The Kings’ locker room was amazing. Every inch of it was sparkling clean - the lockers themselves were done in the team’s signature purple. Every other metal accent in the room was done in deep bronze. It made Neil smile so hard his face hurt, but he was really reminded why he’d done all of this when Kevin led him through the locker room and out to the court.
The Kings had the third largest Exy court in the entire pro circuit - dwarved only by the Wyverns and the Spears. All the seats in the stands were the same purple as the locker rooms and their jerseys. Kevin didn’t stop to let him marvel over it though - heading straight for the plexiglass that encased their court.
Neil found himself jogging after at him. They weren’t even dressed to play - the rest of the team hadn’t arrived for practice yet - but Neil felt like there was a lasso pulling at his very soul, like it was leading him home at last.
The second his shoes hit the court, he was running the length, letting go of the pressures that had been beating down on him recently. His heart was racing so fast he thought it might actually burst, but it felt so good to feel the hardness of the court beneath his shoes, to see the goals standing at either side, prepared to light up red when Kevin scored against their opposing team.
Neil turned back towards him with a grin, and he ran at him. Luckily, he had three quarters of the length of the court to prepare to catch Neil as he jumped on him like he had after dozens of won games.
“We’re going to play together again!” He yelled for no reason, but Kevin rolled his eyes in amusement as he spun slightly - probably to redirect the force of a small canon ball suddenly launching at Mach twenty into his arms, but he didn’t put Neil down. He crushed him in a hug.
“We’re going to win together again.” Kevin confirmed with a nod that most would have found cocky, but it was the confidence that Neil had found himself sorely missing in the years passed.
“Riko won’t know what hit him.” Neil replied, feeling a smirk curve of his lips. They were going to crush this season, then the whole world would forget about the self titled King of Exy. They’d decimate him and remind the fans that no one person can play Exy alone and without his perfect court in line behind him, Riko was nothing but an over confident child.
“Hey! No one told me we were hugging!” Kevin turned, which meant so did Neil, but not without catching a glance at where the voice came from. Dark skin and legs for days meant it could only be Matt Boyd, one of the other starting backliners for the Kings. The guy was built like a brick shit house, stronger than Neil but definitely not as fast as him.
“That’s because you weren’t invited.” Kevin called back, but there wasn’t any malice in his tone as he finally set Neil back down on his feet.
“Kevin Day, you bitch! I will hug you!” Neil turned just in time to see Matt Boyd running down the alley that led to the plexiglass doors to the court. And he felt Kevin take off behind him with a little shift in the air.
The door opened with a soft slam but Kevin was already gone, running to the other side of the court where visiting teams would enter through their locker room. Matt was fast, but Kevin was already vanishing through the other door and down the alley by the time he reached Neil.
Matt was breathing just slightly heavy - he’d taken off from a dead sprint without stretching, so maybe it was okay for him to be the slightest bit winded as he stopped and smiled at Neil.
“Kev is getting away.” Neil noted, but Matt just shrugged and held out his hand. Neil took it in a firm shake - Matt’s hand was huge and basically engulfed his own. It was a bit intimidating, or would have been if Matt didn’t have a reputation for being literal sunshine. Apparently Jeremy was the only one to outshine him on that scale; a star beside a supernova.
“Let him, I’ll get him back later.” Matt just looked amused. “I’m Matt Boyd.”
“I know-“ Neil cut himself off because that wasn’t a polite introduction, and he wanted to make a good impression with his new team mates. “I mean, I’m Neil Josten, nice to meet you, again. We met at college banquets a few times.” He reminded Matt, but he just shrugged.
“I don’t really count that as meeting, seeing as you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone.” Matt rubbed the back of his head and winced. “Sorry, I hope that’s not a painful subject.”
It wasn’t anymore, but it had been back then. He hadn’t even been allowed to talk to Kevin or Jean at those banquets. Riko kept him on a tight leash to ensure he wasn’t even daring to look at them.
