Actions

Work Header

if you're lost you can look (and you will find me)

Chapter Text

Neil Josten jerked awake, his cigarette falling from his fingers as he did. The frigid air bit at his arms, his neck, his face, but he didn't notice, too busy looking around.

"What the fuck." He got to his feet, looking around him. He had just been in bed with Andrew, what the hell was he doing in Millport again?

He must have been dreaming. He hadn't been in Millport in almost 15 years, had barely thought about it in that time either. Still, he noted, grinding his foot down in the dropped cigarette, it felt real.

The door squealed open behind him, startling him from his thoughts. Neil pulled his duffel closer to his side and looked back. Coach Hernandez propped the locker room door open and sat beside Neil. The man looked the same as he had when Neil had first met him, the same old sports gear, the same crows feet by his eyes. He let out a slow breath, waiting for the man to speak.

"I didn't see your parents at the game," Hernandez said, before sighing.

"They're out of town," Neil said, remembering. Millport had been particularly bad, since he had had to sleep outdoors most of the time, but he had been numb from the loss of his mother, barely even noticing the cold. He sucked in a shaky breath, and then let it go. He hadn't taken a moment to miss his mother in a long time, hadn't needed to, but this place brought the feelings back full force.

"Still or again?"

Neil chuckled slightly. "Does it matter? They're still not here."

Hernandez held out his hand. Neil passed him the cigarette and watched as Hernandez ground it out on the concrete steps. The coach flicked the crumpled butt aside and turned to face Neil. "I thought they'd make an exception tonight," he said.

"No one knew it'd be the last game," Neil said, looking back at the court. He remembered that game vaguely, the devastation he had felt that his exy season was over, that he'd never play again.

He fought a smile. If only he had known.

"I'll call them later with the score," he said, because Hernandez was still watching him. "They didn't miss much."

"Not yet, maybe," Hernandez said. "There's someone here to see you."

Neil's breath caught. Wymack. He remembered his first time meeting the man, the fear that had been so deep seated in his core, the fear that had long since evaporated. He leaped to his feet and slung his bag over his shoulder, but the scuff of a shoe behind him warned him he was too late to escape, even if he wanted to.

Neil twisted to see a large stranger standing in the locker room doorway. The wife beater the man wore showed off sleeves of tribal flame tattoos. One hand was stuffed into his jeans pocket. The other held a thick file. His stance was casual, but the look in his brown eyes was intent. Neil felt himself start to relax at the sight.

"David Wymack." The man was younger than the last time Neil had seen him, less grey in his hair. He still managed to put Neil at ease, though.

The man looked surprised, as if he hadn't expected Neil to know who he was. "I tried contacting your parents when he asked for a face-to-face tonight, but they haven't returned my messages. You said they'd try to make it."

"They did," Neil said. "They couldn't."

"I can't wait for them," Wymack said, coming down to stand beside Hernandez. "It's stupid late in the season for me to be here, I know, but I had some technical difficulties with my last recruit. Coach Hernandez said you still haven't chosen a school for fall. Works out perfectly, doesn't it? I need a striker sub, and you need a team. All you have to do is sign the dotted line and you're mine for five years."

Neil felt himself start to smile. "Where do I sign?"

He tossed his file onto the bleacher where Neil had been sitting. Neil's name was scrawled across the front in black marker. Neil picked it up, flipped it open. It was real, he was real.

He held his hand out for a pen, before scrawling his name on the dotted line, shutting the file. He was a fox, he always would be a fox.

"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Wymack grinned at Hernandez, who looked pretty happy too. Neil didn't stick around for the rest, though, already turning on his heels. Andrew was waiting, after all.

He bolted up the bleachers for the locker room, unable to stop himself from smiling. Metal clanged beneath his shoes, not quite loud enough to drown out Hernandez's startled query, and Wymack's call of his name.

He was halfway through the locker room when he realized he wasn't alone. There was someone waiting for him in the lounge between him and the front door, and Neil sped up, mentally bracing himself for impact Light glinted off a bright yellow racquet as the stranger took a swing, and Neil was going too fast to stop, didn't even want to. Wood slammed into his gut, not as hard as the last time it had happened but still enough to take his breath away. He fell on his hands and knees, coughing once. Andrew had always been one for spectacle, and Neil didn't want to deny him one.

He heard Wymack's furious voice, but he sounded a thousand miles away. "God damn it, Minyard. This is why we can't have nice things."

"Oh, Coach," said a familiar voice over Neil's head, but Neil cut him off, the memory flooding back to him.

"If I was nice, I wouldn't be any use to you, would I?" He groaned, looking up at the man standing over him. Andrew looked young, and despite the pain in his gut, Neil felt his heart stutter.

"You're no use to us in a hospital, Josten."

Andrew smiled down at Neil and tapped two fingers to his temple in salute. "Better luck next time."

"Fuck you," Neil said, but there was no heat in it. "Whose racquet did you steal?"

"Borrow." Andrew tossed it at Neil, and Neil saw that the other man was fighting a smile too. "Here you go."

"Neil," Hernandez said, catching Neil by his arm to help him up. "Jesus, are you all right?"

"Andrew's a bit raw on manners," Wymack said, coming around to stand between Neil and Andrew. Andrew had no problems reading that silent warning, and he threw his hands up in an exaggerated shrug and retreated to give Neil more room. Wymack watched him go before looking Neil over. "He break anything?"

Neil coughed a laugh. "He couldn't if he wanted to, Coach. Isn't that right, Andrew?"

Andrew narrowed his eyes, and Neil tilted his chin up, a silent challenge. Wymack frowned, looking between them

"Do you too... know each other?"

Neil glanced at Andrew, who gave a slight nod. "We met in California, when Andrew still lived there."

Wymack accepted that easily, far too easily than he should have. "This'll probably work out better than expected, then. Now, I have someone else who wants to meet you, Neil."

Kevin was sitting on top of the entertainment center along the back wall. He'd pushed the TV off to one side to give himself more room and covered the space around him with papers. He'd watched this entire spectacle and, judging by the cool look on his face, was unimpressed by Neil's reaction. Neil knew Kevin wouldn't recognize him, couldn't recognise him. It'd been too long; they'd both grown up a world apart. Neil had further disguised his looks with dark hair dye and brown contacts.

"He signed, then?" Kevin kicked off of his seat, walking over towards the group of people. "That's good."

Neil nodded. "Neil Josten, nice to meet you."

Kevin huffed, and crossed his arms. "We'll see how nice it is when I see you play."

Andrew rolled his eyes and Neil clenched his jaw. He had forgotten how aggravating Kevin used to be. "Why sign me, then, if you don't have any faith in it?"

"We should have thrown away your coach's letter the second we opened it," Kevin said. "Your file is deplorable and I don't want someone with your inexperience on our court. It goes against everything we're trying to do with the Foxes this year. Fortunately for you, your coach knew better than to send us your statistics. He sent us a tape so we could see you in action instead. You play like you have everything to lose."

His inexperience. Neil almost laughed, again. Andrew shifted his weight, taking out his phone, and Neil glanced at him. "Thanks, I guess?"

"It actually works in our favor that you're all the way out here," Wymack said. "No one outside of our team and school board even knows we're here. We don't want your face all over the news this summer. We've got too much to deal with right now and we don't want to drag you into the mess until you're safe and settled at campus. There's a confidentiality clause in your contract, says you can't tell anyone you're ours until the season starts in August."

Neil had to at least try to keep up pretences. "That's not a good idea."

"Your opinion has been duly noted and dismissed," Wymack said. "Anything else?"

Neil shook his head.

Kevin gathered his files and slid off his perch. Andrew waited for Kevin to catch up and led him out of the locker room. Wymack waited until they were gone, then turned a serious look on Neil. "You need one of us to talk to your parents?"

"I'm fine," Neil said, force of habit.

Wymack didn't even try for subtlety with his next question. "Are they the ones who hurt you?"

Neil stared at him at a complete loss, before shrugging. He didn't know where to begin. Wymack seemed to realize that, because he pushed on before Neil could respond. "Let's try that again. The reason I'm asking is because Coach Hernandez guesses you spend several nights a week here. He thinks there's something going on since you won't change out with the others or let anyone meet your parents. That's why he nominated you to me; he thinks you fit the line. You know what that means, right? You know the people I look for."

Neil took a second to let the words sink in. He hadn't appreciated them the first time, but he felt an intense appreciation for the older man settle in his chest, warm and heavy.

"I don't know if he's right," Wymack said, "but something tells me he's not far off. Either way, the locker room's going to be shut down once the school year ends. You're not going to be able to come here during the summer. If your parents are a problem for you, we'll move you to South Carolina early."

"You'll do what?" Neil asked, surprised.

"Andrew's lot stays in town for summer break," Wymack said. "They crash with Abby, our team nurse. Her place is full, but you could stay with me until the dorm opens in June. My apartment's not made for two people but I've got a couch that's a little softer than a rock."

Neil chuckled, and Wymack gave him a surprised, but pleased smile.

"We'll tell everyone you're there for conditional early practice. Chances are half of them will believe it. You won't be able to fool the rest, but that doesn't matter. Foxes are Foxes for a reason and they know we wouldn't sign you if you didn't qualify. That doesn't mean they know specifics. It's not my place to ask, and I'm sure as hell not going to tell them."

Neil scratched his arm. "Thanks, Coach."

"Your graduation ceremony is May eleventh, according to your coach," Wymack said at length. "We'll have someone pick you up from Upstate Regional Airport Friday the twelfth."

Neil nodded, and then took a deep breath. It would be hell, waiting until he could go to them, but he would do it. He'd wait forever, for his foxes.

Andrew was opening the back door of Hernandez's SUV when Neil passed and gave Neil a knowing, taunting smile. "Too good to play with us, too good to ride with us?"

Neil rolled his eyes, and grinned. "I'd prefer to run. You could probably use the cardio too."

Kevin's mouth fell open, and he looked at Andrew, but Andrew just rolled his eyes and sat in. "See you around, junkie."

Neil grinned and then started to jog, his duffel bag thumping against his side in a comforting rhythm.

He was going home.

Chapter Text

Neil had always hated airports when he was younger, but constant exposure from having to fly back and forth for matches, as well has the flights he had taken to visit Andrew during their years apart had softened that dislike to an indifferent tolerance. The floor squeaked under his shoes, and he grimaced at how poor quality they were. The years spent with Andrew had spoiled him, really, he had gone soft.

It was pretty detail oriented for a dream, if he was being honest.

He kept walking though, sped up even, knowing exactly who would be waiting for him at the gate. His face split into a grin when he saw the familiar shock of blond hair, the all black ensemble. It was like the best kind of deja vu.

"Neil," Andrew said in lieu of hello, and he held out his hand to take Neil's duffel bag.

"Just this." Neil tapped the strap of the duffel bag hanging off his shoulder. It was crazy to think that there had been a time when all of his belongings had fit into something so small. Now his belongings, along with Andrew's of course, filled an entire apartment.

"I remember." Andrew turned on his heel, hitching the bag up onto his shoulder before starting away. Neil followed him through glass doors, before into a sunny summer afternoon. People crowded the area outside but Andrew didn't seem to notice, too focused in getting a cigarette lit and in his mouth. An expensive looking black car was parked in front of them in the parking area, and Neil widened his eyes. He had all but forgotten what Andrew's old car had looked like, since he was so used to the Maserati, but here it was in all it's former glory.

Andrew took a drag of his cigarette and then exhaled slowly, before dumping Neil's bag in the backseat. Neil climbed into the passenger seat, resting his feet under the dash and then stretching out his back. The plane ride had been pretty long, in fairness.

Andrew didn't sit in until he was almost finished his cigarette, dropping it to the asphalt and grinding it under his boot. A twist of the key got the engine purring, and Andrew glanced at Neil again. The ghost of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, and Neil felt his own smile widening.

"Andrew. You look so-"

Andrew gunned the engine and pulled out of the parking spot. "Shut up."

Neil grinned, and then turned on the radio, letting the music play. "It's nice to have a good dream, for once."

Andrew shot him an odd look, at that. "A dream."

Neil paused. "... Yes?"

Andrew rolled his eyes and then looked back at the road. "Of course you think this is a dream, that's why you haven't freaked out yet."

"What do you-"

Oh.

Oh.

Neil widened his eyes. If this was really happening, then it really meant that he was 18 again, that he was really joining the foxes for the first time. It meant that the Moriyamas were still after him, it meant that his father was still alive, it meant that-

"Fucking breathe, Josten." A hand clamping down on the back of his neck forced him to let out a shaky breath, before settling into a normal breathing pattern. He still felt nauseous though, and he turned to Andrew, reaching for the hand behind his head and tangling his own fingers with his husband's. Boyfriend's now, he supposed.

"Andrew, my father-"

Andrew cut him off again, making a very illegal turn. "Is irrelevant until next spring, remember?"

Oh, Neil remembered. Still, Andrew's words helped more than they probably should have. "Why aren't you freaking out more?"

Andrew glanced at him. "I've already freaked out over this, but now it's time to focus on changing things."

Neil frowned. "I'm not sure I follow."

"We know what fucking happens, Neil. We can avoid things, stop them altogether if we can."

Neil swallowed, and then nodded. That made sense, it was a good idea. "What are we even doing here?"

Andrew gave a half hearted shrug. "I don't know, but it seems pretty permanent."

Neil huffed, and then sat back in the seat. "What's the plan then?"

"Oh, Josten, I thought you'd never fucking ask."

**********

The apartment complex where Wymack lived was a twenty-minute drive from the airport, but it passed like no time at all. The parking lot was pretty empty when Andrew and Neil arrived to it, since work was still going on, but there were three familiar faces waiting for them. Andrew was the first out and he got out Neil's bag, tossing it to him before going to stand with his family. Neil put it over his shoulder, taking in the sight in front of him. Everyone was staring at him, it was a little weird. Andrew and Aaron were standing beside Kevin, dressed identically but Neil could tell them apart easily.

Nicky was the only one who seemed happy to see Neil, and he forward with a huge grin.

"Hey," he said, pulling Neil forward, up onto the curb. "Welcome to South Carolina. Flight go okay?"

"It was fine," Neil said.

"I'm Nicky." Nicky gave Neil's hand another squeeze before letting go, beaming at him. "Andrew and Aaron's cousin, backliner extraordinaire."

Neil couldn't help but smile back. "Nice to meet you, Nicky. And you're Aaron, right?"

Aaron blinked, and then frowned, glancing at Andrew. "How the fuck can you tell us apart?"

Neil shrugged. "You look completely different."

Nicky opened his mouth, and then closed it again, before just nodding. "Let's just head inside, yeah? Wymack asked us to show you upstairs."

They all made their way up the stairs with minimal small talk, although Neil felt Andrew bump their hands together a few times. They came to a stop outside apartment 724, and Neil felt his stomach twist up. He had missed Wymack a great deal after he graduated, and that hadn't really gone away in the years that followed, so it was almost surreal to be standing there again.

"Here you go, Neil. Home sweet home, if anything involving Coach can be called sweet." Nicky laughed, and Neil grinned at him, ignoring how Andrew rolled his eyes.

"Thanks, Nicky."

They gave him.a quick tour of the place, though it was hardly needed, and then Nicky rounded on him.

"You'll meet Abby tonight at dinner. We've got a couple hours to kill before then, so maybe we can take you by the court and let you gawk at it." Nicky chuckled. "We've got the perfect number for scrimmages now. Kevin's probably pissing himself in excitement."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Neil said, before laughing at Kevin's outraged expression.

Andrew had seemingly disappeared, and Neil felt the loss of him more acutely than he thought he would. It was weird, seeing all of this again in a completely different context to before, with Andrew on his side rather than hating his guts.

Neil wondered how it would all play out this time.

As if he had been summoned, Andrew appeared in the doorway with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and Kevin behind them. "Success."

"Ready, Neil?" Nicky asked. "We should probably beat it before Coach shows up."

"Why?" Neil raised an eyebrow. "Is this a robbery in progress? Am I an accessory to a crime?"

"Maybe it is. Will you tell Coach on us?" Andrew asked, a smile playing on his lips. "So much for being a team player. I guess you really are a Fox."

Neil fought a genuine smile, instead rolling his eyes. "And I guess you really are an asshole."

Nicky sucked in a breath, and Aaron looked between them. Even Kevin looked surprised, but Andrew just gave him the middle finger before turning to leave.

Neil grinned. "Nothing to say?"

"Neil," Nicky hissed. "I really wouldn't-"

"Your pretty mouth says enough for the both of us, Josten."

Neil laughed, and Nicky rocked back in stunned silence, staring at his cousin. Andrew didn't notice though, too busy taking another drink from the bottle. Enjoying his old alcohol tolerance, probably.

"That just happened, right?" Nicky asked, but shut up with Aaron elbowed him.

The doorknob rattled, and it opened to revealed a stressed looking Wymack, who sighed when he saw them all standing there.

"Hi Coach," Andrew grinned widely at him, reminiscent of his medicated days.

"Do you have any idea how much I hate coming home and finding you in my apartment?"

"We were just leaving, isn't that right Neil?"

Neil nodded. "Yeah. Where can I put my bag?"

Wymack showed him to the same locked cabinet he had shown him the first time, and Neil safely locked away his belongings after assuring the man that it was all that he had, without any of the anxiety he had felt the first time. He trusted Wymack, he knew the man would never hurt him.

"Hey, Josten." Neil looked over just in time to catch the bundle of keys the man had tossed to him. He already knew what they were, had already traced their shapes into his memory, and he held them close to his chest. "If you need anything, I'm always here."

Neil smiled and then shoved them in his pocket. "Thanks, coach."

Andrew, Aaron and Kevin all left fairly quickly after that. When Nicky moved to go, though, Wymack held a hand up. "Don't you dare traumatize him his first day here."

Nicky looked from Wymack to Neil, and then pouted. "Neil's not traumatized, right?"

"Not yet, no." Neil said. "But the day is young."

They met up with Andrew, Kevin and Aaron again by the elevator, and Neil stopped beside them. Kevin glanced over at him, and then at Andrew, before opening his mouth to speak.

"To the court?" He said hopefully, and Andrew scowled, making Neil laugh again.

"No." Andrew huffed, and Neil crossed his arms.

"Your persuasion skills need work, you know."

"I don't need to be persuasive," Andrew drawled, reaching out and tapping Neil's chest. "You'll just learn to do what I say."

Neil snorted. "We'll see about that."

Nicky looked extremely confused, but he cleared his throat and then smiled at Neil. "Ready to go, then?"

Neil looked around at his friends, his boyfriend, and then nodded. There was only one answer, really.

"Ready."

Chapter Text

Walking into the foxhole court was a homecoming, and Neil felt something settle inside of him. He hadn't noticed just how pretty it had been at the time, even from the outside, too swept up in his excitement to play exy, but now he had seen dozens of exy courts, all over the world. He had played on courts of all sizes, from small town little leagues with Andrew, to Olympic courts to millions of screaming fans, but none of them compared to this. This was home. He was practically vibrating from his eagerness to get inside.

Nicky brought a hand down on Neil's shoulder, snapping him out of his train of thought. "All the orange grows on you."

That was an understatement, really, and Neil let himself smile contentedly, reaching the door and stopping, letting Nicky take the lead.

"This is our entrance," Nicky said, when they had both stopped. "Code changes every couple months, but Coach always lets us know when it does. Right now it's 0508. May and August, get it? Coach and Abby's birth months. Told you they were boning. When's your birthday?"

"January 19th." Neil went to step inside, before pausing, his eyes going wide. Last time he had been here, he had lied to them, but the truth came easier now. His mother would have been so angry at him.

The little Andrew who always reprimanded him in his mind when he thought about his mother shouted at him, and he shoved the thoughts aside. He could panic about it later.

"Oh, we missed it." Nicky pouted, but he soon perked up again. "But we recruited you in April, so that should count as the world's greatest present. What'd your girlfriend get you?"

Neil looked at him, frowning. "What?"

"Come on, cute face like yours has to have a girlfriend. Unless you swing my way, of course, in which case please tell me now and save me the trouble of having to figure it out."

Neil fought a grimace, memories flooding back of Nicky's mouth on his, and the awful taste of cracker dust. "I'm not interested."

"I'm just curious," Nicky said, holding his hands up in defense. "You can't blame I guy for being curious."

"He means nosey," Aaron said, and Neil snorted. It was true, Nicky had always been pretty nosey when it came to other people's lives.

"I don't swing either way," Neil said. "Now, can we go in?"

"Bullshit," Nicky said.

Neil took a deep breath. "Nicky, I'm really, really not interested. Just give up, okay?"

Nicky feigned hurt, and Aaron actually chuckled quietly. "Damn, Nicky. Thirty seconds is a new record for you."

Neil ducked around them, stepping inside and leaving them to bicker. The smell of fresh carpet made him smile, and he walked down the hallway, taking in everything. The photo wall was there, although it was startlingly bare, just a few pictures of the upperclassmen, one blurry picture of Andrew and his gang. Neil smiled to himself softly. That would be changing, too.

By the time he had gotten to the actual court, Aaron and Nicky had caught up to him, and they stood by the sidelines as Neil drank in his surroundings, walking over to the equipment room and emerging with a raquet, hooking his fingers into the net there, bringing it up to his face and grinning before walking back over towards them. "This place is beautiful."

There must have been something in his expression, because Aaron looked away, while Nicky's gaze softened.

"Oh," he said, leaning against the wall just a few feet from Neil. "No wonder he chose you. You really love exy, don't you?"

Neil tightened his grip on the racquet, turning it over in his hands. "Yeah, I really do."

Now that he had gotten his little reverie over with, though, he felt the lack of a certain Minyard's presence like a physical force. He wondered when that had started, although he supposed that it had started when they had become a this.

"Where's Andrew?"

Nicky's expression faltered, before he smiled again. "He just dosed up, so he's out cold somewhere. He's going to crash and reboot into crazy mode."

Neil's stomach turned. He hated that Andrew had to take those pills, but there was no denying that his body now was still addicted to them, and that it would be hard to explain his newfound determination to get off them. "He's not crazy, Nicky."

"Crazy, nah," Nicky said, before shrugging. "Soulless, perhaps."

Neil huffed, and then shook his head, going to look for Andrew.

* * * * * * * *

"Let's see how you are on the court, then." It hadn't taken long for them to round up Kevin and Andrew, bringing them back to the court. Kevin took up watch from the sidelines as Neil, Aaron and Nicky strapped up to play, as Andrew took a seat on the bench, his head between his legs. Neil ached to go to him, but it was important that he start playing as soon as possible, given how the rest of the year was bound to go.

They spent the next hour and a half teaching Neil some basic drills, running through them again and again until their arms started to hurt. A lot of them were ones that Neil knew well, but there were a couple that he hadn't used in years and it gave him a thrill to learn something new again. They ended with a short scrimmage, one striker against two backliners and an open goal. Aaron and Nicky weren't the best defense players in the NCAA, not by far, but they were miles better than any of the high schoolers Neil was used to playing before he had joined the foxes. Neil was better, though, from all of his mental experience, and both of them were hard pressed to stop him. He shot again, and again, until his arm threatened to give up on him.

Aaron called them to a stop at last and Neil caught the ball on a rebound, panting and tossing it into the bucket. The others started unstrapping their helmets, both of them caught for breath run ragged from drills. Neil smothered the spark of excitement that usually came with Exy, already envisioning how he could work with them again, starting from scratch, but he wouldn't push them to play any longer; they were already giving up a majority of their summer break, to help him to settle in.

Nicky smeared his arm against his face, trying to wipe some sweat off, before wiping it out of his eyes. He smiled at Neil tiredly. "How was that?"

"It was fun," Neil said, genuinely meaning it, still riding the thrill that playing exy always brought him. "You two are really, really good."

Nicky smiled brightly at him, but Aaron snorted loudly from where he stood beside the bucket. "Kevin would kill himself if he heard that."

"Kevin thinks we're a waste of oxygen," Nicky agreed, making a face. Neil disagreed vehemently, but he figured that it would be a better idea to avoid too big of an argument with Kevin until later on in the year. He didn't trust himself not to when Kevin started to speak, though.

"At least you're not going to completely drag us down," Aaron said, catching Neil by surprise. He hadn't really noticed anything that Aaron said to him the first time around, but he seemed pretty normal now. "It'll take most the season to get you where we need you to be, but I can see why Kevin picked you."

"Speaking of…" Nicky tipped his head toward the wall. "Someone's ready to get his hands on you."

Kevin had his hands on his hips, and Neil sighed. Time for Kevin to tell him that he was worthless, he supposed. He resigned himself to his fate.

The three of them jogged over to where the other two were waiting, and Neil took a few moments to check in with Andrew. He had regained colour in his cheeks, which was a good sign, and he gave Neil the middle finger when he noticed his concern. Neil grinned at him in return.

"Fear for your life," Nicky hissed, under his breath. "He's not a forgiving tutor, and he doesn't know how to be nice. Kevin can piss anyone off on an Exy court, up to and including a drugged Andrew. Well, anyone except Renee, but she's not human so she doesn't count."

He propped his racquet against his shoulder and made his way towards the side of the room. "Wish you'd seen it. Andrew would've taken Kevin's head off if Kevin hadn't already thrown Andrew's racquet halfway across the court. I can't wait to see how you handle it."

Andrew sat up as the court door banged closed behind them, jerking back to awareness. He'd brought the bottle of whiskey he'd found with him and left it on the ground by his feet. Now that they were finished with practice, he scooped it up and twisted the lid off. Neil pressed his lips together, but ignored it. Andrew could take care of himself.

"About time," he said. His voice was rushed, althought whether it was from the mania or the nausea, Neil didn't know. Probably both. "Nicky, it's so boring waiting on you."

"We're done now," Nicky said, putting his helmet under his arm to make an unsuccessful grab for the whiskey. "About time you stop that, don't you think? Abby's going to beat me senseless if she realizes you've been drinking."

"That doesn't sound like my problem," Andrew said with a brilliant smile, holding the bottle out of reach. Neil huffed, and then reached out to take it, screwing the cap back on and passing it to Nicky, who looked confused that Andrew had handed it over.

Kevin's expression was indecipherable, and he snapped his fingers to get Neil's attention. "This is going to be a very long season."

"I told you I wasn't ready." Neil grumbled, and then crossed his arms. "I didn't even miss a shot."

"You also said you wouldn't play with me, but here you are." "If you won't play with me, you'll play for me," Kevin said. "You're never going to get there on your own, so give your game to me."

"Forget the stadium," Kevin said. "Forget the Foxes and your useless high school team and your family. See it the only way it really matters, where Exy is the only road to take. What do you see?"

"You," Neil said immediately. It was the truth, anyways. Kevin was what got him to where he needed to be, after all. He wouldn't have gotten to the life that he missed so badly without him.

Kevin pulled at his racquet again, and this time Neil let go. "Tell me I can have your game."

"Take it."

"Neil understands," Kevin said, dropping his hand and sending Andrew a pointed look. Neil rolled his eyes.

"Congratulations are in order, I suppose! Since I have none to give, I will tell the others to respond appropriately." Andrew groaned and then pushed himself to his feet, swaying a little and looking slightly green. Before thinking better of it, Neil darted over and caught him, ignoring Nicky's warning noise, or Kevin reaching out to stop him.

Andrew wrapped an arm around him, leaning on him heavily and mumbling a thanks. Neil shook his head, and then turned to the others, each of which had matching looks of disbelief.

"Are you all just going to stand there, or are we going to get him to the car so he can sober up a little?"

Nicky opened his mouth and closed it again, but it was Kevin who spoke. "Uh... yes, Abby is waiting for us."

Neil nodded and helped Andrew to walk out to the car, loading him into the passenger seat after a whispered yes or no. Andrew pressed the keys into his palm, and he smirked.

"Tolerance isn't what is used to be, old man."

Andrew gave him the middle finger, and he laughed.

He slipped into the driver's seat, waiting for the rest of them to get over their shock and sit in. Aaron made Nicky sit between him and Kevin, before taking out his phone. He was probably texting Katelyn, Neil realised. He wondered how Andrew was going to handle that this time.

He almost took off, before he remembered that he wasn't supposed to know where anything was, and he just settled for turning on the car, feeling the wheel thrum under his hands.

"What way am I going?"

Nicky gave him directions, and before long they had pulled up in front of Abby's house. Andrew threw the door opened and hunched over, retching and then spitting on the ground. Neil winced sympathetically, and then turned the car off. "I'll bring you out some water?"

Andrew nodded, and Neil turned to the others, waiting for them to get out before leaving Andrew alone.

* * * * * * * *

"Hemmick, get over here and be useful for once in your mangy life. Table needs setting."

