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From the Deep

Chapter Text

Neil Josten let his cigarette burn down to the filter without taking a drag. The acrid smell of smoke pulled at memories of his mother better left buried on that beach in California. Eight years avoiding the ocean and she dies on the shore.

He exhaled the memories of a year old fire and tossed the one in his hand down the bleachers he perched on. The smell of chlorine invaded his nose as the smoke dissipated. The shabby pool was closing down in preparation of summer. There was no use keeping it open since the Millport swim team got knocked out of Spring Championships just that evening. Neil felt a pang of longing as a tarp was rolled out across the pool’s surface. What he had done, joining the swim team for his senior year, was reckless. Stupid. Monumentally insane. But without his mother’s harsh words and harsher hands, he hadn’t been able to resist. The water called to him as it always had, and he was weak.

He reached for another cigarette with a slightly shaking hand just as the locker room door to his left clicked open. Out stepped the Millport swim coach, Hernandez—a good man, if a bit awkward. He cleared his throat under Neil’s wary gaze. “Didn’t see your parents tonight.”

“Out of town for work,” Neil shrugged off.

“Still or again?” And this was why he only liked Hernandez sometimes. He knew the coach turned a blind eye to the changing out in the bath stall and sleeping in the locker room a couple times a week, but then sometimes, this. Well-meaning but a bit curious. Neil chose to ignore him. A throat cleared again, “Listen kid, I’ve got someone here that would like a word.”

The words immediately set Neil on edge. His right hand drifted down out of sight to grab the worn handles of his duffle bag. Before he could excuse himself, the door opened again. The man behind Hernandez was the approximate age and height of Neil’s father and Neil shot to his feet out of instinct. The man was vaguely familiar—dark, close cropped hair over a gruff, sun-weathered face and tribal flame tattoos poking out under short sleeves. But Neil couldn’t place his face until the man reached a hand around Hernandez to introduce himself, “David Wymack.”

The connection sparked as a chill shot down Neil’s spine, “Coach of the Palmetto State swim team.”

Wymack dropped his hand with a grunt, “Not many people can make that connection.”

“You took on Kevin Day. Everyone knows who you are now,” Neil snapped back. His knuckles whitened as he hefted his duffle over his shoulder. “Why are you here?”

“Recruitment,” came the short answer.

“Bullshit,” he scoffed back. “No one recruits from Millport.”

The chill grew as Wymack brought up a folder in his other hand. “Well, this says otherwise. Your coach sent me your file, and honestly, kid, we like what we see.”

Neil didn’t wait to hear more. He dodged around the two men and banged through the door. Shouts rang behind him as he bolted through the locker room. Then he was on the ground, breath missing, and a cackle assaulting his ears.

“Dammit Minyard! This is why we can’t have nice things,” Wymack shouted from the doorway.

“Awe, Coach, if he was nice, we wouldn’t be here,” Neil heard from above him.

He lifted his head to glare at the blond midget above him. “Fuck you,” he wheezed out with a cough. The cackle returned. “Yeah, he’s a Fox. Put a bandaid on him—he’ll be good as new.”

Minyard stood twirling a pool net in hand with a demented grin as Neil regained his feet. He subtly patted his ribs to check for breaks. “I’m not gonna be a Fox.”

“Kid, Kevin says we have to have you so we’re not leaving until you sign,” Wymack said warily while making his way further into the room.

That brought Neil up short. Not only because Kevin Day wanted him on his line but also, “We? Tell me you didn’t. You did not bring him here.”

“Yeah, he did,” called a voice that Neil hadn’t heard in over eight years. And Neil had to go. Kevin would recognize him. He would smell him. He had to run. The bus stop was only five miles away. The busses ran all night. If he could just “—inexperience can be forgiven. You swim like you have nothing to lose.”

Inexperience. Kevin doesn’t recognize me. It shouldn’t surprise Neil. With dyed hair, colored contacts, and eight years between them, Kevin would be hard pressed to recognize the boy he swam with as a child. And there’s no way Kevin would smell him. He wasn’t—there’s no way. Even if Neil could smell a faint salty tang coming from where Kevin sat on the entertainment center. No, for now I’m safe.

And Kevin was waiting for a response. Having missed most of the conversation, Neil settled for a dismissive snort. Which was apparently the wrong and right answer. While Minyard cackled again, Wymack grimaced and Kevin took offense. He hopped off his perch and stalked forward, “You will sign with us. If you have even a fraction of the passion that the tapes show, you can’t not continue swimming.”

Neil hid a flinch not only from the truth in Kevin’s words, but also from the strong whiff of brackish saltwater coming off of him. Regardless, he set his jaw, ready to talk Kevin out of this unattainable dream he was dangling in front of Neil.

Before he could open his mouth, Wymack cut in, “Andrew, Kevin, go wait in the car.” Minyard immediately sauntered toward the door, but Kevin lingered until Wymack waved in clear dismissal. As soon as the door shut, the coach let out a weary sigh and sat on the bench closest to him. “Look, kid. Swimming isn’t the only reason we’re here. Hernandez sent me your file because you fit the profile of my kids. You won’t be able to keep sleeping in the locker room come summer. What do you plan to do then?”

Neil took a moment to violently hate Hernandez. He took another moment to fiercely wish the pool was still open. Wymack took his silence for a concession. “Exactly. So sign with us. We can house you as soon as you graduate. Full scholarship, housing and food for five years.”

It was too good. There was no way. But goddamn how Neil wanted it right then. “I’ll have to ask my mom.” This was going to be the biggest mistake of his life. “Your file says you’re eighteen.” “I still need to talk to her,” he stalled while backing towards the door.

“If you need me to—“

“No. No, its fine.”

Wymack stood from the bench but stayed out of reach. He held out a manila envelope, “Go ahead and take the paper work. Look it over. You can get Hernandez to fax it over and we’ll send you a plane ticket for the day after graduation.”

Neil took the folder, knuckles white, and tremors stifled. He gave a sharp nod and tried to walk steadily out the door instead of bolting like his instincts were begging him to. He could feel Wymack at his back even if he kept a respectable distance. The itch to run grew when he hit the door to outside. Wymack’s offer for a ride barely registered and he didn’t quite manage to wave him off before he was sprinting away, Minyard’s cackle following him out of the parking lot.

Neil didn’t stop until he was in the bathroom of the house he’d been squatting in for the better part of the past nine months. He heaved his empty stomach dry as the implications of the meeting settled. Kevin knows where I am. Kevin found me. If he did then

No. Kevin didn’t recognize him. And Neil was weak. He was so fucking weak. With his mother gone, he wasn’t sure he had the strength to say no.

University.

It was a dream. A fantasy. It was going to get him killed.

Neil unzipped his duffle and buried a hand in his fur. He grabbed the file from the floor with his other hand and started going through the contract.

Chapter Text

Airports were not new to Neil.  They all started blending together around year two on the run with his mother.  Her words directed his actions through this one as well.  Keep your head down.  Keep your duffle bag close.  Ignore the smells.  Don’t hesitate in your movements.

He made it out of the terminal swiftly and soon spotted a Minyard.  Whether it was the medicated demon or the other one was yet to be established.  It was common knowledge in the small swimming community that Andrew Minyard, his twin Aaron, and their cousin Nicky Hemmick signed on to the Foxes at the same time.  It was a controversial move because Andrew was on court mandated, mood-altering drugs that made him erratic.  Neil’s ribs twinged in remembered pain at the thought. 

The absence of the manic grin from their first meeting led Neil to think this was Aaron.  The blond tilted his head toward baggage claim.

“This is it,” Neil tapped his bag against his side.

Instead of acknowledging that, Aaron turned abruptly to stride out the door.  Neil scurried to catch up and watched as Aaron walked out into traffic without a care—too focused on lighting his cigarette.  They soon came upon a black muscle car and Neil made for the passengers’ side door.  He heard the trunk pop but chose to ignore it as he settled his duffle bag by his feet in the foot well.  The twin raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he continued to smoke his cigarette with the door open.  The smell made Neil’s fingers twitch for one of his own but he abstained.

The door slammed shut and Aaron pulled out of the parking space without checking behind him.  He left the parking lot at break neck speed and merged onto the highway.  “So.  Neil.  Here for the summer,” it sounded like a statement.  Neil was certain it was supposed to be a question.  But he was too preoccupied with the smell that swirled around the car with the windows up.

Cigarette smoke.  A sharp aftershave.  And a faint underlying note of pharmaceuticals.  Medication.  Neil didn’t get a good sense of Andrew back in Millport.  Not with locker room, sweat, and chlorine in the mix.  But this ran deep.

Hello, Andrew.

“As are you,” he said quickly, hoping to cover his revelation.  “Extra practice?”

Andrew snorted, “No.  But Kevin can’t bear to be too far from the water.”  A hint of disgust crept in at the end.

“Kevin stays on campus?”  It wasn’t surprising—Wymack had said as much when talking about the summer’s living arrangements.

“We all do, unfortunately.”

“And who is we?” Neil asked, wondering how far Andrew would take the ruse.  Because it was a ruse.  Andrew is court ordered to always be medicated. 

“My brother, cousin, and me.”  Neil simply hummed in response.  He would wait Andrew out in this.  “The others will show up around June for pre-season practice, so we get you all to ourselves for four whole weeks.”

Neil hummed again.  He was delighted to note that Andrew’s knuckles whitened a bit around the steering wheel.  “Not very talkative, are you?”  This time, Neil shrugged.  He also struggled to contain his smirk when he heard Andrew’s teeth grind.  “So I heard that you were reluctant to join at first.  Even with the great Kevin Day there to convince you.  What changed?”

Neil wondered briefly if this was Andrew’s objective.  “Andrew told you about that, did he?”  It was Andrew’s turn to hum.  Non-committal and not an outright lie.  Once again, Neil bit back a smirk.  He hummed again.  If there was one thing Neil Josten excelled at—one thing Nathaniel excelled at—it was being difficult.  A small divot appeared between Andrew’s brows, marring his, until then, expressionless face.  Neil felt just a bit smug.

He only realized he had relaxed when he tensed again upon pulling into an apartment complex parking lot.  Standing on the curb were a carbon copy of Andrew right down to the long-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans—Aaron—a tall dark haired man, and Kevin.  Andrew wasted no time getting out of the car so Neil followed suit.  Andrew took up the space on one side of Kevin with an imitation of the smile he wore in Millport.  Aaron, on the other side of Kevin, looked almost as disinterested as Andrew had in the car.

The last man, Nicholas Hemmick, stepped forward eagerly as Neil stepped onto the curb.  “Welcome to South Carolina! I’m Nicky, the twins’ cousin,” he said holding his hand out to shake.

Neil took it cautiously, “By blood?”  The differences were night and day.  The twins were pale and blond with light eyes.  Nicky’s skin was too dark to be tan with dark, curly hair and eyes so dark they looked black.

His disposition proved to be the biggest difference when he let out a boisterous laugh.  “I know, right?  I take after my mom.  My dad ‘rescued’ her from Mexico on some mission trip thingy.”  And he just kept going.  “You met them right?  Andrew, Aaron, Kevin?  Coach was supposed to be here but he had to handle some coaching stuff, blah, blah, blah.  So we’re in charge of getting you into the apartment.”  Neil wasn’t sure Nicky took a breath at all.  “So stuff in the trunk?  Need help getting it out?”

“This is it,” Neil said again. 

Nicky hummed, “Minimalistic, I like it.  Not for me, but I can respect it.”  He grinned and steered him towards the front door of the apartment complex with running commentary.  “So this is where Coach lives because he makes all the money while us poor plebeians couch surf.”

“You have a nice car for plebeians,” Neil cut in.  He wondered if Andrew noticed the glance he shot his way.

“That’s why we’re poor,” Nicky replied wryly.

“Aaron’s mother bought it with her life insurance money,” Andrew explained from ahead of them.  “No surprise she had to die to be worth anything.”

“Easy,” snapped Nicky with an uneasy glance at Aaron. 

“Easy, easy, why bother?” Andrew sang back.  “It’s a cruel world, right, Neil?  You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t.”

“It’s not the world that’s cruel.  It’s the people in it.”

A snort, “Too true.”

Nicky stepped up with keys when they made it to the apartment door.  He swung the door open and ushered Neil into the doorway with a sung, “Home sweet home, Neil.”

And it was too much.  On the surface, it was a bachelor pad.  Too many dirty mugs scattered over too many surfaces.  Magazines and paper work everywhere.  A few empty bottles of whiskey and take out containers.  But it was four walls and a roof.  With a comfortable, if sagging, couch.  With running water and electricity and three floors too many to safely escape out the window.  All with a man his father’s age and height and he could not do this.  But there were four people at his back, how fast could he—“Neil?”

With a jerk, he moved into the room.  It smelled like sweat, stale Chinese food, and old coffee.  The others shuffled in after him while he took in the living room and small kitchen off to the side.  Behind him, Nicky asked quietly, “What the hell was that?”  And Neil’s heart stopped once again.  Because Nicky was speaking German.  How did they know he—“Maybe he’s just taking in the splendor?” asked one of the twins.  Neil relaxed as he realized they weren’t addressing him.

“No, that was pure fight or flight.  What the hell did you say to him Andrew?” Nicky hissed.

A theatrical gasp, “Me?”

Neil turned and Nicky pasted on a fake smile.  “How about a tour?”  Neil hummed in agreement and followed Nicky as he pointed out the bathroom, Wymack’s room, and strolled right into the office.  It was stacked wall to wall with towers of files that defied gravity.  Nicky made a triumphant noise as he made his way to the desk.  He snapped up a bright orange medication bottle and popped the top.

“Are those yours?” Neil asked as Nicky shook out a couple of pills.

“Painkillers.  Coach busted his hip a couple years ago.  That’s how he met Abby, our nurse.  She was his therapist.  He got her the job here.”  He put the bottle back after pocketing the pills.  They made their way back toward with living room with Aaron trailing behind them.  “It’s fifty-fifty on if they’re boning or not, so if you see any evidence, let me know because I’ve got money on it.”  

“Success,” Andrew met them at the end of the hallway to the living room brandishing a bottle of whiskey.

“Excellent.  Ready, Neil?” Nicky asked.  “We should probably go before Coach shows up.”

“Why?  Is this a robbery in progress?”

“Why?  Gonna tell on us?  So much for honor among thieves,” Andrew cackled.

“No, but I would ask him why you’re not medicated,” Neil played his hand smugly.

A beat of silence.  Then Nicky in German, “Did that just happen?”  Aaron, “Don’t look at me.”   

And finally, Andrew in English, “Oh, you might be interesting.  For a while.  It won’t last.  Never does.”

“I’m on the edge of my seat,” came the dry reply.

Andrew sent Neil one more considering look before the door jiggled open.  The whiskey bottle disappeared between Andrew and Kevin as Wymack stepped into the apartment.  Coach loudly complained about something or other, but Neil was too busy watching Andrew’s act closely to pay much attention. 

That is, until the conversation turned to him.  Which he rejoined with a shrug.  Wymack seemed to wait for something else before giving up and tossing Neil a ring of keys.  “Apartment, outer door, pool.  Don’t lose them.”

The keys dug harshly into Neil’s palm.  He heard the others talking around him, but the keys seemed so much heavier than physically possible.  So permanent.  The voices filtered in “—to the pool before dinner at Abby’s tonight.”  Neil perked up immediately.  The others were already halfway out the door.

A pool.  That he had a key to.

He took an unconscious step towards the door and felt the weight of his bag tap his thigh.  There was no way he was bringing it to the stadium with him.  But leaving it out of his sight, so far away from him, with contents so precious.  He turned to Wymack and held up his bag.  “Do you have somewhere safe I can put this?” 

Wymack gestures to the couch, but Neil shook his head vehemently.  Another quiet moment and Wymack gestured him back to the office.  While Neil stood in the doorway, Wymack dumped the contents of the bottom draw of his desk onto the floor.  “Good enough?  It’s got a lock with one key.”

Neil walked over to inspect the lock and wordlessly put his duffle bag into the drawer.  He took the key from Wymack and locked it.  When he went to give the key back Wymack scoffed, “The fuck would I want that for?  Give it back when you move into the dorms.”

Reverently, Neil placed the key next to those to the court.  The tried to say ‘thank you’ but the words remained stuck in his throat.  Wymack seemed to understand because he just grunted, “Better get going before Andrew sends one of the stooges after you.”

With a nod, Neil hurried to the elevator where the others waited.  As soon as he stepped in, Andrew grabbed the front of his shirt, “Well, Neil, have a nice summer.  It will be a while before we’re able to meet like this.”

“Somehow, I don’t think I’m that lucky.”

“Like this,” Andrew stressed while gesturing to his face, manic grin noticeably absent.  “Abby said we can’t break you before summer ends so we’ll have to wait until the others are here to distract her.  Then, we’ll have the best welcoming party just for you.”

“You need to work on your persuasion skills,” scoffed Neil.

“I don’t need to be persuasive,” Andrew said as he shoved Neil through the suddenly open elevator doors.  “You’ll just learn to do what I say.”  The rest walked towards the front door.

“Good luck with that,” Neil said after them.  He was very good at being difficult, after all.

Chapter Text

The drive to the stadium took fifteen minutes and Neil spent the last seven of those trying very hard not to gape at the garish outer walls.  The white washed walls gleamed in the sunlight as did the huge bright orange paw prints decorating each side.  Neil offhandedly wished for a pair of sunglasses as the reflection proved even more intense as he exited the car.  He trailed after the boys while noting the seven foot chain link fence bordering the whole stadium.  The only break seemed to be the gate with an electronic key pad that the others were gathered around.

                Nicky explained as Neil drew even with them, “The code changes every two weeks.  Right now it’s the last four digits of Abby’s cell number.”  This was accompanied by a cartoonishly suggestive eyebrow wiggle. 

                “So why does it change so often?” Neil asked, neatly derailing that conversation.

                “When dear Kevin showed up in the spring, reporters were everywhere.  A couple even broke in so we had to up security.”  Ahead of them, Kevin’s shoulders tensed as he opened the gate.  He cut off whatever Nicky was about to say with an impatient wave in Neil’s direction.  Too excited to put up even a token effort of indifference, Neil fumbled out his new keys to open the outer door.  Kevin and the twins shoved passed him as soon as the door swung open.  Neil saw them turn towards the locker room, but Neil’s feet followed the signs for the arena.  He unlocked the final door between him and his new home.

                It was breathtaking.  Fifty meters of crystal clear water stretched out in front of him.  Ten lanes, eight starting blocks, and a blank time clock and score board glinted at him enticingly.  Neil caught his breath as the sharp and familiar scent of chlorine enveloped him.  Home.  Wymack’s may be where he lived for now, but the water was the only home he ever needed. 

                “No wonder he picked you.”

                Neil jumped as his attention was ripped from the site in front of him.  He hadn’t noticed that Nicky had followed him in.  He hadn’t noticed that he’d drifted so close to the water.  Stupid.  Pay attention.

                Even with his mother’s reprimands ringing in his ear, Neil could only spare a glance to Nicky looking at him.  His attention was drawn to the water like a moth to flame.  What an appropriate saying.  This is going to get me killed.

                Nicky snorted to his left.  “Come on, let’s go get you geared then you and the pool can have all the time you want together.”

                The notion of getting into the water was the only thing that could have pulled Neil away.  With one last look at the water, Neil trailed after Nicky towards the locker rooms.  Nicky rambled as Neil was discovering he was wont to do.  “This is the Foyer which is where the press gather.  Or, now they do now that Kevin is here.”  As they passed through, Neil got a strong whiff of whiskey, Andrew, and medication.  Guess he’s gone for a while.  “And this is the lounge.”  They entered an offensively orange room lined with two couches and an arm chair.  One wall was dedicated to pictures of the team.  Neil took a step closer to examine them.

                The photos predominantly featured the three girls on the team—Danielle “Dan” Wilds, Captain, backstroke; Renee Walker, butterfly; Allison Reynolds, breaststroke.  Some depicted the graduates that Neil couldn’t be bothered to research, but a few had some familiar faces.  Matt Boyd, breaststroke, popped up several times alongside Dan, and Brian “Seth” Gordon could be seen sulking in the background in a couple of frames.  The twins and Nicky only appeared in a few and were never pictured with the others.  The opposite wall was lined with an entertainment center and little else.

                “Why is he not dressed?” Kevin snapped from the doorway.

                Neil turned to see him glaring at Nicky with his hands on his hips.  Neil was not inclined to draw that ire his way so he sauntered to the door as Nicky scrambled to what Neil assumed was the locker rooms.  Kevin followed in a huff.  When they entered the room, Nicky walked directly to one of the orange lockers lining the room.  He stopped near the end of the row with a flourish.  “Your locker, sir.”

                Neil paid him no mind as opened the door.  Inside was a bright orange full body swimsuit the exact style he had used at Millport.  “JOSTEN” was emblazoned across the back, white stripes curved from the inside of the ankle to the outside of the hips, and a white paw print sat of the left side of the chest.  A pair of matching sweat with “FOXES” along the back and pant leg sat folded at the bottom.  Neil absently wished for a pair of sunglasses again.  “You can see these from outer-space.”

                Nicky snorted from his left where he was changing out.  “Dan got those commissioned last year.  Said she was sick of people ignoring us.”

                “Well, every satellite in the world is definitely paying attention now,” Neil drawled while grabbing the suit off its hanger.  He made his way to the bathroom to change out in a stall.  He had perfected the art of slipping into wetsuits in the cramped space during his year at Millport and the routine only increased his excitement to get in the water. 

                He slipped back out to the locker room and placed his clothes into his locker.  Nicky was already gone so Neil hurried towards the arena.  When he stepped through the doors, Nicky let out a long, low whistle from where he sat with his feet in the water.  “Neil, those clothes are not doing you justice.”

                “Shut the fuck up, Nicky,” Aaron snapped from three lanes over. 

                Nicky looked ready to respond, but Kevin cut them off from the home bench, “Well?  Starting positions.”  Aaron and Nicky climbed onto their starting blocks, but Neil stayed where he was.

                “What, now?”

                “Yes, now.  I want to see what I’m working with.”

                “You saw tapes,” Neil shot back.  In truth, there was nothing he wanted more than to be in the water.  However, Kevin’s tone grated and Neil couldn’t bring himself to jump into line for him.

                “Tapes can only show so much.  Now, get your ass on the block.”  Neil was honestly surprised Kevin didn’t stomp his foot in impatience.

                He wanted to take his time to make a point, but the water’s call was too great to resist any longer.  The grip of the starting block was familiar even if the stretch of water wasn’t.  The pool at Millport was half the size, but the extended lanes of this pool were tantalizing.  Neil reached down to steady himself and waited with baited breath for Kevin to call start.  “Two-hundred meters in your preferred style.  Ready, set, GO.”

                Neil was suspended in the air for a breathless moment before he slid seamlessly into the water.  It kissed his skin with a loving caress as he surfaced and sliced through the water towards the touch pad.  He could feel Nicky and Aaron in the water on either side of him.  He could feel each drop of water in his skin.  He could feel each lane marker and touch pad. 

Home.

                His body twisted in the space of a second as he pushed off his touch pad and shot back the other way.  As always, he could not allow himself to get totally lost.  Neil’s life depended on capping his ability.  He knew instinctively he could outpace every human swimmer in the world.  Don’t draw attention.  He had to appear human.  So he raced and reveled in the water almost leisurely.

At that moment, he knew that no matter how stupid or suicidal his choices, this was worth it.  To feel the water on his skin was worth all the lies and the acting—just for this moment surrounded by the one home he had ever known and had abandoned for so long.

The race was over too quickly.  He kept himself in check and only won against Aaron by two seconds.  He and Nicky leaned against the side of the pool huffing slightly so Neil followed suit.  His excited flush could easily be mistaken for exertion so he sped up his breathing slightly and slumped just a bit.

“You’re good,” Nicky huffed on a slight laugh.

Neil huffed back and leaned backwards to let the water cradle him.  An offended scoff came from the side.  Kevin’s face floated into the peripherals of Neil’s view of the ceiling.  “Hardly.  Your form on the start is atrocious.  You lose too much time.  Your placement is off on your turn.  If you barely beat these two, I can’t have you on my line.”

Neil could have responded.  Usually, he’d have snapped back by now.  But he was in the water and entirely too content to care about whatever Kevin was blathering.  Apparently, this was obvious because Kevin merely scoffed at Neil’s non-reaction and barked “Again.”

The cousins and Neil climbed out and onto the starting blocks.  “Ready, set, GO.”

Again.  And again.  And again.

By the end, Neil almost felt bad for Nicky and Aaron.  He was nowhere near winded, but the humans must have been tired.  The others climbed out and slumped off to the locker rooms.  Neil, however, was still reluctant to get out of the water.  He hoped the slow slither out of the water looked like exhaustion.  Kevin stood above him condescendingly while Andrew finally sat up from the bench he’d been laying on for the past half hour.

Instead of giving Kevin the attention he so obviously wanted, Neil lay back with his eyes closed to savor the last feelings the water gave him.  He spent a long moment wishing desperately for his fur.

Dangerous.

Kevin was talking again.  Neil honestly couldn’t be bothered.  Until Andrew laughed.  Neil opened his eyes to look over.  The manic smile of their first meeting was back in full force.  His eyes though were a strange mix of amusement and rage. 

Kevin drew his gaze back with another derisive noise.  “If you want to swim here, you will listen to me.” 

That caught Neil’s attention.  “I’m listening.”

“Your race is my race.”

Neil considered for a moment.  He didn’t give a damn about being the best—not like Kevin did.  But this was the perfect opportunity to be in the water without giving himself away.  If he had to follow Kevin to keep that, so be it.

“Take it.”

“See?” Kevin whipped around to face Andrew.  “Neil gets it.”

No, Neil did not.

“I’m sure you two addicts will be very happy together,” Andrew said with a smile that looked like death.

“And I’m sure you have no experience with addiction,” Neil couldn’t help but respond.  It wasn’t so much in defense of Kevin or himself.  It was more like the impulse a child gets to kick an anthill.

Andrew’s smile grew until he let out a laugh manic enough to match.  He then threw a salute and sauntered off to his family.  Kevin turned to Neil when he was out of sight.  “How did you know, earlier, which one was Andrew?”

“They’re twins, but they’re not the same.”

Kevin gave him a strange look in response before trailing after Andrew.  Neil followed suit after one last look at the pool.  He caught up with the rest in the locker room.  The others had already showered, but Neil just grabbed his clothes to change out in the bathroom.

“Don’t you want to shower off the chlorine?” Nicky asked from where he was drying off.

“I’ll shower later.”

“We’re not taking you to Abby’s smelling like that.  Go shower,” Kevin demanded from a bench.

Neil was about to snap back, but Andrew appeared just out of arms reach to his right.  “Go look at the showers before you kick up a fuss, Little Mermaid.”  A mutually distrustful look later and Neil crept into the shower room.  He stopped short at the sight of individual stalls.

“Why?”

“Maybe he knew someone like you would show up,” Andrew said from the doorway.  “Can’t have your little booboos out for everyone to see.”

Neil whirled around to glare at Andrew.  “It’s a privacy thing.”

“Liar.”

Andrew said it with such conviction that Neil couldn’t find the point of fighting him.  He was just grateful this conversation was away from the others.  Andrew’s smile grew even if his eyes darkened.  Neil turned away to a stall.

Once dressed, he went out to join the others in the lounge.  “Fucking finally,” Aaron grunted before shouldering past Neil out the door.  The others followed and piled into the car.

Abby Winfeild’s house was small but neat.  Wymack’s car was already parked in the driveway and the others walked through the door without knocking.  Nicky let out a yell of greeting as they shuffled into the house.  Wymack and presumably Abby yelled back in welcome.  Neil followed Kevin into the kitchen just in time to see Abby take a swipe at the bottle of whiskey Andrew held.  Aaron and Nicky slumped against the table as Andrew disappeared.  Abby then turned her attention to Neil.

“You must be Neil.  I’m Abby—team medic and current landlord to these four.”

Neil chose to nod instead of accepting the hand Abby held out.

“They didn’t damage you too much, did they?” Wymack grunted from the other side of the kitchen counter.

Neil made a show of looking down at himself.  “All limbs are still present.”

Wymack rolled his eyes and started doling out orders for the table to be set.  A flurry of movement later and they were all sat a table eating dinner.  Neil didn’t track much of the conversation.  A mention of the team psychiatrist was an unwelcome revelation, but there was no bloodshed so Neil counted it mostly as a win.

Later, back at Wymack’s apartment, Neil was subjected to another inspection as he pulled out his duffle bag.  “Do you plan to wear the same six outfits all year?”

“Eight, and yes.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna get old,” Wymack scoffed.  “Listen, if those four—and by four I mean Andrew—gives you any trouble, let me know.”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

A stare off and a bid goodnight later, and Neil settled down for his first night in his new home.  He curled on the couch with his hand tucked out of sight and buried in his fur.  This life probably wouldn’t last long, but there was no way some medicated brownie would take it from Neil before he was good and ready to give it up.

Chapter Text

Neil spent the next morning exploring campus and familiarizing himself with the layout.  It felt good to go for a jog though it was something he rarely did anymore.  Whenever he got restless while on the run with his mother, she would take him to a track to run for hours.  It was a poor substitute for the water, but the full-body motion kept him from completely losing his mind.  However, once he got to Millport, the water was only an easily-picked lock away.  The keys jangling in his pocket were reassurance that he still had the water—a place that he was allowed and even encouraged to go.  The novelty probably wouldn’t fade.

                He got back to Wymack’s apartment with enough time to eat a quick lunch and get to the stadium before the others to change in peace.  He was floating leisurely on his back when the cousins and Kevin entered the arena.  Seeing Andrew suited in the garish orange was a bit of a shock though it did allow Neil to see the impressive berth of his shoulders.  He once again felt a twinge of remembered pain in his ribs as he observed the obvious strength in Andrew’s arms.  What was not a shock was Andrew’s derision as he sauntered to a starting block.

Neil hesitated just a moment when he saw Kevin was also suited up.  He hadn’t been in the water with another of the Blood since that last fateful day at Evermore.  Though Kevin was undoubtedly human, the North Atlantic Ocean still ran through his veins.  Genetics were a capricious sort on a good day.  Those of the Blood could get all of the gifts it had to offer—as Neil had—or none.  Those without still felt a pull toward the water, or so Neil had been told.  If Kevin was the norm though, apparently it was true. 

