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The Road to Nowhere

Chapter Text

Nathaniel was his first name, in every sense of the word.

It was the one he’d worn for the first few years of his life. The one that could make him flinch when his father called it in a certain way. The one his mother whispered to him as he cried when she patched up his wounds — “Shh, Nathaniel, I know it hurts but you have to be quiet, don’t let him hear you crying, it’ll only make him angrier.” The one he loathed because it was so similar to his father’s, and every time he heard it he couldn’t help but think of the man who had shown him nothing but cruelty for as long as he could remember.

Twenty-two names now stood between Nathaniel and his current moniker. Some, he’d only used for a day; a week. Alex and Stefan and Mark. Others, he’d had to keep for a little longer. Chris and Nicholas, James and Luke. The thing was, when you came across other people, they tended to want to know what to call you. They thought it kept them civilised in a world that had gone to shit. Nathaniel knew better, but he could play along. He always gave a name whenever he was asked, but he never gave the same one out twice, and he never stayed for long. He ingratiated himself with these communities for long enough to get what he needed, and he got out again. He didn’t linger; he didn’t make friends. He had already lost the only person that mattered, and he had no interest in making room for anyone else in his heart.

Abram was the name he never told anyone.

This one was the most him; the piece of himself that he couldn’t give up. He kept it close to his chest. He whispered it to himself at night before he fell asleep. It was the only thing he had left that his mother had given him, and it was a reminder and a promise. “Look at me, Abram. It’s just you now. Don’t look back, don’t slow down, and don’t trust anyone.”

Neil, however, was the important name.

This was his current name; the one he had on the tip of his tongue ready to offer up should he run into anyone and have need of it. He’d already invented a whole persona for Neil in his head; mannerisms and quirks, a lie of a background story he could trudge out if anyone got too personal, a brief family history. Neil. He liked it. It was short; easy to remember.

Neil was the last name he ever had to choose.


 

 

With his back flat to the ground, Neil tossed a tennis ball up and down above his head. He’d found it in an abandoned house a day earlier, and tucked it into his pocket. He had no use for it, but he he supposed it worked well enough as a time-killer, as something to do to break up the monotony. If nothing else, he could always throw it at someone should he find himself under attack.

He had proper weapons, of course. A gun with three rounds inside, but it was a last resort. Gunfire gave away your location, and ammo was scarce. It was best to save them for when you were in dire straits. Or to use them on yourself. He had a few knives, too, but he didn’t like to use them. They reminded him too much of his father.

Neil looked up at the sky and tried to guess at the time. Judging by how high the sun was, it was nearing midday, and even though he’d found a spot in the shade, Neil was still sweating. He threw the tennis ball one more time, caught it, then shoved it into his duffel. Slowly, he got to his feet and stretched. It had been days since he’d seen another soul; days since he’d left another group in the middle of the night.

He hadn’t stolen from them, not in the strictest description of the word. He had watched them for a few days — long enough to ensure they weren’t bandits, murderers or even worse — judging their nature, learning their routines, and then he let one of their scouts ‘find’ him on the side of the road, weakened and dehydrated. It hadn’t been too difficult of an act. They had given him a little water and asked him his name — he’d been Thomas then — and after that, they’d insisted that he stay with them, at least until he got his strength back. He looked so unassuming; people never saw him as a threat until he wanted them to. As Thomas, he had tentatively agreed, helping them hunt and guard their camp for a few days. Every meal time when he was handed his share of food, he would eat tiny amounts and then save the rest, hiding it in his duffel until he had a nice little rations packet. Then, deciding there was little else he could gain from remaining in their company, he had sneaked off in the night, unseen by the camp watch who were looking outside for threats, not towards their sleeping companions.

So no, it wasn’t technically stealing, as he’d been given everything he took. But it still didn’t feel strictly honest. Neil never dwelled on these thoughts for too long, though. “Don’t look back,” his mother had said, and he never did.

For the last couple of nights, Neil had stayed under a bridge at an overpass that was not only great for cover, but had the added bonus of being close to a water supply. Places like this were usually hotspots for activity, so finding one that was not only clear of people, but that didn’t look like it had been stumbled upon by anyone in a good long while was a blessing, and Neil took his blessings where he found them.

He was ever vigilant; his mother had drilled that into him as soon as they had started to run and he never forgot a lesson. He never slept properly. In fact he couldn’t remember the last time he’d fallen into a deep sleep — probably when his mother was still alive and he had someone to keep him safe. He always needed to be ready to get up and go at the slightest sign of company. His duffel was always packed; he only took out what he needed as and when he needed it, and put it back as soon as he was finished with it. He lit fires because he had to; he had to boil water before it was safe to drink, and he had to keep warm. But he always scouted for hours beforehand to make sure there was no one around to spot it, and if there was, he’d move on. If there wasn’t, his fires still remained small and at least partially hidden by whatever shelter he’d found for himself.

Neil was a survivor. His was a meagre existence, but he had no interest in dying. Not yet.

He checked his belongings, making sure they were all there, then hoisted his duffel over his shoulder. It couldn’t be left behind in case someone came along and found it, or something happened and he couldn’t come back. Besides, it was all Neil had — he wouldn’t be parted from it if he could help it. He peered out at the road, which was as empty and destitute as it always was, then after hesitating for a moment just to listen and make sure he could hear no voices, no footsteps, Neil stepped away from his temporary shelter and headed south, towards the nearby stream.

First order of business was collecting more water. Collecting water was always the first order of business, actually, because you never quite knew when you would next find some. Underestimating how much you would need was a good way to die of dehydration. Neil had seen the aftermaths of such deaths, passed by bodies on the road, and did not want to go out the same way.

He reached the stream without incident and filled up his three empty water bottles. He stayed long enough to splash water over his face and rinse his hair, careful not to look at his reflection as he did so. The best part about the apocalypse was he rarely had the opportunity or cause to look in a mirror. His father’s face haunted his dreams often enough, he hated having to carry it around with him every day. The auburn hair he could just about live with, but he wished he’d inherited his mother’s eyes instead of his father’s icy blue ones.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, Neil tilted his head up towards the sun, streaking through the gaps in the trees overhead. It was a warming, wistful feeling somehow, and Neil closed his eyes.

Snap.

Neil’s eyes flew open and he darted a look to the source of the sound. It was a twig snapping, unmistakable, somewhere behind the bushes just through the clearing he stood in. He couldn’t see anything.

It was probably an animal of some kind; a squirrel or a rabbit. Quietly and carefully, keeping his eyes on the bushes, Neil knelt down and put his now full water bottles into his duffel bag, then took out one of his knives. He already had a switchblade, kept on him at all times, but he wanted the security of something a little bigger and threatening looking, on the off-chance it wasn’t a squirrel.

There was no way to zip up his duffel quietly, so Neil did it in one swift movement and hoisted it over his shoulder, getting to his feet. For a moment, he didn’t move, waiting to see if any more noises were forthcoming.

Nothing. Neil sighed internally with relief, and then—

Snap.

Snap.

One broken twig could have been anything. Two was a coincidence. Three meant someone was trying to scare him.

It was working.

Neil didn’t stick around, just turned tail and ran; not back towards the bridge — he didn’t want to lead anyone else there if there was any chance he could return — but further into the woods where he could use the trees for cover. Turning his back on a threat seemed like a bad idea, and it was, but Neil was fast and wanted to put as much space between him and the clearing as possible.

Any thoughts that it could just be Neil’s paranoia working in overdrive were thrown out the window when footsteps began to thunder after him; someone heavy footed, probably taller than Neil was (which wasn’t difficult).

He couldn’t risk looking over his shoulder to get a good look at his pursuer; everything in him had switched to survival mode. Fight or flight, and Neil was in no mood to fight.

But he would if he had to, and he clutched his knife tightly.

His chaser let out a ragged curse, then noticeably slowed down and whistled, high and piercing. Fear jolted down Neil’s spine; the pursuer wasn’t alone.

Neil had no idea how many there would be, or how they were spread out. If he could make it out of the woods to the road, he’d at least be able to see his attackers. But then he would also be exposed, and he didn't know what kind of weapons they might have. Surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to waste bullets on one person and broadcast their location, but a lot of bandits carried bows and arrows these days. And anyone could throw a knife. They’d have to be in range of him though.

He glanced to the left without turning his head and caught sight of someone running through the trees. A similar darting look to the right showed someone else closing in from that side, and he still had whoever was behind him. That was at least three people on the chase; Neil just hoped there weren’t any more.

He sped up, spying the edge of the woods a little further ahead, and as he got closer, he chanced a look over his shoulder. He couldn’t see anyone; the first pursuer had obviously fallen behind, and Neil knew he could outrun the other two. He faced back forward, almost to the road.

A man stepped out from behind a tree just on the edge of the road, brandishing a very large branch. He was right in Neil’s way, and Neil was going too fast to stop; he tried to swerve but the stranger swung and caught Neil in the gut with his branch.

Neil fell to the ground, the wind knocked out of him, but he still had the presence of mind to swing his knife around in the general direction of his attacker. His hand to eye coordination wasn’t at its peak, however, and with a swift kick to Neil’s hand the stranger disarmed him, then pushed him onto his back and placed a hefty boot on his chest, stepping down hard enough that Neil struggled to get his breath back.

As he choked for air, he reached for his switchblade, but in one smooth movement that Neil couldn’t track, the man had crouched, replacing the boot on Neil’s chest with a knee and seizing Neil’s wrist with an unforgiving grip.

He tutted at Neil. “Naughty,” he said. The sun behind him set his blonde hair alight but left the rest of his face shrouded in shadow. Neil could tell he was young, though, probably not much older than Neil was, and on his face was a mocking smile as Neil struggled futilely to get free. Whoever this bastard was, he was strong.

“Fuck you,” Neil gritted out once he’d got his breath back.

The man just grinned and offered Neil a two fingered salute with his free hand.

“Better luck next time.”

Chapter Text

For a moment Neil just lay there, breathing heavily. Not that he could move anyway; the man who had apprehended him was still an unyielding weight above. Neil tried to regain his senses and get his bearings. There had to be a way out of this. There had to be some way to escape.

The ground beneath him vibrated with incoming footsteps.

“Jesus, this kid’s fast,” came an out of breath voice from somewhere behind Neil’s head; he couldn’t turn to see. “How’d you catch him, Andrew?”

“I hit him with a stick,” said the blonde man — Andrew — and Neil scowled.

“A really big stick,” he felt the need to petulantly point out. Andrew raised an eyebrow, amused, and Neil took the opportunity to kick his legs up and try and dislodge Andrew. But Andrew just shifted his weight to restrict Neil’s movement.

“Nicky, give me a hand over here. Our new friend is being very rude,” Andrew said, and finally the other person came into view, stopping at Neil’s head and peering down. He was upside down in Neil’s vision; it was disorientating.

The newcomer grinned, Cheshire cat wide. “Well, look at you, sweet-cheeks,” he said, and winked.

“Nicky,” Andrew said, and it sounded like a warning.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicky said, rolling his eyes and stepping off to the side.

Andrew seized Neil’s chin and forced him to look at him. “I’m going to pull you to your feet now, and then my cousin here is going to hold onto you while I search your stuff. You try anything funny, and I’ll kill you,” he said. “Clear?”

“Crystal,” said Neil bitingly.

Before he did anything else, Andrew reached into Neil’s pocket and pulled out the switchblade. He appraised it impassively, then pocketed it.

“That’s mine,” Neil said as Andrew pulled him to his feet.

“Play your cards right, and you might just get it back.”

Now that they were both standing, Neil could see that Andrew was even shorter than he was — he couldn’t have been much more than five feet, and yet he’d managed to detain Neil single-handedly without a problem. He was clearly not to be underestimated. Andrew pulled Neil’s hands behind his back and then Nicky grabbed a hold of his wrists.

“You two don’t look related,” Neil remarked, and he heard Nicky snort from behind him.

“I have my mom’s complexion, thank God.”

“Nicky, call the others,” Andrew said, and Nicky whistled. So he had evidently been the one who’d spooked Neil with the snapping twigs then. Neil resisted the urge to step back and stomp on Nicky’s foot. With more people on the way, Neil was heavily outnumbered, and he still didn’t know what Andrew and his people wanted. Maybe they’d just rob him and let him go. It was inconvenient, but it was better than them killing him.

A few seconds later, two others stepped out of the treeline. One was tall and dark haired, a condescending look in his green eyes as he looked at Neil. He had the number 2 tattooed on his left cheek. His left hand, hanging limp at his side, was horrifically scarred, jagged lines where it had obviously been broken in several places and not healed properly. Neil wondered how much maneuverability he still had — it looked like it was probably still painful. The man caught Neil looking and scowled, then pulled his sleeve down to cover the worst of the scars.

Neil shifted his attention to the other newcomer who was, for all intents and purposes, Andrew. Twins.

“Oh good,” Neil said sarcastically. “There’s two of you.”

Andrew shot him a sharp grin. “Oh, you might be fun,” he said, then reached for Neil’s duffel.

He unzipped it and then upended the whole thing onto the ground. Most of the contents he dismissed out of hand; clothing that he simply tossed back into the bag. He took a minor interest in Neil’s med-kit, but once he’d seen how low-stocked it was, he returned this, too. He looked over Neil’s food and water supply with a cursory glance and then turned his attention to Neil’s weaponry.

Andrew lifted the gun, checked the safety, and then held it up curiously. “You had this the whole time. Why didn’t you use it?”

“I didn’t know how many of you there were, so I didn’t want to waste the bullets or lead anyone else to my location,” Neil said.

Andrew accepted that with a nod, then inspected each and every one of Neil’s knives; their length, their sharpness, their weight. Every ridge and dent.

“This is quite the collection,” he said after he’d looked his fill. “You know how to use them?”

“I wouldn’t have them if I didn’t,” Neil said, starting to become exasperated. If this was a robbery, it was a very strange one, with a lot more questions involved than Neil would have thought.

“You didn’t use them on me,” Andrew pointed out.

“You sucker punched me with a fucking tree. I didn’t have a chance to do much of anything,” Neil said reproachfully. “You cheated.”

The corner of Andrew’s mouth turned up. “Cheated?” He seemed amused by the concept, and he had a point. There weren’t any rules anymore. No fair fights. Just advantages to be played wherever you could.

But Neil still felt that he’d been apprehended under unfair parameters, and he stuck his chin out defiantly. “You heard me,” he said.

Andrew stared at Neil, expression inscrutable, and then he re-packed Neil’s duffel and zipped it back up. He got to his feet and pointed to his twin, who had been watching the whole encounter with a bored expression.

“Aaron,” he said, then gestured to the taller man. “Kevin. And you’ve already met Nicky—”

“Hello,” Nicky said brightly, giving Neil’s wrists a quick squeeze.

“—and I’m Andrew.” He waited, but Neil didn’t say anything. Andrew took a step closer and stage whispered, “This is the part where you tell us your name.”

Neil gritted his teeth in irritation. “Neil,” he said curtly.

“See? That wasn’t so hard. We mustn’t forget our manners, Neil. Otherwise we’re no better than the beasties.”

“I’d be a lot more polite if you let me go,” Neil snarled.

“Oh, now we can’t do that. You’re trespassing.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“This here’s our turf, and we’ve been watching you for a couple of days now, waiting for you to go on your merry way, but you haven’t. That makes you a problem.”

Neil felt his blood run cold. The idea that he’d been watched and was none the wiser was an incredibly uncomfortable feeling, especially when he’d scouted the area every day and seen no signs of any other people. Andrew and his friends were clearly very good at remaining unseen.

Neil thought he was good at remaining unseen.

He swallowed, throat suddenly dry. “I didn’t know this was anyone’s territory; there weren’t any signs. If you just give me back my stuff, I’ll be on my way and out of your hair and you’ll never see me again.”

Andrew shook his head. “If only it were that simple, Neil.”

Neil twisted his hands reflexively; Nicky tightened his grip. “It can be as simple as you want it to be,” Neil said.

“Neil, Neil, Neil. This isn’t personal, but we don’t know you. For all we know, you’re part of a larger scouting party and you’re going to go running back to them and tell them what a great spot you’ve found, nice and close to a water supply, shelter to be found by the bridge or in the woods. And maybe your people are nice and friendly, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they make problems for us, and we have to do something about them.”

“There’s no one,” Neil said. “I’m alone. You said you’ve been watching me— have you seen me make contact with anyone? I promise you, I’m alone, and I have no interest in causing you any grief.”

“Oh, Neil,” Andrew said with faux-sympathy, and he patted Neil’s cheek condescendingly. “I really want to believe that. But unfortunately, I just don’t trust you.” He smiled, baring his teeth. There was nothing friendly in it. “I’m sure you understand.”

Neil clenched his jaw; he didn’t think he’d be able to talk his way out of this one. “What are you going to do with me?”

“If it were up to me, I’d probably just kill you,” Andrew said, and shrugged. “As it is, we’ve been told to bring you in.”

Neil frowned. “Where? And by who?”

Kevin stepped forward. “By Coach,” he said, ignoring the first question. He looked to Andrew. “Andrew, let’s go. This is taking too long.”

Neil didn’t know who Coach was, but he was grateful that they seemed to be calling the shots; at least this way Neil got to live a little longer. And maybe this Coach could be reasoned with when Andrew couldn’t.

Aaron shouldered Neil’s duffel, and Andrew picked up the knife that he had knocked out of Neil’s hand. He nodded at it appreciatively. “I like this one,” he said, and then he rolled up one of his sleeves, revealing a black armband covering his forearm, elbow to wrist. He slipped the knife up the armband which was obviously there to hide sheathes — it was impossible to say how many knives he might have on him.

Clever, Neil thought. Out loud, he said, “That was mine as well.”

“Sharing is caring, Neil,” Andrew said, then took over from Nicky, gripping Neil’s wrists tightly. “Lead the way, Nicky.”

Nicky headed to the front of the group and stepped out into the road. The rest followed him out, Aaron and Kevin in the middle and Andrew bringing up the rear, pushing Neil onward. They made a loose diamond shape as they began to follow the road. Neil reasoned that wherever they were going couldn’t be that far as they counted these woods and the bridge as their territory.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, Neil weighing up the pros and cons of trying to free himself from Andrew’s grip and running for it. He decided against it; even if he did manage to wrench his hands free, there were still three of them and one of him, and they’d catch him again and it would only cement their distrust. Better just to wait until they got him back to see Coach, whoever that was.

But whilst Andrew might ultimately answer to someone else, he was clearly the ring-leader of this particular little scouting party.

“So,” Neil said. “This is quite the family affair. You’ve got your brother here, your cousin. . .” He nodded his head towards Kevin. “He your dad?”

The affronted look Kevin shot Neil was almost enough to make him crack a smile, and Nicky burst out laughing from the front.

“And he’s a comedian, too. Careful, Neil. Kevin doesn’t have much of a sense of humour,” Andrew said, close to Neil’s ear. Neil jerked his head away; he didn’t like Andrew being where he couldn’t see him.

“If you really think I’m a threat, then why are you leading me straight to your base?” Neil mused out loud.

“That’s what I said,” Aaron remarked, the first time Neil had heard him speak. He shot a dark look at his brother, but Neil couldn’t see Andrew’s expression without turning, and he didn’t want to move in case Andrew thought he was trying to escape.

“I don’t make the rules,” Andrew said with a flippancy Neil found he didn’t quite believe.

“Since when do you give a shit about the rules?” Aaron said scornfully, then shook his head and faced back forward.

“Oh dear,” Neil murmured so only Andrew would hear him. “Trouble in the ranks?”

Andrew dug his thumb painfully into Neil’s wrist, and he couldn’t hide his pained flinch. “Pretty faces should be seen and not heard,” Andrew cooed, sugar sweet, but Neil was all too aware he was on thin ice. He shut up.

They continued along the road for another ten minutes or so, past the crumbling buildings with their broken windows, falling into disrepair due to a mixture of weather and man-made destruction. Houses and buildings, ironically, weren’t good places to set up camp for the exact same reasons why they seemed to be the perfect places to set up camp. People were drawn to them. You were too vulnerable, too likely to be caught unawares with no way out. Out in the open, you were exposed, but at least you had a better chance of hearing and seeing who and what was coming. It allowed you extra time to get away, even if it wasn’t always as comfortable or warm as a roof over your head.

Buildings were for scavenging during the day. They weren’t places to make your home. But Neil didn’t think any such places existed anymore.

Then again, he didn’t have a solid grasp on what home really felt like. His world was cruel enough before everything changed; the apocalypse almost seemed tame in comparison.

Nicky started veering off the main road and up a smaller path that was almost entirely hidden by overgrown shrubbery; Neil wouldn’t have spotted it if he had been alone. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to find it again. They followed the pathway down a little ways, and it took Neil a moment to realise that they were now on a campus. Large letters — some clearly missing — on the side of one of the buildings spelled out PA M TTO  S AT  UN VERSI Y.

“Palmetto State University,” Andrew said, catching Neil looking. Neil had never heard of it.

“You stay here?” Neil asked. “You stay on a campus?” No one offered an answer, but Neil was filling in his own blanks. “How is that. . . sustainable? How many of you are there if you can protect and hide a place this big?”

Again, no one answered his question and Neil felt a renewed trickle of fear run up his spine. If this was their base, there was every chance they had a lot of weapons and resources. Perhaps a military like standard of operations. Neil was starting to feel like he was being taken to face a firing squad.

Then again, if he could convince whoever was in charge that he wasn’t a threat, it was a potential gold mine. He was in now, they’d brought him here themselves, and if given the opportunity Neil could take what he needed and get out again. After that, he’d keep to the promise he’d made earlier; they would never see him again.

They carried on past several of the faculty buildings, until eventually Nicky led them towards a large white building that had faded orange trim. On the two outer walls that Neil could actually see, there was a giant paw print. The building was surrounded with barbed wire, and there were two padlocked gates.

“A stadium,” Neil surmised.

“An Exy stadium,” Kevin clarified.

Neil used to play little league Exy as a backliner. They were some of the only good memories he had, and he choked back the unbidden grief and cleared his throat, refocusing on the stadium. “It’s, uh. . . it’s subtle,” Neil said, taking in the orange details dotted about the place. “It looks well fortified.”

“It is,” said Andrew. Without warning, Andrew let go of Neil’s wrists and whirled him around to face Andrew.

“What the fuck,” Neil spluttered, surprised.

“We can’t very well let you see how we get in now, can we?” Andrew rummaged in his hoodie pocket and pulled out a black t-shirt. The last thing Neil saw was Andrew’s grin before the t-shirt was yanked over his head, obscuring his vision.

“I really don’t think this is necessary,” Neil said.

I’ll decide what’s necessary,” came the reply. “Nicky, hurry the fuck up.”

Andrew grabbed Neil’s elbow and tugged him forward. Neil’s other arm was free and he could technically pull the t-shirt acting as his blindfold off if he wanted to, but Andrew most definitely had eyes on him and Neil decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation. Andrew probably expected him to act up, and that was a good enough reason not to.

Neil could hear the clicking of padlocks as Nicky obviously got them through one of the gates — Neil had to assume there was a back up way to get in if someone lost the key — and then Andrew got Neil moving again. A short walk later and then they stopped for a second time. Neil heard a sharp knock, and then Kevin’s voice. “Matt, it’s us, let us in.”

“What’s the password?” came a new voice — Matt, presumably.

“We can’t give you that, we have a stranger with us,” Kevin said derisively.

“The password is ‘Seth’s a dipshit’,” Nicky said.

There was a pause. “Good enough,” Matt said, and then Neil heard some rustling and creaking before Andrew pushed him forward again.

“What the fuck’s his face covered for? He’s not a. . . a criminal. Jesus, Andrew.”

“Like you could possibly know that. Everyone’s a criminal these days, Matt.”

Neil’s vision suddenly darkened which let him know that they were now inside, as did the change in the air. It felt closer in here; stagnant. The sound of everyone's footsteps seemed impossibly loud and squeaky on what could only have been linoleum flooring.

Neil tripped and Andrew’s grip tightened, steadying him so he wouldn’t fall.

“Take that thing off him, Andrew, seriously,” Neil heard Matt say. “Coach is going to kill you.”

Andrew sighed expansively then yanked the t-shirt off Neil’s head. It took a moment for his vision to clear, and when it did he could see that he was in what obviously used to be an office. The desk was still there, although the chair was now missing. It was pretty scarce; the place must have been ransacked at some point, and the window was cracked in one corner. A fine layer of dust covered the desk, but apart from that it was a remarkably clean room. Someone must have made the effort to tidy it.

“Nicky, get Coach,” Andrew said, and Nicky disappeared without a word. Aaron dumped Neil’s duffel on the floor then retreated to the corner of the room, arms folded. Andrew pulled Neil’s hands behind his back again and held onto his wrists like before, but his hold wasn’t quite as tight as it had been earlier; this posturing was clearly just for show. But for whose benefit?

Kevin took up a spot on Andrew’s other side, and that’s when Neil finally got a good look at who he assumed to be Matt. He was tall — really tall — black hair mussed in a way that made it look like fingers had recently been running through it. He looked strong, and Neil might have been intimidated were it not for the look on Matt’s face. He shot Neil a sheepish, almost apologetic smile. He looked kind; too kind for the world he was living in.

“Sorry about these guys. I’m Matt, by the way.”

“Neil.”

“Nice to meet you, Neil,” Matt said, then the room fell silent until Nicky returned.

He was preceded into the office by a man who looked to be a similar age to Neil’s father, and Neil recoiled automatically. He recovered quickly and forced himself to still, but Andrew was too close not to notice, and Neil didn’t miss the curious glance Andrew sent his way.

The man went over to the desk and perched on the edge, then looked at Neil. Immediately he noticed that Andrew had a hold of Neil’s wrists behind his back, and he crossed his arms in irritation. “Let him go, Andrew, for fuck’s sake.”

Andrew let go immediately and took a step back.

The man looked back to Neil, unsmiling, voice gruff. “I’m David, but you can call me Coach if you want; everyone else does. Andrew wasn’t too rude, was he?”

Neil shrugged noncommittally. “He hit me in the gut with a tree branch, stole my switchblade and one of my other knives, then frog marched me down here and shoved a t-shirt over my head. So no, not too rude,” he said dryly.

“Goddamn it, Andrew,” Coach said.

“Coach, if you wanted someone to hold his hand and then throw him a welcome party, you should have asked Matt to go get him. As it was, you asked me, so I assumed you wanted me to minimise the threat, and that’s what I did.”

Coach waved a dismissive hand at this.

“It’s Neil, right?” he said, and Neil nodded. “Well, Neil, welcome to the Foxhole Court.”

Chapter Text

Welcome, Coach had said, like Neil hadn’t just been disarmed and brought here against his will. And yet he was now within reach of their leader, unrestrained, and had received an apology from Matt about Andrew’s behaviour. Neil didn’t understand what was going on.

“Andrew said that you told them to bring me in,” Neil said. “Am I a prisoner?”

“Fuck no,” Coach said. “We don’t really do that here.” Neil arched a dubious eyebrow; the treatment he’d received from Andrew seemed to imply that was exactly what they did here. Coach neatly interpreted that look and lifted one shoulder. “Apologies if Andrew was a little heavy handed. He’s just protective.”

Aaron made a scornful noise from the corner of the room.

“My brother has his panties in a twist today,” Andrew said, amused.

“Fuck you, Andrew.”

“Guys, c’mon,” Nicky pleaded.

“Alright, alright, everyone except Neil get the fuck out,” Coach said impatiently. Kevin, Matt, Aaron and Nicky all left without a word, but Andrew lingered, taking a step forward.

“Are you sure, Coach? Neil here could be dangerous.” Andrew’s tone was mocking, so Neil couldn’t tell if Andrew really believed that or if he was just being facetious.

“Cut the shit, Andrew,” Coach said.

Andrew smirked and backed out of the room; Neil watched him go and then immediately turned his attention back to Coach when the door was closed. He didn’t feel comfortable being alone in a room with a man of Coach’s age, but he was determined not to let it show. He held his chin up high and waited.

“Look,” Coach started. “One of my scouts, Renee, spotted you in the area a couple of days ago, and we’ve been keeping an eye on you ever since to see what you’d do.”

Hearing this made Neil’s skin crawl. He couldn’t believe they’d managed to watch him without him realising.

“We want to protect this place, see? So we make it our business to take an interest in anyone who gets too close. Most of the time, people just pass on through and we leave them to it. Not many people tend to stick in one place for too long anymore.”

“Except you lot, apparently,” Neil cut in.

Coach nodded, but carried on. “If it’s a group of people and they outstay their welcome, then we try and subtly move them along.”

“How?” Neil asked shrewdly. “Do you fight them?”

Coach hesitated; Neil got the impression he didn’t think he’d be interrupted quite so much as he gave his spiel. “We try and avoid being seen unless we want to be, so we’d rather avoid physical altercations if we can help it. But we fight when we have to.”

“How do you make them leave, then?”

Coach shrugged. “It’s a scary world now, Neil. People are easily spooked.”

Neil knew this to be true because he was easily spooked. You had to be these days. Fear kept you alive; complacency got you killed. He gestured for Coach to continue.

“People who are alone, such as yourself, we bring in. Show them around, get to know them, see if they want to stay. If they do, they’re more than welcome as long as they contribute. If they don’t, we escort them out of the area and send them on their merry way.”

“Why don’t you do that with groups of people? Why can’t they stay?”

“Groups tend to have their own hierarchies. Mixing two together rarely goes well.”

This was a fair point; Neil had seen it happen before. “Okay, so you don’t let them in here, fine. But why can’t they stay in the area?”

“I’m guessing you’ve been on the road a while, kid, so you’ll know this. People attract more people. If they’re in our neck of the woods and they’re lighting their fires, others will see. Others will come. And then all of a sudden we’ve got a shit ton of people in our backyard, pilfering our resources, and it’s harder to hide. We’re just trying to protect our own, and the less people there are around, the easier it is for us.” Coach looked at Neil for a long time, gauging his reaction. “But like I said, we rarely have to do anything. Most people just pass through. Everyone wants to get to the coast, so I’ve heard.”

Neil was actively avoiding the coast because that’s where everyone else wanted to go. He weighed up everything Coach had said, but still couldn’t fathom the reasoning behind it. “So, what, you had me brought here to. . . to recruit me?”

Coach barked one short, gruff laugh. “I guess you could put it that way.”

“But. . . why? You don’t know anything about me.”

“I know that you’re alone,” Coach said with a shrug, like that was all that mattered, like that was the only thing he needed to know. Neil opened his mouth to respond, but he didn’t know what else to say. He tried a couple more times but still had nothing, and shook his head. It didn’t make sense for them to just invite him into their base and offer him a place to stay. He could have been anyone; they were far too trusting.

Coach only gave him another couple of seconds to try and form a response. “You don’t have to decide right now, Neil. Take a few days, meet everybody, get to know them, look around. If you decide that this place isn’t for you, you can leave. No hard feelings.”

“If I’m really free to do what I want, then why did you send Andrew to get me instead of Matt? Surely you knew he’d be a little, uh, less than polite.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t have the most gentle approach, I’ll give you that. But Andrew’s actually a better bellwether for people than Matt is. If he really thought you meant any of us any harm, he probably would have killed you immediately. The fact that he brought you here relatively unscathed is actually a good thing, believe it or not.”

“If he didn’t think I was a threat, then why did he attack me in the first place?”

“I imagine he wanted to see what you’d do,” Coach said wryly.

Neil filed that insight away for later inspection and weighed his options. He still felt profoundly uncomfortably. The fact that Coach would willingly bring a stranger into a base with his people seemed naive at best and downright irresponsible at worst. But it was shelter, and Neil presumed they had food, maybe somewhere he could clean himself up properly, maybe somewhere warm to sleep. Maybe they even had cigarettes.

For at least a couple of days, Neil supposed he could see what it was like to live in a place like this. He could see how they ran things, he could collect some rations, then he could leave again.

Don’t trust anyone, his mother’s voice sounded in his head. I know, mom, Neil thought. I know.

To Coach, he said, “Alright. If it’s really okay, I’ll stay. At least for a little while.”

Coach offered him a tight smile. “Okay.”


 

Neil and his mother were already on the run when the outbreak that wiped out almost two-thirds of the population started, having stolen away in the night two years earlier through an underground tunnel accessed through their garage.

The iron incident had been the final straw, apparently. Neil had endured a great many hurts and injustices from his father in his life up until that point with little to no interference from his mother, but it took getting hit in the shoulder with a scalding hot iron for her to draw her line in the sand. She crept into Neil’s bedroom in the night, lightly packed a duffel with a few items, then took him by the hand and led him out. She’d had to clasp a hand over his mouth to smother his whimpering — every movement rubbed and tore painfully at the brand new burn on his shoulder. But together, they escaped the hell that had been Nathan Wesninski’s kingdom. Neil had been just nine years old.

He’d never questioned why it had taken so long for his mother to get them out, he was just glad to finally be out of there. But freedom didn’t much feel like freedom when you were constantly looking over your shoulder.

Neil was accustomed to a hard life long before a hard life became everybody’s reality.

The sickness gave you flu-like symptoms at first. Within a couple of days of contracting it, people found themselves barely able to move, bodies heavy and aching, a fever off the charts. The vast majority of people who caught it died within five days. Very few managed to survive the ordeal, and everyone else seemed to be immune. Neil and his mother were some of those lucky few.

The epidemic decimated life as they knew it. Everything stopped; media, travel, eventually electricity and water systems, too. Soon enough, looting started amongst the survivors, everyone out for themselves and their own. Looting of shops developed into looting people’s houses, whether or not they were occupied. The stronger started to weed out the weaker and nowhere was safe.

So people took to the streets, sought out new communities, or just made the best of it on their own. A great many people had lost absolutely everyone and just headed out into the unknown only to die at the side of the road all alone, of hunger or thirst or exposure, or by the hands of someone else. It wasn’t uncommon to walk past dead bodies, but it wasn’t something Neil had ever gotten used to.

He wasn’t surprised at how quickly people had turned on each other. At the end of the day, people only looked out for themselves, and it took the fucking apocalypse for everyone to show their true colours.

That wasn’t to say there were no good people left. Neil had encountered a fair few of them. He counted on them, they were the ones most easily manipulated. He didn’t feel good about it, but he wanted to live and would take any advantage he could.

Coach seemed to be a good person. As for himself? Neil wasn’t really sure what kind of person he was. Not good, probably, but not entirely bad either. He didn’t like to think about it.

After his tentative acceptance of Coach’s invitation, he was led into another room where several people were assembled. There was a fair bit of furniture in there. A broken couch which currently sat Andrew, Kevin and Nicky; a few chairs occupied by Aaron and others Neil hadn’t met yet, which must have been brought in from other university buildings, and an office chair which Neil assumed had come from Coach’s office. Sitting on it was Matt, and a young woman with short dark hair perched on the armrest, running a hand through his hair absently. She grinned at Neil when he trailed in after Coach.

“Okay, you’ve met Andrew’s lot and Matt. That’s Dan.” Coach pointed at the girl sitting with Matt and then pointed at the others in succession, rattling off names. “Renee, Allison, Seth, Katelyn, Abby. Abby’s a nurse, so if you have any cuts or anything that you need looking at, let her know. Infection’s a killer.” Abby smiled warmly; Neil tried to return it but it felt like more of a grimace. He hated meeting new people.

Coach clapped his hands together to gain everyone’s attention. “So, everyone, this is Neil. He’s going to be with us for at least a little while. Questions? Concerns?”

Seth leaned forward menacingly. “I’m fucking concerned—”

“Excellent,” Coach interrupted, smoothly ignoring any complaints Seth had. “Someone nice volunteer to show Neil around, please?”

Andrew’s hand shot into the air. “Oh, me! Pick me, Coach!” he said, but he was clearly being sarcastic and Coach ignored him, too.

“Matt and I can do it, Coach,” said Dan.

“Great,” Coach said. “Dinner’s in a couple hours, I’ll see you back here then.” He turned and headed back towards his office, and Abby got up and followed him, shooting Neil another smile as she passed.

A few of the others started to scatter after that, Seth shoulder-checking Neil as he stalked out. “Seth,” snapped Dan in warning, but he didn’t look back. Allison, Katelyn and Renee trailed after him, Allison eyeing Neil with great interest as she did so.

“See ya later, Neil,” she said with a smirk, and Renee nudged her in the back until she got moving again, smiling serenely as she went.

“Alright then, Neil,” Dan said, looping her arm through his. “Time for the tour.”

She started to drag him the opposite way, taking them past where Andrew and the others still sat. Andrew offered Neil another mocking salute when he caught Neil’s eye, and Neil scowled and faced back forward.

He put Andrew out of his mind and let Dan and Matt lead him away.


 

They showed him the Exy court first, which looked in remarkably good condition, despite obviously not having been maintained. Seeing it made Neil feel light in a way he hadn’t for a while.

“Do you ever play?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” Dan said. “We like to keep it fun, but if Kevin plays he shouts at us for not taking it seriously enough.” She rolled her eyes.

“Kevin was like, a junior champion. He probably would have made Court one day if it wasn’t for, y’know. . . the world going to shit,” Matt added.

“He can play with that hand?” Neil asked.

“Not for long. It hurts him if he puts too much strain on it.”

“How did he break it?”

Matt glanced away, uncomfortable. “That’s not really our story to tell, man.”

Neil accepted that with no further questions; it was none of his business anyway, and he looked back across the court.

He must have had a somewhat wistful expression because Dan nudged him lightly in the side and smiled softly when he glanced at her. “We can play tomorrow, if you like.”

Neil looked away. “Maybe,” he said, and changed the subject. “So, where do you all sleep?”

“People sort of spread out wherever, as long as it’s within the stadium. Coach made space in the changing rooms and there’s a bunch of mattresses in there, but there’s a couple of mattresses up in the stands too, if you’d prefer. Wherever you’re comfortable,” Matt said.

They continued their tour. The home changing room had mattresses dotted about the place, clearly where most people chose to sleep, whereas the away changing room had been converted into a storage room. Tinned goods lined the walls, bottles of water and more. They were pretty well stocked, and Neil had to assume a lot of it had come from the university’s cafeteria.

“Everyone takes turns going on runs to find more stuff,” Dan said. “We’ll add you to the roster.”

The home bathroom had several buckets full of water in it, which Neil was told got re-filled every day and were for washing only.

“Where do you cook?” Neil asked.

“There’s a fire-pit in the parking lot, we do it out there. The buildings provide pretty good shelter so there’s not too much risk of the fires being spotted,” Matt said.

“It’s not impossible, though,” Neil pointed out.

“No,” Dan allowed. “Not impossible.” From this, Neil guessed that it had happened before, bringing unwanted guests closer than they would have liked. He made a mental note about it and moved on.

There wasn’t much else to show him within the actual stadium, so Matt and Dan took him just outside and pointed out some of the other buildings of note. Matt pointed up a little hill where Neil could just about see a slightly taller building in the distance.

“That’s Fox Tower. It used to be the dorms for the student athletes. It has roof access though and we go up there to get the lay of the land, you can see pretty far from up there. It’s good for spotting other people’s fires at night and stuff,” he said.

“Is that how you found me?” Neil asked.

“Nah. Renee spotted you having a nap by the bridge.”

Again, Neil prickled uncomfortably. If Renee had meant him any harm, he could be dead by now.

“Relax, kid,” Dan said, sensing his discomfort. “Jumping sleeping travellers isn’t really our style.”

“No. But spooking them into running then chasing them into a trap and dragging them back here obviously is.”

“Hey, hey, hey, that’s Andrew’s style. Don’t lump us all in with the monsters,” Matt said, actually sounding a little offended.

“I don’t know you well enough to form an opinion yet,” Neil said, unapologetic.

“. . . Fair enough,” Matt replied with a resigned sigh. Then he bounced back with a grin. “I’ll win you over,” he said.

They retreated back inside after that, back to the lounge area. Andrew and the others had disappeared, but Neil could hear the slamming sound of an Exy ball bouncing off the court walls. He wanted to go and watch, but refrained. He detoured to Coach’s office to retrieve his duffel, and immediately felt better to have the familiar weight of it back with him.

He sat with the others but didn’t join in their conversation, instead digging the tennis ball out of his bag and tossing it up and down. He could feel Seth staring at him but he refused to be intimidated.

By the time dinner time had rolled around, Andrew’s lot had returned from the court, and Coach and Abby carried in a pot of what smelled like stew. There was no meat in it, it must have been made up from some of the tinned vegetables in the re-purposed store room. The portions weren’t large, but it was still considerably more than Neil had become accustomed to eating in one go for quite some time. Once Abby had handed him his bowl, Neil started to head back over to Matt, but Andrew kicked out an empty chair next to where him and the others were sitting and gestured to it, grinning up at Neil. It felt like a challenge. Neil hesitated, then carried on walking to Matt.

“Oh, how rude,” he heard Andrew say. He sat down next to Matt and started eating, and once everyone was settled and had started their own muted conversations, Andrew piped up again: “So, Neil. Where were you?”

Neil frowned. “Where was I when?”

“Don’t be dim, Neil. When the world ended, of course.”

Neil shrugged noncommittally, then hunched further in on himself, taking another mouthful of food.

Andrew wasn’t impressed with his reluctance. “I see. Too good to eat with us, too good to talk to us?”

“Leave him alone, Andrew. He doesn’t have to tell you if he doesn’t want to,” Dan said.

Andrew lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “It’s a simple enough question. Everyone remembers where they were when it happened. Me and Aaron were at his house with his sorry excuse for a mother, for example.” He gestured to Neil. “Now you go.”

Neil didn’t miss the look of pure vitriol that Aaron sent his brother, and he didn’t understand what Andrew’s comment had meant. They were twins; surely they had the same parents. Neil was clearly missing a vital piece of information. But Andrew was still waiting for an answer.

“I was at home,” Neil lied. He didn’t want to explain being on the run; he didn’t want to mention his father. That was his mother’s number one rule; don’t mention Nathan to anyone, and Neil was still following it now. It was deeply ingrained, a habit he didn’t know how to break. Lying was second nature to Neil.

Andrew stared at Neil for a long moment, then a slow smile spread over his face. “See? That wasn’t so difficult.” He returned to his own food and didn’t bother Neil for the rest of the evening.


 

Despite being under a roof for the first time in ages — not to mention being on a mattress and not the ground — sleep evaded Neil. Maybe it was because so many people were around, maybe it was because he was in a strange place, or maybe it was just because he couldn’t understand how so much could change in a day. He’d woken up alone under a bridge, and now he was in a stadium locker room surrounded by several people who were little more than strangers. Life was strange.

Staying was a bad idea. And yet the practical side of Neil knew it made sense to accept hospitality for as long as it was offered.

He quietly got to his feet and padded out of the locker room, making his way to the court. He had planned on sitting down in the middle of the court and taking stock of his new situation, but a tiny light caught his eye up in the stands, and Neil spotted Andrew near the corner, smoking a cigarette. Neil couldn’t quite make out his features, but he was facing Neil and had evidently spotted him.

Common sense told Neil to return to the locker room, but he didn’t. He headed up the stands and stopped a few feet away from where Andrew was sitting. It had been ages since he’d had a cigarette. Andrew watched him, expression inscrutable.

“You got another one of those?” Neil asked.

“Coach only lets me have one a day, unfortunately.”

Neil sighed and sat down, leaving a comfortable space between him and Andrew.

“I wouldn’t have taken you for a smoker,” Andrew said after a moment.

“I’m not really. I just like the smell.”

Andrew turned his head and blew smoke in Neil’s face. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Neil frowned and waved him away, but when Andrew had faced back forward, Neil inhaled slowly and thought of his mother. He’d sat with her body for a whole day after she’d died, unable to convince himself to move, unwilling to face the world alone. But then he remembered her dying words and snapped himself out of it. He had no tools to dig a hole big enough to bury her in, so he’d burnt her body. It was dangerous; a fire that big would definitely be noticed and attract attention, but Neil couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her to rot at the side of the road. He’d retrieved her bones when they were cool enough and packed them in her duffel, burying it when he’d come across ground soft enough to dig with his hands. Then he’d left her behind and never looked back.

All fires reminded Neil of that night, but there was something intense about cigarette smoke that brought on a visceral memory. It was probably a good thing they were so hard to come by.

“I can’t work out why you lied to me, Neil,” Andrew said, out of the blue.

Neil snapped his head up. “What?”

“You said you were at home when the outbreak hit. You lied. And I can’t work out why.”

“I didn’t lie.”

“Oh, Neil, now you’re just embarrassing yourself. Don’t insult my intelligence,” Andrew said, shaking ash at Neil.

Neil threw his head back, exasperated. “Why do you even care if I don’t want to tell you where I was?”

“Because I don’t understand what could possibly be so important that you’d think it a secret worth keeping. Look around you, Neil. It’s the fucking apocalypse. It doesn’t get much worse than this.”

“There’s always worse,” Neil said without thinking.

Andrew paused, then quirked an eyebrow. “How intriguing. You’re interesting, Neil.”

“I’m not,” he hurried to say. The less curious Andrew was about him, the better.

“Relax, you don’t have to tell me where you were. At least not right now.” Andrew finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in an empty can that sat next to him on the step, then he twisted to face Neil side-on. “Let’s play a game, Neil. A truth for a truth.”

“What if I don’t want to play?”

“Do you really want to make me even more suspicious of you than I already am?” Andrew asked. “It’s easy, Neil. You can even go first. Ask me anything you want.”

It was a bad idea. And yet Neil found he had a question already queued up.

“What did you mean when you said you were with Aaron and his mother at their house? Was she not your mother too?”

Andrew’s mouth curled in a cruel smile. “Straight for the jugular,” he said. “But fair’s fair. When Aaron and I were born, mommy dearest only kept one of us, and left the other to rot in the foster system. Any guesses who she chose?” His tone was flippant, but Neil sensed the bitter edge. “She was not my mother,” Andrew added after a moment.

“Then. . . then how come you were with them when the epidemic broke out?” Neil asked, trying to cover up his shock. He couldn't imagine what it would feel like to discover you were abandoned like that.

“It’s not your turn anymore,” Andrew said flatly.

Neil waited, but no question was forth-coming, and then Andrew got to his feet and headed further back to where a mattress was set up on one of the steps. “Don't you have a question for me?” he asked.

Andrew shot Neil a look over his shoulder. “I haven’t decided what I want to ask yet.” He smirked and said, “Nighty-night, Neil,” then went to settle himself on his mattress.

Neil recognised his dismissal and headed back to the locker room, wondering what the hell he had just gotten himself into.

Chapter Text

Andrew was the only one who chose to sleep in the stands. He didn’t like sharing a room with so many other people, and due to the echo that footsteps gave off in the court area, Andrew would be woken up if anyone tried to approach. Not that he expected any of his current companions to sneak up on him in the night, but Andrew had spent far too many years dreading the night for fear of someone creeping into his room. It was a hard habit to break.

He never slept particularly well, and last night had been no different. He was chased into waking by the fading nightmares of very real memories. Andrew had endured a lot personally that made for effective nightmare fuel, but the ones that plagued him the most often were always this: Aaron sick — Aaron dying — with Andrew unable to do little more than watch, keep him warm and hydrated, and hope. Comfort hadn’t come naturally to a thirteen year old Andrew, never having been offered any himself, but he had tried. “Aaron, if you fight this and you live, then I won’t ever let anything else happen to you. I’ll protect you, I promise. You just have to live.”

It was a clumsy promise, born out of pure desperation, and Aaron had been delirious at the time and unable to comprehend what Andrew was saying anyway. But a promise was still a promise, and Andrew had been keeping his word ever since.

(Tilda, too, had been struck down by the epidemic, but Andrew had wasted no time attending to her. He didn’t even think to look in on her until Aaron’s fever finally broke, and by then she was already dead. It wasn’t a loss; she’d never be able to lay hands on Aaron again.)

Andrew sat up on his mattress and blinked tiredly. His eyes felt raw and irritated, and he rubbed at them with the heels of his hands. He reached for his armbands on the step next to him and slipped them on, watching the silvery scars that marked his inner forearms disappear underneath his familiar black accessories. The weight of the knives, too, was familiar, and Andrew reveled in the comfort they brought him.

He got to his feet and stretched, then made his way down the steps and out of the court area. He nearly bumped into Aaron coming the opposite way, who was carrying two mugs of coffee. He looked at Andrew for a moment as if waiting for him to say something, and when he didn’t Aaron sighed and handed over one of the mugs. Water for coffee only got boiled once in the morning so you had to be up and ready if you wanted to grab some before the water went cold. That Aaron had thought to make sure Andrew didn’t go without was probably some form of wordless apology for his shitty attitude the day before, so Andrew didn’t bother thanking him for the gesture. What exactly Aaron’s problem had been, Andrew wasn’t sure. It possibly had something to do with Katelyn, it definitely had something to do with Neil, and it always had something to do with Andrew.

He took a sip of his coffee, satisfied with the amount of sugar Aaron had remembered to put in. It was the little things.

“You look like shit,” Aaron said.

“I look like you,” Andrew replied, just to make Aaron scowl, which he did. Andrew resumed walking, Aaron falling into step just behind him, and found almost everyone else already assembled in the lounge. Seth and Allison were missing, but they’d been on late night watch duty and were probably still sleeping it off.

Neil was hovering near Matt again like he had at dinner the night before. He was warming his hands around his own mug of coffee, and he kept darting wary looks at Andrew. He looked as tired as Andrew felt, and Andrew wondered if he had been awake all night worrying about whatever question Andrew might ask him in this new little game of theirs. He was still weighing up his options, and was more than happy to leave Neil to work himself into a frenzy over it. He shot him a smile full of faux cheer, then turned his attention to Kevin.

Kevin was a great many things, but a morning person was not one of them, and his head drooped forward as he snoozed sitting up, arms folded across his chest. Andrew waved his coffee in front of Kevin’s nose in an attempt to rouse him. It worked; Kevin’s head jerked up and he focused blearily first on Andrew, then on the coffee. He reached for it, and Andrew yanked it back.

“Get your own.”

Kevin glared sulkily but heaved himself to his feet and stomped off to sort himself out. Andrew took the seat Kevin had just vacated, and a moment later Renee sat next to him.

“Good morning, Andrew,” she said.

“Is it?” he said cheerfully.

She smiled good- naturedly; Renee’s patience was never-ending, particularly with Andrew. She glanced subtly towards Neil who had been dragged into a conversation with Katelyn; he looked utterly bewildered by her enthusiasm, it was almost funny. “What do you think of our newest recruit?” Renee asked.

“I haven’t made my mind up yet,” Andrew said, then turned a curious look on Renee. “Why do you ask?”

She shrugged mildly. “Just wondering if you were going to take him under your wing or not.”

“We don’t even know if he’s going to stay yet,” Andrew pointed out.

“True,” Renee allowed. “But if he does. . . ?”

Andrew tilted his head to the side, considering. There was something off about Neil, something that wasn’t quite adding up right. He had liar written all over him. But at the same time, Andrew didn’t think he posed any threat to the group — he probably wasn’t going to murder them all as they slept, and despite what Andrew had said when he’d apprehended Neil, he really didn’t think that Neil belonged to a larger party of people. You could tell from how he moved, how he spoke, how fucking uncomfortable he seemed around everyone that he’d been alone for quite some time. Which meant that whatever he was lying about was incredibly personal or painful; a wound so deep that the apocalypse couldn’t even take precedence over it. Andrew knew all about those kinds of wounds.

“There’s always worse,” Neil had said last night, and goddamn if that hadn’t just piqued Andrew’s interest. How incredibly irritating.

To Renee, he said, “I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.”

She nodded. “What are you guys doing today, anyway?”

“We’re going shopping,” Andrew said.

“Do you want to take Neil with you?”

Andrew thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “No, let Matt take him on water duty or some shit.” He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to ask Neil yet, and having Neil in his eyeline all day might distract him. Besides, he wanted to leave Neil to stew over it.

Renee smiled and said, “Alright,” then got up and went back over to Dan. Andrew looked around to find Neil’s eyes on him again. He smirked, then pulled Neil’s switchblade out of his pocket and started playing with it absently, releasing then returning the blade, again and again and again. Neil watched him do it, but didn’t ask for it back and made no move to take it back, and Andrew soon got bored and put it back in his pocket. He’d return it at some point, but it might come in useful today.

“Listen up, everyone,” Coach said, perched on the edge of the now defunct entertainment centre. He downed the rest of his coffee and grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give for some proper coffee instead of this instant shit,” he grumbled, then turned his attention back to his crew. “Renee and Dan, you’re scouting today. Matt and Katelyn are on water duty, Andrew’s lot are going on a supply run. Abby’s on lookout from the top of Fox Tower, and I get to be on laundry duty, lucky me. Seth and Allison get the day off. Who’s taking Neil?”

“He’s coming with me and Matt,” Katelyn said, beaming, and Andrew didn’t miss the way that Aaron bristled. It was always like this when Aaron and Katelyn fought; Aaron became even more sullen than usual, and Katelyn overcompensated by upping the bubbly side of her personality. They’d be back to making moony eyes at each other by the time dinner rolled around, no doubt. They were nauseating.

“Alright, good. You all know the drill; stay safe, stay out of sight, if you see anyone then come straight back — do not engage.” Coach made the last remark with a pointed look at Andrew, who looked over his shoulder as if searching for someone else, then turned back and pointed to his chest.

“Who, me?”

“Uh huh. Wise-ass,” Coach said. “I want you all back here well before it gets dark, so if you could all try really hard not to get yourselves injured or killed, I’d really appreciate it. Now get going, daylight’s wastin’.”


 

Most of the supermarkets in the area had been pretty much cleared out, but you could sometimes still find hidden gems if you looked hard enough. Pharmacies were also always worth checking, and Andrew always went into every liquor store he came across in search of Coach’s favourite Johnnie Walker Blue. He could trade it for extra cigarettes; he and Coach had an arrangement.

Andrew liked to drink, too, but booze was a lot easier to find than cigarettes these days, and smoking had been one of Andrew’s vices since he was twelve.

They reached the nearest Walmart without incident, and after approaching the broken windows, Nicky threw some gravel inside. If anyone was in there, the noise should startle them into giving away their location. They waited a full minute, and when nothing happened, everyone looked to Andrew. He nodded, and they all slipped inside, stepping over the broken glass.

They split up into pairs to search the aisles, Aaron and Kevin going one way, Andrew and Nicky the other. They each had empty duffel bags to fill if they found anything of interest, but Andrew doubted they’d be lucky enough to fill more than one of the bags. Still, better to be prepared.

The whole place had been ransacked, naturally. A few clothing items still remained but they had become dusty after sitting on shelves and racks for years. Nevertheless, clothes could be washed, and Andrew hesitated over a black long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of black combat trousers. He inexplicably thought of Neil’s torn, ill-fitting clothes, and shoved the new items into his duffel before he could think too hard about the impulse.

He caught up to Nicky, lingering where the tinned food should be. It was slim pickings, but Nicky did manage to pull a couple of tins of soup from the very back of the shelf. Long past their sell-by date, of course, but that was par for the course; everything was past it’s sell-by date.

Nicky was humming as he searched, but he suddenly broke off to say, “I hope Neil sits with us later. Matt’s been hogging him.”

“Why do you care?”

Nicky shot Andrew an incredulous look. “Have you seen that face? Man, I hope he swings my way. I mean, he must do, right? He hasn’t so much as looked at any of the girls, and Allison’s tits are like, right there, all the time.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “He hasn’t looked at anyone else, either.”

Nicky waved a dismissive hand. “That doesn’t mean anything. I can convince him. He’s too pretty to be straight.”

In one swift movement, Andrew had his cousin up against the shelf with a bang, one hand pushing against his chest, the other with a knife pointed at Nicky’s ribs. “Hey, Nicky. Don’t touch him.” His tone was calm, which he knew only served to intensify his threat, if the knife alone wasn’t enough.

“I was just kidding around, Andrew, I wouldn’t. You know that,” Nicky said, voice strained. Andrew waited a moment, then stepped back, re-sheathing his knife. He set off down the next aisle and heard Nicky exhale shakily.

Neil was new, a distraction from a harsh world and someone different to look at than the same faces they saw everyday. Andrew knew that Nicky would lose interest as soon as Neil was no longer a novelty, but warning him off would hopefully speed up the process.

A few minutes later, Nicky showed up again clutching a bag of assorted lollipops. He held them out to Andrew like a peace offering. “Look what I found in the candy aisle,” he said with forced cheer. Nicky was nothing if not a trooper.

Andrew took them and ripped open the bag, unwrapping one of the lollipops and sticking it in his mouth immediately. He grinned at his cousin. “Excellent find, Nicky,” he said, and shoved the rest of the bag into his duffel.

Smoking and sweets were Andrew’s favourite addictions.

They met back up with Aaron and Kevin by the entrance. Aaron had procured a few packs of batteries; it was a toss-up as to whether or not they’d still work, but there were a few flashlights back at the stadium so batteries were always handy to have just in case. Kevin had a bottle of vodka, and some kitchen paper.

“It’s for medical purposes!” he insisted when he saw Andrew raise his eyebrow at the vodka.

“Sure it is,” Andrew said. As for him and Nicky, they had also managed to find some hot chocolate powder, soap and shampoo, and a couple of lighters. No cigarettes, unfortunately, but they could always look a bit further afield next time. Andrew suspected Coach had a larger stash than he was letting on, anyway.

“What now?” Aaron asked.

“We’ll check the pharmacy, see if there’s any painkillers or penicillin or whatever. Then we’ll go home.”

Kevin glanced down at their meagre collection. “We didn’t get much,” he said.

“No,” Andrew agreed, “but we didn’t get nothing either.”


 

They were beaten back to the stadium by everybody except for Renee and Dan, who would return once they were sure no strangers were likely to show up and surprise them anytime soon. Andrew immediately noticed that Neil wasn’t in the lounge with the others, but someone was clearly on the court; a ball sounded off the walls.

“Is Neil playing?” Kevin asked, eyes gleaming.

“Yeah, but I think he wants to be alone for a little while,” Matt said. “I think he’s a little overwhelmed.”

But Kevin hadn’t paid attention past, “Yeah,” and headed straight for the court after dropping his duffel on the floor.

“Or, you could just fucking ignore me,” Matt muttered.

Aaron and Nicky claimed the sofa, and Andrew collected all of their duffel bags and carried them through to Coach’s office.

Coach was sitting on the desk, patching up a hole in a pair of jeans that had clearly seen better days. He looked up when Andrew walked in and put both the jeans and his sewing kit to one side.

“Shouldn’t you let Abby do that?” Andrew asked.

“Don’t be sexist.”

Andrew sighed impatiently. “She’s a nurse. She’s better at stitches than you.”

“True,” Coach said. “She sews up enough skin as it is though, she shouldn’t have to patch up clothes as well.”

“Fair enough.”

“So. What did you find?”

Andrew unzipped the duffel bags one by one and pulled out their haul, with the exception of the clothes he had picked up and the lollipops Nicky had found for him. If anyone wanted one of those, they’d have to trade something.

Coach appraised it all silently and then sighed. “Could be worse,” he said.

“It’s getting to be pretty scarce,” Andrew said.

“I know.” Coach ran a tired hand down his face. “We’re going to have to start searching a little further away, aren’t we?”

Andrew shrugged. “I mean, only if we want to live.”

Coach rolled his eyes. “Don’t be dramatic, we’re well stocked. I bet there’s even more food in the cafeteria that we haven’t found yet.”

This was true, but Andrew knew they couldn’t rely on those supplies indefinitely because sooner or later, they would run out, and Andrew would rather be prepared for when they did.

“Did you see anyone while you were out there?” Coach asked.

“No one. It’s a ghost town.”

“Well that’s something, at least.”

Andrew hummed in agreement, then held his hand out expectantly. “My cigarette, Coach?”

Coach opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a packet, opening it and holding it out to Andrew. Andrew reached in and swiped two cigarettes instead of one before abruptly turning away and heading out the door.

“I saw that, Andrew!” Coach called after him.

“Saw what?” Andrew called back. “Later, Coach!”


 

Andrew knew, somehow, that Neil would seek him out again that night. Sure enough, as Andrew lay flat on his back in the stands staring up at the ceiling, he heard the tell-tale sound of footsteps and sat up.

“It’s a little past your bedtime, don’t you think, Neil?” he said tauntingly when Neil was close enough to hear him.

Neil didn’t immediately respond, but sat on the step below Andrew’s, resting his arm on the one above as he stared up at Andrew. “Can you just ask me your stupid question and get it over with? Please?” he asked.

“I don’t like that word,” Andrew said. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard. It set his teeth on edge.

“Which one?”

“The last one,” he said. “I’m not going to repeat it.”

Neil frowned. “Okay,” he said. “But seriously. Just ask me a fucking question. This was your stupid idea in the first place.”

Andrew pulled his lighter and the cigarettes out of his pocket and lit them both. He popped one between his lips and held the other out towards Neil.

Neil eyed it suspiciously for a few seconds, as if trying to decide whether this was some sort of trick, before hesitantly accepting it. He cupped it between his hands, and Andrew couldn’t believe he’d just willingly relinquished a cigarette to someone who wasn’t even going to smoke it properly.

“Yesterday you were reluctant to play, and today you can’t wait for me to take my turn. Curious, Neil. Very curious,” he said.

“Stop trying to psychoanalyse me,” Neil said with a scowl.

“Oh, but Neil, there’s not much else for me to do.”

“That isn’t my problem.”

Andrew shrugged. “Seems like it is, though. It doesn’t bother me.”

“Andrew,” Neil said through gritted teeth, and Andrew was starting to realise just how keyed up Neil was over this. He’d purposely left it so long before taking his turn just to leave Neil to sweat over it, but he had no idea quite how effective it would be.

Andrew took a long drag of his cigarette, held it, then exhaled slowly. “How long had you been on your own before we found you?” Andrew asked at last.

Neil blinked, dumbly. “That’s your question?” It obviously wasn’t what he’d expected Andrew to ask.

“Mhm.”

Neil furrowed his brow, thinking. “Uhh, I haven’t exactly been keeping track. Like, a year, I think? Fuck, I don’t even know what month we’re in.”

“June,” Andrew said. “Abby keeps track,” he added when Neil shot him a quizzical look.

“Okay. Probably a little more than a year then.” He took a puff of his cigarette to keep it burning. “That’s seriously your question?”

Andrew nodded. “It’s what I asked, isn’t it?” He got up and stepped down, taking a seat next to Neil. “Now it’s your turn again.”

“But I don’t have to take it now, right?”

Andrew smiled thinly. “Now you’re getting it.”

But curiosity was obviously getting the better of Neil, and Andrew could see that he clearly had a question but wasn’t sure if it was worth holding on to for another day. What Neil eventually came up with was not what Andrew had expected.

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“Blue,” Andrew said, amused. “What’s yours?”

“Orange.” He grinned at Andrew. “And now it’s my turn again.”

“So it is. Ask away, Neil.”

Neil’s humour from a moment earlier faded into contemplation, and he held the cigarette closer to his face, inhaling slowly. His voice was very quiet when he spoke. “What happened to your— to Aaron’s mother?”

“She died. Lucky for her, she was one of the many that got struck down in the outbreak.”

“Why is that lucky for her?”

Andrew turned his head so he could see Neil’s expression properly. “Because if she hadn’t, I would have killed her anyway.”

He didn’t know what he expected to see in Neil’s reaction — shock, fear, disgust maybe — but Neil gave nothing away, just stared back impassively. After a moment, Neil just said, “It’s your turn.”

“I know,” Andrew said. He finished his cigarette and then got up and went to grab the duffel bag he’d left by his mattress. He dug out the t-shirt and combat trousers he’d found in Walmart earlier, then crossed back down to Neil. “Here,” he said, placing them in Neil’s lap. “These should fit you.”

Neil looked confused. “You got these. . . for me?”

“Your clothes are dirty and falling to pieces,” Andrew pointed out, suddenly irritated. “I figured you could use something else while you got your stuff cleaned and patched up. But if you don’t want them—” Andrew reached to take them back but Neil clutched them tighter.

“No, that’s okay, I’ll have them,” he said hurriedly. “. . . Thank you?” he added, but he sounded confused. It was actually a little bit endearing, but Andrew quickly squashed down that train of thought and the place it had the potential to take him.

Neil placed his new clothes on the seat next to him, and they fell into silence. Andrew pilfered the cigarette out of Neil’s unresistant fingers and took a drag.

“So,” he said. “Is Neil your real name?”

Neil snapped his head up, staring at Andrew with wide eyes. It was Andrew’s turn; Neil had to tell the truth.

“No,” he said, barely a whisper.

Andrew smiled, slow and cold.

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

Chapter Text

Neil lay awake for a long, long time after returning to the locker room, nestled in the corner away from everybody else. His heartbeat sounded so loud to his own ears that he couldn’t believe it hadn’t woken any of his sleeping companions.

He should have lied to Andrew. Why hadn’t he lied? Why had he allowed himself to be dictated to by Andrew’s silly little game? Stupid, stupid, stupid. He could have just refused to answer, but that seemed to be just as much of an admission as telling the truth. He could have just turned tail and ran, but that seemed like a good way to get a knife in the back.

He could go now. He could still go. He’d have to try and pack his duffel bag without waking anyone up, though, which seemed difficult. Then he’d have to try and sneak out without being spotted by Renee and Kevin who were on watch, and that seemed impossible. It was too risky. Neil would have to reassess in the morning.

Eventually, the exhaustion of the past two days caught up with him and Neil drifted into a restless sleep, dominated with visions of his father and his gleaming cleaver, and of his mother screaming at him to run.

The next thing he was aware of was someone lightly pushing at his shoulder, and he came to, groggy and disorientated. “. . . Mom?” he mumbled, still half asleep.

Someone gave a low chuckle and Neil startled, suddenly wide awake. “Not quite.” It was Nicky’s voice, and Neil rolled over to face him, eyes wary, looking for any sign that Andrew had said anything. But Nicky just smiled. “If you want coffee, you should get up now otherwise the water’s gonna get cold,” he said, then left Neil to it.

Neil looked around the room. Other than Kevin and Renee, who had returned from their watch and were catching up on sleep, Neil was alone. He reached for his duffel to pull out a change of clothes, and noticed the black t-shirt and combats Andrew had given him the night before. Andrew was right; all of Neil’s stuff was ripped, torn and filthy. He brushed the dust off his new items, and with a quick peek behind him to make sure Renee and Kevin were definitely asleep, he hurriedly got changed. He didn’t want anyone seeing the scars that littered his front and shoulders; they invited too many questions.

Once dressed, he made his way back out to the lounge area, where Nicky already had a coffee waiting for him and Neil wordlessly accepted it. Neil’s eyes were already scanning the room looking for Andrew, and when he spotted him, Andrew did little more than offer him a cursory glance. Neil didn’t know what that meant.

Andrew had paused the game after getting Neil to reveal he’d lied about his name, simply saying, “I think that’ll do for today.” He hadn’t asked anymore questions, although that could just have been because it was now Neil’s turn again; if there was anything Neil was learning about Andrew it was that he was a stickler for the rules. At least for the rules he set himself, anyway. Neil didn’t know what was supposed to happen now. Would Andrew tell Coach that Neil was a liar who couldn’t be trusted, or would he keep Neil’s secret? The smart thing to do would be to ask, but Neil didn’t want to just yet. He was still too spooked to approach Andrew again, let alone talk to him.

Coach gave out the day’s tasks, which was how Neil found out he’d be on scouting duty with Matt. His relief was palpable; he didn’t think his nerves would have held up if he had been paired up with Andrew all day, and he liked Matt, even if it went against his better nature to form any sort of attachments to anyone.

They didn’t take much with them, needing to be light on their feet, so just their weapons and a small bottle of water each. Neil took two of his knives, choosing to leave the gun behind. On their way back through the lounge to head towards the exit, Dan came over to give Matt a goodbye kiss.

“Be careful out there,” she said, and Matt smiled down at her. Neil had to look away; it felt like he was intruding on a private moment, even though they didn’t seem to mind that he was there. How strange, Neil thought, that despite everything that the world now was, everyone who had died, Dan and Matt had found something within each other that made life worth living, worth fighting for.

As he had turned away from Matt and Dan, he saw Andrew stand up and start to come over. Neil stiffened, resisting the urge to bolt. But Andrew just stopped in front of him and pulled Neil’s switchblade out of his pocket. He twirled it once, contemplatively, then held it out towards Neil.

“Here, Neil. You might need this today.” Neil narrowed his eyes in suspicion but took back his switchblade. Andrew smirked. “Nice clothes, by the way. Black suits you,” he said, then turned back around and wandered off.

Neil didn’t understand. It felt like they were playing a different game now.

“You ready to go?” Matt asked.

“Yeah,” Neil said, returning his attention to the task at hand. “Yeah. Let’s go.”


 

Scout duty provided ample distraction for Neil, not to mention it was a job he was comfortable with, having done it often enough on his own. It was strange to have someone else there with him, but Neil actually found himself quite glad of the company.

After returning from scouting, the rest of the evening passed without Andrew saying a word to Neil, or even looking in his direction. Everyone else treated Neil no differently than they had the day before, so Neil had to assume that Andrew had kept Neil’s revelation to himself. He didn’t know why, but the urge to run had abated. It was comfortable here, at least for now, and it made a nice change to be able to eat every single day. Neil didn’t want to give that up just yet.

He reasoned that he would stay for as long as Andrew kept his mouth shut; he didn’t yet know his new companions all that well, but he at least felt sure that should they find out he’d lied to them, they would let him leave on his own and not kill him — which, for Neil, was a surprising amount of trust to offer someone.

Of course, in the mean time, the plan was very much to avoid Andrew. It was Neil’s turn in the truth game, so he didn’t think Andrew would ask him anymore questions until Neil had taken it, but his unasked question seemed like the only leverage Neil currently had against Andrew and he didn’t want to lose it by being too hasty.

He didn’t want to have to leave yet. He was tired.

So Neil took it day by day, sleeping a little easier each night, gradually catching up on what felt like years of missed sleep. He started to learn the social circles that existed within those that lived at the stadium. Andrew, Kevin, Aaron and Nicky made up one such group, Coach and Abby another, and then everyone else. The lines blurred sometimes though; Nicky would gravitate over to Matt and the others, presumably when he wanted a cheerier conversation than his cousins and Kevin could offer, but only ever if Seth wasn’t around as he and Nicky hated each other. Katelyn would occasionally go and sit with Aaron and the others but only if Andrew wasn’t there. Neil didn’t know what that was about, but he hadn’t seen Andrew and Katelyn say so much as a word to each other since he had arrived.

