The Palmetto State Foxes sat in an empty conference room in Baltimore, waiting and waiting. The eight remaining players, their surly and stressed coach, and the team nurse with her much-needed cool head had been ushered into the room and given seats while they let the worst thoughts they could dream up get into their heads and strike them all with paranoia. Neil had been missing for too long for any of them to feel comfortable, and with the information Andrew had choked out of Kevin, they had little hope to hold on to.
Nicky tapped his fingers anxiously on the table, until Aaron and Allison both shot him angry glares with thinly veiled threats. Kevin was twitching ever so slightly, often enough to be noticeable. The marks on his neck were reddening, and by the next day they’d be dark bruises. Renee had her rosary in her hands, running the beads through her fingers with silent prayers. Dan and Matt were sitting next to each other, holding hands, but anyone could see how tight they clutched one another.
Andrew looked the calmest but was probably the farthest from it. This was his problem, since his idiot junkie had made him break the deal so Neil could run straight into his father’s hands - which were certainly armed with whetted knives and the cleaver Kevin had told them about through gritted teeth. He was angry at just about everyone including himself for letting Neil down.
Andrew clenched his fist, the most emotion he had shown since his hands had wrapped around Kevin’s pale, skinny throat. All he knew was that the FBI had found Neil and his father, that Nathan had been killed and that when they found Neil they hadn’t known whether he would live or die. Andrew’s tongue was heavy in his mouth and the taste copper with blood from his cheek as he thought about Nathan Wesninski, the Butcher of Baltimore.
Kevin had told him and the Foxes, finally, the one secret Neil had had left. Of course, Neil’s father was an assassin owned by the Moriyama’s with a grudge and a death wish for his son. And of course, Neil had known they were coming for him and said nothing when the Butcher’s men took him from the riot. Andrew didn’t know whether to be mad at Neil or mad at his father more – though, with Nathan dead now he had a clear direction for his anger.
He moved his hand slightly, but Wymack’s arm remained steady on the other side of the cuffs so he wouldn’t go anywhere. Andrew tested it again, only stopping when the door opened.
It was Agents Browning and Towns, one of whom Andrew had halfheartedly attempted a swing at earlier. He scowled. They kept their distance from him anyways, heading towards Wymack and Abby on the other side of him.
“We have an update on Nathaniel.” Agent Browning said.
“Neil.” Nicky corrected him forcefully, but shrank back into himself when the agent looked at him. Allison, seated on the other side of him, took his hand and squeezed, her own fury towards the feds contained in her fingers. Andrew took notice of the gesture, realizing that while he’d been hospitalized his cousin and twin had formed a tentative friendship with the upperclassmen.
“Update us.” Andrew said. His eyes flickered from one agent, to the other in a dead gaze. “Then take us to him.”
Browning and Towns paused and looked at each other. The air felt heavy with silence and in the moment it took for one of them to open his mouth again, Andrew already knew what they were going to say.
His heart burst with renewed fury directed at the agents, at Neil, at Nathan, at Nathan’s henchmen, at Riko and Tetsuji, at Ichirou and Kengo and Drake and Cass and Luther and Pig Higgins and himself, Andrew Minyard, who had lost Neil in a riot and wasn’t ready to hear the FBI agents say—
“Nathaniel passed away an hour ago.”
Half of the team cried out in shock. Andrew sat still.
“Coach.” He said. “Coach, get this off of me now.” He shook his hand in the air and the metal dangled. Wymack gestured to the agents, who hesitated first but ultimately threw him the key.
Their mistake. When Andrew was free he stood up and let his fists fly, first into the table, then into the wall, hitting the plaster over and over until it crumbled under his anger. He vaguely heard the agents yelling in the background, the Coach yelling back, but all he could do was hit and hit until Renee stepped in. Her hand was soft when it caught his and he’d never really understood what was appealing in the softness of girls, but in the moment he stopped to appreciate her gentleness on his sore knuckles.
“Sit down, Andrew.” She whispered, and guided him to the floor. Renee took his hands in hers and examined them. There was blood pooling on his knuckles, not quite falling but rather building up in anticipation of the fall. The skin was scraped open as well. He ignored the itch of pain as it twinged through his hands because it was nothing compared to every other pain he had survived. “Abby, we need some bandages.”
A chair was shoved back as someone – likely the nurse – got up to leave. The agents were murmuring but he couldn’t be bothered to care. They should have expected this. They knew the Foxes and knew what Neil meant to them. They knew Andrew’s anger would take over him.
Kevin was looking at his hands in agony, and Andrew could hear the words he wouldn’t say, the ‘don’t ruin your hands, Andrew, what about Exy, Andrew’, but by some miracle (Allison digging her nails into his hand and the developing bruises on his throat from Andrew earlier still remembered) he said nothing. Good.
“I’m done, Coach.” Andrew said, untangling himself from Renee’s grip and standing. He took his seat again, and flicking a cool glance to Browning and Towns, said simply: “Explain.”
“He was severely wounded, not only by his father but earlier in the night by his father’s men. One of them, the woman, burned his face with a dashboard lighter, scarring his entire cheek beyond repair.” Kevin made a wounded noise and rocked back and forth. He raised his hand to his tattoo and touched it gently. The Foxes all thought of the matching four on Neil’s cheek. The agent, who would know nothing about Riko’s marks, only looked confused.
“His other cheek was sliced open. He had been subject to extreme mishandling, had inhaled chloroform and had been hit by the Butcher’s men several times. It’s probable that by the time he was taken inside his father’s residence, he had a concussion that would go on to aid in his death. He had several knife wounds that were inflicted while he was both conscious and unconscious in their vehicle.”
“All that before his father got his hands on him?” Matt breathed out softly. The agent paused and looked halfway sympathetic towards them.
“It only got worse then.”
“Tell us every detail.” Andrew demanded. Dan started to object, but he shook his head at her. “We need to know.”
“He was hit in the face, where he had already been wounded. His father tore at those wounds to worsen them, shook him, and beat him. At one point, Nathaniel tried to run and he was caught and punished for it. They weren’t kind in catching him, either. His father’s preferred weapons are a cleaver and an axe, and he was shot with a blowtorch in his hand. But the first thing he did was cut Nathaniel’s tendons – first in his ankles, then in his knees.”
The girls, Nicky, and Matt were all crying. Andrew took in all the information, trying to sort out in his head any way Neil would be okay. Kevin looked stunned and Aaron’s mouth was hanging open, unable to imagine anyone going through this. But the next words out of the agent’s mouth sealed Neil’s fate – at least, for Andrew anyways.
“Before he passed, Nathaniel told us that Nathan had done it to keep him from running. He’d run from that man for half of his life, and Nathan put a stop to it.”
Andrew bowed his head. Neil must have known he was dying, to have told them that. His idiot junkie, through over twenty cities had done everything he could to cover his tracks and keep escaping his father. A half of a thought that he’d finally done it formed in Andrew’s mind, but he pushed it away.
“Take us to him.” He looked around the room at his crying teammates. “To say goodbye.”
“He doesn’t look good, kid.” One of the agents told him. Andrew bristled at the words. “His body is barely in one piece.”
“I don’t care.”
“Andrew.” Nicky whispered. “Andrew, I can’t, I can’t see him, I can’t.”
“You’ve seen a body before, Nicky.” He let boredom color his voice, unhappy with his cousin’s reluctance. Nicky shifted in his chair towards Andrew, still carrying himself as small as possible.
“But this is Neil, he’s our friend and I – I want to remember him like he’d want to be remembered. On the court, with us. Alive, playing Exy with no tattoo and no burns and happy – as happy as he could get, anyways.”
“Neil when we won our first game.” Dan added softly. The atmosphere in the room changed, a soft but sad fondness settling in while they remembered. It was after Seth’s death, but it was the moment they knew things were turning around, and it had all been because of Neil – Neil, victorious on the court, racquet in the air with a grin on his face and his other hand pushing the sweaty bandana back up his scalp to hold his hair back. Andrew swallowed heavily.
“Just me, then.” He said.
The agents didn’t look any closer to allowing him.
“We’ll see what’s possible.” They said, standing and leaving the Foxes behind in silence.
“He wants to see my body?” Neil asked incredulously. The agents had come back and they weren’t thrilled, having just spoken with his Foxes. Neil was almost proud of them, honestly. They had given Browning and Towns quite the struggle since they’d arrived. But he needed them to stop fighting, so he could protect them. Even though it meant leaving them behind and cutting the Foxes from the league so close to the finals.
None of that mattered anymore, anyways. Neil had gone into the game prepared to die by Riko’s hand, left the stadium prepared to die by his father’s, and left his father’s house prepared to die by the Moriyamas. The Foxes were never going to finish the year, he’d resigned himself to that when the countdown started.
The offer of protection came as no surprise, but what did take him off guard was how quickly he was able to accept it. While a good amount of that came from the feds sweet talking the deal and his options, he was also thinking about Stuart and the Foxes. He didn’t want to take their offer by any means, distrustful of the FBI agents and reluctant to leave the place and people that had become his home, but this was it. The Moriyamas had lost an important game piece, and even though Stuart would likely end up in the good graces of both them and the FBI, Nathan Wesninski’s murder of Neil Josten would help him.
It would also help the Foxes. They would have more time to prepare for Riko and the Ravens. He would be their martyr, like Andrew had called him. The rallying point, like Dan had suggested a lifetime ago, that would bind the monsters and the upperclassmen into a real team. For that, Neil needed to die.
The Foxes were in no shape to face the Ravens, and since Neil couldn’t give them himself or his story, time would be his last gift to them.
“How do we convince him I’m dead, I can’t fake it.” He said, cursing Andrew under his breath, even as he felt a little awed by him.
“We could take another body in the morgue and bloody it up, make it unrecognizable.” One of the agents suggested. “It sounds disgusting, but if it’s gruesome enough, he won’t look closely.”
“No.” Neil answered. “It has to be me. He’d know if it weren’t.”
One of them – Browning, Neil thought – quirked an eyebrow up at that statement, curious. Neil didn’t feel inclined on sharing more, so he waited them out.
“There’s a drug we can give you, a relaxant that soothes the body so deeply the heartrate slows to near death and can give the appearance of death while only being sleep – almost like a coma. It’s called tetradotoxin.”
“Then do that.” Neil said. “He needs to think I’m dead. It’s the only way he’ll let me go.”
The agents didn’t return to the Foxes for another few hours, instead, they were ushered out of the building and to a hotel where they could stay for the night. They wanted Wymack to give a statement regarding what he knew about Neil – Nathaniel, they kept saying. They didn’t want to talk to any of the team, despite the fact that they had known more about him than Wymack. Especially Kevin, Andrew thought, seething quietly.
When they finally came for Andrew, the day had passed and the night had begun. The moonlight was the only thing illuminating his room. The Foxes had been given a large suite to themselves, and while most of them were out in the living room with Wymack and Abby, trying to heal themselves with the presence of the others, Andrew had opted to be alone in the dark.
There was a quick knock on the door, and he recognized Wymack’s brief tap-tap so he went to answer. The Coach and a different agent than the ones they’d met earlier were standing there.
“Are you ready?” Wymack asked.
Andrew cast a glance around the living room, where the rest of the Foxes were watching. His monsters couldn’t meet his eyes, neither could Allison or Matt. But Dan gazed back at him, eyes red and puffy as she nodded once. None of them were coming with him, preferring to keep the Neil in their memories the one they remembered. But Andrew had to see, even if Neil’s broken corpse would be there every time he closed his eyes.
Wymack followed Andrew out the door. He almost said something, but instead chose to keep silent. Wymack surely thought Abby was capable of handling a crying team of Foxes while they were gone, and maybe even felt he needed to protect Andrew from the feds or the feds from Andrew. Then again, Andrew thought, Wymack might want to see what had become of Neil as well.
He didn’t let the Coach’s presence bother him when they were taken back to the Bureau’s building, to the chilling basement where the suits kept the stiffs. The FBI morgue was grey walled and unwelcoming. Andrew felt it on an additional level knowing this was where they were keeping Neil.
The door was marked ‘MORGUE’ and Wymack heaved a sigh upon seeing it. The letters etched into the door were one more nail in Neil’s proverbial coffin, Andrew thought. One more thing making this real.
He pushed the door open. On a steel slab in the middle of the room was the very thing he had come to see but still wasn’t ready to see.
Neil’s body was covered in a sheet up to his collarbone, but it was recognizably him. Wymack let out a soft ‘oh’ upon seeing the battered body. Andrew went closer, close enough to touch and drag the sheet down low enough to reveal some of the scars he’d seen on Neil before. A bullet hole beneath the bone and a long curve under that, he trailed his fingers over.
He lifted Neil a little, just under his shoulder to reveal the stamp of the hot iron he’d seen as well. That couldn’t be faked, either. These were scars Andrew had had his hands on, had felt when Neil was nothing but an annoyance, when Neil was nothing but a hallucination, when Neil was more than nothing, and now finally when Neil was nothing but a corpse.
“It’s him.” Andrew said, finally, moving on to examine Neil’s face and the new wounds from his father.
“We didn’t need you to identify him.” One of the agents pointed out crassly. “He did that in the hospital. That’s Nathaniel Wesninski.”
“That’s Neil Josten.” Andrew said. “These scars belong to Neil Josten, he showed me them himself. Don’t try to fool me.”
The agent opened his mouth, but Wymack shook his head. Andrew went back to examining Neil’s face, touching the burns as lightly as he could. It was a gentleness he had never afforded Neil in life, so he kept his fingers like gossamer as he prodded the burn that covered most of his cheek. There was no remnant of the ink that Riko had forced onto his cheek, and Andrew would almost prefer this if Neil hadn’t been dead too.
There were three thick stripes down his other cheeks, and a quick memory flashed through Andrew’s head, of Neil saying “I never knew why he liked knives so much.” But this had been done by the woman, Andrew recalled. She had liked knives too.
Pulling the sheet down to his hips revealed blossoming bruises and more fresh gashes, stitched up by the doctors in a last attempt to save Nathaniel’s life after his rescue. There were more burns and scars than Andrew remembered, and when the agents had told them Neil had been handled roughly, they had been underselling the injuries. Andrew didn’t know how Neil had made it as far as the hospital to tell his story to the feds.
“Idiot junkie.” He said. His fists clenched uselessly by his side. Browning and Towns reacted a little nervously to that, but he was done with hitting things for now. “You should have kept running, you know that? Exy isn’t worth this.”
