He’s ten when he sees him again. Neil isn’t quite sure how much more he can take between his rough schooling, his stiff and clingy suit, and Kevin’s non-stop rambling about history this, history that, but now, a few paces ahead, Neil can just barely make out his form. If he’s honest with himself, he’s not quite sure how he feels about it.
It’s not because he didn’t miss him, or think of him, or… anything else. It’s just that it’s so sudden, so out of the blue, that Neil can’t process it entirely. Here he is, watching a mock battle between a stranger and someone Neil recognizes from his childhood, and the first thing that comes to mind is the memory of sweet cakes and a messy-looking stand.
He had found a boy then; the boy had been older than him, or so Neil had assumed at the time. His face had been red and the man who stood over him looked ready to commit murder. Neil had stepped in then, despite being a child. His title has weight, he finds, even if he didn’t know it then.
The time seems to have stretched like taffy between then and now. They’re still young, but there are years scattered between.
Neil focuses on the distance, where he can make out the golden head of hair and the sunlight trailing over it. Neil almost wishes that the boy would turn and reveal the hazel eyes he remembers.
He thinks, quietly and to himself, that is him and this is it.
His thoughts are disrupted by a push to his back. The reprieve his memories won him evaporates as Kevin returns, loud and noisy and nothing like Neil. He supposes that it’s normal though, since they aren’t really brothers. Wymack didn’t need to tell anyone that much, as it’s pretty obvious from first glance that there’s no way Neil and Wymack are related, let alone Kevin and Neil.
“Neil,” Kevin huffs, loudly and petulantly from Neil’s back, despite the fact he can easily go around or, with his height, even step over him if he is to try hard enough. Or if Neil bends over. “What are you staring at?”
Neil chooses not to respond, because he’s still as transparent as ever. All it takes for Kevin to find the blonde among the others is for him to follow Neil’s gaze. The boy is as small in stature as Neil is, though if Neil has the ability to judge from the distance, he’s likely to say his height is greater.
“Neil,” Kevin tries again, though Neil knows he’s watching the boy just like Neil is and has been. “We have places to be!”
“And?” Neil asks huffily, shrugging his shoulders to get Kevin to back off because he- well, he cares about his duties, but he doesn’t really want to go anywhere.
“Neil!” Kevin says, whiny and loud, and just enough to catch the boy’s attention, it seems. Just as Neil goes to open his mouth and tell Kevin to shut up!, he’s turning. It doesn’t take long for his gaze to fall upon them and render Neil silent.
His eyes are exactly as Neil recalls them, though the lighting adds a glow that makes them seem closer to gold than anything else. It matches the color of the coins Neil had handed over all those years ago when he’d saved his life.
He holds his breath until he approaches, coming closer and closer. It’s much easier to tune out his brother when time seems to slow down and crawl forward at a turtle’s pace.
“Prince Neil,” Andrew says, blandly, tastelessly, with no hints of emotion to color his voice. “Kevin.”
Neil doesn’t know if Andrew recognizes him or if it’s just that they’re overly recognizable due to their title. Neil can feel a tightening in his chest that he can only label as a disquieting sort of hope. He smiles brightly at the feeling.
“Andrew,” he says brightly, like he’s happy to see an old friend. There’s a flicker of—interest, maybe—in Andrew’s gaze and it’s enough to leave him completely breathless and unable to suck in air for a moment. “What are you doing here?”
The air shifts from something soft, yet tense, to something that Neil can’t quite place. The scratch of metal against the sheath of Andrew’s sword is an irritant, but it’s worth the ear-grating sound to watch the light catch on the blade of the sword.
“Training,” Andrew says, the same emptiness having changed as well. There’s something there, Neil thinks. He knows it. He hopes Andrew will say more, but he gives no further information and leaves Neil and Kevin to bask in the short answer and the remaining silence.
“Training?” Kevin finally butts back in before Neil can ask. He’s always been like that; quicker to ask questions and to criticize where Neil is faster to strike and yell and run. “Training for what?”
Neil shoves him, but still looks to Andrew for an answer. His curiosity runs just as deep as Kevin’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let him ask Andrew the questions Neil should be asking. Kevin doesn’t even know him!
Andrew glares at them boredly, or at least, Neil thinks it’s a glare. He can’t really judge, but it seems pretty close to one.
“To be a knight,” Andrew says. “Obviously.”
“Ignore him,” Neil says shortly, reaching up if only so he can shove Kevin back by his face like Kevin happens to do to him all the time. It’s much easier when Neil is able to climb onto the chairs and gain some height. Here, it just looks like he’s only managing to embarrass himself.
Luckily, Neil doesn’t really care what the others think.
“You’re so short, though,” Kevin says from behind Neil’s hand, which only urges Neil to try even harder. He’s only making this worse. Why does Kevin have to be his brother again?
“Maybe I’ll grow,” Andrew says defensively, and Neil drops his hand from Kevin’s face so he can stare at Andrew. Hearing him talk like that is seemingly unusual, but far from unsettling. In fact, Neil is glad to hear it. It isn’t happiness or excitement, but it’s something other than the nothingness Andrew had presented moments ago.
“Why a knight?” Neil interrupts before Kevin can ask any more questions. He wants to say something about the fact that Andrew has, in fact, managed something other than a bored tone, but Neil knows it’s better when Kevin doesn’t speak. He also assumes that if he lets Kevin continue, he won’t be able to stop them.
Eventually, after a few moments of silence and no response, Neil shifts his weight from one leg to the other, a restless energy bouncing through him thanks to the awkwardness of the situation. He’s getting a bit antsy when Andrew finally releases something that isn’t quite a sigh, but very close. “I’ll tell you later.”
