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Swim until you love me

Chapter Text

Neil Josten let his cigarette burn to the filter without taking a drag. He didn't want the nicotine - he wanted the acrid smoke that reminded him of his mother's burning corpse. The act was at once nostalgic as it was sickening. It sent a shiver down his spine in time with the shallow ripples of the water before him.

In Neil's opinion, there was nothing more comforting than undisturbed water. It had a certain grounding affect. Neil knew that that the most likely way his body will be disposed of, after his untimely death, will be at the will of fire.

Surrounded by water, Neil was as far from that result as possible.

Out of all the swimming baths that Neil had broken into, this had been the most difficult by far, which he put down to it  being the first Class 1 college recreational centre he'd fought his way into.

He sat now on a long bench, parallel to the short length of the pool. One leg bent, worn sneaker on the wood and his forearm leant on the knee, cigarette close to his face. He stubbed it out beside him just as the flames began to flick at his fingers, neatly tucking the remains in his sweatpants pocket.

Neil began with his foot on the bench, untying his laces and pulling the shoe off. His sock went with it, along with the matching sets. He'd never been caught before, but that didn't stop him being cautious as he stripped his sweatpants. 

Not bothering to put his clothes back in his duffle bag, Neil unzipped it just to retrieve his contacts case. This left him completely vulnerable - stood in nothing but his t-shirt and boxers, eyes bluer than the reflected water.

The vulnerability didn't last for long though - he took one step forward before diving into the deep pool. The empty room had been so silent that being underwater was almost loud; the humming disturbance of water and the beating of his heart were ringing in his ears like a familiar lullaby but as loud as a siren. He only allowed himself twenty seconds of the solitude before allowing the water to bring him back to the surface, supporting the weight of him, his demons and his emotional baggage.

Beginning with a warm-up, Neil swam two laps of the pool before, without even pausing, swimming full speed. He lost count after the twenty-first lap, swimming a sequence of breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly, until his arms surpassed pain and felt numb. He knew it would be worse tomorrow, but in a world where he knew any moment could be his last, Neil taught himself to never hold back.

It took three tries before Neil managed to get his left leg into his sweatpants and four for the right. His shirt was quickly changed, the wet one rung out and wrapped in a plastic, chlorine stinking, carrier bag - tucked in the duffel. His hair hung especially low on his forehead, his curls more separated and defined, but the texture uncomfortable due to the chlorine. Neil was only passing through Palmetto and hadn't booked a hotel room, instead seeking out a mildly hidden park bench a few hours earlier. This meant that Neil didn't know how long it would be before he next had a shower. As usual though, Neil didn't shower in the locker room.

Walking around the frame of the pool, Neil pressed the button by the door, sending the cover back over the pool. With that, he walked back through the changing room and then the rest of the rec centre. Usually, the door looked as though it had just been left unlocked, but Neil needed to completely mangle the locks on this door to get in. Of course, this would arise suspicions and therefore Neil could never return.

Neil walked out of The Foxhole Baths for the first and final time, leaving nothing but the broken locks and a circular, black burn mark on the wooden bench.

Chapter Text

It wasn't unusual for Kevin Day to practice at night. So much so, that Coach Wymack had given him his own set of keys for the rec centre. However, it was unusual for Kevin to go alone.

After Allison Reynolds had taken ill the day of their first state competition, Wymack had struck some kind of deal with Andrew Minyard to have him take her place in the relay. Of course, this meant that he'd had to (illegally) push back his prescribed medication so he could focus. This left Andrew useless, napping in his car, rather than following Kevin in.

Of course, of all days, it was now that the foxhole baths had been broken into. All five locks (that Wymack had insisted on) guarding the side door had been completely torn apart. It should have been impossible for anyone but a professional.

Kevin's first thought was Riko Moriyama, but he would be in California right now. The Ravens were taking part in a small-scale charity tournament, for appearances, with the Trojans. He could have sent someone though...

He knew he should go back for Andrew, but he'd fallen flat-out asleep as soon as Kevin had closed the passenger door. Even Andrew Minyard wasn't invincible.

Despite being non-religious, Kevin prayed for safety and pushed open the door.

The first thing he noticed - was nothing. Everything looked exactly the same. It clearly wasn't a robbery as, firstly, no one had parked nearby (Andrew's car lonesome) and, secondly, nothing was missing. The gym was locked and untouched, the locker room television remained, and even Wymack's office had been ignored.