It was more of the same from the day before once the others stretched out and did a few warm up laps.  They set and raced again and again.  It was strange feeling something other in the water.  Neil’s instincts, though lessened without his fur, were tingling.  It took an embarrassingly long time to realize he wanted to play.  The humans in the water were no threat to him though Neil remained a bit weary of Andrew simply for the unpredictability his medicated state represented.  Humans as a whole, while dangerous in their own way, were nothing more than prey in the water.  However, having another of the Blood in the water—having kin in the water—made Neil feel like a pup.

That joy didn’t last long.  Kevin was, undoubtedly, the worst teacher in existence.  His method consisted solely of pointing out mistakes while offering no advice on how to fix them.  Neil had to continually clamp down on his temper in order to keep his speed capped.  He was honestly surprised he hadn’t bitten through his tongue.

The only redeeming thing about the whole practice was that Kevin was equally as frustrated, but with Andrew.  With every race, Andrew—known for backstroke during relay—changed his swim.  During the last race before Kevin called for a break, Andrew did some bastardized version of a frog stroke.  Neil wasn’t sure whether to laugh or call an ambulance because Kevin would surely break his jaw from how hard his teeth were grinding. 

He settled on a quiet chuckle as he, Nicky, and Aaron climbed out of the pool.  It earned him a quick glare from Kevin and a considering look from Andrew before Kevin went back to his laps.  His recovery really was amazing.  About six months prior, the swim world was rocked by the news that The Kevin Day, junior Olympian in the butterfly and relay and newly signed to the adult National team, had dislocated his shoulder in skiing accident.  A month later, he surfaced as an assistant coach to the Palmetto State University swim team, leaving his team and long-time relay partner Riko Moriyama at Edgar Allen.  The world rocked again when Kevin announced his signing with the Foxes as a swimmer.  A weak shoulder joint—especially for a butterfly swimmer—should have been career-ending.  Neil had never believed that though.  No son of the Day clan could turn away from the water.

“I saw him first,” Nicky said as they made their way to the water fountain.

“You can have him.  Good luck with that,” Neil scoffed.

“I’m telling Erik,” Aaron said from Neil’s other side.

“Kevin is on The List.  Erik will understand.”

“Who’s Erik?” Neil asked.

“He’s my husband,” Nicky swooned, “or going to be.  He lives in Germany—that’s why I speak it and I taught the twins when they took it in high school.”

Aaron snorted, “No, we took it because you already spoke it.”

Neil let them bicker for a moment while he took a drink from the water fountain.

“More importantly, Neil.  Can you just go ahead and confirm for me that you swing my way so I have some eye-candy this year?” Nicky wheedled once Neil stepped back from the fountain.

“I don’t swing.”

“The staring at Kevin kinda negates that, hun,” Nicky waved Neil away when he opened his mouth to defend himself.  “Regardless of whatever denial you’re in, I’d be happy to give you a push.”

Aaron made a sound of disgust.  “Can you be any creepier, Nicky?”

Neil, however, was confused.  “Didn’t you just say you had Kevin?”

“Kevin is off limits.  Andrew is, like, stupid possessive of him.  The last time I hit on him Andrew punched me.” Nicky shrugged.  “So Kevin is a no, Matt is taken, and Seth is an asshole.  Therefore, you are my main source of eye-candy.”

Neil considered for a moment.  “Yeah, hard no.  No offense, Nicky, but I’m not even on a swing.  Feet firmly planted over here.”

Nicky looked ready to argue while Aaron was trying and failing to hold back laughter when Andrew swung around the corner.  “What’s the hold up?  Kevin is getting pissy.”

“Nicky is scheming to rape Neil,” Aaron scoffed.

Andrew’s usual twitches weren’t usually noticeable.  They became so when they vanished as Andrew stilled completely for a heartbeat.  His grin stretched to show all of his teeth.  “Hey, Nicky, don’t touch him.”  The switch to German didn’t jar Neil as it had before.

Don’t be greedy.  You already have Kevin, and I wouldn’t do anything if he said no,” Nicky tried to laugh to break the sudden tension.

Andrew had Nicky pinned against the wall in a blink.  “I said no, Nicky.”  Nicky went unnaturally still in Andrew’s grasp and Neil felt Aaron go still to his right as well.  Neil couldn’t see why at first but the smell of metal was one Neil was intimately familiar with.  Shifting slightly to the left, he saw the glint of the knife Andrew was holding to Nicky’s chest.

Neil waited a beat to see if Aaron would say something, and when he didn’t Neil stepped forward.  “Hey, that’s enough.”

“No, it’s okay,” Nicky breathed without looking away from Andrew.

“Andrew, you said Kevin was waiting.  Let’s go,” Neil persisted.

Just like that, Andrew’s predatory posture relaxed.  The knife disappeared and Andrew stepped back like he didn’t just threaten to his cousin’s life.  “You’re right.”

Aaron followed after Andrew as he headed back toward the arena.  Nicky slumped back against the wall for a moment.  Neil wondered for a moment if he should say something.  Instinctively, he understood Andrew’s actions.  It was much like the head of a pod putting a pup in its place.  But Neil was on two legs and he was almost positive human families didn’t work like that.  So he hazarded a guess, “That wasn’t okay.”

Nicky gave a weary chuckle, “Listen, Andrew is a little crazy.  His lines are not your lines, and he won’t see what he did wrong if you explain because in his mind, he didn’t do anything wrong.  Just leave it.”

His lines are very much my lines.

“It’s your liver, then,” Neil shrugged and walked back to the arena.

They slipped seamlessly back into practice.  Kevin snapped at Neil a time or two and Neil fantasized about snapping his neck a time or three.  Three hours later, Kevin declared practice over and Nicky and Aaron scrambled weakly out of the pool.

Neil flipped to float on his back though he noticed Kevin’s gaze falter for a moment when he noticed Neil had made no move to leave the pool.

Stupid.  Act like a human, Abram.

Kevin recovered himself quickly however, “Not for you.  You are going to race Andrew until he gets tired.  Maybe you can beat him once.”  With that, he left.

Or I could not.

Neil didn’t move from his leisurely float.  He was surprised though when he felt Andrew get out of the water and onto the starting block.  His frame held more tension and focus than it had all practice.  Instead of following suit, Neil lay back and floated a bit closer to Andrew’s lane.  “Why not put in the effort when he’s here so we don’t have to listen to his bitching all day?”

A pause.  “It’s more fun my way,” Andrew said.  A shuffle sounded to Neil’s left and he looked over to see Andrew sitting on the edge of the pool with his feet in the water.  “Why not put in effort now that he’s gone?”

Neil considered for a moment.  His truth—that racing was an excuse to swim—wasn’t exactly a normal human response.  “Racing you without instruction on whatever he thinks I’m doing wrong seems like a colossal waste of my time.”

Andrew hummed in response.  Neil tried and failed not to smile.  “Why not force me to race with you so we don’t get in trouble?”

“Why extend the effort when I can just continue to tell Kevin no?”

“Why answer a question with a question?”

“Why answer plainly?”

Neil hummed back.  He had to flip back to dive underwater to hide his laugh.  He resurfaced a lane over from where Andrew was sitting, and folded his arms on the side of the pool to rest his head on them.  His legs swayed behind him on the small current his short swim had created as he let his eyes close.  Focus split between Andrew and the water, Neil felt when Andrew turned slightly towards him.  He wasn’t in reach though so Neil didn’t deign to open his eyes.

“You’re a junkie, but you’re not the same kind of junkie Kevin is,” came the rough rejoinder after a small eternity.

Andrew’s gaze was a physical thing on Neil’s face.  He hummed.  “And you are a junkie like neither of us,” Neil replied lazily.

“And you have a smart mouth,” Andrew said after another small pause.

“First time I’ve heard that.”

A snort, “Doubtful, Flounder.”

“Flounder is disgusting.  Too flaky, it’s like eating chewy feathers,” Neil could feel his face scrunch up.  The following silence lasted long enough that Neil began to wonder if he’d said something wrong.  Humans eat flounder.  Right?  Yes.  He finally opened his eyes only to find Andrew giving him an incredulous look behind his manic grin.  Neil shrugged awkwardly and pushed backwards off the side of the pool to swim a few leisurely laps.

Eventually, he felt Andrew get up from the side of the pool.  He swam a few more laps to give Andrew time to shower and change out.  Everyone was cleared out by the time Neil could tear himself from the pool.  He showered off, locked up the stadium, and jogged easily back to Wymack’s.  When he let himself in, Wymack was standing in the hallway.  “Catch,” he said and tossed Neil a tin of coffee grounds.  He caught it on reflex before his brain caught up to what was happening.  He looked down to the tin in his hands.

Shit.  A human would be exhausted.  Shit fuck.

He considered dropping the tin for a heartbeat but decided against it.  Wymack made a considering sound and Neil looked up.  “Kevin called.  Said you should be burned out.”

“Andrew and I didn’t race.  I’m not that stupid.  Nice to know he would intentionally set me up for that though,” Neil said casually as he tried to ease around Wymack.  It was uncomfortably tight in the hallway with Wymack’s bulk, but he seemed to sense Neil’s unease because he backed away.  However, he stopped in the way before Neil could escape his scrutiny.

“Neil.  I am a loud and brash man, but I never take a swing at someone unprovoked,” he said gruffly.  Neil kept his eyes firmly on Wymack’s neck so he could see any sudden movements.  But provocation is subjective.  “Neil, look at me.”  Neil looked.  “Don’t you dare be more afraid of me than you are of Andrew.”

He didn’t think Wymack would appreciate him explaining that it was his height and age that set Neil off.  The comparison to Andrew almost gave Neil pause though.  Because he was sure he was already learning Andrew’s lines.  Wymack, however, was a complete unknown.  Nicky’s words drifted through Neil’s thoughts.

His lines are not your lines.

Neil tried for placation with a quiet, “yes, coach,” and attempted to leave to get ready for bed without looking like he was fleeing.


 

                It took Neil two weeks to realize there was absolutely no pleasing Kevin.  He had half a mind to swim as hard as he could just so Kevin might shut the fuck up.  Though at this rate, Neil could swim a lap in three seconds flat and Kevin would still have something to say about his fucking form.

                When he finally broke and asked Nicky how to deal with him, he just laughed.  Kevin was getting to the point of unbearable that Neil could scarcely appreciate his time in the water.  It was like that time he got fleas in his fur—a mild annoyance that grew until it took all his focus.

                One night, roughly three weeks into his stay, Neil went to bed completely dissatisfied with his time in the water that day.  Or he tried to.  Two hours after laying down and he was still awake with a familiar buzz under his skin.  With a sigh, he got up and quietly grabbed his keys to head to the stadium.  He spared a quick thought for his fur, hidden in his duffle in Wymack’s office, but dismissed it since he didn’t want to wake Wymack.

                Once he got to the stadium, he quickly suited up, but he stopped short when he neared the arena.  The lights were already on.  Stepping in, his eyes immediately landed on Andrew sitting on the home bench and smoking a cigarette.  He followed Andrew’s gaze to Kevin swimming laps with the time clock lit up.  The touch sensitive pads counted Kevin’s laps as he went back and forth.

                Instead of going to join Kevin in the pool, Neil sat beside Andrew, close enough to smell the smoke but out of arm’s reach.  “Still saying ‘no’ then?”

                “Still amusing,” he replied on an exhale.  Neil inhaled the smoke as it drifted his way and thought longingly of the pack he left on the couch.  Those thoughts stopped short as he took another deep breath—Andrew was almost sober.  Neil hadn’t seen him anywhere near sober since their first meeting.  He sat in sweats and a t-shirt with his armbands on display.  Neil eyed them for a moment and took another subtle whiff.

                “Is that your slow attempt at suicide or do you have sheaths sown in?”

                “Yes,” came the non-answer.  Andrew slipped a blade out and gave it a spin before slipping it back into the band.

                “That’s not what you threatened Nicky with.  How many do you carry?”

                “Enough.”

                Neil hummed.  He wondered briefly if their only purpose was intimidation—like with Nicky.  What could make Andrew, a man who nearly beat four men to death with his bare hands, need the security a weapon could offer?  Neil ran is tongue across his teeth in remembrance of the fangs they hid.  Quite a lot really.

                “So why come here if you’re not going to get in the water?”  Even from this proximity Neil could feel the call of the water.

                “Why would I get in to swim in circles?”

                “Isn’t it fun?” Neil thought of playing as he wished he could.

                ”Someone asked me the same thing a year ago, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told him: racing is only marginally more interesting than living so I’ll do it until that’s no longer true,” Andrew stubbed out his cigarette without taking his eyes from Kevin’s moving form.

                Neil didn’t understand because to him the water was synonymous with living.  But he couldn’t apply that thinking to a human.  Maybe Andrew was the norm though somehow he doubted it.  “That’s fine then, I guess.”

                Andrew turned to look at Neil.  If he hadn’t known Andrew was close to sober by scent, his eyes would have given him away.  Andrew on his meds always had an anger in his eyes behind the grin.  Now, he just looked tired, calculating.  “For someone who, according to Kevin, could go all the way, you show a distinct lack of passion for the sport.”

                “Go all the way?”

                “The Arena—the Olympics.  He promised everyone: Coach, the school board, everyone who opposed until he got the okay to sign off on you,” Andrew said watching for Neil’s reaction.

                Which was a derisive snort, “Not fucking likely.  Kevin hates me.”

                “Or you hate him. I can’t decide which one,” he drawled.  “Your loose ends aren’t adding up.”

                “I’m not a math problem.”

                “But I’ll still solve you.”

                “I expect the detailed essay of what you find at the end of the year,” Neil said sarcastically.

                “You are a conundrum.”

                “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

                Neil thought he saw a new kind of shine in Andrew’s eyes, perhaps a spark of interest, but before he could prod him further, Kevin made his presence known.  “What are you doing here?”

                Neil made a show of looking around the arena.  “Thought I would do some poll-vaulting.  Why?”

                Kevin sputtered for a moment before giving up and asking Andrew if he was ready to go.  After they made their exit, Neil slide into the pool and let the water engulf him.  He missed his fur desperately, but feeling the water slide against every inch of skin available and caress through his hair gave him a small sense of peace.  The water cradled him like a mother with a pup and he could finally breathe.  The Arena.  Neil really didn’t have much interest in competition—it was hard to when he knew he could always come out on top if he so chose—but living a life that allowed him to keep close to the water?  That interested him very much.

                He couldn’t go the way of his mother.  She had been so much stronger than he ever could be.  She never talked about what had happened to her fur just that it was gone.  Knowing his father as he did, Neil wouldn’t be surprised to find out he had shredded her coat in front of her with his beloved knives.  He had never known his mother when she was complete—had never been cradled in her fur as mothers did for their pups.  He instead got harsh slaps and harsher words from a broken woman.  But for so long she was all he had.  Until Seattle.  Until a long ride down the west coast with her silently dying in the passengers’ seat.  Until he had to burn her along with the car.  Until he burned his hands to collect her bones and bury them in the sand with her last orders ringing in his ears: Don’t stop.  Don’t trust anyone.  Be anyone but yourself and don’t be anyone too long.  Don’t go near the water and never wear your fur.

                He was already breaking so many rules, but as the water lapped at his hands like an eager puppy, he couldn’t help but to feel that it was worth it.  He couldn’t allow himself to grow complacent, but he would enjoy such a simple and complicated joy.  The sun had set fire to the sky by the time Neil could bring himself to part with the water.  As he showered off, he contemplated jogging back to Wymack’s but the man would be watching the morning news by now so Neil opted to crash on the couch in the lounge.

                It was nearing noon by the time Neil peeled himself off the couch and jogged back to Wymack’s in a search for food.  He froze for a beat when he heard Wymack’s shout, “Dammit, Kevin, sit down!”  Neil eased into the hallway but didn’t close the door all the way behind him.

There was a short scuffle before Kevin’s panicked and slightly slurred voice filtered into the hallway.  “I won’t!  How could you let him do this?” Neil couldn’t hear much after that as he stepped more fully into the apartment.  The smell of Kevin’s panic was absolutely overwhelming.  It permeated the air like a thick miasma and clogged Neil’s throat almost choking him.  The memories that the scent triggered were worse: being marched up to the East tower in Evermore, Edgar Allen’s Arena; the adrenal rush from playing with Riko and Kevin transforming into fight or flight; Kevin’s horror adding to his own and Riko’s sick fascination adding a sweet note to the blood and terror as they watched Neil’s father take a man apart with a cleaver.

The sound of shattering glass jerked Neil back to the conversation in the next room.  Kevin’s seemed to have been reduced to panicked mumbling consisting mainly of “He’s coming, I can’t go back, he’s gonna kill us all.”  Wymack sighed and ordered him to “drink that” and walked towards the kitchen.  He was rubbing a tired hand over his face while passing the hallway when he spotted Neil.  He looked back over his shoulder, presumably at Kevin, and gestured Neil out the door and into the hallway.

“How much of that did you hear?”

“Kevin is panicking over something and he’s going to die,” Neil deadpanned.

Wymack scrubbed his face again with a world-weary sigh.  “Look, you’re gonna find this out anyway because I believe my team has a right to know what their getting themselves into.  But tell me first, what do you know about the Moriyamas?”

That they’re a clan of selkies that are okay with a human cutting up a guy of their carpet.

“Tetsuji was an Olympian back in the day and was friends with Kevin’s mom.  He’s coached the Edgar Allen swim team since he shattered his knee cap.  He took Kevin in after his mom died and raised him with Riko.  They competed together in relay until Kevin dislocated his shoulder on a ski trip.  So he left and showed up here,” Neil recited.

“Wrong.  This is gonna get weird so try to stay with me,” Wymack paused until Neil gave a nod.  “Okay, so there are two branches of the Moriyamas: the main branch and the side branch.  The first sons are raised in the main branch and the second sons are given to the side branch.  Testsuji is the head of the side branch.  He is to run Evermore so that the main branch can use it as a cover for business deals.”

“Deals?”

“They’re yakuza.”

Well, that would explain that day at Evermore.  A bit.

“Okay.”

Wymack seemed to be waiting for a bigger reaction, but after a moment he continued.  “So when Tetsuji took in Kevin, he gave him to Riko—like a pet,” disgust laced the words.  “They don’t even see him as human.”

“So if the Moriyamas own him, why is he here?”

“Because he didn’t dislocate his shoulder in an accident, Riko did it to him.  He showed up a complete wreck and after Abby put him back together he told us everything.  He’s here because his mother was someone to me and because I won’t turn away someone in need,” Wymack gritted while crossing his arms.

He’s going to get everyone here killed.

“Okay, so all this has been going on, why is Kevin freaking out now?”

“Because I just got news Edgar Allen is transferring to our district for the championships.”

Neil’s world shifted just a bit to the right.  Riko was coming here.  Someone who knew his father was coming here.  Fight or flight flooded his system for half a beat before he clamped down hard on the instinct.  A deep breath, “Why?”

“To rattle Kevin.  I thought they had let him go, but it looks like they don’t like the idea of him swimming for anyone else.  So they’ll cut him off at the pass—make sure he fails without them.”

It was too big of risk—seeing someone who knew him, who knew his father, who might remember.  He couldn’t stay.  His fingers unerringly found the keys in his pocket.  The ridges cut into his palm until he could breathe again.  “So we keep our mouths shut and beat the best swim team in the country?”

Wymack didn’t seem to be expecting that response and honestly Neil didn’t know where it came from either.  “I like the way you think kid, yeah.”

Neil nodded and started backing away, “I’ll give him time to calm down and clear out.  I’ll go for a jog or something.”  He was in the stairwell before Wymack could comment.

Dangerous dangerous dangerous.

Two more of the Blood here.  Two that associated with the Butcher of Baltimore.  No, Neil would leave before then—this dream had to end at some point.  He ran back to the water but he couldn’t outrun his thoughts.

Chapter Text

The rest of the team was set to arrive the day before practice started on June 10th.  During the two weeks between the Edgar Allen revelation and move in, Kevin reached new levels of unbearable.  He kept it mostly together in front of Andrew, though Neil still wasn’t entirely sure why they were keeping it from him in the first place.  Neil suspected Andrew would be more upset at being out of the loop than the actual news, but no one thought to ask him.

                No, instead he had to endure Kevin’s black moods and constant criticisms.  He thought briefly of just telling Andrew so that Kevin would stop freaking out.  He also thought briefly of ripping Kevin’s throat out—with his teeth.  Neither option was viable but they were oh so tempting.  So Neil just pushed forward, blocked out most of whatever vitriol Kevin spewed, and tried to enjoy his time in the water.

                He met move in day with almost violent relief that Kevin would have others to draw his ire.  Wymack drove him and his duffle bag to the stadium the morning of but wouldn’t let Neil into the dorms until the others arrived.  According to the list, the earliest would be arriving at two and the last were to arrive at five. 

Wymack wandered off to his office and Neil settled in the lounge to peruse the school packet the coach had given him earlier in the week.  Even if he planned to leave before their swim meet with Edgar Allen, he still had to sign up for classes and declare a major.  He considered declaring something ridiculous like yoga—why was that an option?—but sensibility forced him to look for something useful.  Languages caught his eye quickly.  He had always been able to pick up languages quickly out of necessity, but picking up a few more in a controlled classroom setting would be a new experience.  It would also expand his options when the time came to run instead of limiting him to French and German speaking areas.  His Spanish was rusty so that was a definite and from there he picked out several classes that looked both interesting and useful.  However, building the schedule proved a challenge.  With two hour practices every morning, five hour practices in the afternoon, and mandatory five hour a week tutoring, time conflicts were abound.  Six iterations later, he finally had a working schedule written down.

Satisfied, Neil glanced at the clock to see that he still had half an hour before the first of the team was set to arrive.  He was considering changing out for a quick swim when Abby wandered in to the lounge.  “Hey, Neil.  I thought you would be at the dorms by now.”

“Wymack won’t let me in until the others get here,” he said with a bit of exasperation.

“In that case, we can get your physical out of the way,” she said absently while studying the papers in her hand.

“Physical?”

“Just a general check up: height, weight, all that good stuff.  We have to do it today because I have to draw blood and I can’t let you in the arena until you’ve slept it off.  When’s the last time you went to the doctor?”

“Forever ago.”

“Don’t like doctors?”

Neil snorted, “Doctors don’t like me.  It is necessary?”

Abby hummed in consideration, “Considering I won’t sign off for you to swim with the team until we do it?  Yes, I would say it’s necessary.”  She started across the hall to the exam room seemingly unaware that Neil had yet to move.  She turned to regard him, “Sometime today, preferably.  I have other things I have to get don’t today.”

He reluctantly gathered his duffle and shuffled into the small exam room.  He was poked and prodded for a while as Abby took his measurements and two vials of blood from his left arm.  He almost relaxed until Abby muttered, “Shirt off.”

Neil tensed so quickly and completely he was sure he pulled a muscle in his neck.  “Why?”

“I can’t check for track marks through cotton, Neil.”

“I don’t do drugs,” almost desperately.

Abby looked distinctly unimpressed.  “Good for you.  Keep it that way.  I still have to check though.”

Neil’s mind raced with denials, with excuses, with explanations.  After a lengthy pause, with his hands on the hem of his shirt he settled on, “I’m not okay.”

Abby softened for a moment, “Neil, you’re a Fox.  None of you are okay.  But I’m sure I’ve seen worse.”

“I hope not,” he said bitterly.  He paused again, “You won’t tell Wymack?”

“It’s not his business.  That door is closed and locked.  Anything that happens here is strictly between you and me.  I only tell Wymack anything if something affects your ability to compete or you’re doing something illegal.”

Neil studied her for a moment longer.  Then he ripped his shirt over his head with the efficiency of ripping off a band-aid.  Abby thought she was prepared.  She wasn’t.  Her mouth parted on a harshly indrawn breath and she stilled as she examined his barred torso.  Neil watched her pale face carefully knowing exactly what she was seeing.  His torso was a battle ravaged wasteland.  Long slash marks from multiple knives crisscrossed over his abdomen, rough, discolored skin lined his side from road rash, a long deep curve traced over his chest and collarbone from an ax, a starburst in one shoulder from a bullet, the perfect outline of an iron on the other, a hundred other nicks and cuts that scarred haphazardly.  The story of his childhood and adolescence told itself even if Abby didn’t know the origins of each mark as Neil did.  He took a moment to be grateful that the scars on his fur were not visible on his skin.  The bite marks would be hard to explain.

“Do I have track marks?”

“Neil—“

“Do I?”

Abby tore her eyes from the bullet wound to quickly glance at his forearms and the crooks of his elbows.  “No, you don’t.”

Neil nodded and shrugged his shirt back on making sure he was covered.

“Neil—“

“Are we done?”

Abby sighed heavily.  “Yeah, we’re done.”

He grabbed his bag and made for the door, but he didn’t escape before Abby called him back.  “If you want to talk, I’m here and so is Betsy.”  There was no way he was talking to a shrink.  Or Abby for that matter.  However, as he looked back at her, he couldn’t bring himself to spew the harsh words bubbling in his throat as a reaction to the intense exposure that had his skin crawling.  He settled for a small, “Thanks” and fled out into the hall.

He was determined to get out, he could either break into the dorms or wait outside of them for the others to get there.  Plan half formed in his mind, he made his way into the foyer, but the door opened before he could reach it.  Out stepped a giant—compared to Neil, but also probably everyone else.  Having spent the a month with Nicky who just reached six feet and Kevin who was a few inches passed that, Neil estimated this man was halfway to seven feet tall.  His height was enhanced by his tall hairstyle which Neil blamed for not recognizing him immediately.  Matthew Boyd hadn’t sported such a brazen look last year.

By the time Neil put a name to the face, Matthew had crossed over to him with a big grin and an outstretched hand.  Neil took his hand wearily and passed a sparing glance to the faded track marks under Boyd’s dark skin.  He didn’t smell anything stronger than aspirin on Boyd so he assumed it was a long passed problem. 

“Hi, I’m Matt Boyd,” he said with a firm handshake.  “Junior and breaststroke in the relay.  You must be Neil.”

Neil was spared from answering by Wymack stepping out of his office and chucking keys at Boyd’s head.  The keys bounced off him, but he managed to catch them before they hit the ground.  “Jesus, Coach, I missed you too.”

“What happened to ‘Hello’, Boyd?”

“You looked busy.”

“I’m always busy.  That’s never stopped you pricks before,” Wymack said gruffly as he crossed his arms over his chest.

“Yup, super glad to be back.”

Abby appeared in the doorway of her office before Wymack could retort and leaned against the door jam.  “Welcome back, Matt.  Good trip?”

“Yup, feeling the welcome,” he said warily while rubbing his head where the keys hit.  “Good drive, but I drank so much coffee I probably won’t sleep for a week.”  He turned to Neil, “Have you moved in yet?”

Wymack answered for him, “I told him he couldn’t until you got here.  Way to make him wait, Boyd.”

Boyd’s face was strangely fond as he rolled his eyes at the coach.  “Yeah, yeah, I’m here now.  So we can swing by Wymack’s to pick up the rest of your stuff and head that way.”

Neil moved his duffle lightly against his leg, “This is it.”

Boyd was incredulous.  “That’s it?  My truck is packed to the brim and I still had to leave stuff.”

“Yeah, you get to take him shopping this week.”  Wymack cut in again.  “I’m tired of seeing him in the same clothes.  Take the p-card.”

“I have money,” Neil returned sharply.

Wymack waved him off, “Good for you.  Now, get out of here.”

                Boyd said his goodbyes to Wymack and Abby then led Neil out of the building and to a truly obnoxious electric blue monstrosity of a truck in the parking lot.  Neil tried to hide his resentment as he had to climb into the cab of the truck, but if Boyd’s muffled snicker was any indication, he didn’t succeed.  The truck started with a rumble and the blast of music from the radio which Matt quickly shut off.  As they pulled out of the parking lot, Matt seemed to be gearing up to say something, Neil content to wait him out.  As they turned down Perimeter Road—the main street of campus for all intents and purposes—he visibly settled on what to say, “We’re not all bad, just so you know.”  Neil wasn’t quite sure what to do with that so he stayed silent.  “Dan hated that your first impression of us would be the do-nothings.  She wanted to come early to mediate, but Coach said you had to learn to deal with them eventually.”

                Neil thought back to just what he’d been dealing with the past month.  Sure, Kevin brought out some distinctly homicidal feelings, but otherwise, “It’s not like it’s hard.”

                Matt seemed to choke on nothing for a moment.  Neil was vaguely concerned about his ability to drive.  “I’m sorry?  Not hard to what?”

                Neil felt like he was missing something.  “Deal with them.  It’s fine.”

                They had come up to a stop sign which Matt took as an opportunity to turn and study Neil.  Unsure what to do with the sudden scrutiny, Neil held his gaze and shrugged.  “Right.”  Neil had the distinct impression Matt thought he was lying.  “Well, regardless, if they give you any trouble, let me know.  I’ll kick Kevin’s ass.”

                That would be hilarious.  “Thanks, but as I said, I’ve got it handled.”

                “That’s what I thought too,” Matt said a touch too grimly Neil thought.  “Andrew made it clear he wouldn’t be handled.”  Why is it always Andrew?  “Anyway, just keep me in mind.  Offer’s good through graduation.”

                Neil nodded rather than respond as they turned off Perimeter Road towards Fox Tower.  It stood separately from the campus on top of a small hill standing at four stories tall.  Apparently, all student athletes were required to house there during their education.  It had its own private parking lot around the back which at the moment only held Andrew’s car.

                Instead of pulling to a parking spot, Matt pulled up to the door so they could unload the truck.  By the time the truck was clear, a pile of furniture, boxes, and luggage stood taller than Neil on the sidewalk.  He waited with it while Matt pulled his truck into a parking spot.  It took three trips to move everything up to the third floor, made more difficult because some of the furniture couldn’t fit in the elevator and the stairway was not pivot friendly.  They piled everything into the living room in room 321 and Neil left Matt to sort through it while he inspected his temporary housing.

