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Make A Believer Out Of Me

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Andrew was dreaming of light.

It was blue, so blue. A thread of it originated from somewhere around his middle. It kept tugging and tugging till Andrew followed it. He wasn't walking or running, just floating along. See, dreams are handy that way. They don't require actual physical effort. He didn't know how long the following went. The last thing he remembered before waking up was a flash of blue.

 

Andrew woke up cursing, because some motherfucker had decided to touch him while he was asleep. In the back of his mind, he knew it was probably Nicky or Aaron or Kevin. No one else could get into their dorm room at night. He still blindly swung and caught the idiot's face. He heard a satisfying crunch. Good. Maybe they'll remember not to wake him up at fuck o' clock again.

But wait.

The outraged hissing coming from his left was French, but the voice wasn't Kevin's, oh no.

Andrew opened his eyes.

The first anomaly he noticed was the darkness. The dorms were never completely dark. Kevin always cracked open a window to make sure of it. Right now Andrew was surrounded by black. Black walks, ceilings, bedding.

The only white thing was the face looming above him. Panic was rising in his stomach, heavy as nightfall.

'What the fuck, Neil!’ the man spluttered, his nose bleeding and starting to look livid. He had black hair and gray eyes, his accent cloying. A three was etched in black on his high cheekbone.

Like a flash of lightning, Andrew understood.

This was Jean Moreau, who Kevin talked about once and only once, despair oozing off his eyes. Jean Moreau, of the Ravens. Andrew was in The Nest.

 

Why?

'I'm not Neil,' he tells Moreau. Now that's another problem, wasn't it? Why would Moreau think he was Neil?

One possibility goes off like another lightning in his head. Oh, fuck no.

Andrew got off the bed. Why did he feel so stiff? Where was the bathroom? He had to be sure because this had to be a shitty nightmare.

‘Nathaniel, what are you playing at?'

Andrew fought to keep his panic in check. The bathroom was also dark. Dark tiles, skull mosaic, red accent.

 

The mirror.

The boy in the mirror had a riot of red on his head, piercing blue eyes and a bruised, battered face. A 4 was inked on his face. Definitely not Andrew's face.

'I'm not Nathaniel, or Neil, I told you already.'

Moreau stopped rummaging in the cabinet under the sink and looked at Andrew (or Not Andrew), eyes narrowed and then widened so much Andrew could see the blood clotted on the corner of his left eye.

'You're his—you're his....'

Soulmate. Andrew hated the word, but he swallowed the protest. It wouldn't do to lie.

'Looks that way.'

A soulmate, or switch, is an inexplicable bond between two people. When one of the pair is distressed, they switch into each other's body. The first switch can happen anytime in the pair's life, old or young. Apparently, this was Andrew's time. He didn’t want to believe it.

Moreau reached out with a hand, seemingly to touch Neil's face. Andrew flinched and stepped back.

'Don't touch me,' he hissed out.

Jean fumbled, looking at Andrew with something akin to awe in his eyes.'You're really not him, are you? Nathaniel would never...'

So Nathaniel was used to being casually touched. By Jean Moreau no less. 'So you're his sweetheart?' Andrew mocked him. Moreau didn't blush or stammer. He just looked confused.

'No, he's my...we're like brothers.'

Brothers. Andrew hated that word too, but Moreau didn't leer at Nathaniel's body. Maybe they really were like brothers? Whatever. Andrew had bigger problems to think of right then. Namely, the soulmate.

It was really Nathaniel/Neil, wasn't it? The other half of Andrew, his significant other, the person that fit him the best. The one who could switch bodies with Andrew, like the half-dead urban legend claimed. Andrew's soulmate was a Raven, of all things. Oh, the irony. Andrew wondered why Kevin mentioned Moreau but not Neil. Andrew wondered what the idiot was doing right then, waking up in Andrew's body. Was he freaking out like this, or did he plan it somehow? Was Kevin safe? Andrew needed to make a call.

Moreau seemed to have other plans. He was changing into sweats, bustling around Andrew.

'Practice starts in an hour, come on!’ he urged. ‘We need to get you into gear. Riko can't know you're the switch! He'll kill you! You need to pretend to be Neil.'

Well, who knows how long Andrew would stay in this body? Better make it good.

 


 

Andrew hated Nathaniel. (Neil, his mind whispered.)

He was off his meds because this body didn't need the meds. He felt jittery and awful; his body hurt with every step. Because Riko beat him up in the showers before sleep, Moreau supplied, matter of fact like it wasn't surprising, wasn't disgusting, wasn't criminal. That was why Neil's body hurt so much. But Andrew knew, didn't he? Kevin did tell him the Nest was a foul place. But seeing was believing for Andrew, wasn't it?

Thanks to Andrew's or Neil's luck, the dreaded practice only included strength training today, not drills or scrimmages. Moreau claimed Neil was an exceptional striker. Andrew would be found out in an instant if they were on court. Moreau kept talking; sometimes he switched to French, only coming back to English when Andrew hissed at him. Apparently Neil knew French as well. The team moved through the gym in a well-practiced routine not so different from the Foxes’, only more intense. At the end of it, Andrew was out of breath, but muscle memory helped him follow Moreau to the showers, dining hall, then back to their room. That's when Riko stopped them.

Oh, well. Andrew knew his luck had to run out sometime.

Riko was gleeful, clamping a hand on Andrew's shoulder and hissing something in Japanese. Moreau had plastered himself against the opposite wall. Andrew had no idea what the bastard said, so he kept his face clear of all emotions and flipped Riko off. Riko's face froze, then disbelief and finally red hot rage took its place. The punch to Andrew’s stomach was sudden, but expected. That's going to leave a nasty bruise, Andrew thought.

Riko stepped away from him and delivered a similar hit to Moreau. 'That's for failing to teach him manners,' he told Moreau, tone sickly sweet. Andrew watched Moreau let him walk away. Pussy.

As if sensing Andrew's thoughts, Moreau helped him up and into their room. 'It's no good to antagonize him. He'll just hurt you worse.'


 

Morning came, and the pain that kept Andrew in a feverish not-sleep all night dissipated. Andrew basked in the scent of his cigarettes, the smell of his body wash and deodorant on the sheets, the smell of candy. He was back in his dorm room, back in his own body.

The fact that there wasn't any pain probably meant Nathaniel had handled things better than Andrew did. Nothing seems out of ordinary. He rolled over and reached for his pack of cigarettes under the pillow.

There was a note.

'I'm sorry.'

Andrew wondered if he should've left a note. Was it some kind of switching etiquette?

Nah. He'd already told Jean to relay some instructions. Not to accidentally switch during weekdays, when there are scrimmages on the court. It would immediately expose their switch.

Also, he'd told Jean to stock up on candy and cigarettes.

Andrew crumpled the note and got up just as Nicky came back into the room, looking unusually weary as he looked at Andrew.

'What?' Andrew demanded.

Nicky smiled a little. 'You're feeling better now?'

Andrew grunted noncommittally, carefully looking away. Nicky seemed relieved. 'We all got worried when you refused to leave the bed. You even let Kevin hold your hand when you were having a panic attack.'

What?

Seeing the look on Andrew's face, Nicky backtracked. 'Oh! I don't think anyone will ever mention it, you know. Everyone has bad days! Anyway, let's go to practice!' He ran out of the room, calling Aaron and Kevin.

Andrew was going to kill Nathaniel.


 

Neil woke gasping.

The panic he'd kept in check while he was switched finally broke free, and he shook with sobs. Jean was by his side in an instant, his eyes big and scared in the dark.

'Nathaniel? Neil? Is that you? Or are you still-'

Oh no, oh nonononono—Jean noticed. What if Riko did too? He'd kill Neil, he'd kill Andrew and Jean and Kevin—

'Who else knows? Who else noticed? Jean!'

'No one! No one found out! He stayed out of trouble, mostly. Riko didn't suspect. No one did. I promise!'

'Are you sure?' Neil clutched at Jean's collar. 'Are you absolutely sure? Did he get hurt?'

Jean's carefully placed a hand on Neil's forehead. 'Yes, I'm sure, Neil. You're safe. You're both safe. He got punched by Riko once, just once. It's going to be okay.'

With one last sob, Neil let himself sag against Jean, allowing Jean to hold him up.

Aside from the relief of avoiding disaster and tired dread of being back in the fucking Nest, two conflicting emotions warred in his head.

He can't believe he of all people got a soulmate.

He can't believe he got someone else tangled in his mess.

Neil lived all of his life running, hiding, lying, stealing and even killing, when necessary. Soulmates were for people who were good. Neil was many things, but he wasn't good. His life was an ongoing shitshow, his life forfeit the moment Mary Hatford died. Now Andrew Minyard has to put up with it as well.

Jean was looking at him with something akin to wonder in his face. He was one of those who never believed in soulmates, rejected it as myth, heresy, blasphemy.

Neil's mother was scared of it. She made sure to beat fear into Neil. But right now all he felt was a foreign warmth in his chest. Warm enough to soothe, not burn. The knowledge that he was not alone, not alone anymore. He had Jean inside the nest. Now he had someone outside.

Neil curled on his bed listening to the things Andrew Minyard asked Jean to tell Neil. Neil laughed at some of them, like ‘stock better cigarettes’ and ‘what kind of an idiot doesn’t eat chocolate?’ Neil also wondered.

Wondered if Andrew is thinking of Neil too.


 

Andrew wasn't thinking about Neil. He was actually thinking of nothing. His medicine was working well, too well, today. He was strapped up tight into exy gear, standing at the goal like always.

The court was too white today, too orange, too hot inside his clothes, too cold on his face, the Foxes too loud, not loud enough. His lungs ached for smoke. Usually he didn't mind the medicine-induced haze so much. But just yesterday he was blissfully free of the fabricated emotions forced upon him, and he was hungry for that freedom. He shouldn’t be. Switching left him unprepared for an attack, left Aaron and Kevin and Nicky completely unprepared. He couldn’t encourage it. The freedom from medicine was still alluring and he hated himself, hated Neil for introducing this new (longing) problem in his life.

The court in front of him was a battlefield as usual. His ‘monsters’ and the upperclassmen were always fighting. No practice was complete without Seth being a little bitch, or Kevin throwing a tantrum, or Nicky getting chewed out for being too inappropriate. These idiots would get themselves killed one day. Andrew couldn’t wait. Right now he hated Kevin so much for making him play exy again, hated Nicky for barging into his life and making a space for himself, and Aaron…he hated Aaron just for existing.

The only person in this hellhole worth tolerating was Renee, and today even her smiles were getting on his nerves. Andrew couldn’t look at any of them, any of them at all. So he threw down his racquet and left in the middle of practice, amidst protest from everyone, especially Kevin and Coach. What would they do? Bench him? Ha.

Andrew changed out of his gear in record time, putting on his street clothes right after. He hadn’t done anything on the court; there was no need to shower. He just got into the car when Kevin made it out, running. Andrew laughed at the exasperation on his stupid face.

‘You can walk back, Day. Maybe that’ll loosen the stick up your ass.’ He left a spluttering Kevin in the dust. Fuck them, fuck them all.


 

‘Ugh, this again?’

The hideous red hair, blue eyes, and that fucking tattoo on his face. Andrew was back in Neil's body, and consequently, the Nest. There weren't any new bruises or scars, just leftover soreness from too much stickball. So why did the idiot switch?

As if to answer him, Jean appeared with a phone, shoving it at Andrew. ‘For you,’ he said, eyes guarded. Well, well. Moreau can tell when they're switched.

The call was from Andrew's own number.

‘What the fuck, Nathaniel?’

He heard a sharp intake of breath. ‘Don't call me that!’ he sounded pissed, ‘I'm Neil.’

No shit. ‘What happened that made you switch?’
There was a rustling noise from the other side. ‘I, uh, it's my mother’s death anniversary. Is it ok if I smoke?’

‘Use the window.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

Neil sounded distracted. Andrew could hear him exhale heavily.

‘This soulmate thing, it's a pain in the arse, don't you agree, Andrew?’

Andrew did agree. But Neil isn't just stating a fact. He wants something, and this is familiar territory for Andrew. Everyone wants something, and therein lies the possibility of making a deal.
‘What do you want?’

Neil sighed. ‘I should've known you’d figure it out. I want this—whatever this is—broken. I don't want anyone connected to me like this. It makes us both vulnerable.’

‘And I don't trust you, either.’ Andrew tells him. ‘What do you suggest we do?’

‘Get me out of here and I'll find a way. My mother never trusted the soulmate bond. My father was her soulmate and he—he wasn't a good man. When I was ten, she took me and ran. She knows a lot of useful people. One of them broke her bond. It kept us safe.’

‘That's quite a wild story, Neil, why should I believe you?’

Neil's sigh was louder. ‘That's the truth, why don't you believe me?’

‘Oh, Neil. If you don't tell me the truth, I'll have to go looking elsewhere. How about your parents?’

‘Good luck,’ annoyance was clear in his voice. ‘My mother’s dead, and my father isn't someone you should mess with.’

Right, he did say this was his mother's death anniversary. ‘Did you kill her?’ Andrew asked. The resulting silence would've been hilarious had he been on the drugs.

‘Did you kill yours?’ Neil asked.

‘I don't have parents,’ Andrew shot back. Jean was watching from across the room, occasionally gesturing to keep his voice down.

‘I didn’t kill my mother,’ Neil all but whispered. ‘My father's men killed her. They caught me and gave me to Riko, like cattle. I've been trying to escape ever since.’ Neil is quiet now, almost too quiet. ‘Get me out, and I'll break this bond, I'll leave you alone as soon as it's possible.’

Now, isn't that interesting. ‘Alright. I'll get you out.’

Neil scoffed in disbelief. ‘And what will you take in return?’

‘I'll think of something. Meanwhile, try not to get killed.’


 

Before sparring, Renee always goes through a number of Kata.

She starts from the simplest and goes through however many she can before her best friend shows up. Today she only managed four.