There were a few couples in the group, (Aaron and Katelyn, Dan and Matt, and Seth and Allison respectively) so sometimes they’d split off into pairs to try and get some time alone away from everybody else. Seth and Allison had a volatile relationship that Neil didn’t think he’d ever understand, all over each other one minute and screaming at each other the next. Seth’s mood swings seemed to be the main problem here, and whenever he and Allison were on the outs, Seth would retreat to Matt. As Neil was with Matt most of the time, it meant he’d spent more time than Seth than he would have liked, but the animosity Seth had shown him when he first arrived had diminished somewhat. Neil figured Seth had decided Neil wasn’t a threat and so didn’t much care about his presence at all anymore.

Most people seemed eager to talk to Neil, not seeming to mind that much that he never said a lot back. Through various conversations scattered over the next few days, Neil learned more about how people came to be here. Coach had been the coach of the Exy team at Palmetto State University, and Abby had been team nurse. As the outbreak had hit around Christmas time, the university had been on winter break and so campus had been pretty much deserted, all the students gone home. Coach caught the sickness, and Abby looked after him in his high-rise apartment not too far from campus. They stayed there for a while, trying to wait it out, hoping everything would get back to normal, but Coach took a long time to recover. By the time mid-spring hit, they were almost out of supplies so Coach and Abby headed over to campus to see if anyone was there and although it had clearly been looted, it was empty; everyone was gone. The barbed wire around the stadium had been cut through so people could get in, but was fixable. The inner electric door had been completely broken, which had been a blessing because the electricity had gone out a couple of months earlier. The padlocked gates were still intact, however, and Coach had the keys. They fixed the holes in the barbed wire, secured the inner door as best they could and cleaned up the stadium. It became their new home.

A couple of years later, Seth was the first person they brought back; he’d been robbed and beaten half to death and left at the side of the road, and Coach had dragged him back to the court where Abby nursed him back to health. Once better, he left again, saying he was better off alone. He met Allison on the road, told her about the Foxhole Court and she said, “So you had food, shelter, medical expertise, and company, and you gave it all up to roam the wilderness alone? You’re a fucking idiot.” Seth had been unable to dispute an argument stated so succinctly, so he went back and took Allison with him.

After that, people started to trickle in. Coach found Dan by the stream trying to clean out a cut she’d picked up in a fight with someone who had unwisely tried to steal from her. He had talked her into returning with him, if only to get her cut patched up properly to prevent infection. Once she’d seen the set-up they had at the stadium, she decided to stay as well, never one to turn down an opportunity.

Matt and Renee met each other out on the road, both alone, and they were the next to arrive. Renee scared the shit out of Allison and Dan by sneaking up on them while they were scouting, and asking if they could help her. She took them back to a hidden area in the woods where she’d left Matt who’d rolled over on his ankle and severely sprained it. Between the three of them, they’d got Matt back to the stadium, and the rest was history.

“And Andrew and the others?” Neil asked Matt.

“They all arrived a couple years ago,” Matt said, but he didn’t offer any of the details. This was clearly a story Neil wasn’t yet privy to, but it was also the one he was the most interested in. He supposed he’d have to get it out of Andrew himself; maybe that could be his question.

“What about Katelyn?”

“Oh, she’s the newest. Or she was, until you got here. It’s been a little less than a year I think. She had been on the road with her sister, but she got a cut, it got infected and she died. Sepsis, you know?” Matt said, shrugging uncomfortably. “It happens a lot these days.”

Neil knew it happened; it was how his mother had died.

“Anyway, Katelyn was just sort of wandering along all alone, in a daze basically, then me and Dan found her sitting on the side of the road. She’d just. . . stopped. Like she didn’t see the point anymore. It took us ages but eventually we convinced her to come with us. She wouldn’t really talk to anyone though, she’d just sit and stare into space. She looked so sad all the time, it was hard to watch. Then one day after scouting, Aaron came back with this pretty flower, and he took her hand and put the flower in it, then she just burst into tears. But the next day, she started talking properly, and she’s been great since then.”

Neil looked over at where Katelyn sat now, braiding Allison’s hair and chattering incessantly, eyes bright and alive. He couldn’t imagine the despondent girl Matt had described, nor could he imagine a scenario where sullen, angry Aaron would do something even remotely compassionate. But he supposed there had to be something Katelyn saw in him.

“And then you found me,” Neil said, and Matt grinned.

“Yeah, we did. Welcome to the family, man!” He clapped Neil’s shoulder then hurried off to help Dan with dinner.

‘Family’ wasn’t a word or a feeling Neil was overly familiar with, but hearing Matt say it filled him with a strange warmth. It was a little uncomfortable, a little guilt inducing, but not entirely horrible.


 

Avoiding Andrew in the day was easy enough because there were so many other people around, but Neil found it much more difficult at night, when it was harder to bite back the urge to head to the stands and sit with Andrew while he smoked like he had the first two nights. He wanted to continue the game; he wanted to know if Andrew was ever going to tell anyone; he wanted to know if Andrew was going to let him stay. Still, he resisted.

The first time Neil ended up having to do a late night watch, he was partnered with Nicky. After eating dinner, they headed up to Fox Tower, getting in through the broken door and climbing the stairs until they reached the door for roof access. They had their weapons, they had binoculars, and they had blankets for warmth when it got colder. Other than that, there wasn’t much to do but watch, an incredibly tedious task.

Nicky, as it happened, was a talker.

“I feel like I barely get to speak to you, Neil, you’re with Matt all the time,” he complained. “I mean, not that I blame you, Matt’s beautiful, but, alas, he’s taken.” Nicky turned a sly look on Neil, as if testing his reaction. Neil said nothing and Nicky sighed. “I don’t hate myself enough to look at Seth, Kevin’s hot but he’s an insufferable asshole the majority of the time, so as for eye candy, Matt’s my best option. Although you’re not so bad yourself, Neil.”

Neil finally looked at Nicky. “You’re better off sticking with Matt,” he said bluntly.

“Come onnn, you’re telling me you don’t swing my way? Seriously, Neil, you can be honest with me, I haven’t even seen you look twice at any of the girls. I won’t tell anyone if you want to keep it a secret, but like, nobody cares. Except Seth. But fuck Seth.”

Neil shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not that it’s a secret, I just don’t. . . swing.”

Nicky paused. “Like, at all?”

“No. Not really, I don’t think.”

“Aw, man, what a waste,” Nicky said mournfully, but surprisingly enough, he let it go after that. Instead, he got on to telling Neil everything he missed from before the world fell. Basic luxuries like his DVD collection, always having access to proper toothpaste instead of having to use baking soda, driving, his mom’s apple pie. After mentioning the last one, Nicky went quiet for a minute and then said, “Can you believe that it’s been six and a half years since. . . everything?”

It felt longer to Neil. “I guess,” he said.

Nicky shook his head, looking out in the distance. He looked uncharacteristically serious.

“I was at a gay conversion camp when the epidemic started to spread,” he said quietly. He suddenly wouldn’t look at Neil. “I came out to my parents when I was sixteen. My father was a pastor and so obviously both he and my mom were super religious. But they’re my parents, y’know? I figured they’d love me anyway, even if they didn’t understand. But my mom was distraught, and my dad was furious and they tried to make me. . . how did they put it?” He crooked his fingers in air quotes. “‘See the light’.” Nicky shook his head, a small smile appearing on his face, but the kind where you could tell he found nothing remotely funny about the subject matter.

“Eventually they decided that there wasn’t anything more they could do at home to ‘fix me’ so they took me out of school for a little while when I was in my senior year to send me to this camp where kids like me had to go and basically learn to just fucking hate ourselves I guess.” He turned a hollow look on Neil. “It was fucking awful, Neil. I wanted to die.”

Neil didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if he was supposed to comfort, or if it was just better to wait until Nicky was finished. Before he’d decided which way to go, Nicky cleared his throat and continued.

“Anyway, that’s where I was when it started happening, people getting sick. We didn’t really understand ‘cause they wouldn’t let us watch TV. A few people’s parents came to get them, but the rest of us just got left. Of those of us left, I was the only one who didn’t get sick. The phones were out of service so I couldn’t call my mom, or anyone. I tried to take care of the other kids but they just started dying, one by one. I hid inside for a long time because the streets were a wreck, but after a couple of weeks it died down a little and I finally left. No one had bothered coming near the camp for some reason, and there was still a car parked out back belonging to one of the counsellors, who'd been one of the first to get sick. So I took the car keys from his pocket, and I drove home.”

He swallowed audibly before he carried on. “When I got there, our car wasn’t in the driveway. The house had clearly been looted, but there was no one there. I checked everywhere, all of the rooms, thinking I was going to walk in on the dead bodies of my parents. But there was nothing, they were just. . . gone. They had left me. They hadn’t come to get me. They hadn’t got sick and died at home. They had just abandoned me.” He rubbed his thumb across his lower lip absently. “I don’t even know if they’re still alive.”

Neil was starting to feel helpless rage bubble up on Nicky’s behalf, at these faceless people who’d treated their only child so appallingly. Neil was no stranger to cruelty, but the cruelty Nicky had been subjected to was its own special brand of fucked up.

Nicky had gone so silent that Neil thought for a moment he’d forgotten Neil was there. “So what did you do after that?” he asked quietly.

“I mean, I cried for a little while.” He shrugged. “Then I took my stolen car and I drove over to my aunt Tilda’s house. I figured it was possible my parents were there, that they’d gone to ride it out with Tilda and the twins. So I pulled up outside, and I could already tell that someone had gotten in. The living room window was smashed, that’s how I got in, and the kitchen had been ransacked. I went upstairs and both Tilda’s and Aaron’s bedroom doors were shut. I knocked on Tilda’s first, and I called out, ‘It’s me, it’s Nicky.’ Andrew obviously heard because he opened Aaron’s door. Now, bear in mind that I had only met Andrew a handful of times at this point, he’d only been living with Tilda and Aaron since the summer, so I was little more than a stranger to him. And he had like, just turned 13, him and Aaron. But he opened Aaron’s door and I heard it so I turned around, he had a knife in his hand but lowered it when he saw it was me, then gestured to Tilda’s door. And he goes, ‘Don’t open that. She’s dead and she’s starting to smell.’”

Nicky visibly shuddered. “He said it so casually, you know? But he was just a kid. It was creepy. But anyway,” Nicky waved a dismissive hand, “he let me into Aaron’s room — he’d like, barricaded the two of them in there with a bunch of food and stuff, and that’s how they’d managed with the house getting broken into and the kitchen looted. Aaron had been sick too and he was starting to get better but he was still super weak. And it was winter, you know? It was cold. We just had to stay inside and ride it out and try not to die. I went out whenever I had to, to track down supplies. It was scary as shit, but Andrew wouldn’t leave Aaron so I had to go on my own, and I wanted to protect them. I was 17, and they were so young.”

“So were you,” Neil pointed out.

“Yeah, but they were younger. They’re my family,” he said. “If I didn’t take care of them, who would? Anyway, eventually Aaron got his strength back and we realised we couldn’t stay there any longer, we were too vulnerable. So we got in that car I stole and we just drove and drove, until we ran out of gas. And then I found another car and Andrew, criminal in training that he was, hot-wired it, and we drove that until we couldn’t anymore. It was just the three of us, driving until all of the cars we came across had just completely run out of juice and none would start anymore, then just on foot, trying to avoid all the bandits. It was years before we found Kevin, and. . .” he trailed off. “I mean, that’s a story I really don’t wanna get into. It involves a whole mess of crap; he can tell you himself. But yeah, we found Kevin, and he told us he knew somewhere we could go, if we could help him get there. And that’s how we ended up here.”

“Wait,” Neil said, suddenly confused. “How did Kevin know about this place?”

“Oh,” Nicky frowned. “Well he didn’t, not exactly. He just knew where Coach lived — as in the apartment building he lived in — and knew that Coach would help us if he could.”

“But how did he know about Coach at all?”

“Ohhh, but you don’t know,” Nicky said, sudden realisation crossing his face. He looked like he wanted to back out of the conversation. “Look, it’s super complicated, but like, Coach is Kevin’s father.”

That, Neil hadn’t been expecting, and it immediately opened up a whole new set of questions in his mind. Unfortunately, Nicky clearly didn’t feel comfortable answering them, and he shook his head, sensing Neil’s burning curiosity. “Look, I thought you knew, but you didn’t, and it’s really not my business, y’know? Ask Kevin. Or better yet, ask Coach, you’d probably get more out of him.”

Neil bit down on his exasperation; Nicky had already told Neil a lot tonight, it wasn’t fair to ask more of him. Not that he’d asked Nicky to share any of it in the first place, but that was neither here nor there.

A silence settled between them, as Neil took the binoculars and looked into the distance, searching for any signs of fires, of life.

“You know, Nicky,” he said at last. “For whatever it’s worth, I think you’re really brave.”

Nicky hesitated. “I—” he started, then broke off. “Thanks,” he settled on, a slight waver in his voice.

Neither of them said another word until the sun began to rise, and together they made their way back to the stadium.


 

Another few days passed by without a conversation between Andrew and Neil. They exchanged looks sometimes; a raised eyebrow here, a smirk there (both Andrew), but neither made a move to continue their game.

Neil felt like he was on tenterhooks, waiting for Andrew to strike. Then it occurred to him that whilst he was hanging back, waiting to see what Andrew would do, Andrew was doing the same thing. Basically, they were at an impasse. Once he’d figured that out, the only thing Neil could do was break it.

When everyone else was asleep, Neil crept out of the locker room and headed towards the court, detouring past the doors and instead going up into the stands. Andrew was waiting for him, with yet another spare cigarette. It was like he had known.

“Hello, stranger,” he said. “I was starting to think you’d forgotten about me.”

Neil shook his head, and got straight to the point, his cigarette comforting in his hands. “You’ve known that I lied about my name for well over a week now, and you haven’t told anyone. Why?”

“Is that your next question?”

Neil sighed. “If that’s the only way you’ll answer it, then fine.”

Andrew shrugged. “I didn’t see the need,” he said.

Neil clenched his fist, frustrated. “Can you elaborate?” he gritted out.

Andrew huffed an amused breath. “This is our game.” He pressed a finger to Neil’s chest. “You,” he pointed to himself, “and me. I don’t need to involve anyone else unless I think you’re a danger to them. You lying about your name isn’t enough of a reason for me to think you’re a danger. A lot of people changed their names when the world stopped. Renee, for example. There could be a great many reasons why you go by Neil now.” He shrugged impassively.

Neil shelved that snippet about Renee to ask about another time. Then he took a deep breath. “Do you want to know?”

Andrew blew out a plume of smoke and narrowed his eyes. “Do I want to know what?”

“Everything,” Neil said, almost choking on the word. His mother would kill him for this. “I’ll tell you everything.”

Chapter Text

“Everything?” Andrew repeated. He regarded Neil carefully; Neil’s hand shook slightly as he brought his cigarette to his lips, eyes wary on Andrew. “That’s very broad. That’s not really how the game works, Neil.”

“I’m not playing a game right now, Andrew,” Neil snapped. He seemed unbelievably frustrated.

“I’m a little confused as to why you suddenly feel like spilling your guts. Why the change of heart?”

Neil let out a ragged sigh. “Because this place, Andrew. It’s a— a fantasy land. It’s a dream. And I want to enjoy it for as long as I can. I can’t do that if I feel like you’re breathing down my neck the whole time. So I’m going to tell you everything, then you can decide if I’m allowed to stay or not.”

A creature of darkness himself, Andrew had always been attuned to the darkness in others. He had sensed it in Renee behind the cross necklace and the serene smile and the mild-manners; he saw it in Kevin’s hooded gaze; there were times when it clouded around his brother and his cousin. It haunted Neil’s footsteps, and Andrew very much wanted to know the cause. Call it boredom, call it morbid curiosity, call it whatever you wanted to, but he had been looking forward to learning Neil’s secrets. This wasn’t what Andrew had it mind; it didn’t seem fair. This was Neil putting his fate in Andrew’s hands, and Andrew hadn’t agreed to that.

“You can’t just give me all of that information for free.”

“Why not?”

“It’s unbalanced. I’ll feel like I owe you. And just because you want to tell all your secrets, doesn’t mean I want to share all of mine.”

“Andrew, for fuck’s sake. If we were gonna continue our little truth for truth game, you would have found out eventually anyway. I’m just speeding up the process. You don’t have to tell me a fucking thing if you don’t want to. Game over.”

Andrew took a long drag of his cigarette and stared up at the ceiling, pondering. He could practically feel Neil’s anxiety rolling off him in waves. He obviously really didn’t want to have to tell Andrew anything, so the fact that he was willing to anyway didn’t make any sense.

“Then what do you get out of this?” Andrew asked.

“I — peace of mind?” Neil said, surprised by the question.

“This,” Andrew said, gesturing at Neil and his nervous posture, “ is not what peace of mind looks like.”

Neil spluttered in indignant exasperation. “I thought you wanted to know what I was hiding. Why are you making this so difficult?” He raked a hand through his hair, leaving half of it pointing up in tufts. He was in dire need of a haircut. Andrew was surprised Allison hadn’t already offered. Or maybe she had and Neil was just too skittish to let anyone near his head with a pair of scissors.

Andrew started humming under his breath, ignoring Neil’s agonised stare as he thought it over. He didn’t say anything until his cigarette was only down to a stump, then he put it out in the can that worked as his ashtray, and turned sidelong on the step so he was facing Neil. He crossed his legs, cradling his ankles loosely with one hand.

“Here’s how it’s going to work,” he said, and Neil perked up, sensing progress. He mirrored Andrew’s posture, facing him on the step. Their knees touched. “I am going to ask you five questions. Five truths.” He held up a hand for emphasis. “I’ll ask you them all tonight, and get it all out of the way for you.”

Neil nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“And then you get five questions. Five truths from me, to be asked at your own leisure.”

If you let me stay,” Neil added.

Andrew smiled shrewdly. “Exactly. It’s balanced this way, see?”

Neil shrugged. “I guess,” he said. He took a tiny puff of his cigarette to keep it burning, then lowered his hands again. He exhaled slowly, then brought his gaze up to meet Andrew’s. “Ask me.”

Andrew already knew his first question; it was the one Neil had lied about on his first day here. “Where were you when the outbreak started?”

“I was on the run in with my mom. We’d already been on the road for two years, and we were in California when it hit. Both of us were immune.” The words were there immediately, measured and easy. Neil had expected this question.

On the run. Well, that brought Andrew nicely onto his second question. “Who were you running from?”

Neil swallowed. “My — my father.” Abruptly, he passed his cigarette to Andrew. He looked like he was going to be sick, and he leaned back a little bit to breathe. Andrew carefully put out the cigarette and put it aside for later; there was too much of it left to get rid of it entirely. Waste not.

It took him a minute, but Neil eventually resumed his earlier position. “He’s a gangster. Or, was, I guess. His name is Nathan Wesninski, but he was known as the Butcher of Baltimore.”

The name didn’t mean anything to Andrew, but it didn’t seem like Neil expected it to. Neil’s eyes were now lowered; he picked at a thread on his shirt as he spoke. “He liked knives. His favourite was a cleaver. He always took care of his enemies or people who crossed him personally, and their bodies were never found.” Neil shuddered. “Anyway, he had all sorts of territories around the eastern ports, bordering on West Virginia. But he was working on expanding.”

For the first time since mentioning his father, Neil looked at Andrew. “It wasn’t a. . . nice upbringing,” he said, clearly struggling over how to word it. “He was heavy-handed, had a temper, and he took it out on me a lot.” Neil rubbed his right shoulder, but didn’t seem aware he was doing it. “He was violent. My mom put up with it, used to unpleasantness herself — she was from a British mob family — but one night she’d had enough and we escaped. I didn’t know at the time, but as well as taking me she’d also taken a shit-ton of money. Like, five million dollars.”

Andrew let out a low whistle, and Neil nodded. “Yeah. So he chased us, obviously. He would’ve done anyway, because us leaving was an insult and he couldn’t let us get away with it. Being robbed as well? It would have been the equivalent of spitting in his face. He wouldn’t stand for it. If he caught us, he’d kill us. So we ran, and we kept on running.”

None of the theories Andrew had been tossing around in his head had even come close to Neil being on the run from a gangster murderous father, and now he understood Neil’s censure a little more. His mother had obviously drilled secrecy and lies into Neil from an early age, for the sake of survival. Lessons like that became ingrained; incredibly difficult to unlearn even when circumstances changed the situation.

Andrew took a couple of minutes to absorb what Neil had told him, until he was sure he fully understood and knew what his next question should be. Neil watched him carefully in complete silence. If he was looking for a reaction, he wouldn’t get one from Andrew.

“Okay,” Andrew said. “So you and your mother were running for two years before the sickness started and spread, killing millions and millions of people, ending life as we knew it. How do you know it didn’t kill your father? Have you even seen him since you started running? And that counts as one question, by the way.”

Neil frowned, as if wanting to refute this, but he thought the better of it. “Him and his people caught up to us a couple of times in those two years. We always got away, but they were close calls — too close. After the world fell, we travelled around for a bit. We were just another couple of faces on the road, the same as everyone else by then, only we’d been doing it longer. We were better at surviving. But then we got to thinking the same as you, that maybe my father had died, and we didn’t need to run anymore. At least not from him. So we headed back towards Baltimore — it was a little easier at that point because we could still get access to cars that actually worked. The closer we got, the more people we started to see heading the opposite way, some on their own, some in little groups. After a while it didn’t seem like a coincidence anymore, so we stopped and asked if there was a reason everyone was heading away from Baltimore. They just said that Baltimore belonged to the Butcher now.”

“That sounds ominous,” Andrew said.

“No shit,” Neil said scornfully. “It had to be my father, so we didn’t bother going any closer. We turned around again and kept going until nightfall. We took the car off-road to keep it as out of sight as we could get it, then we camped out in it for the night. When I woke up, it was still dark, and I was alone. I thought it was weird because Mom never usually let me out of her sight, so I got out of the car to go find her. I walked a little way, but then I heard voices and I just. . . I froze because I recognised them; my father and Lola — she was one of his inner circle. They were clearly looking for us. Someone who knew us must have spotted us earlier in the day, got the message back to my father who then tried to catch up with us I guess, I dunno. I couldn’t move, I was petrified. I was sort of hidden from view because there were a couple big trees around, and it was dark, but they would have been seconds from finding me.”

Neil’s eyes had become unfocused, almost like he was caught in the memory, and Andrew had a sudden urge to reach out and touch him; ground him to the present, to this moment. He didn’t though, and Neil continued.

“Someone came up behind me and a hand clasped over my mouth, but it was just my mom, and she dragged me back to the car. They heard us though, because my father’s voice suddenly shouts out, ‘I know it’s you, Mary. There’s nowhere you and the boy can go where I won’t find you.’ We just got in the car and mom got us moving straight away, back onto the road, accelerating as fast as she could. They followed us in their own car for a while but at some point they had to turn back, they probably needed the gas for the return journey. We ditched the car for a new one and put as much space between us and Baltimore as we could in the shortest amount of time. That was maybe three years ago? And I haven’t seen him since then. But I’ve heard people mention the Butcher. He’s got people and weapons and he pillages as he goes. I don’t know where he is now, but I know he’s out there, and he’ll kill me if he ever finds me.”

Neil’s voice had started to become hoarse, unused to speaking so much in one go before. Andrew wondered when the last time he’d spoken for so long had been. Probably not for a long, long time. He’d been noticeably quiet since arriving at the Foxhole Court, presumably through practice rather than it being his real nature. His reaction to Andrew apprehending him and the occasional snappy retorts suggested there was an instigator in there dying to get out. It was the Neil underneath the veneer that Andrew was interested in.

“That’s quite the sob story, Neil,” he said, earning himself a furious glare which he graciously ignored. Andrew had two questions left and he took his time deciding. He didn’t want to waste them. “How did your mother die?” He already knew that Neil had been alone for upwards of a year, and from everything he had just been told, it was doubtful Neil’s mother would just leave him. She had to have died.

“Infection,” Neil said simply. “Same as a lot of people these days. We’d had a run-in with some bandits, and one slashed at her with his knife. Got her right across her palm.” Neil started looking at his own palm, brow furrowed either in grief or confusion. “It was just a cut. It shouldn’t have killed her. But we had no medicine, no penicillin, and all we had to bind it with was dirty cloth. I thought she was okay, y'know? She didn’t say anything for ages. But then she started getting pale and feverish and weak, and by the time I finally convinced her to take the cloth off and let me have a look, it was clearly already septic.” He shrugged helplessly. “There was nothing I could do.”

It was the unfortunate sign of the times that a simple cut could now mean the difference between life and death. That people who were either immune to the sickness, or who had fought it and survived could be brought down by something that would be no cause for alarm if society had remained unchanged. Andrew had seen it happen before, had probably caused it to happen to others in his many altercations since he, Aaron and Nicky had headed out into the unknown.

Andrew held up a finger. “Last one,” he said. There were two questions he wanted to ask, two burning questions he wanted the answers to. It took him a while to figure out which one was more important.

“Andrew, ask me,” Neil said, anguished. Andrew taking so long was evidently doing a number on his nerves.

“Have you ever had to kill anyone?”

Neil blinked. “Yes,” he said.

Andrew nodded. “Me too,” he said, then he grinned. “Consider that one a freebie.” Andrew was feeling generous, after all.

Neil hunched forward. He looked a little pale, even in the darkness, and Andrew got up and went over to his mattress where his few belongings were. He dug out his bottle of water and his bag of lollipops, then went back to Neil. He put the water in Neil’s hands then got himself a lollipop. He offered one to Neil, who scrunched his nose up.

“I don’t really like sweets,” he said after taking a big gulp of water.

“Weird,” replied Andrew. All the more for him.

“Andrew.”

“Hm?”

Neil sighed. “I don’t want to bring trouble to this place. I don’t want to — to endanger anyone just by being here. And I don’t want anyone else in the firing line if my father ever shows up. But I don’t want to give this up yet.” He looked at Andrew emploringly. “I’ll leave at the first sign of trouble, I swear. Any word, any sightings of my father and I’ll go and you’ll never have to see me again. But just for now. . . can I stay?”

Andrew shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

Neil ran a hand down his face, his voice ragged when he said, “Andrew, don’t fuck with me.”

“I’m not. Look, Neil, the way I see it, you’re safer here than you are on the road. We’re very vigilant with keeping a watch on the area, so if your father enters our territory, we’ll see him before he sees us. That gives you the advantage. If and when that happens, you can either run, or you can stay with us and we’ll deal with it as a group.”

Neil started shaking his head before Andrew had even finished. “No. If he shows up, I’ll definitely leave. I’m not getting anyone else involved.”

“Neil, first of all, there’s no way he could even know you’re here. The likelihood that he ends up in the area are microscopical. But let’s say the worst case scenario happens and he does show up and finds this place: if what you’ve told me about people hearing stories of the Butcher pillaging his way from place to place is true, then he’s going to want what we have whether you’re here or not. And if he’s going to engage with us regardless, you may as well stay.”

Neil hesitated. The thought hadn’t seemed to have occurred to him before, and Andrew plastered an unfriendly smile onto his face. “It’s not all about you, Neil. For shame.” He tutted, and Neil scowled, but then it faded into thoughtfulness.

“It can really be that simple?” he asked at last, a vulnerability to his voice that Andrew couldn’t stand. “I can stay?”

Andrew hooked a hand in the collar of Neil’s shirt and pulled him closer. “The only one making this an issue is you. Keep it if you can.” He let Neil go and scooted backwards, retrieving the broken end of Neil’s discarded cigarette and re-lighting it. He let out a humourless laugh. “You know, you’re not the only one running from his past. You should really talk to Kevin some time.”

Neil’s head jerked up. “What does that mean?”

“Start a new game with him if you want Kevin’s truths. Your questions are for mine, unfortunately. But I’m sure you’ll hear about all of Kevin’s demons soon enough. They’re much more likely to come calling than yours are.” He grinned at Neil’s unimpressed expression. Andrew knew he was being deliberately cryptic, but Kevin’s story was long and complicated and Andrew was far too tired to get into it.

Neil apparently decided to agree, because he let it go for now, and lay flat on his back while he waited for his cigarette to dwindle down to no more than embers. A silence fell and Andrew didn’t bother to fill it, instead taking the time to run back over everything Neil had told him. There was every possibility that Neil's father — the Butcher — was no longer alive. Just because Neil had heard stories of the Butcher, it didn’t mean that nothing had happened to him since then. People died all the time. If he was alive, however, he definitely sounded formidable. But Andrew stood by what he’d said to Neil; staying here gave Neil the advantage of being able to see who was coming, and getting a heads-up on someone like the Butcher would be invaluable. Neil being here was an asset; none of the others would know who the Butcher was if he stepped into their territory, but Neil would. It was win-win.

There was also the tiny part of Andrew that wanted, for some inexplicable reason, to keep Neil around. But that was secondary. Andrew was being practical.

He thought Neil might have fallen asleep, he was quiet for so long, but then he got to his feet. “Are you going to tell the others?”

“All being well, I won’t have to. But if it ever becomes relevant, they’ll need to know. And perhaps you should be the one to tell them in that case.”

Neil nodded, glancing away. “That’s fair,” he allowed. He looked back to Andrew, a question intent in his blue, blue eyes. But then it vanished. “Thank you,” he said instead.

It was Andrew’s turn to look away. “Go away, Neil. Get some sleep. It’s a whole new day tomorrow. Full of possibility.”

He wasn’t watching, but he heard the murmured, “Goodnight, Andrew.”

Andrew didn’t head back to his mattress until the echo of Neil’s footsteps had long since disappeared, and it was Neil’s voice in his head as he tried to get to sleep, asking if he could stay.


 

The morning arrived far too quickly, but Andrew made sure he was one of the first into the lounge. He was preceded only by Coach, Abby and Renee, and after giving a perfunctory nod to the former two, he went and sat next to Renee.

“I’m keeping him,” he said without preamble.

Renee was normally alarmingly quick on the uptake, but Andrew had just caught her first thing in the morning, and she blinked at him. “Who?”

“Neil,” Andrew clarified. “He’s staying, and I’m keeping him.”

Renee smiled. “Good to know,” she said. “Any particular reason?”

Andrew shrugged. “He’d only cause you hassle, I’m sure. It’s for your own good, Renee.”

She chuckled softly. “I’m sure it is.”

Everyone else gradually started to make their way out of the locker room, and Andrew had half finished his coffee before Neil showed up. He didn’t look entirely well rested; Andrew supposed he had given Neil a lot to think about. But he did give Andrew a half smile when he saw him, which sort of made Andrew want to stick his fist through a wall.

Andrew barely paid attention through Coach’s standard morning speech, giving out tasks for the day. He only listened for the names of his own group; Aaron and Nicky were on water duty, Andrew and Kevin were scouting. Neil wasn’t mentioned in the run-down, but Coach turned to him when he’d finished. “What about you, Neil? Do you want to go with Matt again today?”

Before Neil could answer, Andrew cut in. “That’s alright, Coach. Neil wants to come with me.”

“He does?” Coach arched a dubious eyebrow. Not a lot got by Coach and he had no doubt noticed Neil’s avoidance of Andrew for the last week or so, even if no one else had paid it much mind.

“Sure,” Andrew said.

“Neil?”

“Yeah, Coach. I’ll go with Andrew,” Neil said.

Coach shrugged and nodded. “Okay then. Neil’s scouting with Andrew and Kevin. As usual, nobody get hurt, nobody die. That would be super. Now fuck off.”

Everyone scrambled to their feet, Aaron shooting Andrew a look that Andrew studiously ignored. He followed Neil into the locker room, where Neil had gone to retrieve his weapons of choice.

He turned when he heard Andrew’s footsteps and stopped. Andrew got closer and reached a hand to Neil’s neck, tapping his fingers along in time with Neil’s pulse.

“Remember this feeling,” he said. “This is the moment you stop being the rabbit.”

Chapter Text

Andrew had said that Neil could ask his five questions at his own leisure, an allowance that Neil was definitely taking to heart. It took two weeks for him to ask his first.

Andrew and Neil were assigned overnight watch duty; a task Andrew usually hated as he tended to be paired off with Nicky, who’d never met a silence he didn’t feel like filling, regardless of whether or not Andrew kept up his half of the conversation. The hours always dragged.

With Neil, he didn’t mind so much.

It was a breezy night atop Fox Tower, and Neil sat huddled in his blanket, binoculars to his eyes as he scanned the darkness for anything of interest. Andrew slowly walked the line of the rooftop, taking even, measured breaths.

“Andrew,” Neil said. There was an edge to his tone, enough to make Andrew stop and look at him. He lowered the binoculars from his face. “I see something.”

Andrew came over and crouched next to Neil, taking the binoculars. “Where?” Neil pointed and Andrew looked through the lenses. All he could see was darkness and a faint outline of some trees. “I can’t see anything,” he said.

Neil gently grasped the binoculars and guided Andrew’s gaze to where it needed to be. Andrew saw it now; a small fire. It was a long way off, probably made by someone on their own, or a small group. “I see it,” he said, and Neil removed his hand, innocuously brushing Andrew’s fingers as he went. Andrew tried and failed not to think about it. He put down the binoculars.

“What do we do?” Neil asked.

“We keep an eye on it. It’s probably nothing to get excited about. We’ll watch overnight and then the scouters can check it out tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

Andrew resumed his pacing, staring out in the distance. Now that he knew where to look, he could make out a very faint glow from the fire without needing the binoculars. When he next glanced back at Neil, he looked troubled.

Andrew sighed. “It happens a lot, Neil. It’ll just be someone passing on through, nothing to worry about. No need to be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” Neil said.

Andrew grinned. “Everyone’s afraid of something.”

Neil huffed in irritation and crossed his arms. But then he jerked his head up, the breeze ruffling his hair as he stared up at Andrew, eyes contemplative. “What are you afraid of?”

The grin fell away from Andrew’s face and he turned away and stepped up to the edge of the roof, halting his feet as close as he dared. He peered down and could just about make out the ground in the dimness. They were four stories up; the fall would most likely kill him. Another breeze blew through, wobbling Andrew slightly and his breath hitched, lost in the wind. He stepped back.

“Heights,” he said. He turned around again; Neil was frowning, almost like he didn’t believe it. But he’d asked a question, and Andrew had given him the answer. Andrew held up a finger. “That’s one.”


 

Neil’s integration into the Foxhole Court had become pretty seamless after bearing his history to Andrew. As soon as he was sure that Andrew had meant it when he said that Neil could stay and that he wouldn’t tell anyone else, Neil relaxed considerably. He still spent the majority of his days with Matt and the others, but he would usually come over and bother Andrew when he’d had enough of Seth for the day.

Most of Andrew’s lot were fine with the arrangement. Nicky was naturally delighted to have someone else to talk to, Kevin liked it because Neil was interested in Exy and happy to listen to Kevin’s stories about his former glory days as a junior champion — much to Andrew’s chagrin, having heard them all many times before. Neil’s main purpose in coming over to sit with them, however, was to annoy Andrew. And Andrew. . . well, he allowed himself to be annoyed. Aaron, despite his initial problem with bringing Neil back to the stadium in the first place, was now pretty indifferent to Neil on the whole, but he didn’t understand how Neil had suddenly become a semi-fixture in his social circle.

“You’re weirdly tolerant of him, when you’ve barely got two words to say to any of the others except Renee. I don’t get it,” he said to Andrew once. There hadn’t been a question there, so Andrew didn’t respond with anything except a cool look.

Aaron scowled. “I just don’t understand how Neil suddenly became your new best friend. But whatever,” he snapped.

Andrew arched an eyebrow and gestured over to where Neil and Matt currently sat, Matt’s arm draped over Neil’s shoulder as he laughed at whatever Neil had just said. “I think you’ll find Neil is Matt’s new best friend.”

“Then what is he to you?” Aaron retorted.

Andrew’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Nothing,” he said.

Aaron let it go after that, somewhat reluctantly, but seeming to know he wouldn’t get anything else out of his brother.

Andrew’s nights were much the same as they had always been, with one small exception. Once everyone was asleep, Neil would come and spend an hour or so in Andrew’s company, slowly smoking their way through their daily cigarettes. (Coach always gave Andrew two now — Andrew suspected he knew the other one was for Neil, but he never asked and Andrew didn’t offer that information.)

Sometimes they would talk to each other, but other times they sat in comfortable silence. It made a change to be in the company of someone who didn’t expect anything from Andrew, who didn’t try to fill a silence just because it was there. Andrew often found being around other people exhausting. The time he spent with Neil was almost like recharging a battery. But again, Andrew didn’t want to think about it.

“Hey, Andrew,” Neil said on one of these nights, about a month and a half after arriving. He was sitting two steps below Andrew, resting his arms on the step above and pillowing his head on them as he peered up at Andrew. He was heavy-lidded; he looked tired.

“What,” Andrew said impassively.

“I think I know what my second question is.”

“Oh?” Andrew leaned forward in interest, elbows on his knees as his cigarette dangled loosely between his fingers.

“Yeah. Only I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“Neil,” Andrew said, “there’s already nothing I like about you. Why would your questions be any different?”

Neil rolled his eyes but his resolve seemed to settle. “How did you find out about Aaron? And how did you end up living with him and his mother?”

“That’s two questions,” Andrew said.

“It counts as one,” Neil said. “It’s the same line of questioning.” He shrugged indifferently at Andrew’s narrowed brows. “You did it to me. Fair’s fair.”

Andrew sighed. He got up and stepped down until he was on the same step as Neil and sat down next to him. His cigarette was almost spent, so Andrew took one last drag before exhaling smoke in Neil’s direction. He waved it away, annoyed, but didn’t say anything.

“I was bounced around from home to home all throughout my childhood. I was considered a problem child. Hard to place due to behavioural issues and such. By the time I was twelve, I had started getting myself into more and more trouble, getting myself noticed by Johnny Law. This one cop, Higgins, had me on his radar. He wanted to help me out, see? Figured I was an ‘at risk’ youth acting out because of my shitty circumstances, so he took an interest in my case.”

Andrew’s fingers twitched; he was starting to wish he’d hadn’t finished his cigarette so quickly. He glanced at Neil’s, and Neil, noticing, handed it over immediately. Andrew felt better with it in his hands, and he continued. “One day, Pig Higgins was at a carnival when he saw me and went over to say hello. After a couple minutes of utter confusion, Pig Higgins realised it wasn’t, in fact, me who he was talking to.”

“Aaron,” Neil said.

“Top marks for you, Neil!”

“Alright. So then what happened?”

“Well, Pig Higgins got excited, obviously. He figured Aaron and I got split up in the system somehow and wanted to reunite us. So he made Aaron take him over to his mother, explained the situation and got her to give her his number, then he passed it along to my foster mother. She called the next day, excited that we might get to meet, but Tilda said she wasn’t interested, that she’d given me up and had no intention of ever seeing me again. I guess she’d just felt shocked and embarrassed enough by Pig Higgins catching her off-guard, that she was stunned into actually giving him her number.”

He shrugged. “Anyway, I didn’t find this part out until much later from Nicky, but apparently Aaron had been listening in on the other line and was distraught at what he heard, especially after getting all excited about meeting his long lost brother. So he went running off to his uncle Luther, Nicky’s father, and told him everything.” Andrew forced derision into his voice. “Being the good Christian man he was, Luther talked Tilda into changing her mind, so she called back Cass, my foster mother, and arranged a meeting. We had a few supervised visits first but soon I was asked if I wanted to go back and live with them permanently. I hated Tilda, but I wanted to get out of that home, plus I had a brother now. So I agreed.”

Neil’s questions were now answered, so Andrew didn’t bother going into the reasons why living at Cass’s had been so intolerable. Why despite the fact that Cass had been the best foster-mother he’d ever had, he just couldn’t stay under her roof anymore.

He didn’t mention how he had become quietly furious with the whole situation and how unfair it was that he had been tossed aside to be someone else’s problem while Aaron had been kept. It wasn’t Aaron’s fault — he knew that — but it was hard for Andrew to separate Aaron from the baseless anger in his mind. As a result, he barely spoke to Aaron at all after arriving, despite Aaron’s numerous attempts to reach out. He let Aaron trail him around school and home like a lost puppy, but he made no effort to get to know him.

Andrew didn’t tell Neil how once he’d noticed the bruises Aaron tried to cover up, courtesy of his mother and most likely stemming from a pill-induced rage, he’d made sure that Aaron was never alone in the house with Tilda. She never touched Andrew — she was clearly a little scared of him. So Andrew used that fear and got in between them whenever he could. He might not want to talk to his brother, but he would still find a way to end Tilda’s tirade against the only son she had chosen.

Andrew also didn’t tell Neil that when the epidemic started spreading six months into his new living arrangements, he’d felt like Aaron getting sick was a punishment somehow, for shrugging off Aaron’s attempts to be friends; to be brothers. Andrew had been making it right in his own way ever since.

He didn’t say how angry Aaron’s grief had made him, when his fever had eased and he became coherent enough to understand that Tilda had died. He blamed Andrew — “I bet you didn’t even try to help her, you let her die.” That had been true, but Andrew offered no apologies. Tilda was dead, now unable to lay a hand on her son ever again. Aaron was alive. It had been a good day.

After Andrew had been silent for about a minute, Neil turned his head to look at him.

“Is there anything else?”

“I answered your questions, Neil. That’s three.”

“That’s two,” Neil insisted.

Andrew hesitated, then relented. "Fine. That's two."


 

Neil didn’t swing.

Andrew knew this, because one afternoon, Neil was sitting on a chair in the lounge and Allison came up behind him and draped her arms around him in a backwards hug, resting her cheek on the top of his head. Often used as a resting post by Matt or Dan or Allison, Neil didn’t seem to mind. Nicky however, called over, “Get your claws off of him, Allison, he’s not interested in your type.”

“I’m everyone’s type,” Allison argued.

“Not Neil’s,” Nicky insisted. Neil was starting to look like he wanted to disappear.

“Oh, great,” Seth said, shooting a dark look at Nicky and then Neil. “Another one.”

“I’d stop talking if I were you, Seth,” Andrew said, idly playing with one of his knives. He looked up and shot Seth what he knew was a menacing smile. “Wouldn’t want you to say something you’d regret.” Seth scowled, but shut up. He was intimidated by Andrew, even if he’d never admit it in a million years.

Nicky took it all good-naturedly; he’d endured worse than anything Seth could ever come up with and simply flipped Seth off with a cheery grin. “Don’t get excited, Seth, he’s not interested in you, either. Neil doesn’t swing at all.”

This of course launched a discussion which was clearly making Neil feel uncomfortable. He looked to Andrew, and Andrew hated that he recognised the question in Neil’s eyes; he was asking for an escape.

Andrew got to his feet and hooked his hand in Neil’s collar, pulling him up. “Gossip later,” he told the others. “Me and Neil have an errand to run.”

The ‘errand’ involved Andrew dragging Neil just outside the stadium and into the carpark. The clouds were darkening; a summer storm would start any minute. It was a good thing too, they needed one. The summer had dragged, humid and uncomfortable with no rainfall since early May, a worrying sign. Various pans and bottles had been dotted about the carpark to catch as much water as possible during the storm, rain to be boiled later to make it safer for drinking and other purposes.

Andrew stayed under the overhang of the building, but Neil took a few more steps so he was out in the open, and he looked up to the sky.

It was good that Neil didn’t swing, Andrew thought as he watched him. His attraction to Neil was an annoyance, but Andrew could live with it. His interest in Neil was another matter entirely, one that Andrew had been spending the last few weeks steadily trying to stomp down on. Andrew didn’t want anything from Neil — or anyone for that matter — so pursuing the attraction would be a worthless endeavour. Now that Andrew knew Neil didn’t swing, it also made it a pointless endeavour, because nothing would ever come of it.

It was a good thing. It made everything remarkably uncomplicated.

Andrew was so lost in his own thoughts that he almost missed Neil’s murmured, “Do you?” and he snapped back to attention. Neil was staring at him intently with those stupid blue eyes.

“Do I what?” Andrew asked.

“You know.” Neil shifted awkwardly. “Swing. Do you swing?”

“What is it to you?”

Neil shrugged. “I dunno. Nothing, really. They were just all talking in there and I guess I was just. . . curious. You don’t have to tell me.”

Andrew wondered if he should take the out Neil was offering. But what did it matter if Neil knew? “Sure, Neil. I swing.”

“Which, uh. . . which way?”

“Neil.” Andrew sighed. “Are you trying to ask me if I’m gay?”

Neil rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Yeah,” he admitted.

It shouldn’t matter to Neil; he shouldn’t be curious about this. But Neil was a conundrum for all sorts of reasons. Andrew waited until Neil met his eyes again before answering. “Yes,” he said.

Neil just nodded.

A raindrop hit the ground. Then another, and another, and in seconds it was pouring down. Neil stepped further back away from the stadium, spreading his arms out as he tilted his head towards the sky, a smile on his face.

“Neil,” Andrew said, exasperated. “Come back under here. You’ll catch a cold or some shit. And I’m not looking after you if you do.”

Neil looked at Andrew and laughed, but ignored his request. “I’ve always loved the rain,” he said instead.

Andrew was about to head back inside and leave Neil alone, but it felt like his feet were rooted to the spot. So instead he just watched as Neil let himself get soaked to the skin, utterly content, eyes shut against the onslaught of rainfall.

When he’d had enough, Neil re-joined Andrew under the overhang, water dripping from his hair and down his face.

“Abby’s going to kill you,” Andrew said. “You’re gonna get water everywhere.”

Neil grinned mischievously and shook his head, covering Andrew’s face and shirt with tiny little droplets. Andrew glared, deadpan, as he wiped his face with his hand. Neil, undeterred, laughed again. It pulled at something inside of Andrew, and he turned away.

“You only have two questions left now, by the way,” Andrew said, opening the door to head back inside. “Use them wisely.”


 

Summer faded into Autumn, and they had to start going further afield for runs. Food and medicine (and cigarettes) were always top of the wishlist obviously, but clothes, blankets, anything remotely warming were very much needed in preparation for the winter months. They had a lot at the stadium, the perks of being on a university campus with student dorms, but extra never hurt. Plus it always got cold in the stadium at winter. The ceilings were too high for any warmth to circulate effectively.

On one such run, Andrew was with Neil in a liquor store a good three miles from the stadium, while Nicky, Aaron and Kevin perused the pharmacy next door. Behind the counter, top shelf right at the back, was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. Coach would give Andrew a whole pack of cigarettes for this. He stepped up onto the counter and reached for it, just managing to grab it by the tips of his fingers. He clasped it to his chest, triumphant, and stepped down.

Andrew motioned to Neil to bring him the duffel bag over, and Neil held it open while Andrew deposited their latest find.

“Andrew,” Neil said, voice suddenly strained, and Andrew followed his gaze to Andrew’s wrist. The edge of his armband must have caught on the shelf when he reached for the whiskey and pushed it a little way up without Andrew realising, revealing a few unmistakable silver scars, on which Neil’s eyes were now transfixed. Andrew yanked his arm away and fixed the armband back into place.

“Andrew, when—why did you. . .?” Neil trailed off, clearly unsure how to finish.

“If that’s a question, you’re going to have to phrase it better,” Andrew said bluntly.

“When did you do that?”

“A long time ago,” Andrew said, shrugging like it wasn’t important. And it wasn’t really, not anymore. “Before the end of the world. I don’t do it anymore.”

Neil swallowed audibly. “What did you do it for?”

Andrew shrugged again. “It was an outlet. It was control. At least the pain was something.” Neil winced at Andrew’s glib tone. “But like I said; I don’t do it anymore.”

He stared at Neil to see if anything else was forthcoming, but Neil just stared straight back. For a moment, he debated asking Neil to show Andrew his scars, the ones he knew Neil was hiding under his shirt. But even through his annoyance that his own scars had been discovered, he realised it wasn’t entirely fair of him to ask that.

Andrew took the duffel bag from Neil and walked past him to the door. He had just reached his hand for the handle when Neil’s quiet voice spoke out again. “Did it help?”

Andrew paused. “No,” he said without turning around. “But I never really expected it to.” He peered over his shoulder at Neil, who was yet to move. “One more, Neil.”


 

It was a few weeks before Neil asked for his final truth. Andrew had no idea what he was going to ask for. Neil had most of the story about Andrew and Aaron already. He knew about Andrew’s scars now. He knew Andrew was gay. Of Andrew’s secrets, only the darkest ones remained, but he didn’t think Neil would ask a question that would lead to Andrew having to reveal those.

Andrew sat awake on his mattress, blanket wrapped around his shoulders. Winter was almost here, and it was very cold in the stands. Andrew was up waiting for Neil, and as soon as he spotted him down in the corner, he lit two cigarettes. When Neil got closer, Andrew could see that he was wearing his own blanket like a cape, and once he’d taken his cigarette from Andrew, he sat down next to him on his mattress, pulling his blanket closer.

“Andrew,” he said, frowning. “It’s freezing up here.”

“What’s your point.”

“My point is that it’s almost Winter and it’s only gonna get colder, so you should probably come and start sleeping in the locker room with everyone else. It’s warmer in there.”

Andrew shook his head. “No.”

“Why not?”

“I sleep better out here on my own.”

“Yeah, and you’ll be sleeping real well when you freeze to death,” Neil grumbled. Andrew poked him in the cheek with a freezing finger and Neil startled. “See?” he exclaimed, grabbing Andrew’s hand and rubbing it between his own, trying to improve the circulation. Andrew allowed this for a moment — Neil’s hands were warm — and then he pulled his hand away.

“Didn’t realise you were so concerned,” he said.

Neil rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he replied, and Andrew found himself smiling a little at Neil’s petulance. But he turned his head away as he did it, so Neil wouldn’t see.

Both of them had finished smoking by the time either of them said anything else. In that time, Neil had gradually edged closer and closer to Andrew, until their crossed legs overlapped and their shoulders touched. Andrew knew that it was just because Neil was cold. He was cold, too. It was why he allowed it.

“I know what my last question is going to be,” Neil said at last.

“I’m on the edge of my seat,” Andrew said dryly.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s not an exciting one. It’s just something I wondered.”

“Get on with it, Neil.”

“Okay. So when you, Aaron and Nicky were on the road, did you ever come across any groups like this one, with people staying in just one place?”

“No. Not when it was just the three of us. But right after we found Kevin, we were walking through a city trying to find some better medical supplies, because Kevin’s hand was all messed up and we needed to try and get it properly cleaned so we could try and reset some of the bones and then stitch it up and bandage it.” Andrew knew that Neil still didn’t know what Kevin’s story was, but he knew better than to ask Andrew by now, even though his eyes were curious. That was Kevin’s truth to share.

“Some guy came over to us, he’d heard Kevin’s pained moans and he said he could help us. We didn’t really have much of a choice; an injury like Kevin’s would have killed him if left on it’s own, so we followed him. He took us to this nightclub. It was called Eden’s Twilight, and there were a bunch of people living in there. They lived sort of like we do, going on runs for more supplies, setting up a watch and everything. It was a city though, so they got more foot traffic running through. Had to fight for their turf quite often apparently.” Andrew shrugged. “There was no outside trouble while we were there. There was someone there who knew first aid, and they did what they could with Kevin’s hand and stitched it up. We ended up staying there two weeks, until Kevin felt able to move again. That’s the only time we’d ever come across a group like that until we got here. It was also the first time we’d engaged with people we didn’t know without it ending violently.”

“Why didn’t you stay there?” Neil asked.

“Nicky wanted to. He thought it’d be the best life we’d be able to find for ourselves. But I had already promised Kevin that I’d get him to Coach, and Kevin had promised that when I did, Coach would give me and mine somewhere to stay. I don’t back out of my deals.”

“Oh,” Neil said. “Didn’t you make any friends while you were there?” There was a hint of humour in Neil’s tone, as he now knew Andrew’s abrasive attitude well enough for himself. But for some reason, the question made Andrew think of Roland for the first time in ages. Roland, who had made Andrew drinks and then let Andrew push him up against the wall in the store-room and work out his frustrations with his mouth.

Andrew smirked. “Not exactly,” he said.

Neil raised an eyebrow, making of that whatever he would. Then he faced back forward. A moment later, he knocked his shoulder into Andrew’s. “The game’s over now, Andrew. What now?”

“Now, I suppose we’re even. I don’t owe you anything anymore. In fact, I don’t have to talk to you at all if I don’t feel like it.”

Neil’s face fell; Andrew was pretty sure he hadn’t imagined it. “So that’s it, then?”

“What do you want from me, Neil?”

Nothing,” Neil sniped. “Not everybody wants something from you, Jesus. Isn’t it exhausting viewing every conversation as a challenge?”

Andrew wasn’t expecting a temper tantrum. “Every conversation with you is a challenge,” he said, just to be difficult.

Neil sighed, ran a hand down in face, and then sighed again. “Look, I guess I want to know this: if I show up here again tomorrow night, are you going to be awake with a cigarette for me, or is this — whatever this is — finished now that I’ve run out of truths to ask for?”

“Okay, Neil, first of all, this,” he motioned between the two of them, “is nothing. And second of all, I guess if you want the answer to that question, you’ll have to show up and find out for yourself.”

Neil stood up with his blanket. “Really?” he asked. “You can’t just tell me now?”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

Neil shook his head; Andrew had clearly annoyed him. “Goodnight, Andrew,” he said curtly, then padded away down the steps and out of sight.


 

The next night, Neil couldn’t quite hide his smile when he climbed the steps to see Andrew waiting for him, making room for him to sit on his mattress and passing him an already lit cigarette. Andrew wanted to wipe it off Neil's face. He didn't want Neil to look at him like that.

This was nothing.

Chapter Text

One morning, Neil woke up and it was December. Almost six solid months had passed with him staying in the same place, with the same people, day after day after day. He made no move to get up immediately, just lay still and assessed his need to run. It was always there, thrumming in his veins after it being his life for so long, but it was dulled now. It wasn’t his immediate impulse.

It frightened him a little.

Neil sat up and scanned the locker room; he appeared to be the only one awake, presumably apart from Coach and Abby who wouldn’t yet be back from watch. He wasn’t sure what time it was but it felt early. It was cold, and Neil hurriedly got dressed, adding extra layers as Winter was now upon them. His thoughts turned to Andrew; if it was cold in the locker room, it would be downright freezing in the court stands.

On a whim, Neil picked up his blanket and bundled it into his arms. He left the locker room quietly and started to head for the court, but on his way through the lounge to get there, he spotted Andrew huddled in the corner of the sofa, his own blanket pulled tight around him. Even from across the room Neil could see that Andrew was shivering, but he stared right back at Neil with a hooded gaze.

“Have you been here all night?” Neil asked.

“No.”

Neil went over and stood in front of Andrew, taking in the dark circles under his eyes. “Have you had any sleep?”

Andrew shrugged.

Neil sighed and unbundled his blanket, wrapping it around Andrew’s shoulders.

“What are you doing.” It wasn’t quite phrased like a question though, and Andrew made no attempt to stop Neil, merely tracked his movements with his eyes.

“I thought it was pretty obvious. You look like a fucking ice cube, Andrew, you have to stop sleeping in the stands, at least during the Winter.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Andrew said. “It’s not that cold up there.”

“That,” Neil said, “would be a lot more convincing if your teeth weren’t chattering right now.” He sat down next to Andrew on the sofa, and when Andrew didn’t respond, said, “Seriously, Andrew. It’s too cold up there.”

Andrew sighed expansively. “Why do you even care?”

“Stop evading. You’re going to make yourself sick.” Truth was, Neil didn’t know why he cared. All he knew was that he really, really did.

Andrew shrugged. “Sounds like my problem, not yours.”

Neil ignored this; he was going to make it his problem. “What’ll it take to convince you to move into the locker room with us?”

Andrew slowly turned his head to face Neil, considering. “What are you prepared to give me?”

Neil hesitated. He didn’t want to make a blanket promise because Andrew would definitely come to collect. “I’m not sure. What did you have in mind?”

“Your name,” Andrew said without hesitation, then he faced back forward, no longer looking at Neil. “I want to know your real name.”

For a moment, Neil said nothing, just watched Andrew’s profile. The way Andrew had asked and then immediately looked away gave Neil the impression that Andrew thought Neil wouldn’t answer. That he’d refuse to give up this piece of himself, and Andrew could continue to be stubborn and uncomfortable and yet treat it as a win.

“Is that all?” Neil asked.

“Yes.”

Neil thought about it; Andrew already knew everything else important and he hadn’t used any of it against Neil yet. He trusted him more than he’d trusted anyone since his mother died, and he could trust him with this. After making sure that he and Andrew were definitely still alone, Neil said, “I’m named after my father.” It had been months since he’d given Andrew his truths, but he knew Andrew would remember his father’s name.

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look like a Nathan.”

“I’m Nathaniel,” Neil said, then scrunched his nose up. “Or, I was. It doesn’t really feel like me anymore.”

“And Neil does?”

Neil shrugged. “Yeah. I think so. That, and Abram.” He froze; he hadn’t meant to say that.

Andrew was looking at Neil again, a glimmer of interest on his face. “Why Abram?”

“It’s my middle name. My mother gave it to me. It’s the last thing she called me before she died.” Neil didn’t know where the words were coming from — he’d already given Andrew his name. Giving him Abram as well was an extra truth that Andrew hadn’t asked for and that Neil had never given anyone before. Abram was his. It was him. And now Andrew knew; Neil was exposed. He met Andrew’s gaze. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” he whispered.

“Now you have,” Andrew said, unconcerned. “Alright then, Neil, I’ll move into the locker room. But I want the spot you have, right in the corner against the wall. You’ll have to move.”

Neil blinked. “Just like that?”

“Keep up, Neil. You keep your word, and I’ll keep mine. I know you know how this works by now.”

“Why is everything a trade with you?”

“It’s not,” Andrew said, then he gestured between himself and Neil. “But this is.”

“I thought this was nothing,” Neil said. He thought Andrew might think he was being tongue-in-cheek, but Neil genuinely didn’t understand his unorthodox relationship with Andrew. It didn’t feel like nothing, but it didn’t feel like anything Neil had ever experienced before, either. It wasn’t as simple as his friendship with Matt. Neil felt like he was waiting for Andrew to finally explain it to him, but he wasn’t sure if that day would ever come. Maybe it really was nothing.

“I hate you,” Andrew said impassively, then sighed. “I want a cigarette.”

Neil dug through his pockets until he found the other half of the cigarette he hadn’t finished from the night before, and he handed it to Andrew.

“Look at that; he has his uses after all,” Andrew said, then got to his feet, shrugging off the blankets and dropping them onto the sofa. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?” Neil asked, but he got up too.

“To the stands so I can smoke this, then you’re going to help me move my stuff into the locker room.”

“Everyone else is still sleeping, we’ll wake them up,” Neil pointed out.

“My heart bleeds for them. Let’s go.”


 

When Coach and Abby had returned from their night watch and Coach gave out the days tasks, Neil was partnered with Kevin for scout duty.

“We spotted a small fire, looked like it was somewhere near the overpass, so make sure you check that out and see who’s in the area,” Coach added.

A few months ago, hearing this would have made Neil worry, but it had happened several times now, and it always turned out to be people travelling either alone or in small groups, and they were always just passing through. They had never gotten close enough to campus for them to have to be scared off, and they had always made it through the area fast enough that Neil and the other residents of the Foxhole Court hadn’t even needed to reveal themselves.

Needless to say, he wasn’t expecting it to be anything different when he traipsed behind Kevin off-campus, up the road and across through the woods.

Neil’s preferred people to be paired up were Andrew or Matt, but it was fine with Kevin; he didn’t tend to say that much to Neil unless it was about Exy, and he didn’t tend to talk about Exy unless they were back at the Foxhole Court. Out here, there was a job to do, and Kevin took it seriously. Neil appreciated it.

Today, though, Kevin had a bee in his bonnet about something, and after walking along in silence for a while, he asked Neil, “How did you do it?”

Obviously unable to follow Kevin’s train of thought, Neil frowned. “You’re gonna need to be a little more specific,” he said.

Kevin rolled his eyes like he thought Neil was being deliberately difficult. “Andrew. How’d you get him to agree to move into the locker room?”

Neil’s conversations with Andrew were nobody else’s business, so Neil summed it up into the barest of details. “I asked.”

I asked. I’ve asked him the last two Winters that we’ve spent here and he pretty much just ignored me. Everyone’s asked him and he's never listened before. How did you talk him into it?”

Neil shrugged uncomfortably. “I asked nicely?” he offered.

Kevin scoffed. “Whatever. You’ve got something he wants, you must do.”

Neil was about to ask just what Kevin meant by that, when Kevin suddenly put a finger to his lips in the universal sign for shut the fuck up and he crouched lower and motioned for Neil to follow him. Neil mirrored Kevin’s movements, stepping where he stepped, careful not to make a sound. Kevin had obviously spotted their trespasser.

The overpass where Coach had estimated he had seen the fire was situated about 50 metres away from where Neil and Kevin now stood, hidden in their vantage point in a copse of trees, overgrown bushes and shrubberies providing convenient cover for them. Kevin had created a tiny gap between leaves to see through, but he had gone perfectly still, and then he said, “No,” very, very quietly.

“What is it?” Neil hissed, but Kevin didn’t respond; he just kept staring through the gap. His hands started to shake.

Tired of waiting, Neil crept to the edge of the copse, took refuge behind the biggest tree and peered around the side of it. Underneath the overpass and stomping out a smouldering fire was young man, perhaps just a few years older than Neil. Even from this distance, Neil could tell that the stranger was well over 6 foot tall — maybe even closer to 7 — but not only that, he looked strong. He looked like he’d be able to give Matt a run for his money, although this man looked hardened in a way that Matt was not. Neil immediately felt uncomfortable — this looked like someone to be avoided.

“What do we do?” Neil asked, turning back to Kevin, who had gone ghostly pale, eyes wide in terror. “Kevin?”

Kevin’s eyes darted to Neil and then back again. “No,” he said again, a breathy whisper. “It can’t be.”

“Wait. Kevin, do you know that guy?”

Kevin swallowed audibly and then glanced back to Neil. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and then he returned his attention to what the man by the overpass was doing. “He’s called Gorilla,” Kevin continued in a hushed voice.

“That’s his name?”

“I don’t know his real name, but that’s what we always called him.”

“Why?”

“Are you kidding me? Look at him. He’s a beast.” Kevin started rubbing his left hand. Neil wasn’t sure he realised he was doing it, and he had a sudden thought.

“Kevin, is he — is he the one who broke your hand?”

Kevin took a sharp inhale of breath, and Neil worried he was on the verge of a panic attack, but Kevin breathed out again slowly and then found his voice again. “No,” he said, “but he’s the one who held me down while it happened.”

Revulsion swirled in Neil’s stomach but he forced it aside. His understanding of Kevin’s past was still hazy at best; Kevin didn’t like to talk about it and Neil had never pushed for answers, figuring that it didn’t matter until it became relevant. Apparently, it had just become relevant. Unfortunately, there was currently no time for Kevin to explain.

“Kevin, I need you to focus,” Neil said, taking another peek behind the tree to make sure Gorilla was still there; he was, checking the contents of his small bag by the looks of things. “What’s our plan here?”

But Kevin wasn’t focusing on anything except Gorilla in wide eyed horror. His fear was a contagious thing and Neil fought to keep his own nerves under control. It would be so, so easy to just run.

“Kevin, go and get Andrew,” Neil said. Andrew was with Aaron collecting water; they were currently the closest to Neil and Kevin’s location.

Kevin looked at Neil sharply. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna have to watch this Gorilla guy, aren’t I? Can’t lose sight of him. But you’re a mess and you’re not helping, so go and find Andrew for me and send him here.”

Neil could see that Kevin really wanted to go, but could also sense his reticence at leaving Neil on his own. “Neil, he is incredibly dangerous,” Kevin warned.

“I’m getting that,” Neil ground out. He wanted Kevin to shut up and go; he was making it worse. He wanted Andrew because Andrew wouldn’t panic. Andrew would know what to do.

Kevin paused, looking at Neil for several long seconds before he let out a breath and nodded. “Okay. But do not let him see you, Neil, I mean it.”

“I wasn’t planning on it. Now go.”

Kevin didn’t hang around; he ran off like a bat out of hell so fast that Neil was worried Gorilla would hear him. But when he took over the spot Kevin had just vacated and peered through the small gap, Gorilla’s attention was still on his own belongings.

Neil’s heart sank; it looked like Gorilla was about to start making a move, which meant Neil was going to have to follow him, hence would not be here when Andrew arrived. Neil pulled his switchblade out of his pocket, wanting its familiar weight in his hand.

When Gorilla set off and started making for the treeline, Neil backed up several feet and began to climb the tree with the lowest branches, scurrying up with practised ease — tree climbing was an invaluable skill these days, one that Neil had often made good use of. He was quick and quiet and out of sight within the leaves by the time Gorilla came close enough. His footsteps were heavy; he didn’t seem to worry that he might be heard — a fact that sent another ripple of fear up Neil’s spine. People who didn’t care if you could hear them coming were usually the type of people that you ran from. They wanted you to be afraid.

Neil held his breath as Gorilla passed by the tree he was hiding in. He didn’t look up; people never seemed to look up for some reason, not until it was too late. Neil waited until Gorilla was a good twenty feet ahead and then climbed down, dropping silently to the ground when he was close enough. Neil had been here long enough now; he knew these woods. He could keep Gorilla in his eye-line whilst himself staying out of sight, because remaining unseen was what Neil had always done best.

He trusted that Andrew would find him.


 

It wasn’t unusual for Aaron to be quiet when he and Andrew ended up partnered together for tasks like today, off to collect water, but there was something different about this silence. Something loaded, almost, and Andrew didn’t know if Aaron was simply going to let it drag on and on, or if he was going to crack and say something.

All Andrew knew was that he had no intention of breaking the silence himself.

They reached the stream without incident, but upon arrival they realised they had a Winter related problem; the stream was frozen over.

Aaron let out a low curse and kicked a nearby stone. “What now?”

Andrew poked at the edge of the ice with his boot, testing how thick it was. The outer rim seemed to be frozen solid, but nearer the middle Andrew suspected that it was much thinner and probably easily breakable, but if they could get to it they could collect some water.

He picked up one of the stones and threw it, aiming for the middle of the stream. It bounced and rolled away, but it left a crack in its wake. Andrew threw another one, this time aiming for the crack he’d created, and a section of the ice gave way, water running over the top.

“Alright,” Aaron said, sounding grudgingly impressed. “I’ll edge on over with the buckets, fill them, and pass them back to you, then I’ll come back.”

“No,” Andrew said immediately.

Aaron frowned. “Why not?”

“Because it’s dangerous. The ice could give under your weight, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s pretty cold out here. I don’t fancy your chances and I’d rather not have to dive in after you.” Andrew might have been overselling it slightly; the stream wasn’t that deep. But the odds were still high that falling in would lead to hypothermia and potentially death. Not something Andrew was prepared to let his brother risk.

Aaron rolled his eyes. “Do you have a better idea?”

“Of course I have a better idea. You wait here and I’ll get the water.”

“How the fuck is that a better idea? It’s the same idea. It’s just the other way around.”

Andrew ignored this and placed one foot on the ice, keeping the other firmly rooted on the ground behind, in case the ice gave and he needed to step back quickly. He increased his weight; the ice held. He reached a hand out without looking away from the ice. “Pass me the buckets.”

“Andrew. . .” Aaron said, his voice tinged with an emotion Andrew couldn’t immediately pinpoint. It would be easier if he could see Aaron’s expression, but he didn’t want to look away from the ice.

“The buckets, Aaron,” he reiterated, and then he felt Aaron place the handles in his hand. He edged further along until both feet were on the ice, keeping his steps wide so he could spread his weight. He took a step forward and then another, and he heard Aaron’s sharp intake of breath. And oh, that’s what it was. His brother was afraid for him.

“Andrew, fuck this, come back. We’ll try again later or tomorrow; maybe the ice will have melted by then. Or let’s just cut some of the ice out and take that — we can melt it over a fire, it’s all gonna get boiled anyway, right?”

“You want me to blunt my knives cutting through solid ice?”

“I want you to get back on solid ground you impossible idiot.”

Andrew almost laughed, but he took another step forward instead. The ice still held, but it was thinning. If Andrew took another step it would probably give, but he could just about reach the hole in the ice he had already made from here.

He managed to fill the first bucket, but with the added weight it added, a thin crack started to spread underneath Andrew’s foot.

“Andrew—” Aaron started again, anxiously.

“Shut up,” Andrew said sharply. He reached the full bucket as far behind him as he could get it on the thicker ice. “If you can reach that by keeping at least one foot off the ice, then do it. If not, leave it and I’ll get it on my way back.”

He returned his attention to the crack in the ice; so far it hadn’t spread, but Andrew moved his foot away from it anyway. He heard a scraping across the ice from behind him and presumed that Aaron had managed to retrieve the first bucket of water, although he didn’t turn to check. Stepping away from the crack had put him closer to the hole in the ice than he would have liked, because it meant the ice was thinner, but Andrew had come this far. He filled the bucket as quickly as possible and hurriedly stepped backwards.

Crack.

Crack.

“Fuck,” he said under his breath.

“Andrew, leave the bucket, just come back,” Aaron said, a hint of desperation in his tone.

“And lose a perfectly good bucket? Not likely,” Andrew said flippantly, but his heart was racing. His affected airiness was for Aaron’s benefit; it didn’t work on himself.

Andrew decided that his best course of action was speed; he turned around, stepped to the side away from the two new cracks he’d created, then in three swift strides, each one leaving a crack in the ice in its wake, Andrew made it back to proper ground without spilling a drop from the bucket of water.

He put it down on the ground next to the one Aaron had retrieved, and looked to his brother. “That wasn’t all that fun, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said.

“What the fuck, Andrew!” Aaron snapped. He looked furious.

“What? We needed water, I got the water. It was your bright idea in the first place.”

“Yeah, and it was a bad idea. And you don’t always have to do everything yourself, you know? I could have done that. I probably wouldn’t have cracked the ice like you did because I’m not carrying as many fucking knives as you are.”

Andrew shrugged expansively. “It doesn’t matter now. We have water. No one fell through the ice. It feels like a win to me.”