“When?” Neil asks, his curiosity reaching its peak. Kevin now just seems confused, which Neil knows is sometimes his default stance. It’s nothing new, really, especially given the fact they live together and Neil knows everything about Kevin.
Andrew grabs him by the ruffles of his uniform collar, ignoring Kevin’s indignant squawking about wrinkles and the like. Neil allows himself to be pulled forward until Andrew can roughly whisper the word ‘tonight’ into his ear.
When Neil opens his mouth to ask where? Andrew huffily mutters “you know where” and that’s it. Andrew merely shoves Neil away and walks off, leaving Kevin to pull him away so they can finally attend to the duties Neil has already forgotten about.
Neil finds that it isn’t that hard to sneak from castle grounds, but he’s known this for a while now. There are nights where his room feels too small and he feels too caged in his own home. Maybe it’s the ghost of his childhood that still lingers from before his mother’s passing, when he still lived with his father. Maybe it’s just that Neil likes to find escapes for himself.
Either way, Neil has found a relatively simple and quick escape route from castle grounds that he’s never gotten caught taking. He takes that same route when leaving to meet Andrew. Curiosity burns beneath his skin and makes the soft and puckered scars beneath his shirt itch with something that’s not quite pain or discomfort for once.
Night is already upon them, the sky lit up by a plethora of bright stars. It’s dark—darker than his room at night when he can’t quite find sleep. While it’s a close call, the moon sits high enough that it’s not dark enough to be considered black.
The stand Neil met Andrew at as a child is gone now, but the remnants remain. There are divots in the ground, left behind by wood dug too deep down for the sake of barter.
Neil isn’t sure how he feels about it being gone. Mostly good, he thinks, since the man who came too close to hurting Andrew and stopping—this—is gone, but there’s a sentimental part of him that wishes at least the stand still stood even if the man did not.
He doesn’t really get a chance to think on it for long, since Andrew is approaching. He’s coming closer and closer, similarly to how he approached during the morning prior. Neil has to squint to be sure it’s him, but Neil is certain he has never met anyone shorter than Andrew.
Which is saying a lot. Kevin isn’t kidding when he called him short.
Andrew is giving him a dull look when he finally reaches Neil. It’s a look so dull that Neil considers the fact that Andrew might be a mindreader. He could easily be bothered by the fact that Neil is mentally calling him short if he is. The earlier ‘I’ll grow’ rings in his ears.
Neil opens his mouth to speak, since it's obvious Andrew isn’t going to, but suddenly there’s a hand covering his mouth and keeping him silent. Andrew’s palm is warm against his lips, but also very annoying since Neil likes to speak.
“Not here,” Andrew says, as if he can hear what Neil is thinking. He has to be a mindreader. Neil wouldn’t believe anything otherwise. He raises an eyebrow in question, because Neil is certain this is where Andrew wanted him to come. Obviously. “Follow me.”
Neil can’t argue, nor can he complain, so he simply settles for following Andrew’s instructions. Though, rather than ‘following’, he chooses to walk right next to him. Maybe he can start some conver-
“Quietly,” Andrew says.
Definitely a mindreader, Neil thinks.
Andrew, apparently, has known about this place for a while. It looks vaguely abandoned, everything coated in a fine layer of dust. Neil’s eyes itch and water at the mere sight, though he, again, isn’t going to complain. Not when Andrew is here and okay, right in front of him.
He can’t lie and say he never thought about him a lot after their initial meeting. From his tiny stature to his choice of stolen goods. Who in their right mind tries to steal sweets when they’re hungry? Certainly there are more substantial foods, right? Neil prefers fruit, anyways.
After a spur of the moment meeting, it feels almost like a dream to be with Andrew. He isn’t entirely sure he’s awake, though he doesn’t quite think he’ll ever be able to dream up a place he has never been to before.
“How’d you find this place?” Neil dares to question, pressing down on the haphazardly spread out hay with the tip of his boot. It doesn’t seem fresh, though that’s expected. He plops down on it anyways, and is pleasantly surprised by Andrew joining him.
It's quiet, and, if Neil is honest with himself, nice, to lay on his back with Andrew next to him. There is a sort of calm that comes from it.
“I used to come here sometimes,” Andrew admits. “It was better than home.”
“I didn’t know you had a home,” Neil quietly replies, because the little Andrew in his mind is scrappy and homeless, with nothing better to do than steal for a little more life.
“Not really,” Andrew huffs, something angry lurking underneath that threatens to make Neil shiver. “A house isn’t always a home, Neil.”
Silence settles over them. It's the easy kind that comes and goes as it pleases with little to no repercussions, and Neil finds that he quite likes it. It's better this way, when there’s no expectations and no school and no overbearing brother.
It's somewhat discomforting, knowing that they both had rocky starts with their lives, though Neil has been saved from his through Wymack. A second chance that was given to him early in life. He’s not quite sure that he’s been appreciating it to the fullest.
Andrew gets his second chance now, maybe, and he is sure Andrew knows it. He has to. There’s no other reason for him to become a knight if he doesn’t.
“Hey, Andrew?” Neil questions after a few moments of silence. He likes this—the quiet and the silence and the calm—but he knows why he had initially come here, what had really led up to this moment. “Why did you become a knight?”
“You saved my life,” Andrew says, his answer a mere breath, a whisper, the wind passing by. “I have to repay you somehow.”
It isn’t until Neil is a little older and their meetups are a little more sporadic that he finally makes the decision to visit his uncle. Stuart’s kingdom is dissimilar to the Foxhole’s, but the teaching there would be ‘an experience’, as he is told.
It’d also give him an opportunity to meet his family, the side that he hasn’t had time with, seeing as he was busy getting transferred from his old home to the castle with Wymack. He is better with him, he knows, but he feels so disconnected sometimes.