"Aww, Coach, we just got here." Nicky complained as Abby turned to look at them. "Why do you always have to pick on me? You already started it. Can't you finish?"

"Shut your face and get to work."

"Can't you two behave when we've got a guest?" Abigail asked, setting aside her spoon and coming to greet them. "It's lovely to meet you, Neil."

He smiled at her and then took off his hoodie, hanging it on the coat rack. As always, it was a shock to see his arms without the scars on them, but he ignored that in favour of turning to Abby again. "You too, Abby."

Wymack gave the group a look. "I don't see any guests. Neil's a Fox. He's not going to get any special treatment just because it's his first day. Don't want him thinking this team is anything but dysfunctional or June will be a rude wake-up call."

"David? Shut up and make sure the vegetables aren't boiling over. Kevin, check the bread. It's in the oven. Nicky, table. Aaron, help him." She frowned, and then looked around. "Where's Andrew?"

Neil grimaced. "Throwing up outside. Can I bring him some water?"

Abby nodded and filled a glass with water, holding it out for him to take. It was a quick trip there and back, and then he fell in with the others, helping with dinner. It was a quiet meal too, even after Andrew joined them halfway through. Soon after that though, they left to go home, and Neil was left alone with Abby and Wymack.

Wymack closed and locked the front door behind them, before turning to Neil. "Are they going to be a problem?"

Neil shook his head. "No, Coach. I'll be fine."

"They don't understand boundaries," Wymack said. "If they cross a line and you can't get them to back off, you come to me. Understand? I don't have perfect control over Andrew, but Kevin owes us his life and I can get to Andrew through him."

Neil chuckled, and then scratched his arm lightly. "I think I'll be fine, Andrew doesn't scare me."

"You plan on wearing the same six outfits over and over again this year?" Wymack asked, after looking slightly disbelieving of him.

"Eight," Neil said, "and no, sir. I only just got here."

"Laundry room is in the basement. Detergent's in the bathroom cabinet under the sink. Use what you need, and take what you want from the kitchen. It'll piss me off more if you act like a skittish stray cat than it will if you eat the last bowl of cereal." Wymack nodded, and then waited for a response.

"Yes, Coach."

The man smiled gruffly at him. "Well, I've got paperwork to go over. You good?"

"I might go running," Neil said. "I'll shower when I get back."

Wymack nodded. "Yeah? Sounds great, kid."



Chapter Text

Despite the fact that Wymack sent him out to explore the campus and to find his way around, Neil ignored him. He knew this campus like the back of his hand, after all. He couldn’t forget it if he tried, the same way that you couldn’t forget your childhood home, the first place you truly belonged. He wandered around aimlessly for a while, taking his time to reminisce as much as he could before he needed to go for his pre-practice run. His run took him off school grounds, and he looped back around when he found himself out of breath. He was out of practice, it seemed. Daily runs would help that some, even if Andrew grumbled about it. He made it back with just over an hour to spare, giving him plenty of time to grab coffee and a light snack before making his way over to the stadium for practice. He grabbed some coffee for Andrew too, and a chocolate muffin.

The rest of Andrew’s lot were already there when he arrived, and Neil dutifully handed Andrew the paper bag with the muffin in it, along with his iced coffee. Thankfully, Nicky, Aaron and Kevin weren’t there to see it as Andrew tore it to pieces and ate it, although they did give him weird looks when he came in with his newly acquired coffee.

“You know his coffee order?” Nicky raised an eyebrow at Neil. “I can barely remember it, and I lived with him.”

“Venti vanilla bean Frappuccino, toffee nut syrup, mocha syrup, soy milk with extra whip and a caramel drizzle.” Neil recited dutifully, and Nicky turned his wide eyed surprise towards Andrew, who simply shrugged.

“Some people can remember a simple order, Nicky.”

Nicky opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut off by Kevin coming in to signal the beginning of practice. Neil grabbed his gear and went to get changed, and by the time he returned Kevin was already ushering Andrew towards the goals, and Nicky and Aaron were setting up balls and cones for their practice. As soon as they were all ready, they all started to do drills, except for Andrew, who just sat on the floor near the goals and drank his coffee, watching the goings on with a bored expression.

Kevin turned to him eventually to practice with him, which Neil stayed with Nicky and Aaron, pushing himself until his legs were shaking under him. Kevin called for them to take a break then, although he and Andrew stayed on the court. Neil made his way to the locker room, followed by Nicky and Aaron, opening his locker as Nicky settled in beside him.

 “So, first practice with Kevin, you feeling good?”

Neil almost rolled his eyes at the question, but the truth was that he was excited to be able to play Exy with Kevin again like this. He nodded, then pulled his shorts on. “Yeah, I guess?  Just hope I can keep up with him.”

Nicky smirked, and leaned against the locker. "I saw him first."

"I thought you had Erik," Neil frowned slightly, grabbing his socks.

"I do, but Kevin's on the List," Nicky said. When Neil just raised his eyebrows at him, Nicky laughed softly and explained what he meant. "It's a list of celebrities we're allowed to have affairs with. Kevin is my number three."

Neil feigned understanding by nodding, and then looked towards the door towards the court. "How does anyone lose against the Foxes with Andrew in your goal?"

"He's good, right? But Andrew sat out most of last year." At Neil’s indignant noise, Nicky shrugged and then shook his head. "Coach didn't need a third goalie when he signed us, so Andrew was a bench warmer up until November. Then, the ERC threatened to revoke our Class I status and fire Coach if we didn't start winning more often. Coach bribed Andrew into saving our collective asses with some really nice booze. Whiskey, I think."

"That sounds like Andrew." Neil nodded, ignoring the odd look that Nicky gave him.

"Andrew's good," Nicky said again, "but it doesn't really matter to him if we win or lose. You want him to care, you’ve gotta give him incentive."

"He cares more than you think."

"Now you sound like Kevin. You'll find out the hard way, same as Kevin did. Kevin gave Andrew a lot of grief this spring," Nicky shuddered, and then lowered his voice, as if he was scared that the man would hear them. Neil supposed he was. "Andrew walked off the court for an entire month. He said he'd break his own fingers if Coach made him play with Kevin again."

The thought of Andrew willingly hurting himself, being pushed that far, made Neil want to vomit, but he ignored the feeling. "But he's playing now, isn’t he?"

"Andrew is scary territorial of Kevin. He punched me the first time I said I'd like to get Kevin too wasted to be straight." Nicky rubbed at his cheek subconsciously, as if he could still feel it. "So yeah, I'm going to crush on safer targets until Andrew gets bored of him. That means you, cutie, since Matt's taken, and I don't hate myself enough to try Seth. Congrats."

"Can you take the creepy down a level?" Aaron asked, opening his locker roughly.

"What?" Nicky asked, pouting. "He said he doesn't swing, so obviously he just needs a push."

"I don't need a push, actually." Neil said. "I'm fine on my own."

"Seriously, how are you not bored of your hand by now?" Nicky shook his head. “Someone as pretty as you cannot be straight.”

"I'm done with this conversation," Neil shook his head, tone firm. "This and every future variation of it. Look, Nicky, I like you and all, but I'm here to play."

Nicky opened his mouth to respond, but he was cut off as the door slammed open, revealing a grinning Andrew. Neil’s heart sank a little. Andrew fixed them all with a surprised look, as if he hadn’t been expecting them there. "Kevin wants to know what's taking you so long. Did you get lost?"

"Nicky's scheming to rape Neil," Aaron shut his locker and picked up his bottle of water to drink from it. "There are a couple of flaws in his plan he needs to work out first, but he'll get there sooner or later."

"You're such an asshole, Aaron." Nicky straightened his jersey and started for the door, only stopping when Andrew spoke.

"Wow, Nicky," Andrew said. "You start early, don’t you?"

"Can you really blame me?" Nicky turned to Neil, winking at him and making Neil rolled his eyes. While he was distracted though, Andrew lunged.

"Hey, Nicky," Andrew said in German, his voice sing-song. "You will not touch him again.”

"You know I'd never hurt him. If he says yes—"

"He said no." Andrew’s tone was firm, and then he grinned, and then switched to German. “Or are you having trouble understanding?”

"Jesus, you're greedy," Nicky said, pale and sweating slightly. Fear was radiating off him in waves. "You already have Kevin. Why does it—"

Neil knew what came next. He knew that now, Andrew had one of his smaller knives digging into his cousin’s side, now.

"Shh, Nicky, shh," Andrew said, his voice disturbingly happy for a man who was just seconds away from stabbing someone. "Why the long face? It's going to be okay."

"Andrew, that’s enough.” Neil stepped up and pushed his way between them, careful not to touch Andrew very much.  

“Neil!” Nicky hissed in his ear, but Neil ignored him in favour of leaning forward into the knife, ignoring the way his heart thudded at that. He trusted Andrew.

“Drop the knife, Andrew.”

Andrew’s smile didn’t waver, but slowly, as if it pained him, Andrew let go of the knife and let it fall to the floor. There was tense silence for a few seconds, and then Neil cleared his throat.

"Are we playing or what?" he said. "Kevin's waiting."

Andrew looked at Neil, and then broke into a laugh. "Oh, you're right. Let's go or we'll never hear the end of it."

Andrew loosened his grip on Nicky’s shirt and stepped away. “Time for more practice.”

Nicky stared at Neil, waiting until the door closed behind Andrew to speak. "On second thought, you're not my type after all."

His voice broke halfway through the sentence, and not for the first time, Neil felt his protective instincts over his foxes flare up. He frowned. “Nicky, that wasn’t okay.”

Nicky shook his head. “That was nothing, really. I shouldn’t have said any of that.”

"No you shouldn’t have, but he's like this because you let him get away with it." Neil said, crouching down to pick up the knife and turning it over in his hands. “He won’t hurt you again, you know.”

Nicky offered him a sad smile. “Neil, really, it’s fine.”

Neil glanced at Aaron, who looked away. Neil had forgotten how the foxes felt about Andrew at the beginning, too used to how they felt about him after 15 years, 10 of those spent married to Neil.

He’d have to talk to Andrew, at any rate.

“Let’s just get back out there.” Aaron squeezed Nicky’s shoulder as he went to the door, having to stretch upwards a little. “Kevin won’t be happy if we take too long.”

Nicky plastered on a smile and nodded. “Yeah, let’s get this over with.”

Neil watched him as they left, and then followed them out.

 

 

Kevin was waiting for them as they stepped out on the court, and he barked out orders as soon as he saw them, splitting them up for more drills again. Neil could feel his heart starting to pound in excitement, his focus starting to sharpen the way it always did before a game.

They spread out on the court as if they were playing a real game: Neil and Kevin standing on the halfway line, Nicky at the line closer to the empty goals, and Aaron at the line closer to Andrew, ready to stop Neil from scoring. Andrew dealt the ball from where he was standing in goal, hitting it with an ear splitting crack and sending it all the way down towards the opposite goal. That noise spurred Neil to start moving, launching himself in the direction of the ball before Aaron could step forward to stop him. He could feel his own adrenaline fuelling him to move forward, and he caught the ball in his racquet before Kevin could get anywhere near it.

He could feel a bit of resistance there, his own body’s limitations on how well he could play, but he ignored it in favour of turning on his heels and taking his ten steps, sending the ball soaring straight down to the goals. It lit up red, but Neil ground his teeth in annoyance. Andrew wasn’t playing, it seemed, just standing there holding his racquet. Andrew dealt it again then, and they all started from the top.

"Keep count," Kevin got to the ball before Neil this time, but only barely. Neil had tried his best to catch up, but Kevin's head-start had been just enough to give him the edge. Nicky tried to stop Kevin in his tracks, but Kevin had years of experience that the rest of them didn’t have, easily dodging him on his way towards the goal. Neil threw himself forward desperately, and Kevin’s racquet almost came down against his thigh as a result, causing the game to grind to a halt. Kevin cursed him out for almost five minutes, talking about permanent injuries and calling Neil reckless and stupid.

Neil didn’t really argue. It had been a reckless move, and he had almost been given a broken leg for his troubles. He wouldn’t give Kevin the satisfaction, though, and he stood stubbornly until Kevin allowed the game to resume, quickly regaining possession of the ball and turning towards the goal.

Andrew didn’t even lift a gloved hand to try and stop it, just letting his mouth fall open in surprise, as if it hadn’t been his job to block it.

"You could at least try," Kevin said, gritting his teeth in annoyance. Neil spared a moment to let himself be angry about the medication again. He was certain that there was no way that his Andrew would be acting like this.

Andrew pretended to consider it, tapping his jaw mockingly. "Oh I could, couldn't I? Maybe next time!"

Kevin scored again, his skill and practice too much for Neil, at least in his current state. Neil was already planning out hours in the gym every day to get him back to where he needed to be. He was sure that Andrew would be overjoyed with that, too. Andrew just watched as Kevin scored on him, again and again.

"What's Andrew doing?" Neil grumbled, shaking his head.

"Nothing," Aaron said, shrugging. “You shouldn’t bother worrying about it, though. Andrew will do what Andrew wants to do.”

Kevin seemed to be annoyed at something else, though, as he took a fistful of Neil’s shirt and slammed him back against the wall of the court. "Are you even trying?"

Neil shoved him away, rubbing at his chest, but Kevin was already done with him and walking away, looking ready to score again. It pissed Neil off, and he took off to take his place beside him. He wasn’t used to playing like this at all, having to rely on his teammates like this. He had been the best player on his Millport team before he came with, and the skills that that had given him just weren’t enough to go toe to toe with the son of Exy. Even as it was, with over 20 years of experience under his belt, it felt like Neil was trapped inside a body that was too small, too weak. It didn’t want to cooperate with him. Still, he managed to snag a few more goals and judging by everyone’s expressions it was more goals than any of them were expecting him to get. Kevin was looking fairly constipated, at any rate.

All of the goals that he did manage to get still felt worthless, though, since Andrew wasn’t even trying to stop them. Neil fought back his own annoyance- he knew that this wasn’t Andrew, at least not his Andrew.

Soon, Kevin had seemingly had enough. He pointed at Nicky and Aaron, who were both panting and trying to catch their breath. "Get out. Both of you get out right now."

"Thank God," Nicky and Aaron both took off for the door, eager to change out of their sweaty gear. Neil could feel his own sticking to his skin, and he pulled it away with a grimace.

Kevin stalked over, and shoved the ball against Neil’s chest. "You stay here and fire on Andrew until he's tired. Maybe you'll score once."

Neil rolled his eyes. “Are you mad that I got the ball off you?”

Kevin gritted his teeth and stalked off, leaving Andrew and Neil alone on the court. Neil turned to look at him, wincing at the manic smile that Andrew had plastered on his face.

“Why didn’t you try, today?” He bounced the ball, catching it again as he waited for Andrew to respond. Andrew just shook his head at him, and lifted his racquet up.

“What will you give me if I do?”

Neil was on familiar ground with this now, he had spent over half of his life making deals with Andrew, or at least he had before they had been brought back. “Anything you want, Drew.”

Andrew went quiet then, for so long that Neil almost thought that the conversation was over, before he spoke again. “I need to get off of these.”

Neil winced. He knew that Andrew had hated the meds, but he had all the more reason to now. Last time he had been on them…

He shuddered. “We’ll get you off them, I promise. You should start talking to Bee about it, see if you can cut down the dosing at least.”

Andrew nodded, and Neil hummed. “Let’s go, then.”

“What, you don’t want to practice?” Andrew grinned at him. “Not very junkie of you, junkie.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Drew.”

He took a deep breath, and then started to walk towards the goal, stopping just outside of Andrew’s comfort zone. “We need to talk about Nicky, though.”

Andrew went still, and then nodded, wiping his smile away with his fingers. “He was talking about you. It wasn’t very nice, was it?”

Neil sighed. “You know he didn’t mean anything by it. He’ll stop if he’s asked, you don’t need to threaten him.”

“And if he doesn’t? He didn’t last time, you know.” Andrew was well aware of what had happened that first time in Colombia, had already beaten himself up for it until Neil talked sense into him. Still, it made sense that he was worried. “So rude.”

“He will, I’ll talk to him. I promise.” A medicated Andrew dealt even more in promises and deals than a sober one did, and Neil was painfully aware of that.

Andrew finally nodded, leaving the goal and putting his racquet over his shoulder. Neil smiled and brushed their hands together, making sure that Andrew didn’t tense up first.

“Try next time, okay?” Andrew glared at him, but then he nodded slowly, rubbing at his mouth as if willing the smile away.

Andrew gave him a lift back to Wymack’s place, which was fortunate as Neil’s legs were no longer used to running immediately after practice. He climbed the stairs up to the seventh floor, where Wymack was waiting up for him, rolling a can of coffee grounds between his hands. He seemed worried. "Kevin called ahead to say you almost broke your leg tonight at practice. I said you weren't that stupid. Which one of us is right?"

"I… might have gotten carried away," Neil huffed and then crossed his arms. “Did he also tell you that I beat him to the goal five times?”

Wymack tossed the coffee can at him, and Neil caught it without thinking. It slipped out of his hands though, and it hit the ground with a metallic thud, scattering coffee grounds all over the floor. Neil winced, although that was nothing compared to what came next.

Wymack snarled at him, walking towards him. "You idiot."

It had been a very long time since Neil had retreated from an older man, especially Wymack, but his 18 year old self didn’t seem to get the memo, and he backed up quickly. He almost fell in his haste, and Wymack froze on the spot. There was a bone deep recognition in his eyes, and Neil swallowed before opening his mouth to speak.

"I’m fine." Neil said quietly. "It won't happen again."

Wymack didn't answer him, but he didn't come closer either. When it became apparent that Neil wouldn’t speak again, though, he huffed and scratched his head.

"Look at me," Wymack said, his voice quiet. “Neil, look at me. I want you to understand something,"

Neil felt ridiculous because of the way that his body was reacting to the man in front of him. The man was the closest thing to a father that Neil had ever had, and he was running away from him like a child. Still though, he listened.

Wymack cleared his throat before he spoke again. "I am a loud, grouchy old man. I like to yell and throw things. But I don't throw punches unless some punk is dumb enough to try me first. I have never, ever hit someone without provocation, and I'm sure as hell not going to start with you. You hear me?"

Neil believed him, without a shadow of a doubt. Wymack would never hurt a Fox, he would never let himself hurt them. "Yes, Coach."

"I'm serious," Wymack said, his face stony. "Don't you dare be more afraid of me than you are of Andrew."

Neil nodded, a faint smile tugging at his lips now. “I’m not scared of Andrew.”

Wymack rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry kid, you will be.”

Neil doubted it, but still he nodded, and then picked up his gear bag. “Can I go to bed?”

Wymack nodded at him, and then went to get a brush, to clean up the floor. “It’s a free country, Neil. See you tomorrow.”

Neil nodded, and then walked to the bathroom to brush his teeth. It was going to be a long year, relearning everything that he had learned before.

He was certain that together, though, he and Andrew could do it and come out stronger on the other side. It was what they were best at, after all.

Chapter Text

Sleep had never come easily to Neil, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to him when he found himself staring at Wymack’s sitting room ceiling, unable to get back to sleep. After tossing and turning for a couple of minutes, he groaned and threw the blankets off his legs, grabbing his shoes and pulling them on. It was still the middle of the night when he got outside, and cold enough that he regretted his choice to keep his pyjama pants on, and to forego a hoodie. The way to the Foxes stadium was lit well with streetlights, but Neil hardly needed them. He could have ran along Perimeter Road in the dark, backwards, probably in his sleep. He could almost imagine Andrew rolling his eyes at him, and he fought a smile. Typing in the code to the stadium was second nature to him, and he stopped by the gate to work some tension out of his neck. Although it was the middle of the night, he knew that Andrew and Kevin were at the court, and that was only confirmed by the presence of Andrew’s car parked by the door.

After letting himself in, he could hear the distant noise of a ball ricocheting off the wall, and he rolled his eyes. He had forgotten how obsessive Kevin had been when they had first met, after getting used to the more mellow post-graduation Kevin. Neil supposed that having your dream job and being happily married would do that to someone. It had certainly done it to him, anyway. Kevin was alone on the court with a container of balls at his feet, and he was mercilessly hitting them at the wall, catching them on the rebound or letting them sail back past him. Neil watched him for a minute or two, the steady slam of the ball against the concrete wall keeping time with his heartbeat, until he finally tore his eyes away, scanning the stands for who he knew would be there.

Andrew was sitting up at the top of the stands, his legs propped up on the seat beside him as he watched Kevin practice with a detached boredness. Neil made his way up to him, settling himself on the seat.

“Still not playing with him, then?”

Andrew snorted, looking away from Kevin to stare at Neil instead. His eyes were bright, too bright. Neil made a mental note to speak to Betsy about Andrew’s medication, as soon as he could.

“And encourage him? Why would I do that?”

Neil rolled his eyes and tucked his leg up under his chin. “Will you start putting more effort into practice when the year starts? We could do so much better than last time.”

“What will you give me if I do?”

“Anything.” Neil smiled softly, bumping his leg against Andrew. “Anything you want.”

“Anything?” Andrew grinned, and the medicated gleam was back in his eyes as he laughed. “Sounds hot, Josten.”

Neil made a face. “Drew, I’m not having sex with you while you’re on those pills.”

“Not even a blowjob? Well that’s just rude.” Andrew laughed again, and Neil pushed away the sick feeling in his stomach to lean back in his seat.

“I don’t trust you to say no to things while you’re medicated, Andrew. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I hurt you.”

“Columbia, then.” Andrew nudged Neil’s thigh with his foot, and Neil nodded.

“Columbia.”

They were silent for a couple of seconds before Andrew spoke again. “Aaron.”

Neil raised an eyebrow and looked over at his boyfriend, keeping his voice soft. “What about him?”

Andrew wiped the smile off his mouth, and then sat up to tug on Neil’s hair. It felt almost affectionate, and Neil smiled. “Drew, whatever it is, I’ll do it.”

“Get him to talk to Betsy.”

Neil hummed, and then nodded. “Joint sessions, or by himself?”

Andrew made a non-committal noise. “You handle the latter, I can deal with the former.”

Neil nodded again, and held out his hand for Andrew to take. “I’ll do what I can.”

“I know. You don’t make sense.” Andrew shook his head. “It’s not worth it.”

A memory came to Neil, and he grinned, squeezing Andrew’s fingers. "I'm not a math problem, Drew. You don’t have to solve me."

Andrew rolled his eyes and then laughed. “Didn’t peg you for a comedian, Josten.”

Neil snorted. “My boyfriend has that covered for me, actually.”

 Andrew shoved his face away, and then got to his feet. “Time to take Kevin home. You coming?”

Neil shook his head. “I need the practice. I’ll see you tomorrow, though.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Junkie.”

Neil smiled. “You like it.”

Andrew started to walk away. “I like nothing, Josten.”

Neil got up to follow him. “I know, Drew.”

Kevin was waiting for Andrew downstairs when they got there, and he raised an eyebrow when he saw Neil with him. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought I could get some more practice in.” Neil shrugged. “Stopped to talk to Andrew when I saw it was occupied.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow and looked between them. “You stopped to talk to Andrew.”

Andrew laughed, and then crossed his arms. “I’ll have you know, I’m an incredible conversationalist.”

Kevin ignored him and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Andrew. Let’s go.”

Andrew nodded and pulled his coat on, hitting his shoulder against Neil’s on his way out. “Seeya, Junkie.”

Kevin frowned at Neil, and then shrugged, leaving Neil alone in the main foyer of the stadium. Neil stood there for a couple of seconds, before turning around and going to the locker room. Now that Kevin was gone, he could comfortably change into his gear without having to go into a bathroom stall, and it took only a couple of minutes before he was out on the court, racquet in hand and ready to practice. He walked himself through some drills until he could feel himself starting to sweat, before running suicides until his breath was coming in harsh pants. He didn’t want to push himself too hard before actual practices started, after all. He showered quickly and redressed in his pyjamas, walking the way back to Wymack’s apartment and letting himself in using his key. He could hear the man snoring in his bedroom, and he groaned as he collapsed down onto the couch. He was asleep in seconds, and slept through until near noon the next day, only waking up to the sound of shouting.

"Damn it, Kevin, I said sit down!"

"I won't!" Kevin’s voice was strained with panic, and Neil remembered this. There was only one thing that could make him that scared. "How could you let him do this?"

"I don't have any say in this and you know it. Hey!" Neil heard the thud of something hard against the wall, and he winced. It seemed that Wymack wouldn’t have any belongings left after this particular argument.

"Look at me," Wymack’s voice was firm. "Look at me, god damn you, and breathe."

"I warned Andrew he was going to come for me. I told him!"

"It doesn't matter. You signed a contract with me."

"He could pay off my scholarship in a heartbeat. You know he would. He'd pay you off and take me home and I—I can't go back there. I can't, I can't, I won't, I—I have to go. I have to go. I should go now, before he has to come for me. Maybe he'll forgive me if I go back. If I make him hunt me down any more than I have already he'll kill me for sure." He was babbling, and Neil clenched his fists. Riko being alive again was a definite downside to this whole experience. Maybe they’d be able to really make him suffer this time, though.

"Shut up," Wymack said. "You're not going anywhere."

"I can't tell Riko no!"

"Then don't say a word," Wymack growled. "Keep your mouth shut and let me and Andrew do the talking. Yes, Andrew. Don't tell me you forgot about that psycho. I've got Betsy's number on speed dial. Want me to put you through to her office so you can talk to him? Want to tell him you're thinking about going back?"

Neil could imagine Andrew’s reaction to that news, and he shuddered.

"I'm not letting you go back there," Wymack said. "Nothing says I have to. Your contract says you belong to me. He can send us all the money he wants, but you have to sign off on it before it means anything, and you're not going to. Okay? You let me and Andrew worry about Riko fuck-face. You worry about getting your game and team where they need to be. You promised me you could get us past the fourth match this year."

"That was before," Kevin sounded absolutely miserable. "This is now."

"The ERC is giving us until June before they break the news. They saw how many security issues we had over your transfer, so they're waiting until everyone's here where I can keep an eye on them. I told you because you need to know, but I need you to keep it from Andrew until then. Tell me you can see Andrew today and not completely freak out."

"Andrew will figure it out. He's not stupid." Neil shook his head. They needn’t have worried this time, Andrew already knew.

"Then you have to be the better liar," Wymack paused, and Neil almost laughed at the suggestion that Andrew could be fooled by Kevin. "The ERC is looking for a reason to take him away from us, and you know they won't give him back. Then where will you be?"

"Give me your phone."

Wymack sounded surprised. "If you think I'm going to let you use my phone to call him, you—"

"Jean," Kevin cut in, desperate. "I have to call Jean. I have to hear him say it."

Neil waited out in the hallway, and he was considering his best path of escape when he heard Kevin start to speak in French.

"Tell me it isn't true," Kevin said, sounding close to tears. "Tell me he didn't."

He heard the groan of the padded chair that Wymack kept in his kitchen, and he could almost imagine Kevin sinking into it in despair. He’d go and comfort him, if he thought that that was what Kevin needed.

"Wait here," Wymack said, and he stepped into the hallway before Neil could slip away. He looked surprised to see him there, but continued to his office, returning with a bottle of vodka and going back in to where Kevin was waiting.

"Drink," he said, presumably handing the bottle over. "I'll be right back."

He stepped back out into the hallway, rubbing his face before settling a weary gaze on Neil.

"I wasn't going to tell anyone else until June," he said. "How much did you hear?"

"The Ravens are moving to our district. Kevin’s not taking it well.”

Wymack nodded grimly. "Their transfer was approved this morning. They're part of the South-Eastern district, effective June 1st."

Neil nodded, and crossed his arms. “We’ll have to beat them.”

Wymack raised an eyebrow at him. “That’s ambitious of you.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, coach. If there’s anyone who believes that we can do this, it’s you.”

Wymack stared at him for a long second, before shrugging. “You’re right. I believe in my Foxes, I always have.”

Neil nodded, and then tapped his fingers to his temple in salute, reminiscent of Andrew’s. “We won’t let you down, Coach.”

 

The Foxes practices weren’t meant to start until the 10th, but the team was required to move into the dorms at least one day before that, or at least that was what Wymack told them. The estimated arrival times of each fox were listed out on Wymack’s fridge, although some of them weren’t due to arrive until the late evening. He was eager to meet his friends again, to see them on a regular basis. Especially Matt, Neil couldn’t wait to live with him again. Still, it gave him a couple of hours with nothing to do, and after that there would be the Wymack had scheduled with the foxes, later that night after they had all moved in. Neil assumed that he would be telling them about the Ravens move, then. At least then Kevin would stop looking constipated all the time, and they’d be able to start helping him properly.