He lifted his hand and put it on Neil’s scarred cheek. For another moment he kept it there, watching Neil as if he were expecting him to suddenly jerk back into life. Maybe if he wished hard enough he could have Neil back, but then he remembered every pipe dream he’d wished upon had failed him. Neil Josten wouldn’t be different.
“You lied to me and I hate you.” He ran his thumb across Neil’s forehead. Then, bending down, he pressed a soft kiss to Neil’s cool lips.
With that concluded, he stood back up and faced the agents. They both looked surprised at him, but Wymack seemed to have already known. Of course he did. He had known about Andrew’s crush right away.
Wymack pushed past him, to get closer to Neil. He took Neil’s hand and squeezed it.
“I knew your father was something to be afraid of, but I never had any idea. I wish I could have protected you better. I know how happy you were to be playing Exy, and to be winning, so I hope you at least held on to that when you were dying.”
Wymack was mostly silent when they drove back, until they reached the hotel where the rest of the Foxes were. As they shuffled out of the car, Wymack went to put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder, then seemed to think better of it.
“I know you probably want to talk to Bee or Renee, but if you need me, you can come to me. I have top-shelf Patron and no advice to offer, but my ears are open.”
It was an unnecessary gesture, but Andrew nodded jerkily. He led the way up to the suite, pushing the door open to find the Foxes waiting.
They were scattered around the living room, tense and clearly waiting for Andrew and Wymack to get back. Andrew almost didn’t want to give them anything, but the hopeless looks that came the moment their heads snapped towards him gave him pause.
He shook his head at them.
“How- how did he look?” Nicky dared to ask. Andrew let out a harsh laugh, not like any time he’d laughed while on his meds. This one was crueler than even the one Drake had elicited from him.
“Like he’d gone through a human sized shredder, then switched places with a punching bag.” Andrew said. Nicky sobbed. The others looked crestfallen, but had at least stopped crying.
“Worse than..?” Allison started to say.
“Ten times worse than Riko.” He finished, and, shooting a glance at Kevin added: “There are people far more brutal and dangerous in this world than Riko Moriyama. The Butcher and his people are real monsters.”
He couldn’t say anymore, so he headed back to his room to be alone. His group looked like they wanted to ask him to stay - Matt and Dan did too - but he would rather not be included in their mourning. He had said his goodbye.
The agents had brought Neil down to the morgue an hour after they had decided to give him the tetrodotoxin. He laid down on the cold slab, reserved for the dead and shivered both when the freezing steel touched his back and when the doctor injected the needle into his arm.
He fell asleep easy, and it was the deepest sleep he’d ever had when they woke him up hours after. They told him he’d be a bit drowsy and dizzy after, but he’d be okay.
“Andrew came? He believed it?” Neil asked. He hadn’t heard any of the events, he’d been so far gone. But if Andrew hadn’t believed it he’d be by Neil’s side still.
“You were right. He would have known if it was someone else. He even checked your back for the scar you have – from the hot iron.”
Neil’s hand flew to the mark they meant, as if he could grab Andrew’s fingers still. He then looked a little embarrassed.
“Did he say anything? To you or… me?” Browning hesitated, and looked to Towns before pulling a tape recorder from inside his suit jacket.
“Minyard and your Coach both came and said something to you.” He tossed it to Neil, who caught it desperately and turned it over in his hands to find the play button. When he pressed it and Andrew’s voice came through, Neil’s eyes drifted shut imagining what had happened.
“Can I keep this?” He asked, when the tape dwindled to a stop. Browning didn’t seem like he wanted to say yes, but Andrew hadn’t said anything he could use. Wymack even less. The agent agreed, so Neil held tight to the little device.
“We need to discuss your new identity.” Towns said. “Do you want to choose your name?”
“Joseph Hatford.” Neil threw out casually, enjoying the look on Towns’ face. Andrew was right, he was an instigator through and through. Andrew was going to kill him before he ever heard about this though.
Towns and Browning both looked at him suspiciously. Neil didn’t know if they recognized the name of his Millport Exy coach, but if they had read his file like he assumed they had, they wouldn’t let him take that one either.
“You’re right, I couldn’t pass as a Hernandez. I don’t suppose I could take Minyard? That seems a little obvious.”
“And his middle name isn’t?” Neil wondered if they knew the extent of their relationship – though he didn’t even know the extent of it. Not friends but sometimes lovers? They must have thought it was something. Maybe they had a better idea than Neil what he and Andrew were, other than protector and protected.
“I’m going to be Joseph. I want to hold on to the Foxes as much as I can. What about Doe?”
“And I want to live in Columbia.” He argued. Not to see his Foxes, to casually bump into them at Exites or check in at Sweetie to make sure they were all staying away from cracker dust. But to be close enough, just in case.
“Okay, I didn’t think you were going to give me that either. I’m not going to connect with my team, they won’t know I’m alive and I won’t give them any reason to doubt this. But I want to be close enough to protect them.”
“You can stay in South Carolina. Some small town outside of Columbia, where you’ll never be noticed.”
“Do I get a car?”
“Do you have a legal driver’s license?”
Neil had plenty of driver’s licenses. None of them were obtained legally, none of them were for a Joseph Doe, and none of them he considered safe enough to use. Jean had known all his past identities, which meant his father’s men could find any of them.
“What does that matter? I can drive, and you can get me approved for one.”
The agents turned away from Neil for a moment to whisper to each other. Neil tapped his foot impatiently. Finally, they came to a decision and turned back to him.
“Final condition. When this is over, I get to be Neil Josten again. I don’t want to be Nathaniel Wesninski ever again. Nathaniel is the son of the Baltimore Butcher, and Neil is the starting striker for the Palmetto State Foxes. That’s who I want to be.”
“You want us to legally change your identity?” They didn’t seem to understand.
“I’ve had an incredible life as Neil Josten. I was never any trouble. I was in school, a star athlete, I had people to care for me and a home. I don’t want to lose that.”
“You think they’ll take you back after faking your death?”
“I hope so.” Neil didn’t want to think otherwise. They had taken him in before, given him chance after chance. It might take some time to earn their trust and love back - and oh, how Neil wanted to go back now and tell them everything, fall at Andrew’s feet and blame the agents and say he would never leave again. And Andrew would say ‘Stay, little fox.’
He could go home again.
But deep in his heart he knew it wouldn’t happen. The Butcher and DiMaccio and Lola were dead, but Jackson and Romero were alive and probably eager for blood. The easiest way to hurt Neil was through his team, and they had preyed on that the other night. If Neil had died by the Butcher’s hand already, they’d have to seek their revenge against Stuart and the FBI, both of whom Neil knew could handle themselves.
Neil’s only job now was to protect the Foxes the only way he knew how - running away.
“Let Nathaniel Wesninski die with his father. Neil Josten can live instead.”
“Actually, you can consider Neil Josten comatose. You’re Joseph Doe until the rest of your father’s people are put away or dead. When that’s done, you can be Neil Josten, with our full approval.”
“Okay.” Neil said. He took in a deep breath, but the weight on his shoulders didn’t feel any lighter. It should have, since he was saving the team from both his father’s men and the Ravens at the end of the year, but carrying the burden of protection was a lot. He didn’t know how Andrew had done it, for him and Kevin and Aaron and Nicky, but he appreciated him in a new sense. It was heightened, Neil thought, because he had to leave Andrew behind and do it alone and without them knowing.
“Now, let’s talk about your father.”
A week later, Andrew hadn’t left his dorm. He didn’t go to classes, but all of the Foxes had been excused after the second death of a teammate. He didn’t get food, but Nicky left plates for him outside the door, begging him to come out to eat. He’d take them once Nicky left, and leave the trash for when Nicky came back. He ignored Aaron pounding on the door, yelling.
“I don’t care if you’re the most miserable and awful human after this. Just, Andrew, come out with the rest of us so we know you’re okay.”
Aaron stopped himself before the ‘please’ slipped out, but they both heard it. Not even that would anger his twin enough to leave the dorm.
Andrew talked to Bee over his phone, but she didn’t make any progress in coaxing him out. In fact, the only reaction anyone had gotten from Andrew was Kevin, who had suggested Andrew come to practice so he didn’t lose his abilities.
The door opened to reveal a snarling Andrew and a knife was thrown with such extreme accuracy that it missed Kevin’s head by a hair. Kevin knew if Andrew had wanted to hit him, he would have, so he kept his mouth shut after.
Allison suggested using Katelyn to lure Andrew out through his anger, but Aaron and Dan nixed the idea of putting her in danger. Finally, Coach Wymack stepped in.
He opened the door to Andrew’s room despite panicked noises from Nicky, and flicked the light on. Andrew was awake and sitting at the window, a cigarette between his lips and the lighter clutched tightly in his hand.
He didn’t look good, and he was surrounded with cigarette butts. He was gaunt and Wymack guessed he was trying to smoke himself to cancer. The Coach went straight towards him, plucked the cigarette from him and put it out.
“Why would you do that, Coach?” Andrew asked in his dangerously bored tone - the one everyone recognized as a final warning before Andrew snapped.
“Time to get your act together.” Wymack told him. He heard the almost silent slide of metal against cloth, and backed out of Andrew’s reach. “Put those away.”
“But I need a new sheath for these knives, Coach, and I’ve decided right between your ribs will work perfectly.” Andrew grinned and the Coach flinched, because this was medicated Andrew through and through. He didn’t think that Andrew had had pills left, but if he didn’t or he wasn’t using them, he was at least adapting the personality of himself on antipsychotics.
“Neil wouldn’t be happy with you doing this to yourself.”
“But Neil’s not here. Neil’s in heaven, Coach.” Now he was obviously mocking Wymack, who pulled a desk chair over to sit by him.
“I know what this is.” Wymack said. “I’ve seen it before. You have depression. Like Janie Smalls. Remember her?”
“Went right off the deep end, that one did.” Andrew said.
“You pushed her, remember? You remember what you did to her. And you remember what you did to Kevin, Aaron, Renee, and Matt?”
“I fixed them.”
“Andrew, you took scared little kids and former addicts and former killers and you gave them the toughest love I’ve ever seen, but you fixed them. With the exception of Janie, but you knew she’d either get stronger or she’d break. Do you remember what you said about her?”
“I remember everything, Coach.” Andrew thought back to earlier that year. “I said she was pathetic.”
“Now here you are, pathetic just like her.”
“I don’t like what you’re saying about me.”
“Your words, Andrew. Now where’s your tough love for yourself? Make yourself better, Andrew, because you’ve already been broken. Go up from here.”
Andrew was silent for a moment, then he looked Wymack in the eyes.
“Andrew, come on. Come with me for some ice cream or something.”
“Is Abby making dinner at your apartment tonight? For you and Bee? Shouldn’t you be there?”
“Tell her to make enough for nine more.”
“Nine?” Andrew gave him a glare through slanted eyes. Wymack wasn’t sure if it was for the whole unwanted pep talk or his confusion at the number.
“Don’t put the cheerleader within my reach.”
At the same time, Neil was in an apartment just outside of Columbia. He had plastic gloves on his hands and bleach mix to dye his hair with. He was carefully parting his hair, combing through two or three times to make sure his roots were as covered as he could get them. He had mastered the art of using two mirrors to get it all, but going lighter was always harder than going darker.
The end result was a sandy blonde, and paired with green colored contacts, he wasn’t recognizable as Neil Josten anymore - both the Neil the Foxes had met first, and the one Riko had revealed to them.
Reminded by the thought of Riko, Neil flipped on the small television in his kitchen. The sports channels - actually, the big news stations as well - were scrambling over the Nathaniel Wesninski story. The tale of the son of a murderer hidden on a college Exy team, trying to better his life and hide from past evils was too good to be true. Everyone was talking about it.
His photo was flashed across the screen, one of him mid post-game interview. The 4 was still tattooed onto his cheek in the photo, and Neil raised his hand to touch the mark. He knew he was going to feel horrific scarring instead, but that reassured him more than anything else. He’d been taken back from Riko and given a new face to hide behind. No one had seen the new scars on his face; save Andrew and Wymack.
Riko and the Ravens had released their statement on his death last night. It was almost kind, so Neil had no doubt that it had been censored, snipped and tailored by Tetsuji to keep the main branch happy. If Riko spoke out of place, he could bring problems down on the Moriyamas, who were already hurrying to cover up their investment in Nathan Wesninski.
The Foxes hadn’t released any comments except for the news of Neil’s death and that they were not going to make any further comment on what had happened, they would be taking time to mourn him and Seth Gordon for the rest of the year.
The sports stations all said it was a shame that their year was cut so short, since they had been working their way up in the ranks. Some even speculated that Neil’s death was awfully convenient in taking them out of the finals. Neil wasn’t sure on which end they were implying foul play, the Foxes or the Ravens, so he changed the channel.
He was glad that Wymack was opting to stay silent regarding his death, but it meant that his Foxes were out of the news completely, and it was harder to check up on a team that was giving no interviews and playing no games.
Kevin had tweeted something that had actually made the emotions in Neil’s chest flutter into a tornado, and he had cried when the news anchor read it out loud, then turned the program off.
‘I am not disappointed that the games end here for the Foxes. Without Neil Josten we would not have come this far…
… It’s only right that we don’t go on playing without him.’
Most of the Foxes had retweeted him, the anchor said, but she didn’t say if any of them had added their own words. Neil would have checked if he had had a laptop, but he didn’t have one and he knew that if he went out of his way to search, he’d just end up hurting himself. Watching the shows was bad enough.
Neil really only watched them because they were all he had. His handler brought him food and anything he needed, and he stayed in the apartment. Agoraphobia, he told a neighbor who came to greet him. Bad things will happen if I go outside. His fear was easily backed up with how ugly his face looked – he could pass himself off as too traumatized from the burn to go outside.
He had been given a small, cheap car from the Bureau impound, and he had permission to drive where he wanted as long as he was careful. He had a phone to call his handler in emergencies but they trusted his new face and look to do most of the work keeping him safe.
His handler also told him that they suspected most of the Butcher’s men had fled north, which made Neil feel a little safer.
The only reason he didn’t really go out was because he had nowhere to go and no one to see. He could call Stuart, but his uncle thought he was dead and was likely using that in his negotiation with the Moriyamas. He couldn’t jeopardize that.