He can’t even remember Mary’s voice.
So, to Stuart it is. It's a simple plan. He is to be gone for a whole year, give or take. He can come back early if necessary, but he knows Wymack wouldn’t want him to. It's better if he just stays the whole time, to really get a feel for what his life would’ve been if Stuart had taken him in.
Neil doesn’t really want to consider it, but Kevin is griping and Wymack is hopeful and—he can’t let them down.
‘You saved my life’ still rings in his ears everytime he looks at Wymack and… it wouldn’t be fair. ‘I have to repay you somehow.’
He definitely knows how that tune goes, doesn’t he?
Neil lingers at Kevin’s side, his books weighing ten times heavier in his arms. Maybe it isn’t just the books that are heavy, but it feels like it. He feels the weight of every word he’s going to have to tell Andrew, the way he’ll have to explain everything. He can’t just leave.
Yet, he will be. And he has already made the final decision.
His stomach twists and rebels against his mind’s continuous onslaught of traitorously negative thoughts, but it's no use against the heaviness.
Kevin nudges him, though it's nowhere near as forceful as usual. “You’re thinking about Andrew,” he says matter-of-factly. His eyes aren’t even on Neil, so it's questionable how he knows that much. “You should focus. Before you trip.”
Unlike Kevin, Neil has managed to learn to think and walk at the same time. It's a very useful skill to have sometimes, especially when it comes to moments like these. “I’m not going to trip.”
“So you were thinking of Andrew?” Kevin presses.
“How’d you even know that?”
“You have a look.”
“You aren’t even looking at me, Kev,” Neil points out, though his voice comes out much whinier than he intends for it to.
“I looked at you earlier. You’ve been thinking about him this whole time.”
Yeah, Neil can’t really argue against that. Still, Neil gives him an irritated look for his troubles. Maybe he is thinking of Andrew, but that doesn't mean Kevin can call him out like that. Besides, Kevin is probably thinking about… history… or sword fighting… or both. Andrew is better than that, at least.
Despite Kevin’s nagging and Neil’s wayward thoughts, Neil manages to make it to the training grounds without tripping over himself (or anything else) along the way. He’s rather smug about it, and shoot his brother a ‘look’ for good measure.
“Yeah, yeah,” he hears Kevin mutter.
That’s the last of their conversation until after their practice, which Kevin labels as ‘poor’ due to Neil’s lack of focus and concentration. He finds himself losing more often than not this time, which is strange when placed in conjunction with all their other spars.
At multiple points within the mock battle, he finds himself being yelled at to ‘focus!’ and ‘pay attention!’, but Neil can’t keep his mind from wandering, wandering, wandering to Andrew everytime. The ball of anxiety in his stomach makes him clumsy and his thoughts make him weak, which is a dangerous combination when handling sharp objects and weaponry. Luckily for him, however, it’s only a spar and they wouldn’t go as far as to damage each other past small accidental scratches.
It isn’t until after they’re done fighting, their swords polished and set back in their sheathes, and their breaths are coming heavily from their open mouths that they get a small chance to talk.
“You were sloppy today,” is Kevin’s first comment, to which he merely receives a tired grunt. “Neil.”
“I know, Kev,” Neil huffs, flopping onto his back petulantly. He doesn’t care about how sloppy he is right now. It won’t really matter that much, because in a week he’ll be out of the kingdom and away from Kevin and away from Wymack and away from Andrew.
“Are you nervous?” Kevin asks quietly, staring down at Neil from where he is standing. Neil doesn’t really want to look at him while he’s doing this. He is too tall and Neil doesn’t care to see the look in his eyes.
“Going to the Hatfords,” Kevin explains. “Seeing the rest of your… family.”
“No,” Neil says, because he isn’t. It isn’t seeing them that makes his stomach twist and rumble, and it isn’t seeing them that made him sloppy and bad today.
“Then what is it?”
“How do I tell Andrew?” Neil sighs out, throwing his arm over his eyes to block out everything—the light, his brother, everything else. His mind can’t be shut off, but he sure does wish.
“You just… tell him,” Kevin offers weakly. Neil doesn’t expect much more. That’s exactly what he’ll be doing, with the same weak words.
They lay like that a little longer, two brothers worn out from the scrape of clashing swords and the heavy movement of a practice battle. Their breathing is evening out, no longer coming out in endless pants, and the air between them is no longer thick and tense from anxiety and a thousand questions.
“Hey, Neil?” Kevin asks, quietly, breaking the peaceful silence they gathered.
“You’re not gonna forget about dad and I while you’re gone, are you?”
“No, Kev,” Neil says, his fists clenching. There’ll be too much to forget. Physical fights and spars, quiet moments, the secure feeling of being home. He can’t just let that all go, not even for the idea of blood family. “I could never forget you.”
Night comes too quick. One moment he is spread out on the grass with Kevin, his arms outstretched and all worries resting at the back of his mind, the next he is sneaking from the castle with bile rising in his throat. There is an an anxious feeling eating at his stomach, gnawing at the him from the inside out.
It could be the hunger, he thinks plainly to himself, though he knows it isn’t likely. He’d picked at his food at dinner with an appetite that had long since disappeared, and that left only one thing to haunt him.
Time seems to lose itself during Neil’s trek to meet Andrew, slipping between going too slow and too fast and simply swallowing Neil whole. Maybe it's the anxiety perched high above him, out of reach where not even sitting on Kevin’s or Wymack’s shoulders can give him the vantage to obtain.
He only pauses once, to stare down at his shaking hands. He curls them into fists and wonders if he has enough time to calm himself before he has to speak. Seeing that arrives before the quivering ceases, he can only assume not. Counting to ten over and over again in the various languages he’s been allowed to learn doesn’t seem to help any.
