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O Gloria Hallelujah

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The news came as no shock to the King as he gazed out onto the kingdom's grounds. His chin was high, shoulders square. There was no perturbation evident in his body. His father’s words were less of a shock than they were a hindrance. 

"Her final wish, is it?" He checked, eyeing his father in his peripheral.

"Yes, your highness," Tetsuji replied. "Found in her tomb upon investigation of vandalism. A small box containing the Queen’s final will, outdating her decree that says you shall reign. It is actioned, but it is discrete knowledge among parliament members."

"Does Kevin know?" King Reginald — an elaborate mask for his true name, Riko — asked, staring straight ahead at the lines of soldiers patrolling the front garden, once bountiful with sunset coloured flowers. The dull green uniforms, Riko felt, complimented the golden dead grass far better.

"No, sir."

"Good." Riko spun on his heel and regarded his father. "So he shall never. Have it burned."

Tetsuji looked to hesitate, the black box in his hands wavering. "Dear son, do know that under your law, I am unable to—"

"Do I adhere to the law, father?" Riko challenged coolly. "Am I not above mere mortals, their messenger to and from God?"

"Yes, your highness, but—"

"So do it, or I shall have you punished ten times that of destroying official documents. Both are acts of treason, I’m sure you’re aware."

The black box, the kingdom's last defense against becoming the battleground of a devastating war, was heavy in Tetsuji's hands. Even as he passed the footman at the door of the King's east apartments, being eyed by the weary commoner who no doubt could hear the details of their conversation, he considered his loyalty to his son's reign.

He found his brother Ichirou having tea by his lonesome in the pavilion and dumped the box in front of him. 

"Dispose of this however you see fit," he declared.

Ichirou did not flinch, nor did he question what he was looking at. The brothers had deliberated on whether to notify their hot-headed king at all just hours prior. 

The reality of their monarch was this: despite whatever Tetsuji’s plans for the kingdom had been, Riko had other intentions and the position and power to execute them. Ichirou regarded his brother with the same disdain he held for his own nephew. It was, after all, his selfish fault.

"What says the king?" He asked.

"It is to be destroyed," Tetsuji admitted.

Ichirou tsked. "It is not wise to undermine a monarch amidst a dictator fever dream."

Where Riko was strategic and able to draw straight lines in a plan to get from point A to B, Tetsuji and Ichirou had a poetic language of implication and inference that could up-root even the most dastardly of Riko’s schemes.

"I am not undermining him. I am trusting you to serve your country."

The unspoken suggestion passed between the two of them. Ichirou smirked at his foolishly ambitious brother.

"You go back on your daring ventures more often than you support them," he said lightly, pouring another cup of tea. "Perhaps it's time to put your most daring plan to rest."

A fire was lit behind Tetsuji's eyes. "Never," he seethed. "I will have what I am owed. I will have our family name etched in the mountains of these lands. Kayleigh Day's reign is long over, and I will make sure her son will not so much as glance at the throne."

“Owed, brother?” Ichirou chuckled. “Do not confuse yourself as a victim of tragedy. You wanted too much and were left upset when your script was not followed. It is fine to say you wanted more, though you cannot blame anyone but yourself.”

Tetsuji snarled. “I am no child, Ichirou.”

“And yet, we are having this conversation.” Ichirou sipped his tea to make a point.

Tetsuji leaned down, his face close to Ichirou, teeth bared. “I will get what I want , then,” he declared. “And I will happily spill blood to do so. I am owed, Ichirou. The world, the cosmos, God owes me what I deserve.”

 

 

 

The Isle of Opal had a rich history, entrenched in secrets. A hidden world, originally thought to be Earth's portal to the Holy Land, home to cryptids and monsters that had once walked among humans. When a ship carrying men from all corners of the Earth docked on it's shores, there was no appeal to claim God's land out of greed. It was only when they discovered the natural reserve of native flowers in all the shades of precious stones and gems, which reflected off the mist that hung above the island and created clouds in the colours of moonstones, that people believed they could harvest  magic from these shores and become more rich and powerful than all their land. That mist had once anointed the Isle as holy and untouchable, consequently naming the cluster of islands just west of Ireland 'The Isle of Opal'. Too soon, it became a beacon to greedy sailors and aristocrats tripping over themselves to steal its potential magic.

There had been a bloodbath in the following months. There was no kingdom to defend the land, fertilised with war and greed and blind sacrifice. It was said that the trees wilted with the first fallen soldier and did not regrow its leaves until peace broke out.

It was a young woman, inspired by the acts of Joan of Arc, who stowed away on a ship sailing from Ireland and shot down man after man with her crossbow. She fought for no side but that of vengeance for her fallen father.

She killed every commander and left armies flailing without command. They slaughtered each other mercilessly and had their bodies washed away with the tides. With the secrets of the Isle hidden under tombstones and on sword’s ends, she dubbed herself Queen Angelica of Death and opened the shores only for those who could find them. Strong currents through the summer would lead boats astray if they did not know exactly where they were, but with Winter brought families of refugees and lost fisherman. The Isle was a thing of myths and fairytales, unnatural beauty and splendor.

300 years later, it was found out by the governments of Europe. All had been peaceful until there was talk of colonisation and the necessity of trade with greedy commercial companies. The Isle wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of attention it was getting. By some miracle, beyond natural and glimmering with hope, the general populations had not found them. They were still a bedtime story, on par with fae and demigods — perhaps true, but not to the bare eye.

Peace had waned after Queen Catherine of Harmony — or Kayleigh Day, as she was commonly known — had been poisoned and died, her family as witness; her husband, Tetsuji Moriyama; his son, Riko Moriyama; and the only bloodbound heir to the throne, Kevin Day.

But Kevin was 16 years old at the time. He wasn’t old enough to take reign. Riko, however, was 18. Said to be the best candidate for the job, as written in Kayleigh’s supposedly final will, 4 years prior to this story’s beginning.

Had Kevin been in the palace the morning his mother’s tomb was opened, lurking as he tended to do, perhaps he would have heard the news and broken it sooner.

As it happened, though, Kevin was in America, lying on the couch of a stranger’s apartment, listening to the sounds of a busy friday night at the bar across the street. His mother had left him only one message at the end of her life. He was given her personal diaries from her  years as a princess, full of pictures and a story for each day. The diaries were old and brittle, with words sometimes smudged out or ripped away, but one thing remained clear, on nearly every page of her 24th year.

David Wymack’s named, circled in gold ink. Every page of her second diary.

David had taken one look at Kevin — a prince standing in the dingy hallway of his apartment block — and cursed out Kayleigh’s name while he dragged the boy inside. There was a half smoked cigarette on the windowsill and a glass of whiskey placed over the precipice of a thin coaster, a small spill on the bronze wood of the coffee table. Even as David walked, he was stiff and haphazardous. Kevin assumed he was walking in on a regretfully lonely evening’s events.

A plate of greasy food was dropped onto Kevin’s lap with no more than an instruction to eat it. Blankets were dumped on the couch and the cigarette was put out, disappearing with the whiskey as David fled the scene into his bedroom. It was a hurricane of shoddy hospitality, but Kevin was grateful for the meal, at least.

Now, staring up at the ceiling and hearing someone outside shout the lyrics to a song he only just recognised, Kevin closed his eyes and imagined he was still in his bedroom at the palace. It was a mural of the battle that forged the Isle’s history in it’s shores — the day the trees came back to life.

He hadn’t meant to sleep, but it was too late to do anything about it by the time he was being woken up by David making yet more greasy food.

“Morning,” he said unpleasantly. “Sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you,” Kevin lied, stretching out his back where a wayward spring had settled itself overnight. “Yourself?”

David was very nearly glaring at Kevin. “I slept fine. Come get breakfast.”

