He hadn’t been sleeping. A week since the last good night’s sleep. A grand total of seven hours of sleep since then. He’d started running when he’d get up at 3 am, at 6 am, whenever the itch became too strong to ignore. He returned exhausted enough to pass out right as his head hit the pillow, legs turned to mush, lungs stretched too far, mind blissfully blank. Yet when he got to bed, his mind began a race of its own, spanning from insecurities to the deal that kept him alive. He lay there, completely still, until he felt his heart threaten to burst out of his chest and his mind melt out his eyes. So, he got up and ran again.
When asked for a reason why it was happening, Neil shrugged and muttered a simple I don’t know. It had to be the stress of championships.
But Neil knew and each glance at the calendar made the anxiety worse. He’d ignored the anniversary for as long as he could. He thought he’d be fine with it. The past two years hadn’t bothered him, but it was like his body was finely attuned to it and made it a mission to make sure Neil remembered.
Baltimore had been a blessing disguised as a curse. Those few hours Neil had desperately wanted it to just end. He never saw the appeal in prolonging the inevitable, but each look at the demented smile on Lola’s lips showed him just how wrong he was. As the day drew closer, he started to feel her hands on him all over again. He’d dreamt of that car ride during those few blissful hours of sleep he’d get. Sometimes it’d been Lola. Sometimes his father or his mother. Sometimes Andrew. It never really got easier depending on who’d done it. Just a different hurdle to get over.
He woke up with bags under his eyes every day, drank as much coffee as he could, focused every ounce of attention he had left onto finishing his last season with the Foxes as he’d finished his first. He occupied every second of his day, refusing his subconscious the right to sidetrack him with useless memories.
Jack was the first to notice the change in Neil’s demeanor, the lethargy, the dark circles, the already almost nonexistent patience he had cut in have, and was quick to take advantage of it. He picked at Neil’s past. Back talked at practice. Got physical whenever he could.
Wymack helped when he could, but Jack only fired back by pointing out his favoritism.
Neil ignored the majority of it and ran off the rest. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before from news stations or Edgar Allen fans.
Neil thought he had a decent hold on his splintering life.
But when one thing fell, the rest followed.
It started with an off-hand comment, the kind that wouldn’t have bothered him any other time of the year.
“Why do you think he changes in the showers?” a freshman asked. Diaz, he thought. Neil kept his eyes on his locker in front of him as he tied his shoes. At the beginning, he’d found it amusing to hear all the freshman’s guessing at his scars. Now, not so much.
“He’s probably a battered wife. Wasn’t he dating one of the twins. Terrifying bastards both of them,” someone else said. Neil clenched his jaw as his fingers tightened around his laces. There was no point in starting a fight with someone who had no idea what they were talking about.
“Maybe he’s just self-conscious.”
“Maybe you should all shut up and mind your own damn business,” Robin said a little too loud. Neil shot her a grateful smile.
“Oh, please. He’s a narcissistic asshole who wants everyone to think he’s so fucking mysterious. He exaggerates the fact that he had a slightly tough childhood. Isn’t that right, Junior?” Jack announced.
Neil’s senses blurred in and out, rage building in his chest, spreading through his veins. Jack’s voice echoed in his head, joined by many others all taunting the same nickname.
Just smile for me. Please, Junior.
What did I say about keeping quiet, Junior?
Junior, do you remember me?
Junior’s all grown up.
Neil launched himself off the bench, deadly gaze set straight at Jack. Within seconds, Neil had Jack pinned against the lockers, forearm pressed into his throat. His grin bordered on manic, all teeth and no mirth.
“Give me a reason, Jack. Please, give me a reason,” Neil begged. Jack’s eyes blew wide, surprise and fear mirrored in his body. His hands hovered over Neil’s shoulders. “You’re all so obsessed with my past and my secrets? Then fucking google me. Don’t bring this shit into the locker room.”
He shoved away from Jack, his skin still prickling with untapped panic, with the need to run. He ignored it though, trudging toward the court to remind him why he was still there. Exy distracted him until he forgot who Neil was, who Nathaniel was, who Abram was. He became just a body whose sole mission was to get the ball into the goal. No one needed a solid identity to do that.