Aaron gritted his teeth angrily. “I don’t need you to protect me all the time, I’m just as fucking capable—”

Andrew cut Aaron off by clasping a hand to his mouth and pushing him up against a tree. Aaron’s eyes went wide and indignant, but Andrew used his other hand to put a finger to his lips, and Andrew could hear it more clearly now. Footsteps. Heavy footsteps, running this way. Andrew removed his hand from Aaron’s face and hissed, “Hide.”

One thing Aaron could always be counted on was that in times of stress he always listened to Andrew, and he went immediately, hiding behind the nearest tree. Andrew slipped two knives out of his sheathes and stood facing the direction the footsteps were coming from. He readied a knife to throw.

“Andrew!” he heard a panting voice cry out, just before Kevin came crashing through the undergrowth. Andrew lowered the knife he’d been seconds away from launching and re-sheathed them.

“Do you have a death wish, Kevin?”

Aaron stepped out from behind the tree. “You asshole. You scared the shit out of us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Andrew said, and Aaron scowled.

Kevin doubled over, hands on his knees, breathing heavily and retching every few seconds. He’d obviously been running flat out, and all of a sudden Andrew realised the most troubling thing about this sight.

“Where’s Neil? Where the fuck is Neil?” Andrew demanded, closing the gap between him and Kevin in a mere second, hoisting him up so he could see Kevin’s face.

“Gorilla — one of Riko’s men — he’s here, it was his fire Coach and Abby saw last night,” Kevin got out between heaving breaths.

“Wait, who’s here? Riko?”

“Riko’s here?” Aaron asked incredulously, cutting an automatic glance to Kevin’s ruined hand.

“No, no. Not Riko. Gorilla. Remember? The big one?”

Kevin had been alone with a broken hand when Andrew and his family had found him, but they had one unfortunate run in with Kevin's previous gang — Riko and the Ravens — after that as they made their journey to find Coach. Andrew had killed three of Riko’s crew in the encounter; it had been a miracle that none of Andrew’s lot had been injured or killed. Andrew didn’t know Riko as well as Kevin did, but he knew enough to know that Riko wouldn’t take it lying down.

And now Gorilla, one of his own, was here apparently. On their turf. It couldn’t be a coincidence. And it also didn’t explain why Neil wasn’t with Kevin.

“I remember. Where’s Neil?” Andrew asked again. He resisted the urge to get his knives back out.

“He’s watching Gorilla, we didn’t want to lose sight of him.”

“You left him alone?”

“He’s the one who sent me to get you!”

“Where the fuck did you leave him?” Andrew could hardly believe what he was hearing. Number one rule; no one got left on their own. Safety in numbers.

“Gorilla was just under the overpass, we were watching him from the treeline. Andrew, Neil told me to come and get you,” Kevin insisted, clearly eager not to incur Andrew’s wrath. “I told him to stay out of sight. He’s not stupid, he’ll be okay.”

Andrew bit back his immediate angry retort; it could wait for later and he’d already wasted enough time. “You two, take the water and go back to the stadium. Go tell Coach what’s going on, but tell him I’m handling it.”

“What does that mean?” Aaron said dubiously.

“It means I’m handling it,” Andrew snapped. “I’m going to find Neil.”

He took off without a backwards glance, ignoring Aaron calling his name, and headed through the trees the way Kevin had just come from. He couldn’t believe Kevin had left Neil. He couldn’t believe Neil had taken it upon himself to stay and watch Gorilla in the first place. His thoughts kept running through scenarios, each one as intolerable as the last. What if Gorilla wasn’t alone? What if Neil got ambushed? What if Neil got hurt, or killed? What if Neil ran? What if Andrew got there and Neil was just. . . gone?

The last interaction they’d had, no more than an hour earlier, Andrew had given Neil a lazy two fingered salute and said, “Happy hunting.” Was that going to be it?

Just this morning, Neil had given Andrew his real name, along with a bonus — Abram, his middle name, a name Neil clearly hadn’t intended to reveal. And yet he had revealed it. A truth just for Andrew, given in trust. And Andrew had returned that trust by agreeing to move into the locker room against his better judgement. Just because Neil and his stupid blue eyes filled with misplaced concern had thought to ask; had been worried enough to trade personal information in exchange for Andrew being a bit warmer at night.

And now, Neil was in danger — potentially life-threatening danger — and he’d asked for Andrew specifically.

Andrew cursed the day Neil had entered his life. He started to run.

Chapter Text

It only took Andrew fifteen minutes to reach the area Kevin had told him Neil would be, and by that time, a wintry mist had descended in the woods, making an already dangerous game of hide and seek infinitely more difficult.

Neil wasn’t there.

Andrew even went right down to the underpass and found the remains of the fire where Gorilla had obviously been staying, but he, too, was gone. Neil must be following him, because the alternatives were that Neil had been taken or killed or hurt, and Andrew didn’t like any of those options. Neil following a gigantic, murderous psychopath was, bizarrely enough, the lesser evil here.

Andrew headed back up to the woods and tried to decide which way to go. He wished it was snowing — that way, there would at least be footprints for him to follow. As it was, the ground was dry and crisp, and Andrew had never been much of a tracker. In the mist, he was travelling almost blind and everything about the situation set his teeth on edge. Calling Neil’s name was absolutely the worst thing Andrew could currently do, but despite that, he had to suppress the compulsion to do it anyway. He couldn’t broadcast his own location — it might draw Neil closer but Neil wasn’t the only one out here. Andrew didn’t want Neil and Gorilla to run into each other in the mist.

Abruptly, Andrew hated Neil with an all-consuming ferocity. He hated everything about him, and he hated that he didn’t hate him at all, not really. Not in the traditional sense. Not in the way he hated Riko or Tilda or Luther. He hated that Neil made him feel.

Andrew wasn’t used to aimless fear. He wasn’t used to worrying about someone who wasn’t Aaron. He protected Nicky and Kevin, too, but it wasn’t quite at the same level; it wasn’t his purpose to look after them. Nicky had earned Andrew’s loyalty time and time again, by coming for Andrew and Aaron when the world fell and by always having their backs on the road. As for Kevin, whilst his and Andrew’s deal may have been over as soon as they found Coach, Andrew had gotten used to having him around. Seeing as Kevin was the main reason Andrew and his family now had a semi-comfortable, semi-secure life, Andrew figured that he, too, had earned his place within the group. Aaron, however, had been Andrew’s priority from the minute his fever broke seven years earlier.

Andrew wasn’t sure where Neil fit into this hierarchy, but it felt high. And right now, it had never felt higher.

Andrew hated heights.

He walked in a circle, inspecting the ground and looking for a snapped twig, crunched leaves, anything that might indicate which way Neil had gone. There was nothing, and Andrew increased his circle, but was wary of losing his bearings, particularly when visibility had already been lowered by the mist. He was just about to pick a random direction and hope for the best, when something black on the floor caught his eye, a few feet away. Andrew hurried over and inspected it; it was a glove, and it had been placed in such a way that the index finger was pointing. It was one of Neil’s gloves. Andrew recognised it because they used to belong to him, but he had given them to Neil when he noticed that Neil’s were full of holes.

Andrew clenched the glove tightly and then put it in his pocket. It wouldn’t have fallen that way if Neil had dropped it accidentally or if there had been a struggle. It was put there deliberately; a message for Andrew.

Neil was showing him the way.


 

Neil was both thankful for the mist as it made him harder to see, and also hindered by it as it made Gorilla harder to see. At the moment, he couldn’t see Gorilla at all, but he could still hear his footsteps, and it was mostly this that told Neil he was still on the right track.

He was fucking terrified. Kevin’s foreboding words had certainly been effective, but as much as Neil just wanted to retreat back to the relative safety of the Foxhole Court, Gorilla did not seem like someone they wanted roaming free on their turf. The fact that Kevin knew him, that he had something to do with where Kevin was before he joined Andrew, was highly unsettling. They needed answers from Gorilla, ideally. Either that, or they needed him dead.

Andrew should be looking for Neil by now. He hoped that Andrew would find the glove. Neil had to place the second one on the ground, too, when Gorilla had changed directions. The problem now was that Neil had run out of gloves, and he didn’t much fancy having to lose any other items of clothing. He just had to hope that Gorilla stayed on his current course.

The current course, however, would take them past the stream. It shouldn’t be a problem; Kevin had had more than enough time to get there and tell Andrew what was going on, and Neil highly doubted that Kevin and Aaron would stick around after that. In all likelihood they would have gone back to warn Coach and the others. Neil let the thought stabilise him; back-up was coming. He wouldn’t be alone for too much longer.

All of a sudden, Neil froze. He couldn’t hear Gorilla’s lumbering footsteps any longer, and had been so lost in his own head that he hadn’t registered at what point they’d stopped. The visibility was so low that Neil could only clearly see about fifteen foot in front of him, give or take, and Gorilla had been just beyond that for the last few minutes. Neil had been relying on being able to hear Gorilla to keep him heading the right direction, and now, he’d gotten distracted and had lost him.

Neil took a few hurried steps forward to see if he could pick up the trail again, but then he stopped. He was struck by an icy bolt of fear as he considered the fact that he was being lured into a trap. He felt immediately exposed. Hunted.

Panic was an instantaneous reaction, and Neil lunged for the nearest tree, catching the lowest branch and hoisting himself up. He reached for the next, but a gigantic hand wrapped around his ankle and pulled.

Neil came tumbling out of the tree, smacking the back of his head against the lower branch and landing flat on his back. He saw stars for a second and his ears were ringing, but when they cleared, an ugly brute of a man loomed over him, twisted grin on his face.

“Looks like I’ve caught me a squirrel,” he said.

Neil gave himself a second to assess how hurt he was; he’d have a nasty bump on his head but didn’t think it was much more serious, and a patch of grass had cushioned his fall somewhat. He’d be bruised at worst but was probably okay, as long as he could get out of this. He had to bide for time.

“Who are you?” he spat at Gorilla, who still had a hold of Neil’s ankle.

“Who am I? You’re the one who was following me. What’s the deal? You could have just said hello. I don’t bite.” He grinned cruelly. “Actually, maybe you could help me out. I’m looking for an old buddy of mine, Kevin. Fucked up hand, shitty homemade tattoo of the number 2 on his cheek?”

Neil squirmed in Gorilla’s grip — he had no intention of telling Gorilla anything about Kevin, or anything else for that matter.

“No?” Gorilla continued. “Never mind, I’ll find him. Now, what to do with you?”

Neil had to get away from him. He kicked out with his free foot and while Gorilla swerved back to avoid getting hit, grabbed his switchblade and slashed at Gorilla’s arm.

Gorilla cried out in pain and surprise and let go, clutching his now injured arm to his chest. Neil scrambled to his feet and started to run.

“Big mistake, squirrel!” Gorilla yelled, any trace of his earlier amusement now vanished entirely. This was all rage now. “I’m gonna fuckin’ tear you apart.”

Heavy footsteps began to lumber after Neil, and he urged himself faster. His ankle hurt from being gripped too tightly by Gorilla, and the bump to his head made running painful. Gorilla was going to catch him.


 

Andrew had just found the second glove when he heard the muffled shout from a voice that was decidedly not Neil’s, and he picked up the pace. It couldn’t possibly be a good thing; it likely meant that Gorilla was now aware of Neil’s presence.

It was still a risk to shout, but Andrew knew that he was running out of time.

“Neil!” he called through the mist, still moving toward where he had heard the shouting a moment earlier. “Neil!”

“Andrew, run!” came Neil’s discombobulated voice. He sounded strained and out of breath — it was impossible to tell if he had been hurt or not. But if he was telling Andrew to run, he was probably being pursued himself.

Andrew had two knives out and ready as he thundered through the trees towards Neil.


 

“Who was that, squirrel? Got friends out here?” Gorilla sneered tauntingly. Neil was still ahead but not by much. Hearing Andrew’s voice was little comfort now that Gorilla was so close behind him — he didn’t want Andrew to get hurt. It was a sudden and overwhelming feeling, but he abruptly regretted getting Kevin to fetch Andrew. He regretted following Gorilla in the first place. He wanted to live. He wanted Andrew to live. He hoped Andrew had been listening when Neil yelled at him to run.

Gorilla didn’t like that Neil hadn’t responded. “They can’t help you now,” he snarled, and his voice was so menacing that Neil had to peer over his shoulder to see what he was doing, to see how close he was.

It was thanks to this decision that Neil registered the movement when Gorilla threw a blade of indeterminate size at him, and just had the time to swerve.

Swerving prevented the knife sticking in his back, but Neil hadn't quite been quick enough to avoid it completely and he felt a searing pain spread across his side as it caught him on the way past, cutting through his jacket, his t-shirt and a good portion of his skin. Neil yelped in pain and stumbled to the ground, clutching his side. He could feel blood, hot over his bare hands in the winter air.

Neil,” Andrew called again, closer and more urgent this time.

“Andrew, go,” Neil choked out, but he didn’t know if he was loud enough for Andrew to hear him. He tried to get back to his feet, but Gorilla was already there, kicking Neil’s wrist so he collapsed back to the ground, unable to pull himself up.

“End of the line, squirrel.”


 

The mist finally parted, putting Neil in Andrew’s line of sight at last, but he wasn’t the only one there. Gorilla, just as huge and horrifying as Andrew remembered from their last (albeit brief) encounter, was looming over Neil, a knife in his hand.

Andrew didn’t wait; he launched one of his knives with deadly accuracy and it embedded in Gorilla’s thigh; he staggered backwards with a howl, and Neil half crawled, half dragged himself out of the way. He was hurt, it was obvious now.

Gorilla shot a look at Andrew, recognition flickering across his pale and sweat-beaded face as he clutched his leg. His arm was also bleeding, Andrew noticed — Neil had clearly gone down swinging. “You,” Gorilla spat out viciously.

Andrew said nothing but hurried to Neil’s side. Gorilla started to limp away, and Andrew threw the other knife but he had the angle wrong; it clattered useless off a tree near Gorilla’s head, and then Gorilla disappeared into the mist.

Andrew was torn; go after him, or get Neil back to the stadium immediately?

“Andrew,” Neil said through gritted teeth, and Andrew’s mind was already made up. It was too risky to go after Gorilla in the mist anyway — he may be wounded now but it didn’t make him any less dangerous.

“Where are you hurt?” Andrew asked Neil calmly.

“He got me in the side with a knife — listen, I’m fine, Andrew, we should kill him, he’s dangerous—”

“I’m gonna need you to shut the fuck up,” Andrew snapped. Neil had a hand clasped tightly to his side and Andrew could see blood — too much blood - stark and red against Neil’s hands. “Let me see,” Andrew said, pulling off Neil’s jacket and trying to lift up his t-shirt to get a closer look.

Neil allowed his jacket to be removed but pushed Andrew’s hands away when he got too close to his t-shirt. “No, it’s fine, Andrew, you don’t need to look,” he said, gasping breaths that gave away how much pain he was in.

“Neil, you’re bleeding. I fucking do need to look,” Andrew insisted, and Neil finally gave over to Andrew’s ministrations. Andrew hoisted up the bottom half of Neil’s t-shirt, and belatedly realised that Neil had been trying to keep Andrew from seeing his scars. A great many of them crisscrossed over his stomach, the majority looking like they had come from blades of some description. Another scraping scar of ruined skin travelled up the opposite side to Neil’s latest injury, that looked like it had been caused by being dragged across a hard, rough surface. Tarmac, perhaps; rolling out of a car, or falling from a bike.

Andrew didn’t care about these scars though. He cared about the brand new slash across Neil’s left side, just above his hip. On closer inspection, it wasn’t that deep — Neil’s jacket had taken the brunt — but it was long, and would definitely need stitches. Not to mention that where it was, it would keep catching and tearing every time Neil moved. It was going to be painful while it healed. Andrew needed to get him back to Abby. Now.

He tied Neil’s jacket tight around his middle so that it would slow down the bleeding, ignoring Neil’s pained groan when it squeezed his wound. Then he took off his own jacket and manhandled Neil into it.

“Keep your jacket, you’ll get cold, I’m fine,” Neil said, but yet again, Andrew paid him no mind.

“Are you hurt anywhere else? Be honest.”

Neil shrugged, then winced as it pulled at his side, and Andrew resisted the urge to punch him in the face for being so stupid. “He pulled me out of a tree and I banged my head on a branch. Then I landed on my back on the ground. And my ankle is a little hurt from where he grabbed it so tight.”

Andrew carefully put his hand to the back of Neil’s head and felt around. A bump was already forming, and what felt like a slight graze, but when Andrew pulled his hand away there was no blood on it, so at least Neil hadn’t cracked his head open. Abby could get a better look at the stadium.

“Okay,” Andrew said, and gently hoisted Neil to his feet. He pulled Neil’s arm around his shoulders, gripped his wrist in his hand and wrapped his other arm around Neil’s waist. “Time to go.”

“Where are we going?” Neil asked, pain lacing every word.

“I’m taking you back to Abby, and she’s going to fix you up and make you all better, and then I’m going to kill you myself because you are so monumentally stupid,” Andrew said, forcing lightness into his tone to try and cut through the very real anger he could feel pulsing through his veins.

Neil huffed a breathy laugh. “Fair enough,” he said.


 

It took much longer than Andrew would have liked just to get Neil out of the woods and back onto the road. It was a little easier on the road because it was flatter and there were less obstacles, but Neil’s limp was now fairly pronounced and Andrew was carrying most of his weight. Andrew could handle it, but it did mean that he was considerably slower than he would have been on his own.

A few minutes out from the turning to campus, and the mist had turned into fog so thick that Andrew didn’t see the others until he and Neil practically walked into them. Matt, Seth, Kevin and Aaron, coming out to find them.

“Jesus fuck, Neil?” Matt said anxiously, a stricken look on his face as he took in Andrew and Neil before him.

“I’m fine,” Neil ground out.

“He’s not fine,” Andrew snapped. “He got slashed by an airborne knife, he needs Abby.”

Shit,” Matt said, and he reached for Neil.

“I've got him,” Andrew said irritably, tightening his grip.

“Andrew, you brought him this far and thank fuck for that, but if I carry him, this is all gonna go a lot faster,” Matt said reasonably, and Andrew reluctantly relinquished Neil into Matt’s waiting arms. Matt swooped Neil up bridal style.

Neil, who now seemed a little dazed and vaguely surprised at no longer being on his feet, slurred out, “Andrew?”

“I’m coming,” Andrew said, following right behind Matt.

“What happened with Gorilla?” Kevin asked, falling into step beside Andrew.

“He pulled Neil out of a tree, then chucked a knife at him. I think Neil managed to cut him in the arm with his switchblade, and I threw a knife into his thigh. Missed the artery, unfortunately, but he’s still in a world of pain right about now.”

“You didn’t kill him?” Kevin asked incredulously.

Andrew levelled a dangerous look on Kevin. “I was a little preoccupied with a bleeding Neil. You might remember him — 5’3, blue eyes, smart mouth, you left him alone watching a psycho, currently being carried like a princess by Matt?”

Kevin looked away, sheepish.

Seth cut in. “We should go and find him. If he’s hurt, it’s the perfect time. We’ll just get rid of him.”

Andrew shook his head. “We’ll never find him in this,” he gestured to the fog. “We’ll end up going in circles. We’re more likely to hurt each other than him. But look, he can’t go far, not with that leg now. We’ll wait until the fog clears and then see if we can find him.”

Seth growled in irritation. “We’re wasting time,” he said.

“If you want to go on a blind hunt, feel free,” Aaron said dryly. “No one’s stopping you.”

Seth glared at Aaron but seemingly conceded defeat.

“Andrew,” Neil murmured again.

“He’s coming, Neil,” Matt answered this time.

“Okay,” Neil said, and he shut his eyes.

“I’m going to fucking kill him,” Andrew muttered, clenching his fists.

“Who,” Aaron asked, “Gorilla? Or Neil?”

Andrew exhaled slowly. “Both.” He felt his brother’s contemplative gaze on his face, but ignored him. Let him think what he wanted. Let them all fucking think whatever they wanted. Andrew didn’t care.


 

The next couple of hours or so were foggy to Neil. He was vaguely aware of being carried, and then of worried faces crowding around him, before he was placed on the bed in Abby’s medical office and she saw to him.

He remembered flashes of pain, Abby’s calming voice murmuring reassurances, and then a pleasant sort of numbness before he slowly started coming back to himself.

He felt across his side and found his wound covered in gauze, taped up tight. Presumably, It had been stitched up. Neil gingerly felt the bump on the back of his head and winced.

“Careful,” said Abby’s voice, and Neil startled. He hadn’t realised she was still in the room. She wet a cloth from a bucket of water on the counter and squeezed it out, then came over and lightly pressed it to the back of Neil’s head. It was cool and soothing and he leaned back into it.

Abby started absently rubbing Neil’s shoulder, and it was then that he suddenly realised he wasn’t wearing his shirt anymore.

“Abby,” he said quietly. “My shirt. Where is it?”

“We had to take it off you, Neil, it’s pretty ruined.”

“Who did?”

“Andrew and I. No one else was in here,” she said, and her tone made it abundantly clear that she knew why Neil was worried. “Hold this.” She moved his hand up to keep the compress against his bump and then went over to the door. She opened it just a crack, and Neil heard her say, “Andrew, could you go and get Neil a clean t-shirt for me? Thanks.” She turned back to Neil and waited.

He didn’t know what she wanted him to say. “You can't ask. I won’t talk to you about them,” he said hoarsely, free hand coming up to cover the iron burn on his shoulder. Not that it mattered; Abby and Andrew had already seen all of his scars by now.

“That’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to. But I hope you know that we’re all here for you, Neil. You don’t need to feel like you have to hide.” She smiled kindly, but Neil just curled further in on himself. He felt profoundly exposed.

There was a light knock on the door, and Abby turned to let Andrew in. He entered and Abby shut the door again behind him. “You gave us all quite the fright, Neil,” Abby said. “Andrew especially.”

Andrew scowled and helped Neil get his t-shirt on so that he didn’t tear his new stitches. “Did not,” Andrew said, but Neil found himself smiling a little.

“Sorry,” he said. “It was probably a bad idea to try and take on someone who has over a foot on me all on my own.”

“Probably,” Andrew agreed, but there was a tension in his frame that told Neil he wasn’t best pleased. Whether he was angry at Neil, Kevin, the situation with Gorilla, or a mixture of all three, Neil wasn’t entirely sure.

Neil felt something, warm inside of him. Andrew had come for him, and Andrew had gotten him to safety. He felt overcome with this nameless thing that was between him and Andrew; the thing that Andrew would insist was nothing, the thing that Neil didn’t really understand.

But whatever it was, it was there.

Abby cleared her throat, and Neil realised that a longer than comfortable moment had passed with him and Andrew staring at each other.

“I think everyone’s waiting to see you, Neil,” Abby said, and she sounded a little apologetic. “David wants us to have a little family meeting, as well.”

Andrew helped Neil off the bed, and a twinge in his ankle reminded him of that injury, too. It was inconvenient, but not too bad. It would be alright in a couple of days probably, as long as Neil didn’t do anything stupid. Even so, Andrew helped him limp out of Abby’s office and into the lounge, where Dan was the first to spot him and she let out a little cheer.

“There he is!” she said brightly, but her relief was evident. So was everyone’s to be honest, and guilt swirled in Neil's gut, unfamiliar and unwelcome.

“You okay, kid?” Coach asked, and Neil nodded, attempting a small smile.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“Sure you are,” Nicky said. “You only got, like, stabbed basically. But yeah. Fine.”

Aaron moved so Neil could sit on the sofa, Andrew perching next to him, and once he was settled Neil realised everyone was still looking at him.

“Did, uh, did Matt carry me at some point?”

Allison snorted. “Like you were his own child,” she said.

“I got your back, bro,” Matt said, grinning, and Neil couldn’t help but grin back.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t thank me, thank Andrew. He’s the one that dragged your ass out of the woods in the fucking fog.”

Neil glanced at Andrew. “Thanks,” he said quietly, but Andrew just rolled his eyes.

“We’re glad you’re okay, Neil,” Renee said in that calm way of hers. Out of everyone at the Foxhole Court, Renee was the one who made Neil feel the most uncomfortable, and he’d never been able to pinpoint exactly why. She was nice — ridiculously nice, almost — but there was something about her that didn’t quite add up. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she had been the one who had first spotted Neil under the bridge all those months ago. Or maybe it was that he often didn’t realise she was there until she was right next to him — she had an unerring way of sneaking up on people, and yet she didn’t seem to be doing it in a deliberately unnerving way. It was like it was just her nature.

But still, she was nice. And Andrew seemed to trust her, and so Neil nodded. “I didn’t mean to worry anyone,” he told her. But then he frowned, and looked to Kevin. “Now can someone please tell me who the fuck that Gorilla guy is, and how he knows Kevin, and what the fuck is going on?”

Coach sighed. “Get comfy, kid. It’s a long story.”

Chapter Text

The story of Kevin went like this.

Born to Kayleigh Day, developer of Exy, Kevin was a prodigy from the time he could walk. Exy royalty before he ever even held a racquet and clearly destined for a bright and award-winning future. But no one held him to a higher standard than himself.

He didn’t know who his father was until he was fourteen, when he had been a junior champion with the world at his feet. Of course, the world then changed, abruptly and cruelly, and survival became the only aspiration that mattered. There was nothing else. Barricaded inside their house, Kayleigh was one of the unlucky, sickness-stricken and not long for the world. With one of her final moments of lucidity, she wrote a letter to David Wymack, and gave it to Kevin with an address and a photograph of an unsmiling man with kind eyes who Kevin had never met and yet who seemed achingly familiar.

“He’s your father,” Kayleigh said. “I lied when I got pregnant, so he doesn’t know that you’re his, but it’s all in the letter. Find him, and he’ll take care of you. He’s a good man.” She put her hand weakly to Kevin’s face. “I’m sorry I won’t be there, my little love. But you should be with family.”

It was the last thing she managed to say, and she died two days later after drifting in and out of consciousness.

So Kevin had a letter to a man he’d never met, a photograph, and an address. What he also had was no idea how to get to South Carolina. He didn’t drive yet — he wasn’t supposed to start for another two months. He was alone and frightened, and so full of grief and anger, and he didn’t want to go and track down this stranger who was his father.

He couldn’t stay where he was in the house he had shared with his mother. It was too full of memories that threatened to choke him if he stayed wrapped up in them for too long. Kevin did the only thing he could think of; he packed a bag and went to school. Maybe a teacher would be there, somebody he knew, somebody who could help. Somebody who could make decisions for him, so he didn’t have to make his own.

Once he got there, it was a ghost town. Empty schools were eerie places; there was something unsettling about a place usually so full of noise and kids and hustle and bustle being devoid of life. A sense of wrongness that Kevin couldn’t quite shake. He went to the cafeteria last to see what he could scavenge, and so he could sit down and try and figure out a new plan.

In the cafeteria, however, Kevin discovered that he hadn’t been the only one with the idea of coming to the school. Sitting at one of the tables and sorting through an array of tinned goods they’d obviously pilfered from the cafeteria store-room, were two other boys Kevin’s age. One was Riko Moriyama, Kevin’s best friend and teammate. They were a matched set on the Exy court, and near enough inseparable off of it. Until, of course, their current situation.

“Riko,” Kevin breathed, and both the other boys looked up.

Kevin recognised the other as Jean Moreau, a French exchange student who had been staying with Riko and his uncle for a few weeks, and would have been due to return to France in time for Christmas. Evidently, he’d been unable to, and Kevin felt a pang of sympathy. He’d lost his mother, but Jean had no idea what had happened to his family, and no way of getting in touch, or getting home. He was utterly displaced.

Riko got to his feet, eyes wide. “You’re not dead then,” he said, and Kevin shook his head. “We were going to come to your house next to see if you were still there. Your mother. . . ?”

Kevin gritted his teeth and shook his head again. When he could speak, he asked, “Your uncle?”

“No,” Riko replied, nothing of Kevin’s own grief in his tone.

Riko sat back down, and Kevin joined the two of them at the table, a strange silence befalling the new little trio. Kevin eventually broke it. “What do we do now?” he asked.

“We survive,” Riko said without hesitation.

And Kevin didn’t know exactly what that would entail, whether they’d stay at the school or move on, plus a thousand other little questions he wanted the answers to. But at the very least, he wasn’t alone anymore, and for now, that was enough.

They did stay at the school for a little while. Some other kids showed up, and a couple moved along, but most stayed, wanting whatever protection being part of a group could offer them. Riko fell easily into the position of leader, and he adopted the nickname of the school’s Exy team for their new gang of survivors. They were the Ravens now.

Eventually, they moved on after exhausting the school’s food supply, and took to the road. They’d gathered weapons where they could; mostly knives which were easier to find, but Riko had returned to his house and retrieved his uncle’s gun collection and ammunition.

“Do you even know how to use these?” Kevin had asked warily, and Riko had grinned, a cruel looking thing. Kevin couldn’t remember if Riko’s smiles had always looked so menacing, or if this was just a side-effect of the apocalypse. Nothing was the same anymore.

“’Course I do.” He pushed one into Kevin’s hands. “You need one, to protect yourself.”

Kevin tried to hand it back. “We shouldn’t be playing around with these. We’re — we’re kids for fuck’s sake.”

Riko back-handed him so quickly, Kevin barely registered what had happened, and it was the shock more than the pain that made him rear back away from Riko.

“I didn’t want to do that, Kevin. Don’t make me do that again, alright?” Riko said. “But look around you. We’re not kids anymore, no adults are going to come and save us. We look out for ourselves now, get it? I’ll look after you.” Then he squeezed Kevin’s shoulder and slipped the gun into Kevin’s pocket.

That was the first warning sign.

Out on the road, a tentative hierarchy fell into place. Riko, naturally, was at the top. Kevin was heralded as second-in-command, purely because Riko proclaimed him as such. He had done nothing to earn such a high standing other than being Riko’s best friend, and it was a position he felt supremely uncomfortable with. Jean fell in line next, which was somewhat strange as Riko treated him appallingly. Jean did everything that Riko said with a hollow look in his eyes and was often on the receiving end of Riko’s increasing violent tendencies when his temper got the better of him. Kevin only tried to step in once, but his involvement only made it worse for Jean, who was punished soundly for Kevin’s interference. Kevin tried to help Jean tend to his wounds afterwards a couple of times, but Jean put a stop to this. “Don’t,” he said in heavily accented English. “If he knows you helped me, he will take it out on me, not you.” Not wanting to inadvertently incite Riko’s ire against Jean, Kevin had to stand back and let it happen. Jean was number 3 in name only, probably just included because he happened to be with Riko at the time the world fell — it was as if Riko just wanted him to know that he and Kevin would always come first.

These positions became a very visible reminder when Riko decided they needed to be marked as such. Three sterilized needles from a travel sized sewing kit and some ink and one of the Ravens who had the steadiest hand later, and Riko, Kevin and Jean all sported numbered tattoos on their faces. Kevin hadn’t wanted it — it was ridiculous to risk infection so unnecessarily; it was a waste of rubbing alcohol that could have been used in a real medical emergency. But it had become a case of what Riko says, goes, and Riko wanted everyone to know where they stood. They were the only three awarded tattoos, however. Riko said the others could get one if and when he felt they’d ‘earned’ it.

They picked up a few more stragglers on their travels, but only if Riko thought they were strong enough. That’s how they found Gorilla, who was a little older than them, but deferred to Riko on everything. Kevin hated him; he was the kind of cruel that Riko was turning out to be. Despite Gorilla being Riko’s preferred muscle, he kept him at arms length, and Gorilla was constantly trying to prove his worth, wanting his own numbered tattoo as proof of his unshakable place in Riko’s hierarchy.

I should have that number,” Gorilla told Kevin on several occasions when Riko wasn’t in earshot. Kevin would silence him with a glare, his position as Riko’s number 2 — as Riko’s favourite — still holding weight. But he never told Gorilla that if he could, he’d rip that number 2 right off his own face and stick it to Gorilla’s, if it only meant he could be free of what it represented.

But this was what life was like now. It was hard and bizarre and everyone was irrevocably changed from who they used to be. You had to change if you wanted to survive, that was what Riko kept telling Kevin. And Kevin believed him. For the longest time, he believed him.

Throughout it all, Kevin kept the letter his mother had given him, and the photograph, and the address where David Wymack lived — or at least had lived. Kevin wondered if he was even still alive, and what he’d say if Kevin ever actually showed up. Not that it mattered now.

Jean caught him looking at the photograph one night when they were camped out in the woods. Everyone else was asleep.

“Who is that?” Jean asked, making Kevin jump when he crept up behind him and looked over his shoulder. Jean had an uncanny way of moving around without being heard.

Kevin saw no point in lying. “My father,” he said.

“Did he die, too?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met him. My mom gave me this and a letter before she died and told me to go and find him.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Kevin shrugged. “Maybe I would have. But I was scared and alone, and I went to the school first, to see if there was anyone there I knew.”

Understanding crossed Jean’s face. “And you found me and Riko instead.”

Kevin nodded.

Jean huffed out a quiet laugh, one devoid of any humour. “You stupid bastard. Bet you wished you’d gone straight to your father now.”

Kevin felt his hackles rise instinctively, defensive. “I don’t know anything about him. Odds are he’s not even alive. And I don’t even know how I would have got there—”

“You never even tried,” Jean interrupted with an off-hand shrug, and Kevin struggled but failed to come up with a response. He folded the letter and put that and the photograph back in his pocket. Jean watched him. “Does Riko know you have those?” he asked.

Kevin frowned thoughtfully. “No,” he said. “I never told him. I don’t know why.”

“Smart,” Jean said. “This way you have an escape route.”

“What do I need an escape route for? I can leave whenever I want.”

Jean arched a dubious eyebrow. “Can you?”

“Of course. And so can you, Jean, you’re not a prisoner.”

Jean shook his head and muttered something in French under his breath. He’d taught Kevin some, but it was too quiet and hurried for Kevin to follow. Eventually he turned back to Kevin, a dead look behind his eyes. “If that was true, do you really think I’d still be here?”

“Jean—”

“Goodnight, Kevin,” Jean said abruptly, then got to his feet and started walking away. He paused, peering back at Kevin over his shoulder, and for a moment he looked impossibly vulnerable. When he spoke it was barely a whisper, but Kevin heard him well enough. “If you ever go, take me with you.”

He left before Kevin could respond.

The years passed slowly, Riko becoming crueler, Kevin becoming meeker. After initially having the Ravens be mere scavengers, same as most other survivors, Riko had gradually moved them onto bandit-like territory, stealing from other groups. Sometimes this went peacefully, with people not wanting trouble and simply giving Riko what he wanted in return for not getting hurt. Others put up a fight, and these were the ones Riko relished. Gorilla always came into his own on such occasions — people got killed more than once, and Riko always got what he wanted in the end. Kevin hardly ever got involved in the fighting, staying well back until it was over, and only engaging if someone attacked him first. He knew how to fight and could hold his own, and he’d always managed to do it without killing anyone.

He tried to talk about it with Riko away from prying ears, knowing not to call him out with an audience. It would be insubordination, and Riko would punish accordingly. Other people got punished violently, but Kevin’s punishments tended to lean more on the psychological side, with others getting hurt in his stead. More often than not it was Jean who bore the brunt when Kevin said something out of turn. It was better to not say anything at all.

But he tried, sometimes.

“We don’t need to do this. We don’t need to kill people, Riko. We have enough to get by, and we can find more without anyone having to get hurt. We did it before.”

“Kevin,” Riko started, putting his hands on Kevin’s shoulders. “Those people started it. They would have killed us. We had to defend ourselves. Didn’t I tell you I’d always look out for you?”

Kevin bit back the retort that actually, the Ravens had started it by trying to take what wasn’t theirs in the first place. Explaining that to Riko would get him nowhere, and it wasn’t worth the potential risk of Riko losing his temper.

Kevin often found himself looking at Riko and searching for the boy he used to know, his best friend, his partner on the Exy court, but there was nothing of him left. This Riko had been shaped by the apocalypse, and he liked it. He was in his element in this world; a world with no rules, no consequences, no one to stop you from doing whatever the hell you wanted.

Kevin hated it, but still, he stayed. Because at the root of everything else, Kevin was afraid. Afraid to step out on his own and make his own way. He didn’t want to die, and with Riko and the Ravens, at least he had security. He swallowed his own shame and carried on, because he didn’t know what else to do. He looked at the letter at night when he was alone, re-reading the words he already knew so well, before shoving it back in his pocket again. It didn’t matter anymore. David Wymack would be dead by now.

It was easier for Kevin to make it through the day if he believed that. It made staying with Riko his only option.

One day, the Ravens had come across a much larger group that seemed to be using a decrepit old department store as a base. After spying for a few days, Riko decided he wanted what they had, which included a lot of weapons, not to mention various other goodies that had been left behind in the store. Riko deemed it fit for the taking, but even he wasn’t stupid enough to barge in while they were so outnumbered. He opted for a different approach.

He had Gorilla kidnap two of their own when they were out fetching water, a girl and a boy, neither older than twelve years old. They’d had an adult with them, and Gorilla had let him go with a message from Riko, saying that the children would be released unharmed if — and only if — the people living in the department store had vacated it within twenty-four hours. Failure to comply would result in the death of the children.

Kevin was quietly furious and horrified when he found out. The group at the department store would do what Riko asked, of that Kevin was fairly certain, but Kevin himself had reached his absolute limit. If he’d been wondering where his line in the sand was, he’d found it. He wouldn't be a part of this anymore.

That night, he knocked out the Raven on watch with a single, well-aimed punch, and untied the children, sending them on their way. Then, he crept over to their supplies, intending on taking just a few things. He was just about to go and wake Jean so they could get the hell out of there, when someone clearing their throat behind him made Kevin whirl around.

Riko stood watching him, his expression unnervingly blank. Gorilla lingered behind, looking on with thinly-veiled glee. He’d been waiting for Kevin’s downfall since the first day he joined the Ravens.

“Kevin,” Riko said, deceptively calm. “How could you? After everything I’ve done for you, you ruin my bullet-proof plan to help us survive, then you try and steal from me in the night?” He shook his head. “I never thought I’d be betrayed by my own best friend.”

“It’s not what it looks like,” Kevin started hurriedly, but he didn’t know how to explain himself, because it was exactly what it looked like.

“Save it,” Riko snapped. Then he sighed, and ran a hand down his face, as if it pained him to have to reprimand Kevin for his actions. “I can’t let this go, Kevin. Not this time.”

Kevin’s thoughts leapt to Jean immediately. “No — he didn’t do anything, leave him alone,” he said quickly.

“Who?” Riko arched an eyebrow. “Jean? Oh, I know. You get your own punishment this time. Interesting that you’re so quick to jump to his defense, though. I’ll remember that,” he said wickedly. He glanced at Gorilla, then jerked his head at Kevin. “Hold him,” he ordered.

For someone so big, Gorilla moved fast, and before Kevin had a chance to move, Gorilla was there. He grabbed Kevin’s left wrist then yanked him forward, sticking his leg out so that Kevin tripped over it. Once on the ground, Gorilla pressed his knee into Kevin’s back, using his body weight to keep him pinned, then he tightened his grip on Kevin’s wrist. Kevin’s right arm was caught between his body and the ground; he was utterly immobilised.

“Riko. . .” Kevin said, desperation seeping into his tone. He didn’t know what was about to happen; he didn’t know if that made it worse or not.

Riko smiled, and from behind his back he produced a baseball bat, one of his favourite weapons since he had taken it from a camp of people they had ambushed months ago.

Kevin’s stomach dropped and he started wriggling in Gorilla’s unforgiving grip. “Riko, don’t.”

Riko crouched in front of Kevin and started trying to level Kevin’s fingers out from where they were currently fisted in the ground. Kevin squeezed his hand shut with what little autonomy he had left, but Gorilla dug his thumb into the pressure point in Kevin’s wrist and that did the trick. Once Riko had gotten Kevin’s hand palm-down, flat on the ground, he seized Kevin’s chin, forcing him to look at him.

“I take no pleasure in this, but you brought it on yourself.” He leaned back and raised the bat in his hand, and Kevin realised with horrifying clarity what was about to happen. “This is going to hurt, Kevin, but try and keep the noise down. The others are sleeping.”

Without further ado, Riko brought the bat swinging down on Kevin’s hand.

When Kevin played little-league Exy, he’d been smashed up against the wall by his mark, who’d been going at such speed that the force dislocated Kevin’s shoulder, and even years later Kevin had still remembered it as the worst physical pain he’d ever experienced.

It was nothing. Nothing compared to Riko hitting his hand with a baseball bat, over and over again, and feeling the bones crack and splinter and shift. Kevin had screamed until he couldn’t anymore; until no sound came out. When Riko had finished, Gorilla sat back up, releasing his grip entirely.

Kevin’s hand was a bloody mess; he could see bone. But all he could do was whimper. It was ruined. It was his dominant hand, and it was ruined.

Riko got to his feet nonchalantly. Naturally, a crowd of Ravens had gathered to watch in eerie silence, hearing Kevin’s pained screams. “Jean, see to Kevin,” Riko said. “He might need a bandaid.”

It was like he had broken a spell; everyone suddenly just went back to where they’d been sleeping before, hunkering down like nothing had happened, Riko and Gorilla included. Only Jean remained, as ordered, looking at Kevin’s injury with pinched features.

“I don’t know how to fix that,” he said, which was an understatement if Kevin had ever heard one.

Jean gave Kevin as much Tylenol as he dared, then in the low light, when the Tylenol had just about taken the edge off he painstakingly cleaned Kevin’s hand as best he could. He wrapped it loosely in a bandage. “That’s the best I can do until the swelling’s gone down a little. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I can see bones, Kevin.”

“I know,” Kevin ground out. He glanced over to check that the others were all still sleeping. “I’m going, Jean. I’m going now.”

Jean’s eyes widened. “But — your hand.”

“I don’t care. I can’t stay here anymore. Come on, Jean. We should have gone ages ago.”

Jean cast a wary look at Riko, and Kevin already knew he’d be going alone. “I can’t,” he said, utterly defeated.

“Jean, he’ll hurt you when he finds out I’ve gone. You should come,” Kevin insisted. Every word was hard to get out, talking and breathing through the pain. But Kevin was past caring. If he went out on his own and died in the wilderness from infection, at least it would be on his own terms.

“I’ll think of an excuse,” Jean said miserably. He took out a few Tylenol and put them in Kevin’s pocket. “He’ll notice if I give you more. It should be enough to keep the pain at bay for a little while. You need to find someone to patch you up properly, though.”

“Jean,” Kevin tried again, but Jean shook his head, and Kevin realised just how much Riko had taken from Jean. How in his head Riko was, that Jean was now too afraid to take an escape opportunity he had once been so desperate for.

“It’s not long until daybreak,” Jean said. “Go.”

And so Kevin went.

He kept going well past sunrise, walking all day, and he made it until early evening before the pain became so severe that he collapsed at the side of the road. When he came to, it was from a slap to the face. At first he thought it was Riko, catching up to him already, and he jolted upright and recoiled, clutching his injured hand to his chest protectively.

An unfamiliar voice said, “See, Nicky? I told you he was alive.”

Kevin blinked a couple of times until his vision cleared and he saw three strangers before him. He thought he was seeing double at first, as two of the boys before him were identical. But then he realised they were dressed differently, and were more than likely twins. Short and blonde and utterly impassive. The other was tall and dark — or maybe he just looked tall in comparison to his companions. This one looked concerned, cutting anxious glances between Kevin’s hand and his face.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Someone hit me with a baseball bat,” Kevin said. He groped into his pocket for the last remaining Tylenol and swallowed them dry.

“Ouch,” one of the blondes said. “Why?”

Kevin winced. “It’s a long story. Can you help me?”

He tilted his head to the side. “But I don’t even know you.”

“My name is Kevin. And if you help me get where I need to go, you’ll get somewhere to live in return.” It was a promise Kevin didn’t know he could keep, but at the moment Kevin was desperate and in pain and knew he needed help.

The blonde who seemed to be in charge smiled; it was a little off-putting. “That’s an interesting offer, Kevin. My name is Andrew, this is my brother Aaron, and my cousin, Nicky,” he said, indicating to them in turn. Then he leaned forward and seized Kevin’s wrist, pulling back the bandage and inspecting the damage closer. “Let’s go and find something better to patch that up with, and on the way you can tell us just where it is you need to get to, and we’ll see if we can’t come up with some kind of arrangement, hmm?”

Kevin just wanted to get moving again; he’d already lost god knows how much time passed out at the side of the road. Riko could be right behind him for all he knew.

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”

It was luck, more than anything else that landed Kevin and the cousins in the city at just the right time to be heard by a scout from Eden’s Twilight. Luck that they weren’t bandits, that they had someone with medical knowledge, and that they used precious supplies on Kevin’s hand. It would never be the same again, but it would heal ever so slightly better than it would have if he’d just left it, and he was much less likely to get infection now.

Kevin told Andrew the whole damn story; Riko, Gorilla, Jean, everything, figuring if he was enlisting Andrew’s help, then he deserved the truth. He deserved to know what they’d be up against should they run into Riko. He even explained that he’d never met Wymack before, and that all he knew was that his mother said he was a good man, and that he’d help.

“That’s not a lot to go on,” Andrew had said dryly.

“I know. Will you help me anyway?”

And Kevin didn’t really know why, but Andrew said yes. He said if Wymack turned out to be a dead-end, Kevin could find another way to repay his debt to Andrew.

Two weeks of healing time passed by, and Kevin and the cousins hit the road again.

They ran into Riko just once, shortly after leaving the city. He was with a smaller scouting party of Ravens, which just included Gorilla and three others. It was this alone that saved them, as if they’d come across all of the Ravens, they’d have been heavily outnumbered and killed without question. As it was, in the ensuing scuffle, Andrew killed three of them in quick succession, producing knife after knife from the sheathes beneath his armbands.

Riko and Gorilla had retreated, no longer having numbers in their favour, but not before Riko called out a parting shot: “Nice guard dog you’ve found yourself, Kevin. He can’t keep you safe for long. The next time I see you, I won’t be so merciful.”

Kevin and the others didn’t linger, wanting to put as much space between them and Riko before Riko met up with the rest of his Ravens and came back to look for them.

“I can see why you left,” Aaron said wryly as they ran, and if he wasn’t so terrified, Kevin might have laughed.

Eventually, they made it to South Carolina, and once there it took weeks to actually find the right place they were looking for because it took that long to track down a local map.

But find it they did, walking past the campus to the university and finding the high-rise apartment building that was the address written on the piece of paper Kayleigh had given Kevin before she died. They forced their way in, climbed the many stairs, and knocked on the door of David Wymack’s apartment. No one answered. Andrew broke the door down. It was empty, and Kevin’s heart sank; he didn’t know why he’d expected his father to still be here. But the place didn’t look like it had been looted, either.

Andrew looked at Kevin. “I think we need a plan B,” he said.

They left the apartment, trudged back down the stairs and out of the building, where they came face to face with four strangers, a middle aged man and woman, a girl with hair so pale it was practically white, and a young man who seemed to be trying his best to look intimidating, arms crossed and eyes narrowed.

“Who the fuck are you?” he demanded.

“Seth,” the older man warned, then turned a look on Kevin and the others. It was the man from the photo, aged somewhat now, but definitely him.

Kevin’s jaw worked a couple of times, but no sound came out.

“Most people walk straight on through this place,” Wymack said. “We’ve been watching you, and you four came straight here, to this building. You didn’t stay long enough to have been looking for shelter, and you clearly haven’t taken anything from any of the apartments. Tell me. Are you looking for someone?”

Andrew cocked his head to the side. “Looks to me like we’ve found someone,” he said. Andrew had seen the photograph. He leaned towards Kevin. “Kevin? You wanna weigh in here?”

“Are you David Wymack?” he managed at last.

Wymack — Kevin’s father — frowned. Then he seemed to belatedly pick up on Andrew saying Kevin’s name, and he straightened, eyes widening as he scrutinised Kevin. “Kevin? Kevin Day?” he asked.

Kevin nodded. Wymack didn’t know he was Kevin’s father, but he at least knew of Kevin’s existence. Kevin took the letter out of his pocket. It was old and worn, but you could still read it. He passed it to Wymack, who took it tentatively and started reading.

“What the fuck’s going on?” Seth grumbled, and was shushed by the girl, who was wearing a cross necklace that seemed out of place when the world had gone to shit. The other woman put a hand on David’s arm, concern and confusion flickering across her face.

Wymack read the letter, then looked at Kevin. Then he read the letter again. Finally he folded it up, and Kevin could see that his hands were shaking.

“I didn’t know,” he said, voice suddenly hoarse when it had seemed clear just a moment ago. “Your mother said you weren’t mine. I didn’t know.”

“I know,” Kevin said. “She didn’t tell me about you until she was already dying.”

Something akin to grief crossed Wymack’s face, but Kevin wasn’t sure who it was for. “I thought about you,” he said. “I got sick, too, when it first happened. Abby here,” he motioned to the woman standing next to him, “looked after me. We stayed in my apartment for months, and it took me that long to recover fully. I had no way of getting in touch with your mother and finding out if you guys were okay. I figured—” Wymack swallowed audibly. “I figured you were dead. Both of you.”

There was a silence, and Kevin didn’t know how to fill it. He felt incredibly awkward, but then again he’d now known who his father was for years. Wymack didn’t know the truth, and it wasn’t like Kevin had expected Wymack to come and find him. How could he have? He wouldn’t have known where to start.

“You’re alive,” Wymack said. “Holy shit. You’re alive.”

“Yes,” Kevin said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head with his left hand. When he lowered it, Wymack clocked the scars.

“What happened to your hand? Where the fuck have you been all this time?”

“That,” Andrew said, “is an excellent story. How about Kevin tells it from somewhere that has food?”

Chapter Text

Neil listened in silence as Kevin told his story, and waited until the end to ask any questions. It was quite the tale, and Neil couldn’t help but think about what he would have done differently in Kevin’s shoes. He would have tried to find Coach straight away, he thought. If, when Neil’s mother had died, she had given him the address of someone who could be trusted and who could help, he would had done everything in his power to get there as soon as possible.

But Kevin was built differently; raised differently. He had never really had to know fear before the world fell. Neil knew he shouldn’t judge Kevin for having been afraid and just wanting something familiar, but that didn’t mean he necessarily understood.

It didn’t matter now anyway.

“Why is Gorilla here now though?” Dan asked after Kevin was finished.

“Coincidence?” Nicky offered, but even he sounded skeptical.

“No,” Neil shook his head. “When he caught me, he said he was looking for Kevin.” Kevin shot a startled look at Neil which made Neil frown indignantly. “I didn’t tell him anything.”

“It begs the question, though,” Coach said, “of how did he even know to look here? I thought Riko never even knew about the letter?”

Kevin shrugged helplessly. “He didn’t,” he insisted. “I never showed it to him. I never even told him I had it.”

“You told someone else, though, didn’t you?” Aaron asked shrewdly, narrowing his eyes.

Kevin paled. “Jean. But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t tell Riko.”

“Wonderful,” Andrew said, clapping his hands together. “You betrayed Riko, and Jean betrayed you. It’s got a nice circularity to it, don’t you think?”

“He wouldn’t,” Kevin said again adamantly, and Neil felt his patience ebbing away.

“Whether he did or didn’t, we have a big problem right on our doorstep. We need to take care of Gorilla before he goes and finds this Riko and his whole gang and leads them here. Let’s go.” He made to move but Andrew poked him in the side, not hard enough to pop his stitches, but just hard enough to make him wince and scowl at Andrew.

You need to stay here and keep out of trouble. You’re a fucking liability.”

“But—”

Don’t,” Andrew said lowly, and Neil shut up immediately at the warning in Andrew’s dark gaze.

Sensing the powwow was now over, everyone started to shift. “Who’s going, then?” Allison asked, stretching, but then she looked to the empty seat to her left and froze. “Where’s Seth?”

There was a collective pause. “He went to the bathroom, didn’t he?” Matt said.

“Yeah, like half an hour ago!” Allison snapped, and took off towards the locker rooms. Dan and Matt exchanged an uneasy look.

“He wouldn’t be that stupid, would he? To go after Gorilla alone?” Abby said quietly.

“He fucking would,” Coach growled, but Neil could hear the thinly veiled concern.

Allison reappeared a minute later, looking a mixture between panicked and furious. “He’s gone,” she said. “So who’s coming, because we’re leaving now.”

Matt, Renee and Dan got up immediately and made towards Allison.

“I’m coming, too,” Andrew said, and Neil whirled to face him in surprise. “I dropped a knife and Gorilla has another one in his thigh. I want them back.”

“If you’re going, I’m going,” Aaron said, but Andrew shook his head.

“Nope.” He popped the ‘p’ obnoxiously.

“Andrew, you don’t get to decide—”

“This isn’t a discussion,” Andrew interrupted, already getting to his feet. “You and Nicky get to babysit this one,” he said, pointing at Neil. “Kevin, you’re with us. We find Gorilla, you’re likely to be the only one he’ll talk to and we need information.”

Kevin didn’t look happy, but he didn’t argue and he, too, got to his feet.

“Hurry up,” Allison said impatiently.

“Go, go,” Andrew waved her and the others away. “We’ll catch up.”

Allison didn’t need telling twice and she whirled out like a hurricane, the others hot on her tail. “Be careful,” Abby called after them. “Look after each other!” It was a toss up as to whether they actually heard her. She turned back to Coach and started wringing her hands together anxiously.

He cupped her cheek in a rare gesture of affection. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going up Fox Tower, I’ll try and keep an eye on things.” He peered out of the window. “Fog’s lifted a little.”

And then he, too, left.

“Do you have everything you need?” Andrew asked Kevin. Kevin’s only response was a hollow nod. “I’ll be right back and then we can go.” He headed off to the locker room, and Neil got up to follow, hobbling along as fast as he could in his injured state.

“Neil—” Katelyn said, stepping forward to try and help, but he waved her away.

“I’m fine.”

In the corner of the locker room, in the spot Neil had given up for Andrew just this morning, Andrew was searching through his bag. He looked up at Neil’s approach and answered the unasked question. “I keep a couple of spare knives in here.” He pulled them out of his bag and swiftly placed them into the sheathes beneath his armbands. “Can’t be too careful, right Neil?” He got to his feet, and Neil stopped in front of him.

“Here,” Neil said, pulling his switchblade out of his pocket. “Take this. It’s handy.”

“It’s yours.”

“So give it back to me later.”

Andrew looked at the switchblade for a moment, then slowly took it and put it in his own pocket.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Neil added, because he needed to say something. This didn’t feel like quite the right thing, but it wasn’t nothing.

“That doesn’t mean much coming from an idiot like you,” Andrew replied.

“Maybe not,” Neil said with a shrug. “But I mean it all the same.”

Andrew sighed and dropped Neil’s gaze. “I hate you,” he said emphatically.

“You’ve mentioned that,” Neil said sagely. “Thing is, I’m not so sure I believe you.”

In an instant, Andrew seized Neil’s chin and leaned forward, capturing Neil’s mouth in a searing kiss. It was over before Neil really registered what was happening, and Andrew let go of his chin.

“Nobody asked you,” he said, then sidestepped Neil and left the locker-room. Neil heard him call Kevin’s name, and then the retreating footsteps as they left the Foxhole Court.

Neil brought his hand up to his mouth and stood staring at the floor in a daze.

Oh,” he said quietly. Andrew liked him.


 

Kissing Neil had seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect Andrew wished he hadn’t done it. It had been a whim, following what had been a very trying day so far. Neil was in one piece just about, but he had a limp, a bump on his head and stitches in his side, and he had been standing in front of Andrew all wide-eyed and sincere with his beloved switchblade in hand, lending it to Andrew and having the audacity to tell him not to do anything stupid.

In that moment, Andrew had wanted. But he hadn’t asked, and Neil didn’t swing. Andrew wouldn’t let it happen again.

He pushed it out of his mind; it wasn’t a good time to be distracted, as he and Kevin ran off-campus and head into the woods in pursuit of Allison and the others. The mist still lingered but vision was considerably better than it had been when Andrew had been looking for Neil; there wasn’t really a risk of confusing any of their allies with Gorilla.

“What the fuck is Seth thinking?” Kevin suddenly said, running alongside Andrew.

“He’s not,” Andrew replied. “He didn’t want to lose any time with someone hostile running about the place, figured he could take care of it quietly while the rest of us were preoccupied.”

“He’s trying to play hero,” Kevin said bitterly.

Andrew shrugged, as much as he could while they were still running. “Maybe.” He understood Seth’s reasoning even if the methods were ill-advised. Taking on someone like Gorilla alone in the fog was a terrible idea, even though Gorilla was injured. He’d be like a cornered animal if Seth happened upon him first; incredibly dangerous. Seth hadn’t thought it through.

“Do you think we’ll find him?”

“Sure,” Andrew said. “What state he’s in when we do is another question entirely, though.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I think Seth’s in trouble.”

“He’s a fucking moron,” Kevin said through gritted teeth, but Andrew could tell he was worried, even though Kevin had never cared for Seth (Andrew sympathised on that front). Andrew passively wondered if Kevin perhaps felt responsible.

Guilt was a waste of time and energy.

“Head in the game, Kevin,” Andrew said.

It didn’t take long to catch up with the others, and when they did, Andrew took the lead, taking them to where he’d found Neil and Gorilla earlier. Gorilla, obviously, wasn’t there anymore.

“Are you sure it was here?” Allison asked anxiously. Andrew privately thought she should have stayed behind; her worry would make her careless. It was too late now, though, and Renee would keep her safe, no doubt.

Andrew scanned the ground near the trees where he remembered Gorilla disappearing, and finally spotted one of his missing knives, the one he’d thrown last minute that had missed. He picked it up and re-sheathed it. “It was definitely here.” He pointed. “Gorilla went this way.”

But Allison had reached her limit. “Seth!” she yelled, and was immediately shushed by Kevin. “Don’t you fucking shush me, Kevin,” Allison spat viciously.

“You wanna advertise to Gorilla where we fucking are?” Kevin hissed.

Allison opened her mouth in what no doubt would have been an impressive retort, but Renee grabbed her wrist and whispered something in her ear. Allison glared at Kevin once more, but didn’t try and shout for Seth again.

Andrew led the way, but Renee soon fell into step beside him.

“What are you thinking?” she asked quietly.

“Gorilla was hurt so he would have wanted to patch up his wounds as best he could before doing anything else. Maybe he would have found his way to the stream, and that’s where we’ll end up if we keep going this way.”

“And Seth?”

Andrew glanced at Renee’s profile; she was staring dead ahead, mouth set in a straight line, and Andrew deduced that she had probably come to a similar conclusion to the one he was about to give her.

“If he was still in pursuit of Gorilla, we would have ran into him by now. He would have heard us coming and come to meet us. I think he found Gorilla, and right now he’s either hurt and hiding, or. . .”

He didn’t need to finish the train of thought because Renee would know what he was implying. The only reason Andrew didn’t say it out loud was that he didn’t want to risk Allison overhearing him and panicking even more. Everyone needed their wits about them.

They approached the copse of trees that surrounded the stream, and everyone instinctively spread out quietly; if anyone was there, they wanted them surrounded. Andrew felt in his pocket for Neil’s switchblade, comforted by its presence despite himself, and peered around the treeline.

There wasn’t immediately anything to see, but then Renee dashed out from her hiding spot with near terrifying speed. She went into one of Andrew’s blindspots, behind another big tree closer to the stream, but Andrew heard a ragged curse and the unmistakable sound of someone getting hit.

Andrew ran over, quickly joined by the others, and when he finally got around to where Renee had gone, he saw that Gorilla was slumped against the tree, his weapons now in Renee’s hands. Gorilla was sporting more wounds than he had when Andrew had run into him, and although Renee had now hit him, he’d clearly picked up the others elsewhere. A cut on his face had left his cheek a bloody mess, and there were scratch marks on his other cheek and neck. Dark bruising was starting to appear here and there, but most damningly, Gorilla seemed to be bleeding quite profusely from his right side, caused by what Andrew could only assume was a stab wound.

Seth, obviously. It had to be. But Gorilla was here, and Seth wasn’t.

“That’s real nice,” Gorilla drawled, spitting blood out to the side, “kicking someone when he’s already down.” He pressed against his side, hands pale and shaking where they weren’t bloodstained. He didn’t seem in enough pain for it to have hit a major organ, but then again Andrew really couldn’t tell; maybe he was just running off adrenaline, or too cold to properly feel it. Either way, he was in bad shape. He’d bleed to death or die of infection.

Renee ignored Gorilla. “This is yours, I believe,” she said to Andrew, handing him one of the knives she’d taken from Gorilla. It was the one Andrew had left in Gorilla’s thigh. Andrew took it, then kicked Gorilla right where the injury would be — he must have had time to bandage it before Seth came looking for him. Gorilla doubled over with a cry.

“The fuck was that for?” he said thickly.

Allison stepped forward and crouched down, seizing Gorilla by his collar with both hands. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Gorilla asked, but he smiled cruelly, blood-stained teeth on full display. He knew who Allison meant.

She shook him. “Don’t fuck with me.”

Gorilla laughed, a hoarse, broken, pain-filled thing. He clearly knew he was going to die, and he also clearly didn’t give a shit. It was a little unnerving, even to Andrew. “Your boy’s pretty strong, I’ll give him that.”

Andrew again used his hefty boot to put pressure on Gorilla’s thigh wound, and over Gorilla’s gasps of pain, he said, “She asked you a question. I suggest you answer it.”

He released his foot, and Gorilla pointed the opposite way Andrew and the others had approached from. “I left him through there,” he said through pants. Allison let go of him immediately and sprinted off in the direction he’d pointed, Matt and Dan quick to follow her.

“When you say you left him there. . .” Renee said carefully, measuredly.

Gorilla shrugged. “He tried to sneak up on me. He got what he deserved.”

Allison’s anguished wail erupted from just out of sight.

Kevin couldn't hide his sharp inhale, and Gorilla seemed to notice him for the first time. He smiled, slow and menacing, somehow all the more so with his many injuries.

"Hello, Kevin. How nice of you to join the party."


 

Neil didn’t much like waiting.

It wasn’t something he was accustomed to. Life on the road with his mother had always been go-go-go, and she never let him out of her sight long enough for him to ever have to experience what it was like to wait for someone, not knowing what was happening. And then after she'd died, he’d been on his own and it hadn’t been an issue.

He realised he’d been left behind because — as Andrew had pointed out — in his current state he was a fucking liability, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d have rather been out there with Andrew and the others. He felt useless like this.

Abby and Katelyn had tried to get Neil to just sit down and rest up, but he kept getting up again, needing to move, needing to pace. In the end, Abby had hunted down a set of crutches from her office just to help him move a little easier, but threatened him with gruesome death not to tear his stitches.

Pacing up and down also had the added bonus of getting Neil away from Aaron, who was nothing short of fuming on the sofa, arms crossed and positively radiating displeasure. Nicky and Abby were doing their utmost to be upbeat and optimistic and normal, and after a while they took themselves off to start up some food, insisting the others would be back “any minute now.”

Katelyn watched Aaron warily for a moment, perhaps correctly deducing that he didn’t want to talk about it, and then she went off to help Nicky and Abby.

The next time Neil hobbled past the lounge, Aaron stepped into his way, forcing him to stop.

“What the fuck is going on with you and my brother?”

Of all the questions Neil might have been expecting, that wasn’t one of them, and he was shocked into immediately answering, “Nothing.” It felt like a lie when Neil could still feel the weight of Andrew’s lips on his, but he didn’t really want to get into that with Andrew’s twin.

Aaron scrutinised Neil carefully. “I don’t buy it,” he said at last.

Neil shrugged awkwardly. “That’s not really my problem.”

“Look, Neil,” Aaron said, face contorting with barely restrained rage, but he kept his voice low. “Here’s how I see it. You show up here all skittish and cagey, then suddenly you decide to stay after looking half ready to bolt for weeks, and Andrew decides you’re one of his. Which, fine, okay. I don’t get it but I don’t pretend to know how my brother’s mind works.”

Neil frowned, struggling to follow. He didn’t know what Aaron meant by saying Andrew had decided Neil was ‘one of his’.

Aaron wasn’t finished. “But it’s not just that with you two. I know you’ve been sneaking out of the locker room at night to go see him in the stands. Somehow you managed to talk him into moving into the locker room with the rest of us when no one else has managed to do that despite knowing him a lot fucking longer than you have. And then, today when Gorilla comes calling, you send Kevin to get Andrew specifically, and as soon as he hears you’re in danger, off he goes, running to your rescue.”

Aaron stopped, looking at Neil questioningly, but Neil didn’t know what he was supposed to say. “What’s your point?” he settled on in the end.

Aaron let out an irritated scoff. “Either you’re fucking my brother or you’ve made some kind of a deal with him, and I want to know which one it is.”

“It’s neither,” Neil said, his handle on his own anger fraying at the edges.

“I don’t believe you,” Aaron said, seething at what he clearly thought was Neil’s reticence to give him a straight answer.

“Tell me something, Aaron, which would you rather it was?”

“Fuck you.” Everything about Aaron’s posture was a warning for Neil to back off, but he didn’t care anymore. If Aaron had come looking for a fight, Neil was going to fucking give him one.

“No, I’m serious. What bothers you more: the idea that your brother is fucking a guy, or the idea that he’s looking out for someone who’s not you for a change?”

That did it; Aaron snapped, surging forward and pushing Neil up against the wall, forearm against his chest as he loomed into Neil's space. Neil felt his stitches twinge with the movement and hated that he couldn’t disguise the pained hiss he let out.

“I’m only going to tell you once,” Aaron said. “Whether it’s sex, or a deal, or something else, if whatever hold you have over Andrew gets him hurt in any way whatsoever, I will fucking kill you.”

Neil shoved Aaron back, hard. “If Andrew gets hurt looking out for anyone, it would be over you. If anyone here has any sort of hold over Andrew, it’s you again. And you know that better than anyone, don’t you?” Neil tilted his head to the side in the most condescending way he could possibly manage.

Aaron’s fist went back, but a clap from down the hall and Coach’s, “Hey!” stopped him short before he made any contact.

“Walk away,” Neil said to Aaron, and with a final furious scowl, Aaron turned around and headed for the court. Coach drew level with Neil and crossed his arms.

“The fuck was that about?”

Neil looked up mildly. “Oh, nothing, Coach. Just a minor difference of opinion.”

“Right,” Coach said sarcastically. “Consider me reassured.”

“Are they back yet?” Neil asked.

Coach shook his head, concern evident in his eyes.

“They should be back by now,” Neil said.

“They should.”

“And you didn’t see anything from Fox Tower?”

“I can’t see far enough. The fog has lifted but the clouds are too low for me to get a good enough view.”

An anxious knot tied itself in Neil’s gut. Gorilla was injured and vastly outnumbered; what could possibly be taking so long? Unless he wasn’t outnumbered; unless Riko and the Ravens were close enough that Gorilla had managed to meet up with them and point them in the right direction. Andrew and the others could be heading for an ambush—

“Coach!” The door banged down the hall and Nicky came running in, frantic. “Allison and Matt are back!”

Coach ran towards Nicky who preceded him back out the door, and Neil followed on his crutches as fast as he was able. If Allison and Matt were back, where the fuck was everyone else?

Neil made it to the door in time for Abby and Allison to brush past him, Allison within the protective circle of Abby’s arms. Neil only caught a glimpse of Allison’s face; she looked hollow and distant — a million miles away. “Allison. . . ?”

But she and Abby were already nearing Abby’s office, and Neil headed outside.

Matt stood with his arms wrapped around himself, looking down and clearly shaken. Katelyn was opposite, eyes wide with her hands clapped to her face. Nicky had a comforting hand on Matt’s arm but he was looking away, towards where the woods would be. Coach stood to the side, hands on the back of his head. He looked lost. Something had gone very, very wrong.

“Matt?” Neil ventured, and Matt’s head snapped up, meeting Neil’s gaze. “What’s happened?”

“It’s Seth,” Matt said, voice hoarse. “He’s dead. Gorilla killed him.”

Chapter Text

Gorilla had broken Seth’s neck; that was what had killed him. Andrew hadn’t been to see, not wanting to let Gorilla out of his sight, but Dan came back through and told the others what had happened. Dan had sent Matt back to the stadium with Allison, taking a route that wouldn’t lead them past Gorilla again. A wise decision, Andrew thought; Allison probably would have killed Gorilla if she had to see him again, but he still hadn’t given them any useful information. He hadn’t said all that much of anything at all, actually. Trying to preserve his energy, perhaps. Not that it would help him in the long run — he was most definitely going to die, probably soon. And he might do it without telling them anything about Riko’s plans or whereabouts.

According to Dan, Matt would return with a stretcher from Abby’s office and a couple of reinforcements so they’d be able to return Seth's body to the stadium and bury him properly. He had also been sent to fetch Coach, who could let them know what to do about Gorilla.

“What do you mean by that?” Kevin asked warily. They had stepped away from Gorilla a little and spoke in hushed voices, not wanting to be overheard. Gorilla’s eyes were closed, face ashen, and the only reason Andrew knew he was still alive was the slow rise and fall of his chest.

“I mean whether or not we take Gorilla back to the stadium or not,” Dan said.

“Well we can’t do that,” Andrew cut it impassively.

“So what, we just wait out here with him until he dies?” Dan asked incredulously.

Andrew shrugged. “We could just put him out of his misery.”

“We can’t,” Kevin said. “He hasn’t told us anything yet.”

“We couldn’t take him back anyway. He might not even survive the trip, and Allison shouldn’t have to see him if he did,” Renee added.

Andrew sighed impatiently. “It doesn’t really matter what happens. He’s either going to die himself of his injuries, and if he doesn’t we’ll kill him anyway. It’s not like we can let him live.”

Dan shifted uncomfortably, and Andrew was reminded yet again that not everyone had become as casual about killing as he had, even when it was necessary.

“He killed Seth,” Kevin said, also noticing Dan’s hesitance.

“I know,” she snapped. “Fuck, I know.”

Renee linked her arm through Dan’s, and Andrew took the opportunity to head back over to Gorilla. Footsteps told him Kevin was following close behind.

He kicked at Gorilla’s foot. “Wake up.”

Gorilla’s eyes opened immediately, surprisingly alert. Not asleep then.

“You’re very rude, you know,” he said to Andrew.

“Cry me a river. Where’s Riko?”

