“Fox Two, standing by. Fox Three, are you in position?”
“Fox Eight, prepare the extraction vehicle.”
“Copy. How long?”
“Ten minutes. Fox Seven, are we clear?”
“The Fox is clear to pounce.”
“Fox Three, assume the position.”
“Shut up, Nicky.”
“Sir, yes, sir, Fox Two, sir.”
“Christ. Let’s get this over with. Fox Two, standing by.”
“Fox Three, standing by.”
“Fox Eight, standing by.”
“Fox Seven, standing by.”
Neil didn’t remember passing out, but when he woke up, a man in a kitsune mask was staring down at him. Neil blinked blearily up at him, unable to focus through the pain and the dim light in the basement. He didn’t know what fresh hell his father had planned for him bringing in a man with a mask, but Neil was too tired and too hurt to care. His hands were shredded, his face was shredded, the room smelled like his burnt flesh, and he was ready to fall asleep again.
He coughed, and blood dribbled down his chin.
The man in the mask cocked his head but made no move toward Neil.
Neil wheezed through a probably broken rib. “Are you going to do it?” he asked.
“And what is it I’m supposed to do?” the man asked.
“I don’t think whoever did this to you wants you to die that easy.”
“No.” Neil smiled wryly, his eyes closing. “I suppose not.” The room was silent again until he eventually heard the kitsune man move beside him and press a sickly sweet rag over Neil’s nose. Neil fell asleep.
“Andrew, Jesus, what the fuck?”
“What’s wrong with his hands?”
“He should probably be treated.”
“What the actual fuck?”
“I found him like this.”
“I still stand by what I say: what the actual fuck?”
“His blood is getting on my clothes.”
“Okay, okay, but we need to get out of here before the senator comes back.”
“Let’s just get out of here before they trace his literal trail of blood to our doorstep before we’re ready.”
When Neil woke up again, he had bandages on his hands and around his chest and probably on his cheeks, except he had a black canvas bag over his head and he was sitting in a chair with his hands behind his back.
Though the handcuffs felt kind of...fuzzy.
“Are these padded cuffs?” he asked, his voice raspy, his throat dry. He tugged on his wrists and winced when they chafed against his recent wounds from Lola.
“They’re Nicky’s,” someone answered him—a woman.
“Fox Seven! Use the code names!”
“Sorry. I’ve never kidnapped someone and ransomed them for money before.”
“I’ve been kidnapped?” Neil asked.
“What did you think was happening?” someone else asked. He suspected it might be the initial kitsune mask man who had found him in the basement.
“How many people are here?” Neil asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I know there are at least seven of you.”
“Now he knows how many there are of us. Uh oh, Kevin.”
“Shut the fuck up, Fox Thr—I mean, Fox One Hundred.”
“Oh, yeah, that will really fool him.”
“Why have I been kidnapped?” Neil tried peering through the fabric of the bag over his face, but the most he could make out were vague shapes. He couldn’t actually discern how many people were around him, and there were only three people talking. “Are you with my father?” he asked, perhaps a little belatedly, though not with much conviction. His father’s people wouldn’t be so...amateur. Or silly. They definitely wouldn't wrap Neil’s wrists in padded cuffs. He didn’t understand what was going on. Maybe he really had died in that basement.
“No, kid, we’re using you to ransom money from the senator,” the girl said.
“Kid?” he asked, incensed. No one who had spoken so far sounded much older than him.
“Oh, that’s what riles you up?” kitsune man asked.
Neil turned in the direction of his voice. “Fox Three, was it?” he asked, his tone clipped. “I’m sorry you’re missing how expressive I can be, seeing as, you know, my face is covered by a black fucking bag so I can’t see my kidnappers.”
“Oooo, feisty.” The girl again.
“Shut up, Fox Seven, Fox Three. Now, Nathaniel—”
Neil flinched, and Kevin faltered. “Uh...you are Nathaniel, right?” He must have misinterpreted Neil’s flinch. “You grabbed the right person, right?” Kevin asked Fox Three.
Fox Three answered, “Well, his face was awfully ruined…”
“Oh my god, Andrew—”
“Code names, Kevin. Code names.”
Neil flinched again. “I hate that name. Call me Neil.”
“Neil. Right. We’re using you to extort money from your father. We’re going to call him in an hour and say we’re not giving you back until he gives us a million dollars.”
It took Neil a total of ten seconds to process what Kevin said. And then he started to laugh. No one laughed with him. “Sure,” he said, gasping. His energy was waning. Just because his wounds were bandaged didn’t mean they were treated well. His hands and face and arms were burning. He wanted to sleep. “Send him my fingers in a box and I'm sure he'd thank you himself.” Neil laughed again, slumping forward as all his energy leached from his body.
The Foxes, however many there were, remained silent. “Did he do this to you?” Fox Three—Andrew—eventually asked.
Neil huffed and wheezed, realizing fully his situation. Though it was strange and unfounded, these people had saved him from his father’s house. Maybe Neil could use them to keep him out of it. “You’re calling him tonight, you say?” Neil asked, ignoring Andrew’s question. Like his torture meant anything to these people. “Tell him Nathaniel says, ‘Fuck you.’” Neil sniffed, straightening out with as much dignity he had left in his ruined body, kidnapped and tortured, but not by the same people. “Now," he said, “do I get a place to stay while I’m here? I’m tired.”
“Um, what the fuck are we supposed to do now?”
“Give him a place to sleep, I guess?”
“Who’s calling the senator?”
“Ew, I don’t want to.”
“Well, it looks like we need to do this quick before our guest either dies or runs away or something.”
“His wounds are going to get infected. Should we take him to a hospital?”
“Oh my god, Nicky, and say what? We found him that way?”
“We literally wouldn’t be lying.”
“How do we explain that we kidnapped him from his father’s torture chamber?”
“How do we even know his father did it?”
“God, this is the worst job we’ve ever done.”
“It was your idea.”
“Whatever. Someone needs to help him clean his wounds and make sure he doesn’t escape. In thirty minutes, we call Nathan.”
When the black bag was ripped off his head, Neil opened his eyes to the kitsune man staring down at him again. Fox Three. Andrew. His captors had left him in his chair, cuffed and slumped, as they discussed whatever they were going to do with him now. The room was industrial and had no carpet or windows. If Neil had to guess, he was either in a vacant building or a shipping container. He couldn’t hear anything outside.
Neil planned to observe the group for any weaknesses to be exploited before making his escape. He didn’t expect it to take very long.
Andrew stared down at Neil, not saying a word. Neil tugged on the cuffs and kicked his legs like a restless child. His wounds were unbearable, but he put on a cocky smile and ignored the pull of the burn on his cheek, still kicking his legs.