On court, he broke himself down until he was just muscle, bone, sinew, only parts of a whole. A machine.
“Stop me,” a rough voice whispered in his ear. A knife dragged down his thumb, tears welled in his eyes, a scream begged to be let loose. Nathaniel stayed silent, squeezing his eyes shut until that tension distracted him. He stayed remarkably still while Lola made slow work of the rest of his fingers before setting her sights on the tattoo on his cheekbone. The knife made shallow cuts around the four, but Lola’s smile hinted at something more sinister. She held an empty hand out. Nathaniel turned and saw his mother hand Lola the dashboard lighter.
“I told you how dangerous this was. I thought you were smarter than this,” she said, hands gripped firm on the steering wheel until her knuckles were white. Her brown eyes flickered with a rage he’d seen so often when he was younger. “What did I tell you? don’t look back, don’t slow down, and don’t trust anyone.”
“Be anyone but yourself, and never be anyone for too long,” Nathaniel finished for her. Her expression changed at once, melting into a soft, almost proud smile. She reached one hand out and ran it along his jaw.
“Oh, Abram,” she said a second before the car burst into flames.
He woke up in the basement. The air around him already smelled putrid, metallic. He saw the outline of a figure standing over him, but he couldn’t make out any detail other than the bloody axe he held in one hand and the thin delicate knife in the other.
“Hello, Junior,” his father said, but his voice was too far. He was by the wall, next to a smiling, rotting Riko. Nathaniel scrambled back until he hit the wall, bristling at the dirt that dug into the fresh cuts on his hands. “I brought some friends along.”
Nathaniel looked back to the figure that loomed over him and choked back a scream. Andrew was smiling wide, trickles of blood falling from the side of his head, the same expression he’d worn after Drake. Everything in Nathaniel’s body recoiled.
“It’s really a cruel world, isn’t it, Nathaniel? You came so far, salvaged the unsalvageable, crafted yourself a real identity, and yet we all end up here, don’t we?” Andrew said, advancing with each word. He knelt in front of Nathaniel, swinging his knife around in graceful arcs around their heads. “I’d planned this so many times, but now I’m not sure where to start.”
“The legs,” Nathan supplied behind him. Andrew’s smile widened as his hand circled around Nathaniel’s ankle. He stood, dragging him across the gravel. Nathaniel couldn’t help the scream that tore through his lips.
“No, Drew, no don’t do this,” Nathaniel begged. He tried to find purchase as he was dragged, but it only ruined his hands further. He tried to kick at Andrew’s grip, fought with every inch of energy in his body. Nothing helped. “Drew, look at me. Please don’t do this.”
Andrew froze. He stared down at Nathaniel, untampered violence burning in his eyes. The manic smile dropped, replaced by the twisted lip of anger.
“I don’t like that word,” Andrew growled, throwing Nathaniel’s leg down. He followed it with a swing of the axe, imbedding it deep in Nathaniel’s shin. He screamed and writhed on the floor, pinned by his father’s axe and his boyfriend’s hand. His cries brought the smile back onto Andrew’s face and he continued hacking away at Nathaniel’s legs before moving onto his arms. His screams filled the room, brought smiles to everyone else’s faces, and drowned Nathaniel into unconsciousness.
Neil woke with a start in a sweat drenched bed. He struggled against the blankets wrapped around his legs, throwing them off to the side. His breath was trying to escape him, coming out in rough, uneven spurts. The clock next to his bed said 3:52, March 9. A weight settled heavy on his chest.
Immediately, his body set into motion, tugging on shoes, grabbing the nearest sweatshirt he could find, stuffing his phone and keys into his pockets, and running as fast as he could out of that dorm and away from Palmetto.
Each step was a shock to his system, reminding him that he was awake, he was alive. He’d beaten them.
He entertained the thought of calling Andrew, of hearing his voice for just a second, but it seemed ridiculous. Nightmares were a mundane occurrence for both of them. Nothing to get worked up over.
