"This chapter of our manual holds every shade that has painted your life thus far. Warm grays, cold grays, dark, light, and neutral. You will find many, if not all, of them in this section. Some may wonder why we would include these in your first manual on color, but we find that having them to reflect on helps keep you grounded when the rest of the information becomes too overwhelming. Seeing color can be a scary thing! This chapter devoted to our dear old friend Mr. Gray will serve to hold familiarity, should you need to return to it."
— The Complete Guide to Color: Scagg & Maddox's Reference For The Newly Seeing
Andrew curled his lip and fought to not tear the page from Nicky’s book. If for no other reason than the fact that Nicky would give him no end of grief if he discovered one of the twins had willingly read it. Ever since picking Neil up from the airport on Friday, Andrew’s entire world had been flashing back and forth between the grays he’s grown up with, rendered stark and jagged from his medication; and a new blindingly aching sort of sight that makes his eyes hurt and his head spin. For some reason, watching it layer itself over every item in his vision reminds him of third grade, when his foster sister at the time had made a papier mâché diorama for a science project.
Andrew had helped her dunk strips of paper into a lumpy homemade glue and place them sloppily over the frameworks of her small town. They had used too much glue at first so the strips kept sliding down, and it took several tries to make them stick. Color seemed to act much the same way. It slipped and puddled up over the edges of things, grabbing at coarser textures and attempting to soak into the thick neutral grays that’d ruled his vision for nineteen years. It didn’t want to stick, which Andrew felt certain couldn’t be normal. No one he knew had ever mentioned their sight being like this.
He flipped through the rest of the book, letting the pages snap rapidly and subjecting himself to a kaleidoscope of dizzying new vocabulary. Red, orange, yellow, goldenrod, dandelion, crimson. All words he had known but never knew. He almost hated knowing them now, but he needed to get used to seeing them — before someone noticed him acting even more off than his typical off-kilter self. This whole thing made him want to slam Neil against the wall and slide a knife cleanly under his skin to carve out whatever had made Andrew’s brain switch on these new receptors. However, reacting would reveal a vulnerability, and that was something Andrew refused to do. So he didn’t. He would bide his time and wait for when it benefitted him more to acknowledge the colors than to hide them. Wait, and let himself hate. Hate the way he seemed to be the only one who experienced them in this lopsided wet-glue sort of way, and hate the way he seemed to be the only one seeing them at all.
Seeing Neil Josten for the first time is something Andrew can, unfortunately, remember every detail of with near-perfect clarity. The loud slam of the locker room door swinging open. The stench of fear as Neil came barreling in. The split-second expression of shock on his face, a mere millisecond before Andrew sent the racquet singing into his gut. Andrew remembers the exact second when their eyes met over the racquet’s path; when that string that'd been coiled tight and unseen in Andrew’s brain had snapped and sent wet papier mâché flying out to slap at everything in sight. He remembers the room spinning, spinning, the tiles on the floor writhing as he nearly whacked Neil’s knuckles with the end of the racquet and realizing that Neil was calmer than he would have expected for such a flighty creature. Panicked and angry, but far too calm for the gravity of what fate had just flung into their laps.
Neil either couldn’t see the colors, or he was very good at hiding the fact that he could see them.
Andrew didn’t like that and didn’t know what to think about either option. So he chose not to. He burned with a hot itch to get Neil to Columbia, to drag the answers from his throat and slap them down on a table to study under the black lights, but Andrew could wait. Fate or not, he refused to let anyone in who might jeopardize the safety of those who were his. If Neil was dangerous to Kevin, then Andrew wouldn’t worry about the colors anyway. He would owe Neil nothing more than a sarcastic, cursory thank you for making Andrew’s life a little more difficult.
The book still heavy in his hands, Andrew thumbed over the pages again and stopped when a later chapter dimmed out in the same way as the chapter on gray. When he found the section back, it was completely free of any bright color fragments. An unbidden smile smoothed out the furrow in Andrew’s brow and lifted it high, high, high.
“ The hue of the ocean, the sky, and Paul Newman’s famous baby blues, this color is most associated with calm, serenity, and trust.”
Oh, now this was interesting. Andrew knew about this one. This color was the one Nicky couldn’t shut up about whenever given the chance to talk about them. The scribble in the book next to one of the darker grey boxes that read “this!!! the EXACT shade of Erik’s eyes!!!” — there were several hearts drawn around it — testified to that enthusiasm. Andrew knew far more than he ever wanted to know about blue, but thanks to that knowledge he knew that it should not be grayed in this book.
How very, very interesting .
When he’d been on the plane back to Palmetto from recruiting Neil in Millport, Andrew’s vision had switched from being coated in sloppy papier mâché colors back to the bare jagged grays he’d always known. It was almost distracting enough to take his attention away from the fact that he hung suspended thousands of feet in the air, trapped in a metal tube full of strangers. Almost. In that moment, he had just known that Neil Josten had killed himself to get away from their team. A desperate and stupid thing to do, but Andrew knew about desperation too. He had held his tongue and refrained from letting Wymack know they wouldn’t be getting the new striker, but with morning came the fax containing Neil’s contract. Then there Neil was at the airport, cagey but alive and dragging sideways colors back into Andrew’s life. He was a thousand-piece puzzle whose pieces were so soggy with glue that when you became preoccupied with keeping them from sticking to your hands, you could never find the matching edges to pull the full picture together.
Since the airport, Andrew managed to map a pattern. When he is near Neil, ugly shifting colors begin to snatch onto the world around them and drag Andrew through a visual ringer. When he is away from him, about three hours give or take, the colors stop eating at Andrew’s vision and let the grays take back over. He’d spent the last several weeks with a migraine from the constant back and forth every evening. Go to sleep with the bright colors of Nicky’s rainbow bedspread staring at him from across the room every night, then wake up to a blessedly bleak gray world. He’d never particularly cared about the idea of soulmates or fate, never cared to learn, but this situation reeked of something he didn’t quite understand and nothing was adding up. Nothing.
Andrew’s desperate to find at least one dry edge piece in this soggy, sticky, annoying puzzle.