The kitchenette was dark and beige, which offset Kevin just slightly. At the palace, most of the ceilings were sky blue and illuminated by soft candles. It was said that when the dark days of famine and rainless clouds overtook the Isle, the palace was opened to the people, so they too could embrace the hope of clear skies and prosper. Days later, it rained once again, and the crops flourished.

Perhaps that was just a story. A lot of things about the Isle were just that.

When Kevin sat down at the kitchen island and accepted a cup of coffee with two hands, David asked, “Why do I have the prince of a desolate island in my kitchen, using up my groceries?”

Kevin sipped his coffee sheepishly. “We’re an isolated Isle ,” he stressed. “Not a desolate island.

“Doesn’t answer my question.”

Kevin continued to stare into the swirling bubbles of his coffee, quite certain that if he ignored the question, it would go away. David didn’t relent, though. He leaned on the bench, opposite to Kevin, and waited.

“My country is in a stalemate,” he admitted. “There’s nothing I can do without risking my assassination. I thought… You knew my mother, I thought you might be able to help.”

Which sounded ridiculous, but Kevin was desperate. David looked exhausted just to be hearing this.

“If not helping with the state of affairs, maybe…” Kevin swallowed and hid his shaking hands below the benchtop. David frowned. “She wanted me to find you. That’s all I know.”

It was a lie. Of course it was. Tell me my mother was okay. Tell me she was a beautiful person. Tell me she’s at peace now .

Kevin produced the diary and handed it to David, its gilded clues presented on the very first page. He looked away when he realised he might have been looking at something entirely personal and intimate.

“Kid, I don’t know what to do with this information,” David admitted. “And I know even less about what to do with you.”

“Please don’t make me go back” Kevin blurted out. He had never turned his back on his country like this, but the palace’s state was becoming a danger. “My step-brother, the king, he doesn’t like my hindering in political affairs. He’s barred me from the meetings and has at least once tried to poison me, the same fate as my mother. I can manage my business more effectively out of the country than within it where I risk being silenced. Please, I’ll do anything.”

David looked up. “Anything?”

Yes .” Kevin thought about the promise for a moment. “Within reason.”

David rolled his eyes and sighed emphatically. “Do you play Exy?”

 

 

The palace was sent into a panic when Kevin wasn’t found throughout the day. The guards had been called to scour the five islands of the Isle, but there was no sign of the prince anywhere. The pilots were questioned and the sailors were interrogated, but no one seemed to know anything.

Riko watched the pandemonium unfolding and felt the itch of a blessing creep up on him. With the prince gone, there would be no voice for the opposition within the palace. The government would flail without him. Riko could easily broker a deal with Britain and get himself put on the map. The more power he had, the safer his little ‘transactions’ would be.

Diabolical didn’t begin to cover him. King Reginald of Armageddon might be a title he could grow into. 

 

 

No, Kevin didn't play Exy. He played Lacrosse and was utterly horrified at the idea of betraying it. In his mind, there was nothing better than being knocked into the mud and scraped to buggery by the grass, staining his skin green and laughing with his teammates. 

When Kevin saw the Foxhole Court, though, he was floored to tears.

The ceiling was clear glass and painted blue by the sun-drenched skies, streaming sunbeams onto the white floor of the court. The plexiglass shone like crystals and the red lights for the goals were rubies atop of sceptres.

Beautiful, Kevin wanted to say, but instead he mumbled out: “Home.”

“Christ, you sound like Josten,” David grumbled. “Get comfortable with this place. I’ll be running your ass into the ground until I think you’re good enough for my team.”

“Now?” Kevin asked hopefully.

Wymack looked exasperated. “No, not now. I’m just picking up a bribe for your living arrangements. You can ogle a little more while I go find it.”

Without looking away, Kevin nodded. He thought he could hear Wymack sighing at him, until someone sidled up next to him, as fixated on the court as he had been.

She was beautiful. Deep, dark skin and darker still hair hanging in braids around her face, fading to synthetic silver down her back. Her arms were bare, accentuating impressive muscles and the faint contours of scars running in spiderwebs from her shoulder to her elbow.

Her eyes were kind when she turned to him, glossed lips pulling up into a knowing smile. “It’s better when you’re on it,” she told him. Kevin felt like he had just been given a riddle. “Only issue is the company.”

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure I follow,” he replied. 

“Oh, an accent?” The girl hummed. “You are interesting. What is that? Irish?”

Close enough. “Yes.”

She smiled wider. “Liar. Whatever, though. I’m just saying that the team can be a little difficult. Are you difficult?”

All honesty, Kevin was too busy staring to listen to what she was saying. Her eyes were entrancing, her gilded lids shimmering in the fluorescent light of the stadium. He blinked a few times. “Uh...no, not at all.”

It felt like every time she had her eyes on him, she was looking him up and down. Assessing. It might have been in Kevin’s head, but he wanted to believe that she might have liked what she saw; a tall, lanky man who was clearly having a crisis.

“My name is Kevin,” he offered, going for a handshake, realising too late that people their age probably didn’t greet each other like this in suburban America.

Too late now. 

“Thea,” she smiled, reluctantly grasping his hand, shaking it once. “You don’t look like a Kevin.”

Kevin chuckled. He had been encouraged to find a different, more regal name for the sake of his ‘inevitable’ reign, but had never settled on anything. It was like a tradition, bordering on a joke, that the royals all had regal and regular names. Kevin was apparently a hilarious, lifelong prank, orchestrated by Kayleigh. “You have a point. Is Thea short for something?”

“Theadora,” she answered with a restrained eye-roll. “No one ever likes their name. It’s the first decision we have made for us and something we’ll always live with. I just have a personal vendetta out for my name because my nickname in middle school was Dora the Explorer .”

It must have been a joke, or a reference to something, so Kevin smiled and pretended he knew what she was talking about. 

“Are you a recruit?” She asked.

Once again, Kevin was drawing a blank. He thought he probably knew what Thea was asking, but the words didn’t translate to anything in his head that related to the situation.

“Recruit…” He trailed off. “I’m, uh, not eligible for the military.”

Thea blinked once, twice. “No, no,” Thea replied warily. “Are you on the team? Did Wymack recruit you onto the the team?”

“Oh!” Kevin scrubbed the back of his neck. “Yes, he did. I play Exy— I’m on the team. Yeah.”

If Thea wasn’t offset before, she was completely gone by now. Kevin’s young, soft heart ached when she gave him a half genuine smile. He was far too disconnected from American reality to blend in. No one would buy his Irish city-boy cover.

“Sorry,” he smiled, layering charming on top of his accent like scarf after coat after sweater. “I’m not as adept with the American vernacular. Not a lot of television on the farm.”

“A farm boy, huh?” Thea mused. She had a way of speaking that left Kevin hanging on every pause and break. “Maybe you’ll have to tell me about that some time.”

Oh . “Gladly.”

Thea’s eyes drifted somewhere behind Kevin and switched from intrigue to disappointment in just one blink. “Looks like your time is up, Kevin.” She offered a kind, sorry smile. “I guess I’ll see you at the dorms.”

Just as she turned away, Wymack clamped a hand down on Kevin’s shoulder. He understood, then, why Thea had hurried away. Especially when Wymack had such a shit-eating grin smacked on his face.

“Fitting in, are you?” He asked. “I could hear the discomfort of those translation errors from my office.”

Kevin groaned and dropped his head into his hands. “I’m going to uncover my entire nation just by dialect and social incompetence .”

Wymack rubbed Kevin’s shoulder and chuckled to himself. “Come on. Let’s go push you in the deep end.”

Chapter Text

“No.”

“Andrew—“

The blond man, short and stacked like a brick shit house, slammed his mug down onto the bench, his hands shaking with anger. “I do not trust a man who can’t even tell me where he’s from,” Andrew seethed.

