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Blood//Water

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The way the lock clicked open was extremely satisfying - Neil had gotten good at the whole breaking and entering thing through the years. Perhaps it would have been more satisfying without the rage of pain that made his hand quake now that the pain killers he’d taken earlier were wearing off. At least they lasted the drive from Edgar Allan to Cincinnati. Three and a half hours - should have been almost five but Neil didn’t have time for petty things like speed limits that night. 

Finding Kevin’s place had been a bitch and a half, since it was kept out of public reach. But Neil had learned that where his own talents fell short, money could always grease the way for him. It was the one thing he learned from Riko that was fucking useful. 

He made sure to be quiet as he set his dufflebag down on a coffee table that was littered with papers - most of them about Exy statistics. At least Kevin’s obsessions remained consistent through the years. He dug through the duffle, yanking out the small black pouch in the bottom, dumping it over the table before he thought to be quiet again. Freezing, hand still holding tight to the bag, Neil waited in silence for a minute before remembering that Kevin had always slept like the dead. The rustle of needles and bottles of pills and what not wouldn’t wake him, especially since the hall leading to what Neil assumed was the bedroom seemed like it was pretty damn long. 

He grit his teeth together as he pulled black hoodie he’d been using to hide the injury off of his left arm - not caring that half of his bare torso was exposed, though he usually didn’t allow anyone such a view, if Kevin did come in it wouldn’t be anything he’d never seen before. It made a ripping sound as the dried blood separated from the fabric, reopening some of the wound that had finally stopped bleeding with the ruined fabric pressed against it. 

The bullet had just grazed him, but it bled like he’d been shot in the fucking heart, and his fingers were numb after the bleeding had lasted so long. He grabbed the bottle of alcohol he kept in the pack, dumping it over his shoulder while trying to keep it from absolutely ruining Kevin’s white leather couch. 

Who the fuck even owned a white leather couch?

The pain as the alcohol soaked into the wound was enough to distract Neil from the soft footsteps that grew closer. He didn’t know anyone was behind him until he felt the familiar sharpness of a blade against his throat. The man he’d come to see wouldn’t be stupid enough to put a knife to the throat of Nathaniel Wesninski. 

“Ooh, you’re not Kevin.” Neil’s voice didn’t betray any anxiety over the situation - there were only two people in the world that could make him fear a blade, and he knew neither his father nor Riko could possibly be standing behind him in the dark living room. One was dead, the other probably still throwing a fit at The Nest. 

“You have five seconds to tell me who you are and what you’re doing in here.” The voice was gravely from sleep, but Neil recognized it easily from interviews - both with the Palmetto Foxes, then the Cincinnati Kings more recently. The more damaged of the Minyard twins - Andrew. Kevin’s bodyguard, on an unofficial capacity. Riko spent hours on end bitching about how much of an annoyance he was, but Neil thought maybe that was because Andrew was the one person he couldn’t really exploit much. He was too damaged to give a shit about anything but the promise he made Kev. 

“If you’re aiming to kill me, move the knife a bit higher.” Neil replied in a bored tone. 

“Five.” Andrew’s voice was firm. But the next count didn’t come from him as the lights flicked on in the living room, making both of them blink as the sudden light assaulted them. 

“Four?” Kevin sounded exhausted, but also surprised. The name twisted like a knife in Neil’s stomach. A cruel reminder of when Riko was angry enough to strip them of even their names. For a split second, he was back there - blade biting into his skin, the word like venom on Riko’s lips, reminding him just where his place was. Had been. Not anymore. He wasn’t Four anymore, he was-

“Neil Josten.” Andrew sounded annoyed as he moved the knife away. His whole body lurched forward just a bit, the last of the memory shattering and reminding him where he was. The knife was gone, and Neil guessed that meant the man thought he wasn’t a threat. Shitty decision on his part, but Neil wasn’t going to complain. 

“Two.” Neil replied as he turned, watching Kevin’s face twist slightly at the word, nose scrunching and sleepy green eyes growing sharper. It only gave him a moment of bitter satisfaction before he felt like an asshole. “Kev.” He corrected himself, tone warming. “Long time, no see.” 

“What the hell are you doing here?” 

 

 

 

News broke the next morning - papers, sports magazines, the networks that were calling Neil’s phone so often that he couldn’t even keep it charged. He didn’t even know how they’d managed to get his phone number so fast. 

Kevin sat beside him, scrolling through headlines on his computer, reading each one out loud with varying degrees of distaste.  

“The Last of The Raven King’s Men Defects”

“The Riko’s Dog Shakes His Leash”

“You Should See Him In A Crown: Neil Josten Signs With The Cincinnati Kings” 

He’d spent the night on Kevin and Andrew’s couch after Kevin had helped butterfly him together.... after Kevin downed a fifth so he didn’t vomit at the sight of it. How he couldn’t stand blood and violence after what they’d been through together, Neil didn’t understand. And he’d refused to let the “bodyguard” patch him up. 

“You could have warned me.” Kevin complained beside him - he’d signed to The Kings a year ago after finishing college with the Palmetto Foxes. Of course, Neil was a year behind the other three, a year younger. Stuck at The Nest while Riko went into a rage over ‘Two’ and ‘Three’ thinking they had any right to sign with The Kings without his permission. As if they’d left The Nest with his consent in the first place. 

“You never return my calls.” Neil shrugged, not letting it show how much that effected him, after everything he’d done for Kevin and Jean. When they knew he probably needed help just as badly as they had. But he got it - neither of them had ever been able to stand up to Riko on their own. Neil didn’t think that was going to change just because they got out. They were still scared of being dragged back there. Scared of handcuffs and knives and bodies over them - not that they’d ever had it as bad as Neil had for getting them out when they were too injured to move on their own, Jean even on the brink of death. 

“Riko shot you?” Kevin asked, finally questioning it, breaking the tracks of Neil’s train of thought. He hadn’t even felt the need to ask when he was patching him up at three in the morning -  but now it was bothering him for some reason. Neil could see it written on his face.

“Tried. He’s better with knives.” Neil flipped through channels on the television, but everything was boring today - he hadn’t given anyone that exclusive interview they were looking for, so anything they were talking about on the sports networks was purely speculation. He’d call the assistant The Kings had assigned him when he signed yesterday when he damn well felt like talking about it. But it had to be soon, before Riko could get a word out. 

“He won’t let you go.” Kevin spoke like those words were law, and a year ago they would have been.  

Neil just rose a brow and quirked a lip, amused by that astute observation. “Funny. I don’t think I asked your opinion on the subject.” But then he got serious for a moment, sitting up a little straighter. “Fact of the matter is, he can’t force me back. Not without pissing off the Lord. I’m his investment now.” Acid burned through his veins at the admission, and Kevin went stock still beside him, skin paling. And perhaps the conversation would have been over, if it wasn’t for Andrew. 

He’d been sitting in the window, one leg outside and the other in, as if no one would be able to push him right out if they wanted to. He blew the smoke from his cigarette outside, but it hadn’t completely kept it from blowing back inside the apartment a bit. 

“You sold your soul to the devil to keep it out of the hands of a demon.” It was a statement, not a question. 

“If you’re going to put it that way, my soul always belonged to the devil.” Neil licked his lips - it was a nervous motion. He could really use one of those cigarettes that Andrew had been chainsmoking since they’d gotten back up that morning. But he could still feel the phantom pain of the cigarette burns along ribs, where Riko had stubbed out an entire pack after catching Neil smoking the first time. It was enough to make him not even consider asking for one. “I paid off the debts attached to my father’s contract, but the Moriyama’s raised me and put me through college. I’m Ichirou’s only until that money is paid back.” 

“Yeah? And how long will that take, Neil? What price tag did he put on all of that?” Kevin was back, looking like an angry child. Looking like he thought Neil had any choice in the matter. It was enough to make Neil seriously consider hitting him, but he’d learned to control his rage long ago - let people do what they will and say what they will, reacting will only make it hurt more. Hold still, be silent, they’ll get bored. 

Neil took a shaky breath before looking to Kevin. “One million dollars.” He shrugged, like it wasn’t anything considerable. “Professional Exy players make half that in a year - he agreed to fifty percent of my wages for four years. All I have to do is play Exy and not breathe a word about what the Moriyamas really do. Slandering Riko is fair game though - made sure that was in the contract because you know how mouthy I am.” How mouthy he had been, before he’d been alone. Just One and Four and anyone Riko brought in to help punish him for daring to exist. But he wouldn’t be the complacent, tamed dog on Riko’s leash anymore - like the media loved to describe him over the past few years. 

Kevin laughed, but it was more of a bark if anything else - loud and abrupt and it made Andrew curse from the window. “Do you really think that’s smart?” As if Kevin had ever thought “Neil” and “Smart” belonged in the same sentence unless the word “Not” was also involved.  

Neil shrugged. “If I’m going to survive, I don’t think there’s any other choice.” He reached over and stole Kevin’s coffee, taking a large drink and wincing when the burn of rum followed the bitter coffee. He would have said something about morning drinking being a sign of alchoholism, but it wouldn’t be anything Kevin hadn’t already heard. “Riko lost the last piece on his board - he’s going to get desperate and say shit he shouldn’t. It’s only a matter of time. And I’m not going to take his shit lying down anymore. I can’t afford to.” 

Chapter Text

 

 

Devin Sanders was one hell of a woman, and she had to be when tasked with taking care of The King’s latest scandal in human form - Neil Josten. He’s convinced that she could spear a man’s heart with the heel of her stilettos and still make it on time to her 7:30 yoga class with time to change and fill up her water bottle. 

She was all legs, with a pinched nose and hair so blonde it was almost white. Any other man would have been enamored with her - Neil was already considering leaping out of the window of her seventh story office to get away from her. Not that she’d done much than sit on the edge of her desk and scroll through a tablet, reading off the list of people she’d already contacted for interviews, photo shoots, magazine spreads, the works. Neil should have been used to this with the Raven’s popularity - but with the King’s Court all in one place, the media was having a hay day. He wondered if she’d bother to schedule him any time to eat or sleep. 

“Of course, Kathy wants to have all three of you on. Kevin refused since she surprised them with Riko last year. Jean isn’t too excited about that potential either. But she’s one of the biggest names in media - we’d be fools to let Riko talk to her about you without you being able to throw your own opinion in.” Devin talked away like she thought Neil was listening - he was used to this. When he was at EA he didn’t have a choice in what interviews he did or who took his picture, or what they called him. It was weird... even having the option to say no. 

But Press Neil was on, ignoring the part of his brain that wanted to stay as far away from Kathy Ferdinand as physically possible. He and Riko would meet in the spotlight soon enough anyways, what with the preseason banquets and other unavoidable stuff. Maybe it was better to do it with the safety of the eyes of the nation on them.

“Tell Kathy I’d be happy to speak with her even if Jean and Kevin aren’t there.” Neil pulled on his practiced smile, the one that didn’t light up his eyes but fooled the rest of the world. No one had ever really seen him smile before anyways - what did they have to compare it with. “If she invites Riko, it’ll be a great way to catch up.” Because he had to make Riko crack to the public first, to make them see just how fake that facade was before Neil forced more cracks into his armor. 

Devin looked startled with his easy agreement, but tapped away at her tablet with quick movements. “Okay. Ferdinand is a go - now about the photo shoot for Exy Monthly.”

And Neil successfully tuned the woman out again.

  

 

Neil’s flat has been arranged by The Kings, since he signed so suddenly. Their money and name greased the way though, and Neil didn’t even personally have to sign the lease. Which was how he ended up in the suite across the hall from Kevin and Andrew. It came furnished - which explained the awful white leather couch that he’d found in Kev’s place. 

At least it wasn’t black.

The open, airy nature of the suite was the opposite of The Nest, where everything was floor to ceiling black with red accents. It was easy to breathe here, with white walls and creamy wooden floors and white furniture that would most likely be stained and ruined by the time Neil got around to moving out. If he ever moved out - maybe he’d play Exy for The Kings until he finally just died. But that was a morbid thought for another day. 

His phone had settled down - mostly because Devin had set up messaging routing. Anything from the press hit a wall and went to her phone instead of his. He wasn’t sure how she did it, but at least he didn’t have to deal with them anymore. 

He had finally got a message from Jean though. Just an address and a time - after looking it up, it was just an upscale cafe not far from the building he was now living in. The coldness of it would have offended Neil if he didn’t know that this was just how Jean was when he texted people. No prelude or “hey, how have you been after we left you alone with the guy that actively tortured all three of us” - just a place and a time so they could talk about that in person. Part of him was relaxed by the simplicity of it. 

He was only in his flat long enough to throw his duffle in the bedroom before it was time to meet up with Jean. 

The walk was short and uneventful - things were loud in this city, which was a change from the eerie silence that usually surrounded The Nest. But Neil took pleasure in it - he was just one person in a sea of people here, utterly unrecognizable in a pair of sunglasses and a baggy hoodie. In the street, he wasn’t even The Neil Josten, rookie backliner for The Kings. He was just Neil, the guy on his way to get some coffee with one of his brothers. 

The cafe itself seemed more aimed at the business class, the coffee expensive and the tables filled with men and women in suits typing on laptops and speaking in soft tones into their top of the line cellphones. Among the sea of people spending their lunch breaks working, it was easy to spot Jean Moreau and only slightly harder to spot Jeremy Knox at his side, dwarfed by by his friend in size alone. 

Neil supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised by Jeremy’s appearance there - even if it made him skip a step when he saw him. Jeremy, with the help of a girl named Renee, had been the ones to put the pieces of Jean back together like a broken mirror after Neil dragged his mostly unconscious body from The Nest. Since then, Jean hadn’t been photographed in public without Jeremy by his side. 

They were sat beside each other now, at a small table, leaving two chairs on the other side for Neil. And for a moment it made a coolness build up of his stomach and lungs. The two chairs sitting their innocently because that’s how tables worked in cafes. Two chairs on one side, two on the other. Not because they’d been placed that way, not because he was expected to sit at someone’s side. At Riko’s side, where his leash could be pulled if his mouth got out of hand. He bit his tongue to let the sharp pain remind him that he didn’t have a leash anymore. Riko wasn’t walking behind him with a hand on his back, pressing firmly into whatever cuts or burns he’d inflicted the night before. 

It was a hard thing to remember with Jean and Jeremy sitting there, Jean still paired off with someone like they had been at Evermore. He wondered how his brother could stand it anymore. 

When he reached the table, he tipped up their chair on its first two legs, leaning it forward until the back was against the table. Before anyone could sit next to him, they’d have to move it, and Neil didn’t plan on letting them.

With that out of the way, he sat himself, across the table from Jean. It had been a while since he physically laid eyes on him - but he looked better. His grey eyes weren’t dull anymore, surviving just to survive. The scars on his face were old and faded, allowed to heal during his time with the Trojans. Neil tried not to be jealous or bitter - but for a second it was hard to breathe before he settled on making himself happy that after all they’d been through together, Jean had gotten the chance to be knit back together with caring hands. 

“Kevin told me you got here three days ago.” No greetings or asking how he was, just straight to the point. Neil didn’t mind. He didn’t think he could muster up responses for any of the polite foreplay for this conversation. 

But Jeremy made a face next to him. “C’mon, Jean! Warm the kid up before you interrogate him.” Jeremy Knox was blonde currently, but his excited green eyes were still the same as they always had been. Lit up like the sun shined in from behind them. “Hey Neil! It’s good to see you again. We’re working on his conversation skills.” It was warm and honest, but Neil wasn’t used to either of those. It made him feel weird, like he was being warmed from the inside out. It was one of the reasons he was simulataneously fond and not fond of him. 

“It’s good to see you too, Jer’.” And Neil found that he wasn’t exactly lying.

Jean sighed, hand running through messy hair - it was different from how he’d kept it tamed at Evermore, which made Neil feel... something. “Like I was saying.” His lip quirked in an almost smile when Jeremy rolled his eyes at him and went back to doing something on his phone. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Neil’s stomach flipped a little, nervousness he didn’t realize he was holding onto suddenly disappearing. He’d expected this to go like Kevin’s conversation - tell him he couldn’t do it, Riko wouldn’t let him go, full of doubt instead of daring to hope that all of this would work out. “Thanks.” The word was hard and choked, if not a little desperate. 

“The Kings were due for a new backliner, but Kevin was convinced you were going to follow Riko to The Wyverns.” The conversation easily dissolved into Exy. Jean wasn’t going to ask him what he’d been through or if he was okay - that wasn’t something they asked each other. 

They knew what Riko was capable of, and most of the time it used to be stupid to ask if either of them were okay. The answer was always “I’m fine” because to say anything else would be to admit weakness. And weakness was never something the two of them could afford. 

Right now, Neil was fine... but he found himself craving that inch beyond fine. The inch where Jean sat, his leg touching Jeremy’s beneath the table casually, in a way Neil himself would have surely recoiled from. The inch where he trusted Jeremy to get up and get him a new cup of tea without the potential of something being put into it without his knowledge. Neil wondered what that inch beyond was like. Is that where “I’m fine” turned into “I’m good”? 

He wondered if he’d ever get a chance to find out. 

 

 

 

 


”Can you believe it’s been a year, Four?” It was a voice that could make his blood run cold from across the country, that could slice him to ribbons without the knife curled within his fingers. 

Neil couldn’t move his hands - they were locked in place above his head by thick bands of metal. He’d always wondered where Riko had gotten them from, fantasizing from time to time about burning the the building they were made in to the ground. He had scars tracing his wrists from years of involuntary yanking and struggling. But Neil had solid intentions to not move that night. 

The weight settled over him, Riko’s strong legs on either side of his hips as the tip of the blade danced down his spine - scraping but not cutting, just enough pressure to set every nerve ending in his body on fire. He couldn’t get his muscles to relax as they braced for the punishment. 

“We should call and let him know how much you miss him.” Riko wasn’t kidding, and there was suddenly, too suddenly a phone next to his face, ringing in his ear. But it went to voice mail - Jeremy Knox’s voice lighting up the room as he asked them to leave Jean a message. The sunshine in his voice felt unnatural in the darkness of the room. Like hope right at his fingertips that he just couldn’t grasp. 

Neil wasn’t sure if the pain had started before or after that. 

The carving was below his right shoulder - and it started with the curves of a number three. Neil knew the knife wasn’t sharp enough because it tore at his skin along the apex of the curves. He told himself he wouldn’t yell, wouldn’t give Riko the satisfaction, but that only lasted so long. 

Jean Moreau wasn’t not a long name until someone was carving it into your back, tracing the lines over and over to make sure the scar stuck around for a whole year as a reminder. The date was after that, month written out and all - at least it wasn’t one of the longer ones. Riko took joy in etching reminders into Neil’s back, reminding him what he did to deserve what was happening to him, and just who he belonged to.

For a while pain was all Neil could feel - burning, pinching, slicing through him over and over again. After a while his throat began to hurt too - and that’s when he realized his grunts of pain had turned to screams. 


3

Jean Moreau

March 15th

 

 

Neil was frozen when he woke up, body clenched tightly around itself. Still, silent, not breathing. Riko didn’t take kindly to being woken up by Neil’s nightmares. He’d make him tell him - he’d reinact them. Remind Neil the price of stealing away his precious sleep. 

Breathe. He had to remember how to do that - how to let his lungs fill with air before they collapsed in on themselves in a desperate attempt. 

The first breath was always never enough - always followed by another deep suck of air. And another if he allowed it, until he’d be left hyperventilating in his bed. But that made too much noise - he couldn’t afford panic. Panic made him weak. He couldn’t afford to be weak - he could only afford be be fine. Never more or less. So when his lungs burned for him to take another quick breath, he forced himself to hold it in, counting to ten in the languages he knew before letting it come out in a soft rush again. 

Neil dared to open his eyes - and it was disorienting. The bed was much too large, the walls much too white. Light even shining in from the world outside, greeting him via the wall of glass that made up one side of his room. And there was an ease to his breathing as he remembered where he was. 

This was his room, his. In his flat. In Cincinnati. White paint covering the walls, not black. Light coming in and reminding him there’s a world outside. He wasn’t in the tomb, he wasn’t choking for air on a bed where he was made to face Riko or leave his body unguarded and exposed for attacks. 

He peeled himself out of the bed, sheets damp from sweat. There was a chair in front of the windows, facing the world outside and Neil forced himself to sit down and look while every fiber of his being told him to seize the chance to run. To hide. To get somewhere Riko wouldn’t be able to touch him. 

A glance to his alarm clock, numbers glowing a calm blue, affirmed that he couldn’t do that though. He was flying out in three hours, all alone, to meet his nightmare in a public arena, where smiling and lying to the camera meant surviving, and falling to Riko meant destroying his chance at freedom before he even got to taste it. All while a vulture picked at him - ripping pieces off of him before he was even dead. 

A vulture named Kathy that wanted to expose his insides to the world. 

Neil thought that he might actually prefer an hour back in The Nest - with the known evil that would shackle him down and slice off bits of him in private. At least the whole world wouldn’t be watching then. 

Chapter Text

Neil didn’t remember most of the flight to Raleigh. Maybe it was because his plane left at four in the morning, maybe it was because he spent it wondering just why the fuck the seat next to him was filled by Andrew Minyard, with Kevin taking up the aisle seat. Kevin had been dead on his feet exhausted when the fight boarded, and Andrew only provided a raised brow when Neil asked what they were doing there, like it was a stupid question. 

He thought maybe Kevin had agreed to Devin’s requests and decided to join the interview, but that was quickly tossed out the window. When the flight landed a little before six, Andrew got a rental car and drove him to the studio, but vanished into the audience when Neil went to check in with the staff. He decided not to mention that they were even there. Kathy wouldn’t miss the chance to have all of them on stage, even if it meant suddenly changing the whole angle of the interview. 

From there, it was a rush. Neil was led to a private dressing room, where he was left alone to change before hair and make up came in to make him look presentable. It reminded him of being a Raven. Let them dress you, let them make you likeable. When you get on stage, smile and let Riko handle the questions. 

For some reason, it exhausted him to pull his shirt up over his shoulders and replace it with the brand new button down. 

This time, he wasn’t in the Raven’s signature black look. The King’s colors were purple and bronze, so his normal black dress shirt was replaced by one in a nice, not visually abusive purple, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. It was a nice reminder that his nightmare was over. He just had to make it through the interview, but really all he wanted to do was find somewhere to curl up and sleep. 

He was just getting done with the weird shit the make up artist was doing to make his lashes look longer when Kathy came in. The woman was, as always, long legs and a bright smile. And her presence signaled that it was time for Neil to put on the charm, even if it felt like a chore.

He stepped down from the tall chair the artist had him sat in, greeting Kathy like an old friend with a simple hug. “Kathy! Looking gorgeous as always.” He complimented her like he wasn’t looking a demon in the eye. 

“Neil Josten!” Her voice was unnaturally perky, but Neil had a feeling that most of her wasn’t natural. “Speak for yourself, dear! Purple is a good color on you.” She winked and he tried not to look uncomfortable with that. The one thing The Ravens had given him other than Exy and trauma were media skills. “Thank you so much for joining us on so short notice. I’m so glad to be the first to interview Neil Josten, rookie backliner for The Cincinnati Kings.”

Neil just have her a charismatic shrug, keeping on that smile that didn’t reach his eyes. It would only be a few hours until he was back on a plane to Ohio. “It only felt right to come back. After all, you were also the first to interview Neil Josten, rookie backliner for The Ravens.” It was touch and go for a second, but he was able to keep the venom from his voice when he mentioned his old team. 

But then Kathy’s eyes went unfocused and he knew she was listening to someone on her earpiece. “Sorry to cut this short, Josten. But I’ll see you on stage in five.” She faked kisses on either of his cheeks, probably not wanting to mess up her flawless lipstick, before turning from the room. Neil could hear her heels hitting like spears against the tile floor as she clicked back down the hall, and he couldn’t help but to find the sound grating. 

He let go of a breath he didn’t know he was holding. And heard a ping from his pocket from his phone, which he’d neglected to check since arriving at the airport. At least he’d remembered to turn it on, apparently. Though really, he couldn’t recall doing so. 

Kev: you have 5 minutes after the show. Don’t make me come in after you. -A

The message confused him for a moment, because that wasn’t how Kevin texted, but it was signed and Neil wasn’t a total idiot all the time, so it was easy enough to figure out it was probably Andrew who sent it. But he didn’t need protecting. 

He slipped his phone back in his pocket after silencing it, and soon enough another pretty woman was clipping on his microphone and leading him to the stage. He heard Kathy excitedly announce him, and a hand at his back, sending shivers up his spine pushed him forward. 