Andrew took a small step back and said, “Stand up.”
Neil said, “Make me.”
“Do you really want to antagonize your kidnappers?”
“Look at what I’ve been through. Do you really think I care?”
Andrew didn’t say another word nor move another step. Neil couldn’t see Andrew’s eyes through the black slits of the mask, but he stared through them like he could. Andrew crossed his arms. Neil spat at Andrew’s feet and tried not to react at the blood that came with it. He hadn’t thought his father’s kicks and punches from earlier had broken something internally, but maybe they had.
Neil pretended like he wasn’t affected and raised a brow at Andrew in challenge.
“Stand up,” Andrew said again, unimpressed.
“No,” Neil said.
“Would you rather Kevin help wash your wounds?”
“Don’t you mean Fox Two?”
“You can die down here if you want, or you can come with me and wash your face.”
“Is it bleeding again?”
“It hasn’t stopped.”
Neil sighed. So Fox Three wasn’t the one to break to Neil’s antagonism. He’d have to try on someone else. Maybe Fox Seven, or possibly Nicky, if he ever met him. Definitely not Fox Two. He seemed to be the only one serious about the Plan. Neil shifted forward on his seat and slowly stood up, not quite able to muffle a soft moan.
“Where else are you hurt?” Andrew asked, gesturing to Neil’s torso and legs, covered by a shirt and pants that they must not have looked under.
Neil smiled wryly. “Everywhere? But don’t worry about it. It’s just a scratch.”
“You’re bleeding all over the floor.”
Neil grinned. He felt the slices on his cheek crack around the dried blood, breaking the skin again. He didn’t care how deranged it made him look when he felt small streams of warm blood slide down his cheek. “Don’t you have a call to make?”
Andrew didn’t untie Neil’s hands to wash him, so Andrew had to do all the work. Detached and unkind, Andrew scrubbed at Neil’s face with soap and warm water, and Neil didn’t flinch or make a sound. Thankfully, there was no mirror to see the damage to his face, and with his hands tied behind his back, Neil didn’t have to be reminded of what was done to his arms and hands. He was running off adrenaline and fear, so Neil didn’t have time to have a panic attack, but he didn’t know how long his bravado would last.
He hoped at least through his father’s phone call.
Andrew was a silent demon behind him as he washed the burns and cuts on Neil’s arms, sliding the padded cuffs up so he could clean the shorn skin from previous handcuffs that were not so soft and loose.
Neil wanted to snark—it was so quiet and Andrew hadn’t said anything, but Neil didn’t know what to say to a man so detached to his torture, who didn’t seem to care but didn’t hurt him any more than was inevitable when cleaning a wound to stop infection.
He was tired again. When Andrew turned the water off and gestured for Neil to duck his head so he could put the black bag over his face again, Neil complied without a fight.
There really wasn’t anything left to say.
“Do we have the voice changer?”
“Dude, Nathaniel looks dead on his feet. Should he even be here?”
“You can’t even see his face; how do you know how he looks? And he wants to be called Neil.”
“That’s fucking stupid.”
“ You’re stupid.”
“Shut up, Fox Five, Fox Seven. Yes, I have the voice changer and the burner phone. Are we ready?”
“Make the call.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.
“This is Nathan.”
“Nathan Wesninski. State senator of Maryland.”
“Yes. Is there something I can help you with?”
“We have something of yours.”
“Ah. I see.”
“Don’t you want to know how he’s doing?”
“You staged the disturbance at my place.”
“Perhaps. Good thing no one was hurt.”
“I presume you took him for a reason?”
“Er. Right. For a million dollars.”
“My, what a steep price. How do I know you have my son? Is he there?”
“Yes, he’s here. Say hello, Neil.”
“Neil, say something.”
“Silent until the end, huh, Junior? Tell me, Foxes, did he scream for you, too?”
“He’s…unharmed, for now. But…if you don’t send us the money, that might not remain the case.”
“A few fingers, I imagine? An ear, maybe?”
“If you return him to me by tonight, I might just let your little group go.”
“If you give us the money by tonight, you’ll get to…see your son again.”
“You play a dangerous game, Foxes. Just put him back where you found him.”
“This isn’t a negotiation. Give us the money or—”
“You’ll kill him?”
“We’ll give him to the FBI.”
“Fox Three, what—”
“To frame me, I suppose? And who would believe a group of thieves over a state senator? I just got my son back, or hadn’t you heard? Gone for so long and finally home. Don’t you want to come home again, Junior?”
“You…can put the money at this address—”
“You have until tonight, Foxes, and then I won’t play nice anymore.”
Neil listened as the Foxes started arguing immediately after Nathan hung up. He couldn’t keep track of all the voices, but there were a few new ones. Perhaps they were all in the room now.
“Um, what the fuck?”
“Well, that was creepy as hell.”
“How did he know we were the Foxes?”
“What were we thinking, kidnapping his son?”
“We were thinking this could have been our last job and that he’d be happy to pay for his son.”
“What the fuck are we supposed to do with him now?”
Finally they fell silent, and Neil could only assume they were looking at him. “Let me go?” he croaked, because his throat was still tight with fear and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he vomited. He was still shaking from the phone call and phantom pains he could feel at the sound of his father’s voice.
There was another long silence. Eventually, one of them asked, “Is there anyone else who would pay for you? You are a senator’s son. What about your mom?”
“My mom is dead.”
“But that woman, Lola—”
“She burned my face and cut my arms. I don’t think she’d pay a million dollars just to do that again.”
“Um, any aunts or uncles—”
“Oh, you mean my gangster uncle who lives in England? Sure, why don’t you give him a call. I’m sure he’d be just as willing to work with my kidnappers as my father is.”
“Jesus Christ, who the fuck are you?”
“I’m no one. Can’t you just let me go? I won’t tell anyone what you did. I don’t even know any of you. I just want to leave.”
“There’s literally no one who would want to pay for you?”
Baring his misfortunes like this was almost as painful as showing his scars. Neil fought not to feel sorry for himself, but it was hard when everything hurt and he was tied up and bleeding, meant to be ransomed but nobody wanted him.
“Let’s…keep him, for now,” Fox Two said. “Maybe his father really will leave the money.”
“And we just condemn him to death?”
“Well, what else are we supposed to do? Give him to the FBI? We’re not exactly model citizens. We literally kidnapped him.”
Neil chimed in again, “Seriously, I won’t say anything. I don’t even care. In fact, you saved me. I will repay that with my silence.”
The Foxes stopped arguing. It was so quiet, Neil could hear the ticking of someone’s watch.
“Andrew,” Fox Two said. “Take him back.”
“To his father’s?” someone gasped.
“To the room. I…need to think.”
