked door and led him outside. Snow glittered on the ground, still fluffy and pristine, and Neil lit another joint, took a long drag and offered it to Andrew.
“For medical purposes,” he grinned when Andrew blinked down at it. “I reckon it might help with whatever this is, too.”
He gestured at Andrew, who huffed and took it, inhaling slowly before handing it back.
“Guess we’re both fucked up.”
“Mm.” Neil tilted his head back, looking at the night sky. It was bristling with clouds, dark blue velvet brushed against the grain. “Your agent is a dick.”
“She has to be, to put up with me,” Andrew said. “I fired the last two, but most of them quit on their own.”
“You should hire Kevin. He’s a dick and he puts up with you.”
“That is the absolute worst idea I have ever heard.”
Neil shrugged, passing the joint back.
“He introduced me to you, didn’t he?”
Andrew snorted twin streams of smoke from his nostrils and coughed.
“He also introduced my last three hook-ups to me, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t murder him in his sleep.”
“Oh, is that what I am?” Neil teased, scuffing his foot against the ground. “A hook-up?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Neil smoothed his palms over his handrims and kicked at the ground. He didn’t know what sort of answer he’d wanted to hear, and his mind was too floaty to puzzle it out. When Andrew passed the almost finished joint back he tossed it into the snow.
“I’m starting to feel kinda pumpkin-y,” he joked. “Can you take me home?”
Andrew gazed at him with eyes that looked neither green nor brown, just night-dark and tired.
“Or you could come home with me.”
“With you?” Neil echoed, his mouth feeling dry, which was probably just the pot.
“Yes,” Andrew said.
Neil rocked his chair and tugged on his shirt collar, which stayed stubbornly around his throat.
“Okay,” he said at last. “Why not.”
In the taxi, he wondered if Andrew expected him to sleep with him.
The last date he’d been on had ended in the emergency room. Yes, he’d experimented a bit over the years, but mostly he’d been too busy with more important things, like his degree, Exy, Kevin, or simply navigating his broken body through its daily tasks. He didn’t want to be anybody’s pity fuck, and most people tended to assume he couldn’t get it up anyways. Andrew didn’t seem to fall into the first category—so far he’d taken everything in with a stoic kind of calm, completely unfazed even when Neil had told him what his father had done to his legs. Neil still wasn’t sure if he wanted to sleep with Andrew, but he also hoped he didn’t fall into the latter category either, because that would make this a pity date, which was even worse.
Andrew’s apartment was smaller than Neil had expected. It had a well-stocked kitchenette, a tiny but comfortable living room area with a reading nook, an aquarium and a hammock all crammed into the space, a bathroom with a large tub and a fluffy rug, and some gym equipment laid out underneath the lofted bed. The coffee machine was outrageously expensive, and when Neil went snooping in the bathroom he found a basket of fancy bath bombs in the cupboard next to a box of condoms.
He took one out and checked the expiry date, then put it back and closed the door.
When he came back outside, Andrew was in the process of crushing candy canes with a rolling pin.
“Anger management therapy?” Neil asked, wheeling into the kitchen.
“Hot chocolate,” Andrew replied, tapping two mugs on the counter piled with whipped cream. He whacked the Ziploc bag one last time with the rolling pin, then scooped out the crushed candy canes and sprinkled them on top of the cream, topping the whole thing off with a swirl of bright green peppermint syrup.
There were two steps that led up to the living room area. Neil stood up and tried to get his feet to cooperate, but it had been a long day and there was nothing within grabbing distance that he could hold on to. Andrew placed the mugs on the coffee table, then came back and offered his arm instead.
“You want to hold my hand so bad,” Neil teased.
“Maybe so,” Andrew said, mouth popping up at the corner for a moment before he whacked it back down.
Together they made it to the reading nook, and Neil poured himself straight into the hammock with a groan.
“I need to get Kevin to buy us a hammock,” he decided, stretching out his sore back and letting his socked feet trail on the floor. “This is amazing.”
“It’s a trap,” Andrew cautioned. “Once you are in it, you never want to leave again.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, but I’ll be living here now.”
“Can’t drink your hot chocolate if you’re lying down.”