His legs moved automatically, and his smile fell into place like a mask as he waved to people he couldn’t really see because of the studio lights blinding him. There was a couch on the stage this time, really only large enough for two people, next to Kathy’s signature black desk. She was standing and he went over to hug her for the camera and let her fuss over him for show while the studio audience went wild. When they started to calm, they both sat, Neil in close to the desk to make it all appear more intimate. 

“Neil Josten! It’s been a while since we had you in the studio. How have you been?” She always started off like this - claiming to want things to seem natural between them, like they were old friends. 

Neil was willing to play along to make face with the public. “It’s been too long, Kathy.” He grinned at her, playing up what people had always referred to as his “feral charm”. “I’ve been great! The move to Cincinatti was pretty exciting, and it’s been nice getting to see my brothers again.” 

She smiled at him warmly, but Neil knew fake warmth when he saw it. “Your brothers being Kevin Day and Jean Moreau?” It was a question she didn’t have to ask - on paper they’d all be adopted by the Moriyamas even if they’d retained their last names. 

“Of course, Kathy!” He grinned like she’d told a joke of some sort. “With Kev and Jean both playing for The Kings, I didn’t even hesitate on signing the contract when they offered me a spot on the team. It’s been way too long since I’ve gotten to play with them.” He was playing it up, the excited younger brother missing his older brothers act that Riko had forced him to play before, but this time he wasn’t using it to guilt Kevin and Jean for leaving him alone. 

“That’s so sweet, Neil. After all, I hear a family that plays together, stays together.” She laughed at her own joke and there were a few chuckles from the audience. Neil thought he heard a gag, and imagined maybe it was Andrew getting sick of her sugary sweet bullshit. The thought made him actually smile for a moment. But then the guillotine dropped, and it sent ice through his veins even though he’d known it was coming. 

“But it seems like you left one brother behind! How about a little family reunion?” And the crowd went wild as Neil froze for a nanosecond. Then he was standing automatically - maybe to run, or maybe it was just his survival instincts kicking in so he’d make it through this interview. 

Riko was walking out on stage, dressed in all black with accents of copper - the Wyvern’s colors. And he was walking towards Neil like they were family that hadn’t seen each other in years. Their embrace sent a tremor through Neil, the hand on his back, covering scars left behind after years of being in those demented hands. But he smiled, and kept smiling even when he felt his chest beginning to tighten and lips against his ear, hot breath carrying a threat. 

“Hold your tongue, or you won’t like the way I clean up the damage you cause.” The words were sharp, but Riko pulled back with a smile that Neil always thought was a little too manic. “It’s so good to see you.” He motioned for them to sit and Neil nodded, perching on the edge of the couch closest to Kathy’s desk, so he wouldn’t have to touch Riko.

But that didn’t stop Riko from simply sitting closer and looping his arm over the back of the couch behind Neil. 

“Now that is a picture perfect reunion we got together folks! It’s been a while since we’ve seen Riko and Neil next to each other.” She laughed and the audience clapped. 

And each clap made Neil’s heart race faster. Kathy asked a question, but Neil didn’t hear it. Riko answered beside him, the audience laughed, but all Neil could hear for a few moments was the blood rushing in his ears. A quick buzz in his pocket snapped him out of it in time to hear her next question. 

“So Neil, the darling little brother of Exy, how does it feel to be away from West Virginia? You grew up there with the Moriyamas, played the game with your brothers there since childhood. What’s it like being in Ohio?” It was a lot of open ended questions, but they’d been in the packet that he and Devin had received the day before he left. They’d gone over appropriate answers on the phone. He just had to remember them. 

“Being away from West Virginia is wild, Kathy. I never thought I’d leave home, to be honest. I owe a lot to the Moriyamas, they’re my family. But the decision to go to Ohio was something I made on my own. It wouldn’t have felt right playing without my brothers when the offer was there.” He replied politely. 

But then Riko jumped in with a question, cutting off Kathy before she could continue with the preapproved questions. She looked a little panicked for a moment, but it wasn’t like she could just stop him. It wouldn’t look good for television. “Forgive me, Neil, but you turned down The Wyvern’s offer before The Kings even sent you one. If playing with your brothers was so important to you, what made you give up that offer?” The questions weren’t in an accusing tone, but Riko wasn’t trying to accuse him of anything - he was trying to break down Neil’s supposed motives. 

But Riko sitting here, implying that he was just as much Neil’s brother as Kevin and Jean.. it was enough to make his perfect press persona snap. There were so many ways he could have responded - and Neil just counted himself lucky that he hadn’t punched Riko on live television. 

“Funny, I don’t remember having a brother that plays for The Wyverns.” Riko had the audacity to look gobsmacked, and Kathy was trying had to hide the fact that she’d just choked on her coffee. The audience in the studio went wild with chatter. Kathy had the good thought to send them to commercial break. Neil hoped they weren’t her only interview scheduled that day, because this was over. 

As soon as the lights cut to signal a commercial break, he was tearing off his mic pack, unloading it on to Kathy’s desk before storming back off stage. A few assistants tried to fuss with him, but he knew the way to the dressing room. He’d been there before, and anger was making the memories just that much brighter. He didn’t pay any mind to anyone following him - a mistake. 

After he slammed the dressing room door shut behind him, it burst back open and slammed again. Riko was on him before he could even turn. 

He went for the neck, grabbing Neil from behind and slamming him into one of the studio’s concrete walls. He felt his face bounce off of it with bruising force as nails bit into his skin. 

“You’re utterly incapable of keeping your mouth shut, aren’t you, Four?” It was like they were back in The Nest - Riko’s body pressing him firmly into the wall, hand on the back of his neck like he was a wild dog that needed to be tamed before it hurt someone. “It’s like you don’t remember your place anymore. Aren’t you aware of what you owe me?” The words were spoken softly, full of venom. A year ago, maybe they would have broken Neil and made him apologize. Made him promise to accept any punishment without complaint. Now, they just rieled Neil up further.

“You must have been sleeping during the interview, Riko. I said I owe the Moriyamas a lot.” He grinned, even though he was pretty sure his lip was busted and bleeding. In his rage it didn’t hurt, he could just feel the blood softly trickling down his chin, swearing against the raw concrete wall. “I don’t owe you a god damn thing.” 

“I am a Moriya-“ 

“In name only. And that’s gotta fucking hurt, doesn’t it? Tell me... how was Daddy’s funeral?” He felt his neck pop beneath the pressure, his face crushed into the wall and making it hard to breathe. But Neil was used to not being able to breathe or move or fight back. Another buzz in his pocket - a reminder that someone was coming for him. He hated relying on other people... but if it meant getting to taunt Riko, he’d survive for twenty minutes. “I forgot - you weren’t invited.” His words were muffled now, but his shout wasn’t as Riko rammed his knee into the back of Neil’s. He would have fallen, but the hand around his throat held him in place. 

“You think you’re funny.” Riko growled and Neil felt a cool edge through his shirt. His heart leapt into his throat, pounding there, choking him. How the hell had Riko even gotten a knife through security? He had to fight for the will to reply, for the strength to snap back with another insult. 

There was another vibration in his pocket. It had to be getting close to his time limit, it felt like he’d been in the dressing room for hours even if it had only been a couple minutes at most. He didn’t trust Andrew to come for him. But he trusted Kevin.

“And you think you scare me. So I guess we’re both dumb bitches today.” Neil didn’t know where the bravado in his tone came from, but he thanked whatever was listening for the illusion of confidence. If only his body would stop shaking like a leaf in a hurricane - if only his breathing wasn’t quickening by the moment as a knife sliced down the back of the potentially expensive shirt he’d been made to wear for the interview. 

“You’ve always been shit at lying.” Riko’s voice was in that place, too far gone. He was in the zone, and Neil only heard the sound of blood rushing in his ears as he felt the tip of the knife pierce into the skin above his spine. It dragged, and Neil didn’t have the energy to stop the ragged cry as lines were cut into his skin. Down, across, then the knife lift and carved down again.

A four. 

The knife started again from its original spot, carving deeper. Neil felt the blood running like water down his spine, the pain etching into him as the dull knife ripped his skin open. Too dull. Down, across, lifted, ripped downwards again. 

Part of him hoped Kevin wouldn’t come - would he be able to handle it? Or would be be frozen in the doorway, legs locked as he relived their past? 

He didn’t hear the door open, or see anyone move, but suddenly the weight against his back was gone. The hand around his neck was gone. And he crashed to his knees with a bruising force. His head was reeling, and his back was burning, but his mind commanded him to run. 

He tried to stand, but he was still dizzy, and just ended up leaning chest first into the wall. It took everything in him to flip over and see what was going on. He felt his blood slick across the studio wall - he hoped it would stain. 

Andrew was on top of Riko - which was almost a funny sight since the blonde was just absolutely tiny. But it wasn’t. But Neil still felt a nervous giggle bubble up from inside of him - or was it a sob? It was hard to tell anymore. 

“I told you not to touch what belongs to me.” Andrew’s voice was low and sharp, but Neil could still hear it, and it made him want to vomit. 

“I don’t belong to anyone.” His words were weak in that moment but Neil resented the idea - after being owned for so long, he wasn’t going to take Andrew claiming him like some stray. 

“Shut up, Neil.” The voice came from the door and Neil whipped his head around tiredly. Kevin. He looked too pale. 

He’d probably seen the blood - Kevin had never been good with blood. 

The front of this shirt was drooping a bit after the back had been slashed open. But Kevin was quickly at his side, shoving a black hoodie into his chest. It smelled like smoke, and when he pulled it on it was just the slightest bit snug. It was probably Andrew’s, his mind supplied. He was going to get blood all over it. 

“Kevin, take Neil to the car.” Andrew’s voice was calm, as if he wasn’t holding a man at knife point. Neil wondered where he’d even gotten knives. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Neil protested as Kevin came over and grabbed his arm though. “We can’t leav-”

“Get him the fuck out of here, Kevin. God damn it.” 

Neil didn’t know why his legs weren’t working properly as Kevin tugged him into the hall. Maybe it was the panic? But Neil never panicked like this, not even after Riko sliced him up. It wouldn’t surprise him if Riko poisoned him - but he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink at the studio.

Come to think of it... he couldn’t remember the last time he ate. He hadn’t had breakfast that morning or dinner the night before. His apartment didn’t have groceries and he hadn’t felt like ordering anything. Lunch with Jean and Jeremy, but he’d been too distracted to eat then. He’d just sipped on a bottle of water that Jeremy had gotten him - sealed because Neil didn’t like drinking things that he couldn’t see being poured. 

Two days ago, Kevin had ordered Chinese food for dinner. 

His legs moved like he was trying to walk through drying cement, but Kevin kept a death grip on his wrist, pulling him through the maze of a studio. He didn’t stop his punishing pace until they were outside, the light making Neil blink as it stung at his eyes. 

He didn’t remember much of the walk to the car, or much after being unceremoniously shoved into the back seat. 

Neil was just so thankful that he was finally allowed to sleep. 

Chapter Text

“You’re utterly incapable of keeping your mouth shut, aren’t you, Four?”

Neil jolted awake, eyes flashing open wide, lungs feeling like they were full of ice water - and he was immediately disoriented. The room he was in was small, the bed too small, the walls too warmly painted with framed pictures hanging on them. Not a hotel. But where was he?

Neil moved out from under the covers as silently as possible, holding his breath. But it wasn’t until the cool air hit his chest that he realized he was shirtless. Dread went through him like ice, and he whipped back the remaining blankets. When he saw he still had his pants on, a moment of relief washed through him, so powerful it brought him to tears, throat locked up and unable to swallow. Stubbornly, he scrubbed at his face, rubbing until his cheeks were raw.

He had to fucking focus, he told himself. He still didn’t know where the hell he was.

Neil jerked out of bed and got a whole two steps before he collapsed to the ground. The world spun, his head hurt, and everything went dark again. 

 

 

 

 

“What he needs is a fucking hospital.” Was that Jean? It had to be... Kevin would never suggest a hospital. He knew what the answer would be. 

“No hospitals. You’re a doctor, fucking fix him.” That had to be Riko... but Jean wasn’t a doctor. Who was he talking to? And why did Neil’s head hurt so fucking bad? 

“Andrew, you’re being an idiot.”

The words broke him out of the mid space between dreams and reality and Neil was jolting up in bed - which made his head ache and spin more. The brightness of the room hurt his eyes when he opened them and he whimpered at the onslaught of sudden sensations. He felt like he was going to puke.

Scratch that. He was going to puke, no doubt about it.

Before he could get control of himself, Neil leaned over the side of the bed and vomitted on the hard wood floors. It was mostly gross yellow bile, stomach completely empty because he was an idiot. The puke made his throat burn and his eyes water, then he felt like an asshole for making a mess of the place.

The arguing outside the door stopped suddenly and Neil froze, feeling chilled to the bone as the door slowly opened. At least a familiar face peeked around the corner. He was met with wild blonde hair, concerned green eyes, and tanned skin. Jeremy Knox. Did that mean they were back in Cincinnati? He wondered how long he’d been asleep.

“Hey, Neil.” Jeremy’s tone made him feel like he was going to be sick again. It was like he was approaching an injured wild animal, just waiting for it to strike but still willing to help it. The green eyes shifted over him then down to the floor and Neil realized a second too late that he was shirtless.

He scrambled to pull the blanket back up around his shoulders, to protect Jeremy from something he didn’t need to see. But it was too late - he’d already seen some of it. Not that he looked particularly affected. He just leaned his head back into the hallway.

“Katie? Can you bring me a towel? He threw up.” Jeremy was away from the door for a moment, and there was muffled conversation before he stepped back inside. He had a towel in his arms, and what looked to be a shirt.

“Just leave those on the bed, I can clean it up.” It was his mess anyways. He didn’t want to feel like people were going around and cleaning up after him. “Where are we anyways?” He wondered for a moment why his voice sounded so scratchy, but chalked it up to the throwing up. 

Jeremy just set the shirt next to him on the bed, towel still held in his arms. “I got it. Just work on getting your shirt on. We’re in Raleigh, at Andrew’s brother’s house.”

Neil shook his head in protest. “Just leave the towel, I’ll get it.” He tried to use a firmer voice this time, but he just sounded awful. And Jeremy wasn’t listening to him as he knelt down next to the small puddle of vomit. It was Neil’s mess to fix, but he just wasn’t fucking listening. “Jeremy.”

“Neil.” Jeremy replied simply, tone more exhausted and less perky than ever. “If you bent over to clean this up, you’d just pass out again. Jean and Kevin are already worried enough. Just let me do this for you.” 

“I don’t need your help!” Neil snapped, but Jeremy was already cleaning, and when Neil turned to get out of bed, his head spun and he had to stop in his tracks. He felt like he’d blinked and suddenly Jeremy was done cleaning his mess and heading to the door. 

“There’s nothing wrong with needing help.” The door clicked shut behind Jeremy, but Neil could still hear shuffling outside the door. They were actively talking quietly so he couldn’t hear them. It infuriated Neil. 

He worked at getting the shirt on - it helped that it was too big for him. It smelled like laundry detergent and just a hint of sweet ginger. It was probably Jean’s, his brain supplied. Jean loved ginger tea. 

He’d just gotten it over his head and pulled down when the door opened again. An annoyed blonde that looked like Andrew but was decidedly not Andrew walked in looking like he needed a coffee and maybe a Prozac. He looked at Neil with a withering gaze, mumbling something along the lines of ‘goodie, another broken fucking Raven’ as he strided over to the bed. He had a tray of things in his hand, which he unceremoniously dropped on the bedside table with a crash that made Neil flinch.

“Open your mouth.” The blonde demanded as he grabbed a thermometer from the tray. Neil didn’t feel up to arguing, so he parted his lips and the metal and plastic was shoved under his tongue with maybe more force than necessary. “I’m Dr. Minyard. You can call me Aaron.” He seemed to think that was introduction enough because he kept talking. “You’re underweight, probably malnourished, and definitely have a mental case or two. But you aren’t officially my patient and I’m not going to diagnose you.” Neil wondered for a moment if he treated every patient like this as the thermometer was jerked out from under his tongue. 

“101.2, it’s going down.” He made a note on a little pad that was on the tray before continuing, using a small flash light to look at Neil’s eyes. “Flinch and I’ll have to hold your face.” 

“Don’t touch me.” Neil said, but it was weak, and he listened and held still for Aaron even though he didn’t really understand why. 

“Well, you’re going to have to get over that quick, Josten. I need to listen to your heart in a bit.” Aaron shrugged before relaunching into his tirade. “Andrew has it in his head that you wouldn’t like a hospital trip, so we’re going to have to do this here. The short of it is that you need to fucking eat. You’re not in that scum hole anymore, no one is stopping you from eating. Start slow, just crackers and soup until your body is used to it. Jeremy knows how to deal with it. So you’re his problem once you get back to Cincinnati.” 

There were so many questions Neil had, but instead he just wrinkled his nose. “It’s not that I avoided eating, I just... forgot?” 

Aaron looked at him like Kevin looked at him when it was a two bottles of Vodka night - exhausted and completely finished with his shit. “So what you’re saying is that you don’t have an eating disorder, you’re just a moron?” Aaron looked over at the notebook and jotted a few things down. “You don’t seem to be concussed, so unfortunately you’re intolerable levels of stupidity must be natural.” 

Neil blinked at him for a moment before losing it. Just a little bit. “What kind of fucking doctor are you?” He hadn’t been to many, but Jesus there was just no way this man dealt with actual patients. 

“I’m a pediatrician.” Aaron replied in a deadpan tone and Neil wondered not for the first time if he’d finally just lost it. “Turn around. I need to check your bandages.”

“No!” The word left his mouth before Neil even had a second to think about it. The protest was so deeply ingrained inside of him that the thought of letting anyone see his back, let alone touch it made him absolutely nauseous. He didn’t want to think about the fact that someone had cleaned them and covered them in bandages while he’d been unconscious. No one deserved to have to touch him. 

Aaron looked unimpressed to say the least. “No? What are you going to do? Check them yourself?” 

“Yes.” That’s what Neil had done in the years after Jean and Kevin left. Hand mirror and bathroom mirror working in tandem let him do it, even if it wasn’t easy. Riko didn’t fix toys he broke - they either fixed themselves or they died and most of the time he didn’t seem to give a shit which. 

Aaron blinked once, twice before he just dropped the roll of gauze in his hand back to the tray. “This is why I don’t treat adults.” He mumbled before picking up a plate and shoving it at Neil. It just held a slice of toast with a thin layer of peanut butter. “Eat this or don’t. You’re not actually my patient so I don’t really care. There’s water on the table.” 

Aaron grabbed the rest of the tray and stomped out of the room. Neil found it hard to believe that any sane parent would put their child in his hands. 

Never the less, Neil obediently ate the toast. Or tried to. About three bites in, his stomach decided it was full and the thought of finishing it made him was to puke all over again. He was fucking pathetic. Setting the plate aside like it offened him, he tried to get out of bed again. He took it slow, pausing whenever his head did that thing where it made the whole room look like it felt fuzzy. 

Eventually he ended up on his feet, and it wasn’t too hard to walk as long as he took it slow. He left the bedroom, and the hall was painted a happy yellow, covered in framed pictures of Aaron and some girl. They looked happy, and for some reason it made him want to knock them off the wall. But he just continued walking, following the hushed group of voices until the hall opened up to a a crowded living room. 

Jean and Jeremy were sharing a chair - Jeremy perched on the arm with his legs tucked into Jean’s lap. There was a fleeting question as to how those two got to Raleigh so fast, but then Neil realized he wasn’t quite sure how long he’d been there. 

Then there was the happy girl from the hallway pictures sitting with Aaron on the couch - except she looked quite a bit more pregnant than she did in any of the pictures. Andrew and Kevin were sitting in chairs that looked like they’d been taken from a dining set, but Andrew was sitting in his backwards with his face resting on the low back of the chair. 

“Neil.” It was Jean that noticed him lurking at the edge of the hall first, and Neil wondered just how long he’d been standing there. Mentally, it only felt like a few seconds, but his legs were already aching under his own weight. 

“You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Aaron huffed and went to stand but Neil just waved at him to stay sitting as he walked further into the living room. 

“I’m not your patient, remember.” Neil thought he heard someone snort, but he didn’t look fast enough to catch who’d done it. There wasn’t anywhere to sit, so he just picked up the coffee mug off of the coffee table and sat down on the coffee table itself. The mug was warm, so he kept holding it, wondering why he hadn’t noticed his hands were so cold earlier. “So, what were we talking about?” 

“Uh... we were deciding who’s place you’re staying at when we get back to Cincinnati.” Kevin didn’t meet his eyes as he answered, which probably annoyed Neil more than the answer. It meant Kevin knew just how much he’d fucking hate that answer. 

“I’m staying in my own flat, obviously.” His toned dared Kevin to argue with him, but it wasn’t Kevin that rebutted him. 

It was Jean. “That’s where you’re wrong.” And before Neil could get out more than a word of protest, Jean snapped. “I don’t want to hear it Neil, I really don’t. Jeremy and I got a call all the way in Ohio. Riko got to you, you passed out and wouldn’t wake up. You probably hadn’t been eating. And all of this after we watched you mouth off to Riko on live television. You told Kathy you wanted to be with your brothers, so just shut the hell up and let us be your brothers and take care of you the way you did for us.” 

Neil blinked as he looked at Jean, raw emotion on his face, showing the worry he never could when they were in The Nest. Neil never cared what he did before because he thought no one gave a shit. The reality that that wasn’t true was... unsettling. It made him feel nauseous, like his body was physically rejecting the emotions Jean was throwing at him. 

“Since when do you care?” The words came out more broken than venomous like he intended. Jean’s own emotions had brought his to the surface, but Neil was trying to shove them back down quickly. Not that his mouth got the memo. “You left me.” 

Jean flinched like he’d been slapped and Neil watch as Jeremy’s hand gently went to his shoulder, saw the concern in the face of sunshine incarnate and Neil couldn’t bring himself to do anything but absolutely hate everytime Jeremy’s hands touched Jean’s body. 

“Neil, that’s uncalled for.” Kevin hopped in. “You know... you know if we went back, we wouldn’t have left again. We couldn’t- Neil we just.. we couldn’t.” But all Neil heard was empty excuses. 

“You will never understand what I did for you.” He could feel the burn of the 4 that was etched into his back, incomplete. Riko never got to record the dates of his newest betrayal. “I’m going back to Cincinnati.” He pushed up from the table, very nearly almost falling back over. Instead he just stumbled. 

Jeremy was up out of his seat in less than a second, reaching to steady him. Instead, Neil pushed the mug into his hands. 

“Touch me and I’ll fucking kill you.” There was the venom he was looking for earlier. Jeremy flinched away from him, holding the mug in a tight grip as Neil just stumbled past him, heading for the front door.  

He didn’t remember he had no way of actually getting back to Cincinnati until he was standing on the front porch in nothing but wrinkled pants and a shirt that was two sizes too large for him. He didn’t even have his fucking cellphone on him, so he couldn’t call a cab. 

So instead he just flopped down on the steps, hoping the fresh air would help clear his pounding head. He didn’t know how long he sat there - eventually it started to rain and the cool air made him shiver, but he was too stubborn to go back inside.

He hadn’t moved by the time the front door opened and shut again. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke filled the air, and Neil didn’t have to look up to know that it was Andrew that had joined him on the front porch. His shoes were dropped beside him with a little thud, and his phone hit his lap next. 

“Get in the car. We’re leaving.” Andrew spoke simply as he walked down the steps past Neil.

“Where are we going?” He asked as he jammed his feet into his shoes, socks damp from the rain but he couldn’t find it in him to care.

Andrew gave him a look like he’d just asked something incredibly stupid. “You said you were going back to Cincinnati. Where the fuck do you think we’re going?” 

“I don’t need your help to get back.” Neil insisted, but his argument was weak.  

Andrew just shrugged. “I’m not helping you with shit. I have to be back in town in like ten hours. So get in the car that’s already going or find your own way back. I really don’t care.” 

Neil found himself following after that, slipping into the passenger seat of Andrew’s Maserati, only mildly confused as it how it got all the way here. But maybe that’s how Jeremy and Jean got to Raleigh. 

“How are the others getting back?” He asked as Andrew whipped out of the drive way at a reckless speed.

“If you keep asking annoying questions, I’m going to push you out.” Andrew lit up another cigarette, and Neil watched as rain soaked his left arm when he rolled the window down to smoke. 

Neil realized then that he didn’t really care how the others were getting back. The ride to Cincinnati was almost nine hours, and they spent it in silence, the smoke from Andrew’s cigarettes wrapping around him like a blanket.