So Neil stayed inside and watched the news for glimpses of the Foxes. The only plan other than that he had made was for the last Friday of the month - two weeks away.
Even after his initial breakdown was solved and Andrew was back to himself, the other Foxes were watching him carefully. They had been horrified by the week of broken Andrew, unsure what had caused it or how to help. What had happened between Neil and Andrew that broke him so badly? they wondered, and Was seeing Neil’s body that traumatizing? Especially for the apathetic Andrew. How bad was it?
Nicky had been trying to convince the group to go out, but Wymack had forbidden it for the first two weeks.
“I know your grief is real, and this is how you heal it.” The Coach said. “But the press will see you partying as a way to tear down this team and your love for Neil. Wait.”
That shut Nicky up until three weeks after Neil’s death, when they were granted permission to go out into society again.
“Kevin has done nothing but watch tapes of us playing with Neil for the past three weeks. Aaron hasn’t left Katelyn’s side since - sorry, Andrew, won’t mention it again! Roland texted me the other day to see if we’re doing alright, he saw the news of course. It would be nice to go out and drink and be in a different place. We’ve just been cooped up inside drinking vodka over and over and pretending we’re going to be okay without Neil.” He had begged.
So the plans were made and invitations were offered to the upperclassmen as well.
“No dust, no drugs, no dancing. Private table.” Andrew said, his eyes flicking towards Matt quickly. “We have a few shots and a glass of soda in Neil’s honor, and as a team.”
“You’ve never valued the team like this before.” Dan said, one eyebrow lifting in suspicion. Andrew shrugged.
“Take it or leave it.”
“We’ll come next time, okay?” Dan decided. “Give us a little more time. But have fun and be safe.” Part of her reasoning had been that she wasn’t ready to go out with the monsters without Neil there to bridge the gaps, and with alcohol factoring in it might end in a fight. Another part of her thought they should wait just a little longer before being seen in public. A third part that she fought back down didn’t want to let the other Foxes go out and deal with their grief on their own. She was their Captain, after all. But the monsters were used to this – they would be on their turf and she was sure they could handle it.
Neil stood in front of his mirror and examined his face with a grimace. The left half of his face was completely burned, from right under his eye to his lower jaw. It had healed significantly since he had been attacked, but it was dramatic enough that anyone who passed him gave him a second look. Neil poked it with a sigh.
On the other side of his face were the scars Lola had left with her knife. Those ones, he’d been covering up with makeup. He remembered Allison gently sponging on foundation when he’d come back from the Nest and the suggestions she’d had for him. She’d given him (and Renee and Dan, who watched her do her magic in their shared bathroom every morning) a lesson on the basics of makeup that she thought he hadn’t paid attention to. He had, though, only once he’d heard Allison mention how incredible makeup was to alter one’s appearance just enough to make them unrecognizable. Neil’s ears had perked up then.
“Even the smallest amount of makeup can change your identity.” She had said. “Foundation in a different shade. When you contour, you can make your face drastically different – skinnier or wider cheeks. You can change the size of your forehead. A slight amount of eyeliner can make your eyes droop or raise them. Makeup is a miracle worker.”
Renee and Dan had laughed at her. Neil silently agreed as she turned his face from mottled to something resembling normal. He wished now he had gone back to her and asked her to show him how to completely change himself, just in case. Back then, though, he’d decided he was done running.
Neil had used wigs and hair dye before, as well as the colored contacts, and he’d begun using foundation on the scarred half of his face to give people less to stare at. Staring meant interest and interest meant remembering and all three could lead to him being recognized, so the more he could change the better. But he didn’t know how to completely alter himself.
He rubbed the foundation on his face, covering the scars liberally so they wouldn’t show, then checked himself out in the mirror. He didn’t look like the old Neil Josten, but only because of the severe burns. If he had just changed his hair and eyes, Andrew would recognize him in a heartbeat. Andrew had even seen his face like this, but he was relying on the burns having healed and Andrew believing he was dead.
Neil also didn’t plan on being seen.
His outfit was simple enough to blend in anywhere. He had on plain black jeans, tighter than he liked but classy. The black sweatshirt he wore didn’t show any of his scars and if he pulled the hood up, it hid his face from the world.
Neil pushed the door open. His hood was up and he locked the door behind him, slipping the apartment key into his jean pocket. The key should have been comfortable, he tested it in the palm of his hand from time to time to remind him of having Andrew’s key there, but it was harshly different from his old one. Plus, the apartment wasn’t his home the way Andrew was.
His handler was waiting for him outside the apartment building. The agent always sat outside in a car with tinted windows, watching the neighbors go in and out. Neil rarely went in or out, but his handler demanded on knowing where he was at all times.
He knocked on the window twice, so the man rolled it down.
“Stetson, I can’t stay in my apartment any longer. I’m going out to get dinner or something. Maybe to a sports bar to watch a game.”
“You want company?” The agent asked. Neil rolled his eyes.
“Please don’t.” He said. “Don’t follow me either, you’ll waste your time. I’m heading to Columbia, I won’t go anywhere I’ve been before and I have my phone with me. I just need to get out of here before I go stir crazy.”
“Okay.” Stetson agreed. “What’s my phone number?”
Neil recited it dutifully for him, adding “It’s my first speed dial.”
“Good. Have fun, Joseph. Call me if you need.”
When he had first settled in to the apartment and adjusted to his life he had expected the agent to follow him everywhere, a constant shadow on him. Neil was used to living like that anyways, someone always over his shoulder, but the witness protection was more liberal than he had expected it.
Neil guessed that with the death of his past self, the death of his father, the change to his face, and the fact that his father’s men hadn’t been seen anywhere nearby, the FBI thought he was safe enough to go out on his own. He thought it was too, which was why he was willing to risk everything for one fleeting glimpse of his Foxes.
He had no idea if they would actually be out but they were creatures of habit. Neil was willing to bet that sooner or later, they’d fall back into their pattern of Friday nights out clubbing. He got into his borrowed car, making sure his license was in the glove compartment with a small knife he’d begun to carry up his sleeve.
Columbia was a half hour away from his apartment, and Neil drove in silence, and with a purpose. He drummed his fingers on the wheel nervously. He preferred the music off and drove with one eye on the rear facing mirror to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Any car that was in the same lane for too much time would make him turn off the road, double back, and lose the potential tail.
His first stop in Columbia was Sweetie’s, but he didn’t go inside. He drove through the parking lot, scanning the cars he passed for the one he would recognize. Andrew’s Maserati was parked along the middle and Neil let out a half sigh when he saw it.
Neil hadn’t known seeing the car would hit him so hard, but the intense longing that filled his chest was more painful to him than having had his cheek burned. All of the pain he’d gone through in his life, from a hot iron pressed into his back to two weeks of enduring Riko’s grueling mix of practice and torture, it was nothing compared to how much he missed his home and his team.
He slowed the car as he passed, almost to a brake so he could look at it for a few more minutes before he needed to drive on. He didn’t want to risk parking at Sweetie’s and waiting until the monsters came out to leave, but he idled a bit before he pulled out.
He hadn’t seen Matt’s truck or Allison’s car so he wondered if the monsters and the upperclassmen were fighting again. He hoped they weren’t, not over him. He had wanted them to heal together over his death.
Neil’s next destination was Eden’s Twilight. He parked in a garage a few blocks away, one that he knew wasn’t used by most of the clubbers. Hesitating, he realized he had never seen where Nicky parked before but he was willing to gamble on it being much closer to the club.
Before he got out of the car, he put his license in his pocket and knife up the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He had money in the glove compartment as well, but had no intention of buying drinks so he left it there. He couldn’t buy drinks anyways; he would get carded at the bar rather than the door.
Every time he’d been to Eden’s Twilight before, he had been ushered in with the twins and Kevin immediately. It paid to know someone, he realized, as he took his place in line waiting to be waved in by the bouncer.
The positive side of the waiting was that he got to see the monsters show up. His hood was up and he slouched against the wall without folding into himself. Neil thought Andrew would recognize his usual body language if he kept to it, or at the least he would be aware of anyone trying to make themselves seem smaller. Andrew would ignore confidence and hone in on fear.
He was a few people short of the door when they walked by, so Neil tried not to freeze up and give himself away. He was lucky that Andrew led the group right to the door, not sparing a second glance towards anyone in the line.
In the brief seconds he had to stare, he felt his breath get taken away. Andrew looked as good as ever, but now he had a scowl on his face instead of the smile or even just his bored face. He looked more like Aaron in that moment, a rare minute of a new Andrew Neil had yet to experience - Andrew grieving.
Andrew was dressed in his usual black from head to toe, armbands included. The outfit clung to him, and Neil knew he shouldn’t stare but everything about Andrew always managed to draw and capture his gaze.
But in another second, Andrew was whisked into the door and out of his sight. He cursed himself silently for not having checked on Aaron or Kevin while they were there, because they were part of his team too and, for Kevin at least, more likely to have fallen apart over his death.
Nicky was a few minutes behind them, after having parked the car. Neil watched him effortlessly charm the doorman, hiding a sad smile behind his hand as Nicky spoke.
He couldn’t hear the exchange but Nicky was let in quickly, and Neil was left outside for another ten minutes. The bouncer glanced over his ID quickly, marked a black sharpie ‘X’ on his left hand, and thankfully ignoring his face, let him pass.
The club atmosphere was familiar and welcoming to Neil now that he’d been brought there so many times. Andrew and his lot were all at their usual table with shots already in front of them. Neil edged towards the wall of the dance floor, where he could hide in the crowd while watching his teammates.
A bartender passing by with a loaded tray stopped by him to see if he wanted a drink. Neil shrank himself a little, wanting to make himself disappear.
“Just a water.” He told her. “I’m the DD.”
It was a lie, but one that would satisfy any bartender and keep noses out of his business. She whisked away with her drinks, returning a minute later with a cola. Neil looked at the sealed can suspiciously.
“That’s not what-”
“It’s been paid for.” She cut him off. “He said it’s your usual.”
Neil’s heart jumped into his throat and he looked around wildly. Andrew and co were focused on their drinks still, but they were the only people he knew here. They could have seen him and ignored him, playing a game, but he’d been so careful to avoid their looks. Was Riko here, or someone worse? The panic was rising at a ridiculous rate and he struggled to draw air in.
The bartender gave him a strange look, but he knew it was himself that was the strange thing and she hadn’t realized what she’d said had caused him to panic. She pushed the drink into his hands, and the chilly metal and condensation in his hands helped pull him out of the daze.
“Neil.” Someone said quietly into his ear, and he turned with surprise to see Roland. The bartender beckoned him away from the crowd, towards the back employee room. Neil followed, heart pounding as if he were being chased again.
When it was just the two of them, Neil started to speak but Roland shushed him immediately.
“I won’t tell them you’re here.” He said. “I know you’re supposed to be dead, and I know how witness protection works. You’re safe here.”
That didn’t calm Neil down very much, but his heartbeat slowed to something close to workable.
“How did you recognize me?” He asked. Roland snorted.
“I’m a bartender. I remember faces. Even after bad hair dyes and half a face of makeup.” He took a closer look at Neil. “The eyes I just noticed though. Nice touch.” He gave Neil another searching one over, more probing than sexual.
“Do you think they noticed?” Neil asked him.
“No, they’re shitfaced and stupid. You’re probably fine unless you end up face to face with him. I’m just very good at faces, especially ones I’d have a reason to remember.” He quirked an eyebrow at Neil, and now his expression was sexual, if he wasn’t teasing. Neil rolled his eyes.
“I know I’m supposed to stay away from them.” He started. “But I have no one else, and with no more games, it’s very hard to check on them without doing it in person. I could get killed by being here. But they’re worth it.”
“He’s worth it.” Roland corrected. Neil let out a deep breath.
“I just wanted to see that they were okay, that they were healing. Did you see if they were taking cracker dust?”
Roland barked out a quick laugh. “I don’t think they were. But every one of those shots was toasted to you, I can assure you of that. Do you have a phone, Neil?”
“Yes?” Roland pulled his own out, offering it to him.
“Put your number in.”
“I don’t actually know my number, it’s just a phone my handler have me a few weeks ago for emergencies.” He admitted, biting his lower lip.
“Do you have it with you?”
Roland shrugged, and took a pen from his pocket. He grabbed for Neil’s hand, and kindly not saying anything about the scars, wrote a ten digit number across his palm.
“Text me Neil.” He said forcefully. “I can tell you when they’re here and how they’re doing. I can also talk to you if you need. No one should be alone in this world with nobody but a handler to talk to.”
It was an alliance he hadn’t come in expecting to leave with, but with the Foxes Neil had learned the value of these lucky coincidences and to take advantage of them.
“Thank you, Roland.” He said sincerely. “I’m Joseph now, so I’ll text you as Joseph. But I’m hoping Neil can come back by the end of the year.”
They parted then, since Roland had been away from the bar for too long and Neil wanted to get back to stalking the Foxes.
However the moment he walked out the door, something small and blond and clad in black slammed into him. Neil was pushed into a crowd of people, where he froze.
Aaron spun around and snarled at him. “Watch where you’re going!” He said, squinting at him. Then his eyes started to widen. “Josten?”
Neil took a deep breath. He was well practiced at this, so he took two steps back and within a minute had been surrounded by people. He shoved his hood down because Aaron hadn’t seen his blond hair and let himself merge into the crowd where Aaron couldn’t follow.
Two run-ins was more than enough for one night, and since neither of them had been planned he felt a growing desperation to escape the club. He found himself at the door within a minute, and with no trace of Aaron behind him, set off towards his car at a run.
He had fucked up. He didn’t mean for any of them to see him, even though he was sure Aaron would pass it off as a drunken case of wrong identity. But now he wouldn’t be able to go back for a while.
This meant he was going to need Roland’s help for sure. Once he was in his car he pulled the phone out and sent a text to the number before it would get rubbed off his hand.
hey roland, it’s joseph. He sent off, and then put it back in the glove compartment. Then Neil pulled out of the parking garage to drive himself home.
He stopped for takeout on the way, getting a box of Thai for him and a box for Stetson. When he pulled in the agent was still sitting idle in the car. He went and knocked on the window.
“Do you ever get time off from watching me?” He asked, skipping the greeting and shoving the box through the car window.
“After a month of you not dying my hours will get reduced.” The man admitted. “So don’t die, my wife wants me home nights again.”
