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kill your mind

Chapter Text

The haunting memories of the nest are a dark cloud which follows him wherever he goes, he can still feel Riko’s furious gaze upon him, can still hear the snap of his own bones in Riko’s temper-tantrum. He puts on a brave front, doesn’t show that the voices are driving him crazy, that this dark cloud threatens to overwhelm him, to eat him alive, to rip him to shreds.

He feels like a hand is grabbing onto his mind, squeezing it, twisting it. On good days he wonders if he’ll ever get better again, wonders if he’ll ever stop seeing the black and red when he steps into an Exy court, but today isn’t a good day.

He clutches the bottle of cheap vodka in his fist – heart disease, mouth cancer, stroke, throat cancer, liver disease, brain damage – and tilting his head back, he takes a swig.

The first sip is always the best; the alcohol temporarily – temporarily – washes the nest out of his system, replacing the tendrils of darkness wrapping around his mind with a warm buzz. A fire is ignited in the pit of his stomach as the vodka hits the back of his throat, the flames spread throughout his body and burns out the darkness which flows deep in his veins.

– temporarily –

He gulps down the vodka as though it is his lifeline –and perhaps it is – he is a desperate starved man who is eager to take in as much warmth as he can because he knows that it will soon slip away.

His head feels fuzzy; he tilts his head up to focus his gaze on the lights above him which are suddenly too bright. The lights are bright, artificial lights, the sun has abandoned him again, and he’s stopped believing in the outside. Bones snap, his dominant hand sears, there’s too much blood. The colours of heartbreak spill onto the Exy court. Exy has been tinted the colour red, a gift from Riko: the king will never let him get out alive.

The sweet smell of vodka brings him back to the present; he tightens his grip on the bottle and takes another long desperate gulp. Tears sting at the back of his eyes as he refuses to remove the bottle from his lips: he can still feel his hand searing; he can still smell the blood.

“Kevin?” Coach’s voice, reassuring and familiar. But Kevin can still feel Riko’s hand on his and he can’t put the bottle down.

Kevin shuts his eyes as he hears Coach walking into the room, concentrating solely upon drinking in the mouthfuls of vodka in a hopeless attempt to wash away Riko’s fingerprints from his skin.

“Kevin,” Coach’s voice is louder now, sharper. Kevin keeps his eyes shut, and doesn’t remove the bottle from his lips, he can’t look at Coach until he is free from Riko’s stains – temporarily free from Riko’s stains.

He feels a hand at the back of his neck and another one on the hand which is clutching the bottle, but he doesn’t open his eyes, he doesn’t look at Coach’s face, he’s still dirty.

“Kevin,” Coach’s voice is loud and gruff in his ear. “You can’t do this, we need to pick up your new striker today, remember?”

Yes, Kevin remembers, Neil Josten. The reason why him, Coach and Andrew had flown to Millport last night and are now stuck in some crappy hotel.

At last he lowers the bottom from his lips and blinks back tears as he looks into Coach’s steady eyes.

“I have to do this Coach,” his voice comes out strangled, desperate, pleading. He’s begging someone to tell him that he doesn’t need to do it; he’s begging someone to tell him that he’s clean. “I can’t go back,” he’s whispering, a beggars voice; the starving man’s plea.

He closes his eyes, dimly aware that Coach is walking away, and he doesn’t open them again until he feels something hit the back of his head, causing galaxies to explode behind his eyes. The pain is sharp and instant, he rushes to lift the bottle back to his mouth, he needs to get Riko out of his head.

But the pain comes again at the back of his head with a loud thwack which causes the vodka to slip out of his grasp and he watches the bottle shatter on the ground as thoughts turn to ashes in his mind.

Riko is back, Riko is here, Riko is trying to kill him. He should never have tried to run from the king.

Another thwack and he’s out, embracing the darkness like an old friend.

xxxx

 

The strings of consciousness anchor him and he is dimly aware that he is sat in a moving car, but his eyes refuse to open and his limbs refuse to move.

“Riko,” he whispers, voice helpless and rough.

“Nee-naw, guess again number 2,” Andrew’s cheerful voice is loud but reassuring. He’s not back in the nest; he’s not back with Riko.

Kevin flicks open one of his eyes to glance at Andrew, but immediately regrets it when the light causes a searing pain in his head. He keeps his eyes half-open, looking down, he’s aware of the car stopping, there are also voices. He can feel his legs carrying him out of the car, its dark: night time. How long was he out for?

“How did I pass out?” his voice is clearer now, slightly sleepy, but clearer.