Kevin chewed the inside of his mouth and thought about what to do. “Ireland,” he blurted out, losing all regal prestige in his accent in order to sell his lie. “Kinsale, Ireland.” 

He didn’t know anything about Kinsale, actually. Only that his grandmother hailed from there and was swept to the Isle on an uncontrollable fishing boat. Kevin could feel his lie falling through his fingers the second Andrew regarded him eye-to-eye. Looking indifferent would be too suspicious, too infuriating for someone appearing to be as hot-headed as Andrew. So, Kevin smiled quietly and stepped forward to offer his hand to Andrew. He had half a mind to make him bow, but Kevin held no power here. He would have to forge it.

“I could introduce myself, but it’s too late for that, I guess,” Kevin smiled, choosing to act a little more suave than he had in Thea’s presence. He was going to have to tone down his learned political facade to a Hollywood talk show guest, though he wasn’t especially confident with that mask either. He guessed that Andrew would scowl that way no matter what face Kevin put on, so perhaps it didn’t matter. “I’m Kevin.”

“How ordinary,” Andrew smiled, mirthless. “Normal enough to be fake.”

Kevin saw Andrew’s flimsy attempt at friendliness and raised him one wink. A small offering of truth amidst their battlefield of lies. 

Andrew’s cheeks went red, though. Kevin thought he might try to break another mug, but instead the blond just stood up and avoided Kevin’s eye, shooting a fiery glare at Wymack. “Fine,” Andrew relented. “If he annoys me, I’m throwing him off the roof.”

Do you say that to all the boys that make you blush? Kevin wanted to ask. “Thank you,” Kevin said instead. “I’ll stay out of your way.”

There was a backdrop of boys behind Andrew, all staring at Kevin with varying levels of concern. One who looked identical to Andrew; another, who looked closer to Kevin’s age and stature; and one who looked familiar to Kevin, but not enough to inspire a name. He didn’t smile at any of them, walking a fine line between political formality and mirroring their lack of enthusiasm. The only good lesson Riko ever taught Kevin was how to gain control of a room. 

Lower one’s eyelids, to feign boredom. Fix one’s gaze above their heads, as though God is his only worthy audience. When one makes eye contact, do not break it, even if others waver and laugh him away. One is royalty in any room he enters. 

Kevin raised his eyes to the mirror that hung above the couch the boys occupied and caught his own line of sight. True to his teachings, he didn’t let go. 

 

 

David observed the way Kevin checked out in the room. He had seen Kayleigh do the same thing many a time in her reign. It was a scary sight, to see someone in such power be able to disconnect from a room. Despite himself, David was intimidated to be in the presence of royalty. Secrets and deception built a prince’s life, it seemed, as David took in the familiar slope of Kevin’s nose, his taupe skin that looked washed out from imprisonment. He looked so much like Kayleigh, and yet nothing like her at all.

It meant nothing if Kevin could hold his head up without the weight of a crown. He could look in a mirror and lift his chin in the face of college-dorm exclusion, but he couldn’t anticipate the way protecting a country could break someone’s faith and perception of hope.

Perhaps it was selfish, but David hoped Kevin would never take the crown again. The Isle would revolt under the influence of the Moriyamas. They’d fall into democracy, just like Kayleigh had predicted. She hadn’t predicted the Moriyamas, though. Her fears were misplaced.

David didn’t know Kevin as the man staring back at him in the mirror. He knew Kevin as a wide-eyed infant who smiled at his mother and tried to reach out to David from the governess’ arms. David couldn’t imagine a crown on Kevin’s head. A child so sweet wouldn’t survive.

Half of the secrets in that castle were held in David’s heart, and the other half in Kevin’s hands. He remembered Kayleigh’s eyes as the truth tumbled from her lips, kept in the company of her mother’s deathbed and her father’s memory. A small family meeting regarding the future of the kingdom and David’s part in it concluded that there was no place in the Isle of Opal for a man whose life remained in North America. 

A childless father. He stayed on the Isle long enough to see Kevin open his eyes and reach for his dad, then David left with no song and dance, barely a goodbye. He gave Kevin a kiss on the head, though, and asked him to remember that his dad loved him more than anything.

Twenty-two years later, Kevin regarded David as a perfect stranger. Despite his mother’s writings, Kevin saw nothing of note about David. He still had the innocent gaze of a wandering child, trapped in an unfamiliar world. 

David was going to have to come clean, to Kevin, to his Foxes… to a whole damn nation. He never thought he could run forever, but he thought he’d at least be dead before Kevin found him. David was fine being painted as the father that left, but the possibility of directly hurting Kevin… 

David was not a gentle man, he felt. Not gentle like Kayleigh.

 

 

The room Kevin was assigned to was small to begin with, but he was also sharing it with 2 other people. He bit his cheek as Andrew filtered through all of Kevin’s belongings, probably noting that all of the clothes were recently bought. He should have shopped second-hand. That would have at least been a buffer.

Neil, the redhead from the couch, sat in the corner of his bunk, his eyes fixed on Kevin with no focus. There were cracks in the disguise of an Irish farm boy, Kevin knew, but he hadn’t thought they would show so soon.

Andrew picked up a pair of Kevin's (old) boxer-briefs with the blade of his knife. “Interesting stash, Irish Cream,” he mused. “It seems you have money to flaunt.”

“For now,” Kevin answered, keeping his eyes heavy-lidded and venomous. “All favours have an expiration date.”

Andrew continued to examine Kevin’s underwear. Humiliating, maybe, but only for Andrew. “Very philosophical, but it only raises more questions. Tell me something true about yourself.”

There was nothing true about Kevin. His name was a lie at a certain level, and his life was spiraling into untruths and tall tales that he couldn’t keep up with. If anyone was going to crack him, Kevin hadn’t thought it would be Andrew. 

Kevin was going to ride that wave. 

“Nothing I’ve told you so far is true,” Kevin admitted. “Nothing you hear from me will ever be true.”

There was fear in Andrew’s eyes. Fear and anger. His smile, though, betrayed his intrigue. “I’ll break you,” he threatened.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” Kevin stood, looming over Andrew. “And you never will.”

 

 

Through Kevin’s first day with the Foxes, he was quite neatly avoided. Clearly, word had gotten out about Kevin’s awkward demeanour and dishonest nature. It was nothing beyond Kevin’s experience. In the castle, rumours had run wild, and every other week there were panics over whether Kevin was still alive or not. He was always at the center of some new frenzy, no doubt a low form of torture for the kingdom, spun right from Riko’s own lies.

He hadn’t expected these people to be as hostile as they were, though. They gave him a glance and paused their step, muted their conversations. A secret ran among them, dodging Kevin’s parameters. 

He felt…hollow. Alone. This world was nothing of the one he’d grown up with.

At the end of the day, after he’d eaten dinner alone in the dining hall, he considered going back to the dorms for only a moment, before deciding he would rather be poisoned in his own country than be made a fool in another. Wymack would be at the Foxhole Court. He would surely understand.

But it was Thea he ran into on the court. Kevin had been hoping to speak to Wymack as soon as possible, but there was a pull in the sound of Thea’s shoes squeaking across the waxed floor. Kevin thought it was odd for her to be practicing so late at night, especially alone, but he also had no idea what the etiquette of Exy was here. She looked angry, but that could have just been the sport. 

Only issue is the company , she’d said, though. 

Kevin watched on the side-lines as Thea pelted shot after shot. In all honesty, she missed most of them, but her force was unfathomable. Kevin found himself entranced, right up until she noticed him. Staring. His lips parted in awe and eyes shining with wonder.

He froze. She did, too. They regarded each other with no emotion, only hesitance.