Neil had never felt more free than he felt as Andrew sped down the interstate, rain never really leaving them. He found himself wanting to be in Andrew’s passenger seat more often.  

Chapter Text

 

The isolation was crippling.  

After being dropped off at the tower, Neil hadn’t seen hide or hair of anyone in two days. His phone didn’t ring unless it was Devin and no one knocked at his door. It was too much after living at The Nest, where everyone had a partner and no one did anything alone. He’d always resented it - never being able to turn around without someone breathing down his neck, but now he craved the stability of it. It was safer in pairs than it was alone. 

It took hours for him to hype himself up enough to leave the apartment for food. It wasn’t safe to leave alone, to be out in the world without someone watching his back. He could feel Riko’s eyes on him, hundreds of miles away, waiting for him to fuck up so he could cage him again and throw away the key. He’d choke him with the collar around his throat until he remembered his place - then the punishment would begin. It took hours of convincing himself that Riko wasn’t behind the door, waiting to take him away. Hours of holding the knob for the deadbolt until it left impressions in his skin and he could finally -finally- twist it slowly, listening to the sound of metal sliding against metal and the deafening noise of the deadbolt slamming into its sheath in the absolute silence of his apartment. 

But then he’d open the door to find an innocent corner store sack waiting there for him, like someone was reading his mind. Or, more likely, Kevin was making sure he didn’t starve himself in the quietest way possible. 

Kevin, who he’d accused of leaving him behind. In a less emotionally charged mood, he knew if Kevin had come back, neither of them would have left. Kevin wasn’t brave enough to leave Riko’s side twice, and Neil wouldn’t have left him there alone. It would have just given Riko more ammunition to hurt them both - and in a sick way he was glad to have put himself in the line of fire so Kevin and Jean could get away. 

He texted Kevin. 

To Kev: Thanks

Then he got to work going through the sack - after double checking to make sure he’d relocked the deadbolt. There were cans of food, shit he’d never even seen before. Who knew ravioli came in a can? That sounded like some kind of bullshit Riko would never allow them to put in their bodies. Which only made him want to eat it more out of absolute spite. 

He rifled through the bag some more - not really paying attention to what was in it - and finally found a prewrapped plastic spork. Tearing the lid away with the metal tab, he hopped up on the kitchen counter and shoveled one of the cold, orange pasta squares into his mouth. It was salty and slimy, and probably would have been better warmed up, but Neil didn’t own bowls or pots or pans so cold would have to do. 

He shoveled down half the can before his phone vibrated next to him. 

From Kev: for what? 

Neil felt the world stop for a moment, then it spun fast and Neil dropped his phone onto the floor as a wave of nausea crashed through him. Kevin had always harped on good eating habits for atheletes, even more than Riko ever did. He’d never have left a bag of junk food for Neil to eat. 

In a panicked motion, he threw the can that was in his hand - spraying cold orange sauce over the walls and white tile floor of the kitchen. It was all he could do to roll off the counter before puking into the sink. 

His stomach protested - after two days of rationing out the box of crackers Andrew had picked up for him on the ride back - it wanted, needed the food. But Neil jammed his fingers down the back of his throat until the only thing that came up was orange tinted bile. In the back of his mind, he registered his phone vibrating twice with new messages before vibrating over and over again in what was probably a phone call. 

There was pounding at his door, and Neil ducked to hide behind the counter, feeling the coolness of the ravioli explosion seeping through his pants. He cupped his hands over his ears, desperate to keep the sound out of his head. Spit covered fingers felt disgusting against his ear, but it hardly distracted him from the fist that hit the door, every knock sounding like an explosion. Distantly, someone was saying his name, asking him to open the door, but he couldn’t tell who it was. The voice kept twisting and morphing in his head - Riko, Ichirou... his father. 

He tucked himself against the lower cabinets hard enough for their handles to bruise his skin, telling himself if he was quiet enough, they would just go away. He could pretend he wasn’t home and they’d come back another day. It would at least give him time to run - to get far away from here. It was a mistake coming where the people who wanted him had to get close to Kevin and Jean to get at him. 

His lungs burned as they tried to hyperventilate, but Neil stopped them, rolling slightly with convulsions as he held his breath. If he lost control, they’d hear him. They’d hear how absolutely pathetic he was - unable to even keep his own breath under control. Riko would punish him for that. Again.

Neil could almost feel the ice water his head had been forced into over and over again - stinging at his skin, threatening to fill his lungs if he couldn’t force himself to hold his breath. He could hear it as the water rushed against his ears, pounding against his ear drums and chilling him to the core. And with all the rush of the water coming back to him - he couldn’t tell how long it had been since the pounding at the door had stopped. 

He froze, feeling chills like trails of ice down his spine as he listened, hand cupped over his face to muffle his own breathing. Everything was so still - deafeningly still. And then there it was - the softest of scrapes, a click, and the sound of the deadbolt sliding open again. It was then that Neil realized he was shaking like a leaf in the wind, hands almost vibrating with it. He didn’t have anything he could use to defend himself. He wasn’t even sure his legs would work if he tried to run. 

The footsteps were getting closer, muffled by the carpet. And he heard it - his voice. Riko’s voice, calling for him in the living room. 

“Neil? Where are you?” Those were weird things for Riko to say. He expected demands for him to come out - demands for Four to show himself. Maybe a reminder that it would be worse if he hid. 

As the steps got closer, he pressed further against the cabinets, hoping they wouldn’t creak, knowing they wouldn’t hide him but so desperate to get as far away from Riko as possible as he braced for pain, eyes clinching shut so he wouldn’t have to see him coming. It was better that way. Hold still, let him hurt you until he was satisfied, put yourself back together, his brain reminded him. That’s how he survived. 

Neil didn’t expect the soft hand on his shoulder - the touch gentle and almost reassuring. 

“Neil?” The voice wavered and morphed in his mind - and when he opened his eyes the cheek he was looking at didn’t bear a 1, rather a Queen chess piece. 

“Kevin.”

 

 

 

Neil spent that night on the floor in Kevin’s room. He’d been offered the bed, but he didn’t want it. He just couldn’t stand being alone anymore. Alone wasn’t safe, and he finally felt like he could breathe just hearing the sound of Kevin sleeping across the room from him. 

The food had been from Andrew, apparently. Who’d also picked his lock after Kevin freaked out. He never got an explanation for the freak out; Kevin hadn’t wanted to talk about it and Neil wasn’t usually one for pushing people for answers. 

When the next morning rolled around, he felt like he’d actually slept for the first time in ages. His back was stiff from laying on the floor, but he didn’t wake up feeling like he was more tired than he had been when he laid down, so he was counting that as a victory. 

His anxiety spiked in his chest when he sat up and the bed across from him was empty, sheets left askew in a way that wasn’t allowed. Ravens were always supposed to make their beds before they left for morning practice. He was probably late for practice. The mist of sleep left his mind as the next wave of anxiety set in and he scrambled to his feet, but the whiteness of the room really hit Neil, making him stagger just a bit.

They weren’t Ravens anymore - Kevin could leave his bed however he felt like leaving it. He wasn’t late for morning practice because preseason practice wasn’t starting for a few more weeks. 

With a deep, sucking breath his anxiety started to ebb, and he wavered on his feet just slightly. Shit, he was hungry. Which was weird, because he knew Kevin made him eat before they went to bed. He shouldn’t be hungry for at least a day... it had been a lot of food. But his stomach roared at him as he stumbled out into the hall, surrounded by white walls as he made his way to the white on white living room, looking for Kevin. 

Instead, he found Andrew, sitting in the window seat, blowing smoke out through the screen. The black of his hoodie and slightly baggy pants were a stark contrast to the bright white of the room, and it was hard not to look at him. 

“Staring.” Andrew commented after a few moments, opening the screen just a crack to flick the cigarette butt out into the world below. Neil jerked his gaze away quickly, like the words burned him. 

“Where’s Kevin?” He asked after a moment, and Andrew gave him a bored look, like the conversation they were having was nothing but a chore for him. Neil didn’t know why he didn’t like that. 

“At the gym. He works out with Jeremy in the mornings.” Andrew lit another cigarette and took a deep drag, blowing the smoke out the window again. 

Neil looked away, not wanting to be accused of staring again, running a hand through his bedhead. “I should go then.” He wasn’t sure how welcome he was in here without Kevin. He and Andrew weren’t friends or anything - hell it wasn’t like they’d said more than a handful of words to each other before. 

Andrew looked at him up and down, though, like he was taking Neil apart piece by piece in his mind, and it made him hug and arm around his chest uncomfortably. “Just sit the fuck down.” The words weren’t venomous, just exasperated, and Neil found his body obeying before he could even think about it. He plopped down on Kevin and Andrew’s hideous white leather couch, feeling like he was getting it dirty just by letting it touch his skin. He curled in on himself slightly, trying to avoid the coolness of the leather and also trying not to watch as Andrew stubbed the cigarette out on the window frame. 

The feeling of isolation was back, settling into his bones, when Andrew trudged into the kitchen. Even though he could hear the sound of dishes clinking, the fact that he was completely alone in the living room made his heart race. It was pathetic and he hated it - almost as much as he hated the relief that poured through him when the grumpy blonde returned and dropped a bowl onto the coffee table in front of him. 

“Eat. I don’t want to hear Kevin bitch about you skipping breakfast later.” Andrew rolled his eyes before heading for the hall. “Don’t go anywhere.” And he swore he heard him grumble “un-fucking-believable” before he slammed the bedroom door. 

Neil considered not eating - he didn’t want to be some obedient little pet that did everything anyone asked. Not here, not again. But his stomach roared in protest and he begrudgingly dug into the bowl of cereal. Neil didn’t remember even tasting it before the bowl was empty again. And he was left, waiting in silence. Well, almost silence. The sounds of the city below were like a dull, white noise in the back of his head. Nothing here was completely silent, not like at the Nest. 

It was a while before Andrew came back, but his hair was wet when he did. And he was dressed - head to toe in loose fitting black clothes, but dressed none the less. He gave Neil a look that clearly said he’d expected to fine him gone, but he didn’t comment on it. 

“C’mon.” He jerked his head towards the door as he walked, jamming his feet into black shoes once he got there. Neil stood, confused, but followed. And was even more confused by the presence of his own shoes by the door. Andrew gave him a look like he didn’t want to have to tell him step by step what to do, so he just put on his shoes in silence and followed him out of the apartment. 

“Where are we going?” He asked finally as they got to the stairwell and started heading up instead of down. 

“The questions are endless with you, aren’t they?” It wasn’t an answer, but it did make Neil not really want to ask again. So they climbed, for quite a while too. It felt like they’d scaled the entire building by the time Andrew stopped in front of a door. He dropped to one knee, taking out a metal tool. It only took a few seconds before the lock was popped open and he jerked his head for Neil to go through. 

There was no damn point in arguing, so he did, and he was met by a cool blast of wind and a bright blue sky. Andrew had taken him to the roof. 

The sight was mesmerizing for a moment - they were almost as high as the clouds. He could see buildings below them and hear the sounds of the city waking up. Cars were honking, people were bustling, and the sound of planes and helicopters could be heard distantly. 

And it was unbelievably comforting. 

Andrew just pushed past him, going to sit near the edge of the building, where there was a half wall to keep people from stumbling off. He plopped down, laid out on his back, and lit another cigarette. And Neil felt compelled to join him, staying sitting instead of laying. 

“I’m not in the habit of giving shit away for free.” Andrew spoke after several minutes of just staring up at the vast blue and white above them. “So, you can ask me anything. Any damn thing, and I’ll answer. But, I get to ask you whatever I want in return. And I expect the truth.” 

It was the longest Andrew had ever spoken to him at one given moment, and it left Neil reeling for a moment. He watched as Andrew took the last drag off of his cigarette, tossing the butt a couple of feet away. Then those hazel eyes turned on him and he raised a brow, like he was waiting for Neil to get on with it. 

So he did, hugging one leg to his chest as if that would protect him from the answers he was given and the ones demanded from him. “Why did Kevin freak out and have you break into my apartment yesterday?” Because that had been weighing on him - why did a few missed texts and calls warrant someone breaking into his apartment? Why had Kevin even bothered coming to look for him? It wasn’t adding up in his head. 

Andrew lit another cigarette, already looking exhausted by that question. “The last time he received an ominous text like that, Jean tried to kill himself.” 

The answer hit Neil in the face like a brick, making his blood run cold in his veins and he scrabbles for words for a moment, but only strangled noises would come out until finally he just blurted: “What?” 

But Andrew didn’t humor him. “Nope. It’s my turn now. How did you get away from the Moriyamas?” He glossed over Neil’s shock like it was nothing to him - like he hadn’t just said one of the few people he considered family, who he sacrificed so much for, had tried to end it all and no one even bothered to tell him until now. 

And the new question was like the rest of the brick building just collapsed on him. He hadn’t even told Kevin the details of what he’d done, and just thinking about it made him was to shower and scrub every inch of his skin raw. It wouldn’t matter though - the filth was inside of him. He’d never be completely clean again, like every touch was a stain on his soul that he couldn’t wash out. He had to swallow back the lump forming in his throat before he could even speak. 

“I-I..” Neil decided he’d stay broad. Andrew never said anything about answering in detail and he didn’t owe him that. “I did a few jobs my last year of college and paid off my father’s debts. Now I’m paying off my own debts to Ichirou and then I’ll be free. So I guess the answer is that I’m not away from the Moriyamas yet.” 

Andrew snorted, taking a drag off of his cigarette and blowing the smoke in Neil’s direction. It didn’t bother him as it wrapped around his body before drifting off in the wind. 

It was his turn again, and there’d been a question he’d been dying to ask since the interview with Riko. “Why did you tell Riko I belonged to you?” He tried not to sound as disturbed as he felt by that. 

Andrew just gave him that look again - like this conversation was a chore. “Kevin made a deal for you. He gave me something I wanted, you get protected until after the Preseason Banquet. After that, you make your own deal, or you take care of yourself.” 

“I don’t need your protection.” Neil bit back, trying not to betray how angry he felt on the inside, but he’d never been that good of a liar. 

“And why is it that you think that?” Andrew laughed, but it was a twisted, dark thing that made Neil’s stomach clench. “Why do you think you’re capable of protecting yourself after the mess you’ve been the whole time you’ve been here?”

The questions filled him with rage, but also with an unease because he knew, in part, that Andrew was right. “Is that your question?” Neil snapped, words like venom. 

“Yes, it is.” Andrew replied simply, sounding bored. He took a drag off of his cigarette, blowing the smoke up into the air a moment later. The fact that he was so at ease with all of this made Neil even more uneasy and slightly angry. He’d yet to see Andrew have any form of emotion, and it grated on his nerves. 

He stood abruptly, biting hard on his tongue before responding. He was finished with this conversation, not interested in giving Andrew any more of his time. “I know I’m not good at protecting myself - but I can’t get used to other people protecting me because I know they won’t always come back. People are selfish, and when push comes to shove, they’ll pick their safety over mine every time. I can’t rely on someone having my back.” And with that, he turned on his heel and walked off, back towards the door. He was running away from the situation, like he’d always been so good at doing, taking the stairs two at a time to get the hell away from Andrew Minyard and his false safety before it killed him. 

Chapter Text

 

Neil spent the next three days sleeping on Kevin’s floor while simultaneously attempting to avoid Andrew. And it worked, until they were all jammed into Andrew’s car on their way to an interview that Devin had signed Neil, Kevin, and Jean up for. Jean and Jeremy would meet them there, but Neil found himself shoved in the back seat of Andrew’s car while Kevin sat in the front seat and went on about something that he was too exhausted to pay attention to. 

Andrew hadn’t said anything to him since their talk on the roof, and Neil was still sour over the truth that Andrew had thrown at him. Neil knew he couldn’t rely on people to protect him - he’d never been able to do that - but Andrew was right when he questioned Neil’s own ability to protect himself. It was hard to think about, so he’d been spending time pointedly not thinking about it. He went over training schedules with Kevin, discussed the current line and how Neil was supposed to fit into it. He did anything and everything to keep conversations away from what happened to him after Jean and Kevin left The Nest - but with Kevin it was easy, because he didn’t seem to want to know. As if being oblivious would keep him safe. 

The drive to the studio they were meeting the magazine’s representatives at for interviews and a photoshoot wasn’t that far from the tower they lived in - it was a small building that looked pretty industrial on the outside, and on the inside smelled like a fresh coat of paint. 

When they walked inside, Kevin nudged him and murmured something in French - Which Jean had taught them both a short while after coming to Evermore. “Just do what we always did - give them something exciting with very little detail. If you need help with an answer, defer to Jean or me.” 

Neil gave a sharp nod, biting on his inner cheek.

Jeremy and Jean were in the lobby when they arrived, talking with a couple of women dressed in pencil skirts. Neil felt his stomach twist with nerves - he hadn’t seen them since Raleigh. And then he’d threatened to kill Jeremy if he touched him. He was sure that would make things awkward, but Jeremy just gave him a smile and a little wave as they approached - like he didn’t remember what he’d said. 

They were rushed back to wardrobe after that, greeted by a small rack of clothes. There were a couple of garment bags that had tags with their names hanging off of them. An assistant pushed a bag into each of their hands before disappearing with a warning that they’d be back in fifteen minutes for hair and make up. It was a lot, especially after being cooped up in the same place for days, but Neil was trying to be positive and take it in stride. He just needed to put his press face on and smile for the cameras, answer a few questions, and then he’d get to go back to the flat. 

Kevin and Jean started dressing without hesitation, used to dressing and undressing in front of people after years of locker rooms. Neil took his time though, turning his back on them as he yanked his shirt off. 

“Merde.” The word was a gasp on Jean’s lips, and Neil froze, but just for a second, before tugging the new sweater on over his head. It was a deep plum color, with a turtle neck that came to rest just below his chin. 

“Don’t.” He knew what Jean had seen - the reminder that Riko carved into his skin. But he wasn’t here to talk about that today. He couldn’t start thinking about Riko. He’d spiral and that wasn’t good press. 

“But Neil-“ There was concern in Jean’s voice, but he couldn’t handle it right then. 

“I don’t want to talk about it.” His words were a firm stop to the conversation - Jean had never been the type to try to keep pushing things. Kevin was, but thankfully he was keeping his damn mouth shut for once. 

He knew the words by heart, they’d been traced over so many times. Moriyama, across his shoulders, lines dug in deep to remind him whom he belonged to. It was placed where it would always sit just beneath the last name printed on his Exy Jersey. 2, Kevin Day, December 21st. The day he’d delivered Kevin to David Wymack’s hotel room after Riko had broken his hand in a fit of rage. The words were nothing compared to the rehabilitation Kevin had to go through in order to play Exy again. Inconsequential. 3, Jean Moreau, March 15th. The day he’d called Renee Walker and helped her retrieve a broken and blooded Jean Moreau from The Nest after Riko’s father passed. 

The anger had turned on him after that, but Jean had been safe and that’s all that mattered to Neil. He gladly took everything Riko threw at him, because he knew it wouldn’t be easy for him to get his hands on Jean or Kevin ever again. 

4 . The incomplete reminder. He wondered what dates Riko had decided to etch in under that one. Would he use the name the Moriyama’s had given him once he was sold to them? Or the one he’d been born with - Nathaniel Wesninski. 

Neil knew it was only a matter of time before Riko got his hands on him again. Then he’d find out if he would even bother finishing the reminder, or if he’d defy his brother and just slit Neil’s throat. The thought made him chuckle as he pulled on tight black slacks and a pair of leather dress shoes. 

He looked expensive - but it was as big of an act as anything else that made up his Neil Josten persona. Jean was dressed identically, but he thought the plum colored turtleneck looked far better on him than it did on Neil. Kevin, on the other hand, had been giving a black suit, sans tie, with a plum dress shirt. 

He’d buttoned it all the way up, but Neil rolled his eyes, wondering how long it would take some stylist to unbutton it down to his navel. They always had a field day showing off his form on the cover of sports magazines.

Hair and makeup knocked before coming in, but they’d changed quickly. A friendly woman that didn’t talk much worked on Neil, working product into his hair before getting started on his make up. It involved some slightly painful eyebrow shaping, then she did what she could to his face.  

He was very plain compared to Jean and Kevin, but she seemed to be putting forth a valiant effort to make him look good, which he would appreciate if he didn’t think things like this were a complete waste of time. 

He didn’t really notice time passing until something wet and freezing cold hit his cheek, over his tattoo. He jerked back instinctively, and the woman was quick to lift her hands so she didn’t smudge her work. 

“What are you doing?” Neil had to fight the urge to reach up and rub at his face, not wanting to fuck up whatever was going on up there. 

The woman looked at him with furrowed brows. “I’m working on your chess piece. It was brought up when we talked to your assistant.” 

“Chess piece?” Neil knew he made a face before he turned to look at the others. Kevin was already done, just chatting with his make up artist. Jean’s face was being painted with a thin brush and bronze paint. The artist was working around the thick black lines of the 3 and seemed to be painting the outline of a Bishop.  

“You’re the Knight. Kevin said that was most fitting when we were talking to him about it.” She shrugged and Neil sat back in his seat. The artist worked with quick strokes, the cold of the paint on the thin brush making Neil twitch here and there. 

Riko wasn’t going to like this. He’d had a full on tantrum when Kevin tattooed over the 2 on his cheek. Neil had been almost unable to play the week that followed, between the cuts on his shoulders and the deep bruised that lined his legs and sides. He’d taken an Exy stick to him after he’d stepped in to protect Jean. 

Neil always wondered why Riko went for Jean first. He never put up any sort of fight. Neil thought it would be like hitting a breathing punching bag over and over again. Seemed like it wouldn’t be satisfying in Neil’s opinion.

But he didn’t have time to dwell on it as they were gathered up for pictures. 

 

 

 

 

Neil always hated photo shoots. They’d had up close pictures of their profiles taken, then the posed together, then separately, then with props, then without props. The list went on and have the thousandth flash of a camera that day, he was ready to leave and say fuck the interview. 

About half way through the pictures, he’d started getting a headache. And the pain pulsing with every beat of his heart and flash of camera was making him edgy and irritated. 

It only made matters worse when they sat down for interviews and Jeremy and Andrew were sitting in the corner of the room, toying with their phones with bored expressions on their faces. Really, Neil didn’t even understand why they were here. 

His attention was quickly taken by a perky redhead who was sitting on the other side of the table. Neil silently thought maybe she’d had too much coffee that morning, because she was bouncing with every question. Her attention was on Jean and Kevin first, but quickly went to Neil. 

“Neil Josten! It’s your rookie year and you’ve already been announced as a starter - are you excited to play with a pro team for the first time?” Her red curls bounced with every other word, making him feel slightly nauseous, but he answered with a smile that was as charming as it was fake. 

“Of course I’m excited. The line up The Kings have this year really has me riled up to start preseason practices. Of course there’s Jean and Kev’ but there’s also backliner Matt Boyd. Oh! And the best goalies in the league really. Dermott and Minyard are going to be a force to reckon with, for sure.” Neil faked a bashful smile then, stopping himself. “Sorry about that, for a bit carried away. I’m pretty stoked to start practice with everyone soon.” 

Kevin smiled in approval on his left, so Neil knew those were acceptable answers. He felt more at ease after that. There were more questions about his stats, what he hoped to do this year, what he was hoping for in years to come. All the answers were careful lies for the most part. He couldn’t tell this woman that he wanted nothing more than to obliterate Riko and the Wyverns until the so-called “King” of Exy’s throne toppled out from under him. 

“With three quarters of the “Perfect Court” in one place, can we expect Riko to transfer to The Kings when his contract is up with The Wyverns next year?” She didn’t know her question would send ice down Neil’s spine but his smile did waver. It was more like he was showing her his teeth than really smiling, but Neil wasn’t sure she’d understand the difference. 

Luckily, Kevin was quick to hop in with an answer. “Riko’s family owns two pro teams, The Wyverns and The Spears. I doubt he’ll be signing with anyone but them any time soon.” 

Jean nodded his agreement. “He will see us at US Court soon enough. We don’t have to play on the same team in the pro circuit to play together.”

Neil felt sick, but that made the the interviewer extra excited. “That’s right! Three of the four of you are already signed - Neil, do you think you’ll be receiving an invitation any time soon?” 

He already had one. It was buried in the bottom of his dufflebag at his flat. A crisp folded piece of cardstock, requesting that he contact them within the next three months for a signing opportunity. Giving him time to think about it. 

Giving him time to figure out just how the hell he was supposed to turn down a chance to play in the Olympics. It was a dream - it had been his dream when they were kids and Riko’s bullying hadn’t been more than rough shoves and bruised shins. 