Gorilla smirked, but said nothing.

Andrew crouched down in front of him. “There’s literally nothing for you to gain by not telling us anything. It’s not like Riko will ever find out and punish you for it. You may as well tell us what we want to know.”

Gorilla laughed hollowly. “There’s nothing for me to gain either way. If I’m going to die anyway, why would I want to die a traitor? I’m Riko’s right-hand man, and I won’t let him down now.” There was a defiant glint in his eyes, even through his evident pain, and Andrew realised he was dealing with someone prepared to do Riko’s will at any cost, even in death. That put a wrench in proceedings.

Kevin stepped closer. “But you’re not his right hand man, are you?” he said, and his voice had taken on a colder tone. A backbone at last, now that Gorilla was incapacitated.

Gorilla’s expression darkened exponentially, and Kevin, too, crouched down. He turned his face to the side, showing off his tattoo. “According to this,” he said, tapping it for emphasis, “I am.”

“You gave up that position the second you let those kids go and tried to steal from Riko in the middle of the night. He doesn’t need you anymore.”

“Then what are you even doing here? I mean, you came for me, right? But what’s the point if — in your own words — Riko doesn’t need me anymore?”

“You broke the rules,” Gorilla said, composure breaking. He coughed up a little blood and wiped it away with the back of his hand. “You need to be punished.”

“So you’ve come to deliver me to my punishment,” Kevin said, and he put a finger and a thumb to his chin as if he were thinking, but his posture was mocking. “And then what? You think Riko will give you your own tattoo?”

Gorilla grimaced and Andrew could tell Kevin had hit a nerve.

“Maybe you think he’ll scratch out mine and then you’ll get to be number two,” Kevin continued.

“It never should have been yours,” Gorilla spat.

Kevin shrugged, off-hand. “Sure. I’ll agree with you there. But Riko was my best friend, and he wanted me by his side. Look at you.” He sneered, the kind of look Andrew only usually saw when Kevin was being disparaging about other’s Exy skills. “More than two years since I left, and Riko still hasn’t seen fit to give you a tattoo. You’re nothing to him.”

Gorilla’s breathing was starting to become increasingly shallow, a result of both bleeding non-stop for however long now, and the fact that Kevin was clearly agitating him. Andrew was strangely proud; he didn’t know Kevin had it in him.

“Gorilla,” Kevin said, and his tone was a little softer now. Gentler, as if he were a friend although Andrew wasn't fooled. “It never would have been you. You’ve been doing Riko’s dirty work for years now, waiting for him to acknowledge everything you’ve done for him. But he doesn’t care. Even if you weren’t going to die now, and you had caught me and taken me back and handed me to Riko on a silver platter, he still wouldn’t give you a place in his hierarchy because he already has you right where he wants you — in his pocket. Like a set of keys, a wallet, a knife. You’re a tool to him, nothing more.”

Gorilla’s head dropped, looking down as he sucked in ragged, wheezing breaths.

“You give Riko blind loyalty,” Andrew said, “and he gives you nothing.”

“Stop,” Gorilla said, lolling his head back and resting it against the tree-trunk, staring blearily up at them. “What do you even want from me?”

“Just answers. How did you know I’d be here?” Kevin asked.

“I didn’t. Not exactly. Jean said you'd been aiming for South Carolina, but he didn’t say where. We’ve been looking for a long time.”

Jean told you?”

Gorilla smiled unpleasantly. “We got it out of him eventually. You should have seen the beating Riko gave him after you ran off.”

Andrew could tell it was taking considerable effort for Kevin to keep his face neutral. “I told him to come with me.”

“He should have. He doesn’t belong with the Ravens,” Gorilla said cruelly, lip curled up distastefully.

“Why are you out here alone?” Andrew asked, needing them to get back on track before Gorilla lost consciousness. “Where’s Riko?”

“He’s with the others, camped out North of here. It would take them a couple weeks to get here probably. I’ve been on a scouting mission.”

“For me?” Kevin pointed a hand to his chest.

“For anyone. Any stragglers we could use, any groups we could take over,” Gorilla said. “You’re just my side project.” He scowled. “Riko doesn’t know about it. Had I been able to take you back, you would have been a surprise.”

Andrew almost laughed. “So he doesn’t even know where you are?”

“Not exactly. I didn’t stick to a planned route.”

“When is he expecting you back?”

Gorilla shrugged. “Around six weeks after I left, give or take a week or so.”

“Which is when?” Andrew said impatiently.

“A couple weeks from now.”

“And what will happen when you don’t show up?”

Kevin answered this one. “Nothing." Andrew looked to him sharply, and Kevin met his gaze evenly. “Nothing will happen. Riko will assume he’s died on the road. He won’t come looking for him.”

Andrew had been vaguely aware of Dan and Renee edging closer behind them, wanting to overhear, and Dan chose this moment to add her input. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yes. Search and rescue isn’t Riko’s style. He wouldn’t want to waste the manpower.”

Gorilla’s bitter silence all but confirmed Kevin’s assessment.

“Does this mean we’re in the clear?” Dan ventured tentatively.

“Of course not,” Kevin said. “Riko could head this way at any time. But this does give us a little bit of leeway. He won’t be knocking on our door tomorrow, at least.”

Dan let out a shaky sigh. “Well that’s something, at least.”

“He’ll get here eventually,” Gorilla said, a little slurred, and his breathing was very laboured now. “And when he does you’ll wish I had killed all of you, and not just the idiot who thought he could get the jump on me.”

“Fuck you,” Dan said viciously. “You might have killed Seth, but look at you now? He killed you right back.”

Gorilla shrugged as if conceding the point, then smirked again. He didn’t have that long left. “What about the other one? The squirrel.”

“Squirrel?” Kevin said with a frown.

“He means Neil,” Andrew said, biting down on his anger.

“He’s doing much better than you are,” Renee told Gorilla mildly.

“Spry little thing,” Gorilla mumbled, more to himself than anyone else. “Riko woulda liked him. He’d’ve made a good Raven.” His eyes fell closed, the hand he’d held clasped to his side falling limply to his side.

“Is he. . .” Dan started. “Is he dead?”

Andrew edged closer and turned his ear towards Gorilla. Tiny, slow, raspy breaths could still be heard. “It won’t be long,” he said.


 

Neil was sure he’d come up with some kind of an emotion over Seth’s death eventually, but at the moment all he felt was a sort of cool detachment. Matt had gone back to the others with a stretcher and Coach, Nicky and Aaron had gone along with him. Surely they wouldn’t need that many; Andrew, Kevin, Renee and Dan were still out there too after all, but Neil supposed they all just felt like they needed to do something.

He sympathised. He’d rather but out there with them then here at the stadium twiddling his thumbs. Abby and Allison were still in Abby’s office. Katelyn on the other hand was sitting next to Neil on the sofa, her arm linked through his and her head on his shoulder. Every so often she’d let out a little sniffle. Neil didn’t understand; Katelyn and Seth had never seemed particularly close, but then again Neil reminded himself that death affected people differently. He patted her hand awkwardly.

From what Neil had managed to get out of Matt before he took off again with the others, Gorilla didn’t have much longer. During the scuffle that had led to Seth’s death, Seth had at least caused enough damage to ensure that Gorilla would bleed out slowly. Abby probably would have been able to patch him up, but he wasn’t worth them wasting any of their supplies on. He had killed one of their own, and was too dangerous to be kept alive. If he got away, he’d lead Riko straight to them.

At the very least, no one else had been hurt. Andrew wasn’t hurt.

“What do we do now?” It took Neil a moment to realise he’d said the words out loud.

“We wait for the others to get back,” Katelyn said, voice croaking a little.

“Then what?”

“Then we bury Seth.”

“And then?”

“I don’t know, Neil,” Katelyn said quietly. “We carry on, I guess.”


 

In the end, Gorilla breathed his last mere moments before Matt and his reinforcements showed up. There was only one stretcher, but Coach decided that they had to take Gorilla’s body back to the stadium, too. They couldn’t just leave it there to decay in plain sight where anyone could come across it if they were passing through. Seth would get a proper burial, Coach said, but they’d burn Gorilla.

Aaron, Nicky, Dan and Renee carried the stretcher with Seth’s body, whilst Matt, Kevin, Coach and Andrew each grabbed one of Gorilla’s limbs and lugged him back. Gorilla was not small to begin with, and now he was all dead weight. It was an exhausting addition to an already exhausting day, and it wasn’t even over yet. It seemed impossible that they were still on the same damn day.

They took Gorilla to the very far edge of campus where Allison wouldn’t have to see him and got a fire started. As soon as it was burning properly, Andrew left Coach and Kevin to keep an eye on it and trailed Matt back towards the stadium. Everyone else, bar Allison and Abby, was sitting in the lounge. Neil gave Andrew a hesitant little wave.

No one seemed to know what to say, but finally Matt heaved a great big sigh and made for the storage room. “Time to go dig a grave,” he said. Dan, Renee and Nicky immediately got up to follow him, and after a moment they all headed back outside with spades in their hands.

Neil half rose to his feet.

“Sit down,” Andrew said.

“I can help,” Neil replied stubbornly.

“You’ll tear your fucking stitches. Sit. Down.”

Only once Neil had sat back down did Andrew sink into a chair of his own, immediately relishing in the relief of taking the weight off his feet. Katelyn, who had been sitting curled up next to Aaron, excused herself to go and check on Allison and disappeared into Abby’s office.

Andrew, Aaron and Neil sat in silence for a few minutes, and Andrew allowed his eyes to close. He opened them again when Aaron spoke up.

“I told Seth that if he wanted to go running after Gorilla in the fog then he should. I told him that no one was stopping him.” Aaron had been looking dead ahead, but he shifted his gaze to meet Andrew’s now. “It was the last thing I ever said to him.”

Andrew was too tired to deal with Aaron’s misplaced guilt, and he dragged a hand slowly down his face. He wasn't sure what Aaron expected him to say but in the end, he didn’t have to say anything because it was Neil who answered.

“What was the last nice thing Seth ever said to you?”

Aaron looked irritated by Neil’s input and wouldn’t look at him, but he replied all the same. “Nothing. We didn’t get along.”

Neil shrugged. “Exactly. Seth’s dead. He doesn’t need your guilt or your grief, and he wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. He knew you weren’t friends. Don’t overthink it, you’ll just drive yourself crazy.”

Aaron scowled. “Thanks for your analysis,” he said scornfully, and got up. He went outside, not towards the office or the court, so Andrew assumed he was going after Nicky and the others.

Neil watched him leave with an expression of mixed disgust and irritation on his face. Andrew knew Neil and Aaron weren’t even close to being friends, but something had clearly happened while Andrew had been gone.

He flicked an appraising look over to Neil. “Do I even want to know?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure,” Andrew said.

Neil sighed. “Your brother is an asshole.”

Andrew smirked despite himself; this wasn’t news to him.

“Did Gorilla tell you anything? Before he died?” Neil asked.

“Riko’s camped out a couple weeks walk away from here. He won’t come looking for Gorilla specifically but he will, inevitably, hit our neck of the woods eventually. We’ll need to prepare for that somehow. But we have some breathing space at least for now.”

Neil let out a long exhale. “I was worried they might be a lot closer and we’d have a war to deal with. This is good. For now, anyway.”

“It’s not as dire as it could have been,” Andrew allowed.

Neil stared at Andrew for a long moment, and Andrew stared right back. He wondered if Neil was thinking about the kiss; they were alone now, and it had been a very long day, and Andrew sort of wanted to do it again. But he’d already decided he wouldn’t. He supposed Neil would want an explanation at some point, but Andrew had no idea what to tell him.

“Nicky said that as soon as Seth’s grave is dug, we’ll have a funeral. Will you go?” Neil asked, breaking the silence at last.

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

Neil nodded slowly. “I will.”

“What was that you were just saying to Aaron about Seth not needing our guilt or grief? I never got the impression you cared about Seth.”

“I didn’t. Not really,” Neil said, and he glanced towards Abby’s closed office door. “I care about Allison though.”

Andrew worked his boots off and rubbed at his sore feet. “I don’t know if she’d want me there. Seth hated me and mine.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think Allison would hold that against you. And I guess whatever else we thought of him, at least Seth went out fighting. Took out Gorilla. That’s not nothing.”

Andrew sighed. “Alright, Neil. I’ll go.”


 

Neil may not have been a stranger to death, but despite that he had never actually been to a funeral before. He didn’t think his mother’s ‘cremation’ really counted, not when he was the only one there to see it.

Seth was buried in a grassy area on the centre of campus, in front of a fountain that had long since dried up. Allison had picked the spot, apparently. Maybe it had sentimental value to her and Seth. Maybe they used to come here when they wanted to be alone. Neil didn’t know.

Allison was red-eyed and pale, but she didn’t cry. Coach said a few gruffly nice things about how much Seth had done for their little group, and how grateful he was to Seth for protecting their home right until the end.

Neil let the words drift in and out, taking the opportunity to look around the circle of Seth’s graveplot at the faces of his companions. Allison, Matt, Katelyn and Abby were the only ones who looked visibly upset. Dan looked angry, and Renee’s expression was inscrutable. Kevin, Nicky and Aaron all wore varying expressions of discomfort and guilt, whereas Andrew looked blank; bored. Coach, as ever, was taking charge because that’s what Coach did.

Neil still didn’t know how to feel.

When Coach had finished, he turned to Allison. “Did you want to say anything?” he asked gently.

Allison hesitated, then tentatively took a tiny step forward. Her voice was quiet but steady. “Seth was an unapologetic asshole,” she said. “He was rude and difficult and pig-headed, right up until he wasn’t. Most of you wouldn’t have seen the other side. But I did.” She sniffed. “I ran into Seth by chance, and it was because of that meeting that I ended up here, with all of you. He’ll never know how grateful I am for that.

“So thank you, Seth,” Allison said, turning to the ground to face the mound that now marked Seth’s grave, and it was now that her voice broke, angry tears spilling out of her eyes. “You stupid son of a bitch.”

Back in the lounge when it was all over, everyone sat in a circle and Coach handed out cups with little shots of whiskey or vodka — whatever people’s preferred poison was. Neil’s own cup just had water as he didn’t drink, but he appreciated being included.

A subdued quiet befell the group, until Matt raised his glass and simply said, “To Seth.” Everyone else raised their own and mumbled it back, and as a group they knocked back their shots.

And that was that.


 

Andrew couldn’t sleep.

He’d barely slept the night before, he’d been up before the sunrise and then he’d lived through one of the longest days he could remember (and Andrew could remember a lot of long days).

The locker room was warmer than the court stands, Neil had at least been right about that. It was everything else that was grating on Andrew’s nerves. Everyone was breathing too loud, or fidgeted too much. There were at least three different snorers (Matt, Nicky, and Coach, respectively), and Allison’s quiet sniffles had dragged on for hours until she finally exhausted herself into sleeping.

There were too many bodies in here, too much noise, the air was too close. Andrew could barely stand it.

Neil, for his part, was a quiet sleeper. His mattress was the closest to Andrew’s; a small barrier between Andrew and everyone else. Neil lay perfectly still, Andrew had noticed, the only one in the room who hadn’t shuffled in some capacity. Andrew tried to pin-point Neil’s breathing over everyone else’s, and when he had, he shut his eyes and tried his utmost to tune everything else out.

It was warmer. At least Andrew had that. That, and Neil’s quiet breathing.

He let it lull him to sleep.

Chapter Text

In the days following Seth’s death and funeral, the mood around the Foxhole Court was subdued and quiet. Allison didn’t say much of anything to anyone and barely ate a thing, no matter how often Abby tried to gently bully her into it.

If what Gorilla had told Andrew and Kevin was true, then they had a window of at least a month before Riko and the Ravens would show up in the area, and that was only if Riko moved on as soon as Gorilla missed their rendezvous. In all likelihood, they had even longer.

In a way, Neil found it comforting. They had time to prepare and plan and enjoy a bit of relative normalcy before they had to deal with anything else. Of course, on the other hand, it was like they were on a countdown and every day pulled them closer to a confrontation they couldn’t escape.

They had talked about leaving. Coach had called a meeting two days after everything had gone down and said that they needed to make a group decision over whether or not they thought it was worth staying at the stadium or if it was too dangerous. Maybe their chances were better on the road; maybe they’d never run into Riko at all.

It was a unanimous decision to stay, however. Everyone had made the court their home, and they wouldn’t give that up for anyone, especially when there was a chance that Riko would never even show up. It was wishful thinking, Neil thought, but not entirely impossible. Either way, the stadium was their base and their security and they’d put too much into it to just abandon it in fear. Life on the road was dire; everyone knew that. A home like the Foxhole Court was worth fighting for. Worth dying for.

With that taken care of, emphasis turned to their borders. Scavenging trips had been abandoned in favour of having more people close by to scout the area, so they could have eyes in more than one place at once. Neil couldn’t do much to help at first. His ankle was back to normal in a couple of days and the bump on his head receded, but he had Abby checking on his stitches twice a day and every time he so much as reached for something, Andrew shot him a death glare.

They still hadn’t spoken about the kiss. Neil kept wanting to bring it up, but he didn’t really know where to start. Not only that, but they’d hardly had any time alone together. Aaron always seemed to be there, hovering around his brother in a way he hadn’t been before. Neil found it infuriating, but even though Andrew had undoubtedly noticed, he didn’t say anything. Maybe he was glad that Aaron’s presence meant that Neil wouldn’t bring up the kiss, and the thought of that was a bitter pill for Neil to swallow.

One afternoon, a week after everything with Gorilla and Seth had gone down, Abby finally removed Neil’s stitches.

“It’ll probably scar,” she said when she was finished.

Neil shrugged nonchalantly and said, “It’s in good company at least.”

Abby cupped his face and kissed him on the forehead. “Scars just mean you’re still alive,” she said, and sent him on his way.

On his way past the lounge, Neil noticed Renee sitting alone on the sofa. “Hello, Neil,” she said.

“Hi.” Neil carried on walking, then stopped and went back, taking a seat next to her. She looked vaguely surprised but was good enough not to mention it; Neil had never spent any time with Renee without anyone else being present and had never sought out her company before. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was doing it now.

“How’s Allison?” he asked. It seemed like a safe topic to start with.

“She’s doing okay,” Renee said. “She’s sleeping in the locker room right now. I’ll go and check on her in a bit.”

Neil nodded. It was good that Allison had people looking after her. He didn’t know what to say to her, and it was hard to look at Allison these days. It was strange, because it wasn’t like any of them were strangers to loss. The only ones here with any family still alive were the cousins, and Coach and Kevin. (Of course, Neil’s father was out there somewhere, too; Neil had no way of verifying this, but he believed it with all that he had. When the rest of the world was nothing but ash and dust, Nathan Wesninski would stand alone in the rubble, triumphant. Neil felt it in his bones.) But Seth’s death had hit closer to home in a way Neil hadn’t been expecting. It was like they had been living in a bubble, and now it had been popped. They weren’t untouchable. They weren’t immortal.

Renee was looking at Neil expectantly, but not impatiently, clearly happy to wait for him to organise his thoughts.

“Can I ask you a question?” Renee nodded and smiled encouragingly. “You’re. . . close. . . with Andrew. Right?”

Renee took a while answering, but Neil got the impression that she was just figuring out the best way to word it. She eventually landed on, “I probably wouldn’t quite say ‘close’, but we definitely have an understanding.”

“I see you talking sometimes,” Neil said. “And Andrew doesn’t spend all that much time talking with anyone else.”

“He talks to you,” Renee said.

“Yeah,” Neil said, rubbing the back of his head. “Yeah, I guess.” He sighed, and made a decision. “Okay, maybe you’ll know. Aaron said something about Andrew deciding I was ‘one of his’. Do you know what he meant by that?”

“When Andrew showed up here with his family and Kevin, he knew there was a chance that one day Riko would track Kevin down and cause problems for us. He was happy to protect his own — at least as far as he possibly can — but there’s too many of us for him to watch the backs of everyone, and he didn’t care enough to extend his protection to them as well. So he gave them to me.”

Neil was confused, and Renee must have been able to tell because she smiled kindly and continued. “Not long after you arrived, I asked Andrew if he was going to take you under his wing or not. At first he said he hadn’t decided, but later on he told me that he was keeping you. I’m assuming that’s what Aaron meant.”

“It means that I’m under Andrew’s protection?” Neil said incredulously.

“Yes,” Renee replied, and her expression turned serious. “If you’re not comfortable, you can switch to mine? I’m sure Andrew wouldn’t mind.”

“I don’t need to be under anyone’s protection,” Neil said, frustrated. “I can look after myself. And Andrew doesn’t owe me anything. I never asked for this.”

“I know that, Neil,” Renee said soothingly. “But you can’t think of it as a debt. If Andrew didn’t make a deal with you about it, then he doesn’t expect anything from you in return.”

“Well, great,” Neil said, and he could hear the bitterness in his tone. “That makes me feel loads better.” He turned a sharp look on Renee. “If Andrew’s watching our backs, who’s watching his?”

Renee flickered a brief smile, and Neil had the curious feeling he’d just passed some sort of unspoken test. Then she said, “Forgive me, Neil, but it seems like this is a conversation you should be having with Andrew.”

“You’re right,” Neil said, getting to his feet. “I’ll do just that.” Halfway out of the lounge, Neil swivelled, pinning Renee with a curious look. “What makes Andrew think that you can protect everyone else?”

Renee clasped her hands together and said evenly, “Because Andrew knows what I am capable of.” Neil didn’t follow, and Renee fiddled with her cross necklace. “Do you know where I was when the outbreak started?”

Neil shook his head; all he knew was that Renee and Matt had met each other on the road, but they’d both been alone. He’d never asked for more information on Renee’s past.

“I was in juvie,” she said carefully. “I was a few months away from the end of my sentence.” Renee was watching Neil’s expression with intense scrutiny but he kept his face blank. He was both surprised and yet strangely not. It certainly explained why Andrew seemed to find her so interesting. “Do you want to know why I was there?”

Neil thought about it for a second. “No,” he said.

“No?”

“No,” he confirmed. “It’s not important. Not anymore.”

Because Neil knew what he was sure Renee knew as well; it didn’t matter who they used to be before the world fell. There was who they were then, and who they were now, and the two versions didn’t aways perfectly align.

It was who you were now that was important.


 

Just because he was now sleeping in the locker room with the others, didn’t mean that Andrew was forgoing his late night cigarette in the stands routine. What had changed, however, was that Neil had apparently decided to stop joining him. Andrew had still been collecting two a day from Coach, and as a result he now had seven unsmoked cigarettes in his pocket, one for each night Neil had missed. Andrew could just smoke them himself. He should, just out of spite, and hell, he wanted to. But for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. They didn’t feel like his.

So Andrew sat in solitude, like he always had done before Neil waltzed into their goddamn territory and consequently ruined Andrew’s life. Andrew didn’t want to care about anyone the way he had begun to care for Neil. He had been prepared to just carry on through life watching Aaron’s back until one of them died. He didn’t need a distraction. He especially didn’t need a distraction who didn’t swing.

He shouldn’t have kissed Neil.

Andrew had thought that the wanting might have faded a little, what with Neil keeping away from their night time smoke breaks, but it hadn’t. Andrew no longer expected Neil to show up, but found himself furious at the tiny amount of hope that flickered in his gut, refusing to die. It was what kept him getting cigarettes for Neil. It was the part of him that ended up bitterly disappointed night after night when Neil was a no-show.

It’s not like Neil didn’t know Andrew was still going to the stands to smoke; his path took him right past Neil’s mattress, and every time so far, Neil had clearly been awake when Andrew padded through the locker room. His breathing was too uneven.

It should be easier this way, if Neil kept his distance.

Andrew put out his cigarette and made to get up and go back to bed when movement in the corner of his eye made him hesitate. Walking up the stairs towards him was Neil, hair sticking up on one side from where he’d been resting on his pillow, blanket pulled tight around him. Andrew had left his own blanket, regretting it now as the cold bit at him.

Andrew watched Neil approach silently, and Neil stopped in front of him. “Hey,” he murmured.

“Hey,” Andrew replied. The wanting never stopped.

“Can I sit?” Neil asked.

Andrew shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

Neil smiled a little at that and it tugged at Andrew, somewhere inside. He sat down to Andrew’s right, close enough to touch, and said, “I’m sorry I haven’t been coming up here lately.”

Andrew wanted to shrug it off like he didn’t care, like he hadn’t even noticed, but he didn’t have it in him. Not tonight. “Why haven’t you?” he asked instead.

Neil shifted and glanced at Andrew, then away. “Aaron. He, uh, he knows that we’ve been up here together at night and has been drawing his own conclusions. Sort of.”

Andrew sighed exhaustively. “What do you mean by that?”

“Last week when you guys were out looking for Seth and Gorilla, Aaron cornered me. He thinks that either we’re fucking or that we’ve got some kind of deal going on. I told him it was neither!” Neil added hurriedly.

Andrew tried to decide how he felt about this, and why Aaron had gone to Neil about it and not Andrew himself. And why Aaron even cared. Either Andrew’s feelings for Neil were blatantly obvious, or Aaron knew Andrew better than Andrew thought he did. Or that Aaron was at least more observant than Andrew gave him credit for.

“I didn’t even know Aaron knew you were gay,” Neil said when Andrew failed to respond.

“He doesn’t,” Andrew said, then tilted his head, considering. “Or, I didn’t think he did. He’s never asked, and I’ve never told him. But we’ve never been close like that. We don’t talk about stuff like that.”

“Well,” Neil said with an irritated huff, “I wish you would. Maybe then he’d leave me the fuck alone.” He glanced back to Andrew and his eyes softened somewhat. “I think he’s trying to protect you, in his own weird and intrusive way.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He gave me a stern warning,” Neil said, rolling his eyes. “And you must have noticed how much he’s been hanging around you this last week.”

Andrew had noticed, actually, but had refused to mention it. If Aaron had something to say, then he could say it. Andrew wasn’t going to start the conversation for him. “I don’t need his protection.”

“Right,” Neil said, and his expression turned dark. “Because you’re the one doing the protecting, aren’t you? Aaron, Nicky, Kevin, and now me apparently. Not that you ever asked me, but I don’t need your protection.”

It was Andrew’s turn to roll his eyes. “Do you even remember what happened last week? You’re a walking murder magnet, Neil.”

“Fuck you. I don’t want you going out of your way for me.”

“Then don’t get into trouble.”

“Andrew,” Neil said through gritted teeth, and he was clearly worked up about the whole thing. Andrew didn’t understand. “Okay, fine. You wanna keep an eye on me, go right ahead, but I’m going to do the same for you then. You’ve got my back, so I’ve got yours.”

“I’m not making a deal with you, Neil.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m just telling you how it is.”

Andrew turned away, not wanting to see the earnest look on Neil’s face. He didn’t want Neil’s misplaced concern, but he knew he’d be unable to talk him out of it. Instead, he said with as much impassivity as he could muster, “Great. I feel safer already.”

“Asshole,” Neil said, but without any malice.

Andrew reached into his pocket and took out Neil’s cigarettes. He held them out to Neil, who looked at them in surprise.

“You saved these? For me?” he asked. Andrew didn’t respond because he obviously had, and Neil took them. “Thank you.”

“They’re yours anyway,” Andrew said.

Neil nodded, and put all but two in his own pocket, looking at Andrew expectantly. Andrew got the hint and lit the cigarettes, taking the one Neil offered him.

“Hey, we have five spares now,” Neil said, breathing out smoke. “I’ll share them with you.”

“Whatever.”

Neil suddenly seemed to realise Andrew hadn’t brought his blanket out with him. “Aren’t you cold?”

Andrew shrugged. “A little.”

Neil shifted closer and held open half of the blanket. “You can. . . do you want to come in here?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, and even in the darkness he could see the tiniest hint of a blush across Neil’s cheeks. And fuck it, Andrew was cold, and he did want to share Neil’s blanket. So he heaved a put upon sigh and said, “Fine.”

Neil wrapped the other corner of the blanket around Andrew’s shoulders, and Andrew grabbed hold of it when Neil moved his hand away, and pulled it around so that they were sitting flush up against each other, shoulder to thigh. The blanket was warm from where it had been snug around Neil, and Andrew found himself huddling closer unconsciously.

“Andrew?” Neil whispered. Andrew didn’t know why he was whispering, but he had to admit that it somehow felt appropriate. “Was Aaron right?”

“About what?”

Is there something going on between me and you?”

Andrew froze, which was unfortunate because as close as they were sitting, Neil would be able to tell. He forced himself to relax. “No,” he said.

“Andrew. You kissed me.”

Andrew couldn’t help his self-deprecating smile. “I wondered if you were ever going to bring that up.” He glanced at Neil, but Neil was looking at his cigarette. “It won’t happen again.”

“Why not?”

Andrew paused; that hadn’t been quite the question he’d expected. “Because you don’t swing.”

“No,” Neil agreed. “I don’t.”

Andrew didn’t reply, and it seemed like Neil was struggling with something. He looked confused more than anything, but about what? “I didn’t even know you liked me,” he said at last.

“I don’t,” Andrew said. “I hate you, remember?”

“Yeah, I know. But. . .”

“But what, Neil? What do you want from me?” Exasperation was seeping into Andrew’s usually carefully cultivated bland tone; only Neil could get under his skin like this. Always Neil, only ever Neil.

“Nothing! I don’t know! I just—” Neil looked up from his cigarette finally and fixed an imploring stare on Andrew. “You — you brought me here. And you kept my secrets and you gave me clothes and cigarettes and truths of your own. You came for me in the woods when I was out there with Gorilla and you saved my life and you got me back here. And you kissed me, and—”

Andrew cut him off by poking his finger in Neil’s cheek and forcibly turning his face away. “Don’t look at me like that. I am not your answer, and you sure as fuck aren’t mine.”

Neil’s hands shook as he took another drag of his cigarette. He was agitated, that much was obvious. “I’m not looking for an answer,” he said, but Andrew wasn’t convinced.

For whatever reason — a reason that was definitely Andrew’s own damn fault — Neil had latched onto Andrew. It had been an emotional week, and although it hadn’t touched Andrew, it didn’t mean Neil was unaffected. He’d been hurt after all. But Andrew didn’t know what to do with this, with Neil so vulnerable and open in front of him. It was too much, and Neil was just making it harder.

Neil looked up again, an emotion Andrew couldn’t decipher in those icy blue eyes. “I’m tired of being nothing,” Neil said, small and broken.

Something snapped inside of Andrew; he flicked his cigarette aside and took Neil’s face in his hands, leaning forward and kissing him. Neil froze for a split-second but then he kissed back. It was different, this time. More urgent, and Andrew lost himself in the feeling of Neil’s tongue, warm against his. But then Neil grasped Andrew’s sleeve and Andrew remembered that this was the exact thing he’d promised he wouldn’t do again.

He pulled back a little; their lips were no longer touching but they were still sharing breathing space. Neil’s eyes were wide and he was still clutching Andrew’s sleeve. “Tell me no,” Andrew said into the space between them.

Neil’s brow furrowed in confusion and his eyes dropped to Andrew’s lips. He half leaned forward as if to kiss Andrew, but he said nothing, and Andrew pulled away entirely, wrenching out of Neil’s grasp.

“I’m not doing this with you right now,” he said. He stepped out of the blanket cocoon he and Neil had created and hunted down the still smouldering cigarette he’d tossed aside just a moment earlier. It was two steps down, and Andrew retrieved it, perching it between his lips and coaxing the flame back to life.

“Why not?” Neil asked, and he was looking at Andrew like that again.

“Because you’re too stupid to tell me no.”

“And you don’t want me to tell you yes?”

“This isn’t yes,” Andrew said. “This is a nervous fucking breakdown. I know the difference even if you don’t.”

Neil looked somewhat affronted, but he didn’t argue the point. He huddled in on himself and pulled the blanket closer around him. Andrew, still standing two steps lower, put his cigarette out and deposited it in the little can of an ashtray they kept up in the stands.

Andrew didn’t know why he said it; he barely registered the words until they were already out of his mouth. “I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be.”

Neil’s head jerked up in surprise; he wouldn’t immediately know what Andrew had meant, as it had never come up in their truth game. But Neil wasn’t entirely stupid, so there was a good chance he would figure out at least part of the story. The gist of what Andrew was implying.

Andrew wasn’t waiting to find out; he turned around and headed down the steps and back to the locker room, crawling onto his mattress and burrowing under his covers.

It was a good twenty minutes before Neil came back and settled himself back down.

Andrew pretended he was asleep, but he could feel Neil’s eyes on him for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

It was twice now that Andrew had kissed Neil, and Neil spent the days following the second kiss trying and failing to think about anything else. It was stupid; they had bigger problems at hand, but Neil couldn’t get it out of his head.

He kept looking at Matt, Nicky and Kevin and trying to decide if he saw them any differently now, but he didn’t. And his eyes would be drawn back to Andrew every time. Kissing Andrew wasn’t something that Neil had ever anticipated happening, especially when Neil looked back to the violence of their first meeting. But it had happened now, and all Neil knew was that he wanted it to happen again. He wanted it to keep happening, preferably. He couldn’t explain it; he needed it.

The words Andrew had said after he’d pulled away kept ringing in Neil’s head, over and over. I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be. Neil didn’t have enough information to fully understand what Andrew meant, and he didn’t want to speculate, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to ask Andrew about it, didn’t want Andrew to have to explain. Neil didn’t really want to know, but he felt like he needed to know if was ever to understand.

The conclusions Neil was coming up with on his own were bad enough; he feared the truth could be far worse.

When he wasn’t watching Andrew, Neil sometimes found himself watching Dan and Matt. When they were together, they were almost always touching in some capacity — such easy, casual affection that Neil had never imagined having with anyone. He’d never really cared about anyone enough to want it; never experienced it so that he’d know what he was missing.

He was aware that not everyone was as blatant about their relationships as Matt and Dan, however. Aaron and Katelyn were on the whole a lot more discreet, taking themselves off for quiet moments alone rather than displaying their affections in full view of everyone. Neil could still see it though, in the way they sometimes looked at each other, or in how Aaron became a different, considerably more tolerable person when he was around Katelyn. It was fascinating, how deeply you could be affected by another person. Coach and Abby’s relationship on the other hand was all but invisible; neither confirmed nor denied by either party and the subject of many a bet by the younger residents of the Foxhole Court (all they had to bet with was things they’d found out scavenging — little luxuries like shampoo and toothpaste or whatever; things that were now much more valuable than money). Neil hadn’t weighed in, but he didn’t think he needed to. Whatever Coach and Abby had, it was untouchable; unbreakable.

Aaron was no longer the only one who seemed to be scrutinising Neil and Andrew’s interactions. Neil was sure he’d seen Matt exchange meaningful glances with both Dan and Allison (who was still somewhat withdrawn, but more and more herself every day) every time Neil and Andrew so much as sat next to each other. No one said anything, for which Neil was grateful. Nicky seemed oblivious which was lucky, because he’d no doubt say something intrusive if he picked up on anything. Neil didn’t want to answer anyone's questions over something he didn’t fully understand himself yet.

In fact, he didn’t want anyone's attention full stop.

(Except for Andrew’s. But apparently he already had that.)

Scouting their territory for signs of trouble was currently being dealt with in rotating groups of pairs. At any one time, six of the stadium’s residents would be out in the woods and surrounding areas, expanding their usual borderlines so they could cover more ground and thus get an advanced warning if anything or anyone was coming. So far, not a soul had passed through their territory, and it was as unnerving as it was reassuring.

After one such long shift that Neil had shared with Andrew, the pair of them wound their way back to campus in comfortable silence. Neil kept sneaking looks at Andrew, but Andrew didn’t acknowledge the attention even though Neil was pretty sure he was aware of it. Andrew was usually aware of everything.

Neil didn’t want to force Andrew into a conversation that he wasn’t ready to have. Andrew had let something slip that he perhaps hadn’t entirely meant to, and Neil knew all too well about how it felt to reveal too much of yourself; how exposed you suddenly were. And Neil knew by now how things worked with Andrew. A truth for a truth. And Neil didn’t necessarily want anything back for this one — he just wanted to help restore Andrew’s equilibrium, if he could.

A couple of minutes from campus, Neil said, “My mom always discouraged me from interacting with like, girls and stuff. When we were on the road.”

The slight tilt of Andrew’s head towards Neil was the only indication that Andrew was listening, but Neil took it as a good sign.

“I mean, I was too young for it to be an issue when we first ran away from my dad, before the outbreak, but she’d still tell me sometimes not to get involved with anyone. That I couldn’t trust anybody but her, and that girls would be a dangerous distraction.” He looked at Andrew, who was peering at Neil out of the corner of his eye. “I mean, I was just a kid, y’know? I just agreed with whatever the fuck she told me.”

“What about after?” Andrew asked, and Neil knew he meant after the epidemic had destroyed almost everything and everyone.

Neil shrugged. “It was more of the same, I guess? At least for the first couple of years. It wasn’t much of a problem most of the time, because it was just me and my mom alone, against the world. But sometimes we’d come into situations where we’d find ourselves rolling with other groups for a couple days. A week, tops. I kissed this girl one of those times when I was probably like, fourteen.” He shrugged again. “She wanted to. It was. . . I dunno. It was fine. I didn’t really care, I guess? It was just something to do.”

“Did your mom find out?”

Neil felt his expression darken. “Not that time, but a couple years later we were with another group at this abandoned warehouse and she caught me behind one of the outhouses with this girl who’d basically dragged me back there. I think it was the first time she’d seen another teenager in a while and I was just a novelty, but whatever. She kissed me once and then my mom showed up and went mad at me.”

“What did she do?”

“She dragged me away, hit me a couple times.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

Neil shrugged helplessly. “Habit? I dunno, she just kept yelling that there was no point in anything like that and it was stupid to bother. That we lived in an even shittier world now than we had before — even though we were free — and relationships were just a waste of time. It wasn’t like I could ever settle down, get married and have a family.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “It’s not like you have to marry every person you kiss, Neil.”

Neil flushed. “I know that. I think she just didn’t want me to have the temptation or something. I don’t know, she had spent so long being paranoid. It’s hard to switch that off.”

Andrew looked back forward and they continued on, through the turning to campus. Andrew would be heading straight back to the stadium, but Neil would go up Fox Tower where Coach was and give him a debrief. A little before their turn off point, Andrew flicked a hooded gaze over to Neil. “Why are you even telling me this?”

“Because I wanted to. I wanted you to understand that I don’t swing because I’ve never really been able to. Or not just that — I’ve never really cared to. I’ve kissed girls, but it didn’t make me want to kiss them again. Kissing you—” Neil broke off, because he wanted to phrase it right. It felt important. “Kissing you doesn’t mean that I look at any of the others differently. They’re the same to me as they’ve always been. The only one I’m interested in is you.”

Andrew sighed. “Neil—”

“I’m not asking anything of you,” Neil cut in. “I’m not expecting anything. I just want you to know that in future, if you want to kiss me, then it’s a yes. Okay?”

Andrew didn’t reply for a minute, and when they got to their turn off point, he stopped. “We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it,” he said.

Neil nodded. “That’s fair.”

Andrew looked off to the side towards the stadium. “I wonder what your mother would have made of me,” he said.

“It’s irrelevant,” Neil said. “You’ve got ‘threat’ written all over you. She would have killed you as soon as she laid eyes on you.”

Andrew looked back to Neil, eyes flashing dangerously and just the hint of a smile playing about his lips. Neil really wanted to kiss him again. “Not if I killed her first.”

“I dunno about that,” Neil said, and he grinned. “You didn’t kill me.”

“The time is fast approaching.”

Neil laughed and stepped away. “For the record, I don’t believe you,” he said, and started walking towards Fox Tower.

“For the record, I don’t care,” Andrew called after him, and Neil turned, walking backwards and imitating Andrew’s mocking salute. Andrew’s expression betrayed nothing but he headed towards the stadium without another word.

It felt like a win.


 

Neil was helping Abby sort out all the medical supplies one afternoon when pounding footsteps alerted their attention, and they rushed out of Abby’s office and into Coach’s, where Matt stood, doubled over and panting.

Coach put his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Easy, Matt. What’s going on?”

“People,” Matt finally got out. “On the road, heading this way. A bunch of ‘em.”

Neil’s brain immediately went into emergency mode. Katelyn, Renee and Allison were still at the court, but the others were all out scouting in pairs, covering different areas. Andrew was with Aaron, Kevin with Nicky, Dan with Matt. Except now Matt was here, and Dan was. . . where?

“Is it Riko?” Abby asked.

“I don’t know. Dan went to get Nicky and Kevin so that Kevin can get a look and see. But honestly? I’m not so sure. They didn’t look mean enough.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Coach said gruffly. “How many were there?”

“I counted fifteen, but I could be wrong, I was in a hurry. I wanted to come back and let you know.”

“Where are they?” Neil asked.

“On the road, we spotted them through the binoculars from the overpass. But they'll probably have made it to the bridge by the time we get back, and I'm guessing they'll stop there. It's good shelter.”

“Did they see you?” Coach said urgently.

“Nah, course not, Coach, what do you take us for?”

“So they’re not in the woods,” Neil said. Andrew and Aaron should be on the opposite side to the overpass, and so well out of sight of whoever these newcomers were. Of course, that was assuming the ones Matt and Dan had seen were the only people in the area. Maybe they were part of an even larger group and had split up to cover more ground. Maybe they were with the Ravens.

“What’s the plan, David?” Abby asked Coach.

“Matt, take me out there. I need to see.”

“I’m coming,” Abby said immediately.

“Me too,” Neil added.

Coach closed his eyes as if warding off a migraine, but seemed to realise he had no time for an argument. “Fine. Let’s go.”

They ran into Andrew and Aaron on the road shortly before they hit the woods, who had been on their way back and now also insisted on coming along.

“Great,” grumbled Coach. “I should have brought the others, too. Make it a family fucking outing.”

“Come on, now, Coach. Matt says there’s fifteen of them. We have better chances if there’s more of us,” Andrew said.

“Better chances for what?” Matt asked warily. “You think we’ll have to fight them?”

Andrew shrugged. “Depends on who they are.”

It didn’t take long for them to find Dan, Nicky and Kevin, who stood hidden from the road in the treeline, all manner of shrubbery providing ample cover as they peered out from behind it. The three of them were so engrossed with their spying that they didn’t hear the others approach, and they all startled when Coach whispered, “Hey.”

Neil could already hear muffled voices coming from beneath the bridge where the trespassers must now be.

“What’s the verdict?” Coach asked Kevin.

Kevin shook his head. “It’s not Riko. I don’t recognise any of them, it’s not the Ravens.”

“You haven’t been a Raven in quite some time,” Aaron pointed out. “They could have done extensive recruiting, and this could be a scouting party. There’s every chance they’re with the Ravens but you don’t know them.”

“Well, yeah, that’s true, but I’m telling you, they’re not Ravens. There’s a woman Coach’s age down there, and another older guy as well. It’s not Riko’s style. He wants his Ravens young, strong and scary as shit. You saw Gorilla.”

Abby put her hand on Kevin’s arm. “You’re sure, Kevin? You’re absolutely sure?”

Kevin nodded adamantly. “They’re not Ravens,” he reiterated.

“Great,” Dan said. “But now what?”

“Yeah. What do we do about them?” Nicky asked. “Just wait for them to move on like the others?”

“A group of that many will be slower than someone on their own,” Neil pointed out. “Their fires will be bigger. Could lead more groups this way.”

“That’s true,” Coach murmured, and took a step forward to get a better look. Neil stepped up beside him so he could see as well, and take in what they were up against.

Matt’s count had been one off; Neil counted fourteen. Two of them older, around Abby and Coach’s ages or above, but the others looked like they ranged from early twenties to mid-thirties. Two young women sat huddled together on the ground, staring down the road at nothing.

“David,” Abby’s quiet voice came from Neil’s left. “They look like they’ve been through the ringer. And that woman — I think she’s hurt.”

Neil followed Abby’s gaze and she was right; the older woman with glasses and mousy hair seemed to be favouring her right leg over her left. In fact, of few of them seemed to be a little worse for wear. They all looked tired and drawn out, like they’d been travelling a long time with very little rest.

“David,” Abby said again, and it sounded like a plea. Neil wasn’t immediately sure what she was asking.

“Abby, we can’t. We don’t have the resources to spare for strangers.”

“What if it was the other way around? If we were them and they were us, and could help but didn’t do anything?”

“They’re strangers,” Aaron said. “We shouldn’t trust them.”

“I’m not saying we invite them to live with us at the stadium,” Abby said calmly. “But they look like they could use some rest and some medical attention. I can help. There’s empty dormitories and other gyms they can set up as a temporary base on campus. I’m sure they at least have some of their own supplies. They can find their own food and water. I just think we could let them stay for a little while.”

Coach put his hands to the back of his head. He looked pained. “Abby. . .”

“They’re people,” she said. “Just like we are. And I know we haven’t had much luck with people lately, but there’s still good ones out there, and we’re still good ones. If we can help them, then we should. Otherwise what’s the point?”

They were nice words, Neil thought, but they seemed ultimately naive to him. Not that it mattered, because he could see Coach deliberate, and then relent.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. But keep your weapons handy, your wits about you and for the love of god, let me do the talking. I’m looking at you, Andrew.”

Andrew held his hands up in mock offence but didn’t say anything.

“Now follow me, and try not to look aggressive,” Coach said, and took a path around the clumped together bushes and trees that had been acting as their cover. As soon as he had stepped within the newcomer’s line of vision, they stiffened and reached for weapons. “Hey,” he called, moving slowly and deliberately. Neil and the others matched his pace and movements. “We’re not gonna attack you, so kindly stand down.”

“You think we’re stupid enough to just take your word?” one of the women who’d been sitting on the ground said. They were both now on their feet, and she’d half angled herself in front of the other.

“That’s a fair point,” Coach said reasonably. “Can never be too careful these days. But I promise you, we don’t mean you any harm.”

“Have you been spying on us?” the older man asked.

“A little. You’ve stepped into our territory, see? We need to know when there’re strangers on our turf. For our own protection.”

“We’re not looking for trouble,” one of the younger men now spoke up, and he held up his hands in a placating gesture, a nervous but friendly smile on his face. “We’re just passing through, then we’ll be out of your hair.”

“That’s good to know,” Coach said with an appreciative nod. “Thing is, Abby here,” he gestured to Abby, “noticed that a couple of you might be hurt.”

“I’m a nurse,” Abby spoke up. “I can help, if you like.”

“We can set you up with shelter for a couple of days while Abby takes a look at you, and you can rest up then hit the road again when you’re patched up and feeling refreshed. That’s only if you want, mind. If not, we’ll escort you through the area, get you through much faster than if you were on your own.” He waited for his offer to land; the strangers all exchanged uneasy looks. “Your choice.”

“Uhh,” said the one who’d smiled. “What’s your name?”

“David. Or Coach, if you’d prefer.”

“Okay, David. Coach. Coach David,” he said, and Neil bit down the bizarre urge to laugh. “I’m Jeremy, and that’s a really kind offer. Just give us a minute to talk it over?”

“Sure,” Coach said. “Take your time.”

“Thanks,” Jeremy smiled again.

Nicky nudged Kevin in the side with his knuckles. “Hands off, Kevin, I saw him first.” Another young man stepped up to Jeremy’s side, tall and blonde and brawny, and Nicky’s mouth dropped open. “Never mind, you can have him. I want that one.”

Kevin swatted Nicky’s hand away irritably.

“Keep it in your pants, Nicky,” Aaron drawled.

“Hey, if I have to watch you and Katelyn moon over each other all fucking day long, I’m sure you can get over this.”

“We do not moon over each other,” Aaron scoffed.

“Do too. It’s nauseating.”

“It is,” Andrew added.

You can fucking talk,” Aaron said viciously, and cut a fierce look between Andrew and Neil, then opened his mouth again and Neil could only imagine what he was going to say and winced in preparation.

Luckily, Coach got there first. “Shut the fuck up, all of you,” he snapped, eyes still on the group of people before them, conferring in low voices, darting the occasional look back at Coach and the others.

“What do you think they’re going to say?” Dan murmured.

“Hard to tell,” Matt said. “If they’re smart they’d say yes because they look like they need a break. Then again it’s hard to trust strangers these days. Couldn’t exactly blame them if they wanted to get the fuck away from us.”

“Not to mention the twins both project an aura of murder,” Dan said.

“That’s so rude,” Andrew deadpanned. “That’s just what our faces look like.”

Dan cracked a smile despite herself, then realised and immediately clamped down on it in horror. “I can’t believe Andrew almost just made me laugh,” she said. “This is like the Twilight Zone.”

Andrew shrugged. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Not really.”

Again, Neil wanted to laugh. This whole day was weird.

Coach shushed them once more, just in time for Jeremy to clear his throat for their attention. He was clearly their spokesman.

“If you’re sure it’s not too much trouble, we’d like to take you up on your offer. Betsy here has what we think is a very nasty sprain, and there’s a few other cuts and scrapes that we’ve picked up along the way.”

Abby smiled kindly. “It’s no trouble,” she said. “But we should get going now, it’ll be getting dark soon.”

She and David stepped over to Betsy, the injured woman, quietly introduced themselves and Abby gave her ankle a quick once over, then they helped her to her feet so they could assist her as they walked back.

Coach raised his voice and quickly pointed to his own, rattling off names for the sake of the newcomers. “That’s Dan, Matt, Nicky, Kevin, Neil and the moody twins are Andrew and Aaron. Dan’ll lead you back.”

Dan gave her best cheery grin. “Follow me,” she said.


 

It took longer than it usually would to get back to campus on account of the extra people, and when they finally arrived, Coach had Kevin lead the uninjured members of the party to the basketball courts where they could bunk down for the nights, and said he’d send someone else over with blankets. He and Abby, Matt and Dan took Betsy and the other injured ones back to the Foxhole Court so Abby could get a good look at them.

Andrew tagged along with Kevin, which meant that Aaron and Neil tagged along, too. Nicky came because the new object of his affections was amongst the uninjured. His name was Erik, and he was German, and Nicky had been throwing every German phrase he had ever learned in high school German classes his way. Erik seemed to be taking it in good humour.

“I can help you fix your pronunciation, if you want,” he told Nicky.

“Oh! That would be great,” Nicky said, squeezing Erik’s bicep not so subtly.

Aaron face-palmed. “Jesus Christ, Nicky.”

Nicky glared. “It’s called culture, Aaron, look it up.”

Andrew ignored them all. Jeremy, the friendly one, had started a conversation with Kevin about Exy after they walked past the Exy stadium, and Andrew couldn’t remember Kevin ever looking so delighted. It turned out Jeremy had also been somewhat of a star in the making, once upon a time.

The older man had introduced himself as Paul Rhemann but said little else. He seemed ill at ease, which was understandable. The only other two whose names Andrew currently remembered were Laila, and another young woman who had simply given them her name as Alvarez. What her first name was, Andrew didn’t know or care. They linked arms and held their own private conversation, clearly taking a leaf out of Rhemann’s book and unwilling to offer their trust so easily.

Neil stuck close to Andrew’s side, eying all the newcomers warily. This must be difficult for him, Andrew realised belatedly. Someone who had been taught his whole life not to trust anybody, suddenly thrust into a situation with strangers. And not for the first time. Andrew grazed Neil’s back lightly with his fingertips, out of view of everyone else. Neil exhaled slowly, taking the touch for what it was — a reminder to breathe, to calm down. He met Andrew’s gaze and nodded briefly. Andrew dropped his hand.

They were the last into the basketball court; everyone else was starting to spread about and take in their new surroundings.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” Kevin said, “but it’s shelter.”

“It’s great,” Jeremy said with a grin, and he and his companions dropped their belongings off to the side. “Honestly, this is really nice of you. A lot of people would have just ignored us, or fought us, or tried to scare us off.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Kevin admitted, shifting uncomfortably. “But you seem like decent folk,” he added as an awkward afterthought.

Jeremy laughed good-naturedly. “Thanks,” he said.

“How did you guys all come to be together, if you don’t mind me asking?” asked Nicky. He was probably asking the group as a whole, but he was looking at Erik, and so it was Erik who answered.

“I was here in the States on a gap year from Germany before I started university back home when everything happened. I got stranded with no way home, and I was on my own. It was about a year before I ran into Jeremy and Laila. Then we found Paul, and Alvarez, and Betsy, and so on. We just picked up people as we went along. People who didn't have anybody else.”

“Eventually we found this old farmhouse, and there was no one else there,” Jeremy said, picking up the story. “It was ideal; there was just enough room for everybody and it was close enough to a town for scavenging but it was sort of hidden, out the way so people wouldn’t see it from the road. We were there for years without a problem.”

“Sounds like a sweet set up,” Neil said. “So what happened?”

“Bandits,” Laila said. “Rode into town, spotted a couple of our group heading back from a run and followed them back to the farmhouse.”

“They went to round up a bunch of their buddies,” Alvarez said. “Came by outnumbering us three-to-one. Said they wanted our farmhouse and everything we had, effective immediately.”

“We said no, obviously. We said we’d give them some of our supplies to get them off our backs, but that they couldn’t take the farm, it was our home,” Jeremy said. “But they told us that they weren’t making a deal with us, they were just telling us how it was gonna be. Then they killed a bunch of our people before we even had time to react, just so we knew that they’d kill us all if we didn’t do what they wanted. Butcher’s orders, they said.”

Andrew was standing the closest to Neil and so was the only one who heard the sharp inhalation of breath as Neil recoiled.

“Butcher?” Nicky asked, not understanding.

“We never met him,” Rhemann said grimly. “But that’s what they call him. The Butcher. He has countless people doing his dirty work, pillaging and finding people and places. We heard stories, out on the road.” He shook his head. “We thought they were myths.”

“They’re not myths,” Neil said hoarsely, and his face was deathly pale, eyes wide and frightened. Andrew reached out without thinking, but Neil was already backing away. He turned around and ran for the door.

“Neil?” Nicky called after him, face etched in confusion.

“What’s his problem?” Alvarez asked.

Andrew watched the door Neil had just disappeared out of, but he felt eyes on him and looked to his right; Aaron was scrutinising him with great interest.

“Not gonna go see what's got him so upset? I know you want to,” he said vindictively, chin jutted out as if daring Andrew to argue.

“Huh?” Nicky said, looking between the twins.

“Fuck you, Aaron,” Andrew said, then stalked out of the basketball court.

He waited until he was outside before he started to run.

“Neil!”

Chapter Text

Letting Neil get a head-start had been a mistake; thanks to Andrew’s initial hesitation followed by the time it took him to get outside, Neil was already out of view. Fast fucker.

Andrew called Neil’s name a couple more times as he ran, but Neil was either out of hearing range or was simply ignoring him. The trouble with a campus the size of Palmetto’s was that there was a lot of buildings. Lots of places to hide if someone didn’t want to be found.

Andrew thought about the possibility that Neil wouldn’t even be hiding at all; that hearing about the Butcher was enough to frighten him into running away. Leaving the court, his friends — leaving Andrew — behind. And if he wanted to go, fine. Andrew couldn’t and wouldn’t stop him. He wasn’t Neil’s keeper.

It was just that he’d gotten used to Neil always being there. He’d gotten used to sharing cigarettes and silences and truths; to Neil wrapping a blanket around Andrew’s shoulders; to Neil’s stupid face with his stupid smile that was increasingly being directed Andrew’s way.

If Neil chose to go, Andrew would adjust. He was good at adjusting to new normals. He’d existed at the court before Neil showed up and he would revert back to that existence just as easily. And it wasn’t even like Neil was Andrew’s to lose, except for that fact that it felt like he was. The thought made Andrew angry, and he gritted his teeth as he reached the stadium. If Neil really did want to do a runner, Andrew knew he’d return to the Foxhole Court to pick up his stuff.

Andrew slammed through the doors and down to the locker-room. He only needed to give it a cursory glance before he spotted Neil’s beloved duffel, and he calmed down a minuscule amount. He heard voices coming from the lounge, no doubt where the injured newcomers had been dropped off whilst Abby took a look at them, and instead of heading that way, he went down the corridor towards the exit, almost bumping into Katelyn coming the opposite way carrying an armful of extra blankets.

“Oh, sorry,” she said, and then realised it was Andrew who she was talking to.

Andrew was usually loathe to talk to Katelyn, but he made an exception. “Has Neil been through here?” he asked.

Surprise flashed across Katelyn’s face at her existence actually being acknowledged, but she recovered quickly. “No, I haven’t seen him since you guys got back. Thought he was with you.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Andrew ignored this and instead left the stadium, bearing left and trying to figure out where Neil would go.

It didn’t take long.

Andrew made it to Fox Tower in record time and was fantastically out of breath by the time he reached the top — what he wouldn’t give for the elevators to still be working. The door to the roof had been left ajar and when Andrew stepped through he scanned the rooftop.

Neil was close to the edge, facing out. He was sitting on the ground with his knees pulled to his chest, hunched forward with his arms wrapped around his legs. Even from his distance Andrew could see that Neil was shaking.

“Neil,” Andrew said carefully, just loud enough so that Neil would hear him and know that he was no longer alone. Neil shifted slightly but didn’t respond, and Andrew waited by the door until he got his breath back properly.

When he had, he slowly walked over to Neil, making sure his footsteps carried so Neil knew he was being approached. Instead of sitting beside Neil, Andrew sat behind him, back to back, and he could feel the tension Neil was holding in his spine.

All there was to do now was wait. Neil was clearly too shaken to say much, so Andrew just sat there in silence, and slowly — so slowly — the tension leached out of Neil, and he sat up straighter, pushing a little further on Andrew’s back.

Neil dropped his head back onto Andrew’s shoulder and released a shaky breath. “Is this okay?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Neil let out a long sigh. “We can’t stay up here for long, can we,” he said, and it wasn’t really a question. “It’s getting dark and it’s fucking freezing and people will come looking for us.”

“Probably,” Andrew agreed. “They’re going to want to know why you ran off.”

“I’ll tell them,” Neil said. “It’s like you said — if it ever became relevant, I’d have to tell them.”

“It does seem like it’s now relevant. Although, it still doesn’t mean he’d ever make his way here. We need more information from our new neighbours. We don’t know how long ago all this happened, or how far away it happened, and they even said that the Butcher wasn’t even with the bandits who took their shit and killed their friends. Just that they worked for him. For all we know, the Butcher is nowhere fucking near.”

Neil stood up and stepped away; Andrew peered over his shoulder to see Neil start pacing a line up and down the roof edge. Andrew got to his feet as well.

“That’s not the point,” Neil said, and his agitation was evident.

Andrew wanted him to step a little further back from the edge. It was cold and ice was a possibility; he could slip. “What’s the point then, Neil?” he asked with more calm than he felt.

“He’s still out there. It’s like, I always knew it, but now I really know it, and it’s so much worse.” Neil turned an anguished look on Andrew — he wanted to wipe it away. “He’ll get here eventually, Andrew. It’s inevitable.”

Andrew shrugged. “Maybe. So what are you going to do?”

Neil threw his hands up in exasperation. “What do you mean? What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Your situation remains unchanged. You always said that you thought your father would show up one day, and yes, fair enough, you now have more concrete evidence that that’s a real possibility, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still isn’t here. Riko, however, is an immediate threat, and yet you seemed prepared to ride that out with us. But just a mention of the Butcher has you panicking. So what are you going to do? Are you going to run?”

Neil stopped pacing and took two steps closer to Andrew. This obviously took him further away from the edge and Andrew felt his heart rate start to calm down. “I don’t want to run anymore,” he said. “I’m tired of running. I want to stay here with you and the others. I don’t want to lose this.”

“Lose what?”

Neil threw a hand out in the general direction of the stadium and the rest of the campus. “Just — just this place, and my friends. You. I don’t want to lose any of it.”

You.

Andrew hooked his hand in Neil’s collar and tugged him down until he was eye-level, then gripped the back of Neil’s neck with his free hand, just firmly enough for Neil to feel it. “If you’re staying, then you’re staying,” Andrew said. “No more getting spooked. No running. Got it?” Neil nodded jerkily, but he looked frightened. Andrew gently squeezed the back of his neck. “I won’t let him touch you.”

Neil closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to Andrew’s. “You can’t promise me that,” he said softly.

“I didn’t. I’m just saying, if it’s within my power, then I’ll keep you safe.” He shrugged. “I was going to do that anyway, right?”

Neil nodded a little; Andrew felt it against his own brow. “Right,” he repeated. “And I’ll keep you safe too, right? That’s what I said I’d do.”

Andrew rolled his eyes although the effect was ruined as Neil’s eyes were still shut and he didn't see it. “If you say so,” he huffed.

He was rewarded by the tiniest smile, and Neil said, “I do.”

Andrew took his hand out of Neil’s collar and pressed it flat against Neil’s chest instead. “Neil,” he murmured. “Yes or no?”

Neil’s eyes flew open. “Yes.”

Andrew surged forward and this — this — was the kiss he had been waiting for without ever really thinking it was going to happen. A kiss that Neil had known was coming and had wanted, and had wanted from Andrew.

Andrew’s hands were on Neil’s face, and Neil seemed to know without having to be told not to put his hands on Andrew, and instead clutched onto his sleeves like before. They could reassess maybe, next time — because there would be a next time — but for now this was fine.

It couldn’t last long; it really was only a matter of time before someone came looking for them and Fox Tower would definitely be one of the first places that would be checked. Not to mention that they needed to go back to Jeremy and the other newbies and find out as much as possible about the Butcher and his bandits. And then, presumably, Neil would have to go and spill the beans to Coach and everyone. It certainly seemed like it was going to be a busy evening.

Andrew pulled back, satisfied to see Neil breathless and dazed. “We need to go,” he said.

Neil nodded, then fixed Andrew with a determined stare. “I’m staying,” he said emphatically, and Andrew knew that he didn't mean on the roof. He meant with Andrew.

“I know you are,” Andrew said, and turned around heading straight for the door.

He didn’t need to look over his shoulder; he knew Neil was coming.

Chapter Text

Neil gathered all the residents of the Foxhole Court first, and had them congregate within the actual Exy court. He wanted to tell them the truth before they found out more from Jeremy and the others about what they knew of the Butcher; he felt he owed them that much.

The only one of the newcomers who had not yet gone over to the basketball court was Betsy, the woman who had the nasty sprain. She was currently in the lounge icing it, and Andrew was keeping a surreptitious eye on her. It was unwise to leave near strangers unattended while the rest of them were preoccupied, no matter how unlikely it was that they would turn on you.

Nicky looked around at everyone assembled and pulled a face. “Shouldn’t Andrew be here for whatever this is?” he asked.

Aaron pinned his gaze on Neil, knowing and piercing. “Andrew doesn’t need to be here because he already knows. Right?”

Neil nodded without returning Aaron’s look. “He knows.”

Once everyone settled themselves down, Coach said, “The fuck’s going on, Neil? You’re gonna give me an aneurysm.”

And so Neil took a breath and told them everything. His real name, who his father had been, and who he apparently was now, and how he was definitely a threat everyone needed to be aware of. Neil explained how he’d heard stories on the road about someone known as the Butcher, and the various atrocities he and those who worked for him carried out. How it was apparently a similar situation that had sent Jeremy and Betsy and their group this way.

Neil said that he hadn’t known if his past — if who his father was — would ever become an issue that they had to deal with at the Foxhole Court, but that this was now too close a call, and he couldn’t in good conscience keep quiet.

Once he’d said everything he needed to, a silence hung heavy on the court.

Nicky was the one who eventually broke it. “It might not be your dad though, right? You’ve just heard mention of someone known as the Butcher, but that could be anyone. It could just be a coincidence.”

Neil was already shaking his head. “It’s not.”

“How do you know?” Aaron said scornfully.

“Because the stories originated in Baltimore, and that’s where he would have been initially. And also, I don’t believe in coincidence. If you knew my father, you’d believe it was him as well.”

Aaron looked like he wanted to argue but a sharp look from Abby stopped him, and he crossed his arms instead.

“I’m sorry I lied,” Neil said, looking down. “I know it’s no excuse, but it’s all I’ve ever known. It’s how I was taught to survive.” He wasn’t quite sure what he was expecting. Shock, fear, whatever. But certainly not quiet acceptance.

“Okay,” Coach said, matter-of-fact. “Thanks for letting us know. We’ll find out more from our new guests, I suppose, and then we’ll play it by ear. Our situation is otherwise unchanged.”

Neil had still been ardently avoiding eye contact with anyone but he jerked his head up at Coach’s words, because it was similar to what Andrew had said less than an hour earlier up on the roof of Fox Tower. Renee gave Neil an encouraging smile which he couldn’t quite bring himself to return; he still felt sick.

“How can you accept this so easily? You’ve just found out I’ve been lying to you about who I really am for months, and that’s all you have to say?” Neil couldn’t wrap his head around it.

Coach sighed. “It’s a new world now, kid. People usually have their reasons for lying, and yours is a pretty damn good one.”

“Besides, it’s not like you’re the only one with skeletons in his closet. We’ve already got all of Kevin’s shit to deal with,” Allison said. “May as well throw yours on the pile with everything else.”

It was one of the longest sentences Neil had heard Allison say since Seth died, and he gave her a small but grateful nod, which she waved off airily.

“He’s very dangerous,” Neil said. “The Butcher, I mean. My father. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Life’s dangerous now,” Dan said, shrugging. “Whatever happens, happens. And at least here we won’t be taken by surprise.”

Neil knew that Dan had no idea of what his father was truly capable of, but he accepted her words without further comment. He had now told everyone who they might be up against, and it was up to them what they wanted to do with that information. They were all adults.

“I just have one question,” Matt said, brow furrowed. “Do you want us to call you Nathaniel now?”

Neil shook his head violently enough to hurt. “No. Fuck no. I’m Neil. I’m still just Neil. I’m more Neil than I ever was anyone else.”

Matt smiled. “That’s good. Might have been confusing otherwise.” He clapped Neil on the shoulder and looked back at Coach. “We done here?”

“Unless anyone else has anything else they need to get off their chest?” Coach said, eyeing everyone individually. No one ventured a response so he nodded with an air of finality. “Good. Dismissed, then. Dan and Matt, head on over to Fox Tower to be on watch. We’ll send food over when it’s ready; this powwow ran over a little.”

“No problem, Coach,” Dan said, then took Matt’s hand and led him off the court and away.

Everyone else dispersed soon after, Allison ruffling Neil’s hair affectionately as she went, and Neil found himself feeling a little lighter. Aaron gave Neil a look he couldn’t decipher and then left, dragging Katelyn along in his wake, Nicky quick to follow after shooting Neil a quick smile.

Finally, it was just Kevin and Neil left on the court, and Kevin stared at Neil for a long moment before saying, “You should have told me sooner.”

Neil cocked his head to the side. “Why?”

Kevin shrugged. “Seems to me we have similar situations. We’ve both been hiding from our pasts.”

“You weren’t exactly forthcoming with me until Gorilla pulled me out of a fucking tree and threw a knife at me,” Neil pointed out.

Kevin rolled his eyes impatiently, but he didn’t really have a leg to stand on and Neil knew it. “It’s not easy to talk about.”

“I know,” Neil replied, perfect understanding.

Kevin opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again. He headed for the court door, then seemed to change his mind and he peered over his shoulder. “How long has Andrew known?”

“A long time,” Neil admitted. “I told him soon after I arrived because he knew I was hiding something. I figured the longer I lied to him the more difficult he might make things for me if he thought I was a risk to everyone else. I wasn’t sure he would let me stay.”

Kevin gave Neil a long, considered look. “You know, a lot more about you makes sense now,” he said. “But if you’d told me sooner, then we. . .” he trailed off, shaking his head.

“Then we what?” Neil said impatiently. “Then we could have bonded over the fact that we’ve both been running from psychopaths?”

Kevin shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah. We might not have felt so alone.” He faced back forward and carried on to the court door.

“We’re not alone,” Neil said quietly, but he could tell Kevin heard him.

They weren’t alone now.


 

Neil didn’t go back over to the basketball court afterwards. He couldn’t bring himself to be in a room with strangers and have to talk about his father, and so he trusted Andrew and Coach to be there in his stead and find out all the relevant information.

He had sat on the court for a while, alone when everyone else had left, just so it could sink in that he was no longer a lie. Everyone now knew the truth, and yet they hadn’t kicked him out or got upset over the lies. For the first time, Neil felt like he truly belonged.

He got to his feet and left the court, passing Abby and Betsy in the lounge who seemed to be chattering as if they’d known each other years, and not that they’d met merely hours earlier. Abby looked up when she heard Neil making his way through, and when he was close enough she reached out and squeezed his hand briefly before dropping it again.

“Is anyone in the locker room?” he asked.

“No. Aaron, Andrew and David took the rest of Betsy’s group over to the basketball courts to do a little information exchange. Allison, Nicky and Katelyn are rustling up some food.”

“Okay. What’s she still doing here?” Neil said with a distrustful glance at Betsy.

Neil,” Abby admonished. “Don’t be rude.”

Betsy just smiled mildly which didn’t help to endear her to Neil. “My ankle’s pretty bad so Abby’s letting me sleep in her office so that I don’t have to walk over to the basketball court and put more weight than necessary on it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude. You’ll barely notice I’m here,” she said.

Neil didn’t believe that for a second but he let it slide for now. Abby’s expression went from annoyed to concerned. “Are you feeling alright, Neil? You look tired.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Neil dragged a hand down his face. “I think I’m just gonna lay down for a little bit.”

“Okay,” Abby said kindly. “Someone will come and get you when food’s ready.”

“Thanks,” Neil said, and took himself off to the locker room, where he curled up under his blanket and fell asleep almost immediately.

He was woken up a short time later by someone saying his name, and he opened his eyes to see Andrew sitting on his own mattress just across from Neil, two bowls of food with him. Neil sat up and Andrew passed him one of the bowls.

“What is it?” Neil asked.

“Soup.”

Neil wasn’t very hungry but realised he needed to eat, not to mention the soup was warm and he was cold and didn’t want to get sick. Once he had finished he put his bowl aside and dug through his duffel bag until he found the tennis ball he had stashed in there. He tossed it from hand to hand while he waited for Andrew to finish eating as well, and when he had, Andrew wordlessly took both the bowls back out of the locker room.

He returned a minute later, and when he was sitting back down and settled, Neil said, “What else did Jeremy tell you about the Butcher?”

