There was no mention of Kevin’s slip with his sobriety at practice the next day, and Neil was allowed to go back to the tower with Kevin and Andrew that night. Kevin still wasn’t talking to him, but Neil didn’t push him.
He’d crossed a line bringing up Wymack, Coach of the Palmetto State Foxes and Kevin’s biological father. Their relation had been the reason why Neil had helped Kevin to the man’s hotel room after Riko destroyed his hand in a fit of rage. Neil never understood why Kevin hadn’t told anyone that Wymack was his father. It would have explained the switch to Palmetto even after he started playing with his other hand. Instead he’d given some vague nonsense about not being good enough for the Ravens anymore.
Maybe it had been the truth for the first year he was back on the court, but after that he was back to his insane levels of speed and strength that had made him one of the top strikers in all of Exy. The excuse had been weak, but that year was the one that Jean had been transferred to the Trojans in California, so the media’s eyes shifted away from Kevin.
But even though he crossed the line with Wymack, Kevin had crossed the line way before that by threatening him. He was acting like none of it had even happened, but Neil couldn’t stand that. Not after Riko, or the Master, or being left alone at the Nest to fend for himself for years. He wasn’t a broken Raven, he hadn’t let them break him. He was a survivor, and he wasn’t going to let Kevin push him around. He wasn’t going to claw his way out of one abusive situation right into another one.
Neil let Kevin ignore him for another day. Andrew wasn’t acting like Neil had done anything wrong. Which is maybe why he decided to ask Andrew to join him on the roof. He had questions - lots of them - and he was hoping to get at least a few of them answered.
The walk up the stairs was long, just like before, but staring at Andrew’s back put Neil a bit more at ease. He’d been stiff the last few days, with threats from mouths he trusted dancing in his head like warning signs telling him to run the other way. Seth had ridden his ass on the field, until Matt stepped in to stop him. Neil hadn’t had the energy to do much more than flip him off.
Maybe he was afraid of what Kevin would do if he actually opened his mouth again.
Kevin, who’d apparently make what Riko did to him look like a cake walk.
Jean, who hadn’t even heard the words spoken between him and Kevin, immediately alienating him and taking Kevin’s side because he’d picked up a bottle again.
Andrew, who’d threatened to break his kneecaps if he didn’t go with Jean and Jeremy.
Jeremy, who he didn’t trust but had arguably been the most trustworthy in the whole ordeal.
Maybe he was scared of what all of them would do. Fear was a sickeningly familiar feeling as it twisted like tendrils in his stomach, like vines growing through his intestines and into his lungs and heart and veins. Neil hated how it made him feel, hated even more that he felt helpless to stop it.
When they reached the roof, Andrew retreated to his “normal” spot, next to a pile of discarded cigarette butts. Neil joined him with only slightly hesitant steps and waited until Andrew lit up. He held the first one out to him, but Neil shook his head, so Andrew shrugged and put it between his own lips.
“It’s your turn.” Andrew reminded him after a long drag, blowing the smoke out in front of him as he spoke.
“I know.” Neil nodded, pulling a knee to his chest and hugging it there. The wind was brisk today, and he wished he’d thought to bring a jacket. “Would you have really broken my kneecaps?” Because he really needed to know what he was dealing with when it came to Andrew. It was clear that he wasn’t the unhinged monster that Riko had always made him out to be, but he was also far from stable.
“Short answer? Absolutely.” Andrew shrugged, taking another drag. Neil didn’t know whether he wanted to get away from him, or if he appreciated the harsh truth for what it was. “Long answer - I knew you wouldn’t make me. You’re a junkie. You should have seen the way you looked at the court when Kevin took you.” Andrew sounded amused, or as amused as Neil had ever heard him at least. “It was like you needed the court to breathe. You wouldn’t have risked never being able to play again.” Andrew slid a glance at him, and Neil felt a sudden curl of discomfort in his stomach.
Neil hadn’t even known that Andrew had been watching them that first day. When Kevin took them to the King’s court, it was like he’d returned home for the first time. He’d been too distracted by the rush of being back in the stadium, too exhilarated by the feeling of his feet hitting the court to pay attention as the world continued spinning around them.
He guessed he shouldn’t be surprised by that - Andrew had promised to protect him, and he couldn’t really do that if he didn’t keep an eye on him. Hell... he’d even stepped in when Kevin got to be too much. But he was still an enigma that Neil couldn’t figure out.
“My turn.” Andrew exhaled again. “Are you a waste of my time?”
The question made Neil stop, looking at Andrew with his eyebrows pushed together. “What do you mean by that?”
Andrew looked at him like he was exhausted and shouldn’t have to explain, but he did anyways. “You asked me before why I picked up and protected broken people. I told you that if you thought you were broken, you were a waste of my time. Are you a waste of my time?”