Apparently he’d taken too long to answer, because Kevin was jumping in. “We don’t have any comment on that right now. But, it is speculated that Neil is on their short list. They’ll make announcements in the next few months, so you’ll just have to wait for that answer until then.” 

The reporter gave a little bit of a pout but accepted that answer. “Well, how about this, Neil: I bet you can’t wait for the potential that the entire Perfect Court to be on one team again.”

Neil couldn’t help the immediate look of nausea that crossed his face, headache pounding and the room suddenly too fucking bright. “If I never played with Riko again, it’d be too soon.” 

The woman looked confused, like Kathy had before before Neil announced on live television that he and Riko weren’t as close and everyone had been made to believe they were. 

“And why is that, Neil?”

He hated that people thought it was their business to know how and why he felt things, and with the blood pounding through his temples like a hammer, he gave an annoyed huff. “Because Riko is-“

Neil felt a hand on his shoulder, and saw the reporter across from him blanch a little. “I think Neil is done here.” It was Andrew’s voice, and he had to fight the urge to shake the hand off of his shoulder as he cut him off. 

“I’m fine.” It was a lie, but most of what he’d said that day had been. But his voice was wavering and Andrew wasn’t having any of his shit.

“She wasn’t supposed to ask about Riko in the first place.” It sounded like a thinly veiled threat and the woman across from them flinched. “Kevin and Jean can finish this.” 

Neil despised that he got up from his chair and let Andrew steer him out of the room. It was a self hatred so deep that he could feel it in his bones. He’d left The Nest with the intentions of being his own person, moving past the pairs dynamic he’d been forced into for the majority of his life, but he was still leaning on people. He used Kevin like a crutch because he was too pathetic to even sleep in a room alone, and now he was letting Andrew act like he was someone that needed to be swooped in and rescued during a simple interview. It was pathetic.

He was pathetic. 

Andrew somehow got them back into the wardrobe room - where Neil’s real clothes were waiting for them. He took up perch on one of the makeup tables, knocking brushes and hair products aside so he had room.  

“If they ask you shit you don’t want to answer, then don’t answer it.” Andrew said simply, like it was the solution Neil needed to all of his problems.

“Not all of us can be the antisocial one.” Neil grumbled as stole one of the makeup wipes and started scrubbing at his face. He felt like he was wearing a mask and he needed it off immediately. 

Andrew was known for answering almost every question interviewers threw at him with a simple “no comment” or sometimes a fierce “fuck off” if they asked something that particularly offended him. 

“I’m not antisocial. I just don’t let people walk all over me.” Andrew lit a cigarette, taking a long drag off of it before waving his hand. “Change your clothes. I want to leave.”  

“Then get out.” Neil didn’t want to change in front of Andrew. He hadn’t liked changing in front of Kevin or Jean, but they already knew what to expect. He didn’t want Andrew to look at him with pity, like most people did when they saw him naked. That or they looked at him like he was something to devour. 

“Have somethin’ to hide?” Andrew spoke around the cigarette between his lips, muffling his words slightly. Neil wanted to pluck it away and snuff it out.  

“It’s not your turn.” Neil used their game as an excuse to avoid answering Andrew, but it just made him smirk around the cigarette.  

“Then ask your question already.” Andrew hopped off of the counter though and left the room with a wave. Neil heard someone outside the door worriedly ask Andrew to put the cigarette out, but he didn’t hear Andrew’s response as the door clicked shut behind him. 

Neil changed fast, not wanting anyone to walk in on him. He left the slacks and sweater in a pile on the floor, yanking on his baggy hoodie and tight jeans again. His hair was a mess and staticy as hell when he finally escaped the dressing room, but he felt more like himself.  

He didn’t know whether to be shocked or not when he found Andrew leaning on the wall outside the door, one foot flat against the wall, like he was Neil’s fucking body guard or something. 

“I didn’t need your help back there.” Neil grumbled as he jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, heading for the nearest exit. Andrew gave him an unimpressed look as he passed, and Neil knew instinctively the blonde had fallen into step behind him.  

“Funny. From where I was standing, you were about to talk more shit about one of the most dangerous guys in this game.” Andrew sounded amused by it actually, which made Neil’s hackles rise. “I said I’d protect you until after the Preseason Banquet. Don’t make my job any harder than it already is.” 

“I didn’t ask you for that.” Neil grit his teeth when they stepped outside and Andrew pushed past him, presumably to go get his car. Neil just stayed standing outside of the doors until the Maserati showed up. Then he climbed into the front seat.  

Andrew had lit another cigarette and Neil reached over and plucked it from his fingers before he could get it between his lips. Andrew watched him, hazel eyes sharp and clearly annoyed. Neil just took a drag off of it before passing it back to Andrew. The nicotine was a soft rush in his veins, just what he needed to calm the little jitters he had in his hands. He wondered when they’d started doing that. 

The eyes on him went from sharp to searching, but in the end, Neil figured Andrew decided questioning the action wasn’t worth his time and just stuck the cigarette between his own lips.  

“Why do you pick up broken people and try to protect them? Sounds like a waste of time.” Neil slouched back in his seat, glaring out of the passenger side window like the outside world had personally offended him. 

“If you think you’re broken, you are a waste of my time.” Andrew blew a thin stream of smoke out of the Maserati’s window. 

Chapter Text

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.  

Kevin. 

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. 

“Hey, Junkie!”  

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. 

Chapter Text

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. 

Chapter Text

Tuesday, Neil continued to ride the high of their preseason win. Wednesday, reality set in, and with it came anxiety.

 

Thursday they would be leaving for New York, where the Preseason Banquet would be taking place this year. And Friday, they’d be trapped in the same building as Riko Moriyama for hours. 

Neil wanted to say he wasn’t anxious, wanted to pretend that his hands weren’t shaking as he packed up his brand new suitcase Wednesday night. But alone in his flat, it felt like ice shards were spearing through his veins. He kept losing himself in thoughts and snapping back to reality with more things packed and no idea how long he was lost inside his own mind. 

If it had been a few years ago, when he was still under trapped Riko’s thumb, tonight would have been a reminder night. A pre-punishment to really instill the rules in Neil’s mind. He’d lay down tonight and be greeted with the sharp edge of a blade over his shoulders, reopening the healed scars. It would give them just enough time to start scabbing over before the banquet started, keeping blood from seeping through the black suit jacket he’d be stuffed in like part of a matching set. It was hard for him to believe that pain wouldn’t come tonight. 

Part of him was still expecting Riko to appear out of nowhere, a monster hunting him to the ends of the earth.  

“I don’t know what that shirt did to personally offend you, but we could just burn it.” The voice made Neil jump out of his skin, pulse skyrocketing as he turned in the direction of his bedroom door. 

Andrew was leaning in the doorway nonchalantly, like Neil’s front door hadn’t been locked. But, for whatever reason, the sight of Andrew did calm him. It banished some of his more distructive thoughts, leaving only the barest hints of cold fear in his system and a thudding heart in his chest.

“What?” Neil asked finally, voice strained, and Andrew sighed, walking the few steps it took to close the distance between them. With a little tug he pulled the shirt in Neil’s hands free. Their fingers got close in the exchange, but Andrew was very clearly avoiding touching him. It brought some comfort when Neil realized he was respecting his request to not touch him. 

The shirt was a wrinkled mess despite the fact that Neil knew he’d taken it off a hanger. He must have been standing there twisting it between his hands for at least an hour. After Neil got a good look at it, Andrew just tossed it in the general direction of his dirty clothes hamper. 

“Jean and Jeremy are coming over for dinner. Kevin called to invite you but you didn’t answer and it freaked him out.” Andrew took a step around Neil, glancing into the suitcase. “You forgot socks.” 

“Right.” Neil went back to his dresser and started digging through the clothes that Devin had dropped off for him a while ago. An unopened package of black dress socks was in one of him, and Neil just tossed the whole pack in his suitcase. There was plenty of room and there was never any harm in having extra socks.

Meanwhile, Andrew just went to lean on the wall length window, watching him in a way that Neil didn’t completely understand. 

“Staring.” Neil pointed out as he dumped some other clothes in the suitcase. His garment bag wouldn’t go in there, so he had plenty of room for other shit. They’d only be in New York for three days, but with all of the events they were expected to appear at, it looked like Neil was packing for at least a week. Luckily, most of them were more casual than the Banquet, so he only needed one suit.  

Andrew only kept staring though, and after a few more minutes of him taking Neil apart with calculating eyes, he finally spoke. “It’s my turn.” 

Neil hummed an aknowledgement as he zipped the suitcase shut, adding one of those weird buckled straps to it. He wasn’t sure what it was for, but it had come on the suitcase so he figured it was supposed to be there. 

“Are you going to be able to handle this?” Andrew’s question cut deep to his core, like a hot knife through sand - unnecessary because anyone could reach their fingers through the sand and grab at what was obviously lingering beneath the surface. 

But Andrew wanted Neil to say it out loud, to acknowledge that he wasn’t okay. It was both comforting and just too damn much for Neil to cope with in that moment. He clenched his jaw as he clicked the buckle on the case shut and turned back to Andrew, who was leaning against the glass like he belonged there. 

“You want the truth? I don’t know.” Neil shrugged, his shoulders feeling heavy and only wanting to rise half heartedly before crashing back down. “I don’t know and I won’t until we’re in the thick of it. I’d like to be strong and say I can handle whatever Riko decides to throw at us but I’m not stupid.” He ran a stressed hand through his hair, watching Andrew, but he only nodded, accepting Neil’s truth with the same ease he always did. It made Neil feel a little lighter, but Andrew couldn’t banish all of the negative feelings combating inside him. 

“Here’s a free truth for you, and don’t make me repeat it because I hate giving shit away for free.” Andrew managed to hold Neil’s eyes, the fierce hazel daring him not to look away. “You aren’t alone anymore. You have Kevin, Jean, Jeremy...” He paused, and Neil didn’t know if it was for dramatic effect or if Andrew was picking his next words. “You have me. And if it gets to be too much for you, we can help you. But you have to tell us; you can’t just assume we can read your mind.” Andrew checked his watch and pushed off of the window. 

“Dinner is in half an hour. If you don’t want to join, you don’t have to. But I think it’d help the three of you.” And then Andrew was gone, oversized black hoodie vanishing down Neil’s hallway and he heard the front door click shut behind him. 

In exactly 29 minutes, Neil left his flat and went across the hall to Andrew and Kevin’s. Their living room was full of spicy smells and warmth; Jeremy was helping Kevin unpack three brown paper bags of Indian food. Andrew was perched in his usual window seat, a sucker between his lips instead of a cigarette this time. Jean entered in from the kitchen a few seconds later with a stack of plates and forks. Surrounded by the warmth, Neil felt the rest of his fear slip away, like the last ice of winter melting away to spring. 

They settled into an ease that Neil hadn’t thought was possible. Andrew came over from his window and plopped on the floor by the coffee table, digging into something that smelled spicy enough that it actually made Neil’s eyes water. Jeremy and Kevin shared the couch, and Neil wondered where they would leave Jean, but he just flopped into Jeremy’s lap like obviously belonged there. He wasn’t so much eating Indian food as he was dipping the naan into the sauce from Jeremy’s butter chicken and snacking on that. 

It looked funny, because Jeremy was about Neil’s size and Jean was taller than Kevin, but Jeremy just wrapped one arm around Jean’s waist and left his plate in his lap for both of them to eat off of. 

Neil hadn’t realized he’d been staring until Jean tossed a little piece of his naan at him. It hit Neil in the cheek and he flinched, blinking sharply. 

“Stop staring at us.” Jean didn’t sound mad, more just... bashful? Neil wondered if the rings of pink on his cheek was from embarrassment or because Jean couldn’t handle spicy food for shit. 

“Sorry.” Neil said quickly. It was a trained response from The Nest, where apologies may make things hurt a little less. Not that he thought Jean would ever lay a hand on him. He was probably the least violent person in the room. “I’ve just never seen you sit in someone’s lap before.” Neil shoveled a bite of something into his mouth - it was creamy and spicy and made his tongue burn. 

“You’ve never seen me date someone before, so.” Jean mumbled and Neil choked on whatever the fuck he just shoved into his mouth. Andrew just sighed next to him and passed him a cup of water, which he downed like his life depended on it. 

When he could finally speak again, Neil looked between Jean and Jeremy, and Jeremy just shrugged. 

“It’s not like we were hiding it.” Jeremy pointed out as he took another bite of his chicken. But even that confused Neil - how bad he not noticed it. “I mean, we even live together.”

Neil paused, narrowing his eyes. “So do Andrew and Kevin, but they’re not dating.” 

Jean snorted. “Our apartment only has one bedroom.”

“Bunk beds are a thing!” That was apparently the wrong thing to say because the other four began to laugh, even Andrew snorting and having to take a drink of his water. 

“Is this going to be a problem?” Jean finally asked when the laughter dissolved. 

“No!” Neil replied quickly, fidgeting. “I mean, you’re happy, right? That’s what matters.” After Jean nodded, Kevin moved the conversation on to something else, but Neil wasn’t really paying attention.

Jean was in a relationship. That was... shocking. Romantics weren’t something that was strictly allowed in the Nest. Not that they had to play by those rules anymore, but Neil had never even thought of finding someone to settle down with. It wasn’t safe. 

The only people who’d ever touched him intimately had done so under contract after stuffing envelopes of cash into his pocket. What would it even feel like to have hands on his body that he wanted to have there? Would he still feel the urge to scrub every inch of his body raw in an attempt to fend off the ghosts of touches that still lingered on his skin hours after he was left alone? 

Would he ever even deserve that?

 

 

 

Their flight left early the next morning.  The five of them climbed into Jeremy’s Jeep, suitcases and garment bags piled in the backseat. It was the first time Neil had seen Andrew in a car without driving. Instead, he was sat beside Neil, fidgeting with a ballpoint pen. Jeremy was upfront talking excitedly about all the stuff they could check out in New York, pointedly not mentioning the Banquet, but it was undoubtedly on all of their minds anyways.

Things were more hectic when they got to the airport. The whole team was there for the most part, Matt directing them in a sleepy symphony so they’d all get through security and to their gate on time to board. He masterfully even got Kevin going, who still looked like a zombie after being woken up before the sun was even awake to greet them. 

Most of the team seemed to pass out during the flight, including Kevin. Andrew sat beside Neil, still messing with the same pen from before, staring straight ahead. Neil didn’t have the energy to ask if he was okay though, because his own anxiety was building, like someone squeezing his heart in a vice. Every minute spent in the air meant they were getting closer to Riko.

Andrew’s free truth from the night before was still present in his mind, but he didn’t feel right bothering him when he was clearly stressed himself. He refused to take his panic to Jean or Kevin though - not when it could be contagious for them. So he held it, letting it stew inside of him. 

Eventually the plane did land and tired looking athletes filed off after grabbing their carry-ons. Their coach barked instructions that were on the lines of obtaining their bags and waiting for the bus they’d rented to take them to their hotel for early check in. Easy enough to follow, especially with Andrew and Jeremy directing them to the baggage claim. 

Neil was vibrating out of his skin with nerves, but before he knew it he was in a hotel lobby being handed a slip of key cards. He’d missed who he’d been told he was staying with, but when they all split up to head to their rooms, Matt was a step behind him. 

Matt was a good guy, and an incredible player, but being alone in a small room with him made Neil distinctly uncomfortable. He watched as Matt hung up his garment bag in the closet and hefted his suitcase onto the bed to unpack, knees locked in place.

He wouldn’t be able to sleep here.

He trusted Matt on the court, seen the talent there and respected it. He trusted Matt in the locker room, but Andrew was there to step in if anything happened there. He didn’t trust Matt alone with him while he was sleeping. He’d be completely vulnerable, unable to protect himself, unable to call for help if Matt really did try to do anything to him. Instead of putting his garment bag away or unpacking, Neil escaped to the hallway. 

With shaking hands, he took out his phone and typed out a message. 

To Andrew: Room #? 

He waited, hand clenched around his keycard. He’d already given the other to Matt, which was probably a good thing. The flimsy plastic was already threatening to break as he squeezed it. It took exactly three minutes for Andrew to text him back, and Neil knew because he was counting the seconds in his head, trying to stave off the butterflies threatening to riot in his stomach. 

From Andrew: 619

The room was three doors down on the opposite side of the hallway and Neil cleared the distance with startling speed. His hand was starting to hurt where the plastic bit into his skin, but he ignored it and squeezed tighter as he knocked on the door.  

Kevin answered, clean shirt half unbuttoned like he’d been in the middle of putting it on. “What’s wrong?” Kevin’s eyes washed over him, no doubt taking in the stiffness of Neil’s frame, the clench of his hands, maybe even the hints of panic in his eyes that mirrored that of a cornered animal. “Did something happen?”

“I need to switch rooms with someone.” Neil hated that he was asking for this, hated that he couldn’t even handle the thought of sleeping alone with Matt. 

A look of realization washed over Kevin and he nodded quickly, stepping inside the hotel room with a jerk of his head for Neil to follow. “Are you okay with being alone with Andrew?” His words were soft as he shut the door behind them. Neil could hear the shower running now, see the steam rising from under the bathroom door. Kevin was talking quietly so Neil would feel safe that Andrew hadn’t heard the question and wouldn’t know what he’d answered. This was just between them, with no judgement. 

Neil nodded a little, hand still holding the keycard tight enough to put a small bend in it. “That should be fine.” He trusted Andrew, and part of him hated that he did, but Andrew had given him no reason not to. He wouldn’t put all this effort into protecting Neil just to hurt him in the end; Andrew didn’t seem like the type of person to waste the effort that would involve.

“Alright. Let me finish getting dressed. Did you leave your stuff in there?” Kevin took the keycard from his hand, gripping it for just a second so Neil could unclench his fist and avoid injury. He shoved the offending piece of plastic into the back pocket of his dress pants. 

Neil wondered what he was so dressed up for, but he decided ultimately it didn’t matter. 

“I left my bags just inside the door.” He responded as Kevin finished buttoning his shirt. 

“Alright, I’ll go grab them. Andrew likes the window bed, so sit on the other one, ok?” And Kevin was gone from the room, the door clicking shut behind him. Neil listened easily, sitting in the middle of the queen sized bed nearest to the wall. Kevin’s suitcase was open on it, looking way more put together and organized than Neil’s suitcases ever did. 

It only took a few minutes for the door to click back open and Kevin wheeled his suitcase in, his garment bag slung over his shoulder. He deposited them both in the open closet before starting to throw what he’d unpacked back into his suitcase. 

“Alright. I’m gonna take this stuff to the other room, then I’m leaving for the evening. I have reservations with someone. Are you going to be okay with Andrew?” Kevin asked him again, and Neil knew if he said no, Kevin would drop his plans in a second. But he’d put a lot of effort into looking good for whomever he was meeting, and Neil didn’t want to ruin their first night in New York with more of his issues, so he just nodded. 

“I’ve been alone with Andrew before. It’ll be fine.” Kevin nodded and grabbed a few things from the closet, tossing them over his shoulder as he gripped the handle of his own suitcase.  

“If you change your mind, call me. I don’t care if you feel like your interrupting or you’re ruining my night or whatever your brain tries to convince you. If you need something or you feel unsafe, you call me. Or Jean. Jeremy even.” Kevin waited for him to give a nod of agreement before he fished a keycard out of his pocket and dropped it in Neil’s lap. “Alright. I’ll check in with you when I get back from dinner.”

And with that, Kevin was gone.  

Neil didn’t bother unpacking. He just sat on his bed, trying to distract himself from the silence in the room by playing a brick breaking game on his phone. He dropped it though when he heard the bathroom door open. 

Andrew emerged fully dressed, blonde hair still wet and plastered to his skull. He gave Neil a look of confusion before continuing across the room to the suitcase on his bed. 

“Kevin move in with Matt?” Andrew asked simply and Neil nodded. 

“Yeah.” That was apparently an acceptable answer because Andrew didn’t continue that line of conversation.

“Cool. Are you hungry?”

 

  

 

Renee Walker was one of the goalies for the Kansas City Valkyries and she definitely wasn’t someone Neil thought Andrew would go out of his way to hang out with. With her blonde hair that faded into all colors of the rainbow at the tips and the silver cross around her neck, she couldn’t have looked more different from Andrew, clad in all black with a cigarette tucked between his lips. Neil didn’t understand her, but she greeted him with a smile that only could be described as soft. 

But despite the softness of her exterior, Neil got the distinct feeling that a dangerous woman was beneath the white chiffon top and rosary.

She and Andrew had an easy side hug in greeting before Andrew led them all into a small pizza shop. It was bustling despite it only being like four in the afternoon, but Renee and Andrew split at the door, Andrew heading to the counter to order food, Renee securing them a table that had just been vacated and was currently being bussed. 

Neil joined her, sitting across from her and leaving room for Andrew to sit down beside him when he arrived with the food. But it took a while, and the silence was a bit awkward for the moment it lasted before Renee broke it. 

“Andrew said you’re a backliner, right?” Renee asked, clearly trying to be polite, but Neil was a bit confused by the need to ask that question at all.

“Yeah...” Neil nodded. “We played against each other several times in college, remember?” Because he remembered her - remembered being confused as to why some innocent pretty girl was on a charity team like the Foxes. Riko had dirt on her of some sort, but it wasn’t like he shared everything with Neil. 

“That’s right.” Renee nodded, as if suddenly remembering. “Sorry, ah... everyone looks the same with helmets on though. And it’s been a few years.” She shrugged it off. “Anyways!”

“Anyways, we need to finish our conversation.” Andrew sat down just then, passing out large slices of cheese pizza between the three of them. “Where would you make your stronghold during the zombie apocolypse?”

Neil lost track of most of the conversation from there, eating his pizza in small bites as Renee and Andrew went on about strongholds and weapons and people they’d go back for. 

Andrew claimed he could count the people he’d go back for on one hand, which seemed odd to Neil since he seemed so close to so many people. More than five so far, that much was obvious. Then they joked about how he obviously wouldn’t go back for Renee, he didn’t need her picking up every stray human they passed with her bleeding heart. 

It made Neil wonder who he’d go back for during a zombie apocolypse. It seemed obvious at first - Jean and Kevin. Those were the only two people he’d risk his life for. But he thought now... maybe he’d go back for Andrew too. 

It was a dangerous thought that had him setting down the crust he’d been chewing on, going a bit stiff in his seat. He wouldn’t go back for Andrew to protect him, he’d go back for him so he’d have someone to watch his back while he was protecting the others. And he couldn’t afford those thoughts; they’d cost him more than anything if Andrew failed. 

After a while, they bid Renee a good night. She was apparently Andrew’s date to the Banquet the next day, which shocked Neil until she explained that they usually went to these things together just so no one bothered them about bringing actual dates. Honestly that made more sense to Neil than this whole encounter had.

Andrew wasted no time getting them back to the hotel. They took a taxi again, like they had to get to the pizza place, and Andrew waved Neil inside while he took a moment to light up a cigarette in front of the hotel’s sliding glass doors. It wasn’t one of the designated smoking areas, but Neil didn’t give a shit and neither did Andrew. 

He took the stairs up to the sixth floor, just to stretch his legs after being cooped up for so long. The flight, then the bus, the taxis, and the pizza place where he’d been shoved into a narrow booth with Andrew. It was too much of being kept in the same place for too long. He took his time walking, step after step on the carpeted stairs, surrounded by white walls and passing labeled doors on the way up to the floor his team was occupying. The hotel was nice, upper class, something that the Kings could definitely afford with their successful history, but the white walls and fluorescent of the stairway left something to be desired. 

It felt like it was much too soon when he got to the door labeled with a big black six, but he pushed his way through it and into the hallway, which was more lavishly decorated. He didn’t stop to admire it on the way to his room though, pausing when he passed the room that Kevin was sharing with Matt. He took a few steps back to get a better look at what caught his eye. 

Hanging on the door knob was a garment bag, but it was so familiar that it made Neil’s stomach clench. It was one of the custom garment bags that usually held Raven suits. There was a tag hanging off of it, looking out of place, and written on it was a simple two in Roman numerals. 

Without much thought, Neil snatches the garment bag off of the door knob and continued down the hall, his pace faster. Sure enough, there was another bag hanging on his and Andrew’s door, marked with a Roman numeral four.  

He dropped Kevin’s garment bag on the floor by the door before continuing down the hall at a fast pace. The whole team was on the same floor, so it wasn’t hard to find the door that held the third garment bag. He double checked to see if it was marked with the Roman numeral 3 before yanking it off the door knob and storming back to his and Andrew’s hotel room. 