“There wasn’t much more to say,” Andrew said. “Like they told us earlier, they never even saw the Butcher themselves, just some of his minions, and it happened about six months ago, give or take a few weeks. They’ve been on the road since then, never staying in one place for long and they haven’t run into any of the Butcher’s men since. So there should be a good amount of distance between him and us.”

This wasn’t necessarily true, but it was at least an encouraging sign, and in lieu of any other information there was little choice but to take it at face value. Neil gave himself a moment to process that, then let out a little relieved sigh. “Looks like we have breathing room again.”

Andrew nodded. “Looks like,” he agreed. “Riko first. Then everything else.”

“Riko first,” Neil echoed. It seemed easier now that it was laid out like that. Riko was definitely the more immediate threat, and Neil knew he couldn’t forget that. His father was still the demon in his nightmares, but he wasn’t the only one out there. “Did you tell our new neighbours that I’m the Butcher’s son?”

“I didn’t have to,” Andrew said, and when Neil gave him a confused look he simply answered, “Aaron.”

Neil groaned and dropped back on his mattress. “What the fuck is Aaron’s problem?”

“You, apparently.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual,” Neil said bitterly.

There was a pause, and then Andrew said, “You don’t need to worry. No one took it badly; they don’t think you’re in cahoots with your father. The way you reacted and ran out when they mentioned him pretty much spoke for itself to be honest. They’re more surprised by how small a world it is.”

“Still,” Neil said petulantly. “Aaron’s getting on my last nerve — I’m this close to punching him.”

Andrew sighed. “Don’t punch my brother, Neil.”

“Even if he deserves it?” Neil asked, raising his head slightly to see Andrew’s expression, and he just about caught the slight upturn of Andrew’s mouth in an almost smile.

“Even then.”

Neil dropped his head again. “So protective. Which one of you is older, anyway? Do you even know?”

“I am,” came a voice from the doorway, and Neil shot up to see Aaron lingering over the threshold. He cut a quick look back to Andrew who seemed to have gone dangerously still — neither of them had heard Aaron’s approach. Aaron stepped further into the room, eyes on Andrew. “Mom told me once when she was drunk and high on pills, not long before you moved in with us. I’m eight minutes older.”

Andrew made no immediate response, and Aaron flicked a cutting glare at Neil. “Get out,” he said darkly.

As much as Neil wanted to stay just to piss Aaron off, the twins were clearly long overdue for a conversation, and Neil got the impression that Aaron’s antagonism would only worsen the longer it took. He looked at Andrew in a silent question just in case Andrew wanted an out, but Andrew gave Neil a brief nod, and so he scrambled to his feet and made his way out of the locker room, giving Aaron a wide berth as he did so.

He pulled the door closed behind him to give them some privacy and intercepted Katelyn on his way back to the lounge.

“Hey Neil,” she said, smiling brightly. “Did Aaron just go in there?”

“He did,” Neil said, “but I think he’ll probably need a few minutes.”

“Why?”

“He’s talking to Andrew.”

Oh,” Katelyn said. “Say no more.” She was probably the only one other than Nicky and Neil who really understood quite how strained the relationship between Aaron and Andrew actually was, and so she just turned back around and fell into step beside Neil and together they went back to the lounge, which was utterly empty.

Neil frowned. “Where is everybody?” he asked, but a ball thundering off the wall from down in the court answered the question for him. He and Katelyn followed the noise.

They spotted Nicky and Erik sitting in the stands, watching a three-on-three currently taking place on the court, and they made their way over.

“Who’s playing?”

“Kevin, Allison, Renee, Laila, Alvarez and Jeremy,” Nicky said. “Kevin is beside himself, no one’s felt like playing in ages and all of a sudden he’s got a mini-match on the go.”

Neil felt a sudden surge of jealousy that he wasn’t also on the court, and he headed down and banged on the court door. When everyone stopped play he opened the door and stuck his head through the crack. “Room for one more?”

Kevin took his helmet off and sighed expansively. “It’s three-on-three, Neil,” he said.

“That’s alright,” Renee said. “I need a break anyway, Neil can take my spot.”

“You sure?” he asked.

“Of course. I’ll just hang on here until you get suited up if you want to play.”

“Thank you.”

Kevin started tapping his foot impatiently. “Any time today, Neil. Are you in or out?”

Neil grinned. “I’m in.”


 

The silence that followed Neil’s departure was tense and loaded, and eventually Aaron started moving again. He stopped in front of Andrew and seemed to briefly consider sitting on Neil’s mattress, but then he changed his mind and sat next to Andrew instead, so they were both facing forward. Maybe he didn’t actually want to have to look at Andrew while he said whatever it was he wanted to say.

Andrew was still trying to work out how he felt about Aaron’s little revelation. Andrew hadn’t known that he was the younger twin, and whilst it didn’t change anything, it was still information about himself that was brand new, and it served as a reminder of how much there was that Andrew was in the dark about. Aaron had had years to reveal this if he’d wanted to, and Andrew tried to figure out if he was angry. In the end, he decided he wasn’t. Sure, Aaron hadn’t told him, but Andrew had never asked. There was so much that Andrew had never asked.

“You read to me,” Aaron said finally, and it was such a non-sequitur from before that Andrew didn’t follow. “When we were back at Mom’s house and everything went to shit and I got sick, you read to me. Harry Potter—”

“And the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Andrew finished for him. “I remember. It was the only decent book you had on your shelf. You didn’t even have the first two, just that one.”

Aaron shrugged. “I was never much of a reader.”

“I didn’t think you remembered that.”

“I didn’t at first. It came back to me. A few things came back to me that I thought were just delirious dreams, but I’m not so sure anymore.”

Andrew stiffened; he suddenly thought he knew where this was going.

“I wanted to apologise to you,” Aaron said. And okay, that wasn’t where Andrew thought it was going.

“What for?”

“I said a lot of shit to you when I got better, about my mom and how you should have taken care of her like you took care of me. But that wasn’t on you. I know that and I shouldn’t have blamed you. So I’m. . . sorry.” He said the word through gritted teeth, but it was there all the same.

“Okay,” Andrew said. “But just so you know, I would have killed her eventually anyway, even if she didn't have the courtesy to die on her own.”

Aaron’s face contorted with rage. “Andrew, goddamn it, could you not? For two fucking seconds, could you just. . . not?”

“She was hurting you. I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. So no, I couldn’t just not.”

Andrew didn’t know what this was. He wasn’t sure what Aaron was trying to accomplish here.

“Yeah, okay, I know that,” Aaron said, and his distress was evident even if Andrew couldn’t quite relate. “But she was still my mother.”

“She was. And now she’s gone. What’s this really about, Aaron?”

Aaron fidgeted with his hands and then stilled. “I remember your promise,” he blurted. “I remember what you said. And I want you to know that you don’t have to. You don’t have to protect me.”

Andrew went quiet for a very, very long time. His protectiveness of Aaron was blatant; everyone who’d ever met them since the world fell could see that, but Andrew had thought he was the only one who knew just how deep it went. He could still remember the utter fear of believing his newfound brother was going to die, and how adamant he was that should Aaron survive, Andrew would do anything within his power to keep him safe.

“It’s not about having to protect you,” he said at last. “It’s about wanting to.” This was more than Andrew wanted to admit, but he had never lied to his brother and he wasn’t about to start now.

Aaron shifted on the mattress but Andrew didn’t turn to see, and his brother’s voice was quiet when he said, “I appreciate it. I do. But I don’t want you to feel obligated. I want to protect you too, but you won’t let me.”

Andrew sighed. “Why the fuck does everyone suddenly want to look after me?” he muttered, more to himself than Aaron, but Aaron was too close not to hear him.

“Neil,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. Andrew didn’t reply, but Aaron wasn’t really waiting for one anyway. “You’ve certainly been keeping a close eye on him.”

“He needs it,” Andrew said. “He’s a walking disaster.”

“Andrew, that’s not what I mean and you know it.”

For the first time since Aaron sat down, Andrew turned his head to face him. “Something to say, Aaron?”

“Just—” Aaron started, then shook his head in frustration. “Why Neil?”

“Why Katelyn?” Andrew shot back, and instantly regretted it. It felt like too much of an admission, and Andrew really didn't want to give any ground.

“This isn’t about Katelyn. But since you asked, because I love her.” Aaron’s bitter expression turned slack with realisation. “Oh god,” he said. “Do you love him?”

Andrew clapped a hand over Aaron’s mouth. They were not having this conversation. “Shut up. I’m not talking to you about this.”

He removed his hand slowly but immediately regretted it. “So it’s a ‘this’, then?”

“For fuck’s sake, Aaron, what did I just say?” Andrew hated repeating himself.

“Just admit it!” Aaron snapped, utterly exasperated. “Just fucking admit it, that’s all I’m asking!”

“Why do you care?”

“Because you’re my brother! And I care about you, you insufferable asshole!”

“Aw,” Andrew said, tone unkind. “How sweet.”

“Fuck you.” Aaron’s tone was murderous. “How fucking hard is it to just say: 'Yes, Aaron, me and Neil are a thing.' I know it’s true. Fuck, everyone probably knows by now, you’re not that fucking subtle. I don’t get why you won’t just say it.”

Andrew bit down hard against the anger that was rising. He didn’t want to say it. It wasn’t anyone’s business. It felt fragile, and Andrew didn’t want to put words to it. It was too new and complicated, and fuck, it was Neil’s and it was Andrew’s, and no one else had any right to know any part of it.

“If you already know so much, then I don’t need to say anything, do I?” Andrew said. “I don’t owe you anything, Aaron. Now fuck off. We’re done here.”

Aaron puffed up, as if he had reached his absolute limit and was about to explode his anger all over Andrew. But abruptly, all of the fight left him and he deflated. He got to his feet and when he was halfway to the door, he turned back around. “Just so you know, I promise you, too. If I can, I’ll keep you safe.”

Andrew closed his eyes and let his head drop back against the wall. Everyone was a goddamn fucking martyr. “Duly noted,” he said.


 

Neil and Andrew’s usual routine of cigarettes in the stands occurred as usual that night but with one crucial difference, in that after they had finished, Andrew pushed Neil up against the wall with hard kisses.

After a few minutes, Andrew took Neil’s hands and held them up by his head. “Just here. Okay?” he said.

Neil nodded and as soon as Andrew let go of his wrists, dug his fingers into Andrew’s hair.

After what had been, for all intents and purposes, a very unsettling day, Neil was finishing it feeling unbelievably grounded. Everyone at the Foxhole Court now knew all his secrets — at least with as much detail as Neil was prepared to give them — and yet they still somehow wanted him around. They didn’t hold it against him; in fact, they understood, and Neil couldn’t believe he’d ever doubted that they would. After all, his situation was remarkably similar to Kevin’s, and no one had thrown him out on his ass. Then again, Kevin was Coach’s son, whereas Neil didn’t have any family.

Except, no, that was wrong. He did; everyone here was his family now. Found family, the kind that you chose.

Neil didn’t realise he was smiling until Andrew pulled away. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” Neil said. “I think I’m just happy.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and Neil laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with you,” he said, knowing Andrew would see through the obvious lie.

“Shut up,” he told Neil, and he kissed him to make sure he stayed silent.

Neil could get used to this.

Chapter Text

Early one morning, Andrew and Neil made their way back down the stairs of Fox Tower following their shift of night watch duty. Yet again there had been nothing to report, and Andrew was looking forward to getting back to the stadium, drinking some hot chocolate, and going to sleep. He was freezing and exhausted.

As they headed for the busted door, Neil slipped on an all but hidden patch of ice; water that had dripped down from the ceiling and frozen over in the cold winter air. As he scrambled for purchase, Neil grabbed at the broken window frame to his right, wincing and then yanking his hand away. Andrew was already there, steadying Neil, who clutched his hand to his chest.

“Let me see.”

Neil carefully removed his glove and then held his hand out to Andrew. It wasn’t that bad; a shallow cut just off centre of Neil’s palm, but it was still bleeding and would need to be cleaned and bandaged. You could never be too careful these days.

Andrew glared at Neil who shrugged expansively. “What?”

“Can you not go one day without injuring yourself?”

“For your information,” Neil said primly, “it’s been ages since I got hurt.” Andrew’s and Neil’s definitions of ‘ages’ obviously did not align.

“Congratu-fucking-lations, I’ll bake you a cake,” Andrew drawled, then he looked at the window frame Neil had latched on to. “If you’d put your hand just a little higher, that giant jagged piece of glass would have gone straight through it.”

“Well it’s a good thing I didn’t then,” Neil said easily. “Come on, Andrew, it’s cold. I want to go to bed.”

Andrew seized Neil’s arm and maneuvered him around the ice he’d slipped on. “I can manage, thank you,” Neil snapped, tiredness putting an edge in his voice.

“Clearly,” Andrew replied, but he let go once they were outside and they walked the rest of the way in silence. Inside the stadium, no one else was yet awake but Andrew knew it wouldn’t be long until Coach and Abby emerged to sort out water for coffee, and Andrew could finally grab his hot chocolate that he’d been craving for the last three, freezing hours.

Neil started to make his way straight to the locker room but Andrew grabbed the back of his hood and tugged to get Neil to stop. Neil turned his head just enough to peer at Andrew over his shoulder. “What?” he said irritably, and clearly somebody was in a mood this morning.

“You’re not going anywhere until I’ve sorted your hand.”

“Andrew, it’s f—”

“If you finish that sentence I will murder you and finally be free of your stupidity.”

Neil rolled his eyes mightily but Andrew didn’t miss the tiny quirk of a smile, and he pushed Neil past the locker room and towards Abby’s office.

“I’m not going in there,” Neil said.

“Why not?”

“Because she’s still in there.”

Neil meant Betsy, who was still currently staying at the stadium, sleeping on the bed in Abby’s office. Neil seemed incredibly distrustful of her, more so than any of the others, which Andrew didn’t entirely understand. Maybe it was because he couldn’t avoid her if she was staying here — perhaps he saw her as an intruder.

“Go and sit in the lounge then. I’ll be out in a minute,” Andrew said, and when Neil went, Andrew turned back to the door and gave a perfunctory knock, because it was early and he didn't want to just barge in while Betsy was sleeping.

“Come in!” Betsy called, sounding far too awake for the hour, and Andrew pushed the door open.

Betsy was sitting sideways on the bed, feet dangling off the side and rotating her ankle. She smiled when Andrew entered the room, and said, “Good morning, Andrew.”

“It’s Aaron,” Andrew said, just to be difficult.

Betsy stared for a few seconds, but her smile didn’t drop and then she shook her head. “No it isn’t.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow — he wouldn’t have thought she’d spent enough time in their company to tell them apart just yet, which was fairly interesting. “No,” he agreed. “It isn’t.”

He headed for the cupboard where Abby kept all of the bandages, and while he was there he rifled through the med-kit to see if there were any alcohol wipes left.

“Oh dear,” Betsy said when she saw what he was doing. “Is someone hurt?”

“Neil cut himself on some glass. It’s not bad.” He glanced back at Betsy. “I’ll be out of your hair in a second.”

“That’s alright, you’re not bothering me. I think it’s nice how you take such good care of your boyfriend.”

Andrew nearly dropped the med-kit. “He’s not my boyfriend,” he said far too quickly, and thus sounding far too guilty.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Betsy said, looking mortified. “I didn’t mean to assume. Just. . . the way you are around each other, I thought — forgive me. Not my business.”

“We’re not anything around each other,” Andrew muttered, and he couldn’t work out why he was even still talking.

“Okay,” Betsy said mildly. “You know, I don’t think Neil likes me very much.”

“I wouldn’t take it personally,” Andrew replied. “He’s not a trusting person by nature.”

“You don’t strike me as particularly trusting either,” Betsy said.

“No,” Andrew agreed. “But you don’t strike me as much of a threat. No offense.”

“None taken,” Betsy said, and she smiled again. “It can’t be easy having a stranger intruding on your space, though. I appreciate the hospitality.”

Andrew shrugged; it hadn’t been his call and he really didn’t care anyway. He abandoned his search for alcohol wipes and put the med-kit back before unravelling some bandages to cut for size for Neil’s hand.

Betsy shivered. “Oooh, it’s cold this morning,” she said.

“There’ll be coffee soon,” Andrew said off-hand, but Betsy wrinkled her nose.

“I’m not much of a coffee fan, unfortunately. What I wouldn’t give for a hot chocolate, though! It’s been years.”

Andrew hesitated. “We have some. I’m going to make one,” he said, and then he sighed. “I suppose I could make you one as well.” He wondered why he was even telling her when it was going to cut into his own supply — he was pretty much the only resident at the stadium who currently drank it.

A huge smile spread across Betsy’s face. “Oh, that would be lovely, if it’s not too much trouble. Thank you.”

It really wasn’t too much trouble so Andrew didn’t feel the need to respond, and when he’d got everything he needed, he started to head back for the door. “Coach’ll be up to boil the water in twenty minutes or so, so be out in the lounge by then to get your drink.” He broke off, as he had been about to say her name, but he shook his head. “Betsy is a ridiculous name, by the way.”

She didn’t look offended (not that Andrew would have cared) but instead a flicker of amusement crossed her face. “Well, I’ll answer to just about anything,” she said. “Hey you would do.” She laughed lightly.

Andrew considered. “Bee,” he said. “I’m going to call you Bee.”

“Bee it is,” Betsy said, and Andrew left, pulling the door shut behind him.

When he got back to the lounge, Neil’s head was drooping, half-asleep already. He roused at Andrew’s footsteps. “Finally. Thought you’d got lost. What were you doing in there?” He sounded awfully disgruntled, tiredness catching up with him. It was a little bit endearing.

“I was just chatting to Bee.”

“Who. The fuck. Is Bee?”


 

The couple of days Coach had said Jeremy and the others could stay for turned into a week, which then turned into two. No one seemed to want to ask them to leave, but they couldn’t exactly invite them to stay permanently knowing Riko could show up any time now. It didn’t seem fair to inadvertently put the newcomers in Riko’s firing line.

“We can’t just kick them out,” Nicky said at another family meeting in the lounge. “We can’t. Let them stay.”

“You just want Erik to stay,” Aaron said, still annoyed after having walked in on the two of them in the locker room when they had thought everyone else was out. Erik and Nicky had grown incredibly close incredibly quickly.

“Well, yeah, obviously. But Jeremy and Laila and Alvarez, too!”

“Don’t forget about Bee,” Andrew said, and Neil cut him a sharp glance which Andrew ignored. Neil didn’t understand why Andrew seemed so taken with Betsy — he’d witnessed several conversations between the pair now and he couldn’t understand it. Betsy just seemed to make redundant observations all the time and Andrew was being remarkably patient with her.

“Yeah,” Nicky said. “And Betsy. Coach, listen, the others in their group, they don’t wanna stay anyway. Rhemann and the others.”

“How do you know that?” Coach asked.

“Yesterday when I ran down to the basketball court to see Erik, I overheard Alvarez arguing with Rhemann about it. He was saying that he wanted to go, that they should have left by now because it’s dangerous to stick in one place too long, but Alvarez said that she, Laila, Jeremy and Erik wanted to ask us if they could stay permanently. And I bet Betsy does, too, she’s like best friends with Abby now. Right?”

“I do like Betsy,” Abby said quietly, and she looked up at Coach. “She’s nice. They’re all nice.”

“Look, no one’s disputing how nice they are,” Coach said, pinching the bridge of his nose like he was trying to ward off a migraine. “But we’ve still had no sign of Riko and the Ravens and I don’t know about any of you but it’s starting to put me on edge. We need to be prepared, and all these extra bodies are just a distraction. You guys know what’s coming, and you agreed you wanted to stay and do whatever we have to to protect our way of life.” He pointed a finger in the general direction of where the basketball court was. “But they didn’t sign up for this.”

“So we should just tell them,” Allison said with a flippant shrug. “We tell them about the threats heading our way, and then they can decide for themselves.”

“It’s not like they’d be a drain on our resources if they stay,” Nicky added, and his voice was hinging on desperation. “It would only be five of them, and they can all pull their own weight just like we do. They’d earn their keep.”

“Yeah but what if it’s not just five of them?” Dan said, and held up her hands placatingly when Nicky shot her a vicious look. “Hey, I’m just saying. I like them, too, but what if they all want to stay. Five’s one thing, but fourteen is a drain on our resources.”

“They won’t, trust me,” Nicky said. “Have you even seen Rhemann? Dude looks so uncomfortable here, he’s been wanting to leave for over a week now. And the others all follow him. They’re not all close-knit like we are, but Erik and Jeremy and them are more comfortable here than the rest. I know they are, Erik told me.”

Coach sighed. “You sure about this, Nicky?”

“Yes. Even if Rhemann was only on the fence about leaving, telling him about Riko will push him over the edge.” Nicky shook his head emphatically. “They won’t wanna stay.”

There was a long silence as Coach weighed up everything he’d been told. “Alright,” he finally said. “If everyone’s in agreement, I’ll go down there and fill in Rhemann and the others about the Riko situation, and that if they don’t want to get caught up in it they’d be better off moving on as soon as possible. But if anyone wants to stay, they’re welcome, as long as they contribute. Sound fair?”

Nicky practically started jumping up and down gleefully. “Absolutely, Coach!”

“Nicky, if you’re wrong about this and all fucking fourteen of them end up staying, I swear to god—”

“They won’t, I swear. I’ve never been more positive of anything,” Nicky assured Coach.

Neil didn’t know if he believed that so readily and spent the next hour feeling incredibly uneasy about the whole thing while Coach, accompanied by Nicky, Kevin and Dan, went to the basketball courts to talk it over.

“No use worrying about it now,” Andrew said from his spot next to Neil, unerringly seeming to know what was troubling Neil as he so often did.

“I’m not,” Neil said, and Andrew smiled mockingly.

“Liar.”

Neil didn’t respond but he watched Andrew’s profile for a moment. He wanted to go up to the stands and let Andrew distract him for a few minutes, but they weren’t alone in the lounge and there was no way to subtly ask if they could go and do just that. Neil sighed and let his head drop back against the sofa back.

When Coach and the others returned, Nicky was quiet and subdued, and even Kevin looked disconcerted. Neil leaned forward. “Nicky? What happened?”

It was Coach who answered. “Nicky was right. As soon as I explained, Rhemann and most of the others made it clear that they’d be leaving tomorrow morning.” He glanced at Nicky briefly. “Jeremy, Erik, Laila, Alvarez and Betsy are going to talk it over amongst themselves and the rest of their current group and decide what they want to do.”

“They don’t know yet?” Matt asked, and Dan shook her head.

“In fairness, it’s a lot to take in,” she said. “Makes sense they need to think about it.”

The room fell silent, until Renee quietly asked, “Are you alright, Nicky?”

He jerked his head up at his name and forced a smile on his face, so clearly a lie after his previous desolate expression. “Who, me? I’m fine, don’t worry about me. Erik and the others needed to know what was going on and now they can make an informed decision. We’ll know in the morning what they want to do.” He looked back down at his feet, then affected a yawn. “Think I’m gonna turn in early. Pretty tired.”

“Nicky, you haven’t eaten yet,” Abby said gently.

“’S’okay,” he said. “I’m not hungry.” He turned away without another word leaving another silence in his wake.

“Fuck,” Allison said eventually. “I’ve never seen him like that. I hope Erik stays.”

Coach sighed. “We’ll find out tomorrow.” He clapped his hands together. “Right, get moving everyone, make yourselves useful. Katelyn and Aaron on watch, Matt and Neil on dinner duty, Andrew, Kevin, Dan and Allison tidy up in here because it’s a fucking mess. Me and Abby will be doing inventory.”

“What about me, Coach?” Renee asked, and Coach put a hand on her shoulder.

“Keep an eye on Nicky?”

“Of course,” she said, and slipped out the door.

Coach looked around at everyone else, and when nobody moved immediately he threw his hands up in exasperation. “Any time today would be fucking fantastic, thank you very much.”


 

Neil probably would have woken up early even if he hadn’t heard someone get up and leave the locker-room, and when the door shut noisily he opened his eyes. Andrew was staring right back at him from where he lay curled up with his back to the wall.

“Morning,” Neil whispered.

“Just about,” Andrew replied quietly, and he pulled himself to a sitting position. “Nicky just left.”

“Where did he go?”

“Didn’t say. I don’t think he knew I was awake.”

“Maybe he went to see Erik.”

“Probably.”

“If Erik does leave, it would make sense for them to want to spend some time alone together before he goes. It’s what I would want to do.”

Andrew stared at Neil, unblinking. Then he said, “It’s a good job you’re not going anywhere, then.”

“Yeah,” Neil agreed, and he bit down on the smile.

“Will you two stop fucking flirting, some of us are still trying to sleep,” Allison hissed.

Andrew got up, wrapped himself in his blanket and headed out. Neil followed suit, whispering a, “Sorry,” as he went.

Just before he got to the door, Neil heard Allison mutter, “I fucking called this shit weeks ago. Dan, are you seeing this?”

“It’s not enough to win the bet.”

“Shut. UP!”

The last was a very disgruntled Kevin, and Neil didn’t hear anything else as he let the door swing closed behind him.

He caught up to Andrew in the lounge, curled up on the sofa right in the corner. Everyone else would be falling back asleep imminently, Nicky probably wouldn’t return for at least an hour, and they had about the same amount of time before Aaron and Katelyn returned from watch, so Neil sat down as close to Andrew as he could get away with.

“Did you hear any of that?” Neil asked.

“What?”

“Allison and Dan. I think they have a bet running about us.”

“They do. Renee told me.”

“What’s the bet?”

“If we’re,” Andrew crooked his fingers in air-quotes, “a ‘thing’ or not.”

Neil screwed his face up with distaste. “Why bet? Why not just ask?”

Andrew shrugged. “Would you have told them the truth?”

“What is the truth?” Neil asked. “I don’t even know what to call this, whatever it is.”

“We don’t have to call it anything,” Andrew said, and he sounded bored by the conversation; Neil was losing him.

But he couldn’t help but push just a little further. “It is something though, right?” He gaze was intent on Andrew’s face, and when Andrew realised he was being stared at, he pulled the blanket higher over his head so half his face was hidden.

“I told you not to look at me like that.”

“Andrew,” Neil said.

Andrew huffed an exasperated sigh. “It’s not nothing,” he finally said. “Happy?”

“Yes.” Neil sat back and lifted his feet up onto the sofa and pulled his blanket tighter around himself. He smiled, unable to stop himself. “Yes I am.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Uh huh.”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes. Always yes.”


 

Mid-morning, the residents of the Foxhole Court made their way over to the basketball court to see off their guests, minus Katelyn and Aaron who were sleeping off their watch duty from the night before.

Nicky had returned earlier positively beaming and so it was obvious before he even said anything what Erik and co’s decision had been. The Foxhole family was expanding by five. Neil could have done without Betsy’s presence, but Abby seemed delighted at having a friend her own age, and Andrew seemed quietly pleased about it (which Neil still didn’t get). It was worth it just to have Nicky so happy; he was practically vibrating with excitement.

He at least tried to tone it down when Rhemann and the others were making their goodbyes, however, which Neil thought was good of him. Rhemann shook Coach’s hand and thanked him for the hospitality, gave a cursory nod to everyone else, then hugged each of the people he was leaving behind.

Jeremy looked close to tears. “Are you sure you won’t stay?” he asked.

“Are you sure you won’t come?” Rhemann replied, and then he smiled kindly at Jeremy’s silence. “We all have to do what we feel is right for us. Just be careful, kiddo. I’m sure our paths will cross again someday.”

Jeremy sniffed valiantly, then hugged each of the others — whose names Neil had never bothered to learn — in turn.

On the whole, the departure wasn’t quite as emotional as Neil had expected it to be. Jeremy was the only one who seemed to be visibly upset. Nicky must have been right — they weren’t as close-knit as Neil and his friends were. They had been together out of safety by numbers, but not all of them would have chosen to travel together otherwise. It was probably better this way, for everyone involved. You couldn't have half-hearted alliances.

Dan and Matt had volunteered to lead Rhemann and the others out of the territory, and before long they all wound their way off campus. As soon as they were out of sight, Nicky took a running leap into Erik’s arms, who caught him easily.

“Well,” Coach said, looking around at his newest recruits, “bring your stuff on over to the stadium. We’ll get you settled in and show you the ropes.” They scurried off, Abby going with them to help Betsy who was still sporting a limp, and Coach turned to the rest. “Where are my scouts?”

Neil, Andrew, Kevin, Renee, Allison and Nicky all stepped forward. “You know the drill,” Coach said. “Pair up, spread out, eyes open. And don’t—”

“Don’t get killed,” Kevin finished for him. “We know, Coach.”

“Good. Get going.”

Chapter Text

Having five extra people around the stadium took some getting used to. Neil couldn’t say he felt completely comfortable with it at first, and he wondered if this had been how anyone else had felt when he had first been brought back to the Foxhole Court. Although, at least in his case, he was only one person. It wasn’t quite the same.

The best thing about the new arrangement was how much more often they got to play Exy. After Seth had died the mood had been understandably subdued and people had felt like playing far less often, making Kevin even more irritable than usual. But Jeremy was always up for a game, and he and Kevin could often be found running drills even if no one else was playing.

“Why are they even bothering with drills?” Aaron asked no one in particular. “It’s not like there’s ever going to be a league for them to play in again. There’s nothing for them to train for.”

“Sometimes it’s just nice to have a routine,” Betsy said. “Don’t you think?”

Aaron just ignored her — the only person other than Neil who said the barest minimum to Betsy, which almost made Neil want to befriend her. He hated having anything in common with Aaron.

“Oh, how true,” Andrew said. “Speaking of, come on Neil. It’s late and I want a cigarette.”

Neil very much enjoyed his routines with Andrew. The more time they spent together, the more Neil learned about Andrew and he hoarded these snippets of information, collecting them and keeping them close to his chest. Everything Andrew told him, either directly or inadvertently, was a gift offered in trust, and Neil treasured them as such.

Of course, there were other things Neil was learning too, such as how Andrew shivered in the best way when Neil kissed his neck and caught him off-guard. He’d never admit he enjoyed it, but Neil wasn’t fooled.

“Your neck fetish is not attractive,” Andrew told him.

“You like it,” Neil said simply. “I like that you like it.”

Andrew rolled his eyes but didn’t argue, and Neil marked it down as another silent victory.

Everyone was onto them by now, even Nicky, who had been the slowest on the uptake thanks to having Erik around as a distraction. Thankfully, no one had called them out about it with an audience, which Neil was eternally grateful for. Nicky had looked close to saying something a couple times, but Aaron always managed to silence him with a sharp elbow to the side. Whether he was trying to help Andrew out, or if he just didn’t want to hear about his brother’s ‘relationship’, Neil wasn’t sure.

He couldn’t believe this was his life now. Shelter, food, family, and stolen moments with Andrew. It was a dream.

Five extra mattresses in the locker room to accommodate the new arrivals meant that there had to be a shift around to make everything fit more comfortably. As a result, Neil’s and Andrew’s mattresses were much closer together than they were before.

“Do you mind?” Neil had asked Andrew quietly. “We can come up with something else if you want.”

“I don’t mind,” Andrew said, but he had gone into the locker room and moved one of the benches so it acted as a sort of barrier between Andrew and Neil and everyone else. It allowed them a certain amount of privacy, which Neil liked, but he was painfully aware of how it looked to everyone else, and he didn’t miss Matt and Allison’s knowing glance when they noticed. But Andrew didn’t seem to care, and as long as Andrew was comfortable, Neil was happy.

He was even happier when he woke up in the morning with Andrew’s hand clutched loosely in Neil’s t-shirt. Andrew blinked his eyes slowly open, took in Neil and removed his hand.

“Staring,” he whispered hoarsely.

Neil just smiled, unrepentant.

“Stop smiling.”

“No.”

The extra people also meant that there were enough around their territory for scouting duty, freeing up a couple of people to go on runs again, safe in the knowledge that they weren’t leaving the stadium unprotected. Renee and Allison came back from one such trip with two packets of cigarettes and a giant haul of booze, not to mention a few odd bits they could add to their med-kit.

The newbies picked up the way of life at the Foxhole Court remarkably quickly, and just like that, time carried on. They remained ever watchful, but the only outsiders they saw were a couple of stragglers, weeks apart, and both of them made their way through Fox territory within a day, never having spotted any of the stadium residents.

Every day that Riko didn’t show felt like a gift at first, but the longer it went on, the more likely it seemed that he might never find them.

It was a big world, after all.


 

“How long’s it been now?” Neil asked one afternoon when he and Andrew were sitting on the bridge at the overpass, passing binoculars back and forth to see if there was anyone on the road heading their way. Andrew quirked an eyebrow and Neil realised he had no way of following Neil’s train of thought and so clarified: “Since Gorilla. Since Seth died.”

Andrew thought for a few seconds. “Almost three months, I think.”

“That long?” Andrew nodded. “Riko should have been through here by now. From what Gorilla said, it wouldn’t take him this long to get to us.”

“But he doesn’t know exactly where we are,” Andrew pointed out, “so he wouldn’t have any sense of urgency. He’s got all the time in the world.”

Neil shrugged. “Maybe he waited for Gorilla after all.”

“No. He wouldn’t. Gorilla was nothing to him, and he’s got plenty of cronies who I imagine were more than willing to take Gorilla’s place. He wouldn’t care that Gorilla never showed up, or he never would have sent him away in the first place. Why are you asking, anyway?”

“I don’t know. It’s just annoying feeling antsy about a confrontation that might never happen. If he’s going to come, I just want it over already.”

“Oh, Neil,” Andrew said, shaking his head. “Be careful what you wish for.”

“I’m not wishing for it,” Neil retorted, frustrated. He gestured helplessly; it was hard to convey what he actually meant. “I just — it’s been so good lately, but there’s still this Riko shaped storm cloud, and it’s like we can’t. . . we can’t live properly until the storm cloud either breaks, or passes us by.” He glanced at Andrew. “Do you know what I mean?”

Andrew waved his hand in a non-committal gesture and so Neil let the subject drop and made himself forget about it, and later on when he and Andrew returned to the stadium they had nothing to report, as usual.

Neil had never asked what Aaron and Andrew had talked about in the locker room on the day Jeremy’s group had arrived on their doorstep, but ever since that conversation Aaron seemed to have mellowed considerably towards his brother. He still had little to nothing to say to Neil — which was just fine by Neil — but he had stopped watching Andrew like a hawk and scrutinising every interaction between Neil and Andrew with a scornful eye.

Andrew didn’t mention the change in Aaron’s demeanor, not that Neil had expected him to, but the pair of them seemed to be spending more time together one on one — and not just when they had to when they were scouting of doing other various duties. Neil didn’t think they always said that much to each other; sometimes it just looked like they were sitting in silence, but the important thing was that neither of them seemed to be uncomfortable. Once, Neil even saw them sitting on the court, bouncing Neil’s tennis ball (that Andrew must have pilfered from his duffel) off the court walls to each other and back again. Nicky walked in behind Neil, took one look and then the biggest smile spread across his face.

“Holy shit. Neil! Brotherly bonding! I may weep.”

In general, there seemed to be progress all around. Aaron’s slowly improving relationship with his brother had put him in a much better mood and so made him easier for everyone else to get along with, too. Nicky was so happy that Erik had stayed, not to mention that his cousins were acting more familial than they had in years, and it all served to make him a ray of fucking sunshine all day long. Jeremy was up for Exy talk at any time so Kevin was in a better mood than he’d been in weeks, and every day Allison was more and more herself. She still looked sad sometimes, understandably, but any fears that Seth’s death would break her had long since dissipated. It all had a knock-on effect, and everyone seemed to be feeling better. Rejuvenated after having such a shock when Gorilla had shown up.

With the exception of Betsy, who Neil was still a little skittish around, Neil had actually found himself quite enjoying getting to know the rest of the new residents. It helped that Jeremy, Laila and Alvarez all played Exy, as it was a great ice-breaker and a good bonding exercise, but Neil realised he enjoyed their company off the court, too. Alvarez in particular, who Neil had initially thought had come across quite prickly (which was, in fairness, understandable), he actually got on with incredibly well. She was funny and kind, and fiercely protective of Laila in a way that reminded Neil of how he felt about Andrew. Erik didn’t play Exy that often, but he was so friendly and made Nicky so senselessly happy that Neil couldn’t help but be grateful for his presence.

It was so strange that it should take the end of the world and his mother’s death for Neil to finally feel like he belonged. He had been alone for so long and now that he wasn’t, he couldn’t ever imagine going back to that life. To being constantly on the move, not trusting anyone, a different name every time he ran into a new group, lies, lies, lies.

He didn’t ever want to be lonely again. He wanted this; the stadium, Matt’s easy affection, Kevin’s barbed insults on the court, Abby’s kindness and Coach’s leadership, and the friendships from everyone else that were so easily given.

And obviously, above else, Andrew. Cigarettes and kisses and hands close together as they slept.

Neil wouldn’t give any of it up for anything.


 

“I can’t believe we got lumbered with water duty,” Kevin grumbled, sitting on the ground in front of a tree by the stream, arms crossed and looking like an overgrown toddler having been sent on a time-out. It was a strangely comical sight.

“It’s our turn,” Neil said reasonably, leaning down to fill his bucket. Winter was steadily turning to spring, and it had been a while since the stream had frozen over, making the job a whole lot easier.

“I’m aware of that. But consider this: I fucking hate doing it.”

He sounded so petulant that Neil couldn’t help the little laugh that escaped. “Why? It’s literally filling a couple of buckets of water.”

“Yes, but then we have to carry them back.”

“. . . And?”

“And it’s a pain in the ass, okay?” Kevin said, glaring at Neil.

Neil was about to make another retort but then he considered that the buckets, once filled, were fairly heavy, and probably hurt Kevin’s injured hand after a while. Kevin wore his wounds so well and was so capable that Neil sometimes forgot how badly broken his hand had actually been. Every time Neil caught sight of the jagged scars, it was a sobering reminder, and Neil had never even seen it at its worst.

“I’ll carry yours,” Neil said. “I don’t mind carrying both.”

“I can do it myself,” Kevin snapped, scowling. He’d seen Neil’s glance towards his hand and knew where the offer had come from.

Neil half shrugged in exasperation. “Fine, fuck you then. I won’t bother offering next time.”

“Good.”

“Good!”

Kevin didn’t respond and so Neil didn't bother adding anything else; fighting with Kevin was a futile exercise anyway. But now that he and Kevin weren’t sniping at each other, Neil became aware of how quiet it had gone around them. All of the birds had fallen silent.

A shiver ran up Neil’s spine instinctively and he reached for his switchblade, scanning the trees.

“Kevin,” he said quietly. “Come here.”

Kevin frowned in confusion, but he clearly heard the urgency in Neil’s tone because he got up and did as he said. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure,” Neil admitted. “Something feels off. It’s too quiet.”

Kevin immediately turned in a circle, looking around for any sign of anything at all. “I can’t see anyone. But you’re right, it’s quiet.” He was whispering, an uneasy edge to his voice.

“I’m going to climb a tree,” Neil said. “See if I can see anything from a better vantage point.” Kevin nodded his agreement, but just as Neil turned to reach for the lowest hanging branch, movement in his periphery stopped him short and he froze as someone stepped silently out of the tree-line and into the clearing.

Neil had never seen the stranger before, but he didn’t need to have to know who it was. If it wasn’t just for the way Kevin recoiled as though he’d been punched, Neil would have known who it was from the number 1 tattooed on his left cheek.

“Kevin,” Riko said, arms outstretched as if he wanted to give Kevin a hug. “It’s been too long.”

“Riko,” Kevin said, voice cracking in the middle out of pure, unadulterated fear. This was Kevin’s worst nightmare come to life.

Neil didn’t understand. This shouldn’t be possible; the whole area had been watched. Riko shouldn’t have been able to make it this far without being spotted; it didn’t make sense.

Although, maybe it did. Neil had even been thinking that this day would never come. They’d gotten complacent; they’d gotten lazy. And in this day and age, complacency killed. Neil was abruptly furious with himself.

Due to his close proximity to Kevin, Neil could tell he was shaking and he clutched Kevin’s wrist with one hand and pointed his switchblade at Riko with the other.

“Stay where you are,” he said with eerie calm.

Riko glanced from Kevin to Neil to Neil’s switchblade, and he laughed, a horrible, cruel sounding thing. Neil wished he’d brought his gun with him; attracting attention would be worth it just to rid the world of Riko. Then again, Riko was almost guaranteed to have a gun on him, too. 

“You shouldn’t go waving that thing around,” Riko said mockingly. “You might hurt yourself.” He gestured with his hand and more people stepped out of the tree-line, just as soundlessly as Riko had done. How they had managed to sneak up on them, Neil had no idea, but he was internally kicking himself for not being vigilant enough.

It took Neil too long to realise he and Kevin were surrounded; any hope he’d had of them somehow managing to turn tail and run the hell out of there without getting shot died when he and Kevin took half a step back and bumped into a couple of the Ravens who had emerged from behind them whilst they had been preoccupied with Riko in front.

“On your knees,” Riko said, cold and demanding. Kevin immediately did as he said, his wrist pulling out of Neil’s hand as he went, but Neil’s fear was making him angry — a dangerous mix — and he stood even straighter.

“Fuck you,” he spat.

Riko’s mouth quirked in an almost smile, amused by Neil’s combativeness. “Who’s your friend, Kevin? He needs a lesson or two in manners, I think.” Riko looked around dramatically. “No sign of your little guard dog. He still around, or did you just replace him with this one?” he said, motioning at Neil.

Kevin said nothing, didn’t even look at Riko, but Neil’s rage was building at hearing Andrew being referred to as a guard dog. He knew it was wiser to stay silent though — the less Riko knew about Andrew the better. Hopefully he’d assume Andrew was dead or that he and Kevin had parted ways and wouldn’t go searching for him.

“Didn’t you hear me, Kevin?” Riko said, stalking towards Kevin in a way that had him shrinking backwards, at least as much as he could whilst he was still on his knees. “I asked you a fucking question.” The last word was punctuated with a back-hand so hard that Kevin’s cheek bloomed red immediately.

Neil’s slim grasp on his temper snapped. “Leave him alone.”

Riko looked up sharply. “You’re new, so I’ll tell you this once. In the Ravens, you don’t speak until you’re spoken to.”

“I’m not a Raven. Get the fuck away from Kevin.”

Neil,” Kevin urged desperately.

“Neil. So that’s your name,” Riko said, and he took a step away from Kevin and closer to Neil. “You’re still standing, and I’m pretty sure I told you to get on your knees.”

Neil didn’t budge, but Riko gave a curt nod over Neil’s shoulder, and whoever was standing behind Neil jammed their knee into the back of his leg, hard, and pushed down on his shoulder, forcing him to do as Riko said.

Riko already had a slight height advantage over Neil and now it was even more pronounced, but Neil refused to be cowed as Riko came ever closer. He jutted his chin out defiantly and pinned Riko with the deadliest glare he could muster. Riko faltered just for a second, but it wasn’t out of fear.

“Wait,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “Wait just a goddamn minute.” He closed the remaining gap in two strides, leaned down and seized Neil’s chin in an iron grip, forcibly turning Neil’s face as he got a good look at him. A slow, menacing smile spread across Riko’s face which was creepy enough. The next words out of his mouth, however, made Neil’s blood run cold.

“I know someone who’s been looking for you. Has anyone ever told you that you look just like your father?”

Chapter Text

Neil couldn’t help it; he flinched, full-bodied, and Riko’s smile curved wider. It was all the confirmation he needed.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Neil lied, working to keep the tremor out of his voice. “My father is dead.”

Riko tightened his grip on Neil’s chin. “Don’t lie to me. It’ll only make it worse for you.” Neil opened his mouth to either angrily retort or again vehemently deny — he hadn’t decided yet — but Riko cut a meaningful glance to Kevin and then back again, a cruel gleam in his eye. “And Kevin,” he added, and Neil snapped his mouth shut.

Riko smiled, satisfied, then released his grip on Neil’s chin. He straightened up and began pacing back and forth in front of Neil and Kevin.

“What a fortuitous coincidence,” he said grandly. “Reunited with my best friend and finding him in the company of the Butcher’s son. And it’s not even my birthday!”

His tone was so flippant that it was making Neil feel sick, especially when he risked peeking at Kevin out of the corner of his eye and saw how ghostly pale he had gone. Kevin still wouldn’t look at Riko, eyes on the ground in front of him, but the way he clutched his left hand was telling.

Unfortunately, Riko also noticed. “Your hand!” he exclaimed, as if he had only just remembered what he did to it. “Let’s take a look.”

Kevin blanched but he slowly presented his hand towards Riko, who grabbed it and looked his fill, tracing the scars with a finger. “Well how about that, Kevin, it’s healed beautifully.”

“No it hasn’t,” Kevin said quietly, finding his voice at last. “It won’t ever be the same.”

“You can still use it, can’t you? Can’t be that bad. I could have chopped the whole thing off but I didn’t. Where’s your gratitude?” Riko said, mock hurt on his face, and he squeezed Kevin’s hand enough to make Kevin cry out in pain.

“Get off him,” Neil snapped, twisting to try and get free — to get to Kevin and force Riko away — but whoever was still holding his shoulder must have been built like a brick house and didn’t even budge. Neil had to settle for seething on the sidelines. “Get the fuck away from him, you fucking asshole.”

“Neil, don’t,” Kevin pleaded, shaking his head ardently as Riko pinned Neil with an icy cold glare.

“You’re starting to get on my nerves, Nathaniel. Do you mind if I call you Nathaniel?”

“My name is Neil.”

Riko scoffed. “More lies. Is there anything true left to you, I wonder? Where’s your mother, anyway? Your father has been looking for both of you.”

Neil didn’t want to say that she was dead. He still didn’t want to acknowledge that Riko was right and the Butcher was Neil’s father. In fact he didn’t want to concede anything at all to Riko, even though it clearly didn’t matter — Riko knew exactly who he was. It opened up a whole new set of questions, the most important of which was how Riko and the Butcher knew each other. They must have had some sort of arrangement. Neil couldn’t think of any other reason why his father would mention him and his mother to Riko at all.

Riko cocked his head to the side, appraising Neil carefully. “What’s the matter, Nathaniel? Nothing to say?”

“Fuck. You. How’s that for something to say?”

“Your antagonism is going to get you into trouble,” Riko said, low and dangerous. “Are you sure this is how you want to play it?”

Neil’s bitterness and fear and anger amalgamated together, a vicious cocktail that Neil had too much of. The words were out of his mouth before he had time to process them.

“As sure as I am that you’re an egotistical dickbag who loves the sound of his own voice.”

“Oh my god, Neil,” Kevin whispered, horrified, and lowered his head into his hands.

Riko’s face went slack with disbelief, just for a second, before he rearranged it back into something hard and threatening. “You’ll soon learn your place. Just like Kevin knows his.”

“Yes, he does,” Neil agreed. “And it’s not with you.”

Riko laughed without humour. “He always manages to find someone willing to defend him, although you’re definitely the mouthiest. For someone who’s been running as long as you have, your survival instincts are surprisingly low. It’s almost like you have a death wish.”

“No,” Neil said. “I just don’t like bullies.”

The man who was holding onto Neil dug his thumb sharply into Neil’s shoulder in warning; it seemed Neil’s attitude problem was making the Ravens nervous too, and not just Kevin.

Riko stared stonily for a few uncomfortable seconds, then he stalked back over to Neil and grabbed his hair, yanking Neil’s head back harshly; if he tugged just a bit harder he’d tear some of Neil’s hair out. Neil felt revulsion run through him — the last person who had their hands in his hair was Andrew under entirely different circumstances. Riko was tainting it, and Neil reacted on instinct. He spat in Riko’s face.

An audible gasp went up around the ring of Ravens, and the sound Kevin made was inhuman. But Riko smiled, wiping a hand across his face and then onto Neil’s jacket. Then the fist came, too quick for Neil to prepare himself, landing in his gut with enough force to push all of the air out of his lungs.

Riko let go of his hair and Neil doubled over, breathing in ragged gasps. But before he could compose himself, Riko kicked him, again and again. Then he crouched in front of Neil and waited for Neil to get his breath back. It took a while, and Neil grappled ineffectually with the ground, searching for purchase, wanting to pull himself up. He hated having Riko looming over him.

Riko grabbed Neil’s face, his thumb digging into Neil’s cheek hard enough that his nail was sure to leave a mark.

“I’m not a bully, Nathaniel. I’m a king.”


 

If Andrew had his way, any time they were out of the relative safety of the stadium both Aaron and Neil would be within his line of sight at all times. It just made him feel better. It made his life easier. It was probably better for his blood pressure.

It usually worked out fine, as Andrew typically only went scouting with either Aaron or Neil and the other tended to remain at the stadium on those occasions. Whilst Aaron was never in a scouting party sans Andrew, Neil was, albeit only once in a blue moon. Andrew always felt unsettled when this happened, but Neil was a survivor and Andrew trusted him to be able to keep himself alive in Andrew’s absence. Which, really, was awfully generous of him.

Today wasn’t quite so worrying. Neil and Kevin were only on water duty, which took no more than an hour even if you were dragging your feet. In fact, they had left campus at the same time as Andrew and Aaron had, which meant they’d already be back at the stadium by now, probably on the court playing their little junkie hearts out.

Andrew took comfort in the thought and returned his attention to the task at hand. He and Aaron had drawn the short straw and had to cover the area which was furthest away from the stadium, the opposite side to where the the bridge was situated. Andrew privately thought it highly unlikely that anyone would enter their territory from this way as it was further away from the road, but he supposed it was best to be thorough, and at least it meant he was probably in for a quiet day.

They’d been walking along in easy silence for over an hour when they decided to stop and take a quick water break.

“So,” Aaron said. “How’s things with Neil?”

Andrew flicked his brother a hooded glare but didn’t respond, and Aaron almost smiled, shaking his head.

“Hey. Can I ask you a question?”

“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “Can you?” Because let it never be said that Andrew wasn’t a facetious little shit when he felt like it.

Aaron rolled his eyes without malice, but took it as the permission it was. He dithered a little over what to say, and he looked mightily uncomfortable when he finally found the words. “What’s your problem with Katelyn?”

Andrew raised his eyebrows, honestly surprised, because he had thought his issue with Katelyn was obvious. “I never bargained for Katelyn,” he said simply.

Aaron scrunched up his face in confusion. “That doesn’t make sense. What do you mean by that?”

Andrew sighed. This felt like too much of an emotional conversation — on Aaron’s side at least as Andrew didn’t care enough to be emotionally invested — and he didn’t particularly feel like talking about Katelyn. But he and Aaron had been making decent tracks lately, and Andrew wasn’t so stubborn that he’d intentionally derail all of that just to avoid mention of Aaron’s girlfriend.

“It’s about protection again. I promised to protect you, but your relationship with her might one day make that difficult for me if she was in danger and you decided to do something misguidedly heroic.”

Aaron mulled this over. “So you don’t like her because if I tried to protect her it makes it harder for you to protect me?”

Andrew nodded. “Katelyn’s an extra. I never signed up for that.”

“No one ever asked you to. Anyway, it’s not like you have to worry. Katelyn falls under Renee’s sphere of protection — you made sure of that by being an asshole to her.”

“I wasn’t an asshole.”

“You completely ignored her existence.”

“Exactly.”

Aaron was starting to get frustrated, as he so easily was where Andrew was concerned, but Andrew wasn’t quite sure why. He was answering Aaron’s questions; what more did he want?

“Andrew, that’s so unfair to Katelyn. It’s not her fault I fell in love with her.”

“It is,” Andrew said. “It’s yours as well, obviously, but she’s not entirely blameless.”

“You are impossible. And ridiculous. Why is it always about protection with you?”

Neil had said something similar once, months ago now. “It’s not always. Just a lot of the time.”

Aaron scowled. “Right. So you’re saying that if you were in a situation where you saw Katelyn in trouble, you wouldn’t try to help her because she doesn’t rank in your weird hierarchy? You’d just leave her?”

“Of course I wouldn’t leave her,” Andrew said. “That’s the whole problem.”

Aaron fell silent, brow furrowed as he processed what Andrew was saying. Andrew thought he might have more to say, but in the end he just nodded and said, “Okay.” And that, apparently, was that.

They finished their water break and got back to their feet, setting off again. Andrew wanted to finish the job already. He wanted to be back at the stadium where Neil would be waiting for him, no doubt with a dopey grin on his face.

Only a few hours to go. Andrew trudged on.


 

Neil still lay crumpled on the ground, but Riko had by now gotten back to his feet and headed back over to Kevin. Neil tentatively felt his ribs, and although he didn’t think anything was broken, he was definitely going to be severely bruised.

“I’ve got another reunion for you, Kevin,” Riko was saying, then he clicked his fingers at someone. “Bring him.” Neil shifted his head so he could see what was going on, and through the same area that Riko had emerged from came two Ravens, dragging someone in between them who they dumped unceremoniously in front of Kevin. Whoever it was looked in bad shape, far worse than Neil currently was, features indistinguishable from the cuts and bruises that lined his face.

“Jean,” Kevin croaked out, and it took Neil a moment to place the name, before he remembered the boy from Kevin’s story. The French kid who ended up stuck with Riko in a foreign country with no way home, who had become Riko’s resident punching bag, too afraid to leave even when Kevin finally offered him a way out. Neil felt a wave of pity swell through him for this stranger who had surely endured more than anyone should ever have to. And this was coming from Neil, who had personally endured a lot.

Neil had initially thought Jean unconscious, but he roused at Kevin saying his name and mumbled something unintelligible.

Kevin looked up, anger overriding fear at last. “What did you do to him?” he demanded.

“Watch your tone,” Riko snapped. “It’s entirely Jean’s fault that it took us this long to find you in the first place.” He kicked at Jean’s side. “You were hiding how much you really knew, weren’t you Jean?”

Jean said nothing; just curled closer in on himself protectively — not that it would help him now.

“Jean broke the rules,” Riko continued. “And he has been punished accordingly.” A menacing grin spread across his face. “What do you think your punishment should be, Kevin?”

Neil dragged himself back up to a sitting position, and as he did so, he noticed slight movement across from him. Almost entirely hidden in the bushes opposite was Jeremy, watching on in abject horror. Neil’s heart leapt to his throat, and he looked around the circle as subtly as possible, but none of the Ravens had noticed Jeremy. They were too distracted by Kevin, Jean and Riko.

Neil looked back to Jeremy and caught his eye. He didn’t think Jeremy would be stupid enough to try and intervene, but just in case, Neil shook his head surreptitiously, passing it off as a crick in his neck if anyone noticed. Jeremy looked agonized but he nodded, and slipped silently backwards until Neil couldn’t see him anymore.

Neil didn’t know why Jeremy was this close to the stream, but if he was here, Erik must be close, too. Perhaps they had heard a disturbance and come to investigate. He and Erik were the ones in the closest position to the stream, after all.

In a strange way, Neil was glad Jeremy was a witness. Provided he didn’t let himself be seen, at least someone would know what had happened to Neil and Kevin. It wouldn’t be as though they had simply disappeared.

Of course, that was if Riko didn’t just kill them here and now. But Neil didn’t think he would; he wouldn’t have spent this long searching for Kevin if the end goal was just to kill him immediately. And the fact that Riko knew who Neil was gave Neil the blood-chilling notion that Riko intended to hand him over to his father.

It was a terrifying thought, but again not the immediate threat. Neil could worry about it later.

He had missed some of the conversation between Riko and Kevin, distracted by Jeremy and his own thoughts, but Neil zoned back in to hear Riko say, “Tie their hands. It’s time to move.” He turned and fixed a look on Neil. “Make sure Nathaniel’s are extra tight. He’s a runner and he’s been giving the Butcher the slip for years. But I won’t have him making a fool out of me.”

Strong hands forced Neil to his feet and he felt the rough burn of rope winding around his wrists, binding his hands together behind his back.

Even when Andrew hadn’t trusted a word Neil had said back when they’d first met not that far from this very spot, he still hadn’t bound Neil’s hands, just held on to him. Neil closed his eyes; he didn’t want to think about Andrew right now, it made things too difficult. But it was hard not to.

The one consolation was that Andrew was currently nowhere near; there was no chance of them running into him on their way out and thus Andrew starting a fight he had no way of winning. Riko and the Ravens were too many, and Neil had already clocked several guns. There were probably more hidden. Neil had to imagine the Ravens were quicker to use guns than Neil and his friends were. You didn’t need to worry about attracting attention if you always had the numbers advantage.

“What about Jean?” one of the Ravens asked, and Neil opened his eyes again to see someone gesturing over Jean’s sorry state, still slumped on the ground. Kevin couldn’t stop looking at him; he barely seemed to notice his own hands being bound behind him.

Riko stared at Jean dispassionately. “Jean has served his purpose. Leave him.”

Jean lolled his head in the direction of Riko’s voice but he didn’t respond; Neil wasn’t even sure if he was physically able.

Riko looked between Kevin and Neil. “We’re leaving now, but don’t think this means your little friends are safe. I would have hunted them all down and had them killed now for harbouring property that doesn’t belong to them, but your presence changes things, Nathaniel. Your father is quite eager to see you again. So congratulations! You’ve bought them a stay of execution.” He lowered his voice and Neil felt a shiver run up his spine. “But I know where they are now, and I’ll be back. You just rank higher on my priorities list right now.”

Without another word, Riko turned and strode for the tree-line, Ravens falling into step behind. The one holding onto Neil got him on his way, but Neil found he wasn’t moving as well as he’d like thanks to the hits Riko had landed on him, and he stumbled when the Raven tried to push him too quickly.

“Behave,” the Raven hissed in Neil’s ear. “Or you’ll get us all in trouble.”

“You think I give a shit about you?” Neil retorted.

“No. But I think you give a shit about Kevin,” he said pointedly. Neil gritted his teeth; he couldn’t argue with that.

The last thing Neil heard before they left the clearing behind was Kevin choking out, “I’m sorry, Jean,” as he was dragged past his fallen friend.

Jean didn’t reply. He wasn’t moving anymore.


 

Jeremy waited two full minutes after witnessing Neil and Kevin being dragged away. Erik was no doubt looking for him by now — they had split up temporarily when Jeremy had stepped away to pee and told Erik he’d catch up shortly, when he’d heard voices and gone to investigate.

He’d obviously missed the beginning of the confrontation, arriving just in time to see Neil lying on his side, clearly in pain while the leader of this gang — Riko, it had to be — taunted Kevin with the beat up sight of someone who had obviously been a former friend of Kevin’s. Jeremy winced in sympathy at the state the poor guy was in.

Jeremy knew it was suicide to let them know he was there, and when he caught Neil’s eye and saw him shake his head, it only confirmed that was the right decision. It didn’t help Jeremy feel any less shit as a crept backwards to make sure there was absolutely no chance of him being seen. Where he was, he’d at least manage to intercept Erik first if he came looking as well. It was better to stay out of sight.

Jeremy felt useless as he watched his friends be taken, but he’d heard enough to know that Riko had no immediate plans to kill them. Neil was going to be handed over to the Butcher. Jeremy just hoped that wherever the Butcher was, it was far enough that it allowed time for them to catch up to the Ravens and retrieve their kidnapped friends before they got there.

When he was sure the Ravens were gone, Jeremy tentatively stepped into the clearing towards the figure of the man left behind, lying on the ground.

“Hello?” he said, crouching next to him. “You’re not dead, are you? Please don’t be dead.” He put a hand on his shoulder and was rewarded with the man shifting under his touch. Temporary relief flooded through Jeremy. “Oh, thank god. Your name’s Jean, right? I heard them call you Jean.”

Jean’s eyes cracked open — it looked incredibly painful as they were almost swollen shut — and Jeremy saw the gray through the bloodshot, surprisingly alert for someone who’d been beaten half to death.

“Hey,” Jeremy said, managing a smile. “I’m Jeremy, I’m a friend. Sort of. I’m a friend of Kevin’s. I can help you.”

Jean mumbled something incoherently and Jeremy edged closer to hear him. It didn’t help, and he sat back again. “What is that, French? I’m so sorry, man, I don’t speak French,” Jeremy said helplessly.

Jean said something else, clearly agitated, but then he managed to shake his head and he said, “Kevin?”

Jeremy nodded encouragingly. “Yeah, Kevin. I’m a friend of Kevin’s.”

“Where is he?” Jean asked, pain enunciating every word.

“Riko took him. We’ll get him back, though! Right now I have to get you some help, then I can tell Kevin’s dad what happened.”

Jean’s eyes opened wider. “Kevin found his father?”

“Yeah, man! A family reunion!”

A serene smile crossed Jean’s face, all the more so considering how it must have pulled at his cuts and bruises. “He found his father,” Jean repeated in wonder.

“Jeremy?” Erik’s voice called from just out of sight, and Jeremy jerked his head around.

“Here, Erik! By the stream.”

“Jeremy you scared the shit out of me,” Erik said, half-relieved, half angry as he stomped into view, but he stopped dead when he took in Jeremy and Jean before him. “. . . What?”

“Erik you have to help me. This is Jean, he’s a friend of Kevin’s.”

“Wait. What?”

“Riko was here,” Jeremy urged, knowing they needed to be quick but also knowing it was a lot to take in. “Riko and the Ravens. They took Neil and Kevin away but they left Jean here for dead, basically.”

Erik moved closer and looked down at Jean who was still conscious but only just. Concern furrowed in Erik’s brow. “He’s with the Ravens?”

“Not anymore obviously, look what they did to him? He’s Kevin’s friend. We have to get him to Abby, and we have to let Coach know what’s going on.”

Erik looked back at Jeremy. “Did you hear where they were taking Kevin and Neil?”

“No,” Jeremy said apologetically. “But Jean will know.” He pulled one of Jean’s arms around his shoulder and with a herculean effort, pulled Jean up, taking most of his weight. Jean had a good few inches on Jeremy.

Erik finally jumped in to help, pulling Jean’s other arm around his own shoulder. Jean groaned in pain at the movement, but with two of them taking his weight the journey back to the stadium would be a lot quicker.

“I’m sorry, Jean. I know it hurts, but our friend Abby, she’s a nurse. She’ll patch you right up, good as new,” Jeremy said, as he and Erik carried Jean as quickly and carefully as they could.

For a few seconds all Jeremy heard was Jean’s laboured breathing, but then, at length, he said, “Thank you, Jeremy.”

"That's okay, Jean. You'll be alright."

Chapter Text

From her post on the bridge at the overpass, it was pure luck that Dan just happened to be facing the trees when a swarm of people emerged into the road, and even in her shock she still had the presence of mind to grab Matt and pull him down, shielding them from view by hiding behind the bridge walls.

“Wha—”

Shhh,” Dan cut Matt off. “People.”

Matt’s eyes widened and he peeked over the ledge where Dan had indicated. “Holy shit. Where the fuck did they come from?”

“Matt, get down, they might see you. They don’t look friendly.”

“Yeah but how did they get there? Is it Rik— oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, Dan look.”

“What is it?” Dan asked, but she crept up just enough so that she could peer across. The people were all on the road now, heading back up the road and away from their territory, but there were two figures among them who were painfully recognisable, even from behind.

“Neil and Kevin. They’ve got Neil and Kevin.”

“Oh my god,” Dan said. “It's the Ravens, it must be. But. . . fuck, I don’t understand, how did we not see them approach? When did they get here?”

“Never mind that now, where the fuck are they taking Neil and Kevin? What do we do?” Matt’s voice was verging on desperate and Dan worked to keep herself calm.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. We have a gun. We could shoot a couple of them?”

“We have barely any ammo, they’re probably better armed than we are, and I’m not confident enough that I could even hit the right person. I might hit Kevin or Neil.” He shook his head. “Can’t risk that.”

Dan had privately been thinking the same thing, but she couldn’t exactly think of any other options. Kevin and Neil were being led away, further and further by the second. She and Matt were just two people, heavily outnumbered.

“We need reinforcements,” she said at last. “We need to tell Coach. I don’t. . . I don’t know what to do here.”

Matt’s look of utter anguish almost punched a hole through Dan’s chest, but he nodded and stood up, eyes still on the retreating figures. “Fuck it,” Matt muttered, then yelled, “Neil!”

“Matt, no!” Dan hissed, tugging on his arm, but it was too late; the Ravens plus Neil and Kevin all turned to look.

“It’s okay, guys, we’ll find you!” Matt shouted.

The Raven closest to Neil reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. Dan was already pulling Matt back down but Neil had spotted it too and leapt sideways into the gun-wielding Raven, knocking him off balance just as a shot rang out.

“Oh god, oh god. Dan, are you okay?” Matt was saying, huddled next to her, patting her arms down and touching her face, checking her for injury.

“I’m fine, it missed. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything, I just didn’t want them to think they were alone.” He drooped his head miserably. “I’m so sorry. I could’ve gotten you killed.”

Dan cupped his face briefly; now wasn’t the time. She carefully rose to her knees and peeked over the top of the bridge to see Neil struggling in the arms of the man who’d shot at them. He seemed to be trying to get to her and Matt and Dan realised that he probably thought one of them had been hit, so she raised her head just high enough that he’d see her. When he did, he stopped struggling.

“Go!” he yelled. “Just go, we’re fine!”

The Raven literally picked Neil up and turned him around then marched him forward as the Ravens all filed away. Just one Raven lingered, watching Dan with unconcerned arrogance. When all of the Ravens had gone past him, he offered her a lofty wave.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” he called. “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

As he turned away to follow the others, it put his left cheek in full view and even from the distance Dan could see the 1 tattoo, and knew that it was Riko. When he was just a speck in the distance, Dan grabbed Matt’s hand.

“Come on,” she said. “We have to hurry.”

They took off as fast as they could, taking every short-cut they knew to get back to the stadium as quick as possible. Matt didn’t say a word but his face was creased with worry and shock and fear.

Dan was just trying to figure out how the hell she was supposed to tell Coach that his son had been taken.


 

The day wasn’t going like David had expected it to. But they had been living on tenterhooks for so long, he supposed it was only a matter of time before all the walls came crashing down.

It was this: Dan and Matt running up the corridor towards him, sweaty and panicked and out of breath, Jeremy and Erik trailing and carrying the weight of a stranger between them who looked to be in bad shape. It was Dan confusingly blurting out that she was sorry and that Neil and Kevin had been taken. It was then being told by Jeremy that he’d witnessed Neil and Kevin getting their hands bound and being led away by Riko and the Ravens; that he’d overheard them saying Neil was to be delivered to the Butcher. It was hearing that the injured man they had brought back to the stadium was Jean, Kevin’s friend from the Ravens, and that Riko had left him behind, clearly not caring if he lived or died.

It was this: finding out that Dan and Matt had been shot at when Matt shouted out to Kevin and Neil. That Neil had told them to go, that he and Kevin would be fine, and David didn’t even have to be there to know that it was a lie.

It was this: knowing that his son was back in the hands of the person he was most afraid of, and that Neil was being taken to the person he was most afraid of, and yet David had been powerless to stop it.

It took him a minute to process all the information, internally panic and worry, before he switched his brain into emergency mode.

“Jeremy, take Jean to the med-office and fetch Abby from the lounge. Erik, you good to head back out?” Erik nodded. “Go and track down Laila and Alvarez and get them back here. Where’s Nicky?”

“I’m here,” Nicky said from behind David, and he whirled around to see that Nicky and Katelyn had come to see what all the commotion was. Nicky looked hollow eyed and wrung his hands together anxiously. “What do you need, Coach?”

“Go and get Andrew and Aaron. As quickly as you can.”

Nicky looked nervous at the prospect, but he nodded determinedly.

“I’ll go with him,” Katelyn said, clearly worried about Aaron.

“Fine,” David said, “but you need to leave now.”

It was less than a minute before Nicky, Katelyn and Erik had grabbed what they needed and headed back out again, and them going back into the locker room had roused Renee and Allison who had been sleeping off their watch duty from the night before. They stumbled sleepily out.

“What’s going on?” Allison asked, irritated.

David filled them in as concisely as possible, and when he had finished he pinned a look on Renee, knowing she’d know what it meant. “I hate to ask, but. . .”

“Of course, Coach. Just give me a minute to get dressed.”

Allison cut a look between David and Renee’s retreating back. “What’s happening? What have you asked her to do?”

“She’s going to follow the Ravens,” David said. “She’s the only one who can catch up to them at this point, and I need someone to have eyes on our boys until we can organise a plan and go and get them.”

Renee re-emerged from the locker-room, dressed and strapping knives to herself. She had a little bag and she started heading towards the store room for supplies.

“You’re not going alone,” Allison told her, not even remotely a question.

“Allison, I’ll move quicker on my own,” Renee said calmly. “I won’t let them see me, it's okay.”

No. I’ll go with you. I can keep up just fine, I survived on my own before I got here, I can handle it.”

“I know you can, it just might be better if—”

“We’re not supposed to go anywhere alone. Right?” Allison turned an imploring look on David. “That’s the rule. That’s your rule. So I’m going with her. No matter what happens, nobody should be alone. Not like Seth was.”

Renee grabbed Allison’s hand and squeezed gently. “You’re right. I’ll feel better if you’re there.” She smiled and pointed to the locker room. “Hurry up. We need to be out of the door in two minutes.”

Allison nodded and hurried off.

“Okay,” Matt said. “So Renee and Allison will try and catch up and discreetly follow, but how are we going to know where to go? How will we able to track them down?”

“That’s easy,” came Betsy’s voice — someone else David hadn’t realised was listening in thanks to all the distractions. In her hands was a box David recognised from his office, filled with bright orange banners and streamers that used to decorate the court on game days, and she pulled a handful out. “Renee and Allison are going to leave a trail.”


 

Andrew and Aaron had just turned around to start heading back to the stadium after taking a slow look around their assigned area when they started to hear muffled shouts heading their way.

It soon became clear that it was their names being shouted, and then that it was Nicky and Katelyn who were calling for them.

“Kate?” Aaron yelled back, immediately concerned. He and Andrew hurried towards their voices and it didn’t take long for Nicky and Katelyn to appear, running through the trees towards them.

Katelyn barreled into Aaron’s arms as soon as she spotted him but Andrew’s eyes went straight to Nicky, who looked stricken.

“Nicky,” Andrew said measuredly. “What is it?”

“Kevin,” Nicky said, distress colouring his tone. “And. . . and Neil.”

A rush of images flashed through Andrew’s head; a thousand and one different scenarios for Neil and Kevin irreparably hurt, or dead.

“They’re — they’re gone,” Nicky finally finished.

Andrew swallowed thickly. “Gone how?”