He hated the library. It was always full of people, all either studying their classwork intently or studying their classmates even more intently in the darkened corners. It’s quiet, too much so for Andrew’s tastes. But it had WiFi and was a place no one would think to look for him. He chose a table sequestered off to itself, far enough away that if any prying eyes did show up, he can easily pretend to be researching something for one of his criminal justice classes. His open tabs were full of searches that Aaron would scoff at and Nicky would cry over. He’d only been reading for a few minutes and already the search results were sending a slice of irritation straight from his ears to his toes.
soulmate color missing
“When a soulmate dies, all color disappears from your vision, save for the one color that you've most associated with your deceased soulmate. A final parting gift, if you will.”
Andrew rolled his eyes and amended his search, because everyone and their dog knew this fact, not that it affected him. He couldn't even see the color he was beginning to associate with Neil.
soulmate color sporadic
Nothing. Nothing useful here, at all. No one else had this weird sloppy flicker shit going on, not even people high or drunk off their ass. If they do, it’s either minor flickering or it's caused by severe head trauma. Neither of which applied to Andrew, unfortunately.
soulmate color mental illness
That just pulled up a remarkable number of blog posts dedicated to spreading the idea that the soulmate system is a falsified shared illusion, caused by drugs, satanism, or ‘mental retardation’. The posts sounded like Nicky’s parents. Andrew felt his teeth grind and tried to remind himself that cracking his molars open over it would somehow be like letting Luther and Maria win a point. He relaxed his jaw but his eyes remained hard.
Here he again found nothing that seemed obviously useful. There were a lot of forums for asexuals. Upon reading through he thought of how Neil didn’t swing and saved them anyway. They might be relevant.
soulmate sexuality affect color
“Soulmates will seldom have incompatible sexualities, even if you meet before either of you have come to terms with your sexuality.”
Andrew snorted and left the page. Such blatant optimism and faith were useless to him. That had nothing to do with his vision, at any rate. He's sure. He tapped his thumb on the keyboard. He knew what to search next. He kept tapping the keyboard. Knew with an increasing sense of frustration what the answer would be.
Fuck it, he thought.
The binder was black, torn along its spine and edges but still inconspicuous on the outside. The inside, that was what made something in Andrew still when he flipped it open. Plastic sleeves filled with pages upon pages of clippings from newspapers, magazines, and internet article printouts, every one of them related to Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama. The pockets made between the clippings inside the sleeves were of equal and maybe even more concern. Certificates, wads of cash, slips of paper with numbered notes that had to be a code; there was more than enough money to get Neil a decent enough wardrobe, numerous times over. More slips of paper, with more code written on them, some odd nursery rhyme that was probably yet another code. In one of the last pages, there was a box of colored contacts. Andrew paused his rifling to stare at them and work his jaw.
So Neil had secrets. Big secrets. He was probably connected to the Moriyamas — this binder was proof of that — and was probably dangerous to Kevin and all the rest of the Foxes. But he’d slapped color onto Andrew’s surroundings like a first grader with an extra-large sharpie—
—and Andrew would bet his car on these brown color contacts
hiding a face born with
When Neil emerged wrapped up tight in the clothes Andrew sent Nicky to buy, nothing changed. Nothing changed when Andrew followed him and watched him throw his dirty clothes into his dresser like a heathen; and nothing changed when Neil turned around and stepped into Andrew’s space.
Andrew gripped the back of Neil’s neck and yanked his head down to stare into his eyes, to make sure he wasn’t wrong.
“Another bit of unexpected honesty,” He said, staring at the pale grey that looked back at him with unwavering steadiness. Neil quipped back about Nicky asking nicely, that Andrew should try it sometime. Andrew let him leave the room with a snarl pointed at his back.
When they encountered Aaron, Nicky, and Kevin in the living room, Andrew paid close attention to Nicky, the only one of them with the audacity to openly discuss color. He made his expected remarks. “Oh, man. Neil, you clean up good. Can I say that, or is that against the rules? Just—damn. Don’t let me get too drunk tonight.”
“Don’t make me kill you,” Andrew threatened. He may be listening close for Nicky to confirm his suspicions, but he didn’t need Nicky’s thirst on full display. He didn’t need the comments that brought back bad memories and the sour taste of blood. Stupid and unwanted comments that danced on the edge of harassment.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Nicky said. “But those eyes , so blue!” He fanned his face. “Mamá, I am a drowned man.”
A grating unwelcome smile tried to creep across Andrew’s lips. He turned away, hypothesis confirmed. Drowned, indeed.
“A man may have a soulmate, but that soulmate may not have him.”
A key was pressed into the palm of Neil’s hand and then things shifted, ever so slightly. The sloppy edges of the papier mâché drying, maybe. Gripping a little tighter in places that made a little more sense. Andrew tried not to think about it. He woke up the next morning staring at a red soda stain on his bedroom carpet and realized it was the first time he’d ever woken up able to see color. Something flickered in his chest, but when he looked outside at the sky, lit brightly by the sun but just as grey as the day before, he tamped it down with a furious stomp.
In an Exites in the middle of Columbia, Neil called Andrew self-destructive. Andrew placed a hand over Neil’s problematic mouth and told him he was a liar. He took in the sight of his pale hand against the Neil’s smooth browned skin and realized
maybe he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.
Red was the color of violence, and Andrew hated the way it painted the side of Aaron’s face.
At Easthaven, the doctors are bought off by the highest bidder. Andrew focused on the colored landscape art on the walls. Imagined that the rust of the sunset was Proust’s blood, that the black of the night sky was Proust’s tongue when Andrew finally got his hands out of his restraints and around Proust’s throat. Andrew’s fingers itched to wrap around his knives, but he didn’t have them. He had nothing. He choked the need down and silently willed Neil success in protecting what Andrew had trusted him with in his absence.
But Andrew went home to a liar clothed in a coat of many colors. Greens, blacks, yellows, and reds danced across Neil’s skin, reaching up and under the white bandage that sat on his left cheekbone, hiding the dark ink of the small number 4 that screamed of deceit. Red hung down in curls over the top of his forehead, and the pale grey that met Andrew’s eyes had him sucking his teeth even though he couldn’t see the color of them.
It was all so much brighter, purer. Neater. His head ached. He couldn’t stand it.
He called Neil a pipe dream, and threw Neil’s keys over the edge of the roof. This time, somehow, it didn’t feel like a win.