                The living room was lined with windows on the far side with three desks pressed to the wall.  The small kitchen was separated from the living room by a breakfast bar.  A hallway branched off with a bathroom to the right and a bedroom to the left.  Neil entered the bedroom to find a bunk bed, a dresser, and a loft bed with a small dresser underneath.  He placed his duffle bag on the loft bed and pressed both hands into the mattress.  With being on the run and laying low with his mother, then squatting in Millport by himself, Wymack’s couch had been the nicest thing he’d slept on in over a year.  And now, he had a bed.  An actual bed.  Though it would be disconcerting to sleep alone.  His mother’s paranoia had required them to share since they’d been on the run.

                Matt’s entrance startled him out of his thoughts.  “Hey, man.  I’m going to get Dan and Renee from the airport.  Want to tag along?”

                Neil considered the room for a moment.  The dresser didn’t have a lock, the bed needed sheets, his toiletries needed replenishing.  “No, thanks.  I need to go get some things.”

                Matt looked like he wanted to protest, but he turned after a moment calling a goodbye over his shoulder.  As soon as he was gone, Neil knelt before the dresser under his bed.  It wasn’t anywhere near secure enough to hold his duffle but he didn’t have much choice as he couldn’t carry it with him and carry back all he needed from the store.  He grabbed a few bills from his binder then stuffed the duffle into the bottom drawer until it was completely out of site with the drawer closed.  The lock on the dorm door would have to suffice until he could get some sort of lock box.

                He double checked the door once he locked it and passed Nicky lounging in a doorway two doors down.  He tried to walk passed without engaging him, but Nicky called out, “So what do you think of Matt?”

“He’s fine,” Neil said without pausing.

“Yes, he is,” Nicky responded with a cackle.

Neil ignored him as he hit the stairwell door and set out at a jog to the store.  The only safe he could find wasn’t big enough for his duffle bag, but it would do nicely for his binder and coat.  It had both a key and a combination lock so it couldn’t be easily picked.  Lugging it back to the dorms along with the few things he’d picked up was a pain, especially in the oppressive heat, but he kept a steady pace to ensure he got back before Matt.

                As he entered the dorm room, however, something was off.  He couldn’t place it immediately, but something had changed in the air in his absence.  He quickly dropped his haul on his bed and fell before his dresser.  Taking out his duffle was a bit of a struggle, and when he opened it nothing seemed immediately amiss.  Then his shirts caught his attention.  He always double folded the tags of his shirts—a paranoid quirk he’d inherited from his mother.  All of his tags were smoothed out.  Panic gripped his heart as he threw his clothes aside to get to the bottom of his bag.  He all but threw the binder aside so he could get to his fur.  It was there, no harm done, but as he brought it to his face, the smell.  Cigarettes—a different brand from his own—spice, medication, Andrew. 

                Rage blackened his vision.  His grip tightened around his fur as he obsessively rubbed his face and hands against the coat.  The scent needed to be gone.  It was wrong.  Wrongwrongwrong.  He curled over it and breathed out threw his mouth to disperse the scent further.  Phantom, unwanted hands ran across his body in the worst kind of violation.  Skin crawling, temper sparking, Neil draped the thick coat across his lap and inspected it closely.  He smoothed the fur down, black with a red undercoat, grey spots here and there, bald spots only felt not seen.  The one thing that was his and his alone—a part of his soul.  And it had been touched by another.

                Rage still simmered under his skin even as he swallowed the bile threatening to crawl up his throat.  With shaking hands, he smoothed his coat across his legs one more time before reaching to check his binder.  At a glance, the binder was full of unrelated and nonsensical articles from around the world.  Disappearances from coasts around the world.  Miraculously saved swimmers off the Californian coast.  Migration patterns of seal pods off the coast of Britain.  To him, they marked locations of family.  Maybe not all his, but places that he could possibly find asylum for a time.  In between the pages, money, bank notes, colored contacts, coded contact information sat seemingly undisturbed.  As he took out the money to find everything accounted for he recognized that they had been handled as well though everything was replaced.

                Breathing deeply, he set the binder aside and moved his coat to around his shoulders as he set about unpacking his new safe.  With a last reverent touch, he folded his coat and placed it in the bottom of the lock box with his binder on top.  He put the box in the bottom drawer and carefully refolded his clothes as considered where to go from there.

                In terms of tradition, Neil now owed Andrew a debt.  It rankled him to his core that he had been violated yet was still compelled to pay Andrew back for that.  A coat given—taken—and returned called for a gift in return.  It was a compulsion much like the call of the water.  Ignorable, but painful.  A small sense of betrayal made the disgust worse.  Neil had not trusted Andrew, but the banter from the past month and the cautious understanding he had of him had put him at ease.  But now.

                What made it worse, was that Neil almost understood.  Assessing an unknown—one that might be a threat—to the pod, he understood.  But with the feeling of ants crawling under his skin, the invading scent, the tightening of his chest even while he knew his fur was safe and secured, he could not overlook this.  Nor could he ignore the debt.  If Andrew for some reason came to the correct conclusion after seeing the contents of his bag, if he knew what Neil is, he could call for the debt to be collected.

                No, that would not do.  Better to pay it on his terms.

                Fury still simmering under his crawling skin, Neil snatched the lock picks hidden under the sole of his shoes.  As he exited and locked his dorm again, he glanced at the cousins’ room, but resolutely turned towards the stairwell once again.  Another quick jog to a convenience store and an awkward conversation with the clerk later, he was bounding back up the stairs of the dorm.  Bypassing his own room, he checked the cousins’ door to find it locked.  He pulled the picks out of his pocket and got to work.

                Half a minute later, the door swung open to reveal four pairs of eyes looking at him incredulously.  Nicky and Aaron were in bean bag chairs apparently playing a video game which Aaron quickly paused.  Kevin was sat in an arm chair reading, and Andrew was perched on a desk by the window smoking a cigarette.  They all stared as Neil took in the room similar to his own.  Andrew’s medicated grin spread as he called, “Wrong room, Neil!  Try again.”  This seemed to snap the others out of their stupor.

Aaron turned to Nicky and in German stated, “We locked that door.”

                “Last I checked” he responded in kind.  He turned to Neil with a smile and said, in English, “Hey, sounds like Matt’s back.  You met Dan and Renee yet?”

                The dichotomy fueled Neil’s anger further, but he dismissed them as unimportant.  He took a step forward and hurled the small box in his hand at Andrew’s head.  With quick reflexes, Andrew snatched it out of the air before it could make contact much to Neil’s disappointment.  He turned the box over to find a pack of his brand of cigarettes.  His grin waivered as his eyebrows crinkled in confusion.  Before he could voice whatever was going through his head, Neil snapped, “Stay out of my shit, you demented oompa loompa.”

                The others seemed speechless, but Neil had paid his debt and he didn’t much care.  He started to turn towards the door when Kevin seemed to recover himself, “Don’t encourage that bad habit, Neil.”

                Still irked and completely not in the mood for Kevin-holier-than-thou-Day, Neil snarled, “I do what I want, Day.  As does your babysitter, apparently.  So fuck off.”  He turned once again to go and heard Kevin get up behind him to retort, but he was already out the door.  He heard it open again behind him, but when he was yanked back by an irritated Kevin, he used his weight to push him back into the wall opposite them, “Don’t touch me.”  His skin was still crawling and he couldn’t handle much more before he started going for throats.  As doors opened in response to Kevin’s weight crashing into the wall, Andrew danced between them with the cigarettes held aloft and a question in his eyes.

                Before he could voice it, the hall was flooded with Foxes.  Nicky and Aaron stood in their doorway, and Captain Dan Wilds led Matt and Renee out of the girls’ room, dark face flushed and stance unmoving one she reached them, “What is going on here?”

                Neil was still breathing through his rage so he left the others to answer.  Andrew dragged his eyes away from Neil’s to turn his grin on the captain.  “Just exchanging pleasantries, oh captain, my captain.”  He dismissed her and turned to wave behind her, “Hi, Renee! Finally!”

                Renee tilted her bleached head, making the rainbow tips of her hair ripple in a wave.  “Hello, Andrew,” she returned with a small smile.

                “Why don’t I believe you?” Dan cut in.

                Andrew brought a hand to his chest in mock hurt, “It’s not my fault you have trust issues.  Neil here was just agreeing to ride with us to the stadium later.”

                Neil’s jaw ticked, but he couldn’t draw unwanted attention from the upper classmen so early in the year.  It was the first day.  So he conceded, “Yeah, I figured Matt’s truck would be full.”

                Matt and Dan looked ready to protest, but Neil turned to walk passed the group before they could voice anything.  He heard Andrew call after him, “See you soon, Neil! Don’t run off, okay?”  And Neil couldn’t quite reign himself in enough to keep from flipping Andrew off over his shoulder in response.  He heard a cackle and a door close as he wondered how he was supposed to survive that car ride without killing someone.

Chapter Text

Neil wasn’t entirely sure how he ended up in the girls’ room sipping sweet tea and nibbling on one of the cookies Renee brought from home.  Compared to the nonsense he’d had to put up with for a month, sitting and listening to his new teammates chat was a nice break.  Dan and Renee were shooting out ideas for community projects the Foxes could involve themselves in for the year.  Matt sat at Dan’s side with their fingers intertwined, seemingly content to listen.

                Now that Neil could focus, he could admire his new Captain.  She was obviously passionate as she discussed giving back, and the scene in the hall showed a spine of steel.  As his mother would say, she was made of stronger stuff.  Neil figured she would have to be to captain the problem children of colligate swimming.

                Renee was another story.  Neil knew a fellow predator when he saw one.  Nicky had called her a sweetheart and looking at the pastel, modest clothing, the cross around her neck, and the serene expression, Neil could see where he drew that conclusion.  However, as she gesticulated he caught site of the subtle scars on her hands that he knew came from wielding a knife.  There was scar tissue padding her knuckles and her movements were too controlled as if she were overly conscious of her harmless appearance.  No, Neil was not fooled.  Not that he would expose whatever she was keeping hidden—that would make him a hypocrite of epic proportions.  The question was if she was going to be a threat to him.  Neil would just have to remain alert, and if she made a move against him, he would show her just how predatory he could be.

                At five, Wymack called to tell them Seth and Allison were on their way from the airport.  He must have called Kevin or the cousins as well because as the upperclassmen prepared to leave, a knock sounded at the door.  Dan opened the door to reveal Nicky who leaned around her to beckon Neil over.

                “I’m timing you,” she said without shifting out of his way.  “I know exactly how long it takes to get from here to the stadium, even with your insane driving.”

                Nicky waved her off, “Have a little faith in a man.”

                She didn’t waiver, “That’s Renee’s job.  Mine is to make sure we start the season with ten working bodies.”

                “Yeah, yeah, see you there,” he beckoned Neil one more time before turning to the stairwell.  Neil squeezed passed Dan and hurried to catch up.  “So what was with that earlier?”

                Neil hummed in question rather than respond.

                “You know,” Nicky asked persisted, “the whole breaking into our dorm to throw cigarettes at Andrew?”

                ABORT.

                “Like I don’t know you were acting as a look out to help Andrew break into my dorm?” Neil snorted.  “Hanging out in the hallway to make sure I left?  Real subtle.”

                Nicky sputtered and Neil had to chew on the smug smile that wanted to creep out as he sped up towards the parking lot leaving Nicky still trying to formulate a denial.  He got to the car first to see Kevin already getting into the front seat, Aaron sitting in the far back, and Andrew leaning against the back door.  Neil stopped just out of arm’s reach in front of Andrew and watched as his manic grin grew wider, “Neil!  You came!  A liar who engages in occasional honesty.  Clever.  Keeps people on their toes.  I know, because I do it myself.”

                “Yeah, I noticed,” Neil huffed distractedly.

                Probably not smart when Andrew had proved he was still very much a threat but Neil couldn’t focus on him.  His attention was snagged on the small backseat of the car and somehow he knew Andrew would make him sit in the middle.  The thought of being pressed in on both sides when his skin was still crawlingitchingtootight was enough to shorten his breathing.  His hands had just started the tremble when movement caught his eye.  He flinched back when Andrew stepped forward and they both stilled for one heartbeat, two.  Andrew’s smile looked more like a skeleton grin as it stretched to painful widths and his eyes raged.  His laugh was so hollow Neil wondered for a nonsensical moment why it didn’t echo.  Andrew turned away to get in the car and Neil’s hazed thoughts stuttered as the window seat was left open for him.

                Huh.

                He must have stalled for too long because Andrew poked his head back out of the door and impatiently clicked his tongue with a condescending pat to the window seat.  Mechanically, Neil slid in next to him.  Nicky had slid into the driver’s seat at some point and he pealed out like hell was on his heels as soon as Neil’s door clicked shut.  He reached for his seatbelt and clicked it shut quickly as they took a sharp corner out of the parking lot and Andrew went sliding into Aaron much to Aaron’s bitching.

                They pulled onto the main street and Andrew shifted a bit off Aaron to sprawl in the middle, but a few inches of space remained between him and Neil.  Neil didn’t want to feel grateful to Andrew for anything but he was relieved.  That is, until Andrew spoke, “So, Neil, after everything we’ve done for you in the past month, you break into our dorm room and try to start a fight.”

                “You broke into mine first.  Not expecting consequences for your actions is surprisingly naïve for you, Andrew,” Neil said derisively.

                Andrew hummed, “Having a pack of cigarettes thrown at my head is a very interesting consequence, Nemo.”

                Nemo?

                Neil chose to ignore the strange form of address to instead scramble for some kind of plausible excuse.  “A small bribe to stay out of my stuff.  Figured you’d need some incentive.”

                That is the dumbest thing I could have said.

                Andrew seemed to agree with his thoughts, but perhaps for a different reason, “It’s going to take a lot more than a pack of smokes.  How about this—you come with us to Columbia Friday for your official welcome party.”  Andrew held up a hand, “That gives you five days to get to know the others, to endure Wymack’s bonding bullshit, then it’s our turn.”

                Nicky piped up from the driver’s seat, “We used to live in Columbia so we know all the best places.  We’ll take you out to eat and we have a place to crash so we don’t have to worry about driving back here drunk.”

                “I don’t drink or dance,” Neil said, not that alcohol affected him all that much, but it was easier to hide that fact it he just abstained altogether.

                “That’s fine,” Andrew cut in.  “I don’t dance and Kevin doesn’t anymore.  We can just sit while the others make fools of themselves.  It will give us time to get to know each other and fix any misunderstandings.”

                ‘Fix’ was a strange choice of words.  Neil knew one of them would have to break to come to any sort of understanding as neither were men who could bend.  Andrew assumed it would be Neil to give in first.  Neil thought the illusion of breaking would be just as good.

                “Fine.  I go with you and you stay out of my stuff.”

                “So possessive.”

                “Of course I am,” Neil shrugged easily, “Everything I own fits in one bag.”

                Andrew grinned as if he thought he’d won the exchange though Neil knew he would be the one to benefit the most out of that particular deal.  “It’s a deal.”  The way he said it made Neil wonder if he had just signed away part of his soul.

                That’d be my luck.

                At this point, they’d made it to the stadium so they filed out of the car to wait for the upperclassmen.  With Nicky’s insane driving, they had made it a full three minutes ahead of the others and when they finally walked up, Andrew pointed to Neil dramatically and called, “Look, it’s in one piece.”

                The others inspected Neil for damage and Matt asked, “Are you bleeding anywhere?”

                “Nowhere vital,” Neil replied dryly.

                Before the upperclassmen could work themselves up about it, Renee cut in, “We should wait for Seth and Allison inside.  It’s a bit warm out here.”

                Nicky piped up, “Maybe they’ll get in a car crash and won’t make it!”

                Dan and Matt glared but Nicky didn’t seem fazed until Renee spoke softly, “That was very inappropriate, Nicky.”  There was just the barest hint of reprimand in her voice, but Nicky seemed to wilt under it quite effectively.

                That’s useful.

Dan seemed to deem the situation handled and led them into the stadium with the others trailing behind her.  They all filed into the lounge to find Wymack and Abby sitting on the entertainment stand.  The cousins and Kevin made their way directly to the far couch and Matt went for the other coach after calling out a greeting.  Dan and Renee stopped by Wymack and Abby to exchange hugs and greetings.  Renee then moved to the other end of Matt’s couch to leave room for Dan who stood talking animatedly to Wymack about the National Swim Team qualifiers that happened over the summer.

                Neil considered the rest of the room before settling into a chair that provided a vantage point for that whole room.  Soon after he and Dan sat, the door to the lounge banged open and in stalked Seth Gordon, face darkened by a foul mood.  He threw himself in the only other chair across the room.  A minute later, Allison Reynolds strutted into the room like she was on a runway. 

                Reynolds grew up a modern day princess as the daughter of a business tycoon that ran luxury resorts all over the world.  Apparently, she was disowned after she chose public schools and swimming over boarding schools and taking over the family business.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at her, however.  In a skin tight dress, lethal heels, and movie star makeup, she was a sharp contrast to the rest of the team dressed in jeans and t-shirts.  She was stunning, but the phantom feeling of his mother’s fists reminded Neil that looking is dangerous.  Stupid, Abram.  The remembered pain is enough for him to avert his gaze.

She addressed Abby as she surveyed the room, “You’re alive.”

                “I managed somehow,” Abby answered warily.

                “Will miracles never cease.”  She glanced at Gordon for just a moment before zeroing in on Neil.  “I’m going to sit with you.”

                She sauntered over to try to perch on the arm of his chair, but as her arm slithered around his shoulders and her floral perfume wafted toward him, Neil tensed again. 

                Nope.  Nopenopenope.

                Neil shot out of the chair, off balancing Reynolds who slid into the chair behind him.  Whatever chattered had been filling the room silenced as Neil stood in the middle of the room with every muscle straining.  Fight or flight warred as his eyes flitted around the room, scanning the stunned faces of the team, Wymack, and Abby.  His gaze found Andrew’s curious one and held as Andrew tilted his head as if looking at a particularly interesting insect.

                A huff sounded behind him as Reynolds straightened herself.  This seemed to break the others from whatever stupor they were in as Seth chortled meanly, “Great.  Another freak.”

                Neil unfroze enough to half turn towards Reynolds, “You can have the seat.”  He then shuffled over to lean against the far wall where he could see everyone in the room and the door.  Only Renee and Andrew followed his progress—the former’s gaze dark, the predator clearly visible for the first time.  Neil nodded in respect and turned again to meet Andrew’s gaze head on.  He raised an eyebrow, challenging him to comment.  The tension was entirely his fault even if he may not know it.

                Reynolds cut in before anything could come of the challenge, “Is this going to take long?  It was a long flight and I’m tired.”

                Wymack scoffed, “We’ve been waiting on you.  Now, down to business.”  He pointed to Neil.  “Neil Josten, freshman and freestyle relay alternate.”  He gestured to Gordon and Reynolds in turn.  “Seth Gordon, fifth year senior and freestyle relay starter.  Allison Reynolds, senior and backstroke.  Questions?  Concerns?”

Seth pointed at Neil and snarled, “I’m fucking concerned—“

“Good,” Wymack clapped without missing a beat.  Which led Neil to believe these ‘concerns’ had been addressed before.  Abby got up to hand out packets of papers.  “Same old boring paperwork.  Bring this filled out in the morning because you can’t practice until I have them.  Physicals today.  Andrew goes first.  Seth second.  Draw straws to figure out the rest of the order, but do not leave without seeing Abby.”  He said this while glaring at Nicky and Andrew who both tried and failed to look innocent.

                “We also have the schedule for the coming season—“

                “This early?”  Matt asked.

                “There’s been a change in the district and the NCAA released it early to try to control the fallout.  It could get nasty,” he explained.

                Matt snorted, “As if it could be worse than last year.  With the vandalism, the dead fish in the pool, the death threats—“

                “My personal favorite was the rumor that we were running a meth lab out of the dorm.  Nothing like a 3am ‘drugs bust’,” Dan added.

                Nicky joined in, “Hey, maybe they’ll actually follow through on the death threats this year.  Let’s vote who they take out! I vote Seth.”

                “Fuck you, faggot.”

                “I don’t like that word,” Andrew sang with an eerily straight face.  “Don’t use it.”

                “If I just used ‘freak’ you wouldn’t know who I was talking about.”

                Aaron casually inspected his nails, “Don’t talk to us at all, then.  It’s not like you have anything useful to say.”

                Seth was turning a spectacular shade of red when Wymack called sharply, “Enough!”  Neil didn’t think anyone noticed his flinch.  Wymack looked first apologetically at Kevin, then focused his gaze on Andrew whose smile grew again.  “Edgar Allen is coming South.”

                Neil had never understood the saying ‘you could hear a pin drop’ until that moment.  Kevin’s face was white as were his knuckles where he gripped his knees.  The silence ended with a harsh laugh from Gordon and denials called from Matt, Dan, Aaron, and Nicky.  Neil and Renee were watching as Andrew turned to face Kevin.  “Someone misses you.”  He studied Kevin for a moment.  “You’re handling this well.  Too well.”  Kevin flinched from Andrew’s overly friendly tone.  “How long have you been keep thing from me, coward?”

                “Coach told me in May,” he replied tightly.

                “May.  Day.  May, Day.  Mayday,” Andrew sang.  “When were you going to tell me?”

                “When you found out didn’t matter.  It wouldn’t stop him from happening,” Kevin insisted weakly.  Neil took a moment to congratulate himself smugly that he was right about Andrew’s reaction.

                “Liar.  How am I supposed to protect you if you keep things from me?”

                “Coach asked me to keep it quiet,” Kevin muttered, trying to excuse his behavior.  Neil had to bite down on the scoff he wanted to let out.

                “And you chose Coach over me.  I don’t protect liars, Kevin Day,” he said dismissively.

                Kevin finally lifted his gaze from his knees and Neil was struck by the despair in his eyes.  The look was uncomfortably familiar.  It was resignation and desperation and the slightest sliver of hope.  “I asked you last year and I’ll ask you again.  Don’t let him take me back.”

                Andrew snorted, “I’m not the one that would say yes if he asked.”

                Kevin just stared at Andrew until he nodded.  “I said I would protect you and I will.  Don’t lie to me again.”

                The relief on Kevin’s face was heartbreaking and Neil felt a sharp spike of jealousy.  That their situations were so similar, but Kevin had Andrew.  Someone to share the burden with.  Though Neil wasn’t sure what Kevin thought one drugged-out-his-ass midget could do against the Yakuza—against the Moriyama Pod.

                Wymack looked at them for another moment then nodded, “Chuck—that’s Charles Whittier, the University president, Neil—has already issued the same rules as last year.  No journalist without a police escort.  The campus police is around at all times.  Keep their number in your phone.” 

Neil didn’t point out that he didn’t have a phone.  He just replied ‘yes, Coach’ with the others.  His gaze hadn’t left Kevin yet and he officially couldn’t stand to look at that hopeful expression any longer.  “Are we done or was there something else?”

                Dan leaned forward before Wymack could answer, “I don’t think you understand what this means for us.”

                Wymack answered before Neil could, “Neil knows.  He found out when Kevin did and he’s in the loop.”  Andrew’s gaze swung to Neil, but he just shrugged in return—he hadn’t owed Andrew a thing when he found out.

                Neil nodded toward Wymack and quickly made his way out of the lounge, intent on getting away from the rest of the team.  As he burst into the hallway, he heard footsteps behind him.  He turned to see Renee walking toward him.  “Neil, why don’t you wait for us?  We can give you a ride back to the dorms.”

                Neil was already shaking his head.  Renee could probably understand a piece of what was heading their way, but she was obviously trying to bury whatever darkness that shaped her.  She didn’t still live with the fear, not like Neil did.  He let the predator he was slide forward and noted with satisfaction that she answered in kind.

                One monster to another, he said, “You know what’s coming, like I do, like they can’t.”  He gestured behind her toward where the other Foxes waited.  They may all have pasts that qualified them for the halfway-house that was the Foxes, but they didn’t know.  They weren’t born from the darkness.  Not like Neil, Renee, and (he suspected) Andrew.

                The monster looking back at him nodded in understanding.  “Okay.”

                Neil nodded back and turned to make his way to the dorms.  He jogged down the hallway and was in a dead sprint by the time he hit the sidewalk outside the stadium.  The journey was blurred as he crossed campus and he didn’t really come back into himself until his knees hit the floor beside his bed and his fur was wrapped around his shoulders.  With trembling fingers, he flicked through his binder, looking at all the possible homes that he could never go to.  If he was smart enough to recognize where pods were—stupid, Abram—then so was his father.

                He put the binder back when his tremors grew too strong to hold it properly.  His fur tickled his face as he rubbed against it, spreading his scent further and reveling in the faintly salty smell.  The fur slipped through his fingers as he reached for his duffle bag.  He couldn’t stay here, he needed to leave, dangerous, dangerousdangerousdangerous. 

                He paced with the duffle clutched in his hand and on the third pass he gave in and started to pack his few clothes into the bag.  This had been a mistake.  The media attention alone would get him killed, but having some of the Blood come here.  No, he couldn’t risk it.  Let Kevin and his psychotic keeper deal with them.  The others could just believe he was a scared kid that didn’t want to get tangled in that mess.  Essentially, that’s what he was, if infinitely more complicated.

                But.

                Kevin.

                Neil’s movement slowed, but the tremors didn’t stop.  He snatched up his cigarette pack and stumbled to the window.  It took him a few fumbles to get the window up and he gave up completely on getting the screen up.  Instead, he crawled up onto the dresser pressed below the window and pressed into the screen until it creaked.  The cigarette took too long to light as he tried and failed to hold the lighter steady.  Once lit, he inhaled shakily once then exhaled out the window and basked for a moment in the cloud of smoke.

                The jealousy hadn’t lessened.  Why did Kevin deserve everything?  They both lived in the same world, if at opposite ends of it.  Here Kevin was with Wymack’s worry, a team ready to stand with him, Andrew.  And here was Neil with none of that.  He’d accepted that he’d die alone, not mourned, and not remembered.  He was too stupid—stupid, Abram—to keep going the way he had been with his mother.  But seeing what might have been, what was for Kevin—it wasn’t fair.

                What was even more unfair was that Kevin had Neil too.  Even with the remnants of panic tightening his chest, Neil knew he couldn’t leave.  They may not be from the same pod, but Kevin was kin.  He was family—even if he didn’t know, didn’t remember.  Kevin didn’t have the fangs Neil did, he didn’t have the speed, the strength.  

Neil’s story would never have a happy ending, but Kevin’s could.  So Neil resigned himself to staying to protect the only family he had in reach—if he’ll die young, it might as well mean something.  Settled now, Neil ‘smoked’ through half his pack before he heard commotion outside the dorm.  He scattered the gathered ashes on the windowsill and put the butts into his pack to deal with later.  Quickly unpacking and storing his duffle, he reached the living room just as Gordon and Matt strolled into the room.

Gordon seemed to be mid-rant and Neil’s presence seemed to add gasoline to that particular fire, “—and now we’re stuck with this—“ here he seemed to gesture to Neil’s general existence.  “We were a laughing stock before but now we’re a literal practical joke.  I trusted Kevin to pick the recruit because he said he would get us past the death matches.  But now?”  He threw the bag he was carrying onto the couch as Matt gently set down the three he was toting.  “Now, he’s just deliberately sabotaging us.”

Matt had a well-meaning look that said he’d probably been listening to this for a while.  “Now, you know that’s not true.  If there’s one thing Kevin wouldn’t jeopardize, it’s the season.  He said Neil had potential, Nicky said he’s good, Andrew said he could outpace most of us if he had any technique—“

“Andrew said what?”

Gordon sneered at Neil, “You didn’t think we wouldn’t talk shit about you after you raced out of there?”

Neil chose not to comment and Matt took the chance to change the subject, “Hey, we were all gonna go get dinner if you wanted to come?”

Neil considered for a moment before nodding his assent.  He had to save whatever dace he had lost at the stadium if he planned on staying any length of time.  Matt seemed inordinately excited with his choice and soon left to check times with the girls.  Gordon spent the time unpacking and they got along fine as long as they ignored the other’s existence.

An hour later, he and the Upperclassmen were strolling down ‘downtown’ which consisted of one street and mostly closed businesses with signs stating ‘Will be open in fall’.  The pizza joint/bar they ended up at was cozy, if obnoxiously decorated with PSU paraphernalia.  They sat in a curved booth near the back with Dan and Matt on one end, Gordon and Allison next to them, and Renee sitting next to Neil at the other end.  The other chatted amiably about their summers through dinner up until Matt and Dan disappeared outside for a bit.  Allison gave Renee a significant look but let the moment pass.  Neil kept quiet through most of the venture, preferring to listen to the others and observing the dynamics of this half of the team.  He wouldn’t be able to get a real feel for them outside the water, but their interactions were a lot less strained than ‘the Monsters’ as the upperclassmen called them.

Matt and Dan rejoined them in time to pay and they walked back to the dorms with easy conversation.  It wasn’t until they got up to the floor that the easy atmosphere got disrupted by Nicky barreling towards them down the hall.

“Hey, guys! Have fun?”

“Nicky cut the bullshit, what do you want?” Dan demanded, Neil thought perhaps a bit unfairly.

“Nothing,” he replied too quickly.  “Hey, Renee, could you call Andrew’s phone for me?”

“Did he lose it?” she asked while taking out her phone.

“I lost it.  And maybe the person attached to it?”

“Nicky!” Dan exclaimed.  “Coach told you to not let him out of your site!”

Nicky did some complicated face acrobatics that displayed both offense and guilt.  “Have you ever tried to stop him from doing something he wants to do?  No?  Well, it’s not easy.”

Neil watched Renee dial a number into her phone then light up as a call apparently connected, “Hello, Andrew.  Did I wake you?”  He must have answered because her smile grew a bit.  “I just thought we could catch up, but it can wait.  How about lunch tomorrow?”  Another pause.  “Okay, then I’ll see you tomorrow, sweet dreams.”

She hung up and turned to the group, “He’s at Wymack’s.”

There was a collective sigh of relief before Nicky scampered off and the group dispersed.  Neil puttered about in his room and climbed into bed well before the others made their way in.  The blanket was a poor substitute for his fur but he curled it around him anyway in hope to gain some sort of comfort as he drifted off to sleep.

He dreamt of his father, standing at the foot of the pool in the Arena, the water overflowing with blood.