”You let them go. Do you really think I’d allow you the luxury of interacting with them?”
The only time he was allowed to look at them was when they played against each other on the court. The only time he was allowed to hear their voices was when their voicemails whispered in his ear on their anniversaries. Even then, it had been Jeremy’s voice, not Jean’s, that greeted him those painful nights.
“It’s in the past.” Neil replied with a forced smile. This one probably wasn’t even convincing if Matt’s unsure look on his face had anything to say about it. “I’m a King now and there’s nothing Riko can do about it.”
His first practice with the Kings was exhilarating. He’d changed out in a bathroom stall to avoid questions, but was absolutely vibrating in his skin when he saw himself in the mirror, wearing the purple practice jersey for the first time. He didn’t ever want to go back to black - luckily their away jerseys were white so he wouldn’t have to.
When practice finally stated, they were missing a starting striker - Seth Gordon. Matt explained to them that he was stuck in Kansas City, flight cancelled for a killer lightning storm. He’d rented a car to drive back instead, but he’d get in town about an hour after practices were done for the day.
He’d been visiting his fiancé, Allison Reynolds. She was a starting defensive dealer for Pro Exy’s only strictly female team - The Valkyries. It was the same team that Matt’s wife, Dan Wilds-Boyd, played for. Matt teased that Andrew’s girlfriend, Renee Walker, played goalie for them, but Andrew put an end to the conversation.
“Renee is not my girlfriend.” It didn’t sound defensive, just like he was stating a fact.
They skirmished, just to start the preseason off with some fun. Neil and Kevin had been placed on the same side, facing Jean. Neil forgot how easy it was to play with people you’d grown up beside - he and Kevin knew eachother’s quirks like they knew their own. Still, it wasn’t easy to dominate the field.
They ended with a score of 19-17, in Neil and Kevin’s favor, and a lot of that was thanks to having Andrew in their goal. (Not that Laila Dermott was anything to sneeze at.)
For most of the game, Andrew looked bored as he deflected balls, slamming them across the court so hard they bounced off plexiglass. Near the end though, he looked more focused. Maybe to some, they’d just see the same bored look, but Neil noticed the way his eyes narrowed slightly, actually tracking the ball as it moved across the court. Anyone who said Andrew didn’t care about protecting his goal obviously just wasn’t paying attention.
After the skirmishes, they did accuracy drills for a little while, and then the coaches let them free early since it was the first practice of preseason and most of the team looked a little worse for wear. They didn’t want anyone to get injured before games even started.
That’s how Neil found himself sitting on a bench in the locker room, still in his uniform, waiting for everyone to be done with the showers so he could slip in and take one alone. He’d gotten quite a few weird looks from his new teammates, but none of them commented on it and Neil wasn’t just going to offer up intimate details of his life without being prompted.
He wondered if this is what hope felt like - a burst of warmth in your chest that gripped you and held you tight and reminded you why you wake up every morning despite the fact that sometimes you wake up feeling like you’re choking on your own lungs. For the first time, it felt solidly like he could follow through on the plan he’d put in motion. It felt like Riko couldn’t touch him within these walls, where the purple and bronze protected him like a fortress.
Kevin had called him the knight when he was talking make up for their photo shoot - but here, surrounded by his new team mates, he felt like they could be his knights. They stood on the field between him and Riko - he just had to show them that he was worth fighting for, and he’d fight with them, not hiding behind them like their sacrifices weren’t something to be cherished but expected.
Off the field, he’d never allow himself to rely on anyone to take care of him and make sure he made it out alive. But with the way this team played during a friendly skirmish, he had zero doubt in his mind that they would fight with every breath they had to hold their ground against any team they came up against.
When players started filtering back into the locker room, smelling fresh from the showers, Neil abandoned the locker room. He wasn’t ready to leave the stadium - not with the feeling of lightness in his chest right then.