In response Andrew throws his head back and laughs, Kevin sneaks a look at him and holds Andrew’s bright-eyed gaze, “Coach hit the back of your head with a racquet, said you were burning up your liver,” Andrew smiles, all teeth, and rocks on the balls of his feet, “don’t worry, number 2, I sorted it out.” He throws his head back and laughs again.

He and Andrew wait in a run-down lounge as Coach and goes off to talk to Neil Josten. He tunes out Andrew’s useless chatter and focuses on Exy, the bright lights, sweat pouring down his face, the sound of a racket hitting the ball. But the sound of racquets clashing against each other sounds too much like bones breaking and everything is tinted red.

“Ooh, look at this one!” Andrew exclaims cheerfully, the manic smile plastered on his face as he holds up a worn out yellow Exy racquet in his hands. “Hmmm, run rabbit, run!”

They both turn their heads to the door at the sound of sneakered feet against the dirty floors, fast footsteps. He’s running.

Andrew moves fast, slamming the Exy racquet into the runner’s gut and Neil Josten crashes backwards too easily. No strength, no endurance.

His vision swims at the sight of the dark-haired dark-eye mess, a fog passes over his mind, familiar and dangerous, but it slips away as fast as it comes.

He feels faraway as he registers Coach’s and Andrew’s voices garbled together, his attention fixed on the striker. He scans his mind for a Neil Josten, and as he looks the fog comes back again, but as he tries to clutch onto it it disappears without a trace.

“Fuck you,” Neil Josten’s voice isn’t familiar, but the fog comes back, but this time only for a split second before it vanishes again. “Whose racquet did you steal?” the question is directed at Andrew; Neil Josten hasn’t realized he’s in the room yet.

“Borrow,” Andrew replies, his smile unnerving as he tosses the racquet back at Neil, “here you go.”

Riko’s voice in his ear, spiked with malice, “Here you go.” Fingers grab his own, twisting his hand, he hears the snap of bones, pain blinds him momentarily and –

The pure terror, so familiar to him, in Neil Josten’s voice brings him back: “you didn’t bring him here.” Fear spikes his voice and Kevin gravitates towards him against his own will, he has heard the same fear in his own voice too many times, but he stops in his tracks as his eyes land on the discarded Exy racquet on the floor and his mind paints itself red. He backs away slowly and instead perches on top of the entertainment centre along the back wall.

“Is that a problem?” Coach asks, eyes fixed on Neil Josten.

“I’m not good enough to play on the same court as a champion.”

“Champion,” Riko sneers, “wait till your fans see this, Number 2.”

“True, but irrelevant,” he hears himself saying, but when Neil Josten turns around to look at him all he sees is the red stain of blood and love. His mind spins, he needs a drink, he needs to scrub himself clean.

“What are you doing here?” is his mind playing tricks on him or does Neil Josten actually sound so terrified. A drink would be good right now.

“Why were you leaving?”

“I asked you first.”

This is taking too long, he needs some alcohol, he can’t stand the colours Riko has painted for him. “Coach has already answered that question. We are waiting for you to sign the contract. Stop wasting our time.”

“No. There are thousands of strikers who’d jump at the chance to play with you. Why don’t you bother them?” Neil’s eyes are guarded and untrusting, but Kevin can only feel his head spinning.

“We saw their files. We chose you.”

“I won’t play with Kevin,” Neil’s voice is determined and sure.

“Nobody will want you after this.”  Too much blood.

“You will,” Kevin says, and he doesn’t know if he’s convincing Neil or himself.

He hears Coach’s voice, then his own, but stars are exploding behind his vision and he feels as though he is tumbling into an abyss of blood.

“Go wait in the car,” Coach tells him. he gathers his files and slides off the perch, trying his best not to stumble on his way out of the door.

He can feel Andrew’s presence behind him, he can see the blood and bones in front of him, he can’t walk into that hell, so he lets himself fall backwards into Andrew’s arms.

Chapter Text

 

Bright lights glared down at him, casting him into the much feared spotlight: the centre of attention. It made his neck prickle and stomach lurch with unease: there were too many people here, too many people to keep an eye on. He walked forwards slowly, cautiously. His neck prickled again. His stomach lurched again. He was being watched.

Neil scanned the airport frantically, his eyes wide and chest heaving; the lights seemed to be getting brighter and he tasted sour bile at the back of his throat.

“Run,” Chris whispered, “they’re going to find you.”

“Hide,” Stefan urged, “you can’t let them see you.”

Neil swallowed down the acrid taste in his mouth and clenched his hands into fists to stop them from shaking, fighting to keep control. It was his turn, he had the microphone and he was not going to let Stefan or Chris steal it from him.