Chapter Text

By day three of practice, Neil was thoroughly baffled as to how this team had made championships in the past year.  Strong personalities clashed hard.  So much so that they didn’t get through the first gym session without the first fight breaking out.  Dan ruled with the same fiery spine she’d showed that first day, and if someone thought they could fight her on falling in line, they were soon proven wrong.  Even Andrew listened to her, though Neil suspected it was more out of amusement at her balls of steel rather than actual respect.

                Kevin tried to demand the same respect—some combination of his vast experience and a lingering sense of authority from his time as their assistant coach.  However, he was such a prick about it that the team was more likely to snap back at him than actually listen.  Neil could relate.  There was also the fact that Kevin was in the middle of almost every fight that broke out over the first week.  He and Gordon were at each other’s throats constantly—not that they were the only ones.

                As Neil watched the team from the outside, he was reminded of pups fighting for their place in the pod hierarchy.  It took him four days to realize that that was exactly what was happening.  Dan was obviously at the top as Captain with Matt close behind her.

                Neil privately thought that Matt would have made a better captain.  With Kevin still recovering and Andrew’s general apathy, Matt was easily their strongest swimmer—apart from Neil, but the team didn’t know that.  He also had some sort of understanding with the ‘Monsters’ that afforded him some respect from them.  He even got along with Kevin because of his skill and dedication though they could do a complete one-eighty and start sniping nastily at the drop of a hat.  It almost reminded Neil of Reynolds and Gordon without the desperate sexual undertones.  Matt as captain would have granted the team a bit more cohesion, but as it was, he worked as Dan’s backup.

                Under Matt was Renee who played peacekeeper as much as possible, doling out advice and a serene smile.  Neil found it hilarious.  Sure, Renee wasn’t kin like Kevin was, she wasn’t one of Neil’s, but she was something.  Whether the darkness in her was man-made or inherent, she was more than what she was showing the team.  Several times over the week, Neil would catch her eye when a fight broke out and roll his eyes dramatically.  She would answer with another serene smile and dark amusement hidden in her eyes.  Renee was quickly becoming his favorite.

                Reynolds, Gordon, and Nicky battled it out for the following places.  Nicky seemed to enjoy riling them both up with sharp barbs and innuendoes, and they would gang up to defend themselves before turning on each other.  Gordon’s hatred for Nicky was on par with his hatred for Kevin and he let everyone know.  Reynolds’s strong, ferocious nature did not sit well with being so low on the totem pole so she lorded whatever she could over everyone else.  Aaron was a good enough swimmer to enter that particular fight, but he kept a clinical distance from all of it.

                That left Andrew, Kevin, and Neil displaced in the hierarchy.  Kevin’s spot fluctuated more than anyone’s because he was determined to take the lead, but he could alienate everyone with just a few harsh critiques.  Andrew didn’t seem to care at all for the fighting unless Kevin was in actual danger or he was bored.  Then, he would instigate something with a few words and watch in amusement as the team exploded.  Neil definitely didn’t care for finding his place.  It was a lot like how he felt about competing—there wasn’t really a point if he knew without a doubt he could be at the top.

                So he watched as the ranks shifted though this was made infinitely more complicated as the groups within the team shifted.  Depending on the day, Reynolds and Gordon were one group.  Dan, Matt, and Renee were another.  Then the ‘Monsters’ and Neil.  On other days, Reynolds would group with Dan and Renee, Matt would hover on the outskirts or talk with Aaron and Nicky, Andrew and Kevin would stand to the side, and Gordon would stand alone trying to fight anyone and everyone.  It would have been amusing if Neil didn’t walk away with a headache every day.

                This lack of cohesion wouldn’t have been a problem if they didn’t have to relay with people outside of their groups.  Matt, Gordon, Kevin, and Andrew were one line for the medley and the tension between the group exploded daily.  The mixed medley line was even worse as that included Reynolds, Gordon, Kevin, and Dan.  Timings were off, turns were sloppy, and everyone was convinced they weren’t the problem.

                By the end of the week, Neil was exhausted.  Sure, he had more endurance than the rest, but the mental toll it took to keep from snapping at each and every one of them was vast.  He was convinced there would be a permanent dent in his tongue from where he had bitten down on it all week.  As he washed off after the last practice, he took to fantasizing about his bed and silence.  He may even sneak back into the Arena to have the pool to himself for a while at some point over the weekend.

                That’d be nice.

                However, when he walked out into the locker room, he found Nicky sitting by his locker with a black gift bag at his feet and a smile.  “So, you survived your first week! That deserves a celebration!”

                Neil eyed the bag, “I don’t think it calls for presents or is that a bribe to not run for the hills after that shitshow?”

                Nicky cackled as he scooped the bag up from the ground.  “Nah, we can discuss that bribe later,” he said with a flirtatious wink.

                “And here I thought we had that conversation, Nicky.  Go hit on Kevin.  His reaction is hilarious.”

                “Hey, a boy can dream.  And no Kevin.  I like my liver where it is, thanks,” he muttered while rubbing across his abdomen with a slightly pained expression.

                Neil snorted as he gathered his things, but his progress was halted by the gift bag taking up his line of sight.  When he didn’t immediately grab it, Nicky shoved it even closer so that he went cross-eyed.  He ignored it for another moment just to hear Nicky’s irritated huff before he grabbed it.  Inside were black clothes and a pair of boots at the bottom.  No matter how hard he stared at the clothes, they offered no explanation so he turned to Nicky.

                “Did you forget our party this weekend?  You told Andrew you would come!”

                Ah, Columbia.  Right.  Neil sighed.  So much for bed.

                “I have clothes, Nicky.”

                “Oh, honey.  Those are not clothes.  Those are a cry for help.  But regardless, where we’re going, it would be an embarrassment to be seen with you wearing what you do.”

                Neil ran his hands across the clothes again.  It had been a long time since he had new clothes—not just new to him, but new in general.  Never worn.  Rubbing a pinch of fabric between his fingers, he said a quiet, “Thank you.”

                Nicky waved him off and stood from his perch.  “One last thing, leave the contacts tonight.”

                His head snapped up to find Nicky looking intently in his eyes, signature smile gone.  The lack of expression made him look old.  Tired.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

                A weary smile, “We both know you do.  Please.  This weekend will go so much easier if we start off on the right foot.”

                Neil considered for a moment.  Obviously, they all knew the brown of his eyes were fake.  Neil was the only one with an aversion to his real eyes, and though he doubted this weekend would be painless, this was one less battle he had to fight in the long run.  He couldn’t just let Nicky know he had succeeded though so he just hummed and pack the gift bag with his things.

                Nicky looked like he wanted to ask, but he turned to leave with a reminder, “Nine o’clock, hun!”

                He gave the cousins a few minutes head start to clear out before he jogged back to the dorms.  He considered briefly going to the library to scour the news for any sign of his father’s men, but with his resolve to stay still firm, he decided to cave to the siren call of his bed.  The room was empty when he got back.  He vaguely remembered Matt saying something about going to the movies with Dan, and Neil couldn’t really care less about Gordon.  Instead, Neil relished in the silence of his room, set the alarm clock for an hour, and curled under his sheets.

                He jerked from his dreamless nap to the alarm blaring, his arm searching frantically under his pillow for a gun that was not there.  The room had darkened considerably since he closed his eyes and it took his heart a few minutes to calm down as he reoriented himself.  He got up to get his new clothes from the gift bag and some cash from his binder then made his way through the dark dorm into the bathroom.  The florescent lights were blinding and Neil had to squint to get a glimpse of his reflection.  His dark brown hair was a tangled mess of curls falling into his eyes which were red and puffy with sleep so he hopped into the shower to rinse off again.  Once he dried off, he considered the clothes on the counter for a moment then reluctantly got dressed.

                The outfit was a far cry from his usual garb.  The black pants were made of sturdy, thick fabric, but they hugged his legs tightly enough that he did a few squats in an effort to loosen them.  The shirt was worse.  The thin black material laid against him like a second skin with rips across the fabric, back covered by gray material.  He ran his hands compulsively down his chest to make sure his torso was covered though he still worried his scars would show through.  The black boots were good quality, thick soled and gave him an extra inch in height—though the number of buckles baffled him.  He slipped a hundred bucks in twenties under the sole of one of his boots out of habit.

                That done, he looked at himself in the mirror and received a slight shock at the sight before him.  Neil—Nathaniel— had spent the last eight years in worn greys, browns, and whites three times too big.  Blend in, don’t stick out, don’t draw attention, stupid, Abram.  All of his clothes were taken from second-hand shops, homeless communities, lost and founds.  He rubbed the new material stretched across his chest.  This was not blending in.

                He leaned closer to the foreign body in the mirror and studied the muddy brown of his eyes.  With a deep breath, he removed the colored contacts and flushed them down the toilet.  Looking cautiously back at the mirror he was met with a sickeningly familiar sight.  The Butcher’s ice cold blue stared back at him.  Without his natural hair color, the similarities were somewhat lessened, but the impact still left him breathless.  Neil—Nathaniel—hadn’t seen his eyes for as long as he’d been on the run.  Even his mother couldn’t look him in the eyes without his contacts, and Neil couldn’t say that he blamed her for that.  Who would want to look in the eyes of a monster—a monster that ate other monsters.

                With a shuddering breath, he ran his hands through his still damp hair one more time before exiting the bathroom in time to hear a knock at the dorm door.  He straightened his shirt self-consciously one last time, and opened the door to find the Nicky and Andrew standing in the doorway with Kevin and Aaron standing a bit down the hall.  They were all dressed similarly to Neil, black on black, though Nicky was showing decidedly more skin with glitter and some sort of rainbow design splashed across the chest.  Neil met Andrew’s eyes defiantly, letting him take in the newly revealed blue.  He thought he may have caught a flash of surprise in Andrew’s eyes, but it was hidden quickly behind an entirely false grin. 

                “An unexpected bit of honesty from a liar,” Andrew sang and danced forward a bit into Neil’s space.  Neil saw his hand twitch as if he planned to reach up and he tried to hide his flinch by taking a step back to grab his keys from the counter.  Judging by the anger that flared behind Andrew’s grin, Neil doubted he succeeded.  It had been over a week since Andrew broke into the dorm, and the Monsters had left Neil mostly alone during that week, but Neil couldn’t handle the thought of Andrew’s hands on him—not when they had already taken much more than he was willing to give anyone.

                It took Neil a moment to realize that Andrew was waiting for a response, an explanation for the honesty, and another moment to decide he didn’t owe him one.  “Hi, Nicky,” he said instead.  Nicky was harmless—unless he was doing Andrew’s bidding.  “Thanks again for the clothes.  I like the boots.”

                Nicky, who had been watching Neil and Andrew closely, startled at being addressed but recovered quickly to swoon dramatically, “Thank you for wearing them, Neil.  That is the gift that just keeps on giving.”

                Andrew’s jaw ticked and the smile was fading fast as the anger built.  Neil, for once, chose not to bit back the smug smirk that wanted to slip out and threw a wink at Nicky who fanned himself theatrically in response.  Neil snorted and turned to lock the dorm door, trying to ignore Andrew’s looming presence beside Nicky.  However, something caught his attention as he turned back to the cousins—Andrew smelled nearly sober.  He was probably playing up his mania in case they ran into the others on the way out, but the drugs were fading from his system fast.

                Hello, Andrew.

                He dismissed him with a quick glance and started walking toward the stairwell.  Kevin and Aaron moved ahead of him when they saw the group was leaving.  Nicky fell into step beside Neil and asked, “So are you super set on that whole ‘I don’t swing thing’?”

                Andrew cut in flatly from behind them, “Don’t make me kill you, Nicky.”

                Nicky paled for a moment, but Neil chose to ignore Andrew completely.  Instead he chuckled at Nicky, “Yeah, I’m pretty set in that.  But I can play wing man if you want.”  Neil had played ‘wing man’ a couple of times when on the run with his mother.  The goal wasn’t quite the same—usually they were targeting well-off drunks to get some quick cash—but the theory was probably the same.  Pack hunting was easy.

                Nicky seemed delighted by his response and chattered about the many possibilities for when they got wherever they were going.  The group arrived at the car quickly and moved to take the same seating arrangement from earlier in the week.  However, Andrew’s voice stopped everyone in their tracks, “Kevin, you’re in the middle.  Neil, you’re up front.”

                No one moved until Andrew slid into the passenger side back seat.  Kevin then chose to loudly voice complaints about leg room but obediently moved in the middle with Aaron behind Nicky.  Neil looked askance at Nicky who shrugged with an equally baffled expression and moved into the driver’s seat.  Sliding into his designated seat, Neil felt anxiety he hadn’t known he’d been holding slip off his shoulders.  Not having anyone in his space was a welcome relief even if he was too aware of Andrew just behind him.  However, even that awareness slipped since the twins both fell asleep soon after Nicky pulled onto the highway.

                Neil passed the drive asking Nicky short, open-ended questions about Erik and classes.  Keeping Nicky talking wasn’t difficult and he had so much to say that Neil almost felt bad for him.  With Nicky sticking so close to the communication-challenged twins and the swimming-obsessed Kevin, Neil doubted Nicky got to hold much normal conversation.  So he humored him through the ride and did his best to actually pay attention.

                Neil wasn’t sure how much time passed, but Nicky soon called Aaron’s name to rouse him and asked him about which exit to take.  In response, Aaron leaned over Kevin’s prone form to tap Andrew.  And Neil took a moment to be violently glad he wasn’t sitting in the middle because Andrew woke up swinging, his fist connecting harshly with Kevin’s abdomen.  Kevin jolted awake with a wheeze and Andrew used his bent form to poke his head between the front seats.  “It’s the one with the Waffle House.”

                “This is South Carolina.  Every exit has a Waffle House,” was Nicky’s response, but regardless he seemed to know which exit Andrew was talking about.

                Andrew settled back in his seat, finally taking his weight off of Kevin who sat hunched, cursing Aaron.  Neil didn’t bother hiding the small laugh at Kevin’s expense which earned him a glare which he chose to answer with a smug smile and a deliberate stretch in his roomy front seat.  He thought the twins would go back to sleep, but as Nicky pulled onto the exit, Andrew called out in a tight voice, “Nicky.”

                Neil watched Nicky’s knuckles whiten on the steering wheel, “We’re on an exit ramp.  Hold on.”

                “Nicky.”

                Neil grabbed the oh-shit handle as Nicky whipped the car to the shoulder.  The car hadn’t quite stopped when the door behind Neil popped open and retching could be heard from Andrew.  The sharp stench assaulted Neil’s senses before he realized what it meant.  Withdrawal.

                The door slammed shut and Nicky peeled off again.  “Where are your crackers?”

                Kevin answered when Andrew remained silent, “He took them already.”

                “Andrew.”

                “Just get us there,” he finally answered tightly.  Neil thought he could hear his jaw clench from the front seat.  Nicky chose not to respond and instead sped up to wherever they were headed.  Needless to say, Neil was a bit surprised when they pulled into a diner dubbed Sweeties.  Not quite the nefarious place he was expecting.  The surprise doubled when they stepped inside and were surrounded by bubblegum pop music, bright colors, and a strong, salty-sweet odor.  He once again looked to Nicky for an explanation, but he was busy waving at a passing server.  Andrew caught Neil’s attention when he bypassed the hostess stand to grab a handful of crackers from the salad bar.  He watched in fascination as Andrew tore through the crackers but kept the wrappers tightly in his grip.

                He didn’t get a chance to ask before they were led to a round booth by another server that seemed to know Nicky by name.  Nicky slid into the middle of the booth with Aaron and Andrew on one side and Neil and Kevin on the other.  Neil watched, perplexed, as Andrew shoved the cracker wrappers into the server’s apron.  He was almost positive that was incredibly rude, but who knew how a diner the ‘monsters’ frequented was run.  Everyone ignored it, including the server, as Nicky ordered the ‘ice cream special’ for everyone.

                Andrew looked horrible in the harsh light of the dinner, wane and green around the edges.  Neil was jostled as Kevin reached into his pocket and produced an orange pill bottle.  “Just take them.”

                Andrew’s eyes locked on the bottle with desperation that quickly morphed into anger.  “Fuck you.”  It looked like he wanted to say more, but his jaw clenched and he swallowed harshly enough that Neil could hear it across the table.

                The pill bottle disappeared again just as another server dropped off a stack of napkins and the sickly, salty-sweet stench grew stronger.  The source seemed to be little packets of yellow powder that Andrew scrambled for as soon as the stack hit the table.  He ripped two baggies open to pour into his mouth and Neil almost whined aloud when the horrid chemical smell hit open air—drugs, man-made, unnatural. 

                “Jesus, Andrew,” Aaron sneered.  “We’re in public.”

                Andrew ignored him and swallowed the powder harshly.  His color slowly returned and he settled back into the booth.  He gathered the other packets, there had to be at least a dozen, and shoved them into his jean pocket.  The others seemed unwilling to comment, but Neil didn’t quite have that grace.  “And you call me a junkie,” he said with a snort.  He felt and saw the others around the table flinch at his words, but he couldn’t bring himself to regret his words.  Andrew looked up as Neil waved at him sarcastically, “Hello, kettle.”

                The others, if possible, seemed even more reluctant to speak, but Nicky tried nonetheless, “It’s just cracker dust.  Not addictive.  Just a little bit of a buzz.”

                Neil gestured to Andrew across the table and the napkins still scattered around the table as proof of Andrew’s desperation, “Yeah, that’s not addiction at all.”

                Nicky flinched again, but further conversation was halted as a server appeared to hand out bowls of ice cream to everyone.  Neil was reluctant to try it—his only experience with ice cream was disgusting, overly processed powder —but Nicky urged him on, “I used to work here.  The ice cream is what this place is famous for.  You have to try it.”

                If Neil had thought to grab dinner, he might have declined, but as it was, he hadn’t so he took a spoonful from his bowl and was pleasantly surprised to find it was delicious—if a bit too sweet.  Regardless, he ate his bowl dutifully as did the others.  When the check was dropped off, Andrew slid it towards Aaron who clipped numerous twenties in—for the ice cream and the drugs, apparently.

                They all filed back out to the car and drove a short while to pull up at what appeared to be a night club, Eden’s Twilight.  Nicky pulled right up to the curb and the others piled out onto the side walk.  The bouncers perked up when they caught sight of the twins and Aaron walked up to them to exchange a complicated handshake.  One of them pulled an orange parking pass out of her back pocket which Aaron delivered to Nicky.  Neil looked at the line around the side of the building and was intensely grateful to Nicky for his new outfit.  Everyone in the line was leather clad with straps and chains that were apparently for decoration.  He would have stuck out like a sore thumb in his usual clothes.

                As soon as Nicky pulled away, presumably to go park the car, Andrew headed in the door, passing the line completely with a nod to the bouncers.  Kevin followed close behind and Aaron gestured Neil in ahead of him.  Neil kept close to Kevin as they made their way through the dimly lit hallway and entered the main room of the club.  They walked into a wall of noise, the scent of a hundred bodies sweating out alcohol and drugs nearly suffocating Neil.  The club was dark with multicolored flashing lights throwing the scene into stark relief every half second.  The sound system took up an entire wall next to the dance floor where bodies withered against each other to the beat.  Andrew led them up a set of stairs where tables and stools were scattered and a bar lined the back wall.  A balcony overlooked the dance floor and people gathered near the rails to watch the dancing below.

                They found a table quickly though it was covered in empty glasses which Andrew worked on clearing while Aaron stole enough stools from other tables for their group.  Aaron and Kevin took a seat at the table, but when Neil moved to do the same, Andrew reached out a hand toward him.  He tensed, but Andrew stopped before his hand made contact with Neil’s chest.  He beckoned without a word and Neil followed curiously as Andrew barreled through the crowd to the bar.  Thankfully, Neil could follow in his wake to avoid contact with the strangers surrounding them.  Somehow, Andrew found a gap in the bodies packed at the bar and settled against it to wait.  There were three bartenders working, but he seemed to be waiting for one in particular who perked up as soon as he spotted Andrew.

                Neil tensed again.  Someone who looked that happy to see Andrew could not be trusted.  “Andrew!” the man called as he made his way over.  “Welcome back!  And you brought someone new!”

                Andrew waved him off dismissively, “This is Neil.  He’s no one.”

                The bartender didn’t seem deterred, “Hi!  I’m Roland.  Andrew and the others used to work with me here.”

                Neil wasn’t quite sure what to do with that, but he didn’t really see the point of playing nice.  “Okay.”  He let his eyes drift away from where Roland was looking expectant and eyed the tray of fruits on the other side of the bar with interest.

                Roland didn’t seem to know what to do with Neil either so he turned his expectant look to Andrew.  “The usual for us and enough for one more,” he replied to the look while tapping a roll of money on the bar.

                “I don’t drink.”

                “A soda for this one, then.”

                Neil didn’t particularly care for soda, but he didn’t care enough to fight for a bottle of water either.  He watched blankly as Roland filled a tray to the brim with shot glasses and one glass of soda.  Andrew bent at the knees and lifted the tray above his shoulder so Neil took the lead back to the table to make room for him.  Nicky was back by the time they arrived, and he cheered when he caught sight of the alcohol.  Aaron and Kevin perked up as well.  As soon as the tray hit the table, they descended on the drinks like they held the fountain of youth.  Neil watched with distaste as they cleared the tray in a little under five minutes.  Humans are strange.  He couldn’t understand willingly giving up his mental facilities around so many unknown people.  The second round went much the way of the first with the addition of the cracker dust from Andrew’s pockets.

                Neil sipped on his coke, trying to block out the tang of the drugs in the air.  Everyone grabbed one, including Kevin—much to Neil’s disappointment.  To know that one of his kin had fallen so low, it hurt.  Nicky tried to tempt Neil with one as they all got ready to down their packets, “Come on, Neil.  It’s not like it hurts anything.  It doesn’t even show up on drug tests.”  He gestured sloppily to his side, “Look, even Kevin takes it.  And you know he wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his future.”

                “What future?”  Kevin cut him a poisonous glare.  “I can hear all of your livers crying out for help from here.”

                “Ah, the anger of the righteous,” Andrew drawled then tipped another packet into his mouth.  The others followed suit.

                “The righteous don’t know any better.  And this isn’t anger,” he said off-handedly.  “This is pity.  Sucks you have to drink and dust to tolerate each other.”  Neil had a feeling if Andrew was on his meds he would have laughed.  The silence following his barb almost threw him off balance, but he found he liked it more than chemical forced mirth.  Instead of any visible reaction, Andrew simply got up to get the third round of drinks.

                When he got back, they all raised a shot for some sort of toast, and at Nicky’s urging, Neil grabbed the shot glass Roland had apparently filled with soda for him.  He had raised it halfway when a new scent hit him—sickly sweet.  He knew this scent.

                In his time on the run with his mother, Neil had had many close calls.  They had been caught by his father’s people no less than fifteen times.  Those times weren’t always a gun shot out of nowhere or a thug breaking down their hotel door.  No, sometimes it was a glass of water that tasted off in a diner.  Or a piece of candy given to a child by a ‘kind’ stranger.  It was waking up in the back of a van and showing his father’s people just why his father wanted him back so very badly. 

                The others didn’t seem to notice his hesitation and he set the shot glass down with a click.  Andrew watched him blankly though there was a familiar curious glint in his eye.  The others watched on as Neil kept eye contact with Andrew and slowly pushed the shot glass off the table.  The shatter shouldn’t have been so loud over the music, but somehow it was.  “Oops,” Neil deadpanned.

                Andrew held his eye just as steadily as he ordered the others, “Leave.”  Nicky and Aaron seemed eager to escape, but Kevin voiced his complaints, loudly.  “Nicky, Aaron, watch Kevin.”  Seeing that Andrew wouldn’t spare him a glance, Kevin huffed loudly and followed the cousins down the stairs to the dance floor.

                Once alone, or as alone as they could be surrounded by strangers, Neil leaned forward into Andrew’s space, “You offered me alcohol, I declined.  You offered me drugs, I said no.  So your answer was to drug me without my consent.”  If there was a twitch in Andrew’s bored façade, it was covered quickly.  “What was your goal here, Andrew?”

                “How do you ensure you get honesty from a liar?”  He didn’t phrase it like a question, more like an explanation.

                “You give him incentive to tell the truth,” Neil answered easily.  “Which you chose not to do.  No, you decided to force the issue.  Which just ruined your chances of negotiation.”  Neil leaned in just that little bit more to guarantee that he had all of Andrew’s attention.  “You see, negotiations start with a gesture of goodwill,” here he gestured to his bared eyes.  “To build trust that both parties will hold up their end of the bargain.  Trust which you broke with this,” a gesture to the broken glass at their feet.  “The deal was, I come to Columbia, you stay out of my things.  I have no faith that you’ll hold up your end, but I held up mine.  I’m done here.”

                “I always keep my deals,” Andrew said plainly as Neil slid off his stool.

                Neil slid to the other side of Andrew, trapping him against the table without touching though Andrew didn’t look all that trapped.  It made his skin crawl to be so close to Andrew—to someone who had already violated him so intimately—but a point had to be made.  “I hope so, Andrew.”  Neil let his oh, so human mask slip just a bit.  “They may call you a monster, but that’s because they don’t know what a real one looks like.  But I think you do,” he leaned back a bit to study Andrew’s face.  His posture was deliberately relaxed, but Neil caught the white of his knuckles where he gripped the edges of his stool.

                He nodded, satisfied he’d made his point.  He deliberately turned his back on Andrew and made his way for the exit.  He shouldn’t have snapped like he did—Stupid, Abram, so stupid—and Andrew may not realize the severity of his first crime, but trying once again to take what Neil was not willing to give made his teeth itch.  Being unfamiliar with the club meant it took entirely too long for Neil to exit the club when he felt so ready to tear, bite, consume.  He pulled up short when he found Andrew’s car standing idle at the curb.  Aaron, Nicky, and Kevin seemed to be at various stages of drunk and passed out in the back seat.  Andrew leaned against the passenger side door.

                “What is this?” Neil asked, ready to turn and get a cab home with the money in his boot.

                Andrew lit two cigarettes and passed one to Neil when he got close enough.  “A gesture of goodwill.  Get in, we’re going back to campus.”

                Neil considered him for a moment as he took a drag from the cigarette.  With his decision to stay for Kevin, his life would be easier if he came to some kind of understanding with Andrew—no matter how much that grated.  He couldn’t protect Kevin if he was fending off Andrew’s clumsy attempts to do the same—against him.

Two strikes so far.  A third and I’m eating him.

He got in the car.

Chapter Text

The drive back to campus was a strange dichotomy of eternal and too short, peaceful and tense.  Soft snores floated from the backseat where Kevin, Nicky, and Aaron sprawled, untouched by the tension straining the air between Neil and Andrew.  Neil curled against his window in an effort to stay out of Andrew’s reach.  Whether that was so he didn’t go for Andrew’s throat or to protect himself from Andrew’s touch, he couldn’t say.  Probably both.

                Andrew didn’t seem any more at ease.  Grip white on the wheel, he was a study in utter stillness and tight movement.  Every muscle was locked tight with the occasional twitch only to correct the car’s course or bring a cigarette in to take a drag.  He didn’t offer another to Neil, but he stole one from the pack tucked into a cup holder anyway.  Stressed enough to actually smoke it, Neil was relieved to have something to chase away the lingering scent of the drugs, sweat, and alcohol that wafted off the others in the car.

                The tension didn’t ease even when the familiar landmarks surrounding campus came into view.  Instead of relaxing, Neil tensed further as Andrew pulled up to the curb outside the dorm.  Without putting the car into park, he laid of the horn.  The others startled awake at the noise with various groans and curses. 

“Out.”  Even clearly still intoxicated, the others seemed to recognize that Andrew was not to be questioned at the moment.  They shuffled out of the car and stumbled up to the dorm door.  As soon as they disappeared inside the lobby, Andrew peeled off.  Neil didn’t bother to ask where they were going.  If Andrew was taking him somewhere to make his post-murder clean up easier, then Neil wouldn’t have to worry about finding a good place to hide a body.

Instead, he found himself outside the stadium.  Andrew didn’t wait for him as he climbed out of the car and stalked up to the gate.  Neil followed at his leisure, finding the appropriate keys on his rather full key ring.  They were silent as they made their way through the dark foyer.  Andrew paused when Neil did at the juncture between the walkway to the Arena and the locker rooms.  He hesitated to change out, but he doubted he could resist the water with his instincts already so loud.  Decision made, he entered the locker room and went to change out in the bathroom.

Surprisingly, Andrew deigned to change out as well.  He was sitting on a bench in the locker room in his armbands and trunks, clutching his pack of cigarettes in one hand, when Neil emerged from the bathroom.  With a nod, he stood and led the way into the Arena.  Andrew settled beside a starting block with his feet in the water while Neil opted to dive seamlessly into the welcome embrace of his sanctuary.  He swam a slow lap and finally settled for the first time that night.  His anger simmered out in the wake of the peace he felt as the water kissed him lovingly.  Head cleared, instincts settled, and feeling secure for the first time since he’d been left this water, he calmed.  He barely resurfaced—just the top of his head and his eyes above the water—a few feet away from where Andrew idly swirled his feet in the water.

Andrew caught and held eye contact as he flicked the pack open and offered a cigarette to Neil.  He emerged up to his covered shoulders to lightly dry his hand on a nearby towel and slipped the lit stick from Andrew’s fingers.  They both settled back into their own space, Neil with his arms folded over the side of the pool.  Smoke swirled around them as the water sang sweetly. 

“Why here?”

“How do you start negotiations with someone who distrusts you?”

Neil hummed.  “Bringing me back to campus, to the dorms, would work as a gesture of good will.  Why here?”

“This is your territory, more so than the dorms where we are on equal footing,” he said it easily.  As though it was obvious that Neil was more at home in the water than at his residence.  The question was, did Andrew know just how right he was?

Neil hummed again.  If Andrew had somehow come to the correct conclusion of not who but what Neil was, then Neil wouldn’t be granting him any opportunities to confirm it.  “And the purpose of these negotiations?”

“I protect what is mine,” as if that answered anything.

“And I am a threat to that?”

