Fandom: All for the game
Riassunto: Neil has never stepped foot in a beach after what happened with his mother
Note: Scritta per la M4 della 7° settimana del COWT9 per "Estate"
Neil has been doing a lot of growing up or, at least, that's how the foxes like to call it. Everytime Neil admits he's not fine, that he's feeling a little ill or that he doesn't want to do something they all gather around him and tell him he's really growing up and they're all proud of him.
It's rather strange, if he's honest with himself.
Usually, Andrew remains on the side, looking at the entire spectacle and sighing, but Neil knows that even Andrew gets angry when Neil says he's fine when Andrew thinks he's not. He might like to pretend to be that different from the other foxes, but Neil knows him better than them and he can tell that it's mostly just a facade.
No one else seems to realize it most of the time, and while that makes Neil mad, he's also grateful that he can keep the gentle Andrew for himself.
It's not usual for him to have something that it's just his, having had nothing for so long, and it feels even more special.
Of course, if Andrew ever knew that Neil thought this way, he would be pretty mad at him, so Neil keeps it for himself.
Still, as much as Neil has grown up in his time with the foxes, there's really no way for him to react when Allison says, cheerfully: "This is our last summer together before we leave the nest and abandon you all to your pathetic existence without us..."
"You know," Nicky intervenes, "I'm pretty sure we'll survive."
"Absurd," Allison immediately replies, pointing at Matt, who is hugging Dan and sniffing, "one of you has already fallen."
"Boyd doesn't count," Aaron says with a huff, he's been crying for days.
"Point made!" Allison announces, with a flick of her blonde hair, "and what I was going to say, before I was so wrongfully interrupted, is that we have to do something in style this summer and so... we're taking a vacation and it's mandatory, Kevin! I'm letting you guys stay at my parent's beach house. Isn't that great?"
Neil watches as the rest of the foxes celebrate the news with an out of body experience. Even Kevin seems mollyfied, even if this trip means a week without exy practice. Aaron is almost smiling and Nicky is beyond himself.
Neil feels like he can't breathe.
Still, when Dan turns towards him and asks him "Everything all right, Neil?" there's no way for him to reply.
What can he tell them? I burned my mother on a beach and now the idea of standing on one makes me vomit? He doesn't want to show them even more of his ugly scars, of all the terrible patchwork that makes Neil Josten.
It might be stupid, but after all the terrible things they've seen him do and done to him, this one memory seems like a step too far. Like something he should keep protected at all cost.
"Yeah," he says. He stops himself from saying I'm fine because he knows how the other react to those words and instead he smiles. "I'm excited."
He's not, but Neil is a very good liar and so no one realizes the mask that he has slipped on the moment the trip was mentioned.
Neil won't ruin this for them. How difficult can it be? After having faced his father, after the torture and the pain, after every single one of his nightmares coming true in a single night, can this really be worse than that?
The others aren't paying attention to him anymore, discussing the details of the trip, and that's when Neil feels something touch his neck. It's not one of Andrew's usual firm grasps, in fact Andrew doesn't even leave his hand there for long, just enough to get Neil's attention.
Neil looks towards him immediately, unable to deny Andrew anything and unable to deny himself the need to look towards him, and the goalie is studying him with his usual calm and apathetic stare.
Immediately the air in Neil's lungs feels lighter, like he can finally gasp for air.
Andrew studies him for a couple of seconds more before he huffs, annoyed. "Idiot," he says displeased.
Unlike the others, Andrew knows Neil's story. He knows of the car, of the heat of the fire, of the terrible smell of smoke and human flesh. Andrew has been there when Neil awoke from nightmares that had nothing to do with his father.
He knows what Neil isnìt saying. How much this isn't fine.
"It's just a beach," Neil says, low enough that he's sure no one else hears him, "I'm fine, Andrew."
"150%," he other says, loudly, with a bored tone.
The rest of the foxes turns towards them, curious and confused, but Neil shakes his head and manages to divert their attention away from them once again.
Andrew doesn't seem interested in continuing the conversation, but he doesn't move from Neil's side for hours and that helps more than Neil can say. Andrew's firm and stable stance, his comforting presence.