She dropped down on the mat and watched him. He wasn't dressed appropriately for fight. His hands weren't taped and he was still wearing ripped jeans and a white sweatshirt. That was unusual. Andrew never skipped a spar.

Andrew sat right across from her, folding his legs underneath. There were bags under his eyes; his hands twitched for a cigarette. Things like this remind her that Andrew’s brain is chained by the effects of his medicine.

Renee didn't have to wait long.

'What does your religion say about soulmates, Renee?'

Renee twisted her cross in her fingers, thoughtful. 'It says a lot of things, mostly hurtful. Why do you ask?'

'So shouldn't you hate them too?'

'Why would I hate love?' she smiled. He sneered and looks away.

'What is the worst kind of soulmate, you think?'

'A soulmate who is abusive, maybe?'

Andrew's smile was like a razorblade. 'Nope, a soulmate who is abused.'

Oh. Oh no. Whose soulmate was Andrew talking about?

'Nicky's soulmate?' she whispered. 'Aaron's?'

Andrew laughs at her face.

‘No, silly! Mine!'

Andrew laughed. For a moment, Renee was happy for Andrew. She'd always thought having a soulmate was a blessing. But then she remembered. 'Abused', he'd said.

His laughter died down. He looked exhausted underneath the shiny exterior of mania.

'Tell me,' she whispered.

‘Oh, you know, it’s the regular story. He had a lot of ouchies, feeling miserable, etc. etc. So he switched into my body and I into his. Guess where he is? In Evermore.’

‘The Raven’s Nest?’

‘What other Evermore do you know? Yes, the Nest. He and Kevin would fit so well together, they both have numbers on their face. Kevin is Dick Number Two; he’s Dick Number Four.’

Renee frowned, trying to remember who’s number four on the Raven’s lineup. Riko was obviously one. Kevin was two. There was a tall backliner with the number three. But no one with the number four came to mind. She looked at Andrew questioningly.

‘He hasn’t started yet,’ Andrew waved a hand. ‘He’s being groomed for it. In Riko language that’s beating him up till he can’t walk.’

‘And when you switched, you fell right into his sufferings,’ Renee guessed, and guessed right if Andrew’s sneer was any indication.

‘Next time we switch—and we will, since he gets beaten up regularly—I want you to keep an eye on him. I told him not to even think about switching during weekdays. So you only have to look for weekends. I’ll try to call you, but no promises.’
Renee nodded, having a good idea of what Andrew wants her to do. ‘Thank you, for trusting me.’

Andrew looked tired, grim. It was a sobering sight for Renee, who had never seen anyone with a soulmate from so close. It wasn’t all flowers and sunshine, like most people thought. Just like life, there is darkness too.


 

Life in the Nest was bleak, but even Riko had a life outside of Exy. That Friday he’d taken a trip to Osaka and he wouldn’t be back till Monday. The certainty that he’d be mostly pain free for a few days was enough to lift Neil’s spirit. Miraculously, he and Jean managed to take advantage of the lax security in the campus and went out for a midnight drive.

‘Your runaway skills do come in handy,’ Jean mused. Neil grinned. ‘I could teach you how to hot-wire?’

“No thanks,’ Jean said drily. In the streetlight, his pale face was luminous. His face had too many scars. Neil frowned.

‘Pull over at the next drugstore, Moreau. We can’t go into the town with you looking like a rag doll. We need to grab some makeup. The tats need to go as well.’

Jean did as he was told, finding a 24 hour drugstore. The sole employee was ancient. White hair, beard, and glasses thick as Neil’s pinky. Good. Chances of him recognizing them was low. Neil picked up a few tubes of cheap concealer.

“Why so many?’ Jean asked. ‘Just get one.’

Neil rolled his eyes. ‘The same tone wouldn’t work on both of us, Jean. You’re pale as chalk, I’m more, uh, sun-kissed.’

Jean snorted, but didn’t object. They paid without any fuss and then Neil was carefully dabbing makeup first on his own face, then Jean’s.

‘If this exy gig goes downhill you could always become a makeup artist,’ Jean suggested, laughing. Neil laughed along, sharing a glance with Jean. They both knew that had an exactly zero percent possibility of happening. Exy was it, for both of them. Even if they were born in some other lifetime, some other skin, they would still seek out exy.

Neither of the boys were keen on spending time around normal people so they mostly walked around a deserted shopping mall, buying things that didn't belong in a place like the Nest. Not a lot, because these would have to be hidden away from Riko.

‘Get some stuff for your… you know,’ Jean scrunches up his nose. Neil hummed, and picked up Andrew's preferred cigarettes. The sweets were more perplexing.

‘Granola bars would do nothing for him,’ Jean declared. ‘He takes six spoons of sugar in his coffee.’

‘What the fuck?’ Neil was flabbergasted. How did Andrew maintain abs with that kind of sugar intake? He sighed and grabbed a pack of mini Snickers. That should do it.

They drove back in silence. Without Riko in the Nest, they had a whole day to rest. But the stolen car had to be left exactly where it was before. The short trip was worth it, though. The fresh air did wonders for both him and Jean. The Frenchman was relaxed for the first time in months. Back in the dorm, Neil washed off the makeup off their faces then went to hide their newest stash. By the time he got back, Jean was asleep. Neil followed soon after.


 

Neil was in an unusually pleasant mood when he went to sleep. So why was he in Andrew's room? Was it Andrew who had a bad day? Neil looked around. Yup, the familiar dorm, the smell of cigarette smoke and chocolate, the knives, lighter and cigarettes under the bed. Just another day of pretending to be the infamous Andrew Minyard.
He couldn't just spend a whole day in bed like he did the first time, or follow Kevin like the second. Looking around the campus would be a good idea. He dressed in silence, trying his best to not think of or look at the body he was occupying. It felt wrong enough to use the toilet like this. He fervently hoped Andrew would ignore his scars. Oh, who was he fooling? The scars mapped his whole goddamn body. Obviously Andrew had noticed. He was probably waiting for the right moment to ask. The smallish dorm kitchen was rather well-stocked. One of the boys must cook at least occasionally. Neil grabbed a bottle of water and stashed it in his backpack, leaving as quietly as he could.

The campus was deserted at this time. Even the athletes were probably just waking up. Inevitably, Neil wound up in front of the court. It'd been placed on the outskirts of campus where it could tower over the shorter utilities buildings nearby. The paint job only made it stand out more: the walls were a blinding white with obnoxiously bright orange trim. A gigantic fox paw was painted on each of the four outer walls. Neil wondered how much it cost the university to build and how desperately they regretted the investment considering the Foxes' miserable return.

After walking past parking spaces, Neil went up to the fence that surrounded the stadium itself and stared through it at the outer grounds. It was deserted now, but he could imagine what it'd look like during a game night. It made every hair on his body stand on end, and his heartbeat echoing in his ears sounded like an Exy ball rebounding off a court wall. Neil twisted his fingers through the metal links and wished he could break the fence down. He was deliberating whether to jump the fence when he heard a soft footfall behind him. He flinched and turns.

The girl behind him had striking hair. The second thing to capture his attention was the expression in her eyes. It was the same unyielding, cautious gaze he was used to seeing in the mirror everyday.

Hmm, white hair with pastel highlights, dainty cross necklace, formidable biceps—this must be Renee Walker.

‘Let's go inside, Andrew,’ she said with a serene air. The good girl costume and the steel in her eyes didn't go with each other. Neil felt himself flinching away from her.

Dangerous, his instincts whispered.

He followed her inside a few paces back. She didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons. Her top and skirt ensemble is fairly lightweight, and there wasn't much space for concealing a gun or a knife. Not that she needed a weapon to kill him.

A set of hallways later, they entered a spacious locker room. Neil was thinking hard and trying to calculate if running away was a good idea or not, when she turned, her face losing most of its softness.

‘Neil,’ she said. ‘Andrew told me to keep an eye on you.’

Neil felt lightheaded. Run, his mother's voice screamed at him. Foolish child, why won't you run?

Neil forced his feet to stillness. Lies crawled on his tongue, each more believable than the next. But it would be futile if Andrew already told her.

She seemed to take his silence as confirmation. Her eyes were polite, but he still looked away. The first thing he saw was the wall dotted with photos of the Foxes. Neil tried to pick out familiar faces. Andrew, Aaron, Kevin. Nicky, too. These four formed a group of their own, always standing away from the others. A corner of the wall was entirely dedicated to the fox ladies, Renee, Dan and Allison.

Neil finally gathered up enough courage to speak.

‘If you want to ask something just ask already.’ He was virtually trapped with her in the stadium; better to get this over with now.

She startled. ‘I have nothing to ask now. Maybe later.’

‘Really? You’re not even a little suspicious of someone else being in Andrew's body?’

‘Not even a little,’ she smiled. That calm look on her face was terribly off putting. He’d known it would be only a matter of time before Andrew told someone about this, someone he trusted. This wasn't the reaction he'd anticipated. Violence and punishment, he understood. Her quiet acceptance? Not so much.

‘Come have brunch with me,’ she offered. ‘Andrew accompanies me sometimes. The others won't find it unusual.’

Neil could say no. But that meant going back to the dorm and doing nothing, or doing something that made Andrew's roommates give him peculiar looks. Yes, Renee made him uncomfortable. But she was safer—for now.

Neil went.


 

Broken bones. Concussion. Punctured lungs. Strangulation. Sepsis.

So many ways that Nathaniel Wesninski could die.

And he would die, if he stayed there, in the soulless tomb called Nest. So Andrew had to make sure there was a way to get him out of there. Legally. Permanently. The colors of Nathaniel’s bruises bloomed across his vision every time he closed his eyes. No one should suffer so much. Andrew wondered if there were others who were abused just as much, in there. The probability was so high.

And Andrew doesn't care about Nathaniel, he doesn't.

But he remembered. He remembered what it's like to be hurt, punished, demeaned. Tortured.

And god help him, but he didn't have the stomach to see anyone else go through that. If it were up to Andrew, he would break every one of those sorry bastards out of the nest. But he wasn’t Superman. He could and would get his—get Nathaniel out of there, and maybe Moreau while he's at it. The others would have to wait for their own personal savior, or fate.


 

Neil was glowing.

Jean watched him in between practice and sleep, dread churning in his chest. He felt as if Riko would take one look at Neil and would know, would know that Neil didn’t belong to him anymore, that Neil was happy.

That Neil was free.

Jean could see it in the slightly upturned mouth, the faraway look in his eyes, the relaxed set of his shoulders. For as long as Jean had known Neil, the smaller boy had been running, alway running. Only this time he seemed to have found something to run towards. And Jean could not be the one to crush that hope, even if he thought this whole soulmate business was unholy as fuck.

Surprisingly, the switch with Andrew Minyard made Neil an even better player. His scores kept getting better, almost as good as Riko’s. The Moriyama offspring didn't take that kindly. More than once he threw his racquet at Neil. More than once it gave Neil a bruise.

‘Why are you being an idiot?’ Jean hissed at Neil, trying to staunch the blood flooding out of his broken nose.

Neil gurgled out a response that sounded like ‘An-ehw.’

‘What?’ Jean gave up on cotton and dabbed at the blood with a towel. ‘Did you say Andrew? What does this have to do with him?’

Neil coughed, clearing his airway, but there was still a bit of gurgle when he answers.

‘Andrew can shut down the goal, Jean.’

‘Yes, that's why Riko once tried to recruit him, back when—’

They both stop. Back when Kevin was with them.

Neil had told Jean that Kevin was there, at Palmetto. He was safe, he was healing. Jean had felt both relieved that his other best friend was safe, and incredibly jealous that he was free, the way Jean would never, ever be free. A fluttering touch on his wrist brought Jean back to reality. Back to the bloody boy in front of him. He started cleaning up the blood drying on the caramel skin. He listened to Neil's excited explanation about how it was important for Neil to be the best striker. Because his soulmate was definitely going to be the best goalie, right?

Yes, Jean had lost one best friend. But he'd keep the other one alive as long as he could. Until Andrew Minyard took over. (If Andrew Minyard took over.)


 

Renee found Andrew right as he was about to take a smoke break on the Tower roof. He was a little irritated. His medicine was leaving his bloodstream, leaving him nauseous in the aftermath. He just wanted to smoke and then maybe sleep a little.

She stands silent and contemplative in the darkness of his dorm living room. She'd come to an epiphany, made a decision. Andrew could read it in the set of her shoulders.

‘Let me help you get Neil out.’

That wasn’t what Andrew expected. ‘What are you saying?’

‘You want to get him out—break him out. But it'll do more harm than good. Edgar Allen isn't just influential, they're wealthy. Neil's contract is probably worth a lot. They'll never let go of him easily. There will be investigations, and you'll have to let him go.’

Let him go. Andrew closed his eyes. Letting Neil go back to the Nest meant the risk of escalated torture, abuse, burnout. Maybe death. As his Switch, Andrew would have to suffer alongside. He couldn't let that happen.

‘What do you plan we do?’ he asked Renee.

Renee smiled like an unfurling rainbow. ‘I thought you would never ask.’

Andrew learned that her plan involves her mother, Stephanie Walker's, professional intervention. It would give their jailbreak a legitimate front. They could ask Jean and Neil for help with the actual breaking out part of the plan. However, keeping Neil out of the Nest was a problem that still needed solving.

‘We don't have the kind of cash that can buy his contract. Jean's is out of the question,’ her forehead creased with worry. ‘Can you ask him about it? If he knows how to manage the cash?’

Andrew grunted. He felt a million years old, like he'd fall away from the world. He wanted to stay awake and plan every little detail of Neil's escape but he couldn't, he couldn't…

‘Andrew, let's get you to bed.’

She stayed back a step to keep an eye on his unsteady stride. He entered his dorm and closed the door wordlessly. He'd run out of patience for human interaction today. He only had time to take off his knives and armbands and stash them under his pillow before the world went black.