More quiet, and then someone approached Neil and put a hand on his shoulder. Neil stood up, and Andrew moved his hand to the small of Neil’s back to lead him wherever he would be staying. Now would be the perfect time to fight for his escape—the Foxes were fractured, thrown by the phone call, ready to dispose of this burden they had unintentionally shackled themselves with.
But Neil didn’t have any fight left in him right now. He let Andrew lead him back, walking on shaky legs, and then when it was just the two of them walking down a hall and turning corners, Neil lost the fight with his nausea and fell to his knees. Andrew had just barely moved the bag in time for Neil to be sick, and then when he was done, Neil wiped his nose on his shoulder and stood up. He didn’t turn back to Andrew, didn’t say anything, and after a minute, Andrew started walking again. Neil hadn’t noticed until Andrew slid his hand back down to the small of his back that as he vomited, Andrew’s hand was warm and firm on the back of his neck.
When finally they made it to the room Neil would be staying in, Neil walked to the middle of the floor and stood above the chair, not sitting down. Behind him, Andrew closed the door and locked it before walking up to Neil and unlocking his handcuffs. Neil’s arms dropped to his sides. He stared down at the ground, lamenting that he didn’t have a pillow or blanket to curl up with. Maybe, once he was back to his fighting sass, he’d complain until they relented. For now, he curled up into a ball on the concrete floor and stared at the burns on his knuckles. Nothing in his life had hurt more than this.
He heard footsteps retreating but he didn’t hear the door open again. It was quiet for so long Neil thought maybe Andrew had left and Neil just hadn’t noticed.
Neil asked, his voice raspy and soft, “Are you still there?”
The room was silent for a beat before Andrew quietly replied, “Yes.”
“The money isn’t there.”
“No shit, it isn’t there. I just realized I never finished giving him the address.”
“Oh my god. Well, has he called?”
“How the fuck is he gonnna call? He can’t trace the phone and I didn’t give him a number to call back.”
“Ooooooh my god.”
“Fuck. Does that mean we have to call him back?”
“Maybe he won’t answer.”
“So we’ll, what, leave him a message?”
“I want to call the gangster uncle in England. Maybe he’ll be easier to deal with.”
“Oh my god .”
When Neil woke up from a fitful sleep, Andrew threw a granola bar at his face. Neil frowned at the bar inches from his face and moved to sit up. He didn’t have the strength or motivation to crawl into the chair, so he instead moved to sit with his back against the wall. Andrew was propped against the wall opposite him. He was still wearing the kitsune mask.
“Full continental?” Neil quipped, trying to tear into the wrapper with his teeth. He couldn’t bend his knuckles, and, impossibly it seemed, his body hurt more than it had yesterday.
Neil really needed to get out of here.
Andrew watched unsympathetic as Neil tore into his breakfast. After eating the granola and wiping his fingers on his pants, Neil settled in for a very long and very boring day. He didn’t know what the Foxes were going to do now, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to fight Andrew in the state he was in. His only hope was for Nathan to call and distract the Foxes enough so he could try to escape.
With nothing better to do but antagonize Andrew, Neil turned his roaming gaze to the kitsune mask seemingly staring right at him.
“So,” Neil started, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck before smirking at Andrew. “What’s it like being the worst thieves in the world?”
Without missing a beat, Andrew parried, “Tell me, what’s it like being the dumbest man in the world?”
“You think I’m a man?”
“I think you’re an idiot.”
“I’m not the one who kidnapped a senator’s son for a million dollars.”
“We weren’t aware of the torture when we made the plan.”
“A pity. You could have kidnapped another senator’s son and ransomed him for money.”
“Because the world is flush with senator’s sons.”
“And the world is flush with petty thieves.”
“You think we’re petty?”
“Petty?” Neil asked. His cheeks hurt from grinning so hard. “I’ll show you petty.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, didn’t you ask ?”
“I just assumed he was guarding Neil. Shouldn’t someone be guarding him?”
“What the fuck is Neil gonna do?”
“I dunno, he seems kind of scary, don’t you think?”
“The only thing I’m scared of is Neil passing out from blood loss. Should we get him antibiotics or something? Where’s Aaron. He’s the doctor.”
“He’s the intern. And I don’t fucking know where he is.”
“Go get Andrew.”
“I don’t want to go in there again.”
“Bro, if you wanna try to break up Neil and Andrew’s creepy staring contest, be my guest.”
“They’re just sitting across the room from each other and staring. It’s weird.”
“Jesus fucking Christ. I’m going to get Andrew.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Neil didn’t know how much time had passed with just him and Andrew in his room when one of the other Foxes came to them. This Fox was tall and intimidating, with dark hair and tan skin, and his kitsune mask had a gruesome crack over one of its eyes.
“Fox Three, what are you doing?”
“Guarding the prisoner.”
“Aren’t I a guest?”
Both the newcomer—Fox Two, Neil recognized the voice—and Andrew ignored him. Fox Two said, “Just lock the door. He doesn’t need to be watched.”
“I would hate for the senator to kidnap him without giving us the money.”
“Is this location secure?” Neil asked, curious. Despite the hours he’d just spent with Andrew doing absolutely nothing except occasionally insulting each other, Neil hadn’t bothered to ask where they were or scope out the area. It was clear Andrew wouldn’t let him get passed the door, and what more could Neil see of his four wall prison?
“It’s secure,” Fox Two said resolutely.
“Have you heard from my father?” Neil asked.
“He…” Kevin hesitated. “He has not made contact.”
“I think you might want to call him again. He doesn’t waste time.”
“I would say,” Andrew piped in, moving to stand up. “Little ol’ Nathaniel only home for a day before we took you from that basement.”
Neil said nothing. He suddenly didn’t feel as jovial anymore. He wished Andrew and Kevin would leave.
Kevin also prodded Neil. “Good question. Where were you all these years, to become a prodigal son returned?”
“You found me in that basement. Do you think I needed a reason to run away?”
“No,” Kevin mused.
“But why did you come back?” Andrew asked.
Neil remained silent, glaring at his captors.
“You got sloppy?” Kevin guessed. Neil glared harder.
“He found you,” Andrew guessed next.
Neil crossed his arms, turning away. Kevin and Andrew still wouldn’t leave, so Neil said, a bit grim, “He always does.”
“Wait, so let me get this straight: Nathaniel, a wee ten year old lad, runs away from home.”
“He’s on the run from his torturing murderer senator father for ten years.”
“His father found him eventually. Brought him home. The news thinks that Nathaniel had been a reckless child finally come to his senses.”
“The very next day, a group of sexy, amazing thieves known as the Foxes—that’s us—kidnap Neil from a basement after he had been violently tortured.”
“He wasn’t even home a day?”
“Yeah, remember? We wanted to act fast on Nathan’s joy of having his son back.”