He was fine. He had to be fine.
He pushed himself as hard as he possibly could, ignoring the throbbing in his ankles or the burn in his lungs. As long as he could hear his father’s voice, the echoes of his scream, the desperate edge of his voice as he begged, he ran. Until he could shed the feeling of Nathaniel, feel comfortable in his own skin, he ran. Until he could forget the image of Andrew, drugged and frantic, smiling over him as he carved into him, he ran.
It felt like he would never stop running.
He eventually made it back to Fox Tower, unharmed and exhausted, at 6 am. His feet dragged on the floor as he made his way to the room. He fell into bed, expecting sleep to come easy. When he closed his eyes, he felt the pain all over again.
They’d lost. They’d lost to the fucking Bearcats by one point. They weren’t out of championships yet, their last two-point totals saving their pathetic performance, but it should’ve been easy. They’d beaten better teams before. Their game was fucked up, and Neil knew exactly why.
He couldn’t get out of his head the entire game. Each person he faced was his father, each voice he heard was Lola, each check was his mother. There was nowhere else for his brain to go. He’d benched himself during the first half, but his subs hadn’t fared much better. It’d been four fucking years. Why couldn’t he be done with this?
He sat on the bench, hands digging through his sweaty hair, pulling at each strand. Exy was supposed to be the one thing he was good at and he couldn’t even do that right. He couldn’t even muster the energy to shower. He was useless.
Footsteps echoed off the empty locker room, each step spiking Neil’s irritation. He kept his head in his hands, bent over in half.
“I don’t have the fucking patience right now,” he growled.
“What the fuck is going on?” Andrew asked. Neil’s head snapped up, his breath leaving him in one sigh. The weight of Andrew’s hand on the back of Neil’s neck silenced the world and left just the two of them. Neil’s mind quieted, the endless critiques ended. He closed his eyes.
“It’s been four years,” Neil said, rubbing the heel of his hands against his eyes until he saw stars. Andrew’s hand tightened on his neck and forced Neil to look at him with a hand under his chin. They studied each other in silence, Neil filled with exhausted relief, Andrew with cold determination. He kneeled down on the tiles, eyebrow cocked, perplexed.
“You were fine the past two years,” he noted. Neil scoffed, running his hands over the raised scars over his forearms and knuckles.
“You were here.” The words passed through his words and Neil registered just how true his words were. He hadn’t had to go through the convoluted process of grieving over nothing and the continuous nightmares alone yet. This had been the first year since his Foxes had graduated, and though the faces on his team were familiar, it felt all too much like his life before he’d become a real person.
“You haven’t slept.” It wasn’t a question, but Neil shook his head anyway. Andrew stood and stepped away. Any semblance of energy he’d amounted fled with Andrew’s touch. A selfish whine pushed through his lips. “Get up. You stink.”
Neil did as he was told with a huff, following as Andrew directed him, hand fisted in the back of Neil’s jersey. Even with just a hand at his back, he felt supported enough to fully breathe. He would be caught if he fell, an insurance he’d needed for too long. He pressed the slightest bit back into Andrew’s hand.
Andrew pushed him into a stall, sending a pointed look at Neil’s uniform, and turned the water on. Neil slowly peeled his layers off, tossing them onto dry tile, until he was naked and shaking. His muscles couldn’t relax, buzzed from the game, from the anniversary, from Andrew. He wasn’t sure if he wanted it to stop anymore.
He walked into the warm spray, allowed himself to become engulfed by the water. Droplets ran down his skin in small waves of minute bliss, the first pleasant thing Neil had felt all day. He breathed in as deeply as the steam would allow. His hands ran lightly over his chest and shoulders, massaging the tender and bruising spots. His muscles relaxed with each passing second until he felt like he could do another ten games.