 

Even after talking to Renee (and Bee), Andrew was still somewhat convinced that he dreamt the whole soulmate shit. He became sure of the fact when a week passed with no switch.

Then it was the weekend and time for Eden's.

Andrew went out for a smoke, mouth still swollen from kissing Roland silent when he gets the call from an unknown number.

He answered and listened to his own name sighed like a prayer.

‘Nathaniel.’

A sharp intake of breath. ‘I told you! Call me Neil, please.’

‘I don't like that word.’ Andrew grit out.

‘What?’

‘That last word.’

‘Oh!’ he sounded stunned. ‘Alright, good. I don't like it much either.’

‘Why not?’

Nathaniel—Neil—took a few moments to answer. Andrew had a bad feeling about this.

‘Riko tells us that—that if we say please…he won't hurt us as much. But he hits just as bad, even after—’

‘Enough,’ Andrew growled. His temper was spiraling out of control, spurred on by the lack of medicine drowning his bloodstream.

‘Jean doesn't believe this, you know? He doesn't believe soulmates are real.’

‘I don't believe you are real.’ Andrew said, hoping the derisive tone would hide how the words had ripped out of his stomach. Instead they earned him a startled laugh.

‘I'm real, Andrew. I'm not a hallucination.’ Neil said, a smile sweetening his voice unbearably.

‘You're a pipe dream. Go play your stupid stickball and leave me alone.’

‘Oh, fine! I'll send you the guard schedule by text.’

Neil laughed and hung up.

Andrew stayed up on the roof for a long time.


 

An idiot, an asshole and an exy-obsessed prick walk into a dorm room.

These three weren't usually found together, Andrew thought. So what were they doing now?

When they took position around him, scattered across the room, Andrew knew. It was an ambush.

Kevin sat right in front of him, just out of the reach. Sensible.

‘Andrew, we were talking about last week, when you were sick and—is there something you want to tell us?’

Ah, that. Did they figure out the soulmate part?

‘It's rare for you to care, Kevin Day-care! You're Acting like a Care-bear! Why do you care?’

Aaron started cursing. Nicky looked resigned, as always.

‘Just tell us what the fuck it was about! It's like you were a different person!’

Andrew looked at Aaron when he said that. He could see the exact second the proverbial light bulb turned on.

‘You have a—’

‘Aren't you a smart little boy! Momma would be so proud of you!’

The words hit exactly where they were supposed to, and Aaron stormed out in a rage. Nicky trailed out behind him.

When Kevin started to stand up from his beanbag, Andrew reached out a leg and hooks it behind his ankle. ‘You. Stay.’ he said cheerfully.

Kevin sat and watched Andrew with a frown. Andrew watched him back.

Kevin was one of the very few people who looked at Andrew and saw something other than a crazy, crazy monster. As much of an exy maniac Kevin was, Andrew knew he could leave the team right now and Kevin would still be his friend, albeit one who would whine a lot about Andrew's potential being lost.

Andrew would go easy on him.

‘Nathaniel says hi.’

Kevin's face lost blood suddenly, turning ashen. He dropped down on the beanbag heavily. Andrew could see his shoulders getting stiffer by the minute.

What a pain. Andrew sighed and decided to put him out of his misery and tell him about Neil.


 

Renee went to church every Sunday.

No, not in the mornings. The evenings, when there was a long line of people waiting to confess. Their confessions were of a special kind. They were here because they'd switched sometime in the past week and they thought it was bad, a sin, and they had to confess to needing someone to love.

Switching was something that happened to everyone. Some people found a girlfriend, some a boyfriend, some a best friend, some a spouse. Gender didn't matter, neither did race or ethnicity. That was the part that the religions—most of them—pounced on. All the religions labelled switching a sin, a shame, an act of depravity. And these people thought switching with someone of the same gender or different skin color was something to be ashamed of.

What a pity.

Renee loved the idea of soulmates. The possibility that even someone like her could find love—it amazed her. Her soulmate could be any gender, any color, and she would be happy. She was so happy for Andrew, now. She loved him so much, and now there was someone else he could rely on.

Renee had been watching Andrew closely ever since he told her about the first switch. After that, there'd been a couple more nights Andrew's body had been taken over by a stranger with restless eyes. None of the others noticed or reacted as far as she could tell. Andrew seemed more occupied with his phone these days. It didn't take a genius to guess that was Neil, too.

It had only been a few weeks, yet Renee could see Andrew settle into the idea of welcoming another person into his protection. It was the only way Andrew knew to care for his family. She hoped the boy—Neil—would care for Andrew just as much.

Renee kept watch and prayed for the churchgoers. When the line trickled down to zero, she trekked home alone. None of the other Foxes ever came to church.


 

‘Jean?’

‘Kevin?’

Jean's voice was broken, barely a gasp, and it crushed Kevin's heart. There was a bit of a scuffle over the line and a new voice came on.

‘Is that you, Nathaniel?’

The boy hissed. ‘Fucking—call me Neil, would you?’

‘Neil. Yes, Andrew did mention—’

‘Andrew told you?’

Kevin didn't care for the disbelief he felt from the word. Why wouldn't Andrew tell him? ‘I'm his friend.’ he informed Neil.

‘Okay, good for you. What do you want? We can't talk much. Practice will be starting soon.’

Kevin faltered. Why had he called?

Because he'd been shying away from thinking about the Nest after he'd left…after he'd left Jean behind.

Was Jean punished for Kevin's betrayal? Did Kevin want to know?

‘Is Jean…okay?’

‘As okay as one can be in the Nest.’ Which was to say, he was surviving. Neil continued talking after a beat.

‘After you left, Jean got beaten up pretty bad. I was brought into the Nest a couple months ago. My mom couldn't keep me safe from Dad,’ he sighed. ‘Dad let Riko have me as a punishment for running.’

He said all of that matter of factly. As if having a killer for a father was no big deal. He would fit well alongside Andrew and his monsters. Speaking of…

‘Are you actually Andrew's-’

‘Yes,’ The answer came without any hesitation. ‘I am. We gotta go now, Kevin. Ah,’ there was an impatient sigh and a little chuckle. ‘Look, I'm being rude. But I've always wanted to talk to you. Gotta go.’

Neil, wanted to talk to him?

Huh.


 

Anything that could go wrong, would go wrong. Andrew knew that very well. So he wasn’t surprised when Renee fell sick right before they were supposed to go get Neil out.

Andrew couldn't help the frustration eating its way up his throat. He didn't trust himself to speak to anyone at the moment. He left for the roof and lit up.

The tower was asleep in the dark. The sky blinked down at Andrew as he settled down. The medicine was leaving his system by now. This was when he started to feel exhausted as fuck, but also became more sober. This was when he liked to call Neil.

‘Andrew!’

The voice had become familiar over the past few weeks, both when he heard it over the phone, and forming his own words when they were switched. Neil sounded excited. Andrew broke the news to him, waiting for Neil's anger.

It didn't come.

‘Oh! That's—fuck. I was looking forward to it. And I wanted to see you, as well.’

He wanted to see Andrew?

‘What an idiot.’

Neil groaned and cursed for a minute, using quite a few languages. God, the boy had a filthy mouth.

‘Just come see me at the game. It won’t be the escape that I imagined, but it would be something.’

‘What game?’

‘A friendly with the Trojans. I bet Kevin would love to go. Jean will be playing, not me. I can sneak out for a few minutes.’

Taking Kevin anywhere near Riko was a bad idea. But Jeremy Knox would be there too, maybe he'd keep Kevin occupied.

Andrew still hesitated. ‘You won't get caught.’

‘If I do then you'll have to save me and run, right?’

Andrew scoffed, but didn't retort. It was getting late and his head felt impossibly heavy.

‘You have to go,’ Neil guessed from the silence.‘Good night, Andrew.’

 


 

Kevin was, surprisingly, not opposed to the idea.

‘I'd like to see Jean, again. And Jeremy Knox, of course.’

Convincing Coach was harder. He refused to let Andrew and Kevin go alone. In the end, Andrew agreed to let him tag along.

‘Why are you so eager to go? You don't even like exy.’ Wymack asks, eyes narrowed.

Ah, what the fuck.

‘His soulmate would be there,’ Kevin said, unnecessarily. Wymack's brows disappeared into his hair.

‘Your soulmate is a Trojan?’

Andrew laughed. ‘No, no, no, coach. He's a little black birdie. Or a red one, if we're being technical.’

‘A raven!’ Coach looked ready to have an aneurysm. Andrew shook with laughter. Oh, great. All settled then.


 

Halfway down the road, Andrew threw up.

He refused to see Neil when he was drugged to the gills. He had a bottle of Jack stashed in his overnight bag along with a few packs of cracker dust. He had to promise at least one match of effort for the privilege. Ugh. Things he did for—

Whatever.

By the time they reached the stadium, he felt much more relaxed. What was the protocol for meeting one's soulmate for the first time? Andrew had dressed up like he was going to a night out at Eden’s. That should do it.

Jeremy Knox acted like an old friend, wrapping Kevin in a bear hug and turning a commercial strength smile at Coach and Andrew. But Andrew wasn't here to watch stickball. Finding a place to smoke took nearly ten minutes. He's out in a decrepit balcony when he becomes aware.

Someone followed him.

Andrew fingered his knives and turned around. Nothing could've prepared him for this. Looking at Neil for the first time was like a punch in his gut. He knew it was coming. But it still took his breath away.

Andrew's eidetic memory had failed. He remembered watching the boy in a desolate bathroom mirror. But he didn't remember the otherworldly blueness of the eyes, the little spark of mischief in them, the little dip in his cheek as he smiled shyly.

Andrew lifts a hand. ‘I'm going to touch you. Yes or no?’

‘Yes.’

Andrew poked a finger in his cheek. The idiot smiled broader. Yep, definitely dimples.

‘So you're real.’ Andrew mused aloud.

‘So are you,’ Neil said. Quiet. Sweet.

A butcher's boy, grown up on death and violence and a knife's edge and Andrew thought he was sweet. The fuck? He's suddenly so, so tired. The adrenaline rush of finally seeing Neil was dissipating, leaving behind a devastating crash. He needed to—

Neil caught him as he slid down the wall, following him to the ground. His touch was featherlight, letting go as soon as Andrew was seated against the wall.

A barely healed slash was noticeable on the side of Neil's jaw. Andrew cupped a hand over it. Neil leaned into his palm, eyes dropping closed.

What is this? This was Neil, Neil whose skin Andrew has been in. Neil who Andrew vowed to get out of Evermore. But then what? Andrew didn't know him, did he? Not really.

Who are you?

Looking at him, looking so relaxed in Andrew's presence as if Andrew isn't a monster, as if Andrew wouldn't gut him in a second—Andrew suddenly felt a blinding rage.

Why are you so stupid?

Andrew let go of him like the contact burned. Neil folded his hands against his chest and sat next to Andrew.

‘I don't want to go back,’ he said. ‘I wish I didn't have to. I wish I could run.’

‘Rabbit,’ Andrew muttered, lighting up and passing a cigarette to Neil. He refused.

‘Riko will notice the smell.’ he said.

And he'll hurt you. Andrew made a rash decision. ‘Let's make a deal.’

A copper eyebrow quirked. ‘What kinda deal?’

‘I'll get you out of there as soon as I can.’

‘And in return…?’

‘You'll be careful.’

Neil frowned as if the very notion offended him.

‘Be careful with Riko. Don't provoke him. Don't argue with him. Don't get in his way.’

Defiance burned in blue eyes. ‘You're asking me to be a coward?’

Andrew caught his chin in a tight hold. ‘I'm trying to keep you alive. Keep your promise and I'll keep mine.’

‘Fine!’ Neil jerked out of Andrew's hold and left, footsteps angry and loud. Andrew had upset him, somehow.

Andrew waited five minutes. Then ten, just to be safe. He needed to get up, maybe get some alcohol in his system. That should help. But he found himself unable to move from the balcony. Unable to shake off the feeling of detachment from the rest of the world. As if only he and Neil existed in this little pocket dimension. If Andrew left, he'd forget, or worse, he'd find out Neil had only been a dream, after all.

The noise from the stadium fell then spiked again. The big door burst open to let the crowd out. Then the athletes.

Even from this high, Andrew could pick him out. His red hair looked ridiculous combined with black.

As if sensing Andrew's eyes on him, Neil stopped, about to turn when another Raven draped a hand across his shoulders and tugged him away. The jersey said ‘Moriyama.’

The hatred that burned in Andrew was old, ancient even. Its intensity took him off guard. He hadn't known he could hate someone as much as…as much as…No. He wanted to rip Riko's filthy hands away from Neil and it wasn’t normal to feel so territorial over him. Andrew are you an idiot—

Andrew ignored his phone ringing. He ignored the biting cold wind. The horrible empty ache in his chest cavity.

He watched Neil till he was indistinguishable in the mess of ravens.

It was the hardest thing he's ever done.

Chapter Text

Walking away from Andrew was the hardest thing Neil had ever done.

 

He'd left Andrew feeling indignant as fuck. Who was he to tell Neil to be careful? Neil couldn't be ‘careful’ when Riko was messing up Jean's face, now could he?

 

But as he came closer and closer to the court—to Riko—he started to regret leaving Andrew so abruptly. He sat away from the other Ravens, curling up to seem nearly invisible. He wondered why Andrew seemed so ill, so tired. Was he off his meds?

 

Even the game couldn't capture his attention. He kept searching till his eyes fell on Kevin Day. Kevin fucking Day! Not that he'd actually get to meet him. Riko wouldn't allow that. He was with a middle aged man with a gruff face. The Palmetto coach?

 

The game didn't go on for too long. The Ravens were playing as foul as ever, and the Trojans kept their distance. They didn't seem too keen to risk injury in order to be friendly. Unlike the Ravens, who played dirty, filthy, even.

 

The players filed out to get cleaned off. Neil stayed where he was. No one would miss him until it was time to go.