He struggled with the key after hauling up all three garment bags, he kicked the door shut behind him though and threw them all on his bed. He didn’t know what to do with them now, but his head was buzzing with anger and anxiety. 

Anger because it was so easy for Riko to find them, and he’d dared to go after Kevin and Jean too. Anxiety because it was so easy for Riko to find them, and he’d felt confident enough in what he had planned that adding Kevin and Jean into the mix was an easy task. 

They were clearly intended to wear these to the banquet the tomorrow but Neil wasn’t even sure he was going to tell Kevin and Jean that they even existed. He didn’t want them to melt down, not when they still needed to survive two more days before they got on the flight back to Cincinnati on Sunday.  

He fisted his hands in his hair, pulling at it firmly as if the pull and pressure would distract him from the wave of nausea that was pushing through him. It helped, but only slightly. He had to get rid of these. It wasn’t unlikely that Jean or Kevin would stop by and Neil wouldn’t be able to explain the garment bags. 

He heard Andrew slide the keycard into the door and push it open. He wanted to hide the bags, but he only had a split second and that wasn’t enough time. Instead, he just let Andrew see when he walked inside. 

Andrew paused, looking at the bags that were piled up haphazardly. He didn’t recognize them for what they were, but he lifted a tag and snorted when he read whatever number was on it. 

“Where did these come from?” He didn’t look like he actually cared as he plopped down on his bed, folding his arms back behind his head. 

“Someone left them hanging on our doors.” Neil paused and immediately felt sick as another realization hit him. “They even knew Kevin and I switched rooms. I... we need to get rid of them. I don’t want them to even know they were there.” Neil fidgeted with the sleeves of his hoodie and then pulled his arms right around his chest. 

Andrew sat up again, looking interested, a glint in his eye that reminded Neil that his college nickname had been Monster. “Alright, what do you want to do with them?”

Neil looked at the bags for a solid minute. He had no idea what to do with them, but as he thought, he remembered what Andrew had said to him when he was packing and twisting his shirt up in his hands. 

”I don’t know what that shirt did to personally offend you, but we could just burn it.” 

“I need a dumpster and some gasoline.” Neil unzipped one of the bags, not sparing the velvet suit jacket a second look as he started attempting to shove the other two garment bags into the first. They fit with some solid shoving and fanegling with the zipper. Andrew hopped off the other bed and put his phone to his ear, ordering them another cab. Neil wasn’t sure where they were going exactly but he followed Andrew down to the hotel lobby with the garment bag slung over his shoulder. It was heavy, but they felt lighter than they had when Neil first found them. 

Soon they’d be nothing but ash. 

The cab dropped them off at a gas station across town. It was kind of a shitty area and a shitty gas station. But they didn’t question when Andrew bought three jugs of lighter fluid and a bottle of Jameson. 

They walked from there, papersack loose in Andrew’s hands, the bag slung over Neil’s shoulder. They probably looked like two teenagers that were up to no good, thanks to the fact that they were both vertically challenged. No one paid them any mind here though - the streets were all but abandoned this time of night.

Neil didn’t know where they were going, but Andrew was walking with confidence so he let it go. He felt relaxed for the first time in hours, walking through the dark streets with flickering signs and passing alleys that smelled distinctly of piss and mold. Neil counted his blessings that Andrew didn’t lead them down one of those. He didn’t know if he’d be able to stand the smell long enough to watch the suits burn. 

They got on a bus, where to Neil still wasn’t sure, but he sat next to Andrew, who still had that far off twinkle in his eye. Like he was indulging in a darker part of himself that he hadn’t gotten to let out in a long while. It thrilled Neil, deep down, to see this new mix of emotions moving through Andrew in swirling waves. He had a feeling he was getting a glimpse at something few were ever allowed to see. And he felt like he’d crave it like an addict if he never got a chance to see it again. 

They got off the bus near the edge of the city, and Andrew kept walking. Neil stayed beside him but this time Andrew cracked open the bottle of Jameson. They passed it back and forth between each other a few times, Neil almost gagging the first time the firey drink hit the back of his throat. It warmed him from within, making his stomach feel like a radiator. 

They reached a diner on the side of the road. It was closed for the night, the only light shining from it was red neon. But sure enough, there was a dumpster when Andrew led him around back. It was tall and probably used to be green, though it was mostly rust now. Andrew plopped on the paved ground about thirty feet away from it and passed Neil the paper sack, keeping the bottle for himself. 

“After you light it, we probably have twenty minutes before someone calls the cops. Then we’ll high tail it to the Motel Six down the road and take a cab back to the bus station.” Andrew spoke like he’d done this a thousand times before, and honestly Neil wouldn’t doubt it. 

He opened the garment bag and withdrew the other two, just sorting through them so he could see the suits in all their glory one last time.

Black vevet with crimson pocket squares. The cuflinks were ravens wings engraved in gold. Neil knew which suit jacket was his even though he’d mixed them up a bit. The dark lining of his jacket was stained with blood that couldn’t be seen from the outside. It’s where Riko had dug his hand into the wounds on his back and shoulders countless times, breaking open the skin and letting blood soak into the fabric.  

He dumped them in piece by piece, followed by the bags. The scent of lighterfuild made his head a bit light, or maybe that was just the alcohol he’d consumed on the way here, as he dumped the jugs out into the dumpster, dropping the plastic in after the liquid to get rid of any evidence. He didn’t think criminal investigations were usually done on dumpster fires, but he wasn’t taking that risk. 

At the very bottom of the bag was a book of matches. He tore six from the book and struck them, watching the large flame dance on the heads for a moment before tossing them into the dumpster. 

It lit with an audible woosh, and Neil barely pulled his hand back in time to not be burned. The heat from it dried the sweat on his cheeks and he moved back to plop down beside Andrew. 

Andrew offered him the bottle and he took another deep drink off of it. He’d be stumbling to the motel, but it was worth it. They sat next to each other, close enough to feel the heat between their bodies in the cool air but not touching.  

They probably sat there longer than Andrew had planned, watching the flames roar from the dumpster. 

When they finally stood, Andrew took another swig off the bottle before offering or to Neil. Neil places his lips in the same spot that was still damp from Andrew’s and took a small sip before handing it back. 

Andrew looked to Neil and then to the bottle. Neil didn’t know what he was thinking - his head was warm from both the fire and the drink. But Andrew looked away eventually and he threw the bottle hard into the fire. There was a big burst of flames as the alcohol hit them, and the sound of exploding glass. But then Andrew was leading them off, and Neil was content to follow him anywhere. 

Chapter Text

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. 

David Wymack. 

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. 

Chapter Text

When Neil met Jackson Reacher for the first time, he’d been a rookie backliner recruit for the Ravens. It was before Neil was old enough to play in the college league, when he was still living at the Nest and attending high school. He’d been fifteen, Reacher eighteen, but the fact that he’d been underage was never a moral issue for the man. 

He’d harassed Neil relentlessly, sexually. Trapping him in the bowels of the Nest and describing in great detail all of the ways he wanted to break him down and destroy him. For a long while, Neil actually feared Jackson more than he did Riko. At least he knew what Riko wanted and what he was capable of. 

Jackson had stolen many of Neil’s “firsts”. He could still remember the alcohol soaked tongue shoving down the back of his throat and almost making him retch. 

Riko thought it was amusing. He never stepped in to put a stop to it, even letting Jackson man handle Neil in front of him. The way his eyes danced in sick glee when Neil flinched around Jackson was almost as revolting as the things Jackson did to make him flinch. He didn’t allow Jean or Kevin to do anything about it either - they’d been forced to watch helplessly from the sidelines under threats that Neil didn’t know the details of.

Neil couldn’t find it in his heart to blame them for not helping. They were terrified kids, just like he was.

Jackson took his virginity when the clock struck midnight on his 18th birthday. The next morning, Riko took Neil to get his tattoo. Jackson hadn’t been allowed to touch him without permission after that - Neil was promised to the Perfect Court and had Riko’s mark clear on his cheek. 

Neil knew it was more about Riko’s superiority complex than it was about protecting Neil. He let Jackson into Neil’s bed seventeen more times before Jackson graduated and went on to play for the Spears. 

Selling his body to get away from Riko had been easy after that - if Riko was going to give it away for free anyways, he figured he might as well make a profit off of it. 

 

 

 

 

Wishful thinking convinced Neil he’d never be forced to look Jackson in the eyes again. He hadn’t even crossed Neil’s mind the whole time he was worrying about the Banquet. But now he was stumbling along beside the man, struggling to walk with the drugs kicking in. No one was paying attention to them as they left the ballroom, too consumed by the commotion surrounding Kevin and his attacker. He hoped Andrew made it to him in time.

The floor seemed to be moving beneath his feet, twisting and warping when he tried to focus on it. His body was starting to feel hot, cheeks flushed. He wondered where they were going, but didn’t have to wait long to figure out. 

Jackson led him through the hotel lobby, shoving him uncerimoniously into an elevator. Once the doors slid closed behind them, a strong hand fisted into Neil’s hair before he could even form coherent thoughts enough to fight back. There was a tongue down his throat, suffocating him, and a hot body on top of his. 

He lost time after that, the world blurring around him like an abstract painting. He remembered leaving the elevator, but not how they ended up in a hotel room. Had he just stood there while Jackson fished a key from his suit pocket? Had someone let them in? 

Neil hadn’t even had a mind to focus on what floor they’d gotten off on. Not that it mattered - he couldn’t tell anyone where he was anyways. Not when Kevin and Jean could be in danger if he wasn’t compliant. 

Kevin and Jean - it was sick that he could still think of protecting them so clearly when he couldn’t even remember where he was. It was ingrained in him, a thought that always consumed his mind no matter what state he was in. If Kevin and Jean got out safe, he could patch himself up and move on.

Kevin... he hoped Kevin was safe. He hoped Andrew had gotten to him in time. Hoped Riko wouldn’t take him out of Exy permanently even if Neil submitted to this. He’d broken Kevin’s hand in a fit of anger once, who knew what he was capable of after stewing on his rage for this long. 

The back of his knees hit the mattress and he fell onto it, Jackson’s massive body over his, pinning him down and kissing him. Neil didn’t know how long it lasted, but by the time it ended, he was just lucid enough to understand what Jackson was saying. 

“Originally, I was just supposed to take you so Riko could finish reminding you of your place. Lucky for me, you pissed him off.” The words were purred, like some bastardization of seduction. Neil felt the urge to vomit - but he knew from experience that it wouldn’t stop Jackson. “He said he’ll accept you begging on your knees for his forgiveness when it’s all over. Maybe he’ll let me watch.” 

The rest was a blur with moments of lucidity. The pain was always clear, and he must have screamed because a strong hand crushed his mouth to muffle him. He bit at it, but he didn’t know if the tang of blood in his mouth was his own or Jackson’s. He’d been smacked so hard for the bite that sparkles danced in his vision for a good while.  

The pain went on for a long while - long enough that Neil couldn’t track the time anymore. Sometimes he couldn’t breathe, but he wouldn’t notice until he tried to suck in a breath and a pressure around his throat wouldn’t let him. 

Loud noises startled Neil back to the surface of his mind, or as near as he could get with his blood flowing like molasses through his veins. 

He opened his eyes just in time to see Jean hoist up a wooden chair and smash it into Jackson’s side with all his might. The cracks that followed were sickening, and Neil felt a spray of blood over his bare check as Jackson’s body was suddenly not pressing his own into the mattress. 

Neil blinked, and Jean was next to him, blood splattered over his cheeks. His hands were shaking as he reached up to cup them. Who did the blood belong to? He wouldn’t forgive himself if Jean had gotten hurt. Jean didn’t deserve to be hurt.  

Neil sat up slowly, still cupping Jean’s cheeks, holding onto them like his life depended on it. Jean’s eyes were a shattered mess of emotions. He ignored the pain because he didn’t matter - Jean was here and he had to make sure he was okay. 

Neil never mattered if it was between him and Jeremy or Kevin. 

“Is this yours?” Neil watched his hand shake as he pulled one back to show Jean the blood that now stained his fingers. He hardly recognized his own voice as it cracked and slurred. It ached to speak - Neil wondered if he’d been screaming at some point. 

“No, Neil, no.” The words were a soft promise but Neil felt for a moment like maybe Jean wasn’t just answering his question. His brain was still a fog though. He couldn’t focus enough to question it or figure out if there was some hidden meaning behind it. He let those words slip through his fingertips. 

“Safe.” Neil sighed, too exhausted to finish the sentence. His body hurt, a dull ache on his hips and cheek and throat, more intense pain where Reacher had violated him.

“Yes, you’re safe.” Jean replied, and Neil ignored the fact that Jean had clearly misunderstood what he was saying. 

He’d always been safe that night - Riko couldn’t kill him. Just hurt him. The others didn’t have the protection of Lord Ichirou’s collar around their necks.

There were more sounds in the room, and Neil dragged his gaze away from Jean, pulling his head in close to his chest to protect his brother from the new invader. But all he saw was Andrew. 

Andrew was a mess - suit jacket lost and hair askew. He had a black eye forming and a stain on his white dress shirt that was probably from his busted lip. Not an invader - his hands relaxed on Jean’s head enough for him to pull away slightly. 

But there was a problem. Andrew was supposed to be with Kevin. He left Andrew to save Kevin. But Kevin wasn’t here. He wasn’t safe. 

Kevin didn’t wear the same collar he did.

“Kevin!” Neil’s voice broke on the name and he tried to get out of the bed, but there was just pain. His vision went white for a moment - maybe it was more than a moment, he couldn’t tell - and when he could see clearly again, Jean had a gentle hand on his chest so he wouldn’t try to get up again.  

“He’s with Wymack.” Jean explained and Neil relaxed visibly. Wymack was okay. He was safe; he’d keep Kevin safe. That’s why Neil brought Kevin to Wymack after Riko broke his hand. Even if Wymack didn’t know Kevin was his son, he was known for being fiercely protective of all of his Foxes.  

Andrew was on the phone, but he was across the room, talking quietly but furiously into his phone. He was next to Jackson - and Neil wanted to tell him to get away from him, that it wasn’t safe to stand so close, but Andrew just seemed a million miles away, and Neil didn’t know if his voice could reach him. 

Neil didn’t know how much time passed as he sat there, Jean’s hand on his chest, his fingers clinched tightly around Jean’s cheeks. Eventually, the room flooded with people. There were police officers and paramedics, but Neil couldn’t find it in him to fight when he was lifted from the bed and placed on a stretcher. When he let go of Jean’s face, crescent moon shapes were left behind from his nails, indents from where he’d clung to him with a desperation to protect him. 

He didn’t fight at all until he saw the handcuffs being placed around Jean’s wrists. 

The struggle was a blur with the drugs still in his veins. He yelled for the officers to stop as they walked Jean out, hands behind his back. His hands fumbled with the buckles keeping him strapped down. The paramedics around him debated sedating him, but someone somewhere mentioned he’d been drugged and they threw that idea out the window. 

“Neil.” Andrew’s voice sent a shock through him as if the word itself had been made of electricity. He wondered when Andrew had gotten so close to him, so close that those hazel eyes were the only thing he could see for a moment. God, they were so pretty. “Can I touch you? Yes or no?” 

Neil searched in Andrew’s eyes for answers to questions he didn’t even have. Neil didn’t know how Andrew could even consider touching him now that he knew how disgusting his body was. He didn’t deserve to have Neil’s filth on his hands - but in that moment Andrew was one of the few he’d even consider giving permission to, but god damn if he knew why. “Yes.”

Andrew brought his hands up and cupped Neil’s cheeks gently, holding his gaze. There was movement on the other side of the room, but Andrew didn’t let him look. Neil could hardly breathe, but Andrew just kept staring, unblinking. 

“Jean is going to be fine. The arrest is a formality. It’s pretty clear that he acted to defend you.” Andrew’s words were rational, but Neil didn’t believe them. He wasn’t going to be fine. They never got to be fine - it was an unfair truth.  

“I’ll go with him. I can’t leave him.” Neil didn’t trust what Riko could do with all of them scattered. It terrified him to the bone, a twisting disgusting feeling that made him want to vomit more than the sticky slick substance between his thighs. 

“You’re going to the hospital, Neil.” Andrew’s voice was calm and firm and when Neil went to argue again, Andrew cut him off before he could get a word out. “Let me worry about them, okay? I can take care of them.”

Neil didn’t know how to let the emotions wrecking him on the inside out. So he said the only thing that he knew for sure would hurt Andrew. He didn’t want to hurt him, and god it tore him up inside to say it, but he had to let him know. He had to make him understand how important this was. 

He wouldn’t, couldn’t survive if Kevin and Jean didn’t. Everything he’d lived for would be for absolutely nothing.  

“You couldn’t protect me.” He hated how wrecked his voice sounded - hated the way Andrew visibly flinched in front of him, hands tightening on Neil’s cheek in a way he probably meant to repress. 

Andrew just nodded and took a step back, releasing his face. “You’re right. I couldn’t.” Neil hated the vacant sound in his voice. He hated the way Andrew’s eyes went a little dull, like he was retreating into himself.  

Most of all he hated how much hurting Andrew hurt him. 

“But would you have been able to look me in the eye if I hadn’t helped Kevin?” 

Neil didn’t know what hurt worse - his body or his heart. In the end, and annoyed paramedic started pushing the stretcher from the room. Neil’s voice broke as he yelled back to Andrew in panic. “Keep them safe! Please!” He was deseperate, hands wrestling at the buckles again, only to have his hands gently removed from them by a paramedic. “Andrew!”

“I got them.” He had to trust those words, because he had no other choice. 

 

 

 

 

The next several hours passed in a blur of blood tests and beeping machines. He’d been cleaned up, samples taken and tucked into evidence bags with sterile gloves. A cop came to talk to him, Neil told him to fuck off. Or at least, that’s what he’d meant to say, but his voice was so wrecked that it just came out a garbled wreck of syllables. The cop had left, however temporarily that was.

He hadn’t heard from anyone - his phone was probably still in his blazer pocket. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten to have someone grab it. The isolation made him feel more sick than the hands on his body.  

They’d medicated him as soon as they found out what he’d been given. He couldn’t feel the pain he knew his body was in, and slowly his emotions felt numb as well. They’d probably given him something to calm him down - he’d almost assaulted two of the nurses after all. 

He knew he was worried about Kevin and Jean and even Andrew, but the usual bursts of panic were beneath the surface now, where he couldn’t latch onto them. It made it worse that he couldn’t just feel. Neil was drowning, and he knew it, but his lungs couldn’t even manage to burn as they took in water. 

Every time a nurse came in to check on him, Neil’s head still whipped to the door, panic sparking his brain for just a moment before it was stifled by the forced calm. They always asked him the same things. Was he in pain, did he need anything, was he ready to speak with the police? 

Neil never answered them. He just started at them, maybe with vacant eyes or maybe with eyes so haunted that they couldn’t bare to look at him with anything but pity. He hated that, but the hate was trapped beneath the ocean of calm. When it was clear he wouldn’t answer, they always reminded him of the nurse button and resolved that they’d return to check on him later. As they left, he always saw a glimpse of a navy uniform outside the doors. 

Officers keeping watch over him, waiting to get his statement. But they were in New York - the Kingdom Lord Ichirou ruled over with an iron fist - and Neil wasn’t sure if he should be comforted or terrified by their constant presence. 

It was two in the morning, and Neil had been dozing as much as he could with the constant feeling of being watched, when the door opened again. It wasn’t the now familiar sound of nonskid nurses shoes that greeted him, but the distinct clicking of dress shoes on tile as he lifted his head to see who’d entered.  

Riko Moriyama approached him, still dressed in his suit, eyes full of murder. He had a phone in his hand that was lit up with numbers counting upward. A phone call. 

Neil was too terrified that he was already looking at the devil to worry much about the phone. His heart rate skyrocketed and the machine beside him began beeping excitedly, lighting up like a Christmas tree.  

Riko said nothing as he approached, standing over Neil’s bed in silence like a grim reaper. He had a bruise forming over his left cheek, the perfect size of a hand. A particular spot was darkening near the middle, perhaps were a ring had been present. He pressed the phone to Neil’s ear, the movement causing Neil to jerk away.  

Riko sneered at that and just moved the phone closer again. “Talk.” The word was a simple command, and if Neil was in a better position to ignore it, he would.

“Hello?” His voice was wrecked, even more so than before. The doctor had mentioned severe bruising to his trachea, now that he thought about it. 

“Neil.” The voice was one he’d recognize anywhere - elegant but overwhelmingly powerful. The voice of a man that held the world in his fingertips and could crush it on a whim. He only hoped Riko couldn’t see the terror as it crossed over his face. 

“My Lord.” Neil replied quickly, trying to keep the words even but his voice just refused to work properly through the icy fear. 

“You will not speak of Riko’s involvement. You will give your statement to my officers and when the doctors deem you able, you will leave the hospital and promptly return to Cincinnati with your team.” The words were commands but as Irchirou Moriyama spoke them into his ear, they became truths. “Moreau will be released in the morning. Questions?”  

The word was posed as a question, but Neil knew better than to have any even if he did. This was a man that could make Riko look like an unruly kitten. 

“No, My Lord. I understand.” Neil replied quickly, not sure his voice would last if he tried to take his time.  

“Perfect.” But Ichirou didn’t sound pleased - if anything he sounded bored with having to clean up one of his brother’s messes. Neil wondered if any patience he had for Riko would run out soon. “Riko has been reminded of the consequences of touching my things. Should he have another slip of wits, you will report it to me.” 

“Yes, My Lord.” After Neil spoke, the phone cut out as Ichirou ended their conversation. But that left Riko standing in his hospital room, pulling the phone away from his cheek. 

“My brother may own you, Four, but I made you. I put that number on your cheek and gave you a future. Remember that.” Riko hissed, shoving the phone into his pocket. “And you would do well to remember that his name isn’t on /their/ collars.”  

Riko turned to leave the room, but Neil sat up desperately. The pain that shot through him startled a whimper out of him. 

“Don’t touch them!” Neil demanded, but he didn’t sound particularly threatening, and he didn’t figure he looked it either. 

Riko stopped in his tracks and turned on a heel, stalking back over to him in a rage that Neil found comfortingly familiar. 

“Just because you belong to him doesn’t mean you should presume you can tell me what to do.” His voice was like venom, and Neil could feel it in his stomach, fangs shredding it with nerves. “You are nothing, you were born to nothing, and you were destined to always be nothing. I made the mistake of handing you the world and you took it and ran. I won’t let them get away from me like you did. I’d rather die.”

Neil knew he should bite his tongue, that he was signing death certificates with his words, but he couldn’t hold himself in. “Don’t let your mouth make promises that your ass can’t cash, Riko. Touch them, and I’ll put you in the ground.” 

“You will fall to your knees and beg for my forgiveness, Four-“ Riko’s tirade was cut off by the opening of a door. One of the officers was leaning in, looking unamused. 

“Mr. Moriyama, visiting hours are over.” The officer’s voice was firm and Neil got the distinct feeling that this man was owned by Lord Ichirou because Riko turned and stalked out without another word, bypassing the officer in a huff. “Are you alright in there, Mr. Josten?” Neil looked at the officer and nodded. 

“Yes, sir. I’m ready to give my statement.”

 

 

 

 

Kevin came to pick him up from the hospital at nine the next morning with a bag of clothes slung over his shoulder and a busted up face. Neil didn’t have the energy to fuss over him, coming down off of the meds the hospital had been flooding him with. 

Dressing was a painful task, and it was when Neil realized he had a couple of stitches. A doctor came in to talk to him after that, reminding him that he wouldn’t be able to play for two weeks at minimum and he should try to stick with a liquid diet for the first week. Neil was thankful Kevin was there, taking notes, because Neil wasn’t going to remember this later. They handed Neil a bag of pills, explaining what they were and he passed them to Kevin to hold on to. 

His brain was still in a fog, going through the motions so he could leave the suffocation of the hospital and finally breathe again. Neil refused the wheelchair when they offered to roll him down to his ride. He’d walk out of here with his head held high or not at all. 

Each step left him trembling with pain, but he didn’t have it in him to back down. He just focused on not making a sound as he walked beside Kevin. He could feel the concern boring into him, but he didn’t want to accept it. He just wanted to go home. 

Wymack was waiting for them in the lobby, a newspaper clenched in his hands that he clearly wasn’t even reading. On his knee were a set of keys for a rental car. Their ride back to the hotel. 

Neil tried not to worry until they got to the car. He started to slide into the front seat, but Kevin reached out and softly touched his shoulder. Neil was revolted by the way he flinched at the touch, fist balling up against the car door. 