Neil traded Andrew his scars for his cooperation with the team. Neil’s skin lay littered with ropes of aged white and pink wounds, mixed under newer layers of bruises and healing gashes. Andrew ran his hand over the print of a hot iron, then over a healed bullet wound, and fought the need to cancel their trip to Eden’s; to press a blade into Neil’s hands, whether he liked it or not, and teach him how to use it in every way imaginable.
“You’re not really psychotic, are you?” Neil asked.
Andrew dipped his finger into the healed over slashes on Neil’s belly, the ones Neil had pressed his hand to before, in a kitchen in a house in Columbia.
“I never said I was.”
“Why does Roland think you’re tying me down?”
Neil’s voice was genuinely confused, and Andrew’s hand ceased its action of bringing his drink to his mouth completely on its own. A flicker of panic asked to be let free but Andrew shoved it away and stared at the rings of slowly healing skin circling Neil’s wrists.
Andrew had lines for others, but he also had lines for himself, especially when it came to sex. Something told Andrew that Neil would never cross Andrew’s lines for others, so Andrew had no reason to believe that he’d ever have to cross the ones for himself. Andrew wouldn’t have left marks on this man, not when Neil was fresh with these infuriating and unwanted new ouches every time he turned around.
Andrew would have left off the handcuffs in favor of pressing his own fingers over the thrum of Neil’s pulse, to grip against his delicate skin and trace the branches of smoky colored veins with the tips of his fingernails—
But that was a dangerous path to set foot upon.
Andrew set his glass down slowly. Tapped a rhythm against it and debated whether this would go well. Neil was attractive. Neil was a smartmouth. Neil gave him color, even if he couldn’t do the same for Neil, and Andrew was tired. So tired.
He tapped his shot glass one more time and raised his eyes to Neil’s frustratingly grey ones. “Presumably because he thinks you’re as bad at following directions as he is. Roland knows I don’t like to be touched.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“It’s the answer.” Andrew thought if Neil were any denser he would drop straight through the club floor. “Rephrase the question if you don’t like it.”
“I want to play another round. What’s above Coach’s pay grade?”
Neil was beginning to find the right path, but Andrew still kind of wanted to strangle him. “When Coach signed us, he promised to stay out of our personal problems. Said the board paid him to be our coach, nothing more and nothing less.”
Andrew could see the hesitation and confusion in Neil’s eyes, the furrow in his brow. Andrew thanked whatever higher power might've been out there listening that his self-control was what it was. That he could keep calm when the voice inside his head was screaming wildly to move .
“I didn’t think I was a personal problem. You hate me, remember?”
“Every inch of you,” Because really, how was Neil even alive with his lack of awareness? This was a man who could pick up on the deepest insecurities of anyone who crossed his path, who could weave those insecurities into skilled blades that would cleanly slice through arteries and bone and sinew; blades that could leave a man broken and blood-eagled before he knew what hit him. How could such a man still be so emotionally stunted that he couldn’t pick up on Andrew’s consistently blatant eye-fucking ?
Andrew didn’t know. So he had to point it out himself. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t blow you.”
There. Andrew saw the light finally stutter to life in Neil’s eyes. “You like me.”
“Correction: I hate you.”
Neil seemed to need a moment to process, so Andrew settled for watching the way the flashing club lights played with Neil’s curls. Not for the first time, Andrew thought about how a lot of colors looked very similar, somewhat muddy and ruddy. He knew it was because the blue was missing, knew from Nicky’s color manual that purples and greens both required blue to be seen properly.
It was wild to think that just one item missing or out of balance could affect his entire world in such a way. Andrew would never know the difference, and that was fine. He didn’t need to know.
“You never said anything,” Neil finally said.
Andrew shrugged. “Why would I have? Nothing will come of it.”
“Nothing.” Neil wet his lips and Andrew’s eyes did not catch on the way Neil’s tongue peeped out elegantly, like a princess from her tower, (what?) for the briefest of seconds. “Because of your soulmate?”
Andrew felt his gaze turn to steel and iron, and snapped it up to lock with Neil’s. The answer was yes, but not in the way that Neil intended his question, so Andrew only gave him what he asked for. “My soulmate can do as he pleases, just as I do. We’re not bound together by anything more than some interlocking set of brain chemicals that ignite and alter our vision once we meet. We do not control each other.”
Neil’s head inclined, just the barest of tilts. "You've met them."
Andrew allowed himself to sneer like he'd been refraining from this whole time. “Yes. I am not his answer. He sure as fuck isn't mine."
“Oh." Neil blinked and Andrew missed seeing the understanding crawl into his eyes between the time they closed and opened again. Yeah, oh. Trust Neil to catch that Andrew didn’t belong to his soulmate before he realized that it was Neil who Andrew didn’t belong to.
“I’m self-destructive, Neil. Not stupid.”
Neil still looked unsure and Andrew’s body cried for a cigarette. He downed his shot and snagged the packet from his pocket. Neil reminded him he had a turn in their game now. Andrew reminded Neil that he could take it when he pleased, and walked off to settle the unease trying to crawl from the pores in his bones.
Then, something else changed. A sort of shift in the colors on the road signs. Their edges and the edges of the color patches slapped onto them lined up clearer, relieving some of the headache that Andrew forgot he had sometimes now. Then his phone rang, Neil weakly requesting to be picked up from the stadium. Andrew hung up and turned the car around.
“We’re almost to the Interstate.” Kevin said.
Andrew shrugged and hit the accelerator, eyes still on the road, on the flashing intersection lights and how much closer things seemed to be lining up. He knew that if he looked at Kevin, his mouth would be set in a grim line, probably calculating the length of his and Neil’s night practice now that they would be getting back later. But it was still morning and Andrew had no patience to allow an opening for that dramatic train of thought to be verbalized.
When they pulled to the curb in front of the stadium where Neil was sitting — Andrew would bet that he’d sat there frozen in the same position with his phone clutched tight in his hand since he’d called — Andrew threw the car in park and got out, leaning his arms across the open door while he waited for Neil’s eyes to lift to his.
Something flickered in Neil’s gaze, some sort of surprised confusion, but he schooled it away and shook his head. “I don’t want to be here today.”
“We were almost to the Interstate.” Andrew said, and told himself not to wonder what had surprised Neil. The fact that Andrew had shown up?
Neil shrank in on himself as he stood, flicking another look of barely concealed unease at Andrew before climbing into the backseat.