He went back through the alley, through the plexiglass barrier and back onto the field. No one stopped him, but he didn’t really think anyone was paying attention to him. They’d been talking about the game schedule that was due to be released any day now.
Neil didn’t run as his feet hit the court this time, just feeling the solidness of the floor beneath his feet. He didn’t know how long he stood there, breathing in the smell of the game. It smelled like Salon Pas, treated wood, and sweat - so familiar that he’d almost call the smell itself home. This was what he’d lived for his whole life - to be the best. He’d been raised to support Riko’s ascent to glory. Not anymore.
Neil was startled from his thoughts by that voice - the one he’d been avoiding because it threw painful truths in his face.
Andrew was standing in the alley when he turned, wearing black pants tucked into black boots and a black T-shirt. He’d probably look good if Neil wasn’t so sick of black. He looked bored, leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. His eyes were doing that squinty thing they did whenever he studied Neil like a specimen. It made him crawl inside his skin - how long had Andrew been staring at his back?
“I’m not taking you with us back to the tower if you don’t take a fucking shower. I’m getting sick of waiting on you.” Andrew bitched like Neil should have known this - but Neil hadn’t even taken it for granted that Andrew was driving him back.
“I can find my own way back.” Neil grumbled, not making a move to leave the field.
Apparently that was the wrong answer because Andrew went from relaxing against the wall to stalking towards him like Neil was prey to be put in its place. He threw open the plexiglass so hard that it was only the limited motion hinges that kept it from smashing into the wall. Still, it slammed shut with a rattle as soon as Andrew was through it.
He grabbed Neil by the chin, dragging him down the few inches he needed to put them on eye level. “I don’t know how much clearer I can be.” The grip on his chin was gentle, but it still felt like a vice. Neil thought maybe Andrew could have just directed his face with a thumb and he would have found himself frozen in place. “Kevin gave you to me to protect until after the Banquet. Stop making my job harder than it has to be.”
Neil opened his mouth to reply but Andrew just let out a soft shhh-ing sound. “After the banquet, you can hitchhike to and from practice if you want. See if I care. Until then, you’re going to get in the shower and then into my car.”
When Andrew turned and walked away, Neil found himself frozen in place, every inch of his being yearning to tell this guy to go fuck himself. That’s not what came out though.
“Don’t-Don’t touch me.” Neil tried to sound firm, but he was shaken. He hadn’t been manhandled like that since he’d left Edgar Allan.
Andrew turned on a heel and then stopped, eyes narrowing as he looked Neil over. Then he turned and started walking back to the locker room again. “Okay.” And despite the suspicious look Andrew has given him, Neil felt like he was being sincere.
He followed as Andrew took back off down the alley.
Seth Gordon was a prick. He came into the locker room and immediately picked a fight with one of the alternate backliners, slammed lockers, and had an attitude that Neil wasn’t sure how anyone dealt with.
When he got to Neil, he looked down at him, eyes narrowed and lip curled like he was looking at a raccoon digging in his trash rather than Neil pulling his practice jersey on over his pads.
“This is what they’re giving me to work with?” Seth looked to Matt as if it was his job to explain Neil. “Another reject Raven? What, are we collecting them all now?”
Neil turned from his locker completely now, looking Seth up and down. “Reject Raven?” Neil was feeling that buzz in his veins that he always felt before he said something that was probably offensive and would get him hit, but he wasn’t dealing with another bully after leaving an entire court of them in his past. “I graduated a Raven, led them to win finals as captain my senior year. I would hardly call myself a reject. I should be asking why this team seems to collect ex-junkies and assholes with vast criminal records. Or do you just prefer the term ‘Foxes’?”
Neil had been expecting to be punched from Seth, but the force slamming him into his locker came from a different side of the room entirely. A hand gripped his shoulder pad and used it to wrench him backwards until his back collided with hard metal.
Familiar green eyes were lit up in anger as Kevin glared at him, so close to his own face that Neil could feel his breath on his skin as the firm hand kept him pinned in place to the lockers.
