For a while, the only sound is Neil inhaling through his broken nose. Seth hasn't asked what happened yet, a little worried that Neil wouldn't tell him but more worried about what really happened.
Turning his head, Seth blinks at Neil, thankful for the almost complete darkness outside. Moonlight trickles through the clouds and scatters dots across their bodies, but Seth isn't focused on any certain aspect of Neil, not tonight.
Tonight is their last night. Seth leaves tomorrow for college and Neil stays here, safe, warm, and sure of himself. Confident that when he wakes up the next morning he'll know where he is in life.
"It's boring, Seth," Neil once said to him. "It's boring living in a town where you know everyone and trust everyone and understand everyone. Every day is the same here. It almost makes me wish I'd done something with my life."
Seth sighs and turns back to the sky, nestling himself in the grass and trying to get comfortable. Neil hasn't moved an inch, apparently comfortable, and Seth really wants to let him know what it feels like to be poked by grass in places that ought not to be poked.
"Bar fight," Neil says, coughing a little as he speaks. Seth suppresses a smile at his voice, altered because of his broken nose.
"My nose, I broke it in a bar fight." Unsure of how Neil made it into a bar, Seth nods and turns away again.
Seth catches Neil grinning out of the corner of his eye. "The glory of living in a small town, I guess."
Seth swallows and nods. "Yeah." It's times like this when Seth can feel, almost physically, the two year age difference between them. He can almost feel his deceased brother floating beside him, laughing at him for even thinking about still speaking with Neil. "I should go. Big day tomorrow." But he doesn't move, just stays lying next to Neil, wishing he could gather the courage to tell him. Not just how he feels, not how long it's gone on, but anything; anything that isn't nerdy or stupid or pathetic; anything that isn't "Huh?" or "I should go" or "So" because it's his last day here, and he should be cherishing every remaining moment with him.
"Hey," Neil says, finally reaching a hand out and wrapping his fingers around Seth's wrists. "College isn't so bad. I mean…I know some people who've gone and they turn out alright."
Seth laughs and turns his head to look at Neil again. "Thanks, that's…" He laughs again, unable to finish his sentence, and laughs harder when Neil joins in. "That's really not helpful at all," he says when he can breathe again. Neil's hand drops onto his chest, palm pressed flatly against it.
"Let me know when I can be of assistance, then." Seth tries not to focus on Neil's hand, still lying on his chest, decides to stare back up at the stars instead. In all reality, it doesn't matter what he does; the pessimistic side of him keeps telling him that Neil wouldn't be interested in someone so young, so inexperienced. Hell, he'd think Neil wouldn't be interested in his gender if he hadn't come out to him. "Hey, come on; don't get all quiet and thoughtful on me now,"
Seth licks his lips and turns to Neil, who's propped up on his elbow staring at him, eyebrows raised. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize. I'm just curious as to what's so important in gets in the way of us." Us, Seth thinks, eyes fluttering closed. Fuck, if he knew…
Seth opens his eyes as images start flooding his head. "College stuff. It's kind of embedded in there now, you know?"
Neil shakes his head. "Actually, I don't know. High school dropout, remember?"
Nodding, Seth turns back to the stars for a moment before sitting up. He remembers his mother telling him that anyone who dropped out of anything wasn't worth it in life; remembers asking her if Neil was worth anything. He knows that while his brother Charlie was still in high school, she thought Neil was an angel. Now that he's going to college, she thinks Neil's not pushing himself enough in life, keeping himself from reaching his full potential.
Fuck what your mom says, the small voice in the back of his head says. You know he's worth it, that's all that matters.
He jolts when he feels a cool hand against his neck and lets out a nervous laugh. "Jesus, Neil,"
Neil's light laugh comes from behind him and arms are wrapped around his neck quickly, enveloping him in an embrace he'd been waiting all night for. "Sorry, should've warned you. Not that you would've responded though. Seriously, you're really out of it tonight. What's up?"
He shakes his head and looks at Neil's arms. "Nothing."
"I've known you for a long time, right?" Unsure as to where he was going with that, Seth nods. "Then I've known you long enough to know that's complete fucking bullshit, so out with it."
Seth bites back a frustrated groan and pulls himself from Neil's embrace. "I'm not going to fucking talk about it, alright? Mind your own fucking business."
Out of nowhere, Seth tastes blood, only realizing once he hits the ground that Neil punched him. "You are my business, alright?" he says softly, crouching down to help Seth to his feet. "So when I tell you to fucking spill, you fucking spill."
