Some people were genetically gifted. Athletically gifted. Some few people only. Even fewer people were gifted in the fiercely violent game of exy.
Tyler wasn't one of those people. He'd played for years, loved the game, watched it avidly on the television when he couldn't from the sidelines, and found a thrill on the court every other afternoon when he practised. But exceptional? He knew he wasn't. Definitely not good enough to catch the eye of the university scouts that would be unlikely to visit a tiny hovel like Millport at the end of the schooling year.
He was good enough to make starting striker in his final year, however. On his first day back, Tyler had a bounce in his step with the excitement that accompanied a return to the court later that day. He'd played a few street games over the holidays with the locals passionate enough to join him in their break but little more. Tyler was chafing at the bit to get back on the court, and Coach Hernandez was good enough to promise them an old-team meet up after school hours.
"Hey, Tyler!" Jennifer called as he made his way across the school grounds that afternoon towards their makeshift court. It was still turfed as a soccer field much to his despair when he'd seen it that morning, but Tyler still felt a buzz of excitement as he headed for it. At Jen's call, however, he held himself back to wait for her.
The only remaining girl in their team and one of only two from the previous year, she had the height and broad shoulders that gave her an advantage as a backliner. She was also one of only three besides himself that Tyler knew for certain was returning to the team that year. Graduation had brutally gutted the Dingos, leaving them a skeleton of their previous straggling glory. Tyler would have to get on board with recruiting, though more than likely Toni was already making headway that day. He was the mouth of the team to the point Tyler often thought him more their mascot than their dealer.
"Hey, Jen," Tyler said, sharing a grin as she trotted towards him. "Good holidays?"
"Not really," she replied, drawing alongside him. "My aunt's place doesn't have a court within a half hour drive."
"Bummer. That must have killed you." He gestured and they continued in the direction of the court.
"I heard you played a game or two without me," Jen said. "How could you?"
"You'd have done the same."
"Yeah, but I can still be resentful."
Tyler shrugged. "Maybe don't visit your aunts next time, then."
"You think I had a choice? I wasn't even allowed to bring my racket with me. My fingers were itching the entire time."
Tyler laughed, shaking his head at her enthusiasm as she flexed her fingers, though he could whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment. The two of them weren't close by any means – or at least not away from the court. When it came to exy, though, they shared the commitment of years-long teammates.
The locker room was echoing with voices as Tyler led the way inside. Even from the other side of the building he could her Toni's laughter bouncing off walls and overriding Noah's dry derision. The red colour scheme was glaringly bright as they stepped through the door, and another burst of noise greeted them.
"Tyler! Jen!" Toni was on his feet and striding towards them in an instant, looping an arm around Jen's neck and clapping a hand on Tyler's back. "'Bout time you two got here. We've all been waiting for you."
"All of you?" Jen said sarcastically, shooting a glance at their diminished team. Noah had taken on of the chairs while Kurt sprawled on the middle bench as though making the most of the greater seating space. "You must be suffocating in here with how cramped it is."
"Oi, none of that," Toni said, poking her cheek with the arm around her neck. "I've been working on fixing our lineup all day, so don't you worry."
Tyler couldn't help but grin, knocking his shoulder into Toni's in unspoken appreciation. Toni was nothing if not predictable.
Jen swatted Toni aside, which devolved into a scuffling match between them that would have likely turned heads and raised eyebrows from anyone who wasn't familiar with exy. The sport tended to attract a certain type of people with a distinct disposition, and Tyler wasn't even surprised that someone as seemingly outwardly friendly and harmless as Toni off the court could muscle his way into a grappling match with a girl as similarly unaggressive without a racket in her hand. He shuffled away from them before he could get drawn into their playful fighting.
"Alright, Noah?" Tyler said, nodding towards Kurt to include him in the greeting. "Had a good summer?"
Noah, appearing nothing if not bored in his recline, only managed to open his mouth before he was interrupted. "Alright, alright, you pair. Pipe down before you hurt yourselves."
Tyler turned at Hernandez's voice, already smiling as his coach stepped into the room. Hernandez wasn't a particularly big man, and he wasn't any kind of imposing, but Tyler had an affection for him that entailed respect. He raised a hand in a wave, and Hernandez returned his smile before switching his attention back to Jen and Toni. "You have far too much energy for your first day back."
"Aw, come on, Coach." Toni beamed up at him from where he had Jen in a loose headlock. He released her without a flinch as she jabbed his belly. "We're just super excited to be back."
Hernandez's smile returned as an eye-crinkling grin. He was always weak to Toni's good humour. "So you should be. We've got a season just around the corner."
"A little further away than just around the corner," Kurt said to the ceiling. "We've got weeks."
"Which we'll need," Toni reminded him. "We have no people! All out seniors are gone!"
Tyler nodded sagely as grimaces sketched across faces and lips pursed. The Dingos had never been great, it was true, but their previous year had gone well. Better than Tyler had seen of them in the entire time he'd been a part of the team.
"I've been doing my best, Coach," Toni continued, "putting the word out and recruiting. We'll need a couple of every position, even if Noah thinks he's got us covered for goals."
"Which I do," Noah said. "Focus more on the other positions –"
"But even so," Toni said, overriding him and turning back to Hernandez, "it'll be a battle to manage as well as we did last year. Real tough, Coach."
"I don't suppose anyone managed to get a scholarship last year?" Jen asked, brushing herself free of the wrinkles Toni had left on her. She looked at Hernandez hopefully, if with more than a little resigned expectancy. "I didn't see any college reps at our last game, but still. Any luck?"
Tyler settled himself on the bench, butting Kurt's legs aside. The Dingos weren't a tight team, but there was camaraderie between them that begged curiosity and hopefulness for their graduates. Tyler was as resigned as Jen to the impossibility of it, given that few enough people knew where Millport was, let alone paid any respect to their exy team. If anything, it would be a miracle if –
"Well, now that you mention it."
Tyler's chin snapped up from Kurt's nudging foot, swinging towards Hernandez. His mouth flopped open soundlessly before he could think to reply. "Someone got recruited?"
Hernandez was smiling again. A small smile this time that hid swelling delight. Tyler couldn't withhold his own returning, and shared it with Jen across the room, with Toni as Toni all but bounced on the balls of his feet. "No shit, really? Who? Was it Benji? It was, wasn't it? He'd too showy to miss –"
"Actually," Hernandez cut in, folding his arms slowly across his chest, "it was Neil."
Tyler's mouth flopped open again, and he distractedly knew he wasn't the only one. Surprise buffeted him for only a moment, however, before his jaw snapped shut.
Neil. Neil Josten. Their rookie striker from the previous year who by all accounts had never stepped on an exy court in his life before the previous year. Neil, who claimed as much but proceeded to pick up the sport so quickly that Tyler almost didn't believe him.
Neil was good. Really good, even. Not a showman like Benji had been, and not as intensely accurate as their old striker Meghan with her shots, but good enough that the previous year Tyler had sent his passes his way more often than taking a shot at goal himself. Good enough to be head-hunted, though?
Toni had ceased his bouncing, was bumbling his own surprise that quickly devolved into excitement, but Tyler only half heard him. He didn't really know anything about Neil. As quiet as Kurt was, though in a reserved rather than lazy fashion, he'd never been one to mix with the rest of the team. Never one to speak unless spoken to, or to put his foot forward and offer himself up to the play. He'd taken an increasingly frequent position on the court throughout the previous season, however, because Hernandez had recognised his skill and rapid improvement, but Tyler…
Tyler knew nothing about him. No one did. Speculation circulating the school was that he'd been a bit of a weirdo, a bit of a recluse, and probably had problems at home for the way he seemed to eye everyone around him with suspicion, but beyond that… nothing.
But Neil? Head hunted? Taken up by a university team?
"Who?" Toni asked, catching Tyler's attention and hauling it back to Hernandez's pleased expression. "Who recruited him? Was it UA? 'Cause I've heard their team is –"
"No, no, it wasn't UA," Hernandez said, his smile widening. As Toni silenced, regarding him expectantly, he shrugged and said offhandedly, "David Wymack came to your final game last year. To quote him and Kevin Day who came with him they 'had to have him'."
Tyler nearly fell off the bench. Toni yelped, Jen blurted out a shrill "what the fuck!" and even Kurt jerked upright, eyes wide.