“Yes or no?” Andrew asked behind him. Neil automatically said yes, sighing as Andrew’s fingers slid into his hair. He leaned into the touch, humming his approval. The longer Andrew washed his hair, the more Neil leaned on him. He wasn’t particularly gentle, but his touch was soothing each of Neil’s open wounds. A salve on the frayed nerves stressed by years of torture, of running, of forcing himself to be everything he was not. He could breathe around Andrew without the immense sense of dread he used to deal with after each decision, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Andrew made quick work of the rest of Neil’s body, then set him against the wall as he washed and rinsed himself. He’d shut the water off when Neil moved, stepping in front of Andrew and framing his face with his hands.
“Yes or no?” he asked, the beginnings of a smile flickering on his lips. Andrew’s eyes betrayed him slightly, darting to catch on Neil’s mouth.
His hands rested on Neil’s hips as he breathed out his yes, meeting him in the middle. The kiss was slow, unhurried, something so unlike the rhythm they’d built up for themselves: desperate, hands grabbing wherever they could get purchase, exploring each other as if it was the first and last time they’d touch each other. This was a slow rainfall on a cloudy day, soft, inviting, undeniably necessary after such a long time.
Neil’s hands thread through Andrew’s hair, pressing closer to him until he could feel every inch of their bodies touching. He didn’t have the usual burn of desire coursing through his veins, but a simpler need for comfort. Neil pulled back and rested his head on Andrew’s shoulder.
“Get dressed. I don’t want to spend the weekend in this locker room,” Andrew said, squeezing slightly on Neil’s hips. He nodded, but took a second longer than he needed to before stepping back.
Despite the numbness tingling in Neil’s toes, he grabbed his dirty clothes and trekked back to his locker. He pulled his spare clothes on, only getting halfway before his arms gave out. His shirt fell around his neck as he huffed a sigh of defeat. His upper body wasn’t working at all. It seemed the most he could do was keep himself upright on the bench.
“You’re pathetic,” Andrew mused, shoving his arms through his shirt. Neil shrugged, eyes still trained to the floor. The struggle of the last few weeks, the high of playing the game, the low of losing to such an easy opponent, the buzz of having Andrew within reach, all mixed together to make an effective cocktail of bone deep fatigue. He couldn’t argue with him. Not when his entire existence seemed to beg otherwise.
“Thank you so much,” he drawled. Even out of the corner of his eye, Neil could see Andrew’s exaggerated eye roll as he stepped forward. He aided Neil’s arms through each sleeve, taking a step back. His thumb flicked across the burn scars on Neil’s cheek. Neil couldn’t stifle the wince as if Andrew had touched raw skin. His hand ripped back within a second. “No, Drew, you didn’t-”
“Yes or no, Abram?”
Neil’s mouth snapped shut. The sound of that name elicited a contradiction of reactions. Andrew’s voice, the soft way he’d said the name, spread a contented warmth through his stomach. The sound of his mother’s voice layered on top rose bile in his throat.
“Yes,” he bit out because Andrew’s presence was stronger. Andrew set his hands on his shoulders, swinging a leg behind the bench, effectively placing himself mostly in Neil’s lap. The other leg swung over and Neil’s hands darted toward Andrew’s waist. He caught himself at the last minute as his hands hovered an inch above his skin. After Andrew nodded, Neil’s arms tightened around him like a lifeline.
“You’re at Palmetto State, inside the Foxes locker room.” Andrew pressed a kiss to the base of the knife scars across Neil’s jaw. “You’re Neil Josten, number 10, starting striker.” Andrew trailed up the thin lines, lips dragging against hypersensitive skin. “Nathaniel is dead. You’re never going back to Baltimore.” He turned to Neil’s other cheek, letting the kiss linger just a second longer than the others. “You’re staying here.” He punctuated it with a kiss to his lips. No longer than a heart beat but more than enough to steady Neil.
Andrew’s hands dipped into the sides of his shirt, fingers playing idly with the puckered skin of old scars. His nails scraped against some, sending sharp tingles throughout Neil's body. He couldn’t stop the smile spreading across his lips.
He buried his face into Andrew’s chest. The smell of stale cigarettes and after shave wiped away the rest of the lingering doubts, solidifying him in the present. Andrew pressed his face into Neil’s wet hair, the feeling of a phantom kiss ghosting across his skin. It only deepened his smile.