Andrew thinks he doesn't like kids. Andrew's wrong.
Andrew doesn’t like children on principle. They’re noisy, excitable, annoying, and regularly deplete the chocolate ice cream supply in his local shop before he can get to it.
So why he is now driving hundreds of miles solely to visit a pair of four-year-olds is anyone’s guess. Although, he has to admit, the blue-eyed man to his right might have something to do with it.
For some reason, Neil adores Dan and Matt’s kids. He met them as babies - crying, snivelling, wrinkly things - and yet was not put off. Andrew can’t understand it. They’re twins, for God’s sake. Double the attention-seeking nuisance. He gets enough of that from the cats. He ended up having pictures of them shoved in his face for the next four years as Neil excitably told him about Willow’s first steps, Clara’s first word, their first baby teeth …
Then Dan and Matt had moved to just a state over, and Matt had started urging Neil to visit.
“No,” Andrew had said firmly, when Neil mentioned it. He should have known something was up when Neil let him put extra syrup on his pancakes that morning. Their coach had been trying to put Andrew on a reduced-sugar diet and, annoyingly, Neil was on the balding man’s side. “We are not driving five hundred miles to visit a couple of kids. If Matt wants you to see them so badly, he can bring them to one of Allison’s stupid Fox reunions.”
Neil had just looked at him for a minute, expression open and eyes so, so blue. “Clara gets nervous around new people. Matt doesn’t think she could handle meeting everyone at once.”
Andrew felt his resolve cracking, but kept his expression stony. Not that it did much good; Neil seems to be able to read him no matter what walls he puts up.
“He also tells me there’s an ice cream parlour near their house which gives you unlimited toppings for two dollars.”
Andrew frowned, and Neil knew he’d won. It was written all over his smug face.
“Is that a yes?” he asked with a cheeky smile.
“I hate you. Yes.”
“I’ll tell Matt we’ll see them next month.”
And so, on the first weekend of the off-season, they stock up the cats’ food and water dispensers that Neil had bought for when they were at away-games, pile into the car, and set off on their trip to visit the Boyd-Wilds household.
“No cigarettes near the kids,” says Neil sternly, tucking the carton away securely in the glove compartment. Andrew scowls but doesn’t protest, and when they next pull up at a gas station he buys four packets of boiled sweets in defiance and sucks on them obnoxiously for the remainder of the journey. Neil glares at him every time the packet rustles, and eventually snags Andrew’s free hand in his own to keep it occupied. Andrew links their fingers together and says nothing, opting to grab a new sweet with his other hand whenever they stop at a red light.
They arrive in the early afternoon, pulling up outside a uniform-looking white house in a row of many others. It’s a quiet neighbourhood, and their car had drawn attention from more than one passer-by on their way here. Andrew swipes the keys from Neil, who had been driving the last leg, and makes sure the car is locked before turning to walk through the gate Neil holds open.
The door is open before they can even think about ringing the bell and a tall figure emerges, carrying a much smaller one in his arms.
“Neil!” exclaims Matt. “And my favourite Minyard. Come on in.”
Andrew narrows his eyes but follows Neil and Matt inside without complaint. Matt sets twin number one down and immediately clasps Neil in a fierce hug, releasing him a second later with a wary glance at Andrew. Neil rolls his eyes.
“Good to see you too, Matt,” he says.
“Looking good, Neil,” calls Dan, emerging slowly with twin number two clutching onto her leg - Clara, Andrew presumes. “What’s all this I hear about you two being signed to the US Court?”
“Nothing, yet,” replies Neil slyly, hopping out of the way as Willow barrels past him. “You shouldn’t put so much stock in what the media says.”
“Right,” says Matt, grabbing his unruly daughter and hoisting her into his arms again. “Like your supposed rivalry for the first few years of your career. Or how you supposedly got married in the Bahamas last year - wait, you didn’t, did you?”
Neil shakes his head with a grin. “Hello,” he says to Willow, who is now taller than him from where she sits in Matt’s arms.
“Hi!” she shouts, wriggling in Matt’s arms until he puts her down. She then proceeds to skip in circles around Neil, who stares at her in bewilderment. Andrew feels a strange sense of smugness.
They haven’t eaten since breakfast, not counting the sweets on Andrew’s part, so Dan makes them each a sandwich as the kids retreat to the garden to play with Matt. From what Andrew can see through the large French windows, they appear to be playing catch with a tennis ball. He shakes his head. There is no escaping the sports junkies. As if to prove this point, Neil goes out to join them shortly, and Andrew retreats to the living room, taking a seat on one of the large leather couches as he receives a text from Nicky.
Apparently Neil told him about their trip and he is now eager to find out if Andrew’s opinion of children has been magically changed by what he calls ‘Dan and Matt’s angels’. Andrew is just about to type out a resounding ‘no’ when Clara appears at the door to the room, staring silently at Andrew for a minute before crossing to sit on the sofa with him.
He tilts his head to look at her for a minute, but when she doesn’t make any attempt at conversation he turns back to his phone.
‘Don’t know’, he sends back, just before everyone else piles into the room, loud and excitable. Neil glances at Andrew and Clara on the sofa, curiosity clear on his face, but when they make no move to interact with each other he turns his attention back to Matt and Willow, who appear to be reenacting one of Neil’s impossible goals from the previous season.
Clara lets out a small laugh when Willow mimes being checked rather dramatically into the wall of the court, but when Andrew turns his gaze to her she looks down again, hugging her knees to her chest in an obvious attempt to make herself smaller. Andrew knows the move well. His hands shake slightly as he’s tugged back into his past as a foster child, and he pulls out a sweet to unwrap to keep himself distracted. He wonders absently if there’s a child out there who’s like him - who’s crying out for help from people who will never understand them. He shakes the thought from his head. He may understand, but he’s in no position to help.
Then he looks at Neil, who rescued two stray cats and coaxed them back to health, who’s now managed to calm Willow down enough to crouch down and talk to her animatedly about something, grins covering both their faces, and he can’t stop the shiver that runs through him. He thinks, what if -
He’s jolted out of his thoughts by the realisation that Clara is looking at him - or, more accurately, she’s looking at the sweet wrapper he’s worrying between his fingers. He blinks, watching her for a moment before pulling out another sweet. He glances across the room, but no one’s looking at them, so he surreptitiously slides the sweet across the surface of the sofa and pulls his hand back, staring forwards the entire time. Clara snatches the sweet up and unwraps it, popping it in her mouth. The next time their eyes meet, she smiles.
By the time Neil’s ready to leave, Clara has visibly relaxed, a smile stuck on her face as her sister teases her and she responds by sticking out a tongue stained yellow from the lemon sherbets. When they’ve all said goodbye, she steps towards Andrew with her arms held out questioningly. He stiffens for a second, then crouches down, allowing her to wrap her arms around him briefly. He almost - almost - mirrors her smile when he sees the shocked looks on Dan and Matt’s faces, but the grin on Neil’s takes his breath away.
“Don’t even think about it,” he says once they’re back in the car, but his words hold no heat.
Neil just smiles wider. “So, ice cream?”
“Ice cream,” Andrew agrees, reaching for his cigarettes where they lie in the glove compartment. At the last second though, his hand stills, and he reaches for another sweet instead.
After all, there will be no smoking around the kids.