The ride was quiet, save for the phone call asking if Neil should be thrown a birthday party. “Don’t.” Andrew had told Renee, and hung up immediately. Neil slept most of the way, and when they arrived at the car dealership and Andrew told him not to run, he didn’t. Because that’s what this was about. Something had shook Neil up bad enough that the itch to run, to get away, was clawing at his ankles, whispering into his ear. Andrew knew Neil wanted to answer its call, wanted to dance away from it. But a deeper part of Neil, the part that had made his deal with Andrew, that part was crying for something to tell him to stay. To make him stay. And that was the deal. Andrew heard the request and would honor it like he honored every other deal he had ever made in his life.
He signed the papers, and the twin keys for his new car glinted in the late morning sunlight as they were dropped into his palm.
Afterwards, when they stopped at a gas station on their way back and ordered something to eat at the attached fast-food joint, Neil sat in a separate booth from Andrew and Kevin and slowly made his way through the largest cup of coffee the station sold. Andrew’s eyes were glued to his shiny new Maserati in the parking lot, but at one point, from the corner of his periphery, he caught Neil flick his eyes towards him slowly before they returned to the dingy yellow lights of the gas station, staring into them like he wanted them to burn his retinas out.
Once back at Fox Tower, Neil skipped straight past the stair landing for their dorms and headed for the roof. Andrew followed him and had both of their cigarettes lit before Neil even managed to work the roof access door open. Neil took one with a shaky hand and sat closer to the edge of the roof than Andrew had ever seen him.
Andrew reached into his pocket and took out his new car keys, quietly slipping one off of the ring before sitting down beside Neil and holding up the key in front of him. Neil stared at it like it was going to burn him.
Andrew dropped the key onto the concrete of the roof between them and drew in on his cigarette. “A man can only have so many issues, Neil. It’s just a key.”
Neil swallowed, the bob of his Adam’s apple jumping in his throat. Andrew thought that shouldn’t be so attractive, not with the way Neil looked a little lost as he pressed two fingers to the key on the ground beside him. “You’re a foster child. You know it isn’t.” He was quiet for a moment.
“I squatted in Millport. Before that I stayed in decrepit weekly hotels, broke into people’s cars, found places where they were happy to get paid under the table. It’s always been ‘go’.” Neil’s hand turned up, away from the key, and Andrew swore he traced the shape of another key into the palm of it. “It’s always been ‘lie’ and ‘hide’ and ‘disappear’. I’ve never belonged anywhere or had the right to call anything my own. But Coach gave me keys to the court, and you told me to stay. You gave me a key, and called it home.”
Neil clenched a fist in the hand that he’d been tracing the key into, and the gaze that moved onto Andrew’s face was somewhere between lost and found, terror and wonder, hope and worship. Andrew hated it, hated it, hated it.
Neil’s lips shaped the words, “I haven’t had a home since my parents died,” and Andrew shoved his hand against Neil’s cheek, pushing him away because it was too much, he couldn’t handle the emotions seeping from Neil’s pores.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m not your answer, and you sure as fuck aren’t mine.”
As soon as he said the words, Andrew knew it was a mistake, because he’d said them before. Spoken them to himself night after night, day after day. Spoken them in a crowded nightclub in a different language to this same broken person in a completely different context. He tensed and gripped his cigarette tighter, preparing to get up and leave if need be.
Neil stilled. He closed his eyes. His clenched hand tightened before he loosened it and turned it open and upwards, trembling into the heavy afternoon air. “I’m not looking for an answer, I just—” He opened his eyes again and they were lost but clinging desperately to Andrew’s. “I’m tired of being nothing.”
“You’re a Fox,” Andrew managed to say, “You are always going to be nothing.” Andrew tried to ignore how those words cut to home, how the numb and broken boy he’d always been had carved that nothing into his own arms not so long ago, how he had craved that nothing but still wanted to have something at the same time. Andrew blew out a last cloud of smoke, hoped it helped hide Neil’s face and his searching grey eyes, before stubbing out the cigarette on the concrete. “I hate you.”
Neil’s voice was soft. “Nine percent of the time you don’t.”
“Nine percent of the time I don’t want to kill you. I always hate you.”
The wind rustled Neil’s hair across his forehead and Andrew fought the urge to reach over and yank it back into place, fought staring at how the colors of it were so changed from when he’d first met Neil. How tonight, they had shifted, and each strand seemed to be fit perfectly with its slap of wet sliding color. How the glue had maybe dried a little, had maybe shifted into place. The color wasn’t sliding so much as dancing in tandem with Neil’s curls as the wind gently tossed them around, perfectly in sync, like a painting come to life.
Andrew realized his migraine was even quieter than usual.
“Every time you say that, I believe you a little less,” Neil said, though it felt like a whisper.
“No one asked you,” Andrew replied roughly. He took Neil’s face between his hands and leaned in, pressed their cold lips together, overwhelmed and desperate with something that he refused to call hope.
A feeling rose up in his stomach, one that churned and foamed with something heavy and bubbling. Andrew told himself it was from kissing Neil on the edge of a roof, where either or both of them could fall to their deaths with the slightest misjudgment. He refused to acknowledge that it originated anywhere near the intrusive thought that he understood Neil, that Neil understood him, that he might be allowed this, and that the changed, clearer colors with their missing migraine had to mean something.
Neil made a quiet sound that sent Andrew’s heart jackrabbiting over the edge of the roof, fear of heights be damned, but then a hand tangled in Andrew’s sleeve, and really, what was Andrew doing ? He leaned away, slower than he should have. He felt tied to Neil, to his mouth, to his eyes, gray even as they were. “Tell me to stop.”
Neil blinked at him, dazed, breath uneven as he stared. He was panting with his mouth pink and open, cheeks flushed from the January air; his fingers still knotted in Andrew’s sleeve. The foam in Andrew’s stomach fell, settling into a hard, cold stone that made his limbs feel icy and disjointed. He ripped Neil’s hand from his coat sleeve. “Let go, I am not doing this with you right now."
He considered leaving completely, but something about leaving Neil in the middle of a breakdown made the iciness worse, even if he had caused it, so Andrew settled for jerking away and angrily lighting up a new cigarette. The first drag tasted acrid and more bitter than normal. Andrew stubbed it out and lit up another one.