Neil laughed and went inside to eat. Checking his phone quickly, he saw a new message from Roland.
hi joe. saw u run into a. he recognized u. b careful
>what did he say?
asked if there was n e thing in his drink, he was seeing ghosts.
told him if he drank n e more he’d be seeing the inside of his stomach
>do you think it worked?
>i’ll stay away next week
The Ravens beat the Trojans twelve to nine in the final game despite the absence of their backliner Jean Moreau, who hadn’t been seen on the court since Kengo had passed away. The Foxes knew what had happened, and a desperate text to Kevin had been the only thing to save his life. His return to Exy was still up in the air, despite Kevin’s attempts to recruit him to the Foxes.
The Foxes all watched the game in Wymack’s apartment with resignation – even with their number three unaccounted for, the Ravens were unstoppable. Kevin had had some level of faith in Jeremy Knox and his team, but by the second half they were hopelessly losing. The Trojans had a near recovery in the middle but in the end Riko had struck them down again, leading the Ravens to victory.
Andrew had watched Kevin’s hands shake, and he flexed the hand Riko had broken angrily.
“I wish-” He started to say, but then he shook his head and let his words fall away. But Andrew knew. Kevin wished they had given Riko what he deserved, with Neil at their side. Andrew wished it too, and he didn’t wish for anything anymore. But god, was he infuriated by the smug look on Riko’s face in his post-game interview.
The rest of the Foxes were turned in to face them, after Kevin had spoken.
“There’s always next year, Kevin.” Dan offered. “We’ll have a full team with subs again. We’ll train them to be even better than us. You can teach us the Raven drills you know. When we take down the Ravens we’ll be the strongest we’ve ever been.”
“We were so close this year.” Kevin said mournfully. “But even if we had a replacement for Neil, could we have placed? Probably not. Neil brought a new level of talent to Palmetto. We are nothing without him.”
“Your pessimism is astounding, Kevin Day.” Andrew called out. “I don’t believe in this team any more than you do, but you think we can’t come back stronger than ever?”
“Not unless you start giving a shit and blocking our goal.” Kevin snarled. “Not unless we find another striker with enough talent to outplay every backliner in the league. Not unless Nicky learns how to defend the goal and goalkeeper better – other than you, he’s our weak link.”
“I can do better.” Nicky interrupted. “I swear, I will push myself as hard as you do.”
“Kevin, be nice.” Dan snapped. “We’ve been through a lot.”
“Here’s how it’s going to go, Kevin.” Andrew said. “You teach them. Make them better. Make them a team Neil would be proud of. You know the Ravens inside and out, and if you can teach them how to beat the Ravens, you teach them how to beat every other team in the league.”
“Riko still wants to play us in a final game.” Dan said. “He didn’t get the chance to establish his dominance over us. He doesn’t like losing by chance. We saw that with Kevin, he was furious because he hadn’t won fairly. He didn’t beat us fairly in finals, we were disqualified. So let’s beat him next time.”
“Let’s go to the court.” Kevin said.
Half of the team looked at him like he had grown an extra head.
“It’s almost midnight.” Allison reminded him.
“You expect us to practice now?” Nicky whined.
“You’re just proving my point. You don’t have what it takes.” Kevin said.
“No, we’ll do it.” Matt said. He stood up, politely dislodging Dan from his lap and setting her on her feet. She stretched her arms and cracked her back, stiff from having sat still the whole game.
Wymack watched in awe as the rest of the Foxes got up with minimal grumbling. Kevin seemed a little surprised too when they all faced him, waiting for him to lead. Andrew was the only one still seated, but he was following the whole thing with a keen gaze.
“Okay.” He said. Andrew snorted.
They left the apartment with assorted goodbyes for Abby and Wymack. The Coach almost stood to go with them, but Abby held him back.
“This is their own time. This is how they’ll work out their flaws. If there’s a problem they’ll call us.”
The Foxes geared up in silence and with a grim determination spreading through them unlike any they’d had before. It was more intense than any pre game energy they’d built up before.
Kevin set up a long line of cones down the court; more than the six he’d set up for Neil. For a brief minute he held his racquet in his left hand, sighing before he switched it over. With the whole team watching, he flung the ball from his net to the Plexiglas wall. It rebounded neatly towards the first cone, knocking it down.
“This is the first Raven drill I ever taught Neil. Everyone takes a cone and rebounds until they can knock it over from any position around it. First one to not miss it from any angle moves on to a set of cones.” Kevin said.
He was met with stunned silence from the other players. Nicky let out an audible groan before Kevin shot a cool glare towards him.
“If Neil could do this every Raven practice after having been tortured by Riko, you lazy assholes should be able to do it without a handicap. If I were really cruel I’d make you do it with a blindfold, or with one hand. But I don’t expect that much from you.”
They didn’t move right away. Andrew laughed and stepped up with his racquet, gesturing for Kevin to toss him the ball. When he did, Andrew repeated his move perfectly, putting just enough force into the throw to knock it off the wall and back into the cone. The angle was off by a little so the cone almost didn’t fall, but after a half second of teetering over it collapsed.
Matt whooped with delight. A fleeting smile passed Andrew’s face but it was gone so quickly it might have been nothing but a tic on his face. He went after the ball and shot again from where he’d caught it. This time, he missed by a hair. Catching it again, he fired at the wall and kept going.
Realizing that Andrew had begun the practice and wasn’t just demonstrating, the rest of the team went to work. They had gotten excited at Andrew’s first shot, and that Andrew was showing even the slightest interest in the game, but they were quickly brought down by the difficulty of the drill. Every one of them missed their first shot.
Renee was the first to knock her cone over, but only after she had shot from the same spot over and over, and spent four minutes working out the trajectory of the ball. When she finally got it, she squeaked in surprise.
They all turned to look at her, and Kevin, who had been busy helping Nicky, grinned the widest he’d seen them.
Dan and Matt were the next to get their shots, but Kevin made them keep going until they were able to hit the cone over from as many different spots as he could think of. Then he paired them up to share a set of three cones, with one person calling out which cone to hit. They were delighted to be working with another, and he watched them proudly.
He paired up Renee and Aaron when they got the hang of it. They still missed shots but he wanted them to move on to the faster paced part of the drill, where they had to react quickly and think on their feet. Andrew was helping Nicky, and Kevin wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of that conversation. He headed over to Allison instead, though Nicky needed more help.
“Come practice with me.” Kevin said to her. They hadn’t gotten along since long before Seth’s death, and definitely not after, but she faced him on the court with a grin and a sense of team spirit he could feel growing in all of them.
He let her go first.
“2, 3, 1!” He called, and she took the shots. Allison hit the first two and missed the last, but by the time the ball went by the final cone she already knew she had missed and was in action, springing forward to catch it and fire again until the cone was down.
Kevin raised his racquet for the ball, and she called out the order of cones for him. He didn’t miss any.
Across the court, Nicky was struggling. He had knocked it over a few times but missed more often than not. He was growing more frustrated and Andrew, who was watching him, was getting annoyed.
“The racquet might as well be part of your body, but you need to grip it tighter.” He corrected Nicky, who held it tighter on Andrew’s command but loosened his grip half a second later. Andrew groaned.
“I’m sorry! I know I’m doing it but I can’t help it!” Nicky looked genuinely upset, but that wasn’t helping him get anywhere.
“Repetition.” Andrew said. “Make yourself overthink it every time. Don’t forget a single thing that leads to knocking that cone over. Grip, adjust, pick a spot on the wall, angle, force, shoot.”
“Grip…” Nicky said slowly. “Adjust, wall, angle, force, shoot.” He had followed the actions through as he said them, but had still let his hands slacken in the middle and missed.
“Try again. Grip, adjust, grip, wall, grip, angle, grip, force, grip, shoot.” Andrew corrected, seeing the problem. Nicky let the other steps come too far front in his head and block his grip. He really wasn’t good at multitasking and had a one track mind that was proving difficult to work with.
Nicky adjusted the mantra to Andrew’s new suggestion and his grip improved significantly. He hit the cone with only enough force to rattle it, but he hit the cone nonetheless.
“Now throw it harder.” Andrew said, leaving Nicky to adapt his shot.
Andrew went back to his own cone and fired his own ball at it. The rebound still was supposed to help their aim in getting the ball to teammates, and although Ravens practiced in pairs, he was content in practicing alone.
It was easier when he imagined Neil with him, leaning on his elbows on his racquet while he watched. Andrew could see him clearly, down to the smug smirk he was trying to fight down upon seeing Andrew play Exy with intent.
“Stupid.” Andrew told not-Neil. “Your obsession has rubbed off on me and I want to kill you.” Then a bolt of sadness jerked through him and Andrew scowled, slamming the ball against the wall and watched it go in the completely wrong direction.
He scooped up another ball and said to Neil “You were only a pipe dream.” and hit the cone.
Then, “I knew you wouldn’t last.”
Then, “I was supposed to protect you, but how could I do that when you were keeping secrets? I would have fought them. I would have stopped your father from taking you.”
The last few shots, fueled by his anger and sadness and regret, all hit the cones. Channeling that emotion was good for his aim, but it exhausted him to no end thinking about what he’d lost.
Andrew threw one last shot at the cone, closing his eyes and seeing Neil’s mangled corpse again. Every time he blinked the image was there, like it has been seared into his eyelids for him to see whenever his eyes shut. The sight of Neil, burned and battered and broken was haunting him even as he pretended he was okay.
Kevin had joked about blindfolding them to make the shots, but when Andrew shut his eyes he knew where the cone was and where to throw off the wall to get the cone down. Not-Neil gave him an encouraging smile, and when he opened his eyes the cone was knocked over and the ball was halfway across the court.
“I told you that you had to care about Exy to hate it so much.” Not-Neil gloated, but the smirk on his face was more pleased than anything, like he’d known all along. Andrew threw his racquet down angrily.
“The only thing I hate more than Exy is you.” He snarled. Not-Neil made a face of surprise, mouth forming a perfect o at Andrew’s confession, and then his hallucination vanished.
Andrew sat down on the floor next to his racquet. He held it in his hands, running his fingers over the wood. It was smooth and slightly damaged from when he’d gripped it too hard, and had finger indents from every time he’d used it as a crutch coming down from his meds.
He heard Renee padding towards him a moment later. She had the lightest footsteps he’d ever heard and she could sneak up on anyone, even himself, but he knew that she stepped a little heavier when she approached him so as not to scare him. Andrew looked up at her as she joined him on the floor.
Back on the court, Aaron had partnered up with Nicky and Kevin had borrowed Matt from Dan, giving her Allison in exchange. They had all stopped to see Andrew go to the ground, but they trusted Renee to settle him.
“Neil would be so proud of you, Andrew.” Renee told him earnestly. Andrew shrugged. His heart was beating rapidly but he didn’t let it show, he kept his face cool.
“Too late for that.”
“It’s never too late. He may still be watching you.”
“You know I don’t believe that shit.” Andrew hissed.
“You don’t, but you can’t prove there’s not a heaven. So maybe you’re right and I’m wrong. Maybe you’re wrong and I’m right. You’ll never know so you should act like he still knows. Is still able to love you.”
“He didn’t love me. Whether he’s in heaven or not, you’ll never know that.”
“I saw how he looked at you. I know that he gave you his truths, every single one he could give you. I know he gave you his virginity.”
“That means nothing.”
“He chose to, despite his mother beating him for kissing before and what he said about not swinging. He swung for you. That means everything.”
Andrew knew what she was trying to say. She was trying to tell him that everything Neil had done had been for him, down to his death. And inside, he knew that she was telling the truth but he didn’t know how he could be worth it. He’d told Neil before he didn’t want him sacrificing anything for him, because he couldn’t reconcile the idea of himself being important enough for it. Andrew Minyard was not worth loving, was not worth protecting, and was not worth two weeks in the Raven’s Nest with Riko Moriyama.
“Doesn’t bring him back, though.”
Renee’s answering smile was sad and pitying. Andrew hated it.
Because the team wanted to make Neil’s life difficult, they all split up when the end of April came and the season ended. Classes were out for the students who attended them, though Neil had read in an article for the Palmetto Student Paper that none of the Foxes had been required to finish their classes. Each of them had been granted a 4.0 for the semester, numbers that Neil knew would tank back down to their usual lows when the fall semester finished.
Nicky flew to Germany to be with Eric, where Neil couldn’t check in on him. Aaron split his time, first spending part of it with Katelyn in her hometown, then joining Nicky in Germany. Neil felt a little less worried when the two were together, knowing Aaron would keep Nicky safe. When he did get nervous about them being so far away, he remembered Aaron with the heavy racquet in his hands, swinging it up into Drake’s face with fury and rage and the instinct to protect Andrew. Even an ocean away, he could do the same for Nicky.
Allison and Renee were staying with Stephanie Walker, who Neil spent hours in the library looking up and inspecting. She was Renee’s adopted mother, Neil knew, who had helped Renee recover from her childhood. He didn’t know if they would be safe with her, but like Aaron, Neil had seen Renee in action. Would she be able to protect the two of them if the Butcher’s men showed up on Stephanie’s doorstep? He felt like she was the most capable of it.
Matt and Dan were in New York with Matt’s mother. From time to time, Dan would tweet about a visit from one of her stage sisters. Her Instagram was full of photos of food and Matt and beautiful sunsets. Matt liked every one of them. Neil hoped they were staying safe and out of the way of reporters and angry Raven fans. New York City was big enough for them to hide in.
Andrew and Kevin hadn’t gone anywhere. They were staying in Columbia in the house, close enough for Kevin to get to the court when he wanted. He hadn’t been going as much, Neil realized, because Kevin had practiced daily the summer before, and now he was down to gearing up every few days. Neil wondered what had caused the decrease in his practice habits, but chalked it up to Andrew, who probably refused to a) stay with Abby, and b) drive Kevin to Palmetto every day.
The last Fox spent his summer tucked away in an apartment in a small town far from the rest of them, with a federal agent sitting outside watching and not a single one of his friends knowing he was still alive.
In June, every one of the Foxes flew back to Palmetto for a two week – Neil wasn’t sure what. Exy fans were speculating wildly but he guessed that they were practicing. Some new Foxes had been recruited – six in total, and Neil looked all of them up. They all had the same tragic backstories Wymack could never turn away but none of them would drag any of it to the team.