“Oh!” Katelyn piped up. “Nicky doesn’t mean it like that, they’re not dead!”

Andrew closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “Then where are they?” he asked dangerously.

“Riko,” Nicky said breathlessly. “We don’t know how yet, but Riko and the Ravens were in the woods and they must have jumped them by the stream when they were getting water. Jeremy saw them, they took Kevin and Neil away.”

“How long?”

“What?”

“How long ago, Nicky!” Andrew said raggedly, irritation, panic and concern all warring for dominance in his mind.

“I don’t know, an hour maybe? I’m not sure, probably more like two, actually, after the time it took for us to find you.”

Andrew walked a small agitated circle before rounding on Nicky again. “Is anyone following?”

“Me and Katelyn came straight out to find you as soon as we heard. I don’t know what happened after we left, so yeah, maybe? I don’t know, Andrew, I’m sorry.”

“Andrew,” Katelyn said quietly, and it was telling how out of sorts Andrew was in that he looked to her immediately. She looked more troubled than he’d ever seen her when she said, “That’s not all.”

Andrew’s nerves were already hanging on by a thread; he didn’t know how much more he could take. “Tell me.”

“We don’t know how, but Riko knows the Butcher. He knows who Neil is. That’s where they’re taking Neil.”

Andrew didn’t wait to hear anymore. He ran.


 

Running for an extended period of time was never an enjoyable experience for Andrew, a by-product of being a smoker, but when the occasion called for it he could power through. And the occasion definitely called for it.

He’d heard Aaron shout at him to wait — which he’d ignored — but he knew the others were somewhere behind them because he could hear their footsteps, albeit distantly. He was much further ahead, leaving them in the dust.

By the time he made it back to the stadium he was a sweaty mess, and the noise the door made when he shoved it open full-force brought Coach running towards him, hands out in a placating gesture which, if anything, only put Andrew more on edge.

“Before you say anything, Renee and Allison are already out looking for them, they left just after Nicky went to get you. They’ll find the Ravens, follow at a distance and they’re going to leave us a trail. We’ll find them Andrew.”

Knowing Renee was on the case did serve to ebb the flow of panic, and Andrew slumped back against the wall, running a hand through the sopping mess of his hair. He was too exhausted — emotionally and physically — to pull a blank mask over his face. He’d woken up this morning with Neil’s fingers just a few centimetres away from his own, and now Neil was gone.

“How. The fuck. Did this happen?”

“We still don’t know,” Coach said with a sigh, leaning back next to Andrew. “Maybe Jean can tell us when he comes to.”

“Jean?” Andrew stood straight, eyes narrowing. “Kevin’s friend? The French kid?”

“Yeah, didn’t Nicky tell you? Riko beat him something nasty and left him behind, Jeremy and Erik brought him back. He’s in Abby’s off—Andrew, wait!”

Because Andrew was already moving, shoving off from the wall and taking off down the corridor towards Abby’s office. He could tell Coach was coming after him but he had a head-start and he shoved the door open. Abby was leaning over an apparently unconscious Jean, Jeremy hovering nearby and looking uncharacteristically morose. Both looked up at Andrew’s entrance.

“Andrew, don’t,” Abby said urgently.

“Move,” Andrew said darkly, striding forward. Abby didn’t budge but Andrew leaned past her, seizing Jean’s collar and shaking him.

“Stop, Andrew!” Jeremy shouted.

“Wake up,” Andrew snarled. Jean let out a pained groan and blinked his eyes open. “Where are they taking Neil? Where’s the Butcher?”

“Andrew, get the fuck off of him,” Coach yelled, catching up at last and seizing Andrew’s arms. It still took both him and Jeremy to pull Andrew away but he was seething.

Jean said something unintelligible in French and Abby helped him lie back down again.

Tell me, Jean!” Andrew snapped.

“There’s no point in asking him anything right now, Andrew, he’s too hurt and delirious, you won’t get anything out of him,” Abby said. “Just let him rest.”

Andrew could hear heavy breathing and he realised after a moment that it was his.

“Andrew,” Coach said steadily. “Come into the lounge. Have something to drink and calm down, and then we can make a plan. Okay?”

Andrew wrenched himself out of Coach’s grasp and with one last vicious glare at Jean, he stalked from the room.

He’d only just sat himself down on the sofa when Aaron appeared in the doorway, red-faced from the run and concern etched onto his features.

“Andrew,” he started.

Don’t.”


 

It took a long time for Neil’s heart rate to slow back down after they headed away from the bridge. Neither Dan nor Matt had been hit by the gunshot which was a relief, but it did little to calm the rage Neil felt at the fact they’d been shot at in the first place.

Kevin was ahead of Neil but he kept shooting looks over his shoulder as if to check Neil was still there. Although his hands were bound, Kevin was walking relatively unguarded. A couple of Ravens were close by and would easily be able to apprehend him if he tried anything, but they didn’t touch him.

Neil, on the other hand, was still in the steely grip of the Raven who had fired the gun. Johnson, he’d heard someone else call him. Neil faked a stumble and Johnson tripped over him.

“Oh!” Neil said sarcastically. “Sorry. It’s hard to walk straight when someone’s pushing me along.”

Johnson glared at Neil but when he straightened he loosened his grip somewhat, which was better than nothing.

Riko had obviously heard the slight disturbance and doubled back so he was walking alongside Neil and Johnson. Neil refused to look at him, instead focusing his vision on the back of Kevin’s head. He could feel Riko’s eyes on him, and hated how uncomfortable it made him.

“You know, when the Butcher told me about his long lost son, I never really believed that you were alive. And on the slight chance you were, I definitely never thought I’d actually find you. And here you are.” Neil didn’t have to be looking at Riko to know the smile was back. “It’s almost like fate. Do you believe in fate, Nathaniel?”

Neil was starting to think that he did, but there was no way in hell he’d agree with anything Riko said. “No.”

Riko laughed. “What do you call this, then? Divine intervention?”

“I call this a bad fucking day.”

“Fair enough.” He considered Neil for another minute. “You know, you’re shorter than I thought you’d be.”

“Ditto.”

Johnson pressed his knuckle sharply into Neil’s spine.

“Oh Nathaniel,” said Riko. “I don’t think you’re fully aware quite how thin the ice you’re walking on actually is.”

Neil was perfectly aware; the problem was just that Riko was utterly intolerable, and Neil absolutely would not let him walk all over him. He had been trying to work out what the relationship between Riko and his father was. He wondered if they were working together, but it didn’t seem to make sense. The Butcher of Baltimore never had business partners before the world went to shit, just people who worked for him. Neil didn’t even think the apocalypse would change this outlook.

Neil finally pinned Riko with a searching look. “Tell me. What do you get for bringing me in to the Butcher? What’s your reward?”

“Oh?” Riko said, tilting his head to the side and grinning. “Finally admitting who you are?”

Neil shrugged. “It seems we’re a little past lies now. You know who I am, and even if you were wrong, you’re taking me in anyway so it doesn’t really matter what I say. But seriously. What’s he gonna give you? Do you get promoted to second in command?” Riko’s expression had turned silently furious, and Neil knew he’d touched a nerve. “Come on. I’m curious.”

“I don’t work for anyone, Nathaniel,” Riko said dangerously. “The Butcher and I have a friendly agreement, that’s all. I found you and I’m bringing you in as a favour to a friend.”

“My father doesn’t have any friends. He only has lackeys,” Neil said, and he couldn’t resist poking the bear. “You look like you’d make a great lackey, I can see why he recruited you.”

Neil,” Kevin hissed in warning but Neil didn’t care. Riko’s anger only served to confirm in Neil’s mind that the Butcher was in charge. Riko and the Ravens worked for him now, just like the bandits who had destroyed the farm Jeremy and the others used to live in.

Johnson let go of Neil and moved quickly away, and Riko stepped forward, wrapping a hand around the front of his neck. It wasn’t enough to cut off all of Neil’s air-supply but it was incredibly uncomfortable.

“I’m only going to say this once, Nathaniel. I am my own boss, and every person here wouldn’t hesitate to tear you to shreds if I gave them the order to do so. Do not test me.”

Neil managed to smirk even through his discomfort. When he spoke it was strained thanks to the grip Riko still had on his neck and he kept his voice low so they wouldn’t be overheard, but the message got through well enough. “You can threaten me all you want, but you and I both know you can’t kill me. The Butcher wants me alive, and probably in one piece so he can destroy me himself. So you can keep posturing, keep acting like you’re the king in front of your Ravens, I don’t care. I’m not afraid of you, Riko. There’s nothing you can do to me.”

Riko squeezed tighter, just for a second, and then he let go again, leaving Neil gasping but quietly triumphant.

“Maybe not,” Riko murmured menacingly. “Kevin, on the other hand. . .”

He let the threat hang in the air unspoken and smiled cruelly at Neil’s lack of a response. He already knew that Neil was unwilling to risk Kevin’s safety and it was enough to give Riko leverage over Neil.

Riko turned and walked away, saying to Johnson as he passed, “Knock him out. I don’t want to hear a peep out of him for the rest of the day.”

Johnson nodded and made his way back over to Neil, who watched his approach with detached calm despite being fully aware of what was about to happen.

“Listen, kid, I know it doesn’t seem like it,” Johnson said, “but this really is for your own good.”

Then his fist went back.


 

It took far too long for Coach to corral everyone into the lounge, leaving Andrew so on edge he thought he was going to crawl out of his own skin. Aaron had been sitting next to him the entire time, a silent sentinel Andrew hadn’t needed or asked for, and Andrew couldn’t even find it within himself to appreciate the sentiment. He wanted Kevin back on the court shouting belligerently at everyone. He wanted Neil back where he could see him, could touch him. He wanted.

The ‘plan’ wasn’t really much of anything.

“Renee and Allison are our eyes,” Coach said. “And Renee’s the best there is. They’ll find them, keep a watchful eye and they’ll lead us straight to them. Jean is still in a bad way, but first thing in the morning we’ll see if he’s lucid enough to be able to give us a concrete idea of what’s going on, if he even knows. Either way, a group of us will head out tomorrow and pick up the trail, and one way or another, we’ll get Kevin and Neil back where they belong.”

Andrew closed his eyes tight and dropped his head back against the sofa. Everything sounded like white noise; it was a struggle to pay attention, and Andrew tried to drown it out.

Eventually, it was Aaron who spoke up. “Why are we waiting until tomorrow? We’re wasting time.”

“We need clear heads, and we need time to pack properly and make sure we have everything we need. We don’t know how long this might take. Ideally, no more than a couple of days, but you never know. Plus we need to figure out who’s actually going.”

“I’m going,” Andrew said immediately, opening his eyes again.

“Yeah, I figured,” Coach said. “I’m going, too. Everyone else, talk it out amongst yourselves and let me know later. But in the mean time, make sure you eat something, and for fuck’s sake make sure you get some sleep. Dismissed.” He waved a hand and almost everyone scattered, most people apparently eager to give Andrew a wide berth.

Abby and Jeremy disappeared back into Abby’s office to watch over Jean, and soon the only people left in the lounge with Andrew were Aaron, Nicky and Betsy.

Andrew didn’t spare a glance for anyone and instead got to his feet, walked to the wall and punched it, hard. Then he did it again.

“Andrew, stop it,” Nicky wailed, but it was Aaron who pulled Andrew away from the wall.

“Fucking idiot,” Aaron said. “You’ll break your fucking hand.”

Andrew looked down at his knuckles dispassionately. They were scuffed and bloody and he’d torn some of the skin but he tested the movement and nothing seemed to be broken. It hurt, but in a distant sort of way.

“I’ll get Abby,” Nicky said nervously.

“That’s alright, Nicky, let’s not bother Abby right now. I’ll sort him out,” Betsy said, and she beckoned to Andrew with an outstretched hand. He looked from the wall to his hand to her, then shrugged and followed her out.

He trailed her to the bathroom, and once inside he leaned his back against the wall and slid down until he was sitting. He let Betsy take his hand but didn’t look at her or say a word as she painstakingly cleaned his hand, then waited as she went to get a couple of bandaids to cover the little cuts he’d inflicted.

She did the whole thing in silence, and when she was finished she sat back, looked him in the eye, and waited.

“What happens,” Andrew said slowly, “if we’re too late? If Riko just kills both Kevin and Neil before we even get there?”

“I don’t think that’s likely,” Betsy said reasonably. “From what Jeremy overheard, delivering Neil to the Butcher seems pretty high on Riko’s agenda so I doubt he’d just kill him. And I don’t think he’d spend all this time searching for Kevin if killing him was the goal.”

“But he could still hurt them,” Andrew pointed out.

Betsy, to her credit, didn’t refute it. “Yes,” she said. “He could.”

Andrew shifted his eyes away from her face and focused them on the corner of a tile opposite. Everything good Andrew had ever had in his life always got taken away again in the end; he didn’t know why he’d fooled himself into thinking this. . . thing he had with Neil would be any different.

“I can’t lose him, Bee. I can’t.” He didn’t know why he said it. Maybe it was because he knew Betsy wouldn’t judge him for it or use it against him, or maybe it was because he needed to say it out loud, just once.

Betsy cupped his face with one hand and gently forced him to look at her, expression earnest and fierce. “We’ll get him back, Andrew. We’ll get both of them back.”

And Andrew believed her.

Chapter Text

After passing by the bridge where Dan and Matt had last seen Kevin and Neil, it took Renee and Allison a mere two hours before they spotted the Ravens. Honestly, it was hard to miss a large group of people all wearing black.

“What the fuck, though,” Allison said. “It’s like they want to be seen.”

“It probably doesn’t matter to them if they are because they know they can win in all situations,” Renee replied. She and Allison were staying hidden using whatever they could. They had an abundance of empty buildings, burnt out cars, or trees and shrubbery to choose from. Every mile or so they went, they attached one of the bright orange Foxes banners somewhere Coach and the others would see it and know they were on the right track when they started to follow.

“Not all situations,” Allison said. “They haven’t had to deal with us yet.”

“True. But we’re not going to fight them alone, Allison. Not unless we absolutely have to.”

“I know, I know,” Allison said with faux-airiness, but Renee could sense the very real concern in it. She scrunched her nose up. “Do you think Neil’s okay?”

When they’d first spotted them, although they’d picked out Kevin walking along easily enough, they discovered that Neil had been flung over one of the Raven’s shoulders, dangling limply and clearly unconscious.

“I expect so,” Renee said. “They probably just knocked him out for some reason.”

“What would they do that for?”

“Perhaps he was being difficult.”

Allison sighed. “Sounds about right.” Her expression turned stern. “If I see them harm one little hair on his head—”

“We can’t engage, Allison,” Renee interrupted sadly. “There’s too many of them.”

“Even for you?”

Renee smiled briefly. “Even for me.” She glanced back up at the Ravens and pulled Allison back and around the side of a broken wall just before one of the Ravens took a cursory look behind. “Although, if we ever do see an opening, we can try and get Neil and Kevin out.”

“How likely is that though?” Allison asked, frustrated.

“Not very,” Renee admitted. “Just keep your eyes open.”

“They’re open,” Allison said.

Renee looked up to the sky, then peered around the wall and indicated for Allison to follow.

“It’ll be getting dark pretty soon,” she said. “They’re bound to make camp somewhere close. When they do, we’ll set up just far enough so we can still see them but not close enough for them to be able to jump us unawares. Then we’ll take turns doing an overnight watch. Sound good?”

Allison nodded, and then she suddenly clutched Renee’s hand. “I’m glad you let me come,” she said without looking at Renee. “If you’d gone alone, I would have been losing my mind. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it.”

Renee squeezed back, abruptly pleased that she’d relented, that Allison was here. She was about to reply, but Allison spoke again before she got the chance.

“I wonder how Andrew took the news.”

Renee closed her eyes, just briefly. She didn’t even want to think about it.


 

Neil came to groggily, his head resting on something that it took him a while to realise was a shoulder. When he straightened and peered blearily to the left, he realised that it was Kevin’s shoulder specifically, and that the two of them were currently tied to a tree.

Night had fallen, and Ravens were scattered about, sleeping or eating. There was a fire a little further away and Neil recognised Riko curled up next to it, asleep. Johnson sat a few feet away and seemed to be on prisoner duty as he was watching Kevin and Neil with a bored expression.

“I imagine you’ve got quite the headache,” Kevin said wryly.

“Fuck,” Neil said, and his right temple was throbbing. “I really, really do.” He shifted to see how much range of movement he had, and the answer was next to none. He couldn’t move his arms at all, which meant if he wanted something to eat or drink, a Raven would have to help him, an idea which appalled him.

“Neil,” Kevin said in a lower voice, “you’ve got to stop antagonising Riko.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Neil said stubbornly.

“God, you sound like Andrew. Do you want to get killed?”

“Of course not. He just — he doesn’t own me. He doesn’t get to dictate how I behave.”

Kevin sighed. “Your courage is admirable, I’ll give you that. But you’re also a fucking idiot.”

“I never said I wasn’t.”

“Neil, please,” Kevin said, verging on desperation. “If you don’t want to do it for your own fucking safety, can you at least do it for my peace of mind?”

Neil scowled. He hated being guilt-tripped into anything. “I just got knocked out. It was nothing.”

“He punched you really fucking hard,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “You were all limp and he just threw you over his shoulder, and I just — I just didn’t like it, okay? The thing about being unconscious is that it looks an awful lot like being dead.”

Neil looked away awkwardly. He and Kevin were friends in their own unorthodox way, he knew this. But Kevin had never overtly expressed concern for Neil’s well-being before, and it was appreciated as much as it was uncomfortable.

“Okay,” he said at last. “I’ll try not to upset Riko. I’ll behave.” He shot a look at Johnson who looked like he had been straining to hear, but Kevin and Neil had been speaking too quietly. Neil raised his voice to be heard. “You gonna get us some water or is the aim for us to die of dehydration?”

Kevin sighed, exasperated. “Neil, what did we just talk about?”

“Hey, that was about Riko. You never said I had to suck up to this dick-wad.”

Johnson didn’t even bat an eye at Neil’s words, and in fairness he looked exhausted. He was probably too tired to give a shit about anything Neil had to say at this point. He got to his feet wordlessly and headed off to — hopefully — fetch some water.

“You don’t need to worry, you know,” Kevin said quietly after Johnson had gone.

“Who said I was worried?”

“They’re taking you to the Butcher,” Kevin reminded Neil needlessly. “I know you’re scared.”

Neil was scared, but talking about it seemed a pointless exercise.

“Anyway,” Kevin continued, “like I said, you shouldn’t worry.”

“And why’s that?”

“Andrew,” Kevin said simply. “I mean, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was already on his way. He’ll come for you.”

Neil closed his eyes and dropped his head back against the trunk of the tree. Kevin said it with such certainty, and Neil already knew it was true anyway. It was at once a comforting and terrifying thought. Neil had never meant to rely on anyone as much as he relied on Andrew, and right now Neil was so afraid of what the future might hold for him that he wanted Andrew with such a fierce intensity that if he thought too much about him he’d start to panic.

He didn’t want Andrew to get hurt. And especially not over him.

“You’ve probably already noticed this,” Kevin was saying, still talking in subdued tones, “but Andrew never seems particularly happy about anything.”

Of course Neil had noticed this. Sure, Andrew smiled occasionally, but his smiles always served an ulterior motive; to mock, unnerve, or intimidate. Neil didn’t think he’d ever seen a genuine smile, but he’d been hoping to, one day. He’d been hoping to be the cause of one.

“With you though, sometimes he just seems really content. And for Andrew, that’s — that’s huge. You settle him, somehow. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve noticed.” Kevin pinned a look on Neil. “And that’s how I know he’ll come for you.”

Neil let out a shaky sigh, and once again dropped his head back onto Kevin’s shoulder. He spotted Johnson starting to make his way back over with a bottle of water; it was just about time for the personal conversations to stop.

“Not just me,” Neil reminded Kevin. “And hey, I bet Coach is coming too.”

“Do you think?” Kevin asked, and Neil could hear the thinly-veiled hopeful undertone.

“I do.”


 

Jeremy inadvertently woke up Laila in the middle of the night, as he dragged his mattress across the floor towards the door and accidentally tripped over her foot, which he hadn’t noticed hanging off the corner of the mattress she and Alvarez shared.

Jeremy,” she hissed. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” he whispered back. Laila sat up, rubbing her face in tired annoyance. Alvarez grumbled and rolled over but didn’t actually wake up — Alvarez slept like the dead and it took a lot to wake her up.

“Seriously,” Laila said. “Where are you going?”

Jeremy paused and cut a look to the rest of the locker-room, not wanting to risk waking anyone else up. From this angle, he couldn’t even see Andrew who was tucked away in the corner and hidden by the bench he’d put there. He didn’t have Neil with him tonight though, and Jeremy hazarded a guess that he probably wasn’t getting all that much sleep in Neil’s absence.

“I was just going to take my mattress into Abby’s office and sleep in there,” Jeremy finally answered. He felt a little silly about it, but he couldn’t work out why. “If Jean wakes up. . . I dunno, I just feel like he shouldn’t be alone.”

“Jeremy,” Laila said softly. “You don’t even know him.”

“I know that,” Jeremy said. “But he’s still a person, and what they did to him—” he broke off, shaking his head. “And he’s Kevin’s friend and now he’s in a place he doesn’t know, and just. . . he shouldn’t have to wake up alone.”

Laila watched him without saying anything for a minute, and just for a second Jeremy hated how well she could read him. He and Laila had been on the road together almost since day one. Friends since before they had lost everyone else, and family now.

“Okay, hon,” she said at last, kindly. “Come back if you get lonely.”

“I won’t get lonely,” Jeremy said, already leaving. “Jean’s in there.”

If he’d felt silly trying to explain it to Laila, he felt even sillier hovering outside Abby’s office with his mattress at his feet. Finally, he built up the nerve, knocking lightly so that if Jean was awake he’d know someone was coming in. There was no answer and Jeremy pushed the door open.

Jean lay on his side, and although he was sleeping when Jeremy first stepped inside, he startled awake when Jeremy took a few steps closer. His eyes flew as wide as they could get in his injured state, and through the wince Jeremy still registered the panic and rushed forward, hands outstretched.

“Hey,” he whispered. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re safe now. I promise. There’s no one here who will hurt you.”

Jean’s eyes darted around the dimness of the room and then back to Jeremy, and slowly recognition dawned on his face. It was relieving — Jeremy hadn’t been all that sure that Jean would remember their encounter at all.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.

Jean nodded slowly. “J— Jeremy?” he said, unsure.

“Yeah!” Jeremy grinned. “Yeah, that’s right! Me and Erik, we brought you back here.”

“And. . . and where is ‘here’?” Jean asked warily. His voice was thick, both with lingering pain and thanks to the split lip he had, but Jeremy was again surprised with how alert he seemed. This was obviously someone accustomed to violent cruelty if he could bounce back so quickly, and a rare rush of fury rippled through Jeremy’s veins on Jean’s behalf.

“This is the Foxhole Court. It’s an Exy stadium for Palmetto State University. Kevin’s father, he was coach here. A bunch of us live here now.”

“Kevin, too?” Jean said, trying to sit up too quickly. He gasped in pain, and Jeremy helped lower him back down.

“Easy, now. No sudden movements, okay? You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I’m already hurt,” Jean pointed out, just matter-of-fact, not after any sympathy.

“Yeah, I know that. And to answer your question, yes, Kevin does live here, but Riko caught him, remember?”

“Fuck,” Jean breathed out. “Yes. I vaguely remember.”

“Hold on,” Jeremy said, and turned to go and grab his mattress from just outside the door.

“Where are you going?” Jean asked in a small voice that almost cracked Jeremy in two.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jeremy said, reaching out of the open door and maneuvering his mattress onto its side so he could slide it into Abby’s office. Once clear of the doorway he shut the door and arranged his mattress close to Jean’s bed. When he was happy with the placement, he settled himself down and burrowed under the blanket he’d also brought with him.

“You’re going to sleep down there?” Jean said.

“Yes,” Jeremy said. “So you should go back to sleep, and I’ll be right here. If you need anything, and I mean anything at all, then you just wake me up, okay?”

Jean went silent for so long that Jeremy thought he might have already fallen back asleep, but then he said, “Okay.”

“I’ll be right here, Jean.”

“Okay.”


 

Sleep eluded Andrew, but he had known that it would. He was accustomed to running off little to no sleep, so when the sun first started to rise, glinting through the window and shrouding the locker-room in a rosy glow, Andrew was already hyper-aware and ready to go.

Andrew’s rage from the night before had abated somewhat, and all of his attention had boiled down to the task at hand. Getting Neil and Kevin back was the only option Andrew could live with, and when stated in such basic terms it all seemed remarkably simple. They would leave today, they’d catch up with Renee and Allison who would have Riko in their sights, and then they’d reclaim their taken friends.

Easy.

There seemed to be no point in wasting anymore time, and Andrew was getting sick of just lying there anyway. Neil’s bare mattress, unavoidable as it was directly in Andrew’s eye-line, seemed to taunt Andrew with its emptiness and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He flung his blanket off and left the locker room, heading to Abby’s office.

He stepped inside to see Jeremy already in there, asleep on his mattress which he’d put on the floor near the bed where Jean lay, finally awake. His cuts and been cleaned and stitched up by Abby, so in one sense he looked better, but his bruises had darkened exponentially and his left eye was still horrifically swollen, and Andrew knew from what Abby had said that at least two of his ribs were broken.

His eyes were on Andrew when Andrew stalked towards him, but he didn’t look afraid.

“Jean,” he said, much calmer than he’d been the previous day. Odds were that Jean wouldn’t remember their last encounter, as out of it as he’d been.

“I’m sorry,” Jean said. “I don’t know your name.”

“Andrew. Do you know where you are?”

Jean motioned to Jeremy on the floor. “Jeremy told me this is an Exy stadium on a college campus. Where Kevin lives now, with his father and all of you.”

“That’s right. And I’m the one who got him here in one piece.”

Jean nodded understanding. “Thank you,” he said. “Kevin never did do all that well on his own.”

“No. And now he’s been taken by Riko, and so has Neil. Do you know who Neil is?”

Jean shook his head, then winced — he was clearly still in a lot of pain.

“He’s the Butcher’s son.”

Jean cursed in French; curses were easy to pick out in any language. “Riko has the Butcher’s son?”

“Yes,” Andrew said. “And he’s delivering him to the Butcher himself. Do you know where?”

“You can’t mean to go after him,” Jean said incredulously. “It’s suicide. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You’re serious?” Jean asked. Andrew’s only form of reply was a measured stare, and Jean shook his head again. “Look, the Butcher has a compound of some sort. Heavily guarded. But I don’t know exactly where it is, the only one of the Ravens who’s ever been there is Riko, and he never shared any information with me.”

“You must have at least some basic idea of how far it is from here. A general area?”

“A couple of weeks walk, maybe? It’s hard to say. It’s north of here.”

“North,” Andrew said, and sighed. “That’s very broad.”

Jean shrugged, another pained movement. “I’m sorry.”

“Anything useful you can tell me?”

“I only met the Butcher once, and since then he’s dealt with Riko alone. All I can tell you is that he’s ruthless and dangerous and will destroy anything and anyone in his way. Even Riko’s afraid of him.”

This gave Andrew pause for thought. “How did Riko’s path even cross with the Butcher’s?”

Jean shifted, pulling himself painstakingly into a sitting position which made the bed creak. He shot a quick look down to Jeremy, who didn’t so much as twitch at the noise, in that deep level of sleep where nothing could rouse you. When he spoke, he kept his voice low, seemingly eager not to disturb Jeremy, which Andrew distantly found curious considering they’d only just met. “A territory dispute. Riko took an area from some bandits, who told them not to bother because they worked for the Butcher. It didn’t mean anything to us at that point, so Riko had us take it anyway, an altercation during which a few of the bandits died. The rest ran off, and they must have gone and told the Butcher what had happened because next thing we knew, he showed up with an offer for Riko and the Ravens to work for him. He said he was impressed by Riko’s spirit and thought they could come to some sort of arrangement.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, imagining how that went.

“Of course, Riko said no, laughed in his face. The Butcher didn’t like that. He killed two of the nearest Ravens without anyone having time to react and said he’d let Riko off this once as he obviously didn’t realise quite who he was talking to. So Riko said he’d agree to listen to the Butcher’s terms and they went away for a little while. When he came back, Riko was obviously shaken but he wouldn’t say what had happened. All he said was that we were in league with the Butcher now.”

“Which means working for the Butcher,” Andrew surmised.

“Exactly,” Jean agreed. “But anyone who said anything like that to Riko was severely punished. He’s desperate for the Ravens to still believe he’s in charge, and will do anything he can to appease the Butcher. Finding his son?” Jean shook his head yet again. “It’s ideal. It’s everything Riko’s been waiting for.”

“If he’s so concerned with keeping the Butcher happy these days, why has Riko still been looking for Kevin?”

“He is obsessed with Kevin. He still thinks of him as his best friend in his mind, and wants Kevin to come back to the Ravens and re-take his place at Riko’s side.” Jean looked away bitterly. “After he’s been suitably punished for his indiscretions, of course.”

Andrew didn’t like the sound of that. “Punished how?”

“No irreparable damage, I’m sure,” Jean said, but it wasn’t particularly reassuring — Riko had already done irreparable damage to Kevin once before.

“Is he likely to hurt Neil?”

Jean stared at Andrew for a long moment, and then said, “The Butcher’s son. He is important to you?”

“Yes,” Andrew ground out.

“Well, you can at least rest assured that Riko won’t kill him. And provided he behaves, he shouldn’t give Riko cause to be heavy-handed. If he steps out of line, however, Riko won’t hesitate to put him in his place.”

“His place is here,” Andrew said angrily. No way in hell would Neil manage to ‘behave himself’, at least not in a manner Riko would find acceptable. And if he was returned to Andrew in anything less than the condition Andrew left him in, there was going to be hell to pay. Riko, the Ravens, the Butcher, and everyone who associated with him were going to wish they had never been born.

“Not to Riko,” Jean said simply.

Andrew squeezed his hands into fists. He didn’t want to hear anymore, and there didn’t seem to be anything else Jean could tell him that wouldn’t make him angry, so Andrew turned to go, only to be called back by Jean.

“Jeremy,” he said quietly, looking down at the sleeping man as though he were something from another planet. “Why is he being so. . . nice to me?”

Andrew tilted his head to the side, wondering if it was a trick question. “Because Jeremy is nice,” he finally said, with just a touch of derision. Niceness, after all, wasn’t one of the qualities that Andrew most valued.

“But. . . how? How has he stayed nice in a world this shit?”

“When you figure it out, let me know,” Andrew said, then left and shut the door behind him.

Coach was in the entrance to the lounge, leaning against the door-frame with his arms crossed, expression contemplative. Coach was always an early riser but the dark shadows under his eyes implied his night had been as restless as Andrew’s had been.

“Well?” he said when Andrew stopped in front of him. “Did Jean have any important insights?”

“Not really. We need to head North. The Butcher’s dangerous. Riko’s an asshole with delusions of grandeur. Oh, and he works for the Butcher now. But we’d already guessed that.”

David ran an exhausted hand down his face and sighed. “I was really hoping he’d have an exact location for us.”

“Well, he doesn’t,” Andrew said. “Get everyone up. They have an hour, and if no one’s ready by then, I’m leaving without them.”


 

Andrew both was and wasn’t surprised to see Aaron packing a duffel when he went into the locker-room to gather his weapons after he’d washed and eaten. Katelyn sat next to Aaron and watched on with her mouth set in a straight line, but she said nothing.

When Andrew had finished packing his own stuff (including all the weapons Neil hadn’t had on him when he was taken — a few knives and a gun), he shouldered his duffel and walked past Aaron and out of the locker room without a word. It only seemed fair to give Aaron and Katelyn a little privacy, and maybe she’d be able to talk him into staying anyway. Whatever else Andrew thought of Katelyn, she certainly seemed to have his brother under her thumb.

He waited just outside the stadium, pacing a circle in the car-park, and a few minutes later Aaron was the first to join him. So maybe not so under the thumb.

“You really don’t have to do this. I don't want you to,” Andrew said, because he needed to say it even though he could tell by Aaron’s expression and posture that there would be no talking him out of it now. “You don’t even like Neil.”

“No, he’s an asshole,” Aaron agreed. “But he still doesn’t deserve to be kidnapped and delivered to his dad. And anyway, I do like Kevin.”

“That’s why you’re coming? For Kevin?”

“Sure. And because I made you a promise, remember?”

Andrew sighed. “I remember. Just stick close by me, okay?”

“I always do.”

Dan, Matt, Coach and Abby rounded out the rescue party (plus Renee and Allison when they caught up to them), and they soon trailed out followed by Nicky, Erik and Katelyn. Everyone else had said their goodbyes inside — Betsy had been the only one Andrew had chosen to seek out specifically.

Nicky knew better than to hug Andrew but he threw his arms around Aaron and looked a little tearful when he pulled away. “Look after each other. And be careful. And come back safely, damn it,” he said, then tucked himself into Erik’s side, sniffing valiantly.

Once Nicky had stepped back, Aaron took Katelyn off to the side for a quiet moment, and Andrew turned back to the rest of his party. He had heard Coach and Abby arguing earlier over whether or not Abby should come. Coach had naturally wanted her to stay behind, even using Jean’s injuries as an excuse. But Abby had insisted that Jean would heal just fine under the watchful eyes of Jeremy and Betsy and that she’d done everything else that she could for Jean. She reasoned that they didn’t know what shape Neil and Kevin might be in when they found them, and they’d probably need her. In the end, she’d won her bid to come.

Andrew was both reassured by her presence and hoped that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Dan and Matt, Andrew was also glad were coming. They were both good in a fight; Matt was a hard hitter and Dan was scrappy and she fought dirty despite looking so unassuming. It was her greatest advantage.

Finally, Andrew had waited long enough.

“Aaron, we’re going now,” he said.

“Alright,” Aaron replied, impatient scowl evident in his tone, but Andrew was already walking away.

He waved to Nicky without turning around, and heard when the others caught up to him. They made quick work of leaving campus and heading towards the bridge and up the road.

It was mid-morning when Dan spotted the first orange banner left by Renee and Allison, tied to the wing mirror of an abandoned truck, and wordlessly they all picked up the pace.

They were on the right track, and Neil and Kevin would be waiting.

Chapter Text

“Wake up.”

Neil’s eyes snapped open to see Johnson kicking idly at his feet, a somewhat rude awakening.

“Well good morning to you, too,” Neil said with faux-cheer. He and Kevin were still slumped together and tied to the tree, and the gentle snoring in his ear told Neil that Kevin was still asleep.

Johnson turned his attention to Kevin. “Wake. Up.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna work,” Neil said, as Kevin’s snoring rumbled on.

Johnson waved an irritated hand and scowled in Kevin’s direction. Neil guessed he was not happy at being burdened with prisoner duty. “Then you wake him up.”

“Are you crazy? I don’t want my head bitten off.”

“That’s alright,” said a new voice, and Neil turned to see Riko heading over from the opposite direction. “I’ll wake him up.”

His heart sank; he wanted Riko nowhere near Kevin if he could at all help it, and he used his head to nudge into Kevin’s, then shouted in his ear.

Kevin’s head jolted up and he cut a bleary glare towards Neil. “What the fuck?” he said, voice still thick with sleep.

“Oh, Nathaniel,” Riko said, tutting as he came to a stop before them. “You ruin all my fun.” To Johnson, he said, “Get them up and moving. And don’t let Nathaniel run rings around you. He’s trying to stall. He wants to slow us down, because he thinks it’ll give their friends time to catch up to us.”

This was exactly what Neil had been trying to do, and the fact that Riko had cottoned on so quickly was unnerving. Riko must have noticed the tension in Neil’s frame because he crouched in front of him, that now all too familiar cruel smile firmly in place. “Hey, maybe I should just let them catch up. These journeys can be so tedious, after all. Might be nice to have a good old fashioned fight to break up the monotony.” He tilted his head the the side. “No?”

It took everything Neil had not to reply — he’d promised Kevin, after all — but he refused to be cowed and instead met Riko’s gaze with the darkest glare he could manage so early in the morning. Riko just laughed and got back to his feet.

“See? Told you you’d learn your place,” he said, and walked away. Kevin let out an audible sigh of relief.

Johnson turned his attention to the knots in the rope tying Neil and Kevin to the tree, and after struggling for twenty seconds or so, he simply took out a knife and sliced through the rope. He had to pull both of them to their feet as their hands were still bound behind their backs, and being forced into one position for so long had left them stiff. Neil suffered through it all in quiet indignation.

“Believe it or not, I feel for you, kid, I really do,” Johnson said as he checked the knots tying Neil’s hands. His wrists were rubbed raw from where he’d pulled on them and every movement sent shooting pains through him. “But the quieter you stay, the better it is for everyone. For you, for Kevin, for us, and for any of your friends who are dumb enough to come after you.”

Neil levelled his cold glare at Johnson. “You’re a Raven. Nothing you say means anything to me.”

Johnson shrugged, a little uncomfortably. “I get it. But I’m just trying to survive, y’know? I lost everyone and had nothing. I was looking for people, security. And then Riko found me. What else was I supposed to do?”

“You didn’t look hard enough,” Neil said impassively. Johnson just shrugged again and then got Neil and Kevin moving.

Riko, thankfully, didn’t spare anymore looks Neil’s way and instead took his place at the front while all the other Ravens fell in behind him in formation.

“This is a fucking cult,” Neil muttered, not loud enough for anyone other than Kevin to hear him, because as much as he wanted to give the Ravens shit, he really didn’t want to get knocked out again. He figured that when Andrew came to get them, he’d prefer Neil to be concussion free.

Buoyed by the thought, Neil trudged on, hoping against hope that wherever his father was, it was far.


 

Andrew kept up a brutal pace on the first day of pursuit, eventually only stopping when it grew so dark that Aaron tripped over a tree-trunk and Coach finally put his foot down.

“Come on, Andrew,” Abby said gently. “Riko and the Ravens will have to stop at some point, too.”

Knowing it was true didn’t make it any easier to hear, but Andrew finally relented and spent an anxious night tossing and turning. He gave up getting any extended amount of sleep long before morning broke and went to relieve Coach from watch-duty, and after taking one look at Andrew’s face, Coach didn’t try to talk him into sleeping for any longer. He wordlessly passed Andrew two cigarettes and took himself off to lie down. Andrew smoked one and pocketed the other. It was Neil’s anyway.

They were up again at first light, eating on the move. Andrew didn’t need to hurry everyone along because he clearly wasn’t the only one who felt the urgency. He knew that the majority of Aaron’s attention was on him and he was practically glued to Andrew’s side, but Matt and Dan were also moving with an incredible sense of purpose, and Matt in particular looked almost sick with worry.

Every time they found the next part of Renee and Allison’s trail, Andrew felt a mixture of both subdued optimism and incredible frustration. They were clearly going the right way, but they had no way of knowing just how far ahead the Ravens were. They had about an eighteen hour head-start, give or take, and the only silver lining was that they probably weren’t moving quite as fast as there were so many of them, not to mention they had Kevin and Neil along who were — hopefully — doing everything they could to slow the progress.

Mid-afternoon on the second day, Coach caught up to Andrew and Aaron.

“What’s the plan here, Andrew?” he asked.

Andrew didn’t respond, unsure whether or not it was rhetorical. The plan was obviously to get Neil and Kevin back; answering seemed a waste of energy.

Coach must have realised this as he took a moment and then rephrased. “Okay, best case, we catch up to Renee and Allison in the next day or so and we’ll be able to track the Ravens movements as a group. But what are we thinking? Do we try and get them back in the night? A surprise attack? Because we’re still outnumbered, and I’m not really in the mood for losing anyone else.”

“Renee’s been watching them, she and Allison will have seen how they work their watches, how they move during the day and how closely Kevin and Neil are being watched. We look for a weakness and we exploit it.” He shrugged. “Easy.”

Coach sighed. “Fuck, I wish I had your optimism.”

“It’s not optimism. It’s pragmatism. It’s basic tactics.” He glanced up at Coach. “You should know all about this stuff, wasn’t it your job?”

“I was an Exy coach, not a battle planner.”

“A good coach should be able to apply his skill-set to all situations,” Andrew replied.

The corner of Coach’s mouth quirked, just a little, and it was the closest thing to a smile he had given since finding out Kevin and Neil were gone. “You’re such a little shit sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” Aaron cut in smoothly from Andrew’s other side.

“Alright, alright,” Coach said. “Play nice, you two.” He dropped back again to fall into step beside Abby, whilst Dan and Matt brought up the rear.

“If I’m a little shit, what does that make you?” Andrew said dryly.

“A big shit,” Aaron said. “I’m the oldest, remember?”

Andrew sighed. “A pain in the ass, that’s what you are.”

“Well,” Aaron said at length, “that’s what brothers are for. So I’ve heard.”

Andrew turned his head slightly just so he could see Aaron’s face, but Aaron was facing dead ahead, eyes set on the road in front of him. There was something vulnerable in his eyes though, like he hadn’t meant to say that, or maybe just that he wasn’t sure how it would be received.

And Aaron was here, against all odds, which wasn’t nothing. He had tagged along knowing Andrew wouldn’t thank him for it, and yet Andrew was still painfully aware that it was for his sake. Aaron undoubtedly wanted Kevin back safe — and Neil, too, probably — but Andrew was clearly the catalyst for prompting Aaron into action.

Andrew found he was grateful. In spite of everything, he was glad that Aaron was here. It was why he found it within himself to say, “Well then you’re clearly doing something right.”

It wasn’t a sentimental comment by any stretch of the imagination, but Andrew knew that wouldn’t matter to Aaron. The acknowledgment of the fact that they were family, and that it meant something, was what Aaron would take away from it.

Aaron cleared his throat. “Yeah. Well, same to you. Asshole.”

If Andrew wasn’t focusing the vast majority of his attention on getting to Neil and Kevin as fast as possible, he might have managed a smile at that.


 

It wasn’t until they stopped for the night that Allison noticed Renee seemed unsettled. They had taken refuge in a dilapidated old office block from which they had a clear view of the Ravens campsite through the broken windows, and Renee kept a diligent eye out and kept mouthing things to herself.

“What is it?” Allison finally asked, unnerved.

Renee didn’t answer immediately, clearly engrossed in whatever she either could or could not see, but finally she nodded and said, “I’m sure of it now.”

“What?”

“One of the Ravens is missing.”

“Wait, really?” Allison replied, diverting her own attention back to the Ravens below.

They were all mainly milling about the fire they'd built, Riko easy enough to pick out above the rest of them as he had pride of place, well protected as he slept. Neil and Kevin were tied to yet another tree and starting to look worse for wear — since they’d had the Ravens in their sights, Neil and Kevin hadn’t had their hands unbound once and with how tightly they had been roped around the trees, it can’t have been good for their circulation. Not to mention the damage the ropes would cause to their wrists.

As for Renee’s assertion that one of the Ravens was missing, Allison really couldn’t tell. They all dressed the same; it was hard to pick out one above the other. The only ones Allison was really aware of in any real tangible sense was Riko and the big one who seemed to have been charged with guarding Neil and Kevin. All of the others sort of blended together.

“I’ve been trying to figure it out all day,” Renee said. “I thought there might have been one missing but they could have been just out of sight every time I checked. But I keep checking back and I’m pretty sure that they’re all accounted for, minus one.”

“What does that mean?” Allison asked. “Where would he be?”

“There’s a couple of places he could be,” Renee said. “He could just be scouting ahead and making sure the way is clear for Riko. He could have been killed and left behind — doubtful, as I’m sure we would have noticed that, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Or. . .” Renee’s mouth set in a thin line and Allison got the feeling that whatever the next option was, it was probably not only the most likely but also the most concerning.

“Or?” Allison prompted, already feeling resigned.

“Or he’s rushing ahead to the Butcher to let him know Riko has his son. In which case I have to imagine that the Butcher will swiftly start heading this way to intercept. I doubt he’d want to risk a longer wait. It gives Neil a higher chance of being able to escape or being rescued and both Riko and the Butcher would want to minimise the odds of that happening.”

It might have seemed like quite a leap to take, but Allison was inclined to believe Renee’s assessment. Whatever else he was, Riko clearly wasn’t stupid. He’d know the odds were high that they’d be followed, and even though he had the advantage of more people, he would probably want to hedge his bets. Particularly with Neil in tow. Nothing Allison had heard about the Butcher so far was complimentary, and someone who even had Neil frightened was obviously not someone you ever wanted to meet.

“What do we do, then?”

“We just keep doing what we have been doing,” Renee said, although she didn’t seem happy about it. “It’s only speculative, but we’ll have no way of knowing whether or not it’s true unless the wayward Raven shows back up with reinforcements.”

“It’ll be too late to do anything by then,” Allison said indignantly, and she shook her head. “We should try and bust them out ourselves.”

“It’s too risky right now.”

“It’s not,” Allison disagreed. “We wait until the camp’s all asleep, we sneak over, slit the guards throat nice and quietly, cut the ropes and grab the boys, and off we go. We’ll meet up with the others by the morning and can be back at the stadium in a couple of days.”

“It’s a good idea in theory, Allison,” Renee said, “but in practice there’s a million and one things that can go wrong. Not to mention that even if it all goes off without a hitch, we’d end up with the rest of the Ravens on our tails. They know where to find us now.”

“So we kill them all while they sleep,” Allison said stubbornly, but she knew this wasn’t an argument she would win.

“Allison,” Renee chided gently. “Riko is one thing, but I’m sure a lot of the Ravens are just there because they were alone and felt they had no other options.”

“It doesn’t excuse everything they do,” Allison snapped, then immediately regretted it. Renee wasn’t the one she was upset with.

“I know it doesn’t.” Renee wrapped an arm around Allison’s shoulders and used her hand to stroke through her hair. It was relaxing and Allison found herself sinking into it, letting Renee ease out her tension. “We’ll get Neil and Kevin back. We just need to keep an eye out ahead of the Ravens now, too, in case we have anymore incoming dangers.”

“Okay,” Allison murmured, starting to feel sleepy under Renee’s ministrations.

“If I sense even the tiniest opportunity in which I think I can get them out unharmed, I’ll take it. I promise.”

“I believe you.” Allison sighed. “I can’t wait for this to be over. I want to go home.”

Renee’s hand stilled just for a second. “You didn’t have to come,” she reminded Allison softly.

Allison yawned. “I did. It wouldn’t feel like home without you.”


 

It was another entire day before Andrew and the others caught up to Renee and Allison. It would have been even longer, but they were helped along by never staying put for long. They probably made up a lot of ground by stopping later and starting earlier. It was a punishing schedule, but nobody complained. It really felt like a life or death situation, and the reality was that it probably was, for Neil at the very least. Neil had told Andrew as much all those months ago when he gave Andrew the truth; if the Butcher ever found him, he’d kill him.

Andrew was struggling to think about anything else. He had to reach Neil before the Butcher did. Any other option was unacceptable.

Renee must have spotted them coming because she and Allison were waiting at the side of the road using an abandoned truck as cover. Andrew skipped anything that could even remotely pass for a greeting and simply said, “Where are they?”

“They’re about half a mile ahead,” Renee said evenly.

“Half a mile?” It felt too far.

“Don’t worry,” Renee said quickly. “Come around here, I’ll show you.”

Andrew, Aaron and Coach followed her while Allison exchanged hugs with the others. They came to a point where the road dipped, the beginning of a downward slope, and Renee indicated that they should follow her just off-road.

They stood in the relative cover of trees and Renee handed Andrew a pair of binoculars and pointed. He could just about make out the group of Ravens right down at the bottom of the hill and was glad Renee had brought them off the road; they might have the high ground but they still risked being seen if the Ravens looked up the hill at the right moment.

Andrew scanned the Raven’s campsite until he spotted Kevin and Neil, sitting on the ground a little ways from the fire, side to side and slumped into each other a little bit. From their postures, he surmised that their hands were bound behind their backs, but they were also tied together. Neil had a large bruise on the right side of his face and his head was drooping a little. In fact, both he and Kevin looked like they were struggling to keep their eyes open.

Andrew didn’t realise his hands were shaking with rage until Coach took the binoculars from him so he could look for himself.

“The bruise on Neil’s face,” Andrew said. “How did he get it?”

“We didn’t see,” Renee replied. “When we caught up, Neil was unconscious and being carried by the big Raven, the one that’s watching them. We assumed that Neil must have said something Riko didn’t like and gotten himself knocked out.”

Andrew gritted his teeth, at once both incredibly proud of Neil for not letting Riko frighten him, and infuriatingly angry at him for not thinking through his situation and getting hurt for it. “Have either of them been hurt in any other way since then?”

“Not that we’ve seen. Not specifically,” Renee said in that calm way of hers. “The situation certainly seems to be taking its toll on them, though. Also, their hands have been bound the whole time so their wrists are probably in bad shape.”

This again made Andrew senselessly angry. The sooner they got Neil and Kevin out of there, the better.

“Any word on the Butcher?” Coach asked, his grim expression mirroring how Andrew felt.

“We’re not sure. I think one of the Ravens was sent ahead to let him know, so I imagine he might be on his way. I really have no idea though,” she said when Andrew jerked his head up at hearing this, but he got the feeling she was just trying to keep him calm.

He was past calm by now.

“Neil and Kevin have been tied to a tree during the nights so far, but they haven’t done that yet tonight,” Renee continued. “I’m wondering if they’re planning on moving a little further until they stop for the night.”

“They’ve already lit a fire,” Aaron said, now with the binoculars as he lowered them away from his face. “Why would they light a fire if this isn’t where they intend to stay the night?”

Renee hesitated, frowning. “That’s a very good point,” she said. “They wouldn’t.”

“Maybe they figure Kevin and Neil are in too bad shape now to bother tying them to a tree in the first place,” Coach said, barely checking his own anger at the situation. “Look at them, they don’t really look like they’re in any fit state to attempt an escape.”

“I know,” Renee said sadly. “I don’t think they’ve been given all that much food or water. Riko obviously wants them weak.”

Andrew squeezed his hands into fists just as Allison and the others caught up to them. “Then what the fuck are we waiting for?” he said. “Let’s go and get them.”

“Andrew, let’s think about this,” Aaron said evenly.

“I don’t want to think about it. I want Neil back.”

“I know. But you barging down there out of the blue doesn’t help anyone, Neil and Kevin included.”

Andrew wasn’t so sure that was true; the way he felt at the moment, he could take all of the Ravens on single-handedly. Also, he’d have surprise on his side. Regardless, he forced himself to take a breath.

Matt currently had the binoculars and was peering through them, his expression increasingly concerned.

“Hold up,” he said. “Hold the fuck up, something’s happening.”

“What?” Andrew snapped, snatching the binoculars so he could see.

“I don’t know!” Matt said helplessly.

It took a few seconds for Andrew to be able to get the binoculars to focus properly, and when he did, it seemed like the Ravens campsite had descended into chaos. Some sort of home-made wagon pulled along by two horses had shown up, looking like something from an old western movie that one of Andrew’s old foster-fathers always used to watch. Whoever was in it, the Raven’s didn’t seem to have been expecting it and from Andrew’s vantage point, it looked like confusion reigned supreme. Even Riko looked disconcerted, and when Andrew refocused on Neil and Kevin, it no longer looked like their guard was paying quite as close attention to them as he was before, and even from here Andrew could see the pair of them trying to edge away unseen, as encumbered as they were whilst tied together.

Andrew practically threw the binoculars aside, hissed, “We move now,” and then he was off and running.

Almost everyone called his name but it didn’t take long for them to start following him; he could hear their footsteps.

Andrew didn’t know who was in the wagon, but their sudden appearance had provided the perfect distraction. He idly hoped it wasn’t the Butcher, but thought that Riko’s reaction made that unlikely. Either way, Neil and Kevin were obviously trying to sneak away and if Andrew could reach them before anyone else noticed they were missing, then he could cut the ropes binding them and watch their backs as they put more distance between them and the Ravens.

It was a golden opportunity.

If Andrew thought he had run fast when he’d first found out from Nicky and Katelyn that Neil and Kevin had been taken, it was nothing compared to the speed he managed now with his goal practically in sight. Running through the trees as he was and without the binoculars, Andrew couldn’t yet see what was going on at the bottom of the hill. The closer he got, the louder the voices became, but Andrew couldn’t pick out any individuals; just a great deal of shouting. He reached the outskirts of a clearing just in time to see the wagon from before start to peel away as the horses took off at tremendous speeds, leaving the area in a cloud of dust.

The two nearest Ravens spotted Andrew and made towards him but his knives were already flying, cutting them down before they’d even managed to alert anyone else to his presence. He darted looks around for Neil and Kevin but couldn’t see them; alarmingly, he also couldn’t see Riko. There were three other Ravens either dead or unconscious scattered close to the fire, a few others huddled over them and everyone else staring after the wagon in disbelief.

Andrew had no idea what he’d just missed, but it didn’t take long for the other Foxes to catch up, and it was their arrival that alerted the remaining Ravens to the fact that they had company. Andrew managed to catch sight of Dan kneeing a Raven who rushed her in the balls in his periphery, but he didn’t have time to see what else was happening because he finally spotted Kevin, just behind the tree-line and being held by the big Raven who'd been on guard duty.

Andrew rushed over, taking down two more Ravens on his way and sparing just one glance when he heard rapidly approaching footsteps to see that Aaron and Coach had joined him. He felt the tiniest flicker of relief that Aaron was as yet unhurt, and faced back forward.

“Kevin!” Coach called, and Andrew just had time to register the wide-eyed recognition in Kevin’s tired eyes.

“Dad?” Kevin croaked out, before his attention was snagged by Andrew leaping at the Raven who was holding him, getting his neck in a choke-hold and dragging him down. “No, Andrew, don’t kill him!” Kevin said desperately. “We’ll need him!”

Kevin’s voice sounded ragged, and as much as he wanted to destroy this Raven who had been complicit in kidnapping his friends, Andrew did as Kevin said, simply holding on until he went limp and then dropping him unceremoniously to the ground.

By this time, the fighting seemed to be dying down. The element of surprise, especially in the wake of whatever the fuck had happened before they got there, had heavily stacked the odds in the Foxes favour, and the Ravens who had tried to fight were now either dead or injured whilst the rest seemed to have ran for it. Under different circumstances, Andrew might have tried to track them down in his fury, but right now he had bigger concerns.

Kevin was being patted down for injury by Coach while Aaron cut through the rope binding his hands. When they were free, Kevin brought them to his chest, clearly in pain, but he was watching Coach in awe, as if he couldn’t quite figure out if he was dreaming.

“You’re okay, Kevin,” Coach was saying. “You’re alright. We’ve got you.”

Andrew stepped in between them and took Kevin by the shoulders. “Kevin,” he said. “Where’s Neil?”

“The wagon,” Kevin said hoarsely. “There was a person in the wagon, they came and took him away.”

“Who?” Andrew asked desperately, his nerves on a knife-edge. “The Butcher?”

Kevin shook his head. “No. It was a woman. Neil knew who she was, he said she worked for his father. She saw me and Neil trying to sneak away and she took him and put him in the wagon. She called him Junior.” Kevin visibly shuddered. “Then she said the Butcher wanted to see Riko, and when he said he wouldn’t go, she killed three of the Ravens, and after that he piled into the wagon, too. Then she left. Then you lot showed up.”

Andrew let go of Kevin’s shoulders and fell back, agonised. He looked to the left, the direction the wagon had gone, but it was no good; he couldn’t even see it anymore.

“Who was she?” Coach asked Kevin in his gruff but gentle manner. By now Abby had showed up and was examining Kevin’s wrists.

“Lola,” Kevin said. “Neil said her name was Lola.”

Chapter Text

The sun had just been starting to set when the Ravens had stopped, and Johnson told Neil and Kevin to sit on the ground before tying them together. It was a step up from the tree, so Neil didn’t complain. Not to mention he was just too damn tired. Tired and hungry and thirsty and utterly miserable. And fucking terrified, too.

“You okay, Kevin?” he mumbled when Johnson had backed off again.

“Yeah,” Kevin replied, but his voice was thick with exhaustion. He and Neil slumped together, using whatever mobility they still had to lean on each other and hold each other up. “You?”

“You know me,” Neil said, managing to crack a smile which was more for Kevin’s benefit than his own. “I’m fine.”

“If Andrew were here right now, he’d punch you for saying that.”

Neil turned his face away; he knew Kevin had meant it lightly, but hearing Andrew’s name just made his heart feel heavy. He hadn’t thought it possible to miss someone so much — not someone who was still alive at any rate.

His thoughts were prevented from spiralling any further by the arrival of Riko, who for once ignored Neil entirely and instead crouched on Kevin’s other side. Neil supposed the point was to try and cut him out of the conversation, but he and Kevin were tied together; he couldn’t help but overhear.

“You know, it’s funny, but I sort of thought you might have apologised to me by now, Kevin,” Riko said with an air of disappointment Neil didn’t even remotely believe. He couldn’t stomach Riko’s audacity, and was about to jump in to Kevin’s defense, but in the end he didn’t have to — Kevin was finally coming to his own defense.

“Apologise? To you?” Kevin choked out in tired disbelief.

“Obviously,” Riko snarled derisively. “You ruined a plan I had made for the benefit of the Ravens as a whole, you tried to steal from me, and after being caught red handed, I showed you leniency.”

“You broke my hand. You destroyed it.”

“I could have killed you. I let you live,” Riko continued as if Kevin hadn’t spoken. “And then you ran off in the middle of the night, took up with strangers — one of whom was responsible for the deaths of three of my Ravens — and then you made me spend over two years of my time trying to track you back down. So yes, Kevin. An apology might be nice.”

“No,” Kevin said quietly.

Riko shifted; Neil couldn’t quite see as he didn’t want to turn his head fully and draw attention to himself, but he thought Riko had inched closer to Kevin. “What was that?” he hissed dangerously.

“I said no,” Kevin repeated, a little firmer this time. Pride rushed through Neil, a fierce thrill that was tinged with fear at how Riko would take Kevin finding his backbone at last.

Riko said nothing for an excruciatingly long time, but then he sighed, long and displeased. “That’s disappointing, Kevin. Perhaps a couple of days without food or water might change your mind.”

“Yeah,” Neil said, able to hold his silence no longer. “Sure. If you want him dead, that is. But I really don’t think you do, after all you’ve been through to get him back.”

Riko rose to his feet and stepped around Kevin towards Neil, hovering over him and letting Neil get the full effect of his sneering smile. “I never said Kevin was the one who would be going without, did I?” He leaned closer and stage whispered: “I’ll let you in on a little secret, Nathaniel. Kevin responds much better when someone else is punished in his stead. I learnt that much with Jean. Alas, Jean isn’t here, so you’ll have to do.” Riko leaned back again and let out a harsh bark of laughter. “That is of course, until the Butcher comes for you. Could be any time now, Nathaniel, I already sent someone ahead to get him.”

With that chilling reminder, Riko headed off towards the fire with a cheery wave.

As soon as he was gone Kevin nudged his shoulder into Neil’s with what limited movement he had. “I’m sorry, Neil, I’ll apolo—”

“Don’t,” Neil interrupted. “Don’t finish that sentence, don’t apologise to Riko, and don’t apologise to me. I don’t care what he does to me. Don’t let him break you, Kevin.”

“Neil, I’m not just gonna sit back and watch him starve you when I can do something about it.”

“It’s an empty threat,” Neil said. “He’s already said the Butcher’s on his way, so one of two things will happen: Either Andrew and the others come and get us the hell out of here, or my father takes me away. I’m not going to be here long enough for Riko to be able to starve me. So don’t apologise.”

Kevin paused, then huffed. “Okay. Okay. And it’s not going to be your father taking you away. I’d never bet against Andrew.”

Neil managed a tiny smile at that. “Me neither,” he said.

For the next ten minutes or so he and Kevin sat in silence, both lost in their thoughts of the Foxhole Court, of their friends and family. Of home. But their imagined peace couldn’t last, as Neil’s attention was soon drawn to one of the other nameless Ravens — Johnson was still the only one he knew by name — rushing over to Riko, confused apprehension on his face as he gestured expansively somewhere up the road, where Neil couldn’t see.

Riko frowned at whatever the Raven said and followed him over to a better vantage point. Johnson, who had been sitting a short distance away from Neil and Kevin, got to his feet, his curiosity obviously piqued. A few seconds later, Neil heard it; the tell-tale sound of running horses, obviously pulling something along. And shortly after that, the ground started to rumble.

“Someone’s coming,” he whispered to Kevin, who just nodded, slack-jawed.

Neil’s eyes darted around the campsite, fear seeping in through his pores as his mind went into escape mode. He needed to survive, and to survive, he needed to get away.

The one current silver lining was that Johnson was too distracted to be paying any mind to Neil and Kevin at all, and none of the Ravens even bothered to look their way; if it wasn’t their job, they weren’t interested.

Barely a whisper, Neil hissed, “C’mon,” and began starting to try and shift backwards. Kevin quickly understood, and they both started using their feet to push themselves backwards, away from the clearing and towards the tree-line.

They had only made it a couple of metres when two horses pulling along some sort of re-constituted wagon burst into the clearing before screeching to a halt. The person driving leapt down and stepped forward. They ripped off their hood and Neil’s heart bottomed out through his stomach.

“Riko!” Lola exclaimed, arms outstretched.

“I didn’t send for you, I sent for the Butcher,” he said stiffly, clearly discombobulated by her presence. Well, Neil thought, that makes two of us.

Lola laughed, a witches cackle of a thing. “You don’t send for the Butcher, Riko. He’s not your errand boy.”

“I know, I know,” Riko said quickly, making an appeasing gesture. Sycophant.

“You can’t just say you’ve found his son and expect him to take your word for it and come running. You’ve never even met the kid.”

“No. No, no,” Neil murmured, breath hitching in fright. “Kevin, go,” he urged, pushing faster.

“Neil?”

“That’s Lola. She — fuck I really hoped she’d died — she works for my father.”

“Is she dangerous?”

“Jesus, yes. C’mon!”

But it was futile. He knew even as he muttered to Kevin that it was futile, because the Ravens may have been distracted, but Lola certainly wasn’t, and unfortunately it was little more than a turn of her head to put Neil right in her eye-line.

Neil froze the minute she spotted him, and Lola’s eyes widened, at first in recognition and then disbelief, and a wide, wicked smile spread across her face. It was every bit as horrible as Riko’s, but it was one that Neil knew infinitely better; he’d seen it often enough growing up.

“Riko,” Lola said, without taking her eyes off Neil. “It seems your prisoners are escaping.”

Johnson immediately let out a curse and hurried towards them, but Lola threw a hand out and he stopped.

She stalked over, each step seeming to take an inordinately long time, and yet Neil was powerless to escape. Once standing before them, Lola spared hardly a glance for Kevin, and then sliced a blade through the rope binding them together with little care; it was a miracle she didn’t cut either of them. Then she crouched down and seized Neil’s chin in her hand.

“Well,” she said. “Hello, Junior. Long time, no see.”

“Not long enough,” Neil managed to sputter out, but it didn’t have quite the same impact as his retorts to Riko had done so far. Lola grabbed his elbow and yanked him to his feet.

“Still so rude, just like your mother. Where is she by the way?” Lola asked, then waved her free hand airily. “Not to worry, I’ll get it out of you on the way. Now come along, Junior. Daddy misses you.”

Neil thought he was going to be sick; his legs were cement but Lola dragged him along, helped after a moment by Riko. They threw him through the curtains at the back of the wagon, and inside waiting to grab and restrain him was Lola’s brother, Romero, whose grin wasn’t quite as creepy as Lola’s but was still mightily unpleasant.

“Junior,” he said, tightening his grip on Neil’s arms.

“Didn’t feel like giving your sister a hand then?” Neil said bitterly.

Romero laughed. “Does she look like she needs my help?”

From outside the wagon, Lola’s voice was carrying, and Neil clearly heard her order Riko to get in the wagon, too.

“No,” Riko said. “You’ve got what you want, there’s no need for me to come with you.”

“Oh but Riko, darling, the Butcher wants to see you. I’m sure he’ll want to thank you in person for finding his son. Come on, now, don’t be shy.”

“No,” Riko said again, but he sounded unsure, and then all Neil heard was a rush of movement, a couple of surprised, muffled, broken cries, followed by the familiar sounds of bodies hitting the floor.

Lola always had been quick.

A stunned silence reigned supreme before Lola spoke again, sugary sweet. “Get in the wagon, Riko.”

The curtain pulled back and Riko stepped up inside, ardently not meeting Neil’s gaze. Lola followed him up.

“Get up front, Rome,” she said. “You can drive.”

Romero let go of Neil and disappeared through the front curtain and got the horses moving. The last thing Neil saw through the gap in the curtains as they took off at speed was Kevin’s face, pale as a ghost, watching him leave in abject terror.


 

While Kevin was being seen to by Coach and Abby, Aaron was watching Andrew.

He’d stalked off after Kevin finished explaining what had happened, and whilst no one particularly wanted to try and talk him around, they still didn’t want him running off on his own. Renee had given Aaron a knowing look, and he’d followed his brother, keeping his distance.

Andrew walked a little ways up the road, scanning the horizon and inspecting the ground, and then he just. . . stopped. Sat cross legged on the ground and took out a cigarette. He was clearly aware of Aaron’s presence — you could tell from his posture — but he didn’t say anything, and he didn’t look Aaron’s way.

Aaron fought back the urge to reassure; to tell Andrew that it was okay, they’d get Neil back and everything would be fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. He didn’t know if that was true. It was the plan, but none of their plans ever seemed to fucking work. It was always one step forward and a giant leap back.

He took another few steps closer. What could he possibly say? That he knew how Andrew felt? Because he didn’t. He could imagine, sure. If it was Katelyn, or Andrew, or Nicky who had been snatched away from him, but he knew that Andrew wouldn’t find that empathy useful or reassuring. He’d just find it pointless.

Abruptly, Aaron missed Nicky fiercely. Nicky could always be counted on to try and lighten the mood — even when there was no way it could be lightened, and his comments were more often than not inappropriate. But still, he always tried, and Aaron felt sure that if Nicky were here right now, he’d manage to say something to Andrew. It probably wouldn’t help, and Andrew definitely wouldn’t appreciate it, but the point was that it would be expected. It was something that Andrew could count on happening, and it would start to set Andrew back on an even keel.

Aaron finally drew level with his brother and sat down next to him. The sun was almost entirely down now, a bluish light starting to settle around them and the glow of Andrew’s cigarette stark in the dimness.

“Andrew—”

“This close, Aaron,” Andrew said, holding up his thumb and finger just a centimetre apart. “I was this close.” He blew out a plume of smoke and shrugged. His eyes looked hollow. “Late again.”

“We still got Kevin back,” Aaron said, “and that’s not nothing.”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“I know that, I just—” Aaron stopped, frustrated, then exhaled slowly. “I don’t know what to say here,” he admitted.

“Then don’t say anything.”

Aaron sighed. He shouldn’t have bothered in the first place, there was no way he ever would have made Andrew feel any better. He got up to give Andrew a bit more space.

“You don’t have to leave,” Andrew said without looking at Aaron, and he took another long drag of his cigarette.

And so Aaron stayed, sharing the silence with his brother, and he thought perhaps sometimes it was enough to just be there.


 

For the first ten minutes of the journey, Lola did nothing but stare at Neil in silence, smile transfixed on her face. Riko, too, said nothing, and clearly was very unhappy at being there, and likely a little shaken at Lola’s little display of murdering three of his Ravens for no good reason.

Neil was so terrified that he couldn’t even enjoy Riko’s discomfort, although he was at least a little relieved that Riko being here meant Kevin was out of his clutches. Maybe in Riko’s absence, Kevin could escape. Or could convince Johnson into letting him go. Even if neither of those things happened, though, Neil knew that Andrew and Coach would soon catch up and get Kevin back, and he let the thought warm him as he returned Lola’s gaze.

“Riko, be a love and give me a hand here, would you?” she said, breaking the silence at last, and with Riko’s help she tied Neil’s already bound and wrecked hands to a bar running along one side of the wagon. Then they bound his feet and did the same with them on the opposite side.

Neil tugged on the bindings experimentally but he was utterly incapacitated, and Lola grinned at him. “Go and sit up front with Romero,” she told Riko. “Me and Junior need to have a little chat.”

Riko hesitated just long enough to shoot Neil a triumphant smirk before disappearing through the front curtain, and then Neil was alone with Lola, who was already in the process of taking out a vast array of knives.

It always came down to knives in the end.

Neil was afraid because he was smart. He’d been hurt at Lola’s hands before and knew what it felt like, and knew intrinsically that this would be worse. But the fear that was eating at him — gnawing at his gut — was knowing that he was being taken to his father. And quickly at that. With how hard Romero was pushing the horses, it couldn’t possibly be that far away, which meant the Butcher was closer than Neil had initially been led to believe.

“Where’s your mother?” Lola asked sharply, without any further preamble.

“She’s dead.”

Lola started rolling up Neil’s sleeves and his breath caught in his throat. “That’s very convenient,” she said conversationally.

“It’s true, I swear,” he insisted, but Lola quickly cut two lines across his forearms. Neil couldn’t help the sharp inhale but refused to cry out; he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.

“Where’s your mother, Junior?” Lola asked again.

“I told you, she’s dead.” Another two slashes, and the pain seared across Neil’s skin. He could feel the warmth of his blood dripping down his arms and running over his hands. “When have you ever known her to fucking leave me? She’s fucking dead,” he forced out, breathing as steadily as he could through the pain.

“Hmm,” Lola hummed thoughtfully. “I think I believe you. Never can be too sure, though.”

Lola had placed herself behind Neil, so even if he turned his head he couldn’t get a good enough view of what she was doing because of how tightly he was bound. But he could hear her alright, and the clicking of a lighter sent a renewed flicker of fear through him.

“Lola, she’s dead. My mother is dead, I swear,” he said again, a little desperately now.

Lola shifted, and Neil felt the flames lick around his fingers as she moved the lighter across his hand. He yelped and yanked his hands as hard as he could, not caring about the tearing of his skin on the rope, just wanting to get his fingers away from the heat. “Lola, stop.”

“When did she die?”

“Al—almost two years ago— Lola, please—”

The lighter was pulled away and Neil enjoyed the reprieve for a brief few seconds before he felt Lola cut another line across his arm.

“How did she die?”

“She got cut in a fight, it got infected. I burned her body then buried the bones.”