"But still. I mean, his dad tortured him immediately?"
“What are we supposed to do now?”
“Call Nathan, I guess.”
“Who wants to go get Neil?”
“Fine! I’m going. But if Neil starts talking about his tragic past, I can’t promise I won’t immediately fall in love with him.”
“Jesus Christ, Matt, just go get him.”
“Hey, that’s Fox Four to you, asshole.”
A new Fox came to greet Neil. Though he was very tall, Neil immediately sussed him as the target he would use to run away from this mess.
“Hey, man!” the Fox said. His voice was deep and his mask’s accent marks were pink instead of red. “Look, I know it’s going to be sort of traumatic, but we’re going to call Nathan again. Think you’re up for it?”
“Uh,” Neil said. “Sure.” He slowly rose to his feet from his spot on the wall, and the tall Fox turned around as if to walk away.
“Aren’t you going to tie me up?” Neil asked.
“Oh, right! Where are the cuffs?”
“I think Andrew has them.”
“Cool. Just give me one second. I’m Fox Matt, by the way.” Neil raised his eyebrows. “Oh, shit, I mean I’m Fox Boyd.” Neil grinned. “Fuck! I mean I’m Fox Four.” An awkward pause. “Um, please don’t tell the others. As far as you’re concerned, I’m Fox Four.”
“That’s a copy, Matt Boyd.”
Matt laughed, and Neil almost regretted what he was about to do.
“Um, Fox Four, where’s your charge? And why are you bleeding?”
“Neil punched me in the face.”
“Oh my god, babe! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. He apologized afterwards, and he said I had a cool mask, so we’re chill. I think it really hurt his hand, so I’m kind of impressed he did it at all.”
“But where is he?”
“I don’t know, probably looking for the exit?”
“Shit. Fox Three?”
“Can’t you keep your pet on a leash, Kevin?”
“Just shut up and find him.”
Neil was lost in the labyrinth of the building, abandoned and decaying, when Andrew eventually found him in front of a window seven stories up. Neil was sitting on the windowsill and staring at the ground through the window.
“Would you jump?” Andrew asked from behind him.
Neil lifted his broken and bloody hand, throbbing from his punch, and trailed a finger through the condensation on the window. He left behind a smear of blood. He was always leaving behind a smear of blood. “Not today,” he said, and then turned to face Andrew. Andrew was twirling the handcuffs.
“He won’t stop,” Neil said, refusing to stand up yet. “Not until I’m dead. You should let me go.” Andrew continued to twirl the handcuffs, but he did not step closer to Neil. They stared at each other for a long moment before Andrew eventually drawled, “And you care? What happens to us?”
Neil, defeated for now, smiled. “You did save me, after all.”
“And that makes us friends?”
“No,” Neil said, and finally Andrew stopped spinning the handcuffs and took a step toward Neil. “It just makes you the only ones who have.”
“Oh, you found him!”
“Hey, Fox Four. Sorry I had to punch you.”
“It’s fine, man. We did kidnap you.”
“True, but you haven’t hurt me yet.”
“Don’t say that too loud. Andrew might take it as a challenge.”
“Why would Andrew hurt me?”
“Because you’re annoying.”
“Guys. Seriously. His name is Fox Three. Jesus Christ.”
“But everyone gets to call me Neil?”
“Dude, literally, your name is Nathaniel. You’re the only one not going by his actual name.”
Neil had the bag over his face again, but it felt more like a formality at this point.
And, for some reason, Andrew’s hand was still on his shoulder even though he was already sitting down. Neil thought perhaps it was an intimidation tactic, or maybe posturing for the other Foxes, because there was no pressure on the hand. Andrew was simply resting his hand on Neil’s shoulder, and Neil couldn’t help but smile.
The smile didn’t last when his father’s voice came over the speaker again.
Neil swallowed, and he thought he felt Andrew squeeze his shoulder once before he let him go.
“Foxes. I’m disappointed.”
“And we’re wondering where our money is.”
“Is my son listening?”
“You must know what I’m going to do to them, Nathaniel. You can stop this. Just come home.”
“Stop negotiating. We’re not letting Neil go until you give us the money.”
“Do you understand, Junior? I will find them.”
“Tell me you understand.”
Neil schooled his features even though he still had the bag over his face. He squared his shoulders and sat up straight and clenched his throbbing hand so it would stop shaking.
“Please let me go,” he said.
“Please. It’s time for me to go. I have your money. I can give you a million dollars.”
A stunned silence. “Um, no offense,” one of the Foxes Neil didn’t know yet said, “but how do you have a million dollars?”
“My dad works for the mob. That’s why we ran away, me and my mom. We also stole five million dollars before we left. There are…” Neil took a deep breath. “There are caches. I was saving them for a rainy day, and I think that’s today. If you let me go, I can bring you the money.”
No one said anything. “Please,” Neil said again, his voice strained, and suddenly Andrew said in a deadly soft voice, “I don’t like that word.”
Neil turned to face where his voice came from. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but if you don’t let me go, you’re all going to die.”
“I think…maybe, we should just…give him back—”
“No, Aaron! Look at him! How could you just give him back?”
“So we’re just supposed to throw our lives away for a man we don’t even know? Yeah, it sucks what happened to him, and we can help him run away, but we can’t keep him here. He’s right. Wesninski will kill us.”
A tense silence, and finally Fox Two said, “Take him back to his room. Andrew, lock the door and then come back. We need to discuss.”
“Discuss without me.” Andrew’s hand was back on Neil’s shoulder, and Neil stood up. He wished he could fight his way out. Maybe he should try—
As if feeling his intent, Andrew grasped his shoulder tighter. Neil deflated.
Kevin said, “We need your opinion, An…Fox Three.”
“Why are you still trying to use the code names?” Fox Seven asked.
“It’s the principle of the thing. Fox Three, you have to be there when we decide what to do with Neil.”
“I’ll do whatever you decide, your highness.”
“Come find me when the powwow is over.”
Andrew pushed Neil away, and they left the room in silence.
Before being led back to his room, Andrew detoured where he had washed Neil’s wounds before. When the bag was ripped off his face, Neil was face-to-face with hazel eyes and blonde hair. For a startled moment, all Neil could do was blink, but before he could say anything, Andrew was lathering his hands with soap and scrubbing at Neil’s face.
Neil said nothing, staring at Andrew’s apathetic expression as he worked. When he turned Neil around to scrub at his arms, Neil complied, expecting another repeat of yesterday where he remained locked up, but Andrew undid the cuffs and turned Neil to face him once again.
