Neil didn’t remember getting back to the hotel, but he woke up in bed, still wearing jeans and his hoodie from the night before. The smell of whiskey and lighter fluid lingered on the fabric, and he struggled out of it as soon as he realized the smell was what was making him nauseous.
Andrew was already gone, bed left unkempt and rumpled. Neil felt a bit sad at that, then confused by the sadness, and in the ended resigned himself to the fact that Andrew wasn’t obligated to hang out with him all the time. He’d just gotten used to having him close - whether they were at practice or at the apartment he shared with Kevin, or burning several hundred dollars worth of suits in a dumpster in the middle of the night.
But, that also meant Neil was completely alone in the room to shower. He still brought his change of clothes in with him and locked the door, but there was a certain peace in knowing there was no one on the other side of it. It was one of his favorite things about having his own flat, even if Andrew had a tendency to break in from time to time.
The hot water worked out the slight cramps he had in his legs from walking and drinking the night before. He didn’t drink often and was a bit dehydrated since he hadn’t had any water when they got back to the hotel room. Or maybe he did. Honestly he didn’t remember and what scared him more than that was that he didn’t care that he didn’t remember.
He trusted that Andrew wouldn’t take advantage of him.
His clothes stuck to him when he got dressed, the steam and dampness on his skin making him feel gross. It didn’t last long though, because the A/C was blowing cold when he stepped back into the bedroom. He threw yesterday’s clothes against the wall by the dresser, not wanting to put them back in his suitcase yet. They’d make everything smell like last night, and he didn’t want anyone to ask any questions.
Neil jumped at the sound of sudden knocking at the door. It was excited and fast, so definitely not Andrew. He stood on his toes to look through the peephole and Matt was outside, looking like he was about to vibrate out of his own skin. Neil sighed and opened the door just enough to poke his head out at him.
“Didja need something?” Neil asked, voice a big groggy from disuse and the burning alcohol from the night before.
“Morning! We just wanted to invite you to breakfast.” Matt shrugged, and Neil wrinkled his brow, glancing around the corner. Kevin was leaning against the wall, messing with something on his phone. He had bags under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept well the night before. “The Foxes are all getting together for breakfast and Kev said you probably didn’t have plans today. Also I mentioned you to Dan a few times and she wanted a chance to meet you now that you’re a King.”
Now that he wasn’t a Raven was what Matt really meant, but Neil was thankful he didn’t choose to use those words exactly.
“Yeah, sure.” Neil nodded, turning and leaving the door open as he went to grab his phone and a jacket. His jacket felt a little tight, and he wondered if maybe he’d shrunk it when he was haphazardly doing laundry before he packed. They’d always had someone to do their laundry at the Nest, so he was still figuring out how all that worked.
They headed down to the lobby together, Matt rambling on about the date he’d had with Dan last night. Neil didn’t pay much attention to the actual words he was saying but his excitement was the slightest bit contagious and he found himself smiling by the time they stepped through the sliding glass doors and out under the hotel’s covered entrance.
Andrew was out there, leaning against the wall with a cigarette between his lips. Discarded butts littered the ground around him. Neil wondered how long he’d been out here, and didn’t miss the hard look Andrew gave him as his eyes flicked over him this morning. He didn’t say anything as he stabbed the cigarette out on the wall and dropped the rest of it to the ground.
He held out his hand to Matt expectantly, open and closing it twice. He didn’t look away from Neil as a set of rental car keys were dropped into his hand. He only looked away from him when he trudged off to apparently get the car.
Matt snorted at that and when Andrew was far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to hear him, he turned to Neil.
“Well, you sure know how to rile him up. Do me a favor and do that before our next game.” Matt looked on the verge of laughter, eyes dancing playfully.
Neil was just confused though, eyebrows pushed together. Kevin looked up from his phone then, sparing Neil just a glance before looking away. Then he did a sharp double take and looked back.