The lighter flicked on again. “Lola,” Neil begged. It was useless though. He knew it was useless. Lola knew he was telling the truth but she didn’t care, she just wanted to hurt him. Neil wondered if his father had given her special permission to do so.

Lola moved into Neil’s line of sight which initially relieved him but then he realised it was because she wanted him to see what she was doing. She used the lighter to heat the edges of one of her blades, and when she was satisfied with how hot it was, she burned and cut alternating lines up and down Neil’s forearms.

Sometimes she asked him questions — he told the truth if it was about his mother and lied if it was about where he’d been since then — until eventually all he could do was whimper. He was glad he couldn’t see his arms; they felt like they were on fire.

Eventually, Lola tired of doing this — either that or she’d just run out of room on his arms — and she came back in front of Neil, pulling yet another knife out of her pocket. She straddled him and used the knife to lightly skim a line down his right cheek; not enough to cut, but enough to make Neil nervous.

“It seems a shame to mark up that pretty face,” she said mournfully, but then she shrugged like it couldn’t be helped. “Oh well.” She pressed in, marking out what felt like a cross-hatch against his cheek. It didn’t feel that deep, but it still stung. It would still most likely scar, although that didn’t seem to matter now. Neil would be dead soon.

He thought about the last nine months or so; about the court, about coffee in the morning and chores in the day, Exy with Kevin every afternoon, and cigarettes and kisses with Andrew every night. He thought about Dan and Matt seamlessly making him welcome, about Nicky pouring his heart out on the roof of Fox Tower, about Allison cutting his hair and remaining strong and fierce even after Seth had died. He thought of Katelyn always offering a smile and a kind word and making Aaron tolerable, and of Renee watching everyone's backs with a serene smile to go with her deadly accuracy; he remembered Abby kissing his forehead and telling him scars were proof he was alive. He thought of Coach giving him a chance when he had no reason to. He thought of Jeremy and Erik, Laila and Alvarez. He even spared a thought for Jean, and wondered what had happened to him.

But most of all, he thought of Andrew accepting his truths and letting him stay, protecting him and grudgingly letting Neil protect him back, giving ground just because Neil had asked. Honesty and kisses and cigarettes and mattresses pulled up next to each other as they slept.

It had been a dream. A wonderful, bright, and beautiful dream. But Neil was awake now, and reality was harsh and brutal and unforgiving.

Lola started heating her blade again and it was all Neil could do to shake his head; he didn’t have the strength for anything else. Lola smiled coldly and held her blade up to Neil’s opposite cheek. It was so hot that it glowed red, and he could feel the heat start to bite through him without it even touching him.

The wagon screeched to a halt and Romero yelled out, “Here!” from the front.

Lola sat back, waving her knife in the air. “Look at that, Junior. Saved by the bell.” She smiled again. “You always were lucky.”

Neil definitely disagreed, heart hammering in his chest so fast. Another second and Lola would have been carving a burning line down his face. Instead, she sliced through his bindings, including the ones tying his hands together, and pushed him forwards until he fell gracelessly out of the wagon, landing in a heap on the floor. He let out a pained groan; his arms, hands and face were covered in blood and every movement made his eyes water.

It was dark now; well and truly nighttime, and it wasn’t immediately obvious where they were, but Neil could just about make out a gate in front with a path leading away, and a few buildings in the distance. It was hard to pin-point any major details though; the light was too low.

He painstakingly brought his arms around in front of him and took in the mess Lola had made. Great slashing lines interspersed with uneven burnt lines that were already scabbing over. He needed to clean himself up. He couldn’t risk infection, although admittedly that seemed a redundant thought now.

Romero and Lola both took up posts on either side of him, Riko to Romero’s right, staring unabashedly at Neil’s new injuries. He raised his eyebrows but made no other reaction, and Neil put all other thoughts out of his head when heavy, deliberate footsteps made their way over to the gate.

Looking up at the newcomer was unavoidable, and recoiling was instinctive.

“Nathaniel,” said Nathan Wesninski, the Butcher of Baltimore, and now the Butcher of Everywhere. “My biggest disappointment. Home at last.”

Neil had been dreaming. And now he was in a living nightmare.


 

Andrew sat and wallowed in Aaron’s company for exactly the time it took him to smoke Neil’s cigarette that he’d put in his pocket the night before (he’d get more spares off Coach — the situation had definitely called for it), and then he got down to business.

Renee, Dan and Matt had dealt with the remaining Ravens in Andrew’s absence, removing all of their weapons and then letting them flee; with Riko not here, none of them seemed that keen on sticking around. Maybe it was after seeing so many of their own cut down. Andrew had to imagine morale hadn’t been that high since the Butcher had them working for him now.

The only living Raven still around was the one who had been guarding Kevin and Neil that Andrew had incapacitated. Kevin said his name was Johnson and seemed to prefer he be kept alive. Andrew didn’t really understand — perhaps Kevin had already developed Stockholm Syndrome.

Nevertheless, he shook Johnson awake.

“That woman. Lola. Where did she take Neil?” Andrew snarled.

It took Johnson a moment to focus, and when he did he looked confused more than anything, before Kevin stepped into view.

“Just tell him,” Kevin said. “We need to know.”

“To — to the Butcher,” Johnson said groggily, like it was obvious.

“We know that,” Aaron said dryly. “But where is that exactly?”

Johnson shook his head. “I’ve — I’ve never been,” he said.

Andrew tightened his grip in Johnson’s collar. “But you know whereabouts it is.”

“I. . . yeah,” he said uncomfortably. “I think so.”

“Then take us there. And quickly,” Andrew added. “Because if we get there and Neil’s dead, I’ll kill you for not being fast enough.”

Johnson’s eyes widened. “They’ve had a head-start, how am I supposed—”

“I suggest you get moving,” Andrew said, pushing him forward.

They set off as a group, uneasy silence over all of them. Kevin stuck close to Coach and Abby, clearly tired and in need of a rest, but he’d also been determined to come the rest of the way to get Neil despite Coach saying he should take a break. There was something admirable about it, Andrew supposed.

Johnson hurried along, thankfully sensing the urgency, but he kept flicking glances Andrew’s way and fidgeting, like there was something he wanted to say.

“Out with it,” Andrew finally said.

“We’ll never make it in time. Not on foot,” Johnson said.

Andrew already feared this, he didn’t need it spoken aloud. “What do you suggest? I don’t suppose you have a flying carpet hiding in your coat pocket?”

“No,” Johnson said seriously, clearly not sensing the sarcasm. “But I think I know something that can help us.”

“And what might that be?” Aaron asked.

“A car.”

Andrew froze; Matt walked into the back of him with an, “Oof!”

“What the fuck did you just say?”

“I said a car. I can get us a car.”

Chapter Text

Nicky sat on the wall of the bridge, feet dangling down, the spare pair of binoculars all but glued to his face as he scanned the horizon. The road was as empty as it ever was, no sign of life except for the occasional bird flying across.

Nicky swung his legs to and fro, more in agitation in anything else, and after a minute or so he felt Erik’s hand land softly on his thigh and he stilled, removing the binoculars and letting out a long, frustrated sigh.

Erik sat to his left, Katelyn to the right, a trio of lookouts as they had been every day since Andrew, Aaron and the others had mounted their rescue mission. It really only took two to keep watch and Katelyn and Nicky had naturally been the first to volunteer, but Erik had tagged along without having to be asked and Nicky was quietly grateful.

Everyone left at the stadium had seemed to have felt a collective need to fall into a revised routine from the usual. There didn’t seem to be much point in scattering what was left of them all over the place to scout for intruders — the worst had already happened anyway. Laila and Alvarez had graciously stepped up to be the sole scouters, mainly sticking to the opposite side of the area than the bridge was on, as Nicky, Katelyn and Erik had it covered.

Jeremy and Betsy were in charge of looking after Jean. Betsy had basic first-aid skills and so was definitely the next best option for Jean in Abby’s absence, and Jeremy was clearly unwilling to leave Jean’s side. If Nicky had been his usual self, he very much would have enjoyed teasing Jeremy about his blatant crush. Under the circumstances, however, Nicky was hanging on by a thread and so didn't have the energy. Every day that passed only made it worse.

He passed Katelyn the binoculars and then dropped his head onto Erik’s shoulder, closing his eyes when Erik nuzzled his cheek gently against Nicky’s hair.

“How many days?” Nicky asked. “How many days has it been now?”

“Four,” answered Katelyn, her voice raspy. Nicky knew she hadn’t been sleeping. He hadn’t either, not really, but it was hard not to drift off eventually when he was safe and warm in Erik’s arms. Katelyn had spent every night for almost two years wrapped up with Aaron and now he was gone. Nicky couldn't blame her for struggling to adjust.

Nicky felt certain that his cousins and the rest would return safe and sound. He even had faith that they’d find Kevin and get him back. It was Neil where his thoughts took a darker turn; over what would happen if they didn’t reach him before he was given to the Butcher and he was killed, out there all alone and far from everyone who loved him.

Nicky shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about. It wasn’t just about how frightening the prospect of losing Neil was. It was the fear of what something like that would do to the group as a whole. It wouldn’t be like when Seth died, and Nicky meant no real disrespect by that. There had been no love lost between him and Seth but he hadn’t deserved to go out like that. Nicky felt for Allison’s loss even if he didn’t miss Seth personally, and he knew he wasn’t the only one.

Neil though. Neil was a different story altogether, somehow fitting in seamlessly with both Andrew’s lot and Matt’s lot, and being the bridge that tied them together. He got on well with Coach, was clearly fond of Abby, and had served as a uniting force on more than one occasion. He was an irreplaceable part of the family.

Nicky didn’t even want to imagine the effect losing Neil would have on Andrew. He feared that Andrew would retreat once more, become even more closed off than he had been before Neil’s arrival. That Andrew would become unreachable and would resort to simply existing, not really living anymore.

Nicky shuddered again.

“Hey,” Erik said, wrapping an arm around Nicky. “Stop it.”

“What?”

“Whatever you’re thinking about.”

“I’m not thinking about anything,” Nicky said, forcing lightness into his tone. “Just cold.”

Erik frowned like he didn’t believe him, but he let it go and held Nicky tighter.

“Has it been too long?” Katelyn asked, lowering the binoculars and glancing at Nicky. The circles under her eyes were dark and pronounced, a permanent redness to her eyes due to exhaustion or tears, or a combination of both. “I was hoping they’d be back by now.”

Nicky opened his mouth but honestly didn’t know what to say.

“They had to catch up first,” Erik said, jumping in when the silence dragged too long. “They would have had to catch up with Renee and Allison, then with the Ravens, and then they would have had to make a good plan so they could get Kevin and Neil out without anyone getting hurt. These things take time.” Erik smiled at Katelyn encouragingly. “It seems like a long time to us because we’re stuck waiting and not knowing. But I think it’s too soon to worry.”

Katelyn considered this, then she nodded resolutely. “Right. You’re right. It’s only been four days. Hey, I bet they’re on their way back as we speak. Don’t you think, Nicky?” She pinned him with another stare, and Nicky could tell she needed him to reassure, and to believe that Erik was right.

And so he smiled weakly and said, “Sure, Kate. They’ll be back any time now.”

Katelyn sighed and smiled then brought the binoculars back up to her face, resuming her vigilant watch.

Nicky sagged against Erik’s side, letting him hold him up and praying that he hadn’t just lied to Katelyn. They’d be back any day now.

Any day.


 

With Jean still not entirely mobile, Jeremy was still spending his nights on the floor in Abby’s office, his mattress pulled up as close to Jean’s bed as possible.

He told himself that it was because it just felt too empty in the locker-room now with so many people missing, and that was at least partly true. But it was also because he just didn’t want Jean to feel like he was alone, like he wasn’t welcome or that he was a burden. And — if he couldn’t admit it to himself, who could he admit it to? — he was drawn to Jean in a way he couldn’t explain. It didn’t really make sense when he’d only just met the guy and it had come at a time when the shit had well and truly hit the fan, but it was there nonetheless. Maybe it was because he was the one who’d found Jean. He’d checked that Jean was still alive and he’d got Erik to help carry him back to the stadium and he’d made sure Jean’s injuries were seen to. But he would have done that for anybody; that was just who Jeremy was.

Initially, he’d felt some sort of responsibility towards Jean. He’d brought him here and now it was his job to make sure Jean was looked after. But it was more than that and Jeremy knew it. He wasn’t an idiot, he knew how he felt.

He just — he wanted to be close to Jean. He wanted Jean to be alright. He liked Jean, despite knowing next to nothing about him.

When Jeremy woke up early on the morning of Jean’s fifth day at the stadium, Jean was already awake and staring down at him.

“Are you okay?” Jeremy asked. “Do you need anything?”

Jean shook his head. “You don’t have to sleep in here, you know.” He was watching Jeremy carefully, as if he was assessing him, but Jeremy didn’t know what for.

He sat up on his mattress and rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “I know that. I want to, though. Is that okay? I can go back to the locker room if it bothers you.”

Jean scrutinised him for another few seconds, grey eyes intent on Jeremy’s, and for one terrifying moment Jeremy thought Jean would tell him that yes, he’d prefer it if he left. But then he smiled slightly and shook his head. “No, Jeremy. It doesn’t bother me.”

Jeremy let out a little puff of air and then hoisted himself to his feet. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and went out to get some water for Jean, as he had been doing every morning. On his way past the lounge he spotted Betsy, ever an early riser, and gave her a little wave.

“Good morning, Jeremy,” she said. “I’ll be in to check on Jean in ten minutes.”

“Okie-doke,” he said amiably.

Back in Abby’s office, the sun had now risen even higher and shed more light through the window. “Oh wow,” Jeremy said as he handed over Jean’s water. “The swelling’s really gone down. You look loads better.”

Jean raised an eyebrow as if he doubted that was true, which was fair. Jean’s bruises were still awful to look at, but in comparison to how Jeremy had found him, it was a marked improvement.

“Honestly,” Jeremy insisted, and he caught the upturn at the corner of Jean’s mouth as he turned his head away to look out the window.

Shy, Jeremy thought. Cute.

Jean turned back to face him. “Any sign of the rest of your people yet?” he asked.

Jeremy dropped his gaze and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. Then, quieter, “I’m scared.”

He didn’t want to raise his head, but he heard the gentleness in Jean’s tone when he said, “Of what?”

“Of them coming back empty handed. Of them not coming back at all. I’m scared that Neil will get killed by the Butcher and that Kevin will be kept prisoner by Riko forever and that there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m scared that there’ll be an all-out brawl and everyone will get killed and we’d just never find out about it because we’re too far away.”

He sighed shakily. Jeremy had actively avoided talking to Jean about the Kevin and Neil situation so far, not knowing if Jean might feel some misplaced sense of guilt and not wanting to make him feel uncomfortable, especially when he was already so hurt. But then again, Jeremy had almost forgotten that Kevin was Jean’s friend, too. He probably wanted news just as badly as Jeremy did.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that won’t happen, as much as I’d like to be able to,” Jean said.

“I know that,” Jeremy said quickly. “I’m not asking for you to. . . reassure me. Neither of us know what’s going to happen. It’s just frustrating is all.” He shrugged. “I’m worried about my friends.”

Jean went quiet and when Jeremy looked up again, he was back to looking out the window. “Riko is very dangerous, and he has a very bad temper,” Jean said at last, which Jeremy privately thought was the understatement of the year. “And the Butcher probably even more so. The odds aren’t that good.”

Jeremy’s heart sank.

“But,” Jean added, turning back to face Jeremy, “I will say this: If anyone can get the better of Riko, I believe that Andrew is that person. He seemed supremely determined, plus he has already had a run-in with Riko before so has some idea of what he’s up against. And he’s not alone. Provided they catch up before the Butcher comes for his son, there’s a chance,” he said, with just a hint of wariness. It seemed to be the most hope he was willing to offer, but Jeremy was only too eager to latch onto it.

“He will. Andrew will make it in time. Kevin’s his friend, and Neil’s his. . . Neil’s his. He’ll get them back.”

They were interrupted by a brief knock on the door, and then Betsy bustled in.

“Hello, Jean,” she said brightly. “How are we this morning?”

“Better. I feel much better today.”

Betsy ran down her usual morning questions, the things Abby had told her to watch for, and she checked Jean’s stitches and his ribs. Jean sat through it all with only minimal wincing.

“Hmm,” Betsy hummed when she’d finished. “You do seem better, but your ribs still seem tender. More rest.”

Jean groaned. “I’ve been resting. I need exercise. I need to get out of this room.”

It was the closest Jean had come to complaining since his arrival, and Jeremy was delighted to hear it — it meant he really must be feeling better.

“I don’t know, Jean. Maybe you shouldn’t move around too much. I don’t want you to halt your recovery by doing too much too soon.”

“I won’t go far. Just to the lounge. Please,” he said. “I just need a change of scenery.”

Betsy considered him with pursed lips for a moment, then relented. “Alright. But anything so much as twinges then you’re straight back to bed. And you’re to stick with Jeremy so he can help you. That is,” she turned a look Jeremy’s way, “if Jeremy doesn’t mind?”

“I don’t mind,” he said a little too quickly.

Betsy smiled. “Okay, then. I’ll leave you to it.”

Jeremy helped Jean hobble towards the lounge, but he saw the longing look Jean shot down towards the court. “You wanna see it?” he asked.

Jean nodded, and together they headed down to the court doors. Jean was clearly in pain but when Jeremy asked if he wanted to stop he just glared, so Jeremy instead slowed the pace to try and make it easier, fully aware that he was an absolute pushover. Jean would get his own way here and he seemed to know it, but the thought warmed Jeremy instead of irritating him.

He helped Jean sit down in the middle of the court and then sat opposite, watching as Jean looked his fill.

“Did you used to play?” he asked, trying to keep his voice quiet but it still echoed off the walls.

“Yes, in France. I was a backliner. It was through the Exy team that I had my exchange to come to America. I stayed with Riko and played on his and Kevin’s team.” Jean wouldn’t meet Jeremy’s gaze all of a sudden, and his voice sounded a little thick, like there was a lump in his throat. So Jeremy said nothing, just waited for Jean to either tell him more, or tell him nothing. Either way was fine.

“I never liked Riko. He was cruel on the court and unkind back at his house. He wasn’t violent back then, not yet. Just nasty. Kevin couldn’t see it.” Jean huffed an unamused laugh. “But he was too distracted by his own goals to notice, I think. Plus, Riko was never like that with him. I put up with it because I knew it wasn’t forever. It wouldn’t be long until I got to go back home.”

Jean’s gaze was distant, lost in a memory, or lost in thoughts of home. Jeremy couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have no idea what had become of your family. To be stuck in a country that was unfamiliar with no way of ever returning home. Erik had spoken about it before, but only very rarely, when he was feeling particularly melancholy. Jeremy could sympathise, but he couldn’t really relate. His family were all dead, and it was horrifying and he missed them every day, but at least he knew about it. There was reassurance in just knowing. Jean, and Erik too, could only guess at the fates of their own families.

“Hey,” Jeremy whispered, and Jean’s expression cleared. He blinked a few times and refocused on Jeremy.

“I haven’t played since everything happened. I haven’t even really thought about it and my most recent memories of it don’t exactly paint Exy in the best light for me.” He shrugged. “At one time, though, it was everything to me. I was going to be a star, at least in France.”

Jeremy’s heart ached. He wanted to give Jean a hug, but he didn’t know how it would be received, plus he didn’t want to hurt Jean when he was still so tender from his wounds. He could offer something else though. “How about this. When Kevin gets back and you’re all better, we’ll play. We’ll get some of the others, too. Neil’s always up for a game, and Laila and Alvarez. We’ll have a scrimmage. It’ll be fun.” He leaned forward a little and tentatively placed his hand over Jean’s where it lay on the court floor. Jean didn’t move away but he did drop his gaze to their hands.

“Well?” Jeremy asked. “What do you say?”

Jean flicked his eyes up, and he honest-to-god grinned. Jeremy’s heart skipped a beat.

“It might be nice to replace some old memories with some new ones,” he said.

Jeremy smiled back, and resolved to make that grin reappear again and again. And again and again and again.

“Then it’s a deal.”

Chapter Text

Neil couldn’t quite bring himself to maintain eye contact with the Butcher, so let his gaze drop to his feet. Home at last Nathan had said, despite the fact that they weren’t in Baltimore anymore, and that life with Nathan had never felt like home to begin with.

Neil had only ever had one home. One family. It was them who he was thinking of now, even though it was somehow even more painful than the many varied hurts Lola had caused him that were currently prickling through his skin.

Because he had been looking at his feet he didn’t register that his father had edged closer until half a second too late to fully get out of the way; the punch tore at the cuts on his face and left Neil’s ears ringing as he staggered backwards.

“I’d say you’d forgotten your manners in the last few years, but you never really had any to begin with,” Nathan sneered down at Neil. “It’s customary to at least say ‘hello’, when your father welcomes you home, Junior.”

Neil took a second to make sure his voice would remain calm before he uttered a quiet, “Hello.”

Nathan stared for another few seconds, then jerked his head towards the house. “Bring him,” he said to no one in particular, then turned his attention to Riko. “Riko!” he exclaimed as though he had only just spotted him, and he waved him over. “Come here, welcome, welcome. You found my sorry excuse of a son! Very impressive.”

Riko stepped forward a little warily — probably only noticeable to Neil who had grown accustomed to a Riko that carried himself with a lot more authority (imagined or otherwise) — and as soon as he was within grabbing distance Nathan looped an arm around Riko’s shoulders and set off towards the house. It would seem like a friendly gesture but Neil knew that it actually served to effectively trap Riko. Judging by Riko’s tense posture, he knew this just as well as Neil did.

Romero seized the back of Neil’s collar and started pushing him forwards towards the house, following after Nathan and Riko. Lola didn’t fall into step beside them initially and Neil turned to look over his shoulder, needing to know where she was. She lingered by the gate for a moment and it was then that Neil noticed the armed guards for the first time, dotted along the gate and further down the fence. Neil counted five, but it was possible there were more. He wondered how vigilant they were, how well they knew how to use their weapons. Odds were they rarely saw any action; Neil doubted there were many people who wanted to take on the Butcher. Not to mention that Nathan would definitely keep his most capable cronies closer to him.

Lola caught back up with them after she had made sure the horses and wagon were being seen to, and she grinned at Neil’s obvious interest in the way they had entered the property. “Looking for an escape route?” she asked mockingly. “Silly Junior. Don’t you know it’s the end of the line for you?”

Neil just stared back balefully. He didn’t need her to tell him that. She laughed and hurried off to catch up with Nathan.

Romero pushed Neil’s head roughly so that he was fully facing forward again. “Where’s the rest of my welcoming committee, then?” Neil asked. “Where’s DiMaccio? Inside? What about Jackson? It’s weird to see you without him, Romero.”

The tension in the air spiked and Romero pulled tighter on Neil’s collar until it made him gag. “I don’t know if you heard, Junior, but there was an epidemic a few years back. A lot of people died.” His tone was a dangerous warning and it brought out the antagonism in Neil that was always just below the surface, waiting for an excuse to spill over.

“Ohhh,” said Neil. “Oh, so. . . DiMaccio? And Jackson?” He tutted with faux-sympathy. “Shame. Such a shame.”

Romero seized one of Neil’s arms lightning fast and dug his knuckles hard into his forearm; he didn’t need to be able to see where to press, Neil’s arms were too full of burns and cuts for Romero not to hit any of them, and Neil couldn’t help his sharp cry of pain.

Lola and Nathan both looked around at the noise but Romero must have waved them off because they both turned back without much more interest, and Romero once again pushed Neil in the back. He stumbled but didn’t fall, and tried to blink back the unbidden tears of pain that had sprung in his eyes.

“You’re on thin ice, brat,” Romero spat viciously. “Watch your fucking mouth.”

“He’s going to kill me,” Neil replied, surprised by the raggedness of his own tone and he tried to rein it in. He didn’t want to give Nathan or any of his people the satisfaction of knowing how much they were taking away from Neil; how much he had to live for now that he was going to lose it all. “What the fuck does it matter what I say now?”

Romero apparently didn’t have anything to say to this — either that or he just didn’t want to encourage Neil to start running his mouth again — and the rest of the short walk to the house was carried out in silence.

The first thing Neil noticed once he was pushed inside was that the lights were on. There was electricity, which meant there must be a generator somewhere. Trust Nathan to find somewhere he could ride out the apocalypse in comfort. All this for Nathan and his select few while people were dying out on the road with nothing.

A renewed sense of ferocious hatred for his father welled up in Neil, and he had to close his eyes until it ebbed again. When he opened them back up, his father was staring at him. Riko stood off to the left looking slightly uneasy but otherwise unperturbed; if he’d been given any sort of punishment for his crime of being presumptuous enough to send for the Butcher, it couldn’t have been that bad. Perhaps he’d been rewarded instead. Maybe he’d get to live up here now with the comfort and electricity, although Neil got the impression Riko would rather stay out in the wilderness, king of the Ravens in his own little bubble where he could pretend the Butcher wasn’t now running the show.

Lola and Romero weren’t in sight but Neil instinctively knew that they had taken positions behind him in case he was stupid enough to try and escape.

At length, Neil dragged his gaze up to his father’s eyes, mirror images of his own, and swallowed down hard on the bile that threatened to rise up his throat. Nathan stepped forward and grabbed Neil’s chin, taking in the cuts on his face now that he could see properly in the lights of the house. He let go then grabbed Neil’s arm and pulled up his sleeve without care. The fabric catching on all of his now oozing burns was excruciating and Neil fought to stay quiet and on his feet. Once Nathan had looked his fill he let go and looked over Neil’s shoulder at Lola.

“Had a bit of fun on the way, did we?” he asked, an amused lilt in his voice. That he would speak so lightly of Neil’s horrific injuries made Neil’s blood boil, but he kept his mouth shut and carefully — without looking at his wounds; he didn’t want to see the full extent of the damage yet — pulled his sleeve back down.

“Just a little,” Lola sing-songed back. “Needed some answers, after all.”

“You get any?”

“Some. Mary’s dead already, I’m afraid. Infection. So you won’t get the honour yourself.”

Nathan’s gaze drifted back over towards Neil. “Now that is a shame.”

Neil gritted his teeth, ignoring the pull on the cuts on his cheek. Nathan noticed the gesture and recognised it for what it was — barely restrained anger — and he smiled. He leaned closer to Neil’s face. “I would have loved to have you both here. I would have killed you first, made her watch. You always were her biggest weakness. And then I would have killed her, nice and slow, making her pay for every humiliation, everything she took from me.

“Unfortunately,” Nathan continued, pulling back with a vague shrug, “you’re the only one here. But believe me, Junior, this is not going to be quick or pleasant for you. I’m going to make it last for as long as I can now that I’ve been deprived the privilege of killing Mary myself.”

Neil tried but failed to hide the full-bodied flinch, and the Butcher’s smile carved wider.

“Take him to the basement.”

 


 

It had been over three years since Andrew had come across a working car. He knew, statistically, that there had to be at least some cars that would still run out there, but whilst out on the road his family’s luck had eventually run out and they had found nothing that worked. And then they had met Kevin and made their way to Coach without vehicular support, and after that it didn’t seem to matter all that much. They drew less attention to themselves on foot anyway; they were better off without cars if they wanted to stay hidden and relatively undisturbed.

You couldn’t deny that they had their uses, though, and in this situation Andrew didn’t care about attracting attention. He didn’t care about subtlety. He only cared about speed. Johnson said he could get them a car; great. Andrew didn’t care how, or why.

Matt on the other hand, did, and as Johnson hurriedly led them a little ways back the way they had come and then through the undergrowth — off the beaten track, as it were — he peppered Johnson with questions.

“Where is this car you found anyway?” he demanded.

“It’s cars actually, there’s two of them. Well, one of them’s a truck. I found them in a barn at this farm a few weeks back when I was scouting for Riko.”

“How do you know they even run?”

“My mom was a mechanic, she taught me everything she knew. I know what I’m doing. And anyway, these had obviously been in use in the last month or two because they weren’t completely dead. I checked the farmhouse and found an elderly couple dead in one of the bedrooms. Looked like natural causes.”

“You sure you didn’t kill them?” Allison interrupted, eyes hard and accusing.

“No! Fuck no, they were already dead, I swear. I buried them out back and then I checked through the house and I found both sets of car keys and headed back to the barn. They just needed tuning up a little. I fixed them up and filled the tanks with some gas from abandoned cars on the road.”

Matt frowned. “You had a working car. Two even. Why did you go back to Riko? You could have taken one and run. He never would have found you.”

The only reason Andrew caught the haunted look that crossed Johnson’s face despite the low light was because he was standing so close.

“They were my back-up plan. I had the guts to do that much but not to go any further — it was a step I hadn’t worked myself up to taking yet. You don’t understand,” he said when he clocked the various incredulous expressions, and he shook his head. “You don’t know Riko, what he’s like. You think you do, but you don’t. He has this hold over us. All of us Ravens. It’s hard to break through that kind of fear.” Johnson caught Kevin's eye, but Kevin looked away. He knew all about Riko's reign of terror.

“He’s one person,” Aaron cut in derisively.

Johnson shrugged. “So’s the Butcher, and look at the power he’s got at his disposal.”

Andrew had heard enough; talking was slowing them down. “How much further?”

Johnson pointed diagonally across the path they were on towards a little lane that ran off it. “We’re here,” he said, and when they reached the lane they only had to walk a couple of metres up it before they spotted a big barn adjacent to a farmhouse.

Hope started to flicker to life somewhere deep inside of Andrew. He didn’t trust hope; it had never done him any good in the past, but he held onto it this time.

This wasn’t over unless Neil was dead. And Neil couldn’t be dead.

He couldn’t be.


 

Real life cars that worked and ran. David couldn’t quite believe it, yet here he was in the driving seat of a Maserati — a fucking Maserati — tearing down the road as fast as possible, weaving in between all the various obstacles. Matt was following close behind in the monster of a truck that had also been in the barn. The truck was a godsend; everyone who couldn’t fit inside the cars piled into the bed of it so no one was left behind. It seemed like fortune was smiling on them, but David didn’t want to put too much stock in that.

Andrew had wanted to drive the Maserati. Nicky had taught the twins how to drive while they were out on the road out of necessity, but it had still been quite some time since Andrew had last driven and given the situation, David thought it best if he drove instead. Andrew had acquiesced without complaining which was telling; he didn’t want to waste any time.

Johnson sat shotgun, giving directions here and there but otherwise saying very little. Kevin sat in the back behind the drivers’ seat, occasionally meeting David’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. Abby had bandaged up his wrists from where the skin had been torn by the ropes and he kept tugging on them in agitation.

“Hey,” David said quietly, and Kevin’s hands stilled.

Andrew sat on the opposite side, temple pressed to the window as he stared out vacantly. David could only assume he was trying to conserve all of his energy for whatever they were about to head into. Aaron was in the middle seat, eyes never leaving his brother’s face.

They finally came to a point that turned off-road and Johnson directed them down it, then told David to kill the headlights. When David hesitated, Johnson raised an eyebrow. “Do you want them to see us coming?”

David couldn’t argue with that and he switched them off. Aaron signaled to the truck behind them and Matt got the message and did the same. David slowed down now that his visibility had been significantly decreased, and after they’d driven for about another mile, Johnson told them to stop.

Andrew peered around. “There’s nothing here,” he said dangerously.

“This is as close as you should go in the cars otherwise they’ll hear you coming. And besides, this is as close as I’ve ever gotten.” Johnson got out without another word and the others all followed suit.

David got all of the Foxes to gather around and Johnson pointed a little further up the track where there was another very narrow turning off to the left.

“Last time Riko came to see the Butcher, he had me and a couple other Ravens come with him but we weren’t allowed any further. We had to wait here, but Riko went that way to the Butcher’s estate, or whatever the fuck it is. He wasn’t that long, it can’t be far. If you’re quick, you might make it in time.”

“You’re not coming?” asked Kevin.

Johnson shook his head. “Riko’s in there. If he finds out I’ve helped you, he’ll kill me, and that’s if the Butcher doesn’t. If I go with you I may as well sign my own death warrant.”

“Not if we kill them first,” Kevin pointed out, but Johnson shook his head.

“I can’t take that risk. I need to put as much space in between me and this place as I can. I’m gonna try and get to the coast.” He glanced briefly at Andrew, as if nervous Andrew was going to insist he stay and take them the whole way, but Andrew and Renee had already stepped away, scoping out the route they were about to follow. David could tell that Andrew no longer cared what Johnson did. In fact, he’d probably prefer he was gone before they got Neil back.

David looked at the keys to the Maserati that he still held in his hand, then sighed and held them out to Johnson. He had helped them, after all. He’d told them about the cars when he didn’t have to. It didn’t make his role in Neil’s and Kevin’s kidnapping okay, but it wasn’t nothing. “Here,” he said. “You’ll need this.”

Johnson reached out to take the keys, hesitated, then dropped his hand and screwed his face up, stepping back. “No. Keep it. Keep both of the cars, you’ll need them both to get everyone back together.”

“Are you sure?” Kevin asked with a frown.

Johnson shrugged. “No. But hey, I need all the good karma I can get, right? Take the cars. It’ll help me sleep at night.”

David wondered how much Johnson had done on Riko’s orders against his better judgement if he so badly felt the need to try and atone, and was reminded again how incredibly grateful he was that Kevin had gotten out, ruined hand or no. He pocketed the keys again.

“Leaving now,” Andrew called out forcefully, and Johnson retreated into the tree-line.

“Good luck,” he said, and then he vanished leaving them with nothing but his running footsteps until they quickly faded.


 

It took less than ten minutes for them to find the right place. Renee had taken the lead with Andrew falling into step just behind her, trusting her eyes and her instincts.

She held up a hand and everyone stopped immediately before she motioned them backwards, gesturing for them to be as quiet as possible. They moved back until they were covered by an overgrown hedgerow.

“It’s just across there,” Renee whispered. “A gate and a fence. I can’t quite see a house yet but there’s armed guards dotted along.”

“How many?” Andrew asked.

“Six. They look inept to be honest. They’re barely paying attention, but we still need to take them out or they’ll raise the alarm.” She looked at Andrew meaningfully and he nodded. He and Renee would take care of these first guards alone.

Aaron cottoned on quicker than everyone else and he stepped forward in alarm. “Andrew, let me come too,” he said, his voice sounding almost strangled. There was a pleading look in his eyes but Andrew didn’t have time for this and he knew he’d be more efficient if Aaron wasn’t with him for this part. But he also couldn’t leave Aaron like this without saying anything, and he seized his brothers’ arm and pulled him a little apart to offer them some small semblance of privacy.

He faced his brother and put a hand on either side of Aaron’s face, forcing him to meet Andrew’s gaze. “Look at me.”

Aaron did so, eyes widening in fear and it tugged at Andrew that the fear was for his sake. It was something he’d been noticing more and more; whenever Aaron seemed most afraid, it was almost always for Andrew.

They were brothers. And that meant something. It always had.

“You can’t come for this part. Renee and I will take care of it, and it will take five minutes at the most. And then you’ll come and join us, okay?”

“Andrew, this is why I came, I can’t watch your back if I’m not with you,” Aaron protested.

“Do you trust me?”

“I—” Aaron blinked, surprised by the question. “What?”

“You heard me. I asked if you trusted me.”

Aaron stared at Andrew for half a second, and then said, “There’s no one I trust more.” A steadiness started to return to his voice and his posture, taking strength in Andrew’s strength.

“Good,” Andrew said, and before he could rethink it, he briefly bumped his forehead against Aaron’s before letting go of him entirely. “I’ll be five minutes.”

Aaron exhaled slowly, then nodded. “Five minutes,” he agreed, and together they rejoined the rest of the group, who were all doing a terrible job of pretending they hadn’t been watching.

Andrew stepped back up to Renee and gave her a brief nod that he was good to go. Renee looked over his shoulder at everyone else. “You all wait here until I whistle, then come across as quickly and quietly as you can, and make sure you have weapons at the ready. Guns, if you have them, aren’t to be used until we are in that house, otherwise you could bring enemies our way who we haven’t seen yet. Silence and surprise are our greatest assets right now.”

“Be careful,” Allison hissed, sounding almost angry but even Andrew could sense the very real concern as she looked at Renee. Renee offered her a serene smile.

“I always am,” she said, and she headed off without another word, Andrew close behind her.

They were both in dark colours which helped to keep them hidden in the darkness, and they both had to pull up their hoods to cover their fairer hair — Renee in particular, whose hair was practically luminescent in the moonlight. It didn’t take long for Andrew to spot the guards Renee had mentioned, spread out across a large gate and further down the fence. She had been right about their apparent ineptness; only one of them was even looking out like he was supposed to be doing; the rest were all leaning on the fence looking various degrees of bored. They weren’t even holding their weapons properly.

Renee signaled to Andrew and he nodded his understanding. Quick as a flash and with an absolute silence Andrew had never quite been able to emulate (although he’d gotten pretty close), Renee took off. She’d take the three on the furthest side, Andrew the nearer. They’d meet in the middle.

The first guard was the easiest. He didn’t register Andrew’s presence until his hand was over his mouth, a blade across his neck before he could even think about struggling. It was the work of a moment and Andrew lowered his body quietly to the ground.

Andrew stepped on a leaf he hadn’t spotted near the second guard which alerted his attention and thus made it not quite as smooth sailing as taking care of the previous guard had been, but it wasn’t that much of an inconvenience given how piss-poor at guard duty the guy obviously was. Andrew distracted him by throwing a stone the opposite way and then grabbing him from behind when he turned towards the sound.

Andrew had a natural flair with knives, after all. Out of all of the Foxes, the only one better with a blade than Andrew was Renee, and she had taught him everything she knew anyway.

The third guard also happened to be the most capable (or at least the one who was paying the most attention), and as Andrew edged closer, slipping in and out of the shadows whenever he could do so unseen, the guard paced an agitated line a little closer to Andrew’s position, squinting into the darkness and presumably looking for the other guards.

Ricky,” he whisper-hissed. “Where are you? You’re out of fucking position, you wanna get your ass beat again?” His irritation evaporated into uneasy concern. “. . . Ricky? C’mon, man, this isn’t funny.”

He was only a couple of feet away from where Andrew was currently hiding behind a bush, and when he drew level, Andrew reached out and grabbed his ankle, yanking him down with a startled cry; Andrew hoped Renee had already taken care of her three guards, because if not one of them definitely would have heard that.

Andrew hurriedly clasped a hand over the felled guard’s mouth, and as he flailed, Andrew caught a stray elbow up near his eye. It was a lucky shot more than anything else, but it hurt like hell and would definitely bruise. It didn’t even slow Andrew down, however, and he just had time to detachedly register the fear in the eyes of the guard before he killed him. Maybe if Andrew had let him go he’d have just run off on his own. But maybe he would have raised the alarm. Andrew couldn’t take the risk, and there was no room in his heart for mercy. Not tonight.

He wiped his blade on the now dead guard’s jacket, relieved him of his gun, and stood up straight. Renee was at his side in an instant, not a hair out of place, and she whistled twice. It sounded like a bird-call should anyone else be around to overhear, but the Foxes would know it was Renee.

In the couple of minutes it took them to make their way over, Andrew had also collected the other two guns from the guards he had killed, and when they were all together as a group again, they divvied up the haul. Andrew didn’t like them, but the guns would probably end up being necessary tonight. He handed one to Aaron, needing his brother to have the extra protection.

“I told you I’d only be five minutes,” he said.

“I never doubted you for a second,” Aaron drawled back, all trace of his earlier mini-meltdown now erased from his expression, although his eyes did linger over Andrew’s blossoming bruise near his eye.

Once everyone was suitably armed up, they headed as a group through the gate and up a small path where a large house quickly came into view, the windows illuminated by artificial light.

“That’s interesting,” Coach said. “They have electricity.”

“They must have a generator somewhere,” Abby said.

“It’ll be round the back,” Allison supplied helpfully. “My grandparents had an old house like this and that’s where theirs was.”

Andrew looked up at the house and saw no movement, no shadows dancing across the windowpanes. Wherever Neil was, it didn’t seem like he was in any of the front facing rooms. But the house was big and there was no telling what the layout inside was going to be like, or how many people were in there.

“What’s the plan?” Dan asked. “We can’t just barge in there as one with all the lights on. There’s nowhere to hide.”

“We kill the generator,” Allison said with a shrug. “Broken generator means the lights go out. Someone will presumably come to investigate, and when they open the door we take ‘em out, and boom. That’s our way in without breaking any doors or windows and advertising the fact that we’re here.”

Andrew was abruptly grateful that Allison was with them. Almost all of his thoughts had boiled down to Neil and Neil alone; there wasn’t much room for coherent plans. He was counting on his instincts to get him to Neil, but he couldn’t deny that Allison’s plan was a good one.

He nodded. “We do that. And then we’re gonna have to split up to search the place and find Neil. Aaron and Renee are with me, I don’t care how the rest of you split yourselves up. Take out anyone who’s not Neil. You find him, you come get me. Any questions?” Andrew looked around the circle at Neil’s rescue party, nothing in their eyes except for grim determination. No one said a word. “Good. Allison, lead the way to the generator.”

Allison nodded. “Let’s go get our boy,” she said, and just before she turned away, Coach cut in.

“I know that this goes without saying by now and you’re all probably tired of hearing it from me, but be careful. Get Neil back, but don’t get yourselves killed. Got it?”

“Yes, Coach,” everyone chorused quietly, and with that, they got to work.


 

The basement was soundproofed, and Neil had to assume that this was one of the reasons why Nathan had picked this particular place as his stronghold. Not that it mattered who overheard anymore. Old blood splatters stained the walls which were mounted with nasty looking blades and other weapons of various shapes and sizes. It was his very own torture chamber, just like the one he’d had in Baltimore. A home away from home.

There was nowhere safe for Neil to look; not at the walls, not at Lola, certainly not at Nathan. It was on Riko, bizarrely enough, where Neil chose to land his gaze. Riko had taken up a post by the door with Romero and stood with his hands behind his back, watching the scene unfold with a cruel glint in his eye.

“This your big reward for bringing me in?” Neil asked with a tone as mocking as he could manage given the situation. “Front row seats to my ugly demise?” He shrugged. “I probably would have tried to get more if I was you, but hey, that’s just me. You don’t seem to be that much of a big picture person. Happy to settle, I guess.”

Riko opened his mouth to respond but Nathan cut in before he had the chance, waggling his finger condescendingly. “Ah, ah, ah, Riko, don’t rise to his bait. It only encourages him and it lets him make you look like a fool.”

Riko’s eyes turned to thunder but he wasn’t stupid enough to answer back, and Nathan smiled. “Nathaniel here is about to die anyway, so you’ve already won. There’s no need to sully the victory by letting him get the last word.”

Riko nodded his understanding and it was work for Neil not to roll his eyes.

“See?” Nathan said, turning back to Neil. “Riko gets it. Riko can be taught. You on the other hand have been a lost cause since the moment you were born. Too much of your mother in you.”

Neil disagreed with this; he’d always feared there was too much of the Butcher in him from his looks to his temper, but he wasn’t about to admit that. There didn’t seem to be any point; it wouldn’t save him.

Neil stood in the middle of the room and Nathan walked a slow circle around him. The hit came too quickly for Neil to block; a sharp elbow to the gut and Neil doubled over gasping for breath. While he was incapacitated, Lola — who he had lost track of whilst distracted by Nathan — jabbed him in the back of the knees and he fell to the floor. He caught himself with his hands just before his face hit the cement, but the movement and the impact sent painful reverberations up the wounds on his arms. Neil felt like he was on fire, and knew his laboured breathing was making that only too apparent.

Nathan crouched in front of him. “Where should we start? Any suggestions, Junior?” He grinned. “This is your party after all.”

“You could let me go,” Neil said, his composure hanging on by the merest of threads. “You don’t need to do this. The world’s changed now. It’s not like I can sell your secrets or turn you into the feds. Nothing matters anymore. Just let me go.”

“Nothing matters?” Nathan said in a low voice, and he backhanded Neil right across his lacerated cheek — Neil felt the cuts split further and tasted blood in his mouth. There was nothing he could do, nothing to defend himself with. He grappled ineffectually with the floor and tried to drag himself away. “Of course it matters, you petulant child. Just because society has changed, doesn’t mean we forget about justice. And no doubt about it, Junior, this is justice. Divine justice, even. Tell me,” he got to his feet and stepped forward, covering Neil’s hand with his boot and effectively halting Neil’s admittedly slow progress, “what did you and your mother do with the money?”

Neil couldn’t believe this was what his father was asking. “What?”

“The money your mother stole. Where is it now?”

“What the fuck does it matter where it is? Money has no power anymore, it’s useless. It’s not like you could spend any of it.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“It’s gone!” Neil exclaimed. “We spent some of it on IDs and survival stuff before everything went to hell, and then after that we used it as kindling for fires. It’s all gone.”

Nathan went dangerously still, and Neil knew more blows were coming but it didn’t help him prepare for the multitude of kicks Nathan aimed at him. All he could do was curl into a ball and try and protect his head. Interspersed with the furious kicks were Nathan’s even more furious words. “You burnt — my fucking — money — you piece — of shit —”

Mercifully, it didn’t last long, but that was only because the lights suddenly cut out and plunged the entire basement into darkness.

For a few seconds, nobody said a word, but then Neil heard his father’s discombobulated voice say, “I thought the generator had been fixed, Romero.”

“It had, boss,” Romero insisted, and Neil began blinking furiously, trying to adjust his eyes to the new darkness. He needed to know where everyone was.

Nathan sighed. “Take Riko. Make sure it’s being fixed. Properly, this time.”

The door opened and Neil heard the retreating footsteps of Riko and Romero as they went up the stairs and into the main section of the house. The door had been left open a crack and a sliver of moonlight from the upstairs window cut through the gloom. Visibility was still low, but it was there at least, and Neil recognised this as the only chance he was going to get.

He ignored the screaming pains all over his body and scrambled to his feet, running for the door as fast as his feet would allow. Lola was on him in an instant, jumping on his back with a delighted cackle — probably pleased to have something to do — and Neil twisted and stepped back, crushing her against the wall as hard as he could. She gave a satisfying pained grunt and her hold on him loosened, so he took his opportunity and sprinted for the door. It was a straight shot, it was clear, if he could just make it to the stairs he could make it out, he could—

A forearm came out of nowhere and clotheslined him, dropping him to the floor and leaving him struggling for breath. He was pushed over onto his stomach which didn’t help his airflow any, and then he was bodily held down by his father. “Still such a runner, Junior. It’s almost impressive. But I don’t know why you’re bothering. It’s not like you have anything to live for.”

Everything, Neil thought bitterly. I have everything to live for.

How true it was now, and how unfair. He finally had everything he had never known he’d wanted, he’d needed, and he’d only got to have it for a few months. Less than a year of senseless, pure happiness in exchange for eighteen years of fear. It wasn’t fair.

Neil had always known it was going to end this way. He’d tricked himself into hoping for something more, but deep inside, he’d known. It was inevitable; the Butcher always got his way in the end.

“Can’t have you running again, I’d have to shoot you in the back and that would ruin my fun. Lola, hand me my cleaver. You know the one.”

Neil’s stomach bottomed out. “No,” he choked out, unable to stop himself.

“I’m going to cut your tendons. Back of the ankles. Back of the knees. And if you struggle more, I’ll chop your fucking arms off as well. Understand, Junior?”

He was going to be sick. “Don’t — please. Please.” Running was the only thing Neil had ever been able to rely on until he’d met Andrew and the others. To lose the ability now — even when he was going to be killed anyway — was too much for him to take. It was an integral part of himself.

“Lola, would you like the honours?”

“You mean it?” The glee in her voice was sickening, and Neil’s fear was now so great that it was making his ears ring. He couldn’t hear anything over the fuzzy whine as he valiantly tried to fight his father off.

It was because of this that Neil saw the moment his father raised his head and looked to the doorway, and registered the surprise on his face without knowing the cause.

Andrew barrelled into Nathan with dizzying speed and sent them both sprawling across the room, and everything came screeching back into focus in Neil’s mind. Renee had entered immediately after Andrew and sent bullets flying at Lola before the latter even had a chance to step back. Neil spotted Aaron in the doorway but quickly returned his attention to the scuffle between Andrew and the Butcher.

The cleaver had been knocked clear when Andrew had tackled Nathan but there was still a multitude of weapons on the walls for him to choose from and he managed to push Andrew off and knock him off balance. Nathan reached for a knife only to be halted by Renee’s calm but firm, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Nathan looked to her, her gun aimed at his head, and it was then that he noticed Lola unmoving on the floor and riddled with holes. Unadulterated fury contorted his features into something grotesque.

By now Andrew had regained his footing and had a gun of his own in hand — Neil didn’t think he’d ever seen Andrew with one before and the sight was disorienting. He couldn’t work out if he was dreaming or not. Maybe he was hallucinating. Perhaps he was dead already.

“You’ve got some fucking nerve, kid. You’ve got no idea who you’re dealing with, and you’re seconds away from being slaughtered by my people when they come running in here, so I’d rethink threatening me with your little guns there.”

“Your guards are all dead and your house is swarming with my people, so don’t think your threats will work on me. You’ll never touch him again.” Andrew cocked his gun. “Neil?”

If it was a dream, it was a good one. Neil swallowed. “Do it.”

Andrew pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

The Butcher fell to the floor with a sickening thud, and then the basement descended into absolute silence. Renee hovered for a couple of seconds, then hurried out of the basement and up the stairs, undoubtedly to do a swoop of the house and hunt down any of the Butcher’s men or women who could still be in the vicinity, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Andrew was yet to move, and in fact still hadn’t lowered the gun. He almost felt like he was waiting for Nathan to jump up again for one last attack, like a villain from some shitty scary movie. But no; he was definitely dead, lying unnaturally still, eyes open and unblinking as blood trickled from the single bullet hole in the centre of his forehead.

He looked so like Neil and yet not like Neil at all, and it took this realisation for Andrew to finally let the gun fall from his hand and clatter to the ground. He spun on his heel and rushed forwards, skidding to his knees in front of Neil and placing his hands gently on either side of Neil’s neck, not wanting to touch the mess of injuries on his face that were all too plain to see.

“Neil,” Andrew said, anxiety putting an edge in his tone. Neil seemed not to hear him, his eyes peering past Andrew to where his father lay dead on the floor. His right cheek had clearly been slashed at with some kind of blade, a messy crosshatch of cuts and scabs that would scar, new visible ones for Neil’s already vast collection. An indeterminate number of blows had exacerbated these injuries and split them further and it took little more than a cursory glance for Andrew to ascertain that they’d need to be stitched up. Fresh bruises were beginning to darken where they were scattered across the rest of Neil’s face. Andrew ran his thumb across Neil’s jawline with a softness he distantly felt he shouldn’t be capable of, especially given the bottomless pit of rage that was currently swirling within. But then again Neil had always been Andrew’s exception, in every sense of the word.

“Neil,” he said again, and this time Neil blinked at his name and his eyes darted around the room, going from the Butcher to Lola and back again, before finally landing on Andrew’s face where they widened in recognition and awareness. “Neil,” Andrew repeated, more urgently this time. “I need you to say something.”

Neil clenched his hand in Andrew’s sleeve. “Hi,” he croaked out.

Relief of the strongest kind rushed through Andrew, the likes of which he hadn’t felt since Aaron’s fever had broken all those years ago. He sagged backwards and let out a long breath. Neil was still clutching Andrew’s sleeve so the movement pulled on his arms and he let out an involuntary hiss of pain, let go of Andrew and held his arms close to his chest. Andrew scrutinised him for a couple of seconds, then slowly reached for Neil’s arms, freezing when Neil shook his head.

“Don’t,” he said. “I don’t want you to see. I don’t want to see.”

Neil would have to show them eventually — Abby, at least, would need to see — but Andrew could let Neil have his own way for the time-being. “What happened?” he asked, and even he could hear the dangerous tension in his own voice.

Neil winced; Andrew wasn’t sure if it was from pain or from having to explain. “Lola,” he said hoarsely. “She cut me. And — and she burnt me.”

Andrew turned sharply to where Lola’s body lay, wishing he could bring her back to life just so he could kill her himself. He didn’t realise that he’d clenched his fist until he felt Neil tentatively tug at his fingers.

“Is this real?” Neil asked, looking down at Andrew’s hands in wonder. “Are you really here?”

Andrew loosened his fist and sat back, pulling Neil into the gap between his legs as he went. It didn’t seem to be the moment for words, and Neil was better with them anyway. But touch was grounding for Neil, and that Andrew could do. He put one hand on the cheek that hadn’t been sliced and rubbed the pad of his thumb under the fragile skin below Neil’s eye until Neil finally locked eyes with him. They stared at each other, Andrew letting Neil look his fill so that he could convince himself that it was really Andrew, that he wasn’t dreaming.

Abruptly, it was all too much for Andrew, and he dropped his gaze to his lap and clutched Neil’s hoodie with a shaking hand. He could feel Neil’s eyes still on him but didn’t want to risk looking back up until he was calm. He’d been so close to losing Neil. So, so close. And where would that have left him?

Neil slowly lowered his head until his forehead was resting on Andrew’s shoulder, and when Andrew had forcibly swallowed some of the rage he scooted closer, allowing Neil to sink into a more comfortable position. He cupped the back of Neil’s head, loosely carding through his hair.

“Did you miss me?” Neil asked quietly.

Andrew knew that it wasn’t really a serious question; that Neil was just trying to keep Andrew calm and reassured with a flippant attempt at humour. It didn’t matter. For Neil’s ears only, he said, “Yes.”

A choked breath caught in Neil’s throat, and Andrew rubbed his back until his breathing had stabilised. Once it had, Neil hesitantly wrapped his arms around Andrew’s middle, keeping his touch light in a way that Andrew knew had more to do with him not wanting to push any boundaries than it did hurting his arms further. Always thinking of Andrew, even when he was falling to fucking pieces. Fucking martyr.

“I missed you, too,” Neil whispered. “I thought I’d never get to see you again.”

Andrew tightened his grip for a second before relaxing again — he didn’t want to hurt Neil accidentally, and there was no telling how many other hidden wounds he might have. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Someone cleared their throat and Andrew met his brothers’ eyes over Neil’s shoulder, having almost forgotten that he was still standing in the doorway. “I hate to ruin the moment, but I really think it’s time we got the hell out of here and found the others. You can cuddle later.”

“Get fucked, Aaron,” Neil said, muffled against Andrew’s shoulder, but Aaron heard him well enough and Andrew caught sight of the elusive Aaron smile, there and gone in an instant. He knew his brother too well not to read the relief in it.

“It’s nice to see you, too, Neil.”


 

All hell had essentially broken loose once the generator had been sufficiently damaged enough to actually trip all of the electrics out. A couple of low level thugs had come out after a minute, swiftly taken care of by Andrew and Renee, and then everyone else had gone inside, into the action. From what Kevin could tell, Matt, Dan and Allison had taken the upstairs, whilst Andrew, Aaron and Renee were taking the downstairs.

Kevin, Coach and Abby had been tasked with guarding the door in case anyone else came out, and so that they could see if anymore guards tried to enter from the outside. It wasn’t a job Kevin relished having — he wanted to be in there, he was as worried about Neil as everyone else — but he recognised that he was still weak from his capture and not yet fit enough to go charging into action.

The house was huge but unnervingly silent now that the other Foxes had ventured inside, the darkness it was now shrouded in only serving to make the whole situation even spookier than it already was. After hearing nothing at all for almost a full minute, Kevin jolted into hyper-awareness when unmistakable footsteps made their approach.

He motioned to Coach and Abby that someone was coming, and the three of them took steps backwards out of the view of the door, Kevin on one side, Coach and Abby on the other.

The footsteps paused and a voice Kevin didn’t recognise said, “The door’s open. Someone left the door op— did you hear that?” Before anyone responded, the speaker continued. “Someone’s here. Upstairs. Go outside and check on the guards.”

With that, one set of footsteps retreated, presumably upstairs to where Kevin sincerely hoped his friends had overheard and were ready. The other set of footsteps, however, were headed straight this way.

As soon as he saw boots hit the top step, Kevin was moving, running forward and capturing the newcomer in a tackle that definitely would have been illegal on an Exy court.

They landed on the ground in a heap, the man letting out a surprised and pained grunt, and Kevin leaned back, raising his fist to punch him in the face. Now with a clear view, he realised it was Riko he had just tackled and he faltered.

Kevin,” Riko breathed out, shock and anger colouring his tone. “What the fuck are you doing here? Where's Johnson?”

Kevin narrowed his eyes and steeled his resolve, dropping his fist onto Riko’s face not once but twice, hearing a satisfying crunch as Riko’s nose broke.

As Riko howled in pain, Kevin hurriedly searched his pockets, relieving him of two blades and a gun, before getting to his feet and stepping backwards. Coach stepped up behind Riko, Abby standing to the side so that he was effectively surrounded. The only open route was through the house, and he’d be a fool to take it.

Riko hoisted himself to his feet, dabbing at his bleeding nose. “You broke — Kevin, you broke my fucking nose—”

He sounded utterly disbelieving, like the very thought that Kevin of all people could do such a thing was alien to him, which only made Kevin angrier. When Riko finally lifted his head, all of the colour drained from his face when he took in the sight of Kevin, standing with Riko’s own gun pointing at him.

“Kevin, what do you think you’re doing?” he said with dangerous quiet. He thought he was in control. Still.

“Ridding the world of you forever?” Kevin offered, forcing derision into his voice.

The corner of Riko’s mouth curled up in a mocking little smile. “Oh, Kevin. Do you even know where you are? This is the Butcher’s house. Even if you had the balls to pull the trigger, you’d never make it out of here alive.”

From somewhere within, four bullet shots went off in quick succession, enough to make Riko jump in surprise. The smirk fell from his expression, and a moment later one more solitary shot rang out.

“It’s funny you should mention the Butcher, because I’m pretty sure he just died,” Kevin said with an eerie calm. Of course, the gunshots could just have easily been Kevin’s friends getting fired at — Kevin really had no way of knowing for sure until they all met up again — but somehow he doubted it. He had utter faith in Andrew and Renee especially. They wouldn’t lose anyone tonight, Neil included.

Looking at Riko now, Kevin couldn’t quite remember why he’d ever been afraid of him. He was done — a thousand times done — with all of Riko’s bullshit and he was never going to put up with it ever again.

“You can’t kill the Butcher,” Riko said, but he sounded unsure.

More footsteps sounded from within and Coach readied himself, but it was only Renee who stepped out of the house, gun raised. “Lola and the Butcher are both down,” she said. “Need any help?”

“Kevin’s got this,” Coach said. “Neil?”

“He’s alive,” Renee said, but her tone was clipped; Neil must have been hurt. Kevin’s grip on the gun tightened.

“Riko wasn’t alone, there was someone else with him. We think he went upstairs, so you should go and check on the others,” Coach said to Renee, but his eyes remained on Kevin.

Renee nodded and hurried back inside, and it was Kevin’s turn to smirk as he took in Riko’s suddenly skittish and terrified demeanour.

“Anyone can be killed, Riko. You included.” Kevin took half a step forward and Riko flinched back, cowed at last. “It would be so easy,” Kevin said. “So easy to just kill you, and have it all be over. I could do it, you know. I could do it for Jean — who's going to be fine, by the way, he's with us now — and I could do it for Neil. And fuck it, I could do it for me.”

Riko stepped back again and stumbled, falling down on his ass and left staring up at Kevin in confused fear. “But. . . but you won’t. Right Kevin? You wouldn’t do that.”

Kevin stood steely, the silence dragging out between them. There was an almighty crash from somewhere upstairs in the house but Kevin didn’t allow himself to be distracted. “No,” he said at last, lowering the gun. “I wouldn’t.”

Riko closed his eyes and loosed a ragged breath, during which time Kevin got even closer and crouched down right in front of him.

“You see, Riko, it’s not about having the balls to pull the trigger. It’s about having the balls not to. And you might think of this as a victory over me, but you’re wrong. It took the fucking apocalypse for me to find out who you truly are. But I got out, and I made new friends. I found my father,” he motioned to Coach, “and I got a second chance at a family. You? You’re just a bully. You bullied your way into a position of power and you held it by making everyone afraid of what you’d do. You hurt people, and you killed, just to try and prove that you were in control. You’re cruel. But now? You’re nothing.”

Kevin watched Riko’s eyes darken at the word, half-expecting him to make an angry retort, but he stayed quiet, either out of surprise or fear of Kevin changing his mind.

“Your Ravens are all dead or have scattered to the wind, Johnson included. You don’t even have the Butcher to answer to now. You have nothing and no one. I don’t need to kill you, Riko. There’s nothing of you left for me to fear.”

He stood up and stepped back, half turning his back on Riko so he could peer into the house for any sign of the Foxes or anyone else.

“Then,” came Riko’s voice, suddenly small and afraid, and Kevin looked back and raised an eyebrow, “. . . what are you going to do with me?”

Kevin shrugged. “Nothing. Just go.”

Riko didn’t move, not even to stand up. “What?”

Leave. And if I were you, I’d do it now. I’m not going to kill you but I doubt Andrew will hesitate. You might wanna go before he shows up.”

That did it; Riko rushed to his feet and started down the path towards the gate. He’d made it only a few feet before he suddenly stopped and turned around.

“My weapons,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m unarmed.” He didn’t go so far as to actually ask for them back, but Kevin read between the lines and he shook his head.

“Sounds like your problem. Now get the fuck away from me. We’re done here.”

Riko didn’t push his luck any further, and as sounds emerged from within the house once more, he broke into a sprint off towards the gate. Thanks to the darkness, he had vanished within seconds. Kevin watched the black, so lost in thought that he didn’t notice Coach sidling up beside him until a hand landed on his shoulder.

“For what it’s worth, kid, I think that was very brave.”

Kevin glanced at his father out of the corner of his eye. “You do?”

“I do,” Coach said gruffly. “I’m proud of you, son.”

And Kevin might have said something. He was just on the verge of it, when Abby’s sharp inhalation of breath cut through and shattered the moment.

“Oh my god, Neil.”


 

Everything after leaving the basement felt like a hazy dream to Neil. He held tight to Andrew’s hand, ignoring how it pulled on his cuts and burns, and allowed himself to be led through the house. He didn’t want to let go, because if it was a dream, then he felt sure that letting go would be the catalyst to waking up and losing everything, and he wasn’t prepared to do that. It would kill him.

They had gone towards the door and found Abby, Coach and Kevin first. Neil had been so relieved to see Kevin out of Riko’s clutches that his first words hadn’t been to respond to Abby’s worried greeting, but to say, “Are you okay?”

Kevin’s eyes went straight to Neil’s ravaged cheek and shook his head. “I can’t believe you just asked me that when you look like that. I’m fine.”

“That’s Neil’s line,” Aaron said dryly, and Abby shot him a dark look.

Coach said nothing at first, just took in what Neil was sure was his very sorry appearance, but he could read anger in every line of Coach’s frame.

A couple of minutes later, everyone else showed up and Neil braced himself for an onslaught of ministrations and questions, unconsciously shrinking closer into Andrew’s side. Instead, everyone was surprisingly restrained, although the stress and concern on each of their faces was blatant. They must have sensed that Neil couldn’t handle being overwhelmed right now, and he was incredibly grateful. No one commented on his and Andrew’s joined hands.

Renee was quick to reassure Coach that the house was now clear.

“We heard a crash,” Coach said. “What was it?”

“Oh,” Matt answered. “Some guy tried to jump Allison, and she sort of. . . pushed him out the window.”

Allison shrugged with forced nonchalance. “His own fault,” she said.

“Is he dead?” Abby asked.

“He wasn’t moving,” Renee said. “But we haven’t checked.”

As a group, they made their way around to the other side of the house where the window in question was, and a body lay on the concrete paving stones, contorted horribly and surrounded by shattered glass. He was definitely dead, and Allison pointedly didn’t look at the scene, her mouth drawn in a thin, grim line.

“It’s Romero,” Neil said. “He was dangerous. Killing him was a smart move.” He didn’t know if Allison would be comforted by the fact, but it needed to be said all the same.

They moved away from Romero and back inside the foyer of the house. With the generator out it was still dark, but Matt and Dan had procured a couple of flashlights and turned them on.

“They have a huge medical cabinet in one of the upstairs bathrooms,” Dan said. “Before we leave, we may as well take anything we can get from this place.”

Coach nodded. “That’s a good idea. Everyone pick a room and search the place. Anything you think we could use, bring it out here and we’ll take it with us.”

Everyone dispersed quickly until the only ones left were Abby, Coach, Andrew and Neil. Neil started towards the stairs to do his share, but Andrew tugged him to a stop and Coach shook his head.

“Not you, genius, let Abby take a look at you.”

“It can wait,” Neil said uncomfortably. He still didn’t want to see, even though his arms were searing every time he moved.

“It fucking can’t,” Coach said sharply, and Neil knew there was no point arguing.

He let go of Andrew’s hand and stepped towards Abby, whose own hands were outstretched towards him. She led him outside and sat him down in the grass in a patch of moonlight, taking a flashlight out of her pocket and placing it beside her in case she wanted even more light. She started with the wounds on his face, cleaning them out with some of the alcohol she kept in her med-kit. The stinging was excruciating, and Neil knew it would get even worse when he had to show her the cuts and burns on his arms.

Andrew took a seat behind Neil, who took comfort in the grounding weight of Andrew at his back. Coach watched Abby work in angry silence for a few seconds, but he was soon distracted when Andrew asked, “What happened to Riko?” It was the first thing he’d said since leaving the basement.

“He’s gone,” Coach replied.

“As in dead?”

“He’s just. . . gone. Kevin let him go.”

Andrew sighed and got to his feet; Neil missed his warmth immediately. “Which way did he go?”

“Andrew, sit your ass back down,” Coach said, holding a hand up to halt Andrew’s progress.

“Kevin doesn’t have to know if you don’t want, but we can’t let him go. He knows where we live.”

“It’s okay, Andrew. Just stay with Neil, alright? I’ll be back.”

A look passed between Andrew and Coach that Neil in his semi-delirious state couldn’t quite decipher. It would come to him later, he was sure, but for now he just watched the wordless exchange with little understanding to the meaning.

Abby pursed her lips, clearly cottoning on faster than Neil, but she said nothing and continued her work in silence.

“You really don’t have to do this, Coach,” Andrew said.

Coach shrugged. “But I do,” he said. “Stay with Neil.”

Andrew sat back down in his post behind Neil, and Coach took off at a light jog towards the gate.

“What’s he doing?” Neil asked.

Andrew didn’t reply for so long that Neil started to think he wasn’t going to get an answer at all. When it finally came, it was frustratingly cryptic.

“The right thing.”


 

Whichever way David tried to reason it out, there really wasn’t another option. The risk of Riko ever regaining control of his Ravens — or recruiting more — and making his way back towards the Foxes’ territory was admittedly small, but it was still far too big of a risk for David to take. He needed to neutralise the threat.

Andrew would have hunted Riko down, that much was obvious. Had David allowed it, it would have left his hands nice and clean and his conscious clear. Except his conscious wouldn’t have been clear. Andrew had already done more than enough to get Kevin and Neil back, and to protect the residents of the Foxhole Court. He would kill Riko and not think twice about it, but David didn’t want him to have to.

Kevin didn’t have to know. He had already put the whole thing behind him, and David had meant it when he’d told him he was proud. He’d never been prouder. His son was a good man; a great man. And this way, David could sleep easy at night knowing Riko could never hurt anyone ever again.

It didn’t take David long to track Riko down. He hadn’t even made it a quarter of a mile from the Butcher’s estate yet, walking slowly along the winding path that would eventually lead back onto the road. He must have stopped running the minute the house was out of view. His arrogance was mind-boggling, even in defeat.

Riko froze the instant he sensed that he was no longer alone, and then he slowly turned around. There was no point in David hiding, and he didn’t want to anyway. He stepped out of the tree-line and directly into Riko’s path.

“You,” Riko said hoarsely. “Kevin’s. . . father.” He practically spat the word, mouth curling in distaste.

“Yes,” David said.

Riko looked around warily, clearly trying to figure out whether David had come on his own or not.

“Relax. It’s just me,” David said, and Riko’s eyes flickered back to him.

“What do you want?” he asked scornfully. “Come to tell me I should join you? Gonna try and redeem me, make me a better person? From what I can tell you have a real Saviour complex.”

David barked out a humourless laugh. “You really must be insane if you think I’d invite you anywhere near my people or my home. Near my son. Besides,” David opened his coat and took out his gun, one with a homemade silencer affixed to it, and pointed it at Riko’s head, “there’s no redemption for you.”

Riko’s eyes widened in fear. “You heard Kevin,” he said quickly. “He wouldn’t want this. He let me go. He. Let. Me. Go.”

“Maybe so. But it’s not Kevin who has to live with it.”

Riko really was nothing without his Ravens, because a King without subjects wasn’t really a King at all. And Kevin was probably right; the odds of Riko, unarmed, managing to track down his wayward gang were incredibly low; the odds of them willing to go along with his whims again even lower still.

But Riko knew where the Foxhole Court was. He could find them again if he wished. And so as David prepared to fire, he refused to feel guilty about it.

In the end, the King had lost all of his men and there was no one there to watch him fall except David, who stepped over to the body and peered down, ensuring he wouldn’t rise again.

“Kevin’s too good for you. He always has been,” David uttered quietly. And then he turned and headed back to where his family would be waiting for him.

It was time to go home.

Chapter Text

Cleaning and tending to Neil’s wounds had taken Abby a painstakingly long time, but Andrew stayed by Neil through all of it, seeing the mess Lola had made of his arms first hand and trying to remind himself that Lola was now dead and would never be able to hurt Neil ever again.

Abby had stitched up the gashes on Neil’s face and then covered them with bandages. All of the cuts of Neil’s arms save for one were too shallow to need stitches and had already started to scab over on their own. There was one cut, though, a longer slash that was a little deeper than the rest which had needed to be sewn closed. With nothing to numb the wound, Neil had simply buried his face in Andrew’s shoulder and tried to breathe through the pain. Andrew couldn’t stand feeling so helpless.