It was Thea who crossed the court to open the door for Kevin. She had a way of moving that was as unpredictable as it was controlled. Her body was thrown all over the court, but she always landed on her feet. She dumped her weight all on her shoulder, leaning against the plexiglass of the court, arms crossed and grinning. 

“Watching me, farm boy?” Thea grinned. “Don’t take notes just yet. I’m a backliner by trade. Taking shots isn’t really my thing.”

Kevin understood all of those words individually (bar backliner) and couldn’t piece together that sentence for the life of him. The arm that was holding Thea's racquet was bulging with muscle. Kevin could hardly think straight. He laughed like nothing was wrong. “Practice makes perfect, I suppose,” he added cheerfully, hoping a smile would ward off any further conversation.

Thea laughed breathlessly, staring at the ground and fiddling with her wrist guards. “Wanna jump in? I could use the company.”

Kevin had a faint memory of watching Exy. It was like Lacrosse, except it was more violent and definitely unhinged in some way. That was where his knowledge of the sport ended. “I don’t…”

“Come on. What do you play – striker?”

What? He was too stressed to answer. Thea raised an eyebrow while she waited for Kevin’s brain to catch up with her. The racquet in her hands twirled and danced as second ticked by.

“Uh,” Kevin stammered. “I am…good at…running.”

“Running?”

“Yes. Running. Attacking. Like, the-the getting goals one.”

Apprehensive didn't even begin to describe Thea's face. Still, she tossed him a spare racquet with a sharp grin and lead him to the centre of the court. Even that caught Kevin off-guard. This racquet was far heavier than any of his Lacrosse ones. 

The sheer size of the stadium began to press down on Kevin, making him dizzy with joy and fear. The weight of the racquet grounded him only slightly. His head was up with the sunset washed skylights.

Thea bounced a practice ball to him, which was easy enough to catch. She walked further towards the goal. “Chuck it!” She ordered. 

Kevin did. His racquet was proving to be an issue, but his pride was too mighty to admit defeat (not the best quality for a royal to have) . The ball flew up, directly above him and landed just in front of Thea with a pathetic bounce. Both Kevin and Thea were embarrassed.

"You don't play Exy, do you?" Thea asked. 

Kevin shook his head. "Lacrosse is… a lot nicer than this." 

And despite Kevin's hopeless Exy skills and the prospect of his position on the team, Thea laughed. She dropped to the ground, perhaps exhausted, and continued to laugh as Kevin joined in. He watched her; the jolt of her shoulders and the dimples in her cheeks; how she'd cover her eyes when she smiled really wide. Thea was an enigma and Kevin was helplessly enamoured by her. 

Eventually, she sat up and wiped over her face. "Okay, so you're not a lost cause if you know Lacrosse. I'm going to teach you some basic Exy skills and you're going to train with me at night. Sound good?" 

Kevin grinned. "Sounds good." 

 

 

Kevin learnt enough of the rules to Exy just by watching a week's worth of practices and having Wymack's commentary on the side. It seemed fairly simple as far as regulations, but severing it from Lacrosse was still tripping him up. Ten step maximum, no outs, brawling on the court — it was Lacrosse on ecstasy. Thea trained with him every night that week to get him to an adequate place, running drills and teaching him how to get around his marks, which went better than either of them were expecting. Still, Kevin hesitated at the prospect of fighting; he was still in a social sport mindset. He was due to play at his first practice the next week, but with Thea’s help and Wymack’s guidance, at least he wouldn't be a fumbling mess as he'd so feared. 

By the time Kevin’s first match rolled around, he was able to understand the game without assistance. It was brutal, and he was only on the sidelines. The Foxes were slammed against walls and trodden into the ground, mercilessly beaten by Breckenridge in the first half. Wymack paced right up against the wall, yelling at his team to get in the game, as though they were struggling due to their flippancy and not the other team’s haughty playing style. When the buzzer signalled the end of the first half, the Foxes were even being shoved off the court by the bully team, all wearing the same sour scowl on their faces. 

Thea dumped herself beside Kevin and huffed, crossing her arms. "They're playing dirty, do not learn from them." 

Kevin made a face. That was always the case. Everyone else could play dirty. Breckenridge could throw the Foxes around like ragdolls. Andrew could rifle through Kevin's things when he felt like it. Riko could murder his mother and take the throne, and Kevin had to sit pretty and smile, pretending it didn't bother him. 

Thea's leg jiggled and she wrung her hands obsessively. Kevin saw, but he opted to ignore it in favour of asking about the ins and outs of 'dirty play'. While Thea was happy to hold a conversation, her eyes were more than distracted by something happening just behind her. Kevin couldn’t see it, but he was sure it was pushing Thea to the edge.

Coach brought the team into a powwow and didn't sound too happy with the way the game was going. Thea was digging her nails into her palms as he spoke. She did this, Kevin had noticed, when her mind was wandering somewhere dark and narrow. He'd seen her flinch and twitch, pinch herself back into the moment with no more than a hiss to acknowledge where she'd been just a moment ago. Kevin nudged her "by accident". She glanced at him, his eyes elsewhere, and wedged her hands beneath her thighs. 

Finally, when he caught sight of them, he could see gossip within the team at Thea's expense. A side comment and a subconscious point as they spoke, quiet smiles that were bitter at the edges. By the way Thea was acting, she had heard them. He tuned back into Wymack's speech and made a note to be wary.

The team was given a few free minutes to relax and stretch. Turning to Thea, Kevin noticed that her energy had dropped considerably. "Okay?"

And Thea didn't really have to answer. She looked up and saw the people from before, now having moved to join a different group of people (same conversation), their backs all turned to her, but Kevin could see the side eyes in Thea's direction. 

"I've been on this team for a few months, now," she answered. "Not long,  I know. My mom calls this ‘growing pains’. It's just funny, I guess. When they're looking right at me, I'm invisible. Suddenly, though, I'm interesting. They’ve put me in their peripheral, now. They only ever want to know enough to stay away from me." 

"What suddenly makes you interesting?" Kevin asked. Thea looked at him, something close to sadness but closer to defeat in her eyes. "You're interesting all the time,” he continued. “Nothing about you is sudden ." 

In a rare break in the clouds, Thea smiled. "Thanks, Kevin. As clueless as you are, you're very sweet." 

That sounded like a compliment, so Kevin treated it like one. He smiled, knocking their elbows like he'd seen the others do when they shared a grin. 

The Foxes lost. 

Chapter Text

Dan and Neil, captain and vice, were still on press duty when the rest of the team was changed out. In the briefing room, safe from all the commotion outside, Kevin sat beside Thea and closed his eyes for only a moment. If he didn’t think too hard, he could picture himself adorned in satin suits, lounging in a ballroom at the end of a dinner party. The dream didn’t last long, of course. No one on the Isle of Opal had a voice as piercing as Allison Reynolds defending her play-style.

“You don’t interact with your backliners!” Aaron, the twin to Andrew, had criticised. It was like throwing a grenade at fireworks.

“Ex- cuse me?!” Allison shrieked, garnering the attention and support of her friends. “Don’t tell me how to play! Besides, it’s not like you’re there when I need you. You’re too busy ogling the cheerleaders.”

Was this what people spoke about in America? Petty squabbles about sports and girls? Aaron’s cheeks were red and he was leaning back onto the couch, where Nicky was waiting to ruffle his hair and coo at him mercilessly. Despite the thick tension in the room, something warm had broken out with Aaron’s outburst. Kevin felt enveloped in the team’s fitful comradery.