He urged himself to move forwards, ignored the prickling and the clammy hands and the nausea; ignored all the signs that he was being watched. He refused to give Stefan and Chris that upper-hand.

He jogged up the stairs to Arrivals, not moving fast enough to draw attention to him but not moving slow enough for someone to grab him. Blending in was an art which must be careful and well-balanced: too much weight on one end of the scale and people begun to notice that you’re out of place, that you’re a runaway.

Stefan was the one who had taught him the art of blending in: old clothes, dark eyes, dark hair. The most important lesson was to not let Alex take control unless absolutely necessary. Stefan had told him about why Alex was rarely allowed the spotlight, had said that Alex talked too much, drew too much attention. Neil knew to only let Alex take control if people asked too much questions, and even then only for a short while.

Neil scanned the small lobby and spotted one of the Minyards: judging by the calm expression-

(“it’s a facade,” Nathaniel said, “he’s wearing calm as a mask, he wants to kill you. Let me kill him first.”)

-Neil guessed that it’s “the normal one”: 05 backliner, Aaron Minyard. Neil crossed the room to meet him, the back of his neck slick with cold sweat under Aaron’s heavy gaze. Even without Stefan’s and Chris’s prompting Neil knew that he should walk away now, but somehow he managed to walk across the room until he was standing directly in front of the Minyard.

“Neil,” Aaron said whilst maintaining eye-contact. “Baggage claim.”

“Just this,” Neil tapped the strap of his duffel bag. He couldn’t afford to be a materialistic person, not with Chris constantly warning him that they might have to run soon, that too much luggage would slow them down.

Neil followed Aaron out to the humid summer afternoon of sticky heat; he kept his eyes fixed on the back of the blonde’s head, prepared to give control over to Nathaniel if the backliner tried to pull anything. He drank in every movement:  the way Aaron pulled a packet of cigarettes out of the back pocket of his jeans, the way he lit the cigarette and put it between his lips before he returned the packet back to the pocket where it came out from. He focused on the way Aaron ignored the rude words a taxi driver yelled at him, the way he held the cigarette between his fingers, the way he took a drag; all the while Neil prepared to give control over to Nathaniel if Aaron tried to attack.

Aaron pressed a button on his key chain which unlocked an expensive black car-

(“Run, Neil,” Chris demanded, his voice harsh and irritated. “Run, you know you can’t trust him.”)

-“Bag in the trunk,” Aaron said, but Neil didn’t move: too focused on watching the backliner. Watching the way he opened the driver’s door and sat sideways in the seat to smoke. Neil wished he could just give control over to Chris, he knew better than this . . . but Exy had too much of a hold over him.

Neil put his duffel in the back once he was certain that Aaron wasn’t planning on moving again before climbing into the passenger seat. He watched the backliner smoke with the same intensity of focus as before: the way he bought the cigarette to his lips, the way he dropped it when it was half-gone, the way he reached out to close the door, back still turned to Neil: Aaron was lucky that he couldn’t hear what Nathaniel wanted to do to him, and it would be wise for the backliner not to turn his back on Neil again, turn his back on Nathaniel again.

Aaron twisted the key in the ignition, the engine humming to life and Neil almost let Chris take over. He was stuck in a vehicle with a stranger, although it was highly unlikely that Aaron had any link to Nathaniel Weninski’s father, he had learned not to take any chances. Nathan Weninski wasn’t only after Nathaniel, he wanted all of them dead, and none of them should take chances, no matter how desperate.

But he refused Chris of control, and it was a struggle for Neil to keep the spotlight due to how Chris’s sole purpose was to run from situations like these, but he imagined himself wearing an orange and white number 10 and somehow managed to keep the microphone.

“Neil Josten,” Aaron said, the ghost of a dangerous smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. Neil could feel beads of sweat cling to his hairline and sat on his hands to keep them from shaking: Aaron had the perfect opportunity to kill him right there, right then. “Here for the summer, hm?”

“Yes.”

Aaron put the air conditioner on full before beginning to drive. “That makes five of us, but word is you’re going to stay with Coach.”

His hands began to sweat again, his mind spun: Neil had known that Kevin would be there, but he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, he hadn’t wanted to risk thinking about it too much and losing control. He hadn’t wanted to lose Exy.

“Kevin stays on campus?” he choked out.

“Where the court is, Kevin is. He can’t exist without it,” Aaron said, his tone was mocking, derisive, contempt, and it made Neil wonder whether he actually was talking to Aaron Minyard.

“I didn’t think it was the court Kevin was staying for,” Neil said.