Neil hopes it's too dark for Andrew to read his anxiety.
“Neil,” Andrew mutters from beside him, quiet and stoic as usual. Neil wonders if he can tell what he is thinking, if he can feel the way that everything he wants to say is vibrating through his torso and outside him, a phantom of his words that won’t seem to die or break free.
“I’m leaving,” he finally says, voice hard and rough and so far from gentle. He can’t find that part of him on the inside or the out, because everything is hard right now. He thinks if anything feels bad, it's this. It's the guilt that runs through him because he knows how he sounds—angry and not quite afraid. But he also knows how he feels, outside himself and like everything is a size or two too tight.
He doesn’t want to leave. But he also does.
“Neil,” Andrew starts again, nice and low and labored, and holding back everything Neil knows he wants to say. He can feel the words weighing down his voice, the stiffness of his body, the subtle shifts and changes that he knows Andrew wants to hide. Andrew has always been better at hiding things, and yet here they are. “What do you mean?”
He swallows down the lump in his throat, though it lingers. It fails to leave, to disappear, and Neil realizes it's just like his anxiety, his problems, and everything else he’s ever wished gone; hard to ignore and hard to make disappear. “I’m going to the Hatford kingdom,” Neil starts, tiptoeing his way around the conversation, because he doesn’t know how else to get it all out.
“They’re the only family I have left—or, blood family. I’m going to be studying there for a bit.” The words feel wrong on his tongue, but it's the truth and it has to come out eventually. His anxiety holds out to combat him on it, struggling and fighting against each syllable as if it making him trip over his own tongue will stop Andrew from understanding and asking and—
“When?” Andrew cuts through Neil’s internal panic, steady and tense, his voice a product of the honesty Neil has given. “How long?”
“Andrew,” Neil whispers, pleading and low. There is a snake coiling in his belly, all venom and fangs and Neil isn’t sure he’ll be able to hold up under the duress of Andrew’s questions and probing. “I won’t be gone for long. I promise. It’s only a year, give or take.”
Silence struck just like that and threatens to churn through his being like cough syrup with too much medicine and too little flavor. “How,” Andrew starts after a moment’s pause, voice heavy, yet lacking intonation, “How could you promise that when you don’t know for sure?”
“Andrew,” Neil says again, unbelieving but bold; tired but awake. “I would never leave you. Not if I had a choice.”
“And if you don’t have a choice while you’re gone? If you die? Get killed? Kidnapped? What then, Neil?” Andrew’s eyes, hazel in the dark of the night are guarded and his voice is calm, but Neil can hear the strained tone, the way he is holding himself back from losing control.
“I promise I’ll try my best to come back,” Neil says, a hair away from touching. He pauses before he can. He isn’t scared of touching Andrew, but he is unsure of if he is allowed. He also won’t let himself derail their conversation—not when he’ll be gone come morning.
“And if your best isn’t good enough, Neil?” Andrew asks, reaching to grip the sleeve of Neil’s shirt. His grip is tight and the material wrinkles beneath it, but Neil doesn’t dare move away. Andrew won’t hurt him.
“I need you to trust me, Andrew,” Neil says, quietly, a breath shared between the two of them. “I haven’t let you down before, have I?”
Andrew holds his gaze for a moment that passes like years. They are two people lost in the night, afraid of the fog and the unknown that crosses between them and threatens to overwhelm. “No. When do you leave?”
The next day sees Neil leaving his home kingdom, teary-eyed and steadily becoming numb. He knows why he is doing it, he knows when he’ll come back (if he comes back), and he knows what he is doing. What he doesn’t know is why it hurts so much to leave.
Sure, he knows, objectively, that he’ll miss Wymack and Kevin and Andrew. He knows, objectively, that there’ll be that quiver of his heart. But he’s made this choice, this decision.
He decides to ignore it—all of it.
“You look… just like your mother.”
Those words are unfamiliar to Neil. It’s not that Wymack has failed to say it, it's just that he is more commonly compared to his father than anything else. It feels nice to hear those words instead, even if they are the first words uttered to him—no hello, no warmer welcome, just another comparison.
He brushes his hand through his horse’s hair for a moment, allowing his fingers to become entangled in the strands. This is unfamiliar territory to him; he knows Wymack better than he knows his blood father, but Stuart is someone he’s hardly met. The only thing he remembers is cups of tea and calloused fingers running through his hair.
“I- uh. Thank you, Uncle Stuart.”
Neil doesn’t know how to do many things. He doesn’t know how to stop the nightmares that sometimes approach, he doesn’t know how to keep to Kevin from ranting, and he doesn’t quite remember the lilt to his mother’s voice. Of all the things on the ever-growing list of things he doesn’t know how to do, he never thought he’d have to add knowing how to talk to his own uncle to the list.
He was mistaken.
“Here, you can leave your horse-” Stuart continues, the same accent that curved Mary’s words on his tongue, just a little thicker and heavier, Neil guesses. His mother’s had faded a bit when she went with his father. He grips his horse’s mane tighter before forcing himself to release her.
He pats her twice on the back before finally stepping away. Stuart sets a guiding hand to his shoulder, and Neil can’t help but feel small—too small.
He knows Stuart better than he knows his way around the kingdom, but trusts Stuart less than he trusts the grounds he steps on. Neil knows how to run and he knows his way back, but part of him, the tight ball of dread coiling in his stomach, reminds him that he doesn’t know anything better than Stuart does. Running would be hard, so he lets Stuart guide him further into the kingdom grounds.
Neil tries not to let his worry get the best of him.
Stuart does many things Neil finds himself being surprised by. He knew Stuart would be kind, he’s known that since he made the decision to study in this kingdom. His mother’s brother has been nothing but kind. He knows the only reason Mary had felt so much resentment towards him is because she was nothing if not a free spirit and he’d been trying to tie her down and push her away from his father.