 

All the while, he could feel the pull . It was a pulsing presence that he'd felt ever since the first switch. It was a weak pitter-patter, like rain that couldn't decide if it wanted to fall or not. It had grown stronger all day. By the time he caught up with Andrew, the pulsing had turned into a soothing balm, spreading like honey through his limbs, leeching away the perpetual pain of exy and Riko's abuse. And then Andrew touched him, taking away the last of the pain. With every step he took away from Andrew, it all came back. The pain, the exhaustion, the catch in his breath.

 

And the pull. The pulsing brightness was a chain connecting and pulling him to Andrew and Neil had to leave. Go farther away until he could no longer feel the allure of Andrew anymore. He told all of this to Jean, who'd already showered and changed. Jean didn't offer any insight, only an arm to help Neil off the bench. Suddenly, he was hurting so much. He was hurting everywhere, down to his bone and now that he knew what the absence of pain feels like, Neil couldn't tolerate its presence anymore.

 

They ventured outside among other black-clad ravens. Photographers kept clicking photos of the victorious team. Click. Click . Neil trailed behind. For a second he thought that he could feel Andrew's gaze boring into the back of his head.

 

Click .

 

But no. It was just Riko, gripping him with his dominant arm, smiling for the camera.

 

Click .

 

‘Smile, Nathaniel,’ he gritted out. ‘This'll be your last press photograph in a long, long time.’  

 

Click .

 


 

 

Who knew what had made Riko Moriyama angry.

 

Was he angry because Jeremy Knox was still smiling after the defeat?  Because he saw Kevin Day, looking alive and well? Because he saw Jean looking at Kevin? Because he ate something bad for breakfast? Because he just wanted to hurt someone?

 

There wasn’t much of a point to guessing.

 

‘You should've told me you have a soulmate, Neil!’ Riko said conversationally, while someone tightened the black cloth over Neil's eyes. Another pair of hands tied up his sliced wrists.

 

It was all very unnecessary. Neil was beaten to an inch of his life. He had no strength left even to speak.

 

Jean was somewhere in the room as well, pleading to Riko to let them go, that they were sorry , that it doesn't matter , that Nathaniel belongs to Riko, right , Nathaniel?

 

No, no that wasn’t right at all. Shut up, Jean.

 

‘Riko,’ Neil rasped out. ‘Riko, listen.’

 

‘Oh! Now you're talking? Let's hear it, Nathaniel. Tell me, are you vewy vewy sowwy?'

Neil took a long breath, fully accepting that this could be his last.

 

‘Go to hell, Riko.’

 

The silence was thunderous. Neil smiled.

 

‘I'm not yours. I've never been yours.  I never will be. I belong to no one, least of all you .’

 

And then.

 

Pain.     


 

 

The pain was horrifyingly familiar, and Andrew felt his body and mind lock up in panic.

 

How many times had he felt like this, when he was a boy?

 

The burn of rope or other restraints along his wrists and ankles, the pain of being beaten so he'd be more submissive, bites along his cheek and neck and pectorals. Pain along his biceps like someone was holding him down, burning slices down the inside of his thighs. It wasn't—he wasn't raped. That final pain was absent. But someone had tried to, at least. He wondered why they had stopped.

 

But Andrew wasn't a kid anymore. He wasn't anywhere near Drake. Then why, why, why…

 

Was this hell?

 

No.

 

Through the haze of pain and horror Andrew realised that he was in a dark, small enclosed space. He wasn’t alone. The other person had a hand clutched in Andrew's clothes and was having a massive panic attack.

 

‘Jean?’ Even that airy word sliced out of Andrew’s throat like a knife. He'd been choked, badly it seemed.

 

It broke through Jean's misery, somewhat. He was still breathing heavily, interspaced with sobs and French gibberish. Andrew caught the words ‘Neil’ and ‘pardon’ and….

 

Oh.

 

The reality finally unfurled and Andrew hated it.

 

It wasn't Andrew's body that was so viciously violated.

 

It was Neil's.

 

Andrew wanted to scream, because that was worse. He hated it more, so much more, that Neil was hurt instead of him and he wanted to—

 

‘Neil, Neil, I'm sorry, mon frère, I'm so sorry. I tried to get you out in time,’ Jean said.

 

Andrew raised himself on his elbows, shivering as pain and disgust flooded him. He had to get out of here.

 

‘Jean, give me your phone,’ he croaked out.

 

Jean's shaking hands produced a cracked piece of plastic. The display was dead, but it was still working. The battered flip phone made annoyingly loud beeps as Andrew typed in the number he'd used just a handful of times before.

 

Thank you, flawless memory.

 

‘Hello?’

 

‘Reen ,’ Andrew sighed in relief. ‘There's an emergency. We can't wait anymore.’

 


 


Aaron was woken by his phone just when the dream was starting to feel good. He cursed and debated whether to ignore it, but Renee's name woke him up. She wouldn't call him so late if it wasn't necessary.

 

‘What?’ he snapped anyway.   

 

Renee was in a hurry, her words muddled in sleep and panic. But Aaron understood. Oh, he understood.

 

He peeled himself off the bed, leaving Kate's welcoming warmth. But he had to. This wasn't something he could ignore. In fact—

 

‘Kate, could you drive me, please?’

 

Katelyn didn't hesitate. Perhaps it was the way Aaron's voice shook. Perhaps it was the shock in his eyes.

 

It didn't take long to reach the dorm. Aaron carefully opened the bedroom door, but the body in the bottom bunk still jerked violently. Aaron turned the lights on.     

 

The boy had his brother's body, but not his eyes.

 

The eyes were dead, glazed over and absent. Aaron shivered. He'd been praying Renee was mistaken. But this, this was real.

 

Kevin woke up, but burrowed deeper into the blankets. Nicky grumbled and sat up, ridiculously rumpled.

 

Aaron looked back at An—at Neil— and took a startled step back.

 

The look in the eyes was no longer dead. They were terrified, like a caged animal.

 

‘Neil,’ Aaron tried. The name feeling foreign on his tongue. ‘I'm Aaron, Andrew's twin.’  

 

Kevin sat bolt upright. ‘What did you—Neil? They switched again?’

 

Neil had plastered his back to the wall, eyes frantic. He was in shock, or going into it. Aaron felt anger flare up behind his eyes. That boy had fucked something up and now Andrew was in his body, getting hurt.

 

Not that Aaron cared. He didn't . Andrew could fuck off to the Nest, and it wouldn’t worry him at all.

 

It wouldn’t .

 

Aaron knew he'd promised Renee to take care of the situation, but this was too much.

 

Aaron looked away. ‘Deal with this shit, Kevin.’

 

Kevin knew how to deal with shock. From personal experience, really. He tried to wrap Neil in a blanket but was punched in the stomach. With Andrew's muscles and Neil's precision, Kevin was on the floor for long minutes.

 

Aaron lingered in the doorway.

 

‘A little help?’

 

Aaron's icy demeanor cracked, betraying a hint of remorse. ‘Don't even try touching him. He's been abused, clearly .’

 

Kevin's heart sank.

 

‘Andrew is—’

 

‘Yes,’Aaron's face was unreadable. ‘He's in the Nest. Renee is getting him out.’

 


 

Everytime Andrew switched into Neil's body, the absence of medicine-induced apathy jarred him. He felt overloaded with emotions. But his brain also luxuriated in the clarity.

 

Getting out of the Nest wasn't a problem. He, Neil, Jean, and Renee had spent days going over the layout of the Nest corridors, the ways to get through them undetected, the guard schedules.

 

Riko hadn't expected retaliation from Jean. But even he had a breaking point. He'd had to knock out Riko and the other two Ravens. Then he'd dragged an unconscious Neil and locked the door from outside. It was a Riko's own room, often used for torturing. It was soundproof. No one would be looking for them till daybreak.    

 

Thinking about it made Andrew want to throw up. But it did give them a head start.

 

Dragging his bleeding, protesting body wasn't as difficult as getting Jean to move. The boy was in worse shock than Andrew. By the time Renee barged in, promising retribution, Andrew just wanted to sleep.

 

But he couldn't. He wouldn't. If he slept now, Neil would be back in this body.

 

Andrew wanted him to stay painless, a little while longer.    

 


 

Explaining why she was returning from Evermore with two bloodied Ravens wasn't easy, even for Renee Walker. Andrew and Jean were both in surgery. Wymack had kept it a secret from the other Foxes, but Dan was waiting for Renee. A pale-faced Kevin came in later.

 

‘Did you seriously abduct Jean Moreau and Nathaniel Wesninski out of the nest?’ Dan asked.

 

‘I didn't have to.’ Renee shrugged out of her coat It was stiff with blood. ‘Edgar Allan's president lives on campus, so I stopped by his house and asked him to intervene.’


‘You didn't really,’ Kevin said, staring at her.


‘I put him on the phone with Stephanie,’ Renee said, meaning her foster mother. ‘She made it clear he had two choices: he could settle this quietly between us or she'd get all her industry friends to run with news of Evermore's violent hazing. He chose the one that would hurt his school the least, or at least he tried. Did you know not even the president has access to the court, or the Nest? I don't think he knew his codes were out of date. He had to get the new ones from security. Either way, the Ravens weren't expecting us.’


‘That sounds like an understatement,’ Dan said dryly.

 

‘The ropes, knives and blood in Riko's room were evidence enough. Moreover, it seems Riko was also trying to videotape everything. It's more than enough evidence.’

 

‘Mr. Andritch let me take Jean and Neil away when he saw the shape he was in,’ Renee said. ‘I left him my number and promised to keep in touch while the school investigates. But Jean, he’s already tried leaving twice.’

 

‘He wants to go back?’ Dan asked. ‘Is he crazy? He'll get killed!’

 

‘He's the Moriyama's property. His parents gave him to the Moriyama family when he was a kid. He has nowhere else to go. Riko and Kengo can and will make him go back. They let me go because of my hand. They won't let Jean go that easily. And Jean wouldn't want to,’ Kevin tried to explain. Telling them so much was visibly painful for him, Renee could tell.

 

All of that was hours ago.

    

‘Reen.’

 

The familiar nickname roused Renee out of her stupor. The drive to and from Evermore had eaten through the night and most of the day. The whole fight with Edgar Allen officials drained her so much. She didn't know when sleep claimed her. But here she was, dozing beside the sickbed of her best friend.

 

Best friend who was wrapped in a stranger's skin.

 

‘Reen. We have work to do. And I'd rather do it now.’

 

Renee could see him fighting to stay awake.

 

‘I'll talk to Stuart Hatford. You, go get Neil.’

 


 

 

It wasn't easy.

 

But Andrew managed to snark and blackmail and cajole Stuart Hatford into promising enough money for Neil's transfer from Edgar Allen to Palmetto.

 

It was nearly impossible, actually. Hatford's derisive tone told Andrew exactly what he thought about Palmetto.

 

‘He's away from his father and with the best collegiate exy team in the country. Maybe he's better off there.’

 

Andrew seethed. ‘Better off staying there? So he can get raped next time?’

 

Apparently, that was all the encouragement Hatford needed.

 

It still left Andrew with a bad taste in his mouth. It hadn't been his secret to tell.       

 

And now, the last loose thread.

 

Neil.

 

He was escorted in the hospital room by Abby, careful to not touch the blanket covered boy.

 

Watching Neil in Andrew's body was a novel experience, like the first time they'd switched, or the first time they'd met.

 

Was that just yesterday?    

 

Seeing Andrew in Neil's bruised body was perhaps too much for the boy. He stood at the foot of Andrew's bed, trying to speak through gasps .

 

‘I'm sorry…. It….. I switched…. I didn't mean to…..’

 

‘Shut up,’ Andrew rasped out. The pain medication was making it harder for him to stay awake. He needed Neil to lie down so he could let go. It had been a godforsaken night.

 

Andrew scooted over to the side of the bed.

 

Neil didn't need telling. He shed the blanket over his shoulders and climbed under Andrew's blanket.

 

It should've sent Andrew skittering away, reaching for his knives or plain punching the daylights out of the idiot who dared to get too close.

 

But this, this was different.

 

The places where his skin touched Neil's, a foreign warmth was spreading. It rolled like honey. At first Andrew thought it was the painkillers, but then he shifted on the bed, putting more of himself in contact with Neil, and the touch…

 

It tasted like salvation on his tongue.

 

He took one of Neil's hand and put the palm over his throat. The other, he placed on a nasty bite on his shoulder.

 

There was no denying the fresh relief running through his veins. Bit by bit, his pain fell away.

 

He only hoped the pain would stay away when Neil woke up back in his own body.

 


 

 

‘Andrew wanted to do it himself.’ Renee warned, a frown on her face. It showed how tired she was.

 

She'd rescued Andrew (and Neil) and Jean from the Nest, bargained for their freedom and transfer, made sure Riko's actions were documented.

 

What had Kevin done?

 

Nothing .

 

‘I'll talk to Ichirou,’ he said, trying and failing to keep the tremor off his voice. ‘I'll make sure they're safe. All three of them.’      

   

Easier said than done. Especially when Ichirou's voice sounded like a calmer and deadlier version of Riko's. Fuck, even their accents were the same.

 

‘Kevin,’ the voice flowed and froze Kevin's breath. ‘I am very, very disappointed.’

 

‘My lord, I beg you—’

 

‘Don't bother,’ he said. ‘The only reason you're still alive is because I like to know the value of things before I throw them away so I know how to compensate for their loss.’

 

‘My lord, Nathaniel has little value now, but if given the time and chance to do so I would repay your family for the inconveniences I've caused. I will train him with all I have. The average professional Exy player makes three million dollars a year. I am sure Nathaniel and Jean would be happy to donate that money to the family.’


‘An unsubtle attempt to buy your safety.’


‘My lord,’ Kevin begged, an edge of desperation creeping into his voice, ‘I am attempting to right a wrong and fulfill a broken promise. My potential revenue has always belonged to your family. Yet, it is your brother who tried to destroy that potential. And he tried to do the same to Nathaniel last night.’    