“I don’t give a fuck what you were told about the Foxes and the shit you used to be allowed to say about them. They are my family, and if I hear you call them junkies and criminals again, I’ll make Riko look like a cake walk.”
Kevin started to pull away, but Neil was shaking. He didn’t know if it was fear, anger, or an innate sense of betrayal that was making his veins feel like they were full of thousands of angry bees. He reached forward, clenching his hand in Kevin’s jersey and using it to wrench his brother back against him.
“Literally your family, right? Or did you forget to tell them that?” The words were a low, quick French. Neil didn’t mean for anyone else to hear them, but if they did hopefully they didn’t know how to speak French. “Keep his mouth shut and I won’t say jack shit about your foxes.” He jerked his head to Seth.
Kevin, for a moment, looked like he was going to knock the shit out of Neil. But a hand came between their gazes, waving slowly.
“C’mon, Kevin! Do I have to protect the kid from you too?” The the first part was in English, but question switched over to teasing German, and when Neil flicked his eyes to see who it was, Andrew was standing there. He had one hand on Kevin’s shoulder now and the other was tucked in his pocket. He hadn’t touched Neil.
With a sneer, Kevin jerked away from Neil. “Keep your damn mouth shut.” And with that, Kevin was stalking away.
Practice was shit that day, and when Neil was finally ready to ride back home, Jeremy and Jean were waiting for him, a duffle sitting between them.
“Andrew says you’re staying with us tonight.” Jeremy gave him a kind smile and a little shrug. “He ran back to your place and grabbed your clothes and charger and stuff.”
Neil looked at the duffle and clenched his jaw, looking away from the two of them, grabbing his phone from his pocket. He never checked it, because if Devin needed him she always called when she knew he’d be able to answer, and he’d been around Kevin and Andrew so much that there wasn’t really a need for them to message him. But, sure enough, there was a text from Andrew waiting for him.
From Andrew: If you skip out on them, I’ll break your kneecaps.
Neil looked at Jean and Jeremy again, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. “I guess I shouldn’t put up a fight?”
Jeremy’s smile softened with something like concern, but Neil had never been one to trust people who looked at him like that. They usually had some ulterior motive behind what they were doing, ready to hurt him as soon as he made the mistake of putting his trust in them. It was the reason why he was already starting to trust Andrew.
He didn’t get the concern and tears from Andrew - he got the harsh reality and a deceiving strength. He could see why Kevin had picked Andrew to lean on all these years, even if he seemed a bit insane sometimes. Jean’s decision to trust Jeremy so completely was something Neil couldn’t understand.
“We won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do... but Andrew made it very clear he didn’t want you alone and you couldn’t go home with them.” Jeremy was fidgeting, he clearly didn’t like something about all of that. “I don’t know what you said to Kevin, but he started drinking again. He’s been sober for about a year... Andrew’s trying to get him under control before that spirals.”
Neil wondered just how Kevin had gotten his hands on booze in the short time they’d been off the court, but didn’t say anything.
Jean stood at that and grabbed the duffle, just nodding his head in the direction of the exit. He hadn’t made eye contact with Neil the entire time, but now Neil could feel the waves of anger and disappointment radiating off of him. It made Neil swallow dry, and he followed them to Jeremy’s cherry red Jeep.
When Neil stepped up to get in the passenger seat behind Jean, Jean stopped opening his door to whisper at him in French. “If Kevin drowns himself again because of what you said, I won’t forgive you. It took us months to correct his alcoholism the first time. You made him break his sobriety.”
Neil couldn’t even enjoy the warmth of Jean and Jeremy’s home. He just sat on their couch, one of their big fluffy dogs leaning against his legs until he fell asleep sitting up that night. He’d fucked up, and hopefully Andrew would be able to clean up his mess.
He dreamt of Riko’s hands on his body and woke up feeling like he was suffocating.