Neil wishes she would’ve listened.
Still, he doesn’t expected Stuart to have tea brewing everytime Neil returns from his studies. He doesn’t expect Stuart to keep from pushing too hard when Neil wanders around in the middle of night instead of sleeping. He doesn’t expect Stuart to show him new techniques when it comes to swords and duels.
And yet, here they are.
Stuart takes a hearty sip of his tea, his eyes closing. Neil recognizes the shade to be somewhere close to what Mary’s had been, but he can’t directly pinpoint how close or far they are. He takes a sip of his own tea to swallow down the guilt he feels when he realizes how little he can truly recall about his own mother. Outside pictures, he doesn’t remember much at all.
“How are your studies going?”
Neil sets his cup down, but keeps his hands circled around the sides. Small talk isn’t common with Wymack. There are no questions about his studies, because he knows if Neil wants to talk about them, he will. Kevin is more likely to pesture and bug him than anyone else, simply because he has a heavy fascination with being the best. He’s received a couple letters about everything already.
“They’re… good. Different.” Neil isn’t entirely sure how else he can describe them. Studying isn’t his favorite way to pass the time, nor is it anything he particularly enjoys. There are very few subjects that he isn’t daydreaming or considering something else during.
If Kevin was here, he’d give Neil a heavy nudge to the side to keep him focused. Instead, he is here alone, with strangers and people he hardly knows. He is thankful for the opportunity—this is where his mother grew up and learned, and it's where the last of his blood family is—but he misses his family. And Andrew.
“Yeah? Are you liking it any better than home?” Stuart is—curious, Neil finds. He has many questions and he wants more answers, but Neil also knows he won’t pry too much if Neil expresses discomfort or anything similar. Neil also knows Stuart, along with himself, has a habit of comparing the Hatford kingdom to the Foxhole.
Neil sucks in a quiet breath and releases it. “It’s good- here, I think,” he says, softly, while his blue eyes shift to look down at the remaining tea in his glass. He refrains from moving his gaze again. “I miss home, though.”
“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Stuart says, coming closer only so he can ruffle Neil’s hair fondly. It's an action reminiscent of Neil’s childhood, only lacking his father’s distasteful stares. “You’ll be back home before you know it.”
Neil discovers that, while he doesn’t think he’s changed much during his time away, the others had. Kevin is taller and broodier, but he still takes Neil in his arms and gives him the same, crushing hug he always gives.
Neil isn’t sure if Wymack has changed at all. Maybe there is a bit more grey in his hair, and maybe his smile is a little brighter. Neil only has poorly-made assumptions on his side, but doesn’t really care when Wymack’s hand drops onto his shoulder and squeezes. Hugs aren’t a thing between them, but it's always especially comforting to have that little touch on his shoulder; reassuring and warm.
His room feels colder, tinged with an air of dust and musk. The feeling of disuse swarms around him and sucks the air from his chest, but when he sets his sack of belongings down and drops onto his bed, he decides he doesn’t quite mind the feeling. His bed is still comfortable and warm, and he knows it's still safe. Safer than the one at the Hatford kingdom had felt.
He clutches his quilt tightly in his fist and drags it up to his chest, breathing in deep. Under the dust and unsettling feeling of vague familiarity is a warm feeling that reminds him that this—this is home. He bottles the feeling up in his chest and let it take root in his heart.
Even though nobody is around to see it, he smiles.
Neil allows himself only a small amount of time before he leaves. It isn’t quite night yet, but that is the point. While the night is safer for the pair of them—quieter, even—Neil doesn’t know if Andrew will even be there. It’s been a year apart. For all Neil knows, he could be off on his own mission. Or training, of course, which is where Neil assumes he is at the current time.
He lingers for what he guesses is ten minutes before he exits his room. He passes Kevin’s room, and Wymack’s, and the kitchen, and the other rooms that happen to be on his way down to the castle’s doors. Everything is so familiar, but tainted with something heavier than normal. Neil suspects it's just the fact the hasn’t seen it all in a year.
He exits the castle with one last backwards glance. Leaving again so early sets an ache in his chest, despite knowing he’ll be back later. Get yourself together, he reprimands himself before shutting the door and finally heading off.
It doesn’t take long for Neil to reach the place he is headed: the knight’s training grounds. Seeing Andrew again sends a heavy feeling of deja-vu crawling through him. It’s been a year. He has the same golden halo of hair, but Neil can tell that he’s changed, too. Everything has changed, and Andrew isn’t an exception.
Taller, broader, and from what Neil can see from the distance: better. Andrew is preoccupied by a mock battle, and Neil swears the vibration of clashing swords and powerful swings can be felt down in his bones despite his distance. Andrew has a strength and precision that Neil can’t quite match himself. And, from the look of things, neither can his opponent.
The spar comes to an end, Andrew’s sword pointing downward at his opponent’s. Neil can feel his blood singing. There is something in the air—thrill, maybe. It pushes through him, challenging the anxiety he had felt back when he had told Andrew he was leaving. There is something strangely beautiful about the shift between anxiety and excitement.
Andrew lifts his head and takes a step back. There is a pause before he holds his hand out to the man on the ground, helping him up. Neil can’t tell, but he is holding his breath without meaning to. Andrew’s head moves—moves, moves, moves—and his gaze shifts, and finally—there.
Their eyes lock and Neil finally releases his breath.
Neil can’t tell what is being said, but Andrew is nodding, and then he is coming closer, closer, closer and Neil can feel his breathing speeding up and his heart moving at rabbit speed—thump, thump, thump.