“You are an unknown.  Tell me, Neil Josten,” a drag and an exhale, “how could I not be suspicious?  You bolt when presented with the chance to sign with us.  Then, here you are.  You show animosity toward Kevin.  Then, you train with him, though with significantly less hero worship than a nobody like you should have.  Kevin says you have potential, but you have no interest in competing—no drive that a water junkie like you should have.  Then, I find a duffle full of over half a million dollars and what looks like a shrine to possible murders—articles on disappearances, missing persons reports?  And you want me to let you near mine without answers when you know exactly what I’m protecting them from?”

It was the most Neil had heard Andrew say while sober.  It also threw into stark relief exactly how careless Neil had been—Stupid, Abram.  So fucking stupid.  A moment later and he finally realized why Andrew was so suspicious.  “You think I’m a mole.  For the Moriyamas.”  Neil honestly couldn’t help the derisive snort.  “As what?  A hitman?”

Andrew remained silent—almost expectant—as if he would get his answers if he waited Neil out.  “State your terms,” Neil said with a lazy wave.

“The truth, unedited.”

Predictable—a human asking for something they don’t deserve or need.  “And in return I get?”

“To stay.”

Neil rolled his eyes.  If Andrew had already seen so much, then Neil didn’t feel a need to censor himself.  “You seem to be under the impression that it is your choice whether I stay or not.  You’re wrong.”

“And if I start asking after your past?  How cold is your trail?  Why don’t I start with your parents?”

Neil’s identity was the best money could buy.  He had several contacts that had received a handsome amount of money to answer any phone calls as his ‘parents’.  He wasn’t particularly worried what Andrew’s digging could turn up.  “And you would accomplish this how?”

“I have a cop that owes me a favor.”

No real threat there, then.  Andrew might know a cop, but not one who could get the information he was looking for.  “Keep your favor for something important.”  He tossed the butt of his cigarette aside and gestured for another.  He took a bit of delight in the slight furrow of Andrew’s brow that belied his frustration with Neil’s irreverence.  “I tell you what I deem you need to know to keep your family and Kevin safe, and you accept my help in protecting him.”

His answer seemed to stop Andrew short—his hand out in an aborted movement to pass the lit cigarette to Neil.  It was the closest to an actual expression Andrew had shown without the medication, and Neil didn’t bother to bite back his victorious smirk.  After a moment, Andrew followed through with the motion to hand off the stick to Neil.  “You want to protect Kevin.”

A hum.  The dent between Andrew’s brows deepened.  “Do you accept my terms?”

Silence descended as Andrew considered.  “If circumstances change, and I need more information, I reserve the right to ask for it, and you must answer truthfully.”

“Only if the answer directly affects those here,” Neil amended in return.  There were no circumstances Neil could see that would make it necessary for Andrew to know what was after Neil.

“A martyr as well,” Andrew said.  “Typical.  It’s a deal.”

Neil nodded in acceptance and settled deeper against the side of the pool.  Even without giving the gory details, after so long lying, even a sliver of the ugly truth burned like acid at the back of Neil’s throat.  He felt a phantom pain on his scalp as his mother’s ghost screamed—stupid Abram—at the back of his mind.  “To put it simply, I’m a runaway.  My father was an abusive piece of shit, but wealthy.  One day, my mother got fed up, stole his money and me, and we ran.  She died last year and now it’s just me, but you don’t really need to know that story,” it was painfully abridged.  It didn’t encompass any of the horror Neil had grown up surrounded by, the horror he had endured.  Andrew waved him on.  “Kevin is family,” was the easiest way to phrase it.  Pod/kin/pack didn’t have the same connotations for humans whose ties were so shallow—blood related, friend, enemy. 

Andrew twitched sharply at his revelation before he covered the movement.  When he stayed silent, Neil continued, “Cousins a bit removed, but family nonetheless.”  Stretching the truth a bit to make Andrew understand would have to do.  “We’ve only met once, really.  My father acquired his wealth through ‘questionable’ means and took me with him to Evermore when he had a business meeting with the Moriyamas.”  Neil had been so happy to swim with some of his kin—the first time he would do so with someone besides his mother.  “I was young, excited to play with kids my age.  I didn’t know Kevin was family until I got there.  I thought we could be friends,” only to watch a man get chopped to pieces by his father.  “But my mother grabbed me and ran that night after we got home.  I kept track of Kevin in the media since he was the only family I’d ever met,” until he met his mother’s family right after they left the States.  “I doubt he even remembers me—I don’t look the same as I did then.  But he’s still the only family I have left.”

Family was a concept Andrew seemed to understand with an almost obsessive devotion.  He was proven right when he asked, “So why resist coming with us initially?”

“I thought Kevin had found me.  Found who I used to be.  My father probably doesn’t care to find me, but it’s still his money in my bag.  I wouldn’t put it past the sadistic ass to track me down just to get it back,” then kill Neil for besmirching the family name.  “When I realized he hadn’t, hadn’t even recognized me, I couldn’t stay away.”

“So you want to protect him,” Andrew drawled sarcastically.

“We grew up in the same world,” Neil shrugged.  “If he lived the life I did, I can’t let him go back to it.  Riko was a little shit as a kid.  I hate to imagine the demented asshole he grew up to be.”  He lifted his head defiantly, “You have a right to protect your family.  I’ve acknowledged that by telling you even a piece of this.  I have a right to protect mine.”

“And are you going to tell Kevin what you oh-so-nobly decided to do for him, or why?” he asked mockingly.

“No,” he returned firmly.  Andrew snorted a quiet ‘martyr’ which Neil ignored.  “The less people that know, the better.  If Kevin lets it slip to Riko, my father will be on our doorstep and I’d like to keep my living expenses,” and to keep living, ideally.

Andrew considered him for a moment, “Just how much of an abusive ass was he?”  He seemed to be looking at the careful distance Neil had kept between them with a confusing intensity. 

“That’s not need-to-know,” Neil answered easily.  Andrew stared hard at his face—as if looking for something—and Neil suddenly felt as if he’d missed part of the conversation.  Before he could ask, Andrew shrugged it off.  “So?  That’s my end of the deal done.”

Andrew pulled his feet out of the pool, grabbing a discarded towel and started to dry his legs.  “And I’ll hold up my end.  No one will touch Kevin.”  He moved off toward the locker rooms, and when he disappeared out of the Arena, Neil pushed off the wall of the pool to float in the cradle of the water.

He wasn’t sure exactly how long he’d lost himself in the gentle push and pull of the water, but by the time he got out, changed out, and locked the stadium back up, the sky was lightening in preparation for dawn.  He stopped short when his eyes landed on Andrew’s car still in the same spot he’d left it earlier.  Andrew was sprawled out on the hood, lit cigarette tip the only thing giving away his presence.  Neil made his way over cautiously, confused.  When he went to ask, Andrew looked over to exhale a cloud of smoke and a quiet ‘finally’.  He climbed into the driver’s seat and the car roared to life in the silence of predawn.  Neil was expecting him to drive off, but instead he sat looking impatiently out the windshield.  Slowly, he reached for the passenger’s side door and slipped into the front seat.  Andrew peeled off before Neil had put his seatbelt on, and they were back to the dorms just as the sky lightened to a pale grey.

They trudged up the stairs in silence and parted ways the same.  Neil slipped into his dorm quietly and shuffled around to change into his sleep clothes without disturbing the soft snores coming from his sleeping roommates.  As he finally curled under his blanket, a warmth spread through his chest.  He had decided to trust Andrew with a part of himself—probably foolish—but as he thought about how Andrew had waited outside the stadium for him, he thought it might have been the right choice.  And maybe, he was being trusted in return.  It took a while of staring at the ceiling to recognize the foreign feeling.

Hope was a dangerous, disquieting thing, but he thought perhaps he liked it.

Chapter Text

A harsh knock at the door woke Neil entirely too early the next morning.  He groaned and tried to burrow deeper in his covers to block out the noise.  Sleep had almost taken him again, but a shout of “Neil!” from Matt yanked him back into consciousness.  He rolled out of bed landing on his feet with a thud.  Stumbling out to the living room, he found Gordon splayed out on the couch, Matt at the door looking curiously back at Neil, and Andrew standing in the doorway with his charges behind him.

                Maybe it wasn’t so early then.  He squinted against the light pouring into the room from the windows and changed course for the small kitchen.  Coffee.  Thankfully, there was half a pot already made, sitting on the counter.  He swiped one of the travel mugs from the cupboard and filled it to the brim.  Sipping the lukewarm coffee, he turned to walk to the door.  Andrew, freshly medicated, grinned wide as Neil waved Matt off though he didn’t budge. 

                “Good morning, sleeping beauty!  It’s time for breakfast,” Andrew sang.

                Neil looked back at the clock on the microwave.  “It’s noon.”

                “Breakfast is breaking the fast, we haven’t eaten, and I want waffles,” Nicky called from the hallway.  “We would usually cook for breakfast, but since we didn’t stay in Columbia last night we have to go out, so let’s go!”

                Matt made an incomprehensible noise at the mention of Columbia, but Neil couldn’t spare the brain power to ask him about it.  Audiences were exhausting.  “Give me five, then.  I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

                Another strangled noise from Matt followed Neil as he grabbed a change of clothes and slipped into the bathroom to shower off.  He got ready in quick order and grabbed some cash and his keys on the way out the door without pausing to answer questions from Matt.  Though he did hear Gordon as he closed the door, “Great, another Monster, then.”  Neil didn’t bother to stop to correct him.

                As soon as he stepped out of the dorm, Nicky pulled the car up to the curb.  The twins were squished to one side of the back seat so Neil slid in behind Kevin.  They drove to a diner a bit out of the way to the tune of whatever top 40’s Nicky had playing on the radio.  When they walked in, the place was bustling since this was closer to town than campus.  Signs boasted about all-day breakfast and ‘world-famous’ pie.  Neil had been in a hundred of these diners all over the country—they might have had different names, but the décor was the same—with red lined booths, black and white tile, and oldies music playing softly over the speakers.

                Nicky talked to the hostess and they were soon sat in a booth with plastic menus and a promise of a waiter shortly.  Neil sat with Nicky on one side while the twins sandwiched Kevin on the other.  “You guys didn’t work here as well, did you?” Neil asked with just a hint of sarcasm.

                Nicky looked confused, “No, we haven’t had jobs in town.  Just Columbia.  Why?”

                The diner was a bit too crowded for this conversation, but Neil would make do.  “Just wondering if I need to check the waffles for roofies,” he said in German.

                The noise of the diner seemed to grow as a deadly silence fell over the table.  “I don’t like surprises, did no one tell you?” Andrew answered in kind.

                Neil looked up from the menu he had been studying, feigning surprise, “No, I didn’t get the memo.  There go my plans for your birthday.”

                Kevin looked distinctly irritated at being left out while Nicky turned a panicked look to Aaron, “Have I said anything incriminating?  Did we know he spoke German?  When did this happen?”

                No one knew, Nicky,” Aaron said lazily though he was studying Neil intensely.  “And everything you say is incriminating.

                That didn’t seem to calm Nicky down at all.  If anything, his dark face flamed red as he turned to Neil, “Are you mad?”

                Neil shrugged, “Not about the German.  But about last night?  Yeah, I’m a little pissed.”  Nicky fidgeted uncomfortably for a minute until Neil took mercy on him.  “Would you have done anything like that to me if Andrew hadn’t asked?

                Nicky looked horrified and out of the corner of his eye, Neil saw Aaron shift in his seat as well.  “No!  We’re friends, but Andrew—“

                “He’s family.  Its fine, Nicky.  I understand loyalty.”  Nicky deflated almost comically.  It was a surprise he didn’t slump all the way under the table as all of his tension left him.

                Andrew, who had been watching the exchange like a tennis match laughed, “He gets off lightly, does he?

                “Of course he does.  I actually like NickyAnd Aaron—he looks like you, but he doesn’t talk to me.  It’s nice.”  Neil reached over to where Nicky was still slumped in his seat and patted him lightly on the head.  Aaron’s face twisted in a complicated blend of surprise, distaste, and smugness.  Neil smirked in return and threw him a wink which made the distaste grow stronger.

                Nicky perked under the attention and made to respond, but Kevin hit a fist on the table, “Can you stop?  What the fuck is going on?”

                Andrew’s cackle at Kevin’s frustration covered Neil’s snort.  “Don’t like being left out, Day?  Don’t worry.  Your pet goldfish was just inducting himself into the ‘Monsters’.”

                ”What time are we doing the blood oath?  My soul already belongs to the devil, so we can skip the sacrifices this time,” Neil said dryly.  Kevin looked horrified and spluttered while Nicky laughed boisterously and even Aaron let out a snicker.

                Andrew met Neil’s eyes across the table and Neil caught a glimpse of the man behind the drugs for just a moment, dark amusement and intrigue flitting across his eyes.  Neil let a true smile grow for a beat and in a fit of playfulness, stuck his tongue out.  Surprise joined the look in his eye before it was over taken by the false happiness of the medication.  But Neil was comfortable.  His family was safe across the table from him, Nicky was chattering excitedly next to him, Aaron was hiding a smile, and Andrew seemed like he’d hold up his end of the deal.

                And if he didn’t?  Well, there was always strike three.

                Breakfast passed quickly and they made their way back to the dorms.  As they exited the stairwell, Nicky was explaining that they usually spent all weekend in Columbia so they would have to ‘make do’ with the booze in the dorm and video games for the rest of the weekend.  He was interrupted by Dan standing with the hall with her hands braced on her hips.  “You took him to Columbia?”

                “Captain!” Andrew called back.  “I don’t see how that’s your business.”

                “It is after last year, you little shit,” Dan snarled.  “What were you thinking?  Does Coach know?”

                “Dan, look,” Nicky gestured to Neil expansively.  “He’s fine!”

                “If it was fine, then why did you come back last night?  You’re usually gone all weekend.”

                “I forgot to pack clean underwear,” Neil deadpanned.  Everyone pulled up short to turn to him. 

                A beat of silence.  “…What?” Dan asked.

                Neil met her eyes head-on.  “I forgot to pack clean underwear.  So we had to come back last night.”  As lies go, it was weak—horrible—but such an innocuous and practical answer that Neil knew Dan wouldn’t be able to dispute it.  It was made less believable by Andrew and Aaron cackling at his answer.  Neil kept a straight face and Dan visibly waivered.

                Nicky turned to him and asked, “What kind of lie was that?”

                One that she can’t call me out on,” Neil answered in kind.

                Dan seemed even more disturbed by the switch in language.  Neil just put himself firmly in the ‘Monsters’ circle in front of the captain of their team.  Probably not best for the team dynamics, but he’d cross that bridge when he got to it.  Neil shrugged it off and followed the others past Dan and into their dorm room.

                The rest of the weekend passed like that, watching the others drink and play video games.  Neil went to his own dorm only to grab his own cigarettes when Andrew ran out and to sleep.  Matt looked worriedly after him every time he left, but Gordon ignored him entirely which suited Neil just fine.

                Monday practice rolled around and the new dynamic strained things even more.  Neil still stayed out of all the sniping, but Gordon and Reynolds seemed determined to drag him into squabbles now that he was in the ‘enemy’ camp.  He ignored it all in favor of approaching Renee.  She offered a serene smile to him as he settled next to her while the Matt’s relay line worked on their transitions.  He gave her a blank look in return, but her mask stayed firmly in place.  “The line is coming along, isn’t it?” she offered when he kept silent.

                He watched as Gordon turned on Kevin to snap something as Matt tried to wedge his way in between them before fists started flying.  “Yeah,” he said flatly.  “You can really feel the camaraderie.”

                Renee snorted, and even that somehow sounded delicate.  “How are you settling, Neil?  I see that you came to an understanding with Andrew and the others.”  She said it like she was happy about that.  There was curiosity, sure, but there was no expectation for an explanation. 

Neil decided to give her one out of courtesy, “Yes, we did.  We made a deal about him and his.  Now, I could be wrong, but it seems like the upperclassmen are yours.”

She considered him for a moment and the monster in her lifted its head, “Yes, they are.  When Andrew joined the team, we split it in half.  He said he would protect his and it’s up to me to protect the others.”

Neil nodded as his thoughts were confirmed.  “Good.  Then, I believe we should come to an understanding as well.”

The mask finally slipped and two monsters sat on the bench regarding each other.  “I protect what is mine.”  It was an eerie echo of Andrew, the delivery just as flat.

“As do I.  Yours are not in danger from me, but if you do not leash them, I will put them in their place myself.”  Neil said it mildly, but the way Renee’s eyes darkened further led him to believe she had gotten the message.

“They are strong-willed.  They’ve had to fight for everything they have.  I don’t think they know how to not fight,” Renee tried to explain.

“And I am not discrediting whatever struggles they’ve faced.  But you need to make sure they don’t bite off more than they can chew,” Neil answered as he watched Gordon point emphatically in his direction.  “They might just choke.”

Renee stiffened next to him and he turned the grin he learned from his father on her.  She nodded back solemnly.  He let the grin soften as he shifted to nudge his shoulder against hers.  The monster is her eyes went back to sleep as she relaxed enough to nudge him back.  Understanding reached, Neil went back to practice.  Renee stepped in to play peacemaker with a bit more effort if Gordon and Reynolds turned ire his way, and everyone escaped practice with jugulars intact.

Neil counted it as a win.

That night, a knock sounded at the door.  Neil had a feeling he knew who it was and he was proven right when he heard Kevin’s voice call out into the dorm.  Resigned, he dragged himself from bed to find Matt blocking Kevin at the door.  “What, Kevin?” he asked from behind Matt.

“Let’s go,” Kevin demanded impatiently.

Just one little bite.  It’s not like it would kill him.

A heavy sigh and he patted Matt on the back to get him to move aside.  He did so reluctantly but remained close to the door.  Neil studied Kevin’s tight expression and rolled his eyes but nodded.  He grabbed his keys as Matt called, “You don’t have to go anywhere with him, Neil.”

“Not that it’s your business, Boyd—“

Neil cut Kevin off, “Its fine, Matt.  I wouldn’t go if I didn’t want to.”  With that, he slipped passed him and headed to the stairwell.  He heard Kevin scramble to follow, but he didn’t hear the dorm door close until they entered the stairwell door.  The walk to the parking lot was silent, and Andrew was sitting in the car with his head pillowed by his arms on the steering wheel.  Kevin poked his head in the passenger door without climbing in, “I can drive if you’re tired, you know?”

“The day I let you drive my car is the day I’m dead, Day,” he lifted his head to start the engine.  “Now, are we going or are we going back to bed?”

Kevin climbed in without protest and Neil climbed in the center back seat.  Neil wasn’t surprised when they arrived at the stadium.  After Kevin let them in with his keys, Andrew strolled off to go into the Arena while Kevin and Neil changed out.  Andrew was sitting in the stands when they entered and they ignored his presence as they started warming up.  They jogged two laps around the pool in silence and stretched before climbing onto the starting blocks.  Lap after lap after lap, turn after turn, reset, restart, over and over.  Neil kicked up his speed just a bit to encourage Kevin to push harder.

It worked for a bit, but Neil stopped when Kevin’s movements took on a hitch.  It took one lap for Kevin to notice he had stopped, and Neil cut off his righteous indignation before it could be voiced, “You need to stretch out again.”

That pulled Kevin up short, “What?”

“Your shoulder.  You need to stretch it out again.”

His posture took a defensive air, “I know my limits.”

“Sure, you know your limits so you can push past them,” this at least hasn’t changed since they were kids.  Kevin was always a stubborn little shit.  “I’m not saying stop.  I’m saying stretch out the muscle so you don’t do more damage.  You dislocated your shoulder, Kevin.  You can’t ask it to do the same work as your good shoulder without taking care of it.  You swim butterfly, you know the kind of strain it’s under.”

Andrew had sat up to watch the exchange in interest, and it seemed to be his scrutiny that made Kevin fold.  He sat roughly on the ground to bring his arm across his chest.  Neil took pity after watching him pout and moved to stand behind him to help.  They worked his shoulder softly through the range of motion exercises Neil remembers from watching Abby walk Kevin through the same over the summer.

They swam a few more races, Kevin’s movements looking smoother, before calling it a night.  Kevin went up to get Andrew while Neil showered off and waited for them in the locker room.  The ride back to the dorm was silent as was the walk up.  When Neil walked into his dorm, he found Matt sitting on the couch with his laptop.  He looked up with a relieved expression when Neil entered, and it took Neil a moment to realize Matt had been waiting up for him.  A bit of warmth spread through his chest as he nodded at his roommate.  Matt looked like he wanted to comment but opted to head to bed with a smile instead.


They had two weeks of practice until the NCAA Swimming board announced the district change.  Practice was over for the day when coach called to warn them.  They missed the actual announcement, but they caught the reaction as a news anchor rambled a mile a minute while gesturing excitedly.

“Well, there it is,” Matt sighed from where he sat on the couch beside Gordon.  “The press will be all over us from here on out.  Coach’s phone will be ringing off the hook.”

Gordon snorted into his beer, “I didn’t sign up for this freak show.  We should just send him back north and be done with it.”

Neil jaw ticked and he took a deep breath as he remembered his agreement with Renee.  “Why do you hate him so much?”

Gordon stared at him incredulously.  “I told you he was stupid,” he said to Matt.

Neil amended, “Why do you hate him so much that you would wish that on him?”

“I’m sick of Day getting whatever he wants just because he’s famous.”  When Matt went to object, Gordon pointed a finger sharply at him with a scowl.  “No, you know what fame gets you?  Everything.  When he got here, we got fan letters, cards, flowers.  Fans crying for him, their life over because he would never swim again.  When’s the last time someone cried for you?”  Gordon turned to Neil.  “They were with Kevin every step of the way.  Where were they for us?  His life isn’t more important than mine just because he’s talented.”

“So you would wish abuse on him just because you’re jealous people care about him?”

Gordon looked ready to throw his beer at Neil.  “Abuse.  He got his shoulder dislocated, once.  His life, so hard.”

Neil’s anger rose sharply, “And you call me stupid.  Kevin lived with the yakuza.  You think that dislocated shoulder is the only abuse he suffered?  Have you met him?  Obsession like Kevin’s isn’t born; it’s made.  He’s talented because if he wasn’t they would have killed him.  A man who didn’t suffer abuse doesn’t drink like Kevin does, have anxiety like Kevin does, have fear like Kevin does.  And what’s more, he has to watch his abusers be praised by the media, by fans, by peers.”  He wasn’t sure when he stood up, but he found himself looming over Gordon.  “Just because you can’t see the scars doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  If you pulled your head out of your ass, you would see the evidence right in front of you.”

Gordon sneered back and stood from the couch to loom over Neil in return.  “Oh, look, another Kevin Day fanboy.  That didn’t take long, did it?”

“So what?  You want my pity as well?  Good job, you have it.  I’m sorry you’re so self-involved that you can’t recognize a fellow abuse survivor,” Neil snarled up at him.

“I don’t need your fucking pity!” Gordon yelled back.

“Then what is it you want, Gordon?” he growled out in return.  “Because it sounds like you want recognition.  Here I am, recognizing that yeah, I’m sure you got a shit hand as well.  Here I am, looking at how far you’ve come, congratulations.  Maybe if you didn’t lash out at everyone when they turned their attention to you, people would rally behind you as well.”

Matt wedged himself between them before Gordon could pull his fist back for the hit he obviously wanted to let loose on Neil.  “Okay, let’s calm down.  He has a point, Seth.  Kevin is one of us and your attitude doesn’t make things any easier.  This is your last year.  Maybe it’s time for a fresh start.”

Gordon settled back with his beer after a moment and snorted derisively.  “What’s the point?  We’re the laughing stock of the NCAA.  No one will sign a Fox.  Might as well sit back and watch it burn.”

Matt made a frustrated noise, “Thanks for the encouragement for the rest of us.  We’ll prove you wrong, won’t we Neil?”

“I honestly couldn’t care less, actually,” Neil shrugged as he moved to grab his keys.  “I’m just here to swim.”

Matt paused to look back at him.  “That’s not really how you feel, is it?”

When Neil shrugged again, Matt just looked pained before changing the subject.  “Well going out to dinner is a no-go with the press around.  I don’t care how many campus cops Chuck gave us.  Might as well order in and watch some movies.  I’m gonna go check to see what Dan is doing.  You guys enjoy your defeatist attitudes,” he left with a wave.

Neil grabbed his cigarettes and made for the door as well to check on Kevin.  Gordon snorted.  “Maybe you’re not as stupid as I thought.”

“Maybe I am,” Neil said over his shoulder and left Gordon to finish his drink.

Chapter Text

Classes were set to start Thursday, August 24th, so practice the Wednesday before was hectic.  All athletes were required to see one of the school’s psychiatrists at the beginning of every semester and the Foxes were no exception.  Coach sent them away in pairs all through morning practice in an effort to keep disruptions to a minimum.  Andrew and Nicky had just come back from their sessions when Wymack called Neil and Renee out.  Neil was intensely grateful to escape practice—Gordon had been insufferable, though his ire wasn’t directed at Neil for once.  As they toweled off, Andrew tossed his car keys to Renee.

                She offered a soft smile in return, “I’ll take care of her.”

                Neil wasn’t particularly surprised that Andrew afforded Renee that kind of trust, but with Kevin in earshot, he felt compelled to comment, “Renee gets the car and Kevin doesn’t?”

                “It’s fun telling Kevin no,” Andrew answered.  The offended huff from Kevin made it hard to keep a straight face, but Neil managed with a satisfied hum.  Andrew studied him for a moment before his attention drifted.  Nicky stayed unusually quiet beside Andrew, studying the keys in Renee’s hand with a grim expression while wringing his hands.  Though Nicky had only good things to say about Renee, like the upperclassmen, he disliked the friendship between Andrew and Renee—something about Andrew being a bad influence on the ‘sweet Renee’. 

Idiots. 

Andrew walked away to whatever had caught his attention and Nicky followed with a wave to Neil and Renee.  They split up to change out into light workout gear.  As the last pair to go, they would get back for the beginning of lunch break and afterwards they had gym time.  Neil beat Renee to the lounge and together, they walked out to the parking lot. 

                “What is up Gordon’s ass?” Neil asked as he settled in the passenger’s seat.

                Renee sighed delicately as she started the car.  “He and Allison had a blow out last night.  I’m honestly surprised you didn’t hear it.”

                “I was at the Arena with Kevin and Andrew last night,” he shrugged.

                She nodded in return and Neil watched in interest as her mask slipped a bit when her mouth twisted in something like distaste, “Allison is upset, of course.  She didn’t get much sleep last night after Seth left.”  Her grip tightened almost imperceptibly on the steering wheel.

                Interesting.

                Neil let the conversation drop as Redding came into view.  The medical facility was situated in the middle of campus for easy access to all students—some of them evidently already utilizing its services if the number of cars in the parking lot was any indication.  Neil knew distantly that the campus was being overrun with students in preparation for the school year.  He had seen enough milling around campus and Fox Tower was at capacity, but he had been successful in avoiding any and all of the student body due to long practices and night training with Kevin.  That would end when classes started the next day.

                Renee looked at him curiously when he sighed heavily at that thought.  He waved her off as they made their way into the building.  Redding was split neatly in two with the medical staff near the front of the building and the psych section in the back.  Renee led them through to a reception desk to sign them both in and left Neil in the waiting area to head down a hall lined with closed doors.

                With nothing and no one to distract him, Neil felt anxiety claw up his throat.  Though Neil was accustomed to dealing with the monsters hiding in the dark, under the bed, under smiles, humans presented their own dangers.  Humans trained to see through lies and into the psyche of others were in a league of their own.  The anticipation of battle had his skin crawling.  Every minute that ticked by seemed to last an eternity until, finally, Renee appeared through the doorway followed by Dr. Betsy “Bee” Dobson.

                She was a short woman with a few extra curves.  Chin length, brown hair framed a round face marred with laugh lines the way only true warmth could scar.  Wire framed glasses covered eyes shining with intelligence and no little curiosity.  “You must be Neil.”  Her voice was warm, genuinely so, and Neil was put—if possible—more on edge.  “Good morning.”

Neil steeled himself and stood to greet her with a firm handshake.  He exchanged a nod with Renee and proceeded the doctor to the only open door in the hallway.  Dr. Dobson’s name plate hung beside the door so Neil entered without invitation to study the room.  Sunlight poured into the room through the windows lining one wall giving the room a buttery glow.  A worn couch sat in the middle of the room, pillows situated identically against each arm, facing a plush arm chair across a coffee table.  A desk, clear of clutter, sat in the far corner, but what caught Neil’s attention were the shelves lining the wall to the right.  Glass figurines caught the sunlight and threw it back across the room in small refracted rainbows.  Stepping closer, Neil noticed the figures were all spaced precisely and not a speck of dust marred their shine.

The pristine order of the room made him itch.  He heard her bustle in behind him but didn’t deign to turn around as she introduced herself, “My name is Betsy Dobson, but I’ll answer to almost anything.  Bee, Doc, Hey You, whatever makes you comfortable.  May I call you Neil, or would you prefer Mr. Josten?”

He reached out to change the angle of one of the figurines slightly.  “Whatever.”

She did not seem perturbed, “I’ll call you Neil for now, and if at any time you believe that is too familiar we can reevaluate.”  He strolled to the row of windows and adjusted the blinds of one to slant further down.  The doctor didn’t comment and continued when he remained silent.  “Now, as you know, this is an informal meeting so we may get to know each other.  I won’t be analyzing everything you say or even take notes so there’s no need to stress about it.”  He hummed noncommittally and made his way to the couch.  She opened one of her desk drawers, “Hot cocoa?”

“It’s summer,” he gestured toward the window just in case she hadn’t noticed the August heat sizzling outside.

“I find chocolate is good any time of the year,” a mug and can of cocoa powder appeared from the drawer.

“I don’t care for sweets.”

Dobson shrugged that off and settled in the armchair across from him with the mug.  She stirred her cocoa and tapped her spoon against the rim three times before setting the spoon to the side.  Neil reached for one pillow and regarded her for a moment.  “So why am I required to be at this ‘informal meeting’?”

“The university puts a lot of pressure on its students, especially the athletes.  These biannual meetings ensure that the students have someone to vent to so that stress doesn’t build up,” she explained.

Neil snorted as he inverted one corner of the pillow.  He noted her fingers twitching around her mug with vindictive glee.  “You can speak plainly.  They’re keeping an eye on their investments.” 