Impossible. Unbelievable. It was astounding enough that Tyler's brain entirely blanked of all but a resounding "holy shit" to echo Jen's vocalised incredulity. David Wymack. The Coach of the Palmetto State Foxes. More importantly, though –
"Kevin Day?" Noah's voice was slightly hushed, awed as he slowly rose to his feet. "Kevin Day was here?"
Hernandez looked nothing if not delighted. "Yep."
That was it. A single word and the flood gates opened to pour forth a torrent of questions. Tyler couldn't even tell which came from himself and which from his teammates.
"He was here? He watched our game?"
"Oh my god, are you serious?"
"The actual Kevin Day?"
"Wymack? As in the coach of the Foxes?"
"Isn't that a Class I team?"
"Are you saying -?"
"Does that mean -?"
" – can't believe –"
" – no way it could be –"
"Neil's playing for the goddamn Foxes?!"
Hernandez stood in the centre of the room, nodding and replying monosyllabically to each question. He glanced towards Toni as Toni latched onto his arm, pleading for confirmation, then to Jen when she blurted out another string of incredulity. It was only when Tyler managed to speak over the rest of the team that he replied properly.
"But wait, aren't the Foxes kind of crazy? That's terrifying. He'll get eaten alive."
At Tyler's question, the rest of the flurry abruptly died. Hernandez turned towards him, and for the first time his smile died a little too. Tyler almost regretted his words, except – well, they were the Foxes. And they were kind of crazy. "He'll be fine," Hernandez said with only a slight edge to his voice to suggest he'd asked himself that same question before Tyler had even known to voice it. "Besides, I'm sure we'll hear how he's going soon enough."
"Wait, so – wait." Toni held up his hand before closing his eyes and pressing his fingers to his temple. His brow furrowed as though he was struggling with a thought before he opened them again. "How did none of us know about this?"
"It hasn't been in the news," Noah said.
"Exy news isn't usually in regular news unless it's the big games," Jen said.
"I know. But it hasn't been in sports news either."
"The NCAA - and Coach Wymack too, for that matter – requested his addition to the team be kept a secret before the season started," Hernandez said. "For Neil's safety as much as anything else."
"His safety?" Tyler asked. It didn't leave him with any confidence of the Foxes' sanity. They were all violent delinquents after all. He knew hardly anything about them, but it was practically their subheading.
"Word's been put out today, though," Hernandez said, sparing him another glance. "It should be all over the 'Net, I'd say."
For a beat, no one spoke. No one moved. Then, like a switch flicked, Tyler and his team scrambled for the door.
"Hey!" Hernandez called after them as they raced down the inner hallway for the door. "Weren't we having a team meeting?"
"Sorry, Coach," Tyler called over his shoulder. "We'll be right back."
"We'll bring printout's for you, Coach!" Jen shouted, her voice echoing down the hallway as she led the way through the doors and back onto school grounds.
They raced for the library without another backwards glance, Hernandez's words echoing after them, but none of them looked back. Tyler's heart was pounding in his chest with a bursting thrill of excitement that he doubted would be alleviated even when he and his teammates had scoured every inch of the internet for information.
Neil had been recruited. He was playing for a college team, and not just any team but the Palmetto State Foxes. He was playing on the same team as Kevin Day. As crazy as the rest of the Foxes were – and they were, if every news headline about them spoke truthfully – they were still a Class I team, and – and it was Kevin Day.
It was incredible. Unbelievable. Except it had happened. And to someone from Millport at that.
Tyler knew he wasn't good enough to be a college exy player. Definitely not a Class I player. But his final year at Millport as starting striker suddenly looked to be even more exciting and thrilling than he'd anticipated. After all, what were the odds that someone he knew, someone he'd played with, would become famous practically overnight?
The Foxes. Kevin Day. NCAA Class I Exy. Sometimes miracles did happen, even in forgotten towns like Millport, Arizona.
The crowd went wild. The cheers and screams, the hollers and shouts of excitement, were deafening. Even through the television, Tyler was all but blown away by the sheer force of it.
That wasn't why he stared open-mouthed at the screen, though.
"Holy shit," Jen muttered at his side.
On the television, the two teams walked slowly towards one another. Hands were shaken, heads nodded, and rackets finally fully lowered to signify the proper end of the match. Orange and white, tan and black.
"Is that really…?" Toni said before trailing off, for once in his life rendered speechless.
The commentators spoke, words glowing with praise and enthusiasm. Tyler heard them, listened to their commendations, but none of it quite registered. His gaze was focused on the corner of the screen that still showed the court, the players as they filed off, and he mentally checked them off in his head.
Danielle Wilds, the captain and dealer alongside Allison Reynolds. Matthew Boyd, Aaron Minyard, and Nicholas Hemmick, the three backliners. Renee Walker and Andrew Minyard as the goalkeepers, and Kevin Day, fucking Kevin Day, alongside Seth Gordon as the strikers.
And Neil. Neil Josten, the rookie striker, who was –
"Fuck, he's really good."
The words finally drew Tyler's gaze away from the screen towards the voice who had spoken. Julian, one of the new Dingos strikers, was staring as open-mouthed and incredulously at the screen. He, like the other new recruits, turned that incredulity onto Tyler and the rest of his original team with expectancy that demanded explanation.
Tyler didn't have an explanation. Not for what he'd just seen.
Neil had been good when Tyler had played with him. A little reserved, a quiet player just like he was with everything at school, but definitely good and unabashedly committed to the game. He'd been improving too, or he had been from what Tyler could see. He'd never paid much attention to him until Hernandez had decided to put him on the court as a starting striker.
But even then, Tyler hadn't really noticed. He hadn't properly seen. He definitely hadn't seen the kind of playing that he'd just witnessed on the television of Jen's living room that they'd appropriated for the sole purpose of watching the opening game as a team. Pizza and pizza boxes lay scattered and abandoned around the room, and Tyler didn't think anyone had said a word or taken a bite since at least half time. Watching every pass and every goal had consumed the attention of everyone in the room, and the attentive silence was broken only by groans, shouts of protest, and murmurs of admiration.
The Millport Dingos had become nothing if not ardent fans of the Palmetto State Foxes since the beginning of term. How could they not be when one of their own was a primary player? Neil might have been a student at their school for only a year, but he'd still played on their team. He was still one of theirs.
Tyler had been as enthusiastic as the rest of his teammates in learning everything about the Foxes he could. Alongside his rapidly growing worship of the team, a team that was as violent and broken as they were small, he'd grown to learn exponentially more of each of its players. From Andrew Minyard's psychotic tendencies to Allison Reynolds' wealthy family ties, he'd painted a picture of each Fox in the weeks since he'd discovered Neil had joined their line.
As such, it became quickly apparent that Tyler knew next to nothing about Neil. No one on the team did or had. He had never seen Neil's parents, never exchanged more than a word or two with him, and didn't know the first thing about him other than that he managed well enough at school not to fail, was a bit of a loner, but was nonetheless the subject of more than a few crushes of the girls in Tyler's year. That was it.
But the Foxes were specifically chosen. Tyler had heard rumours of that fact, but they'd been confirmed with barely more than a single shovelful of digging on the internet. David Wymack recruited from broken families and shattered pasts. Hernandez hadn't spoken a word of any of Neil's troubled history and Tyler hadn't expected him to, but… really? Neil had it bad enough that he was eligible to be a Fox? Tyler almost didn't want to know what bumped him up to such standards.
What he would like to know, however, was how in the hell Neil had gotten that good.
"He's gotten, like, heaps better," Toni said, still staring at the television screen. "Like, heaps."
"He was always good," Jen said.
"But not that good," Noah said.
"What's he been doing, practicing twenty-four seven for the past few months?" Toni asked, finally turning towards the rest of the team.
Tyler could only shrug, though he couldn't help but agree. The game he'd just witnessed had been insanely impressive. Watching college-level exy was one thing, but Class I was entirely another. The Breckenridge Jackals were fierce, their ranks impressive, but the Foxes had met them where they were rather than being bulldozed. Kevin Day was practically a god on the court, even playing right-handed, Andrew Minyard was a demon in the goals, and Renee Walker only slightly less impressive because she was implicitly compared to him, and Matthew Boyd was a barrelling force like a single-man army in defence.
And Neil. Neil was really good.
Not as good as Gordon, maybe. Definitely not as good as Day, but few people were. And yet even having paid him barely any notice beyond that of a fellow teammate, Tyler knew Neil had improved out of sight. More than that –
"He plays totally differently," he said, turning back to the screen as it began playbacks of the match. "I swear, he's really different."