Aaron didn’t reward that with an answer, instead focused on getting out of the parking lot and hitting the road. “I hear you didn’t hit off with Kevin last month,” Aaron said, his eyes met Neil’s for a brief second before he directed his attention back onto the road.

“No one warned me he was going to be there,” Neil answered, picking his words carefully and sticking to the script that Alex had prepared beforehand. “Maybe you’ll forgive me for not reacting well.”

“Maybe I won’t. I don’t believe in forgiveness, and it wasn’t me you offended. That’s the second time a recruit has told him to fuck off. If it was possible to dent that arrogance of his, his pride would have shreds through it. Instead he's losing faith in the intelligence of high school athletes.”

Neil didn’t buy the bored, stand-offish tone that Aaron was using, he kept his eyes fixed on the backliner as he replied, “I’m sure Andrew had his reasons for refusing, same as me.”

“You said you weren’t good enough, but here you are anyway. You think summer practices will make that much a difference?” Neil tilted his head at the change of topic, was Aaron avoiding talking about his brother? Or maybe Neil had been correct in thinking that this was actually the goalkeeper.

“No,” Neil said. “It was just too hard to say no.” Not the full truth, but enough of it for the statement to be technically correct. It had been between accepting Exy and staying in control for a bit longer or turning down the contract and handing control over to Chris.

“Coach always knows what to say, hm? It makes it harder on the rest of us, though. Not even Millport should have taken a chance on you.” Again, the bored tone, as though he would rather be anywhere but in the car, as though he couldn’t be bothered with the conversation. Neil was tempted not to answer, just to spite the five foot zero backliner, but he figured that not replying at all might make him seem as though he had something to hide. “Millport’s too small to care about experience. I had nothing to lose by trying out and they had nothing to gain by refusing me. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, I guess.”

“Do you believe in fate?”

Neil heard the undertone of scorn in the other man’s voice and decided that he preferred the sound of menace over the bland tone that Aaron was using before, and he was sure that Nathaniel would agree with him. “No. Do you?”

“Luck, then.”

“Only the bad sort.”

“We’re flattered by your high opinion of us, of course.”

Aaron abruptly changed lanes without bothering to check the traffic around him and Neil flinched at the sounds of blaring horns but kept his eyes fixed on number 05.

“It’s too nice of a car to wreck,” Neil said whilst gripping tightly onto his seatbelt.

“Don’t be so afraid to die,” Aaron said as he continued to switch lanes. “If you are, you have no place on our court.”

Neil furrowed his eyebrows; he had been talking about wrecking the car, not dying. And how did dying relate to Exy? “We’re talking about a sport, not a death match.”

“Same difference,” Aaron said. “You’re playing for a Class I team with Kevin on your line. People are always willing to bleed for him. You’ve seen the news, I assume.”

Neil hadn’t seen it: Chris had been in the spotlight during the time that Kevin had broken his dominant hand, and he hadn’t let Neil see what was going on. But from few times that Neil had managed to gain control, he roughly knew that Kevin had broken his hand on a skiing accident.

“I’ve seen it,” Neil lied.

Aaron flicked his fingers as if Kevin breaking his hand proved his point, although Neil didn’t see the correlation, he figured that it wasn’t worth arguing about and let it slide.

After about twenty minutes of driving they pulled up to a sidewalk where three people were waiting. Aaron was out first and Neil also scrambled out so he didn’t lose sight of him. He retrieved his duffel from the back and slung it over his shoulder before the back of his neck prickled again, sweat began beaded on his forehead, his fingers began to shake. He turned towards the sidewalk and felt four pairs of eyes fixed on him.

Nicholas Hemmick, 08 backliner, stepped up to the curb and held out a hand, which Neil accepted, and used it to pull him up onto the sidewalk. “Hey,” the backliner flashed him a genuine smile. “Welcome to South Carolina. Flight go okay?”

Neil furrowed his eyebrow, why did the backliner want to know about his flight? What was he trying to achieve? “It was fine,” Neil said.

“I’m Nicky.” Nicky gave Neil’s hand a hard squeeze before letting go. “Andrew and Aaron’s cousin, backliner extraordinaire.”

Neil tilted his head to the side and furrowed his brow: the twins light skin and light hair was distinctly different to Nicky’s almost Mexican parlour. The 08 backliner also had about a foot on the twins. “By blood?”

Nicky laughed. “Don’t look it right?” (You don’t act like it either, Neil thought.) “Take after my mom. Dad ‘rescued’ her from Mexico during some la-di-dah ministry trip.” Nicky rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner and Neil knew exactly what Alex would say about this: Wow, more like romantic-bullshit-extraordinaire . . . give me a break, you pretentious piece of shit. No, let me guess, you’re gay too? . . .  Yeah, it was time to stop.