“What?” Neil finally snapped. “I didn’t even do anything.”
Matt laughed hard at that, and Kevin was giving him that look that definitely meant he was questioning whether Neil was an idiot or not. Neil didn’t have to deal with that for long though, because Andrew pulled up in a sleek black SUV. He rolled down the passenger side window and barked at them to get in before he left them there.
Neil was annoyed, to say the least, as he climbed into the back seat. He slid over until he was behind Andrew and Kevin followed in after. Matt claimed the passenger seat, since it was his rental car and Andrew drove off at a relatively dangerous speed to be going through a parking lot.
Neil stared out the window, watching the world pass by quickly, wondering just what he’d done to get the looks and laughs this morning. Nothing came to mind though, and he had other things to worry about today, so eventually he just pushed the thoughts away and focused on the breakfast they were heading to.
The Foxes had reserved a good few tables at the cafe Andrew pulled up to. It didn’t look too special from the outside, but the inside smelled of cinnamon rolls and bacon. Neil took a minute to let that scent wrap around him, waking his stomach with a loud gurgle.
Matt was across the room to their tables faster than anyone else, hugging a woman from behind and kissing the top of her head. Dan Wilds, former captain of the Palmetto State Foxes. He took the empty seat next to her and waved at them to hurry. There were four seats still open, they’d apparently arrived late. Neil ended up between Kevin and Andrew, but Andrew was still very moodily not looking at him. He immediately struck up a conversation with Renee from across the table, and Neil’s attention was grabbed by Dan.
“Neil! It’s been a while.” She offered him a grin and Neil gave her his best smile back. “You look good.”
Neil had to fight back a bark of laughter at that - he supposed he would look good compared to the last time she saw him, when he was still crushed under Riko’s claws. “Thanks!” And he meant it. “I’m excited to play against you again. You always had a great game.” Their preseason match up was in a few weeks, they’d be flying to Kansas City to play the Valkyries. Neil was excited to see what the all female team could do.
Riko had always had the mindset that women didn’t strictly belong in the world of Exy, despite the fact that one of the games two founders was female. It was one of the only things that Kevin ever stood up to him over. He’d let a lot of things go out of fear of what Riko would do to him, but Kevin never let the memory of his mother get shit on. Neil respected him for that.
“Sorry I’m late.” Neil flicked his eyes up from Dan to the man that approached the table. He had on a button down, rolled up to his elbows, flame tattoos on his forearms exposed.
He took the empty seat next to Kevin, and Neil found himself wondering just what the hell he was doing here. But the Foxes acted like his presence was expected, and Renee was kind enough to lean across the table and give him an explanation.
“One of us gives coach our plus one every year. It gives us all an excuse to see each other at least once a year.”
It didn’t make much sense to Neil, but he’d give anything not to see his college coach again, so maybe he just couldn’t see it from there perspective.
A waitress came around and got their food orders, then the talking started up again. He was actually happy for the coach’s presence, because it took the spotlight off him for a little while. They were all catching up, talking about Wymacks new line up or how “Bee” and “Abby” were doing. Neil didn’t know who they were, but Wymack gave his old players a detailed rundown of how the women were doing. Andrew even stopped his side chat with Renee to pay attention to what the coach had to say about Bee.
Neil filed that bit of information away for later.
Wymack’s attention turned to Neil after the food got there though. “Neil, remind me. What’s your number?” And Neil looked at him in confusion, pointing to his face, but Wymack just waved him off to signal he wasn’t talking about that. “Jersey number, kid! I don’t care about that shit.”
Neil swallowed the bite of waffle he’d just shoved uncerimoniously into his mouth. “Ten.” He was content with that number. He’d been offered the four when he signed his contract, but made it very clear that he wouldn’t be playing with that number ever again. The next available number had been ten, and Neil gladly accepted that.
“Thought so.” Wymack looked to Andrew then, reaching around Kevin and Neil to clap a hand on his shoulder. “Any bets that need to be payed out?”