He and his duffel bag rode in Wymack’s car to the the court, where Wymack got the dorm keys for the foxes, shoving them into his back pocket. Neil took his key and then signed the form assuring that he would comply with the dorm rules, handing it over and then perusing the course booklet that Wymack had given him. He had missed the early registration period for athletes since he had joined the Foxes so late in the year, so he would have to wait to sign up for classes with the rest of the student body. That was fine, though; he wasn’t in any rush as far as classes were concerned, and he already knew what he wanted his major to be. He circled the calculus modules as he came across them, adding in some Analysis and algebra before finally choosing some modern languages credits to round out his year. Maybe he’d even be able to work harder in his classes this time around. He doubted it, though.

After he had wasted almost an hour nailing down his schedule, he still had a half hour to kill, and he was just considering going for a quick run before Abby came in, smiling warmly at him in greeting.

"Hey, Neil," Abby said. "You're a little early for the meeting."

"Coach won't let me into Fox Tower until Matt gets here."

She glanced at her watch, and then nodded. "He'll be here before you know it. Since you've got time to spare, we might as well get your physical over with."

"Physical?" Neil swallowed his discomfort. He had known it was coming, had known when he signed himself over to the Foxes, but it was still less than ideal. He was a lot better with it than he had been the first time around.

"Just a general check-up: weight, height, all that good stuff. We have to do it today instead of tomorrow because there's blood work involved. I can't let you on the court until you've slept it off. When's the last time you saw a doctor?"

"A long time ago."

"Don't like doctors?"

"Doctors don't like me. Let’s just get this over with.”

Neil got off the chair and followed her into her office, setting his duffel down at the end of her desk and sitting up on the bed, waiting for her to begin. The first part of Abby's test was easy, just like she’d promised; she weighed him and took some measurements, before taking two vials of blood from his arm and putting them into a little zip lock bag to send off for examination. Then, she crossed her arms. "Shirt off, Neil."

Neil just stared. "Why?"

"I can't check track marks through cotton, Neil."

"I don't do drugs."

"Good on you," Abby said. "Keep it that way. Now take it off."

Neil gritted his teeth. Abby hadn’t seen them before, and he wasn’t sure if he could handle seeing the pity in her eyes again. She sighed, quietly.

"I want to make this as painless as possible, but I can't help you if you can't help me. Tell me why you won't take off your shirt."

“Abby, I'm not okay." His voice broke, and he cleared his throat.

"Neil, I work for the Foxes. None of you are okay. Chances are I've seen a lot worse than whatever it is you're trying to hide from me."

“God, I hope not."

"Trust me," Abby said. "I'm not going to judge you. I'm here to help, remember? I'm your nurse now. That door is closed, and it comes with a lock. What happens in here stays in here."

"You won't tell Coach, then?"

"This isn't his business," Abby said, gesturing between them with her free hand. "I only report to him if I think it'll affect your performance on the court or if you're breaking the law and I need an intervention."

"You can't ask me about them," he said, eventually. "I won't talk to you about it yet. Okay?"

"Okay," Abby agreed easily. "But know that when you want to, I'm here, and so is Betsy."

Neil wasn’t planning on talking to Betsy, not about himself at least, but he nodded, pulling his shirt off over his head before he lost his nerve. The reaction was instant, and predictable. She wasn’t quite quick enough to catch her flinch, and her expression turned sad in an instant. Neil had to look away from her, unable to take her sympathy. He bared his forearms to her.

"Do I have track marks, Abby?"

"Neil," Abby choked out, but he cut her off.

"Do I, or don't I?"

Abby forced herself to refocus on the physical exam, and she filled out the checklist with a shaking hand, putting the pad and pen down carefully.

"We're done," Abby said. "Neil—"

"No." Neil grabbed his duffel, leaving quickly.

He expected her to follow him, but Abby had always been a lot smarter than he gave her credit for.

He wanted a cigarette, his fingers almost ached from the cravings he was having. He wanted something that would make him feel a little less alone, he wanted to smoke with Andrew. He wondered when he had stopped associating cigarettes with his mother altogether, and had started associating them with Andrew instead.

He was forced out of his train of thought by the appearance of a person at the end of the lounge, and Neil didn’t even bother trying to stop himself from smiling.

"Matt Boyd," the man said, even though he didn’t have to. "I'm a junior this year, and I'm the Foxes' starting backliner. You must be Neil."

Neil smiled, but was prevented from answering by Wymack walking in, probably having heard the commotion. He held up a ring of keys, before throwing one at Matt, hitting his cheek and then falling down onto his palm.

"Jesus, Coach, good to see you too. When did we move past a simple 'hello'?"

"I could say the same for you, stomping past my open door like that without so much as a by-your-leave," Wymack said.

"You looked busy!"

"I'm always busy. That's never stopped you pricks from interrupting me before."

Matt shrugged and then looked around him. "Where are the monsters?"

"Probably razing Fox Tower to the ground as we speak. You met Neil?"

"I was trying." Matt grinned crookedly at Neil. "I can't believe you put up with Coach this long. How did you survive?"

"I wasn't around much," Neil said.

"Neil's been training with Kevin and Andrew every day," Wymack said. “Poor bastard.”

"Oh god," Matt said, whistling lowly. "Cruel and unusual punishment, Coach."

"He knows it, too." Abby leaned against the doorframe, crossing her arms and smiling. "Welcome back, Matt. Did you have a safe drive?"

"Safe enough, but I drank so much coffee I probably won't sleep for a week." Matt looked to Neil again, and clapped a hand down onto his shoulder. "Already settled?"

"Coach wouldn't let me move in without you," Neil explained.

"Way to keep him waiting, Boyd." Wymack said. "Take him and get out of here."

"Come on," Matt said. "I'll swing you past Coach's place to get your things."

"This is it," Neil said. Matt looked at his bag, raising an eyebrow and looking at Wymack, who shook his head.

"That's a joke, right? You should see how much I crammed into my truck—and how much I had to leave behind—and you expect to last a year with one bag? That thing have some magical expanding powers I don't know about or something?"

"You get to take him shopping later this week," Wymack said. "On your time, not mine. I'm sick of seeing him in the same clothes over and over. Just let me know when you're going and I'll give you the p-card so we can expense it."

Neil made an offended noise. "I have my own money."

"Good for you," Wymack said. "I thought you two were leaving."

"Didn't miss you at all," Matt said, grinning. "Let's go, Neil."

They reached the car park quickly, and Matt’s truck was sitting by the door, and Neil grinned at the sight of it; he had traded it in for a mini van when they had started having kids, and Neil hadn’t seen it in years. They got in quickly, and Neil stashed his bag under the passenger seat.

"We're not all bad, just so you know," Matt said, pulling the truck out of the parking lot. "Dan hated that your first impression of us would be the do-nothings. She was pretty sure you wouldn't stick around long enough to meet the rest of us. She thought about coming back to campus early to be a buffer, but Coach told her not to bother. Said you had to deal with them eventually."

"They're interesting," Neil said.

"Interesting," Matt repeated, shaking his head. "That's the tamest description of them I've ever heard. Seriously, though. If they give you any trouble, just let me know. I'll kick Kevin's ass for you."

"Thanks, but I can handle them on my own."

"I thought I could handle them, too." Matt shook his head, pushed his hair back with his hand. "Andrew made it pretty clear he wasn't going to be handled by anyone. You change your mind, you know where to find me. My offer's good through graduation."

Neil definitely wouldn’t need it, but the thought behind it was appreciated. "Thanks, Matt."

Matt grinned and gently punched his shoulder. “No problem, bro.”

They let themselves into their apartment, and Neil cursed to himself. He had forgotten sheets, he would need to add them to his list of groceries. He put his duffel into his set of drawers, and shut it all the way.

"I'm heading out to get Dan and Renee from the airport," Matt said from the doorway, smiling widely at him. "Want to come with?"

"I've got to run by the store," Neil said, shaking his head. "Do you care which bed you sleep in?"

"I'm too tall to sleep up top," Matt said, "and Seth keeps weird hours, so unless you've got a thing with heights, you're better off in the loft. I'll be back in an hour or so, and you can hitch a ride with us to the court when the girls are settled. Dan won't believe you're okay until she sees you with her own eyes."

"I'll be back by then," Neil said, and then Matt left.

Neil put his list in his pocket, and then grabbed his wallet, setting off on a run to the nearest store to get the things he would need for the dorm. By the time he got back, everyone seemed to have settled into their own rooms, and he could hear the chatter of voices coming from the girls’ room. They stopped as they heard him come in, and it only took a second for Dan to emerge out into the hallway.

“Neil! It’s so nice to finally meet you.” She grinned, and Neil found himself smiling in response.

“You must be Dan, right? I’ve heard lots of good things.”

She snorted. “You must have been talking to Matt, then.”

Their conversation seemed to have caught others’ attention, since soon enough Matt came out to stand beside Dan, and then Andrew came to stand at his door.

“Oh, Neil. You’re back.” Andrew grinned. “Did you check on your duffel bag?”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Fuck off, Andrew.”

Matt raised his eyebrows, and then glanced at Dan. “Uh, anyway, Neil, now that you’re back, you can catch a ride with me, Dan, and Renee back to the stadium to meet with Wymack.”

Andrew made a buzzer noise, and then laughed. “Too late, Boyd, he’s riding with us.”

Matt frowned. “Neil, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to go with them.”

Neil shook his head. “Thanks, Matt, but I’ll go with Andrew.”

Andrew grinned, and then ruffled Neil’s hair roughly. “Come on Neil, don’t wanna be late for coach’s big announcement, do we?”

Dan frowned, and squeezed Matt’s arm. “Do you guys… know each other?”

Neil shrugged. “We’ve met, before.”

Dan shook her head. “You know how crazy he is, then.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, putting on an accent and laughing. “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Neil smothered a smile and huffed a laugh. “Come on, Andrew. Let’s go.”

He bumped his knuckles against Matt’s as they left, before leaving Dan and Matt in semi-stunned silence and following Andrew back into his room.

Chapter Text

The drive to the foxhole court allowed Neil to relax, finally. Nicky and Aaron were arguing quietly in the backseat about some stupid thing that they had seen on the internet, but the sound only helped Neil to close his eyes and let himself drift a little. A niggling voice in his head reminded him that Andrew was medicated, but Neil dismissed it. He trusted Andrew. Andrew wouldn’t let them get hurt.

A quick touch to the arm woke him, and he opened his eyes in time to see Andrew slamming the door behind him. He got out quickly, regretting it as soon as the cold air met his bare arms. At the sight of him shivering, though, Andrew wordlessly handed over his jacket before crossing his arms. Neil slid it on gratefully.

Matt and the others arrived just over a minute later, pulling into Matt’s usual parking spot and climbing out of the car. As soon as the three reached them, Neil felt Andrew tugging on his sleeve, and he pointed at him.

"Look, one piece."

"Are you bleeding anywhere?" Matt asked, suspicious. Neil would have laughed, but Matt was being completely serious. It was weird to see the foxes looking at Andrew the way they did again; Neil had gotten used to them warming up to Andrew, especially after they had gotten married. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, being back at square one again.

"Nowhere vital," Neil said with a shrug.

Matt looked concerned and opened his mouth to speak, but Renee intervened before he could speak. "Why don't we wait inside for Seth and Allison? We've got a while and it's a little warm out here."

"Maybe they'll get in a crash and won't make it," Nicky said hopefully, and he was faced with several unimpressed looks this time. He held up his hands in defence. “What?”

"Really, Nicky," Renee said. "That's a little inappropriate, don't you think?"

Not for the first time, Neil was reminded of the quiet intimidating disappointment that was Renee’s weapon. It was somehow worse than the glaring that Matt and Dan were doing, and Nicky looked appropriately ashamed of himself.

“Let’s just go in.” He mumbled, and Aaron patted his arm as they walked to the entrance. They settled into the lounge, Andrew’s lot settling on the couch in the middle while the upperclassmen spread out more on the chairs. Neil bumped his hand against Andrew’s gently, before going to settle on a separate seat. There would be time to sit with Andrew after he had started to pull the team together, after all. He wasn’t risking his foxes for anything.

Both groups kept to themselves, although Neil did his best to speak to both; Matt made it a lot easier, even though Dan kept sending Andrew’s lot dirty looks. Just before the meeting was due to start though, they were interrupted by Wymack, and Abby.

“Oh, you’re here.” Wymack huffed a laugh and then shrugged his sweatshirt off. “First time you’ve ever been early.”

“Just waiting on Allison and Seth, Coach.” Matt grinned, and then sat back to wrap an arm around Dan’s shoulders. Wymack turned to discuss the coming season with Dan, and Kevin soon moved to join in. Neil saw Andrew’s eyes following him across the room, but he didn’t stop him. He was doing well with letting go of the others to his credit, even while he wasn’t in his right mind. He could tell that it was confusing Aaron and Nicky, and Kevin although Kevin hadn’t had as long to get used to it.

He was hoping that it would make fixing their relationships all the easier.

Allison and Seth took that moment to make their entrance, and Neil had to stop himself from smiling too wide at the sight of her. Allison looked so young. They all looked young, but Allison had taken to middle age with all the grace of a prima ballerina taking to the stage. He smiled at her nonetheless, though, and she smiled back with a wink. He turned his head just in time to meet Seth’s scowl, but he didn’t drop his smile.

Allison swept the room with a calculating look, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked at Andrew’s group, and then her eyes settled on Neil again. She smiled, sultry and intended to make Seth jealous.

"I'm going to sit with you," she said.

She crossed the room to sit on the arm of the chair Neil was sitting in, crossing her legs and exposing the majority of her toned, tanned thighs. Her Caribbean accent was stronger than Neil remembered; it had mellowed over time during her marriage to Renee, and their frequent vacations to Europe. It made Neil smile again, and he scooted over to make space for her.

"I can move if you want to sit here," Neil said, bracing himself to get up.

"No, this is fine." She smiled smugly, and Neil pointedly ignored the daggers that Seth was glaring at him. He had nothing to worry about, as far as Neil was concerned. "This will be quick, won't it? It was a long flight and I'm exhausted."

"You're the ones slowing this down in the first place." Wymack said, and then gestured at Neil. "First order of business: Neil Josten, our new striker sub. Got anything to say?"

Neil shook his head, and Wymack gave him a curt nod before turning to the two newcomers. "You already met everyone else. Here's the last of them: Seth Gordon, starting striker, and Allison Reynolds, our defensive dealer. Questions, comments, concerns? Anyone?"

Seth was seemingly done with staying silent, unfortunately. "I'm fucking concerned—"

"All right, then. Moving on. Abby?" Wymack cut him off, and Neil bit his lip to stop from laughing. Andrew seemed vaguely amused, too.

Abby pushed off from the door frame and started to hand out the stapled booklets that she had been holding. "Same boring forms as always, guys. Sign your name on the appropriate lines and give them back to me first thing tomorrow. You can't practice until I have these on file.”

As soon as she finished, Wymack chimed in. "Summer practices start at 8:30. Enjoy sleeping in while you can, because we're moving to 6:00 when the semester starts. We're meeting at the gym. I repeat, we're meeting at the gym. If you're late because you came here instead of there, I will put my shoe through your face. You've only been gone for a month. I know you all know how this works."

"Yes, Coach," the team chorused, including Neil. He had missed having Wymack as his coach.

"Physicals get done before you leave today. Andrew, you're first. Seth, you're going second. The rest of you draw straws or something. It's up to you. Don't even think of leaving before you've seen Abby."

Since he had finished the formalities and had ran out of other things to talk about, Wymack hesitated before picking up the folder that he had placed next to him on the desk. "Last order of business from me today is our schedule."

Neil saw the confusion on the faces of everyone on the team besides him and Andrew, and Kevin who had paled rather horribly.

"Already?" Matt asked. "It's only June."

"We don't have dates yet, but the ERC's made some changes that will make this spring look like a cakewalk. They're notifying the coaches in our district one by one to try and control the fallout. It has potential to get ugly."

"How could it be worse than the shit we dealt with last year?" Seth asked.

Matt huffed and then counted them off on his fingers as he spoke. "The break-ins, threatening phone calls, rabid press, vandalism…"

"Personal favourite was when someone told the police we were running a meth lab out of the dorm," Dan said, her mouth twisted into the grimace. "Police raids are awesome."

"The death threats were creative, though," Nicky admitted. "Maybe this time they'll follow through and actually kill one of us. Let's vote. I nominate Seth."

"Fuck you, faggot," Seth spat, and Neil saw Nicky’s flinch.

"Don’t use that word.” Silence fell, and Neil realised that he and Andrew had spoken in unison. He cleared his throat, and then spoke again. “I don’t like that word.”

Seth laughed nastily. "I would say 'fuck you, freak', but then they wouldn't know which one of them I was talking to."

Neil grimaced, but it was Aaron who spoke. Nicky just smiled at Neil softly, before looking back towards the conflict. "Don't talk to us at all, then. You never have anything useful to say."

"Enough," Wymack said, and then sighed. "We don't have time for petty bullshit this year. We've got a new school in our district."

Neil glanced at Kevin where he sat between Andrew and Aaron. He looked sickly pale, and Neil could only imagine the turmoil that was going on inside his head. Wymack spoke again though, before he could check to see if he was okay.

"Edgar Allen's come south." Shock and horror rendered the foxes silent, but that didn’t last for long.

"No way," Dan said, angrily. "That isn't fucking funny, Coach."

Her angry sentiment was reflected in the rest of the room, even in Renee whose eyebrows drew together, her small fading from her face. Andrew was the only one who didn’t seem phased, his smile firmly fixed in place. It sent a shiver down Neil’s smile, but he ignored it.

Wymack quickly talked through the reasons behind the ERC’s decision, but Neil could see his gaze flicking towards Andrew every so often, checking to see how he was reacting. As the room quieted again, Andrew spoke up, turning to look at Kevin.

"Hey, Kevin," Andrew said, with a bright smile. "Hear that? Someone really misses you."

"The ERC shouldn't have approved it," Kevin said, a mere whisper.

Andrew snorted in his face. "You said that he would come for you."

"I didn't know it would be like this." Kevin argued, but Andrew wouldn’t let him speak.

"Liar," Andrew said, and Kevin flinched. Nicky and Aaron both leaned away from them, and Neil could see the discomfort on their faces. He beckoned to Nicky quickly, moving so that the man could sit on the other arm of his seat. Aaron stubbornly stayed where he was, but he glanced at Nicky and let out a small breath of relief.

"You did know about this, Kevin." Andrew said. "How long? One day, two days, three four five?"

Kevin might as well have been mouthing the words; if Neil hadn’t heard this exchange before he wouldn’t have any idea what they were saying. "Coach told me when it was approved in May."

"May. May, Day. Mayday. A little curious, Kevin Day. When were you going to tell me?"

"I told him not to," Wymack said in defence of Kevin, and Neil shook his head. Even though Andrew had known already, it was still a betrayal for Kevin not to tell him.

"You picked Coach over me?" Andrew asked, and then laughed loudly. "Ohhhh, my. Favoritism, nepotism, betrayal, how familiar. After all I've done for you."

"Andrew, knock it off," Abby warned him, but only Aaron and Renee seemed to catch Andrew’s little reveal, both of their eyes snapping to Kevin. No one else seemed to be focused on anything other than Kevin.

"Help me," Kevin said, his voice hoarse. Neil pitied him, but he let Andrew run his course. This was important for Kevin, he needed the push that Andrew would give him, so that he could stand up to Riko when the time came.

"Help you? Help a man who lies to my face for a month? Why on earth would I do that?"

"I want to stay," Kevin said. "I'll ask you again: don't let him take me away Andrew."

"You're the one who would tell him yes," Andrew reminded him. "Maybe you forgot."

"Please."

"You know how much I hate that word." Andrew snapped, and Kevin flinched. Neil swallowed, and then decided it was time to step in.

“Andrew.”

Andrew looked at him, and then worked his jaw before looking back at Kevin. Neil could see him changing tactics, and he smiled slightly.

"Look at me," Andrew said, and Kevin looked at him hauntedly. There was fear there, sure, but there was trust there too. Neil could empathise with the man, could feel the same bone deep trust that Andrew evoked in people.  

"It'll be fine," Andrew said. "I promised, didn't I? Don't you believe me?"

It took a while, but at last Kevin started to relax. “Yeah, I do.”

Andrew’s smile returned, as wide as ever, and Neil ran a hand through his hair. “Are we finished here then, coach?”

"This is a big deal," Dan said, frowning. "It changes everything, Neil. You don't understand."

"Neil found out when Kevin did," Wymack said, effectively ending that argument. "I already had this talk with him, so he understands just fine. And no, there's nothing else. Abby, they're all yours. Do with them what you will."

Neil got to his feet and walked towards the door, only looking back when Dan called him.

“Neil, your physical.”

Neil assured her that he had already done it, and then turned to leave again. This time, his made it a little further before a gentle touch on his arm stopped him. It was Renee.

“Neil, since Andrew can’t give you a lift back to the tower, we could drive you?”

Neil swallowed, and then bit his lip. He had refused last time, and ran back to the tower on his own. This time, though, he was going to take all the time with the upperclassmen that he could, for as long as he could.

He smiled at her, slow but genuine. “That would be great, actually. Thank you.”

********************

When Neil arrived back to his own room after meeting up with Andrew’s lot, Seth and Matt were arguing from their respective beds. Pausing at the door, he listened in to what they had to say.

Seth’s voice was angry, and Neil rolled his eyes. He had forgotten just how plain argumentative the man was. "And to make it all worse, I get stuck with a fucking amateur as a sub!"

"Kevin approved him," Matt said, as if that was all that he needed to know. Maybe it was.

"Like that makes me feel any better." Seth glared at Neil, but Neil couldn’t have cared any less if he tried. Seth was all bark, and no bite. Neil could handle him. "We were a bad joke; now we're a practical one. When the others find out about this, we're going to win our games only because they'll be too busy laughing to take us seriously. We were supposed to make it this year. I trusted him to pick our sub because he said he could get us past the championships death match. But this is repulsive."

"At least give Neil a chance," Matt said defensively, and Neil felt his chest warm at the sound of Matt backing him up. The man didn’t even know him yet, but he still wouldn’t let Seth talk badly about him without at least a fight.

"Day's fucking with us," Seth said. "It isn't right."

"This attitude isn't right," Matt retorted. "Kevin would never recruit someone just to make us look bad—we do that well enough on our own. If you want us to win this year, act like it. We need a cohesive offensive line. Since you and Kevin are a lost cause, you're going to have to make it work with Neil."

"He's short, he can't play, and he looks like he has an attitude problem."

"Coach says he's got potential. The monsters say he’s good too, even Andrew.”

Neil took his chance to walk in, feigning ignorance. “What about Andrew?”

Matt beamed at him, and then ruffled his hair; Neil allowed it to happen. “Andrew and his crew all said that you were good, although Kevin said you have a lot to work on.”

Neil chuckled. "Of course Kevin thinks that. When did they say that?"

"When do you think, wiseass?" Seth asked with a quiet snort. "We talked all kinds of shit about you after you booked it."

"Dan asked what they thought of you," Matt said, trying to diffuse the situation. "Nicky said he was impressed by how good you were, Aaron thinks you could run laps around the rest of us.”

Neil flushed at the praise, but Matt wasn’t finished. “Andrew bets you could beat Kevin if you wanted, but that’s crazy.”

Seth butted in, unwilling to talk about Andrew any more than was necessary. “Coach said you clocked a four-minute mile back in Arizona. That true? You're a little short to run so fast."

"I like running," Neil said.

"Fuck running," Seth said. "Learn to score. Bet you can’t score on Andrew yet.”

He sounded so smug, that Neil couldn’t help but laugh. If only he knew, really. “I score on him more than I miss, actually. Didn’t Kevin mention that?”

Seth didn’t look like he believed him, but when Neil didn’t balk under the pressure he paled slightly before gritting his teeth. “Fucking freak.”

With that, he turned and stormed from the room, leaving Neil and Matt alone in the room. Matt grinned at him, and then went to his bed and picked up his hoodie.

“Welcome to the Foxhole Court, Josten.”

Neil rolled his eyes and then sat on the bed. “I really feel welcome.”

“Don’t mind Seth, okay? He’s just jealous, because you’re getting on so well with the team.”

Neil nodded, and Matt chuckled. “Hey, let's hit downtown for dinner tonight, yeah? I can grab the girls and we can go and get some food.”

Neil shrugged, and then nodded. “Yeah sure, sounds good.”

Matt seemed pleased at that, and he grabbed his phone before going to leave. “Meet us at the truck in 20, and then we can head out.”

Neil nodded and then kicked his feet up onto the bed, grabbing the phone that he had bought before he had moved to South Carolina. The only number that he had on it was Andrew’s anyway.

Going to get dinner with Matt, Dan, and Renee. Do you need anything on the way home?

Immediately, his phone started ringing and he pressed the phone to his ear. “Hey Drew.”

“Ice cream and cigarettes.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Hello to you too, asshole. Cigarettes? Really?”

Andrew had quit smoking just a few years into his pro career due to one too many coughing fits, and the thought of him smoking again made Neil uneasy. He listened for Andrew’s reply, but all he could hear was the breeze and the noise of cars outside. He must have been on the roof. Neil hadn’t noticed how much time he must have spent up there, the first time around.

After almost a whole minute, Andrew relented. “Marshmallows.”

Neil laughed, and then switched the phone to his other year. “Yeah, I can get those. Anything else?”

Andrew hummed, and Neil could tell that there was something off with him. Apart from the obvious, of course. “Drew? What’s going on?”

“Nothing, mom. I’m just peachy.” He could hear Andrew’s smirk in his voice and then he laughed. “Peachy-keen, peaches and cream.”

Neil sighed. “Andrew-”

“Get me off these fucking pills, Josten.” It was said with a laugh, but there was no humour in his boyfriend’s voice. Neil’s heart sank. They both hated the fact that Andrew was addicted to his medication again, but they had agreed that they should wait until after the first Raven’s match to try and wean him off of them.

Still, Neil was formulating a plan. “I’m going to try, Drew, I promise.”

Andrew didn’t reply, and he was so quiet that Neil thought that he might have hung up, but after he glanced at the screen he frowned. “Andrew, do you need me on the roof? I can tell Matt that I’m busy.”

“Go have dinner with your new besties, Junkie. I don’t need a babysitter, and this building is hardly tall enough.”

Neil winced and then sighed. Andrew had clearly drawn his line in the sand, and Neil wasn’t about to encroach on his privacy. Still, it didn’t feel good, and he hated it. “I’ll bring you the stuff when we get back, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Andrew hung up, and Neil groaned, staring at his phone for a few seconds before putting it in his pocket and getting up, heading out to where his friends were waiting.

********************

“Eden’s, tonight.”

Andrew dropped a bag at Neil’s feet, and he nudged it with his toes. He already knew what was inside, and he looked up at the man in front of him. “Yeah, okay.”

Andrew grunted, which wasn’t a no, so Neil fished one out of his backpack and tossed it to him before going back to looking at his textbook. Andrew went to sit on the bed and pick up a controller, turning the television on and effectively ignoring Neil’s presence. Neil didn’t take it personally though, the silence was comfortable and Andrew seemed fairly relaxed. It wasn’t often that Andrew seemed relax, since they had arrived back here, so Neil took it where he could get it.

“Did you take your meds?”

Andrew shot him a withering look before he nodded, a quick jerk of his head. Then he grinned, his eyes dark and his smile dirty. “Are we playing nurses and doctors now, Josten? I have plenty of ideas for that, if you want to play.”

Neil wrinkled his nose and then closed his book.  “Andrew-”

Andrew ignored him, starting up his previous save file and then watched the screen, tracking the character with his eyes. Neil took a deep breath, and then pushed the book aside. Andrew’s attention span was practically non-existent like this, and he couldn’t wait until they’d be able to get him off of those pills and back on track again.

“We’re leaving at seven, right?”

It was just gone half past six, and Neil internally grumbled that they had left it so last minute to give him his clothes. Andrew nodded again, and then tucked his feet up under him. “Go get dressed, Junkie.”

Neil nodded and then grabbed the bag that Andrew had given him, getting to his feet and making his way to the bathroom. On the way there, he bumped into Nicky, who fixed him with a bright grin.

“Hey, Neil!” Nicky spotted the bag and then chuckled. “You’re coming with us then?”

Neil nodded, and then smiled softly. “I hope you guys don’t mind?”

“Mind?” Nicky rolled his eyes. “You’re one of us, kid. We want you there.”

Neil flushed again, and then smiled and nodded before turning to move past him. As he did, Nicky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Neil?”

Neil paused, and then looked at him. Nicky worried his lip between his teeth and then let out a slow breath. “Thanks for defending me, back in that meeting.”