Nicky jerked his thumb at the others. “You already met them, right? Aaron, Andrew, Kevin? Coach was supposed to be here to let you in, but he had to head up to the stadium real quick. The ERC called him, probably with more BS about how we haven’t publicized our sub yet. In the meantime you’re stuck with us, but we’ve got Coach’s keys. Suitcases in the trunk?”

“It’s just this,” Neil said.

Nicky arched an eyebrow at him and looked at the others. "He packs light. I wish I could travel like that, but hell if I ain't materialistic."

 "Materialistic is just a start," Aaron said. Nicky grinned and grabbed onto Neil's shoulder, guiding him past the rest toward the front door. Neil once again stomped down Nathaniel’s demands to give over control and forced himself not to flinch as Nicky tightened his grip on his shoulder.

"This is where Coach lives," he said unnecessarily. "He makes all the money, so he gets to live in a place like this while we poor people couch surf."

"You have a nice car for someone who thinks he's poor," Neil said.

 "That's why we're poor," Nicky said dryly.

 "Aaron's mother bought it for us with her life insurance money," Andrew explained, the manic grin plastered on his face. "It's no surprise she had to die to be worth anything."

"Easy," Nicky said, but his eyes were fixed on Aaron. Neil also turned to look at the other Minyard, took in the backliner’s too pale skin, the sweat beading on his hairline, the slight tremble in his fingers. Interesting, he thought, and filed it away for later.

 "Easy, easy." Andrew lifted his hands in a careless shrug. "Why bother? It's a cruel world, right Neil? You wouldn't be here if it wasn't." Why was he asking Neil? Why was the Minyard targeting him? What was he hoping to achieve?

 "It's not the world that's cruel," Neil said. "It's the people in it."

 "Oh, so true."

Silence fell upon them as they rode in the elevator, Neil kept his eyes fixed on the numbers above the door to distract himself from the fact that he was trapped in a metal box with four other people who potentially wanted to kill him.

At number 724 they reached Wymack’s apartment and waited for Aaron to dig the key out of his pocket. Neil once again watched every move the backliner made; he anticipated a knife being pulled out and pointed at him until he noticed Aaron’s empty back pockets of his jeans. But Aaron had put a pack of cigarettes in his back pocket back at the airport . . .

"Here you go, Neil," Nicky said, Neil looked him straight in the eyes and forced his gaze to the doorway when Nicky gestured at it. "Home sweet home, if anything involving Coach can be called sweet."

Neil had known that living under the same roof as Coach Wymack would set Nathaniel off: Nathaniel’s father, Nathan Weninski, was the Butcher of Baltimore, and not a very pleasant man from what Neil had heard. And as he stood there, in the living space of a man old enough to be Nathaniel’s father, he struggled to maintain the spotlight and keep hold of the microphone. Hands were grabbing him in the dark, Chris told him to hide, Stefan told him to run, and Nathaniel’s grip was the strongest, his voice was the loudest, telling him to kill.

He had hesitated for too long: the curious look Nicky sent Aaron, the way Andrew stepped up to see what the holdup was. Neil shook off the hands reaching for his microphone and forced himself to step forwards. He met Andrew’s intense stare and smirked at the goalie before continuing down the hallway.

He slipped into the living room and took in the abundance of paperwork and empty coffee mugs; he was halfway across the room when he heard Nicky speak up behind him, but in German.

Chris had picked up German from the three years he had spent living in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Neil could feel Chris trembling, could taste the blood of Chris’s memories and it made him freeze up. He forgot how to blink, walk, breath. His heartbeat pumped at an abnormal rate. Sweat stuck his shirt to his back.

How did Nicky know about Chris?

Neil almost handed the microphone over to Chris, but when Aaron answered, Neil realized that they hadn’t been talking to Chris; they had been talking to each other without intending for him to understand. Chris also realized this and whispered the translations to Neil:

“The dark-skinned one had said: ‘what was all that about?’ and the blonde one said: ‘maybe he was savouring the moment.’”

Neil forced himself to swallow and continued to walk across the room, pressing his hand against cool glass as he steadied himself. The cold surface beneath his trembling hands helped him centre himself, he envisioned the Exy court and somehow managed to calm himself down, his heartbeat slowing down to a normal rhythm.

Nicky said something in German and Chris whispered: “he’s saying: ‘no, that was pure fight or flight. What the hell did you say to him, Andrew?’”

Neil looked back at them and narrowed his eyes, when would Andrew have had the chance to say anything to him? Nicky caught him looking and flashed a bright smile whilst switching back to English. “How about a tour?”