Andrew glared daggers at Wymack and it had Neil questioning just what the fuck was going on. “Way above your pay grade, old man.”
Neil set his fork down and gave an annoyed sigh, “Okay, I’ll bite. What does that even mean?”
“He’s implying that you two are fucking.” Allison Reynolds spoke up from Seth’s side, and Seth choked on his coffee. Renee gave him a few good whaps on the back to help him out and Neil just stared at Allison.
Dan smacked her arm with a sharp, “Allison!” and Neil could feel Andrew leaning back in his seat beside him, taking the front two legs off the floor. Maybe he was making a face at someone, maybe he was waiting to see how this all played out. Either way, Neil wasn’t even sure what he’d done to spark that kind of thought.
“What the fuck?” He managed, finally.
“I mean, he brought you to family breakfast and you’re wearing his jacket.” Allison made a jesture, asking if she needed to go on in her explanation.
Neil looked down at the jacket he was wearing - it was standard issue for the Kings, a dark purple with a gold crown over their chest. Their last name was scrawled under the crown in fancy slanted writing and their numbers were proudly displayed in gold on the back. He didn’t often wear his because it was a little flashy, but his normal jacket smelled like last night’s activities.
He squinted his eyes at the writing under the crown and immediately wanted to punch himself in the face. “Minyard” was scrawled in reflective gold, shining up at him. Well, that explained Matt’s amusement and the glare that Andrew had shot him when he left the hotel that morning.
Neil opened his mouth to explain himself, and to point out that Matt had invited him to breakfast, but Andrew beat him. “It’s none of anyone’s business who I bone.” The implications from that statement left Neil’s ears burning in unwarranted embarrassment.
“We didn’t bone.” Neil insisted in a hissing tone. “We got drunk and committed light arson. Anyone else got anything stupid to say?”
Andrew barked a laugh at that, and Neil felt his heart squeeze involuntarily in his chest. The conversation broke into smaller ones again, the target off of Neil’s back. Kevin was pointedly staring at him, probably over the whole arson thing, but Neil couldn’t explain himself without tell him about the suits and he’d gone through so much effort to make sure Kevin would never have to see them.
Breakfast didn’t last much longer than it took to eat. They had a banquet to get ready for, and the girls were talking excitedly about hair appointments. They’d see each other Saturday too - the Valkyries and the Kings had both volunteered to hang out with a few local little league Exy teams as a publicity thing. They just had to get through the Banquet first.
Neil shouldn’t have burned the suits - he’d known that when he’d done it though. His new suit was laid out on his bed, the dark plum jacket a large change from the black velvet he was used to donning. Riko was going to kill him when he showed up in this and he’d doomed Jean and Kevin, too. They didn’t even know they were defying Riko. They had no clue the wrath they were going to incur.
But it wasn’t like he could go back. Those suits were long gone, turned to ash in a rusted out dumpster.
The confidence he had when he’d spent the evening with Andrew was completely gone, replaced by anxiety that was making his knees shake beneath the weight of his body. He felt like he was going to vomit - but Andrew was changing in the bathroom. He spent a hard minute looking at the small hotel trashcan, stomach twisting and turning and threatening to spill over. He gulped down deep breaths, and eventually managed to calm himself enough to move.
He sat against the wall, using his back to slide down to the floor with his knees pressed up against his chest. Riko had been so quiet since the interview with Kathy. Sure there’d been a few comments to the press, but nothing threatening. The suits had hit Neil hard, and now he was remembering just how much Riko could get done with a little bit of time and money.
They were walking into a wolves den in a few hours, and Neil knew he was going to get his throat ripped out by gnashing teeth. He had been so sure he was protecting Jean and Kevin by getting rid of the clothes, but he’d damned them to the same fate. None of them would escape the night unscathed, he was so sure of it that it hurt deep down in his bones.