Neil didn’t know how to answer that at first. Honestly, he’d spent most of his life thinking Riko was breaking him down beyond repair. But he’d gotten away - the cost of getting out from under Riko’s thumb had been steep, and he’d never get back what he’d lost to be free. He’d never stop feeling hands on his body, holding him down or knives pressed against his skin but he’d never allow Riko to hurt him like that again.
“I’m not broken. I survived.” Neil replied finally, not able to look Andrew in the eye, but he felt eyes roaming over his body form like he was a specimen to be studied.
“Then act like a survivor.” Andrew tapped out his cigarette butt and lit another. “You look like a Raven. You sound like a Fox. But you’re acting like a Rabbit.”
Neil looked up at Andrew then, bewildered by the assessment, but Andrew was just looking out at the skyline. “What the hell does that mean?”
“S’that your question?” Andrew asked as he continued to gaze out into the distance, like his mind was far away from here despite the profound things he’d been saying. It felt off to Neil, after hearing him taunt his teammates and be a general asshole to most of them, but he wasn’t going to break the moment by questioning it.
“Yes.” His reply was firm, even if the nerves in his system threatened to make him puke.
Andrew shrugged, content to suck on his cigarette for a moment. “A Raven is how everyone sees you. You played with them, you led them after Riko graduated. You have a fucking four tattooed on your cheek. That’s your history, that’s what people associate you with when they look at you.” The hazel eyes flicked over to his for a moment before looking away again - Neil didn’t know if Andrew was checking to see if he was paying attention, or to see if he’d open his mouth to argue with that.
“The words that come out of your mouth are straight Fox. We were survivors and fighters. Not a single one of us let our past break us or determine our future.” Andrew shrugged, like these were just facts and not something profound. It was the most he’d ever heard Andrew say at one time.
“And what did you mean about me ‘acting like a rabbit’?” Neil asked when Andrew didn’t continue. And he just shrugged next to him.
“You’re prey - for Foxes and Ravens.” Andrew replied, taking another puff before expanding. “You mouthed off to Riko on live television, but then you ran from him. You let him corner you and hurt you and you fucking took it until we showed up to rescue you.” Neil flinched at that, but Andrew didn’t stop steamrolling him there. “You stood your ground with Seth the first time, but let him ride you the last two days. And you even mouthed off to Kevin, but right now you’re letting him get away with thinking he can talk to you like you’re less than him and threaten you whenever he wants. You let me step in and break up your fight for you again. For someone who claims to not to need to be protected, you sure as hell let it happen a lot.”
Those truths stung, but Andrew was right. Neil hated admitting that, even just to himself.
“You’re not a Raven and you didn’t get a chance to be a Fox.” Andrew said with finality. “But you’re a King now, and there’s only one crown. You’re not going to survive long enough to rip it from Riko’s head unless you stop acting like a rabbit and stand your ground. Stop letting assholes like Riko and Kevin walk all over you.”
Andrew stood, leaving Neil sitting on the roof as he went back inside, out of the cold. Neil sat there a while more, staring out at the skyline as the sun went down. Andrew was right - more right than he had any reason to be. But Neil didn’t know what to do about it.
Kevin had always been above him, Riko’s right hand man until ironically Riko shattered his hand and sent him packing. Neil was still thinking like he was back in the Nest. Sure, he’d let his tongue run a little wilder than he would have done at Edgar Allan, but when it came down to it, he was just as pathetic as he had been before he left.
He still didn’t want Andrew’s protection off the court - but he wanted to be someone worth fighting for on the court. Someone that Andrew wouldn’t just protect from fists, but would protect the goal for. Neil couldn’t fight Riko off the court, he wasn’t strong enough to do that yet and he knew it. But he could fight Riko on the court. He could make his throne crumble beneath him, steal the crown off his head and give it to his team instead.
When it came to Riko, Exy was everything and Neil wanted to strip him of everything just like he’d done to Neil. He needed it, in fact, more than his lungs needed air. But he couldn’t beat Riko if he couldn’t even deal with Kevin and Jean, who were supposed to be on his side but for some reason felt light years away from him.
Neil only let Kevin get away with ignoring him for one more day before the alienation got to be too much. They rode to practice together in silence, didn’t even talk on the field where shit actually mattered, and Jean was no better than Kevin was.
When he got out of the showers and changed to go home, the four of them were sitting in the lounge talking about something. Andrew spotted him leaving the locker room and stood to signal that it was time to leave, but Neil didn’t head for the door like usual. Instead, he walked over to the seating area and plopped himself into one of the tallbacked chairs there.