“Neil,” Andrew says, voice low. Neil’s breathing ceases once more, and he can’t seem to find it again. Dumbly, he notes that he is taller than Andrew still. “You’re back.”
Andrew grips Neil’s cloak in his hand and tugs until Neil sucks in a breath and nods. He can’t quite tear his gaze away from Andrew. There is something so mesmerising about seeing him again, something that fills him with something so alive. He bottles this feeling up inside him, too, and smiles.
“Yes,” he breaths out, softly. “I am.”
“You’ll be a knight soon,” Neil says offhandedly that night, keeping his quiet I missed you locked up tight within him. He wants to say it, but not quite yet. Not this early into their night. He doesn’t like the vulnerability that attacks him when the words come to mind.
“There’s still a bit of training left for me,” Andrew says, seeming like a thought but sounding like fact. Neil bites down on his bottom lip as he remembers the scene he’d come to after returning. The sound of clashing metal and the view of Andrew, surrounded by golden light; he’d looked like a hero.
No, not a hero.
Neil shakes his head ever so gently, his hair, which had only grown longer, flopping over into his eyes. “I saw you,” he murmurs in return. His tongue peeks out from between his lips for a moment. “You’re good. No- wait. You’re better than that. I think you’re- probably one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Andrew doesn’t respond, merely blinking back at Neil as if he is being dumb. Neil knows what he knows, and that means he knows that Andrew is good. He’d sparred with Stuart so many times that his wrist still ached from his grip on his sword. Stuart had been good, great even. Andrew is better.
Neil lets the conversation drop nonetheless. He’d rather Andrew be comfortable anyways.
Neil is with Kevin and Andrew when it happens. The kingdom is quiet, but in one quick movement it’s loud and it’s quick; the world turns faster in that moment. The sound of clanging armour is loud in Neil’s ears when he turns, Andrew at his side and his brother at his back.
Dan and Matt approach quickly, the Foxhole crest blazoned across their chest and catching the light of the sun. They seem afraid, but ready. There’s sweat rolling down their cheeks, but their gazes hold a fire that Neil thinks he’s seen mimicked in Kevin’s and Andrew’s before (and maybe in the mirror, as well).
“Riko is here,” Dan says lowly, voice pressed. Matt gives a solemn nod to reaffirm the words. Neil digs his heels into the ground beneath him with all the strength he can muster, but reaches back to grip Kevin’s shirt in his hand.
Neil doesn’t remember much about the Moriyama kingdom’s second son. He knows the small details that he held onto from random moments before Wymack, and the tiny statements Wymack had told him after. It's enough to have Neil on his toes.
“Wymack wants you and Kevin back in the castle, so we’ve been sent to gather you,” Matt explains, though Neil watches as his gaze flicks over to Andrew. Neil sucks in a breath.
“Okay,” Neil says. He tugs gently on Kevin’s shirt to get him to move while he turns to Andrew. They are supposed to have a little more time that morning. He hates that it had to get cut short due to things that he didn’t even fully understand. “I’ll see you la-”
“No,” Andrew grounds out to Neil, but he’s looking to Dan and Matt. “I says I’d protect you. I’m coming, too.”
They try to tell Andrew no, but he doesn’t listened. That’s how Neil ends up letting him into his barely-decorated room. Dan and Matt are standing somewhere down the hall, likely posted in front of Kevin’s doorway if Neil had to guess. They’d left Neil alone with Andrew, with the small order to ‘leave the door cracked’.
“You don’t have to protect me,” Neil says quietly as he settles onto his bed. “You know that right?” Neil hasn’t forgotten their conversation. Neil knows how Andrew feels. The knight training is to repay Neil, but Neil doesn’t feel like there’s anything left to be repaid. Andrew has already everything, and so much more. They are more than even.
“You’re so stupid, Neil.”
“Don’t let Kevin hear you,” Neil shoots back with a dirty look in his direction. Kevin and Andrew are close—or, well, closer than they had been when Neil had run into Andrew once more. They are what Neil describes as ‘friends’. That doesn’t mean Kevin won’t gripe at Andrew, or the other way around.
“Let him,” Andrew mumbles harshly, turning his face away. “You’re so oblivious. I can’t believe you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Neil asks with a huff. He crosses his arms in front of him petulantly as he stares in Andrew’s direction, even if the blonde is refusing to look back in his direction. Neil isn’t the only one being childish here.
Andrew finally glares back at Neil again, which immediately turns into an eyeroll. “Why do you think they had us leave the door open?” At Neil’s bland look, Andrew huffs out a sigh of his own. He seems to take a moment to himself to breathe; his eyes are closed and his shoulders lose their tenseness. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what they were insinuating.”
Another pause, but then Neil opens his mouth. “Why would they think-” he cuts himself off abruptly with a swallowed ‘oh’. “You like me.”
Somewhere between his cutoff question and his revelation, Andrew has moved closer. He is settled on the bed next to him, close enough for Neil to feel his breath on his face.
“Tell me no.”
Andrew kisses him.
Neil and Kevin are both allowed outside the castle again, but not alone. Neil always takes Andrew, and when Kevin tags along, Dan and Matt do, too. This is how Neil discovers quite a few new things.
First, Neil discovers that Andrew does have more friends than just Neil and Kevin, and that the one addition to that list is none other than Renee Walker. Neil doesn’t know much about her, other than that he feels… off around her. She doesn’t seem to add up, but he keeps that to himself for the most part.
Second, he finds out that Andrew does, in fact, have a family. By that, he means that Andrew has a twin. And a cousin. And a foster mother. It's odd to think about, but Neil is happy about it. His cousin is only visiting for a bit and is to leave for another kingdom soon—one where someone named Erik lives. Andrew’s brother, Aaron, is apparently training to become a medic.