Neil swallowed, uncomfortable from the unnecessary praise. Although he supposed, for Nicky, that it wasn’t unnecessary. He knew what house the man had grown up in after all. He shrugged, and then offered him a smile.

“Seth’s an asshole, Nicky. No one gets to call you that.”

Nicky looked emotional, and Neil patted his shoulder before walking away from him to the bathroom. He locked the door behind him, and then turned to pick up the bag again, pulling out it’s contents and laying them on the sink.

Andrew had picked him out a pretty comfortable looking t-shirt- tight fitting and covered in some sort of glittery substance that didn’t rub off easily. It came with ripped skinny jeans, and Andrew’s standard boots. Neil smiled to himself- sometimes it was easy to distance this medicated Andrew from his Andrew, but he had to keep in mind that they were the same person. Andrew was Andrew, no matter what.

After pulling the jeans on and buttoning them, he took a second to lean against the sink and miss his Andrew. Still, the man would be sober for the rest of the night, and he’d be able to think and talk without the cloud of medication strangling his self-control.

After getting dressed, he looked at himself in the mirror and then tugged on his hair, frowning. The roots were growing out, just barely noticeable. Neil really needed to dye it again, as soon as he was able. Although, he supposed, there was no point in doing that. He knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t about to happen any slower with auburn hair than it would with brown. After pushing it back into place, he rubbed his face gently before moving back, checking to make sure his clothes looked alright. He’d steal one of Andrew’s hoodies to wear over the shirt, since it was cold out, and he might even snag an eyeliner pencil from Renee’s makeup kit if he could.

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he checked it.

Hurry up, rabbit, or we’re leaving without you.

Neil grinned and rolled his eyes, before going and grabbing what he needed and leaving the tower without a backwards glance.

Chapter Text

“Who’s driving?” Aaron was wearing a dark grey Henley, something that was eerily similar to some of the things Andrew had in his wardrobe; Neil wondered if it was on purpose. Andrew, on the other hand, was looking extremely pale against the black of his jumper, and Neil’s hands were itching to comfort him.

Andrew gritted his teeth, and braced himself on the side of the car, fishing the keys out of his pocket and tossing them to Neil, hitting his chest with a thump. Neil caught them easily, and walked around Nicky, Kevin and Aaron to get to the driver’s door, letting Andrew sit into the passenger seat and shoving the key into the ignition.

“Neil is driving?” Nicky frowned. “You never let anyone drive your car.”

“Yeah, well, I’m letting Neil.” Andrew’s voice strangled out at the end, and Neil reached for the bottle of water that Andrew usually kept under his seat, handing it to the man and letting him uncap it with shaking hands. The come down was almost worse than the high, if Neil was being honest, but he knew that Andrew would be sober soon enough and that it would be worth it.

It didn’t make it any easier to watch though.

He fell asleep eventually though, his head resting against the window and his jacket wrapped tight around him as his slept off the last of the worst of the withdrawal. Neil did his best to drive on the more level parts of the road, not wanting to jostle him awake. The signs for Columbia flashed when the headlights hit them, and Neil slowly felt himself starting to relax. He and Andrew had built a home together when they had ended up on the same pro-team, but Columbia was home. His first home, the place that Andrew had given him the key to, the place where he had spent most summers after he had joined the Foxes.

He couldn’t wait to see it again.

Beside him, Andrew woke up with a strained noise. “Neil.”

Neil slammed on the brakes, sweeping across lanes to pull over. It was a close call- as soon as they stopped, Andrew threw the door open and retched, spitting up and hunching over. Aaron and Kevin swore in the backseat, and Nicky gripped the seat tight.

“What the fuck, Neil?”

Neil rolled his eyes and gestured to Andrew. “Would you rather that happen in the car?”

They fell quiet then, but they still looked annoyed. Neil could see how Andrew was shaking, how his body racked with each dry heave. He sounded like he was shredding his throat to pieces. Neil resolved that he would pick up some honey and lemon on his run the next day.

Andrew spat with a groan, and Nicky seemed to finally find his voice again. "Where are your crackers, Andrew?"

“Don’t have any.”

“You threw them away?”

Andrew grinned, and Neil could see the food he had eaten back at the dorm stuck between his teeth. He sighed, and held out the water again, which Andrew took, holding it tight. “Yep. No more crackers, Nicholas. Don’t you know that drugs are bad?”

Aaron startled at that. “No more crackers? What the fuck, Andrew?”

"Shut up, all of you." Andrew said, and washed his mouth out with water, spitting it. Then, he reached blindly for something to pull himself back in, settling for the arm that Neil held outstretched to him. "Let’s fucking go, Neil."

Neil didn’t have to be told twice.

The drive to Sweetie’s was relatively quiet, with Andrew working hard to keep his breaths quiet and even, his hands white knuckling the door handle and the seat beneath him. Neil found a parking spot, as close as possible to the door before pulling the car to a halt.

“Andrew?”

“M’fine.” Andrew gritted his teeth, and then pushed the door open, getting to his feet.

Neil went over to hold his arm, taking his weight easily. “Stealing my lines, are you?”

Andrew shoved his face away. “Go away, Junkie.”

Neil ignored the others as he walked inside with Andrew, finding them a booth at the back of the room and sliding into it beside his boyfriend. The other three followed them somewhat sullenly, filling up the other side of the booth. The waitress wasn’t far behind them, and she dropped off menus before leaving again, leaving them to read through them. Neil didn’t touch his- the cousins got the same thing every time anyway, and Andrew would be eating his ice cream as well as his own.

Andrew fiddled with the salt shaker, turning it upside down and making a little pile of salt in front of him before dragging it around with a finger, drawing simple shapes before starting over again.

“Are we really not getting crackers?” Nicky raised an eyebrow, and Andrew paused in his drawing, before looking up at him and nodding.

Aaron grumbled. “Why? They’re not even addictive.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You think the cheerleader wants you to be doing soft drugs every second Friday?”

Aaron paled, and even Neil raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t expected Andrew to go right for the jugular like that, but he supposed that Andrew wanted to make as much use of the little sober time he had as possible. Still, after a couple of seconds of awkward silence, Aaron miraculously let the subject drop. Nicky seemed as surprised as Neil was, but as soon as the waitress came back over his expression melted back into his usually easy-going happiness. Maybe it was less easy-going than Neil had previously thought.

"We're just here for the ice cream special," Nicky said, folding the menus up and handing them back to the girl, who smiled and made a note of it in his little book.

"No problem," she said. "I'll get that right to you, darlin’."

Nicky's smile disappeared again as soon as she left, and he turned to look at Andrew, concern clear on his face. Andrew had moved on from drawing in the salt to just resting his head on his hands, and Neil could see that he had gone sickly pale again, the shaking having returned to his arms. Neil wanted to reach out and comfort him, but he wasn’t sure if that would help him or not.

“Andrew-”

Cutting him off, Kevin produced a bottle of Andrew’s pills from his pocket and set them down on the table gently, tapping the lid with his finger.  "Just take one."

Andrew went very still, and then his mouth twisted in anger. Neil glared at Kevin from where he sat, and then reached out to snatch the bottle away as Andrew leaned forward, bracing himself with his hands on the table. "Fuck you."

Kevin opened his mouth to argue, but Andrew shut him down before he could even start. "Put that away before I shove it down your throat."

Kevin did as he was told, one of the few times he ever gave in without a fight. The ice cream arrived soon after that, but unlike the first time they had come to Columbia, it came unaccompanied with the little packets of cracker dust pressed between napkins.

Nicky nudged Neil with a grin. "Try the ice cream. You'll love it."

Neil picked up a spoon and obediently took a mouthful of the ice cream, letting the sweetness of it wash over his tongue before taking another. It wasn’t long until he hit his threshold, though, and he pushed the rest of his ice cream towards Andrew wordlessly. He had finished his own already and he took Neil’s eagerly, wolfing it down while Neil stole his water in return. When he looked up at the others, he saw Aaron watching them, an odd expression on his face. Nicky and Kevin were too busy eating, Kevin already getting drunk off the naggin that he had smuggled in in his pocket. Neil made a mental note to remind Andrew to cut Kevin off sooner, rather than later.

Andrew finished his ice cream quickly, at around the same time as Nicky was finishing his own, so Neil picked up his jacket and got up to use the bathroom. The rest were finished and ready to go by the time he got back out, and he followed them to the car and slid back into the front seat again. Andrew seemed a lot steadier after eating something too, and the drive from Sweetie’s to the main event was short and uneventful.

Eden's Twilight was a two-story nightclub, and the sight of it made Neil smile, just a small thin twitch of the lips. Last time he had been there, they had been 28 and had come back for a reunion, but after than he and Andrew had felt too old for that type of scene. It was odd to see people there the same age as him again. Since it was a Friday night, there was a long line of people waiting to get in, but Aaron and Andrew led them to the front of the line with what looked to be a well-practiced confidence. The pair of bouncers that were standing at the door looked up as they approached, and Aaron held out a hand for a complicated looking handshake with so many steps that Neil lost track almost immediately. Andrew even raised a hand in salute as he walked by the men and was swallowed by the almost darkness inside the club, and Neil followed him, not even looking at the line of people who were starting to protest behind them.

As soon as they were inside, Aaron, Kevin and Nicky went to hunt down a free table, while Andrew wrapped his hand around Neil’s wrist and pulled him in the direction of the bar. Neil followed gladly, but just as soon as he had caught up, Andrew stopped dead in the middle of the crowd.

“Andrew, what-

Andrew shushed him and frowned, but then started to move forward again until they reached the bar. Neil sidled up beside him, resting a hand on the bar before pausing when he saw who was tending bar.

“Andrew! The usual?”

Roland grinned and put down the glass he had been cleaning, turning his attention to where Andrew and Neil were standing. Andrew, surprisingly, seemed lost for words; Roland wasn’t something that had occurred to either of them, it seemed.

“Andrew? Who’s this?” Roland raised an eyebrow, looking concerned, before smiling warmly at Neil. “I’m Roland, a friend of Andrew’s.”

Andrew seemed to come out of it then, and he drummed his fingers on the counter. “This is Neil, my boyfriend.”

Neil and Roland both startled at that, but Andrew just knocked on the counter sharply. “Did you forget how to make drinks, Roland? Less than usual, we’re not going to be drinking too much.”

Roland stared at him for a couple of seconds, before reaching for a glass and nodding, filling it and setting it down on the tray. “You have a boyfriend, huh? That’s really great, Andrew.”

“Yeah. He is.”

Neil was grateful for the lighting of the club, because his cheeks burned red and he bumped his hand against Andrew’s under the counter. Andrew’s lips twitched slightly, and when Roland had filled the tray, adding an unopened can of soda for Neil, Neil reached to take it and turned to carry it back to where the others were waiting at the table. Andrew hung back, though, and Neil heard the beginning of their conversation.

“So, we won’t be-”

“No.”

Neil gripped the tray tighter and made his way through the crowd carefully, trying not to spill anything. One awkward conversation with Roland was more than enough for one night, he was pretty sure. Plus, he wanted to allow Andrew to time to talk to him- he was sure that Andrew had a few things that he needed to say to the man.

Aaron rolled his eyes when he saw Neil approaching, before reaching for one of the drinks. “Fucking finally, Kevin is fucking gagging over here.”

True to form, Kevin reached for a glass and shoved a straw into it, drinking it down greedily. Neil pressed his lips together, and then put a glass in front of Nicky before sitting down and opening his own soda. It was almost impressive, seeing how quickly the other man packed away alcohol, but all thoughts of that went out of Neil’s mind when Andrew arrived back to the table, pressing his shoulder against Neil’s as he settled into his own seat, holding a glass. Neil raised an eyebrow in question, but he just shook his head and Neil let the matter drop. The man looked stiff, and Neil forced himself to ignore the worry that weighed down in his stomach.

They cleared the tray within the hour, but when Kevin opened his mouth to ask for more Andrew just stacked the glasses and pushed the tray to the middle of the table.

“You’re done, Kevin.”

Kevin frowned, his voice slurred as he spoke. “What?”

Andrew gritted his teeth. “You’re all cut off. Go dance off the rest, you’ll thank me in the morning.”

It looked as though the three men were about to argue, until Nicky heard the word dance and perked up immensely.

“Dancing! Guys, come on.” Aaron put up a noble fight, as far as Neil could see, but eventually the two men were dragged away into the crowd by an overexcited Nicky. Neil chuckled as he saw the crowd swallow them, before looking at Andrew.

“You okay?”

Andrew leaned over, pressing their shoulders together again. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Neil smiled, and then put his hand on the table, palm up. “Sober for the weekend? We could stay in Columbia.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “The others will want to be dropped back to campus tomorrow.”

“Then we drop them back, and then drive back over. You love driving, anyway.” Neil sipped his soda, and then smiled as Andrew finally took his hand. “You deserve the break, Drew.”

Andrew seemed to think about it. “You still have them?”

Neil nodded. Something was still off- Andrew was thinking about something, thinking about it hard by the looks of it. Neil trusted him to handle it on his own, though.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll take them on Sunday night.”

Neil smiled and pressed a kiss to Andrew’s hand. “Good. It’s nice to be back here again too.”

Andrew hummed, and then cleared his throat. “Much better than the first time around, that’s for sure.”

Neil swallowed, as everything slid into place. No wonder Andrew was so stiff and uncomfortable. “Andrew, you know that I don’t blame you for that.”

“Roland asked me if I was still planning to fucking drug you.”

Neil shook his head and squeezed Andrew’s hand. “For all you knew, I could have been a Moriyama spy- I’m not saying that what you did was right, but I understand why you did it and you’ve been forgiven for almost 20 years. Let it go, Drew.”

Andrew gritted his teeth together, before letting out a breath, forcing his shoulders to relax. “Nicky.”

“I’ll talk to Nicky, okay? It’ll be fine.”

Andrew didn’t look happy about it, but he let it slide for the moment. Neil had no doubt that they’d be having this discussion when they were alone again, but he’d have it a million times if it made Andrew go a little easier on himself.

“Hey, Drew.”

Andrew looked over at him, and then rolled his eyes. “What?”

“You’re sober.”

“I noticed.”

“Yes or no?”

It had been a long time since they had had to ask that question; eventually they had gotten to the point where they were able to read each other well enough most of the time to be able to go without it. This was uncharted territory, though, and Neil knew that. He refused to encroach on any of Andrew’s boundaries, or take any of them for granted.

Andrew took a few seconds to answer, and Neil waited patiently for it, smiling widely when Andrew squeezed his hand. “Yes.”

Neil leaned forward and kissed the man firmly, letting Andrew control it as much as he was able. Andrew brought a hand up to tilt Neil’s chin up, kissing him easily for a couple of seconds before pulling away. When they pulled away from each other, Neil caught Andrew’s hand and pressed a kiss to his fingers. Andrew rolled his eyes at the affection, but Neil noticed that he seemed a lot more relaxed than he had before. The realisation made him grin, and Andrew pushed his face away.

“Fucking Junkie.”

“You love me.” Neil laughed, and then stole a sip of Andrew’s drink.

Andrew watched him, wearily, and then shook his head. “Unfortunately.”

Neil smirked, and then glanced back at the crowd. It was starting to get late.

“They’ll be back soon, and then we can go home.” Andrew finished his drink, and then grimaced. “How did I ever drink this shit?”

“How’s your tolerance holding up, old man?”

Andrew shot him a withering look, and Neil laughed. “Maybe you should stick to beer.”

“Maybe you should shut up.”

“Maybe you should make me.” Neil smirked, and then laughed into the kiss that Andrew leaned in for, resting his hand on the man’s shoulder. He quickly got lost in it, and it wasn’t long after that when Andrew finally pulled completely away in time for his brother and the rest of their little family to return to the table. They got them out to the car fairly easily, since Andrew was a lot steadier on his feet than he had been coming in, and the drive back to the house was relaxing with Andrew taking control of radio, playing soft music full of guitar that Neil recognised from their wedding; it was one of Andrew’s favourite songs, although it wasn’t one that he usually played in public. The others were far too drunk to notice, though, so Neil just allowed himself to relax and enjoy the flow of the music, and the feel of Andrew’s hand on top of his on the gear stick.

When they arrived at the Columbia house, Neil and Andrew both took one each, leaving Kevin to sleep a little longer in the car while they got Nicky and Aaron safely to bed, even stopping to leave water by their beds, before they did the same for Kevin, locking the car before locking the front door, leaving themselves practically alone in the house.

Neil supposed that there was a lot of things that they could have done with a free house and a sober Andrew, if they put their mind to it. When it came to it though, all that they really wanted to do was to change into some cleaner, more comfortable clothes, before brushing their teeth together and collapsing into the bed to fall asleep.

Neil crawled over to where Andrew was lying under the blankets, and grinned as Andrew opened his arms to wrap his arms around him. It wasn’t eager- nothing that Andrew did could be described as the usual meaning of eager- but it was content, and Neil was happy with that. He allowed Andrew to pull him close, pressing a kiss to the man’s forehead before curling up against his chest.

“You know, they might come in in the morning.” Neil yawned, and then laughed at himself. “If they’re awake before dusk, that is.”

“Unlikely.” Andrew rested his chin in Neil’s hair and wrapped an arm tighter around him. “I don’t care what they think, anyway.”

Neil smiled, and closed his eyes. “Goodnight, Drew.”

“Yeah.”

They woke up well before the others the next morning, so much so that they were able to have a quiet breakfast before Aaron eventually came stumbling down the stairs, grabbing the coffee that Neil offered to him with a grateful grunt. It was past midday- not that he was in any mood to eat the breakfast he had missed, or the lunch that Andrew was currently making. Neil watched him leave the room again, before looking at Andrew, who just shook his head. He could hear the others starting to move around upstairs too, heard the shower turning on, and he went to re-boil the kettle for more coffee, pressing a kiss to Andrew’s hair as he went. The man leaned into him, letting Neil press against him affectionately for a couple of seconds before pulling away again to flip the bacon he was frying.

Neil couldn’t believe that he was so content, at 19 years old this time- it felt like cheating to know so much, and to already have so much perspective of the life that he was going to have- the family that he was going to have. They could have even better than it this time, if that was possible- they could start to fix things sooner than they had been able to, they’d be able to anticipate things that they hadn’t before.

He watched his boyfriend, standing in a t-shirt and boxers and making the two of them breakfast, and he couldn’t stop himself from smiling, resting his face on his hand and stirring his coffee.

“Hey, Drew?”

Andrew glanced back over his shoulder. “What?”

“I love you.”

Andrew rolled his eyes and went back to what he was doing, not replying for a couple of seconds. “I love you too, junkie.”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean we’re not going back home yet? We always go home on Saturday.” Nicky’s voice was rough, both from the tequila shots he had had the previous night and from the six hours of sleep that he had had since he had passed out in his own bed.

Andrew blew the steam off his coffee and then took a sip. “I mean that we’re staying another night. Walk home, if you have a problem with that.”

Nicky groaned but didn’t raise any other arguments, just reaching for his phone and typing out something slowly. Aaron, though, had always been more than eager to argue with his brother.

“Fuck off Andrew, some of us have plans on a Saturday night.”

Neil rolled his eyes and stole Andrew’s coffee, grimacing at the sweetness and listening as Andrew sat forward. “Tell the cheerleader that she can just wait a night. There are buses to Columbia, though, if she’s going to be that put out.”

Neil smiled into his stolen coffee at the expressions on Nicky and Aaron’s faces; shock and horror, respectively.

“You- what?”

Andrew slid a black coffee Neil’s way and took his own back. “Are you all losing your hearing? Tragic, in people so young.”

“You’re letting me bring Katelyn here.” Aaron sounded sceptical. Neil supposed that he couldn’t blame him, really.

Andrew put his mug down, and then leaned forward again, resting his forearms on the countertop. “I don’t let you do a damn fucking thing, Aaron. Bring her here, don’t. I don’t care.”

Aaron blinked, and then slowly slid his phone out of his pocket. “Alright I… thanks, Andrew.”

Nicky looked like every one of his Christmases had come at once, and he smiled brightly at Neil, who couldn’t help but smile back. Aaron started to type something, presumably inviting Katelyn over for the night, but Andrew had already lost interest in it in favour of drinking his coffee. He dumped another spoon of sugar in it and then took another sip, making a so-so face. Neil chuckled and bumped their legs together under the table. Kevin joined them too, eventually, finally re-joining the world of the living after a long shower and a strong cup of coffee. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the extra night of relaxation- Neil thought that he deserved the rest, and so they let him hog the television to watch old Exy game reruns and mutter notes to himself. Neil joined him for a while, before migrating back out to where the cousins were sitting around the counter. Nicky was in the middle of a story, talking animatedly about something- probably Erik- while the twins listened half-heartedly and nodded along appropriately. Neil smiled, and settled himself in to listen.

 

It wasn’t long though before his phone rang, shattering the easy domesticity of it all. Neil took it out, and pressed it to his ear. “Hey, Matt.”

"Hey, buddy." Matt’s voice was sleepy heavy too- it seemed that they had all taken the opportunity to sleep in for once. "Where've you been, man? I didn't hear you come back last night."

"I'm in Columbia with Andrew."

"You're—what?" Neil heard shuffling and a creaking mattress, and when he spoke again, he was wide awake. Neil tucked his legs under the chair he was sitting on. "Jesus, Neil, what the hell did you do that for? Did he—"

Matt quickly stopped that line of questioning, and settled for a much simpler one. "Are you all right?"

Neil shook his head and then picked at his cuticles. “Matt I’m fine. I told you guys, I’m not scared of Andrew.”

Andrew’s gaze shifted to him, and he felt the man’s foot bump against his leg gently. He shrugged, and then focused on the phone call again.

Neil thought that he had sounded pretty convincing since it was the truth this time, but Matt definitely wasn’t listening to him because he said, "I'm going to fucking kill him."

He pulled the phone away from his ear then, quietly talking to someone on the other end of the phone that Neil couldn’t hear. "He's in Columbia with Andrew."

"Jesus Christ." Dan’s voice was tight with anger and Neil sighed. He had forgotten just how deep the feud had run, having buried it for so long before, so it was hard to get used to again. Hopefully they’d be able to bury it sooner, this time.

"Seriously, are you okay? Neil if you need me to come and get you-”

Neil cut him off, as kindly as he could. “Thank you, but I’ll be fine. We’ll all be back tomorrow, don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t worry about- Neil-”

Neil hung up, and then put his phone on the desk. “They think you’ve kidnapped me.”

Aaron and Nicky looked up and glanced briefly at Andrew. Clearly, they had been wondering why Neil was still with them after the night was over. Maybe they were just confused as to while the night hadn’t gone according to plan- Neil had stayed undrugged, which he can only assume had been the plan that the others were in on.

Andrew just rolled his eyes. “They need to be more creative, I’m a delight to be around.”

Neil snorted into his coffee. “Oh, yeah.”

“Do you guys- you know each other, right?” Nicky sounded uncertain. “You guys must know each other.”

Neil glanced at Andrew, who nodded. “We met in California, when Andrew lived there. We… fell out of contact for a while, before I was recruited to the Foxes.”

Nicky gasped and then grinned. “You were Andrew’s friend? I didn’t know Andrew had friends.”

He winced then, probably realising how harsh that sounded, but Andrew didn’t seem to care. “I still don’t.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “We go back a couple of years.”

“My condolences.” Aaron put his cup in the sink. “I’m going to go and pick Kate up from the bus stop. Try not to smell like a dumpster when I get back?”

That last part was directed largely at Nicky, who scoffed and then gathered his bathrobe around himself, standing up. “If Katelyn is going to be scared off by a little hangover grossness, how is she ever going to handle your personality?”

Aaron shot him the middle finger and then left the room, and soon after Nicky left too, presumably to shower. Neil shook his head, and drank the rest of his mostly-cold coffee.

“Your family is great.”

Andrew shot him a look. “They’re your family too, Josten.”

Neil smirked. “In sickness and in health?”

Andrew reached over and flicked him on the forehead. “68 percent, Junkie.”

Neil raised an eyebrow. “You lowered the number?”

“It’s only fair, to drop it back to what it was at the time.” Andrew glanced over to where Kevin was sitting, watching him write in his notebook for a couple of seconds. “You have plenty of time to catch up.”

“Oh I do, do I? You’re keeping me around then?”

“I didn’t realise giving you back was an option.”

Neil leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. “It is, but you don’t want to. You’d miss me too much.”

Andrew sighed. “69 percent.”

Neil just laughed at him. “Come on, we need to get dressed.”

 

Aaron came back before Neil was finished showering, but years of habit had made Neil slacken his insecurities about his body enough that he didn’t even think twice before just pulling on jeans and walking out into the master bedroom, going to grab his shirt. In fact, he still didn’t notice anything wrong until he bumped into Aaron, who looked as if he had been about to say something before he froze, his gaze dropping to Neil’s chest.

Neil frowned, and then looked downwards, widening his eyes at the sight of the ugly scars that Aaron had definitely not been aware of before. “Oh, fuck.”

Aaron seemed frozen in place, his lips parted slightly though the words that he had planned to say had long since died on his tongue. Neil brought his shirt up to his chest, pulling it on quickly and then clearing his throat and pushing past the man. Aaron snapped out of it then, and he took a step forward, his arm coming up in an aborted attempt to grab Neil’s arm.

“Neil-”

Neil ignored him, and he quickly descended the stairs and went to the kitchen. He had forgotten, too comfortable in Columbia to remember all of the things that he had been scared of at 18. If he’d been thinking properly, he would have remembered that Aaron’s room was right across from the room that he shared with Andrew now, and he would have gotten dressed in the bathroom the way that he used to when he was younger. It was too late for that now, though, Aaron had already seen, he already knew.

With shaking hands, he sat down at the counter and waited for the confrontation that was surely coming.

It was only a couple of minutes before Aaron made his way downstairs, less sullen and more quiet than he usually was. He stepped around Neil easily and put the kettle boiling.

“Katelyn is in the shower.” Aaron took out two mugs and set them down. Neil didn’t say anything, but he didn’t think that Aaron had expected him to. After a couple of seconds, Neil forced himself to nod through the thoughts that were forcing their way, unbidden, into his head.

“Now, Nathaniel, stay quiet this time.”

Nathaniel’s nails dug into the arm of the chair he was sitting on and he shrunk back against the plush backing, but that did little to stop his father when he had set his mind to something. The knife pushed in just under his ribs, slicing cleanly through flesh and what little fat the boy had before he pulled it away again, watching it bleed with a distant curiosity. Nathaniel just barely managed to bite his lip hard enough to stay silent, and he whimpered softly as Nathan pushed the knife in again, tracing an identical line just a half centimetre away from the original one. Nathan liked to do that- parallel lines were harder to stitch closed, and they left ugly scars. Nathaniel didn’t find that he cared too much though. He didn’t expect that he’s live long enough to care about scarring.

A warm mug was pressed into his hands, and Neil blinked away the vision of his father in front of him, instead seeing Aaron holding a mug of tea out for him. He took it, and swallowed hard at the bone-deep understanding that he saw in Aaron’s eyes.

“Thanks.” He took a sip, and then swallowed again- his father wasn’t near him, not yet. He was safe, for now.

Aaron shook his head. “Don’t mention it.”

Neil hadn’t been planning on it, but it was good to see that they were on the same page. They drank their tea in silence after that, until Katelyn came down from her shower wearing one of Aaron’s shirts with a pair of skinny jeans, her hair twisted up in a towel. She smiled warmly at Neil, and Neil smiled softly back, despite himself. They were a sweet couple, Neil was glad that they’d get a better run at things this time. They deserved it.

********************

The ride back to campus was shorter than Neil would have liked, but even though he would have liked to have longer to spend with Andrew the sight of the Foxhole Court still settled something inside of him. He was pretty sure that it always would. It was a tight squeeze for the people in the backseat though since Katelyn was riding with them- Neil got shotgun though, so it hardly mattered to him.

Matt and Dan were waiting for them when they arrived, and they patted Neil down and pulled him into hugs as soon as they could.

“Are you alright? Did they do anything to you?” Dan sounded furious, and she tugged on Neil’s shirt. “Did they give you anything?”

Neil tried his hardest to keep the annoyance out of his voice. He knew that they meant well, he knew that they had their reasons to be wary of Andrew, but that didn’t seem to matter to him all that much when it came down to it. “I’m fine. I had a good weekend.”

Matt looked sceptical, and Neil rolled his eyes. “I’m fine, Matt. Can we just go inside? I promised to practice with Kevin.”