“I won’t stay here if you keep acting like this.” Neil stated bluntly, voice level and calm even though he felt the anxiety rising inside of him like shards of glass in his stomach. His conditioning told him that Kevin and Jean ranked higher than he did, he should defer to them. But that wasn’t the case anymore. The numbers on their cheeks meant fuck all now.
“Excuse me?” Kevin was the first to reply, though he and Jean were looking at him incredulously. Andrew sat down, eyebrow raised in what could have been interest or even amusement.
“I came here to prove a point to Riko and the world. I also came here to pay off my personal debt to the Moriyamas.” Neil explained with a shrug that he tried to make look nonchalant. He could only hope he was pulling it off. “I know we can’t beat Riko when we’re broken up mentally like we are now. And frankly, there’s quicker ways for me to get my hands on a million dollars.”
Jean looked like he was going to say something, but Kevin was always quicker with his tongue than Jean. “You’re going to give it all up over one argument? You’d throw every thing away just like that?”
Neil blinked at Kevin, and for once in his life, he was wondering if he was looking at an idiot instead of one of the most rational people he knew.
“You threatened to hurt me. You threatened to make Riko look like ‘a cake walk’.” Neil ignored the way his voice broke slightly on Riko’s name.
“You did what?” Jean’s voice of disbelief joined the conversation as he looked between Kevin and Neil. “That is not okay.”
“What you did wasn’t okay either, Jean!” Neil snapped, but then took a deep breath, counting to ten in his head as he tried to regain what little composure he’d come into this conversation with. He didn’t want it to dissolve into a yelling match. Nothing would be resolved with that. “You blamed me for Kevin’s lapse, which apparently turned out to be fucking nothing because he’s been sober as hell since that night. No one is responsible for Kevin’s sobriety but himself. It’s unfair for you to place blame on me for triggering an issue that I didn’t even know he had.”
Jean nodded, looking guilty. He’d always been one to display his emotions too openly. It had always given Riko something easy to manipulate. Neil hated that about Jean. It wasn’t safe to be the way he was, but he never seemed to make any effort to correct it.
“Neil-“ Kevin made to say something again, but Neil wasn’t having it. He wasn’t going to let them talk over him and back down. He wouldn’t forgive himself if he kept letting people do that to him again.
“I won’t stay in a place where I feel like I’m in danger if I say the wrong thing. I won’t allow myself to be manipulated and threatened again.” Neil looked between the two of them, vision tunneled and not even pausing on Jeremy, who was sitting between them. “I understand what the Foxes did for you and what they mean to you, but I won’t allow anyone, including you, to talk to me like you did. You don’t get to treat me like Riko did. Not after every thing I’ve done to make sure both of you were safe. I won’t let myself be put in that situation again. Especially not by someone I consider to be my brother.”
There was a long stretch of silence, but those words were like a weight off of Neil’s chest, a reminder of his own strength. He could and would stand on his own two feet among them. He was their equal - and he’d never been considered someone’s equal before.
“You’re right.” Kevin said, finally. “Both of you. I would never hurt you, though.” As if that changed anything.
“You two will never understand what I’ve been through.” Neil was trying not to get emotional, trying to keep his hands clenched right around his emotions like they were a rabid bird struggling to get away from him. His eyes burned with the urge to cry, but he’d had years of experience in repressing tears. They were the one thing he’d never given Riko the satisfaction of seeing. “You can’t understand what he did to me for getting you two out. You don’t understand what it would even mean to make Riko look like a cake walk, Kevin.”
“Neil, I’m sorry.” But Kevin’s apology felt wrong - Neil didn’t need that from him.
“I don’t want apologies or pity. I want you to understand what you really said to me and bite your tongue the next time you think you can talk to me like that.” Neil looked Kevin in the eyes, taking in the green depths like they could tell him everything Kevin was thinking. But he was better at hiding his emotions than Jean. “I want you to remember that I’m the one that gave you the chance to be the deadliest piece on the board. I was a pawn back then, and through my sacrifice, you were allowed to stay on the board for another round. But that meant you,” he paused to flick his eyes at Jean, “and you left me to be captured by the king. Make it worth it by helping me take the king down this round.” He’d never been good a chess, but he thought the analogy fit.
Neil stood then, heading for the exit at a slow pace, silence stretching out in the conversation he’d abandoned. He was outside before he felt someone behind him, so close that he could feel their breath on his skin, but far enough away that not even their clothes brushed together.
“Remember this feeling.” It was Andrew’s voice - so close that he could feel the words on his skin, soaking into him. “This is the moment you stopped being the rabbit.”