Andrew scrubbed his arms, detached and firm, and Neil tensed for the pain of his hands. But Andrew paused at Neil’s wrists, and then lifted Neil’s right hand up between them with both of his hands and straightened Neil’s fingers. Neil flinched and hissed at the pull of his skin on the cuts and burns, and when he looked up to glare at Andrew, Andrew was already looking at him.
Neil realized then how gently Andrew was holding his hand. He could barely feel Andrew’s fingertips. For a moment, Neil couldn’t breathe at whatever look was on Andrew’s face—it was dark, and deep, and Neil had never had anyone look at him like that before.
On impulse, he clenched his fist again, and Andrew tutted at him, looking down. He resumed cleaning Neil’s wounds.
Afterwards, as he cradled Neil’s hands in a limp towel and patted them dry, Neil said, “Please, Andrew. You have to let me go.”
“I said don’t use that word.”
“You said you didn’t like it.”
“It was implied.”
Andrew dropped his hands and the towel. He put a hand on Neil’s forearm and dragged him away, back to his room.
Neil said, “I’m the world’s dumbest man, remember? You have to spell things out for me.”
“If you don’t let me go, I will fight my way out.”
“You will die trying.”
They stopped in front of Neil’s room, and Andrew pushed him in before following and locking the door behind him. Neil sat in the chair and Andrew leaned against the door, crossing his arms.
Neil said, “I will die either way.”
“What the actual hell are we supposed to do now?”
“Shut up, Matt. We’re literally about to die because we thought it’d be a bright idea to kidnap, fuckin’, this dude who ran away from his mob father and stole five million dollars?”
“I don’t think he’ll narc on us if we let him go.”
“I don’t trust him at all. His first chance he got, he punched Matt in the face, even with a busted hand. What makes you think he won’t go turncoat on us once he’s back in the world?”
“So, what, we just watch him forever and ever?”
“We could make him a Fox.”
“His dad would still be after us.”
“So we kill his dad?”
“You want to go from petty crimes to murder?”
“Well, no. Maybe we can hire someone?”
“What are we even talking about? Murder? Hitmen? We don’t even know Nathaniel.”
“ Neil. ”
“I don’t care. Let’s call Nathan again, see if he’ll give us the money. We’ll pretend we’re giving him Neil back, but it’s a decoy or something, and then we have the money and we can use that to get far away from Nathan Wesninski.”
“He’d still be after us.”
“How about this: we pretend to give Neil back, we pretend to kill Neil in front of his father, we flee, Nathan thinks his son is dead, we have Neil and maybe a million dollars.”
“So we’re supposed to stage a death and then take the body with us? Sus.”
“Well, it’s all we’ve got right now! Do you want to fight for the money or not?”
“Fine. We’ll call Nathan again in an hour.”
This time, when Fox Two came for him, Neil was playing a game of tic-tac-toe with Andrew on the ground. Not long after they had entered the room and finished their glaring contest, Andrew had sat on the ground and pulled out a knife, scratching aimlessly on the ground. When Neil came over to inspect what he was doing, Andrew immediately drew a tic-tac-toe board and Neil sat across from him.
When Fox Two unlocked the door and walked in thirty minutes later, Kevin immediately shouted at Andrew. “Um, hello? What the fuck?”
“Hello, Kevin,” Andrew drawled, scratching his X into a corner before passing the knife to Neil.
“Hey, Kevin,” Neil said, scratching his O into another corner before handing the knife back.
“Um, hello ?” Kevin said, more frantic. “Did you just give him a knife?”
Andrew looked down at the knife in his hand in idle-surprise. “Oh shit.”
“He’s luring me into a false sense of security,” Neil said.
“No, he’s arming his hostage with a knife. Andrew, you’re no longer on babysitting duty.”
“I’m not a child,” Neil said.
“You’re as short as one.”
“Andrew, I am taller than you.”
“Because you know you'd lose.”
“Suck my dick.”
“Why would I want to go so far down to do that?”
“I still have a knife in my hand.”
“Stab me then, you coward.”
“Shut up,” Kevin said. “Shut up right now. Fox Three, put your mask back on. Stop giving hostages knives. And, oh my god, do I really need to say it: don’t flirt with the mobster’s son?”
“Was that flirting?” Neil asked.
Andrew sighed, standing up and slipping the knife back into his armband. “What did you think was happening?”
Neil was led back into whatever room the Foxes made their calls on. He didn’t try to run, but he did think about it.
“What’s the plan?” he asked as he sat down. The bag was on his face again.
“We’re calling your father again.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Hi. You’ve reached Nathan Wesninski—
“Huh. He didn’t answer.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Hi. You’ve reached Nathan Wesninski—
“What the fuck?”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Hi. You’ve reached Nathan Wesninski—
“Jesus Christ. What now?”
“I don’t know! Neil, does your dad have—”
Ring. Ring. Ring.
“That’s your phone.”
“Who’s calling you?”
“It says it’s an unknown number.”
“Should I answer it?”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“Did they leave a message?”
“Fuck, they’re calling again.”
“Answer it, goddammit!”
Neil couldn't explain his sense of dread when Kevin’s phone started ringing, but he knew whatever was about to happen wasn’t going to be good.
“How did they get this number?” one of the Foxes asked.
“Just answer the phone.”
Finally the ringing stopped. Kevin didn’t offer a greeting to whoever called him, but neither did whoever was on the other line.
After a solid minute of tense silence, something faint could be heard through the speaker.
“What the fuck?” Aaron asked. It sounded like ambient noise, nothing distinct.
“Sh! It’s getting louder.”
Neil’s heart pounded hard in his veins, hurting every one of his wounds as the noise on the phone grew louder and he recognized it as a children’s song. The music sounded like it was playing off a scratchy record, and the speaker of Kevin’s phone didn’t make the noise any more bearable to hear.
The singers were a group of children, distorted, and they were singing, “Down by the bay! where the watermelons grow! back to my home! I dare not go! for if I do! my mother will say!”
The phone went quiet. One of the Foxes was breathing heavily, but no one spoke. Again, the music started, a little louder and more distorted: down by the baa-aa-ay! where the wATERmel-ons grow! back to mY ho-home! I dare not go-oo-OO-ooo!
The music started skipping, and it was unbearably loud now, children screaming— back to my home! back to my home! back to my home!—
— I dare not go! I dare not go! I dare not go! I dare not go!
“Kevin, turn it off!”
A slam, and then silence.
“We need a new plan.”
“Fuck, this is scary.”
“Neil, no offense, but your dad is fucking terrifying.”
“What the fuck are we supposed to do now?”
“Listen. Listen to me. I can help you.”
“No, Neil, you can’t. He always finds you, right?”
“Right. Me. He doesn’t really care about you guys. When you call him back, tell him I left.”