He didn’t feel Thea there, though. She remained at the edge, looking in on a snowglobe of chaos and comfort, fingertips pressed against the glass and her eyes filled with a visible loss of wonder. Whenever the team bonded, in the slightest, most roundabout ways, Thea took a step back and watched. It could have been mistaken for learning, the way she scanned each face and followed the conversation as it flew around the room, but Kevin thought it would be more accurate to say she was waiting. There was yearning in the way her hands clutched at her jersey — yearning for someone to remember she was there. The loneliness was tangible in Thea, but her confidence was an easy mask for a hollowed out heart.

There were divisions in the team that were deep enough to lose life in. Kevin wondered if Thea had stepped in the wrong direction before he’d arrived, if there was a collective agreement on where she was to stand in the team’s order. Sometimes, with the blatant dismissal of her position on the team, Kevin wondered if she was a dream that had walked into his reality.

Kevin knew a thing or two about isolation. He didn’t expect something so familiar in a country so connected to the world.

The crowds died down and the team chose to drive back in their separate cars, being that their game was at the Foxhole Court and they all, apparently, had big plans for the evening ahead. Kevin was out of his depth there, wandering beside Thea, unsure of what to do.

“Do you drive?” Kevin asked, realising he had always convened with Thea at the Court and they tended to run back to the Tower as a part of their routine.

Thea bristled. “No, I don’t. I walk.”

“Oh. Well, do you want some co—”

“Oh, new boy! ” Nicky called out from across the parking lot, running over to speak with Kevin, and Kevin exclusively. “We’re going to Columbia tonight, and you — lucky thing — are invited.”

Kevin’s eyes widened. “You’re going to a different country?”

Despite the tension in her shoulders, Thea snickered at that. “Columbia is a different city, farm boy,” she explained.

“A different city, where we go clubbing and get drunk and have fun ,” Nicky elaborated. Thea stepped away so quietly that Kevin almost didn’t notice. “You’re coming with us. It’s like an initiation.”

Being dragged by the hand towards Andrew’s car, Kevin looked back at Thea. The disheartened look that was quickly becoming her trademark was only there for a moment before she slapped a smile on and mouthed ‘Have fun!’ to Kevin.

Squashed into the backseat, Kevin caught sight of Andrew in the rearview mirror. “Hope you’re not tired,” he said, teasing.

The car sped onto the highway.

 

 

Thea watched as Kevin was pulled out of their conversation and into Andrew’s group without a hitch. She knew, deep down, that this was the end of whatever fleeting friendship they had. Surely, the team would explain Thea’s past, her issues, and Kevin would see right through the nice girl act she was putting on for him.

(Well, it wasn’t an act, and it certainly wasn’t just for Kevin. Thea had heard the other girls talking about her, though. Apparently she had no business stealing their fresh meat. Her mind drifted, then, everytime she got ‘too close’ to Kevin, and she began wondering if she was really doing something wrong. The only wrong thing about her, though, was where she insisted on staying. The Foxhole Court was for people far more deserving than her, she’d heard.)

As the parking lot emptied, Thea unwound her headphones from her iPod with shaky hands. It wasn’t a short walk home, but driving wasn’t an option, so she did what she had to.

Still, Wymack stepped up beside her. “Still walking?” 

Thea grimaced. “Gotta get back somehow.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to try?” He asked quietly. Fatherly. It made Thea’s heart swell enough to choke her. “Backseat’s fine.”

“Thanks,” Thea replied, walking away, “but I’m fine walking. See you on Monday.”

 



It was a long enough car ride that Kevin fell asleep for a moment or a few just to pass the time and avoid Nicky’s game of questions. Andrew was a good driver, sometimes, but it was a miracle that Kevin was able to let go of the car door long enough to nap.

Eden’s Twilight was a haze of neon lights and exposed skin. The music was loud enough for Kevin to feel it in his ribs and the initial shock of it made him gasp. Nicky grabbed his arm and grinned wide, dragging him to the epicentre of the noise.

“Dance!” He commanded.

Kevin did not.

“Come on, farm boy, dance!

Not long later, Kevin’s hands were being grabbed and swung left to right in time with the beat. The movement made him realise how numb he felt in the presence of so much action, how badly he needed to breathe. Almost violently, Kevin pushed his way through the crowd to a quiet spot near the bathrooms and collapsed back onto the wall, somehow hyperventilating and suffocating as he reeled from such a sudden change in scenery.

Nicky found him not long after, concerned and wearing that same disheartened look that Thea wore so often. “You okay?” He asked.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, not able to think of much more. “I don’t- It wasn’t you, I’m just… I’ve never been to a place like this before.”

It was chaotic. Kevin almost called it lawless. He didn’t want to stay another minute, but he didn’t know how to get back.

Nicky, though, looked relieved. The two of them smiled at each other and leaned against the wall, sighing with the comedown of a small panic on both parts. Kevin was glad, suddenly, to have come here with Nicky and be so protected and concerned for. It was the same feeling he’d gotten when Thea took him under her wing and trained him at night — something like a hug in the middle of a disaster.

(Kevin really wanted a hug, because this was really feeling like a disaster.)

“Come on, we’ll get you some shots,” Nicky said. “You can sit down if you want, we have a table upstairs.”

And before Kevin could say anything about staying sober, he was dragged off again through the crowd and up a flight of stairs. Andrew and Neil were already there, muttering something to Nicky about Aaron getting drinks. Kevin sat down and tried to regain his breath, but it was difficult to stop his body from wanting to kill him.

That was just one thing, though. When the drinks arrived, Aaron did something strange to the order of them. He placed two in front of Kevin, hovered his hand over a third, but picked a different one, even though all the drinks appeared exactly the same. This was familiar to Kevin. He had seen these kinds of tricks in the palace, and he had been right in the past to not fall for them, often passing up dinner and alerting someone of the issue. It made for terrible eating habits, but he was still alive, so he couldn’t complain.

Kevin levelled a glare with the twins. “I’m not drinking these,” he declared.

Aaron paled, but Andrew only narrowed his eyes. “More of a cocktail guy?” He asked.

Kevin pushed them away. “You’ve done something to them.”

“Prove it.”

“Fine.” Kevin turned to Neil. “ You drink them.”

Andrew tensed at that. Kevin knew that would happen. He might not have been so apt to it before, but he could see that if nothing else, Andrew was protecting Neil. 

“All right, jackass,” Andrew snarled. “What’s your deal, then?”

“My deal is my own business,” Kevin answered. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you want it.”

Kevin stood up and brushed past them all, sending a particularly dismayed look to Nicky. So much for trust , he sniped in his mind as he descended the stairs and swiftly made his exit. There was a deep feeling of emptiness in his chest, now, where he had felt so safe and involved, but too quickly he had to abandon that, in a city he didn’t know, with no idea how to get back to the Foxhole Court.

The night was freezing. Autumn was brutal once you could see the warmth of the changing leaves. If Kevin closed his eyes, he could pretend he was back in the Isle, strolling through the palace gardens as the gates closed for the night. It was almost comforting, but he could still hear the sound of a club and its patrons behind him, or the horns of cars being slammed on by disgruntled drivers, blocks away.

Unfortunately, closing his eyes may not have been the greatest idea.

In a moment of vulnerability, Kevin was grabbed and pushed down an alley by someone far bigger than he could match. Despite kicking and punching at his assailant, screaming in defiance, the other man just grinned and groped at Kevin’s pockets for their contents (and other things). As hopeless he felt, Kevin fought back as best he could, recieving a blow to the head and other bruises. It took four college boys, none of them quite sober, to beat the guy off of Kevin.

Almost as soon as Kevin was dropped to the ground, Nicky was at his side, asking questions that Kevin couldn’t understand. There was too much blood rushing to his head to console his wounds for anything to be making sense. Andrew dropped Kevin’s wallet and phone in his lap and grabbed Kevin’s face to look at him.

“Even if you don’t like it,” Andrew warned, “I am not going to let you get hurt. You’re under my protection. So, start trusting me.”