Neil had been silent, and Andrew hadn’t dared look at him, but he did now, when he reached over and took the fresh cigarette from Andrew’s tense fingers. He watched Neil set it down beside the cigarette that Neil had dropped when Andrew kissed him. Andrew flung his cigarette pack across the roof and pulled his knees in towards his chest, like he used to do whenever he hid under the bed as a child, making himself smaller so that no one could reach him, could see him, could hurt him.
“Why not?” Neil’s voice wasn’t angry, which made Andrew angrier.
“Because you’re too stupid to tell me no.”
“Don’t you want me to tell you yes?”
“This isn’t a yes,” Andrew scoffed, eyes on the city in the distance. “This is a nervous breakdown. I know the difference, even if you don’t.” He pressed his thumb into his lip until the force against his teeth hurt, trying to forget Neil’s mouth as if that would erase the fact that he had gained that knowledge without proper consent. He felt sick. “I won’t be like them. I won’t let you let me be.”
Neil was quiet for a beat. “The next time one of them calls you soulless, I might have to fight them.”
Andrew fought down the foam in his gut as it tried to thaw again. “Ninety-two percent. Going on ninety-three.”
Neil said nothing, and Andrew didn’t look to see if he’d acknowledge him any other way, but he felt the air change around Neil a little. It felt calmer, a little more relaxed. They sat in silence for a bit before Neil stood, finally pocketing the key Andrew had given him.
“Hey. Thank you.”
Andrew closed his eyes. “Go away before I push you off the side.”
“Do it, I’d drag you with me.”
Andrew shuddered a sigh when he heard Neil open the door back into the tower.
You already have.
Thank you. You were amazing.
Andrew’s hands shook and something in his chest scratched at his lungs with sharpened nails, ripping his breaths away before he’d even sucked the oxygen from them. Kevin made a choked noise and Andrew distantly knew that was his fault. His shaking hands wrapped tight around the smooth fragile column of Kevin’s throat, balanced precariously on the edge of not-protecting. But Andrew needed answers now. He needed them more than the air he wasn't getting, he needed them like he needed Neil here now. He almost wanted to laugh, if it didn't feel so much like it would turn into a scream. Why did he need Neil worse than he needed air? It shouldn’t hurt this much. They were nothing, nothing at all, but Andrew was still so painfully angry that he could barely see.
“Someone’s been keeping secrets, Kevin. Tell me, where. is. Neil? ”
Kevin could barely get the strangled whisper free, but Andrew heard it, heard him choke out, “Baltimore,” even if Andrew didn’t know what that meant, didn’t know who or what would be in Baltimore that could take Neil from them.
“Baltimore! Tell me, what’s—”
But then Kevin’s panicked eyes suddenly caught Andrew off-guard.
The dread didn’t fill him slowly, creeping over him like when Cass had said, once upon a time, “I’m so glad you and Drake get along, it was the last thing keeping us from making you a part of our family permanently.”
No, no the dread shot up his throat like the slap of a palm against Aaron’s already bruised flesh; like the slam of a stranger’s feet and fists that beat against Nicky’s curled body; like the impact of a glass bottle against Andrew’s skull while he slumps helpless againagainagain—
One moment his hands clenched around Kevin’s throat and his stare raged into Kevin’s terrified coward-green eyes; the next, those hands were slipping, slipping, and his knees, giving, giving, because Kevin’s eyes
Fuck his request to be released from his deal.
Fuck him, fuck his nothing, fuck his stupid desire for something. The jagged gray sifting into Andrew felt like the knife to his heart that he knew he deserved for letting Neil out of his sight.
He didn’t know how it happened, but he heard himself yell, felt it cauterize his tongue where it bled from how tight he’d clenched his jaw. Blood still dripped from the sides and he knew it stained his teeth, but he didn't care, would not care, could not care. His knives were in his hands and Renee’s hands were on his arms. Someone else joined, helped hold him back. He thought he told them, “Don’t fucking touch me!” But they held on, held him back from whatever he was attempting to do. He didn’t even know, himself.
All he knew was that his soulmate, Neil Abram Josten, was dead.
“What in the hell is going on here?”
Wymack’s shout did little to settle the chaos that grated at Andrew’s ears, and it got worse when everyone tried to answer him at once. Dan’s accusation rang loudest, her voice used to being made heard over the sound of the Foxes’ dysfunction.
“Andrew almost killed Kevin!”
Wymack’s glare intensified and swiveled on Andrew. “Minyard, I already have one missing player and several injured ones that I have to worry about. I don’t need you making more problems in this situation.”
Renee’s uninjured hand still rested gently on Andrew’s shoulder, unwilling to let him get far. He wrenched away from her anyway. She let him. Everyone was too close, too warm, too loud. if he weren’t so numb right now, his skin would be prickling and crawling and trying to escape. His hands shook. He needed a cigarette and wanted a bottle or three of whiskey, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He couldn’t grab his pack from his pocket, and couldn’t move from the bus seat that the team had forced him to sit down in. The air was congealed syrup and blood and dripping with the team’s collective fear and anger.
“You don’t know what half of your problems are, Coach.” Andrew brushed a finger along the empty edge of his armband where his knives had laid before Renee took them from him. He’d almost broke her wrist over that. He felt bad about it, somewhere, because it was Renee , but the vibrating pool of hurt in his chest and naked unease at being disarmed kept him from thinking about it. Andrew barely had enough energy to focus on breathing. Not that he wanted to.
How could he breathe when Neil was dead ?
“We’ve been lied to, Coach. Why don’t you ask your precious little golden boy about it?” Andrew dug his fingernails into the seat in front of him, imagined it was his skin, imagined peeling it off to escape the claustrophobia dancing up his windpipe. “Ask Kevin where Neil went, maybe see if he knows where the body was dumped, too, huh?”
Wymack’s face twisted. Kevin flinched and made a pained noise. The other Foxes again descended into confusion and outrage.
Wymack whistled to get everyone to shut up. “The fuck is that supposed to mean, Andrew?”
Andrew lifted his eyes from the scratch marks he was making in the seat leather and Kevin squirmed under his gaze. Wymack looked between them and heaved a sigh. “Well?”
“We found Neil’s duffel and his phone.” Kevin’s voice was hoarse. “He’s…. Been taken by his father, or at least, by people who work for him. His father has connections to the Moriyamas.”
“He’s… He’s Kengo’s right hand, his name is Nathan Wesninski. He’s known as the Butcher of Baltimore.”