"Better," Toni said.
"Yeah, but it's more than that." Tyler gestured to the screen as it ran through a playback that showed a brilliant pass between Neil and Day. It seemed to be following through with a series of Neil's highlights, for a moment later the screen displayed a purely exceptional goal that Tyler knew the Neil he'd played with wouldn't have been capable of. "He's way more aggressive then he was. Right?"
A glance at his teammates showed incomprehension in some and tentative agreement in others. Only Noah, perhaps the one person in the team as dedicated to watching professional exy as Tyler was, nodded in fervent agreement.
"Definitely," he said. "He's like a different player."
"I don't know," Jen said slowly. "I always got the impression he was holding back a bit."
Tyler turned a frown towards her. "What?"
She shrugged, reaching for her abandoned plate of pizza. "You might not have seen it quite so much, being a striker and up there with him, but at the other end of the court I got to watch him more. He always seemed to be holding himself back, I reckon."
Tyler exchanged a glance with Noah, who appeared just as surprised as Tyler felt. "Really?" Tyler asked.
Jen shrugged again. "I mean, I'm surprised, for sure. But less surprised than if, say, Toni appeared after a couple of months playing on a college court like he was meant to be there."
Toni didn't even protest to the truth of her words, and Tyler couldn't blame him. He certainly wouldn't have claimed himself capable of improving to such standards.
Turning to the television, Tyler tuned back into the commentators as they proceeded in their rundown of the match. His eyes were glued to the screen, snapping into focus whenever a Fox appeared in a re-run, but his mind was elsewhere. Obsessing, some might say – some like his younger brother who had bullied him off the computer at home numerous times in the past weeks with complaints that he was "using up all the internet when you geek out like that". Tyler would admit that yes, he was a little obsessed. Not even purely with the Foxes but with the boy named Neil who he hadn't bothered to take the time to know. It was impossible not to be a little fixated when such a Cinderella story took place in their small town. Even those who weren't fans of exy knew a vague overview of the miracle that had transpired.
Neil was a mystery. A quiet yet surprisingly aggressive mystery who only showed that aggression on the court. Tyler had always followed professional exy like a blind man gazing up at the sun for the first time, but this year was different. With a sincerely vested interest, he almost couldn't look away.
As it turned out, Neil wasn't quite so quiet.
"Did you see it, Coach?" Toni called across the court as soon as Hernandez showed up for their training on Monday afternoon.
Tyler paused in his stretching, slowly straightening as Hernandez planted himself in their midst. "Do I even have to ask what you're talking about anymore?"
Toni grinned, and he wasn't the only one. Tyler had been smiling just as widely for almost the entirety of the weekend. It was impossible not to after watching the Foxes' match the previous Friday. More importantly, however, it was damn-near impossible to feel anything but hysterically excited after watching re-runs of the Kathy Ferdinand show from Saturday morning.
Tyler had missed it. Nothing and no one could wake him up before ten o'clock on a Saturday, so even the chronic early-riser Jen hadn't bothered. He'd received a frantic phone call before mid-morning, however, and almost couldn't make out her words in their frenzy of enthusiastic gushing. When he'd been able to decipher it, he couldn't hasten to his computer fast enough.
"The match was fucking incredible," Jen said. "I've watched it about a dozen times."
"Yeah, but the interview?" Toni spun towards her and thumped a fist into his chest atop his heard as though he was swearing allegiance. "I've never seen something so beautiful in all my life. I've seen that at least a dozen times."
"It was beautiful," Trish, their new dealer, said with eyes shining. For someone usually so quietly spoken, she was nothing short of gushing herself whenever it came to the Foxes. "I could quote lines from it."
"Oh, you and me both," Toni said, spinning towards her instead. "'I have a bit of an attitude problem', wasn't it?"
"And that 'congratulations and big deal'?" Trish's eyes shone. "I would get as a tattoo if I was old enough.
"Oh, me too. Who knew Neil had a spine?"
"I definitely didn't see that coming," Noah said, shaking his head with the same incredulity he'd worn since Tyler had bumped into him that morning. "I have to say, though, I'm impressed."
"Me too!" Trish all but squealed.
"Yeah, but that's because you have a not-so-secret crush on Neil," Toni said with a wink.
Trish's cheeks immediately flushed crimson. "Shut up."
"Notice she doesn't deny it."
"I said shut up!"
"Leave her alone, Toni," Jen said. "Everyone knows you're practically panting after Allison."
"Well, she's hot. Can you blame me? And she plays like a badass."
"I admire Neil's playing, too," Trish said. "It's not just – like, I don't just –"
"Sure, try and make excuses, Trish," Toni said with another wink. Trish squawked and dove into self-defence, flapping excuses once more, and Tyler couldn't help but laugh. He wasn't the only one.
"You guys are obsessed," Kurt said, rolling his eyes. Of the Dingos, he was about the only one who wasn't enthusiastically supportive of everything Fox-related.
Tyler noticed Hernandez nodding his agreement, though he appeared amused more than exasperated. "I take it you're referring to the Kathy Ferdinand show?" he said.
"It really was a thing of beauty, Coach," Tyler said, sidling up to him. "I honestly would never have picked it of Neil."
"You and me both," Hernandez said. "Even after seeing him turn down Coach Wymack, I wouldn't have picked –"
"What?" Tyler blinked, staggering half a step backwards. He barely heard the continued clamour of Trish chasing Toni across the court. "He did what?"
Hernandez nodded, shooting him a smile that was almost a smirk. "Maybe I should have guessed he was hiding a bit of zest after that."
"Yeah, I think so," Tyler murmured, then shook himself out of his own stupor. "Did you see it, though? The interview?"
"I saw it," Hernandez said.
"He practically called Riko a selfish bastard right to his face and said that the Ravens only qualified because of their coach."
"Yeah, I saw."
"Called him scared, too. He said Riko would choke on his own words at the end of the season."
Hernandez cocked his head. "I think you're almost as much of a fan of Neil as Trish is?"
Tyler felt his cheeks flush. "A different kind of fan, I think," he muttered, glancing back at the scattering of his team as they continued to fling excitement and appreciative quotations at one another. "I guess I'm just kind of surprised."
"I mean, it's really cool. Neil is kind of…" Tyler scuffed the side of his head awkwardly, cursing the heat that rose even hotter in his cheeks. "He's really cool, you know?"
Hernandez chuckled. "Are you a bit star-struck, maybe, Tyler?"
Hernandez laughed again. He dropped a hand onto Tyler's shoulder. "You would have to be one of the most enthusiastic kids I've ever had on my team. It's no surprise you'd idolise someone who's both on the same level as you and infinitely out of reach."
Tyler hunched his shoulders and ducked his head, but he didn't shrug Hernandez's hand off. "Yeah, well… yeah. Maybe."
"Just be aware that you don't see everything that goes on behind closed doors."
Glancing up at Hernandez, Tyler watched as his smile faded a little. "Coach?"
Hernandez met his gaze but only shook his head in reply. With another pat on Tyler's shoulder, he stepped forwards and clapped his hands for attention. "Alright, everyone! It's all very exciting, I know –"
"But did you see it, Coach?" Toni immediately interrupted, skidding to a stop a dozen steps away. Trish all but crashed into him.
"Yes, it's very exciting." Hernandez shot Toni a glance with raised eyebrows and Toni subsided with a grin, his arm slunging over Trish's shoulders as though she hadn't just been chasing him down seconds before. "But unless I'm mistaken, we have practice booked for…" He glanced down at his watch. "Now, in fact. Shall we?"
"I have to leave early, Coach," Kurt said, raising a lazy hand.
"Again?" Noah shot him a scowl. "Do you even want to be here?"
"Shut up, Kurt."
Hernandez clapped his hands together. "That's enough, if you please. Can we get a move on? Jen, can you grab the rackets?"
"Yes, Coach," she said, immediately trotting for the storage closet.
"The rest of you, I want two laps of the court. You too, Kurt."
"But I'm a goalie," Kurt complained.
"Yes, but you're still a part of the team."
Kurt groaned, but he fell into step with the rest of them as they began a steady jog. Almost before they were out of Hernandez's hearing, Trish and Toni were back at it, though this time their fight was forgotten and replaced with a resurgence of excitement. It grew more and more animated with every step until Tyler found himself unable to resist picking up his pace to fall into step alongside them.
"Riko is such a dick, though," Trish was saying. "He was all polite, but you can tell."
