The sun had nearly risen in spite of Neil by the time he left the small café alongside Dan. When the Foxes' captain suggested that he come with her for breakfast - her treat - before they went back to the Foxhole, Neil had argued that they speak to Coach immediately.
It would have been easier for Neil to disappear again if the sun was still down.
Dan had refused, and Neil reluctantly found that she was a difficult person to disagree with. Unwillingly, he admired her in that way.
The meal was spent in silence. Dan had bought him toast, along with a warm drink, and he hadn't argued to pay. Neil spent the quiet thinking over multiple ways that this could go wrong and how to get out of each one of them.
He wondered what Dan was thinking about within the intervals of her texting.
The Foxhole appeared exactly as he had left it, apart from the population of cars accommodating the lot beside it. The locks were still mangled, Neil noticed.
Dan paused in her lead, looking back at Neil and smiling in encouragement, before continuing on through the door.
The lights were on, but the entrance remained empty. No one stood by the lonesome vending machines or sat upon the sofas congregated around each other. Dan strode on past them.
An echo sounded as Neil passed the female locker room, followed by a loud feminine laugh. Neil didn't look towards it, keeping his eyes locked on Dan's back as they went through some door and up the stairs.
Upon entering the office, Neil could only presume that the man who sat at the long desk, looking out the window above it, was Coach Wymack. He wondered if this was where Kevin Day had stood when Neil unknowingly swam the lengths of the pool. He wondered if Kevin had recognised him.
He was unsure which thought brought the majority of unease, settling on a tie.
"Coach," Dan greeted, respectively yet warmly. She nodded towards Neil, who still stood in the doorway. "This is Neil Josten."
Wymack looked over Neil, calculating, but only overbearing due to the fact that he was around the same age as Neil's father. "Hello," Neil greeted, unsure.
"Josten," Wymack greeted, standing beside Dan now with enough distance between them and him that Neil felt enough fine. "I've heard much more about you than I would have liked within the last few hours. Day's unexpected prodigy it seems."
Neil glanced to his right, eyes catching on the display of screens showing perspectives from different corners of the rec centre. "I heard you had a break-in problem."
He looked back at Wymack to see him looking amused, rather than offended. "Kids these days, huh?" He said, as though they were playing along to the same script. "Wouldn't know anything about that would you?"
Neil didn't reply.
"I supposed not, then." Wymack said, but the three of them knew what that implied. "Tell me, Neil, how many metres can you clock in a minute?"
Against all extents and purposes, Neil didn't know. "Enough," He chose to go with.
"So it seems." Wymack agreed. "I hear from Wild's that you know your fair share about our team, including a brief understanding of Day's past. I'm presuming you've therefore heard of Riko Moriyama." Wymack continued as though Neil had confirmed this, “During last year's championships, Riko broke the national record for collegiate swimming in the short course sector. He swam 100 metre freestyle with a time of 45.20 seconds. Last night, Kevin recorded you swimming the same in 47.26 seconds. That’s- how old did you say you are again?”
“Nineteen. Two years ago, Riko was recorded slower than you are now and he had been training since the little leagues. You’re already nearly as fast as him, faster than the majority of the Foxes, and yet you’re the youngest. You have more time to improve.”
Neil wondered what Wymack would say to the fact that he was actually eighteen.
“Answer me this,” Wymack said, stepping closer now, thoroughly pitching his idea. “Where did you learn to swim?”
Neil shrugged, “My parents paid for lessons, nothing special, just enough to make sure I'd never drown.” It was a mere statement, yet the truth of it twisted at Neil’s stomach.
“You’re telling me you never joined a school team? Local team?”
Neil shook his head.
This seemed to please the Foxes’ coach, rather than worry him. “Then imagine how great you’d be with support and training.”
Again, Neil shook his head, more definite this time and accompanied with a frown, “No, I can’t. You don’t understand. This is just a waste of time on both our parts.”
Dan chose this moment to insert herself back into the conversation. “Explain to us why.” She said it so simple as though it was that easy. Letting out a sigh, she stood from where she had previously perched on the desk, “Come here,” She said, turning towards the window that Neil hadn’t paid attention to so far.