Alex was itching for control; did this man really thing he could mess with Neil, that he could just plaster on a smile and it would be alright. This man obviously had not met Nathaniel and it showed. "Sure," Neil said.

The apartment was nothing special: a bathroom, a kitchen, bedrooms at the end of the hall. The second bedroom had been turned into an office covered in newspaper articles, calendars, certificates, Exy books, and paperwork. Nicky scooped a prescription bottle and twisted the lid off.

 "That's not yours," Neil said.

 "Painkillers," Nicky explained, as though it wasn’t obvious. "Coach shattered his hip a few years back, you know? That's how he met Abby. She was his therapist, and he got her the job here. Team's still split fifty-fifty on whether or not they're boning. Andrew refuses to vote, which means you're the tiebreaker. Let us know ASAP. I've got money riding on it." Pathetic, this team was more of a joke than Neil had originally thought.

Nicky shook a couple of pills into his hand before putting the bottle back. Neil looked around and realized that Andrew and Kevin had vanished; only Aaron remained with that bored expression on his face.

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

 "I doubt that," Neil said, thinking about how Kevin hadn’t even looked at him downstairs.

 "Kevin doesn't do excited," Aaron said, his tone apathetic, "but since Exy is the only thing he cares about, no one wants you on our court more than he does."

It was similar to what Aaron had said in the car, but this time his tone was bored where before it had been scornful. Along with the disappearing pack of cigarettes and matching outfits, Neil was pretty sure that he knew what was going on.

"Isn't it difficult playing with him?" Neil asked, saving his observations for later. "I mean, with him being a champion."

"Technically we haven't played with him yet," Nicky said. "He just started getting into drills with us last month. If he's anything on the line like he is as an assistant coach, you are going to have the most awful year ever." His words were ominous but his tone was amused. "But he's worth it." Predictable, this was almost becoming boring.

Neil chewed his bottom lip and thought about what he was going to say next. "Worth the fights, too? Like that one two weeks ago that Aaron said got completely out of hand. How many people got injured in that, again?" Aaron paused for a moment before answering, "Eleven."

Suspicions confirmed: him and Aaron had never had that conversation in the car, Aaron should have known that. And when Nicky had said ‘what the hell did you say to him, Andrew?’ he had probably been referring to the ride back from the airport.

A grin plastered on his face, Andrew appeared in the doorway with a bottle of whisky in one hand and Kevin, the coward, stood behind him. Neil would never understand why Kevin couldn’t just be his own person, why he hid behind some psycho-blonde-goth-midget.

“Success,” Andrew said, holding up the whisky. Neil furrowed his eyebrows, was the goalie a thief, too?

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

“Why?" Neil pointed at the alcohol. "Is this a robbery in progress?"

"Maybe it is. Will you tell Coach on us?" Andrew asked, sounding entertained by the notion. "So much for being a team player. I guess you really are a Fox."

"No," Neil said, deciding to drop the bomb on the irritating midget, "but I would ask him why you're not medicated."

Startled silence fell over them, the evident surprise on their faces was almost amusing to see; the only one who doesn’t react was Andrew.

Nicky and Aaron said something in German and Chris whispered: “He said, ‘am I crazy? Did I just see that happen?’ and the blonde one replied, “don’t look at me.’”

"I'd prefer an answer in English," Neil said.

Andrew put a thumb to the corner of his mouth and dragged it along his lips to erase his smile. "That sounds like an accusation, but I didn't lie to you." Yes, the goalie hadn’t lied, that was why Andrew had changed the topic when Neil had referred to him in third person.

 "Omission is the easiest way to lie," Neil said. "You could have corrected me."

 "Could have, didn't," Andrew said. "Figure it out for yourself."

"I did," Neil said. He tapped two fingers to his temple, copying Andrew's mocking salute from their first meeting and smirked. "Better luck next time."

 "Oh," Andrew said. "Oh, you might actually turn out to be interesting. For a little while, at least. I don't think the amusement will last. It never does." Perhaps Neil should give the spotlight to Nathaniel, Andrew would certainly find the Butcher’s son amusing.

"Don't mess with me."

 "Or what?"

Or Nathaniel, Neil almost said, but the sound of a door opening held everyone’s attention. Andrew plastered the smile back onto his face, the whisky nowhere to be seen.

"Hi Coach," Andrew called over his shoulder, his voice full of fake cheer and eyes bright.

"Do you have any idea how much I hate coming home and finding you in my apartment?" Wymack demanded, and Neil could feel Nathaniel flinch at the older man’s raised voice.