Matt shook his head, not quite believing him. That wasn’t Neil’s, or even Andrew’s problem though, so Neil just grabbed his bag from the car and walked inside, up to his room. He grabbed his gear there, and he changed out quickly in the comfort of his own room, rather than taking his clothes there just to change out over there anyway. Andrew and Kevin were waiting for him when he got down again after dodging the rest of the Foxes, so he sat into the cat quickly and listened to the two men bickering while he relaxed in the backseat. Kevin used his keys to let them into the court, and he barked at Andrew and Neil to get on the court and ready to play. Andrew purposefully sat down on the ground in the goal and Neil snorted before going to get his racquet.

They trained until Neil and Kevin were both panting slightly, Andrew wandering off for a smoke as soon as they seemed done, while the other two men went to shower. Andrew would shower after them, Neil knew- the drugs were making him more paranoid around the other foxes and he didn’t like showering at the same time as them. As long as he was comfortable, though, Neil was willing to wait as long as he needed.

Neil had expected that the apartment would be silent when he got back from practice since it was so late at night, but as soon as he unlocked the front door he could hear raised voices, some sort of argument. Sighing, he went inside to see what was going on.

It was Seth and Matt, because of course it was. From what Neil could figure, they were arguing over something to do with Kevin- a valid reason to be angry, but an odd one to choose in the middle of the night when they should have been asleep.

“Kevin can go fuck himself.” Seth spat and then shook his head. “Maybe he should go back to the Ravens, fat lot of good he’s doing us.”

Neil cleared his throat from the doorway, getting the attention of both men. “Why do you hate him so much?”

"I'm fucking sick of him getting everything he wants just because he's Kevin Day," Seth said, shaking his head and then getting up from where he had been sitting on the bed. Matt seemed ready to argue, but Seth shut him down with a glare.

"Do you know what fame gets you, shitface? Everything. When he broke his hand, his fans cried for him. They flooded our locker room with letters and flowers. The amazing Kevin Day can't play anymore, they said. Their lives were over. They'd grieve the loss forever. But tell me," Seth said, leaning forward on the couch to stare at Neil, his voice bitter. An uncomfortable sense of understanding weighed down on Neil’s stomach and he swallowed. He was a no one after all-what if things didn’t pan out the same way as they had before? He and Seth could both die as no one, and there wouldn’t be anyone to grieve them outside of the building. "When's the last time anyone cried for you? Never, right? They're there for Kevin every step of the way, but where were they when we needed them?"

Neil didn’t know what to say. “You’re just as important as him on the team, you’re the only other striker.”

Neil wasn’t sure that he believed himself, but Seth looked even less convinced. In fact, he looked just about ready to throw his beer at Neil. "His life is not more important than mine just because he's more talented."

"You have to admit your attitude makes it hard for anyone to care about you," Neil said, shaking his head. "You and Kevin both have impossible attitudes, but he puts more into the game than you."

"Look here, shortbus," Seth started, incensed. “I put plenty into the game.”

"He has a point," Matt interrupted, ignoring the poisonous look that Seth shot his way. "This is your last year, Seth. Maybe it's time for a fresh start. Give the people someone to rally behind and you'll win them over."

"What's the fucking point?" Seth sighed, and Neil was reminded again just how young the man was-he didn’t know what to do with that. "It doesn't matter what I do. No one will ever recruit a Fox to the pros."

"Awesome attitude, Seth," Matt said. "Way to encourage the rest of us."

"Do I look like a motivational speaker to you?” Seth said. "You're not going to get anywhere so long as you play for this team."

"You're too big of a coward to try," Matt said. "Neil and I will prove you wrong. Right, Neil?"

Neil shrugged and then put his bag down. “I’m just here to play.”

Matt gawked at him, and then frowned. "You can’t really think like that."

Neil chuckled. "I’m afraid so, Matt."

Seth raised his half-empty beer in a half toast, his smug smile just serving to make Matt more pissed off. Neil rolled his eyes at them both.

"I can't believe you two," Matt sounded annoyed, and Neil made a mental note to do something to cheer him up the next day. " You guys sit here and wallow in self-defeat or something while I check with Dan."

Seth watched as Matt left the room with a bored expression, and then turned to look at Neil appraisingly. "Maybe you're not as stupid as I thought, Josten."

"Oh, I definitely am.” Neil grabbed a clean hoodie and then left the room again, assuming that Andrew had gone to the roof. He’d leave Seth to cool off before he decided to go to bed, uncomfortable with just how much the man’s particular brand of self-loathing hit too close to home.

********************

Neil had been so focused on getting to know his foxes again, getting his body used to exy again, that he had completely forgotten that the Foxes had to meet with Betsy Dobson once per semester, as part of their contract. Of course, he didn’t hate the woman this time- he didn’t think that he could hate someone who had done so right by Andrew. He would have preferred not to have to, of course, but there was little that he could do about it. Wymack had divided the team up into pairs so that he wouldn’t be missing too many for practice at any given time; Renee and Neil had been paired together and they were going last, after Nicky and Andrew. The two of them met up with them after their session, and Andrew hummed before tossing the keys to Neil.

Nicky’s jaw dropped, and even Renee widened her eyes. Neil just caught them and nodded, and then chuckled as Andrew held his hand out for Renee to bump her knuckles against his.

"Andrew usually only lets me and Renee drive," Nicky said, but his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. Neil twirled the keys around his fingers and then put them in his pocket. Nicky, like the others, didn’t seem to like the fact that Andrew and Renee were friends. He wasn’t sure whether it was because they didn’t trust Andrew, or they didn’t trust Renee, but he supposed that it didn’t make a difference. Either way, they were wrong.

"Don't keep Bee waiting," Andrew warned, sing-song and sickly sweet. Nicky grimaced and turned towards the door, and Neil let Andrew tug on his hair before walking away. Then, he turned towards Renee, expecting her to say something.

Renee though, to her credit, simply smiled brightly and said, "Shall we go?"

They stopped at the lockers to freshen up before they continued to Andrew’s car. There wasn’t much of a point to it since they would just be going back to practice anyway once their sessions were over, but neither of them really wanted to subject Betsy to their dirty and sweaty gear. Neil washed himself off quickly and then changed into fresh clothes- a shirt that he had stolen from Andrew, and some jeans. Renee came out dressed in a simple skirt with a worn old Palmetto hoodie. Then, both of them loaded into Andrew’s car, Neil sliding into the driver’s seat and turning the radio on. In the years since they had graduated from the foxes, Neil and Renee’s friendship had improved greatly and Neil didn’t dislike her anymore, but in their current timeline Neil and Renee didn’t exactly have an overwhelming amount in common that they could talk about. Other than Andrew, that was, but Neil wasn’t comfortable with talking about Andrew when he wasn’t there.

The medical centre was a lot busier than Neil had expected it to be, the parking lot full enough that he’d had to do a second circle of it. He supposed that it was the start of the school year, and people were getting ready for the inevitable sickness that set in as soon as people were living on their own again. He didn’t recognise anyone who was walking around, and they undoubtably didn’t recognise him, but he kept his head down as much as possible anyways. Wymack still hadn't given his name or his face to the ERC, and even though no one really knew who he was, Neil wanted to protect his anonymity as long as he could. After all, the Ravens would find out who he really was whether he wanted them to or not, and his father would find him whether he wanted them to or not. He might as well hold on to the scraps of privacy he had, while he had them. As soon as they were inside, Renee signed both of them in with her pretty, cursive handwriting, and then disappeared down one of the long hallways to go and find Betsy. Neil just sat tight, admiring the artwork on the walls- they had changed it, when Neil was in his third year, to more gentle, abstract designs, but for now it was still the old flower paintings, done in oil paint and framed in gilded, antique looking frames.

It felt like forever before Renee came back with Betsy Dobson in tow, so long that Neil had started to zone out a little. He shook his head to snap out of it, before reaching up to shake the hand that Bee had offered to him. It was surreal, almost, to see her in the flesh- their own Betsy Dobson had died just a few years previously.

Neil’s stomach clenched. Andrew- seeing Bee again must have been awful for him. He made a note to pick up some ice cream on the way back, he could leave it in the lounge freezer until they were ready to leave. As it was, though, he just smiled.

Betsy Dobson was a middle-aged woman of short stature, round and pink with crows feet beside her eyes and deep set wrinkles in her forehead. Her smile was gentle and no less genuine than the last time he had seen it. It was impressive really, that the woman was still smiling after being a therapist for so long.

"You must be Neil," she said. "Good morning, it’s a pleasure to meet you."

Neil nodded and stood up, grabbing his coat, giving the keys of the GS to Renee as he followed Betsy towards her own office. There was only one door open when they reached the offices, and Betsy led him in. It was clean, as Neil expected, with potted plants lining the windowsill and sitting in the corners, a plush armchair facing a couch in the middle of the room and a neat, uncluttered desk in the corner. Behind the desk was a set of shelves, with little glass figurines lined up with spaces between them. Neil had no doubt that Andrew would fill up those spaces quickly. Maybe Neil could help, this time around.

After Neil had settled himself on the couch, his bag beside him, Betsy spoke, her voice warm and cheerful. "My name is Betsy Dobson. You can call me whatever you like; I'll answer to just about anything from Betsy to Doc to Hey You. Shall I call you Neil, or would you prefer Mr. Josten?"

"Either one is fine," Neil said, smiling. “Andrew has told me a lot about you.”

Betsy didn’t react outwardly, but she did click her pen. “Andrew speaks highly of you too, Neil. You knew him before you came here?”

Neil wondered if she was good at recognising lies. He supposed that it didn’t matter. “I did, we crossed paths in California before we both moved away.”

Betsy nodded, and then took a quick note. “Now, I assume that you know that we have two mandatory sessions per school year, but if you’d like we can schedule them more often than that.”

Neil thought about it. The first time around, the therapy probably would have done wonders for him. As it was, vague distrust of therapy aside, he didn’t think that he needed it. “I think I’m alright for now. If that changes though, I’ll let you know.”

Betsy made a note of that, and Neil spoke again before she could reply. “I would like to talk to you about something, though.”

Betsy’s pen stilled. “Oh? Go ahead.”

“Andrew’s medication.”

Betsy’s lips pressed together into a thin line. Neil could see that she felt much the same as he did about it- that was good, that would help them. “What about it? Patient confidentiality prohibits me from discussing Andrew too much.”

Neil huffed. “You need to find a way to get him off it, Dr. Dobson. He’s not happy.”

Betsy raised an eyebrow, and then schooled her face into a more neutral expression. “I’ll discuss it with Mr. Minyard, Neil. Is there anything else you’d like to say while we’re here?”

Neil swallowed and then glanced at the clock. “How long do I have to stay here?”

“Once our introductions are over and I’ve gotten a feel for how you’re doing, then our session is over.”

“Then how am I doing?”

Betsy chuckled. “You seem like a lovely young man, Mr. Josten, very… protective. I’m glad that you’re already making friends on the team, it seems to be helping your transition greatly.”

Neil nodded. “I’m going to do my best to pull the team together this year, it’s what they need.”

“That’s a large task to undertake on your own.”

“Andrew will help me.” Neil smiled softly. “The others will fall into place, sooner or later.”

Betsy’s answering smile was glowing. “Well, Andrew is lucky to have a friend as dedicated as you.”

Neil had nothing to say to that, so they wrapped up the session then, and Neil went back out to where Renee was waiting patiently in the reception area. She smiled brightly when she saw Neil coming, and stood up.

“Back to practice?”

Neil took the keys back and shook his head. “Let’s stop for ice cream on the way back first.”

 

Practice was long and gruelling, but it seemed that Wymack wasn’t done with them yet when he stopped in the door to block their exits. After minimal complaints, they all made their way up to the lounge and settled down for him to speak.

"All right, maggots," Wymack said, getting their attention immediately. "School starts tomorrow, which means we're switching our practice times to fit around them. Mornings are going to start at six o'clock at the gym. Afternoon practices are here at three. I've seen your schedules. I know you can get here on time, so don't any one of you be late, you hear me?"

"Yes, Coach," they chorused in unison.

"This isn't our campus anymore," Wymack’s voice was gruff. "Everyone's checked in and ready to go, which means a lot of new people to contend with. Campus police doubled their numbers this summer, but they can't cover everything or everyone. Be smart, be careful. If someone's looking for trouble, get help. If the press slips past and wants answers, you tell them we're not saying anything until Kathy's show on Saturday."

"Kathy?" Dan asked, and Neil sat up straighter. Kathy meant Riko, and Riko meant that it was time for Andrew and Neil to start planning.

"Kathy Ferdinand." Wymack took in their confused expressions and then glared across the room at Kevin. "Didn't you tell them?"

"There wasn't a need to," Kevin said with a shrug. “It would have distracted them from practice.”

"Like, morning show host Kathy Ferdinand?" Matt asked, incredulous. “What the fuck, Kevin?”

"That's the one," Wymack confirmed. "We have to do some publicity at some point. It was part of our agreement with Chuck and the ERC. Kevin chose Kathy because she agreed to wait until after our first game. Saturday morning we're heading up to Raleigh to give her an exclusive first interview."

"She must have fainted when you said yes," Matt said with a snort. "When's the last time you made an official public appearance?"

"December fourth," Kevin said.

"Why didn't you tell us earlier? We’ll have to wake up earlier to watch it." Dan asked, leaning forward to look at Kevin.

"Or you could come to the studio with us," Wymack said, not paying any attention to how grumpy Kevin looked at that. "Kathy invited the entire team to the broadcast. If we show, we get front row seats. We've got to take the bus up anyway to fit all these yahoos, so there's plenty of room."

"Did you want us to sit out?" Renee asked Kevin, the most placating of any of them.

"It doesn't really matter," Kevin huffed. “Do what you want.”

Nicky smirked and then leaned over to pat Kevin’s shoulder comfortingly. "He just knows he has to play nice for her show. He doesn't want y’all to see his civilized side. Can you imagine how his fans would react if they saw the real Kevin Day?"

"Do you even remember how to smile?" Matt looked over, and Kevin gave him the middle finger. Matt only laughed, though. "Well, that's definitely worth going for. I'm in."

Wymack shook his head. “Well that’s settled, then. Now fuck off, stop cluttering up the lounge.”

Neil was the first to his feet, and he retrieved the pint of ice cream from the freezer, tossing it to Andrew as he left.

********************

Andrew was waiting for Neil on the roof when he was finished with his shower, holding a cigarette with shaking hands and wearing a hoodie that didn’t do much to fight off the cold.

“Drew?”

Andrew flicked his cigarette, and only glanced to the side to signify that he had heard Neil’s entrance. Neil walked forwards, and then sat down, letting his legs dangle off the edge.

“I talked to Betsy, today.”

Andrew huffed a laugh, but there wasn’t any humour at all in it. “So did everyone else, Josten. That’s hardly news.”

Neil brushed off the anger in his tone and then stole his cigarette. “She seems like she’ll be on board, to get you off these meds.”

Andrew nodded. Neil sighed- Andrew had come to see the woman as a maternal figure of sorts, and when she died he had taken it very hard. It had been expected, after her couple of scares over the years, but it had been awful to watch how Andrew crumbled. To do it again… Neil could only imagine the toll that it would have on the man.

“Andrew-”

“I’m fine, Josten. You’re not my mom, and neither is she.”

“You’re gonna have to stop stealing my lines, Drew.”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “At least tell me you have alcohol somewhere in those huge pockets of yours.”

Neil moved the pint of ice cream closer to him, and rested a spoon on top. “No, but I did pour all the whiskey in the apartment down the sink.”

“I hate you.” Andrew’s voice was tired, but he reached out and picked up the ice cream anyway, taking the plastic off and putting it on the roof between them. Then, he rolled it between his hands as usual.

Neil smiled softly, and then changed the subject. “Kathy’s show is coming up soon. What are we doing for it?”

Andrew took a mouthful of ice cream, and then licked his lips. “We warn Kevin about Riko, and then let the chips fall wherever the hell they want to.”

“You don’t think Kevin will freak out?”

“Oh no, the alcoholic will crack faster than an egg.” Andrew barked a laugh and then licked the spoon clean. “We just withhold his vodka and force him onto the bus.”

Neil sighed. “Promise me you won’t take any shots are Riko?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t stab him in the middle of that studio.”

Neil shook his head. “We need things to play out as closely as possible to the way that they did last time, where the Moriyamas and my father are concerned. We don’t want anyone else dying, Andrew, I can’t-”

He cut off, and then shook his head. If any more of the Foxes got hurt for him, he didn’t know what he’d do. His father was a cruel man, and he knew that he wouldn’t hold back just because they hadn’t done anything to him.

Andrew hit him on the back of his hand with a spoon. “Earth to Josten.”

Neil swallowed, and then nodded. After a deep breath, he crossed his ankles and looked over at his boyfriend. “Promise me? You can’t attack Riko.”

Andrew nodded, and then tucked back into his rapidly melting ice cream. “I promise.”

Neil smiled then, and moved slightly closer, stealing the man’s lighter and relighting the end of the cigarette. “You did great in practice today by the way, Drew.”

“I will push you off the roof.”

Neil snorted, and then kicked his legs. “I’ll drag you down with me.”

Andrew looked at him, and then rubbed at his mouth. “I know you will.”

They stayed there long after the ice cream was gone, and long after the cigarette had burned down to the filter, and three more besides it. Then, they dragged themselves inside in time for Kevin to demand for Andrew to drive them to night practice, with no idea about the shitshow that was waiting for them during Kathy Ferdinand’s show. At least this time, there was something they could do about it. They could prepare, for it. Maybe things would turn out better this time- no one had to get hurt this time. Andrew would have told Neil that he was hoping for too much if he had said that out loud, though.

Neil didn’t care, though. Hope had always been a dangerous, disquieting thing, but this time around he was pretty damn sure that he liked it.

Chapter Text

Neil could remember being surprised at how hectic the campus was before his first game, back when he was in his first year- of course, after playing in the big leagues the claustrophobia had worn off a lot and he had gotten used to it. Still though, it was quite the sight to see the buildings decked out in orange and white, to see students sporting both Exy and Football jerseys.

People had flocked to the college to see all of the games that would be happening over the weekend, and the campus police were out in force to make sure that none of the extra bodies got in the way of normal events, or blocked people who were trying to get to class. Neil still hated seeing them, the blue uniforms setting him on edge whenever he saw them, but having them standing around directing people and making sure that everything ran smoothly was better than having to deal with reporters sneaking in and catching him as he went to class. He already had a hard enough time getting to class now that he was wearing his Exy jersey, a big white JOSTEN written across the back. Everyone seemed to want to talk to him, to ask him about the monsters, if they were really as bad as it seemed, how it was to work with Kevin Day- Neil was exhausted.

If he was allowed, Neil would have just hidden out in fox tower and called in sick to his classes. He wasn’t though, since even athletes weren’t allowed to miss class without a medical cert. Neil could have forged one, if he was bothered, but it was easier to just go to class and spend the entire time texting Andrew under the table. There was trouble, of course, but the Foxes had been born ready for trouble and they adjusted to it without much fanfare. They walked each other to class as often as they could, breaking it up based on where the classes were- Neil ended up walking with Matt and Aaron, more often than not since their classes often took place in the science buildings.

Surprisingly or not, Neil seemed to garner the most attention from the general public. The ERC had finally released his name, and the internet had flooded with articles talking about his meagre experience, the fact that no one had ever heard of him before, the fact that Kevin Day had said that he had potential. Neil was used to the media trying to get under his skin, so he barely paid attention to it, but he knew that a lot would be riding on how they performed in the first couple of games that they had. Their momentum would have to be steep, so that they could really put Riko in his place. The looks that Neil kept getting from people still made his skin crawl, though, but Matt and Aaron usually kept the worst of them away from him.

After calculus, Renee met up with Neil by the door before taking Neil to his history lecture, avoiding the group of cheerleaders that were standing outside the library before they could see the jerseys both of them were wearing. Allison picked him up afterwards, and since he had an free hour he tagged along with her to her lunch with Seth.

Neil wasn’t extremely hungry, too bust worrying about the game that they would be playing later on in the week, but Allison had put a tray of food down in front of him forcefully enough that he had started to eat dutifully anyway. He hadn’t had much time alone around Allison or Seth since he had joined the foxes, too distracted with Andrew and their own little family, but it was nice to just sit back and watch the two of them interact. They seemed to be in an ‘on’ phase of their ‘on again, off again’ relationship too, which helped with the lack of awkwardness. Seeing Seth act like a normal person was quite a shock to the system for Neil, but Neil supposed that if he had grown to like Aaron, that there was hope for Seth too. It hardly mattered, but it was odd to think about. Still, it was hard to see what Allison saw in him- a girl as pretty and independent as her could have her choice of men, but she seemed to be drawn back again and again to Seth. Although, Neil was pretty sure that that was what the Foxes had thought after he and Andrew had gotten more public with each other. He was fairly certain that Allison and Seth were set to be doomed regardless of what happened to Seth, but he seemed to make her happy and that was all that really happened in the end.

"Well?" Allison asked, forcing Neil to stop his train of thought there and look up at her. "What are you going to do about a date?"

The kick-off banquet had been approaching quickly, but Neil didn’t really have time to think about it- he assumed that he’d be going alone, or with Andrew in the loosest sense of the word. They were dating, but going to a big fancy ball as dates wasn’t something that either of them cared about.

"I'm not bringing one," Neil stated simply.

"That's stupid," Allison shook her head and pushed her hair back out of her face. "Even the monster's got a date."

Neil sincerely doubted that. "Andrew doesn’t care about the banquet either."

"Renee hasn't asked him yet, but it's inevitable." Allison pretended that Neil hadn’t spoken, in favour of spearing another piece of lettuce on her fork and wiping up some dressing with it. "Money's on the table as to whether or not he says yes. Pot's getting pretty big, so get your bet in fast."

If there was one thing that the Foxes had kept going into middle age, it was the bets, and Neil had to fight a smile at just how familiar it all was. They made bets on anything and everything, but this pot had been one of the biggest. Maybe Neil would give Aaron and Nicky a heads up this time around.

Neil looked between Seth and Allison. "Andrew and Renee aren’t together.”

Seth looked vaguely relieved, but Allison just raised an eyebrow. "Renee promises it'll never happen. I believe her, but maybe I should trust you more on this seeing as you’re the monsters new best friend."

“Don’t call him that.” The familiar old argument came to Neil readily, and he stabbed a carrot with a fork and ate it. Allison just shrugged.

"You're running out of time to find a date, though. Ask Aaron to set you up with a Vixen or something, I'm sure Katelyn knows a pretty face or two."

Neil laughed at the idea of Katelyn setting him up with a cheerleader. “Maybe Aaron should focus more on asking her to the banquet.”

Seth huffed a laugh, and Neil wasn’t sure which of them looked more surprised. Allison laughed too though, and then patted Neil’s hand. “Oh honey, you fit right in with us.”

Then, she pushed her plate away and grabbed her purse, before leaning over to kiss Seth on the cheek. “Gotta run, meeting with my advisor. Throw my trash away for me?”

Seth nodded and they both watched her leave, before Seth cleared his throat. “Where is your next class?”

Neil put his fork down and then took his phone out. “Down by Hamilton, but I can walk there myself if you want.”

“Wilds will have my head if I let you walk anywhere on your own, rookie.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “Fine then, you’re stuck with me.”

“I’m stuck with you anyways, deadweight.”

Neil texted Andrew quickly, asking him whether he’d meet Andrew at his class or if Andrew would meet him at his; no immediate response came which meant that Andrew was probably doing something in class. “I’m not deadweight, Gordon.”

“Yeah, right. I don’t trust Day.”

“Trust my performance in this week’s game then, when we win.” Neil’ voice didn’t falter, and Seth raised an eyebrow.

“That’s a lot of talk, Josten. We haven’t won against Breckenridge in two years, what makes you think we’ll do it this time?”

“The foxes are good players, they just don’t work together. If we worked together, we could beat anyone.”

Seth snorted. “Let’s see if you can score once, then we’ll talk.”

“Three goals.” Neil jutted his chin out. “Five and you apologise to Nicky.”

Seth crossed his arms. “What does Hemmick have to go with anything? I’m not apologising to him.”

“You need to leave him alone.” Neil shrugged. “Yeah, he’s gay. That doesn’t mean you get to treat him like shit because of it.”

“What, are you gay too?”

Neil put a hand down on the table. “It doesn’t fucking matter what I am, Seth. Andrew’s getting pretty sick of the way you treat Nicky too, you know. Do you want to listen to me now, or to him later?”

Seth paled slightly, and Neil sat back again with a smirk. “I’m glad we had this talk, then. Five goals, count them for me.”

Seth had little to say after that, and he walked Neil to his linear algebra lecture without a word. Neil counted it to mean that his message had really sunk in, but he wasn’t going to count on that. It hardly mattered, anyway. The walk from his lecture to Andrew’s wasn’t long at all, and he managed to avoid people on the way there until he saw Andrew’s familiar shock of blond hair.

Andrew looked up as he approached and Neil grinned at him, making the man push at his face before starting to walk.

“Wanna go for a drive?” Neil cracked his knuckles and then his neck, making Andrew grunt before looking at him.

“Is there somewhere you want to go?”

Neil shrugged. “Sweeties has a lunch menu, right?”

Andrew hummed, and it was settled, so Neil shoved his hands in his pockets and started to follow his boyfriend towards Fox Tower, where the GS would be waiting for them.

 

On Friday, afternoon practice was called off so that they wouldn’t be exhausted when the game rolled around, so instead of running themselves ragged on court the Foxes decided to do out for a late lunch, taking Matt’s truck and Allison’s car out to a café just off campus. Andrew’s lot had headed back to the tower though, since Aaron had homework to finish before he could go to the game and Andrew wanted to sleep off the worst of his withdrawal for the night. After their lunch they went back to the tower, hanging out in the kitchen and watching reruns of old Foxes games while Kevin and Neil criticised moves and talked about what they could do better.

“I’m going to go check on the monsters.” Dan got up out of the seat and then kissed Matt’s hair, ignoring Neil’s quiet ‘don’t call them that’ as she disappeared into the hallway. She came back just a couple of minutes later, her expression anxious.

“Babe? You okay?”

Dan’s gaze flicked to Neil, before she spoke. “Andrew didn’t take his medication, I think he’s going to be sober all night.”

Matt stiffened beside Neil, but Neil just raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

Dan’s face twisted. “Neil, you don’t understand-”

“I understand just fine, Dan.” Neil got up and grabbed the hoodie that he had taken off, before turning to face her again. “Those pills are awful, and you all know it. I’m going to go check on Andrew, he probably needs some water.”

Dan and Matt watched him go, but Neil didn’t look back as he made his way down the hall to Andrew’s room that he shared with Aaron and Kevin. The door was unlocked, but Neil still knocked quietly and waited until he heard Andrew grunt inside to push the door open and step inside. The room smelled of vomit and sweat, so Neil crossed the room to push the curtains open and then open the window, letting fresh air into the room and making Andrew groan from the bed. Neil shook his head and picked up a bottle of water from the floor, going to crouch beside the bed.

“Hey, Drew.”

Andrew turned to face him and blinked blearily at him, just his eyes visible above the grey duvet. “What do you want.”

Neil held up the bottle of water. “Drink this? I’ll turn on the shower to heat the water up.”

Andrew grunted again, but a pale hand came out from under the duvet to grab the bottle of water before he pushed himself to a slumped sitting position. He tipped some of the water into his mouth and then wiped it with the back of his hand. “I don’t want to shower.”

Neil shook his head. “No offence, babe, but you’re kind of disgusting right now.”

Andrew huffed. “The honeymoon phase is well and truly over, then?”

Neil snorted and then turned the shower on, dodging the spray of water. “We had a honeymoon phase?”

“Oh fuck off, Josten.” Andrew’s voice was weak and shaking slightly, and Neil sighed as he went and found a stool to set up in the shower for the man to sit on. As soon as it was running hot, Neil got Andrew some fresh clothes and locked the door before approaching the bed again. Andrew looked exhausted, but the shower would help him to gain some of his colour back at least.

“Come on, shower time.”

Andrew pushed the duvet away and then moved to sit on the edge of the bed, letting Neil help him pull his shirt off, followed by his sweatpants and underwear. Neil’s hands hovered by the edges of his armbands, and he looked up at Andrew’s face. Andrew paused, before shaking his head quickly.

“We’ll need to change them after the shower, though.” Neil pressed a kiss to his hand before pulling back. “I won’t look while I help you.”

Andrew nodded, and then accepted Neil’s hand as he pulled him to a standing position, helping him to the shower. As the water hit his back, Andrew groaned softly and then tilted his head over, letting the water flow down his neck and back.

Neil chuckled. “Feels good, right?”

Andrew let him wet his hair before rubbing shampoo into it, although he wouldn’t let him wash his body. Instead, he quickly washed himself off as much as he could, before letting Neil rinse his hair gently and pat him dry with a towel. He smelled a lot better after that, and Neil pressed a gentle kiss to his temple.