Instead of getting louder, as Andrew expected, the chaos dropped, and the bus went quiet. Andrew huffed and gritted his teeth. Why were they so surprised? Why was he surprised? Neil was such a liar, liar, liar.
(and now he was dead, dead, dead)
Something stung in Andrew’s mouth. Ah. His tongue. It was bleeding again.
“The Butcher, how lovely.” Andrew wasn’t sure how he could talk without unclenching his jaw, but he did it. “Tell me, Kevin, what are the chances we’ll ever recover what’s left of him?”
The upperclassmen were incredulous. “Don’t fucking talk like that. How can you just be giving up on him already?”
Andrew stood so fast he knocked his knees against the lowered armrest of the seat. “This isn’t giving up, Captain. This is never being allowed to have started.”
He ignored whatever anyone else might have said and turned to Kevin, “What. Are. The chances?”
Kevin looked close to tears. “None. Not if Nathan has him.”
“Then I’ll guess we’ll just have to make one, won’t we?” Wymack stomped his foot against the metal floor plates of the bus aisle. “I’m not about to let Neil get his ass killed while we just stand around. I’m gonna make a few calls, then I’ll be back. If anyone sets foot off this bus, I’ll have them signed up for every triathlon in this fucking country, understand?”
Halfhearted mutterings of “Yes, Coach,” circled the group as Wymack went back outside. Andrew’s legs shook so bad he made himself drop back into the bus seat, because if he kept standing any longer he really would kill Kevin. He didn’t know where to start but he knew where to end; with this Nathan Wesninski’s heart impaled on Andrew’s blade, his last breath carved straight from his ribs.
Dan paced the aisle once before pulling out her phone. “Okay. So Neil’s father might have him, but do we know that for sure?”
“Are you kidding me? He left his duffel, his racquet, his keys — and his phone log has a call from a Baltimore area code. What more do you want?”
Kevin had some spine, after all. Andrew was glad. He didn’t trust himself to talk right now. Because Neil had known, and hadn’t even thought he could tell anyone. He didn’t tell Andrew. He had asked Andrew to release him. Who did that fucker think he was?
“We should still double check all the hospitals. Maybe he got knocked unconscious in the brawl and was taken to one of them instead?”
“Why don’t you check the morgues instead?"
“Andrew!” Nicky’s face crumpled. “What’s wrong with you?”
Andrew opened his mouth to answer with a bitter anecdote, but Allison cut him off. “No. Listen. I don’t want to hear it. I thought you were all about protecting your little gang? We all know you had to have made a deal with Neil, so why the fuck are you writing him off so easily?”
Andrew wasn’t sure if his snarl broke through his numbed mask or not. “You know nothing.” He stood again, irritation rippling through his body like a live wire, and made his way to the front of the bus. He picked up his knives from where they lay next to Renee, who had moved when Andrew made it clear he didn’t want her beside him. She locked a hard but understanding look on him.
“What do you mean we can’t talk to him?”
Wymack paced up and down the length of the outside of the bus. He got to the end and turned, rolling his eyes when he saw Andrew. He tried to wave him off but Andrew only stepped closer.
“Well I don’t care! Rules be damned, that is my player, and he has a contract with me. Until I hear from his own lips that he wants to break it, I’m not going to. Get him on the phone and let us see him.”
Something in Andrew’s chest jumped, set hooks into his ribcage. But no. No, he couldn’t be. Nothing was there, nothing. The world was dark and grey and muted and washed in a dreary veneer that whispered, Neil Josten is dead. Andrew stared at Wymack’s irritated expression.
“Okay, fine. But I swear if I don’t hear back from you about Neil within an hour, you WILL be hearing back from me.” Wymack hung up his phone with an aggravated flip of his hand. “The Feds. Neil’s at the hospital. They won’t tell me which one, but they want us to come up to Baltimore for questioning.”
The hot stirrings rose in Andrew’s chest again, gripping his ribs like handholds as it climbed towards his throat. He swallowed and shook it down. Neil was in a hospital, sure — in a body bag. Andrew knew what his eyes were telling him.
“We owe them nothing.”
“We do if we want to see Neil. Come on, we’re going to Baltimore."
Neil was dead, but also not dead. Somehow. Andrew didn’t know what that meant. He dragged Wymack behind him, taking the steps back up to the hotel room two at a time and yanking on the wrist handcuffed to Wymack’s. Neil was okay, Neil was alive, and they were bringing him to them, but the world was still gray and broken and Andrew didn’t know what that meant. When they got to the second floor, the hotel room door was open, the agent guarding their room standing in the open entrance along with the agent that’d met with them the night before. Browning, Andrew’s memory supplied. He could hear Dan asking if Neil was okay, heard Abby’s pained disbelief, and right as Andrew made it close enough to see the hooded figure standing just inside the door; heard Neil’s voice, rough and edged with panic, “Where’s And—”
Andrew’s stomach fell down into his toes, and he shoved past the agents in the doorway, thankful when Wymack kept them from grabbing at him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Browning draw his gun, but Neil had turned and seen him quicker. He snatched at Browning’s hands and drug them down before quickly letting go, hissing as he pulled his hands to his stomach and bent over them.
“Don’t.” It was barely a whisper, but it was him, it was Neil, and he was shaking with pain. The twisted grimace on what you could see of his face through the bandages had Andrew reaching out and gripping his neck. Neil lifted his head and opened his eyes, and when the agonized pale gray locked onto Andrew, he took Neil by the shoulder and shoved him to the ground, because if they stood much longer Andrew’s knees would give out on their own.
Neil hunched over his hands again after they knelt on the floor and Andrew heard Wymack bark, “Leave it!” to one of the agents behind him. Andrew ignored whatever was going on and stared at Neil’s down-turned face. He’d never seen Neil in anything but bright, warm colors, so seeing the curls he knew to be vibrant and auburn peeking out gray and lifeless under Neil’s dark hoodie set fire to an anger that roiled like snakes under Andrew’s skin.
Neil’s hands turned over as he looked up from his lap. Bandages covered both of his cheeks, stark and white against gray skin. His eyes searched Andrew’s face, lingering on the bruise by Andrew’s eye where he’d caught someone’s elbow in the riot. Andrew slid his hand from Neil’s shoulder to grip his chin, staring at Neil’s gray eyes, and his gray skin, and his gray hair. He swallowed down the feeling
(despair) that danced with the snakes into his gut. Neil sighed a little.