“You’d be surprised at the things I have done lying down,” Neil murmured, eyes closed, rocking himself back and forth. “And I don’t like sweets.”
“I know,” Andrew said. “Just try it.”
He held out a mug, and Neil stopped the hammock and wrestled himself into something akin to a sitting position. It was almost impossible to drink from the mug without sticking his nose in the whipped cream, so he took a big bite out of the pile to make it smaller, crunching down on the candy cane pieces while Andrew watched in amusement. The cream was unsweetened and the hot chocolate itself turned out to be bitter, like coffee, and sharp and bright from the peppermint, swirled with something else spicy. Neil took another sip, chasing after the taste he couldn’t identify, and caught Andrew staring at his mouth.
“What,” he said, poking his tongue at his scar to make sure he wasn’t dribbling hot chocolate down his chin.
“Nothing,” Andrew said, shaking his head. “You… nothing.”
Neil started rocking the hammock again and drank his hot chocolate in large gulps even though it was still piping hot, the pepperminty-spicy taste burning his mouth along with the heat. It was good—maybe the first hot chocolate he’d ever really enjoyed, though he had vague memories of his mother buying some at gas stations for him after a rough night. They’d felt better than they had tasted though, and had washed down the lingering taste of blood or bile in his mouth.
When the mug was empty, he wrapped his hands around it and brought it to his cheek, letting the leftover warmth seep into his skin. It was quiet in Andrew’s apartment, just the faint hum of the lamps under the kitchen cupboards was audible, the creaking of the floorboards in the apartment upstairs. Neil was on the brink of dozing off when Andrew got up from his armchair and leaned over to take his mug. He looked soft and rumpled in the low light, his tie undone and shirt unbuttoned at the top, and Neil found himself wanting to touch the tendon in his neck, the jut of his Adam’s apple.
Instead he mumbled, “We can have sex, if you want.”
Andrew snorted, straightening and giving the hammock a little push so it started swinging again.
“It’s almost two a.m.,” he said. “What we can do is sleep.”
He walked down to the kitchen, put their mugs in the sink with a gentle clatter and switched off the lamps. Then he rummaged around in a large wood cupboard and came back with a new-looking Tigers pyjama set that he dumped in Neil’s lap.
“Thought you didn’t like Exy,” Neil yawned.
“I don’t,” Andrew said. “Aaliyah keeps throwing merch at me. You can keep them.”
“Really?” Neil said, perking up. The pyjamas were black with stripes down the sides and sleeves in the Tigers’ dark orange, their logo with the roaring tiger taking up most of the back of the shirt.
“Don’t sound so excited,” Andrew muttered, one side of his mouth twitching in amusement. “You’ll blow your cover.”
Andrew merely raised an eyebrow at him, then pushed off the beam that the hammock was fastened to and went into the bathroom to get changed into his own sleepwear. Neil stared after him for a moment, pushing himself upright to unbutton his shirt, and felt sheepish and drowsy and giddy all at the same time.
He was still in the process of wrangling his uncooperative legs into his pyjama pants when Andrew returned from the bathroom, looking squeaky clean in a black tank top and grey sweatpants.
He watched Neil struggle for a moment, then said: “You can ask for help, you know.”
Neil rolled his eyes.
He finally succeeded in getting both of his ankles into the pants and took a break, then stood up carefully and pulled them up over his boxers before sitting back down.
“Do you have a spare toothbrush?”
Andrew nodded, and Neil stretched out his arms until Andrew came over and helped him down the stairs again. In the bathroom, he sat on the closed lid of the toilet to brush his teeth, eyes barely staying open. When he was finally done, Andrew stopped him before he could crawl face-first back into the hammock.
“You might think it’s a good idea to sleep in there, but trust me, you will regret it in the morning,” he said.
“You don’t have a couch,” Neil pointed out, looking around.
“No,” Andrew confirmed, hesitating for a brief second, then added: “But I have a bed.”
Neil looked up at the loft. It was big, probably big enough for three people and a dog, or one single cat. Floating bookshelves were mounted on the wall above it, and there was a mountain of pillows piled on top like peaks of whipped cream.
It looked even more comfortable than the hammock.
He eyed the steps. They weren’t that steep, but Neil wasn’t keen on dragging himself up there in his current state.