"He's not," Toni rebuffed. "Totally not. You're just saying that 'cause Neil says it."
"Neil didn't say it, and I am not."
"Riko's a really good player," Tyler said, adding his two cents.
Trish snapped her attention towards him. Her huff likely had nothing to do with the moderate pace of their jogging. "He's not as good as Kevin, I reckon. Even if he is number one. And Neil will be better than him some day, too."
"Oi, Riko's an awesome player."
"Yeah, but Neil's already gotten so much better in such a short time, and Riko's a dick."
"That doesn't really have anything to do with his playing."
"I know, but he's still a dick."
"I can't wait to see the Foxes play the Ravens."
"Oh my god, I know, right?"
Tyler lost himself in the words of his teammates, an exchange that rapidly expanded to include the rest of their team trailing behind them, too. Whether he disagreed or not with what Trish, Toni, or any of the rest of them said didn't really matter, but Herandez's words? Tyler hadn't thought of himself as star struck, but…
Maybe he was. Maybe just a little bit.
Thank you to all of the lovely people who commented last chapter! I'm so happy you're enjoying it and I hope you liked the latest chapter. I'll be updating again soon!
A/N: just a heads up, I've set this story in what is projected as being the canonical time period. As such, some of the references are from the 2006-2007s. It feels funny jumping back in time, but it would be a bit of a culture shift so... yeah.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For most kids the Christmas holidays was far too short. Most teenagers did too, of which Tyler was more than familiar. At barely a week, it wasn't enough time to truly unwind, unpack from the past school term, and reboot for the coming months. For those in their final year, it meant a few days of respite before diving back into the deep end of cramming for the encroaching final days of their high school careers.
Not for Tyler, though. He should have been making the most of the period to engage in his own bouts of cramming, and he did whenever he couldn't find a good enough excuse not to, but the break that year felt far too long. The end of the Christmas holiday couldn't come quickly enough. Unfortunately, as he was made more cruelly aware of that year than ever before, the holiday dates for college students and the NCAA season didn't align with those that were afflicted upon him.
"We have weeks," Jen grumbled, flicking her pen against the pockmarked table she slouched across. "Weeks and weeks before it starts up again."
Tyler glanced over his shoulder at her. That early in the morning the school library was mostly empty, and the pocket for school computer in the back corner was suspended in silence. Or silence other than Jen's grumbles, Noah's mutters, and the clicking of Trish's finger on the mouse as she flicked through page after page on the computer at Tyler's side.
It was just the four of them, though Toni might have kept them company had the hour not been quite so early. But had to be early; Tyler didn't have the time to spare outside of classes, homework hours, and afternoon practice every other day to immerse himself in his passion. Being a year younger than most of them, Trish had a little more time, but even she was stretched to embrace their research pursuit to its fullest.
Not that it amounted to much. Not when there was so little new content to quench their parched, addicted thirsts.
Turning back to his own computer, Tyler huffed in a heavy exhalation of heartfelt agreement to Jen's mournful words. "I know."
"I'm dying here," Jen said.
"You and me both."
"Those little slivers that Nicky, Matt, and Allison give just aren't enough."
"And they have absolutely nothing to do with exy," Noah muttered.
Tyler shot him a glance too and couldn't help but notice Trish's glare as she turned alongside him. He didn't speak though, and Trish only pursed her lips and spun back to her computer. While Noah and Jen were all about the game – for which Tyler could wholly support – Trish seemed to have shifted her attention as much to the players and their increasingly steep celebrity status as their performance on the court. Tyler found himself heartily supporting that too because… because he…
He might be just a little bit the same.
In what was reflectively a very short time, Tyler had become obsessed. He knew he was, his family and friends knew he was, and they all might even admit to it being a little bit of an unhealthy fixation, but he didn't care. He spent hours when he should be in bed soaking up every ounce of newspaper and magazine articles, official pictures and gameplays, and even the occasional candid shot that circulated in the right circles if a particular fan dug deep enough in the right corners of the internet. Tyler had never had much to do with social media, even if his friends had begun to jump onto the Facebook bandwagon in recent years and Toni had even downloaded the new Twitter App when it was released. In the last few months, however, he'd been barely able to pull himself away from it.
Tyler clutched his phone and responded with a knee-jerk reflex whenever a notification alerted him to a post that Nicky made on Twitter, or a picture that Matt or Allison posted. He kept a series of websites stored in his bookmarks to scroll through at least once a day, looking for new details and the latest speculations from sports commentators and other fans alike. Tyler immersed himself more deeply than anyone else besides perhaps Trish, and he loved every second of it. Just as much, he loved the little pieces he discovered of each of the Foxes that culminated in a collection of features, painting them as real people outside of their awe-inspiring performances on the court.
Like that Nicholas was Nicky, Matthew was Matt, and Danielle was never Danielle but Dan. That Renee was stoutly religious – for which Noah in particular seemed to approve – and Allison seemed incapable of taking a bad photo, even when she was sweaty and glaring fiercely at the camera. That Kevin was as impressive off the court as he was on it, though his picture-perfect smile was still surprising to Tyler after seeing so many shots of his humourless expression taken by adoring fans without his notice.
Tyler learned how long each Fox had been playing for, where they'd come from, and the history of their own high school exy careers. He gleaned that Dan had been the captain – which didn't surprise him in the least – and that Andrew had picked it up in juvie – which was more surprising but then again, not really. He also learned that Andrew had nearly been a Raven but for reasons he hadn't disclosed he denied the offer Evermore gave him. Exy news stories posited that it was because of his brother and cousin, but Tyler wasn't so sure. Andrew never seemed to care about anything or anyone, despite his impressive goalkeeping skills.
More than all of that, though, Tyler learned the nitty gritty details of the Foxes' everyday lives from postings on the media that he'd once kept himself so removed. He knew that Allison always posted a morning greeting to her wealth of followers, and that Nicky had terrible grammar. He had a seemingly endless feed of pictures from Matt, and thus mostly of Dan, and didn't need to see the love heart emojis or crossed kisses to know that they were dating. Tyler leapt upon anything Fox-related the instant it was bared on the internet, regardless of whether it was in class that the headline or posting cropped up.
It was why Tyler knew the instant that Seth died and he nearly spat his breakfast cereal back into his bowl. Why he knew the second it was announced that Andrew had been admitted into hospital and swore in the middle of his history class. It was also why he knew that, when it came to Neil, he'd apparently disappeared for the last few weeks of the previous year.
It was no secret to anyone that Tyler was an avid fan of Neil. Even more than the rest of the Foxes with perhaps the exception of Trish, for he knew him, had played with him, and dammit, it was simply the most incredible thing to have ever happened to him even if he hadn't been aware of just how incredible it was at the time. He'd played with an NCAA Class I player. He'd played with a Fox, the most improved and impressive team of the season, and Neil of all people, the no-name who had become one of the most talked-about strikers in the division that season. It was ridiculous, and – and – and incredible.
And Tyler hadn't found a sliver of insight into where Neil was for weeks. Not a word nor a picture, not even from Nicky or Matt who seemed inclined to post a joking comment or a sneakily taken picture of him every so often.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Tyler wasn't worried but…
"This is killing me," Trish muttered at his side. The stabbing clicks of her mouse punctuated her words. "Seriously, it's killing me."
Tyler grunted. If anyone could relate to him on the matter of Neil Josten and how incredibly cool it was that he'd been a Dingo less than a year ago, it was Trish. She might have a slightly different tinge to her adoration than Tyler did – or maybe not, for he wasn't even sure himself – but for whatever reason Tyler was grateful for her like-minded obsession. It was validating to have a comrade in arms.
"Tyler, did you do the math homework yet?" Jen asked.
"No," Tyler said, clicking onto another page.
"Damn. I was hoping to copy off you."
"Do your own work," Noah said.
"Look, just because you're a nerd who can somehow juggle exy and school work doesn't mean that everyone can."
"Maybe if you were a little more time efficient –"
"I am time efficient! It's just hard!"
"You've been sitting here for thirty minutes already and I haven't seen you write a single thing."
"Yeah, well, that's because…"
Tyler tuned them out as he flicked between open pages on the browser before him. He scanned the line of players' stats that he'd read a dozen times before and mostly memorised all of the most important players. It was cathartic in a way, to jump to the names of the Foxes and see the evidence of their performance when compared to their absence in the Christmas break. Somehow soothing.
"Oh my god."