“At least you smell better, now.” Neil laughed and then dodged the swat that Andrew threw his way. “I’ll get your clothes, wait here for me?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Neil got Andrew a shirt and boxers, as well as his spare armbands, bundling them up and carrying them into the bathroom to help Andrew pull the armbands on. Then, he left Andrew to put on his shirt and pants on his own and returned to the bedroom, stripping the sweat soaked sheets and changing them for fresh ones. The room seemed a lot cleaner then, and it made Neil feel better to know that at least Andrew wouldn’t get sick from sleeping on wet sheets.

When he got to the bathroom again, Andrew was wearing the oversized shirt that Neil had picked for him, and the racecar print boxers that Neil had found in the closet. They didn’t seem like Andrew’s aesthetic, but then again Andrew did like cars. Neil picked up the soft sweatpants off the floor. “Did you want sweatpants, or are you too warm?”

Andrew flexed his fingers and then hummed. “Too warm.”

“Do you want to go to bed, then?”

Andrew nodded, so Neil helped him up and walked him back to the bed, tugging the duvet up over him and getting him more water from the minifridge that Aaron usually kept stocked by his bed. “Was it always this bad?”

Andrew nodded, and his voice croaked when he answered. “Not usually this bad, but. Sometimes.”

Neil clenched his jaw, and then sighed. He hated this- He hated everything that had led to Andrew being put on those damn pills. “Do you want me to stay here with you? I can stay as long as you need, Drew.”

Andrew’s voice was a little muffled from the duvet, but Neil heard him anyways. “Go have fun with your foxes, junkie.”

Neil chuckled and then pushed Andrew’s phone under the duvet, pressing a kiss to where his head would be. “I love you. Call me if you need me?”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Neil laughed, and then turned for the door. Andrew would be fine; It would take a lot more than withdrawal to take him down.

 


 

Game time approached steadily, and Neil could feel his own anticipation building as the minutes wound down. Andrew finally emerged from his room with three hours to go, which helped considerably with Neil’s restless energy when he pressed him up against the wall of the empty dorm and kissed him breathless.

When he pulled back, Neil chased his lips quickly before breathing shakily. “What would it take for you to shut the goal down tonight?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, and then traced the edge of Neil’s lip with his thumb. Neil turned his head to kiss the pad of it, smiling gently. Andrew rolled his eyes.“What would you give me?”

Neil hummed quietly. The answer was the same, would always be the same. “Anything.”

“Flush them.” At Neil’s confused look, Andrew rolled his eyes and gestured towards where Neil’s bag sat on the chair. “My pills. I’m not taking them anymore.”

Neil widened his eyes. “Andrew-”

“I’m not going through this again, Neil.” Andrew took a deep breath through his nose, and then pulled away. “Just get rid of them, okay?”

Neil watched him, and then nodded. “Of course.”

Andrew went to grab his hoodie. “I want something to eat before the game.”

Neil crossed the room to sit on the bed, leaning over it to get his phone from where it had been plugged into the wall. He had missed messages from the Foxes, but he mostly i “There’s leftover pizza in the fridge if you want it?”

“Careful, Kevin will hear you. Do you want another lecture on the importance of vegetables?”

Neil made a face, which as good as answered that.

Andrew wrapped his hoodie around himself and went out to the kitchen, putting the slices of pizza into the microwave and then taking them out too soon, chewing on them thoughtfully as he made coffee. Neil came into the kitchen soon after, stealing some pepperoni and sitting on a stool.

“Kevin said that we need to meet him at the court, and that everyone else will be meeting us after.”

Andrew grunted, and then took another bite. “Tell him that we’ll be there when we’re ready.”

Neil nodded and texted him that, before frowning. “Should we tell him that Riko is going to be on the show tonight?”

Andrew paused with the cup resting against his lips, and then huffed. “Leave it with me, I’ll figure out a way to tell him.”

Neil put the phone down. He trusted Andrew to handle it. “Are you excited to play tonight?”

Andrew looked at him, unimpressed, but it had been a long time since Andrew had stopped pretending to hate Exy. “Excited to piss off the other teams again. Pick a number?”

Neil beamed. “One.”

Andrew smirked, and then took a slow sip of his coffee. "Deal."

 

As soon as they arrived at the court in the beat up GS, Wymack directed them to the changing rooms, holding a cup of takeaway coffee in his hands and making sure that they all actually did as they were told. Neil and Andrew followed the others in, and Neil turned to make his way towards the changing cubicles before feeling Kevin’s hand on his shoulder, pulling him back and then pushing him into an empty area of the room.

"Don't waste their time tonight," Kevin kept his voice low, his mouth close to Neil’s ear. "They came to see you play, so give them something to believe in."

"Don’t worry about it.” Neil rolled his eyes and pushed Kevin back a little. “I’ll be fine.”

Kevin sighed, and then stepped back. "Let’s hope so. Change out."

When Neil came back from changing privately, it seemed that Wymack had already passed around the Breckenridge roster and that everybody had already seen it. Matt’s expression was grim as he looked at the starting line-up. "Hey, Seth. Looks like your best friend Gorilla's back."

"Shit." Seth snatched the paper from the man’s hand and then looked it over. “Fuckers.”

"At least they're taking us seriously from the start," Aaron shrugged, and then frowned as Nicky elbowed him. “What? It’s true.”

"Easy for defense to say." Allison crossed her arms. “You won’t actually have to deal with him.”

“Gorilla's defense," Dan said, explaining to Neil in a quiet voice. "and he loves body-checks. Be careful, Neil. He'll break every bone in your body if you give him the chance."

Neil had no intentions of giving him the chance, but he stayed quiet.

"Don't worry, though," Matt added hurriedly, probably not wanting to scare Neil too much. "He'll probably be too busy killing Kevin and Seth to notice you."

"This is my reassured face," Neil said, and then rolled his eyes. “I’ll give him something to notice, then.”

"Are you done wasting my oxygen yet?" Wymack finally decided to speak up, crossing his arms and looking at them all in turn. "Let's get moving. We're on home court for warm-up. We're doing simple relay shots first, Andrew and Renee twice through each. Andrew, keep them on our side. You hit a single practice shot onto the Jackals' side of the court when they're warming up and I won't start you until second half."

Andrew tapped his fingers to his forehead in a mock salute, and he grinned. “Aye aye, captain.”

Wymack kept going, ignoring Andrew. "Starters down the line: Seth, Kevin, Dan, Matt, Aaron, Andrew. I've got three subs each half, so you'll all get a swap except the goalies. Kevin, if you feel anything wrong with your hand you tell us, okay? Don't be stupid tonight, it’s not worth your career."

"It's been eight months," Kevin protested, although that was silenced quickly by a stern look from Wymack.

"Don't risk it your first game back," Abby added, much more gently. Kevin didn’t raise any more arguments after that, which seemed to be good enough for everyone because Wymack looked them over once more before leading them out to the court, stopping at the announcer’s booth to get the okay for them to head on. The roar of the crowd as they stepped out through the double doors was deafening, and Neil felt his heart rate triple as he saw the sea of orange and white up in the stands.

He had really missed the Foxhole Court.

He threw himself into his warm up exercises with as much energy as he could muster, shooting at Andrew again and again, letting him deflect all but a few and not really minding at all- he could see Seth starting to redden on the other side of Kevin. Andrew looked bored as ever, but Neil could see it- the spark of enjoyment that Andrew usually got at the prospect of pissing off a lot of people at once.

Once their allotted practice time was over, Wymack shooed his starting line off towards the door. "Get out there and make them sorry they showed up tonight. I want my subs at the wall cheering them on, but if you trip up anyone I will cut you. Let's go."

Dan led her players like soldiers going to war, and the hit the door twice hard to let them know that they were ready to go. The doors opened just a couple of seconds later, and then they were faced with the adoring crowds again. Kevin stepped out first, his racquet clasped tight in his hand like he had never even been gone- his lazy confidence had been eight months in the making, but it lit up the whole court. Seth stalked after him, taking his position and looking up at the crowd before turning his racquet over in his hands. Dan jogged to the middle of the court, taking her place on the centre line with a bright smile plastered on her face. Matt and Aaron walked out together, taking their places quickly and finally followed by Andrew, who walked lazily over to the goal with his racquet slung over his shoulders. Breckenridge filed in soon after, and they took their corresponding places on court.

The subs took their seats on the sidelines, and Neil bounced his leg up and down as he waited for the game to begin. He couldn’t wait to play with all of his Foxes again.

The whistle rang, and the court exploded with the noise of people running, Neil’s heart keeping perfect time.

 

They won, 7-1. Neil made sure to smile and salute at Seth before he went to change out, and he laughed as the man’s expression soured before he stalked off to find Nicky. The Foxes had made a good start on their path to the championships now- hopefully it would be a smoother ride than last time to beating the Ravens.

 


 

Neil slept most of the way to Kathy Ferdinand’s show the next morning, just a couple of seats away from Andrew. He had really run himself to the ground during the game, and he had needed the rest. Still though, when Wymack shook him awake it felt like he hadn’t slept at all, his body heavy and tired from exhaustion.

“Are we there?” He yawned and then groaned, rolling over.

Wymack laughed. “We stopped to get you ungrateful fuckers’ breakfast, actually, so get your ass up and wake Minyard.”

Neil pushed himself up off the seat, and he could feel where the seat had left imprints on his face. He probably looked ridiculous. Yawning, he stretched out his back and then looked over at Andrew. “Andrew, get up.”

Nicky looked panicked in the half-light. “Neil, I’m not sure if that’s-”

Andrew groaned loudly, and then sat up, his hair pressed down where he had been resting against the seat. “Fuck, it’s too early, Josten.”

“We stopped for breakfast.” Neil looked around, finding his bottle of water and chugging it before looking at the others. Nicky looked surprised, and Neil realised that they had all been waiting for Andrew to lash out at him, to hit him as soon as he tried to wake him. He shook his head a took a deep breath. They’d learn to like Andrew again, if Neil had anything to do with it.

Further up the aisle, Wymack nudged Kevin’s leg with his foot, before gently shaking the man away. Kevin, even as he got older had never been a morning person, and it took him forever to get anywhere near awake enough to function properly. Neil knew that Kevin had woken up, though, when his hand darted out to try to push Wymack away from him. Wymack just laughed, and then shook him again. “Come on, Day. You need to eat something.”

"I hate you," Kevin said, exhausted but with feeling.

"Breaking news: I don't care. This was your brilliant idea, I’ll remind you." Wymack swatted at his head and then turned around. “Everybody up, the girls should be back in five minutes with our food.”

Andrew reached for his cigarettes, and Neil could see the moment when he remembered that he had given them up when he groaned and sat back again. "Might want to give Kevin a little longer than that.”

"Morning, sunshine," Matt said with a falsely bright smile, leaning over his seat to get a good look at Kevin.

"Fuck you," Kevin grimaced, giving him the middle finger before reaching around for his hoodie.

Dan yawned, morphing into a giggle. "Glad to see you're still a morning person, Kev."

"Fuck you too." Kevin shook his arms and legs out, before resting his head against the cold plastic of the seat in front of him. “I hate you all.”

“We love you too, Kevin!” Nicky laughed, and even Aaron let out a low chuckle. Nothing brought them together quite like mocking Kevin, after all.

Abby and Renee returned a couple of minutes later with Allison in tow, laden with bags of doughnuts and croissants, trays of coffee. They divided it out, Andrew snagging two croissants for Neil while he helped himself to the doughnuts. The coffee really helped to wake most of them up the rest of the way, while the warm, buttery pastries settled Neil’s stomach and warmed him up considerably. He sipped his coffee, then, giving his sugar packets to Andrew and leaving his black.

“Everyone happy?” There were mumbled agreements, and that was enough for Wymack because soon enough they were on the floor again, en route for Kathy Ferdinand’s studio.

 

When they arrived, Kevin was immediately wrapped up in a hug from Kathy, who had a wide smile fixed on her face.

"Kevin," She said, squeezing him tight and then pulling back to smooth his sleeves down. "It's been so long. I'm so glad you could make it today."

"It's good to see you again, I can’t wait to talk to you." Kevin assured her, and smiled as he took her hand. The smile was plastic and malleable; made for an adoring public. It was realistic too. If Neil hadn’t already known what an asshole Kevin was, he would have believed it. Kevin looked the part of the perfect celebrity, and he played it perfectly. Satisfied with Kevin, Kathy turned her fake smile on the rest of the team, before addressing Kevin again.

"You were amazing last night. Kevin, you have the magic touch it seems. This team has been doing so much better since you transferred."

"They were already on their way up," Kevin said with a shrug. Neil knew that he wasn’t being completely honest, but knowing what the team was capable of, he couldn’t help but agree. They’d beat the Ravens again that year, and they’d do their best every year thereafter. "They deserve their Class I status and this year will prove it to you all."

"Brilliant," Kathy said, but she was distracted. It seemed that she had spotted Neil where he was standing near Matt, and her smile widened even more. "Neil Josten! Good morning. I suppose you've already heard the good news? As of eleven o'clock last night, your name is the third-highest search string for NCAA Exy strikers. That puts you right after Riko and Kevin. How does it feel?"

Neil's stomach clenched at the mention of Riko, but he forced himself to smile brightly. “Not as good as it will feel when Kevin and I pass him out.”

Kathy blinked, clearly not having expected that answer. Kevin’s smile tightened, but the ploughed on nonetheless. “Fantastic! It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Josten, and it’ll be even better to be able to interview you on my show!”

“You want Neil on your show?” Dan asked, affronted. “I thought this was just for kevin.”

Kathy smiled at her, but ultimately addressed Neil again.

"Everyone wants to know who you are," Kathy said, clapping excitedly. "Your old coach says you picked Exy up in a year by reading a guidebook and showing up to practice, but Kevin says you're going to sign with the US Court after graduation. Such ambitions and dreams from such a humble beginning, don't you think? It's time for your debut."

Everyone around them stiffened, but Neil just swallowed an annoyed response. “I won’t have very much to say, I’m afraid.”

Andrew coughed and then muttered, something that sounded like ‘for once’. Neil rolled his eyes and grinned at him.

Kathy laughed. “That’s alright, I’d just like to ask you a few questions. It’ll be fun!”

This time, Andrew spoke clearly, causing everyone to fall silent. “Yeah, Riko is a real barrel of laughs.”

Kathy’s smile froze in place, and Kevin blinked, looking at Andrew. “What?”

“Riko is backstage, isn’t he? You’re going to reunite them on stage.” Andrew’s voice was bored, but Neil knew just how much enjoyment Andrew was getting out of not only ruining Kathy’s plans for the show, but ruining Riko’s too. It was pretty satisfying, knowing that Riko wouldn’t get what he wanted.

Eight glares fixed themselves on Kathy, and she shrunk under the pressure. “Mr. Day and Mr. Moriyama are brothers, it’s awful that they barely speak anymore-”

“Were.” Kevin mumbled, and then swallowed at Kathy’s confused expression. “Were brothers. We stopped being brothers a long time ago.”

Neil had never been prouder of Kevin than in that moment, if he was being honest. Even Andrew looked vaguely impressed. He remembered seeing Kevin as a coward, as a spineless child, but now that he had the gift of foresight he could see the strength that Kevin had to be able to keep going after what he had been through. It might not be as loud as Neil’s sharp tongue, or as forceful as Andrew’s violence, but Kevin’s quiet bravery was no less of a thing to be proud of. Hopefully though, his bravery would be a lot less quiet after they really showed the Ravens what they were made of on the court.

Kathy went pink. “But Kevin, surely talking things out will help the relationship between the two of you!”

Kevin raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that for me to decide?”

Kathy paused, before nodding once. “Of course, Kevin.”

Andrew grinned, and then nudged Kevin gently. “Get Riko off your fucking set, Kathy. He won’t be getting on stage with Kevin.”

“Andrew.” Wymack’s reprimand had no force behind it though- They all agreed with him.

Kathy looked at Kevin, pleading. She was hoping that Kevin would cave, that Kevin would want to talk to Riko after all. There was a fat chance of that, though. Kevin was cradling his hand gently, worrying his lip between his teeth. Neil gently touched his arm and mimed taking a deep breath.

Kevin followed his lead, and then offered him a shaky smile.

“Kathy.” Neil turned to her and smiled. “If you want to interview us, then interview us, but not with Riko.”

When everything went to shit, and Neil knew that it would go to shit, they'd want it to fall apart as privately as possible this time. Minimise the relatiation from the Moriyamas, minimise the press coverage, give them more time before Neil's father inevitably caught onto his existence and made himself known.

Kathy looked constipated. A lot of work had obviously gone into organising Riko’s appearance on her show, and the Foxes had just shot it down in flames. Neil almost felt bad for her. He didn’t, though.

Finally, she took out a receiver and spoke into it. “John, nix the Riko portion of the interview.”

The man on the receiver asked if she was sure, and Kathy almost looked like she was going to cry as she told him she was, walking away. Once she was gone, Neil looked at Andrew. He shrugged, and then Neil looked at Kevin.

“Are you okay?”

Kevin flinched slightly, and then looked at him. “I… thank you. You too, Andrew.”

Neil smiled and shrugged, while Andrew just saluted. “It was a dick move, trying to force you to publicly talk to Riko like that.”

Wymack stared at the three of them, and then he shook his head. “I’m too old for all of this shit. Neil, Kevin, get to the fucking changing rooms. Minyard, you’re staying here with us.”

Andrew didn’t look happy about that arrangement, but he stayed quiet and walked over to stand by Renee. Neil met his eyes before he and Kevin left.

This was going to be interesting.

 

The show went smoothly, for all of the last minute changes that had been made to it. Kathy recovered well from it, although the ending of the interview dragged without the final portion to end it out. Kevin seemed to have relaxed a lot by the end of it though, which Neil was grateful for.

“That’s a wrap, guys!” Kathy smiled tightly at them, hugging Kevin once more before letting them go back to the waiting Foxes. “You can keep those clothes we’ve put you in, and there are some refreshments on the table by the changing room. Your team can help themselves too.”

“They will.” Kevin laughed softly and then pulled away. “Thanks, Kathy.”

They made their way back to where their team would be waiting for them and then together, they raided the snack table. Still, it wasn’t long until the inevitable happened.

“Neil Josten.” Neil shuddered at the voice and then turned, Andrew bristling beside him.

“Riko. Did you get lost? I could have sworn hell was the other way, that was where we told you to go.”

Kevin’s sharp intake of breath beside him and Andrew’s huff of air only served to embolden him further. Riko’s eyebrows raised, and it took him a moment to school his expression into it’s usual condescending mask. Neil relished that moment.

“That is no way to speak to the best striker in NCAA Exy, is it?”

Neil feigned confusion. “I wasn’t talking to Kevin, though.”

He heard Dan snort behind him. It was better that they get used to him now than later, though. At least Wymack wasn’t within earshot. He crossed his arms, and grinned at the way that Riko’s mouth twisted before he turned his attention to Kevin.

“Kevin, the Nest misses you.” Riko smiled. “We watched your game last night- Careful now, you could easily get injured again. We wouldn’t want that. Do you think you could recover a second time, emotionally or mentally? I’m just worried, as your best friend. Your brother."

His tone was all faux concern, but Neil could feel how each word hit Kevin like a physical blow, leaving him pale and hollow looking. Riko really wanted to hurt Kevin, and the worst thing was that it was working. Neil hadn’t been given permission to speak, but that wasn’t going to stop him- Kevin was one of his best friends, and no one could speak to him the way that Riko was speaking to him now.

"I thought friends were supposed to cheer each other on? Believing in him now is the least you could do after completely abandoning him last winter."

Riko looked at Neil again. "Mine and Kevin’s friendship is none of your concern, Johnson. Don’t think that you can impress whatever little ideas of friendship you have onto us. Our relationship is unique to us.”

"Was unique," Neil said, and then repeated himself to emphasise the point. "Was. I'm pretty sure your relationship died when he couldn't keep up with your team anymore. Thanks to you, I might add. Also, it’s Josten."

"Whatever. Kevin chose to leave Edgar Allen," Riko said, and then shrugged. "We mourned his absence but were glad to hear he found a coaching position at a lesser school."

"But you're not happy that he's playing again," Neil talked over him, stepping in front of Kevin slightly. "That’s why you transferred to our district. You don't think Kevin should be on the court again, so you'll cut him off before he can get far enough. You'll destroy his chance of making a comeback and make him watch as your team succeeds yet again. You're rubbing his face in everything he's lost, and from where I'm sitting, it looks like you're enjoying it you sadistic freak."

Riko stared him down, but Neil didn’t back an inch. "I will ask you only once to tone down that animosity."

"I can't," Neil said with a smirk. "I’ve been told that I have a bit of an attitude problem."

Riko's smile could have cut Neil if he let it. "A bit? Face it, Palmetto state is a waste of Kevin’s talents."

"Not as much as Edgar Allen was," Neil countered. “Maintaining a top position is far easier than starting over from the gutters. Kevin is doing that right now. He's facing entirely new schools and learning to play with his less dominant hand. When he masters it, and he will, he'll be better than you could ever have made him. Do you know why?”

Neil didn't let Riko answer, cutting him off when he tried. "It's not just his natural talent. It's because he's with us. We don’t have players to burn like the Ravens do. We have to hold our ground on our own, and rely on actual talent."

"Have you forgotten that your school is the laughingstock of the NCAA? You're a team with no concept of teamwork. You could never even hope to beat us."

"Lucky for you," Neil shrugged. "If we were a unified front you wouldn't stand a chance against us."

"Your misplaced arrogance is an insult to everyone who actually earned a spot in Class I. Everyone knows the only reason Palmetto even qualified for this division is because of your coach." Riko’s voice was haughty and smug, and Neil wanted to hit him. He could tell that Andrew was feeling much the same as him.

"Funny, I'm pretty sure that's how Edgar Allen qualified, isn’t it?" Neil smirked, and Nicky let out a whoop behind him.

"We've earned our prestige a thousand times over. You've earned nothing but pity and scorn, neither of which should be tolerated in a sport. Keep your ignorant opinions to yourself, no one asked for them."

"If it’s all the same to you, I'll give you one more," Neil felt Kevin’s hand on his arm, but he ignored him. "I don't think you're telling Kevin to sit out because of his health. I think you know this season is going to be a disaster for your reputation. You forced Kevin into your shadow as kids, and you’re scared that now everyone will know that he’s better than you.”

Neil.” Kevin sounded like he was going to cry.

Riko's smile was all ice and steel. "I can assure you that I am not scared of Kevin. I know him too well for that. The Ravens will win the championships, and the Foxes won’t make it to the finals."

"You're going to eat those words," Neil had never been surer of anything in his life. "You're going to choke on them, in front of everyone."

Riko moved with all the speed of a top class striker, and his pinned Neil back against the wall hard. Neil felt pain jolt through his back, and he grunter before looking at Andrew over the man’s shoulder, shaking his head slightly.

"Your new little pet is insubordinate, Kevin.” Riko hissed. “You might want to house train him.”

"You saw our game last night, you said." Kevin said, his voice low. "He’s good. Better than good."

"Better than good." Riko pushed Neil back against the wall again and then turned to Kevin, laughing nastily. Kevin stared back at him, timid now. "I didn’t realise that a broken hand would make you delusional, Kevin. You were the same way about your little guard dog of a goalkeeper.”

Kevin recoiled as if struck, and said something in Japanese, causing Riko to spit a response before slipping into rapid-fire Japanese, making Kevin shrink back farther. Riko turned, grabbing a fistful of Kevin’s shirt. That was enough for Neil, and he reached out to pull Riko back.

"Leave him alone."

Riko’s expression twisted into something darker, and he reached for Neil, curling his hand into a fist. Neil flinched, bracing himself to get hit but when the hit didn’t come, he opened his eyes. Kevin had caught Riko’s arm, holding it tight in his hand and looking as scared as he was proud of himself. Neil smiled at him widely. Still though, Riko spat and tried again with his other hand, trying to hit Neil again before he was pushed back hard.

Neil exhaled slowly and eased himself away from the wall, skirting around Andrew who had pushed his way between them.

"Riko," Andrew said, spreading his arms in a welcoming gesture. "It's been a while, hasn’t it?"

Riko backed up quickly out of Andrew’s arm’s reach. His bravado slipped away as if it had never been there in the first place, and Neil couldn’t blame him. Andrew could be scary when he wanted to be, especially if you had the surname Moriyama.

"We were just talking about you, Minyard." Riko said.

"What a coincidence.” Andrew said. "Don't touch my things, Riko. I don't share."

Riko started to laugh but Andrew moved forward again, and Riko choked on air due to what Neil imagined was a knife that was suddenly pressing into his torso. He fought a smile and then walked over to the rest of the Foxes, pulling Kevin after him.

“Let’s go, Andrew can handle this.”

The rest of the Foxes seemed eager to leave, and they ran into Wymack in the hallway. He raised an eyebrow as he saw them approach. "Well this can’t be good.”

“Coach, it was so cool.” Matt grinned brightly. “Neil yelled at Riko!”

Wymack stared at them all for a few seconds before pinching the bridge of his nose. “I can’t leave you alone for five seconds without you guys causing trouble.”

Dan made an indignant noise. “Riko started it! The way he was talking to Kevin-”

“Kevin?” Abby’s voice was worried, and she pulled him into a tight embrace. “Are you okay?”

Kevin hugged her back, his fingers digging slightly into the woman’s shoulders. Neil hadn’t really noticed before just how close the two were, but he supposed that it made a lot of sense- she was going to be his stepmother, after all.

“What were you doing, talking to Riko?”

"Leave him alone, David," Abby said, her face pressed into Kevin's shoulder as they hugged. Wymack grumbled and then took a deep breath.

“Alright, one of you go grab Andrew, everyone else to the bus. The sooner we get away from this mess the better.”

 

No one raised any complaints, and within twenty minutes they were all loaded onto the bus, ready to head back to Palmetto. Neil headed to the back of the bus immediately- Andrew following closely after. He sat down, and rested his head against the glass of the window, waiting for Andrew to settle himself before he spoke.

“Riko is angry.”

Andrew hummed and then nodded, tucking a leg up underneath himself. “You know what comes next, then.”

Neil did, but that didn’t mean that it sat right with him. Seth’s death had been a catalyst for the Foxes determination to do better, to be better- who was to say that they would win the championships if it wasn’t for that edge? Neil loved Allison, and he knew that this would hurt her too, but he also knew that she’d turn out okay.

Andrew snapped his fingers, getting Neil’s attention. “Stop. Whatever you’re thinking, stop it. We’re letting things play out as close to last time as possible, that’s what we agreed on.”

Neil nodded slowly and then sighed. “You’re right, I just-”

“Reynolds will be fine. You made sure of that last time, and you’ll do it again.”

Neil swallowed and then nodded, letting his fingers brush against Andrew’s on the seat. “Can we stay in Columbia next weekend? After this week… we’ll need the time away.”

Andrew nodded and bumped their hands together again. “We need to start planning for Riko anyway, we need to be ready for whatever else he’s going to throw at us.”

Neil sighed. “I can’t wait for all of this to be over with again.”

Andrew looked out the window, and then looked up at the Foxes that were on the bus, his jaw set. “Yeah, me too.”

The bus rumbled underneath them, and Neil finally allowed himself to curl up on the seat, falling asleep with Andrew’s hand by his hair. Everything would go to shit soon enough, but they'd get through it together the way that they always did.

They had to.

Chapter Text

The Foxes were all going out for the night, and the dorms were all a mess of clothes and makeup bags- Neil had missed it, the vaguely organised chaos of his team on a night out. Of course, he was going out with Andrew and his lot rather than the upperclassmen since it was still so early in the year, but it still felt similar to his memories of their last year together, when they had brought the upperclassmen together to Eden’s for drinks. Dan and Matt had both voiced their concerns for Neil going out with them again, though Neil had quieted them for the most part with an insistence that he would be fine with them, that Andrew would behave. They didn’t look like they believed him very much, but Neil didn’t care about that; They would believe him eventually.

Andrew had taken Neil shopping while the others had gone to lunch, and they had stopped for coffee and doughnuts on the way there. They had picked out new clothes for both of them, but mostly for Neil- his wardrobe was the same as it had been the first time around, and a decade of being married to Andrew had forced Neil to have better taste in clothes. It wasn’t even as if he could steal Andrew’s clothes as much as he usually did either. People would notice, and both of them had agreed that they wanted to keep their relationship on the quiet side while they just focused on getting to championships.