“The doctor said you should avoid sitting.” It wasn’t a suggestion to get in the back and lay down, but more of a gentle reminder in case he’d happened to have forgotten. 

“The back would probably be more comfortable, kid.” Wymack was behind Kevin somewhere, watching him. Neil hated that they were treating him like he was made of glass. They were waiting for him to shatter, but he wouldn’t, not in front of them. 

“You’re right.” But Neil still lowered himself into the front seat. The pain as he sat almost made him puke, feeling like a thousand bees swarming beneath his skin, but he kept staring forward as he shut the door with a soft click. 

 

 

 

Jean, Jeremy, and Andrew were waiting for them in the hotel lobby. Jeremy looked busted up just like Andrew and Kevin, but his knuckles were a bruised mess. Neil wondered if he’d hopped into the brawl in the ballroom to defend Kevin’s honor too. Jean was unscathed but white as a sheet - he’d never been one for violence, and he’d murdered a man the night before. 

Neil wondered if group therapy was cheaper than talking to someone individually. 

Jeremy was the first to see him, and he said something that Neil didn’t understand but he was pretty sure was in Spanish as he jumped up out of his seat. “Are you okay?” It was concern that Neil hadn’t expected, and it threw him off more than it offended him. 

“I’m fine.” It was a lie, and it sounded like one as the words came out a garbled mess. “What happened to you?”

Jeremy just shrugged and nodded towards Andrew. “Same thing that happened to him.” And that confirmed Neil’s suspicions that more than just Andrew had jumped in to help Kevin. Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised by that - but where he came from he was really the only one to ever defend someone else. The Nest had been cruel like that - paired up but still deeply every man for himself. 

Kevin had been silent since they walked in though, and Neil finally noticed him glaring at Andrew. Andrew didn’t look particularly bothered by it, but Neil was. 

“What?” He asked, gesturing between the two.  

“This is his fault.” And the words made Neil tense, eyebrows knitting together in confusion. 

“I’m sorry, but that’s Andrew Minyard sitting right there, not Riko fucking Moriyama, so enlighten me. How’s it his fault?” Neil hissed the words, wanting to yell and demand answers but not everyone in the lobby needed to know details of what happened the night before. 

“He was supposed to protect you.” Kevin’s eyes flicked to Neil, and then back to Andrew. “We has a deal. You were supposed to protect him last night.”

Andrew made to say something, but Neil wasn’t having any of this. “Shut the fuck up, Kevin.” He hated the wrecked sound of his voice and the exhaustion that leaked into it. “Last night it was me or you and I made my decision.” 

“What?” It was more of a demand than a question as eyes whipped to him, Kevin’s looking particularly lethal. “What do you mean you made your decision? Me or you?” 

Neil hated that they were looking at him - he probably looked like he’d been hit by a truck. He was disgusting and their eyes were on him and he felt the urge to climb right out of his skin. “Last night Jackson approached me after Andrew ran off to break up your fight.” His hands trembled as he said the name, but he shoved them deep in the pockets of his jeans so no one would be able to see. “He said I could go with them, or Riko would take you off the court. For good this time.”

Jean was staring at him like he’d seen a ghost, but Neil couldn’t unpack that right now. Jean was never supposed to have been in that position... Neil didn’t know how he’d ever make it up to him. Jean had blood on his hands now and Neil had put it there. 

“So yeah, I made my decision. What was one more night of pain? You both know it’s not the first time Jackson put his hands on me.” Neil shrugged like it didn’t matter because it couldn’t fucking matter. If it started to matter then his whole facade would come crashing down on top of him and swallow him whole. “I can tolerate the pain, I can’t tolerate a world without Kevin Day.” 

He walked past Kevin, pain shooting up his spine at the movement as he walked to Andrew. “Can I have the key? I’d like to shower now.” Neil hardly waited for the sliver of plastic to be placed in his hands before he was making his way to the elevator.  

Chapter Text

Neil scrubbed at his skin until it started breaking apart in places. He still couldn’t get  rid of the feeling of hands on his body. It was like a constant pressure where his skin was bruised, reminding him of years of being held down and used and thrown aside like garbage. There were a few times where he was sure he was going to vomit just standing there in the hotel shower. He was dirty and it wasn’t the kind of filth he could get rid of with soap. But he tried, using a whole bar of soap and part of another one. He stayed under the harsh spray of water until it had long run cold and he was shivering. 

When he got out, he tried avoiding his reflection in the mirror, but with the wall length mirror the bathroom boasted, it was impossible. 

He looked like shit, red hair plastered to his head after showering, deep purple bruise over one cheek. Breaks in his lips were obvious where they’d been split by slaps or maybe kisses. His throat was layered in bruises, some darker than others where Jackson had moved his hand several times. There were trails of hickeys down his chest, joined by marks from blunt teeth. He couldn't bring himself to look lower as he felt the sudden urge to vomit. 

Neil tore his gaze away from the mirror before he lost himself in it and stared for the rest of forever. He yanked on the clothes he’d left on the counter - his hoodie that smelled like booze and lighter fluid and the sweatpants he’d brought for the flight back home. He couldn’t bring himself to wear jeans with the pain he was in. 

Pain... it had become a constant dull throb in the back of his mind. A reminder that he couldn’t shake by covering it in thick clothes and refusing to look at it. Every step brought lightning to his vision, and standing made his whole body ache. Laying down wasn’t much better though. 

He couldn’t wait to go home.  

When he left the bathroom, he found Andrew. He was sitting on one of the hotel beds, a key clutched in his hand that was attached to one of those rental car fobs. He was just hanging up the phone, settling it into his lap. 

The silence between them was thick, and Neil prepared for the worst. Would Andrew yell? Hurt him for the way Neil had hurt him back in that hotel room? But Andrew just kept staring at him like he was a math problem he couldn’t solve inside his head.  

When he finally opened his mouth, Neil wasn’t expecting the words that came out. “Do you trust me?” 

He hated that question as soon as he heard it, because he knew the truthful answer and he wanted to lie. It was less dangerous to lie. But Neil... he wanted to let himself have this one truth. He wanted to have this. “Yeah.” 

Andrew took the word with a nod and stood up from his bed. “Alright. Pack your bag, I’m taking you home.” 

Neil wanted to, but there were other things on his mind. “What about Jean and Kevin?”

Andrew gave him what could have been a look of pity or disapproval but stung at Neil just the same. “Let Jeremy worry about them. They survived without you glued to them for a few years now, they’ll be fine for a couple of days.” 

Neil felt the urge to argue like bile rising in his throat, burning and making him choke, but in the end he had to admit that Andrew was right. A few days wasn’t going to kill them. Hopefully. And Neil wasn’t in any shape to protect them right now anyways. 

He thought about himself for once and agreed.  

They packed in silence. Well... Andrew packed after Neil winced one too many times, throwing all of his shit in his suitcase without even bothering to fold it. Neil might have complained, but he wouldn’t have folded it either. He just wanted to be out of there. 

During the packing, Andrew gave him his phone and Neil wondered how he’d ended up with it over anyone else, but accepted it without question. He had dozens of missed messages, mostly from Kevin and Jean, but also from Jeremy and Matt. They were all from the night before, ranging from half and hour to almost two hours after he’d been taken. 

Funny, he never thought they’d come looking for him. Really, he hadn’t wanted them to; it would have been safer for everyone to just stay away. Neil didn’t know what was going to happen now. 

Riko was angry, but he couldn’t go against a direct order from Ichirou. Neil would be safe, but not the people he cared about.  

Honestly, he wished he could just keep himself in the line of fire forever if it meant no one else ever had to get touched again. But getting what he wanted wasn’t something that Neil was used to. 

  

 

They checked out of the hotel, Andrew leading the way to a little black sports car. Neil didn’t know enough about cars to determine if this was expensive or not, but he knew Andrew had a taste for fast and pricey, so it was likely. 

Neil popped two pain killers with a large gulp of bottled water while Andrew loaded up the car. They hadn’t hit yet when he climbed inside, and the pain whited out his vision and left him clutching at the dashboard. Andrew was patient with him - more patient than Neil felt he deserved. 

They didn’t talk as Andrew drove, passing countless buildings and other cars in traffic. As the meds started to set in, Neil got tried, and, despite his best efforts, fell asleep in the passenger seat not half an hour into their journey home.

 

 

When Neil woke up again, it was to Andrew turning off the car. The absence of the hum from the motor was enough to jar him awake, and he was greeted by a sight of a gas station. Andrew was digging his wallet out of his back pocket, unaware of his waking. 

“Where are we?” The words were slurred from sleep, and Andrew finally glanced up at him.  

“Just about to cross into Maryland.” Even with his mind foggy from sleep, Neil knew that Maryland was not between New York and Ohio. 

He sat up straighter, wincing, to look at Andrew better. “Maryland? Did you take a wrong turn?” If they were in Maryland, that meant they were dangerously close to Neil’s biological father - the Butcher of Baltimore.  

Nathan Wesninski had been Kengo Moriyama’s right hand man before he passed away and Ichirou took his place. Neil wasn’t sure where Nathan now stood in the Moriyama hierarchy, but being even almost in the same state as his father made him feel like he was going to be sick. 

Nathan couldn’t touch him anymore, Neil was property of Lord Ichirou, but that didn’t mean the man didn’t terrify him still. Neil kept himself from hyperventilating through sheer willpower alone, and silently both hated and thanked the fact that he had to perfect that after so many years at Evermore. 

Andrew was still looking at him though, hazel eyes unreadable as they studied Neil’s face. “I didn’t take a wrong turn. We’re going to Columbia.” 

Columbia... that wasn’t home. Confusion yet have painted his face, because Andrew sighed and continued.  

“I’m taking you home, as in to my home. You can’t play for two weeks and Katelyn is about to pop.” Andrew shrugged before unbuckling his seatbelt. “I gotta pump real quick.” And he left Neil alone in the car with his thoughts. 

“Columbia.” Neil ran stressed fingers through his hair. They’d have to essentially take a trip through Neil’s worst hits to get there. Maryland, maybe even West Virginia. Neil tried to remind himself that it was just a drive through. They weren’t staying in any of those places. They were just scenery on the way to their destination.  

Neil tried and failed to keep himself from puking this time. Years of quick reflexes kept him from vomiting inside of the rental car, able to get his door open just in time to scramble out and puke on the concrete. The heaves pulled at his stitches and made his bruises ache, but it didn’t stop until his stomach was empty. Not that there was much in it to begin with. 

Andrew was rounding the car so fast he almost stepped in Neil’s vomit. He went to touch Neil, but his hands stopped just short. “Shit.” He cursed instead. He stepped away for a moment and Neil lost track of him as he struggled to stand straight again, using the car as a crutch. 

When Andrew came back, he had Neil’s water from the car and a paper towel. Neil took the bottle first, swishing water around in his mouth before spitting it on the ground with the mess he’d already made. Then he took an actual drink and used the paper towel to wipe at his face. 

It made him feel better for the moment, but looking back up at Andrew made him feel sick all over again. 

“The fuck was that all about?” The words weren’t harsh, spoken softly and for a moment Neil thought there was concern in Andrew’s voice, but he pushed that thought aside. That couldn’t be right. 

“Sorry.” Neil’s voice was rough and Andrew flinched, something darker creeping into his eyes. 

“I don’t like that word. Don’t say it.” The tone was different than before, this one dangerous and warning and for a moment it almost scared Neil. But Andrew hadn’t ever hurt him. He wasn’t Riko or Tetsuji or Nathan. But the dangerous edge was a reminder that Neil wasn’t the only one with demons they were dealing with. Andrew had been a Fox for a reason. 

“Alright.” Neil conceded, and Andrew waited like he was still expecting an answer for all of this. “I just... don’t travel through Maryland.”  

Andrew nodded and in the end, he just helped Neil back into the car. It took several minutes for Andrew to join him, but when he slid into the car, he was looking at something on his phone. “I can go around Maryland or I can go around West Virginia. We can’t avoid both though.” 

Stuck between his father and Riko... the idea made Neil feel like he was going to be sick again, but he didn’t have anything left in his stomach. Andrew was trying, and Neil had to admit that it wasn’t something he would have expected from Andrew when they’d first met. He wondered what had changed. 

“Can we at least avoid Baltimore?” Neil asked finally, and Andrew gave a jerky nod before starting the car and rolling out of the gas station.  

Neil didn’t take any pain meds as they drove through Maryland, even though his body felt wrecked after all of the painful heaving. He had to stay alert, in case anything happened. Not that anything should happen... but he felt vastly uncomfortable being in the same state as his father. 

The last time Neil had seen Nathan, his father had brutally murdered his mother in front of him after she attempted to run with Neil to escape the Moriyama’s. He’d planned on never laying an eye on the man again. 

As requested, Andrew avoided Baltimore, and he drove well above the speed limit to get them through the state as fast as possible. They were silent for the first few hours, just the sounds of traffic keeping them company. But Neil had never been good at silence, and eventually he had enough of it. 

“Why did you decide to take me with you?” He asked, looking at Andrew and trying to study his reaction. But his face didn’t betray anything.  

“You need to be away from them for a while.” Andrew shrugged, like it was an unimportant detail, but Neil didn’t think anything Andrew spent time thinking on was unimportant. He wasn’t the type to dwell on things that he thought didn’t matter. 

Neil didn’t have to ask who “them” was. Jean and Jeremy were the only people Andrew would be referring to.

 “Why?” 

“The way you act around them isn’t healthy.” Andrew shrugged, but Neil knew those weren’t his words. They sounded like he was repeating something he’d been told a long time ago. “You have to consider your own wellbeing sometimes. Taking a break from them will be good for you.” More words that didn’t belong to Andrew, but that didn’t stop Neil from feeling offended. 

“I don’t know if that is your decision to make.” Neil’s tongue was sharp, but the words didn’t hit the way he wanted them to, because Andrew just sighed. 

“I didn’t make it.”  

“Who did?” Because Neil had to know. Who put Andrew up to driving him all the way to South Carolina, where he’d be too far away to be of use to anyone? Who wanted him bad so gone that they’d used his trust in Andrew as a tool to get him out of the way?

“Who do you fucking think, Neil?” Andrew pulled the car over so fast that they nearly fishtailed, several cars honking loudly at them as they sped past, and he turned to look at him. “I can tolerate the pain? I can’t tolerate a world without Kevin Day?” Neil flinched when his own words were thrown back at him, Andrew’s lip curled like he was disgusted by having to repeat them. “Jeremy wanted to send you to a shrink! Jean and Kevin looked like they were going to slit their fucking wrists in the hotel lobby! Wymack convinced them to let me take you away for a few days to clear your head instead of sending you off to some hospital somewhere.” 

Neil flinched, but he felt that dangerous anger rising up inside of him. He’d inherited his hot head from his father, and it had gotten him in trouble for years at the Nest. 

“They’ve never cared before, why would they care now?” Neil snapped, and he tried to keep the emotions from rising up inside of him. It had always hurt that they never cared, that they never helped him. But they were all he had. They were all he could cling to and call family. 

“What makes you think that they never cared?” Andrew snapped back, clearly annoyed by Neil, but Neil didn’t care. 

“I’ve always acted like a shield for them. I always tried to draw Riko’s anger away from them, to keep them in one fucking piece no matter what. They never stopped me. They never said shit when he hurt me.” Neil bit hard on his cheek when his voice started to break, and he tasted blood in his mouth. 

“If you thought they didn’t care, why would you bother?” The words cut deep, and for a moment, Neil couldn’t find it in him to reply.  

Moments passed, the silence grew thick. Andrew didn’t pull the car back onto the road though. He just started at Neil, and Neil felt those hazel eyes pulling him apart at the seems, exposing all of the ugliness Neil had been hiding inside of him his entire life. He hated it, but part of him craved it. Part of him wanted to let go of the things that he’d been clutching at even though they’d been burning him for years. 

“Why did you bother?” Andrew asked again, and Neil didn’t know why, but he felt like his response was something Andrew needed more than he needed air to breathe in that moment. The intensity of his gaze hadn’t lessened, in fact, it grew. 

“They’re all I had left.” Neil hated the way he sounded, hated the way tears were pricking at the corners of his eyes. But alone in this car with Andrew, shielded away from the rest of the world, he was safe to say the words that desperately needed to get out. “No matter how Riko broke me or what he took from me, they were there afterwards. They were stuck in the same hell as me. I was never going to get out in one piece, but I could try with every fiber of my being to make sure that they did.

“I wasn’t lying when I said I couldn’t tolerate a world without Kevin Day. A world without either of them would mean everything I’d done in my entire life was for nothing.” 

Andrew pulled back onto the highway, and they sat in silence for what could have been hours but was probably only minutes. Neil rubbed at his face, banishing the tears that had threatened to spill during his tirade. As if the universe was mocking his pain, rain started to pelt down from the cloudy sky.

“You’re worth more than being their shield.” Andrew’s voice was low, and for a moment Neil wondered if he’d even been meant to hear it. 

No one had ever said he was worth anything off the court, not in all of his years. Every time his worth was referred to, it was tied to his future with Exy and Riko. The statement left him breathless for a moment, before the bitter resentment took over the small flicker of hope.  

“It’s easier if I’m worth nothing.” Neil murmured, unsure if he really wanted Andrew to hear that, but it had to be said. “If I’m worth nothing, then everything I’ve lost is also worth nothing.” 

Andrew nodded, slow and just slightly. “You’re worried that if you decide you’re worth something, everything that’s been stolen from you will actually matter.” He spoke like he knew what Neil was feeling from experience. “And you’re worried that you won’t be able to handle it. But the people who think you’re worth something, it hurts them that you think you’re not.” 

“Hypocrite.” Neil accused, though he wasn't sure of the validity of his statement, but the words Andrew was saying were too accurate to come from absolutely no where. It was like he was reading Neil like a book, or if the book was, in fact, one he'd written on his own. Andrew stopped responding. He shoved a cigarette between his lips and lit it, not even flinching as the rain soaked him when he rolled down the window. 

Neil watched him smoke for a few minutes, watched the water soak down into his clothes and turn them an even darker shade of black. It was clear the conversation was over, but Neil wanted Andrew to argue with him. Neil wondered if it was frustration from him not giving an inch in their conversation or the fact that he was right that kept Andrew from replying. 

A few hours later, they passed into Virginia.  Neil popped two more pain killers with a glug of water and went to sleep in the passenger seat. 

  

 

When he woke up again, it was dark, but not from the rain. It was night, but that shouldn’t surprise him. The drive from New York City to Columbia was twelve hours. Catching the time of the dashboard, Neil was sure he’d slept through most of it. 

Andrew was still driving, but there were empty cups from gas stations in the center console. Neil wondered how many stops he’d slept through after the argument. His stomach growled, and Andrew’s eyes flicked to his face. 

“You’re awake.” It was obvious, but Andrew still aparently felt the need to say it. “Hungry?”  

Neil nodded, but then remembered what the doctor had said. “I’m not supposed to eat solids for a few days.” 

Andrew grunted, acknowledging him as he kept driving. They were on city streets, not the highway, so Neil wondered if maybe he’d slept longer than he’d originally thought. Drowsiness was listed as a side effect on the pill bottle, but he hadn’t paid much attention to it. 

“I’ll go to the store once we get to the house.” Andrew spoke finally, finishing his thought as they went through a light. 

“How far out are we?” Neil stretched a little, and instantly regretted it as pain shot down his spine like lightning. If Andrew answered him, me missed it over the roar of blood in his ears. His back was upset at him after staying in the same cramped position for hours on in, and the rest of him was still angry over the night before. He forced those thoughts from his head though. Dwelling on the pain he was feeling wasn't productive. But again, he stopped himself at those thoughts.  

Allowing himself to feel pain wasn't productive.  

Those were words that had been beaten into his skull for years by the Master. Every broken bone he'd been forced to work through, every hit from a malicious Exy stick without padding beneath his uniform, every stroke of a cane that broke his skin had been accompanied by those words. They were instilled in him so deep that he thought of them even when he couldn't move without fire burning beneath his skin so intensely that it might just jump out of his pores and incinerate him. 

He didn't have to be productive right now. He had two weeks to heal and do nothing. The coach wouldn't put him back in until his stitches were gone - unlike Tetsuji, who'd made him play against the Trojans and Jean with four stitches in his left shoulder. Unlike Riko, who'd taken great amusement in watching him attempt to grip his heavy stick with three broken fingers. He could heal here. And the realization brought tears to his eyes before he even realized they were coming. If Andrew saw him crying, he didn't mention it. He didn't take advantage of Neil's weakness and rub it in his face. 

For once in his life, he was just allowed to feel without repercussions. Even though all he was feeling was pain, there was relief that came with it. He didn't have to put on a smile for Kevin and Jean so they wouldn't worry that he was too broken to fix. He didn't have to keep a straight face or suffer the consequences of showing weakness in the face of the Moriyama's. Andrew was giving him a gift that no one in his life had ever been able to give him. A space without expectations or judgement or fear. The lack of fear was almost as suffocating as it was liberating. He didn't know what to do with it, or how to hold on to it. When they went back to Ohio, would it slip though his fingers like smoke in the wind? Or would he be allowed to stay at Andrew's side where the whirlwind of the world couldn't touch him? 

Neil knew, deep down, that trusting Andrew this much - relying on him - wasn't good. Andrew wasn't untouchable, wasn't some ethereal being that was out of the Moriyama's reach. Bringing him into his life now would only bring pain later, but part of him couldn't resist the thrall of what Andrew could offer him. Safety, as trivial as it may be. Understanding, in a way that seemed like no one else could match. The danger of it was addicting and Neil was losing himself in it fast. He just hoped he could catch himself if he fell, before Riko shattered his body against the concrete floor of reality. 

 

 

The house they pulled up to wasn't anything special. The grass out front was slightly overgrown, and the metal fence was rusted from what seemed like years of neglect. The house itself was small, with slightly chipping paint but a front porch that seemed well loved, with a swing hanging from it and a large glass jug that was full of what seemed to be years worth of cigarette butts. Andrew didn't bother with their bags as he got out of the car, and Neil followed at a somewhat slower pace. 

The inside wasn't much better, but honestly? It felt like someone's home, plucked out of time and left to collect dust while they were gone. The grey suede couch was covered in folded blankets, like someone folded them and forgot to put them away before leaving. The coffee table was covered in a fine layer of dust that Andrew wiped away with one of the smaller blankets like it offended him. It wasn't impressive, but it was a home. Warm and inviting even if it had been left to its own devices for a while. 

"It won't take long to clean up. I usually just stay here in the summer, or come down when Nicky visits. It's his house anyway." Andrew left Neil standing in the living room as he retreated into what looked like the kitchen from the door that Andrew left ajar after passing through. There were noises of opening and closing cabinets before he returned with rags and a few spray bottles. 

"Who's Nicky?" Neil asked as he watched Andrew spray down every dusty surface like he had a grudge against it. He wondered how many times the house got this treatment - how many times Andrew visited and looked at every surface with disdain, standing on furniture to reach places that he normally couldn't with his small stature? Neil found himself staring at the way he stretched, watching the strong arms flex as he scrubbed at something. He forced himself to look away as soon as he realized what he was doing though. 

"He's my cousin. He's living with his husband in Germany now." Andrew explained, and he almost sounded a little out of breath. Maybe it was from inhaling all the dust though, because he was definitely too in shape to get winded just from dusting. 

Neil sat on the couch as Andrew worked. He seemed to have a process, like he was practiced in doing this after years of visiting, and Neil didn’t want to disturb him. He scrolled through messages on his phone when he disappeared upstairs with more cleaning products.  

From Kev: Where are you?

From Kev: Neil, answer your phone.

From Kev: ?????

There were missed calls from Kevin between the time stamps of the messages and Neil couldn’t help the sick feeling in his stomach as he realized how long his phone had probably vibrated in the pocket of his discarded blazer. Had Reacher been able to hear it, or had he been too distracted by Neil?  

He continued through the messages. 

From J: are u ok? 

From J: Kevin says you aren’t answering his calls

From J: where did you go?

From J: we’re on our way

The last time stamp was almost two hours later than the first. There weren’t any calls from Jean, but Neil guessed he left the calling to Kevin. 

From Jean’s “Roommate”: We’re out by the ambulance, where did you end up?

From Jean’s “Roommate”: Are you Alright? Kevin is freaking out cause you aren’t answering your phone. 

From Jean’s “Roommate”: It’s okay to ask for help if you need it. 

The last message was from that morning. 

From Jean’s “Roommate”: I wont let anything happen to them while you’re gone.  

That was the first message that Neil actually graced with a reply. 

To Jean’s “Roommate”: Don’t make promises you aren’t capable of keeping. 