“I…” Kevin grunted. “I can’t tell you what you want to know. I can’t.”

And that could have been where Andrew left him to freeze for the night. Kevin didn’t know what happened after that. He was asleep.

 

 

Waking up from a concussion wasn’t a new experience for Kevin. He was an active person and easy to topple given his tall-but-lanky stature. Still, it ached in a new way. The thought of someone so strong and nameless shoving him around and taking what he wanted — money, pleasure, power — from Kevin was jarring enough to make his joints meld into themselves and leave him motionless and rigid. It was miracle his ribs would move to allow him to breathe. The aftershocks, replaying it in his mind, felt cold.

Then, there was shame.

Kevin had known he was doing something dangerous when he walked away from the only bastards in that city that would have protected him. Andrew even said so in not so many words. Kevin was reckless on a good day, but on a bad day it seemed he was just foolish.

Breakfast was served downstairs. Aaron told Kevin so through the bedroom door, along with a less than polite tag about ‘getting his ass to the table’.

Despite his mood, Kevin complied. He found himself sitting on one side of the table, the twins at either head, and Nicky and Neil on the side. He ignored the pancakes and played with the fruit on his plate, arranging it into a smiling face with chocolate chip dimples.

His mother used to do this for him on his younger birthdays. They had cooks make pancakes and set up the toppings at the dining table, and Kayleigh would arrange everything to be a face that smiled up at him. Happy breakfast for a happy birthday! she’d say, and Kevin would giggle every time. 

Now, though, he had 4 grown men staring at him in various stages of bewilderment, so he shoved a strawberry eye into his mouth and swiped the face away with his spoon.

“So,” Andrew spoke, still staring at Kevin’s plate. “How are you liking America?”

Kevin grimaced. “It’s something else,” he answered pseudo-honestly.

“Well, okay.” Andrew tapped the table thrice. Neil ate a forkful of pancakes. Kevin noted that for later. “And, the team?”

Shrugging again, Kevin frowned. “It’s good.”

“Good.” The others continued to eat their pancakes as though Andrew wasn’t grilling Kevin in the middle of their breakfast. “You seem close with Muldani.”

A disconcerting cold trickled down Kevin’s back. “I guess.”

Andrew hummed. “Are you interested?”

“In what?”

“Her.”

“What do you mean?” (Kevin knew exactly what he meant.)

Andrew rolled his eyes. “You’re wasting your time.”

Kevin frowned and put his fork down. “What’s your problem with Thea?” He asked. “The whole team is cold to her, it doesn’t seem fair.” 

They all scoffed or laughed at that, but Nicky was the one to lean over and place his hand over Kevin’s, almost affectionately, and say: “It might not be obvious, given that you’re a little lost in translation, but she’s not right , bub.”

Not right? Kevin didn’t understand.

“She was on an Exy team before the Foxes, called the Ravens,” Aaron explained. “She was up-and-coming. Everyone in her state thought she was going to be drafted for the U.S. Officials. Then, there was a huge fire in their halls of residence last year — kids as young as ten were in there. Coincidentally, Thea was the only survivor.” He said this as though it was a damning fact.

“The only survivor, with the scars to prove it ," Nicky added. “They said it was a car bomb in the foyer. Probably why she gets all skittish when anyone asks if she wants a ride out somewhere.”

(Neil seemed to shrink at that, somehow becoming more silent than before. It was a wonder how he could make his discomfort so tangible while trying to be invisible.)

"The scars on her arms?" Kevin asked. "Those aren't burns."

A small, intrigued hum went around the cousins. "So, he hasn't got to see her naked yet," Aaron teased. 

Without much thought, Kevin stabbed his fork in Aaron's mountain of syrup-drenched pancakes and shoved them onto the blond's lap. Despite always being pissed off, Aaron had never looked more agitated. Kevin bit his cheek to stop himself snarling across the table. Their eyes were as afire each other’s, in righteousness and reaction.

"Just because Thea isn't here," Kevin warned lowly, "doesn't mean you don't have to respect her." 

Andrew wrapped his hand around his knife thoughtfully. Kevin watched in his peripheral vision. The two of them were moving their pieces across the board, king to king, protecting their people.

A stuttered breath. It might have been Kevin. He wasn’t known to lose his temper, but he was already on the edge that morning. The questioning of his closest and most trusted friend on the Foxes, in this country , didn’t sit well with him.  

Still. Kevin couldn't say he knew Thea's story. He knew she didn't get along with the team, and maybe it was solely because of the team's perception of her, but there was something wedged between her and reality, a hurt she was trying to heal that wouldn’t leave her alone. Thea was kind, confident, and charming — and she could very well have fooled Kevin into believing that was all she had to her. Murder wasn't an uncommon accusation in Kevin's life, though it was an unforgiveable one.

The thought was haunting. It conflicted in Kevin’s mind and warred with itself and no clear answers came of it. His instincts told him that Thea wasn’t a threat, and his heart told him so too, but with sweet contraries poured in his ear, his head told him he couldn’t trust either of those. No matter how much logic Kevin tried to apply, he couldn't shake the image of his mother, choking at their dinner table, poisoned for her power. 

A few moments passed in stillness. Andrew and Kevin were equally as lethal in that moment. Aaron muttered indignantly as he dumped the most part of his pancakes back on the plate and went to go get cleaned up. 

"I want to go back to Palmetto," Kevin announced, for a moment forgetting that nothing would come from his words. Before, there would have been a flurry of action, people ordering carriages and making calls at the click of Kevin’s fingers. He caught himself with a deliberate blink and added, "when were you planning on leaving?" 

Andrew tapped. Three times. Neil was suddenly alert. Kevin noticed. "Tomorrow," Andrew answered. 

Kevin grimaced as he left the table. 

 

 

A few hours after their altercation, Wymack pulled up outside the Columbia house. Andrew turned a venomous glare on Kevin. 

"I didn't say you could leave," Andrew snarled.

There was an audience. Nicky and Neil were on the couch playing video games, eyes trained on the screen in front of them, but it was clear they were listening. Kevin beckoned Andrew out to the hallway with a quick flick of his head.

"I appreciate what you did last night," Kevin said. "More than, in fact. I owe you." 

Andrew nodded. "You do." 

"If I tell you that the situation that brought me to the Foxes is legally confidential, and that by telling you I could put a lot of people in danger-" Kevin sighed. "-do you promise not to tell anyone?" 

Because Andrew would have killed Kevin for hurting Neil, or Aaron, and by assumption Nicky, too. Andrew wasn't cold and violent for the sake of it, Kevin was coming to realise; he was fiercely protective of his family. He was caring, knowing when Neil was in his own head and being able to pull him out of it. For whatever reason, Kevin's presence was making Neil agitated and uncomfortable. The interrogations weren't to disconcert Kevin - they were to protect and comfort Neil. 

"You tried to poison me last night," Kevin reminded Andrew. "I won't forget that so easily. I can, though, understand it, as long as you tell me why. And you will tell me why.” 

Andrew went to speak, but Kevin knew a thing or two about power in a conversation. Leave before they can deceive you. Offer the deal, name your price, then walk away. Let them think about their options, and they'll reconsider crossing you. 

Kevin watched what might have been a lie die on Andrew's lips as he closed the front door behind himself. He walked over to Wymack's car and threw himself into the passenger seat with a deep sigh. 

"Good weekend?" Wymack teased. 

Kevin groaned as he covered his face, before telling Wymack all about it. 

 

 

He spoke just like Kayleigh, David thought to himself. The two of them were kindred spirits, it seemed. Always royal, always worried.

It should have been now that David said something. He could just leave a clue and let Kevin figure the rest out. It wouldn't be long before someone on the team noticed the family resemblance and crushed Kevin's reality. 