He disagreed with some of the choices Kevin had made, but there was a striker sub he admired. Maybe Dan had chosen her, or Wymack had spoken over Kevin because she wasn’t the usual sort that would attract Kevin.
The new recruits weren’t present for the second week in June. All of the old Foxes flew in from wherever they’d been enjoying their summers. Because there weren’t any new Foxes, fans thought the reunion might not have been Exy related, until a photographer on campus snapped photos of the whole team geared up.
Paparazzi couldn’t get onto the court itself, but Neil guessed if they could, the world would be presented with photos and videos of the team training and Kevin leading them through drills they could use to defeat the Ravens. Neil was proud of them, because he’d used his death to buy them time against Riko and it would do well for all of them to get practice.
He was dying to get his hands on his racquet again and join them on the court, but there was no way that would happen. He couldn’t even go into Exites, so he spent a lot of time watching Fox games from the past year. Neil was especially fond of their winning games, watching all of them over until he memorized each player’s moves, mistakes, and strengths.
He also started running again, which was hard for him to do in the sweltering Southern heat. He preferred running at night, where the scars littering his body could be covered in long sleeves. Stetson hated it because Neil refused to let the agent follow him through the quiet neighborhood in his car.
Neil still didn’t have a laptop, either, so he often went to the library to look up what the Foxes were doing, where they’d been seen, what they had posted on social media. If he’d had a smart phone, he might have risked setting up notifications for new articles and tweets they posted, but he didn’t. Instead, he was careful to wipe his history on the library computers the way he’d learned in a high school computer programming class. He covered his tracks carefully and used an account Stetson had set up for him to take out books, never looking the librarians in the eye when he checked out Exy guides and sports magazines.
None of the new magazine issues had interviews with the Foxes, not even with Kevin who had never before been able to stay out of the spotlight. He was a little frustrated with that because he knew he wouldn’t hear anything from the Foxes until the new season started, and he didn’t think he could wait for that long.
Roland kept him updated on when the Foxes were at Eden’s Twilight, which was not often and usually was only the monsters or just Andrew and Kevin. The positive side of that was that Andrew would genuinely talk to Roland about how they were doing, which was passed on to Neil immediately.
He didn’t dare ask if Roland and Andrew had slept together since Neil’s death, but he thought that Roland might turn Andrew down knowing Neil was still alive. Instead of overthinking it, though, he forced himself to pretend he didn’t know they had ever had sex before. He had no claim to monogamy from Andrew, even when he had been alive.
Neil wouldn’t necessarily call it moping, but that was all he had to do when he was cooped up in the apartment. His time was spent reading, watching TV and running. He couldn’t exactly join a gym but he refused to let his body go and made do with his apartment and the small gym in the building’s basement.
One day while he was practicing, he suddenly remembered when Andrew had come back from rehab and told Coach he had practiced while and how he could in the hospital. Neil imagined he’d spent his time running through the halls, getting in fights, and doing stretches daily in his locked room.
He didn’t know how Andrew had done it, because after only a week of makeshift training Neil wanted nothing more than to be back on a real Exy court. The urge to go back to the Foxes – both for his newfound family and for the sport – had been settled in his stomach since Lola had taken him from them. But recently he’d been feeling like he was more likely to die hidden alone than he was in public with the Foxes again.
It was Dan’s idea, of course – the two week training camp session in the middle of the summer. Andrew didn't mind it because he’d had no plans for the time she chose but drinking himself into a stupor with Kevin over Neil’s death. Aaron, Nicky and Allison all made faces but they were careful not to let Dan or Kevin see the remote disinterest in wasting their summer on Exy.
The idea of it wasn't to train like the Ravens, who have fucked up versions of time that Andrew was 98% sure would be legally considered gaslighting and spend their sixteen hour days practicing anyways. It would be more like boot camp where they train hard and fast until someone (Nicky) starts crying and everything goes to shit and Andrew has to threaten someone.
By the fourth day, Andrew had actually threatened no one, and he thought it could be in part due to the photo of Neil Kevin stuck to the door of the court. The team always had to see it going in which encouraged them as they played. It was a reminder of why they were there in the first place. They had agreed to the summer training so they could prepare themselves to take down the Ravens for Neil.
To scrimmage, the Foxes broke up into teams of four where they switched out positions. That wasn’t something Ravens were trained to do, but with a team so small that was used to playing in different positions (Dan would play striker, Renee would play backliner) they knew they could.
“It’s about understanding the balance on the court.” Kevin said, to immediate eye rolls. “When you have played every position on the court, you become an infinitely more valuable player. You understand and work with your teammates better.”
“But Kevin,” Nicky threw out mischievously. “You’ve never been anything but a striker!”
It had been clear to everyone on the team that Kevin had been talking about Neil, who had switched from a backliner to a striker out of pure love for the game, and had been forced to play as a backliner with little training under Riko in the winter. Neil’s passion overrode any inexperience he had both times. Neil’s ghost was still haunting their court.
Nicky had been right though, that Kevin only ever played striker, so the next day they found Kevin dressed up in the spare goalie gear. He had told Dan to take the other goal, and Andrew and Renee would play as strikers.
Renee looked terrified and Andrew almost walked out.
Kevin amended his line up and put Matt and Aaron on as the strikers for each team.
The line-up was made much more difficult with their low numbers, because they had two strikers, four backliners, and two goalies. Split into teams of two, each striker had to get past two backliners and a goalie to score. Striker became the most hated position of the randomly assorted picks for the team. Kevin refused to let two of the backliners sit out.
In the second week, Kevin surprised them with two guests on the court – Jeremy Knox, who he introduced to the rest of the team. The upperclassmen had met him before, and Andrew, Aaron, and Nicky had passed him by at banquets, but Kevin was introducing him as a friend. The second was Jean Moreau, who had passed on an offer to join the Foxes and reluctantly teamed up with the Trojans. He was still a little battered and bruised, but Jeremy had been helping him to heal.
Jeremy greeted them with the widest smile he had, with his racquet over his shoulders and his sunny disposition cheering everyone on the Foxes’ team immediately. Jean was apparently immune to Jeremy’s charm, because he scowled at them.
“I’m here to play as a substitute striker!” Jeremy told them. “And to steal some of your game plays, because honestly, I was impressed with your season! You guys played full halves between nine players and still made it as far as you did – your turn around will go down in the Exy history books for sure.”
The Foxes all thanked him and snuck amused glances at Kevin, who was pretending not to wipe tears from his eyes.
Jean refused to play as anything but backliner so the Fox backliners alternated playing strikers with Kevin, Dan, and Jeremy. Allison went first and held her own pretty well, but Kevin was on her team and he was very particular about her playing. After one harsh comment, she pulled her glove and helmet off to suck on her middle finger before displaying it crudely to him. Jean laughed for the first time they’d seen him.
The atmosphere was light hearted but determined and the team was united in a way they'd never been before. With Neil had come all sorts of firsts for them. Even after his death he was holding them together like they were a patchwork quilt, albeit a raggedy and torn one. Their game was improving miraculously, though they knew bringing in freshman in the fall semester would slow them down a little. The Foxes were filled with a burning hope that they hadn’t had since the middle of last season and they felt deep in their bones, that things were finally changing for them.
Jeremy became exhausted by the end of their practice, and the Foxes felt a little proud that they could outplay him. He wasn’t used to doing as much work with the Trojans because they were a bigger team with extra subs and no need to rely on every player so heavily. Nobody outplayed Jean except Kevin, because the two of them had been trained in the worst conditions.
“Has Jean been teaching the Trojans Exy drills too?” Dan asked Jeremy when they stopped for a break. “Doesn’t seem like it.”
“He didn’t want to share them yet.” Jeremy admitted. “I think he thinks he’ll be betraying the Ravens if he does – I’m not pushing him. But I’m certainly more worried about your team, Dan. I’m not sure the Trojans will take you down easily when you have a full line-up again.”
They laughed together and Dan felt the blossoming pride for her team deep in her stomach. The new recruits they’d pulled in would certainly help as subs and backups, but she knew the Foxes could play a full game themselves and keeping up with their practices, could win a full game against most of the district teams.
“If you ever want to play some casual practice games with the Trojans, I can pull up a team of eight and we can meet up to scrimmage a little!” Jeremy offered.
“We’d really like that, Jeremy.” Dan smiled. “It’s about time people took us seriously. We appreciate you and your team so much.”
“Just wait until you play my best.” He boasted proudly. “The Trojans will win.”
Dan knocked him on the shoulder playfully and led him back onto the court for more practice.
Andrew had been playing strategically the entire game. He only blocked shots from his own team, letting Jeremy score repeatedly. His game was to surprise Jeremy when they faced each other in a real game, and his teammates’ goals were a little easier to block and he enjoyed shutting them out. He would have let Kevin score too if Kevin hadn’t been on his scrimmage team, just to annoy him, but Kevin was bothered enough just seeing Andrew stand still whenever Jeremy and Jean were near the goal.
When the game ended, they were all sweating heavily but grinning and excited. Jeremy and Jean stayed with them for another three days before heading back home, but their presence had really helped the Foxes in preparing to train and play with their new freshmen.
None of the new kids would be coming in until classes started, to Kevin’s disappointment.
“We’re going to have to really wake their passion.” Kevin told Andrew, who rolled his eyes.
“They’re playing for the Foxes, they have no passion and no intent on winning ever in their college careers.” He reminded Kevin. The Foxes’ reputation had been on the mend, but no decent player with any other options would have joined them. They were Wymack’s usual trauma cases – Andrew had already done his research on the new kids and picked out who was likely to be a problem for captain Dan and vice-captain Kevin.
He knew the hardest part of training the freshmen would be getting them to understand why the Foxes were taking this year so seriously. They would all know of Neil, but they wouldn’t understand how much he had meant to them and that could cause a rift between the freshmen and the old Foxes where it had healed the split between the upperclassmen and the monsters.
Andrew sighed heavily and rubbed his forehead. This wasn’t supposed to be his concern. Neil was supposed to be here to worry about these stupid Exy kinks while Andrew gave no fucks. He was annoyed first at Neil for leaving him to actually help pull the team together, and then at himself for having cared about Neil so much.
He still spent nights beating himself up about having invested so much of his emotion – he couldn’t call it love, not quite – in Neil only to lose him. He should have known. Even if it hadn’t been for Nathan, Andrew would have lost Neil eventually because Neil was a runner, and he had stayed too long for a runaway to be comfortable with.
But it was too late, he had let Neil in and the liar had dug a whole into Andrew’s being that he’d curled up in. Now he was gone, Andrew couldn’t fill that gap back up, which wasn’t a problem he’d ever had before. Even Cass had been a pipe dream he could throw away when it had failed him.
Part of his problem was that Neil was in his head all of the time. Andrew relived memory after memory, or heard Neil’s voice in his head, or pictured Neil’s body like a reflex when he wasn’t thinking of anything else.
Bee had told him that he needed closure, but Andrew had expected to get any closure he required from seeing Neil’s body and months later he wasn’t sure how he could close himself off from Neil anymore. Maybe if he’d been the one to kill Nathan and his lackeys, he would have felt a little better but there was no going back now.
Andrew could only force himself to go forward.
Neil had been folded up on the couch with an Exy book when someone knocked on his door. He stood up and went to check his peephole, surprised by the sight of a delivery man with his head bowed down and out of sight.
Neil wasn’t expecting anything. He didn’t get any mail. No one knew who or where he was.
The man lifted his head as if he knew Neil was watching through the door. Neil recognized his eerie smile, matching his sister to a tee. He clamped his hand over his mouth, not daring to breathe, and too afraid to make any moves.
“Package for Nathaniel?” Romero Malcolm called through the door.
Neil bolted, dashing for the closest window. He was on the second floor but he knew it was better to try and jump, to prepare himself for the fall and take off running once he could move again. The impact would incapacitate him for at most three minutes, but Romero – if he jumped after him – would hit the ground harder.
Romero kicked the door open. Neil was throwing open the window and thrashing at the screen to get it to tear desperately. Romero caught up with him anyways and threw him to the ground. His head collided with the floor painfully, but not hard enough to knock him out. Neil groaned.
“Took a long time to find you, little prick.” Romero hissed. “They said you were dead but I knew the cops pulled you out of the Baltimore house.”
“I died in the hospital after that.” Neil said. His head was spinning, and he knew that wouldn’t help him any, but it seemed important to say. His switchblade was in his pocket, if he could just reach it-
“My sister did quite the number on your face first though. Before you got her killed.”
“I didn’t do it. Nathan overstepped his boundaries. The Hatfords went in without knowing I was there. She would have died anyways.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Romero said. “I’m gonna finish off your face for all of them, Nathaniel.”
He hit Neil in the face again and climbed on top of him. Romero’s knees bracketed his sides, settling on top of his arms so Neil couldn’t move them. He gave half a try, not to escape, but to test his range of motion. There was no way he could free himself and get his hands on his knife in this position.
Romero punched him in the face. Again. And a third time. Even though the burns on Neil’s face were long healed, their presence made his skin far more sensitive. Romero was rubbing the skin raw.
His father’s man pulled back a little and tugged Neil’s sleeves up to reveal the scars and burns that had been left there months before. With a jolt of surprise, Neil realized Romero was examining him.
“There’s more under my shirt.” He said. It was a buy for time, though he wasn’t sure how. He didn’t know what to say to stop Romero.
To his surprise, that managed to distract Romero, who ripped his shirt open and shoved it aside to look at Neil’s skin. There were scars on his torso that had been left by Lola and Nathan only months ago, and there were scars that had been there since before Nathaniel Wesninski ran from his father. Romero must have known, but there was also the chance that he would be so blind with the hope of vengeance for his sister that Neil’s wounds didn’t affect him.
“He cut me up here when I was seven.” Neil gestured to a thick gash down his stomach with his chin. It was impossible to use his hands with the way Romero had pinned him. “I had gotten caught by one of my teachers – she saw bruises on my arm and asked about it. I wasn’t careful enough, so I got punished. There’s a burn from a hot clothes iron on my back. The police came to talk to him and I was in the room. I wasn’t as quiet as he wanted me to be, so I got punished when they left. I was just a kid.”
Romero eyed the scars.
“It’s a nice sob story. But you aren’t a kid anymore, and I would have killed you when you were. Unluckily for you, I’m not the only one who wants you dead.” He pressed his forearm down on Neil’s throat, with more and more pressure until Neil was gasping for air.