“Unless you have a secret elevator somewhere, I’m not getting up there tonight,” he said, yawning again.
“I can lift you,” Andrew offered, making Neil’s stomach swirl with something warmcold like peppermint. “But it’s up to you.”
“Fine,” Neil said. “But if you tell Kevin, I will cut your tongue out.”
“Noted,” Andrew said dryly, then manoeuvred him around until he could hook one arm under his knees and scoop him up.
The ascent was slow. Neil wrapped his arms around Andrew’s neck for balance and breathed in the mingled smells of pot, peppermint, and fabric softener, feeling Andrew’s muscles flex under his hands as he moved up the ladder step by careful step. At the top he finally wobbled and dropped Neil unceremoniously onto the mattress, and Neil bounced a little and laughed.
“No more skipping leg day,” he told him, earning himself a playful smack as Andrew climbed up next to him and tried to pull the comforter out from under him.
When they were both covered, Andrew leaned over Neil to turn off the light, and they were plunged into a soft, fuzzy darkness, only the distant lights of the city beyond the windows twinkling in the periphery of his eyes.
“Hey,” Neil whispered.
“Don’t hey me,” Andrew whispered back.
“I want to kiss you,” Neil whispered.
“Fine,” Andrew relented, “you can hey me.”
“Ha,” Neil made.
Andrew breathed out audibly, then shuffled around until their noses were touching. He reached out a hand and hovered it over the side of Neil’s face, and Neil nodded and pulled it down, letting him feel the scar.
The kiss was sleepy and unhurried. They took tiny sips of each other, bumping noses and foreheads, drawing fingertips over exposed skin. Andrew’s lips, which were usually thin and tight, felt plush and yielding under Neil’s mouth. Neil drank in his scent, clinging to a handful of his tank top, and let the room spin slowly around them until he felt like couldn’t breathe anymore, like he would burst if he didn’t stop.
He searched for Andrew’s hand under the blanket and twined their fingers together, catching his breath. Andrew kissed his forehead, then tucked his face into the crook of his neck, rubbing his fingers over the back of his skull.
“Found my astronaut,” Neil mumbled.
“Sleep,” Andrew replied, and Neil thought of submarines and space stations and was gone.
He woke up aching all over.
Morning was piercing and bright, stabbing behind his eyelids. He’d rolled onto his back in the night for a more comfortable sleeping position while Andrew was still curled up beside him, face lax in sleep and hair sticking up spectacularly on one side of his head. Neil reached out without thinking to smooth it down and Andrew’s hand shot out and caught his wrist, squeezing for a moment, before he cracked open one eye and let go.
Slowly, Neil began petting his hair, and Andrew closed his eyes again and relaxed into the touch.
“You remind me of a cat,” Neil croaked, fingers still swirling through the honey of his hair.
“You remind me of a rabbit,” Andrew murmured back, brow tilting downward in a frown.
“Aren’t rabbits like, horny all the time?”
Andrew’s eyes peeled open again, staring at him.
“Not really. I mean, sure, sometimes. You know, a normal amount.” Neil cleared his throat. “As a matter of fact, though, I really have to piss.”
Andrew squeezed his eyes shut again and scrunched up his face, rubbing it against the pillow. Then he sat up, stretched, and started to dig Neil out of the blankets.
The way down proved much more complicated than the way up. Neil said “Don’t drop me” about three times, and Andrew retaliated by carrying him all the way to the bathroom instead of putting him down when they reached the ground. Neil flailed and kicked, but when Andrew set him down his legs shook so hard he had to sit on the toilet again, and it took about five more minutes until he felt steady enough to stand back up, pull his pants down and open the lid.
“Coffee,” Andrew said when he emerged again and pushed a mug down the breakfast bar.
Neil sank into his wheelchair and folded his arms on top of the bar, tucking his chin into the crook of his elbow. Andrew sat on one of the bar stools with his own giant mug of coffee and yawned.
“You can take a shower,” he said after staring listlessly into the depths of his cup for a while.
“Probably can’t stand up long enough,” Neil admitted. “I have a shower chair at home.”
“Hmm,” Andrew made. “Bath?”
