The whispers begin before the first half has ended (he’s here, they spread like licks of flame through a forest, Neil Josten is here). He’d hoped for just a bit more time in obscurity before the wolves set it; they have the decency to wait until the buzzer sounds the break before the first microphone is shoved against his cheek. “Are you here to observe your opponents before the next match?” the bravest of them asks. The bravest still won’t meet his eyes; he watches her gaze flick to his face and then back again to the court, uncertain. “Or here to support your old teammate?”
Neil leans forward with a slow, measured gesture that has the sea of recording equipment scurrying backwards. Unpredictable, the press has called him. He knows what they mean. “Who, Minyard?” His voice is a casual drawl, posture loose and easy, and he pretends not to notice the one-second delay between his words and the repeat on the court’s overhead screen. “Never,” he says through the smile he uses in interviews, the one Nicky always says makes him look predatory. “Can’t stand the guy.”
Even the bravest of them loses her footing, shuffling back and forth between questions like the ground beneath her has gone unstable. Her cameraman zooms in on the shark-like grin the goalkeeper is sending their way, face turned unerringly their direction, and he draws a gloved finger carefully across his neck like a promise. The impromptu interview ends with Neil’s sarcastic, two-fingered salute in response.
They catch up with Kevin on Thursday - not that he’s ever particularly hard for them to find. When he’s not on the court he’s at least in the building, and it’s only a matter of waiting the few minutes for him to emerge into view of a common area. “Kevin!” the ESPN-X reporter waves him over; he’s out of uniform, but wearing his team jacket - it matches his complexion better than orange ever had. “We spoke to a few of your old teammates from the Foxes this weekend,” and if she notices the way his expression falters into something almost faking friendliness, she doesn’t comment. “The Minyard-Josten rivalry is the story of the week!”
His smile shutters, eyes blinking once twice in succession, and then the set of laughter in the lines of his face is genuine. “Oh,” and they’re still not used to seeing this light in Kevin Day’s eyes, not off the court. “The rivalry.” He nods in time with the music playing in the lobby like he’s trying to convince himself of the word he just used. “Sure.”
The reporter latches on like she smells blood. “Not strong enough a word, eh?” Leans in close like they share a secret. “They must really hate each other.”
Kevin shortens the distance between them. “You have no idea.”
The next match sees the rivalry brought to the court as the two teams face off. #TeamJosten is trending on Twitter for the forty-eight hours that surround the event (unsurprisingly, #TeamMinyard is not. Diligent searchers find the smaller faction seems to have begun with an account that is quickly disregarded for containing only two tweets in English. The second links to an essay detailing the history of Corn Flakes).
The players remain as civil as possible for the first half, despite the ESPN-X correspondents playing up the tension like a symphony; they direct the audience as easily as any other section, weaving their stories into being (Ongoing since college, they say. Drove their teammates insane with it, always at each other’s throats. No one brings up the years old press photos of a much younger Neil Josten with bandages on his face and blankness in his eyes, but they think of them).
Before the game they had attempted to approach Neil (eight months at the pro level and five years on an NCAA Class 1 team and they had learned to never, never approach Andrew), and gotten only sharp laughter in response.
Ten minutes into the second half, Neil spins past an opposing backliner (four five) to line up a shot for the goal (six seven) before being shoulder-checked into the plexiglass. “We’re gonna kick your ass,” the backliner says as he offers a hand up, “but I’m on your side with Minyard. I’ve always hated that fucking freak.”
It takes two other players to separate them. Neil smiles his predator’s smile when the ref throws him a yellow card, laughs that same sharp laughter when the coach throws him out of the game.
They don’t shake hands after the match.
The crowds hold their breath, uneasy, as the other players leave a few feet between lines; a hazard zone. Neil approaches with the same loose-limbed ease he plays with, like he’s already considered every outcome for the next ten steps and doesn’t need to bother himself with the first one. He pauses at half-court. Striking like a viper, Andrew tangles his fingers in the wire of Neil’s face guard - two of his teammates make aborted motions to pull him off, but draw up as he raises an eyebrow like a fist to stop them. “Idiot,” he snarls at Neil, shaking the helmet and, by extension, the head within it.
Neil smiles his predator’s smile and licks the dried blood from his split lip. “Worth it.”
The Minyard-Josten rivalry is the story of the following week, too.
Four weeks and eight matches later, the Minyard-Josten rivalry has moved beyond story of the week, tiptoeing into story of the career territory (#TeamMinyard slowly climbs its way up the rankings of Twitter after that match, where his team won three-two).
An ESPN-X reporter, the same one who bravely thrust her nose and her microphone where she probably shouldn’t have all those weeks ago, stumbles upon the story of her career at a 7-11 of all places.
It’s nearly midnight, and the weather has finally turned to poor; hers is the only car in the parking lot, and it surprises her when she is not the only customer in the store. The young man in the too-large red sweatshirt in front of her is buying two cans of tuna, and one pack of the second least expensive cigarettes. It’s only when he turns to leave that she recognizes him. “Andrew Minyard.” It startles out of her, unintended.
“Andrea Palmer.” He seems entirely unaffected to see her.
Andrea is wearing a pair of her husband’s sweatpants and a t-shirt from her alma mater, some fifteen years old. Her arms are filled with frozen burritos and Ben and Jerry’s ice creams. There’s a camera on her cell phone, but she would need to dig it out from the bottom of her purse. She feels as far from the on-screen sports caster as ever. “Tuna,” she says; he looks at her like he thinks she’s as stupid as she feels.
“For the cats,“ he finally tells her, voice soft and sleepy - for a moment, she remembers that he is a twin. Were it not for the way he’d greeted her, she might assume she’d had the wrong Minyard.
She knows it’s ill-advised, but the reporter in her follows after him with a question. “You have cats?”
The admission startles him into wakeful, wrathful attention; before she can process the change he’s all but nose to nose with her (nose to chin. She’s known, objectively, how tall he isn’t, but it’s something else entirely to have it up close like this). “If I see any of this published, if I even hear a whisper of it from teammates in the locker room, I will know it came from you. I will destroy you, Andrea. Not only will you never work in journalism again, you won’t even be able to start your own knitting blog without my coming for you.” He hasn’t once raised his voice above a whisper. “Understood?”
She nods, not trusting her voice to not quiver, and pretends not to care that the cashier has moved away from them instead of toward. She waits until there’s the safety of a store between them, when his one free hand is busy pushing the door open against the wind, before finding her spine. “If you’re worried about the story humanizing you,” and the courage in her voice is nearly entirely due to the pepper spray she’s clutching to her chest. “Don’t worry. No one would believe me.”
He pauses. Considers his purchases. Spares a glance to her sweatpants and her defense keychain and the ruined pints of ice cream that have dropped to the floor. When he shrugs, the gesture is almost lost in the fabric of the too-broad shoulders he wears. “No, I’m not worried about that. It’s-” He shrugs again, and the motion produces one of the cigarettes from the pack; how he’s managed to light it, she can’t even guess. “He’d be insufferable if he knew I was spoiling them like this.”
Andrea teeters at the edge of a sheer precipice of speculation; he brings the cigarette to his lips, and she allows herself to fall. “You don’t actually hate each other, do you.”
“Of course we do.” Andrew flashes his teeth on what could be considered a grin on anyone else. On him, it reminds her that despite the red hood, he is nothing if not the wolf. He grins and she wishes they weren’t alone. “More than anything.”
She takes the hint.