“The Moriyamas?” Neil wheezed out. Romero let up slightly, and the air returned to his lungs again.
“Only one of them cares enough that you’re out of his way. Lord Ichirou doesn’t think about you at all, your name has yet to pass his tongue, Nathaniel. You don’t concern him.” Romero revealed. Neil frowned and rethought about it.
“Riko? He knows I’m alive?”
“He funded this assassination, boy.” Romero pulled out his phone and, keeping Neil pinned to the ground, dialed a number into it. He put the phone on speaker and laid it next to Neil’s head, where he could hear it ringing very clearly. He waited for Riko to pick it up. “He also paid me to destroy your team.”
Romero wasn’t calling Riko. And after he killed Neil, he would go after the Foxes.
Neil froze for a half second. Then he tried to throw his body weight up against Romero, which was a useless move when he was being held against the floor. But he needed to do something, needed to struggle while he was still alive, while the team was still alive.
The person on the other end picked up.
“This is Kevin.” He said.
Neil let out a wordless cry.
“Kevin Day?” Romero said. There was a pause on the other line, while Kevin tried to figure out what was happening.
“Yes… Who is this?”
“A friend of a friend.” Neil’s heart was positively aching to hear Kevin’s voice again, he’d give anything to have him yell abut drills again on the court. This was a call to tear Kevin’s confidence down and Neil didn’t want to hear Kevin break.
“Okay, creep. I’m hanging up.”
“You don’t want to do that. I have something of yours.”
There was a lot of shuffling, then a soft click on Kevin’s side, and when he spoke again his voice echoed like he’d put his phone on speaker. Slowly, Neil realized that he had – Andrew was in the room with him, monitoring the conversation. Maybe Nicky and Aaron too. Maybe the whole team.
“What do you have that’s mine?” Kevin asked.
“Nathaniel Wesninski.” Romero said. “Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t know Nathaniel. You knew him as, what was it? Neil Josten?”
Kevin was quiet.
“What about him?”
“I already told you, Kevin, that I have him.”
Before Kevin could speak again, someone else beat him to it.
“Neil Josten is dead.” Andrew said. His voice echoed strangely on the phone, but Neil imagined there was something more to Andrew’s voice than his usually bored tone. He fell slack against the floor under Romero, almost content to die having heard Andrew speak one last time.
“Who’s that, Kevin? How many people from your team are there with you?”
“Just Kevin and I.” Andrew said. “Everyone else is away for the summer. Neil Josten is buried six feet under.”
“Say hello, Nathaniel.” Romero nudged Neil’s side with his foot, hard, gesturing for him to speak.
“Hello, Nathaniel.” Neil whispered. He heard the crack of Romero’s palm against his face before he felt it, and the pain resonated through his head. He may have had a concussion for real, this time.
“Always did have a mouth on you, brat.” Romero snarled. On the phone, there was nothing but a dead silence. It hurt Neil more than his cheek did.
“Oh. Abram.” Andrew said finally. “You’ve been keeping secrets.”
Romero put his hand over Neil’s mouth.
“Are you Andrew?” He asked. Neil couldn’t say anything, and he didn’t dare bite Romero’s hand while Romero was still overpowering him. “You must be Andrew.”
“It’s unfortunate that you know my name and I don’t know yours. Who do I have the displeasure of speaking with?” Andrew drawled. Neil lay limp, but his lips twitched in a near smile. Romero felt it, and kicked him.
“Romero Malcolm. I’m the one who’s going to kill your teammate.”
“Malcolm. Didn’t your sister already try and fail?”
Romero roared and reared back furiously, punching the floor next to Neil’s head and missing him by an inch. Neil stayed very still, but Romero didn’t move his hand from there.
“We won’t fail this time.”
“No, I suppose not.” Andrew said. “Not if you’ve already got him and no one’s looking for him. So why did you call us?”
“I have a message for Kevin Day.”
“What?” Kevin croaked. He’d been so silent since Andrew took over that Neil had almost forgotten he was there. Kevin sounded hoarse and scared.
“The message is this: Every time you try to fight him, he will cut you down. Every new striker you recruit for your team, he will destroy. Nathaniel is the first, but if you don’t return to him, he won’t be the last.” Romero recited. They weren’t his words, and Neil recognized them.
“Riko sent you.” Andrew said. “To kill Neil.”
“He paid me. I would have done it anyways.” His real motive for tracking down Neil had been the deaths of Nathan, DiMaccio and Lola. Riko had just sweetened the pot and made it easier to buy and threaten his way to Joseph Doe. Neil knew he’d never get the answers, but he wondered who at the FBI had sold him out. Which of his neighbors had opened their mouth a little too wide. Had it possibly been Roland?
“Abram.” Andrew said. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me where you are.” Romero took his hand off Neil’s mouth.
“Thirty minutes out of Columbia.” He said. “You won’t be fast enough.”
“I know. What do your chances look like?”
“I can come anyways.”
“I don’t think you can save me this time.” Neil said. Romero laughed cruelly and dug his fingernails into Neil’s sides, making him arch up into Romero but away from his hands. Andrew ignored him.
“Why didn’t you come home?”
“Because I knew he would come for me. Him and Jackson. I wanted to keep you out of it.”
Romero shifted on top of Neil and pulled a knife from his pocket. It was sharp and thinly edged, enough to create deep slashes in his skin. Nathan had liked blunt objects like the cleaver and the axe, because of the brute pain they caused, but this was more elegant and would take time.
In the process of moving, he released Neil’s arm from under him. It was only a moment before he was settled back down but Neil’s hand was closer to his pocket now – still not enough to reach for his own knife, but he could still turn the tables on Romero if the moment was right.
“He didn’t do a very good job.” Romero remarked. “Riko wanted you to be part of this.”
He dug the knife half a centimeter into Neil’s stomach, a little below his ribs. He gasped in pain, drawing in a pained breath at the feeling. It had been months since he’d felt that kind of pain – since his father.
“Riko told me a lot about you, Andrew.” Romero said. Neil seized up under him.
“I’m sure he did.” Andrew said. “You still alive, Abram?”
“He told me about a word you didn’t like to say. He said you wouldn’t even ask his Doctor Proust to stop hurting you, even when you only needed to say one thing.”
“Is Neil still alive?”
“If you say please, I’ll tell you.”
“Stop! Andrew, I’m here–” Romero muffled his voice again. Neil screamed into his hand so Andrew would hear him anyways. Then he heard a disgusting crunch as Romero wrenched one of his arms backwards, nearly twisting it out of its socket. The pain shot through his body like a bullet, but it hurt so much worse.
“If you say please, I’ll let him live.”
Andrew laughed. Neil sobbed and he could feel something wet sliding down his face – he was crying. The tears ran from his eyes down the side of his face, trailing off around his jawbone. He was almost surprised by it until he realized he was crying for Andrew, not himself, and that made perfect sense to him.
“You won’t let him live.” Andrew said.
“No, I won’t.” Romero admitted. “But wouldn’t it be nice if the last words he heard were you begging for his life?”
The silence that came from Andrew was disheartening and long. Neil’s heart began to shrivel up inside him as much as it rejoiced this. Andrew would never break for anyone. Andrew was a solid rock, formed from layer of magma over diamond over ice cold heart. Finally, he said:
Neil made a muffled noise through Romero’s hand. He was crying even harder and he wondered if Andrew could hear his sobs over the line. Was Kevin still listening? Had Aaron or Nicky come in? Maybe they had gotten Wymack and Wymack had called the FBI agents who were on their way to him, who knew where the apartment was. He reached for his pocket one last time.
Andrew hadn’t said anything else. They waited another minute. It felt like he was trying to buy time to figure something out but there was nothing he could do, he didn’t know where they were or how to stop Romero.
Romero looked at Neil with a malicious, sadistic pleasure on his face.
“What was that? Nathaniel didn’t hear you.”
“Please let him go.” Andrew said.
“Please let Neil go.” Andrew repeated. Neil laid his head back and shut his eyes. Romero had begun to trail the knife along his neck, tracing his jugular. This was the end, Neil realized with a heavy sensation flooding and numbing his limbs. Andrew was giving him a gift to die with.
Romero sat up. Neil’s arm was free, there was nothing holding it down anymore. He moved it to his pocket, barely daring to move a fraction so Romero wouldn’t notice him going for his pocket. On the phone, Andrew was talking.
“He wasn’t supposed to mean anything at all. But he did, and now I’m begging you to let him live. Please. I’m begging you more than anything I have ever begged for in my life. Please. Romero Malcolm, I’m saying it, I’m saying please. Please give him back to me.”
The tip of Romero’s sharp knife dug into his neck a little. Neil tried to work out how he could attack Romero in this position. He strained his neck a little, right into the blade and Romero paused in his movement.
Neil slid his switchblade out of his pocket and flicked it open.
One last strained word came from the phone.
Neil stabbed his knife into Romero’s back, bringing it up behind the man where his arm could reach. He’d had to hold it backwards so he could force it right into Romero’s spine, which was an uncomfortable angle to hold it at and not likely to be effective.
Romero screamed angrily. Neil dislodged the blade immediately, shoving upwards to knock Romero off and adjusting his grip. The bigger man swung at him, catching him neatly on the chin but Neil jerked back just in time to avoid damage, and struck out with his knife in retaliation. He lunged forward as he did, and Romero, who was still recovering from his missed swing wasn’t able to block the knife as it sliced him across the face.
Neil kicked one of his legs out from underneath him and Romero fell heavily, taking Neil down with him. They both scrambled up at the same time and Romero got the jump on him again, tackling him easily, but this time Neil was ready.
His knife was in his hand and he pushed it up under Romero’s ribs as the man fell onto him. It was right where his father had shown him how to quickly kill a man, and Romero sputtered in surprise when he died. His body crumpled heavily onto Neil, who shoved him off again and immediately climbed over him, holding his knife to Romero’s throat just in case.
It wasn’t necessary, because Romero was dead. Neil checked his pulse quickly, and with a grimace, slit open Romero’s neck.
He looked away while he did it, but he knew he had to because the only men of his fathers who wouldn’t keep trying to kill him were the dead ones. The blood bubbled out of Romero’s throat and Neil collapsed on top of him, weary and filled with adrenaline at once.
He thought he might have passed out for a minute, and when he came to Andrew was talking on the phone.
“I swear to god, Malcolm, I am not a person you want angry at you. I will hunt you down for this, and I will make your death painful. I didn’t get to take my anger out on his father or your sister, so you can expect to endure triple my rage. Riko will face his own demise at my hands, but I assure you, I will destroy everyone involved in this. Do you hear me?”
It was the most words he’d heard from Andrew since before his death, so he almost wanted to let him keep talking, but instead he crawled over to the phone.
“Andrew.” He whispered. Andrew’s voice cut short.
“Abram?” Andrew asked.
“I killed him.” Neil said. There was some kind of buzzing in his head and he wondered if he should get it checked out. It could be worse, he thought, but Andrew would probably make him go to Abby anyways. “He was hurting you.”
Andrew’s answer came very hesitantly, but Neil was too lost to notice.
“Yes, he was. Is he dead for sure?”
“I slit his throat.” Neil said. He laughed and looked at Romero, who had blood oozing out of his neck at an alarmingly fast rate. It was all over the floor now. Neil didn’t want to clean it up.
“You keep surprising me, Abram.” Andrew said. “Where are you?”
“In the apartment.” Neil said before he passed out.
After a minute of silence, Andrew realized Neil wasn't going to answer. He looked down at his hands, which were shaking like leaves about to fall as he held Kevin's phone tightly. Kevin was looking at him with a mix of awe, surprise and fear. Andrew himself felt his body flood with joy, nothing like the synthetic happiness his meds had given him.
“Call Wymack.” Andrew said, tossing his own phone to Kevin. He didn't want to hang up on Neil, so he left the other phone open. Kevin put Wymack on speaker too.
“What now, Andrew?” Was how Wymack answered.
“Browning and Towns. Do you have their number?”
“The FBI agents?” Wymack asked. “Yeah, let me just pull their business cards out of my ass, what the fuck Andrew?”
“Josten is alive.” He answered shortly. He heard Wymack suck in a sharp breath.
“We saw his body.” Wymack said. Andrew remembered. The thought of Neil's corpse was an ever present image in his head. He would never forget it, even if by some miracle Neil was walking and talking again.
“Well, I just spoke on the phone with him until he passed out from possible blood loss. I don't know. But it was him.”
Wymack let out a string of swears longer and more colorful than Andrew had ever heard from him before.
“You're in Columbia? With Kevin? I can't imagine you'll listen if I tell you to stay put but I'm going to try. Where is he?”
“He's supposed to be thirty minutes from here, but I don't know where. Some apartment. Browning and Towns will know.” Andrew said, tapping his fingers on his leg impatiently. “He went into hiding but one of his father's men found him. Called us to send a message. Neil killed him but might not be okay.”
“I'm hanging up right now Andrew, and I'm calling the feds and the rest of the team - actually, you call the team. I'll call you after I talk to Browning and Towns.”
Wymack disconnected and Andrew took a few deep breaths. His hand was twitching but he tried to tamper his reaction down to that one movement. He was positively itching to go out in the Maserati and search Neil out for himself - he couldn't believe he'd fallen for Neil faking his death.
He'd been stupid, he thought. Emotional. He had learned before not to trust anything, even something right in front of his face, and he had also learned that Neil was a liar. Andrew hadn't checked Neil for a pulse when he saw him. He hadn't thought it necessary. Next time he saw Neil he'd be sure.
He dialed the third number in his speed dial. Kevin was still wordless beside him, running his hands through his hair in a stressed motion.
“Renee?” Andrew said when she picked up.
“No, Allison.” Said the blonde. Andrew didn't spare a second thought as to why she answered Renee's phone, instead redirecting his words.
“Tell Renee - and call Matt and Dan. Tell them Neil might be dying and to come to Columbia as soon as they can.”
“Andrew…” Allison started to say. “Neil died in March, sweetie.” Andrew felt cross immediately. Allison must have been feeling a little braver over the phone than she would in person.
“Yes, that explains the phone call I got from him as he was being attacked by Romero Malcolm. Come whether you believe me or not.” He answered her.
“Are you sure you're not hallucinating?” Allison asked.
Andrew actually didn't know. He looked up at Kevin, who had yet to move. Kevin had his usual scared look on his face, but it had never been directed towards him. He thought that even through hallucinations Kevin would believe in Andrew’s protection.