The bathroom door swung open, and Andrew stepped out. He looked good in the dress pants and crisp white shirt that was tucked into them. His hair was pushed back, but Neil couldn’t even take a moment to appreciate the view because his body was quickly forgetting how to breathe.
“I can’t do this.” He managed, and Andrew sighed, leaning in the door frame and watching him. Neil didn’t feel any judgement as the eyes slid over his body - it was more like Andrew was taking a moment to assess the situation. Deep down, Neil appreciated it, but on the surface he just felt pathetic. He was supposed to be the strong one, the brave one. The one that took absolutely none of Riko’s shit and acted as a shield between him and his brothers.
Jean and Kevin - What would they think if they saw him now?
Would they realize they’d been protected by a coward for years? Would they know that Neil only stood up to Riko because the only thing more terrifying than Riko was the thought of Jean and Kevin being hurt beyond what Neil could repair?
“You can.” Andrew said finally. “And we both know you will.”
Neil didn’t know what that meant or why Andrew was so sure that Neil could make it through the night when Neil couldn’t even remember how to stand in that moment.
“Because you won’t let them go alone.”
There it was, his biggest weakness spread out like a map for everyone to explore and take advantage of. It hurt, like wildfire in his chest, but damn if it wasn’t true. He’d take whatever Riko decided to dish out because, in the end, he didn’t matter. They did.
Jean and Kevin were everything.
For years, they’d been the reason he got up in the morning. They were the reason he had the courage to get out and leave the Nest behind. Everything he did, he did for them. He just wished, for once, he could make something about himself.
But he pushed himself up off the floor, brushing off his pants even though they hadn’t gotten dirty. His palms were sweaty, catching on the fabric with their dampness. What he wanted to do was crawl in the closet and hide until this whole ordeal was over, or get lost with Andrew in the streets of New York. Instead, he grabbed his slacks and dress shirt and headed to the bathroom.
An hour later, they were headed down to the lobby to meet with the rest of the Kings. They were all riding together to the banquet in the bus the coach had rented, so the lobby was full of men and a handful of women dressed to impress. Neil could only think about not vomiting in front of them though.
Jean didn’t look any better, standing next to Jeremy, face white as a sheet. Their hands were clenched together so tightly that Neil wasn’t sure Jean wouldn’t accidentally break Jeremy’s hand. But he didn’t seem to mind, just leaning in close to Jean, whispering what were probably affirming words into his ear. Neil found himself a little jealous of that - having someone to cling to when the world seemed to be one the verge of shattering sounded amazing. There wasn’t anyone he’d trust with that though.
Some part of Neil knew those words were lies as soon as he thought them - but admitting that he’d trust Andrew to hold him up was too hard. He banished that notion to the deepest depths of his mind as soon as it had dared to come forward.
Kevin joined them with Matt before too long, Matt with an arm casually slung around his shoulders. Kevin was sober, but a sober Kevin wasn’t good at hiding his anxiety. He was chewing holes into his lower lip like that would someone protect him from what could happen tonight. Neil wanted to tell him not to worry - but that would be far too hypocritical when Neil was also shaking in his own shoes.
After a few minutes, they converged, a magnetic pull drawing them together under the same umbrella of anxiety. Neil felt like he had to say something, but they stood in awkward silence for a few beats before he could pull something out of his ass in attempts to give them at least a breath of confidence.
He grabbed the back of Kevin and Jean’s necks, bringing all three of their foreheads together. It was a mirror of what they used to do before functions like these, when they were all with Riko and all equally as likely to draw his ire. But this time, Kevin’s breath didn’t hold a hint of vodka and Jean wasn’t shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Their foreheads felt warm against Neil’s and he was able to fully exhale for the first time all day.
These were the people that made his life worth something more than a game.
Their hands came up to join his, so they were all gripping eachother, and the weight of their warm hands on the back of his neck was so familiar and comforting. They’d make it through this. They were all survivors; they had to be.