Shaken from his scrolling, Tyler glanced towards Trish. "What?"
Her eyes were wide. She was leaning so close to her computer screen that she couldn't possibly have been able to read whatever was written on it. Or see the picture, as the case may be, for that picture dominated the page.
"Oh my god," she said again. "Is he -? Oh. Oh, that's –"
"What is it?" Jen asked, perking up behind them. "Something interesting?"
"It's horrible," Trish said, and the slight whimper in her voice was so unexpected Tyler was startled into rising from his seat.
Jen was at his side and leaning over Trish's shoulder almost before she'd cleared her own seat, and though Noah was slightly slower to follow it was by only a second. They peered at the screen as Jen tugged Trish back a little into her seat, and Tyler hardly noticed when Trish began to gush furiously under her breath again. Not when his attention was fixed on the screen.
It wasn't a professional image by any stretch. It wasn't a professional site either, merely one of many dedicated to following the everyday lives of sports players, with increasing specificity towards exy and the Foxes the deeper and more refined a digger dug. The caps lock and overuse of exclamation marks was something of a giveaway, though Tyler thought the written loudness of the words "THEY'RE BACK!" and "WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?!" was wholly justified.
The shot managed to capture the majority of the team, which was impressive. Or at least the younger players, Tyler knew, because he knew the birth dates of them all as well as his own these days. Nicky was leaning against the sleek black car Tyler recognised as his own, his expression uncharacteristically solemn. Kevin was climbing out on the other side, as expressionless as his candid shots always were, and Aaron was already heading across what appeared to be the parking lot, though he was looking over his shoulder as he did so.
Tyler barely noticed the three of them, however. He spared a little more time for Andrew where he stood at the driver's side door – he was out of hospital? When had that happened? – but more importantly was Neil.
"Is that… Neil?" Trish asked, breaking her own blabbering and shooting a glance at the rest of them over her shoulder.
"What happened to his face?" Jen asked, her voice hushed.
"And his hair," Noah said.
Tyler didn't answer any of them, and not only because he didn't know. He couldn't help staring at what, despite the relatively poor quality image, was a distinctly blue-eyed, auburn haired Neil Josten. A Neil Josten who appeared to have been steamrolled right after going several rounds in a boxing ring with a world champion.
His face was a mess of bruises. Bandages stuck to his cheeks. The evidence of more bandages peeked out from his sleeves. The bags beneath his eyes were so dark and heavy that Tyler wondered if he'd slept a wink in the time since he'd last heard word of him.
It was as though he'd been doused with cold water. In the absence of word or picture, Tyler always felt as though the lives of the Foxes seemed to freeze, as though nothing happened to them between camera shot and interview, between game and game. It was why it struck him week after week just how impressive the team's improvement was, how impressive Neil's was. It seemed that over the course of every seven day stint they managed to just get so much better.
And things somehow slipped by that were so much worse.
"Do you think he got into a fight?" Trish asked, her voice warbling a little.
"Yeah, right," Noah said. "That's not a fight. That's a goddamn beating."
"Fucking hell." Jen shook her head. She butted her shoulder against Tyler's. "Can't imagine that happening to him, right? Not when he used to be so quiet."
"Except he's not quiet anymore," Noah said. "He's proved that when he pokes at Riko on the few chances he gets."
"He wouldn't get into an actual fight though, would he?" Trish asked. She looked up at Noah, then to Tyler and Jen with eyes widening even further. "Would… he?"
Tyler didn't answer. He couldn't bring himself to look away from the picture on the computer screen, captured unbeknownst to them in a moment the Foxes had their guards down. He was made all too aware that, however much he might wish for otherwise and consider differently with the sheer amount he knew of them, he wasn't friends with these people. Not with the animated and enthusiastic Nicky, nor the kindly Renee that always seemed so friendly in her post-game interviews. Not even with Neil, and that probably stung the most.
Did he even know anything about Neil other than his stats? Other than that he was a ridiculously good player and had become so in such an impressively short about of time? Anything besides what he'd read others say of him, what he'd seen of him on the court and in pictures and interviews? Tyler hadn't been Neil's friend when they were at school together, and even if he'd noticed the addition of another striker on the team it hadn't been with any particular enthusiasm.
In the months since his rapid rise in fame, Tyler had felt the urge to be closer to Neil, to someone he'd come to idolise as much as Kevin Day if not more because he actually knew him, but… did he? Did he actually know anything of him at all? Tyler couldn't help but wonder, and with how he looked –
"Do you think that's his natural colouring?" Jen asked, and Tyler felt her turn towards him even if he couldn't return the glance. "He had darker hair when he was at school, didn't he? And I swear his eyes weren't blue."
"They weren't before Christmas," Trish said. Turning back to the computer before her, she pulled up another window and made a quick internet search for 'Foxes' and 'Neil Josten'. "See?" she said, pointing a finger at the picture that appeared as though none of them would believe her. As if they hadn't all been very aware of exactly what every Fox looked like down to the inch. "It's definitely different."
"Change of taste, maybe?" Jen asked, though even she didn't seem to believe herself.
"Yeah, I'm sure," Noah said. "Right alongside getting himself beaten to a pulp."
"God, I hope he's okay," Trish said, chewing on a thumbnail as she clicked back to the candid shot. "He looks really, really bad."
"Do you think they'll interview him about it?" Jen asked
"Will he actually tell anyone anything?" Noah replied.
"True. The Foxes don't say all that much except what you'd expect."
"It's so frustrating. Fuck, I want to know!"
"Have you checked the forum posts under the picture?"
"Maybe there's a news article…"
"… see the blog that EverydayExy has…"
Tyler listened with half an ear. He agreed with his friends - he really did - but he could hardly think to contribute to their exchange. All he could do was stare at the picture before him and swim in the mess of his own swirling questions, the muddle of emotions that set his heart to skipping a beat and his leg jiggling under the table.
That year, exy had taken on a new form for him. Though he'd always been an avid watcher of professional games, Tyler hadn't expected it to overflow from the game itself as it so immensely had. But what he felt when he saw those pictures? When he'd realised Trish had found something?
Exy – the Foxes – had become something so much more than he'd ever expected. The Foxes and Neil in particular. Tyler wasn't even sure if he was more delighted or upset by the reality of his obsession as it presented itself. It seemed he'd developed something of a problem, and he wasn't sure if it was possible to climb out of it. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to.
A/N: Thank you, lovely people, for taking the time to read and especially for the beautiful comments! I appreciate them so, so much! Hope you liked the chapter and I'll see you next time :D
"No. No way."
"It's insane, but that's what it says."
"There's no way that's true. Seriously? You're seriously believing that?"
Toni slapped the newspaper down on the locker room bench, hand planted in the middle and atop the mugshot of the man front and centre. He cleared his throat theatrically before reading aloud. "'Nathan Wesninski, long-time suspect of illicit and dangerous activity, was found in the basement of his Baltimore home on Saturday morning. Neighbours claim they heard gunshots –'"
"That's bullshit," Jen said. She was still in her school gear having not yet retreated from the boys' locker to the girls' to change for practice that afternoon, and she didn't look to be leaving any time shortly. "Utter bullshit."
"It's true!" Toni said. Picking up the paper, he flipped it around and held it up for her inspection as though the entirety of their team hadn't been staring at their own copies for most of the day. "And look, he looks just like him."
"He does not," Trish said, her voice louder and even more resolute than it had been the first dozen times she'd refuted Toni that day. "Neil hardly looks anything like him at all."
Tyler couldn't really agree with her on that point. He didn't like the connotations - that Neil might in any way be related to a crime lord and mass murderer - but he couldn't deny the facts spread before him. It was impossible to overlook, regardless of how unbelievable it seemed.
Over the course of a few scant months, Tyler's opinion of Neil Josten had changed exponentially. He'd been a nobody of a player, good but not particularly noteworthy, who didn't interact with let alone speak to the rest of the Dingos exy team. Then he was the rookie striker for the Palmetto State Foxes, a fragmented team of delinquents and lunatics who could barely hold themselves together to finish a whole game.
With Seth's death, Neil became the starting striker, and he rose to the play. He wasn't only good enough; he fit the position as though he was made for it, and he and Kevin practically annihilated their opponents.
He spoke out on television, all but spat in Riko's face, and took every opportunity to stand up for the Foxes as though they were his long-lost family and him the sole person to defend their non-existent good name. He was the polar opposite of the quiet, reserved, and almost surly kid Tyler had known.