“They could have blinded you. All that time fighting and you never learned how to duck?”
Andrew couldn’t be amused at that, not when blinded hit a little too close to home. He tugged Neil’s hood out of the way and searched for the edge of the tape holding the bandages on. The ones on Neil’s right cheek hid lines of clean overlapping cuts, neatly stitched up. He dropped the bandages on the ground and moved on to the ones on the other cheek. Andrew peeled them back, expecting the same haphazard pattern of knife wounds. But Neil flinched as the gauze lifted and Andrew froze when he saw the skin lifting with it.
Burns. They had burned Neil’s face. They had burned off Riko’s tattoo and left a wide swathe of angry oozing skin in its wake. Andrew forced himself to stay calm, to not let the anger seep from under his skin and into his mouth and hands. He slowly set the bandages down.
Wymack’s “Christ, Neil,” startled Andrew into remembering there were other people in the room with them, and Andrew saw Nicky stand, the bed creaking from the release of his weight.
“Don’t.” Wymack said, and Andrew refrained from clenching his jaw when Browning reminded them, “One at a time.”
Lifting two fingers, Andrew tipped Neil’s chin to turn Neil’s head to the side. The damage stopped just half an inch from his hairline and encompassed almost the entirety of his cheekbone. Andrew couldn’t see it, but he knew the darkened areas of skin seethed with angry pink and red. He dropped his hand to Neil’s hoodie and gripped it tight when Neil turned his head back and looked into his eyes.
Andrew wanted to find Nathan, wherever they were keeping him, and take him apart piece by piece, wanted to watch him suffer and beg and bleed out into a bottomless hole big enough to swallow all of his sins. He’d taken so much from Neil. From Neil and Andrew both.
“I’m sorry,” Neil said.
The barely restrained anger rose up hissing, and made Andrew clench Neil’s hoodie tighter. He pulled his other hand back, the one cuffed to Wymack. It wanted to knock Neil in the face, wanted to punch the apology right from his teeth. Neil had no right nor need to apologize. None. Andrew’s arm shook with indecision on whether to actually do it, but Neil’s stare remained calm and gray on his, and Andrew dropped his hand, letting it hang limp. “Say that again, and I will kill you.”
The agent behind Andrew shuffled. “This is the last time I’m going to say it to you. If you can’t stow it and behave—”
“You’ll what, asshole?” Neil had moved his gaze from Andrew to the agent, and his expression was furious.
“The same goes for you Nathaniel. That’s your second strike. A third misstep and this is over. Remember you’re only here because we’re allowing it.”
That was it. Browning needed to keep his mouth shut and stop wasting their time. Andrew started to get up, to shove Browning outside and maybe across the balcony, to see how his soulmate liked the panic and fear that choked your throat and bled out your nose when the colors vanished; but Neil moved faster and lifted his hands to hover a hair’s breadth from Andrew’s face.
Andrew snapped his eyes back to Neil, whose face had shifted from furious to beseeching. Andrew sank back into his seated position. There was a flash of thanks in Neil’s eyes, before he flicked them back at Browning and the anger returned.
“Don’t lie to a liar. We both know I’m here because you have nothing without me. A pile of dead bodies can’t close cold cases or play the money trail with you. I told you what those answers would cost you and you agreed to pay it. So take this handcuff off of Andrew, get your man out of our way, and stop using up my twenty minutes with your useless posturing.”
The room went silent. Twenty minutes? They’d lost Neil and now they were only getting twenty minutes with him? Andrew felt another wash of anger and fought to stay seated where Neil had asked him to. The silence remained even as Browning motioned for the agent to remove Andrew’s cuff. Andrew flexed his hand and dropped it to his lap when Browning and the other agent retreated to the doorway. Neil watched the whole thing with something hiding in his expression that Andrew could have sworn was smugness.
“So the attitude problem wasn’t an act, at least.” Andrew said.
“I was going to tell you.”
“Stop lying to me.”
“I’m not lying. I would have told you last night, but they were in our locker room.”
“They who?” Browning cut in.
Honestly. Andrew really, really wanted to send him over the balcony. Just a little balcony. Not even from up very high. It wouldn’t take much.
Neil continued in German, his gray eyes locked onto Andrew. “Those weren’t security guards that came for us. They were there for me, and they would have hurt all of you to get me out of there. I thought by keeping my mouth shut I could keep you safe.” Neil’s thumb brushed over the bruise on Andrew’s cheek. “I didn’t know they’d staged a riot.”
Andrew swallowed. “What did I tell you about playing the martyr card?”
“You said no one wanted it, you didn’t tell me to stop.”
“It was implied.”
“I’m stupid, remember? I need things spelled out.” Neil’s lips quirked in what could pass for one of his smiles, the barest twitch at the corner betraying that he somehow could find something here to be amused about even when Andrew couldn’t fight the pain of seeing the gray angry skin on Neil’s cheeks for more than a few moments at a time.
“Am I at ninety-four yet?”
“You’re at one hundred.” Andrew ran his tongue along his teeth. It twinged when he grazed the spot where he’d bit it earlier. “What happened to your face?”
Neil’s expression dropped its hint of mirth and Andrew watched his Adam’s apple dip as he swallowed so hard his throat clicked. “Dashboard lighter,” he whispered.
Andrew’s quiet inhale rang in his own ears, his body tense and face numb between where it sat in Neil’s hands. Behind Neil, Nicky made a noise like an injured animal, and Aaron cursed as he stood to move next to Nicky. Neil winced and turned to see who had moved, which set off a chain reaction in the other Foxes. Kevin slammed into the wall with a hand over his own tattoo, eyes panicked. Andrew was disgusted. Kevin’s ability to think only about Riko and his reaction to anything would see Andrew hauling Kevin up by his neck again one day.
Abby moved from the other side of one bed, face agonized. With a sense of sick, tense irritation, Andrew realized she was going to try to come near Neil. He caught the side of Neil’s head and made him face him again before letting the venom under his skin slip free.
“Get away from us.”
“Andrew, he’s hurt. Let me see him.”
No. No, he couldn’t do that. The last time anyone else touched Neil, he had come away from it with this chaos-wrecked body, his soul ripped from Andrew’s. Andrew tangled his fingers in Neil’s hair where his hand still rested and his body shook with renewed fear and anger. Yes, Neil was here, but the color still wasn’t, and their bond really was broken, wasn’t it?