“If that is how you choose to look at it,” she said mildly.  “Tell me a bit about yourself, Neil.”

No.

Neil did not doubt he was an accomplished liar.  He had lived one lie or another for his entire life.  He had lied to cops, his parents, classmates, the FBI, himself.  He spent the past year building a whole persona—he knew what Neil Josten’s parents did, his likes, dislikes, personality—and it worked.  Never had he lied to a professional trained to see through bullshit.  So he wouldn’t.

“I have a headache today.”  She hummed in encouragement.  “Gordon was in rare form during practice.  He must be exhausted fighting the entire world all the time.  I wouldn’t care if it wasn’t so obnoxious.  Or loud.  But the Arena echoes and I swear my ears are going to start bleeding soon.”  He reached for the other pillow and started systematically crinkling the seams.  “It wouldn’t be as bad if the others didn’t bait him all the time though Kevin is so self-involved that I don’t think he actually notices when he’s being offensive.” 

The thoroughly wrinkled pillow was set to the side only to slowly slip off the couch.  Dobson’s gripped tightened around her mug as she tracked the descent.  She tapped a finger against the porcelain three times but didn’t comment.  Neil had to bite down viciously to contain a triumphant smirk and continued to relay unnecessarily detailed reports of his teammates’ antics without letting her get a word in as their time swiftly dwindled.

He stood as soon as their allotted half hour passed cutting himself off from an in-depth description of Renee’s new sneakers.  Dobson didn’t quite startle at the sudden movement but it was a close thing.  She gathered herself quickly enough to offer a hand and a quick, “I guess I can hear about the rainbow laces next time.”

Neil gave her hand a quick squeeze and made a point to nudged one side of the couch back a bit as he walked towards the door, “I’ll see you next semester, doctor.”  He didn’t look back as he left to collect Renee from the waiting room.  They didn’t speak until Renee started the car, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?  Andrew was convinced it would be a disaster.  He put money on you hating Betsy.”

“If I lie and say I like her, then I get half your winnings,” he said after a moment.  He didn’t really need the money, but he couldn’t resist contradicting Andrew’s assumptions.  His response surprised a laugh out of Renee.  He let himself grin back when she glanced at him.

“You have a deal.”

He let his grin take on a wicked edge.  “’Sweet Renee’ being deceitful, the team would be shocked,” he sang mockingly.

She grimaced a bit, “They think too highly of me.”

Neil snorted in response, “That’s entirely your fault—or their’s depending on how you look at it.  Are they so naïve that they don’t recognize a monster in their midst or is your mask too good?”

She flinched visibly, but nodded in acquiesce.  “You did.”

“Naïve, I am not,” he returned flatly.  “You recognized me as well.”

“As did Andrew,” as if that was some consolation.

“Andrew is paranoid.  Suspicion is not the same as recognition,” he waved off.  “We are a different breed, Renee Walker.”

She hummed in bland acknowledgment even while her grip caused the steering wheel to creak in protest.  Neil echoed her as they pulled into the stadium parking lot.  Though he respected Renee—even more unbelievably, he liked her—he couldn’t resist prodding her when possible.  While he knew that their masks were necessary, like with Andrew, he felt a reckless compulsion to dig for something true under the façade.  Stupid, so stupid, but entertaining and strangely satisfying.

As they made their way into the stadium, Renee broke the silence by assuring Neil he’d have his cut of the money from Andrew by the end of the day.  Their arrival in the Arena signaled the beginning of lunch break.  The team split off into groups to eat and met back at the gym an hour later for two intensive hours of cardio.  Though Neil objectively enjoyed running, he was developing an ardent hatred for the treadmill.  Running without going anywhere left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Usually, they would go until dinner, but with classes starting the next day, Wymack cut them a rare, one-time break.  As had become his habit, Neil was the last out of the locker room after showers and found the rest of the team seated in the lounge.  Wymack waved him to take a seat so he made his way to the armchair that had been pulled up next to the monsters’ couch.  He scanned his teammates for a clue of what the impromptu meeting was about but the upperclassmen all seemed at ease and the monsters were more focused on Andrew.  He was soundly asleep even though he had been wide awake minutes earlier.  According to Nicky, he’d been adjusting his medication dosage and schedule to prepare for the school year.  He’d been crashing at random times for the last week and Wymack had been doing his best to work around it.

As soon as Neil settled, the coach clapped to draw their collective attention.  Neil noted with a distant unease that Andrew didn’t so much as twitch.  “Alright, maggots, classes start tomorrow which means we’re switching out practice times.  We meet at the gym at six in the morning.  We’re here at three in the afternoon.  I’ve seen all of your schedules so I know you can get here on time.  No excuses.”

“Yes, coach,” they chorused when he paused expectantly.

“Good,” he nodded sharply.  “This isn’t our campus anymore.  Everyone is checked in and ready to go.  They doubled up on campus police since last year, but that’s a lot of bodies to keep safe.  Keep your heads down, keep out of trouble, and if any press get through, tell them to watch Kathy’s show on Saturday.”

“Kathy?” Dan spoke up.

“Kathy Ferdinand.”  When he was met with blank faces he turned to Kevin with a scowl.  “You didn’t tell them?”

“Why would I?” Kevin sniffed.

“Like, morning show host Kathy Ferdinand?” Matt asked.

“The very same.  As part of our deal with Chuck and the NCAA Board to keep that” here he gestured to Neil in his entirety, “quiet until our first game, we have to do some sort of publicity.  Kevin chose Kathy because she agreed to wait until after our first meet this Friday.  We’re driving up to Raleigh Saturday morning for a first exclusive interview.”  The derision in his voice was plain, but it didn’t seem to affect the growing excitement among the foxes.

“We’ll have to get up early Saturday to watch it!” Dan said to Renee.

“Or you could just come with.”  Kevin looked ready to protest, but Wymack neatly cut him off.  “Kathy reserved front row seats for the whole team.  We have to take a bus to fit all of these yahoos anyway so there’s plenty of room.”

Renee turned to Kevin, “Did you want us to sit out?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Kevin said.

Nicky grinned and reached over Andrew’s form to pat Kevin on the shoulder.  “He just doesn’t want us to see the fake media smile after we’ve dealt with the real Kevin Day.  Imagine if his fans could see him mid-practice.  They’d cry.”  Kevin batted his hand away with a scowl.

“Do you even remember how to smile?” Matt chimed in.  “When’s the last time you were in front of a camera?”

“December fourth.”

“Yeah, I have to see this,” Matt grinned.  “I’m in.”

“I’ll buy breakfast for the ride,” Dan claimed.  “Renee?  Neil?”

“No, thank you,” Neil said.

“I vetoed your choice on the matter,” Wymack cut in.  “The Board is outing you Friday before the meet.  I don’t want you out of my sight until things settle down.”

Neil could feel his hackles rise, “I can take care of myself.”

“Watch me beam with pride,” Wymack returned flatly.  “That’s not your job anymore.  You swim.  Abby and I look out for your ass.  Get your priorities straight.”  Wymack paused to see if he would argue and nodded sharply when he remained silent.  “Questions, comments, concerns?  No?  Good.  Then get out of my sight and get some sleep.  Kevin, wake up the gremlin without getting punched in the face.  I don’t need you starting school with a shiner.”

Neil was already out of his seat when Nicky offered Kevin, “I got it.”  With a grimace, he reached towards Andrew’s shoulder, but Neil caught his hand before he could make contact.  Idiots.  He gave Nicky an exasperated eyeroll and pulled him to his feet away from Andrew. 

“Kevin, get up.”  Neil paid no mind to the indignant huff he got in response.  “Now.”  Kevin lumbered to his feet with a petulant frown but at least he moved.  With the others out of range, Neil only had to nudge his foot lightly against Andrew’s to rouse him.  As before, Andrew came awake swinging, but his fist only connected with the couch cushions. 

Neil watched in interest while Andrew reoriented himself.  “I missed the powwow.”

“Kevin can give you the summary,” Wymack said.  “Now, everyone out before I decide your time is better served with laps.”

The lounge cleared in seconds.


Practice ended at eight the next morning.  Time cut close, Neil accepted Matt’s offer for a ride back to the dorms.  Showered and changed out of sweats, Neil joined the sea of orange spilling out of Fox Tower down the hill toward campus.  As was tradition, athletes wore their jerseys to the first day of class.  Neil decided to opt out of that tradition to enjoy at least one day of anonymity.  He would be expected to wear his jersey for the day of the meet.

He arrived in his first class with enough time to snag a seat in the back of the room.  The teacher bounced in the room a few minutes after class was set to start.  She was a teaching assistant with all the energy of a small breed dog.  She spent the class going over the syllabus and the semester projects.  Halfway through, Neil decided she was insane.  She spoke as if English composition was the most exciting class they would ever take.  Their grades, midterm and final included, would be written projects of varying length so Neil was intensely grateful that he’d managed to work out his tutor hours.  His writing was average at best and the TA made it clear that ‘average’ wouldn’t cut it.  Her sheer enthusiasm for her subject was utterly exhausting.  Thankfully, she let them out after they were done with the syllabus and class schedule.

Across campus, his chemistry class was held in an auditorium.  He couldn’t see the board from his seat at the back near the door but having the wall at his back helped him relax in the room full of people.  The professor briefly went over the syllabus then jumped right in to an introduction to chemistry.  His droning voice could put the dead to sleep—so much so that Neil resorted to stabbing himself with his pencil whenever his focus started to drift.  Seventy-five minutes of agonizingly boring chemistry later, they were released.

Campus was overrun by students as early-risers blended with late sleepers.  The Quad was full of booths of volunteers helping to steer lost freshmen in the right direction.  Orange and white paraphernalia were thrust into passing hands by over-excited spirit squads.  Neil made it out of the horde with every school team schedule and at least four stickers.  He dumped everything at the first trashcan in site.  Matt had their meet schedule in the dorm and Neil didn’t care enough to need one handy.

Done for the day, he picked up a quick lunch at the Athletic dining hall and made his way to the dorms.  Most of his classes were scheduled for Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so he was looking forward to the quiet of the dorm until practice.  He already had three assignments; a small essay, a fifty-page chapter to read, and questions for that chapter.  With the course load, he knew he should cut back on late night practices with Kevin.  But.  But.  That time was the closest he got to freedom.  Swimming with just Kevin—one of his—was relaxing and right in a way that swimming with the others just wasn’t.

So he’d manage.

Neil didn’t noticed he’d drifted off until a gunshot jerked him back to full consciousness.  He whipped around to see Matt coming through the door and only then realized the ‘gunshot’ was the lock clicking open.  “Already hard at work I see,” Matt said wryly.  Neil looked down to find his chemistry worksheet on the floor with his textbook slowly slipping in pursuit.  He grabbed it before it could fall and retrieved his sheet.  “Maybe cut down on those night practices now that classes started, huh?”

“I’m fine,” Neil said while flattening out the sheet on his desk.

“You say that a lot.  I’m starting to think you don’t know what it means.”

Neil waved him off without looking.  He heard a sigh, but Matt didn’t continue.  Instead, he grabbed his laptop and moved to their room.  Neil stared at the worksheet until the printed words lost all meaning, his thoughts, body, soul were consumed with the call of the water.

Chapter Text

Thursday’s excitement had nothing on Friday’s.  All of the garish decorations from the first day of classes seemed to have multiplied overnight.  Banners hung from any surface above eye level.  Streamers draped over anything and everything that would support them.  Every working body seemed to be in a campus wide competition to see who could find the most offensively orange garb to wear in order to show school spirit.  The bodies on campus seemed to multiply as well as people streamed onto campus for the opening weekend with the Foxes’ swim meet that evening and the opening football game Saturday.  The Foxes didn’t have much hope of doing well with the meet against Breckinridge.  Before Edgar Allen moved South, Breckinridge had ruled the district.  Thankfully, the football team seemed to have a better shot the next afternoon. 

Campus police were already out en masse to control the swelling groups settling around campus for the weekend.  It made Neil itch to see the blue uniforms loitering around campus, but the site was better than dealing with the press.  Not that dealing with his classmates was much better.  Even among all the orange, the bright orange Foxhole Arena jacket wrapped around his shoulders caused problems everywhere he went.  He seriously considered skipping, but the Athletic coordinator spent game days checking athlete attendance.

Thankfully, his teammates seemed to have anticipated this reaction.  Matt was waiting for him outside of his Spanish class to escort him to his next class.  Even if the school supported the swim team, Neil was a newly revealed, very well-kept secret.  It didn’t take more than an internet search to discover the NCAA board had bent the rules for him and that generated a lot of interest for the Foxes’ tenth member.  Neil had read all the speculation over the summer, surprised, but not, that Andrew had told the truth regarding Kevin’s belief that Neil would go far.  And as of that morning, the press had a name to hang Kevin’s hopes on.  The looks he garnered around campus made his skin crawl, but he kept close behind Matt’s bulk as he waded through the crowds to drop Neil off at the door to his class.

Renee picked him up from his math class, expertly avoiding a group of cheerleaders to deposit him in his history class.  Neil was almost shocked that Reynolds deigned to meet him outside after his class but had to admit that as long as he was following in the wake of her strut no one paid him much mind.  She led him to the athletes’ cafeteria, and though he didn’t have much of an appetite, he obediently grabbed a tray.

He sat across the table from Reynolds and Gordon to watch their interactions with interest while idly picking at his food.  Neil hadn’t spent any time with them as a unit.  Gordon seemed almost content as he and Reynolds bickered back and forth over their lunch, settled in a way Neil had never seen.  He still didn’t quite understand their relationship, but if this was the effect it had on the abrasive pair, then Neil could see why they were so reluctant to give up on each other.

“Well?” Reynolds demanded startling Neil out of his thoughts.

                “What?”

                Reynolds huffed, “What are you going to do about a date?”

                They’d spent the lunch discussing the fall NCAA Swim Club banquet.  Every division one swim club in the southeast—Ravens included—shoved into socializing with each other seemed like a special kind of torture.  Neil was still working on viable excuses to skip though solutions weren’t forthcoming.

                “I’m not bringing one,” he shrugged.

                “Don’t be stupid,” Reynolds waved off.  “Even the monster has a date.”

                “Kevin has a date?” Neil asked, deliberately misunderstanding.  Gordon, who’d been taking a sip from his water bottle, choked in surprise and beat his chest repeatedly as coughed out a ragged laugh.

                Reynolds gave them both a disdainful look and corrected, “I was talking about Andrew.”

                Neil hummed, “Renee?” She was, afterall, the only one Neil could imagine Andrew would tolerate for a whole evening.  He watched closely as Reynolds’s eyes sharpened.  Neil filed that away for later.

                “She hasn’t asked him yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  The pot’s getting big on it so get your bet in while you can.”  She didn’t seem bothered about the seemingly foregone conclusion of Renee and Andrew though Gordon scoffed.  One thing that united almost all the Foxes was the compulsive need to bet on anything and everything.  Neil hadn’t yet participated though Renee kept him up to date on the open pots in case information came his way.  He would have to consider throwing some money in on this one in particular after talking to Renee.  But that was for later.

                Reynolds was already moving on, “If you need help, just ask Aaron.  He can get all the Vixens’ numbers from Katelyn.”  The Vixens were Palmetto’s cheer squad, though Neil had no idea what that had to do with Aaron.

                “Who’s Katelyn?”

                Gordon scoffed, “Aaron’s secret-no-so-secret girlfriend.”

                Reynolds nodded along, “Look for her at the meet.  Their pining from across the room is disgustingly obvious.”  Neil filed that little tidbit away as well.  “Now, I have a meeting with my advisor.”  She dropped a kiss on Gordon’s upturned lips and sauntered off.

                Neil and Gordon finished up their meals in silence then made their way to Neil’s last class of the day.  An hour and a half later, he met Dan outside to walk back to Fox Tower.  She had another class so she left him at the crosswalk with a parting, “Rest up.  It’s gonna be a long night.”

                Neil was too tense from that morning to follow that advice, but he headed straight to bed anyway.  The reality finally set in as he stared at the ceiling.  This was not Millport, where he was just swimming to scratch that ever-present itch.  No, this was a spotlight.  One he would be stepping out in tonight.  The competition didn’t worry him, but the attention did.  He might as well paint the target on his forehead himself—which is exactly what I’m doing.  Stupid, Abram.  He could still run.  He was viscerally aware of his duffle bag sitting innocently under his bed.

                Before he could drag his reluctant limbs toward his dresser, Matt knocked on the bedroom door to call him out for a light dinner.  Neil joined the upperclassmen in the living room and let the conversation flow around him with a sinking feeling.  Too late now.  Dan left to check on the monsters as they cleaned up the takeout boxes and returned with a grim expression.  Matt reached out to give her hand a squeeze, “He’ll be fine.  He was last year.”

                “I though Kevin didn’t swim last year,” Neil piped up.

                The upperclassmen all exchanged looks before Dan turned to him with a heavy sigh.  “There’s something we haven’t told you.”  She waved her hand agitatedly.  “We were going to tell you sooner, but you and Andrew were having problems and we weren’t sure how you would take it.”

                Reynolds cut in, “We weren’t sure you could keep your mouth shut.”  Neil tried not to laugh at that bit of irony.

                Dan made a face at that but continued, “Andrew is legally required to always be on his meds, right?”  Neil didn’t bother to mention that he was well aware Andrew treated that rule more like a guideline.  Instead he waved Dan to continue.  “He comes off his meds for meets.  It’s the only reason he signed with us.  Coach promised him he could come off them as long as he swims for us.  No one knows and no one can know.  Not even Betsy because she’s his doctor and she’d have to report it.”

                Neil thought about Andrew staving off withdrawal with liquor and drugs in Columbia vividly.  “And how is he supposed to swim when he’s trying to puke up his liver?”

                “He’s not sick yet,” Matt assured while holding up three fingers.  “His withdrawal comes in three stages.  Imagine you’re flying high all day, then you stop taking and start coming down.  That’s stage one.  Getting sick is stage two.”

                Dan nodded along, “He adjusts his dose on meet days so he takes his last dose thirty minutes before the first relay.  His events are done by the time he hits stage two.”

                “And what’s stage three?”

                “Give him his drugs or get stabbed in the face,” Matt shrugged off.  “We’ve only seen it get that far once and it shouldn’t happen tonight.”

                Everyone nodded though Gordon and Reynolds looked like they were biting back some choice words.  “We just thought you should know,” Dan said.  “Are you going to be okay with this?”

                Neil didn’t think any of them, except Renee, would appreciate him stating his preference for a sober Andrew so he just shrugged off their stares, “I don’t care what he does.”  It was mostly true.  A drugged Andrew was flighty and distracted, easier to provoke.  A sober Andrew was sharper, more alert.  Good for doing his job, for protecting Kevin, but more dangerous for Neil and his secrets.  Though the implications of Andrew going through withdrawal for meets was something interesting to consider.  Neil knew it wasn’t for the sake of swimming well, so his best guess was that meets were a convenient excuse to come down from his permanent high.  Something Neil planned to ask about later.

                After the others seemed to decide he was serious and wouldn’t blab to the first reporter to shove a mic in his face, it didn’t take long to finish cleaning up and make their way to the stadium.  They didn’t have to be there for another thirty minutes, but with all the foot traffic and cars making their way onto campus, they were still almost late.  The monsters met them in the parking lot.  Andrew was still flying high, but Kevin looked a little green around the edges as they made their way to the gate.  Guards outside the athlete entrance gave them a cursory check to make sure they weren’t carrying anything illegal into the stadium and waved them through.

                Wymack was waiting in the lounge and ordered them to get changed out with a wave of his hand.  Neil was halfway to the men’s locker room when Kevin snagged his collar and dragged him back out the door to the Arena.  As the door opened, they were met with the roar of the crowd.  The stands were packed on both sides of the pool and Neil felt discomfited to see so many people in his sanctuary.  Some players in the Orange Notes, the school band, noticed them by the door and started playing the school fight song.  Neil stood stunned until Kevin said from beside him, “They all came to see you swim tonight.  Don’t disappoint them.”

                Neil scoffed and turned back toward the locker room, “They came to see the ‘Great Kevin Day’.  No one cares about me.”  Kevin caught up with him as he went to change out but didn’t say another word.

                The team met up with Wymack in the foyer while he passed around the Breckinridge roster.  Matt let out a pained groan that morphed into a weary chuckle, “Hey, Seth, Gorilla is back.”  Gordon let out a colorful string of curses and snatched up the roster sheet.  He echoed Matt’s groan as he thrust the sheet back into Matt’s hands.  Matt reached out to give him a hearty pat on the back, but his accompanying grimace ruined any reassuring effect it was supposed to have.

                Nicky piped up from where his face was buried in his own copy, “I’d be more worried about poor Neil than Seth.”

                The collective wince of the upperclassmen was not a good sign, but he had to ask, “Worried about what?”

                Gordon growled out, “Hawking.  Freestyler.  Got lost on the way to football tryouts and ended up on the swim team.”

                “I don’t think anyone’s told him that swimming isn’t a contact sport,” Nicky added gleefully.

                Matt came over to place an arm across Neil’s shoulders.  “You should be fine.  Just don’t make eye contact.”

                Neil looked up at him blankly, “This is my reassured face.”

                Wymack clapped for attention before anyone could ‘reassure’ him some more.  “Alright, maggots, you know which events you’re doing.  Dan, Renee, Allison, work out amongst yourselves who’s covering which freestyles.  No sense in all of you tiring yourselves out on races that aren’t your specialty.  Seth, Neil, pace yourselves.  The rest, we need you to pull your weight.  Breckinridge has got deep lines across the board so we need to get our points in on your main races.”  The team nodded somberly as he addressed each of them.  He clapped again before gesturing Dan to lead them out to the arena.

                The crowd had only grown louder as the start time drew closer.  The Foxes all filed to their bench across the pool from the Breckinridge team.  Wymack understated the size of the team harshly.  With twenty-five events on the docket, Breckinridge had enough bodies that no one would have to swim more than once if they didn’t want to.  Against the Foxes’ ten bodies, it was laughable.  The girls would each swim at least four races each to fill in their own races as well as the women’s freestyle.  Gordon would be swimming six races to fill out the men’s freestyles with Neil as well as the mixed and medley relays.  It was a battle between the Foxes’ stamina and Breckinridge’s sheer numbers.

                Neil absently studied the Breckinridge bench as the Foxes spread out to stretch.  He thought he could pick out the ‘Gorilla’ though almost every swimmer for the team seemed comically large for swimmers.  His attention drifted away from the team as the clock lit up for the first race—the medley relay.  The announcer read out the names of the racers as they appeared—the crowd somehow raising in volume on both sides of the pool as Kevin’s name was called.  Neil glanced over to see how the warm welcome was received, but Kevin didn’t seem to hear the noise—his focus on the water absolute. 

The Referee called the lines up with a short blow of his whistle, and Andrew, Seth, Matt, and Kevin made their way to their designated block.  Another whistle and Andrew slipped into the water in front of their block with the other backstroke swimmers.  Neil moved to stand with Renee, Nicky on his other side, to watch just as a disturbance broke out by the Foxes’ block.  Gordon and Kevin seemed to be snapping at each other and a groan sounded down the Foxes’ bench.

“Can’t they at least start out without problems?” Abby sighed from Renee’s other side.

“Of course not,” Nicky snorted.  “Five bucks say they take a swing at each other before the race is done.”

“That’s a sucker’s bet,” Abby snorted.

Just then, Wymack paced down the line, “Don’t bet with these morons.”

The scuffle seemed to die down as the Starter marched over to break Gordon and Kevin up—just in time as Andrew was readying himself to get out of the water to do it himself.  Neil wondered idly if Andrew’s armbands were empty, if they were in dress code, or if the officials were just smart enough to not say anything.  The lines settled at last even as Gordon had turned sharp words and a sneer to the Breckinridge lines.

The Starter seemed satisfied though as he called the lines to order.  An eerie silence fell over the crowd as the officials took their places around the pool.  “Take your mark,” the bodies in the pool tensed as one.  Neil watched as the muscles in Andrew’s shoulders bunched and his knuckles whitened around the starting block’s grips.  His breath caught in his throat in anticipation.

BZZZZZ.

Andrew launched himself off the wall with easy strength and the race began.  He sliced through the water with ease at least a meter ahead of his opponents even against their height.  As he made his way back after a textbook turn, Matt readied himself on the block and launched himself off the moment Andrew hit the touchpad.  The race seemed to fly by after that, with Matt maintaining his lead during breaststroke, Kevin easily keeping it during the butterfly, but Gordon’s start was off.  He was mouthing off to the Gorilla as Kevin touched the pad and the delay cost the Foxes what lead they’d had.  Gordon fought to get it back, but he was outstripped quickly.

The Foxes cheered their hearts out for their teammates though it turned into curses when Gordon immediately went for Gorilla once out of the water.  Kevin didn’t help the situation by turning on Gordon for the delayed start, but the Referee’s whistle broke it up quickly.  Wymack marched over to steer the line back to the bench while the scores posted on the board and announced overhead.  “Okay, Foxes, good start out there.  Seth, how about we not exchange pleasantries with the other team?”

“HE—“ Gordon started with a gesture.

“I don’t care,” Wymack cut him off.  “Focus your race, not their’s.  Got me?”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  “Good, now you and Neil get out there.”

“You got this, rookie,” Dan cheered with a ruffle to Neil’s hair as he walked toward the Clerk.  He waved off the other cheers over his shoulder as he pulled on his cap and goggles.  The Clerk led him to his designated block just as the Referee blew the short call to the blocks.  Breckinridge swimmers were on either side of him and greeted him with some choice calls of, “A rookie?  Really?” and “Hey, look, it’s the has-been’s charity case”.

Lovely.

He paid them no mind as the long whistle signaled for them to get on their blocks.  “Take your mark,” Neil hunched over as his pulse shot up, the water so close he could already taste it.

BZZZZ.

And he was airborne.  The water kissed him in greeting and folded around him in a welcoming embrace.  He let the water carry him up as he cut through the surface again and again down the lane, turn, twist, push, cut.  As the race went on, the joyecstasyhome of the water was dampened as his instincts screamedraged against the outsidersstrangersprey in the water alongside him. 

It jarred enough to pull his attention away from the water and to the competition happening around him.  Though holding back was muscle memory by now, he had to decide exactly how much he wanted to cap his ability.  This was a war of different instincts.  The runner wanted to hold back enough as to not stand out.  Everything that was Neil really didn’t like these intruders in his sanctuary. 

Compromise.

Neil hit the touchpad a final time and didn’t bother turning to the scoreboard—he knew what it would say.  The Breckinridge swimmers on either side of him surfaced seconds later.  As one, they turned to the board, “Fucking whore!” cursed the one to his left.  “A rookie getting second place?!” curses from the right joined in as Neil climbed out of the pool.

“Beginner’s luck,” he shrugged.  Angry voices followed him as he walked over to the Foxes’ bench that was currently losing its mind.  Dan tried to grab him around his shoulders but he neatly side stepped to put Renee between him and everyone else.  His evasion didn’t seem to damper their enthusiasm at all as congratulations rang from the Upperclassmen and Nicky. 

Before Wymack could call them to order, another shrill whistle split the air.  Gordon looked to be once again ‘exchanging pleasantries’ with Gorilla though the Referee stepped in before fists started flying.  Kevin looked ready to go help Gorilla with Gordon, but Wymack nudged him back into the bench and marched over with some choice words for everyone in the small huddle.  Neil sauntered behind him for his next heat, close enough to hear Wymack rant about “contact sports” and “swimming” and “dumbasses”.

The Ref wisely put Gordon and Gorilla at separate sides of the pool, but it had the unfortunate side effect of placing Gorilla in the lane next to Neil.  Decidedly irritated with the whole affair, Neil placed himself near the far side of his starting block as the giant oaf turned towards him, “The fuck are you looking at, squid?”

“Proof that humans did evolve from apes, apparently,” Neil said off-handedly, adopting an expression of fascination tinged with disgust.

“The fuck did you just say to me?” the neanderthal snarled.

“Is your zoo trainer here?  Maybe he can translate,” Neil made a show of looking around at the Jackals’ bench while subtly moving to put his starting block at an angle to them.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gorilla advancing with a fist raised and shifted just enough that as he ducked from the on-coming punch, Gorilla’s foot got caught on the starting block.  A simple nudge had the man crashing into the water, twisting his ankle and clipping his shoulder on the pool’s edge on the way down. 

Neil affected surprise as the commotion drew the stadium’s attention and Breckinridge swimmers around him worked to get Gorilla out of the pool.  Wymack and Dan raced over to “check” on Neil after the swimmers and Ref had moved to the Jackals’ bench, though Wymack’s concern was paired with a suspicious twist to his mouth.

Dan, however, seemed oblivious to any involvement Neil may have had in the altercation.  “Damn, rookie.  That was close,” she said with a laugh.  “You okay for your race?”

Neil shrugged rather than respond and waved them off as the announcer let the stadium know that Hawking would not be returning to race.  Biting down on smug satisfaction, Neil settled on his block for his next race.  Whatever attention that may have drawn, it was worth it to have the oaf out of Neil’s water.

The rest of the night passed with minimum disturbances.  Neil perked up to follow Renee’s races and watched with interest as Andrew left the bench entirely after his last heat only stopping to make stern eye contact with Neil.  Message received.  He wondered idly if anyone else had noticed his shaking hands or just how tightly wound his shoulders were but put the thought aside in order to watch over Kevin in Andrew’s absence.  As expected of the ‘Great Day’, Kevin pushed himself in his runs even if Abby fussed for the rest of the night, subtly running him through stretches between heats.

His ‘sacrifice’ seemed to put a fire under the Foxes so Neil upped his speed accordingly though the momentum wasn’t enough to carry them past the Jackals.  With this team, Neil couldn’t say that he was surprised or that he cared beyond the idle hope that the stench of the crowd dissipated by Monday’s practice.

Chapter Text

Neil groaned as an alarm jolted him from sleep the next morning—if one could call it that since the sun wouldn’t make an appearance for hours.  He tracked Matt fumbling out of bed to shut the alarm off to the tune of Gordon’s muffled curses without opening his eyes.  Sleep was trying to take him once again when banging came from the front door.  When neither of his roommates made a move toward the hallway, Neil heaved himself out of his blanket cocoon with a sigh.