Still. David wondered whether Kevin ever spared a thought to who his dad was. 

 

 

The ride back to Palmetto was longer when Kevin was awake for it. For a while, neither of them spoke. They had debriefed the weekend and each counted their blessings for Andrew’s protective (and awfully possessive) nature, and now it seemed they had run out of topics to discuss.

Except one.

“You take in players that have been through the ringer,” Kevin stated.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Wymacks responded. “Why do you ask?”

“Thea.”

The shift in Wymack’s posture told a story that Kevin couldn’t work out. “What are you asking, kid?”

“Where did she come from?”

Wymack said nothing.

“Why doesn’t the team like her?”

“The team likes her fine,” Wymack deflected.

“Not true. They act like she doesn’t exist, up until she’s not around and they can talk about her behind back. Why?”

“Kevin, I’m not your age anymore. Sometimes college students are just dicks to each other, all right?” Wymack huffed. He was getting defensive. Kevin glared harder. “Thea, if you must know, came to me. She...transferred schools.”

“From the Ravens?”

A quick glance at Kevin, one that Wymack couldn’t control. “Yes.”

Kevin slumped back in his chair. It was slow, but evidence was certainly stacking up against Thea. The thought of having to fall into Andrew’s arms and be kept under his thumb for the foreseeable future on the Foxes was quickly becoming his only option.

“Look,” Wymack huffed. “I’ll say this. Whatever the team told you, it isn’t even half of the story. Have whatever opinion of Thea you want, but understand that she isn’t some kind of danger to society , or whatever those bastards say.”

“A murderer,” Kevin supplied.

Wymack didn’t deny it.

The rest of the car ride was silent.

Chapter Text

The peace and quiet of the whole boys' dorm was short-lived. Soon enough, word had gotten out about Kevin's early return and the room was infiltrated with Upperclassmen and their (nearly suffocating) concern. Dan walked right up to Kevin and asked him what happened, why was he back, what did Andrew do? It was a similar vibe to the way Andrew's lot prodded Kevin about Thea. Too invasive and clearly marking a dynamic within the team that Kevin was yet to work out. The worry and fuss over Andrew's lot made Kevin think he'd jumped too fast into Andrew's arms. Being indebted to a bad person was not a place Kevin wanted to be. 

 Then again… It could mean he was wrong about Thea. 

"Don't mind their concern," Renee told him quietly as the others aired out their woes about Andrew. Her pale, rainbow hair was perfectly cut to frame her jaw, and it shifted when she turned to observe her friends, revealing brighter colours beneath the surface. "Andrew is…aggressive. Fiercely loyal. Hostile at times. He won't hurt you so long as you don't hurt his family." 

"Are you sure he isn't just an asshole with trust issues?" Allison quipped.

"That too, but he isn't all bad." 

"Hm." 

Renee continued to smile pleasantly at the group, then at Kevin. She was a calm thing in the middle of Fox-branded chaos. Kevin moved a little bit closer to her and tried to get swept up in her orbit, just to put his mind at ease for a moment. 

"Thea isn't with you guys?" Kevin asked. He was hoping that the isolation he'd observed in Thea was just a trick of circumstance. 

The way the room's conversation cooled off told Kevin enough, though. Renee continued to smile. "Thea went to the gym a little while ago. She won't be back for a bit." 

Dan shifted. Kevin noticed the all too obvious discomfort she was putting on, like a performance that she wanted people to notice, as she declared: "Let's change the subject."

"No," Kevin replied, unimpressed by the drama of this group. It felt superficial, like they had agreed on characters to play to Kevin before they walked in. There was a script somewhere that Kevin could sense but couldn't see. "Why?" 

"It's not nice to gossip," Matt said matter-of-factly. When Dan smiled and leaned on his shoulder, it was the first time Kevin had seen something genuine from her. He liked that person. All of the masks they were wearing were growing tiresome. 

"I was just asking where she was." And Kevin was feeling cruel. "I'd just rather be around her." 

The smiles on their faces dropped into confusion, apart from Allison's, which morphed into a snarl. "Careful where you go with her," she warned. "If you get too close you might get burnt."

" Allison ," Renee absconded. 

"What? We know it's true."

"No, we don't," Dan replied, sounding like a captain again. "We just…keep it in mind that it could be true." 

Renee settled at that. She had looked about ready to drop her good manners and smack someone. "Thea has been through a lot," she told Kevin. "It's nice that you two get along." 

Not for much longer , Kevin dreaded to think. "What are you guys talking about?" As if he didn't know. 

Dan grimaced, knowing she had to take the lead for this. "I know it sounds cruel for us to be talking about her like that," she started off, "but Thea… she isn't easy to get through to. A lot of stories came out about her when she joined the Foxes, and none of them were too nice, but—" 

"She was arrested for murder," Allison interrupted. "She got away with it because Wymack stepped in to recruit her and the whole thing just went away ." 

"Murder?" Kevin whispered. Hearing it said by someone else was sending Kevin's mind and heart stumbling. 

"She said so herself-" 

"No, she didn't," Renee interjected firmly. 

"Not verbally ," Matt reasoned. "You saw her, though. We asked about it and she looked like she was on trial." 

"Again," Allison muttered. 

"What I saw was a girl being cornered by her team — her family — and being expected to tell us her past and traumas before she was ready." Renee stood and squared her shoulders at the group. The energy between them shifted. They shrunk at the sight of Renee's intolerance. "I'm not going to be a part of this conversation anymore." Despite Allison's calling for her, Renee left. 

The three that were left with Kevin appeared sheepish, dressed down by someone they clearly respected. 

Renee wasn't defending Thea's name, though. She was simply telling the others to back off. Kevin hoped he could believe that it was because Renee knew Thea better than everyone else, but there were too many flaws in that theory. As kind as Renee was when Thea wasn't around, she still wouldn't look at Thea on the court. 

The room emptied out and Kevin was left on his own to untangle things, but there was too much to be done. He asked the Upperclassmen if they wanted to practice on the court, warning them of his lack of finesse, and hoped it would be a while before he had to see Thea again. If they spoke now, while Kevin was debating what he wanted to know of her, he was sure that conversation would end in flames. 

 

 

Thea should have guessed this would happen. It always did. 

First, it was Nicky. He had been ecstatic to talk to Thea before he realised she was an ex-Raven. The ex-Raven. Thea would never shake that title, it seemed. She'd never be more than what her old teammates (may they rest in peace) were: snobby, elitist bullies. 

Then, it was the Upperclassmen. They had been excited to welcome Thea into their group, to shield her from Andrew and protect her. It only took one night in Columbia for all of that to go up in smoke. Thea hadn't been there, didn't know what happened, but she knew that the team came back stronger, better bonded, without her, and they intended to keep it that way. 

And now… Kevin.

He had been so sweet to her. There was nothing standing between Thea and a meaningful friendship with Kevin until the team wedged themselves into their business and poured poison in his ear. 

They ran into each other at the court, but it was just the look Kevin gave Thea that told her it was over. 

"I thought you were at the gym," he said. Thea tried to ignore the disappointment, or perhaps it was disgust, in his tone. 

"I changed my mind," Thea answered, noticing the Upperclassmen waiting for Kevin at the door to the court. "Do you need an extra backliner?" 

She shouldn't have said that. Putting herself out there had never ended well for Thea. 

"We're good, actually," Kevin answered, grinning at Thea fitfully. 

And Thea wasn't used to feeling small. She had been cast out and blatantly ignored, sure. Kevin was different, though. Difficult. Thea didn't want a weakness like Kevin, but he was kind to her, and safe .

Thea tried to not look disheartened. Just because she was used to this kind of treatment didn't mean she should have to be. 