He tossed the phone aside, not bothering to read the messages from Matt or Devin. He’d deal with those later. His phone went off, probably Jeremy returning his message but Neil wasn’t interested in reading it. If Jeremy was as smart as people said he was, he’d realized that attempting to keep someone safe when the Moriyama’s wanted them hurt was a futile effort. 

Neil hoped nothing would happen to Kevin and Jeremy while he was gone; hoped that Riko wasn’t in a position to pull strings for a while. But he wasn’t placing his money on anyone. 

Chapter Text

Neil didn’t sleep well that night. At first, he made excuses for it - he was in too much pain, his stomach was upset from not having any solid foods that day, he spent too much time sleeping in the car on the drive to Columbia. He knew what it really was though, and he hated that it even effected him. 

Andrew’s door was closed - locked, even, because Neil had heard the sound of a bolt sliding into place after Andrew retreated to bed for the night. Neil was across the hall in what was Aaron’s old room. It was bare aside from an old computer desk and the mattress/box spring combo that was sitting on the floor. He’d left the door open so that it didn’t feel quite as empty but the minute comfort that had given him vanished as soon as Andrew’s bedroom door shut. 

Alone was not something Neil was accustom to. After Jean had left, leaving him without a match in the Raven’s nest, he’d been moved into Riko’s room. Even his senior year, when Riko was away playing for his pro-team, Neil had been given another roommate. 

But the fact of the matter was that Neil could count easily the number of times he’d slept alone in the past 18 years since he was sold off to the Moriyama’s. After Andrew’s door shut, the shadows crept in, filling him with an overwhelming sense of dread. He tried to sleep, failed in his endeavors, for almost two hours before he just gave up. 

He made his way back down the stairs, the motions causing him pain, but that was starting to piss him off more than cause him to halt and consider his movements. He went to the kitchen, digging out the coffee he’d seen Andrew make earlier. 

While it brewed, he scrolled through his messages again. He ignored Jeremy’s response, but he’d gotten a text from Jean that he’d missed. 

From J: did you make it alright?

Neil didn’t know why the message bothered him - maybe it was because Jean had known where Andrew was taking him and hadn’t bothered to say anything. He tried to be fair though. Jean probably knew that if he tipped Neil off, Neil would have found a way not to go. And apparently, this was what he needed. 

This. 

He glanced around the kitchen - it looked brighter after Andrew had spent a while cleaning it, and it smelled like sharp lemon. A home. He wondered if Jean or Kevin had ever been here, standing in Andrew’s kitchen in the middle of the night with nothing to keep them company but the brewing coffee and their own thoughts. 

Neil hated that he was jealous that they’d possibly gotten to have this before he even knew it existed. But he let himself feel it - the jealousy, and the loss at a potential that never got to be. 

What he would have done to be a Fox... that was a dream. Something he couldn’t ever have because he had to cling so desperately to Riko’s attention. He had to prove that they were the best team even without Jean and Kevin by their side. He had to work so hard to keep his sight, to take everything Riko had to throw at him an absorb it so nothing would touch Kevin and Jean. But fuck. 

Laying in bed those dark nights, feeling the throb of the lacerations that kept him from resting on his back, he wasted precious hours of sleep invisioning himself in white or orange or red. Any color but black; any Exy court other than the one he’d be forced to return to in just a few hours time. He would have sold himself a million times over for even the hope at a chance of leaving EA. Riko had just been too dangerous, too spiteful and vindictive, to leave alone. 

Neil jumped as the coffee pot clicked beside him, switching to “keep warm” mode instead of “brewing” mode. The soft sound was like the sound of a bullet hitting concrete in the silent kitchen. He brushed away his thoughts and poured himself a cup, ignoring the cream and sugar that Andrew usually ruined his coffee with. He went back to leaning on the counter, just sipping. The bitterness took a second to get used to, but then it was warming him from the inside out.

He never got to be a Fox, but he’d never be a Raven again. And that was something to look forward to.

 

 

 

Andrew stumbled down the stairs some hours later. Neil was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, back door open with his legs on the porch as he sipped at yet another cup of coffee. He’d finished the pot and started another as morning approached, figuring Andrew would help him finish it this time. It was raining, and cool air blew in. But they didn’t have the heat on, so it wasn’t like it actually mattered. 

Neil listened as Andrew made himself a cup of coffee, opening the fridge for cream, and scraping the side of the sugar bowl with a metal spoon. They were noises that comforted him because they proved the existence of another person in the room. The soft weight of security fell over his shoulders. It had been seven and a half hours since he was last not alone, and he’d spent most of that time in the kitchen.

He felt a cold foot against his back, just a gentle nudge that somehow avoided the bruises that were covered by his shirt. 

“Were you raised in a barn? You’re letting in the cold.” Andrew sounded grumpy, voice rough still rough with the sleep that his coffee had yet to wash away. 

“No.” Neil responded before taking another sip of his own coffee - it was lukewarm, probably from the cold breeze that had been wafting into the house. “I was raised in a tomb, so I like the fresh air.”  

Andrew didn’t respond, but he plopped down next to Neil, sticking his legs out of the door in the little space that wasn’t occupied by Neil’s own legs. They sat in silence for a while, but it wasn’t heavy. Andrew sipped on coffee that was more cream than coffee and Neil watched as his breath made gentle puffs of white vapor against the cool air. It wasn’t too late into the season, so the weather would warm as the day went on, but Andrew had already dressed in a heavy hoodie that covered his usual thick black arm bands.  

“Staring.” Andrew said finally, when he was half way through his cup. Neil didn’t apologize, but did look back out to the rain as it fell. He’d been watching Andrew for quite a while, and was honestly surprised that he’d gotten away with doing it for as long as he had. “What was it like?” 

Neil was surprised by the question, and didn’t know the context, so he just raised a brow at Andrew as he sucked down another gulp of bitter coffee.  

“Growing up in the Nest.” Andrew clarified, but he didn’t look at Neil. His eyes were far off, gazing into the distance as if maybe the unkempt yard held all of the answers to his questions.  

Neil really wished the yard actually could answer that question, because he sure as hell didn’t want to. However, this was Andrew and Neil was learning that no matter what sick, twisted thing came out of his mouth to answer those probing questions, Andrew would absorb it instead of wielding it like a weapon against him. Having someone he could trust to talk to was a rare thing in his life, and he wanted to keep holding onto Andrew for as long as he possibly could.  

He took another sip of his coffee for courage, but it wasn’t quite satisfying with how cold it had gotten.  

“My childhood was... survival of the fittest.” Neil shrugged, because that was the simplest way of putting it. “You learned Riko’s rules and moods and learned how to manipulate them if you wanted a hope of getting by. Kevin was a natural at it by the time they got me - he’d been alone with Riko for a year by then. But, Riko had also been too young to be truly cruel then. Even when he learned he was capable of slapping me around, and even encouraged to when I forgot my place, it was nothing compared to the shit my dad did before that.”  

Neil rubbed at his shoulder where there was still a small scar. It had faded a lot with time, but there was still the distinct sharp tip of an iron, followed by a short series of bumps from the holes where steam was usually released. He couldn’t even remember what he’d done to deserve that one - he’d only been four after all and had a life time of pain afterwards that fogged his memories. Whatever it was, he was damn sure that it didn't warrant slapping a toddler with a hot iron.  

“It got worse when we were older. Jean came to us as a teen and he was angry for good reasons but Riko didn’t have patience for his defiance.”  

There were so many things Neil hadn’t been able to protect him from - like broken fingers and rough shoves down the stairs. Neil could remember the time when he hadn’t been able to cover his head fast enough. There had been so much blood. Too much blood. Neil had willingly taken the beating with an Exy stick Riko punished him with for calling an ambulance. Broken ribs meant Jean got to live, even if he had to practice with those broken ribs, which greatly delayed the healing.  

He could still remember the venom on his tongue when they were ordered to leave Jean there - he’d either be strong enough to survive, or die like he should have done in the first place. It was the moment that solidified his complete and irredeemable hatred for Riko Moriyama.  

Neil protected Jean after that. Just like he’d done for Kevin for ages. That’s how Neil lost his 3. Reduced to 4, because after all those years even Jean behaved better than he had. That had been like having a part of himself ripped away, a part of his identity that he’d had since childhood, taken without a second thought. He mourned that 3, even though he'd spent most of his life hating it. He didn't understand why, but every time he looked in the mirror after that, the 4 on his cheek solidly reminded him that he wasn't even good enough to keep hold of 3rd place.  

Neil still persisted though, he still fought back and stole Riko’s negative attention. He protected them from what he could, took their broken bones and punches and cuts.  

“Neil.” Andrew’s voice broke through the spiraling thoughts and Neil noticed the rain was growing heavier. Andrew was looking at him again, hazel eyes unreadable but Neil still somehow enjoyed the way they lingered on him.  

But he wondered how long he’d been inside of his own head. It wasn’t rare for him to escape there, but he hated doing it while talking to people.

“Anyways. Jean was kind of an asshole when he showed up. He fucked up a lot, but in the end I protected him like I protected Kev.” He took a sip of his cold coffee as an excuse to stop talking again. He wondered why Andrew even cared about all of this, or if he even did. Maybe he thought he was doing Neil a favor by letting him spill his guts for someone to see. But Neil didn’t think Andrew just gave away favors.  

“But why did you do it?” Andrew shrugged. “He wasn’t anything to you at the time. So why did you bring him into it.” 

Neil shrugged again, grimacing at the bit of truth. “The same reason you make deals with people. They needed something from me, and I wanted something from them. Just because we didn’t spell it out in words doesn’t mean we both didn’t get what we needed.” 

“And what did you need so desperately that you became a meat shield for two of the biggest idiots I’ve ever met?” The judgement in Andrew’s tone wasn’t missed by Neil, but Neil didn’t particularly care what Andrew thought about what he’d done. He didn’t need his approval for his past.  

“Them.” Neil responded simply. “We weren’t like the people with contracts to play for the team, we weren’t part of Riko’s family. We were property and the only people who could possibly comprehend what it meant to be owned was them.” He took the last drink of his coffee and set the cup beside his feet. “Jean was the reason for the first time I’d defied Riko in years. Riko pushed him down the stairs again, but he didn’t break his arm or anything that time. Riko cracked his skull open. He told us to leave him there, to let him die if he wasn’t strong enough to get back up. He said he didn’t need weakness in his ranks. Kevin left with Riko. I never told Jean that. I never told anyone that Kevin obeyed and almost let Riko murder someone.” 

There was something inside of him that grew red hot with anger over that, and tears pushed at his eyes. He blinked quickly to banish them, willing them away even though it was seemingly useless.  

“Kevin left Jean laying there. It wasn’t worth the pain that defying Riko would bring him. He was always a coward, still is. If Tetsuji called him today and told him to come home, he would if no one stopped him. He’s so scared of them. I can’t blame him for that, he knows what they’re capable of, but I will never stop hating him for leaving Jean there.” 

“You defied Riko to save Jean?” Neil didn’t know if it was shock in Andrew’s voice or disapproval. Honestly? He hoped it was neither. 

“I called an ambulance. Cops and paramedics invaded the Nest, it was... Riko wasn’t the only one who punished me for that. Tetsuji doesn’t allow people like that in his sanctum.” Neil stood, too quickly. It made his head spin and he gripped the doorframe for a moment before he had the ability to step back into the kitchen and refill his cup.  

Andrew took the opportunity to step inside and shut the door, and Neil couldn’t find it in him to care about the loss of fresh air and the sound of rain.  

“Make a deal with me.” The words made Neil wrinkle his nose. He didn’t want that offer, it didn’t interest him at all, but what did interest him was why. Why the fuck would Andrew want to make a deal with him? 

“What’s in it for you?” Neil poured coffee into his cup and took a drink, not caring that it burned his tongue.  

“What do you mean?” Andrew was shrugging when Neil turned, but Neil didn’t buy it for a minute.  

“You can't lie to a liar, Andrew.” Neil almost laughed, but it wasn’t appropriate. “I kept Kevin and Jean safe because there was something in it for me. They’re my brothers, they keep me from being alone. You protected Kevin because he had something you wanted. You made a stupid deal with Kevin to keep me safe for some reason unknown to me. So why do you want to make a deal with me? It’s not like I have a single thing to offer you.”  

Unless Andrew wanted sex. That was all Neil had ever been able to offer people. Safety or sex, and Andrew was safe in his own right. But how could Andrew want him now that he knew how utterly filthy he was? How unworthy...  

“Maybe I just want you to live.” 

The world came to an almost audible screeching halt around them. The words were said in an offhanded tone, but Neil felt like the wall he’d been standing on, that he’d built to keep his brothers safe and everyone else out, crumble beneath him. It was like he was falling, and that was terrifying. What a fucked up notion. Living. That wasn’t something he got to have. He’d never spent a moment in his life preparing for it. 

“I’m willing to die.” He replied, setting down his coffee on the counter and crossing his arms so Andrew wouldn’t have to see the way his hands were shaking. Dying was safe, it’s all he’d prepared to do his entire life. Between his father and Riko, he’d never expected to make it past graduation. He was living on borrowed time as it was and Andrew wanted to make a deal with him so he could keep living?  

Even if he could live, what would he even do? Keep going back and forth in this constant war between Riko's anger and his own stubbornness? Talk about a fate that was possibly worse than death. 

“You shouldn’t have to be. That’s disgusting, the way you don’t even have an ounce of self preservation. If I pointed a gun at Jean, you’d jump in front of the bullet without even thinking about yourself.” Andrew accused and Neil couldn’t argue because it was true. It was all true. He'd throw away his life in a second without regret if it allowed those two to keep going on. And maybe Andrew was right. Maybe that was absolutely disgusting, but that's who he was and insults wouldn't change that.  

“So what?” Neil asked. “You’re going to jump in the line of fire for me instead? Perpetuate the cycle of self sacrifice? I don’t want that.”  

Andrew set down his own coffee cup, and Neil could feel the energy radiating off of him. He couldn’t understand what it was - anger? Pity? Spite? Part of Neil wanted to punch Andrew in his face, if only to wipe the calculating gaze off of it.  

“I fucking hate you.” The words were simple, and Neil thought it was the end of the conversation as Andrew started to leave the kitchen. But he paused in the doorway, keeping his head forward as if he couldn’t stand the thought of looking at Neil. “If you don’t want me to stand in front of you, fine, but at least let someone stand beside you.”  

Andrew left him to contemplate those words, but Neil didn’t want to. He grabbed his coffee and stepped out onto the covered porch. The sound of rain surrounded him once more as he shut the door behind himself. 

 

 

 

 

They avoided each other the next day. Andrew went and did errands and saw his brother apparently, and Neil spent the time alone on the edge of a panic attack, trying to find anything to do that would keep him from succumbing to his own mind. He washed all of the dishes in the kitchen first, taking the "clean" ones out of the cabinet and scrubbing them by hand until they sparkled and his hands were raw. Then he just did random laundry, picking up anything that smelled even remotely of dust or mildew and tossing it in the washing machine. But none of those took very long, and by the beginning of the second day, he found that he was left with nothing but his own thoughts for hours after Andrew left before he'd even woken up.  

This time, at least, Andrew had left a note waiting for him on the kitchen table.  

"Gone to Bee's." 

He felt trapped, like he was a dog waiting for its owner to return home even though the owner did nothing but feed and ignore it. He considered leaving, hitchhiking his way back up to Ohio, but in the end he knew he wasn't in any shape to get that far. So he tried to busy himself around the house, and ended up finding a book to read.  

The Martian by Andy Weir.

Mark Watney had just decided to use his own shit to grow potatoes when the front door opened, and then shut with far less force than it had when Andrew had returned the night before. Neil kept his nose in the book he'd stolen from Nicky's room, trying not to look like he'd spent the last several hours going out of his mind waiting for Andrew to come home so he wouldn't be alone in an empty house.  

He'd just flipped the page when something was dropped on his face. He closed the book with his thumb jammed inside as he sat up, moving the offending object. He realized it was his hoodie upon further inspection, and Andrew was standing in front of him expectantly. He was wearing all black, his hood pulled up over messy blonde hair and Neil thought he may have looked intimidating if he wasn't so damn short.  

"We're getting ice cream." There wasn't a question in those words, but Neil knew Andrew wouldn't force him to go anywhere if he really didn't want to. He wasn't fond of ice cream and thought about refusing out of spite after being left alone for so long. But honestly, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Not after a whole day and a half of silence when Andrew seemed to be reaching out to him first. He wanted to grab hold of this little bit of potential and not let go.  

"Yeah, okay." A thud followed Neil's words as Andrew tossed his shoes onto the floor beside the couch Neil had been laying on before. He got ready while Andrew disappeared into the kitchen. Neil swore he heard him climbing on a counter to reach something, but he was too busy tying his shoes to try to steal a glance though the doorway. There was clanking, but Andrew came back a few minutes later and they left the godforsaken house that Neil had been so excited to enter a few days prior.  

The drive was quiet. Andrew had changed out their rental car for a small blue Prius. He didn't give any explanation as to where it came from, but Neil wouldn't have put it past Andrew to steal it. Not that he had any place to judge. He'd technically broken the law several times by selling his body to the highest bidder.  

The ride didn't take long before they were pulling up to a diner that had a bright neon sign that proudly announced it as "Sweeties". It didn't seem like a place that Andrew would willingly hang out, but he parked in an open spot near the door and got out of the car. Neil followed, albeit hesitantly. The inside was decorated like an old 60's diner, with a small salad bar in the middle. Neil watched as a few patrons waiting for a table stole packets of crackers and ate them by the door. No one said anything, so Neil just assumed that was normal here.  

It took fifteen minutes for them to get a table, and it was almost to the point where Neil was about to suggest just getting a pint of ice cream from the gas station and heading home. They slid into a small, two person booth, and Andrew declined a menu in favor of ordering the ice cream special. With the lack of space in the booth, Neil hand nowhere to look but Andrew, and he started to feel a whole new kind of trapped. Instead of a dog waiting on it's owner, he felt like maybe he was being hunted as prey.  

"Who's Bee?" Neil said finally, desperate to break the silence. Andrew gave him a small smirk at that, as if it was some sort of victory on his own part for being able to hold out longer than Neil. Neil couldn't bring himself to be bothered by the slightest bit of a smug smile though.  

"Bee was my therapist when I was attending Palmetto. We still keep in touch." The truth Andrew gave him was shocking to Neil, but maybe it shouldn't have been. Between wanting to avoid Baltimore and spilling about his life in the Nest, maybe Andrew felt like he owed him a few bits of honesty. "Maybe I'll take you to meet her while we're here."  

Neil grimaced at that. "I don't want to see a shrink."  

"I wasn't talking about in a patient, therapist capacity." Andrew shrugged, taking one of the napkins from a holder on the table. He slowly started shredding it without really paying attention to the mess it was making on the table. "It wouldn't make any sense for you to get a therapist down here anyways."  

Neil didn't like the way the statement implied that Andrew thought maybe he should get a therapist in Ohio. He wasn't good at talking to people and spilling his guts out to some random stranger for hours sounded like a nightmare. He didn't even know why he'd felt like he could accept Andrew listening to his ever internal thought whenever their whims deemed. Maybe that's why Andrew thought he'd even for a moment consider getting a therapist.  

"I'm not into that sort of thing." Neil replied finally, but before Andrew could speak a huge dish of ice cream was placed in front of them, two spoons sticking out of it. The waitress asked if they needed anything else, and Neil requested a water. Then she rushed off to another table.  

They didn't speak for a few minutes. Andrew dug into the ice cream like he hadn't eaten in days, and Neil made a mental note of his apparent sweet tooth for future bribes if need be. He took a few bites of his own, avoiding the whipped cream in favor of a few bites of strawberry ice cream. Andrew didn't let the conversation die for long though.  

"I'm not saying you should get one." He shrugged, but Neil didn't quite believe that the mention of getting a therapist had come from no where. But, at the very least, Andrew was dropping it and Neil could be thankful for that.  

"That's good, because I'm not." Neil mostly watched as Andrew ate, but Andrew also looked like he was actively avoiding the strawberry once figuring out it was the only thing Neil was touching. It would have been sweet, if it wasn't Andrew. Maybe he just didn't like strawberry ice cream to begin with.  

"If you could never play Exy again, what would you do?" Andrew asked after a while, and the question shocked Neil.  

"What?" He replied, voice oozing with annoyance at the very notion of never being able to play Exy again. It had always been his life, and the suggestion was borderline insulting.  

"If you could never play Exy again, and you didn't have anything keeping you from doing whatever you wanted, what would you do?" Andrew asked before sucking at his chocolate syrup covered spoon.  

The question threw Neil for a loop, because he really didn't know. His entire life had always been play Exy and protect his brothers. There was nothing else, he'd never allowed himself to have anything else. But right now, whether he wanted to admit it or not, he was letting himself have whatever this was with Andrew. It wasn't friendship in any way that he'd viewed friendship from afar before. But maybe, this was what friendship was between people as fucked up as they were.  

"I don't know." Neil shrugged, and distracted his mouth by taking another bite of ice cream that he didn't actually even want to eat. Andrew wrinkled his nose at the reply, but it didn't quite look like he hadn't expected that answer. More like he was the slightest bit disappointed that his assumptions of what Neil would answer actually turned out to be correct. "What? It's not like I ever had the slightest bit of agency over my own life before now."  

Andrew nodded, taking the spoon he'd been sucking clean out of his mouth. "I'd be a social worker." That wasn't what Neil had been expecting at all. He couldn't picture it, Andrew getting involved with family's cases and advocating for children. It was a side of Andrew he'd never seen before, but he couldn't say that the possibility of Andrew doing social work didn't leave him insanely curious.  

"Why?" Neil asked, resting his elbow on the table and propping his chin up with his hand. He ignored the ice cream completely now, devoting his full attention to studying Andrew's face. It looked as blank as usual, but there was something lingering in his eyes that Neil craved to see in more depth.  

"Because those kids in the system deserve to have someone to fight their battles for them and make sure they're safe." Neil was... shocked that Andrew's reasoning for his alternative career was so close to how he felt about Jean and Kevin. It was disturbing in some ways, but relieved him in others. He'd heard people on the team call Andrew heartless before, but this was a glimpse into just how untrue that was. Part of Neil wondered, though, if Andrew's urge to help the children in the foster care system came from his own experiences in the system.  

He knew, from Riko digging up dirt, that Andrew Minyard had once been Andrew Doe. He'd been given up to the system at birth along with his twin, but his mother had second thoughts and came back for Aaron. Andrew, however, hadn't been so lucky. Neil wasn't privy to the details of what had happened during Andrew's childhood, but if he was this intent on protecting the children, Neil had to assume that nothing good had come from it.  

"I think you'd be good at that." And Neil actually meant that. He felt it with every fiber in his being - given the chance, Andrew would make sure every kid that ever stepped toe into the system had a childhood that they deserved.  

Neil thought on it while he watched Andrew finish off the ice cream. What would he do? There'd been nothing in the world he was really good at other than Exy. But he'd had his interests that he'd pursue in the off season, when practices weren't as frequent or intense and there wasn't a lot of pressure building tat would inevitably spark Riko's uncontrollable temper. Books, math, even running track to some extent. It had been a good way to keep his speed up when the Exy season wasn't around to keep him in peak condition.  

"Maybe I'd write." Neil spoke finally, after the waitress had dropped off their bill. Andrew raised a brow at him in question.  

"Like a sports reporter or?"  

Neil shook his head though, because that would never hold his interest. "No. Maybe something like mystery novels. Or horror, like Stephen King." He shrugged, because it sounded stupid now that he was voicing it.  

Andrew's face was neutral, but those eyes betrayed what he was really feeling - pleased. "Well, then you have something other than Exy and your idiots, don't you?"  

Neil thought for a moment that maybe he already did, even before he dared to think about the possibility of writing.  

Because honestly, didn't he already have Andrew too?  

"Yeah... yeah I do." 

Chapter Text

Andrew slept with his door shut again that night, but Neil found comfort in the fact that the deadbolt didn’t slide home. He slept well for the first time in what felt like ages, stomach full of strawberry ice cream and a yearning for the potential future that Andrew had instilled in his mind.

For the first time in a long while, Neil wasn’t plagued with nightmares of a past he felt like he’d never escape. In fact, the past felt pretty escapable that night, like he’d finally found the bottom rungs of a long hidden ladder that he could use to climb his way out. 

He woke up warm, the scent of pancakes and coffee wafting in from the open door of his borrowed bedroom. He shut the door just for a moment to change, being gentle with himself so he didn’t pull his stitches or aggitate the bruises that still littered his body like an apple that had been repeatedly dropped on the hard tile floor of a grocery store.