It's a very large mess, which is another thing he discovers.
Lastly, Neil discovers that Riko allegedly believes that he owns Neil. And Kevin. The information isn’t supposed to have made it to him, but Allison spoke too loudly to Dan and Matt for Neil to have missed it. He feels much safer knowing Andrew is at his side. Especially when Riko decides to make his visit.
“What a surprise,” Riko says brightly, though it's hard not to feel the animosity behind it all.
Neil backs up a step, nearly toppling Kevin over. Andrew, for what it's worth, looks calm and steady next to him, even if Neil can feel how tense he is. He is also mirroring Renee’s steady reach towards the weapons slung on their respective hips. Neil doesn’t know much about the others, but he can see Andrew gently nudge Aaron and Nicky behind him and it's Allison who replies.
“I doubt this is much of a surprise at all. What do you want?”
“Oh nothing,” Riko says, smiling brightly in a dark way. “Just stopping by to see my things, is all. Hello Nathaniel, Kevin.” Neil makes it a point to not wave back.
“What things?” Andrew pipes up, glancing around. There’s a very obvious and fake look of confusion painted across his face, but it clears up as he sets his gaze upon a piece of litter a few paces away. “Ah, there you go. I believe what you’re looking for is over there. Goodbye.”
Neil latches onto Kevin as Andrew starts pulling him away.
Next time Riko finds him, Neil is alone. He’s supposed to be with someone—anyone—when he’s out and about, but Kevin isn’t around, which means Dan and Matt aren’t, either. Andrew is training with Renee, and Allison, well… Neil isn’t sure where she is.
She just isn’t with him.
“That isn’t my name.”
“Yes it is,” Riko reminds him, calm yet menacing. “Neil is just a nickname. Don’t lie to yourself, or to me. That’ll just make this a lot harder.”
“Make what harder?” Neil asks. “Me tearing you apart?”
“Oh,” Riko says. “No. See, I have to tell you something, Nathaniel. I know where your friends are right now. That’s how I knows you were alone. And, see, with that information comes power. I know when they will be alone. And I know you’d be willing to do anything for them. Which means you’re very likely to come with me.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“You don’t want your friends to get hurt. But, I know that in just about ten minutes, Andrew will be headed back to find you. He’s finishing a spar with Renee Walker as we speak. He will be walking back alone. It’d be,” Riko pauses to smirk. “A shame, wouldn’t it? If something happened to him?”
Neil grits his teeth. “Leave Andrew alone.”
“Hit a nerve?”
“What do you want?”
“Ah, Nathaniel,” Riko says with a laugh that falls short from being real. “So eager to please. In three days time, just after the sun sets and the moon reaches its peak, you will meet me by the water. Come alone, Nathaniel. Or bring Kevin, if you really want. I’d love to have him there, too.”
Neil is surging forward, his fist clashing with Riko’s jaw before he can even think his actions through.
“We literally can’t leave you alone for five seconds,” Wymack says, but Neil knows he’s just worried. The bruises look bad, as does the situation. Neil can’t hide it for long; it's too important to hide from them.
He is… scared. Not that he’ll admit that to them outloud, but there is a subtle sort of terror that crawls through his skin at the idea of going with Riko. He isn’t entirely sure what the prince is capable of, but Neil has a feeling he doesn’t want to find out anytime soon. He’s heard of how good Riko is with a sword, and he doubts he’d enjoy being at the other end of it.
“Neil,” Andrew says, setting his hand at the back of Neil’s neck. It’d become familiar grounds at some point, and Neil knows he’ll never complain about that. He glances up at Andrew and blinks once, twice, three times. “You’re not going anywhere without me, you hear?”
“Yes,” he says. He’s not given an opportunity to say more once Wymack speaks.
“Nobody’s going anywhere alone, you hear? And stick to the damn plan.”
A group nod of affirmation and a confident ‘yes, sir’ later and they are all splitting up into their separate groups.
Nights alone with Andrew in their hiding hole turn into nights alone with Andrew in Neil’s bedroom, settled on the floor by Neil’s door. It's different. Not only because of the stress that Neil feels knowing that in three days they’ll be executing their plan and hoping for the best, but also because he gets to lay his head on Andrew’s shoulder and breath him in.
The kisses are exceptionally good, but Neil finds he liked the small cuddles more. Andrew’s warmth surrounds him like a warm quilt in a way nobody else’s does. Kevin’s hugs and Wymack’s gentle touches are a far cry from Andrew’s own.
He likes the difference.
He settles further against Andrew’s side, breathing out noisily against his neck. It's nice to bury his face there and to close his eyes. It makes things easier to deal with, since it's easier to ignore everything when he does it.
“Neil,” Andrew says quietly, waiting for Neil to raise his head and meet his gaze. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
The plan goes like this:
Neil leaves in the night, his cloak wrapped around him like a blanket. It isn’t quite as warm as Andrew or his quilt, but he supposes it’ll have to do. He left like he would have if he really went through it; alone.
Kevin follows behind, but Neil isn’t supposed to know that. Kevin is supposed to have woken to Neil’s escapade and trail after. Neil knows Riko would be pleased. He’s likely find it funny, the love between Kevin and Neil. If this was a real situation, they would’ve given Riko exactly what he wanted.
Neil approaches the water and Riko cautiously. Around them, there are at least ten others. They all bore the Moriyama kingdom’s crest: a single black raven. Neil hates the look of it.
Along with the extra ‘friends’ that they’d all anticipated, there are a few horses. Neil hates that the gentle creatures have been wrapped up in Riko’s shenanigans. The Moriyama kingdom is quite a distance away, which means they had quite a long travel ahead. Neil can only hope they would’ve taken breaks if this were real.