“No way are we letting you go to the police—”
“Listen. Listen. It’s okay. I don’t know anyone’s names. I don’t know anyone’s faces. If you let me go, I swear I’ll bring you the money that you want. It’s the least I could do for all you’ve done for me.”
“Neil, we kidnapped you, and now we’re taking all your money.”
“Don’t forget that he was also tortured in the last, what, forty-eight hours? Jesus Christ.”
“Hey. It’s okay. Calm down. Here’s what we’re going to do. Fox Two is going to call my father back. He’s going to tell him I escaped. You’re going to leave this building, split up, maybe leave town for a few days. I will go get your money. I will bring it to your drop off point. And then we never have to see each other again, all right? You can wash your hands of me.”
“But—Neil. What are you going to do?”
“I will figure it out. But if he knows your phone number, he’s going to know how to find you. We need to act fast.”
“Neil, where are the caches? How do we know your dad isn’t going to kill you on your way to them?”
“Um. Well. Most of them are on the west coast.”
“ California ?”
“Oh my god.”
“This isn’t going to work, Neil.”
“It will if I go with him.”
Neil wanted to rip the bag off his face so he could look at Andrew.
“You want to go with me?” he asked. He meant to sound like a normal human being when he asked, but his voice ended up sounding small and lost.
“That’s across the country, Andrew,” Aaron said.
“We all have to scatter, anyways,” Andrew said, sounding bored with it all. “I’ll make sure Neil stays alive long enough to get the money.”
“But…” Kevin started, but there was no follow-up. Really, it was the only option for them all if they wanted Neil alive and their payout for the job.
And even with Andrew coming with him, Neil’s plan wouldn’t change; after all, there was no way his father was going to let a group of amateur thieves know that the state senator of Maryland was a mob boss and a murderer. Neil was going to get their money, distract his father, and then he was going to have to go home. He was going to have to go to the FBI and tell them everything, and then he was going to have to die.
But at least the Foxes would be safe.
“Are…are you sure?” Neil asked, still hesitant. Because even with Andrew’s bored tone and his cavalier way of suggesting he was just in it for the money, he was still going with Neil across the country—twice, there and back again—to protect his life. That wasn’t the sort of situation someone would agree to on a whim.
“Someone needs to call Nathan,” Andrew said instead of answering. “Apparently we don’t have any time to waste.”
Since the Foxes were about to convince his father that he had disappeared, Neil was going to have to disappear. He stood on the outskirts of the group while the Foxes said goodbye to each other, bag over his head and hands tied behind his back, and was only a little surprised when some of the Foxes said goodbye to him, too.
“You’ll be all right, right?”
“Neil, even with how shitty everything turned out, I’m glad we met.”
“Be safe, won’t you?”
“If my brother dies because of you, I’ll hand you over to your father myself.”
“Um,” Neil said, flustered by the sentiment but unable to react or reciprocate. Suddenly, he felt lost and sad, parting with these people he’d never seen, would never know. He didn’t even know how many there really were, or what all their names were. Who was Fox One? What Fox would he have been, if he had stayed, if they had wanted to keep him?
But Neil didn’t ask, and Andrew pushed him out of the room before he could even say goodbye.
Once they were outside, Andrew spun Neil around three times before taking off the bag from his head and untying his hands. Andrew didn’t have his mask on.
Neil, hair static-y from the fabric and flying in all directions, frowned. “What was the point of that?”
Andrew shrugged, tossing the black fabric behind him. “My amusement.”
“Oh.” He followed Andrew around the corner, taking in his surroundings and not surprised to find himself in the industrial part of whatever town they were in. Neil idly wondered how far they had taken him before deciding he didn’t really care before deciding again that he needed to know how long it was going to take to get to California.
“Where are we?”
“Just outside New York.”
Andrew continued leading him down vacant streets and alleys, finally stopping at an abandoned Walgreens parking lot with two cars in it. Neil gazed unimpressed at their getaway vehicle: nondescript, falling apart, and no car stereo.
“I’m sort of disappointed that it’s so plain.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Something amazing, I guess. Or bright orange.”
Andrew gestured for Neil to get in the passenger seat, and once Neil was buckled, Andrew started driving in the opposite direction of the interstate. “Um, are you kidnapping me again?” Neil asked nervously, but Andrew didn’t say anything in response, driving through streets and boulevards until he stopped at a secure parking garage and scanned himself into the structure. He went all the way to the top, parking in a vacant spot next to a black metallic beast before turning off the car and getting out.
“Um,” Neil said again, watching as Andrew unlocked the beast and slid into the driver’s seat.
“Something amazing?” Neil said, grinning after opening his car door.
Andrew spared only one fleeting look to Neil settling into the passenger seat before putting the car into gear and saying, “I guess.”
5: I can’t believe we’re doing this
2: I can’t believe Nicky made a group chat
7: is andrew included
9: what about neil
2: neil doesn’t have a phone
5: can Nathan track these phones?
8: I hope not
7: how long are we going to be off the grid for?
2: until neil comes back with our money
5: how long is that going to be?
1: andrew where are you?
3: ice cream
1: you stopped for ice cream?
2: may god have mercy on our souls
Their first stop was a place in South Carolina, so Andrew could get them some proper clothes and treat Neil’s wounds a little better—with actual bandages and medicine and burn cream, though he still hadn’t gone to a hospital. It was a little out of the way, but when Neil said he had some cash hidden a few hours out of this town, Andrew didn’t say another word as he followed Neil’s directions and they left the east coast five thousand dollars richer.
“You think this will last us to California?” Neil asked, fanning a stack of cash in his face.
“If it doesn’t fly out the window, yes.”
“My window is rolled up.”
“Stop playing with the money.”
Andrew turned up the radio. Neil, biting back a smile, put the stack of cash back in the bag he found it in.
They drove two miles in silence before Neil said, “Hey, let’s play the alphabet game.”
Andrew turned the radio up louder. Neil propped his elbow on the window and cupped his face in his hand, hiding his grin.
The night at their first hotel, Andrew had disappeared as soon as he checked them in and threw his bag on the bed closest to the door. Neil let him disappear, but when he was still gone and the sun had been down for hours, Neil went on the hunt.
He eventually found Andrew sitting by the hotel pool, cross-legged at the edge of the deep end and smoking a cigarette.
Neil rattled the fence surrounding the pool and said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to be in there.”
Andrew turned to look at Neil and took a silent drag of his cigarette. His face was illuminated by the pale pool lights, the ember of his cigarette a harsh red against the sickly yellow washing over his face.
Neil considered the fence, and then his surroundings, and then decided climbing was probably the easiest before he grasped the bars and hauled himself up and over.
He moved to sit by Andrew at a comfortable distance away yet still able to inhale the fumes of his cigarette.