Grateful for his full-key set, Kevin let himself into the office. There was a single set of stairs leading up to it. The office was quite large; one side was security - monitors showing each camera's view on equally spaced grids. Kevin walked over to the first.

He looked at each camera in turn. The two cameras outside showed nothing unusual. The gym was exactly the same. Where Kevin had just walked through - still empty. It was the camera showing the different angles of the pool that were different. Kevin spun around.

The second half of the office had a long desk, filled with unorganized files and paperwork. Over it was a large plexiglass viewing window overlooking the large pool. Kevin leaned across the desk.

A short guy's silhouette could be seen through the darkness, but not until he stood up from the bench, discarding his pants as he vacated his seat.

In a flash, he was gone, submerged in the water. Then, he was back in view, lay on the surface of the water.

Kevin was almost offended by the college swim team's pool being misused. But then the guy swam.

Right off the cuff, Kevin was impressed. His first two laps matching Nicky Hemmick's best speed - not the best swimmer, but still worthy of being on a Class 1 team.

Of course, he was stupid. The kid was immediately going full speed without a warm-up. He'd be burnt out in six laps, tops. At least, that's what Kevin had initially thought.

Apparently, Nicky Hemmick's best speed was this kid's warm-up, because two laps later he was going exceptionally fast.

Kevin stared in shock for ten minutes before the guy paused for a brief breather, then he open and closed Wymack's drawers in search for a stop watch.

Each of his laps crept up in speed, quicker than the last by half a second, but already from the first he was quicker than every single Fox, bar Kevin. Once he reached his seventh lap though, he matched Kevin's current speed, injury included.

It was on his fourteenth lap, right before he burned out and began to get slower, that Kevin was left staring at the stopwatch in disbelief. His eyes moved from the figure to the watch and back again.

It should have been impossible...

 

---

 

Wymack wasn't all too happy to be woken up at 2am, and Andrew didn't appear too happy to still not be in bed, despite his face being as impassive as ever at this time.

Kevin couldn't care less. This was the breakthrough the foxes needed.

"I'm telling you, Coach. We need this guy. He's a whole two seconds faster than Riko. Riko Moriyama! Most people can't even dream of getting close to Riko's average and this kid is faster than his top speed. Fuck, this guy should go to the Olympics." He was stood in the centre of the living room, Wymack leant on the doorframe in the doorway.

"He broke into our rec centre." Wymack said, not as a dismissal but just as a state of fact.

"Exactly! He seems to fit your recruitment standards. He swam with a shirt on too, and when I followed him I saw that he's sleeping on a park bench." Kevin grimaced as he said this, before switching straight back to his eagerness. "He needs help, clearly, and with our training we can hone his skills to help us."

The was a laugh from the couch, causing both men to look at the smallest who sat on the edge of the seat, head in hands. The laugh was much less manic than his usual, and that just made it all the more unsettling. Sensing eyes on him, the blonde lifted his head and nestled back into the couch, disinterest written on his face but a small, threatening sneer pulling at his cheeks. "I'm still not understanding why you, who can't leave Fox Tower alone, followed a delinquent to an abandoned park without warning anyone."

Kevin tensed, "I couldnt risk losing him."

Andrew made the mime of a phone by his ear, his thumb and little finger sticking out, as he whistled with the movement.

"You'll thank me when we win Spring Championships."

Andrew replied, "I can assure you, I won't."

"You're assuming he wants to join," Wymack butted in. "I agree, Kevin. We could really do with this kid on our team. Especially now that we've noticed him before Riko has. But that doesn't mean he wants us."

"I can try, though? Right?"

"Maybe not you, specifically." Wymack suggested. "You can come off quite strong. Perhaps someone more approachable."

"Seth." Andrew snarled, earning a "fuck off" from Kevin.

"Nicky's friendly." Wymack reasoned.

Kevin winced, "He'll hit on him, definitely. It might scare him off. Same with Allison. I think Renee's the obvious choice."

"Sounds like a runaway." Andrew mused. "Runaways tend not to take with Renee."

Wymack rolled his eyes, "Dan then, or Matt."

"I could." Andrew said, but was ignored.

"Dan's fierce. And she's captain, so it seems right." Kevin decided.

"I'll call her." Wymack nodded.

"Soon; she'll have to go early in case he disappears."

"I'll call her, now." Wymack ammended. He looked over to Andrew. "You're not driving now. You'll both have to spend the night here."

Andrew immediately rearranged himself on the sofa so he was lay with his back against the back, facing the rest of the room before closing his eyes.