“Let’s make tonight our bitch.” Neil felt the shiver shoot up Jean’s spine as he spoke, and Kevin’s hand gripped tighter at the back of his neck.
They broke apart after that - the bus was loading and there was nothing left to say. Jean took Jeremy’s hand again, their fingers lacing together but not crushing him anymore. Kevin walked with confidence, looking like he was ready to face down the devil himself.
And Neil? He was prepared to be their knight. He would stand between them and the world and protect them from whatever it spat at them. He would fight because he didn’t know how to die quietly.
The banquet was held at a large hotel, and press was lined up outside waiting to take pictures and get small interviews. The five of them walked side by side like they were on top of the world. They stopped, every once in a while, for someone to ask a question to one of them, but they always stopped as a group. Kevin took most of the questions, or Jeremy, but sometimes they were aimed at Andrew.
With him always at Neil’s side, it was sometimes easy to forget that Andrew was the best goalie in the entire league. His stats dwarved the second ranked goalie by a long shot - no one had ever scored on Andrew after he decided to lock down a goal. Getting him to do that was apparently a struggle, if what he heard from Matt and Kevin was true.
He apparently had to deem the game interesting enough to even consider it - even flat out refusing to do so when they were playing against the weaker teams in the league. Neil didn’t understand that, but to be fair there were a lot of things about Andrew that he couldn’t understand.
Andrew’s questions were always asked by braver reporters, and always answered in an annoyed tone or not at all. He was notorious for his bad attitude when it came to the press, but this was Neil’s first time experiencing it. But it was so obvious why he hated interacting with them.
He just didn’t think their questions were important. His opinions on other players stats, his opinions on his own stats, his hopes for the season to come - they were questions that Andrew found boring and unnecessary. Stats didn’t matter to him, and Neil was starting to doubt that winning mattered to him either.
Riko was talking to a reporter, flanked by two Wyverns, when the first laid eyes on him. He was wearing a new suit, but it was still made of the same black velvet. His pocket square was gunmetal grey, one of the colors for the Wyverns. His eyes landed up to them as they walked past, and Neil watched the flicker of rage go through them. He excused himself from the reporter he was talking too, making to casually stride up to them.
They didn’t stop until he stepped in front of them and physically made them halt. They were in front of hundreds of cameras, so there was confidence in knowing there was nothing he could do to them out here. Confidence that Neil would probably consider a danger later, but for now he let it course through him and stood a little taller.
Riko’s eyes trailed over their clothes, and Neil watched as the vein in his forehead pulsed with anger. He took pride in knowing he caused it.
“What are you wearing?” The words were hissed at them in Japanese, but Kevin and Jean weren’t aware of the weight of the question.
Kevin just glanced down at his own suit. “Armani.” And with that, their queen determined the conversation was done, leading them past an enraged Riko.
Neil was feeling ballsy though, especially since Riko was realizing at least Kevin had no idea of the packages he’d left for them. He gave Riko a coy wink as he passed, and watched as he balled his fists up tightly in an attempt not to strike Neil in front of the entire world.
Neil had just made it past Riko when a hand on is shoulder yanked him back a step. His heart jumped into his throat, but he thought he managed to keep a straight face. Riko’s lips were hot against his ear, breath leaving him yearning to recoil and scrub he skin on that side of his body until it bled.
“You’re going to regret this, Four.” Riko spat his number like it was a bad taste on his tongue.
There were hushed murmurs around them and reporters yelling for a moment of their shared time, but Neil didn’t pay them any mind. All that mattered in that moment was Riko.
“Not likely.” He replied before jerking out of Riko’s grip, his shoulder a bit wrinkled from how tightly he’d been held. He rejoined the others, who’d waited for him at the entrance of the hotel. Leaving the press behind meant leaving a bit of their shield. Neil hoped being surrounded by their peers would keep the worst from happening - and maybe if they were lucky, they’d return to their hotel rooms tonight unscathed.