                Making his way down the hallway, he cursed the entirety of the human race and Renee while rubbing sleep out of eyes he had yet to open.  Wymack had warned them about an early start, but his teammates apparently couldn’t not have a small party after the first meet of the season.  Andrew’s lot had opted out, but Neil and his roommates had ended up the in girls’ room—some under more duress than others, damn Renee.  Even without Neil and Renee’s help, the upperclassmen have finished off a bottle of vodka saying something along the lines of ‘it’s worth it’.  With less than an hour of sleep and a too-awake Wymack standing in the too-bright doorway, Neil firmly decided that no it fucking wasn’t.

                “Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine?” Wymack barked, unnecessarily loud.  Neil didn’t deign to answer with more than a grunt.  “Get dressed and get downstairs.  We’re on a schedule.”  When he didn’t get a response, Wymack clapped loudly near his face, “Bus is pulling out in five.”

                Neil answered by closing the door and went off the get dressed.  Gordon seemed to have buried himself under pillows and his duvet, but Matt was up and struggling into a pair of jeans.  Neil followed suit and trooped out to the hallway.  Dan and Renee met them in the hall though while Renee was awake enough to wave, Dan slumped against Matt and seemed to fall asleep immediately.  Wymack was down by the cousins’ room and prepared to knock only for the door to swing open before he could make contact.

                Nicky and Aaron led them out with a lumbering Kevin behind them and a sober Andrew to bring up the rear.  “How the fuck did you get him up?” Wymack asked Andrew while gesturing at Kevin.

                “They didn’t let me sleep,” Kevin mumbled with a harsh glare which Andrew shrugged off.

                “Huh,” Wymack huffed.  “Nice.  Now, get your asses on the bus.”

                Renee moved toward the elevator immediately, and Matt roused Dan enough for her to climb on his back to troop down to the parking lot.  Huh.  Neil considered for a moment and turned to Nicky just as he shuffled up.  “Nicky.”  Nicky looked at him blurrily and didn’t question it when Neil motioned for him to turn around.  Placing his hands on Nicky’s shoulders, Neil lightly jumped up and felt a bolt of satisfaction when Nicky caught his legs before he could fall.  “Onward,” he said with a yawn.  He caught Andrew’s eye just as Nicky turned to the elevator and let himself smile smugly.  Aaron scoffed at them as they passed, but Neil didn’t missed the smile he was apparently too tired to stifle.

                A horribly garish orange bus met them in the parking lot.  Neil hadn’t seen it yet since it stayed parked in a gated yard when not in use to avoid vandalism.  Not that he thought the bright orange and white fox paws could be made worse, but he supposed people could be creative.  However, once inside, he thought he’d never loved a bus more.  Instead of the usual two seat rows, each seat was a long plush bench with enough room for two athletes to sit or for one to curl up on the seat.

                Abby took the seat behind the driver’s seat while Matt and Dan took the one behind her.  Renee settled herself behind them, but Andrew’s lot walked right to the back with Andrew taking the furthest bench.  Kevin slumped in front of him and was asleep before his head hit the seat.  Aaron took the next, and Nicky dumped Neil into the next before settling in front of him.  Neil didn’t think he’d be able to sleep surrounded by the sounds of the team but he was out before they hit the highway.


 

                The sky was painted gray in preparation of sunrise when Neil was jostled awake by the bus turning into a fast-food place.  As soon as they parked, Abby, Dan, and Renee made their way off in search of breakfast.  Wymack stood in their wake to address the bus, “Alright,” and promptly forgot what he was saying as he looked into the back of the bus.  “Dammit all to hell, Hemmick!”  He started stomping his way up the aisle and Neil did his best to not look like he was cowering as he slid toward the window of his seat.  “You were supposed to wake them up ten miles back!”

                “Yeah, but I don’t want to die,” Nicky said.

                Neil bolted up from his seat before Wymack could make his way to the back of the bus and waved him off with an “I got it, coach.”  He ignored the considering looks from the rest of the bus as he wandered towards the back.  Andrew, in the farthest seat, was curled into himself on the bench, so Neil stood well out of range and nudged Andrew’s foot with his own.  As usual, he came awake with a sudden jerk but managed to keep his balance on the bench.  It took two blinks to clear the sleep from his eyes, and he offered a short nod as Neil moved down a seat to look at Kevin’s sprawled form.  After a moment of thought, he called sternly, “Kevin, your next heat starts in ten minutes!”

                Kevin didn’t quite have Andrew’s grace as he went crashing to the bus floor while trying to jump from his seat.  Chuckles could be heard all down the bus as Kevin regained his feet and looked around.  “I hate you,” he said with feeling. 

                “I don’t.  I can’t believe that worked,” Wymack called from the front.  “Now, march.”

                With that, Kevin walked the length of the bus to jeers from the others.  Andrew sat up fully as Neil retook his seat.  “Are we here?”

                “Not yet,” Wymack said.  “About ten minutes out.”

                Andrew nodded to himself and called, “Kevin” without looking from his window.  Kevin, mid-lap pivoted on the spot while pulling an orange pill bottle from his pocket.  Neil felt a passing curiosity about Kevin keeping Andrew’s medication but doubted he would get an answer if he bothered to ask.

                Abby, Dan, and Renee soon returned to pass out some much-needed coffee and breakfast foods, including Dan’s promised donuts.  It helped to perk the others up as they drove the last leg to the two story studio that housed Kathy Ferdinand’s daily show.  Wymack parked at the gated entrance to talk to the guard, exchanging paperwork and IDs for a handful of guest badges.  Getting back on the bus, he pulled into the parking lot—the gate closing behind them.

                Wymack was first off and stood by the door to hand out the badges as the Foxes passed.  Abby was the last off and locked the bus behind her.  They were halfway across the parking lot when Kathy herself came out to greet them looking more awake than even Wymack.  Neil hoped it was the makeup as that much pep so early could not be natural.

                “Kevin!” she called with an expansive wave.  “It’s been so long!  I’m so glad you could make it out today!”

                Kevin reached out to return her loose embrace.  “Kathy, it’s good to see you again,” he said with a camera ready smile.

                Behind her, Dan fake swooned into Matt’s arms and Nicky fanned himself expansively.  Neil could understand the mockery.  On a good day, Kevin was an arrogant ass.  The public face that the masses obsessed over seemed foreign after four months of general disdain or flushed cheeks with veins bulging.  Neil studied the charming smile with vague disgust and had a passing thought of pod people.

                Before he could voice the thought to Renee, Kathy turned to the Foxes with a smile only money could buy.  “Y’all were amazing last night.  Kevin, you have the magic touch.”

                “They were already on their way up,” Kevin waved off.  It was the first positive thing Kevin had ever said in Neil’s presence—regarding anything.  “They deserve their Class I status and we’ll prove it this spring.”  Neil’s pod person theory seemed more plausible by the second and he caught Aaron’s eye to try to convey that telepathically.  It might have worked because Aaron rolled his eyes expansively and fake gagged.

                Neil snorted in response and immediately regretted it as it drew Kathy’s—frankly disturbing—focus.  “Neil Josten, good morning.  I suppose you’ve heard the good news?”

                “I’m not religious, thanks though,” was met with various chocked off chuckles from the Foxes around him and a groan from Wymack.

                Kathy’s smiled seemed a bit more strained around the edges, “After last night, you are the third most searched swimmer in the country which puts you right behind Riko and Kevin.  How does it feel?”

                “Like my birthday and Christmas all at once,” he deadpanned.

                Kathy seemed to dismiss that and turned to Kevin, “Did you talk to him?”

                “I didn’t think we needed to talk about it,” Kevin said without looking at Neil.

                “About what?” he asked with a sense of foreboding.

                “I want you on my show,” Kathy said advancing on Neil.  “Everyone wants to know who you are.  A rookie from nowhere Arizona caught the attention of a national champion.  Coach Hernandez says you didn’t have any experience competing.  Kevin says an offer from the national team isn’t far off.  It’s an actual Cinderlla story.  It’s time for your debut, don’t you think?”

                Neil was ready to tell her exactly what he thought until she came within arm’s reach.  As he drew in a deep breath to say something that would no doubt give Wymack a coronary, he choked on the scent wafting from her—brackish water, rotten fish, sludge, familiar.  He almost bit through his tongue as a wave of ice cold dread washed from the top of his head to his toes.  Neil looked past Kathy’s hungry grin to Kevin looking at him expectantly, if a bit impatiently.  With another deep breath and a slow blink, Neil painted a target on his own face.  “I’ll do it.”

                The Foxes were making noise around him, Dan trying to reach out to reassure him, but he side stepped them all to stand in front of Renee.  Slowly, he pulled his key ring from his pocket and deliberately caught her eye.  “Could you watch my stuff for me?”

                He didn’t let go as the monster behind her eyes held its hand out below his.  He let his eyes trail over the Monsters and watched as its eyes followed his path.  “Of course, Neil.”  With that, he let the key ring drop into her hand and turned to go with Kevin.

                As he passed, Andrew let out a cackle, “You’re so stupid.”

                Neil looked over to see a considering gaze behind the mania.  “We do what we have to,” he said as lightly as possible, not sure if a medicated Andrew would pick up on the underlying message.  As his grin distorted, Neil thought he got it.

                With that, he preceded everyone into the building, leaving the others to scramble behind him to catch up.  Neil tried to slow his pace to no avail as he felt anger build.  The Foxes diverged to go sit in the audience and Kathy handed him and Kevin off to two aides when she caught up to his stride. 

The aides led them to a small dressing room with a blank TV hung on the wall, two chairs facing vanities on the adjacent wall, and a plush couch lining the back wall.  Neil felt his temper spike sharply as one of the aides took some quick measurements of his person only to scamper off.  He wrapped his arms around himself to rub off the feeling of foreign hands as he took a seat at one of the vanities.

The aide returned shortly with clothes for both of them and left with the promise that the makeup artist would be by in ten minutes.  “I’m surprised you fell into line so easily.  I thought that would be more of a fight,” Kevin mused as he thumbed through the clothes and tossed an outfit into Neil’s lap.  “Get changed.”

Neil waited for Kevin to start changing before he turned his back and slipped on his own suit.  He chewed anxiously on his bottom lip as a million half formed plans on how to handle this raced through his mind.  He sat back down in his chair and looked over to see Kevin fussing with his jacket.  Steeling himself, Neil motioned to the chair next to him, “Sit down.” 

Kevin looked up from his cuffs with an affronted expression at the order, but Neil silenced him with a stern, “Kevin.”  He sat.  “I need to know that you are one hundred percent with the Foxes.”

“Why would you ask me that?” Kevin huffed.

“Because they will want to know where your loyalties lie.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” he dismissed.

“That’s not good enough, Kevin,” Neil said sternly.  Kevin looked ready to protest, but he was cut off with a firm, “Riko is here.”

The color drained from Kevin’s face like he had a leak somewhere.  His breathing sped up and he clutched his left arm to his chest.  “How—“ he choked out.

“I saw a man in Edgar Allen coaching gear in the parking lot,” Neil said, thinking quickly.  “I’ve watched enough meets to know what they all look like.  There’s no other reason for one to be here.”

“It could be—“ Kevin sputtered.

“Kevin.  He’s here.  You need to be prepared for this.”  Neil purposely slowed his breathing in the hope that Kevin would follow suit.  It didn’t seem to be working as Kevin drew further into himself until the door opened to admit two makeup artists.  They both jolted in their seats, but it looked to be the shock that Kevin needed.  His breathing slowed as he sank back into his public persona.  He was all polite smiles and charm while they padded various powders onto their faces.  

One of the aides came in to hand them both a packet of expected questions for the interview and escorted them to a waiting room once the artists were done.  Several comfortable couches faced a blank flat screen TV and Neil sank onto one while Kevin started to pace as soon as the aide left.

“Kevin,” Neil called.  He stopped and turned to Neil with true fear in his eyes.  “You are a Fox.  I will be with you.  Andrew is in the audience.  He will not touch you again.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do this?  Why stand with me?” he demanded.

Neil considered telling the truth for a single heartbeat—anything to jar Kevin from his Riko-induced panic.  He promptly dismissed the idea for a more believable explanation, “Andrew and I have a deal.”  The words should not have had the effect they did.  All of the tension drained from Kevin as his color returned.  Though that was the intended effect, Neil couldn’t help but ask, “How did your deal come about, anyway?”

“It’s easy to manipulate someone when you know what they want,” Kevin dismissed.

“Funny, I was under the impression Andrew wants nothing.”

An aide came to fetch Kevin before he could respond.  Neil turned the TV on to Kathy running out onto a stage to the signaled applause of the audience.  “Ladies and gentlemen, good morning!  I know it’s an early start for most of us on a Saturday morning, but we have a fantastic show for you this morning!  Our musical guest are four very talented gentlemen from the up-and-coming band Hoboglobin’s Thunder,” she paused as the applause grew in volume.  “But let’s start this morning with last night and the start of the NCAA Swim season!”

The cheers once again grew in volume as Kathy paced the length of the stage beaming.  “How many of you got a chance to go to a meet last night?  Wow, so many!  And how many of you watched from the comfort of your couch like me?” she laughed with a raised hand.  “I’m sure most of you have already started to place bets on the spring standings, right?  With rapidly growing popularity, we are gearing up for a great season.  We’re going to talk a little bit about that today, but to do that I’m going to need some help.

“It’s been a year since you saw him here last and almost nine months since his last public appearance,” the cheers rose to new heights.  “I present to you our first guest of the day: Junior Olympian Gold Medalist in the butterfly, former swimmer for the US National Swim team and Edgar Allen, and current swimmer for the Palmetto State University Foxes, Kevin Day!”

She almost didn’t make it through her introduction as the crowd caught on.  The camera panned to follow Kevin from the wings as he strode across the stage towards Kathy to thunderous applause.  In his suit with charming smile firmly in place, he looked every inch the idol Kathy was selling him as.  They exchanged cheek kisses and took their seats—Kathy behind her desk with Kevin on the adjacent couch.

Kathy tried to start the interview several times, but the crowd refused to die down.  Kevin waved again, and it took another endless minute for the audience to settle down.  Kathy grinned, clearly pleased with herself, probably already imaging her ratings. 

With the crowd finally under control, she turned to Kevin, “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin.  I still can’t believe I talked you into this.  I hope you’ll forgive me for saying it’s surreal to see you back here alone!  I’m used to seeing you as half of a whole.”

“At least I have room to stretch out now,” Kevin said, neatly side-stepping a real answer.  “Which I might have to do in a moment.  I can’t believe you expect me to be presentable this early after last night’s meet.”

She laughed at that with raised hands, “I suppose you’re right, but you clean up nice as always.”

Someone in the audience cheered in approval as Kevin laughed along.  “Thank you.”

Kathy poured them both a glass of water and set one on the desk within Kevin’s reach.  “Speaking of last night, let’s talk about that.  First, what it means, the NCAA season starting and you’re wearing orange.  Why stay in Palmetto?  I understand that you went for an assistant coach position, but why sign with them after you found out that you could continue swimming?  There must have been other offers.  Why go from the top of the ladder to the bottom?”

“Well, Coach Wymack was friends with my mother.  As I’m sure you know, they swam together at the Olympics, and even after she passed and Coach Moriyama took me in, he kept in touch.”  Kevin rolled his shoulder out deliberately.  “After last December, I thought I would never swim again.  I was an absolute wreck.  Wymack was the only person I could think to turn to, and he didn’t disappoint.  He and the team took me in without hesitation.  I enjoy working with them.”

Kathy reached across her desk to clasp Kevin’s hand in hers.  They shared a smile as Kathy said, “I admit I expected you to return to Edgar Allen this fall.  Regardless, seeing you swim anywhere is amazing and you deserve a round of applause for that.”

The audience was happy to oblige.  Kathy gave Kevin’s hand another squeeze and let go, “Kind of unfortunate your first meet of the season had to be Breckenridge, isn’t it?  You took both your races last night, a couple of others placed well, and the real story—your rookie, Neil Josten.  He took one out of three of his races last night and placed well in his others.  Let’s talk about Neil for a moment, shall we?”

“Of course.”

“You really know how to stir the pot, don’t you?” Kathy said.  “What were you thinking recruiting someone as fresh as Neil?”

“His inexperience is inconsequential,” Kevin said.  “Neil is exactly what the Foxes need right now.  We looked at a hundred files, and Neil is the only one we approached after Janie.  We knew we had to have him as soon as we saw his tape.  We’re just lucky we got him before anyone else.”

“But why all the secrecy?  Word on the street is you jumped through a lot of hoops to keep him hidden until now, even going so far as to not release his name to the NCAA board.”

“That was strictly for Neil’s safety,” Kevin explained.  “Palmetto State had a rough time last spring.  Announcing him as ours would have painted a target on his back.  It took some time, but the board eventually sided with us.”

“You didn’t think the board would keep his secret?”

“With something this sensitive, it’s better to stay need-to-know.  Even gossip shared in confidence can ruin a man’s life if it reaches the right, or wrong, ears,” Kevin said warily.  He was speaking from experience, Neil knew.  That kind of chatter led to Kevin and Riko’s violent fallout.

“So much effort for one swimmer.  I can’t wait to see what you make of him.”

The lounge door opened to an aide with a headset motioning Neil out, “One minute.  Let’s go.”

Neil followed the aide to the wings of the stage and was left with a woman wearing a headset presumably linked to Kathy’s ear piece.  She gave Neil a once over and gave Kathy the okay.

On stage, Kathy said, “Let’s take another look at him, shall we?  Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the man who replaced Riko Moriyama at Kevin Day’s side, the newest Palmetto Fox, Neil Josten!”

Neil consciously unclenched his jaw and relaxed his shoulders as he strode out onto the stage.  The audience cheered as he made his way toward Kathy and he heard Dan and Renee shout his name.  Kathy stood from her desk to shake his hand and gestured for him to join Kevin on the couch.  They sat at the same time and Kathy poured a glass of water for him which Kevin handed over.

“Isn’t this interesting?” Kathy asked the audience.  “Kevin Day, paired again.”

She propped her chin and leaned across her desk towards him, “I’m not exaggerating when I say you’re the talk of the nation, Neil.  The amateur who caught the eye of the national champion.  Things like this only happen in fairy tales, wouldn’t you say?  How does it feel?”

“Undeserved,” Neil chuckled self-deprecatingly.  “I gave Millport everything I had because I knew it was my only shot.  Kevin was the last person I expected to see in Arizona.”

“Well, lucky for us he found you,” Kathy said.  “You have a natural talent for the sport.  It’s a shame you started so late.  You could have been at USC or even Edgar Allen, if Kevin’s right about your potential.  Why wait so long?”

Neil had to bite back a harsh laugh as the truth came to mind—because I’m a water-born mythical creature on the run from a serial killer.  Instead, he decided to lay some ground work, “Well, Kevin actually.  You know, I was new in Millport and looking for some way to get to know people when the news broke about Kevin making the adult National Team.  I watched some of his highlight reels, and I was inspired.   I also thought it could be a good way to make some friends.”

Neil saw Kevin turn sharply out of the corner of his eye, but he kept a firm smile in place as Kathy’s grin grew.  “So Kevin is actually the one that caught your eye first.”

“Of course he is.  I mean, I know I’m a new comer, but you don’t have to be a fanatic to know that Kevin is the best swimmer the world has seen in a long time,” Neil easily drawled.  Kevin drew in a sharp breath beside him and slowly let it out to relax against his side.

“The best, huh?” Kathy asked with a shark’s grin.  “No one else comes to mind?”

Neil let his smile grow to match hers, “No, I don’t believe so.  I mean, sure Kevin has dedicated himself to the butterfly, but he’s an artist in the water.  He’d wipe the floor with all of us.”  He had to chuckle to himself at that bit of absurdity, but Kathy played along with good humor.

“Well, Kevin, I understand why you would stay with the Foxes if this is the kind of faith they have in you,” Kathy purred.

“Not sure if it’s deserved,” Kevin chuckled nervously, “but yes, I have definitely found a home in Palmetto.”

“Ah, the Ravens must be sad to hear that,” Kathy said.  “I’m sure Riko misses you.”

Neil pressed his thigh against Kevin’s while he summoned up a smile.  “I’ll see him this fall,” he waved off.

“Yes, you will since they’ve moved into your district,” Kathy pounced on the subject change.  “Why the major change?”

“I can’t pretend to know Coach Moriyama’s motivations,” he shrugged.

“You mean they didn’t tell you?”

Neil cut in when he felt Kevin tense, “It’d be a bit silly to give the competition a heads up, wouldn’t it?”  He chuckled a bit and nudged Kevin ‘playfully’ in an attempt to relax him. 

Thankfully, Kevin played along and agreed with a smile and a nod.  “As you can imagine, I’ve been a bit busy.  Keeping in touch is difficult.”

“Well, then,” Kathy beamed, “do I have a surprise for you!”  Neil leaned against Kevin and deliberately took a deep breath.  Kevin followed suit just as a dark melody started blaring over the loud speakers.  The crowd, recognizing the tune jumped to its feet and started the chant, “King! King! King!”

Neil looked out over the crowd and easily spotted the Foxes in the front row.  Matt and Wymack were either side of Andrew, each with a hand clamped around one of his wrists.  Renee was crouched down in front of Andrew and seemed to be speaking rapidly with calm hand gestures.  Despite the lights, Neil caught his eyes and gave a slow nod of his head.  Though a manic grin remained, Andrew sat back in his seat enough that he was released.

Movement in his peripherals drew his attention back to Kevin.  He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but seeing Kevin with loose, squared shoulders and a politely interested smile was a nice surprise.  Neil let an edge of his father’s smile creep out as his chest grew warm with a foreign feeling of pride.

Hello, Kevin.

From the wing of the stage, a man dressed in a suit similar to Kevin’s stepped out.  In all black, with billowed sleeves to mimic his school’s namesake, he crossed the stage to Kathy like he owned it—for all Neil knew, he did.  As he took Kathy’s hand and planted a kiss on her cheek, a tattooed number one flashed at the camera letting everyone know just who was on stage.

It had been nine months since Riko Moriyama and Kevin Day were in the same room, nine months since Riko tried to destroy Kevin’s shoulder in a fit of jealously, and now, they were reunited for the first time on live television.  The audience cheered their hearts out, delighted by Kathy’s surprise.

As Neil and Kevin took a deep breath simultaneously, Neil wondered if, over the rotten smell of Riko, anyone else could scent the blood in the water.

Chapter Text

The self-proclaimed King of Swimming leaned in to speak with Kathy though their words could not be heard over the crowd’s racket.  They shared a grin as they separated and Riko made his way over to stand before him and Kevin. 

                Neil felt that pride swell once again as Kevin lumbered easily to his feet, polite smile still firmly in place and offered his hand, “Riko,” the crowd instantly quieted, “you’re looking well.”

                Neil delighted in the dark flash of irritation in Riko’s eyes as he reached for Kevin’s hand, “As are you, though a bit skinny.  Don’t they feed you down here?  I thought southern food was supposed to be heavy.”

                Kathy and Kevin chuckled good-naturedly as Kevin subtly pried his hand from Riko’s.  Neil rose to intercept his hand before he could lower it, “There are options for health-nuts like Kevin down here,” he chirped while roughly shaking a reluctant Riko’s hand.  “Neil Josten.  You’re a lot smaller in person.”

                Kevin choked down a laugh from beside him as Neil let his smile grow.  Riko’s grip tightened on his hand when he went to pull back, “Yes, I know who you are.”

                “I’d say I’m flattered,” Neil said and he renewed his own grip, “but once one national champ notices you, the rest are kind of anticlimactic.”  Incredulous laughter echoed through the audience as Neil reached back to pat Kevin’s shoulder.  They finally separated as Riko turned to sit on the couch opposite Neil and Kevin’s.

                Kathy rounded her desk again to take a seat and Neil and Kevin followed suit.  “Well, folks,” she said, still holding back chuckles, “take a good look! Your golden pair are back, but this time as rivals!  Kevin, Riko, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for tolerating our incessant fanaticism.”

                Kevin waved her off, “It’s our pleasure, Kathy.  Though, technically, Riko and Neil are the rivals these days.”

                That might be the only compliment he’s ever given me.  Not much of a rivalry though.

                Neil made sure to snort and nudge Kevin playfully—just two friends and teammates talking about a sport—“Oh yeah, just us battling it out for Kevin’s affection.”  The audience laughed along with those on stage and Neil savored the fury in Riko’s eyes behind his fake chuckles.

                “Well, I have to wonder who is winning that particular fight,” Kathy turned to Riko.  “From what I gather, this is the first time you two have spoken in quite a while.”

                “It is,” Riko said.  “You sound surprised.”

                “Well, yes,” Kathy nodded.  “I didn’t think it was possible for you two to grow apart.”

                “Cell reception can be spotty this far south,” Neil cut in with a sage nod to more laughs from the audience before Riko could respond.

                Kevin chuckled lightly and leaned more weight against his side while shaking his head.  “In reality, my recovery process from December was long and arduous.  Taking on a coaching position in addition to that took up all of my time.”

                Kathy turned from Riko and simpered pityingly at Kevin, “I can’t imagine that kind of stress and the strength it took to accomplish that.  I think that deserves another round of applause.”  The crowd was eager to oblige though Neil vaguely wondered if he was the only one that noticed Riko near-vibrating with rage.

                “Yes, well,” Kevin said with a self-deprecating smile, “thankfully, I found an environment that allowed me the time and resources to heal.”

                “And lucky for us he did,” Neil added with a flash of perhaps too many teeth as he caught Riko’s eye.

                “But I have to wonder if you have healed,” Riko said from his couch.

                “Oh, Riko,” Kathy turned again.  “Forgive my bad manners.  These two,” here she scrunched her nose playfully at Kevin and Neil, “keep getting me off track.”

                Riko’s knuckles whitened as he clenched his hands in his lap though his smile didn’t waiver.  “It’s no trouble, Kathy.  I was just wondering how much progress Kevin has actually made.  I mean, you saw him last night.  He’s nowhere near what he once was.”

                A couple of “boo’s” sounded from the audience, making Riko’s smile tightened even further.  Neil felt Kevin tense imperceptibly and tried to take back control of the stage, “Any athlete worth their salt knows that recovery takes time.  Honestly, watching his progress over the summer was astounding.”  He made sure to hold Riko’s gaze as he continued, “You should have seen it.” 

Kevin relaxed back into Neil’s side and ducked his head in faux embarrassment.  Kathy seemed to lap it up and hummed, “Kevin, I can see what you mean about a healing environment if this is the kind of support you get down south.”

Neil grinned as boyishly as he was able, “It’s nothing less than he deserves, wouldn’t you say?”

Riko scoffed, “That kind of dreaming will just push him to reinjure himself.  Can he come back from that kind of setback a second time?  That’s my concern—as his family.”

“And as his new family, we want to help him achieve his dreams,” Neil replied easily while nudging Kevin.

If Neil didn’t know him, he would think Kevin’s smile just then was genuine as he motioned to Neil, “And that’s the kind of southern welcome I was talking about before, Kathy.”

“Do you honestly think you can make it back to the top with good thoughts and well wishes?  It’s a new district now and last night’s performance does not bode well for you,” Riko said to the tune of more booing from the audience—his press ready smile finally gone.

“On this trajectory?  Yes,” Kevin said politely to cheers—especially loud from the Foxes’ row.

“That does bring us to an interesting topic, though Riko.  Why the change?  Why come south?” Kathy cut in.

“Well, the south’s competition circuit has fallen in to disrepair the last couple of years.  Though nay-sayers say we moved districts in order to keep our standing, in reality we want to bring new life to the south.  We’re hoping the stiff competition we bring will inspire the other teams,” Riko said smugly.

“You’re hoping to do for the south as Kevin has done for the Foxes,” Kathy nodded along.

“Yes, though it will be easier if Kevin plays along,” he responded.

Kevin spoke up before Kathy could question him further, “I’d be happy to.  The change wouldn’t be effective if the Ravens just took over the district unchallenged like they did the north.  The Foxes and I will absolutely give Edgar Allen the fight of their life.”  Neil nodded along seriously though he wanted to burst into laughter as Riko grit his teeth behind his smile.  Kevin just threw in his lot firmly with the Foxes and Riko could do nothing but play along.

The audience burst into whoops and hollers—particularly from the Foxes row.  “Well, there you have it, folks!  A gauntlet has been thrown and I for one can’t wait to see these three go head to head this fall!” Kathy said to the audience though Neil doubted anyone heard her over the noise.  She didn’t even try to calm them as she said something about ending the Swimming segment and a light at the bottom of the cameras flicked off to indicate a cut to commercial.

Kathy covered the microphone on her shirt as she turned to the three of them with her brightest smile yet, “You boys just made my day.”  They all got to their feet as Kathy reached to shake their hands again.  “You can keep the clothes, refreshments are in the back, and feel free to watch the rest of the show!”

Neil had no intention of staying since he didn’t know how long Kevin’s nerve would last with the cameras off.  He looked out into the audience to find Wymack who was jerking his hand across his throat and throwing a thumb over his shoulder.  Neil hoped that meant they were leaving.  Setting his glass of water on the table, he linked his arm with Kevin’s in a seemingly-friendly gesture and started tugging him toward the wings of the stage.

Riko followed them off stage and behaved until they were in the hallway.  Aides were rushing past to the stage to check Kathy and camera settings.  Neil hoped that he would be waylaid by one of the aides, but apparently doing their jobs was more important than an autograph.

Neil hated having anyone at his back, but he refused to let his hackles rise in response to Riko.  With Riko’s stench clogging up the hallway, he braced himself and released Kevin’s arm to push him slightly ahead of him just as Riko grasped his shoulder to spin him into the wall.  Neil allowed himself to smile like he hadn’t with cameras on.  “Careful, Riko,” he drawled as he pushed the hand on his shoulder away with ease.  “Didn’t your parents teach you to not touch what’s not your’s?  Oh, wait.”

He saw the punch coming and let it happen.  With his hand still by his side, he motioned for Kevin to start backing away.  After a moment of hesitation, he did.  With Kevin out of range, he allowed himself to really look at the boy he had once known.  A scowl had overtaken his face and fury danced in his eyes—the kind of eyes that hurt for pleasure rather than necessity, a child with a magnifying glass and an ant hill.