“Kevin, am I hallucinating?” He asked. Kevin motioned for the phone and Andrew passed it to him. Whatever he told Allison then must have appeased her, because he hung up and gave it back to Andrew.
“They're coming.” He said. “Want me to call Nicky and Aaron?”
“How long will it take them to get here?”
“The cheerleader lives four hours and thirteen minutes from here.” Andrew said. Kevin, wisely, kept his face from changing at that. “They’ll leave right away.”
“Andrew, do you know what this means?” Kevin asked in a hushed voice. Andrew quirked an eyebrow at him, then thought better of it.
“Don’t say a word about Exy. I might kill him for this before he rejoins the team anyways. I haven’t decided yet.” Kevin’s face looked pained at the thought of losing his favorite striker, but Andrew wasn’t serious anyways. Neil could stay. He needed it.
He very nearly jumped when his phone rang again but his heart was already beating so fast that he didn’t. This was the kind of adrenaline he played Exy for, the kind of rush that made the game worth it, like facing down Riko and the Ravens with a net behind him to protect. It was also like the feeling he had when he was having sex with Neil.
“Wymack.” He said, answering it coolly.
“Yeah – Andrew, I just talked to Towns and Browning, they’re on their way to him now. They want to talk to you and Kevin after.”
“Where?” He asked.
“They’re coming to Columbia.” Wymack told him. “I’m on my way up to you, let me in when I get there.”
“Is Abby coming with you?”
“Should she be?”
“I doubt a doctor’s presence would hurt.” Andrew drawled out. “They’re coming to the house? With Neil?”
“I don’t know if they’re bringing Neil. They might not let us have him. He might not be alive this time.” Really, Andrew knew that Wymack would fight just as hard as he would for Neil – if the agents had told either of them where Neil had been hidden for the past months, they would already be there at his side.
“Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Andrew said. “They’ll bring him to me or I’ll break more than a wall.”
When Neil was finally conscious again, he became aware of someone shaking him gently. He opened his eyes in a panic and shot upwards, scrambling away from whoever it was. His head was pounding and the sensation was worsened by his movement.
One of his neighbors, a middle aged woman he’d spoken to once, had been holding him, with a cool washcloth on his forehead. The rag had been pushed to the ground and she was holding her hands up in a peaceful gesture. Neither of them moved for a good minute before the pain in his head had him crumpling again.
“Your handler is dead.” She told him. “My badge is in my pocket, but I think you already know who I am. I called Browning and Towns. They were already on their way.”
“Okay.” Neil said, fighting a wave of nausea. He couldn’t make himself stand up. He looked down and his shirt was covered in blood from the cuts Romero had made.
Pushing his shirt up, he realized that the woman had already bandaged his side. Other than blood loss, he guessed that he was concussed as well. Neil looked around the room for where Romero had fallen and where the phone had been dropped.
Romero’s body was still lying on the ground. Neil’s slice had been good, a centimeter deep shallow cut going around half of his neck. There was no way Romero was coming back from that.
The phone was closed and had been placed on the table in his apartment. He realized with annoyance that she had hung it up on Andrew. Neil didn’t remember what he had told Andrew on the phone, but if he had given Andrew his location, the boy would be on his way to him already, even if it was just to punch him once for leaving.
“How long was I out?” Neil asked.
“I came in maybe five minutes after you passed out – I saw your door kicked in and called it in right away. Then I stayed here probably for twenty minutes.” The agent told him. “The others will be here in five minutes. You can’t stay here any longer.”
“I need to go to Columbia.” He said. She gave him an unsurprised look that just about said she wouldn’t take his bullshit.
“Wait.” Was all she said, so he sat still, only stretching out his limbs and making sure all of his sore body would be alright while Browning and Towns arrived.
When they finally came in through the door, they took in the room in stunned panic. First, they saw Romero’s bloody body lying on the floor of the apartment, where no one had touched it since Neil had struck his death blow.
“That’s Romero Malcolm.” Neil said. “Can someone get me some water? I feel so dizzy.”
“Lola Malcolm’s brother?” Towns said, while Browning went to the fridge. “What about the other one who got away?”
“I don’t know where Jackson is.” Neil said. “Normally he’s not far behind Romero, but since they didn’t both come for me I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they broke up.”
“That’s three out of four of the Butcher’s inner circle dead. You were only worried about them, right?”
“Yeah, but with three dead, Jackson might come back angrier.” Neil reminded them.
“We’ll find you a new place. You’ll have to go to a different state though. Stetson is dead, but we’ll assign two handlers to you next time. Maybe you should be up north this time.”
“No.” Neil was shaking his head. “My team knows I’m alive now. Romero – he called Kevin and Andrew to gloat. I need to go back to them.”
The three agents exchanged tired looks between them.
“We know. Your coach called us. We’re meeting them later this afternoon.”
“Take me with you.” Neil pleaded. “He told them he was going to destroy the team on Riko Moriyama’s behalf. Riko paid him, funded his search for me. I need to be with them because staying away won’t keep them safe anymore.”
“I thought you said Moriyama wasn’t involved with your father?” Neil put his head down into his hands, ignoring the throbbing.
“He wasn’t. It was just Kengo but Riko really, really wanted me gone and he found someone willing to do it for free after my father’s death. He helped him find me.” Neil revealed. “I know the FBI can’t touch him, but let me face him myself. I was safer with the Foxes than I ever was on my own or in hiding.”
“It would be your decision, leaving our protection.” They warned him.
“I know. But it’s time for me to go home.”
They brought him out to their car and he instinctively flipped his hood up over his head. He was so, so tired and his head didn’t feel any better, but he leaned it against the window and shut his eyes to rest. They reminded Neil not to fall asleep, and it was only a half hour to Columbia, but he wanted nothing more but to sink into a deep sleep.
When the car was pulling into the driveway of the Columbia house, Neil finally felt revitalized – and scared. Andrew would be right through that door, and Neil had no idea if Andrew would take him back in. Romero had forced him to beg for Neil’s life and put himself in what Andrew would consider the lowest position to be, pleading for something to stop when it wouldn’t.
The agents had barely stopped when Neil was out of the car, his heart a jackrabbit in his chest and his hands shaking. He was up the front steps as quick as he could, and Wymack opened the door to him. They both paused, uncertain. The Coach looked him over with heartbreak written on his face.
“Oh, Neil.” Wymack breathed. “Come in. I ought to sign your ass up for marathons, but I really just want to hug you.” He didn’t make any move to wrap Neil in his arms, respecting that he might not want it, but Neil had been deprived from his team and human touch for too long. He stepped up to Wymack.
“You can.” He said, and let Wymack embrace him. Before this, he'd been too afraid to let any older man that close to him, but Neil had missed Wymack like hell. He'd also had time for his father’s death to sink in.
Wymack tugged Neil in through the door to the living room. This was where he came face to face with Andrew, Kevin, and Abby for the first time since his death.
Kevin was pale faced in horror and surprise, like he hadn't really believed any of the past hours had happened until Neil was standing in front of him. He raised his hand to his own cheek where the dark ‘2’ was. The move gave Neil a sudden rush of self consciousness about what had happened his face, so he dragged his gaze from Kevin to Andrew.
Andrew was looking at him stoically, his gaze and expression impossible for Neil to read. Neil whimpered and took a half step forward, to Andrew.
“I'm sorry.” He said, choking on the words a bit. “I didn't want him to hurt you like that-”
“Shut up.” Andrew said, slipping off the arm of the couch and walking up to Neil. He took Neil's chin in his hand, not bothering to be gentle, and examined his face, prodding at the wounds. Neil let him move his head left and right, staying still as if he were a doll.
Andrew tugged his sweatshirt off and Neil wondered when he had put it on in the first place, barely able to remember anything after waking up. Calloused, rough fingers poked his scars, old and new, before turning him around to check the ones on his back.
“Was that your body in the morgue or a very well done wax copy?” Neil swallowed roughly.
“They gave me a drug to put me out so you would believe it. It was my body.”
“But it was still a lie.” Andrew remarked casually. He moved his hands up to Neil's hair, giving it a sharp tug as he said: “Just like this one.”
Neil's hands were already in motion, going to his eyes to pop out the contacts he wore.
“It'll grow back.” He gasped. “I'll stop lying, Andrew, I never wanted to in the first place but I needed to protect you.”
“Fine job you did there.” Andrew hissed. Neil sobbed and buckled to his knees, dropping his head before Andrew.
“I know.” Neil said. “I'll make it up to you, what he did to you, just let me come back home.”
Wymack and Kevin both looked like they were about to object, but they knew this went deeper than them. This was up to Andrew.
“Don't be stupid.” Andrew pulled his hair again. “How else am I going to keep an eye on you, liar?”
At his words, Neil visibly relaxed. It was a strange form of accepting him back, but it was Andrew’s approval nonetheless.
“Was I amazing?” Andrew mocked. Then he changed the subject. “Wait till you see what we did with your awful team.”
“I know you've been practicing. I hope you didn't hurt any of them.”
“They're almost ready to take on the Ravens.” Then a stormy expression covered Andrew’s face. “Too bad Riko will be dead soon.”
“Andrew.” Neil said, casting a quick look at the agents who'd followed him in. The blond didn't seem to care. “I want to see the team.”
“He's got a concussion.” One of the agents mentioned. Upon hearing that, Abby squeaked and jumped forward. She had a small light in her keychain and she asked Neil to follow the laser as she moved it. He couldn't quite focus well enough to fool her.
“He needs sleep.” She announced. “Andrew, take him to lie down while we talk to the agents.”
Following her instructions, Andrew pulled Neil up to his feet and led him down the hall to his own room. He was more than a little direct with Neil, pushing him around on the bed until Andrew was satisfied with his position.
“You can sleep until the next Fox shows up.” He ordered Neil. “That could be at least two hours.”
“Stay with me?”
Andrew rolled his eyes.
“God, you'd think we'd been separated for months with how clingy you are. Oh, wait.” He mocked Neil, but settled in the bed with him anyways. He stared at Neil as they lay together, separated by a half of a foot that Andrew wasn't willing to decrease. Neil waited for him to do anything but watch him.
“It's a yes.” Neil offered desperately. Andrew scoffed.
“A yes to you having a concussion?”
Neil made a face, so Andrew slid over anyways. He turned Neil's face towards his and pressed his lips against Neil’s. It was a short lived peck, and Neil couldn't stop the half whine that left his throat when Andrew pulled away. At least the other looked amused.
“Go to sleep, Abram.” Andrew commanded. “I'll be watching.”
He watched Neil fall asleep gratefully and couldn't pull his eyes away from his stupid pipe dream - stupid Neil Josten who'd had the nerve to fake his death and then waltz back into Andrew's life after having been attacked to ask for his place in their lives back.
Andrew didn't want to touch Neil while the other boy was sleeping, but he was struck with the ridiculous urge to push the blond hair away from Neil's face and just put his hands on him again. He shoved that thought away as if it were on fire, and just sat beside Neil like a guard dog.
He heard Nicky and Aaron arrive because they smashed the door open, and Nicky didn't bother keeping his voice down when he asked “Where is he?”
“With Andrew.” Kevin informed him.
“Well, he wasn't alive again for much longer.” Nicky sighed. “I assume Andrew's taking his time killing him.”
Andrew jabbed Neil in the ribs, then remembered that he'd been stabbed there. Whoops, he thought too late. Neil jolted awake and sat up in bed, ready to run if he was with a threat.
“My cousin and twin are here.” He told Neil, who rubbed his eyes sleepily now that he wasn't on the verge of fight or flight.
“Nicky!” Neil said happily. “Let's go.”
When they reentered the living room, all eyes were on Neil. The agents had left so it was just the Foxes and their adults. Nicky gasped when he saw Neil, and Aaron gaped.
“Oh, your pretty face!” Nicky lamented as he pulled Neil into a hug. Andrew was about to stop him but he saw the quick smile flit across Neil's mouth as Nicky wrapped his arms around him.
Aaron didn't offer Neil an embrace, but looked him over from head to toe suspiciously. He recognized the blond hair paired with the scarred cheeks.
“I saw you.” He said. Neil grinned sheepishly.
“You weren't supposed to, but yes, you did.”
“I thought I was having drunk hallucinations.” Aaron said. Behind them, Andrew had frozen to a deadly still. It reminded Neil of the way a cobra would freeze before striking.
“What's this?” Aaron and Neil dragged their eyes away from each other and back to Andrew.
“I was at Eden’s Twilight one night and Aaron ran into me. He recognized me but he was too drunk and I was gone too fast for him to catch on.”
“Idiots, both of you.” Andrew snarled.
“Absolutely.” Neil said, while Aaron shrugged.
“Roland told me I was just seeing things.” He added.
“Neil's going to explain everything once the rest of the team’s here.” Kevin said. He still looked a little shaken up, which Neil didn't think was fair since he was the one who'd almost died. But he knew just how scared of Riko Kevin was, and for Riko to send a direct death threat to Kevin and the Foxes was a lot for him to deal with.
Andrew surveyed the group quietly, deciding to berate his brother and Neil in private. He settled into his chair and Neil, to his surprise, went to sit at his feet.
Dan and Matt had met up with Allison and Renee at the airport, and Matt’s mom had footed the bill for the four of them to get to South Carolina in the most immediate plane. They all arrived together, bursting into the Columbia house to see Neil.
Allison was first in the door and she took a good hard look at Neil.
“I'd ask you if he looks like a hallucination,” Andrew started to say to her, “But I assume I'd just hallucinate you telling me he doesn't.”
There was no heat behind the words though, and they elicited a startled laugh from Allison.
Dan and Matt were next, and they immediately went to Neil's side to exclaim their happiness. Neil shot a quick look at Andrew before he stood to hug them, pulling them both into his arms happily.
“I'm so glad to see you Neil!” Renee said, and he let her join in on a hug too. He had grown less uncomfortable with her in the months before his death and didn't mind her touching him.
The Foxes settled around him and Andrew, taking seats where they could and sharing where they couldn't. Abby and Wymack had brought food for the team, and a bottle of whiskey to celebrate.
“Where have you been, Neil?” Dan asked, leaning in towards him with a fond smile. “You're coming back to us, right?”
“I am.” He said, looking at Andrew quickly to confirm it. Andrew nodded at him. “I'm coming back for good.”