Most might find Andrew intimidating, but Neil has long started thinking of Andrew as the only safe thing in this world.
Summer comes quickly and before Neil can even realize it, they're at Allison's beach house. It's really a lovely home, Neil thinks, and even if he's rich enough, he doesn't want to think about how much a place like this might cost.
The foxes invade it like they do everything else: loudly and without a care about what they destroy in the process.
Allison doesn't seem too preoccupied, and she enjoys herself by showing off every single expensive thing she can see. At the end of the tour she smiles, removes her shirt as to reveal her bikini, and then points towards the big doors that lead to the back of the house.
"And now for the best thing, our private beach, just for us and no one else!" She announces, proud and smiling.
The others smile, excited, and start removing their own clothes, walking quickly towards the back. Even Aaron, accompanied by Katelyn (and hadn't that been a fun conversation) appears to be completely at peace. Happy to be there, really.
Neil refuses to move. He stays there, watching the others exit the house and walk in the sand.
"Are you going to stay inside for the entire vacation?" Andrew wonders, out loud, "I thought you were excited, Neil."
Having his own words used against him isn't really news for him and Neil had expected it, really. He also knows that, if he refuses to go outside, Andrew won't say anything more and just stay inside with him.
That's what the others don't understand about Andrew's kindness. It's not something you have to listen for, it's a language made out of gestures and concessions,
Neil almost wants to take it. A part of him wants to stay inside, cuddle on the couch with Andrew until the others inevitably come to look for them.
Neil doesn't want to go on the beach. Doesn't want to face another nightmare. Doesn't he do that enough at night?
And yet, if there's one thing Neil Josten has learnt, is that he can't run anymore. He has promised Andrew, hasn't it?
So he takes a step forward, and then another. Andrew stays a couple of inches behind him, watching him like an hawke. His stare at Neil's back is the silent push that he needs to grip the handle of the back door and open it.
The sea breeze hits him first. It's clean, a little crisp. There's no smoke anywhere near them, no blood either.
He takes another step, exiting the house, and the sand sags a little under his weight. After he had burned the car, Neil had walked for hours and hours on the sand, making sure that the waves would cover his prints.
Now, he leaves the imprints of his shoues and watches them with an intense fascination. There's no one who is looking for him anymore, he thinks. If he looks back, the only things he would see are his and Andrew's prints mix.
And now Neil has to face the worst realization. What he had been afraid of wasn't that he would see his mother's burning corpse. As terrible as it sounds, the absence of it is even worse.
She's nowhere anymore. Her bones lost in an unnamed beach, her body burned to ashes. Her memory clouded with years of pain and abuse.
Mary might have been a terrible mother and possibly a terrible woman, but Neil loved her then and still.
Andrew is silent beside him, allowing him the time to process and think. When Neil sees someone start to come towards them, he sees Andrew take a couple of step forwards and putting himself in between Neil and the others, like a shield.
And Neil feels safe. Enough to let himself go, enough to grieve.
He crouches, making sure that he's behind Andrew and that no one can see him, he closes his eyes and for a moment, a endless fragment of a second, he grieves the woman that used to read to him. The woman who teached him how to hide in plain sight before teaching him to swim.
The woman who was already too broken to take care of him as well, but tried her hardest anyway.
"I'm not fine," Neil whispers, only for Andrew to hear and the other scoffs, without turning.
"We all knew that," he says, but his voice lacks its usual bite, "glad to see you managed to realize something who is obvious to a blind man."
Neil laugh, the sound distorted in his throat. "Yeah, but you know what, Andrew?" he asks, touching the sand with a hand. "I think I'll be okay, in the end."
Andrew doesn't answer for a second and Neil thinks he won't say anything at all when he hears rustling and he looks up in time to see Andrew crouch in front of him. "Yes or no, Junkie?"
Neil almost laughs. He doesn't tell Andrew that it's always a yes, because that's not what they both need. "Yes," he says, breathless, and Andrew puts his hand over Neil's and kisses him.
Yeah, Neil thinks, he will be okay in the end.