Two weeks later, the Kings won their first preseason game. In the gap between that time, Neil worked on his independence. He moved from sleeping in Kevin’s room to sleeping on his and Andrew’s couch. He didn’t spend his free time there, sometimes working out alone in the gym that took up two whole basement floors of the tower they lived in. A few times he even ran to the coffee shop on the corner just to get a cup of coffee and prove to himself that he could. Then there were the trips to the fittings for formal clothes for the banquet that would follow the first preseason game - the banquet that would cost him Andrew’s protection.
But he didn’t feel like he needed it anymore.
The game was on a Monday night, and the King’s stands had been pretty packed since preseason tickets were considerably cheaper than regular tickets. It was against Seattle, one of the less impressive teams in the circuit. Neil was just excited to get to play a real game though.
The roar of the crowd sent adrenaline through Neil with every play. Andrew was only lazily protecting his goal, but that just gave Neil more of a rush. He had to stop his marks before they got to the blonde, who was totally dwarfed by the huge goal he was “protecting”.
Every time his own stick cracked against his marks, knocking the ball free, the crowd went wild as he chucked it with all his might to rebound it to either Jean, Kevin, or (albeit reluctantly) Seth. He didn’t even notice his arms and legs burning with exhaustion until the final buzzer sounded for the end of the game.
It wasn’t the first time he’d played a whole game, but after being away from the rigorous Raven’s training it was a bit harder on him than he remembered. Even so, as they left the court to meet in the media room, he was buzzing with energy like lightning beneath his skin.
The reporters weren’t organized or calm as the coach pointed out a few of them to sit and talk while the others went and changed. Neil ended up between Kevin and Jeremy. The others would come to answer questions later, give soundbites and whatnot.
Reporters called out over each other, and Neil left it to Kevin and Jer’ to figure out who they were answering first. But Neil heard the call of a number that made him physically flinch.
“Four! Four, a question for you, please.” It was a younger man, Neil didn’t recognize him, but his press pass had “ESPN 2: Rameriez” printed on it in large letters.
Jeremy looked between him and Kevin before leaning forward to speak into his mic. “His name is Neil Josten. Short, sweet, rolls off the tongue.”
The reporter’s eyes went a little wide, but then he just seemed to let the comment slip off of him like water on a duck’s back. “Right, Josten. This is your first game with the Kings and it was a strong 15 to 3 win. The Wyverns also won their game with a large point gap. Are you feeling good about playing against them in three weeks?”
Neil was pretty unimpressed by the question, but answered it anyways. “I’m confident this team will have no problem handling the Wyverns.”
“Riko said the same when asked about his thoughts on beating the Kings, that they’d wipe the court with you.” The reporter was taunting him, but Neil wasn’t into it tonight. There was no way he was letting this guy ruin the high still thrumming through him.
“I thought I made it clear on Kathy’s show, but I’ll remind you all this one time only. I don’t care what Riko Moriyama has to say.” He leaned back in his chair, propping his arms up behind his head.
The press swarmed in on Kevin and Jeremy then, asking them about their outlook and opinions on the season and new players and line ups for other teams that had changed since last year. Neil wasn’t asked another question until the end of their press segment, when other Kings were waiting on the “sidelines” to take their places so they could be interviewed.
“Neil, it was leaked that you’ve been invited to the Olympic team.” That made Neil go stiff in his relaxed position and sit forward to be closer to the mics on the table. “Jean, Kevin, and Riko have already signed to play in the summer olympics three years from now. Will you be joining them and making the Perfect Court a reality?”
“The Perfect Court is a projection of Riko’s narcissism.” Neil answered with a bit of venom in his words, and he could feel Kevin’s hand grip his thigh under the table. It wasn’t a warning to tell him to stop, it felt like reassurance. Solidarity. “The Olympic Exy Committee knows what it will take to make me sign with them. The ball is in their court so to speak.”
“And what will it take you to sign?” The reporter was nosy, but with Kevin’s hand firm on his thigh and Jeremy leaning in closer to him, like a wall that he wouldn’t let anyone penetrate, Neil felt invincible in that moment.
“I will never play on the same side of the court as Riko Moriyama again.” Neil’s statement sent the press into a flurry of questions, but the trio was being made to stand and were lead out of the media room. They split up from there, Kevin and Jeremy going to the showers while Neil waited for the showers to be empty in the main area of the locker room.
He closed his eyes, laying out over one of the benches with his arm thrown over his eyes. After a few minutes, he heard the distinct sound of a heavy weight leaning against the locker doors.
“That was dangerous for you.” Andrew, but it didn’t seem like it was a reprimand.
Neil didn’t bother uncovering his eyes. “I don’t care.”
“Good.” Andrew moved then, because Neil could hear the lockers rustle. There was a soft padding of feet and then Neil was alone again, with the buzz of a million volts beneath his skin, reminding him what it felt like to be alive.
He wanted to cling to this feeling with every fiber of his being for as long as he could. He would never let anyone take this.