All of it was making Andrew stew in silent fury, but it was the burns in particular that Andrew couldn’t stomach. When Abby and Andrew had helped Neil take his shirt off and seen them for the first time, Abby had paused and had to visibly compose herself. Neil had been unable to look at her or at his ruined skin, instead casting his gaze off somewhere to the side. Oozing burns were thoroughly cleaned and then bandaged up, and then Andrew helped Neil into a change of clothes that Abby had thought to bring for him.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait for everyone else to finish up their scavenge of the house.

Neil spoke just once more while still on the Butcher’s estate, a murmured, “Is he gone? Is he really dead?” that no one but Andrew heard.

“He’s gone, Neil. It’s over.”

Neil had just nodded, tired and hollow-eyed, but Andrew had a feeling this would be a point he’d have to reiterate over the next few days. Andrew knew as well as anybody how disorienting it was to have your whole world upended, even if the result was as satisfying as this one. Andrew would repeat it as many times as Neil needed. The Butcher was gone. Lola was gone. Riko was gone. Neil was safe, and he wasn’t alone anymore. He’d never have to be again.

Coach was gone for no more than an hour, giving Andrew a subtle nod when he returned which Andrew took to mean that Riko would never again be an issue. It would weigh heavier on Coach than it would have done on Andrew, but Andrew had spent enough time around Coach by now to understand why he had felt the duty lay squarely on his shoulders. And besides, Andrew really hadn’t wanted to leave Neil’s side, so he supposed he was grateful in a detached sort of way.

Eventually, the house had been stripped of absolutely anything they could use, which included a vast array of medical supplies, alcohol, food, weapons, clothes, and several packs of cigarettes. It was more than would fit into the cars and truck, so Renee and Allison volunteered to pack everything into the wagon Neil had been brought here in and head back to the stadium with the horses. It meant they’d be separated from the group for a little while as the cars would get them home considerably faster, but nobody was worried. Renee and Allison were more than capable of holding their own, and now that they’d taken down the Butcher and the Ravens, all other threats seemed inconsequential.

It was perhaps a dangerous viewpoint to have, but at the moment even Andrew was swept up in the feeling. They’d faced the Devil and come out on top. They had Neil back. There was no one they couldn’t face.

By the time they made their way back to the cars, Neil had reached the point of exhaustion that made him wobbly on his feet, exacerbated by the fact that he already wasn’t moving too well due to the beating he’d taken. Andrew had helped Neil to his feet before they headed off, but pointedly didn’t assist him as they walked along. He stayed near in case Neil stumbled, but didn’t want to touch him. Didn’t want to hold his hand for fear of pulling on his burns, didn’t want to wrap an arm around him for fear of pressing up against the many bruises. He was so hurt. Andrew couldn’t stand it.

When they reached the cars, Neil gave them a confused look but then shrugged, clearly too tired to ask questions about their transport. The story of Johnson and how he helped could wait, and Andrew doubted he’d have to be the one to tell it anyway.

Coach drove the Maserati again, Kevin sitting in the passenger seat. Andrew, Neil, and Abby all sat in the back, and it was spacious enough for Neil to be able to lie down, which he did after a little gentle coercion from Abby, who insisted he try and get some sleep. So Neil relented and twisted onto his side, his head in Andrew’s lap and his legs draped over Abby’s.

Neil closed his eyes briefly but then opened them again, glancing up at Andrew out of the corner of his eye.

“What?” Andrew asked quietly. There was no real privacy in a car with three other people, but if he focused on Neil and Neil alone, he could almost pretend they were the only ones there.

The vulnerability in Neil’s eyes was telling and his voice was impossibly small when he asked, “Will you still be here when I wake up?”

Andrew lifted his hand and lightly traced Neil’s eyebrow before settling it in Neil’s hair. He moved his thumb in slow circles on the back of Neil’s head until Neil’s eyes grew heavy and started to blink closed. “Yes,” Andrew said. “I’ll be here.”

Neil hummed sleepily but his eyes didn’t re-open, and soon after his breathing levelled out entirely and Andrew could tell he was finally asleep. He dropped his head back against the seat, listening to a mixture of Neil’s slow breaths and Kevin’s gentle snores from the front — Kevin had fallen asleep within minutes of Coach starting the engine — but it wasn’t long before he sensed eyes on him and he glanced to the right.

Abby didn’t bother to hide the fact that she’d been watching, and Andrew raised an eyebrow. Abby took it as an invitation to speak. “You’re so careful with him,” she said.

It was more of an observation than a question and so didn’t really call for a response, but Andrew found himself making one anyway. “He’s hurt,” he said with a small shrug.

“Yes,” Abby agreed sadly. Her own hands were lightly resting on Neil’s shins where they were strewn across her lap, and Andrew approvingly noted the care that she herself was showing Neil. “He’s lucky to have you.”

“He doesn’t just have me,” Andrew pointed out.

“I know that. I’m just saying, Andrew, that I’m glad he has you specifically. I think you’re good for each other.”

Andrew didn’t really have a response for that, and so this time he did let it slide on past unanswered. He and Neil had still never acknowledged their this to anyone else, even though they had never done anything to discourage the others from wondering about it either. Andrew doubted his single-mindedness in getting Neil back after his and Kevin’s capture had left anything else up for debate. Whatever he and Neil were, it was clearly something, and it was now in the open for everyone to see.

Andrew supposed he’d have to get used to that. A small price to pay for Neil back safe in his hands.

Andrew rested his head against the window and allowed his thoughts to wander as he ran his hand aimlessly through Neil’s hair. He was struck by how smoothly the Maserati moved, and suddenly remembered Coach vetoing his earlier wishes to drive it.

“When we get back home,” Andrew said, catching Coach’s eye in the rear-view mirror, “I get the Maserati.”

Coach quirked a smile. “I’d say you’ve earned it, kid.”

With that, Andrew closed his eyes, and he let the sound of the engine and the comfort of Neil under his hands lull him to sleep.


 

The sky was blue, sun high in the sky as Nicky sat on the edge of the bridge yet again. If he lifted his head to the sun, he could almost convince himself that it was warm, but the windchill was quick to prove that spring had not quite yet sprung. Another couple of weeks, maybe.

Nicky had always enjoyed spring, and the prospect of it being so close would usually be enough to put him in a good mood. Today, however, Nicky was struggling to keep hold of his rapidly slipping optimism. It seemed too long since his cousins and everyone else had gone to try and retrieve Neil and Kevin, and there had been no word since then.

It wasn’t like they had cellphones anymore so they could check in, but it was still eerie to not have heard anything at all. No one had come back. Nicky had thought that maybe someone would get sent back, just to fill in everyone who was left behind. But this — this unending silence — was just unbearable. And what if none of them ever returned? That would be Nicky’s whole family gone. His little cousins who he had tried his utmost to protect for years, gone, without Nicky ever knowing what had happened to them.

No.

Nicky shook his head ardently as if he could banish those thoughts from his mind. Positive thinking, that was the key, and that had always been his philosophy. No matter what sort of shit life threw at him, Nicky had always risen above and looked for the silver lining; there was always one to be found.

Erik had disappeared into the trees to, “answer nature’s call,” as he had so adorably put it, and Nicky was left alone in Katelyn’s silent company. She was looking more and more drawn by the day, and Nicky was grasping at straws at what to say to her. It’s okay and Everything will be fine and They’ll be back any minute now, you’ll see were all starting to become tired and repetitive, and Nicky wasn’t even sure if Katelyn believed him anymore.

They had the binoculars with them as usual, but neither of them were currently using them; it was disheartening to never see what you wanted to, and so they were left in Nicky’s bag to be brought out sparingly. The silence was starting to get to Nicky, and as he waited for Erik to get back he started humming under his breath, a song his mother used to sing him when he was small.

Thinking of his parents wasn’t something he liked to do often, but he couldn’t deny that the song comforted him. In his mind, his parents existed in two separate timelines; who they were when he was a child, and who they were after he had told them the truth about who he really was. Realistically, he was perfectly aware that they were one and the same, but it was less painful if he compartmentalised it like this. It helped him to sleep at night. The mother who sang to him when he was sick or afraid would never have sent him away then abandoned him.

Katelyn looked up at the sound but she didn’t say anything and so Nicky continued to hum, concentrating on the next part serving as a suitable distraction for the lack of anything else happening. Something to occupy his mind so that he didn’t drive himself crazy with what-ifs and worst case scenarios.

Erik rejoined them after a couple of minutes and re-took his seat on Nicky’s left, smiling at Nicky’s little song.

Shh. Nicky, shut up,” Katelyn suddenly said, holding a hand up in a halting gesture and putting an ear towards the road, alert and attentive.

“Katelyn, what?”

Shhhh! Listen,” she hissed, and Nicky fell silent as he and Erik strained to hear whatever Katelyn’s ears had picked up. At first there was nothing Nicky could pick out over the usual sounds of nature in general and he frowned. “Can’t you hear that?” Katelyn urged.

And then Nicky did hear it, a faint rumbling that he couldn’t place at first. Then he jolted to his feet and scrabbled for his bag to grab the binoculars. Erik hurriedly hooked an arm around Nicky’s calf so he wouldn’t slip and fall off the bridge.

“Jesus, Nicky, be careful.”

Nicky barely heard him, already affixing the binoculars to his face and peering out at the horizon, the rumbling sound growing vaguely louder.

“What is that?” Katelyn asked.

Nicky didn’t immediately answer, still scanning the distance. It sounded like. . . but it couldn’t be. . . and yet it had to be. Nothing else sounded like that.

There.

Appearing over the horizon in the distance and heading their way was a beautiful beast of a car, black and shimmering almost like it was a mirage sent to taunt Nicky that such a thing could still run. Just behind it was another vehicle, a blue truck.

Nicky,” snapped Katelyn, and he lowered the binoculars slowly from his face.

“It’s a car,” he said. “It’s a fucking car.”


 

Neil jolted into awareness at someone murmuring his name and immediately wished he was still asleep; his whole body ached and throbbed with various hurts and he couldn’t hide the pained wince as he pulled himself back into a sitting position. The car — still something Neil couldn’t wrap his head around — had stopped moving and Coach and Kevin were no longer in it. Andrew undid Neil’s seatbelt so Neil didn’t have to with his damaged hands, and Abby caught Neil’s eye and patted her bag.

“I’ll give you some painkillers, Neil. You should just eat something first.”

He nodded slowly and looked to Andrew. “Where are we?”

Andrew gazed back at him, then said, “Look around you, genius. We’re home.”

Neil looked past Andrew out of the window and realised that they were parked up outside the gates of the Foxhole Court. It was such a welcome sight that Neil inhaled too quickly and started to panic — he’d been so close to death that this couldn’t be real, it couldn’t be real, it couldn’t be real—

Andrew’s hand found the back of his neck and shoved him forward until his head was between his knees and Neil desperately fought to get a good breath in. Abby’s slender fingers carded through his hair, her soothing voice managing to break through the ringing in Neil’s ears.

“We’ve got you, Neil. It’s alright. We’ve got you now.”

“Stop it,” Andrew added helpfully, and Neil finally managed to suck in a long, uncomfortable breath. When he’d steadied himself, Andrew pulled him back up and then got out of the car.

“Okay?” Abby asked kindly.

“Yeah,” Neil said. “Thank you.”

She nodded and got out of her side, and Neil slid across the seat after her, allowing her to help him to his feet.

Every movement was so painful and brought on an all too vivid reminder of just what he had been through, reliving the trauma when one of his burns brushed against his clothing. It was unavoidable, and Neil just hoped Abby’s painkillers were strong.

When Neil looked around, he noticed the truck Matt had been driving with Dan and Aaron in tow was parked up behind them, but no one else was around.

“We made them go on in ahead,” Abby said when she noted Neil’s confusion. “Matt picked up Katelyn, Nicky and Erik at the bridge and we didn’t want you to get overwhelmed by them as soon as you woke up.” She smiled. “You have the walk from the gate to the stadium to prepare yourself.”

Neil was touched at the thought they had taken to accommodate him, and he managed a smile. “Let’s go.”

Abby took the lead and Neil limped after her, Andrew quickly falling into step beside him. Neil was glad to have gotten some sleep, and the car was definitely preferable to the ground or up against a tree like he had been subjected to for the last few days, but now he was so close to the court again, he was already longing for his mattress. To fall asleep in the little corner he and Andrew had made for themselves, with Andrew the last thing he saw when his eyes closed and the first thing he saw when he opened them again.

He had never thought he’d ever experience something like that, and so to have it only to come so close to losing it (along with everything else) nearly made Neil dizzy. He reached for Andrew’s hand and tentatively linked their fingers together.

“Your hand,” Andrew reminded him, but didn’t pull away.

“I don’t care,” Neil said, ignoring the burns. He needed to know Andrew was still there. He never wanted to let go again.

Andrew sighed but made no further complaints, shifting his fingers slightly so they fit more comfortable together. By now they had reached the stadium doors and Abby pushed them open, holding them and letting Andrew and Neil go on ahead.

Neil could already hear jovial voices coming from the lounge and an overwhelming fondness came over him. How much he loved them all; how glad he was to still be alive and back with them all.

They rounded the corner and all voices stopped. Neil had just a fleeting second to take in the room; Katelyn sitting firmly on Aaron’s lap with her arm looped around his shoulder, smiling through a tear-streaked face, Laila and Alvarez sitting on the floor with Dan and Matt, Erik on the armchair and Betsy and Coach standing in the corner, clearly having been in the middle of a conversation. Kevin, Jeremy and Jean had the sofa, Jeremy in the middle. Jean looked slightly better than he had last time Neil had seen him, although he appeared decidedly uncomfortable; Neil couldn’t blame him, there was a lot going on.

Nicky had been sitting near Aaron but he shot up when he spotted Neil and Andrew enter the room and rushed over in record speed. His already watery eyes filled with tears and he couldn’t seem to decide who to focus on; Neil or Andrew.

“Oh, Neil,” he eventually said, Neil’s blatant injuries tipping the scales, and he stepped forward with open arms. Neil braced himself but Andrew stepped forward.

“Not the best time for Neil hugs, Nicky,” he told his cousin. “He’s been in the wars.”

Nicky switched his gaze to Andrew in a heartbeat. “Andrew,” he said, hesitated, then seemed to make a decision. He moved slowly but with intention and Andrew had plenty of time to move out the way if he wanted, but he didn’t, and Nicky enveloped him in a bear-hug Neil knew would have hurt had he been on the receiving end.

“I was so worried about you, you little asshole,” Nicky said, a half-sob, half-laugh. Andrew didn’t really return the hug, but after a moment he did pat at Nicky’s arm, and then Nicky withdrew.

Absolute silence descended, no one quite seeming to know what to say, and it was Matt who broke it, fixing Neil with a concerned stare. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“No. No, not really,” Neil said, feeling the honesty of it in his bones. “But I will be.”

The next few hours, much like the hours that had followed the Butcher’s death, were somewhat of a blur to Neil. His body was still trying to catch up on the sleep he’d missed, not to mention all the healing he needed to do. The painkillers Abby gave him helped soothe him into a more comfortable numbness, and he sat in the lounge with Andrew, wrapped up in blankets and eating and drinking everything that was brought over for him. He was vaguely aware of Renee and Allison getting back, mainly because Allison made the point of coming over and planting a kiss on his forehead when she arrived.

“You’re not allowed to do that again,” she said.

“Agreed,” Neil replied.

Fuck, he was so glad to be home.

It didn’t seem to take long for night to fall again, and as Neil sat wedged comfortably between Matt and Andrew, he took in each and every one of them sitting around, eyes eventually landing on Coach, who met Neil’s gaze. His expression was one of complete understanding, and Neil felt compelled to say something.

“You came for me,” he said, and the hushed conversations that had been carrying on immediately fell silent at his words, all attention turning his way. He dragged his eyes away from Coach and looked at everyone else in turn. “You came for Kevin, and you came for me. I can’t just say ‘thank you’ for that.”

“You don’t have to,” Coach said. “We’re a family. It’s what families do.”

Neil’s eyes started to sting; tiredness and sentiment and overflowing gratitude filling his heart. So much of it that he didn’t know what to do with it all. “I’ve never had a family before,” he said, and he could hear the rawness of his own voice. He found Andrew’s hand under the blanket they were sharing. “Not like this one.”

“Well, you’ve got one now,” Nicky said, his own eyes shining. “And it’s not about blood. It’s about who you choose. You chose us, and we chose you. That means something.”

Neil didn’t think he’d be able to say anything else so he just nodded and gave Nicky his best approximation of a smile. Then he sat back and let the voices of his family wash over him, wrapped up in their unwavering friendship and letting it fill him with warmth.

He was home.

 

Chapter Text

Due to the nature of their return to the stadium and how important it had seemed that everyone all stayed together for as long as possible, Kevin didn’t find a moment to talk to Jean alone until early the next morning.

Sleep had, thankfully, come easy due to utter exhaustion and having a mattress again, but Kevin had still somehow woken earlier than everyone else in the locker-room. He got up making as little noise as possible and tip-toed to the door, looking over his shoulder towards the corner just to reassure himself that Neil was still there. Kevin could just about make out Neil’s hair poking out the top of his blanket.

After spending a few nights tied to Neil (and a tree), followed by Neil’s abrupt departure and the mad dash to get him back, Kevin was finding it disorienting to be back at the stadium. It was instinctive to look for Neil, to make sure he was there, to make sure he was whole. And there he was, safe in his corner with Andrew. Kevin turned away and closed the door quietly behind him.

As he bypassed Abby’s office the door was open a crack and Kevin peeked inside. Jean wasn’t in there, the blanket on the bed flung aside, but Jeremy was asleep on the floor. Kevin raised an eyebrow; that was interesting.

Jean wasn’t in the lounge or the bathroom, and Kevin figured there was only one other place he’d be. Sure enough, when Kevin opened the door to the inner court, Jean was sitting on the floor, a discarded crutch lying beside him, and rolling an Exy ball from hand to hand. He looked up at Kevin’s entrance and stilled but didn’t say anything.

Kevin sat cross-legged opposite Jean, then motioned to the ball. Jean got the hint and rolled it to him. Kevin rolled it back.

And so it went for a few minutes; passing the ball back and forth, each re-acclimatizing the other to their presence, reminding themselves of the quiet company they used to share. Their history wasn’t the easiest to have to remember; Riko was too firmly entrenched in their entire relationship, but the importance of their friendship and the comfort they’d found in each other on some of their darkest days couldn’t be understated.

Kevin was so glad Jean was still alive. And here. Against all the odds.

He cleared his throat. “Listen, Jean—”

“I’m sorry,” Jean interrupted, fixing Kevin with an unflinching stare. He still had the ball and this time he didn’t roll it back.

Kevin sighed. “That’s what I was going to say.”

“I know. I wanted to say it first.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“If it wasn’t for me, Riko might never known where to look for you—”

“Jean, stop,” Kevin said, holding a hand up. “You knew whereabouts I was the whole time and yet it still took Riko that long to find out. I know better than anyone what he was like, and I can only imagine what he put you through, and yet you still tried to protect me. I—” Kevin broke off and cast his gaze downward, trying to sort through what he needed to say. Slowly, he raised his head and forced himself to meet Jean’s eyes. “I should have made you come with me when I left, after my hand. I shouldn’t have let you stay there with him.”

“It wasn’t your decision,” Jean said, voice hoarse with barely restrained emotion. “I couldn’t — I was too afraid, after I saw what he did to you, of all people. If he had caught us he would have killed me. I wanted to go with you, but I couldn’t. It isn’t your fault.”

Kevin shook his head. Objectively, he knew that Jean was right, but it was hard not to feel at least partly responsible when Kevin had seen Jean in the woods just shy of a week ago, beaten half to death. He’d been so convinced it was the last time he’d ever see Jean at all.

Jean’s bruises were starting to fade at least, although the presence of the crutch implied he still wasn’t moving all that well. He would heal, though, and that was the important thing.

“Okay,” Kevin said at last. “But just so you know, this isn’t your fault either. What happened with me, and Neil. That’s not on you. And it doesn’t matter now anyway. The Butcher’s dead, Riko’s. . . gone. Out in the wilderness alone, or dead because he can’t fend for himself, I don’t fucking care. But we’re still here.”

Jean nodded slowly. His jaw worked for a moment, like he was struggling with what to say. He eventually landed on, “I’m glad you found this place. Your father, he seems like a decent man. I’m glad you have a home.”

Kevin frowned. “Jean, you know you can stay, right? We’re not going to kick you out.”

Jean looked past Kevin at the court walls. “I don’t know if I belong in a place like this. You’re all already a family. I shouldn’t intrude on that.”

“It’s not a — fuck — it’s not an intrusion, Jean,” Kevin said in exasperation. “We want you to stay. I want you to stay. Please?”

The look Jean sent Kevin was tortured, like he so badly wanted to believe Kevin but couldn’t bring himself to; the eyes of someone who’d learned never to get his hopes up because he only ever ended up disappointed. “Kevin, if this is a guilt thing, then—”

“It’s not about guilt,” Kevin insisted, and then he thought back to Coach’s and Nicky’s words the night before. “It’s about family. You can be a part of that, Jean. Please stay.”

“I. . .” Jean started, flickering his gaze between Kevin and the floor. A comfortable life — a life less lonely — was right in front of Jean now and all he had to do was reach out and take it. Kevin really wanted him to take it. “Okay,” he said at last, so quietly that Kevin almost missed it. “I’ll stay, if it’s really okay.”

Kevin managed a relieved smile. “It’s really okay,” he said.

The court door creaking made Kevin jump, and he turned around to see Neil using his shoulder to push the door open. In his hands he loosely held a bottle of water and some painkillers. He walked over slowly, pain still evident in his movements, then slid a glance between Jean and Kevin.

“Well, you two look like you’ve been through the ringer,” he said.

Kevin snorted. “That’s a bit rich coming from you,” he said.

Neil shrugged and sat down, dropping his water and pills on the floor in front of him. He looked at Jean. “We didn’t officially get introduced yesterday,” he said. “I’m Neil.”

Jean nodded. “Jean. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Neil said, and he lay down, back flat against the floor and closed his eyes.

Kevin knew it was a stupid question, but he asked anyway. “How are you feeling?” He braced himself for the inevitable I’m fine and was surprised when it didn’t come.

Neil laughed wryly. “I feel like fucking shit, Kev, how about you?”

Kevin looked down at the marks on his wrists from the ropes, still hurting, but starting to heal. “I’m okay. Why are you even up this early?”

Neil poked at his painkillers with his foot. “Got up to get these. Which reminds me,” he raised his head off the ground and pinned Jean with a curious stare, “why is Jeremy asleep on the floor in Abby’s office?”

“Oh,” Jean said, and Kevin saw the telltale sign of a blush spread across his cheeks. “He’s, uh, been doing that. He said he didn’t want me to be alone.”

Neil dropped his head back down. “Jeremy’s so nice.”

“He is,” Jean agreed, a little too quickly. He caught Kevin’s eye and Kevin grinned; Jean blushed harder and refocused on the Exy ball he still had in his hand.

“Well you have to stay now,” Kevin said, just a hint of teasing to his tone.

“Fuck you, Kevin,” Jean said with a scowl, accent more pronounced in his irritation. Kevin laughed, almost surprised by the sound of it. Fuck it felt good to laugh.

He looked over at Neil; the bandages on his face were starting to peel and would need to be replaced, or left off so the wounds could air. The same probably went for the injuries on his arms, which Kevin had heard about but was yet to see. Neil’s sleeves were pulled firmly down and they ran a little long so that only his fingertips poked out the edges. Kevin wasn’t surprised that Neil wanted to keep them covered, but he’d have to get over that eventually or they’d never heal properly.

“Neil,” Kevin said. “Does Andrew know you’re in here?”

“Andrew is not my keeper,” Neil said without opening his eyes.

Kevin scoffed. “I didn’t say he was. But if he wakes up and you’re not there he’s going to worry, and I think he’s done enough worrying over the last few days.”

Neil opened his eyes and with visible effort got back into a sitting position. “I know that. He knows I’m up. I told him to go back to sleep.”

“I give it five minutes before he comes looking for you,” Kevin said.

“If that,” Jean added.

Neil rolled his eyes. “You barely even know him,” he said to Jean, who simply shrugged.

“I’ve seen enough.”

Neil shook his head but didn’t bother responding, likely knowing they were right. He reached for the pills and water then stared at the bottles for a moment, scrutinising their caps. He sighed and made to unscrew the lid on the water bottle but Kevin reached over and took both the water and painkillers from him.

“Give me those,” he snapped.

“I can do it myself,” Neil retorted, annoyed, but he shut up when Kevin looked pointedly at Neil’s hands. He got both lids off for Neil and passed them back so Neil could take his painkillers.

Neil took them and washed them down with a swig of water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then glanced back at Kevin. “Thank you,” he said, albeit a little grudgingly.

“You’re welcome.”

A silence descended on the little triangle they were now sitting in, and Kevin took a moment to remind himself that he was back at the stadium; that despite everything they had got Neil back from the Butcher and that he was safe. That their friends had stopped at nothing to get both of them back from Riko. And that Jean was finally free. He smiled, and for the first time in almost as long as he could remember, he felt completely at ease.

Soft footsteps on the floor garnered his attention and Kevin looked to the door to see a very tired and irritated looking Andrew making a beeline for Neil, who looked up at him with a sheepish smile.

Kevin turned to Jean. “How many minutes was that?”

Jean smirked. “Not even five.”


 

It had been a long day. Or, it hadn’t, but Andrew still felt disjointed. After Neil had got up, insisting Andrew get some more sleep, Andrew had found he wasn't able to without Neil there, as much as it pained him to admit. It was stupid; Neil was back now and couldn’t get himself into any dangerous situations whilst still within the confines of the stadium, but Andrew just kept looking at the empty mattress again, remembering the long night he’d had to spend alone when Neil and Kevin had first been taken.

In the end, he’d hunted Neil down in the court where he’d been sitting with Jean and Kevin, and dragged him back to bed so they could both get a couple more hours in. More sleep could only be a good thing for Neil while he was healing, and Andrew felt better drifting off with his fingers bunched in Neil’s t-shirt.

It was a much more reasonable hour when they awoke again and Andrew helped Neil get washed up, then raided Abby’s supplies and changed Neil’s bandages quickly and efficiently. Neil’s bruising looked worse today and he was clearly in a lot of pain considering how slowly he was moving. But he still laughed at Nicky’s jokes and talked to Kevin and Jeremy about Exy and sat with Matt and the others for an hour, joining in their conversation.

He started flagging before long, and Andrew noticed and took him off to get some air, and so that he could just sit quietly for a few minutes, away from the hustle and bustle. Andrew knew that Coach had specifically told everyone that they weren’t to ask Neil (or Kevin) about what had happened whilst they were gone; that they’d talk about it if and when they wanted to. Andrew didn’t think Neil would ever want to, but wondered if at some point he’d perhaps need to.

At one point in the late afternoon, Andrew sat on the sofa reading a book, Neil asleep and spread out next to him. Every time Andrew reached the end of a page, he’d glance over to make sure Neil was still sleeping, still comfortable. Still breathing.

When Neil had been napping for about half an hour, Betsy entered the lounge and quietly sat in the armchair adjacent to Andrew’s side of the sofa.

“Hello, Andrew,” she said, taking care to keep her voice low and not wake Neil.

“Bee,” he replied, and put the book down. He got the impression Betsy was seeking him out deliberately.

She nodded towards Neil. “How is he?”

Andrew looked down at Neil, whose face was slack with sleep. He thought about brushing the hair back from Neil’s forehead, but he didn’t particularly want to do that with an audience, and he turned back to Betsy. “He’s about as well as can be expected.”

“He’s certainly been through a lot.”

“Yes. He has.”

“And you, Andrew?” she asked then, tagging it on like it was an afterthought. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” he replied, and almost cringed; he was glad Neil was asleep and hadn’t heard Andrew use his favourite phrase.

“Andrew,” Betsy linked her fingers together and settled them in her lap, “Neil’s just been through a trauma, and it might help him to talk about it. You certainly seem to be the one he trusts the most, and you will most likely be the one he eventually opens up to. I just want you to know that if you need to talk to anyone, then I’m here. For Neil as well, but I don’t think he’d talk to me. He’s never particularly warmed to me.”

Andrew had always found Betsy strangely easy to talk to and had never quite been able to put his finger on why, but all of a sudden, it clicked in his mind. “You’re a shrink,” he said.

Betsy smiled. “Once upon a time.”

Andrew stared back at her, trying to decide if this knowledge changed his opinion of her. It didn’t in the end. He shrugged. “I don’t have anything to say.”

Betsy accepted that without comment, smiled again, and got to her feet. She was almost to the door when Andrew spoke up again. “But if I do, I know where to find you.”

Betsy hesitated for a fraction of a second and then left without turning around, which Andrew was glad for.

Neil shifted in his sleep and drew Andrew’s attention; he gave into his earlier impulse and pushed back the hair that had fallen forward onto Neil’s forehead. It was a little matted and Neil felt warm to the touch, his temperature just a little too high. Andrew wasn’t too worried about it — it wasn’t surprising that Neil would be a little run down after everything. His body needed to recharge, that was all.

Andrew didn’t let Neil sleep for too much longer, as tempting as it was to just leave him be, otherwise his sleep schedule would be all over the place and Andrew would end up suffering though it as well. Neil woke up grumpy and in pain, took some more painkillers and said barely a word to anyone for the rest of the day.

When it grew late and people started trickling off to bed one by one, Andrew headed for the court stands, Neil trailing after him. They didn’t go as high as they usually did as Neil wasn’t as agile as usual, but they still made it almost halfway up. Neil sat cross legged on the step and Andrew pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket. Neil noticed the extras Andrew had saved and smiled.

“What,” Andrew said, not quite a question.

“You saved my cigarettes.”

Andrew pulled them back a little out of Neil's reach. “Interesting that you think any of these are for you.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” Neil said, still smiling.

Andrew rolled his eyes and popped two sticks into his mouth, flicking his lighter out. Because he was standing in front of Neil, he didn’t miss when he flinched and recoiled at Andrew clicking the lighter. He removed his thumb immediately and took the still unlit cigarettes out of his mouth. “Neil?”

“It’s nothing,” Neil said unconvincingly, looking anywhere but at Andrew.

“Now who’s a terrible liar,” Andrew said pointedly, and Neil finally glanced at him.

“It’s the lighter,” he admitted quietly. “I didn’t think it would bother me. But it’s what Lola used to heat the knife to burn me. I was tied up and she was behind me, I couldn’t see her, but I heard every time she clicked the lighter, and so after the first time I knew what was coming when I heard it.” He shook his head. “I just want a cigarette. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid, Neil,” Andrew said, somehow managing to keep his tone measured despite the spike of rage at hearing Lola’s name, and more specifics of what she’d done. “We don’t have to smoke tonight.” He started to pocket the lighter but Neil shook his head again, vehemently.

“No, I want to. It’s our routine, Andrew, I want it back,” Neil said, clearly frustrated. His breathing started coming a little quicker and Andrew put his hand on the back of Neil’s neck.

“Neil. Put your hands over your ears,” he said. Neil narrowed his eyes but did as Andrew said, and once he had Andrew covered them with his own and lightly pressed. He let go and pulled Neil’s hood over his head, just for extra sound protection. It wouldn’t make Neil entirely unable to hear, but it would at least muffle the sound.

Andrew moved down several steps and turned his back, lighting the cigarettes with his hand cupped closely around to try and prevent the clicking noise travelling too far. Once they were lit, he pocketed the lighter and headed back up to Neil, who removed his hands from his ears but kept the hood up.

He accepted the cigarette Andrew handed to him. “So what, we just do that now every time we wanna smoke so I don’t have to hear it?” he said bitterly.

“No,” Andrew said. “We do that today. And we probably do it tomorrow, and the day after. We’ll do it until you don’t associate the sound with pain, understand?”

Neil raised the cigarette to his lips with a shaking hand and took a small puff to keep the flame alive. He inhaled deeply and then looked back to Andrew. “Until I associate it with you, instead.”

Andrew’s heart clenched. He didn’t know how to be this for anyone; it was never part of the plan. Neil had never been part of the plan, and yet here he was and he seemed to need Andrew and fuck, Andrew wanted him to.

He was lost, for once, at what to say. They finished their cigarettes in silence and Neil got to his feet and stood in front of Andrew.

“Hey,” he whispered, and Andrew looked up at him.

He knew the kiss was coming thanks to Neil’s tone, and Andrew belatedly realised that it was the first time they’d kissed since they had been reunited. It had to be pulling on Neil’s stitches so Andrew took control, making it the most gentle kiss they had ever had. Andrew felt Neil shudder under his hands. “You are a mess,” he said against Neil’s lips.

“What else is new?”

Andrew kissed him again, just once, then withdrew.

Neil was home, and he was whole, and he would heal. Everything else would follow after.

Chapter Text

Andrew could feel Neil’s eyes on him before he opened his own and uttered a quiet, “Staring.” Neil’s only response was a half-annoyed, half-amused huff which Andrew felt on his face; a tell-tale sign of just how close Neil was. Andrew opened his eyes.

Eyes of the clearest blue gazed straight back into Andrew’s, wide and unblinking in a way that told Andrew Neil had been awake for a while now. It felt early; the light was still low, the only sounds around them the deep breathing of those who were still fast asleep, the occasional snore, or the rustling of blankets as someone shifted in their sleep.

It wasn’t something Andrew had ever thought he would grow accustomed to when Neil had bargained away his real name just to get Andrew to come and sleep in the locker-room, but he had. It was strange, Andrew thought, how quickly you could fall into new habits; how ingrained they could become. Even though it was getting warmer again, he didn’t particularly feel the need to return to spending his nights alone in the stands. The boy lying next to him had something to do with it, no doubt.

Andrew was fine right where he was, sleep ruffled and blinking blearily at Neil, who offered him the slightest upturn of his mouth. He looked warm and pliant and devastatingly handsome, and it was thoughts like that crossing through his head that made Andrew know he wasn’t fully awake yet. Alert Andrew was never so sappy. (Most of the time.)

Andrew broke the silence. “You’re up early,” he observed, voice still thick and hoarse with disuse.

“I had to pee,” Neil replied.

“Well go on, then.”

“I’ve already been.”

Andrew frowned; that meant that Neil had got up, walked out of the locker room then come back again, all without disturbing Andrew. It had been two weeks since they had returned from their rescue mission and so far Andrew had been unerringly attuned to Neil’s movements, particularly at night. All Neil had to do was shift a minuscule amount and Andrew would wake, some part of him deep inside afraid that Neil could once again be taken from him. A child’s fear, really, but it was there all the same.

This morning, however, Andrew had slept right through Neil not only moving, but leaving the room entirely.

Andrew didn’t know what his expression said, but Neil furrowed his brows in concern and edged closer. “Hey,” he whispered.

“I didn’t hear you,” Andrew said by way of explanation. “I didn’t hear you leave.” It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter; Neil had just gone to the bathroom. He hadn’t run away, he hadn’t headed into the woods alone, he hadn’t been snatched in the night. But still, Andrew couldn’t quiet the part of his mind that was painfully aware there had been a brief period of time when he’d been asleep while Neil was on the move. What if he’d fallen, banged his head? Cut himself on. . . well, something, and then left bleeding out until someone stumbled across him? What if, what if, what if.

“I was quiet,” Neil said. “I didn’t want to wake you up again. I was only gone a couple of minutes.”

Andrew nodded but didn’t reply, simultaneously annoyed with both himself and his irrational reaction, and with Neil for feeling the need to explain himself at all. He didn’t need to let Andrew know his every move. It was infuriating.

When he was silent for too long, Neil continued softly, “It’s okay, Andrew. I’m okay.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “I know that,” he said.

He didn’t want to talk about this anymore, not with Neil who would bombard Andrew with I’m fine or I’m okay and any other variation in between. If Andrew considered it objectively, he knew that it was still soon after Neil’s ordeal and that it was probably to be expected that he would be harbouring excess fear and anxiety about Neil’s whereabouts considering how close he’d been to losing him. Absently, Andrew thought it was the kind of thing he could talk to Betsy about. He made a mental note to seek her out later, if the fear didn’t abate.

Neil, for his part, seemed to understand without being told that Andrew didn’t want to talk about it, and so he just lay there silently watching Andrew, waiting him out.

Neil was lying sidelong on his mattress, facing Andrew with his cheek mushed against his pillow, hair splayed out and messy in a way that had Andrew itching to run his hands through it.

He refrained. For now.

Neil’s stitches had been taken out by now, but the lines up his face were still a little red and angry looking, and were undoubtedly still painful. They would eventually fade to silvery lines, Andrew knew, but Neil would still carry them for the rest of his life.

He’d taken to leaving his bandages off now but Andrew had noticed that if they were all sitting in group, Neil would leave his hood up. The injuries on his arms were by far the worst, but at the moment they were considerably easier to hide as it was still cool enough for long sleeves. It was warming by the day, though, and soon Neil’s burns would be on display for everyone to see.

“Your cheek,” Andrew said. “Does it hurt?”

Neil lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, which meant yes.

“So take a painkiller.”

“It’s not that bad,” Neil said, predictably. Andrew just about managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes, but Neil must have caught the gesture anyway because he broke out into a smile. “It’s not,” he insisted, his tone all fondness and mirth, and just a little indignant.

“Whatever you say, Neil,” Andrew muttered, and shifted closer infinitesimally. Neil noticed; he always did.

His gaze dropped to the exposed skin of Andrew’s neck and then back up again. “Can I?” he whispered.

Andrew nodded, and Neil shuffled forwards, dipping his head and pressing a barely-there kiss to the hollow of Andrew’s throat. Once he’d settled himself into a more comfortable position, Andrew carefully wrapped an arm around Neil. This was a new gesture, one that had happened for the first time a couple of mornings after they got back to the stadium, and had been increasing in frequency ever since.

Neil kissed him again in the same place but slower this time; languid. Andrew shivered, and not from the cold. He felt Neil smile against his neck. “Shut up,” he said, a quiet grumble.

“I didn’t say anything,” Neil replied, unrepentant.

“You know what you did.”


 

Andrew and Neil found themselves in the lounge long before anyone else was up, unable to get back to sleep. Andrew wanted to make coffee but Neil wouldn’t let him until everyone else was awake, too.

Today was the first day that Neil was allowed back to doing regular chores and excursions as opposed to simply being lumbered with dinner duty as he and Jean had been for the last week and a half. He was practically giddy with excitement, and this was something else Andrew had learned; Neil did not like to be cooped up, even if it was for his own good.

“What am I doing today,” Neil asked. “Do you know?”

Andrew shrugged. “Coach’ll let you know, I’m sure.”

“Maybe I’ll be on water duty with Kevin again,” Neil said with a wry smile.

Andrew glared. “Every time you and Kevin are on duty together something terrible happens. So how about no.”

Neil scoffed. “Coincidence,” he said. “And besides, not every time.”

“Fine. Twice. And that’s twice too often.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“Neil, the first time it happened, you got hurt. And the second time, you got fucking kidnapped and then you got hurt. Excuse me if I’m not taking any chances.”

Neil stared, deadpan, just for a moment. But then a smug grin spread across his face. “You care about me,” he said.

Andrew put his hand over Neil’s face — gently, though — so he couldn’t see the grin. “Fuck off.”

“No.” Neil sounded entirely too pleased. He latched onto Andrew’s wrist to move his hand and shoved back; Andrew twisted and linked their fingers together. “You care about me, and you care about Kevin.”

“Neil—”

Admit it.” Neil was laughing now, and Andrew let go of his hand, getting Neil in a headlock instead. Neil could easily get free if he wanted to, Andrew wasn’t holding him that tightly, but Neil just continued fucking giggling, and clutched at Andrew’s arm with his hands. “Admit it, Andrew!”

“You’re in no position to give me orders right now, Neil,” Andrew said, but he couldn’t help but smile, and with a sudden, horrifying clarity, he realised that he and Neil were play-fighting. Like a couple of fucking teenagers.

Which, in fairness, Neil still technically was.

Aaron and Katelyn appearing in the doorway hand in hand prevented the tussle from going any further. Katelyn grinned at the sight of them, but Aaron stopped short and tilted his head to the side.

“Are we. . . interrupting?”

“No,” came Neil’s muffled voice and Andrew belatedly realised he still had Neil in a headlock. He let go.

Neil sat back upright and looked over at Aaron and Katelyn. “Hello,” he said.

Aaron was still staring like the pair of them had grown two heads, but he responded all the same. “. . . Hello.”

“Is everyone up now?” Neil asked.

“Yep,” said Katelyn. “I’m gonna go get some coffee started.”

“I’ll help,” Neil said, getting to his feet and heading over as Aaron stepped closer into the room.

Katelyn half turned out of the doorway but then hesitated and looked over her shoulder. “Good morning, Andrew,” she said carefully, measuredly.

Andrew stared back at her, aware of Aaron’s eyes burning a hole through his head, then offered her a single nod. Katelyn smiled, nodded back, then preceded Neil out of the door.

Aaron came over and sat down in the seat Neil had just vacated. He lifted his feet onto the sofa and crossed his legs, then let out an expansive sigh. “Okay,” he said. “I’m on board.”

Andrew twisted in his seat and pressed his back against the arm of the sofa so he could see his brother properly. “On board with what?”

Aaron shot Andrew a withering look. “Neil,” he said like it was obvious, annoyed that Andrew made him say it. “If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“Who said I was happy?”

“Come on, Andrew, don’t be a dick. First of all, you don’t have to say because I can tell. And secondly, I’m trying here, so if you could pull your head out of your ass for one fucking minute—”

“Alright, alright,” Andrew said, deciding to throw his brother a bone before he got so exasperated that he stormed off in a huff. “You know, you never did tell me what your problem with Neil was in the first place.”

“What, and you’re asking now?”

Andrew shrugged.

His brother sighed again. “He just took me by surprise, that’s all. You never — you never said anything, it looked like it just came out of nowhere, and after Neil’s whole 'I don’t swing' spiel I guess I didn’t trust him. And then he turned out to be this fucking murder magnet and you seemed dead set on throwing yourself into danger for him. I just. . .” he looked back at Andrew, “I just didn’t want you to get hurt because of him.”

Andrew tilted his head to the side, mirroring Aaron’s own gesture when he’d first appeared in the doorway, while he thought this over. “That was the only problem?”

It was Aaron’s turn to shrug. “Yeah, that. And the fact that he’s got a smart fucking mouth.” He rolled his eyes derisively. “You sure you’re sticking with him, then? You don’t want to try your luck with Jeremy before he well and truly sets his sights on Jean?”

Andrew raised his eyebrows, but caught the smile on his brother’s face. “Oh, Aaron. Did you just make a joke?”

“It’s been known to happen.”

Andrew huffed a dry laugh. “I think it’s a little too late for that anyway,” he said. Jean now slept in the locker room along with everyone else, a space made next to Jeremy’s mattress by Jeremy himself. They were basically attached at the hip. “And besides,” he wrinkled his nose distastefully, “Jeremy’s too nice.”

“Because heaven forbid you dated somebody nice,” Aaron said, heavily dosed with sarcasm.

Andrew internally objected to the term ‘dated’ — it didn’t seem to align quite right with what he and Neil had, but he let it go for now, for once not wanting to sour the mood unnecessarily.

Shuffling feet could be heard in the background, banging doors as people made their way to and from the bathroom to get ready for the day, and Andrew knew his private moment with Aaron was going to be interrupted imminently. He appreciated the gesture Aaron had made, offering his (begrudging) acceptance of Neil. Andrew didn’t need it, but it was nice to have it anyway, and he knew that it wouldn’t have been a comfortable conversation for his brother.

Andrew, too, had his feet up on the sofa and he moved his leg and poked Aaron in the ribs with his toe, who swatted him away half-heartedly. “There’s no immediate threats on the horizon. Might be a quiet life for a while,” Andrew said.

“Yeah,” Aaron murmured. “Shouldn’t get complacent, though.”

“Course not. You still have my back, big brother?”

Aaron looked at him and then smiled, honest and true and not marred with scorn or derision for once. “Always,” he said.


 

When Coach gave out marching orders for the day, Neil ended up on scouting duty with Matt. He’d been hoping to be able to go further afield on a run for supplies instead, but it was obvious that everyone felt more comfortable with him staying closer to home. He couldn’t go on water duty anyway, his hands not quite healed enough to carry a full bucket of water back to the stadium without it being painful, and any other job he could possibly be assigned would place him firmly on campus, and campus was starting to make Neil stir-crazy.

Scouting it was.

Neil could tell by the tension lining Andrew’s shoulders that he wasn’t entirely happy about having to go almost an entire day without Neil in his direct line of sight, but he said nothing, and Neil showed his appreciation by yanking Andrew into the locker-room before he and Matt left and letting Andrew press him up against the wall with hard kisses. Kisses that said be careful and come back and other things Neil didn’t know how to name yet.

The knowing smirk Matt gave him when he re-emerged from the locker room said he knew exactly what Neil and Andrew had been up to, but he made no mention of it and together they headed out of the stadium, off-campus, and towards the bridge.

It was the first extended amount of time Neil had spent with Matt alone since before everything with Riko and the Butcher, and Neil was struck with how much he’d missed his friend. They sat on the edge of the bridge, as they’d done many times before, and Neil nudged his shoulder into Matt’s bicep (Matt was too tall for them to sit shoulder-to-shoulder).

Neil had spent the majority of the last couple of weeks as the centre of attention, not a position he particularly enjoyed even though he understood everyone wanting to make sure he was okay. Because they loved him, just as he loved them. He understood that now, embraced it, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to keep them all safe. Articulating that in a group situation was difficult, though. One on one, however, was a different story.

Neil opened his mouth to say something, but Matt got there first.

“This is where I saw you for the very first time,” he said, looking straight ahead at the view, a wistful look in his eyes and a half-smile on his face. He glanced back at Neil. “Well, not here exactly. Under there.” He pointed down and Neil knew he meant in the arch under the bridge.

“I thought Renee was the one who found me.”

“She was. But when she came back to tell us there was someone in the area, I was the one who went back with her to scope you out.”

Neil raised an eyebrow; Matt had never told him this before. “Really?”

“Uh huh.”

“And what did you think?”

Matt grinned. “I thought you were a skinny little thing.” The grin faded, and he shrugged uncomfortably. “I thought you looked pretty lonely, too.”

Neil stared at his feet dangling over his edge, not daring to look up yet. He was surprised by the raw emotion in his own voice when he said, “I was.” At length, he dragged his gaze up to meet Matt’s. “I just didn’t realise it until I met all of you, and you welcomed me, and you gave me a home.”

Matt stared back, blinked a few times in rapid succession, then looked away and cleared his throat. “Fuck,” he said. “Alright, let me just get this out now before I turn into a blubbering mess.

“I’m so glad you stumbled into our neck of the woods. I’m so glad you stayed in the area long enough to get on our radar. I’m even glad you ran into that branch Andrew hit you with and got your ass dragged back to the stadium against your will, because it brought you to us.”

Neil smiled; it was funny now to think back on his first encounter with Andrew, although there had been nothing funny about it at the time. Strange how your perceptions could change. Strange how everything could change.

Matt continued, “But you’re the one who decided you wanted to stick around and ride out the apocalypse with us. Home’s not a place, it’s a feeling, and if you feel at home here it’s because you made it on your own. It’s my home, too, and I gotta say, Neil, it’s all the more so with you here. I — fuck, I’m so glad you’re still here.”

It was obvious by Matt’s tone that he didn’t just mean here as in the Foxhole Court, but here as in still alive.

“Me too,” he said softly. He felt the truth of it in everything he could see and touch; every laugh and smile from his friends, every tiny gesture from Andrew that gave away his care for Neil; he wasn’t fooled no matter how much Andrew tried to downplay it.

Matt looped an easy arm around Neil’s shoulders and sniffed, eyes dangerously watery. “I just want you to know that I’d do anything for you, man. We all would. We love you. I love you.”

Neil squirmed a little in embarrassment, affection still not the easiest for him to express. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I love you, too.”

Matt sniffed again then removed his arm from Neil. When Neil glanced up at him he was rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hands. “Well, here come the waterworks!” he said brightly. Neil laughed, but kindly, and looked away while Matt hurriedly composed himself.

The irony wasn’t lost on Neil that it had taken losing everything he thought he had, or ever would have, to find everything that he didn’t know he wanted. Needed. Nearly losing it all over again only solidified that fact.

Neil took a deep breath and looked to the sky. What a great feeling it was, just to be alive.

“You okay, Neil?” Matt asked, voice now perfectly steady.

Neil smiled. “I’m perfect.”

Movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention and Neil looked to the tree-line, twenty feet away. He rolled his eyes. “I can fucking see you, Renee,” he called. “You may as well come out.”

There was a pause wherein nothing happened, but then Renee stepped into the path and made her way over. Neil knew that he’d only seen her because she had allowed herself to be seen; Renee in true stealth mode was impossible to track, even if you knew what to look for.

She pulled herself up beside them and swung her legs over the edge, taking a seat on Neil’s other side. She shot them a sheepish smile. “Sorry,” she said. “I would have stepped out sooner but you looked like you were having a moment.”

“We were,” Matt said. “It was fucking beautiful. Neil expressed his true feelings for me.”

Neil laughed and nudged his friend. “Fuck off. I wasn’t the one weeping.”

“Hey,” Matt replied, pointing a finger. “There’s no shame in tears.”

Neil held his hands up in mock surrender. “I never said there was.”

Renee giggled softly from beside him and Neil turned to her. “Let me guess: Andrew sent you to keep an eye on me?”

“He didn’t, actually,” Renee said mildly, shrugging at Neil’s confused look. “I took it upon myself.”

Neil sighed. “I don’t need extra looking after. I’m not a baby.”

“Yes you are,” Matt cut in with a grin. “You’re our baby. Baby of the Foxhole Court.”

“You are the youngest,” Renee added. “So, technically. . .”

“I’m nineteen,” Neil said indignantly.

Renee laughed again. “Try not to take it personally, Neil. It’s your first day back in the field, and an extra pair of eyes never hurts.”

“Where’s Kevin? Does he have extra eyes on him?”

“It’s not Kevin’s first day back out here,” Renee pointed out. “When it was, he was flanked by both myself and Coach. So yes, actually. He did.”

Neil had had another retort queued up but it died in his throat and he looked down, sufficiently cowed. “Well, alright then,” he grumbled. “As long as it’s just today.”

“Cross my heart,” Renee replied. “Now, are you two just going to sit here all day or are you actually going to do some scouting?”

“We were going to sit here all day,” Matt replied, then laughed at the look Renee sent him. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Now that you’ve interrupted bro time, we may as well make ourselves useful.” He swung his legs back over the edge of the bridge and got to his feet. Renee did the same.

Neil hesitated a moment longer, looking out at the road he’d walked down almost a year ago now, not knowing it was the last time he’d ever have to be alone.

“Neil?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m coming.”


 

As nice as it had been to be out for the day, Neil was glad to get back and he found Andrew sitting in the lounge with a book pretending like he hadn’t been waiting for Neil.

He couldn’t help but smile as he let himself sink into the cushion next to Andrew; closer than he needed to be, so they were touching. He let out a contented sigh, the kind that came from a good day of exercise and of being outdoors, and then coming home to family.

Home. That’s where he was now; that’s where he could stay. He let the thought warm him.

His arms ached in a detached sort of way, the healing burns tingling after more movement today than Neil had done since he’d been branded with them, but it was nothing he couldn’t cope with. With no one else in the room but him and Andrew, Neil rolled up his sleeves to inspect them.

Andrew had said nothing since Neil had sat down, not offered him a ‘hello’ or even the barest glances, but he did look up now. Neil poked and prodded at a couple of the angry scars; they itched.

“Don’t scratch,” Andrew said, as if he could read Neil’s intentions.

“I wasn’t going to,” Neil said petulantly, but it was a lazy lie at best and Andrew arched a dubious eyebrow. Neil scowled and rolled his sleeves back down.

“See anything out there?” Andrew asked, putting his book down at last.

“Nothing,” Neil said. “Renee joined us.”

Andrew nodded. “I thought she might.”

“You really didn’t ask her?”

“If I was that concerned, I would have gone myself. Renee doesn’t run my errands for me.”

“Is that all I am to you?” Neil asked teasingly. “An errand?”

Andrew leveled him with a flat look. “What you are, Neil, is a pain in the ass. A thorn in my side.” He sighed. “And you’re also, as it happens, one of the most important people in my life. So no. Not just an errand. Not even remotely an errand.”

Neil’s jovial mood softened into pure affection. “Andrew,” he whispered in awe, and hooked his fingers oh-so gently in Andrew’s collar and tugged, mirroring one of Andrew’s own gestures. Slumped on the sofa as he was meant Andrew sat taller than him for once, and he dropped his gaze to meet Neil’s. Neil flattened his hand against Andrew’s chest so he could feel his heartbeat, which was going just a little too fast. “Kiss me,” he said.

Andrew leaned forward until he was just a whisper away from Neil’s lips. “So demanding today.”

“Yeah,” Neil admitted, but didn’t get a chance to say anything else because Andrew closed the gap. Neil got the briefest moment to enjoy Andrew’s tongue against his before rapidly incoming footsteps cut the kiss short.

Neil groaned in annoyance which made Andrew’s lips quirk in amusement as he disentangled himself from Neil just before Nicky rounded the corner. His face lit up when he saw them.

“Hey!”

“Hey, Nicky,” Neil replied. “What’s up?”

“Come on. Everyone has to help tidy up in here and then get washed up and put on their cleanest clothes. Abby and Coach are cooking up a celebratory meal for us, and there’s gonna be booze. I bet you’ll be able to talk Coach into giving you extra cigs as well.”

“What’s the occasion?” Andrew asked.

“Life, my dearingest darlingest cousin. Life is the occasion,” Nicky said, grinning.

It seemed as good an excuse as any, and Nicky’s enthusiasm was infectious, so the three of them got started on straightening up the lounge, shortly joined by Erik, Jean and Jeremy. Once it was tidied to Betsy’s liking, who came in to check, they all dispersed to get themselves cleaned and changed.

Neil pulled on the black top and combats Andrew had picked up for him back before Neil had even given Andrew all his truths. Andrew gave him a once over and muttered, “Sap.” Neil didn’t respond; it was a fair assessment.

Andrew headed outside to start helping some of the others bring food in, but Neil got waylaid by Allison who insisted on giving him a haircut while his hair was still damp.

Neil was in a good mood and knew that doing things like this made Allison happy, so he gave in to her ministrations with the caveat that she not do anything fancy.

“Relax, Neil,” Allison said and winked. “I know what I’m doing.”

In fairness, she didn’t take long, and when she’d finished she kissed his unmarked cheek and smiled. “So handsome,” she said. “God, I’m good.”

Neil rolled his eyes but got up and reached for his hoodie.

"Leave it, Neil," Allison said when she saw what he was doing.

"But," he started, reaching a hand to his scarred cheek without meaning to.

Allison gently took his hand and lowered it back to his side. "I know," she said, "but don't hide them. The only thing anyone out there gives a shit about is the fact that you're alive, and that you're safe." She squeezed his hand and let go.

Neil glanced back at his hoodie, then back at Allison. He nodded resolutely.

Together, they headed back into the lounge where almost everyone was now assembled. Alvarez and Dan both offered up wolf-whistles at Neil’s arrival, and even Andrew stopped and stared a little too intently. Neil reminded himself to thank Allison later for whatever she’d done to his hair. All he knew was that he could see a little better; fewer auburn wisps in his eyes.

Allison pushed him lightly in the back and Neil went over and took a seat in between Andrew and Kevin. They were sitting on the floor in front of the makeshift table, closest to the food. Andrew was in the process of pouring drinks and passing them out, and he saved Neil for last, pouring him a shot of whiskey into a cup.

Once everyone had a drink in hand, Coach quietened everyone down from where he was sitting in the corner in the armchair, Abby perched on the arm rest with her elbow perched on his shoulder.

“I’m gonna keep this short,” Coach said, “and then you can all eat and drink yourselves stupid.”

“Hear, hear,” Dan cut in cheekily.

“All of us here know that we no longer live in an ideal world. Life is hard and it’s dangerous and there are no guarantees that this place will stay safe forever. It’s been a tumultuous year. We lost one of our own,” Coach paused briefly and looked to Allison, who was hand in hand with Renee, “but we’ve also gained a few new faces.

“We’re just on the other side of a tremendous ordeal that saw two of us taken, one of whom was very nearly killed. But we got both of them back, we got them home, and now that everyone’s on the mend it felt appropriate to celebrate that for what it is — a battle hard fucking fought and hard fucking won. So drink up, enjoy, and don’t trash the stadium, because you’ll be the ones cleaning it up.” He raised his glass. “Cheers.”

“Cheers!” everyone chorused, and knocked back their drinks in one.

After that it was a mad dash to the food, which, once demolished, was cleared away to make more space. A makeshift beer-pong tournament was started as the drinks continued to flow, but Kevin proved to be utterly unbeatable and it wasn’t long before others started crying foul.

“I am not cheating,” Kevin insisted. “This is just ridiculously easy. Look, it’s like this Exy drill I used to do—”

Before Kevin could finish explaining said Exy drill, Laila yelled out, “Drink!” and she and several others took a shot. At Kevin’s bemused expression, she explained with a drunken smile, “It’s a drinking game. Every time you mention Exy, we take a shot.”

“Ohhh, don’t do that,” Abby said with a wince. “I don’t have the equipment to pump anyone’s stomachs.”

Kevin spluttered indignantly as everyone laughed and Abby smiled apologetically, but Neil put a hand on his shoulder. “Let it go, Kevin,” he said. “Let it go.”

The night wore on, and Neil made sure he spent time with everyone, feeling whiskey warm and hazy but in the best way. He even spent a few minutes in Aaron’s company; Katelyn carried most of the conversation, but Aaron and Neil added their input here and there and managed not to be antagonistic towards each other even once.

Progress, thought Neil with a smile as he excused himself. Progress was the key.

His eyes inevitably sought out Andrew, who was sitting in the corner with Renee and talking in hushed tones. He looked up and caught Neil’s gaze then nodded slightly, a clear invitation. Neil made his way over, passing Jeremy and Jean en-route who were huddled very close together, Jeremy’s head on Jean’s shoulder. Neil suspected Jeremy was very, very drunk and very, very close to passing out, but it was cute all the same.

Renee got to her feet at Neil’s approach, shooting him a smile as she started to walk away.

“You don’t have to leave,” Neil said.

“Allison,” Renee said simply by way of explanation, and Neil watched as she went over to Allison’s side. Allison was much drunker than Renee (which was easy, because Renee wasn’t drunk at all) and spread her arms wide when she saw her coming. Neil smiled and turned his attention back to Andrew.

“Hey,” he said. He reached into his pocket and took out the cigarettes he had asked Coach for earlier, and jerked his head in the direction of the court. “Wanna get out of here?”

Andrew considered Neil and the cigarettes he was brandishing, and then he smiled, just for a second.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Chapter Text

Neil was his name.

Nathaniel was now nothing more than bad memory, a bitter taste in his mouth. It had never been who he really was, and although he’d carry it with him forever, it was no longer as heavy a weight.

He still kept Abram close to his chest. It was the last of his secrets, shared with Andrew and Andrew alone, and Neil was happy to keep it that way. Abram was a reminder of his mother and the efforts she had taken to keep him as safe as she could, even though it had taken her too long to act in the first place. He remembered all the lessons she had taught him and he was grateful; for a time, they had helped to keep him alive. But his mother was gone now, and Neil didn’t have to follow her rules anymore. Don’t look back, don’t slow down. Neil was done looking over his shoulder, and he was done running. Don’t trust anyone, she’d said. She was wrong. Neil missed her, but she was wrong. He wouldn’t trade the life he’d had with her on the run for the life he had now.

He made his own rules.

He had found a home and a family, and it was more than he had ever even dreamed of hoping for.

Neil was what they called him. Neil was his name.


 

“Neil!” Kevin called. “Team huddle!”

Neil jogged over to meet Kevin, Nicky, Allison and Matt at the half-court line. Once he was there, Kevin waited another few seconds, then sighed in exasperation and turned towards the goal. “Andrew? Any time today would be great?”

Allison snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that, Kev,” she said.

Neil looked over his shoulder; Andrew, in full goalie gear, was standing in the middle of the goal and using his racquet as a leaning post.

“What don’t you understand by ‘team huddle’, Andrew, fuck’s sake,” Kevin said, clearly irritated. Andrew just flipped him off, the picture of insolence.

“What’s the hold-up?” called Dan tauntingly from the other side of the court. “We’re all ready to play over here.” She gestured to her team; Renee, Alvarez, Jean, Jeremy, and Laila in goal.

“Just a sec,” Kevin said impatiently. He pointed at Andrew but addressed Neil as he said, “Can’t you make him come?”

There was a beat, and then Matt, Nicky and Allison all dissolved into helpless laughter, doubled over and using their racquets and each other to keep them from collapsing entirely. Even Neil had to stifle a smile behind a gloved hand, and Kevin went bright red as soon as he realised what he’d said. “Oh, that is not what I meant and you all know it,” he snapped.

“Sorry, Kevin,” Neil said. “If you want Andrew to get in on the team huddle, you’ll have to take the huddle to him.”

Kevin looked at the giggling mess of his team and shrugged, an over-exaggerated gesture. “It doesn’t fucking matter now, let’s just play,” he said, muttering something about '"fucking amateurs" as he took his place.

Nicky was the slowest to recover, having to lift up the face-guard on his helmet just so he could wipe the tears of mirth from his eyes. “Fuck me, I love Kevin. That was pure gold,” he said, starting to laugh again.

Neil patted him on the arm. “He’s also going to murder us all if we don’t get our shit together.”

That got Nicky moving, and he jogged back towards Matt to get ready for first serve.

Weekly games were a relatively new addition to life at the Foxhole Court. Teams were pot-luck, names pulled from a hat, and numbers adjusted to how many people actually wanted to play on that day. Sometimes it meant they could only play three-on-three, but on a good day, they had a full roster (minus subs). Today was a good day.

It had been Jeremy who had suggested it, surprisingly enough. Kevin had obviously pounced on the idea and annoyed everyone else into submission until they had enough players. And it was so fun that they just kept doing it. It was one of Neil’s favourite times of the week.

Coach acted as referee, but he was usually pretty lenient as long as no one went in for nasty checks. They were all friends; it never happened maliciously. The only tumbles came from when people were carrying too much speed, but there had been no injuries to speak of. Just a few bruises here and there.

Dan had won first serve for her team, and she served it back to Laila as soon as Coach blew the whistle, and Laila fired it up the court. Neil knew that even if someone managed to take a shot on goal Andrew would clear it, and the rebound would come straight to him, so he took off forwards with Alvarez hot on his tail.

He heard Andrew shout his name and then a loud thwack as racquet hit ball; he took just a millisecond to spot the ball and figure the trajectory before he sped up, leaving Alvarez in the dust. The ball bounced off the side of the court right in front of Neil and he snagged it, carrying it six steps before passing it to Kevin, who out-stepped Jean and scored with an impossible twist of his racquet.

Kevin grinned and clacked sticks with Neil as Jean gently ribbed Laila about letting a goal in so early.

“Excuse you, Jean, I didn’t see you stopping him taking the shot,” she snarked back.

“Aw, babe,” Alvarez said brightly. “Don’t be bitter.”

“And you can fucking talk!”

“What? Neil’s fucking fast, you try keeping up with him.”

Their tones were light and breezy, their own brand of playful teasing, and Neil jogged back into position safe in the knowledge that they weren’t actually having a bust-up on the court.

The game continued from there, Kevin and Neil each scoring another goal apiece before Jeremy got past Nicky and slammed the ball right into the very corner of the goal. Even Andrew looked mildly impressed.

As they had no subs they only played a half game with a five minute interval in the middle, at which point Neil’s team were in the lead, 4-2.

Just before first serve at the second half, Neil detoured to the goal to have a word with Andrew. He hooked his fingers in the netting of Andrew’s racquet, and Andrew leaned forward unconsciously. Like magnets.

“Gap’s pretty slim,” Neil said.

Andrew rolled his eyes. “We’re two points ahead.”

Neil shrugged. “Could be more.”

The corner of Andrew’s mouth quirked. “What’s your point?”

“Do you think you can lock the goal down?”

“Oh, Neil,” Andrew said, smile starting to spread. “This is supposed to be for fun. You’re as bad as Kevin.”

Neil mock gasped. “How dare you. I just want to see if you could do it, that’s all.” He smirked; he knew full-well that Andrew could close the goal down if he felt like it. The key was giving him an incentive.

Andrew tilted his head to the side, considering. “What would you give me for it?”

Neil tugged on the racquet, pulling Andrew even closer into his orbit. “Don’t ask questions you know the answers to.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” came Kevin’s voice from across court, his faux-pleasant tone enforcing the dripping sarcasm. “Is my Exy game getting in the way of your flirting?”

“It is, actually,” Neil said, looking over his shoulder at Kevin. “Do you mind?”

Kevin’s face turned to thunder and Matt laughed. Neil turned back to Andrew.

“Better go,” Andrew said, nodding at Kevin over Neil’s shoulder. “He’ll be unbearable otherwise.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Neil said, releasing the racquet. He jogged backwards and winked at Andrew, then turned and ran past Kevin, beating him to his starting position.

“Come on, Kevin,” he drawled. “We’re waiting on you.”

“Oh, fuck you, Neil.”

The game began again, and Andrew did as Neil asked and completely locked the goal down. It was a good job, too, as the other team had upped their game and Kevin only managed to score one more goal himself. Neil wasn’t sure what Andrew would ask for in return, but he knew that whatever it was he’d be more than happy to oblige.

When Coach blew the whistle to signal the end of the game and their tiny audience whooped and cheered from the stands, Matt swooped in and lifted Neil off his feet. Neil laughed and clutched at Matt’s shoulder. “Déjà vu, Matt,” he said.

“Bro, I’ll cradle you in my arms anytime.”


 

Later, when all the players were washed up and after everyone had sat down together to eat lunch, Neil stepped outside the stadium alone.

Summer had arrived, but it wasn’t yet at the point where the heat was stifling. Instead, Neil found the warmth soothing, his now healed burns on display in yet another t-shirt that Andrew had found for him.

Neil took a breath and smiled wistfully. It was still such a novelty to wake up every morning and feel. . . safe.

Neil wasn’t a fool; the Butcher and his men were gone, Riko was gone and the Ravens disbanded, but that didn’t mean that only the good were left. Bandits had run rampant before The Butcher made a name for himself, and now that he was gone, gradually more would probably crop up again. It was definitely possible that they’d have to fight to protect their home and each other again one day.

But they had defenses in place, eyes on the area, and they had vehicles now. If worst came to worst, they could pack into the cars and move.

All the same, Neil was cautiously optimistic that they’d never have to.

Neil heard the doors open behind him and didn’t have to turn to know that Andrew had come to seek him out. He hooked his chin over Neil’s shoulder.

“What are you doing out here?” he mumbled.

Neil leaned his head so it was resting against Andrew’s. “Nothing,” he said. “Just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Lots of things. Like you.” He jostled his shoulder lightly and Andrew stepped back, scowling. “What are you doing out here?”

Andrew leaned against the wall and dug his hands into his pockets. “I’ve come to collect, obviously.”

Neil thought back to the morning’s Exy game and his blanket promise to Andrew, and he smiled. “What do you want?”

Andrew pulled the keys to the Maserati out of his pocket and twirled them around his finger.

“Let’s go for a drive.”


 

The Maserati had become Andrew’s new favourite toy ever since returning to the stadium, and having the cars in general had certainly made going on runs easier. They could go further; carry more back.

Of course, working cars weren’t subtle these days — least of all a Maserati — but they hadn’t run into any trouble so far.

Neil sat in the passenger seat, window down, elbow perched on the edge. Andrew had one hand on the wheel, the other dangling out of his own window. Andrew was watching the road, and Neil was watching Andrew.

“You know, you didn’t have to use that promise on something I would have given you for free,” Neil pointed out. There was nothing he liked more than time alone with Andrew, particularly when there was no way they could be interrupted by one of their co-habitants; usually Nicky.

Andrew flicked a brief glance at Neil before refocusing on the road. “You would have given me anything for free anyway,” he said. “This was just a formality.”

Neil grinned. “So I’m off the hook?”

“You’re off the hook,” Andrew confirmed.

They pulled over a few miles from campus and got out, perching on the hood. They had a high vantage point where they had stopped and they looked down at the ruined towns below, the empty streets, the buildings long since fallen into disrepair. There was death down there.

But there was life, too.

Neil found Andrew’s hand on the hood beside him and linked their fingers together.

He wasn’t afraid anymore; not of what was behind him, and not of what tomorrow might bring. Whatever he might have to face, he could, because he wouldn’t be doing it alone.

The late afternoon sun shone brightly in the sky, and when Neil turned his head towards Andrew, Andrew’s eyes were closed as he basked in the warm glow. He looked so peaceful like this, relaxed in a way he only usually was first thing in the morning or very late at night. The correlation between all these occasions was that every time, Neil was in his company, and Neil felt quietly privileged that it was something he ever got to see.

As he looked at Andrew, he found that he finally had the name for the feeling that continued to well up inside him. He could say it if he wanted to; put words to it and let them hang in the air between them, but it didn’t seem necessary right now. Andrew was quiet and comfortable and Neil didn’t want to shatter the moment. It could wait.

They had time.

Eventually, Neil gently squeezed Andrew’s hand. “We have to go,” he said quietly. “The sun’ll start to set soon and we need to be back before it gets dark or they’ll worry.”

Andrew sighed and opened his eyes, leaning forward. “You are right, I suppose,” he said. He let go of Neil’s hand and slid off the hood, then stood in front of Neil and cocked an eyebrow. “You coming?”

“When is it my turn to drive the Maserati?”

Andrew huffed a laugh. “How about never.”

Neil hooked his fingers through Andrew’s belt loops and tugged him forwards, looking up imploringly. Andrew got the message and kissed him. “You’re no fun,” Neil murmured against his lips.

“Sounds like your problem,” Andrew replied, and he wound his hands into Neil’s hair to deepen the kiss. Neil smiled; it was the opening he’d been waiting for.

Quick as a flash, he pilfered the keys out of Andrew’s pocket while he was otherwise distracted, then slipped forward off the hood and spun away, holding the keys in his hand like the Holy Grail.

Andrew’s eyes flashed; he looked from Neil to the keys and back again. “Neil,” he said, begrudgingly impressed, “did you just play me?”

Neil smiled, triumphant.

“Better luck next time.”