"Oh fuck you. Ever hear of a little thing called personal space? I'd really like it if you'd respect mine once in a while. Fuck, I'd really wish if you'd respect that all the time." Seth pauses, screaming at himself for saying the exact opposite of what he meant. "Actually, how about you just fucking leave?"
Neil nods and stands back up. "Do you really think that?"
No, no, no, a million fucking times no. "Yes." He can feel Neil staring at him and knows that Neil knows he's lying, but Neil's going to leave unless he says something. "I really think that."
And Neil leaves, walks away for God knows how long, while Seth begins the process of nursing both a broken nose and a broken heart.
Months later, even after the break had healed, Seth can still feel the burn of the broken nose; still feel the pain from self-induced heartache. Not a day passes where Seth doesn't think of Neil, and maybe it he had just said something that he'd actually meant to say…
Christmas is a week away, with break starting tomorrow. Seth's mother managed to guilt him into going home for the holidays, spending "quality time" with his eighteen cousins, four uncles, eleven aunts, three sisters, eight nieces, three nephews, grandparents, parents, and quite possibly the best and worst of them all, Neil.
When asked why Neil was going to be there, Seth's mother laughed and said, "He's a friend, Seth. Besides, I thought you two were close?"
Seth had swallowed, unable to tell his mother the truth. "Yeah. I guess."
He had gotten out of Thanksgiving in November, something he was thankful for as he sat down to his dinner of tomato soup and homework. Two months is far too early to face Neil, as unhappy with their situation as he is.
The day he leaves for Christmas, he's already running late and hardly has time to remember to pack anything. He forgets about the mail that had been sitting in his cubby for a while and rushes to the airport, glad and a little deflated that he's made it there in time.
The plane ride is quiet and before he knows it, Seth's smiling at his mother and father.
"We missed you son!"
"Sweetie, you look so pale! We'll get you a nice, home-cooked meal and you'll be good as new!"
He fakes a smile all night, telling himself he's nervous because of his family, not because of Neil. Everyone should be arriving the day after tomorrow. Everyone except Neil, who has the pleasure of traveling on Christmas.
"He's so brave, isn't he?"
"Neil. Driving here on Christmas. I've never driven on Christmas and I never plan to."
Seth spends the day in bed, worrying too much to sleep.
Neil is there early on Christmas morning, too early for everyone except Seth, who hasn't slept at all since his return home.
At first, Seth thinks he'll ignore him, but when Neil says, "Hey, Seth," he realizes he's wrong.
"Hey." They stand in silence for a few moments before Seth remembers his manners and says, "Merry Christmas," forgetting that Neil doesn't believe in it.
But Neil doesn't seem to notice. "Happy holidays." Seth can tell his eyes are staring at his nose, even if he's not looking at him.
"Ask, you know you want to." Seth expects some smartass question, expects Neil to scoff and tell him he's an asshole, he doesn't expect sympathy.
"Is your nose okay?"
He swallows and looks up at Neil, who's holding a coffee cup in his hands, eyebrows pulled together. He looks almost worried and as soon as he notices Seth looking at him, he looks away.
"Its fine," Seth says softly, ignoring the cat weaving in and out of his legs, meowing at him. "It's been a while."
Neil coughs and nods, looking down at his coffee. "Yeah, yeah, it has." Neil doesn't look as though he's going to say any more and Seth is so close to apologizing, actually starts taking a breath to say it when the kitchen starts overflowing with his family.
"Neil!" He hears his mother exclaim, emerging from the flock of family and wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "I'm so glad you could make it!"
"Me, too," Neil says, smiling. Seth turns away, looks down at the sea of kids running into the living room and turns to go with them, his mother's words fading the closer he got to the Christmas tree in the living room.
Everyone eventually finds somewhere, and Seth finds himself nestled between his cousin Nancy and his aunt Bridget, almost directly across from where Neil is sitting. He watches as the younger generations of his family rip and tear open presents, exclamations clouding his mind.
A few hours later, when the kids are sleeping again and the adults are talking quietly, Seth's mother asks him to get everything out for lunch. He nods and walks into the kitchen, surprised that Neil has gotten there first.
"I swear, your family gets bigger every year," Neil says quietly, lifting a case of bottled water up onto the counter and tearing into it. "There's always a new face for me to see."