Andrew had stopped staring at Neil as soon as he scaled the fence. He was now staring at the pool. Neil enjoyed the sound of gently lapping waves and the inhale of Andrew taking a drag before he decided to slip off his shoes and socks and dip them in the water. It was cold.
“Hey,” Neil said in a quiet voice. “Thank you.”
“Don’t,” Andrew said, but Neil didn’t know what he was telling him not to do, so Neil didn’t say anything more and instead swirled the water with his toes, and Andrew watched him until it was time to go inside.
5: are you still alive
5: answer me
5: ur such a dick
As they drove through Georgia, Neil remembered the last time he was in this state and the abandoned military base he and his mom had stumbled across.
“This is a state park, right?” Neil asked, though they had been driving in silence for the past two hours. He dragged his finger across the window when he asked, but he didn’t turn to Andrew as he waited for an answer.
Andrew, unsurprisingly, didn’t answer.
Neil said, “I came through here once. With my mom. I wanted to see it.”
“And did you?”
Neil shook his head, though he knew Andrew hadn’t turned from the road to see him. “My mom didn’t…well. She didn’t want me—um, no. We didn’t see it.” Neil remembered the feel of heavy fists and sharp slaps. He regretted bringing it up now. He traced another finger down the window. His burns didn’t hurt as much now that he had cream on them, but they still cracked and blistered when he moved too much. Neil stared at the trees as they passed. “It is pretty here, though.”
“Did she hit you?” Andrew asked, and Neil thought it was weird he was able to tell. How had Neil given himself away? He hadn’t thought he was an easy read before, but Andrew always seemed to know what he was thinking.
Neil dropped his hand, shaking off the past. “Doesn’t everybody?”
Neither boy said anything more, but when the turnoff for the state park came up, Andrew took it without comment. Neil didn’t turn from the window. He stared at Andrew through the reflection of the glass, but Andrew still looked bored to be doing this. Neil smiled anyways.
3: [image sent]
8: um andrew why did u send a picture of neil playing the banjo
3: i sent that
8: yeah and ur andrew
3: no this is neil
4: wtf is going on
3: [image sent]
7: oh my god is that andrew blowing on a jug?
8: neil where are you
8: answer me
8: WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON
After the bluegrass festival in Alabama and then driving right on through Arkansas, they stopped for the night in Oklahoma. Neil had stayed in the car for the check-in, making sure all their things were in order and that no one was waiting to murder them in the parking lot at ten o’clock at night.
When Andrew walked out of the lobby, he silently led them to their room, and Neil finally understood why this silence was a little tenser than the others they had shared all trip.
There was only one bed.
Neil, unbothered, said, “I can sleep on the floor.”
Andrew said, “Good.”
“What did you think was going to happen?”
“I have been wanting to smother you in your sleep for a while.”
“I already know where I would bury your body.”
“Well, we are at a motel. I think it’s only fitting that you stuff my body and keep me in the cellar as you commit murder on my behalf.”
“Why would I want to keep you around forever? I hate you.”
Neil shook his head, dropping his bag on the floor. “Can I have a pillow at least?”
“No,” Andrew said as he flopped face-first on the bed.
2: has anyone had any threatening phone calls?
4: andrew and neil what are you doing now are you in California yet
They skipped right through Texas and did a ghost tour in New Mexico.
“I hate it here,” Andrew said that night as they smoked on the curb outside their room, shoulder to shoulder as Andrew propped his cigarette on his lips and Neil held his near his face.
“Yeah, it’s kinda scary.”
“What are you scared of?”
“A homeless man throwing things at me again.”
“Aren’t you afraid of anything?”
“Where’s the next stop?”
“Looks like we’ll be driving to a place called Millport, Arizona.”
“What the fuck is in Millport.”
8: HOLD ON HOLD ON HOLD ON
7: neil don’t engage
8: HER SISTER WAS A WITCH RIGHT
3: who’s sister?
4: neil stop
8: AND WHAT WAS HER SISTER
3: what is happening
8: A PRINCESS
4: neil just go
On the border of California at a non-descript hotel, Neil stood in front of the bathroom sink and considered his face. He had a hard enough time looking at it before Lola mutilated it, and now it was even harder to stomach—a constant reminder of his pain and fear and failure to keep himself safe, and still the bright blue eyes of his father stared back at him.
Sometimes, when he and Andrew were taking a break from the drive or eating across from each other or waiting to fall asleep, Andrew would study Neil’s face in silent consideration, and Neil would grow uncomfortable and turn away, unsure why he felt ashamed. But the closer they came to California and the money and the end of it all, Neil stopped turning away so much. He wanted to know what Andrew saw when he looked at him. He wanted to understand.
He stared at his face—the knife wounds, the burns, the disfigurement of the scar tissue warping his cheeks and pulling the skin tight—and still didn’t know what he was supposed to see.
Andrew found him picking at his scars on the back of his hand and slapped his hand away. Neil was sitting at the end of his bed, still feeling raw and alone, and Andrew was standing in front of him. Neil didn’t look up after Andrew smacked his hand.
“What are you doing?” Andrew asked.
Andrew put a hand under Neil’s chin and forced his head up. Andrew didn’t look impressed with Neil’s pity party. He said, “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m tired,” Neil said.
“So go to bed.”
“Stop acting like a child.”
Andrew dropped his hand and walked away. Neil went to bed with his back to Andrew’s bed that night. He’s not sure when Andrew fell asleep, or if he ever did.
The day in California was brittle between them. Neither spoke to each other except for when Neil gave directions, and then sooner than he wanted it to be they found the first cache.
“How many are there?” Andrew asked.
They drove on in silence.
By the time the money was collected (an assortment of slips and checks and cold, hard cash), Neil had it organized into a black duffel for Andrew. They stood on the beach, not where Neil had buried his mother but close enough, as Neil handed over the bag with numb fingers. Andrew reached for the strap, but he didn’t tug it out of Neil’s hand, and Neil didn’t let go.
Neil looked up and into Andrew’s hazel eyes. It had been a long time since Neil had seen Andrew in his kitsune mask. He almost forgot that was how they met. He wondered where the mask was now.
“Thank you, Fox Three,” Neil said eventually. He didn’t know how to say thanks for all of it: the road trip adventures, finding him in that basement, cleaning his wounds with gentle fingers. Maybe Andrew would have figured it out eventually, if they had more time. “You were amazing.”
“I thought you were coming back with me.”
“I don’t really need to. You have your money. I can tell my father where I am and distract him while you all return to your lives.”
“For how long?”
“Until he finds me again.”
Andrew let go of the duffel. Neil frowned. “What are you doing?”
“You told them you’d drop off the money,” Andrew said, and then he turned around and walked back to the car. Neil, helpless, followed.
“Bring the children their money. I won’t touch it.”