"Blankets are in that cupboard," Wymack nodded to said cupboard, leaving in the direction of his office as Kevin set up a blanket of a bed on the floor.

Chapter Text

The world felt different at four o’clock in the morning. The streets empty and yet the sky full of stars. Many would find it intimidating; the blackness of an alleyway and the stretched shadows of a lonesome staggering figure. However, after so many nights as ‘Hennessy’, Dan had adjusted to the dark sky and the silent, deserted roads.

Despite this, she still felt unease at approaching an unsecured park (as any smart woman sadly should) and, more directly, heading for the outline where the trees fringed the field.

It wasn’t until she was a fairly short distance away from the described bench that her eyes could focus on the lean figure curled up on it.

He was incredibly short - probably not much taller than the twins. He was wearing battered sneakers, a baggy hoodie (brown curls peeking into view) and had a duffle bag, in similar condition, hugged to his chest with clutching hands.

It was difficult to tell just how old the boy was (maybe not even old enough to join the team) but Dan had already decided that this kid needed protecting either way and she would be the one to do so.

“Hey,” She spoke firmly to wake him.

Judging from his reaction – jumping out of his skin as he sat up, scanning around him for danger – she could have whispered, and he’d have woken up. “Chill out, I just want to talk to you,” She rolled her eyes, hoping to lighten the mood even though it was a futile attempt. “You don’t hurt me, and I don’t hurt you.” Under his sceptical gaze, she held up her hands for good measure.

“You’re Danielle Wilds.” He spoke after a minute, voice tainted with sleep and cautiousness. “The Foxes captain.”

“Please, just call me Dan. And yes, I am. I take it you’re a fan of the sport?” She questioned, and somehow, he shrank further, whilst also standing his ground. He was peculiar in that way.

“I know why you’re here.”

She disagreed, “I’m sure you don’t. I don’t appreciate people breaking into our recreational centre, but I do appreciate talent.” At his confused frown, Dan further explained. “Kevin Day, surely you know him, arrived there not long after you did. He practices most nights, you see. He saw you swimming tonight, and he’s impressed, to say the least.”

“Thanks for the compliment.” The guy replied, moving up on the bench and going to cross his legs before dropping one back to the floor. He’d clearly decided that Dan wasn’t a threat but was willing to make a run for it if that changed.

“How old are you?” She asked.

He frowned at the question. “Nineteen.”

Maybe it was his hesitation or perhaps it was his looks, but Dan found she didn’t quite believe that. “Great! We’d like you to join the team,” She grinned.

“What?” Neil’s frown turned from reluctant to just plain confused, which was rather endearing. “Just like that?”

“You’ve heard about the Foxes. You know who we recruit.”

“Drugged psychos and crippled, fallen stars?” He scowled, sarcasm lacing his voice.

“Yes,” Dan ignored the insults since they were aimed at the monsters rather than her friends. “Also, criminal burglars who sleep on park benches.”

“I’m not a burglar,” He said, tone defensive despite himself. “I didn’t steal anything.”

“Hey,” Dan uncrossed her arms and shot him one of her best smiles. Not a media smile but a real one – one that she reserved for her foxes. “Join us.”

“You wouldn’t want me,” He shook his head. “And I can’t.”

“Why not?” Dan pushed.

“I won’t compete.” He insisted, uncomfortably.

She was quick to assure him. “Couch can accommodate any needs you may have. One guy on our team wears weapon-filled armbands in the pool. That’s how lenient he can be.”

“Andrew Minyard,” He muttered, as though he hadn’t meant to say it aloud. Dan’s expression softened.

“You know your stuff. Don’t lie to me and tell me you don’t want this. At least speak to Coach Wymack.”

It was clear that the guy had issues, but was beginning to open to the idea, his antagonism forgotten as he focused on his internal conflict.

“What’s your name?” Dan asked.

The boy frowned, hesitated and then answered. “Neil Josten.”

Dan held out her hand, and Neil’s own – somehow smaller yet rougher – shook it once before pulling away. “I can come back later if you want or you can come now.”

Neil gestured at the empty park, “I’m not doing anything now.” He unzipped his bag and Dan took a step back so she couldn’t see its contents. He looked through it, checking every item once in a methodical manner. Once the process was done, he stood up and pulled the fraying strap over his shoulder.

“Ready?” She smirked.

He replied with a grimace of his own, “Or not.”

Chapter Text

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.”

“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.

Need 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."