The change in his hair, his eyes, the tattoo of a number four that was revealed only a handful of weeks after Tyler had first seen the picture of his altered appearance – it was all one shocking revelation after another. Tyler watched the changes from afar like the audience member he was with no possible way to insert himself into the situation and ask just what the hell was going on and who Neil actually was.
And now this?
The Dingos didn't mix all that much outside of their practices and games, though they tended to more so that year because of the shared fascination with the Foxes. But when the headlines were released, the story of Nathan Wesninski and mention of his son Nathaniel, Tyler had high-tailed it to Jen's house a couple of blocks from his own and had barely been able to speak of anything else since.
Neil's name was Nathaniel. He was a bonafide fugitive.
His father was a criminal, a murderer, and had just been found dead in his own basement from a gunshot wound.
Neil – no, Nathaniel? Or was it still Neil? Tyler didn't know, but whatever he called himself, the boy Tyler had known had disappeared from the public eye along with every other whisper of the Foxes, as though they'd climbed into an airtight box and isolated themselves from the world and all of the swirling craziness it entailed. They'd disappeared, and it was just as the greatest influx of questions arose that had ever been.
Who was Neil? Or Nathaniel?
How had he been at their school, how had he gotten there, and just what had led him there in the first place given that reports and speculations placed him as an abused child on the run from his father.
And what the fucking hell had happened to him, because there weren't many pictures stolen but those that splattered across the internet? Those few pictures of Neil? It showed he'd been there. He'd been there when it happened. He'd been at his father's house in Baltimore when Nathan Wesninski had been killed.
Tyler lived and breathed exy that year and each year before it, but for once he found his obsession momentarily shifting its emphasis. When it came to the Foxes, his fascination had always included and focused most specifically upon Neil, but this was different. This was insane. This was the kind of story that people conjured on a whim but nobody believed for a second and were quickly laughed aside for the joke or prank that it was.
This joke wasn't swept aside. This prank wasn't unravelled to reveal the truth beneath. Tyler could barely believe it, but he had to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, it wasn't a prank at all.
"What are you all lollygagging about in here?"
Hernandez's voice interrupted the raucous excitement in the room, and every mouth stuttered into silence. Abashed chins ducked and eyes glanced sideways in unspoken correspondence. Tyler eyed Hernandez, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot as his coach spared him and every one of his teammates a stare and a raised eyebrow.
"It's just," Toni began, then paused as Hernandez glanced his way before bulling on. "You heard all about it, didn't you, Coach? About the Wesninski Case?"
Hernandez's face twitched into an unreadable expression. With a grunt, he folded his arms across his chest. "I heard about it."
As one, Tyler's teammates straightened a little, and Tyler felt himself do the same. "And?" Jen asked.
"And what of it?" Hernandez's eyebrow rose again. "I don't know what's going on any more than you do."
"But Coach," Toni scrambled to his feet, "you know about Neil, right?"
"His name's actually Nathaniel," Julian piped in, and Billie and Peter nodded in rapid agreement at his side. They all cringed slightly under Trish's glare, however, and not for the first time Tyler admitted to himself that she wasn't nearly so subdued as first impressions suggested of her.
"His dad's a crime lord," Toni continued. "A legit crime lord."
"And we played on the same court as him," Jen said, though she sounded more excited by the fact than disturbed.
"And now he's disappeared," Toni said.
"Disappeared." Noah snorted. "Just because he's lying low doesn't mean he's disappeared."
"Do you think he's a criminal too, then?" Julian asked, missing Trish's savage glare this time as he turned to Noah. "Did he give off creepy vibes?"
"He would not," Trish said.
"You weren't even there," Kurt said from the corner of the room, the first contribution he'd made since he'd taken a seat.
"Well?" Julian asked.
Kurt picked at his cuticles, for all appearances utterly bored of the discussion. "No. He didn't."
"I knew it," Trish said. "He wouldn't."
"You don't even know him!" Julian said, throwing his hands into the air.
"I'm starting to wonder whether any of us did, actually," Jen said, and Tyler couldn't help but silently agree. Even if he might wish for otherwise, it was the truth.
"Exactly," Hernandez said. "No one except Neil and the people he's told know the truth. Try to remember that, all of you."
"But Coach," Toni said, practically bouncing in place.
Hernandez held up a finger in his direction, and he only continued when Toni pursed his lips and demonstrated his silence. "We don't know anything about this situation," Hernandez said, speaking to the entire locker room, "which means we can't make speculations. That means no making up stories and sticking it online, if you please."
"As if we would," Noah said the very second that Toni muttered, "Damn. Opportunity missed." Noah shot him a frown that Toni missed entirely.
"I don't know about the rest of you," Hernandez continued, "but Neil never gave me any reason to think badly of him. Even if he wasn't friends with the rest of you, that's no reason to pin him with the crimes of his father – who, might I add, he hasn't even publicly confirmed. If he is, though, if anything, I'd say growing up with that kind of past hanging over your head is more credit to him, and I'd challenge the lot of you to think otherwise. Alright?"
Tyler winced, and a sidelong glance showed he wasn't the only one. "I suppose," Jen muttered.
Hernandez regarded her for a moment before glancing back to the rest of them. When no one else was forthcoming in speaking, he nodded shortly. "Alright, then. Gear up, the lot of you. Let's get down to practice."
The door didn't quite close behind him, but the locker room didn't shuffle into motion even after Hernandez's footsteps had faded away. When they did, the team to turned slowly to one another. Tyler found he wasn't the only one wearing his guilt for all to see.
"Well," Toni began, then faltered.
"I suppose he's right," Jen repeated. "Right?"
"Absolutely," Trish said, predictably jumping to Neil's defence as she hadn't wavered in the slightest with the day's confusion. "We don't have the right to judge. And he's still a really good player, which is the important thing."
"Right," Kurt said. "'Course that's why you're defending him."
"Shut up," Trish grumbled, arms folding across her chest.
"Still, though, it's kind of insane," Toni said. He fiddled with the newspaper in his hands, glancing at each one of them before resting his gaze on Tyler's. "Unbelievable, right? He totally didn't seem like that kind of kid, right, Ty?"
As though they'd been waiting for his contribution – though why, Tyler didn't know – all eyes turned upon him. Even Kurt, who Tyler suspected was at least a little more interested in the situation than he pretended. Under the weight of their attention, Tyler scrambled for a moment to collect his thoughts, to decide what he properly felt and thought.
Really, though, it wasn't much of a decision at all.
At the end of it all, after everything that Tyler had discovered of Neil and how terrifying, impossible, and incredible it all was, Hernandez was right. It was a little pathetic that it had taken his coach to point out the obvious to him, to nudge forth the reality of what he felt, but there was really only one thing Tyler could say on the matter.
"Neil is seriously one of the most insanely cool people I've ever had the chance to meet," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'd give my left kidney to be in the same room as him right about now."
Kurt rolled his eyes. Jen snickered. Toni openly laughed and Noah raised his gaze to the ceiling as though asking the heavens for an answer to Tyler's foolishness. Only Trish met Tyler's gaze, and her own smile was entirely agreeing. If nothing else, he knew he there was one more person on his team that shared his opinion, but even if he'd been alone it wouldn't change anything. Not a single damn thing.
Tyler was hooked. Stupefied, still a little disbelieving, but utterly hooked. And though it was horrifying and a little scary to think of Neil as the person that he truly was – maybe, probably, even if it hadn't been confirmed - that's he'd truly always been. Tyler was loving every second of the excitement.
A/N: I am SO SORRY that it has taken so long for this chapter to be put out! I've had it sitting her drafted for ages and just haven't had a split second away from the drama of life to fix it up.
Thank you so much for sticking with me to the end. Hope you like the last chapter :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"I'm in heaven," Trish said through a mouthful of chocolate croissant. "I think I could die happy now with no regrets."
Glancing towards where she walked at his side, Tyler could agree with the sentiment. He didn't think he'd ever seen anyone so blissfully content. Chocolate smeared the corner of her mouth, her eyes were heavy from a sleepless night, and her smile looked as though it had become a permanent fixture of her face.
Blissful. And it had nothing to do with the delicious breakfast she was eating, a twin of the one Tyler had just finished. He knew because he could relate entirely.
The exy season was over. Over by more than twelve hours. Over, and it had been one of the best – no, the best final that Tyler had ever seen. All of the re-runs, the live matches, the newspapers articles he'd read – none of them could compare to the match he'd witnessed only the night before.