Andrew held up his empty hands and stepped out into the hallway, followed by Aaron and Kevin.

"I didn't break anything this time," Andrew said.

"I'll believe that after I've checked everything I own." Coach stepped into his office doorway, and Neil has been correct in assuming that the Coach was roughly the same age as Nathaniel’s father.

Wymack glanced at Neil and nodded. "I see you made it all right. I was pretty sure Nicky's driving was going to get you killed."

Neil would have liked to shove Nicky into the deep-end and tell Coach that Andrew had dropped him off, but then decided that it wasn’t worth his time and said, "I've survived worse."

 "There is no surviving worse driving than that idiot's," Wymack said gruffly. "There's just open casket or closed."

"Hey, hey," Nicky said. "That's not fair."

"Life isn't fair, tweedle-dumb. Get over it. What are you still doing here?"

 "Leaving," Andrew said. "Goodbye. Is Neil coming too?"

"Going where?" Wymack asked, voice thick with suspicion.

"Jeez, Coach, what kind of people do you think we are?" Nicky asked.

"Do you really want me to answer that?"

"We're taking him to the court," Aaron said. "We can give him a lift to Abby's after. You didn't need him, did you?"

"Just to give him this," Wymack said, and Neil caught the keys that were tossed his way. Wymack talked him through what each key was for whilst Nathaniel blindly walked through the darkened room, reaching for the spotlight, needing to get rid of the older man before he could strike first.

"Thank you," Neil said when Wymack was finished talking, clenching his fingers around the keys tight enough to draw blood. “I will.” He tightened his grip on the keys even more, used the pain to centre himself, tried his best not to give up to Nathaniel.

"Blatant favouritism, Coach," Andrew said.

"If you ever went to the court of your own volition, maybe I'd give you a set too," Wymack said. "Since I don't see that happening anytime this lifetime or next, you can shut up and share with Kevin."

 "Oh, joy, joy," Andrew said. "My excited face begins now. Can we go?"

"Get out," Wymack said. Andrew, Kevin and Aaron disappeared, but before Nicky could go anywhere Wymack put a hand in his path to stop him."Don't you dare traumatize him his first day here." Neil wondered why Wymack cared so much, thought about how Wymack should worry about himself considering how much Nathaniel was itching for control.

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

 Neil wanted to throw his head back and laugh, but instead simply said, "not yet."

Neil knew that he couldn’t trust Andrew, so he shrugged the bag which had his binder and Chris’s and Stefan’s clothes and Nathaniel’s money off his shoulder. He didn’t know what Andrew was playing at, but he definitely didn’t want all of their belongings in the hands of a midget psychopath. Nathaniel wouldn’t approve of him placing his trust in an older man, but Neil didn’t have much options at the moment.

"Do you have someplace safe I can hide this?" he asked.

"There's space in the living room," Wymack said.

Neil glanced at Nicky, he trusted Nicky as much as he trusted the goalie: Neil didn’t believe Nicky’s pretty smiles and shining eyes. He wasn’t going to let himself be fooled by some handsome face.

Before he could say anything, Wymack gave Nicky an impatient look. "Why are you still here? Get out."

 "Rude," Nicky said, but he slipped past Wymack and disappeared down the hall.

Wymack gave Neil an intense stare. "How safe is safe?"

Neil chewed his bottom lip, if the contents of this bag was stolen, Neil would be cast to the darkest corner of their mind. He couldn’t let Andrew’s four-people-gang lay a finger on Nathaniel’s money, all twenty-two of them would be in danger otherwise.

 "It's all I have," Neil said simply.

Wymack unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and emptied it of hanging files before holding a tiny key out to Neil.

 "This is only a temporary fix," Wymack said. "When you move into the dorms, you're going to have to figure something else out."

Neil looked from the key to the desk; this sense of security just wasn’t right. Why was this older man offering a safe place for him when Nathaniel was plotting his murder at that very second. Neil was waiting for Wymack to tell him that the whole thing was some kind of sick joke when Wymack pushed the key into his palm. “Better hurry before Andrew sends someone looking for you.”

Neil decided not to question the unjustified gesture of kindness and stuffed the duffel into the drawer. He pushed the drawer shut and locked it, but when he tried to give the key back Wymack gave him a condescending look.

"The hell would I want that?" Wymack said. "Give it back when you move out."

Neil narrowed his eyes, this was definitely a joke. What was Wymack gaining out of giving Neil this sense of security? Neil was all too willing to give control over to Nathaniel if he found out that Wymack had looked through the duffel bag, so he decided to give the man a simple “thank you,” and was out of the office before he heard Wymack’s response.