Neil obliged, walking around Wymack with a wide berth, standing on the side of Dan that put him the furthest from the man. He only noticed afterwards that this left them between him and the exit. He pushed it from his mind for now, looking towards the plexiglass and down at the pool below.
The Foxes were a mismatched lot within the public eye, but here in their similar swimming costumes, pulling hair back into their caps, they appeared united in an indescribable way. The internal conflict within was a constant whenever the media focused on this ragtag team. This, along with the recruiting standards from Coach Wymack, was a reason why Neil had found himself moderately obsessed with them, vouching for the underdogs ever since he was made aware of them when Kevin’s transfer was announced.
He would spend hours browsing sports magazines and newspapers, reading about them. Sometimes, he would be able to watch the races on TV if their motel supplied one and Mary had left for whatever reason. Neil would think up ways in which he would try to resolve their issues to unite them as a team, rather than just the common interest of winning. Occasionally in recent times, if the night was long and the grief hung heavy, Neil would wonder how he would slot into the team himself.
This obsession was the reason why his mother steered clear of Palmetto and the reason why Neil had found himself gravitating towards it after her sudden departure. It was the one thing his mother had never been able to beat out of him.
Perhaps that was what this was now. A mentally exhausted induced hallucination. Maybe he was dead. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that he had passed away on the side of the road a few miles out from a certain beach all those months ago.
The team were unsupervised now, with their coach and captain preoccupied and Kevin Day stubbornly along the length of the pool.
The divide was clear.
On the bench sat Allison Reynolds, face devoid of the usual make-up that occupied it throughout the interviews and other media outside of the competitions. Her hands were in her hair, pushing clips to hold it into place perfectly despite the swim cap that was soon to cover it, as she chatted away to the others standing by her.
Seth Gordon was sitting on the floor, leaning against the bench beside her legs, head resting back on the wood, eyes closed and seemingly not listening to what the woman was saying.
Matt Boyd was listening intently as he stood opposite them, bouncing on his feet with energy he could be releasing in the pool alongside Kevin. Neil wondered what Allison could be saying that was more important.
Renee sat nearby at the edge of the pool, legs in the water but gaze across to the other side where the other half of the Foxes stood.
Nicky Hemmick stood blabbering away to one of the Minyard twins, seemingly without much in return though Neil couldn't see his expression so he couldn't be sure.
The other Minyard twin glanced away from the other group (perhaps that was who Renee had been watching), up to the window that Neil stood behind. He was too far to tell but Neil knew he was looking right at himself, as though he had immediately sensed the attention.
His grin brightened further, and Neil flickered his gaze from the unease of it to Minyard's arms that brandished black armbands - not the swimming kind. Of course. This was Andrew.
Neil looked back at the Foxes as a whole. He tried to vision it. Himself. A Fox.
Where would Neil Josten's place be?
Would he have one?
When he turned back into the room, he noticed that both Dan and Wymack were watching him. Waiting. Smiling.
Dan's smile softened, "Explain it to us."
Neil couldn't tell the truth. But he couldn't completely lie. There hadn't been enough time to come up with one that would keep him safe and answer the questions.
He had to work with what he had.
Stepping away from the window, out of Minyard's piercing gaze that still lingered on him, Neil looked between Dan and Wymack before settling his eyes on the floor before him.
"It's my parents." He said, earning an understanding look from Dan.
"We can talk to them, if that is needed." Wymack assured.
"It's not that." He searched for the right words. The right twists of the truth that can help create a lie. "They don't know where I am. I'm not in a position where it's...safe," Neil internally winced at that word. This was winding up as mostly the truth, only a lie through omission. "...for my location to be broadcasted on the media."
"Then we take precautions." Wymack said matter-of-factly. "We keep your whereabouts private and you out of the media until the teams are officially shared in late September. That way we can prepare for how we ensure your safety."
It was a flimsy plan, which was expected since it had only been a second since Neil had told them and they didn't have any details or the extent of danger.
"Time to earn each other's trust. Get to know us all. Make a home out of this place." Dan added on - all three things that went against Mary Hartford's rules.
Fuck, did Neil want it.
Neil sighed. Resigned himself to the most stupid decision he would probably ever make. "I swim with a shirt on."
Wymack smirked whilst Dan grinned, both with a fierceness untamed.
Dan put a hand on his shoulder, and Neil didn't flinch. "Let's go to practice."