It was fast. Incredibly fast. Brutal, and viciously so. The battle was furious, blood had been shed literally as much as figuratively, and it had been amazing. Tyler's seats hadn't been perfect, had been as close to the court as he could get in the manic seconds of booking after tickets had become available, but it hardly mattered. He could have stood outside of Edgar Allen's enormous black hulk of a court and simply listened to the thunderous cheering within and it would have been enough.
But he'd seen it. The white and orange, the black and red, the fierce frenzy of passes and goals, racket on racket on body as it slammed with intentional force rather than the accidental slips. The heat of the court and the chanting of voices. The smell of sweat – his own, the rest of the crowd, seemingly from the players themselves behind the plexiglass – and the intoxicating atmosphere that was at once maddeningly addictive, infinitely insufficient, and desperately satisfying.
And to top it all off, the Foxes had won. Regardless of the crazy moment Riko Moriyama pulled at the end – an act that Tyler seriously doubted was actually attempted murder because people didn't do shit like that - it was something truly epic.
Tyler had never experienced a night like that before. He doubted he ever would again.
Tyler hadn't managed any more than Trish had in the aftermath. Instead, he'd rewatched through the television and relived through his own memories every impossible point, every glorious trouncing of Fox over Raven. He'd spoken in adoration that he didn't have to dampen until his voice was hoarse, and Trish had gushed right back at him. Even when the sun had risen, Tyler's excitement had only died to a dull buzz under his skin, tethered by the exhaustion of his body rather than his own enthusiasm.
"I wish I'd seen more of their matches," Trish continued with a sigh, gazing wistfully into empty space as though she didn't even see the buzzing energy of the busy street around them. "Why didn't we see more of their matches, Tyler?"
Tyler shrugged, even if he knew. Exy game tickets were far from cheap, even when they were local enough to drive to without necessitating sleeping at a hotel or booking flights. His own savings had taken a brutal hit from the overnight trip, and even though it would have been worth it twice over, Tyler could understand the reasoning behind the rest of his friends when they'd declined his suggestion.
"My mom won't allow it," Noah had said sourly.
"I would literally kill to come, but I can't," Toni said, mournfulness pouting his bottom lip.
"You have to give me a blow-by-blow," Jen had said. "I'll never forgive you if you don't. And yes, I'll be watching it on TV, but you have to do it anyway."
Tyler would. He would have even if Jen hadn't asked. He was fairly sure he'd do the same for anyone who gave him a chance. Even Kurt, though he likely wouldn't want to hear any of it. Tyler might have reached the realisation in the past year that he had more desire to watch incredible players on the court than play exy himself, but that didn't mean his enthusiasm for the sport was any less. Some people were fans while other people were fanned over. Tyler just happened to be the former and he was more than content with his situation after the game he'd just witnessed.
"Next year," he promised Trish as she chewed through the last of her croissant with an expression of regret. He was certain that regret was for her words rather than the end of her breakfast and couldn't agree more. It was a beautiful day, the city around them was humming with mid-morning life, and even through the thrill of exhausted nerves Tyler felt the same regret. Why hadn't he gone to see any more games that season? He should have made the effort, and definitely for a Fox game.
"You'll come with me even after you graduate?" Trish asked. "Promise?"
Tyler snorted. "Are you kidding? Of course I will."
"Okay." Trish grinned. "I trust you. Even if you've got college friends you're going with, you have to invite me along too."
"You bet. You've been my main comrade-in-arms this year, Trish. I'm not going to just abandon you."
Trish's smile grew radiant. She practically skipped in place as they walked, utterly oblivious to the fact that she nearly knocked Tyler onto the busy road as she flung her arms around him in a fierce squeeze. "You're the best, Tyler." She released him with a final squeeze, stepping sideways to beam up at him as they continued walking. "Honestly, the best. If I hadn't had someone like you to freak out about all of this with this year, it would have been the worst! I think I would have just about –"
Trish choked. Jerking to a halt, she dissolved into a smattering of coughs, eyes abruptly bulging. Tyler stopped alongside her, laughing as he thumped a hand onto her back. "Jesus, calm down! Choking on a pastry is such a sad way to go."
Trish's cheeks had flushed red, her eyes watering. Despite her struggle for breath, she batted Tyler's hand away, shaking her head through her coughs. "No, that's – that's –" Another cough. "Fucking hell, it's not that!"
Tyler smirked. Trish wasn't one for cursing, even if he'd discovered she was far more vocal than he'd initially thought her to be. "Maybe you're not old enough to be eating solid foods yet," he teased. "I know you're the youngest on the team, Trish, but I didn't think –"
"Tyler," Trish snapped, slapping his arm where he still patted her shoulder. "Fucking hell, look!" With cheeks mottled and eyes dribbling from the strain of near-suffocation, Trish thrust out an arm and pointed across the road. Another cough was interrupted by a strangled, "fucking look!"
Tyler turned, craning his head slightly to peer around a bus and the series of cars that spread across his view. On the street busy with traffic both in pedestrians and vehicles, it was at first difficult to make out where Trish was pointing. When Tyler saw it, though, he nearly dissolved into a choking fit himself.
Busy the road might be, cluttered with shops and office buildings rather than houses as it was, but Tyler would never have expected to see that bus parked in the turning circle drive-in of a hotel half a block down. He never would have expected to see that man step out of the sliding front doors of the hotel either, nor those people trailing in his wake with distracted steps.
Tyler's heart stuttered to a stop in his chest. The sounds of the traffic died around him, the clatter of pedestrians along with it. He watched as David Wymack took himself to the bus's doors. He saw as first Dan Wilds – it was really her! – stepped out after him, followed closely by Matt Boyd with a bag slung over his shoulder, then Allison Reynolds dressed to the nines as though she were on a catwalk. Each of the Foxes followed, and with each one that emerged Tyler's heart skipped in a struggling attempt to start beating again.
Months before, Hernandez had called him star-struck. Tyler's younger brother said he was obsessed, and his teammates claimed he was 'the kind of fan that makes you cringe but you can also sort of sympathise with anyway'. Tyler suspected he was a bit of all three – or entirely all three – and was sure of it when Neil stepped out of the hotel doors and he couldn't help but flail a hand at Trish. She grasped his arm and clutched it as though it were the only thing keeping her on her feet.
"Oh my god," she said, shaking his arm by the wrist. "Oh my god, Tyler. That's them! That's really, really them!"
"Yeah," Tyler croaked. "It really is."
"Oh my god."
"It's seriously them."
"Can you believe it? We're legit just a street away!"
"We're only –"
Tyler's words were stolen from him as Trish jerked him into motion. "Come on," she said, ducking into a brief lull of traffic before them. "Fucking hell, Tyler, come on!"
"Trish," Tyler blurted out, "what're you -?"
"Come on, Tyler!"
It was a near-death experience. The lull was far too short, and Tyler stumbled over his feet in his haste. A car beeped at them, and he only managed a sparing wave of apology before Trish hauled him onto the sidewalk on the opposite side of the road. He nearly tripped again as she hastened onward, dragging him after her, and he couldn't have slowed even if he'd wanted to.
Which he didn't.
"You shouldn't annoy celebrities by going up to them and nagging them," Jen always said, even if she did sound regretful when she spoke, but Tyler didn't care. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, right? And besides, he'd known Neil. He'd played with him. A different Neil, a normal, quiet Neil who wasn't the goddamn son of a criminal or an NCAA Class I player. It had been an entirely different game they'd played, but that they'd been teammates at all had to count for something – right? Surely.
Whatever assurances Tyler had given himself, however, disappeared entirely when Trish ground to a half in the shadow of the bus. When the Foxes – the actual, real Palmetto State exy team – turned towards them with curious gazes, every thought flipped into numb awe. Those Foxes… mostly curious only, it was as terrifying as it was exhilarating to be so close.
As Tyler fought to meet every pair of eyes, to soak in every second of every sight, he quailed a little before Allison's raised eyebrow and Dan's slightly narrowed gaze, before the flat regard of one of the Minyard twins. He couldn't for the life of him tell which one it was, and it was thoroughly disconcerting given he knew the literal shoe size of both of them.
The numb stupor afflicted him, but as Trish stuttered at his side with similar wordlessness, he managed to scramble them together. "You're the Foxes," he blurted out, then winced as a heat rose in his cheeks. "Sorry, I'm – uh, we're – um…"
"We're massive fans," Trish squeaked, her grasp on Tyler's wrist tight to the point of being painful. "You guys are incredible."