The others had been waiting for him outside of the elevator, and the moment they were all stood inside the metal box Neil felt his neck prickling. The others had arranged themselves in a ring around the walls of the elevator: Nicky and Aaron to his sides and Andrew and Kevin opposite him. All eyes were on Neil.

Neil kept eye contact with Andrew as the manic smile slipped from the goalkeeper’s face. He was ready to give up control to Nathaniel when Andrew pushed away from the back rail and started for Neil. When Andrew reached for Neil’s keys, he would have handed the spotlight over, but then decided to play it out himself: this blonde midget wouldn’t be able to handle Nathaniel Weninski, and that wouldn’t be any fun.

Andrew reached for Neil’s keys again, but Neil stepped back, right into the metal doors. He should have felt intimidated that Andrew had managed to pin him to the wall, but instead a lazy smile snaked its way onto his face at the thought of how lucky Andrew was that Neil had decided not to give up control to Nathaniel.

 "How nice to meet you, Neil," Andrew drawled. "It will be a while before we see each other again."

Neil tilted his head to the side and smirked. "Somehow I don't think I'm that lucky."

"Like this," Andrew gestured between their faces. "It will have to wait until June. Abby threatened to revoke our stadium rights for the summer if we break you sooner than that. Can't have that, can we? Kevin would cry. No worries. We'll wait until everyone's here and Abby has too many other Foxes to worry about. Then we'll throw you a welcome party you won't forget."

"You need to rethink your persuasion techniques. They suck."

 "I don't need to be persuasive," Andrew said, putting a hand to Neil's chest as the elevator slowed to a stop. "You'll just learn to do what I say."

Once the doors slid open, Andrew gave Neil a small push that caused him to trip backward into the lobby, once again fighting off Nathaniel’s hands. Andrew shoved past him with Kevin and Aaron on his heels. Nicky stayed behind to give Neil a smile which looked genuine but was probably forced.

"Ready for this?" he asked, and he went on ahead.

Neil remained behind for a few seconds and watched them leave. He would let Andrew have his fun and games, but only for a little while. The goalkeeper was just a psychotic midget, and Nathaniel had grown up around violence, he would know how to handle him.

"Ready," Nathaniel Weninski said, a cruel smile on his face as he started after Neil’s teammates.

Chapter Text

You stand outside the orange cage with your fellow monsters and the intruder.  You hear them talking. You don’t talk.

You blink. There’s another you, he's pure and devoid of scars. You blink again. He's gone. He didn’t take your knives.

You walk into the cage last. They’re talking again. This time you’re listening.

“Welcome to the Foyer,” Nicky says to the intruder. You wonder what they gain from romanticizing the prison, “that’s what we call it anyway. By ‘we’ I mean whatever clever smartass preceded us.”

You straddle an orange bench. Your hands are shaking. Drugs drugs drugs.

The boy has a 2 on his cheek. You blink. You are clutching pills and a bottle of whisky in your shaking hands. You blink again. Where did the pills go? You’re about to ask for more. Your hands have stopped shaking. You don’t ask for more.

You blink. Your mirror-image is back. There’s smudged lipstick on his neck. It’s red. You wonder if it was a kiss or a bruise. You wonder why he doesn’t let you protect him.

You blink. He’s gone.

You feel a manic smile tugging at your lips. You try to claw it off. It doesn’t work. It never works. It cracks your face open, breaking you, revealing you. You hate it all. You begin to laugh. Your shoulders shake. You throw your head back. You cackle some more. You don’t try to stifle the laughter. It doesn’t work. It never works.

You step forwards. The buzz of the drugs set your nerves on fire. Someone is laughing, you want to tell them to stop but your mouth isn’t working. You stumble through the smoke of your memories. You’re on a couch in the lounge. You clutch the whisky in your hands. Alcohol burns down your throat.

You push down your armbands. There are scars on your wrists: some old, some new, all of them self-inflicted. You balance a knife on your fingertip. Your watch how it catches the light and sets on fire.

You fall into the flames. He has his hands on you, exploring you, finding you. You don’t want to be found, not by him, not by anyone. He’s saying your name. His voice is deep and amused, just like how you remember it. AJ, that’s what he calls you. Someone is laughing again. He has his hands on your wrists, fingers digging into the scars, you like playing with knives, don’t you AJ. You open your mouth to scream. Whisky is running down your throat.

You don’t remember closing your eyes. You open them and you’re back in the lounge. Bee’s voice tells you to take deep breaths. You don’t take deep breaths. You hear the laughing. You press your hands against the drug-induced smile.

You look back at your wrist. There are more scars.

You hear the laughing again, and this time you realize that it’s you.