"I'll see you on Monday, then," she said quietly. Any louder and her voice would have cracked and her humiliation would have been two-fold. 

Kevin didn't reply as he walked to the Upperclassmen. Allison waved at her, smiling unkindly, and Renee wouldn't meet Thea's eye. Thea was left to hold back her tears as she walked out of the stadium and back to Fox Tower, until she couldn't feel them anymore. 

What had she done? How did she manage to lose everyone on this team she made contact with? Kevin had been an exhausting hope to onto for a week, but it was worth it to have not been so alone on the Foxes. 

At square one again, Thea felt herself breaking. Surely it was time to let her walls fall. 

 

 

The following Monday, Kevin looked for Thea at practice. He had spent Sunday wondering whether he was doing the right thing by pushing Thea away. He'd thought she might get angry at him, realise what he was doing and have to be talked down from setting (possibly) another fire. 

Then again, Thea had never been like that to him. She had never been like that, so far as Kevin knew, at all. Thea was bubbly and fun, quiet and yearning, but never angry. Kevin was ashamed to have thought of her that way. 

Thea didn't practice that morning, though. Despite ignoring her when she was present, everyone noticed when she wasn't. 

Kevin's first official practice could have gone worse. He didn't fumble the ball, which was ideal, but he stumbled at every tackle and brawl. The game was more violent than it let on, Kevin felt, picking himself off the floor as the final whistle rang. 

In the briefing room, Wymack let his Coach act drop. 

"Thea is not here," he stated. 

The room went silent. Kevin wondered if the others had felt her absence the same way he did — bone deep and disorienting. 

"She will not be attending practice for the rest of this week, following instructions given to her by Betsy and myself." 

Kevin leaned over to Nicky to ask who Betsy was, and Nicky promptly supplied 'team therapist' before Kevin could say a word.

"What happened?" Renee asked. 

"Well, I'd like to know that, too," Wymack replied, sounding more annoyed as he spoke. "I'm not a big fan of being called to an emergency at 2am because one of my kids is ripping her hair out and screaming about quitting the team. So, let's address this for the last time: what is your deal with Thea?" 

There was a first time? Kevin thought, bewildered. Did Wymack not know how the team spoke about Thea? 

The conversation in the car was suddenly piecing itself together. There were still parts that didn't make sense, but a parting in the clouds was shining some light on Thea. 

"Nothing," Dan flat-out lied. "She just doesn't want to hang out with us." 

"Bullshit," Kevin interjected. 

(Aaron had taught him that word. Kevin was very excited to use it.)

The team turned wide, guilty eyes on him. More and more, Kevin's mock-up of who Thea was unravelled, and Kevin could see the person he knew only a week ago reappearing through those lies. 

Andrew raised an eyebrow at Kevin. Kevin raised one back. 

"I was told that the 'issue' with Thea is her criminal record," Kevin confessed in frantic outburst. He turned to Wymack and prayed he could tell a whole story with only half the words. "I was told she set a school on fire and she was arrested for murder of innocent people." 

"No, I told you-" Nicky elaborated. "It was a car in the foyer. It blew up, then the halls were on fire." 

" Excuse me?! " Wymack shouted, his eyes blazing. Kevin jumped, unable to hide it. "You assholes having been spreading that gossip about your teammate? You believed that shit?! Kevin is right, that is bullshit!" 

Something told Kevin he wasn't going to be able to crawl back from this so easily. 

"Everyone out," Wymack declared. "Practice is off this week and we're forfeiting the game on Friday. How dare you take this team's values for granted. Kevin, see me in my office. Everyone else, go back to the dorms and don't you dare bother Thea about this. Disgusting." 

The team filed out, greatly affected by Wymack's outburst. Even Neil's solid quiet was less tangible than before, walking out with a shaken group of cousins. 

Kevin turned to Wymack and wished he knew what to say. He needed to speak to Thea, to apologise and beg for answers, for her to tell him that he could trust her still.

Wymack said nothing as he went into his office, clearly still fuming, so Kevin followed and tried to look as calm as possible. 

"I messed up," he admitted when Wymack wouldn't speak. "I need to apologise to Thea." 

"Correct," Wymack answered, gesturing for Kevin to sit down. "You also need to not blame yourself entirely for this." 

Kevin blanched. "But I-" 

"Thea told me what happened. She's not in a good way, Kevin, but she wasn't upset with you. It's everyone else trying to push her away. I've never known Thea to even shed a tear before, but this… I can't believe this."

Kevin was still. He looked at his hands and felt himself grow desperate. "You said… and they said… She's killed someone before. Someone innocent. David you must know I can't- can't condone that. I can't just accept it." 

Wymack sighed, realising what Kevin was saying. "Kid, I have killers on my team. A few of them. None of their victims were innocent — that's why they're here. You are safe here. Thea is not a cold-blooded murderer, none of these people are. They have reasons, good reasons, to do the things they did. Now-" Wymack scribbled out a phone number on a piece of paper, "tell her you're coming over. I'm going to set this right, and that starts with you."

Kevin took the paper and didn't smile. A smile was remorseless. "Thank you, David." 

 

 

Thea was staying at Abby the Medic's house, wrapped up in a blanket as she emerged into the living room. She looked ashamed, and Kevin hated that. He stood for her on instinct, shocking her, before he remembered that this was far from a private audience. 

The house was theirs until Abby was done grocery shopping, and Kevin was grateful and hesitant at once for how this would all go. The trajectory of lies, he was finding, had more dire consequences than he'd seen before. 

"Are you okay?" Kevin asked. 

Thea said nothing in return. She didn't even look up. 

"I have to apologise," Kevin began, realising he was slipping into formality out of anxiety. "I'm sorry I was so cold to you. I knew what kind of position you were in on the team and I only made it worse. I was told some things, stories and lies, that I chose to believe over my own opinion and beliefs of you." 

Thea looked up slowly. She was worn to the bone with emotions that Kevin had never seen on anyone before. Hope baron and giving up. There were no such words allowed in a palace. 

"They know I'm a murderer," she whispered. "I… I didn't want to tell them. I didn't want them to know, but…" 

Kevin's heart was racing. 

"Please believe that I only did what I had to do," Thea went on. "If I didn't, I would have died and never been found — or worse."

Kevin frowned. "What do you mean?" Nothing was making sense. 

Thea stared at him, growing confused. "The car accident. The- I stabbed him, the guy that took me. He...he crashed… What the fuck did they tell you about me?" 

"Car accident?

"What did they say about me? Don't look at me like I'm crazy and then not tell me why." 

Kevin shook his head. "I don't know if I should-" 

"Please, Kevin. Please . If I can salvage the opportunity I have to be on this team, you have to help me." She bit down on a sob. "This is all I have left, tell me what they said."

And really, Thea deserved to know. She deserved that chance at family, and if everything fell short, then she'd always have Kevin. "The fire at the halls of residence," he explained, watching as Thea's eyes widened in disbelief. "They said you set up a car bomb in the foyer and tried to blow it up, I guess." 

Thea retracted. "Did you believe them?" 

Kevin couldn't lie. "Sort of. I didn't want to, but… yeah. I did." 

"And everybody just assumed this was true about me?" 

Kevin shrugged. He thought of Renee, and Dan's reluctance to put words to a theory. It was a hard question to ask and harder still to answer. 

Thea was still and silent for a while. Kevin couldn't read her face. He knew she was distraught, that was obvious, but was she angry? Did she forgive Kevin? Would she leave the team after all? 

"I think you should leave," she quietly advised. 

But I want to talk to you. "I understand."

"Don't contact me, Kevin," Thea said, a pained expression on her face. "At least not until I've contacted you first. I need to think." 

"Of course." Kevin stood slowly. "I'm sorry again, Thea. Truly. You don't deserve this."