“He arrives at last,” Riko says quietly, though the grin on his face speaks much louder. “No Kevin? A shame. We can always come back for him another time. No worries.”
“No,” Neil grits out, just as Kevin speaks from behind him.
Neil turns and Riko laughs outright. “Oh, it gets better!”
“Kevin? What are you doing here? Go!”
“What am I doing? Really?” Kevin asks, exasperated. “I should be asking you that! Get over here!”
“As much as I’d love to watch this,” Riko starts, “I have better things to do. Grab them.”
Four of the ten men surge forward, and Riko watches as they take hold of Neil and Kevin, even as Kevin attempts to ‘flee’. They thrash and struggle, barely attempting to get free as Matt manages to catch two more of the men in the chest with arrows from the tree line.
By the time Riko turns to notice, Neil and Kevin have wrestled themselves free and the others have torn from the trees to surge on the small group. Neil and Kevin, weaponless yet free, head to the horses to calm them and watch the battle. Wymack had wanted them out of reach and out of harm’s way, but they both take a sword from one of the fallen men despite that.
Riko is the first to approach them. He has managed to stay open while the others fought to take down the eight mostly unharmed men. The peaceful waters can’t be heard over the sound of grunted curses and clashing swords, but Neil finds himself missing the sound as he moves himself into battle with Riko and Kevin.
Kevin and Neil have always practiced against one another, so fighting on the same side is odd. It requires cohesiveness they have in spades, but moving around one another isn’t quite as simple. Their moves can’t be choreographed easily, but they eventually find a vague rhythm that works for the time being.
Neil wishes, for a moment, that it could be just him, alone, fighting Riko. It’d be easier if it was one on one, for himself and Riko, of course. Moving around Kevin isn’t easy, especially since it isn’t practiced, and Kevin is taller than the pair of them. Neil takes his chance when he hears another curse from Nicky. Watching the exuberant cousin of his lover tumble is enough to tell Kevin to move so he can take over the battle completely.
That is all the convincing it takes, really.
“You care too much,” Riko says as he lands another hit to Neil’s side. He feels the sting of the blade’s cut, but he fights past it to get in his own.
Neil takes a step back, putting himself on the defensive as he parries and ducks, dodging blow after blow. He’d rather not get too injured before anyone could step in to help or take over. “You care too little,” he grits out.
They continue like that, trading blows back and forth until clashing swords decrescendos into something softer. There’s breaths being caught and a few battles ongoing, but Neil presses forward with his remaining energy.
“I’d give up,” he says heavily and angry, just as he sees Andrew disarm his opponent finally. “You’re outmatched.”
“No!” Riko grits out, pushing back just as hard. “I will not lose to you. You are beneath me.” He enunciates it with a final push, hard enough to send Neil tumbling down to the ground. His sword clatters to the ground next to him.
He remembers thinking about how awful it would be to have Riko’s sword pointed at him in that moment, staring up at the blade.
“Maybe I am,” Neil says between breaths. “But you’ll always be beneath everyone else.”
He watches Riko’s eye twitch and his hands shake, just as he lifts his sword to make one final swing. Neil, who is never a believer in any god, allows himself one final prayer before he’s met with—Riko’s angry yell being cut off.
Neil puffs out a breath and opens his eyes. He believes heaven to be something similar to this; Riko dead and Andrew’s sword painted with his blood, standing proud and protective over him.
“It’s done,” Andrew says, and Neil realises he’s still alive.
“Neil,” Andrew says, voice commanding and rough as he sets his hand on the back of Neil’s neck, gently. Neil was still aching from the fight, and he can only assume the others are as well. “You’re going to be fine. Stop worrying so much.”
“I know, I know,” Neil mutters, something breathy and not-calm like Andrew wanted it to be. “I just- I don’t want to talk about this anymore than I have to.”
“It’ll all be over after this.” Neil nods at the words. He knows that. He knows it would be. He knows behind that red curtain is a crowd who would swallow the story whole and would spit it back out as something new and different. He knows it won’t really be over after this, but he won’t have to speak anymore on it.
He won’t even have to speak much during it, really, but he still feels the anxiety crawling up his throat.
Wymack appears behind them finally, looking gruffer than usual. He scratches noisily at his jaw before finally dropping his hand. “Let’s get this over with.”
Neil takes a step back, opting to watch now that he’s said his piece. He is done, it's over, and he is tired. That doesn’t mean he isn’t excited for Wymack and Andrew’s bit, especially given everything. Renee, who had grown on Neil the slight bit, has joined them as well. Neil smiles at her when she looks in his direction.
“I know that is a lot to take in,” Wymack says, his voice loud and clear with a hint of the roughness that came from smoking too much tobacco. He doesn’t let it deter him, though. Wymack only shows he is king when he chooses to. In the castle, he is a father. On the balcony, he is king. “But in light of these events, we’ve decided to welcome two new knights to our ranks earlier than the other trainees. They fought valiantly this past night, and protected this kingdom with all their might. They have the scars to prove it.”
Wymack turns to Andrew and Renee and raises his chin. “Kneel.”
From the crowd, there are muted cheers and startled gasps, but nobody pays them any mind as Andrew and Renee drop to a single knee, staring up at their king. Neil raises his fingers to his lips and realized he is grinning.
Neil thinks they both look a lot better wearing the Foxhole’s crest proudly upon their chest.
“You saved me, you know,” Neil says cheekily against Andrew’s neck.
“I know,” Andrew says calmly, despite the shiver Neil had evoked.
“I think that makes us even,” Neil presses, adding another peck for good measure.
“I think it means I was doing my duty,” Andrew huffs. “I should’ve let him kill you.”
“You love me,” Neil says, resting his cheek against Andrew’s shoulder instead.
“Yeah,” Andrew says quietly. “I do.”