In the end, they had settled on a plain black shirt, paired with ripped jeans and a soft, grey cardigan over it- something decidedly more feminine than Neil would have worn back in his first year, but nonetheless comfortable. With it, a pair of stylishly scuffed Vans that looked like a pair that Andrew owned.

“Does it look okay?” Neil looked down at himself and bit his lip. It was a pretty soft look, made a little scruffier by the rips in the jeans, the scuffs on the shoes. Neil was pretty sure that he liked it, though, and if the look on Andrew’s face was anything to go by, he liked it too.

“You look fine, Josten. Let’s go.”

Neil walked back into the changing room, pulling the clothes off and getting redressed as quickly as he could. Andrew came in before he finished, and started to hang the clothes back on their hangers. They were both understandably subdued today- Neither of them particularly cared about Seth, and they had gone so long without him in their lives that the shift would hardly be noticeable if they were being honest with themselves. Still, it didn’t quite sit right with Neil. Regardless, they bought the clothes and drove back to the dorms to start getting ready properly.

They got back as the others were starting to get ready for lunch, so Andrew snagged a couple of the soft shell tacos that Nicky loved to make on the way to their room, while Neil followed behind easily. They had long since learned their lesson on drinking on an empty stomach, and they weren’t about to go and get blackout drunk on a night like tonight.

They shared the tacos between them while Andrew blew through another few levels in the game he was playing, but then Kevin came in which signaled time to get ready- Kevin hated waiting until the last minute to do anything, and it had forcibly rubbed of o the rest of the monsters. It annoyed Andrew to no end, while it did a lot to ease the anxiety that Neil sometimes felt about being late to things. Neil got dressed fairly quickly, using the eyeliner pencil that he had stolen from Allison’s makeup bag to quickly smudge out his eyes a bit before stooping to pull on the new shoes that Andrew had picked out for him. They were comfortable, that was for sure, and Neil appreciated that he could walk around easily. Andrew wasn’t ready by the time he was done though, so he went out to sit on the couch outside while he waited. Considering his options, he took another leftover taco and ate it quickly, figuring that they wouldn’t get to eat again that night. It was a good idea- Nicky was a very good chef, after all.

Allison and the girls were the first to emerge from their own section of the dorms, and they all seemed to double take as they saw Neil in his new clothes.

Dan whistled lowly. “Damn, Neil. You look good.”

Neil shrugged, and then smiled. “I figured I would make an effort, tonight. We are celebrating, after all.”

“Damn right we are.” Dan smiled brightly and then held out her hand for a high five. Neil brought his hand up to bump against hers, and then looked at Allison and Renee.

“You all look nice.”

Renee offered him a beatific smile, and Allison rolled her eyes. “Oh, I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“What other girls?”

That made Allison laugh, and she leaned over to ruffle Neil’s hair before grimacing slightly. “Shit, okay. Josten, I appreciate the eyeliner but maybe we should take a look at some basic fucking haircare.”

Neil snorted. “I could buy some conditioner?”

All three girls turned to look at him. “You don’t own conditioner?”

Neil was saved from the public saving by both Matt and Nicky coming out of their respective rooms, both of them dressed to party even if their styles were… completely different. Matt had gone for a simple looking sweatshirt and jeans, cleaner than the ones that he usually wore around the dorms but nonetheless comfy casual. Nicky, on the other hand, could probably stop traffic if he wants.

“Nice shorts.” Neil laughed softly, and Nicky beamed at him, turning around to show him the back of the daisy dukes he was wearing.

“I cut them up myself, do they look okay?”

He had paired the shorts with a vintage looking band t-shirt which was undoubtedly not vintage- Neil was vaguely certain that the band on the shirt was a thing well before Nicky’s time. He had cut the t-shirt up too, creating a little window on the chest that shouldn’t have looked good, but Neil found himself enjoying it. Nicky, over their years of knowing each other and being a family had helped Neil a lot with getting more comfortable with his own body and Neil could hardly begrudge the man the self confidence that had been earned through so much pain in Nicky’s teenage years.

“You look really great, Nicky.”

Nicky smiled, pleased, and then went to sit on the arm of the armchair that Neil was sitting in as they waited for the others. Seth came in soon after that, and everyone watched without watching as Allison crossed the room to pat him down, rifling through his pockets and pulling out a crumpled stick of gum, a lighter and a stray receipt. Neil scratched at his leg idly and tried to just stare into space as Seth gruffly feigned annoyance, pushing Allison’s hands away.

“I’m not fucking stupid.”

Allison kissed him to shut him up, and Neil felt a pang of guilt in his chest. Seth really didn’t have anything on him, but that wouldn’t matter in the end. His only solace was that Allison would be alright, that Renee and Dan and the rest of them would be there for her until she was okay again. His Foxes came above everything, they were all that mattered and so he put his guilt about Seth Gordon to bed.

Allison stuffed the lighter back into his pocket and then tossed the gum to Matt, who caught it and grinned before spotting Neil where he had been half-hiding behind Nicky.

"Neil, you made it!" His smile was bright as he spoke, and he came over to clap Neil on the back. "Seth and Allison are going bar-hopping downtown, so the rest of us are going to go for a few drinks before coming back for a movie marathon. Any requests or recommendations for movies?"

Neil opened his mouth to speak, but Nicky beat him to it.

"You're both leaving campus?" Nicky’s eyes were wide, and he looked towards Allison. "Are you fucking serious? Coach said-"

“Coach said.” Allison mocked him, and then put an arm around Seth. “It’s none of your fucking business. You guys aren’t the only ones allowed to go to bars at the weekend.”

“Allison.” Renee chided, and then smiled softly.

Neil didn’t know why he said it. If he had been thinking he probably wouldn’t have said anything at all. “Why don’t you go drinking with the team and then watch some movies? You must still be tired after the match.”

The upperclassmen all jumped to agree with him, and he saw Seth scowling as he fell silent again.

“Yeah, come on dude! Why don’t you guys just come and hang out with us? We can watch The Princess Bride if you want.”

Allison looked tempted, and for a minute Neil held his breath, before ultimately releasing it again. “Nah, I think we’ll just stick with drinking.”

Matt shrugged, easy, and then smiled again. “Whatever you want. Neil, are you drinking tonight? Renee usually stays sober so-”

“He’s fine.” The corners of Neil’s mouth twitched at the sound of his boyfriend’s voice, and he glanced towards the door. Andrew was dressed to the nines, and flanked by Aaron and Kevin. It was like an oddly ratioed gang, and the thought made him chuckle. “I’m buying Neil’s drinks tonight.”

The reaction was delayed for a couple of seconds, but once what Andrew said sank in Neil saw the change in mood almost instantaneously. Dan’s face turned stormy, and the bristled. “Like fuck you are. He’s staying with us, Andrew.”

Andrew looked vaguely amused, and then crossed his arms. “He’s coming drinking with us, Wilds.”

"The last time he went out with you we weren't sure if he'd be coming back at all or not." Dan spat, and she stabbed a finger in his direction as she crossed the room to him. Both Neil and Nicky stiffened, as she spoke again. "He is not going out with you again, you can't make him."

"Jesus, Dan," Nicky said with a pout, desperately trying to lighten the mood. Neil knew that Andrew wouldn’t do anything, not in front of everyone, not when Neil wanted to be friends with them again. Still though, the nerves sat heavy in his stomach. "When you say things like that it makes me think you don't trust us."

"No one trusts you," Matt growled, probably one of the most aggressive things that Neil had ever heard the man say. "What are you guys playing at? Leave him alone."

"It's not really any of your business, is it?" Aaron said. “Maybe he likes going with us.”

"I said he's not going," Dan said. "Neil, don't let him push you around."

“Andrew couldn’t push me around if he tried.” Neil spoke quietly, but all of the eyes in the room shifted to him. “I’m fine, Dan.”

Dan looked disbelieving, and across the room Andrew chuckled. When he spoke, he had switched to German. "Such misplaced concern. They think you’re a baby."

Neil sighed, switching languages to match him. "They're not stupid enough to think it's only a drink, Andrew. They mean well."

"Oh shit," Nicky said, in German like it was his native language. It might as well have been, Neil supposed. "Since when do you speak German? Andrew, you knew about this? Why didn't you tell us?"

"Boring," Andrew said and then rolled his eyes. The upperclassmen and Kevin were watching them as they spoke, their eyes following their conversation even though their brains couldn’t. "Figure things out for yourself once in a while."

Nicky shot a despairing look towards Aaron. "Quick. Have we said anything totally incriminating these past few months?"

"Aside from a couple of inappropriate comments about what you'd like to do to him, I don't think so. Looks like you've managed to completely embarrass yourself in both languages, Nicky." Aaron looked at Neil. "When were you going to tell us?"

"Eventually.” Neil said, knowing it was the truth.

“Guys, can you talk in English?” Renee smiled, sweet as sugar. “We’re feeling a little left out.”

“He said he’s coming with us.” Andrew waved her off, but the fact that he had switched back to English at all spoke volumes. Idly, Neil wondered how big the pot on Renee and Andrew was.

Dan snorted. “As if I’d believe that out of your mouth. Neil?”

Neil shrugged. “I’m going with Andrew. I'll see you tomorrow, we can watch a movie then."

"We're going," Andrew said, and turned to leave knowing that Nicky and Neil would follow.

"Neil, this isn't a good idea," Dan said, an edge of desperation in her voice. “You could get hurt.”

"Dan, I’m fine. See you guys later, okay?" Neil said, and then got to his feet to follow after Andrew. Aaron and Nicky fell in behind him easily, and they followed Andrew and Kevin down to the car. They reached the car in no time at all, and found Kevin nursing a naggin in the car, with Andrew relaxing in the front seat. Neil snagged the passenger seat, and then frowned back at Kevin, before looking at Andrew.

“I’ll be cutting him off soon enough.” Andrew assured him in Russian, and then started the car. “This is a lot cheaper than the shit he usually drinks, anyway.”

Neil hummed, and then nodded. “Fair enough.”

The drive to Sweetie’s passed quickly, since Nicky and Andrew got into an argument about some band that Neil didn’t care much about, and they switched topic every so often after that until they reached the parking lot and they all got out of the car, Kevin surprisingly upright. It didn’t take them long either now that they weren’t getting crackers- a fact that Aaron and Nicky whined about again until Andrew shut them down with a look. The ice cream was okay though, or at least the few spoonfuls that Neil could manage before he inevitably handed it over to Andrew to finish.Once they had finished, Andrew dropped some money on the table (with a tip, after Neil nudged him) and they made their way out to the car again to sit in. The drive to Eden’s was even shorter, and in no time at all they were skipping the line and walking into the dark, crowded club.

Andrew went off to get their usual tray of drinks, but Neil found himself sidetracked by Nicky.

"Hey, so this means Andrew is keeping you, right? Same as he kept Kevin. It means you're part of the family now!” He sounded genuinely excited, and it almost made Neil chuckle.

“Andrew isn’t keeping me, Nicky. I’m not Andrew’s, I’m here because I like you guys.”

This obviously wasn’t what Nicky had expected for him to say, because his eyes widened slightly, before looking suspiciously wet. “You really like us?”

Not for the first time in his life, Neil took a moment to wish a lot of bodily harm on Luther Hemmick. “Yeah, Nicky. Family, and all that.”

“Andrew doesn’t believe in family." It was an odd thing for Nicky to say, but he wasn’t wrong- Andrew hadn’t believed in family, not when he was the age he was now. Still, it was a harsh truth for Nicky to have to face when he had not one, but two cousins on the team who barely acknowledged him.

Nicky shoved his hands into his pockets, his lips pressed thinly into a not-quite frown. "I mean, I know why Andrew feels that way and I understand why he and Aaron can't stand each other, but I'm not willing to give up on them yet. I want to fix this and show them they're wrong."

Neil considered that, and then smiled softly. “You’re a good cousin, Nicky. They’re lucky to have you.”

“You think so?” Nicky’s eyes were definitely wet now, and Neil grabbed a napkin to hand to him so he could pat them dry.

“Absolutely. They might not show it-” Neil made a mental note to tell Andrew that he needed to talk to Nicky. “But they obviously care about you.”

Nicky sniffed and then patted his eyes again. “Sometimes it feels like they hate each other too much for me to help.”

“They don’t hate each other.” Neil was sure of it, even at this point.

"I don’t think so either, but they do have some pretty serious issues. Wouldn't you if you were them?" Nicky asked. Neil listened intently, even though he had heard all of this before.

"Family means something different with us because it has to. It's not about blood. It's not even about who we like. It's about who Andrew's willing to protect. You’re part of that now."

Nicky mistook Neil’s silence for confusion, and he carried on. “Andrew's got Kevin's back, but you've got Kevin's attention, Neil. You're as freakishly obsessed with Exy as he is. That makes you invaluable to Andrew."

Neil nodded, and then clapped Nicky’s back gently. “Let’s get back to the others, okay?”

As they approached the table, Aaron raised an eyebrow at them from where he was sitting against the wall. "Did you get lost?"

"Even quickies take time, you know," Nicky said, winking and grinning despite how his makeup was slightly smudged from tears.

"Don't make me sick." Aaron barely flinched as he spat the words out, but beside him Neil could feel Nicky’s hurt like it was a tangible object. Before he could brush it off and pretend it didn’t happen though, Neil spoke.

“That’s not funny, Aaron.”

Aaron looked at him. “Excuse me?”

“You need to stop saying that shit. Nicky is gay, big fucking deal.”

Beside him, Nicky was watching him wide-eyed. “Neil-”

Neil didn’t let him finish. “No. Does it make you feel better? Does it make you feel like a big man, treating Nicky like that?”

Aaron opened his mouth, and then closed it again.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Neil put a hand down on the table. “Cut it the fuck out, Aaron. It’s not funny, and I doubt that Katelyn would think it was funny either.”

That got Aaron’s attention, and he reddened. “Just because Andrew decided you weren’t a complete waste of fucking space doesn’t mean-”

“What doesn’t it mean?” Andrew had returned it seemed, and he put the tray of drinks down with a quiet clatter. “What did I miss?”

Neil laughed. “Aaron was being a homophobic piece of shit, but what’s new.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow, and he looked at Neil as if to say do you really want to do this? Neil flicked his gaze towards Nicky, who still looked to be hugging himself.

Yeah, I really do.

“Nicky doesn’t care .” Aaron rolled his eyes. “Do you Nicky?”

Nicky went to shake his head, but Andrew beat him to the punch. “I’m gay. And I care.”

Silence fell at the table, and Neil couldn’t help but feel a little shell-shocked himself. He hadn’t expected- although, he supposed that he never really knew what to expect when it was Andrew.

“You- what?” Nicky blinked, and then looked at his cousin like it was the first time he was seeing him.

“I’m gay. You want to say that shit to me, Aaron?”

It was a direct challenge, and Neil saw Aaron’s prepared retorts die in his throat, before he cleared his throat. “Let’s just go back to drinking.”

Neil raised an eyebrow at him, and he could imagine that Andrew’s expression was much the same. Aaron swallowed, and then huffed, before looking at his cousin.

“Sorry, Nicky.”

It wasn’t as genuine as it probably could have been, but Nicky was crying in earnest now and they had time to work on it- Homophobia wasn’t eradicated in a day, Neil supposed. It was a start, if nothing else.

“It’s alright, Aaron.” Nicky sniffed, and then the tension was shattered by Kevin loudly reaching for his drink. Nicky reached for his too, and under the table Neil brushed his knuckles against Andrew’s. He knew that it would have taken a lot for Andrew to say that to his family, but also he knew that Andrew wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t think he was ready to, whether Nicky needed it or not.

Andrew bumped his hand back, and then reached for his own drink. Neil picked up his soda and opened it, taking a sip. “I’ll drive us back?”

“I’m only having one, I’ll be fine.”

Neil nodded and then sat up on the stool, watching with Andrew as their little family got completely obliterated around them, letting them drink until Andrew decided to cut them off and turn them loose onto the dancefloor to sober up. Once they were gone, Neil turned to rest his head on his hand.

“Are you okay?”

Andrew looked at him, and then looked away again. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Neil swallowed, and then shook his head. “None of them really… reacted at all.”

“And you think I care?”

Neil kept his answer blunt. “Yeah, I do.”

Andrew didn’t answer him, which was an answer in itself. “Nicky will probably try to talk to me about it tomorrow, when he remembers. Maybe even Aaron, if he can bring himself to give a shit.”

Neil huffed. “Just because we’re in college again doesn’t mean you get to act like it, Drew. Are you going to talk to them?”

Andrew sighed, long suffering. “I hate you. Yes, I am.”

“Good.” Neil smiled softly, and then leaned forward to press a kiss to Andrew’s cheek. “I was talking to Nicky, and he really wants to be closer to you both.”

“Who’s stopping him?”

Neil almost laughed. They both knew exactly who was stopping him. “Just- talk to him, okay?”

“I will.”

Time passed fairly quick after that, and before long Neil’s head was starting to ache from the pounding of the music and he was more than ready to go home and go to sleep. Andrew seemed to be feeling much the same way, so he knocked once on the table before going to round up his lost sheep.

They were all semi-lucid by the time they got to the car, thankfully, so after they loaded them in and drove back to the house in Columbia Aaron was in good shape to answer his phone when it rang in his back pocket. He fumbled quickly to get it out of his pocket, but it was still well into his ringtone by the time he pressed the phone to his ear.

"Coach?" he said, and answered. "Do you know what time it is?”

“Wait, what? Fuck off." Aaron switched the phone to his other ear. “I don’t believe you.”

Andrew held out his hand for the phone, although he knew exactly what Wymack had to say. Aaron handed it over readily, his face pale in the dark of the car.

“Wha’s going on?” Kevin’s voice slurred slightly, and Aaron shushed him.

Andrew held the phone to his ear. “What is it?”

He listened in silence this time, not interrupting like he usually would have back in college. It was hardly a surprise, this time around. “Overdose?”

"Again?" Nicky swore. "That stupid bastard."

"Well he won’t be doing it again," Andrew’s voice was flat, and Neil felt his stomach clench. "He's dead."

There was a second of absolute silence before Nicky seemed to understand him. “He what? No.”

Andrew shrugged him off and spoke into the phone. "No, not a good idea coach. I'll call you when we're back in town."

Nicky and Aaron were wearing matching stricken expressions, despite the fact that neither of them had particularly liked Seth very much at all. Neil could see where they were coming from though, his chest felt a thousand pounds heavier than it had just moments before. "Shit, shit. No way."

Andrew hung up and let the silence hang for a couple of seconds, before handing Aaron’s phone back to him. "Someone found him face-down in his own puke. It's exactly how I warned him he was going to clock out, not that he ever listened to anyone."

"I think I might be sick," Nicky said, sounding absolutely miserable.

"What about the line-up?" Kevin asked, his voice still strangled by alcohol.

Nicky flinched, and Aaron hissed. "Kevin, the man is dead. Like, permanently. This isn’t the fucking time to worry about Exy."

"It's not a major loss," Kevin said with a shrug. Neil had forgotten just how Exy centric the man’s thinking was- the years had mellowed him out a large amount. He remembered sympathising with this back in his first year, but now even he could see just how cold the statement was.

Nicky got out of the car then, breathing harshly and rubbing his hands through his hair before starting towards the door. Aaron followed him to the door with Kevin in tow, and before long they were all inside and no doubt going to pass out in whatever bed was closest to them.

Andrew watched them go, and then took out a cigarette to light it. “They didn’t even need us to carry them in.”

Neil smiled grimly. “They grow up so fast.”

They sat in silence for a while, until Neil leaned over and stole Andrew’s cigarette from between his lips, taking a drag and then blowing it out the window. “Are we going back tomorrow, or?”

“We can go back Sunday night, give them time to… whatever.”

Neil nodded. “Maybe Katelyn should come over again.”

Andrew hummed. “Maybe. She’ll help to lighten the mood, at least.”

He stole his cigarette back before Neil let it burn down to the filter, and put it between his lips again. Then, he reached over and took Neil’s hand, gentle depositing a warm key onto his palm. The grooves in it cut into the skin there, a familiar bite that Neil knew better than his own name sometimes.

Neil raised an eyebrow though, and then glanced at the car keys in his other hand. “Did you... take this off your own keys?”

Andrew didn’t answer.

Neil snorted. “Andrew, tell me you got a copy cut at least. You didn’t just give me your own house key last time?”

This time, there was definitely a bloom of pink on the man’s cheekbones. “It was fine, I got a copy from Nicky afterwards.”

“You gave me your own house key, without having a backup copy?” Neil laughed then, bright and happy. It felt out of place on such a somber night, but Neil kept that happiness close to his chest, refusing to let go of it. They had earned this.

“I was fucking gay Neil, give me a break.” Andrew stumped out the cigarette in the ashtray and then huffed.

Neil giggled and then leaned over, kissing Andrew’s shoulder and resting his head there. “I love you, even if you are completely ridiculous. Now, let’s go make sure your family made it to their beds.”

“Our family, Josten.”

Neil opened the car door and shot him a wicked grin. “They can be out family after you’ve cleaned the vomit off the carpet, Drew.”

Andrew groaned. “I hate you.”

Neil waved the key gently as he walked to the door, and called back to where Andrew was watching him. “No, you don’t.”

Andrew sighed. “No, I don’t.”

It wasn’t over, far from it, and they would still have to deal with the grieving foxes on Monday, but for now, Neil just allowed himself to crawl into bed and give himself over to some dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The Columbia house was quiet in the early morning, but Neil could see that Andrew was deep in thought as they made their way through their usual morning routines. He was well practiced in keeping a cool facade when things were bothering him, but by now Neil was just as well practiced in seeing through it and he eventually took the chance to ask while they were waiting for their coffee to brew in the kitchen.

“You know that they love you, Andrew.”

Andrew exhaled through his nose, and then shook his head. “Stop assuming that you know what’s bothering me, Josten.”

“I’m right though, aren’t I?” His boyfriend’s silence was telling, and Neil sighed softly. “Is it Aaron?”

Andrew turned the coffee machine off and set down his mug with a small clatter. “Aaron’s opinion doesn’t matter to me.”

“He came around before, he’ll come around again. You guys have already made so much progress, it-”

Andrew handed Neil his cup forcefully. “Shut up, Nicky is coming.”

“He’ll want to talk to you.” Neil frowned, and took a sip of his coffee. Andrew had left it black for him, and the bitterness of it sat pleasantly on the back of his tongue.

Nicky Hemmick looked like hell in the mornings, especially the mornings after they had gone out in Columbia. His eyeliner was smudged all around his eyes like a panda, and his hair was sticking up at all angles as he slouched into the kitchen, eagerly taking the cup of coffee that Andrew held out towards him. He drained the cup quickly, and then shook himself awake before looking up at Neil. Neil offered him a smile, and together they both let their gazes drift to Andrew.

Nicky cleared his throat rather awkwardly. “Neil, can I-”

Neil got up and made to leave the room, but Andrew spoke up. “No, Neil can stay for this.”

Neil sat back down at that, and then took another mouthful of coffee. Nicky frowned. “Andrew, I-”

“Just fucking say what you want to say, Nicky.” Andrew snapped, but Neil could see that there was no real anger there. Andrew was doing what he did best when he was feeling vulnerable- he was lashing out.

“Andrew, if you let him finish he’d have said it already.” Nicky raised an eyebrow at the way that Neil spoke to the man, but Neil ignored them both. “Go on, Nicky.”

Nicky took a deep breath then, and started again. “Andrew, what you told us last night- I’m so sorry that you didn’t feel like you could tell us before.”

Andrew simply raised an eyebrow, so Nicky ploughed on. “I know that Aaron can be… a little insensitive, sometimes. I had no idea how it could affect you though, and I’m sorry that I didn’t speak up about it earlier.”

Nicky’s hands were shaking slightly, and he took a steadying sip of coffee. “I’d hate to think that I made another- that I didn’t help you when I could have.”

An image came unbidden to Neil- A teenaged Nicky, alone in the world after his parents had turned their backs on him. His heart clenched painfully at the thought of Nicky thinking that he hadn’t done his best for Andrew, for both of the twins. The man had given up the life that he had earned to be with family he barely knew, and that in itself was amazing.

Nicky smiled, watery. “Next time Aaron says anything, I promise I’ll-”

“Nicky.” Andrew spoke quietly, but that one word was all that it took to make Nicky fall completely silent. “Shut up.”

Nicky nodded quickly, looking like he was fighting tears again. “Sorry, I know you don’t like talking about things, I just… I don’t want you to feel like you’re alone in this.”

“I’m not alone.” Andrew said firmly. “Since we met, you haven’t left me alone- no matter how badly I wanted you to. Not a lot of people can say that.”

Nicky sniffed. “Andrew, you know that we love you, right?”

“I do.” Andrew grimaced, and Neil stifled a smile into his coffee. It was nice to see Andrew trying to be open with his family, and god knew that Nicky deserved it- the man gave his family so much love that it was nice to finally see him get some in return. “You’re the only guardian who didn’t give up on me, so don’t apologise.”

Nicky had started to cry by the time Andrew was finished speaking. “Still, I could have tried so much harder to-”

“To what, be there? Make sure me and Aaron didn’t go off the rails? Force us to go to school, show us what a healthy relationship looked like?” Andrew huffed, and then shook his head. “Ask Aaron, he’d agree with me even if he didn’t want to say it out loud. You’re the only reason we even got this far, Nicky.”

Nicky looked shell-shocked, and Neil didn’t blame him. He didn’t think he had ever heard Andrew speaking so much to anyone who wasn’t him- especially his cousin. “You… you really think that?”

“I didn’t get put on those fucking meds for nothing, Nicky. You did your best, that’s all.” Andrew took a sip of coffee, and Neil could see his hands shaking slightly. “I can handle Aaron, and it’s not like Gordon is going to be saying shit anymore. Just worry about yourself.”

The reminder of the events of the previous night was a sobering one, and Nicky swallowed hard before nodding. “Are we going back to campus today then? Coach probably wants to see us.”

Neil shook his head. “We should give the upperclassmen some breathing room before we go back. Let them handle things on their own for a while.”

Nicky nodded, and then wiped at his face, laughing wetly. “I need a shower, I- Fuck, Andrew. I’m really proud of you for telling us, don’t let Aaron or Kevin make you feel any differently.”

Andrew nodded once, and then took another drink. “There’s hot water left.”

Nicky watched his cousin for another second, before turning to leave. Once he was gone, Neil saw Andrew deflate slightly and reached out to tug on his sleeve gently.

“Are you alright?”

Andrew bumped their hands together, and then went to sit down. “I’m going to have to do that a lot, won’t I?”

Neil chuckled. “Oh, the struggles of having a family that cares about you.”

“They’re your family too, asshole.”

“God, Nicky is going to be awful when he finds out.” Neil groaned and then leaned down to press a quick kiss to his boyfriend’s shoulder. “Maybe we should get married sooner this time.”

“I thought you liked my cousin, Josten. You really want to kill him?”

Neil laughed softly, and then stood up at last. “He’d live. Let’s go check on our family, make sure they’re all at least semi-presentable so we can go and get lunch.”

“You’re on Kevin duty, then.”

Neil whined. “I’m always on Kevin duty.”

“He likes you better. Would you rather be on Aaron duty?”

Neil thought about it. “I’ll go check on Kevin.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Neil grinned, and then stole the last dregs of Andrew’s coffee. “Meet you down here in twenty?”

Andrew nodded, and then waved him off.

*

The campus was dressed in orange and black by the time that Andrew’s lot returned from Columbia, like Halloween had arrived early to Palmetto. Excitement for the upcoming exy season was dullened considerably by the loss of a student, albeit mostly only for the people who didn’t really know him. Seth’s face had been passed around like a celebrity after his passing, and surprisingly it was affecting Neil more this time around than he had anticipated. Of course, more than he had anticipated was still a lot less than it seemed to be affecting other members of the Foxes, but Neil hadn’t expected himself to mourn Seth Gordon so it was hardly a shock. Even so far removed from his parents and the life that he had led before the Foxes, death was still nothing more than a dull ache in his chest. Easily ignored, especially when Andrew seemed to feel the same way.

It had been less than a week since Seth Gordon’s not-so-unexpected overdose, and the Foxes hadn’t gathered in the same place really since the news had dropped- there was far too much tension between Andrew’s group and the upperclassmen for that. Neil had been running reconnaissance between the two groups, though, since he and Matt were close and had both been too uncomfortable to stay in their room alone. Practice had been cancelled for the week too, to give the team time to organise for the funeral that would be happening back in Seth’s hometown, to give Allison and the other upperclassmen time to adjust to life without one of their members.

Eventually though, life had to go on as normal.