“If you make me repeat myself, you will not live to regret it.” He held Abby’s gaze, felt his breath turn heavy in his nose, fought to keep it steady.
Neil tugged on Andrew’s hair. Andrew ignored him but he did it again, and then again, and it was so gentle and light that Andrew finally let his attention be redirected. Neil’s face was grateful and open and awed. “Abby. I just got out of the hospital,” Neil’s eyes never left Andrew’s. “I’m as good as I can be right now.”
Andrew shuddered in a breath.
“Neil,” Abby tried.
“Please.” Neil said. Abby heard the same stress that Andrew did, and she stepped back, giving them space. Andrew found he could breathe again. He relaxed his hand from its tight death grip against Neil’s head.
Neil returned to German, dropping one hand back to his lap and shuffling the other into Andrew’s hair. “Did they tell you who I am?” His voice was quiet.
“They didn’t have to. I choked the answers out of Kevin on the way here.”
Neil’s mouth dropped open a little and his eyebrows rose. Andrew ignored it. “Guess you weren’t an orphan after all.” Andrew would have rather he had been, wished they had never had to deal with this. “Where is your father now?”
“My uncle executed him.” Neil’s voice held something fragile, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying himself. He pressed two fingers to Andrew’s chest, lightly. “I spent my whole life wishing he would die, but I thought he never would. I thought he was invincible. I can’t believe it was that easy.”
“Was it easy?” Andrew’s attention was split three ways. This conversation and the danger they could still all be in with both branches of the Moriyamas; Neil’s eyes, dazed, gray, and disbelieving; and his hands, holding Andrew’s mind and his heart with next to no real pressure. Andrew tried not to let it overpower him and schooled his face. “Kevin told us who he worked for.”
“My uncle said he was going to them to try and negotiate a cease-fire. I don’t know if he’s strong enough to bargain with them, but I’d like to think he wouldn’t have risked it without real ground to stand on.” Neil’s grip in Andrew’s hair tightened, just a little. “Promise me no one’s told the FBI about them.”
“No one’s said a word to them since they said we couldn’t see you.”
Neil blinked. Then blinked again, face an unreadable mix of overwhelmed disbelief, pain, and surprise. It reminded Andrew a little of his reaction when he’d given him the keys to the house and to the Maserati. Neil opened his mouth, and when nothing came out, he cleared it and tried again. “But why? I’ve done nothing but lie to them. I willingly put them all in danger so I could play a little longer. Why would they protect me now?”
Andrew flicked his eyes over the rest of their teammates and Abby. Most watched Neil with worried eyes and varying hurt expressions. He looked back to Neil. “You are a Fox.” Simple. Easy. He’d crashed into their lives but they’d lived with the wreckage and found that it’d made them better; stronger, more whole and more capable than any of them had thought possible.
Neil dropped his eyes to where he’d pressed his hand to Andrew’s chest, and Andrew watched his jaw clench and unclench. Neil’s voice cracked and went a little wet when he spoke again. “Andrew, they want to take me away from here. They want to enroll me in the Witness Protection Program so my father’s people can’t find me. I don’t want—” He shook his head, and the fingers pressed against Andrew turned into a fist that gripped Andrew’s shirt until his hand shook.
“If you tell me to leave, I’ll go.”
Andrew reached forward. Hooked his fingers into the collar of Neil’s hoodie. Thought about losing a different teammate, one he’d cared less about, thought about pressing a key into Neil’s hand in the darkened entryway of the house in Columbia. Thought about how he’d told Neil, “ I know what I’m doing.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Andrew spoke in English. “You’re staying with us. If they try to take you away they will lose.”
The rest of the Foxes jumped on that with arguing cries and unanimous agreement. Neil’s eyes shone, listening to their team latch on and try to defend him from the agents who were beginning to get riled up as well.
“Coach Wymack, talk some sense into your team.”
“Neil.” Wymack sounded weary but supportive, and Andrew could see the comfort it set into the planes of Neil’s face. “Talk to me. What do you want?”
“I want—” Neil’s voice was quiet and jagged and dropping to pieces like a shattered glass. “I know I shouldn’t stay, but I can’t—I don’t want to lose this. I don’t want to lose any of you. I don’t want to be Nathaniel anymore. I want to be Neil for as long as I can.”
Neil’s eyes were locked onto Wymack, but his face had Andrew draw in a breath and he couldn’t take his own eyes off of Neil--
--whose hair was shifting, shifting, shifting.
Andrew didn’t hear a single word of what was being said between them and Browning. He couldn’t, not when Neil’s hair was gradually turning red, right in front of him. It was faded, and undershot with gray, nothing like its old vibrancy. But Andrew didn’t care. It was there, it was there, it was there.
That stupid agent was still talking. Andrew tugged at Neil’s hoodie, and, in German, choked out, “Get rid of them before I kill them.”
“They’re waiting for answers,” Neil said, turning back to Andrew. Whatever he saw in his face made him pause. Moving slow, he brushed his hand through Andrew’s hair a final time before dropping it to his lap. “They were never able to charge my father while he was alive. They’re hoping I know enough to start decimating his circle in his absence. I’m going to give them the truth, or as much of it as I can without telling them my father was acting on someone’s orders.” He touched the sleeve of the hand Andrew still had tangled in his collar. “Do you want to be there for it? It’s the story I should have given you months ago.”
Absolutely. Yes. What sort of question was that? Andrew refused to let Neil out of his sight ever again. Not that he was going to say that in front of Nicky and Aaron.
“I have to go. I don’t trust them to give you back.”
The hotel disappeared behind the SUV. Neil turned to Andrew in the backseat. His hair, his skin, everything was blooming back to life. Color grabbed onto Neil like he was the most solid thing it’d ever encountered, building him up from a metal framework until he was real and alive and staring softly at Andrew with his pale almost-gray eyes.
“Can I really be Neil again?”
Andrew placed his hand on the back of Neil’s neck. “I told Neil to stay, leave Nathaniel buried in Baltimore with his father.”
Neil sighed and turned to look out the window. Gauze and bandages covered his hands, but he still managed to trace what Andrew recognized as a key into the palm of one of them, anyway. “Neil Abram Josten,” Neil murmured.
When he turned back to Andrew again,