 

He hesitated as if afraid of continuing and crossing a fragile line. Ichirou waited for him to make up his mind.


Kevin finally took a steadying breath and said, ‘Your brother is going to destroy everything of yours unless someone collars him.’

 

Deafening silence followed. Had Kevin crossed a line? Was he making a big fucking mistake in spilling Riko's secrets all these months later?

 

‘That is very bold.’


‘Yes, it is,’ Kevin said, ‘but it is the truth. My lord… Riko has spent his entire life aiming to be the best player on the court,’ Kevin said, remembering days and nights spent honing their skills, together, like brothers. ‘When he feels his superiority is threatened he lashes out without concern for collateral damage. This past year alone is proof of his increasing instability. I was your uncle's second largest investment, but Riko destroyed me over injured pride. I used to have a seven-digit net worth between my professional contract, my spot on the national team, and my endorsements. I could have earned your family fifteen, twenty million a year after graduation. Now I am nothing. I have nothing.’

 

He took a breath. ‘Riko had every intention of… of raping and killing Nathaniel, all because of a petty issue regarding his soulmate. He didn’t stop to think how the Butcher would retaliate at the loss of his heir. Neil was rescued by the intervention of… of his soulmate, and Jean Moreau, who had also been beaten within an inch of his life. He is lucky it was Jean Moreau; Jean knows who your family is and would never speak out against Riko. But Jean is in our custody now while he heals and Edgar Allan University has launched a quiet investigation into the Ravens. They will find out about the hazing and abuse your uncle condones and someone will have to answer for it. What happens if they stumble across evidence of Riko's manipulations during their search?’

 

‘Are you telling me Riko is out of line?’ Ichirou interjected, a hint of rage behind the calm.  


‘No, no, my lord. Just that he is not being careful. He is escalating because he feels threatened, but they will catch him soon enough, and I am afraid of what will fall back on you. I won't ally myself with such a risk, so I cannot play with Riko at Edgar Allan. I'm sorry.’


Another endless silence followed. A day or week or year passed before Ichirou said, ‘Listen very carefully. Where I come from, a man's word is only as good as his name and his name earns weight from the blood he has spilled for my family. You are untested and untrue. You are not worth the air you breathe. I would balance the red in my ledger with your death and consider it a fair repayment.’

 

Kevin swallowed hard.


‘However," Ichirou said, ‘you are your mother's son, and she is the reason I am talking to you myself when I could have sent anyone to finish you off.  Do you know what I will do to you if I think you are wasting my time? Do you know what I will do to anyone you have ever met or spoken to? I will kill everyone who has ever stood by you and I will make each death last a lifetime.’


It didn't sound like a threat; it sounded like a promise.


‘What can I do to convince you I'm telling the truth?’ Kevin said, at the end of his wits.

‘Nothing,’ Ichirou said, ‘Perhaps your life has a price tag after all. Eighty percent of your earnings for the entirety of your career will be sufficient. I expect similar tithes from Wesninski and Moreau; it is only reasonable considering my family funded your training. Someone will be in touch with you to make arrangements. If you fail to make the cut after graduation, the deal is forfeit and you will be executed. Do you understand?’


Disbelief knocked the air from his lungs; relief was so intense Kevin thought for a moment he'd be violently ill. Somehow he kept his tone even when he said, ‘I understand. I'll talk to Nathaniel and Jean immediately. We will not fail you.’

 

Ichirou hummed, ‘Then for now you are dismissed.’
It was so abrupt Kevin almost forgot to say, ‘Thank you.’

 

As soon as the call ended, he fell to his knees, feeling like he'd ran a marathon. It was over, for now. They were safe, for now.

 


 

 

Waking up was painful. Forget moving, it even hurt to open his eyes. But he had to know where he was.

 

All white, too much brightness, beeping all around him. He was in a hospital. But which one? Did Andrew really bring him there? Or was that all a dream and he really was at the Raven's usual health center, recovering to get killed at a later date.

 

We're sorry to inform that your agonising demise has been rescheduled, Neil. Please contact at a later date.

 

Something like that.

 

Neil remembered everything, every spare bit of horror. The crazed look in Riko's eyes, the fathomless despair in Jean's. The dark and hungry look in the other Raven's eyes, hoping to get a turn after Riko—

 

Neil forced his mind back to present. He was away from Riko now. He was safe . Safer than he'd been in a long time, if everything went according to Renee's plan. So far it looked okay. Neil was safe, Andrew was safe. But where was Jean?

 

Neil tried to sit up. Surprisingly, the pain wasn't bad enough to keep him immobilised. He remembered that Riko used knives more than once. Oh, but he also remembered the—the glow? The amazing whatever he felt when he shared the hospital bed with Andrew. He'd felt the honey-gold-sunshine flow between their skin. Andrew had looked less pained afterwards. It was the same inexplicable pull that Neil felt near Andrew.

 

The door to his hospital room opened with a click, nearly giving him a stroke. The man who came in was tall, looking even taller because of a ridiculously spiky hairstyle. His smile was broad, but cautious.

 

‘Hey! You must be Neil! Coach told us about you! I'm Matt, Matt Boyd.’

 

‘Yeah… uh… What exactly did coach say about me?’

 

Matt looked perplexed. ‘Well, that you're our new striker recruit. He said Kevin found you, so you must be real good, yeah? He also told us about that bar fight you got into. That’s gotta suck, man.’ He sounded sincere. ‘Kevin told us about your tattoo as well.’

 

Neil frowned. So he'd been slotted into place with the Foxes with layers and layers of lies. He couldn't tell if it was a good thing or not. Riko would definitely figure out someone in the team is his soulmate. And there was also a question niggling in the back of his mind. Who paid for his transfer? How? Neil knew he was expensive, not as expensive as Riko or Kevin, but he was still worth a lot.                 

 

Matt didn’t look like he had any answers for him. But he was friendly enough without being annoying. He helped Neil to sit up in his bed, drink some water, and even read his chart to him.

 

‘Hey, not bad. Looks like your ‘soulmate resonance’ helped to heal you, so they'll maybe release you soon.’ Matt looked intrigued. ‘Who are they, anyway?’

 

‘They came to visit me and then left,’ Neil lied easily. No way was he giving out an information like that to a stranger. Well, almost stranger. ‘Hey, Matt, you know where Kevin and Andrew are?’

 

‘The monsters? Probably at Eden's Twilight, their favourite bar. Why?’    

 

Neil shrugged, immediately regretting the action. He wanted to get out of there, out of the suffocating fog of disinfectant, air freshener, and medication. Neil knows he can't play for weeks at the very least, soulmate resonance or not. But he wants to see the Foxhole Court, wants the handle of a racquet in his fist, wants to live the life he chose.

 

Also, he wants to see Andrew, be near him and breathe without agony. But all of it has to wait.

 

‘I want to go outside,’ he tells Matt.

 

I want to breathe .          



 

 

Andrew took great care to darken his dorm room. There was not a single ray of light coming in from anywhere. He chucked out Kevin’s night light, turned off his own phone. It helped a little, even though the darkness reminded him  a bit of the Nest.

 

He needed it, needed the darkness. Last night's horrors were still playing behind his eyelids. The blood, the pain, Jean's wailing in French, the Evermore security yelling at them to stop,  he bright lights on the way back—all of it going off in his head like fireworks. He couldn’t see shit, couldn't hear shit from the cacophony of the memories and he hated it. His heart was beating out of his chest all the while he tried to nap on his bunk bed.   

 

The lock turned and in comes a heedless buffoon.

 

‘Andrew? What did—’

 

‘Go away, Aaron. I don't wanna build a snowman.’ Andrew said, his lips stretched to show teeth. He expected Aaron to storm out, but instead footsteps came closer to his bed. Andrew’s hands automatically reached for his knives. There was a sharp intake of breath from his brother.   

 

‘So you'll happily get hurt for your—your soulmate,’ Aaron spat the word like it's slime. ‘But you need knives when I come too close?’

 

Andrew lifted his head from the pile of pillows. This brain felt like it would ooze out of his ears. But he didn’t fail to notice the defeated look in Aaron’s eyes.

 

‘Were you lying about our deal? If you keep him, it means you’re breaking the rule. Are you breaking the rule, Andrew?’

 

‘Neil,’ Andrew started, ‘is nothing. I feel nothing for him, and he is nothing to me. Just because he’s my soulmate doesn’t mean I’ll start worshipping him. Get those Disney princess ideas out of your head.’

 

‘If that’s true then get rid of him! The Ravens will find out he’s here and they’ll retaliate. First Kevin, and now this! I want him gone!’

 

The nerve—! Andrew’s fingers tightened around his knife. ‘Why the fuck do you care?’

 

“Because you got hurt!’ Aaron all but screamed. ‘You got hurt and it’s his fault. You’re not safe as long as he’s here!’

 

Aaron’s face was blotched red, eyes wide and brimming with tears. He knew Andrew wouldn’t change his mind.

 

Andrew rolled to his side and sat up, ignoring the pain that nearly blinded him. He made sure to hold Aaron’s eyes.

 

‘The deal is off,’ Andrew said, ignoring Aaron’s mouth gaping open. ‘You’re free to do whatever the fuck you want. Neil stays.’

 

For now , he didn’t say it out loud. Neil would be gone as soon as their bond was broken. That could take a month, a year. Andrew would keep Neil until he wanted to leave.

Chapter Text

Neil couldn't get enough of the night sky. It’s nothing new, really, the same black curtain full of exit wounds that bled cold and warm light. But the freedom to come up here every night without the constant fear of getting caught and beaten up was a novel experience. Some nights he and Jean sat on the roof of the Fox Tower past midnight, just enjoying the silence. Tonight, Neil was alone and early.

 

Neil and Jean had been at Palmetto for over a month now. Neil had been living at the Tower, while Jean stayed with Wy—with Coach. The Foxes were nothing like the Ravens. If the Ravens were a smoothly running machine oiled with blood, the Foxes were an ill-tempered contraption running on nothing but smoke. There was a clear divide between the upperclassmen and the rest of them—the monsters: Andrew, Andrew’s twin Aaron, their cousin Nicky, and Kevin. Neil was in a peculiar combo of the two because of Matt Boyd. Neil had no idea how, but he’d been adopted by the Foxes’ starting backliner. By proxy, Matt’s soulmate Dan Wilds was also almost nice to him. They were his…friends, Neil could safely say. After the bleak animosity of the Nest, being friends with anyone besides Jean was a foreign phenomenon Neil was only now getting used to.

 

Sometimes it was all too much. Matt and Dan’s friendliness was almost cloying, then there was Nicky and his constant barrage of ‘surely you must swing some way,’ Seth’s violence, Aaron’s prickling antagonism —It was all so new, so…other. Neil had to get away.

 

So he came here, up on the roof, right after dinner. He watched the stars for a long hour before closing his eyes.

 

Palmetto even sounded different. On top of the Nest, there was an eerie silence devoid of even insect sounds. Here, Neil could hear buzzing, creaking, slithering. There was the distant slam of shutting a room door, car engine sounds from further away. The cement under Neil’s body was rough and cold, the wind slightly colder. He could smell a mixture of city smoke and decaying leaves. Neil breathed in all the differences and reminded himself he was at Palmetto, away from the Nest, away from Riko. The biggest reminder was, of course, the burn behind his sternum that linked him to Andrew.

 

The burn was getting brighter. Andrew was coming closer to him.

 

Neil could hear the fall of heavy boots, the roof door protesting at being forced open, then almost complete stillness.

 

Oh, Neil knew it was Andrew’s scheduled time on the roof. He was going to smoke a lot, maybe drink a little, and finally go down to sleep when the little white tablets stopped muddling his thoughts. Andrew preferred to be alone nights like these. He drove Kevin to the court for late night practice once in a while, Neil knew. Kevin had been bugging Neil about coming along.

Andrew was silent. Too silent. Neil was wondering how to make an escape when Andrew dropped down besides his prone form.   

Andrew was watching him. Neil felt an involuntary shiver go through his bones.

 

‘Good. Freeze yourself to death. Saves me the trouble.’

 

Neil snorted. Palmetto wasn't even cold enough to give him goosebumps. ‘What do you have in mind? Stab wound? Car accident?’

 

Andrew glared at him. ‘I'll just push you off.’

 

‘I'll bring you down with me,’ Neil shot back. They were about the same height, though Andrew might have heavier biceps. The two of them would make a nice splatter against the sidewalk down there.

 

‘We're going to Eden's tomorrow,’ Andrew said through a veil of white smoke. It smelled like cinnamon.

 

The monsters went to the club named Eden's Twilight often, all the Foxes knew that. Why was Andrew telling Neil?     

 

His silence must've been confused enough, because Andrew sighed dramatically. ‘You're coming along, dumbass.’

 

‘What, like Matt?’ Matt told Neil about the whole Eden's fiasco with The monsters and how it had ultimately helped him. Before the relapse, Matt was switching so much with Dan that they'd even thought about finding a way to severe the bond. Now look at them. They were healing, if not thriving. As used to abuse as Neil was, the possibility of being treated harshly was rather off-putting. He hated drugs in his blood. They took away his control over his own body, his last weapon, and he hated it. ‘But I don't drink,’ he told Andrew.

 

‘Then you won't drink,’ came the answer. ‘Just make sure you wear something other than…that.’ Andrew eyed Neil's simple tee shirt and jeans with derision.

 

Neil scoffed. They were Andrew's old things. Hypocrite. ‘I won't wear black, or red,’ he reminded Andrew. It wasn't easy finding the whites and grays in Andrew's closet full of black, but Neil managed. He wouldn't go back to wearing Raven colors, not even for clubbing.

 

Andrew looked at him with an unreadable expression. ‘Alright.’         

 


 

 

Andrew hated Neil. Oh, and he hated Nicky, too, for dressing Neil in that .