Her voice warbled and was barely loud enough to carry over the traffic, but it seemed to help thaw the sheer, terrified awe Tyler found himself afflicted by. Mostly because Dan's eyes softened slightly, Allison's scepticism turned into a smirk, and the twin regarding them like a potential threat turned away to murmur something to Kevin Day at his side.
Fuck. Actual fucking Kevin Day. He felt so much taller in real life, even a dozen steps away.
"We were at your game last night," Tyler managed. "It was incredible."
"Thanks," Matt said, and though he smiled slightly, the sceptical edge to his gaze didn't quite ease.
"You won!" Trish squeaked.
"No shit, really?" Allison shook her head, smirk widening as Trish flushed crimson. She snorted as she turned back to towards the bus. "Hero worship is wonderful and all, but let's get going. Renee?"
Tyler watched as Renee offered him and Trish a sweet smile – so friendly it was astounding compared to the rest of her teammates – before following Allison. He watched as Dan and Matt exchanged a glance and followed suit, and as one of the twins followed after with Kevin offering an unexpected if blank-faced nod of recognition.
Nicky, wearing perhaps the friendliest expression of the lot of them after Renee, spared a moment of consideration with head tipped and smile wide. When he spoke, however, it was to Neil and the remaining Minyard twin waiting behind him. "It's really weird to have fans in broad daylight, you know?"
"Could I get your signature?" Trish blurted out, nearly overriding him.
Nicky's eyebrows snapped upwards and his smile faltered for a moment. It widened again a moment later, taking on a quivering edge as though he teetered on the edge of laughter. "Sure," he said. "Can't say no to that."
As he approached, Neil and Minyard watching behind him, Trish scrambled to pull her notebook from her bag. Tyler barely noticed her anymore, however. He was staring at Neil, and – star struck? Hernandez was definitely right. With the rest of the team turned away and tucked into the bus, it was even more impossible to consider anything but… Neil.
Maybe it was because he looked so different to when he'd last seen him. His hair and his eyes, the scars painting his cheeks were one thing. Maybe it was because Tyler knew his pat – or as much as the media let slip – and knew how much of a lie Neil Josten had been. Maybe it was all of that, but it was more. Neil Josten from Millport had been as quiet and wary as a stray tomcat, skirting on the edges of his schoolmates as though fearing one might lash out at him. He'd rarely spoken and when he had it had only been in response to what someone else had said. The 'why' made a lot more sense now, but that understanding wasn't quite the reason either.
It was because this Neil was different. He carried himself differently. He stared at Tyler, at Trish, at Nicky's back as he bent over Trish's notebook, with a calculating gaze, but it wasn't wary. If anything, it held a confidence and silent warning that practically spat in the face of his previous reservedness.
After the previous evening and the game he'd just played, not only as a striker but as a backliner with the ability to outrun even Riko Moriyama, Tyler was practically trembling before him even from a stretch of sidewalk away. But, much like Trish's blurting request for a signature, words spilled from his mouth with desperation and the knowledge that, really, he wouldn't get such a chance again.
"Hi, Neil," he said, his voice an octave higher than it should have been. "You were really awesome last night."
Neil blinked. He exchanged a sidelong glance with Minyard. "Thanks," he said, and it sounded almost like a question.
Tyler knew he was blushing again, but he barrelled on regardless. Stepping around Nicky and Trish where they were finishing up with Nicky muttering something that sounded distinctly amused, he edged towards them. Minyard shifted in place, and Tyler wasn't quite sure why but something in the way he moved, positioning himself just so at Neil's side, made him pause in step. His attention wasn't shaken for long, however, and words hastened forth once more.
"I don't know if you remember me, because you probably don't, it being a whole year and everything, but I used to play exy with you. At Millport. I, ah - I'm a starting striker this year, and I'm nowhere near as good as you, and definitely not as good as Kevin," he shot a glance to the bus where he fathomed he could see the Foxes' silhouettes even through the tinted glass, "but I love it, and I love watching you and – and –"
"Me too," Trish said, slipping to and leaning into his side as Nicky stepped back towards his teammates. "I absolutely adore you."
Nicky looked on the verge of laughter again, but he was the only one. Minyard was staring at Trish and Tyler in turn like he was considering how best to pull out their eyeballs, while Neil was studying Tyler with a frown that bordered upon annoyed. That annoyance faded, however, with barely a flicker of his gaze towards Trish, and was replaced by dawning realisation.
"Oh." Neil cocked his head. "Yeah, I know you. You're Tyler Linkage, right?"
He remembers me! screamed a panicked, euphoric voice in Tyler's head, and it took all his willpower to withhold from saying it aloud. Instead, he nodded fervently and managed a wobbly smile. "Yeah. That's right." He swallowed. "We're all massive fans of you back at Millport. Like, the whole town is. Of – of you and the Foxes, I mean."
Tyler's awkward gesture to the bus seemed utterly ridiculous a split-second after he'd done it, but he managed to continue nonetheless. "Everyone wanted to come and see you but, you know."
Nicky was outright laughing now, albeit in silent, body-shaking chuckles, and Minyard alternated between shooting him and Tyler himself a narrowed glare. Neil, however, didn't seem to notice either of them. He nodded slowly, and though he didn't smile, something smoothed of the hard edges in his expression.
"Right," he said just slowly, then with another nod, "say hi to everyone, then. And Coach Hernandez? He's still your coach this year, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he is," Trish said before Tyler could get a word in. "He's fantastic, really supportive, and we all think he's just the best –"
"Tell him thanks," Neil said, sparing Trish a glance before turning back to Tyler. "For last year. For everything."
"I – I will," Tyler croaked, and it was about all he could manage.
Into the brief pause that followed, Coach Wymack – who Tyler had barely noticed still leant along the side of the bus - cleared his throat and stepped forwards. "Well, that was exciting. Now get your arses moving, you lot. We've got a city to put behind us."
Tyler watched, unblinking, as Neil skirted around Nicky and led the way onto the bus. He heard Nicky's laughing "how's it feel to have a whole town as a fan squad, Neil?" and almost flinched at the final glance Minyard shot his way. When the doors hissed closed, the engine roared to life, and the bus rolled into motion, he still couldn't look away. Not even when it disappeared down the block.
It was only Trish's words that hauled him back to reality. "Oh my god," she whispered. "Did that really just happen?"
"I –" Tyler's throat was dry and he wondered if his stomach would ever stop trying to fold itself inside out. "I think it did. It really did."
Another pause of silence between them, and Tyler could only revel in the moment until Trish cursed and abruptly stomped her foot. "Fuck! I didn't ask Neil for his autograph too!"
Tyler glanced towards her, blinked out of his stupor, and frowned. "You literally just asked Nicky to do it."
"I know!" Trish all but wailed. "How didn't I remember to do it!"
Tyler's smile spilled onto his face, more in persisting stupefaction and incredulity than amusement. "And Minyard too, whichever one it was."
"Are you kidding? I'm pretty sure he'd kill me for asking."
"I know, right? It must have been Andrew, don't you think? He looks so scary in person, even though he's so short. I must have at least a head on him."
"And the rest." Trish sighed, turning wistfully back out to the hotel's turning bay and the absence of the bus. "I can't believe I missed my chance. I didn't even tell him I have a whopping big crush on him?"
That startled a laugh out of Tyler. "You'd have really told him?"
"Hell no," Trish laughed, a flush flooding her cheeks again. "But still!"
Tyler found himself laughing again, and then he couldn't stop. Neither, it seemed, could Trish. It was incredible, not only to have seen the game the previous night but to have met and even spoken to some of the Foxes. And to Neil specifically. And Neil had actually remembered him.
"The rest of the team will be so jealous they didn't fork out to come," Trish said between bursts of breathless laughter.
Trish was utterly right, and not only on that count. The rest of the Dingos would be terribly put out that they hadn't come, and for Tyler? He agreed wholeheartedly with Trish's words across the street from what seemed a whole year before but in reality must have been barely minutes.
He'd seen the game. He'd met the Foxes. He'd spoken to Neil Josten. Obsession or not, Tyler was pretty sure he'd somehow stumbled into heaven too.
A/N: Thank you so, so much, dear reader, for taking the time to read my work. I really appreciate it and hope you enjoyed it. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you have a second, but no pressure either way.
Thanks, and Happy Reading!!!