They were led to the ballroom by helpful staff, whom were all bright smiles. Neil found them disconcerting - there was no way people were actually that happy to do their jobs. It was a fakeness that Neil couldn’t appareciate.
“What did he say to you?” Andrew asked from beside him, voice soft enough that it didn’t alert the others, who were now a few feet in front of them.
“Nothing impressive.” Neil shrugged, but Andrew gave him a look that clearly stated that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. He sighed, giving a one shoulder shrug. “He said I was going to regret defying him. It’s just another threat, I’ve probably heard millions of those from him by now.”
Andrew accepted the answer as they walked next to each other into the ballroom. It was decorated lavishly - like they were hosting New York’s finest and not a bunch of yahoos who made their living playing stickball.
There were tables with assigned seating on one side of the ballroom, while the other was kept clear for socializing. Neil hated these sorts of things, but Kevin was a natural. He was already approaching players from other teams, talking to them like they’d been friends for years. Jeremy and Jean broke off to hang out with more Trojan alums.
Andrew stayed by his side, which Neil hadn’t been expecting but silently appreciated. Those hazel eyes were moving rapidly though, as if tracking the other three as they moved further into the ballroom. His vigilance was another point of ease for Neil - he wouldn’t be the only one looking out for them that night.
They ended up with glasses in their hands after a while, waitresses circling the room and passing out drinks and finger food. Riko had yet to join the party, but that didn’t make Neil feel any better. He’d have been a fool to believe that Riko was incapable of controlling a party without actually being present.
He passed time watching Jean and Jeremy, knowing Andrew had eyes on Kevin. It was nice seeing Jean out of his shell, talking happily with a former Trojan that Neil recognized but couldn’t name. He looked happy and relaxed, like the anxiety of being in the vicinity of Riko had slipped away into nothing.
Neil envied him, really. He had so many people who cared about him and were happy to see him. After Neil spent his whole college career with the Ravens, people tended to dislike him by association. He wondered if being with the Kings would change that. Seth wasn’t too fond of him, but Matt seemed to want to be his friend. He’d even invited Neil to breakfast just because he heard he had nothing else going on and wanted to include him.
There was a warmth that filled him as he thought about that - Matt inviting him to breakfast, Andrew taking him out for dinner with Renee... Andrew roaming all over New York with him to burn three suits just because Neil had suggested it. Maybe he was already starting to build something like what Jean had with the Trojans and Kevin had with the Foxes.
His eyes slid to Andrew, who was sipping lightly on a flute of champagne. He had no right to look as good as he did - hair rumpled, tucked into a well fitting suit. It was a stolen glance, and he couldn’t allow himself too many of those. But something about Andrew made him think maybe it would be worth it to keep watching. Maybe it was the light he’d seen in his eyes the night before, or is determination to protect people that Neil could relate to. Andrew was dangerous for him, for sure, but Neil craved it.
The moment was broken when Andrew shoved the flute at Neil, already on the move. “Kevin!” It was a shout that had Neil whipping around to find Kevin in the crowd, cursing at himself for taking his eyes off him.
When he finally found him, he started to move. A brawl had broken out, with Kevin on the receiving end. But Neil only made it three steps before a hand was gripping at his shoulder, yanking him back.
He stumbled, back hitting a firm chest, and there were lips pressed to his ear immediately. “Come quietly or Kevin Day will never pick up an Exy racquet again.” Neil recognized that voice and his blood went cold. He stared forward, where Andrew had just reached Kevin. So far away, too far away to call for help, not that he’d risk Kevin. He’d never risk Kevin’s wellbeing.
“Okay.” Neil replied, hating how strained his voice sounded.
He felt a pinch as a needle pressed into his shoulder through the layers of his suit. Behind him, the man laughed. “Oh Neil, I’m going to have so much fun with you.” As he spoke, the room around them started to go a bit fuzzy, and his legs began to give out beneath his weight.