He settled himself more comfortably on the floor, and began to tell them everything.
“They told you about my father and my real name, so there's not much to add there. I'm an orphan now, and the feds promised me that I could be Neil Josten again. When I was twelve, my father was on the verge of selling me to the Moriyamas. I would have been like Kevin and Jean but my mother took me and we ran. He killed her the year before you met me. I had nothing left to lose, so I joined the Foxes. On my birthday - Nathaniel’s birthday - I started getting texts from Lola Malcolm counting down to my father’s release from prison. I didn't know who it was or what the countdown was to. On March 9th they were the security guards at the game. They started the riots. And they took me to my father. They tortured me, burned my face. Destroyed me and threatened all of you.”
“They told us he cut the tendons in your legs so you couldn't run.” Kevin mentioned. “But you were fine when you walked in.”
“That wasn't true. He was going to but my uncle came in just in time. Stuart Hatford. My mom’s brother, who came to kill my father in revenge for my mother and I. The feds said I could go into hiding again. I became Joseph Doe and I've been living fairly close to here and keeping an eye on you guys. I thought that if I was dead, my father’s remaining men would leave you alone. I wasn't banking on Riko using them. I also wanted to give you more time before you had to face the Ravens in a game.”
Andrew snorted and Neil glanced back at him just in time to catch him rolling his eyes.
“Romero, Lola's brother, found me today. Riko had helped him buy and threaten his way to me in exchange for his promise to destroy the Foxes. He almost killed me, but I fought him off and killed him instead.”
“And Neil wouldn't have come back if Romero hadn't called Kevin and I to spill the beans.” Andrew said, picking at his fingers. “Now that the secrets out we have our liar back.”
The nine other pairs of eyes staring Neil down with mixed levels of pain made him squirm.
“I wasn't able to protect you from Riko in hiding, and Romero made me realize that. And I missed all of you. I couldn't stay there without you. I even went to Eden’s Twilight to see you because I thought it was too dark to be noticed, but Aaron saw me.”
The Foxes who hadn't heard that turned to look at Aaron, who shrugged.
“I was drunk.” Aaron defended himself.
“Romero had told Kevin and Andrew that why they heard him doing to me on the phone - he would do that to all of the Foxes to come. And I overpowered him.”
He left out the part about Romero making Andrew beg for Neil's life, because he didn't think Andrew would like him telling them. Kevin didn't say anything either. He also left out the fact that he had been prepared to die before he thought the Foxes were in danger.
“Was he the only one after you?” Allison asked. Neil paused. He wasn't sure if he should tell them, but if he was going home with them, it was better they knew.
“Jackson Plank is the only one of my father's inner circle left.” He said. “There could be more, but he was the last of the ones who were close to the Butcher. If anyone comes, he will.”
“How many of us would it take to fight him?” Allison asked. With a start, Neil realized she hadn't asked for herself. They would guard and accompany him everywhere until Jackson wasn't a threat. He fought to keep himself from smiling.
“I think,” He started, and looked back at Andrew to confirm. “Andrew with me might be enough.”
Neil was resigned to the Palmetto Foxes and Wymack handled the press conference for his return, as well as speaking to the ERC about what had happened. Neil was more than happy to let Wymack take care of everything, though he watched the interview Wymack gave.
“We are happy to announce the return of one of last season’s strikers, Neil Josten. He’ll resume the place he had on our line-up before he was placed in FBI protection for the past several months. The federal agents have assured us that it’s safe for him to be in the public again, and he was delighted to sign with us for the new season.”
Neil grinned. Riko would be furious that his threats hadn’t stuck – that Neil had outfought his assassin and would face him on the court again. Not to mention, the FBI was looking into the Moriyamas after Romero had claimed Riko’s involvement.
Kevin had also shown up at Columbia a week after Neil’s return, drunk and being held up by a smirking Allison, with a bandage over his cheek. Allison had spotted him the cash to cover up the tattoo, and now that Neil didn’t have his either, Riko was down to half of his perfect court. For a fleeting second, Neil wondered if they could convince Jean to cover his up too. He knew that Jean had fled the Ravens in pieces.
It didn’t take long for Ichirou Moriyama to come for him. The long, dark limousine parked outside the Columbia house was a dark omen that Neil knew was for him. Andrew had seen it first, and drawn the knives from his armbands to approach.
Neil stopped him, with a hand on his chest.
“He’s here for me.” Neil warned.
“Andrew, let me go alone. He wants to talk to me. If he wanted me dead, I think I would be already.” He tried to be reassuring, but Andrew’s eyes narrowed.
“You have five minutes before I go out there myself.”
Neil slipped out the door, grateful that Andrew had let him do this on his own. A tall, intimidating Japanese man was standing at the door on the end, and he searched Nathaniel’s face for any malice towards his master. When he seemed content that Neil was no threat, he opened the door for him.
Ichirou Moriyama was surprisingly baby faced and young. Neil had never met Ichirou before – actually, he corrected himself. Ichirou may have been present with him, Riko, Kevin, Tetsuji, Kengo, and his father that fateful day seven years before. He didn’t remember taking note of Ichirou particularly, but there had been several people in the room with them that he hadn’t bothered to remember. His memory centered on the screaming, dying man his father had killed as he was flayed and butchered.
He opted to sit on the opposite side of the yakuza boss so he could move quickly if he needed. When he was settled, he bowed his head deeply to the other man.
“Lord Moriyama.” He said.
“Wesninski.” Ichirou answered him, likely taking satisfaction in Neil’s obvious flinch. “You have been a problem for me.”
“My lord, I have tried not to be. My father sought me out for the purpose of killing me. My uncle sought him out for vengeance for my mother. I have had no choice in hiding myself from you at any point in my life; including most recently.” He was laying it on a little thick, but it was better to be safe than to accidentally disrespect a mafia leader. Neil had to choose every word carefully.
“You are my property. You should be playing for the Ravens. Instead, you ran away from my uncle years ago and instead signed with a team that until this year, wasn’t even good enough to be a rival of my team’s.”
“Your brother keeps destroying your property, my lord. Forgive me for choosing to sign with a team you don’t own, but how could I ever make Court if I played with Riko? First, he destroyed Kevin’s hand, then he broke Jean Moreau, both of whom are investments of yours. Third, and by no fault of my own, the FBI is investigating his involvement in Romero Malcolm’s attempt on my life.” Ichirou’s gaze snapped up to Neil.
“What do you mean?”
“He paid Romero Malcolm to find me where I was hidden under FBI protection. He gave him money to locate me and kill me. When he had found me, Romero called the Foxes and told them what he was doing, as well as giving them a direct message from Riko himself.” Steeling himself for his next words, Neil added. “The FBI heard the entire conversation through tapped phones.”
It was a bold lie, but he couldn’t tell Ichirou the only evidence of Riko’s involvement was his, Kevin’s, and Andrew’s witness testimony. He dropped his eyes from Ichirou’s face and waited for the other man to speak.
“A sloppy mistake on both of their ends.” Ichirou mused.
“Riko is unraveling your empire, my lord. I would be a waste of an investment if he had hold of me.”
“Are you not a wasted investment now?” There was almost a tint of amusement in Ichirou’s voice, but Neil knew the amusement was dangerous and the question just as much to fear.
“Once I make Court, you are entitled to my earnings, my lord. I will make more than enough to recover the money you believe wasted on me. Kevin and Jean will as well – 80% of our yearly salary would be yours. That’s far more than what you have invested in us. It may even be enough to save you when the Ravens fall apart.”
“That’s a bold prediction, Wesninski.” Ichirou clucked his tongue. Neil could feel his eyes boring through him, baring him open for the boss to see his insides and everything that made him tick. He didn’t pray, but Neil hoped that Ichirou couldn’t see the lies. “But one becoming rapidly true. I had worried, after Jean Moreau left the Ravens, and the president of Edgar Allen opened an investigation into my team. My uncle and my brother have the best team in any district they play for, but they are quickly running it into the ground.”
“Raven players aren’t likely to last long in Court, Lord Moriyama.” Neil said. “And Trojans are more likely to be called up. You have two investments from the Foxes and one from the Trojans. We will prove our worth to you.”
He hesitated, thinking his next words through before he spoke.
“There are people that Riko have bought that will soon be traced back to him. A Doctor Proust in Easthaven, Jackson Plank – another of my father’s men. I don’t pose any threat to your empire. I haven’t told the FBI anything, but they are building a case with the blocks Riko leaves behind.”
“I am done with you.” Ichirou said. “Go.”
Neil scrambled out gratefully and quickly. He knew it would take one word from Ichirou for his death to come, and another minute away for Andrew to investigate. True to his expectations, Andrew was standing in the open doorway, watching the car with folded arms. His expression softened when Neil came out alive and unharmed.
The limousine pulled away.
“We’re safe.” Neil said when he joined Andrew. “I think. I just sold myself to Ichirou and planted a seed of doubt in his head regarding Riko. He didn’t believe me entirely, but Riko will do one more thing to push him too far and Ichirou will see.”
“You sold yourself?”
“Ichirou gets 80% of my Court salary. Kevin’s and Jean’s too.” Neil explained.
“Fucking idiot.” Andrew said, but there was no real heat in his words.
“Wasted investments aren’t worth keeping alive. Now we are.”
“What else did you trick Ichirou into, little fox? Other than keeping your sorry ass alive.”
“I think I took care of two of our extra problems. He may go after Jackson because I implied that Riko bought him too. He may also go after Proust.”
Andrew stilled. He looked to Neil with something close to uncertainty in his eyes.
“I didn’t ask you to do that.” Andrew said. He looked livid. “What’s done is done.”
“Yes, and now what’s done is done.” Neil reached his hand out to take Andrew’s, waiting until Andrew nodded his approval. “It’s okay to want him dead. It’s okay to not think about him. It’s not okay that he did anything to you, and that he might continue to do it to other patients. If you don’t want to take it as revenge, take it as a preemptive strike against the future.”
“I really, truly hate you, Neil Josten.”
Andrew was very adamant about not talking about the Thing. He would be very content to never discuss it in his and Neil’s lifetime, and it was a certainty that Kevin would never mention it, but he knew that sooner or later it would come up, and it would come from Neil.
When Neil finally came to him, joining him on their bed in the Columbia house – Andrew wondered for a half second when it had become their bed, but with all of the Foxes bunking in it he and Neil had been sharing since Neil’s return – he carried a guilty look on his face. He sat on the edge of the bed, looking at Andrew and scratching the back of his head.
Andrew didn’t bother looking up from his book while Neil fidgeted.
“What.” He asked.
Neil reached out and tugged at the book. Andrew let it slip from his fingers and finally turned his eyes to Neil.
“Yes or no?” Neil leaned forward, close enough for Andrew to answer it himself with a kiss. His hand went to the back of Neil’s head, curling up into Neil’s hair softly and pulling their heads together. Their mouths met with a hard crash and Andrew licked into Neil’s mouth. Neil whined.
They fell back onto the bed carefully, with Andrew under Neil but Neil being careful to hold himself up and hover over Andrew’s body without letting any of his body weight down. He wasn’t touching Andrew at all, except for their mouths.
Andrew always took the lead when they kissed, and Neil liked it like that. He felt less likely to overstep any of Andrew’s boundaries, and he liked Andrew taking control. Andrew liked how pliant Neil was when they kissed and had sex, never taking Andrew by surprise with any of his movements.
After a few more minutes of kissing and rubbing his hand on Neil’s neck, Andrew pulled Neil off.
“Down.” He said to Neil, who lay beside him. “What did you want to talk about?”
The guilty look Neil had come in with replaced the satisfied one that kissing Andrew had given him.
“It’s about back in July.”
“When Romero tried to kill me.”
“I already want to walk away from this conversation.” Andrew said, dropping his head back onto his pillow.
“We really need to have it though.” Neil said, and he knew Andrew knew it too. Andrew had stiffened when he brought it up, which meant he still wasn’t over it and probably hadn’t even talked to Bee about it. Did he even have therapy sessions over the summer?
“Romero made you say that word, the one you don’t like. Because he told you he’d spare me if you begged for my life.”
“Wrong, wrong, and wrong.”
“He didn’t make me say it, there’s more than one word I don’t like to say or hear, and it wasn’t to spare your life.” Andrew corrected him.
“But you said it.”
“Did the concussion cause you some form of amnesia? Romero told you why I was saying it.”
“Can I hear it from you?” Andrew sighed heavily and pulled Neil’s hand into his.
“I thought, like you did, that you wouldn’t be alive by the end of the phone call. So if the last thing you heard was me begging for your life, at least you would die with the thought of someone caring about your stupid ass at the end of your life.” He admitted. Neil twisted his head up to look Andrew in the face.
“You saved my life with that, though.” Neil said. “I was ready to die. But hearing him hurt you like that made me want to fight him again. There are some situations you go into knowing there’s no way you’ll survive. I went into my father’s house and came out through a miracle. I knew Romero had me pinned and it would take a miracle to get loose. You bought me enough time and you gave me the strength I needed to kill him. I’m sorry he made you say it though. I’m sorry he hurt you.”
They were both quiet for a few minutes. Neil had said everything he needed to, it was just a matter of letting Andrew heal this moment of his life. Andrew was trying to work out what he wanted to say.
“Don’t be. It wasn’t for him, it was for you.” Andrew said drily. Neil squeezed their hands together gently. “I hate you like I’ve never hated anyone before but I would do it again.”
Neil smiled, but it was barely half a grin and it was a sad one.
“Never again.” He vowed. “Ichirou will take care of Jackson and claim me as his property. No one associated with my father will bother me again. I’m yours now, entirely.”
“How unfortunate.” Andrew said, but his tone gave away the fact that he didn’t mind it at all. He rolled over to be next to Neil, the only difference this time being that his body was touching Neil’s from his shoulder to his calf.
It was the closest they had ever been and also the most intimate. Andrew was lying at Neil’s side, content to be touching him, okay with touching him, having initiated their contact with no reason to fear Neil. They could lie in peace. No one would touch Andrew without his consent, and no one was coming to kill Neil.
When the fall season started, they would take down Riko and the Ravens. The Foxes would become champions of the southern district. They would be the Kings and Queens of Exy.
The infinite possibilities for the upcoming year blossomed in their thoughts, spreading across the bed with them. The two boys thought about it. One of their hands twitched, the other one shivered. It would take only the smallest push.
“Yes or no?”