 

Andrew knew he would've picked black had he went shopping for Neil himself. So he'd given the duty to Nicky instead. As a result, Neil was wearing a pair of subtly fashioned gray skinny jeans that did wonders for his ass. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that pink silk shirt. The color was surprisingly soothing for something that Nicky picked up. It accentuated Neil's caramel skin, made his eyes look bluer, if that were even possible. The fabric stretched over his chest and biceps. Andrew felt his mouth water, and he took a long drag out of his glass. No. Uh-uh, nope. Neil was a bad idea on legs. Nice legs, though.

 

Nicky coughed to get Andrew’s attention, smugness oozing out of his pores. ‘You owe me a drink,’ he said in German, ‘or maybe I owe you a drink for letting me dress him. He looks fucking edible, mm-hmm.’

 

‘He can hear you and understand you,’ Neil bit out, not even looking at Nicky. ‘That's not very polite.’

 

Nicky spluttered. Andrew took another drag of his drink, put down his glass, and caught Nicky's glittery black tie in his fist.

 

‘Stop salivating over him,’ he hissed in English, making sure he was heard by everyone at their table. He didn't react when the others left the table, quietly sliding out of their seats. That left just Neil.

 

Hmm, just Neil.

 

As if on cue, Neil leaned across the table and took one of Andrew’s beer mats. ‘So, when are you going to drug me like Matt? I'd prefer to get it out of the way.’

 

Out of the way for what? Andrew didn't ask. ‘I'm not going to drug you,’ he told the redhead. He did want to. He was letting a complete stranger near his brother, his cousin, his charge. He needed to make sure Neil was safe to keep. But oh, he must have been out of his mind—he trusted Neil, trusted him to answer with the truth when asked.

 

‘We're going to play a little game, runaway. I give you a truth, you give me one in return. The truth, and only the truth. Yes or no?’

 

Blue eyes darted around the crowded club. ‘Yes. But not here. Somewhere private.’    

 

Andrew took him to the backroom he still had access to. He ignored Roland's smirk on the way. Inside, it was dark and musty. Andrew upturned a couple of empty crates to sit on.

 

Neil was even more agitated in there. ‘Go on,’ he said, rolling the unopened soda can between his palms.

 

Andrew let the muted music slosh over him, his veins pleasantly warm, free of the damned medicine. For a second, he imagined doing to Neil what he used to do to Roland, here, in the same room. Would Neil be silent, or vocal? Would he look flushed, incoherent, blissed out? What would his pleasure taste like? ‘Why did you pick this name?’

 

Neil was startled. Perhaps he was expecting a more invasive question.

 

‘It's the last name I chose for myself,’ he said. ‘When Mom and I were on the run, I mean. She picked most of my names. This one I picked on my own. I don't like my real name. Reminds me too much of my dad.’

 

Andrew nodded, accepting the answer, and waited for Neil's question.

 

‘Your armbands…are they just for the knives?’

 

Oh, Andrew didn't like that, he didn't like that at all. ‘As if you haven't peeked, little rabbit.’

 

‘I haven't,’        

 

‘Why should I believe you?’

 

Neil sighed. ‘Because I know you haven't seen mine, either.’

 

Andrew hadn't, but he'd felt them scraping at the inside of his clothes when he and Neil switched. Andrew had let Jean Moreau take care of the bruises on Neil’s torso, because he knew, he knew it was breaching a line, taking away the choice of consent. But he'd never expected the same from Neil.

 

The room had a small ventilator, grimy with years of neglect. Andrew stood under it, lit up, and took a lungful of smoke. ‘Ask me later,’ he concluded, not feeling up to opening that particular can of worms. He was curious to see the scars on Neil's body, too, but that would have to wait.

 

Neil hummed. ‘Why don't you play with Kevin at night?’      

 

Andrew rolled his eyes. ‘Because I don't care for exy.’

 

‘But you're so good! You could be Court! You—’

 

‘Save it,’ Andrew cut him off, sick of hearing about exy so often, then brushed off his clothes. ‘Come on.’

 

‘That's it?!’    

 

Andrew didn’t answer. A couple of seconds later he heard footsteps behind him, and felt eyes fixed at the back of his neck. When he blinked, the darkness behind his lids glowed blue.


 

 

It was late and Neil was tired, but he tried hard to stay awake. He was in the car with the twins, Nicky, and Kevin. Aaron and Kevin were both out cold, Nicky was tipsy, and Andrew, well, Andrew really shouldn't have been driving. He looked pale and exhausted. Neil kept an eye on him the whole ride. Neil was practically drooping as the car pulled up to a suburban house. The two of them had to help the other three to bed. After that, Neil only vaguely remembered falling face-first onto the couch cushions.

 

He woke hours later, momentarily disoriented and alarmed by unfamiliar darkness. After a brief toilet break, Neil couldn’t slip back into sleep, so he went out to the porch and almost collided with the black-clad figure sitting down.

 

Andrew had a knife out before he recognised Neil. But even then the thin silver blade didn't disappear under his armbands. Instead, Andrew pointedly placed it by his side before going back to smoking.      

 

Neil really should’ve left him be.

 

He sat next to the knife and stole Andrew's cigarette. That earned him a nasty glare but not much else. Andrew lit up again.

 

Neil took a drag from the cigarette and cupped it in his hands, let the smoke wrap around him. This late (or early) he felt detached from reality, as if he could do anything and not face the consequences come morning.

 

‘Why are you wasting my cigarette?’ Andrew sounded sleepy and petulant.

 

Neil took another drag to keep the cherry lit. ‘The smoke reminds me of my mom,’ Neil said. ‘We were running from my father's men, and I hadn't realized she was dying. We made it to the coast of California when she told me to stop. She made me promise to stay away from exy and to never reveal my real identity. I burned her along with the car. But I couldn’t keep the promise. My father's men caught me a month later.’

 

Neil closed his eyes against the onslaught of memories. He remembered the horrible smell of blood slowly replaced by the burning stench, the horrible hopelessness settling into his bones, getting caught by Romero and letting go of all hope of coming out alive.

 

There was a hand on the back of Neil’s neck, shoving his head down. Belatedly, Neil realized he was having a panic attack. Andrew's hold on him was a steel trap, holding him down till he took a shuddering breath, then another, and another. Andrew let go the moment Neil was back to breathing somewhat normally.

 

Neil’s cigarette was long lost but he doesn’t light another. Andrew smoked enough to fill the corner of the porch with a small cloud. Neil was starting to feel drowsy when Andrew pulled a key ring out of his pocket. He worked a small piece of shiny metal out of the ring and dropped it on Neil's lap, then he was gone before Neil could open his mouth. Neil held the key up to the streetlight’s faint illumination.     

 

It looked like a key to the house.

 


 

Don't kiss him, Andrew firmly told himself when Neil appeared out of the house in the dead of night, like a fragment of the dream he'd woken from.

 

Don't kiss him, Andrew told himself when Neil stole his cigarette and pressed his lips where Andrew's lips were, moments ago.

 

Don't kiss him, Andrew told himself when Neil closed his eyes and threw his head back.

 

Don't kiss him, he chanted when he felt Neil's warm skin under his palm, the boy shuddering at his touch.

 

Don't you dare kiss him, he thought when Neil looked up with eyes like the moon when Andrew practically threw the key at him.

 

Don't go kissing him, he whispered to himself as he buried his face in his bed. It could only go badly.

 


   

 

Everyone except Neil was hungover the next morning. They grumbled and complained, but eventually got in the car and drove back to campus. Neil wanted to ask Andrew about the key. He wanted to ask why , but there wasn't time. There was another matter that Neil needed Andrew's help with.

 

The drive back took way too long for Neil's patience. Andrew parked in front of the Tower and let the others dismount first. He glared at Neil when Neil showed no sign of getting out or even taking off his seatbelt.

 

Neil sighed. Better get this over with. ‘I need you to take me somewhere.’

        

‘Where, exactly?’

 

‘There's someone my mother knew. He helped break her bond with my father. I contacted him, and he gave me a location.’

 

Andrew looked out the window. ‘Everyone says the bond is unbreakable. How do you know this guy isn't a con artist?’

 

‘If it hadn’t worked, my father would've switched into my mother's body and killed us. That didn't happen. She went to this man right after we escaped. She wanted him to ‘fix’ me as well, but he couldn't do anything before the first switch.’

 

‘Fine. His methods are tried and tested by your mother dear. But what if this is a trap?’

 

‘That's why you're coming along,’ Neil said with a certainty he didn't feel.

 

Andrew shot him another glare. ‘And why should I?’

 

‘You’ll get me out of your hair sooner?’ Neil tried.

 

Andrew sighed. ‘Fine, but later. Get out.’

 

Neil scrambled out, belatedly remembering Andrew had a scheduled session with Bee. He ran up the stairs excitedly. He also remembered he was supposed to start training with the Foxes today.

 


 

 

Training went bad, really bad. Neil was frustrated with the Foxes’ incompetence. What frustrated him the most was that he could plainly see the team could be better. He’d been watching all their games and practices since he stepped foot in Palmetto. Why they wouldn't play as a team he just couldn’t understand. Neil felt something like sympathy for Kevin, who always complained about the Foxes.

 

‘Your methods of yelling and running them ragged isn't helping,’ Neil accused. ‘They need to feel like a team, first.’ The two of them were studying at the library, or were supposed to be. Instead they were squabbling over plays and player stats and what ifs.  

 

‘How?’ Kevin sighed. ‘They don't trust us since the Matt disaster.’

 

‘They’ meaning the upperclassmen and ‘us’ meaning the monsters. Neil still wasn't fond of the terminology.

 

‘I’ll ask Andrew to invite them along to Eden's, soon. Alcohol is a good social lubricant.’

 

Kevin gave him a look. ‘You don't even drink.’

 

‘Bad memories,’ Neil murmured. They should get going, they're supposed to see meet Jeremy at the airport, then bring him to Jean. Neil was packing up his books when his phone vibrated. A text from Andrew, telling him to get to Bee's. Neil frowned.  

 

‘Can you handle being around Jean by yourself?’ he asked Kevin. ‘I gotta go to Betsy's.’ His insides squirmed at the thought of being near the psych again.

 

‘Alright,’ Kevin said, looking a little pale. He still wasn’t completely over his guilt about leaving the Nest without Jean, but he was coping. He could almost look Jean in the eye. Almost.

 


 

 

Jeremy Knox had been told once (by a lover) that he was like a stray piece of sunshine the sun forgot to take back from the earth. Jeremy had laughed, feeling charmed. But that little bit of compliment was something he'd chosen to believe ever since.

 

Right now, standing in a dimly lit sitting room in front of his soulmate, he didn't feel so confident.

 

The man he was destined for, the man he's loved since they'd switched (once and never again), was every bit as beautiful as Jeremy has ever seen. His pale face glowed, dark, raincloud-gray eyes averted, red lips sealed silent.

 

‘How long are you going to deny me? Us?’ Jeremy whispered.

 

‘There's no us,’ Jean said, just as quiet. They were alone in this stranger's house. Kevin had left quickly after dropping Jeremy off. But speaking loudly still felt like a crime.

 

‘You're my-’

 

‘No,’ Jean said firmly, still not looking at Jeremy. ‘I'm your nothing. Stop trying already.’

 

‘Oh.’

 

What had he thought? That after all these years of ignoring him, Jean would miraculously accept that they had a bond just because he was out of The Nest? Why was Jeremy doing this to himself?   

 

Jeremy took a step back, then another, turning his back to Jean. He felt tears gathering at the base of his throat, as painful as the wound in his chest. He took a few deep breaths, cleared his throat.

 

‘Fine. But you should still join the Trojans.’ He tried to sound cheerful ‘We'll take care of your transfer, and you'll be a great asset to the team. Please give it some thought. I'll leave the paperwork with Kevin.’

 

A moment of silence from behind him. ‘Fine. Now leave.’      

 

Jeremy didn't wait. He was out of the house in an instant, looking for a taxi to get back to his motel. Overhead, the sky started to weep.

 


 

 

Having both Neil and Bee in the same room at the same time was amusing, Andrew decided. Neil was short, but as buff as Andrew. Except he was trying to curl into himself in Bee's presence. It was downright hilarious. Andrew suspected he hadn't heard a word she's said. That's okay, Andrew remembered every word.

 

‘It has to wait,’ he told Neil when they sat down with Abby and Wymack later. ‘I can't just go into rehab right away. Coach will announce the team lineup, and Riko will be maaaaad about you and Kevin. He'll try to hurt you. I'm not leaving you unprotected.’

 

‘Andrew, the sooner you're sober, the sooner you can get back to supporting the team,’ Neil urges. Fucking junkie. ‘I'll keep Kevin safe. I promise.’

 

Andrew hated him, hated that earnest look in his eyes, hated that he couldn't help giving in.

 

‘I'll decide after we meet your friend,’ Andrew said. Neil's eyes widened with understanding. He nodded slowly. Andrew ignored Wymack and Abby's protests as he stood. Neil could deal with them. Andrew had had enough today.

 


 

 

The informant was named “Kalvin Klein.” Andrew heard the name and immediately broke down in laughter. Neil felt embarrassed and worried that the pruny old man would decline to help them. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Mr. Klein just told them to sit and state their business.

 

‘I want the cure you gave my mother,’ Neil said.

 

The man's lined forehead scrunched up as he squinted at Neil. ‘Cure? What cure? All I remember giving your mother is the Switch inhibitor.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Your mom wanted to eliminate any possibilities of switching, so she took the inhibitor. Just one drop is effective for a week, and she took bottles of the shit with her, enough for a few years.’  

 

Yes, Neil knew all of this. Except, his mother had told him it was the cure.

 

‘You know there isn't any ‘cure’ for the bond, laddie,’ Kalvin continued. ‘It's for life. But if you keep taking the inhibitor, the bond is temporarily deactivated. That's the best anyone can offer you.’

 

Neil was having a hard time swallowing the fact that his mother had fed him such a blatant lie, that he'd believed her. How could he be so stupid?