Neil rolled his eyes as he sat into the driver’s seat of the GS, sliding the key into the ignition and then turning to the other’s in the car. The mood was pretty subdued, understandably- it was their first practice without Seth, after all. Aaron had his feet propped up on the back of the passenger seat, his phone balanced on his thigh while he steadily ignored the other passengers in the car, while Nicky and Kevin bickered about what music to play while they drove to the court. Andrew wasn’t with them, having already left for his regularly scheduled therapy sessions with Bee, so it fell to Neil to get everyone to practice on time.

“Shut up, both of you.” Neil snapped, and then reached over to turn on Andrew’s favourite CD, the car filling with the harsh sounds of the usual music that they listened to when Andrew was with them. Aaron groaned, and tugged a pair of earphones out of his pocket.

"I don't want to do this," Nicky sighed and then leaned back into the seat, turning to look out the window. He hadn’t needed to say it, though. No one wanted to be at this particular practice, and Neil was dreading having to see the rest of the team all together again. It was a small mercy that Andrew and Allison wouldn’t be present- Allison wouldn’t be hard to set off in her vulnerable state, and Andrew wasn’t exactly the most tactful person even at the best of times.

It was hardly a well kept secret that Andrew and his little family weren’t the biggest fans of Seth, but that didn’t mean that Aaron and Nicky weren’t rattled by the loss of him- they all were. Even Neil was feeling the loss of him much more acutely than he had the last time, too distracted by the impending doom of the Moriyamas and his father to even think about the fact that the man had died. He wasn’t alone though; Kevin’s reaction when they had found out had been crass, but the man had been drunk and Neil hadn’t really gotten a chance to see his real reaction to the news. As it was, they were all pretty subdued as they made their way into the court. The password had changed since Neil had been there last- the last four numbers of Abby’s phone number this time, Wymack wasn’t even trying to hide it.

They reached the lounge before anyone else had gotten there, and immediately Aaron set about moving the seats around, pulling an armchair around to put it closer to the couch.

“What are you doing?” Neil frowned.

"Finding a new way to make us fit," Aaron rolled his eyes, as if it were obvious, "unless you want to stare an empty chair in the face all season."

"It's the same number of cushions on the couch, though." Neil shook his head. Aaron was right, though- they’d need to move the room around so that the loss of Seth wouldn’t be as glaring as it was with the chairs as they were. "Four people barely fit, five is out of the question."

"Five?" Kevin raised an eyebrow, and Neil rolled his eyes. He was used to Kevin trying to make him feel stupid, but that didn’t mean that he had stopped being pissed about it.

Aaron cut them both off, seemingly sick of the bickering. "You're on the couch with Kevin and Andrew, Neil. Andrew’s orders."

Neil snorted. Of course Andrew had insisted on the seating change again, albeit for a very different reason to the first time he had done it. Wordlessly, he took his seat next to Kevin and then took out his phone, playing the dumb game that Andrew had downloaded onto his phone while they waited for the rest of the Foxes to show up.

Wymack led the rest of the upperclassmen into the room, and it wasn’t long before Dan noticed the new seating arrangements, stopping dead in the middle of the room and frowning at Neil. "What is this about?"

Aaron spoke up from his new seat, not looking up from his phone. "You knew what it meant when we took him Saturday night. He’s Andrew’s now."

Wymack cleared his throat then, and followed Dan’s gaze to Neil’s new seat. Then, he took in the new layout of the lounge and pursed his lips together.

"Last I checked Andrew didn't like you.” He said to Neil, and then raised an eyebrow. “Was I wrong?”

Neil didn’t answer, not bothering to give any of them anything to use against them, and Wymack stared at him for a few more seconds before speaking again. "Interesting. Now, sit down, would you? We need to talk."

While everyone settled down, Wymack picked at his nails and watched each of them in turn. The three missing people were acutely noticeable, and Neil’s side was cold where Andrew wasn’t pressed up against him. "You know, Abby wrote me a speech to give you this afternoon. It sounded nice, had lots of stuff about courage and loss and coming together in everyone's time of need. I tore it up and tossed it in the trash can beside my desk.”

He sighed and then crossed his arms. Neil watched him weigh up what he wanted to say in his head, and then listened as he started to speak. "I'm not here to offer you kind words and pats on the back. I'm not here to be a shoulder to cry on. Take that up with Abby or go down to Reddin and talk to Betsy. My job is to be your coach no matter what, to keep you moving and get you back on the court whether you're ready to be there or not. That probably makes me the bad guy here, but we all have to live with it."

Wymack looked at the chairs across from him, the empty ones left over from the attempt to rearrange them. Neil glanced at them, and then saw what Wymack must have been seeing- the evidence of his failures, or what he saw to be failures. Seth had been the only 5th year left with the foxes, the only one left standing that had been hand picked by Wymack for his passion project- and now he was gone. Seth might have been an asshole, and an all round unpleasant person to be around, but no one could have denied that he was a hard worker.

"Look. Shit happened. Shit's going to keep happening. You don't need me to tell you life isn't fair. You're here because you know it isn't. Life doesn't care what we want out of it; it's up to us to fight for what we want with everything we've got. Seth wanted us to win. He wanted us to make it past the fourth match. I think we owe it to him to perform. Let's show the world what we've got. Let's make this our year." Wymack cleared his throat then, a wet sound that betrayed how close the man was to tears. Neil felt his stomach drop a little, and he gripped his phone tighter.

"We've lost enough, don't you think?" Dan spoke up, lightening the mood with a watery smile. "It's time to win for once."

Matt took her hand and grinned. "Let's take it all the way to finals."

"Words don't mean anything to me," Wymack gruffed, but there was none of his usual annoyance in it. "Prove to me on my court you have what it takes to make it to championships. I want you on the court in light gear in five minutes or I'll sign you all up for a marathon."

Wymack’s little ‘pep talk’ wasn’t as cheerful as Abby had probably been hoping that it was, but it did the trick- by the time he was done they were all more than ready to get on the court and start working their way to the next match. Still though, as he was leaving Kevin caught his arm. “You really believe that?”

"All the way to finals." Neil nodded once, and pulled his arm out of the man’s grip. “You don’t?”

"Miracles happen," Matt chimed in.

"Don't rely on something as insubstantial as a miracle," Kevin snapped, and then grimaced. "You won't win anything by standing around. Finish getting changed and get down to the court."

"One day I want you to look up 'insensitivity' in the dictionary," Matt patted Kevin on the shoulder and shook his head. "I'm sure it'll do your ego wonders to see your picture printed there beside it."

“Kevin.” Neil cut in, unwilling to hear any more of their bickering. “Practice.”

Dan and Renee were waiting for them when they got out, and together they quickly ran through their usual warm ups before starting with some drills. Even just after the long weekend, Neil could feel how rusty he was as he got used to the weight of the racquet again, the thrill of hitting the cones with the ball again. He’d get back to his normal level eventually, but he couldn’t help but be frustrated with his own limitations- night practice would help with that, for sure. It wasn’t until almost a half hour into practice that Andrew finally arrived, though, and Neil watched the upperclassmen stiffen at the sight of the man. Only Renee offered him a small smile, a quiet hello.

"Hi Renee," Andrew replied, his tone darker than Neil had expected it to be. Something was bothering Andrew, it seemed. "Are you moving back into the dorm yet?"

"Tonight," Renee smiled at him. "We packed Matt's truck this morning."

Andrew nodded then, and headed towards the locker rooms to change. Nicky on the other hand, seemed to be struggling with feeling awkward as he finally faced his teammates for the first time since it had happened.

"Hey," Nicky said, trying for a smile and just missing it. "How are you guys holding up?"

"We’re fine." Dan said, not asking how the rest of them were doing. Neil supposed that she didn’t care.

Nicky accepted that without argument, and then tried again. "How is Allison?"

"Do you care?" Matt snapped at him, and Nicky visibly winced.

"Matt," Renee admonished, and then turned to Nicky. "She's having a hard time right now, as expected, but we make sure she's never alone. She still won't speak to Betsy, but I think she'll open up soon."

"Yeah," Nicky swallowed and nodded. “That’s really good, I’m- I’m glad.”

Wymack appeared to sense that they were done, and then pointed at them. "You two, get down to the court and start doing laps. I don't pay for electricity in this place so you can stand around and gossip. The rest of you finish up here and get some water. As soon as Andrew and Nicky are ready we're suiting up for drills. We've got—"

The sound of his ringtone cut the man off, and he groaned. "These leeches are going to drive me insane. I should have invested in a secretary."

They fell into drills again as the coach left the room to answer his phone, but the sound of his voice was unmistakable through the thin doors. He was barely managing to keep a civil tone as he spoke, which helped to make out what he was saying."Coach Wymack, Palmetto State University. Say again? One moment."

Wymack stepped into the hall, holding the phone out before practically kicking the door to the changing room off its hinges. "Andrew Joseph Minyard, what the flying fuck have you done this time?"

"It wasn't me, it was the one-armed man!" Andrew yelled back, his tone strained and playful. "Get out here!"

Neil realised with a jolt who was on the phone, and he started to move towards the changing room without thinking.

"The fucking police are on the phone for you, Minyard. You'd better come clean with me before I get the unabridged version from them."

"It wasn't me. Ask my doppelganger?" Andrew finally emerged from the changing room, his clothes ruffled from how quickly he had thrown them on. He was grinning from ear to ear- pretending he was high, no doubt- but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Oh Aaron?”

Wymack pressed the phone against his ear again. "What seems to be the problem, Officer… Higgins, you said?"

Andrew’s smile slipped, just a little. “Let me talk to him?”

"Don't make him wait all day," Wymack said, before holding the phone out.

Aaron had stopped dead, his face pale. Neil was sure that he looked fairly similar where he had stopped walking too. Andrew looked at them both, and then slowly put the phone to his ear so he could hear the man.

"Pig Higgins, is that you?" Andrew asked. "Oh, it is. Yes, I'm surprised. Did you forget I don't like surprises? What? No, don't stall. You wouldn't hunt me down after all this time just to chat, so what do you want?"

He listened for a few seconds, before his grip tightened and he hung up the phone. He looked like he was going to throw it for a moment but didn’t, and when it started to ring again he put it to his ear with a sigh.

"What? No, I didn't hang up on you. I wouldn't do that. I—no. Shut up." Andrew hung up the phone again, but answered it immediately when it vibrated once more. Higgins was persistent, it seemed.

"Talk to me," Andrew said, and waited out Higgins story as if he didn’t know exactly what the man was going to say. Neil itched to get closer to him, but he knew that it would be a bad idea. As it was, Aaron looked like he was going to be sick too.

"Go back," Andrew frowned. "Who complained? Oh, Pig, don't give me the runaround. I know where you work, you see. I know who you work with. That means there's a child in her house. She isn't supposed—what? No. Don't ask me that. I said don't. Leave me alone.”

He paused for effect, and then grimaced. "Call me again and I'll kill you."

He hung up for the last time, and handed the phone back to a shocked looking Wymack. The rest of the foxes were silent, until Aaron spoke.

“Andrew-”

"Shut up." Andrew said. "No worries."

Wymack looked looked at the twins, and then pressed his lips into a thin line. He looked a lot older than he was when he spoke. "Now what have you done?"

"What makes you think this is my fault?" Andrew feigned surprise, though it fooled no one.

"I hope that's a rhetorical question. Why is the Oakland PD calling you, Andrew?"

"The pig and I go way back," Andrew forced a laugh, and then a bright grin. "He just wanted to catch up."

"You lie to my face one more time and we're going to have a problem." Wymack growled, and Neil felt his stomach clench.

"It was mostly the truth." Andrew’s smile was all teeth now, and he shrugged. "He worked with the Oakland PAL program. Thought he could save at-risk kids by teaching them sports after school. Kind of like you, yes? Idealistic to the core."

"You left Oakland three years ago." Wymack reminded him, as if Andrew needed reminding.

"Yes, yes, I'm so flattered he remembers me, or something." Andrew sighed and then turned on his heels. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

Wymack put out an arm. "Where the fuck are you going?"

"I'm leaving." Andrew repeated, annoyed. "Didn't I say I'll see you tomorrow? Maybe I mumbled."

"We have a game on Friday." Kevin and Dan exclaimed in unison, their distress audible.

"You have Joan of Exy over there. Make do without me."

"Cut the shit, Andrew," Wymack huffed. "What is really going on here?"

Andrew forced a cough, and then pressed a hand to his own pale forehead. "I think I'm coming down with something. Cough, cough. Best I leave before I infect your team. There's so few of them left. You can't stand to lose anyone else."

Kevin’s voice was irritated. "Knock it the hell off, Andrew. You can't leave ."

Neil winced, and there was a moment of silence before Andrew spoke again. When he did, his voice was as sweet as sugar though Neil knew it was all broken glass underneath. "I can't, Kevin? I'll show you what I can't do. Try and put me on your court today and I'll take myself off it, permanently. Fuck your practice, your line-up, and your stupid fucking game."

"That's enough. We don't have time for your tantrums." Andrew growled and punched the wall then, enough to bloody his knuckles and split his skin like paper. It shut Kevin up, and made Neil’s heart stop.

"Cough, cough, Coach," Andrew said, revelling in the horrified silence he had created. "I'm leaving now."

"Coach, let him go," Aaron said. " Please ."

Wymack looked at Aaron incredulously, but Aaron’s stare was unwavering. Finally, he sighed. "You and I are going to have a very long talk later, Andrew."

"Sure," Andrew said, waving him off as he left the Foxes in silence. Neil ached to go after him, but he knew that Andrew would want to be alone for a while. He’d check in on him later, when he was more ready to talk about it.

"Answers now, Aaron," Wymack said, rounding on the other twin. “Don’t you fucking lie to me.”

"I don't know," Aaron shook his head, an obvious lie.

"My ass you don't."

"I don't know ," Aaron said again, crossing his arms. He looked a little more like Andrew when he did it, and Neil almost smiled at how angry they’d both be if he said it. "I don't know why Higgins is calling. Call him back or take it up with Andrew if you want answers. He was Andrew's mentor, not mine. I only met the guy once."

"He obviously left an impression if you still remember him." Wymack pointed out.

"Oh," Nicky said, making everyone turn to look at him. "Is he—?"

He didn't finish his question, but Aaron seemed to know exactly what he was asking. He flexed his fingers and looked at the door again, as if Andrew would come back in and explain for him, before lowering his head and replying.

"Yeah," Aaron said with a nod. "He's the one who told me I had a brother.”

Chapter Text

After Aaron’s little reveal, the man had refused to tell them anything else about it until eventually Wymack had stepped in to tell them all to leave them alone. Of course Wymack couldn’t do anything to stop them but Neil was surprised to find that the upperclassmen had seemingly found some tact once Aaron was alone with them again, leaving him alone aside from a few worried glances. Still though, no one tried to force him to explain further and so practice began without any major hitches.

Practice was subdued, to say the least. The line had been decimated, and without Seth there to start unnecessary fights with anyone who dared to look at him wrong, or Allison to stop practice to criticise people’s playing, or without Andrew’s general asshole-ness there was no one to cause any excessive friction between players as they ran through their usual drills. Unfortunately though, without that friction there was an overwhelming lack of motivation to go along with it. If it hadn’t been for Kevin and Dan’s unwavering determination to be the best, nothing would have happened at all. Even Neil’s usual exy obsession wasn’t helping him- if it hadn’t been for the fact that Andrew wouldn’t allow him to miss practice for him, he wouldn’t have been there at all. All in all, it was a relief when Wymack finally told them to go to the locker rooms. Even Kevin and Dan looked relieved when they were finally able to turn off their leadership roles and show how tired they really were. Then, it was just a quick shower for all of them before they could head back to the tower.

The heat was uncomfortable as they drove back towards Fox Tower, and Neil had never been happier to step out into the slight breeze that was present in the athlete parking lot. Nicky’s erratic driving had gotten them there well before the upperclassmen, so they decided not to wait for them out in the heat, instead wanting to head inside where the aircon could help keep them cool. Once they were all ready to go, they started walking back to the tower as a group, but they quickly stopped when they met a figure sitting on the sidewalk outside.

“I thought you were sick.” Kevin frowned, and then nudged at Andrew’s back with a foot. “You should be inside.”

Andrew had told the team that he had been sick ever since the phone call with Higgins, and the excuse had gone over rather miserably- nobody trusted Andrew on the best of days, and it wasn’t exactly unlikely for Andrew to want to get out of practice. Still though, it pissed Neil off that even when Andrew had obviously been shaken by the phone call, no one seemed to care . Still though, as it was the man just shook his head and used Neil’s arm to lever himself up to a standing position.

“Don’t cry, Day. It’s nothing a little Vitamin C and ice cream can’t fix, isn’t that right?”

Kevin looked like he was about to tell Andrew just how not right that was, but a quick jab to the ribs shut him up pretty well.

“Shut up, both of you. They’re here now.”

Matt drove around the parking lot twice before he found a parking spot- his driving style was so different to Andrew’s that it almost made Neil laugh. As the upperclassmen got out of the car and started to walk towards them, Andrew raised his hand in greeting. 

“Renee, you’re late.”

Renee laughed softly and held out a hand to help him up, before doing the same for Neil. “My apologies.”

“I’m borrowing you for a while.” Andrew let his eyes drift over to the other upperclassmen, impassive. “If that’s alright.”

“Do I need anything?”

Andrew shook his head and then started walking away, Renee following him after a moment with a chuckle. She caught up with him in a matter of seconds- her legs were a lot longer than his so it wasn’t exactly difficult- and then she fell in beside him, listening to him as he talked animatedly.

Neil took the moment of silence to take in the Foxes reaction to Andrew and Renee’s friendship. He hadn’t seized the opportunity before, but he thought that it would be interesting this time. Kevin seemed uninterested, which was the exact opposite of Dan - her barely concealed rage could have given him a sunburn. Matt, sensing Dan’s mood, said nothing and Nicky seemed to crumple under the weight of the awkwardness. Finally, Aaron pulled out his phone and after a couple of seconds of texting, set off around the building to walk back to campus. Probably to meet Katelyn- they spent a lot more time together than Neil had picked up on the first time around. How he had expected to keep it a secret from the ever observant Andrew, Neil didn’t know.

"Right," Matt said, breaking the heavy silence. "Are we going to talk about this?" 

Nicky forced a smile, sickly bright and false as Neil had been at the time. "Not without a drink, we aren't." 

Once they were up in their dorms, Nicky produced a bottle of rum and an open bottle of Coke, so Kevin took it upon himself to source enough glasses for all of them. Nicky set the drinks down on the coffee table kneeling on the ground near Dan and Matt, allowing Kevin to fall in beside him while Neil filled his glass with Coke and went to sit at the end of the table, giving him a good view of everybody.

The silence lasted another couple of seconds, before Matt spoke to break it.

“Why didn't Aaron know he had a brother?" 

Nicky winced, and Neil drowned his pity in a mouthful of his drink.

"They're twins," Nicky said, running a hand through his hair and considering his words. "Think about it for a sec, would you? Imagine you're my Aunt Tilda. How eager would you be to tell Aaron you gave up his brother at birth? She hoped that secret would stay buried forever." 

"Aaron found out," Neil pointing out, hoping to help Nicky through the story a little. “Didn’t he?”

Nicky offered him a grateful smile. "Yeah, and that's why I believe in fate. See, right after Aaron turned thirteen Aunt Tilda hooked up with this new guy up in Oakland. Her boyfriend thought they should meet at a Raiders game, something nice and public and fun, so she stuffed Aaron in the car and off they went.”

Nicky’s cup quickly emptied, and Matt moved to refill it. "Aaron said he was at the concession stand when this cop walked up, calling him Andrew and talking like they knew each other. Aaron thought he was either crazy or confused, but it didn't take the cop long to figure out something was wrong." 

"Pig Higgins," Matt guessed correctly. 

"Yeah. Soon as Higgins figured out he had the wrong brother he made Aaron take him back to where Aunt Tilda was. See, Higgins thought Aunt Tilda was another foster mother and that Aaron and Andrew had somehow gotten split up in the system. Higgins wanted to reunite them, so Aunt Tilda gave him her phone number to pass along and took Aaron home again.” Nicky took a second to catch his breath, and then frowned. "I don't know why she bothered. Maybe she was too embarrassed to say no or didn't want to explain to a cop what was going on. Either way, Andrew's foster mother called the next day to set up a meet-and-greet, and Aunt Tilda refused. She told the fosters she didn't want anything to do with Andrew, didn't want to know what he was like or how he was doing, nothing. She even made them promise to not contact her ever again." 

Nicky finished another drink, and mixed a third stronger one."But Aaron knew who was calling, and he was too excited to wait on his mom to hang up to find out the details. As soon as she picked up in the kitchen, he ran to her bedroom and listened in on the upstairs phone. That's how he found out the truth. Aaron said it was the worst day of his life." 

Neil looked around at everyone’s faces, seeing a surprising amount of pity on their faces for Aaron. He supposed that he shouldn’t have been surprised- when he wasn’t busy being an asshole, Aaron was actually not bad company and he knew that the upperclassmen didn’t hate him most of the time.

"Jesus," Matt said. "I don't blame him. Did he tell her he'd heard her?" 

"Oh, yeah. Aaron said they had it out. But Aunt Tilda wouldn't budge, so Aaron went behind her back and called the Oakland PD. He found the PAL coordinators and gave them his information to give to Andrew. Two weeks later he got a letter in the mail that basically said 'Fuck you, go away'." 

Neil laughed, startling everyone, and he bit down on his lip. “Sorry, I just- that sounds like Andrew.”

"Some things never change," Nicky agreed, smiling softly. 

"So how'd Aaron change Andrew's mind then?" Dan asked. 

Nicky shrugged, took a drink. "He didn't." 

"Wait," Dan said. "What do you mean , he didn't?" 

"I mean he didn't try again. I don't know who told Andrew's foster parents about Aaron, if it was Andrew or this Phil guy, but Andrew's foster mom wrote Aaron a letter. She wanted Aaron to try again in spring and said something about holidays being rough and there being a lot of changes at the house. So Aaron waited, but he waited too long. In March Andrew went off to juvie, and Aaron started rethinking this brother thing. Two months later Aunt Tilda sold the house in San Jose and moved Aaron to Columbia." 

Neil knew all of this from being married to Andrew for so long, but hearing it laid out like that still threw him. "Then when did they meet?" 

"Dad found out about Andrew five years ago, so…" Nicky counted it off on his fingers and then raised an eyebrow. "Four and a half years ago, give or take a bit. Dad went to California to interview Andrew's foster family and stop by juvie. A month later he flew Aaron out so Aaron and Andrew could talk, but I don't count that half-hour supervised session as a first meeting. They met for real when Andrew made early parole a year later and Dad bullied Aunt Tilda into bringing Andrew home. Weird when you think about it, right? They've only really known each other for three years." 

"That's so messed up," Matt said, his eyebrows furrowed. Neil could almost see them struggling with their dislike of the Minyards. If he had anything to do with it, by the end of the year they wouldn’t have to struggle at all to be friends with the two of them. 

"Yeah, and that's the nice version of the story," Nicky said. "Anyway, that's how Aaron and Andrew know Higgins. I don't know why he's calling Andrew now, but I'm not going to ask. I kind of view Andrew's foster life as an off-limits topic. I don't bring it up until he does." 

"Is that really okay?" Dan looked unsure. "It didn't sound like a 'Long time no see' kind of phone call. What if someone's dug up some past crime of his that could get him taken off our court? Maybe Phil was calling to warn him about an investigation." 

"Andrew will take care of it," Nicky said simply, and Neil echoed the sentiment. 

"That's not comforting," Dan shook her head, but let the subject drop reluctantly.

Nicky and Kevin stayed for a couple of hours after that- they all had dinner together and watched a movie to avoid any more uncomfortable conversations about either of the elephants in the room. It worked for the most part, but Neil could still sense the tension in the room. It had definitely been the first time he had seen Nicky or Kevin hanging out with upperclassmen since he had gotten there, if not the first time since either of them had started at PSU and the energy in the room was strange. Not ones to overstay their welcome though, Nicky and Kevin bowed out just before midnight.

"Good night," Nicky said uncertainly after helping to clear up the take out boxes and put them in the bin.

"See you in the morning," Dan confirmed, closing the door with an odd expression.She levelled Matt with a look. "That was weird." 

"Yeah," Matt agreed, shaking his head and kissing the top of her hair. "Chances of it happening again?" 

Dan shrugged. “What do you think?”

Matt's expression was torn, but he answered. "Don't get your hopes up. They don't care about Seth. They won't rally behind him like this." 

The silence hung for a few seconds, and Neil spoke. “But?”

"But," Matt agreed, and looked over at where Neil was sitting. "We finally have an in with them." 

Neil raised an eyebrow. “An in?”

"We saw this once before, with Kevin," Matt explained. "They staked a claim on you. They're going to drag you down their rabbit hole." 

Dan smiled sadly and then walked over to nudge Neil’s shoulder. "Just don't go so deep you forget about us, okay? Put one foot in their hole and keep the other up here with us. You've got to be the piece that finally brings this team together. We can't make it to championships without them. Promise me you'll try." 

"I'm not exactly a uniting force," Neil argued, weakly. It was hard to argue against something that was exactly what you were trying to do anyways, but he knew that if he was too much of a pushover he wouldn’t be himself. It would change his friendships with them.

"You've obviously got something Andrew wants," Matt said, and Neil almost laughed at the accidental double entendre. "Where Andrew goes, they all go. You just have to pull him harder than he pulls you." 

Neil already knew how to do that, but he just shrugged. "I'll try my best." 

"Good," Dan said, squeezing his shoulders once before letting go. "That's all we ask." 

Dan and Matt were done with talking then, so Neil set about trying to catch up on the homework he was already behind on. He didn’t really care- he already knew that all he had to do was pass his classes until a pro team came and poached him as one of their own. Still though, it got frustrating easily and after a while Neil had had enough. He groaned and dropped his head to the desk.

"Neil?" Dan asked, worry evident in her tone. 

"Why is chemistry so awful?" Neil asked, reluctantly reaching for the next assignment. 

"If I figure it out, you'll be the first to know," Dan laughed. "You could always ask Aaron for help. He's majoring in biological sciences." 

That wasn’t a bad idea, but Neil was saved from giving a definite answer when someone knocked at the door. 

It was Renee; dressed as she usually had when she had had one of her training sessions with Andrew. Neil watched her limp inside with little reaction, but he didn’t miss the way that Dan and Matt stiffened.

"I wish you wouldn't do this," Dan said. 

"I know," Renee said with her usual smile. Matt went to fetch her an ice pack, and she pressed it to her eye with a small hiss.

"Tell me if this is going to be a problem," Dan said. 

Renee shook her head. "You know it’s not. Whatever it is, it's strictly personal. He'll be back on the court tomorrow." 

Neil didn’t question it. He knew how much Andrew valued his friendship with the woman, and how much Renee must have helped with the resurgence of Andrew’s worst nightmares.

"Renee and Andrew are sparring partners," Matt explained unnecessarily. Neil nodded easily- he knew that there was more to Renee than what met the eye. He had long since gotten over his discomfort with her and moved on to be friends. He hoped that he could keep that friendship up with her.

"Andrew is not interested in my faith; he is interested in the person I was before. He and I have more in common than you think.”

Neil smiled softly, something he never would have done during this conversation the first time. “I can see that.”

Matt and Dan looked indignant at the comparison, but Renee just laughed brightly. “Thank you. We should get a cup of coffee sometime, the three of us. Right now, though…" Renee pushed herself up to a standing position with a groan. The bruising on her face would look a lot worse in the morning, Neil knew, but she wore it like a medal. "All I want is a hot shower and my bed. I'm exhausted." 

Dan went to link their arms together, and then looked from Matt to Neil. 

Neil answered her unanswered question easily. "I've got practice with Kevin tonight, so you should take Matt with you." 

"You sure?" Matt asked. 

"I'm sure," Neil said. "I'll be fine." 

As if on cue, another knock came on the door causing Neil to smile. He got up to open it, revealing a tired and bruised looking Andrew. The sight of him loosened something in Neil’s chest and he almost moved forward to kiss him before he remembered himself. Kevin appeared behind him, well and truly ending all thoughts of kissing as far as Neil was concerned, so he just settled for a smile.

"At some point you have to let him sleep," Matt accused, giving Kevin a glare.

"He can sleep when we've won finals," Kevin said, and Andrew rolled his eyes. Despite their fight outside of practice, there didn’t seem to be any tension left between the two men. Neil was glad to see it- he liked it when his boyfriend and one of his closest friends weren’t at each other’s throats. 

“Time is ticking, Day.” Andrew reminded him, interrupting them and causing Matt to make a face. Neil sighed, but went to grab his kit bag quickly.

“Let’s go, then.”

They made their way down to the car in mostly silence, and together they drove to the Foxhole Court.