The warmth was quickly dashed as his phone started to ring from on top of the dresser, where he’d left it to charge the night before. The tone was bright and cheerful but Neil didn’t do phone calls and everyone important knew that. He stood with his shirt only half way on and let it ring until it went silent, then his phone pinged once more to alert him that whoever called had left him a voice mail. With that, he shrugged his shirt the rest of the way on.

He grabbed his phone and slipped it into the pocket of his sweatpants, not bothering to check it before heading down to the kitchen. The smells of breakfast just got better as he got down there, but he lingered in the doorway as Andrew spoke on the phone with someone. He looked grouchy, eyebrows pinched together and a scowl on his lips. Neil was fairly sure he’d have punched whoever he was talking to in the face had they been standing in front of them. He wondered why he found it kind of adorable. 

“Give him his space or I’ll kill you.” Andrew hung up the phone after that and tossed it to the counter. It was only then that he seemed to notice Neil, eyes roaming over him in a way that probably would have made him uncomfortable even a week ago. “Hey there, sleeping beauty.” The nickname was a little mocking, and Neil figured it was because there was nothing beautiful about his fucked up face and bedhead. It made him snort anyways.

“Someone already decide to fuck up your morning?” Neil nodded to Andrew’s discarded phone as he went about making himself a cup of coffee. It burned his tongue because he didn’t wait for it to cool before downing a huge gulp, but it didn’t bother him much. 

“She was trying to fuck up yours.” Andrew shrugged, flipping the pancakes he had going on the stove. There was already a small stack sitting on the counter, but it didn’t look like Andrew was anywhere close to being through all the batter. 

“Oh really?” Neil had a couple guesses to who’d been on the other line, and one was confirmed when he slipped his own phone from his pocket to see a missed call from Devin Sanders, his media coordinator, and a voicemail waiting for him to check. “What did she want?”

“Someone snapped pics of you going into the ambulance, someone else got a few of you leaving the hospital with Kevin and Wymack.” Andrew shrugged, and Neil felt his stomach clench. “The world is waiting for your response to it.” 

Neil hadn’t even thought of that potential. He was used to life in the spotlight beside Riko and Kevin and Jean, even on his own for the year that he’d lead the Ravens to victory as their captain. But for some reason, the concept of someone snapping pictures of him in that pathetic state had never even occurred to him. And now they wanted answers - answers that were none of their business and he owed to no one. The world was waiting for his response, as Andrew had put it. 

“I don’t owe them a response.” Neil took a drink of his coffee, as if it would help. The warmth did brush some of the chill from his veins, but coffee wasn’t some magic elixir that was capable of changing reality. 

Andrew kept working on the pancakes, but Neil saw his head bob in a nod. The kitchen was silent as he took the pancakes from the pan and poured four more with a little red measuring cup. It was such a mundane thing that Neil couldn’t even wrap his head around it. Andrew cooking them breakfast in his kitchen while they talked about sports news. What a concept. Too bad the news was actually gossip that revolved around Neil, or he might actually think he was still dreaming.  

“You’re right. It isn’t their business.” Andrew turned to him, leaning on the counter and picking up a cup of something that looked more like hot chocolate than coffee. “You don’t owe anyone anything, but Devin isn’t wrong about wanting to get in front of it.” 

Neil grimaced, because he hated that Andrew was right. “I don’t care what people think happened. I just want to forget about it. It wasn’t even a big deal.” He wanted to believe the last part; he yearned for it to be true with every fiber of his being. That night wasn’t a big deal, it meant nothing. The injury was nothing more than an inconvenience. It was over and would never happen again.  

But it wasn’t true.  

It meant something to him, and he didn’t owe the world another glimpse at his pain. He didn’t owe the people who’d spent his entire life gawking at him and calling him “the Ravens’ stray dog”. Bullshit. They hadn’t earned the right to peek between the cracks in his armor just because they were obsessed with the drama surrounding their “favorite” Exy players.  

“Devin thinks if you don’t talk soon, Riko will. They’ll want to create their own story so they don’t look bad. People are putting together what happened, what with your pictures and the news of Reacher’s death, and Devin thinks Riko and Tetsuji are going to spin some lies to avoid backlash.” Neil wasn’t looking at him, but he heard Andrew shrug with a slight rustle of his jacket. “It’s your choice to let them, or use this as a chance to give a bit of truth to the general populace.”  

Neil blinked up from his cup, taking in the searching look on Andrew’s face. He wished he knew what he was looking for. “What are you suggesting?”  

"Don't make a decision now." Andrew prefaced, and Neil made a face at that. "But, if they're going to try to force the truth out of you anyways, you may as well use that for your own agenda, right?"  

They ate breakfast in relative silence at first, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Neil ignored the buzzing of texts in his pocket for the most part, only taking his phone out every once in a while to make sure there weren't any from Jean or Kevin. It was mostly Devin, and a stray one from both Jeremy and Matt. He wasn't sure what Matt wanted with him, but he didn't care enough to check. Jeremy he would leave for later, when his mind wasn't swirling with thoughts implanted by Andrew. 

Use the media to push his own agenda. He'd never thought about doing that. When he was a Raven, he had a twitter but it was controlled by Tetsuji's people and only posted things like clips from their games and little snippets from sanctioned interviews. He never spent time thinking on what was posted - knowing it was all approved and just there to improve what Tetsuji thought was an abysmal image. But, now that he thought about it, if social media could be used to improve his image, couldn't it be used to feed the world secrets that would slowly dismantle Tetsuji and Riko?  

Not that he knew how to use social media, or get back in control of his twitter account. Or open a new account and get it verified.  

"You're supposed to be eating, not making your own head explode." Andrew hummed from across the table and Neil realized he'd just been zoning out. He wondered how long it had been, but wasn't really unused to doing it. It was pretty common in the Nest, since they worked on less sleep than the average human. It wasn't odd to see anyone zoned out walking down the hall, or barely eating dinner in a daze. It hadn't been healthy, but Tetsuji had hardly cared about his Ravens' health. He just wanted them to out preform anyone they went up against.  

"Sorry." Neil said and then winced as Andrew flinched across from him.  

"I said-" Andrew started, but Neil interrupted him, already knowing what was coming. 

"I know, I know. I slipped up." Neil didn't know why his heart was racing as Andrew stared right through him. He knew Andrew would never hurt him, or at least he thought that Andrew would never hurt him. But that didn't erase Andrew's violent past or Neil's knee jerk reaction to brace himself for punishment. "I'll try not to let it happen again."  

Andrew took a few deep breaths across from him, but then a vacant look took over his face where the edge of anger had creased his brow only moments before. "Just finish eating." But the response left Neil on edge still, panic slowly seeping through him. It was a very Andrew reaction, but years of expecting punches and broken fingers left his heart pounding in his chest hard enough to hurt.  

"Andrew-" He started, but this time Andrew cut him off.  

"Not now." Andrew took a bite of his pancake, signaling that he wanted the conversation dropped. Neil bit his tongue, but he couldn't stop himself from continuing. Panic was like lighting beneath his skin, and he could feel it from the tips of his fingers to the pit of his stomach.  

"Andrew, please. Can we just-"  

If looks could kill, Neil would be dead on the floor. Andrew was great at hiding his feelings, and the anger only came out in a flash before the mask of indifference fell into place again. "Josten, I'm not fond of that word either. Will you just finish eating?"  

But anxiety was making Neil's head spin and he couldn't let it go. "Why do you have a grudge against half of the English language?" He lashed out, and then instantly regretted it as Andrew pushed away from the small kitchen table, the mask that Neil was growing to hate still firmly in place.  

"You don't hold the rights to the only tragic backstory." It was said with a light tone, as if it was a little piece of advice given in passing and not retaliation to Neil once again taking out his frustrations on Andrew, like he had in the hotel room.  

Neil wasn't shocked by that though - he knew that Andrew had been a foster kid. Things weren't great in the system, but he didn't know the details, of course. "Who said those words so much that it made you hate them like this?" Because Neil wanted to destroy them - wanted to ruin any person that could give Andrew such strong reactions to words like "please" and "sorry". He was shocked at how strongly he felt that urge build up inside of him, like the rage he used to feel when anyone dared to lay a hand on Kevin or Jean.  

"I did." The words were enough to send a pang of pain through Neil's chest. Andrew made himself hate those words... and Neil felt the rage grow into helplessness because he didn't know how to fix the situation. He didn't know how to react to other's trauma when he couldn't even handle his own. He'd never been good at it, even when he was picking up the pieces of Jean and Kevin in the rare cases that he wasn't able to take the punishment for him, they'd always comforted each other emotionally. Feelings weren't something Neil knew how to fix.  

He wanted to apologize, but he wouldn't throw those words back in Andrew's face again. So he didn't.  

"Okay." It felt too simple, like he couldn't tell Andrew what he was really feeling with one word, but Andrew scooted by up to the table and took another bite of the pancakes on his plate. Neil took that as a cue to get back to eating too.  

Neil cleaned the kitchen after breakfast, taking his time washing everything by hand even though the house had a perfectly good dishwasher. He expected Andrew to vanish somewhere like he had been since they got to Columbia, but he just sat in the open door to the backyard, smoking a cigarette. They were silent, aside from the sound of dishes clinking together as Neil washed them and put them away. It wasn't awkward though. Andrew didn't seem upset anymore, and the blank facade was replaced with one of almost contentment as he blew puffs of smoke into the cool wind to keep the smell from invading the house.  

After the dishes were washed, Neil sat down beside him. The door was wide enough for both of them to sit in, but it made their thighs and shoulders brush together through layers of fabric.  

"Thanks for taking time off to bring me all the way out to Columbia." Neil wanted to apologize for making Andrew remember his own trauma, but that wouldn't help either of them.  

"I planned on coming to Columbia after the banquet anyways. I just didn't account for what happened at the banquet." Andrew took a drag off of his cigarette, and the scent that wafted around him comforted Neil on some level. Maybe it was because it was a scent he was coming to associate with Andrew, who made him feel safer than he had any real right to feel.  

"You didn't account for Riko." Neil meant for it to be a question, but it came out more like a statement. He'd known Riko would pull something, but even he hadn't considered that it would go as far as it did.  

"No, I knew Riko was going to do something wildly dickish." Andrew shrugged. "I just didn't think you'd be strong enough to stand up to him yet."  

Neil wrinkled his nose at that. "What do you mean?"  

Andrew took another drag off of his cigarette before replying, taking his sweet time on the exhale. "Don't be offended by it. I put Kevin back together after his hand was broken, helped Renee and Jeremy get Jean back on his feet after Riko nearly killed him, and I saw the way he effected you at Kathy's. I didn't expect that you'd even make it to the banquet. We were fully prepared to ditch with you if it came down to it." He was looking out into the yard, but his eyes were lit up in amusement. "Then you found the suits and asked me to help you burn them."  

Neil thought he'd never forget that night. The smell of the lighter fluid going up, the taste of burning liquor on his tongue, the way Andrew's eyes had looked with fire dancing in them. It was a moment when he truly wasn't afraid, and those were so rare in his life. There was a common factor in the ones he had recently though - they all also starred Andrew. How this tiny blond guy with a death wish could make him feel safe from the people that had tormented him for years was a mystery to Neil, but it was one that he desperately wished to solve.  

"You broke down in the hotel room the next day, but you still got up to face him." Andrew laughed at that, and Neil felt butterflies burst to life in his stomach. "You walked up with us and looked your abuser in the eyes and didn't back down. No matter what he did in retaliation, he can't change that you did that. He can't take away the confidence you had in that moment." 

“Kevin and Jean were there too... it wasn’t that brave.” He’d just been doing what he had to do - protecting them like he always had.  

“Kevin Day has never gone sober to an event where Riko Moriyama was present. He had enough Valium in his system to kill a small horse.” Andrew rolled his eyes. “And he didn’t know what you’d done. You walked into the Lion’s den after stealing its dinner out from under it.” 

“I did it for them.” Neil sighed, leaning his head against the doorway. “It wasn’t for me. It’s the same brave face I put on countless times because if it’s between them and me, I’ll always pick them.”  

“Do yourself a favor and don’t anymore.” Andrew stubbed our the butt of his cigarette and lit another one. “You aren’t Neil Josten, Number 4 of the EA Ravens, defender of ‘innocent’ anymore. You’re holding on more tightly to your past then you are at the chance of having a future.” 

“Who’s going to protect them if I don’t?” He didn’t say it defensively, honestly just curious where Andrew’s mind was at. After all of these years, he couldn’t fathom leaving them on their own to flounder.  

“Themselves.” Andrew replied, as if it was that simple. As if it could ever be that simple.  

“I can’t-“ Neil’s argument was cut off by Andrew’s phone. It blared a song that Neil hadn’t ever even heard before.  

Andrew was up like his ass was on fire, almost sloshing his coffee as he stumbled just the slightest bit to get his phone.  

“Yeah?” Neil could hear panicked talking from the other end of the phone, but couldn’t make out what was being said. “Really? Right now?” Andrew was already heading upstairs, and Neil followed after shutting the back door, curious about what was going on. He didn’t catch the next few things that were said, since he waited at the bottom of the stairs so he didn’t invade Andrew’s space.  

“No, no. I’m heading that way now. I can be there in like three hours.” Andrew skidded down the stairs so fast that he almost tripped on the bottom step. He had one shoe on, the other shoved into his hoodie pocket. “Nicky is going to be so pissed that he’s not here yet.” 

Andrew started going through jacket pockets that were hanging by the door, tossing them with a huff one by one. And Neil couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was going on. 

“Yeah, I’m coming. Take care of your wife.” Andrew hung up the phone and slid it into his pocket. “Son of a bitch, where are my keys?” 

Neil sighed and grabbed them off the coffee table where Andrew had left them the night before and brought them over to him. “Everything okay?” 

Andrew looked at him like he’d momentarily forgotten about Neil’s existence. “Thanks.” He responded as he took the keys. “Katie is in labor in Raleigh.”  

Neil racked his brain for just who the hell that was for a moment before he remembered the last time he was in Raleigh. “Aaron’s girlfriend?” 

 “Wife.” Andrew corrected as he took his shoe from his pocket and hopped on one foot to slide it on. “I’ll probably be gone for a few days.” 

That sparked panic in Neil though. Alone for a few days... it should have sounded nice. Relax, have time for himself. Instead the feeling of abandonment gripped him so tightly that it felt like his throat was closing in on itself. He could hardly handle Andrew locking his bedroom door at night - how would he function all alone in such a big, empty house.  

He wouldn’t, was the answer. Neil knew he wouldn’t survive here on his own. He’d find a way to get back to Ohio, where he could be with Jean and Kev. But he also didn’t want to face them yet - not when he was running to them for their protection and comfort and not to protect them.  

Andrew cursed as Neil stood there silently, waving a hand at him. “Go get your stuff, we got to go.” 

Neil blinked at that, and the hand of anxiety that had been squeezing a death grip around his throat loosened enough for him to speak. “What?” 

“Go get a change of clothes and your phone charger so we can get to the hospital.” Andrew was shoving clothes in a drawstring bag, he’d come down the stairs with them thrown over his shoulder but Neil hadn’t noticed until now. All the black had just sort of blended together.  

Neil was moving before he realized it, almost tripping on the stairs himself as he ran for his clothes. 

 

 

 

 

He always hated the smell of hospitals - the antiseptic made his nose wrinkle and he had to fight the urge to sneeze. But under the antiseptic was the smell of sickness and death - and Neil could still catch hints of it all the way up in the maternity ward. It was decorated brightly with yellows and blues, welcoming babies into the world. It was the last place Neil Josten ever expected to find himself.  

Andrew was sitting beside him, a black hole in the land of pastel giraffes and harsh fluorescent lighting. To anyone else, he might have looked angry, but Neil could feel excitement rolling off of him in waves.  

He’d sped the whole was to Raleigh, turning a three and a half hour drive into a two and a half hour drive. Now he was sitting next to Neil practically vibrating out of his skin. His heel tapped up and down on the tile floor, and some old lady across the way glared at him for making so much noise.  

Neil thought it might be thawing his frozen heart though.   

Despite the scowl on his lips, his eyes were lit up like someone was shining a flashlight through the other side. He’d been gripping the arm rests since he sat down, and Neil wondered if it was to keep himself from getting back up again and pacing or if it was because he had to squeeze something or he’d lose the battle to keep up his intimidating facade.  

They hadn’t spoken at all since entering the waiting room, Andrew went to check in with the receptionist and Neil found them seats. After that, they’d settled into silence, though Andrew’s phone had been going off every few minutes. Responding to texts was the only time his hands left the arm rests, and even then they were short, probably one word replies.  

Neil spent their time fighting the urge to look at the sports news websites he tended to check often. He knew his face would be on them, from what Andrew had told him before they left Columbia, and he didn’t want to dampen the mood of the room with his panic.  

No, it was better to be in the moment, with Andrew, and deal with that mess later.  

They went a few hours like this, Andrew texting frequently. At a few points, he stood and got coffee, pacing around the room. Neil was starting to think the baby was never going to come and this was all a big prank when Aaron finally popped into the waiting room.

He looked both exhausted and excited, and Andrew rushed to him without caring that he left his phone behind on the side table between them. They spoke excitedly, but they were too far away for Neil to hear what they were saying. 

Aaron hugged Andrew tightly, and they stood that way for a long time. It reminded Neil of Jean and Kevin, how they’d hug tightly after victorious games or just when they needed comfort after Riko. Neil felt a tug in his chest as he realized he wanted something like that.  

Like when Kevin showed him the Kings’ Court for the first time and Neil had taken a running leap into his arms. He was hurt, body still sore from Reacher, and usually physical affection would make him want to vomit and run away.  

Now watching Andrew and Aaron hug long and tight until Andrew let go, Neil would have traded his soul for that, if he hadn’t already traded it for his freedom.  

Andrew followed Aaron back through the double doors, leaving Neil alone with Andrew’s phone and little else.  

He found himself opening his own phone, scrolling through contacts, ignoring missed calls. He started a group chat with Jean and Kevin.  

It was to make sure they were taking care of themselves is what he told himself, not because he missed them. Not because seeing Andrew and Aaron embrace left him craving the company of his found brothers.  

They were lies, but he took comfort in them anyways.  

To Kev, J: how was your flight? 

They would have flown into Ohio a few days ago, but Neil didn’t know any other way to start the conversation after radio silence for days. It took a while for one of them to respond, and for a while Neil thought they were done with him after all his bullshit. But then, his phone gave a little chirp.  

From J: turbulent. You would have hated it.  

Neil grinned at the phone screen, because that was definitely Jean’s idea of a joke. He was about to type when the chat pinged again, this time with Kevin joining in.  

From Kev: Loud. Jer and Matt got a copy of Mario Kart for Matt’s switch before we took off. They spent the whole time cussing each other out for “red shelling”?  

From Kev: I don’t know what that means, but apparently it’s “a betrayal of the highest caliber”.  

That sort of dramatic declaration sounded like something Matt would say, and it made Neil smile.  

They messaged back and forth for a while, none of them caring to bring up the elephant in the chat room. It was nice, like it had been before Riko had gotten worse and they were all separated. Jean sent him pictures of his and Jeremy’s dogs; Kevin filled him in on the stats for the Valkyries, the team they’d be playing Neil’s first week back. He didn’t notice the hours passing until Andrew stepped in front of him again.  

Neil looked up - the waiting room had gotten a bit dimmer with the setting of the sun that had been lighting the room from the windows. Andrew looked tired, but pleased, and he smelled a little bit like sweat and the scent that could only be described as “baby”.  

“They’re kicking me out for the night. Katie is staying until tomorrow morning, but Aaron gave me the spare key to their place.” Neil hadn’t realized that much time had passed, but it had been quite a few hours since Andrew had vanished with Aaron. 

Neil’s phone was almost dead from texting Jean and Kev, but he could charge it back at Aaron’s place. They left the hospital after Andrew checked his phone, replying to missed messages that had been buzzing on the table unread for hours. Andrew drove slow, no longer in a hurry, and the sky darkened as the last sliver of the sun set beyond the horizon. 

It had been a long day - he couldn’t believe they’d been in Columbia eating pancakes and arguing that morning when the energy around them now was just so... soft.  

Andrew was relaxed as he drove, hazel eyes staring ahead at the road. He had the window rolled down with a cigarette hanging out of it, dangling between two of his fingers. He hadn’t smoked much of it, just letting it slowly burn down to the filter with a puff or two here and there.  

Neil couldn’t bring himself to break the silence when it was so nice. He watched out of his window between stolen glances at Andrew. He knew they were getting close when he turned onto a street dotted with white and yellow houses, surrounded by picket fences with red mailboxes out front.  

It was something that Neil would have found too mundane to be interesting before he moved to Ohio and finally had a chance at life. Now... now he wondered if one day he’d be in a house like one of these. He could get a cat - he’d always wanted one - and maybe pay a kid on the block to now his lawn once a week.  

They were ridiculous, fanciful thoughts that he never would have had before Andrew made him stop and consider his future.  

He could have a writing desk in his office, where he drafted novels. And a large kitchen, if he ever learned how to cook. Maybe he wouldn’t have to learn, if the fantasy included someone else by his side. He couldn’t think of anyone he’d want to interrupt this fantasy though.  

No one but Andrew. 

And that was a dangerous thought that had Neil slamming on the breaks in his mind as Andrew parked in Aaron’s driveway. He racked his brain for excuses for those thoughts and only came up with one - Andrew had put the idea of a future in his head. It wouldn’t be weird to associate the ideas he had with him.  

Besides, he reasoned with himself as he stepped out of the car, it wasn’t as if that future was one that could happen anyways. Riko would never allow him that happiness, even if he was technically no longer under his thumb. As long as Riko was alive, Neil could kiss his dreams of picket fences behind.  

Neil followed Andrew inside the house, hating that everything was foggy familiar. He remembered being here the last time he was in Raleigh for Kathy’s show, but he hadn’t really had his wits about him then. It was easy to follow Andrew tiredly up to the spare room, but the issue settled into both of them when they got there.  

Aaron only had one spare room, with a king sized bed dominating it. From the look on Andrew’s face when he dropped his bag on the floor, he’d forgotten too.  

“I can sleep on the couch.” Neil offered without really even thinking about it. He’d crashed this thing anyways, so it wasn’t a big deal. 

Andrew shook his head though. “Just sleep up here. We both know you won’t be able to sleep down there on your own.” 

He wasn’t wrong, and that’s what made Neil wince. This was an unfamiliar place, and Neil probably wouldn’t sleep a wink without something familiar around him. But sleeping in bed with someone else... he couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t. Even on the rare occasions that he’d slept in the same bed as Jean, he’d never gotten restful sleep.  

“I’ll take the floor then.” He grabbed one of the pillows from the bed and tossed it to the floor. Andrew just sighed and vanished back into the hall, returning with a few folded blankets that he dropped down beside Neil’s pillow.  

They changed separately - Neil stealing the bathroom and using water from the sink to down a few of his pain killers. Sleeping on the floor would hurt, but the medicine would keep him from being up all night because of it. Around anyone else, he wouldn’t have taken them before sleeping, but he trusted Andrew not to do anything. 

Andrew had the lights off and was in bed already when Neil returned, but the light of his cellphone lit up his face. Neil gingerly got to the floor, plugging his phone in before rearranging the blankets to be as comfortable as possible.  

Neil watched Andrew scroll through his phone for a while, the white light washing him out but making his eyes seem much more green than normal. He was staring, but Andrew was too busy to catch him.  

“Andrew...” Neil’s voice was soft, as if he was worried about waking up the nonexistent other inhabitants of the house. Andrew just hummed an acknowledgment, not even bothering to pause his scrolling. Neil wasn’t concerned by it though. “Thanks for bringing me with you.” 

Andrew snorted at that, moving his phone back to look at Neil. “I wasn’t just going to leave you there looking like a kicked puppy.”  

Neil was offended for a split second before he realized Andrew was kidding. “I mean, if you had I probably would have gotten into the garbage can and chewed up your shoes so, arguably this was probably the better option.”  

Andrew laughed at that, it was a bark of a thing, and Neil saw the way his eyes lit up, loved the way his lips stayed curled in a grin even after he was finished. “I guess this is better than explaining to Nicky why some mangy stick ball mutt shredded his couch.”  

Even Neil laughed a little at that, and the conversation died out there. Neil could still see Andrew smiling though as he went back to scrolling through his phone. And that smiled followed him into his dreams, where he got to have the fence and the cat and maybe, just maybe, even Andrew cooking breakfast in the kitchen.