“And just who are you again?” Riko asked with a sneer.

“Your replacement, new and improved.  Does it hurt, knowing that Kevin prefers the company of a nobody over your’s?” Neil jeered.  Another punch and a grip around his shirt collar threatened to cut off his air, but Neil just laughed.  Kevin was out of sight now.  “Yes, I can see why he would miss such a loving person.”

“You—“ Riko snarled as his grip tightened and Neil let himself be pushed further into the wall.

“Riko,” Andrew appeared beside them.  He opened his arms as if to hug Riko hello.  “It’s been a while.”

Riko jerked in surprise and started to school his face into something more civil until he realized who had joined them.  “Minyard.  Of course you’d coming running for—“ he cut himself off as he looked up to see Kevin gone.

“Yes, of course I would,” Andrew nodded sagely.  He batted away Riko’s loosened grip on Neil’s collar and replaced it with his own in order to tug Neil behind him.  “Don’t touch my things, Riko.  I don’t share.”

Andrew continued to push on his chest to get him to back away so Neil reached out to pinch the hem of his shirt in return and tugged him along.  Andrew glanced over his shoulder to wave him off, but Neil steadily held his gaze and tilted his head toward to hallway.  He was dismissed with a small shake of the head that Neil was reluctant to obey, but with Andrew here, Kevin was alone.  Turning down the hallway, he was almost to the parking lot when he came upon the Foxes huddled together.

Kevin was safe in Abby’s arms, a death grip on the poor woman as she buried her face his shoulder in return. 

Wymack turned to Neil upon his appearance, “Are you seriously stupid or something?  You would have been safer back in Palmetto.”

“Leave him alone, David,” Abby called though her voice was muffled.

“When I said Abby and I would look out for you, I didn’t mean you could pick a fight with Riko on national television.  The audience might not have noticed with all your play-nice bullshit, but he sure did.  Should I have spelled that out beforehand?” Wymack ranted.

“Probably,” Neil said with a shrug.

“It’s fine, coach,” Andrew said, catching up to them.  He trailed his fingers lightly across the small of Neil’s back with a feather-light touch as he passed without slowing down on his way to Kevin.  “Kevin, we’re going.  Right now, okay?”

Kevin released Abby and Andrew promptly shoved him through the door out into the parking lot.  Now with empty arms, Abby turned to check on Neil only to gasp and rush towards him, “What did you do?”

Bruises from Riko had probably started to bloom on his cheek though Neil didn’t taste any blood when he licked his lips.  He gently shrugged off Abby’s hands and started towards the bus.  “Probably something stupid,” he called over his shoulder.  He checked over Nicky and Aaron ahead of him as the others fell in around him while walking across the parking lot. 

“You and coach say stupid.  I say you’ve got balls of steel,” Matt said cheerily, as if he didn’t just watch someone sign their death warrant.  “Who knew you had that in you?  I thought you were the quiet type.”

“If he was the quiet type, Andrew wouldn’t have taken him to Columbia,” Renee said from beside him.  Neil sent her a questioning look, which she caught, “Andrew’s welcoming parties are for sizing up and eliminating threats.  Not everyone gets invited.”

It made sense though that made Neil wonder, “Who else has gone?”

“Just us three,” she said nodding to Matt and Dan.  “No one else until you.”

“Let’s go,” Wymack called as he ushered them onto the bus.  “I’m going to drop you lot at the dorm and spend the rest of the day drinking.  Damage control can wait until tomorrow.”

Neil dutifully trooped to the back to sit vigil in front of Kevin who seemed to already be enjoying a stress-induced nap.  He watched the others file on and saw Nicky grab something from Abby before making his way to Neil’s seat.  Instead of sitting in front of him, he sat down beside Neil and raised what turned out to be an ice pack to Neil’s cheek.  Neil allowed it as Nicky’s eyes seemed to be a bit red around the rim.

Aaron made his way back next, but turned around back to the front with a tsk upon catching sight of what Nicky was doing.  Neil saw Nicky’s shoulders tense then droop in quick order though he remained in place.  Just as Wymack threw the bus into drive, Aaron made his way up the aisle with a rag in his hand.  “Move,” he said to Nicky sharply.

Nicky scrambled up and started to sputter, waving his arms around when Aaron neatly plucked the ice pack from his hand.  He wrapped the pack in the rag and flung himself down beside Neil, putting the pack back against his cheek a bit too harshly.  He turned to where Nicky had frozen in the aisle, “Sit down.”  Nicky obeyed seemingly on auto-pilot.  “Idiot,” Aaron murmured and pressed the ice pack against Neil’s cheek until he winced when Neil couldn’t contain his smile.

The ride back to campus passed with the upperclassmen chatting about anything other than the interview, Aaron alternating icing Neil’s cheek and watching a timer on his phone, Kevin’s snores, and Nicky’s nervous chatter.  They were halfway back when it came time for Andrew to take his next dose so Aaron violently woke up Kevin to get the medication.  Abby went to stand by his seat to make sure he took it though Neil was surprised he didn’t put up more of a fight after that morning.  They only stopped once to fill up on gas so they made good time back to Palmetto.

As the campus came into view, Neil was surprised at the genuine relief he felt to be back on familiar ground.  Wymack let the bus idle in front of Fox Tower and watched his team climb out.  He said nothing until Andrew approached, then held a hand out in front of him.

“Be smart.”

Andrew flapped his hand and murmured, “I know, I know.”

Neil didn’t know if Wymack trusted Andrew’s word that much, but after a moment he nodded and lowered his hand.  Andrew barreled down the steps and didn’t slow as he made his way into the dorms.  Wymack didn’t leave until they were all inside.  Everyone took the stairs to the third floor in silence, then Dan stopped outside of Andrew’s door.

“Hey,” Dan said as Andrew unlocked his dorm.  “Let’s get lunch together.  As a team.  We don’t have to talk about this morning, if you don’t want to.”

Andrew tilted his head with a hum and pretended to think about it, “No.”  He pushed the door opened and stepped out of the way.  A pointed look towards Kevin ushered him inside.

“Don’t worry, Kevin,” Dan called after his retreating back.  “We’ll figure this out together.”

He didn’t acknowledge her as he disappeared into the dorm.  Aaron and Nicky filed in after him, but Andrew paused to give Neil another pointed look.  Neil shook his head and plucked at his dress shirt, “I’m going to change first.”  With a nod, Andrew slammed the door and locked it with an audible click in the ensuing silence.

Renee put an arm around Dan at her frustrated sigh.  “They’re upset,” she said.  “They couldn’t help him today.”

“Yeah,” Matt huffed.  “Neil did that for them.”

They went to the men’s suite to find Allison and Seth tangled in a set of barely clothed limbs.  Neil wandered past to the bedroom as Allison called out something about his clothes.  He could hear the others explaining about their eventful morning as he shed Kathy’s according-to-Allison “fancy” clothes.  The safe at the bottom of his dresser caught and held his eye as he pulled on some sweats.  His hands twitched with the need to feel his fur, to assure himself of his ticket out of there, to run after this morning.  But.  He’d made a deal and deals were precious, he had family and familypod was precious.  So he turned his back on the safe lest it tempt his already frayed nerves and left the bedroom in time to hear Renee mention lunch.

Neil declined to moans and groans from the upperclassmen and grabbed his keys to head to the Monsters’ room.  Nicky answered on the first knock with wild eyes and ushered Neil inside with a suspicious—and absolutely ridiculous—look down the hallway.  Aaron grunted from his place in his beanbag chair as Neil entered the living room and aggressively paused his game to stomp off to the bathroom.  Nicky continued to fret, twisting his hands without saying anything.

Neil stilled him with a simple, “Nicky.”

He blew out a violent sigh as the tension drained from his frame.

“Where are the others?”

“Andrew’s watching Kevin down a bottle of vodka and figuring out where we go from here,” Nicky said helpfully.

“Healthy.”

Aaron snorted from the bathroom door and made his way over to them, “Yeah, he’s a paragon of mental health.”  He reached out for Neil’s hand and Neil allowed it out of curiosity.  Two orange pills were slapped into his palm.  “Take those.  With water.”  With that, he went flung himself back into his beanbag.

Neil sniffed at the pills subtly only to recognize them as over-the-counter advil.  He shrugged at Nicky’s baffled expression and wandered into their kitchen in search of water.  When Nicky went to follow him, he waved him off.  “Go play with Aaron.  I’ll check on the problem children.”

“You are the problem child,” Aaron called out over his shoulder.

“That’s going on my headstone,” Neil called from where his head was stuck in their fridge.

Pulling out a bottle of water, he downed the pills and flicked the bottle cap at Aaron’s head just as the video game on the screen called out “Direct hit!”  Nicky’s laughter followed him down the hall to the bedroom.  He knocked first just in case Andrew had his knives out.  He didn’t need a stab wound on top of everything else that day.

The door was flung open by a grinning Andrew.  Behind him, Kevin was on what was presumably his bed, slumped against the wall with a bottle clutched to his chest.

“How much of that has he had?” Neil asked without moving from the doorway.

“Enough that he stopped talking about the creative ways in which Riko will kill us all,” Andrew cackled, though his eyes were furious.

Neil hummed for a beat before calling, “Kevin, walk over here, would you?”

Kevin groaned but lumbered to his feet without a stumble.  Neil watched his gait for a moment and nodded to himself.  “Go wait with Aaron and Nicky.  Drink some water.”  It spoke to Kevin’s state of mind that he obeyed without a twitch.

“And why would you want him to do that, Free Willy?” Andrew rumbled, though his smile didn’t budge.

“He’s rattled.  He’ll feel better once he’s in the water, and he needs to stop drinking if we don’t want him to drown,” Neil said, tilting over to lean against the doorway.

Andrew studied him in silence for a bit and motioned him into the room.  Neil entered and fought to stay relaxed as the door shut behind him.  Andrew moved past him to perch on the dresser tucked under the window.  He shoved it opened with one hand while the other grappled with a pack of cigarettes.  Neil stepped within reach to slip a stick out of the pack and waited for Andrew to produce a lighter. 

Once they were both lit, Andrew broke the silence, “Yes, he is rattled.  However, you are suspiciously calm, Neil Josten.  For someone with a lot on the line, you seemed extremely comfortable being exposed to the nation this morning.  How does that target on your back feel?”

“Familiar.  I was exposed to the nation the moment I signed onto Kevin’s team,” he said, pausing to take a drag.  “We made a deal.  Don’t be surprised when I follow through.”

Andrew twitched at that and fiddled with his cigarette agitatedly, “A runner like you should be halfway to the airport by now after going toe to toe with Riko.”

Neil looked down at himself, “And yet, miraculously I’m still here.”

Andrew whipped a hand out lightning-quick to hook two fingers into Neil’s collar.  He tugged until Neil stumbled a half-step closer.  “I want to know why.”

“With Riko sniffing around, it was only a matter of time until I’m found.  This was true even before this morning.  I accepted it the moment I learned about the district change,” Neil leaned closer to flick ash out the window and didn’t miss how Andrew stiffened.  He casually leaned back until he could feel the tug at his collar.  “It was Kevin or me.  I made a call.”

Andrew twisted his hand so Neil’s collar tightened.  “Let’s make a deal.”

“We already have one.”

“And that will not change.  This is a new deal,” Andrew said.

“Later,” Neil tapped Andrew’s hand until he was released.  “I don’t think that,” he gestured to Andrew’s grin, “should be in the way.”  Neil heard Andrew’s teeth grit behind his smile, but he nodded nonetheless.  “We’re going to the pool.  I’ll get the others.”

“And since when is that your call?”

“As I said, Kevin’s rattled.  That’s partially my fault,” Neil said, turning to leave.  “So I’m going to fix it.”

“Your fault how?” A pinch to his hem stopped his progress.

Neil turned back, “I pushed him to play along on that stage today.  I know exactly how scared he is of Riko and I pushed him to not flinch in the face of that.  That’s on me.”

Andrew stared as he visibly fought to frown even as the drugs tugged his lips up, up, up.  He released Neil with a laugh, “And a martyr.  Just how many hats do you wear, Neil Josten?”

“As many as I need, Andrew Minyard.  Don’t forget your cigarettes.  We’ll probably need them to deal with Kevin’s tantrum.”  With that, he left the room to corral the others out to the car.

Soon after, watching Kevin carefully as he swam slow laps with the others sprawled around the pool, Neil hoped he’d made the right call.

Chapter Text

The group made it back to the dorms around eight that evening in order to get ready for another trip to Columbia.  Neil was veering off to go to his room for a change of clothes when Nicky stopped his progress with an arm thrown around his shoulders.  “I’ve got your clothes in our room.”

                “You have a lot of talent if you had time to break into my room and steal my things,” Neil said dryly even as he allowed Nicky to pull him into the Monsters’ dorm.

                “Oh, honey,” Nicky cackled, “the only reason I would steal those rags you call clothes would be to burn them.”

                That drew snickers from the group at large and seeing Kevin with loose shoulders and a slight smile had Neil relaxing in a way he hadn’t since that morning.  The others disappeared into the bedroom, presumably to change, but Nicky stayed to rummage around by the desks.  “Rude,” Neil scoffed, though he accepted the bag Nicky thrust into his hands.  “Remind me to pay you back.”

                Nicky waved him off, “Keep it.  You obviously need it more, and we take care of our own.”

                Neil had to cover a jolt as Nicky—this human—claimed him so casually.  “I have money, Nicky,” he said with an eye roll.  “Just because I don’t spend it on clothes doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

                “Then we can go shopping and I’ll spend your money on clothes,” Nicky called over his shoulder on the way to the bedroom.  “We can’t have one of the family looking like we dragged him out of the gutter.”

                Neil moved to the bathroom on autopilot to change.  Family.  These humans used that word so casually—so carelessly—as if they had any concept of what true kin felt like.  These fragile creatures—these prey—that divided themselves over such petty differences.  Neil didn’t quite understand the mix of anger and something else—something warm—that filled him at the thought so he shoved it away to examine at a later date.  Dressed now, he looked in the mirror and, after a moment’s hesitation—family—flushed his contacts down the toilet.  A streak of blue in the mirror tried to catch his eyes as he fled the bathroom, but he paid it no mind.  Aaron, Kevin, and Andrew were already gathered in the living room when he emerged, seemingly waiting on Nicky.  Neil curled up in one of the beanbag chairs to wait as well. 

A second later, he was blinking awake to a something poking him in the cheek.  He turned to see Aaron drawing back one hand and offering another with two more advil and a bottle of water.  He threw them back and set the water down with a yawn.  To his left, a glitter covered Nicky made an incomprehensible noise before crouching down in front of him with his back turned.

Neil’s sleep-addled brain took a moment to register what that meant, but when it did, he slumped forward onto Nicky’s back to be carried out of the room.  Aaron and Kevin rolled their eyes in synch but Andrew paid them no mind as he opened the door and waved Nicky—and therefore Neil—through. 

Out in the hallway, Matt and Dan stood in the doorway to the men’s suit while Reynolds stood in the middle of the hall and dug through Gordon’s pockets.  She hummed as she produced a lighter and a pack of gum.

“I’m not stupid,” Gordon sneered.

Reynolds shut his grumbling up with a kiss while slipping the lighter back into his pocket and tossing the gum over her shoulder.

Matt and Dan perked up as their group wandered toward them.  “Hey, there you are,” Matt called.  “We’re about to start a movie night!  We ordered pizza and Renee just went out to get drinks.”

Neil lifted his head from Nicky’s shoulder in time to see Aaron scoff, “Does it look like we’re coming to movie night?”

Dan glared from behind Matt’s shoulder, “No, it looks like you’re kidnapping Neil again.”

“Yep, they are,” Neil said with a lazy yawn.  “Help, stranger danger.”  He felt Nicky’s back shake from muffled laughter though Aaron didn’t have the grace to quiet his.

Reynolds seemed offended at Neil’s lack of concern and turned her back to them to look at Dan, “Don’t waste your breath.  He’s obviously chosen his side.”

Matt didn’t look so convinced, but Dan just sighed in response.  “Yeah, have fun, you two.  Be safe.”

Neil perked up at this.  “Where are you going?”

“Why do you care, Monster?” Gordon scoffed, though Matt answered, “Bar hopping downtown.”

Neil’s thoughts wandered back to Kevin’s haunted words before he had been forced into the pool earlier that day, “Riko will retaliate within the day.”  There was no love lost for Reynolds and Gordon.  But.  He kicked out a leg to tap Andrew’s thigh.  “Do you have Renee’s number?”

Andrew turned to study him for a moment then pulled out his phone without a word.  When he handed it to Neil, it was already ringing.  Renee picked up with a soft greeting, but Neil didn’t bother with pleasantries, “Are you aware that two of your ducklings are flying the nest?”

Everyone in the hall, barring Andrew, looked at him as though he’d just spoken Mandarin.  On the line, Renee’s voice hardened, “They were talking about going out, but I didn’t know they’d made a decision.”

“It seems they have—without consulting the one person willing to keep them alive no less,” Neil drawled while eyeing up Gordon and Reynolds so they knew exactly who he was talking about.  He heard a few choked off gasps and Gordon’s face was turning an interesting shade of red, but Andrew’s snapping fingers drew his attention away.  Neil waved off the quirked eyebrow as well as the question lingering behind his blank face.

“Neil,” Renee sighed.

“What?” Neil asked.  “This is a courtesy call.  How would you like to do about getting your ducks in nice little rows?”

Another disappointed sigh floated over the phone line and what sounded suspiciously like a grumble.  But no.  Not ‘sweet Renee’.  “Could you keep them there until I get back?  I’m only five minutes out.”

“You’ll owe me.”  It was more of a warning than a request.  One did not go back on a deal with the Blood.

“Of course,” Renee said, though the weight in the words told Neil she’d gotten the message.

He nodded sharply even though she couldn’t see.  “Consider it done.”  With that, he hung up and waved the phone at Andrew until he plucked it from his hand.  “We have to wait for Renee to get back before we can leave.”

                “We don’t need a keeper,” Gordon snarled before the Monsters could complain about the delay.

                Neil waved him off, “But you have one and I just told her I would keep you here until she gets back.”

                Reynolds took a step forward with a look that said she wanted to snatch Neil off Nicky’s back.  “And why the fuck should we listen to you?”

                “You don’t have to listen.  But I don’t see what that has to do with the fact that I will not let you leave.”  He tapped Nicky twice on the shoulder to be let down.  As he slid to his feet, he stalked forward, “You are not my responsibility.  However, I respect Renee, and I think she would be quite upset if I let you walk to your deaths.”

                Whatever ambient noise that filled the hallway suddenly grew deafening as everyone froze.  Reynolds was obviously trying not to flinch back from him and he could have almost admired her spine if she hadn’t let her gaze slide away.  He flicked a look over her shoulder to find Matt and Dan shift around uneasily.  Finding Gordon’s defiant gaze, he drove the point home, “You want someone to cry for you so bad?  Walk out that door.  You won’t be around to see it, but does that really matter?”

                If the hallway was tense before, it rose to the breaking point as Gordon stepped around Reynolds and let his fist fly.  Neil let the first hit connect though he was yanked backwards before the second could come as the hall filled with shouts.  He stepped from where Nicky was trying and failing to shield him to see Gordon pinned to the wall by a blank faced Andrew.  The shouts grew louder as everyone seemed to notice the knife against Gordon’s abdomen all at once.  Over the noise, Neil distantly heard the elevator ding though he doubted the others noticed.

                “Renee!” he called cheerily as she hurried out of the elevator the moment the doors opened, weighed down by various clinking bottles.  The upperclassmen finally quieted down as he pointed emphatically at Gordon, “They’re still here and they are now your problem.”

                “Thank you, Neil,” she said sincerely while carefully inching towards Andrew.  He nodded in acknowledgment while gingerly poking the cheek Gordon had hit.  Aaron stopped his hand before he could do it again.

                “Andrew,” Aaron said from beside him, “Neil needs ice, let’s go.”

                From his angle, Neil could see Andrew’s grip on the knife tighten minutely before he slid it back into his armband.  He waved the group to the parking lot while he wandered back to his dorm.  Nicky crouched down in front of Neil again so he hopped up and with a cheeky, “Mush!” the rest of the Monsters left the still silent upperclassmen in the hallway.

                When they got to the car, Nicky dumped Neil into the backseat with Aaron sliding in beside him.  Kevin took the front seat, but immediately turned back to look at Neil instead of buckling in.  “You’re going to look like a panda with two bruised cheeks.”

                “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Neil deadpanned as Aaron and Nicky snorted in unison.

                Just then, Andrew opened the door on Aaron’s side and tossed a bundle into his lap.  “That’s cold, Andrew,” he grumbled irritably, though he picked it up and smacked it to Neil’s cheek.  Again.  “If you could go at least a day between provoking people into hitting you, that’d be great.”

                “Seems like a lot of work.”

                Nicky’s laughter floated from the front seat as he peeled out of the parking lot to get them onto the interstate.  The ride to Columbia was eerily reminiscent of the bus ride that morning—with Aaron alternating icing Neil’s cheek, Kevin’s snoring, and Andrew’s intense stillness.

                They arrived at Sweetie’s no worse for wear—a miracle with Nicky’s driving.  When they piled into the restaurant, Andrew turned to Neil.  “We need a head count for crackers.  In or out?”

                “Oh, I get a choice this time?  How nice for me.”

                Unfortunately, aside from a slight twitch of a cheek, Andrew didn’t rise to the bait.  “From now on, you always get a choice.”

                Neil looked around at the others, and caught Nicky’s eye.  He smugly mouthed ‘Family’ over Andrew’s head which made Neil roll his eyes.  “Out.  Thanks though.”  No one commented as Andrew went to the salad bar to grab a handful of cracker packets and they were led to a round booth.

                Nicky was about to order them all the ice cream special again, but Neil cut him off by kicking him under the table.  When he looked up with false betrayal in his eyes, Neil simply stated, “I’m hungry.”  To Nicky’s credit, he changed gears quickly and ordered soup-sandwich combos for the table though Andrew still got a monstrous ice cream sundae—much to Kevin’s gripping.

                Business as usual then.

                They ate quickly after the meal arrived and Aaron clipped a stack of twenties to the check book to pay for the food and dust.  They once again piled into the car for the short ride to Eden’s.  Once again, they left Nicky to park the car and filed inside of the club ahead of the long line skirting the building.

                The club was just as Neil remembered, flashing lights, withering bodies sweating out drugs and alcohol, and smoke from a questionable source.  They found a table along the rail of the second-story balcony presumably so Andrew could keep an eye on the dance floor throughout the night.  Neil and Andrew left Aaron and Kevin to steal enough stools for all of them and headed to the bar for the first round.

                While waiting for what’s-his-name to notice them, Andrew quirked an eyebrow at Neil in question.  He leaned into Andrew’s space to be heard over the music though not enough for Andrew to tense, “Still don’t drink.”  He received a nod in turn.

                The bartender bustled over and looked at Neil in exaggerated surprise, “You’re back.”

                “Yep,” Neil nodded.  “Water, hold the roofies, thanks.”

                Andrew snorted quietly while the bartender jumped with a guilty expression.  “The usual for the rest, Roland,” he said while tapping a wad of cash against the bar top for added incentive.  Roland hurried to pile shot glasses onto a large tray while studiously avoiding Neil’s eye.  Andrew leaned in, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

                Neil shrugged, “It’s funny to watch him squirm.”  Though it made Neil’s teeth itch a bit.  Andrew considered him for long enough that Neil wondered idly if he’d said something wrong, but a tray sliding into view broke their gaze.

                They made their way back to the table through the crowd to find Nicky had joined the table.  He let out a cheer as he caught sight of them.  The shots were gone soon after the tray hit the table though Neil managed to snatch up his bottle of water without losing a hand.  Packets of dust were distributed around the table, then with a strict order to stay together, Aaron and Nicky left for the dance floor.

                Though Kevin had undoubtedly pulled himself together after their earlier swim, the stress of the day got to him enough that he slumped onto the table after the shots were gone.  Neil could hear him muttering something into his crossed arms but paid him no mind.  Instead, he leaned his forearms against the table and sipped at his water while keeping an eye out for Nicky and Aaron’s bobbing heads on the dance floor.

                “So it’s gone,” Andrew said in German while motioning to his expressionless face.  “About that deal.”

                Neil leaned slightly into his space and tried to parse him out from the bodies around them with a subtle sniff.  Satisfied, he leaned back, “So it is.  State your terms.”

                I have a question first.”

                “So ask,” Neil waved on lazily.  “I don’t have to answer.”

                “Why lose the contacts for tonight?  As a gesture for the deal, you can’t use that one every time,” Andrew said with poorly feigned disinterest.

                He took a slow sip of water before turning away from the dance floor to catch and hold Andrew’s gaze.  “Nicky called me family.  What does that mean to you?”

                Andrew scoffed, “Nicky’s so desperate for family it’s lost all meaning for him.”

                “I asked what that mean to you,” Neil persisted intently.

                “Nothing.”

                “Liar.”

                Andrew leaned across the table toward Neil, but he refused to back down.  “Learn this quickly.  I care for nothing and no one.”

                “Then what is Kevin?  Nicky?  Aaron?”  Neil gestured to the absent grin on Andrew’s face.  “That’s a lot of effort and sacrifice for people you don’t care for.”

                “’Taking care of’ and ‘caring about’ are two very different things, Neil Josten,” Andrew dismissed.

                “So there’s your answer.  Nicky called me family.  You take care of your family,” Neil said smugly.  “Therefore, I can afford to not have my contacts at least around here.”

                Nicky made that decision himself.”

                “And where would he get the idea to do that?” Neil asked.  When he remained silent, Neil continued, “Actions speak louder than words, Andrew Minyard.”

                Andrew threw back his remaining shot and stood abruptly to take the tray back up to the bar.  Kevin lifted his head at the table jostling and perked up when he saw Andrew leaving for another round.  Neil let his attention drift as he turned back to the dance floor to continue watching over Nicky and Aaron.  It took long enough for Andrew to get back, that Neil felt a vague sense of worry by the time he appeared again.  As if by siren call (ha), the cousins materialized just as the new tray hit the table.  Another round of shots and dust vanished and the cousins soon melted back into the masses while Kevin just folded back down onto the table.

                “The deal,” Andrew ground out.

                Neil noted idly that while Andrew’s shoulders seemed looser, his posture more relaxed than it had been, the anger in his eyes had increased exponentially.  Something had happened during his short disappearance, but he decided not to press. “Your terms.”

                “You put yourself on the line for Kevin.  You also, somehow, encouraged him to grow a bit of a spine today,” Andrew said while swirling amber liquid around the glass in his hand.  “If you can continue to build up that spine, I will protect you.”

                He couldn’t help but snort.  Andrew wouldn’t stand half a chance against what was after Neil.  He saw the skin around Andrew’s eyes tighten as he geared himself up to make his case, but Neil cut him off.  “And what will you be protecting me from?”

                “That piece of shit that fathered you for one.  You want to keep your living expenses, right?” Andrew asked, quoting Neil directly from their first deal all those weeks ago.  Interesting.  “Your chances of that bottomed out the moment you stepped onto that stage today.”

                Neil had to clamp down harshly on the panic that his words brought—even if Andrew didn’t know exactly how high the stakes were.  While he knew it was true, having it stated so plainly was a spark to the flint of his fight or flight.  He bought time by taking another sip of water and subtly took several deep breaths.  “Protection is a bit strong.  And unneeded.”

Lie

Andrew, again, looked ready to protest, but Neil waved him off.  “I won’t say no to another pair of eyes and ears though.  All I’ll need is a heads up if anything is headed my way.”

“To rabbit away?”

“To make plans,” Neil scoffed.  “Making any now for things that may never happen is useless.”

Silence fell over the table while they both considered the new proposed parameters of the deal.  Adding to the scrutiny Andrew already held for Neil was monumentally STUPID ABRAM when he still had so many skeletons in his closet.  However, using Andrew as cannon fodder when his father’s people inevitably caught up to him was even more distasteful.  Collateral damage had to be kept to a minimum and Neil had seen how far Andrew was willing to go for the smallest slight against his people.  No, this was the far lesser evil, even if it would have Neil walking on very delicate eggshells.

Andrew still hadn’t given an answer when the cousins came clambering back to the table for the third and final round of the night.  Soon after, they spilled out of the club into the cool night air.  Neil took his first real breath and reveled in the fresh air while he waited with the cousins and Kevin for Andrew to pull the car around.  After coaxing them all into the backseat, Neil climbed into the front seat and stole a cigarette from Andrew’s pack in the center cup holder.

“Are we going back to campus?”

“No,” Andrew said shortly.  Neil stared at him until he continued with a huff.  “After Aaron’s mother kicked it, Nicky moved back from Germany to keep us.  It was either him or his religious zealot parents.  He bought the house and kept it once we went to PSU so we wouldn’t be stuck on campus on the weekends.”

Neil digested that for a bit and wondered aloud, “So why stay with Abby over the summer?”

Andrew scoffed quietly, “No way in hell I was driving to campus every day to take Kevin to the pool.”

“Fair.”

The rest of the ride to the house passed quickly.  As soon as he pulled into the driveway of a modest two-story house, Andrew laid on the horn—startling everyone in the car.  A course of groans sounded from the backseat along with a few ‘what the fuck, Andrew’s.  The others tripped out of the car and trooped into the house with barely audible grumbles.

Rather than follow the others inside, Andrew moved up the steps to lean against the porch rail.  As he lit another cigarette, Neil went to lean next to him.  Instead of taking another stick for himself, he plucked the smoke from between Andrew’s fingers and took a long drag.  He enjoyed the silence of the small suburb around them until Andrew broke it with a quiet, “It’s a deal.”

“I don’t take those words lightly.”

Andrew held out his hand, but instead of taking the cigarette when Neil reached back, he dropped a small piece of metal into Neil’s hand.  “Neither do I.”  The cigarette was lifted from his unresisting fingers and flicked off the porch after a quick drag.  “Get some sleep.  We’ll hang around here for the weekend and go home Sunday afternoon.”

Andrew closed the door behind him, but Neil wasn’t worried about being locked out.  After all, Andrew had just dropped the house key into his palm.  He stood on the porch for a long time, tracing the shape into his palm over and over again.  “Home.”  Such a dangerous concept.  “Welcome home, Neil.”