 

‘Fine, we'll take the inhibitor,’ Andrew interjects. Neil snapped his eyes to the smirking blond. Why did he look do amused? He should’ve been just as frustrated as Neil. Neil took care of the payment (cash only) as casually as he would buy groceries, and then they were out of the rundown little shack with a pretty blue bottle.

 

‘That was so expensive,’ Neil lamented as they drove away. ‘How am I going to afford it all my life?’

 

‘Ask Moreau where he gets it, maybe?’ Andrew suggested.

 

Neil frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

 

‘Moreau takes it, I've seen him. He keeps it in a bottle of supplements.’

 

‘Those are his vitamins!’

 

‘Oh Neil,’ Andrew sighed. ‘It looks and  smells the same. Now, if you want to drink this piss for the rest of your life, you better go ask Moreau where to get it cheaper. I'll even drop you off at Coach's place.’

 

Neil banged his head back on the headrest. ‘I didn’t even think he had a soulmate. He's always saying he doesn't believe in it! Oh no, who is his Soulmate? What if it's Kevin? What if it's Riko?’        

 

‘Can't be Riko.’

 

‘How do you know?’

 

‘Can't have a soulmate without a soul,’ Andrew muttered. He'd pulled up to a diner; neither of them had had anything to eat for hours.

 

The inside was greasy, but the coffee smelled amazing. Andrew ordered a pile of waffles, but Neil felt too wound up to eat. He watched Andrew separate the fruits from his waffle toppings onto a napkin and shove them towards Neil.

 

‘I'm fine,’ Neil said a little perplexed at the offering of fruit. Had Andrew noticed that he barely eats anything else?

 

‘Don't be an idiot,’ Andrew said, not looking up from the waffles he was drowning in syrup. ‘Kevin will be a crybaby if I take you to practice with hypoglycemia.’       

 

‘How considerate of you,’ Neil said drily. He munched on the fruits and felt the nausea leave him bit by bit. ‘I have a favor to ask.’

 

The blond grunted through his waffles, cheeks puffed up like a chipmunk.

 

‘I want to take the upperclassmen to Eden's with us, this weekend.’

 

Hazel eyes sharpened in a second. Andrew swallowed and put his fork down. ‘Why?’   

 

‘The team can't go on like this. We need everyone to work as a team. Partying together might accomplish that.’

 

‘Or they could all get into a fight at the bar,’ Andrew pointed the knife at him. ‘Then what would you do?’

Neil waved the knife away. ‘Just tell me, yes or no?’     

 

‘You're a nuisance,’ Andrew told him.

 

‘Is that a yes?’

 

Andrew's petulant glare was answer enough.

 


 

What, Andrew thought, was he doing to himself? It's one thing to rescue your soulmate from a terrible situation. But actually crushing on him? What the fuck was he thinking?

 

It'd bad enough that he'd played with the team this morning. He had been happily shooting balls at Seth and Kevin's kneecap when Wymack sent Neil to get him to stop. Fuck, even the old coot had noticed. Andrew might as well get on his knees and propose.

 

And what was Neil thinking, looking at him like that? The redhead was dressed in a loose  green shirt and blue jeans that any other time would've made Andrew choke. But not tonight. Tonight, it was all about the eyes . The girls had taken Neil away for a few minutes, and when he came back, he was wearing black nail polish, matching Andrew, and black eyeliner that made his eyes look huge. Andrew literally couldn’t look away.   

 

Neil didn't socialize, didn't drink, didn't dance. He left the Foxes alone. Was he hoping this one night will change everything? Pathetic.

 

Jean Moreau was with them tonight, and so was Jeremy Knox. Soon Neil was hugging Jean goodbye. Andrew noticed someone else watching the pair. Knox. The happy-go-lucky Trojan looked anything but. Interesting.

 

The duo took their leave and Neil returned to Andrew's table. How unnecessary. Couldn't he have sat with literally anyone else?         

 

‘Why does everyone think you'll do what I ask?’ Neil grumbled.

 

‘What are you talking about?’

 

‘That thing with Coach Wymack. He sent me to ask you to stop hurting the strikers. And Kevin just begged me to ask you for a favor. Why do they think you'll agree to anything I say? You literally want me gone from your life. You hate me!’

 

Andrew meant to say, ‘Yes.’ But what actually came out of his mouth was, ‘Every inch of you. That doesn't mean I wouldn’t blow you.’

 

Neil gaped at him, speechless for once.

 

‘You—you like me?’

 

‘I just said I hate you. Are you deaf?’ Andrew threw back the last of his scotch and got up. Kevin was about to give himself alcohol poisoning, and-

 

‘Andrew!’

 

Renee held up a white faced Allison, tears trailing down her face.

 

‘Seth, Seth is-’

 

Chapter Text

‘This is a bad, bad idea,’ Kevin's voice shook as Neil pushed the car harder. ‘You should've listened to what Ri-’

 

‘Shut the fuck up!’ Neil hissed at him. He needed to concentrate on the road. He was supposed to take care of the car and Kevin. Getting in an accident would break his promise to Andrew.

 

‘I'll never do what Riko says, ever again. I'm not going back to The Nest.’ How can you even suggest that?’

 

‘But Andrew-’

 

‘We're going to get him out!  What do you think I'm doing right now?’          

 

Betsy coughed a little from the back seat. ‘Neil, dear, please keep your eyes on the road.’

 

With one last glare at Kevin, Neil got back to driving properly.

 

It had been a month since Seth's death, since Neil had started taking the inhibitor, since Andrew had gone to rehab, since the Foxes had announced Kevin Day and Neil Hatford's debut on the team. The last event had unleashed Riko's wrath on them. Vandalism in the Palmetto campus put everyone on alert. Then, Riko called Neil and as much as confirmed he was behind Seth's ‘overdose’.

 

‘You don't want your childishness to hurt another one of your teammates, do you, Nathaniel?’ the stinky bastard had simpered. ‘I no longer have any use for Kevin. But you,’ he laughed, ‘you can still come back to the Nest and be mine again. Or… something bad might happen to Minyard in that rehab clinic. Mm, maybe I’ll send Drake Spear to him? Do you want that, Nathaniel? I'll send you the plane ticket.’

 

The whole conversation made Neil want to throw up, even though he didn't know who Drake Spear was. Yes, he'd considered the thought of going back to the Nest, if only to keep Andrew safe. But there was no guarantee that Riko will keep Neil alive, even if he did have a pact with Ichirou. There was also no guarantee that Riko would leave Andrew alone even if Neil did do what he was told. He needed another way to keep Andrew safe, a better way. So he did something he'd never done before. He decided to seek help. From Betsy.

 

Andrew's therapist wasn't someone Neil would trust in a thousand years. But he knew Andrew trusted her, and she was one of the few people that could spring Andrew out legally. Neil didn't tell her why, just that it was imperative to get Andrew out of rehab right now.

 

‘One month should be enough for the paperwork,’ she agreed. Her clear gaze cut through Neil, assessing. It made him uncomfortable, but it had to be done.

 

Which is why the three of them were in Andrew's car, hurtling towards Easthaven on a weekend, Neil gritting his teeth, Kevin harping on about Neil making a mistake, and Betsy humming a tune.

 

They reached the hospital just before visiting hour ended. Neil didn't realize he'd expected Easthaven Hospital to look like a prison until it finally came into view and the lack of barbed wire on the fence startled him. The gate was unmanned and the parking lot relatively empty. Neil killed the engine and got out. Betsy asked Kevin to stay in the car.

 

‘I just need Neil to sign some paperwork,’ she says.

 

‘Why me?’

 

‘Either a family member or soulmate needs to sign the release forms,’ she says.            

 

Neil signed the papers in the almost empty reception. The nurse looked at his face tattoo with wide eyes. Neil looked away. He hated hospitals, hated the smell and the sterile whiteness. It was harder to hide his hair and eyes in so much white. Out of the corner of his eyes, he watched Andrew walk out with Betsy.  

 

Andrew looked shockingly different. His expression was blank and his stare empty enough to put a knot in Neil's gut. The manic smile Neil had become used to seeing on Andrew’s face had disappeared, leaving behind a marble statue. They walked towards the car when Andrew swayed on his feet. His breathing was labored. Betsy wrapped an arm around his shoulder and helped him into the passenger seat, while she and Kevin climbed in the back. Neil shot out of the parking lot like a bullet. When they were well and truly away from the hospital, he finally felt a load lift from his chest.  

 

Beside him, Andrew was drenched in sweat. They still had hours to drive . Neil handed Andrew a water bottle. Andrew gripped his wrist instead.

 

‘Pull over,’ he rasped out. Neil swerved to the side of the road just in time for Andrew to open the door and throw up. Neil leaned over and held back his hair, careful to not touch his skin. Andrew was shaking when Neil started driving again.

 

‘We need to get him to Palmetto, fast,’ Betsy murmured. ‘Abby has some medicine he needs.’  Neil pressed on the accelerator.

 

‘Trash my car and I'll kill you,’ Andrew told him.  

 


 

 

They got back to Wymack's place late. It was winter vacation and the Tower wouldn't be open for a few more days. Abby settled Andrew in the guest room and hooked him up to an IV then shoved some pills at Neil. Neil fell asleep on the rug besides the bed.

 

He woke up around dawn, itching for a run. He tried to sit up when a heavy weight pinned him to the floor. The shock of cold metal had him paralysed.

 

‘Andrew?’ he whispered. ‘It's me, Neil. You're not at the hospital anymore. You're at Wymack's house. You're safe.’       

 

Andrew's breathing slowed down and he removed the knife. Instead he grabbed the collar of Neil's t-shirt in a fist. ‘Why?’

 

‘Why what?’

 

‘Why did you get me out early, why aren’t you taking the inhibitor, and why are you still here?’

 

Yes, why was Neil still here? He was supposed to leave as soon as they could find a solution for the bond.

 

‘You told me to keep an eye on Kevin,’ he started. Andrew was silent, so he went on.

 

‘I was supposed to take a drop of the inhibitor last night but I didn’t,’ he confessed. ‘You'll recover faster while the bond is active. And,’ he took a deep breath, ‘Riko told me to get back to the Nest. He said he'd hurt you if I didn't. He said he'd send Drake Sp-’

 

Andrew slapped a palm over Neil’s mouth, eyes murderous in the watery light of dawn. He lowered his hand when Neil went quiet. ‘Do not make the mistake of thinking I need your protection.’

 

‘You spend all this time watching my back, Kevin's, Aaron's, Nicky's. Who's watching yours?’

 

‘It's none of your business, runaway. It's good that you didn’t go back to the Nest. But don't cone running to my rescue, stand down and let me deal with it. Do you understand?’


‘If it means losing you, then no,’ Neil said.

‘I hate you,’ Andrew said casually. ‘You were supposed to be a side effect of the drugs.’

‘I'm not a hallucination,’ Neil said, nonplussed. Andrew scoffed and shifted off of him, then staggered out of the room.

 


 

 

Neil was prepared for Andrew's return to throw a wrench in the team's fragile, newfound rhythm when vacation ended.  Surprisingly, Andrew didn't antagonize them. Much. At the end of the practice session, Matt even congratulated Andrew on finishing rehab early. Andrew threw him a baleful glare and said nothing.

 

The week leading up to Nevada's match was an exhausting blur, but Neil loved almost every moment of it. Mornings were practices with his teammates, his days were wasted on the necessary evil called school, and his evenings were spent at the court. After dinner with the upperclassmen, Neil and Kevin headed back to the stadium for drills. They used Raven drills, but worked harder than ever.

 

The time spent in NY together with others seems to have done wonders for Allison. She was almost back to her flamboyant, polished self. All in all, Neil felt hopeful for the team's chances this year. He said so, to Andrew.

 

‘I'll really shove you off,’ the blond warned through a wall of smoke.

 

Neil snorted. ‘Can we go back to our truth game?’

 

Andrew exhaled and nodded.

 

‘So, Nicky told me that Drake Spear was your foster brother at the last home you stayed at. Why would Riko think to use him against you?’

 

Andrew stiffened, eyes hard. ‘I'll tell you a story,’ he lit up another cigarette. ‘When I'm done, you'll owe me a truth. Her name was Cass Spear-’ It took Andrew a couple more cigarettes to tell Neil everything about the Spears.

 

Afterward, Neil couldn’t find his voice. ‘But, Aaron-’

 

‘Aaron doesn’t believe me,’ Andrew said, waving a hand. ‘Neither did Luther, Nicky's dad. That's why I wouldn’t go to that fucker's house. I don't trust him. Luther thinks Drake is a saint because he doesn't have soulmate. I know the truth. Drake did have one. He killed her.’

 

Neil was surprised. He knew there were people who hated the whole idea of soulmates so much they'd made a cult out of it. Neil's own father was a staunch supporter of such cults. But going so far as to kill your own soulmate…He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Just using the inhibitor had left his insides empty and echoing. He couldn’t imagine Andrew's death.

 

‘What truth do you want?’ he asks.

 

Andrew's eyes linger on the ‘4’ tattooed on his face. ‘Your scars.’

 

Neil had known it was coming. ‘Now?’

 

‘We'll go to Eden's this week,’ Andrew told him. ‘Before that.’

 

‘Okay.’

 


 

 

Something as mundane as winning an Exy match had left Neil positively bursting with joy, Andrew observed. The whole team was celebrating in the girls’ dorm. Even Kevin was acting less neurotic. He and Neil had their heads together, already talking about the next match. Fucking junkies. It was going to be an away match. Andrew is glad that they're going to use the beaten up old bus instead of flying out.

 

Neil broke off in the middle of saying something and checked his phone. Andrew watched his face go white for a second. But Neil shoved his phone back in his hoodie pocket and acted normal. Andrew wondered if it was something to be worried about. Then decided it must be some of that hate-mail Neil's been complaining about. They were either from Riko or his minions, and venomous enough to spark rage even in Andrew.