Neil looked down at his new pyjamas a little mournfully, but decided his muscles could probably use a hot bath. Maybe Andrew would let him put the pyjamas back on afterward, since he was not getting into the suit again, as nice as it had been.
Andrew finished his coffee, then ran him a bath, disabling the smoke alarm outside of the bathroom (“The steam sets it off, piece of crap”) and digging around his wardrobe for a large towel and some more clothes for Neil. When the tub was full to the brim with foam, he helped Neil climb in, not even glancing at the scars littering his body, the knobbly shape of his legs where they poked out of the water.
It was snowing again. Neil lay in the tub, letting his head loll to the side and watching the flakes drift past the window. The foam whispered and crackled like candy wrappers around him, Andrew was making more coffee in the kitchen, and Neil was halfway to dozing off again when a phone buzzed angrily outside the bathroom door.
“Yes,” he heard Andrew say. “No. He’s in the bath. Yes. He’s an adult, Kevin, he can make his own terrible decisions.”
Neil sighed and sank lower in the water until he couldn’t hear the conversation anymore. It was Saturday, which meant he’d just missed his and Kevin’s Saturday morning run, and he’d also forgotten to tell him that he was going home with Andrew last night. Kevin was going to be cranky with him.
He stayed in the bath until he felt warmed and soaked through and pruny all over, and then he nearly cracked his head open on the tiles trying to get out of the tub on his own, but he managed. He sat on the rug, dripping and smug, and pulled the towel on top of himself, wrapping himself up in it like a parcel and watching the steam rise from the surface of the water and cloud the tiles.
There was a knock on the door, then Andrew’s voice asking if he’d drowned yet.
“Oh, so that was your grand plan,” Neil called out.
“You got me,” Andrew deadpanned. “Next I am going to attempt to poison you with breakfast.”
“Bring it on,” Neil grinned, and grabbed the clothes Andrew had laid out for him on the counter, pausing when he saw the Tigers logo on both the sweatpants and the shirt.
When he came out, the breakfast bar was laid out with toast, fruit, three kinds of chocolate spreads, peanut butter, and a large skillet with fluffy scrambled eggs and turkey bacon. Neil whistled as he surveyed the spread.
“Perks of being an athlete,” Andrew said through a mouthful of eggs. “The only perk of being an athlete.”
“About that,” Neil said, plucking at the fabric of his Tigers sweatshirt. “When you said no Exy talk…”
“No,” Andrew said warningly, pointing his fork at him. “Stop. You are going to make me lose the bet.”
Andrew sighed, spearing a few more strips of bacon on his fork. Neil fought him for them and managed to scrounge one for himself.
“With Renee,” Andrew said at last. “I bet her you would last until the new year. She thought your Exy obsession would outweigh your stubborn bastard tendencies before the month was up. If you crack now, she wins.”
“Oh,” Neil said. “In that case, I will let my seething dislike of Renee distract me from the-sport-that-shall-not-be-named until the stroke of midnight.”
“Great,” Andrew sighed, pushing his plate away. “She’s coming over later, by the way.”
“Oh no. I suddenly have a very pressing prior engagement.”
Andrew’s response was cut off by the doorbell. He made the mistake of leaving Neil alone with the rest of the bacon to open it, and when he came back he was trailing a grumpy-looking Kevin bearing several bags that he dropped on the floor with a dramatic clatter.
“…can’t believe you ditched me twice in twenty-four hours, you could at least answer your phone-”
“Hang on,” Neil said, wheeling around to point a finger at Andrew. “Do you even like baseball?”
“Excuse me, I am talking to you,” Kevin huffed.
“Baseball?” Andrew mused, tapping his fork against his mouth as if thinking about. “Not that I recall.”
“Oh my god. Name one good reason why I should help you win your bet.”
“Neil,” Kevin said loudly, shoving his bags at him to get his attention. Neil reflexively peered into one and stilled.
“Board games,” he said. “You brought… board games.”
“Yes,” Kevin huffed, with a glance at Andrew. “Because we love… board games.”
Neil glimpsed the corner of Exy Monopoly at the bottom of the bag, looked up at Kevin’s supremely shifty expression, and muffled a laugh in his collar.
“Great,” he said, pulling the Monopoly game out of the bag and holding it up. “Let’s play.”