Seth nods and picks up the case of juice, heart beating rapidly. "I'm starting to feel the same." They work in silence for a while, the only sound being that of the voices coming from the living room. When they're almost finished, Neil grabs his arm before he can walk back to the living room. "What?"
Neil licks his lips and shrugs, offering a slight smile. Seth knows what he's getting at, but Neil shouldn't be the one apologizing. Seth should be.
"Don't, you shouldn't be apologizing," he finally says, quiet enough so his family can't eavesdrop but loud enough so Neil can hear him. "I'm sorry, I'm a dickhead, and I still can't believe it took you breaking my nose to make me realize that."
"I'm the dickhead that broke your nose, so I guess we're in the same boat," Neil says softly, reaching out and pressing his fingers lightly to Seth's nose, turning his head. "It doesn't even look like I did anything."
Seth nods, swallows as he tries to think of something to say other than nerdy stuff he's been learning in college. "My parents paid for good doctors."
Neil's hand leaves his nose and Seth swallows again. "Your parents are loaded." He laughs and blushes when Neil smiles softly. "So fucking loaded. If I had half the money they had…"
"Good thing, too, I didn't get shit for scholarships." Seth doesn't miss the smile that crosses Neil's face for the second time. "What?"
"Nothing. I just… I think it's weird how you're, y'know, this fucking smart guy and you didn't get shit for scholarships."
Seth shrugs, looking down at the floor for a moment. "I really don't want to talk about school during break."
"Then what do you want to talk about?" Neil asks, lifting Seth's head with his hand. "I kind of feel like we need to, I don't know, jumpstart this or we'll leave your parents' and only talk at Christmas."
Scoffing, Seth turns away and pulls Neil's hand down. "Yeah, because you made the effort to talk to me for the last four months!"
Neil shushes him and points to the living room. Seth would never admit it aloud, but he's glad that Neil's there to keep him grounded. "I know I didn't, but you weren't calling me either. I made some mistakes, and a lot of them involved you, starting with me punching your nose." Neil's hand returns to his face and Seth is surprised at how much he missed it. "If I could go back and fix it, I'd do it in a heartbeat. And you know how I feel about…" He sighs, looking up at Seth again, who doesn't miss the regret shown in Neil's gaze, doesn't miss the guilt that stabs at his own stomach. "I don't regret anything, but I regret breaking your nose every day. And I know that I'm too fucking proud to be too great of a friend, but…"
Seth nods, trying harder than ever to ignore the guilt and self-hate bubbling up inside him. "We're okay?"
Neil hasn't smiled like this for years. "We're okay." There's no lame, macho hug or pat on the back or handshake; instead, Neil actually hugs him, pulling him close and wrapping his arms tightly around Seth. He can hear Neil inhaling and he doesn't let go until after Seth returns the embrace.
Seth almost thinks it was a little awkward, but when Neil smiles at him, he realizes the hug was anything but.
"Lunch's ready!" Neil calls a moment later, and soon they're surrounded by family members again.
Later, Seth realizes that Neil is completely alone and wonders if that's why he wanted to fix things so badly with Seth; because he didn't want to be alone the rest of his life.
He's lying in bed when Neil knocks on his door and asks him, "You want to go for a walk? I need to smoke." Seth doesn't mention that if Neil had never started smoking, he wouldn't need to smoke, he just nods, grabs his jacket, slips on his shoes, and goes with him without a word.
For a while, it's just like old times. They lay side by side in the grass. Neil takes drags from his cigarette every so often, but other than that, it's the same. Seth starts to feel his heart flutter, can feel his crush on Neil come back full force when he touches Seth, when he laughs, smiles, talks… That's the same, too, how Seth acts like a love crazed teenager in front of him.
"I missed this," Neil says after a long bout of silence. "Since you left for college I don't do much of anything."
"Don't you have other friends?" Seth asks. It's almost like the last few months haven't happened; it's almost as though Seth's just been too busy to talk.
"Not really. I mean, coworkers, yeah. Not friends." Seth nod as the last few days of not sleeping finally creeps up on him.
"Sorry I left for college."
"Don't be. Pursue your dreams, make something out of your life," he says, but Seth's too far out to really comprehend it. As light snores come from Seth, Neil sighs. "Who am I kidding? You don't need me to tell you that." He pulls Seth's hair from his forehead and drops a kiss there before sighing again. "You don't need me at all."
Neil lets his arm drape across Seth's waist and lays his head on his chest. "I fucking miss you."