 

It was nearly time to get ready for Eden's, so Andrew beckoned the two idiots closer. He sent Kevin to change into clubbing clothes in Matt's room. Neil was wide-eyed and apprehensive.    

 

Neil carried the bag into his bedroom to change. When he turned to close the door, Andrew was right behind him. Andrew said nothing but gestured to Neil's shirt. Neil took it off obediently, watching Andrew.

 

On Neil's right shoulder was a burn scar; the triangular shape reminded Andrew of a  hot iron. Andrew put his left hand to it, fingertips lining up perfectly with the raised bumps the iron's holes had left behind. His right thumb found the puckered flesh from a bullet. From there, his fingers travelled down to the slashes on Neil’s stomach.

 

Neil's voice shook, but he told Andrew what each of them were from. Andrew's hand travelled up to Neil's face and stopped on the tattoo.

 

‘You're not Riko's anymore,’ he told Neil. ‘You're not number four, either.’

 

Neil nodded, shivering a little. He was so close that Andrew can almost see through his eyes, count the invisible gold flecks scattered over his nose.

 

Andrew hadn't planned to kiss him, really. But his blood surged with impatience, and he was sinking his hand in russet curls and dragging Neil down that one inch. Neil's breath brushed over his lips and Andrew couldn't hear his thoughts over the rushing of blood in his ears.

 

Andrew kissed Neil like he's kissed a dozen other boys before. Neil kissed like a flower unfurling. Oh, Andrew knew he doesn't swing, hadn't even kissed anyone more than a couple times. The life he'd led has left him with a scarred battlefield of skin and hadn't left much option for romance. Yet as Andrew kissed him harder, deeper, Neil kissed back with more vigor, if not finesse. Andrew nipped at his plump lower lip a little harder than he'd intended, and Neil groaned, loud and drawn out.

This was a disaster, Andrew thought, feeling lightheaded. He didn't want to stop. He wanted to let his hands and mouth map Neil from head to toe, mark him with his teeth. He wanted to press Neil down onto the floor and take him apart till he was incoherent .

 

‘Tell me to stop,’ he grited out.

 

‘No, I don't want you to.’ Neil, stupid Neil.

 

Andrew took a step back. ‘You don't swing. Just because we have a bond, you don't-’

 

‘The bond is deactivated by the inhibitor,’ Neil said and touched a trembling finger to his abused lips. ‘And I've never found anyone to swing for. I want to. I want you to touch me, kiss me,’ he whispered. ‘Kiss me, Andrew.’  

 


 

 

Aaron was pretty sure his brother was fucking Neil, or Neil was fucking Andrew. The two of them eye-fucked way too often these days. His began his suspicions at the start of the season, when the two of them had disappeared from the victory party and reappeared looking, well, thoroughly fucked. Andrew was the same as always, the only thing that gave him away was the hint of pink at the tip of his ears. Neil, on the other hand, he was flustered. Swollen lips, tousled hair, color high on his cheek and lust-blown eyes staring after Aaron's brother. Aaron wanted to put bleach in his eyes, it was so nauseating.

 

But it was also none of his business, just like Katelyn was none of Andrew's business anymore. Aaron was also almost 100% sure Neil was Andrew's soulmate, which meant Neil would probably be with Andrew for a long, long time. Ugh.

 

Aaron tried to keep an eye on the two of them. They were leaning against the back wall, leaning towards each other. The club was a little too crowded tonight, and Aaron kept losing sight of them.

 

‘I'm getting more drinks,’ Nicky said and stood. ‘You want something?’

 

‘I think I'll stop,’ Aaron said.

 

‘Me too,’ Kevin said, surprising both Nicky and Aaron. He usually drank himself to oblivion. ‘I have a bad feeling about today,’ he said, voice low.

 

‘Why?’ Nicky asked. ‘The Ravens haven't been a problem, lately. And we've won our games fair and square.’

 

‘That's what makes me uneasy; they've been too quiet,’ Kevin told them. ‘Also, Neil's father just got bail a few days ago.’

 

Aaron's mouth was suddenly dry. ‘Neil's father, The Butcher of Baltimore?’     

 

‘How'd you know?’

 

‘I just googled Neil's name when he was a Raven. Nathaniel Wesninski, son of notorious criminal Nathan Wesninski.’

 

‘Yes,’ Kevin sighed. ‘Him. He gave Neil to the Moriyamas as payment for something. He won't be happy that Neil got free.’

 

‘We should keep an eye on Neil then, maybe?’ Aaron said, feeling sick. ‘Where did they go?’

 

All three of them stood when suddenly someone shouted and threw a bottle at their table. It exploded with a bang. The crowd started getting louder and more chaotic. There seemed to be a bar fight going on. Aaron felt a chill down his spine. He remembered something similar the day Seth died. He ducked and headed to the wall he'd last seen Andrew standing near, hoping Kevin and Nicky could take care of themselves.

 

Fights were breaking out everywhere. Aaron got pushed around and almost stepped on. He grabbed the neck of a broken bottle he found on the floor. It wasn’t Andrew's knives, but it was still a weapon.

 

The crowd parted, and there was the exit, and then Neil's voice.

 

‘Andrew! Andrew!!’

 

Aaron stopped hearing anything. He ran outside, almost slipping on the steps.

 

A man about Kevin's size had Andrew pinned face-first against the brick wall. Andrew's face was bathed in blood, and the man was fumbling to pull down Andrew's jeans. Aaron was running before his mind registered the urgency. He raised his hand, and with every bit of skill and power gained from Exy training, he slashed at the man's throat.

 

Without support, Andrew slid down the wall, coughing as if he'd been choked. Aaron was by his side in an instant.

 

‘Aaron,’ Andrew said, touching his face. ‘Aaron. Are you hurt? Did he hurt you?’  

 

‘No,’ Aaron said. ‘I don't think he even saw me.’

 

Andrew wiped at the blood at his temple, blinking rapidly. Aaron thought he might have a concussion.

 

‘Neil, they took Neil,’ Andrew said. ‘I couldn’t stop them.’

 

‘Who took Neil?’

 

‘His father.’

 


 

 

Neil waited for the inevitable.

 

He hoped Andrew was safe. He'd seen Aaron run out through the back exit right before Romero shoved Neil in the car and drove away. He was glad he'd been taking the inhibitor regularly, so there would be no risk of them switching. It would hold another day or so, not that Neil will live another week. Knowing his father, he'd be dead before sunrise.

 

Neil wished he'd had the time to thank Andrew for everything, for breaking him out of the Nest, for the keys, the kisses, and the truths. Andrew and the Foxes had given him a taste of what being alive really meant these last few months.

  

But he'd run out of time. He was face down in this warehouse, bleeding from the cuts on his face and arm, suffocating in the smell of burned flesh. When his father, Lola, and another goon came in, he was trying to shove his way out, only to be dragged back and put under his father's cleaver. Nathan Wesninski laughed when the first shot was fired. The smile melted off his face, and he fell to the ground.

 

It took Neil a moment to recognize the man leaning over him and calling his name.

 

‘Uncle Stuart?’ he coughed out. ‘Uncle Stuart!!!’

 


 

 

Andrew sat slumped over himself on the Tower roof. He'd lit a cigarette, but it burned out before he could remember to take a drag.

 

‘You're afraid of heights?’ he remembered Neil chiding him. ‘Why do you always go to the roof then?’

 

‘To feel,’ Andrew had answered, short and succinct. He was doing the same thing now. Trying to feel the warmth behind his sternum that meant Neil's heart was still beating somewhere near him.

 

There was nothing. Not even a spark. It either meant Neil was too far away, his inhibitor was still working, or…

 

According to Neil's habits, he probably took the inhibitor seven days, six hours ago. It should've stopped working. Andrew should've felt something. Maybe Neil’s father had taken him out of the country, flown him somewhere. Or…

 

His phone.

 

Andrew took it out after the ringtone started to grate on his flayed nerves. Abby.

 

‘Andrew,’ her voice was urgent. ‘Come to my place! Please, hurry! Neil needs you.’

 

‘Neil?’

 

‘His uncle just dropped him off. He's lost a lot of blood.’

 

Andrew practically flew down the stairs. He drove to Abby's house and flung the door open.

 

‘-I said I'm fine I just-’

 

Andrew doesn't know when he stepped so close to Neil or how his hands knotted themselves in Neil’s bloody hoodie. Neil's name was a steady chant in his brain and all he could see is blue.

 

‘You,’ he started and then didn't finish.

 

‘Yes, it's me,’ the boy smiled, then winced in pain.

 

‘What did they do to you?’ Andrew said, his hands shaking as he pulls off the bandage covering one side of Neil's face. It was a mess.

 

‘Dashboard lighter,’ Neil said.

 

There was a gasp from behind them, alerting Andrew to the fact that they weren't alone. Andrew didn't give a fuck.

 

Neil lifted a hand wrapped in bandages like a mummy’s. At Andrew's nod, he ran his fingertips over the cut on Andrew's forehead.

 

‘You got hurt because of me,’ he whispered.

 

Andrew shook his head, angry. ‘I got hurt because of The Butcher.’

 

‘He's dead now,’ Neil told Andrew, smiling. ‘Uncle Stuart killed him.’

 

‘Drake is dead too,’ Andrew said.

 

‘You?’

 

‘No, Aaron.’

 

Neil's eyes darted behind him. ‘Good.’ He sighed and cupped Andrew's face in his palm. ‘Listen, Andrew. I told you I would be gone as soon as we broke the bond. I should be going now that I have the inhibitor. If I stay, you'll keep getting hurt because of me.’

 

No , Andrew thought. No.

 

‘I can go,’ Neil said. ‘I can leave you alone, but I don't want to. I don't want to leave any of you. I want to stay, I want to stay here, with you. But if you tell me to go-’

 

‘You can't go!’

 

Andrew and Neil both startled, and Andrew finally took a few seconds to observe the room's occupants. All the Foxes were there, along with a worried Abby and worn-out Wymack. It was Matt who'd spoken out. The tall man looked like he'd break down in tears any second. Behind him, Nicky started audibly sobbing.

 

‘Neil, please don't go,’ he sobbed. ‘We need you.’

 

‘Yes, we want you to stay,’ Dan said, anxious. Even Aaron looked distressed over the whole debacle. Right then, Andrew felt it. A spark behind his sternum. It spred like a wildfire through his limbs till he was burning up from the inside out.

 

Neil let out a pleased sigh, leaning closer to Andrew.

 

‘Well, they've spoken,’ he smiled, amused. ‘Now it all depends on you, soulmate. Yes, or no?’

 

Yes , Andrew wanted to scream. Yes, yes, yes.

 

He dragged Neil closer by the collar of his hoodie and kissed that mischievous smile off his face.

 


 

 

The season's last game was between the Ravens and the Foxes. Andrew didn't remember most of the game, and that was saying something. He just remembered the ache in his muscles from defending the goal again and again, asking Neil to act as a backliner, the last, miraculous goal and the near disaster that happened. He almost couldn't stop Riko from bashing Neil's head in. But he was fast enough.

 

There should have been a ceremony as Edgar Allan passed the championship trophy to their successors. Instead, the celebration was postponed until the morning. In its place were cops and EMTs, statements and interviews.


Riko was rushed out in an ambulance, but the Ravens and Foxes were kept at the stadium until half past two in the morning. The crowd left only when the police forced them to go, and the fans were deathly silent on their way out of Evermore's gates. The Foxes' guests and the Vixens argued for the right to stay but lost.

 

 

The Foxes were quiet when they were finally allowed to shower and change. The long hours since the last bell had temporarily worn away their well-deserved excitement. They were sore all over and drained to the point that moving was a terrible chore. Andrew waited outside the shower for Neil.


A security guard waited outside the changing room door to intercept them. ‘Neil Josten, they have a few last questions for you.’

 

Andrew knew better than to leave him be. ‘I'm coming as well,’ he told the guard. But Neil stepped in front of him.

 

‘I'll be fine,’ he said. ‘I'll be back soon. Wait for me?’

 

‘Fine.’  

 

It was nearly an hour later when Neil came back. Andrew was a nervous wreck inside. But the idiot is smiling.

 

‘Your close calls are getting old,’ Andrew said. ‘I thought you knew how to run.’


Neil blinked, trying to act all innocent. ‘I thought you told me to stop running.’

 

‘Survival tip: no one likes a smart mouth.’


‘Except you,’ Neil reminded him.

 

And damn him, but Andrew can’t argue. ‘Let's go, you can tell me what happened later.’

 

Neil told him on the back of the bus. About Riko and Ichirou and Tetsuji. Andrew fisted a hand in his shirt, over his heart. He was scared out of his mind thinking it could have easily been Neil's brains splattered up in that cursed tower.

 

Back at the hotel, Dan pointedly handed a room key to Andrew, ‘For the two of you,’ she said. Andrew was actually glad to have the privacy. Neil went inside and fell face first into the mattress, groaning.

 

‘I'm never getting up again,’ he mumbled into the pillow.

 

‘Hey Neil, where's that bottle of inhibitor?’

 

‘Mmm, there's a medical kit in my duffel,’ he said, then sat up straight when he heard Andrew rummaging. ‘Why? Only one of us needs to take it for the bond to deactivate. It's not like you need it.’

 

‘I know,’ Andrew said. Then he walked into the bathroom and poured the liquid down the drain.

 

Neil screeched. He actually screeched. ‘What the fuck, Andrew! That was expensive!’   

 

‘You don't need it.’

 

‘What do you mean I-’

 

Andrew knelt on the bed in front of Neil, cradling his face in his hands.

 

‘I thought you were a side effect of my meds,’ he said. ‘I thought what I felt for you was the bond's influence. But it wasn't. You’re mine, with or without the bond.’

 

Andrew should’ve said more. He'd been rehearsing this in his head for too long. But his mouth was dried out like a desert. Neil was looking at him, mouth hanging open.

 

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Yes. Okay,’ then he laughed. ‘I'm yours, but only if you're mine, too.’

 

‘Deal.’

 

----------------- Fin ---------------