“I could just leave it with you and disappear in the middle of the night.”
“I will follow you.”
“Get in the car, Neil.”
Andrew was in the driver’s seat, door closed, window rolled down. His arms were folded over the steering wheel and his head was pillowed on his arms. He was watching Neil with predatory eyes.
Neil didn’t know what to do with the hope in his chest, or the fear, or the want.
So he dropped the bag and ran.
He heard Andrew’s door open behind him.
They were collapsed on the beach and covered in sand and sweat and sea water, Andrew on top of Neil and pinning his wrists above his head. The pressure of Andrew’s grip hurt his wrists, but Neil didn’t mind.
Neil wasn’t sure when they had started kissing, but they had been for a while now.
“I hate you,” Andrew said in between kisses.
“I hate you,” Neil said, breathing the words into Andrew’s mouth.
“I told you to stop making my life difficult.”
“When did you say that?”
“When you threw a rock at me?”
“I might be concussed.”
“I don’t care.”
Neil squirmed under Andrew, testing him, but Andrew was an unforgiving weight on top of him. Neil could not escape. There was sand in his mouth, on his lips, in his hair. Everytime he took a breath his chest heaved against Andrew’s. He felt very warm.
Andrew started kissing along his jaw, and Neil asked, “What am I supposed to do, just come back and hide with the Foxes?”
“I don’t care what you do.”
“Except when I try to run, I see.”
“Yes,” Andrew said, squeezing Neil’s wrists tighter. Neil flinched at the pain, and Andrew stopped holding so tight. “Except that.”
Neil sighed, defeated, Andrew’s lips at his neck, Neil’s leg creeping up Andrew’s hip. He was grinning. “Fine.”
1: u guys are on your way back?
3: I thought that’s what that meant
5: u have the money?
7: can you send proof of andrew’s life so we know you didn’t kill him
3: [image sent]
8: um, is that a hickey?
Andrew gave his phone to Neil so he wouldn’t have to deal with the group chat, so he didn’t know that the day after they left California, an unknown number texted him the number “10.”
Neil didn’t bring it up, instead distracting Andrew with kisses and cuddles. They still slept on two separate beds, but they passed most of their nights on one until they were too tired to properly kiss, and then they’d stare at each other from across the room until one of them fell asleep.
“Hey, you want to go to this restaurant? They apparently have the world’s best burger.”
“Why do you keep taking pictures of me?”
“The others keep asking for them.”
“No, they don’t.”
“No, they don’t.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Ransom senator’s sons for money.”
“Someone shot you.”
“Three guesses as to who.”
“You like it.”
“I think my favorite part of this trip has been walking around art museums with you.”
“Do you want me to pay for gas? I think I have a spare million lying around.”
“I want to murder you.”
“Oh, so I can’t pick at my scabs, but you can?”
“You’re gonna make me bleed.”
“Where am I dropping off the money, again?”
“I’ll take you there.”
“Thank you. You’re so amazing and wonderful. I’m so glad I met you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Do you want to die?”
Three hours before Andrew was going to take Neil to the drop-off point and reunite with the Foxes, Andrew’s phone rang from an unknown number. Andrew was sitting sideways in the driver’s seat smoking, so Neil took a few steps away from the car and closer to the gas station they were at.
As soon as Andrew and the car were out of sight, Neil took a deep breath and answered the phone.
“How did you get this number, Lola?”
“Twenty bucks says they fucked.”
“Ew. Twenty bucks for you to never say that again.”
“I mean, I’m not an Andrew expert, but I think he might be in love with Neil.”
“Receipts, darling. I need receipts.”
“Literally all the pictures in the group chat?”
“I think they’re just really good friends.”
“Guys being dudes.”
“Thirty bucks says Andrew shows up with hickeys.”
“Forty for Andrew threatening anyone who hugs Neil.”
“Who’s gonna hug—”
“I’ll do it.”
“Jesus, Matt, fine, but just remember you might get stabbed.”
“Oh my god.”
When Neil went back to the car, he kept Andrew’s phone clenched in his fist and said, “I think I’m going to buy some jerky. Do you want anything?”
Andrew shook his head. Neil considered leaning down and kissing him one last time but decided that would be too risky. He might suspect something. Instead, Neil smiled and nodded, and then he went inside the gas station and slipped out the bathroom window.
“I have an unknown number calling me again.”
“Oh, holy fuck. Okay. Okay. Answer it. Shit.”
“ Is he there? ”
“Andrew? What are you doing?”
“Is Neil there?”
“Um, no? We thought he was with you?”
“Did he just hang up on you?”
Neil removed the battery from Andrew’s phone before tossing it in the river. He didn’t have to wait very long for them to come for him. He hoped he wouldn’t have to wait very long for them to kill him, either.
Another bag was secured over his head as he was thrown into the back of a van. He wondered if he’d be in the news again after it was all over.
He wondered what the Foxes were going to do now.
“What’s the plan?”
“We go to the FBI.”
“It’s too risky.”
“We leave an anonymous tip.”
“And the FBI will just follow it? This isn’t the local news, Allison. The FBI don’t just follow every fucking tip they get.”
“Do we have proof?”
“We’ll show them one of Neil’s selfies. It has his scars, right?”
“Oh, yeah, let’s show the FBI a picture of Neil flipping off the camera just because he has some ouchies.”
“Well, what else are we supposed to do, leave him down there?”
“I think...it might be best if we just leave him—”
“Oh my god!”
“Let go of him!”
“Nicky, grab him!”
“Kevin, are you okay?”
“I’m going to get him.”
“What, by yourself?”
“Looks that way.”
“No, Andrew. We’ll come with you. I think...I think Allison’s right. I think it’s time to go to the police.”
“I’m not leaving him down there for the police.”
“Okay. Then we’ll do both.”
Neil was tied up like a hunk of meat in his father’s basement when they came for him again. His father hadn’t had time to do much this time, just a few cuts on his stomach, promises of disembowelment, but nothing Neil hadn’t experienced before, when his father got an unexpected call and had somewhere to be.
They left Neil hanging, shirtless and bleeding, and Neil’s wrists ached and his arms throbbed and he didn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he opened them again, a group of people in kitsune masks were staring up at him.
Neil gave a sleepy smile. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” he rasped, and Andrew, the only one in a classic kitsune mask, stepped forward to tie him down.
“We have to move.”
“The FBI will be here soon.”
“How did you convince them to investigate?”
“We didn’t have to convince them of anything. We called in anonymously and apparently they were already in the midst of the investigation. Nathan got a little sloppy when he went on this wild goose chase for you.”
“Do they know I’m down here?”
“No. We’re here to get you out.”
“Yeah, Neil. Super cool.”
“Can we go? He’s getting blood on my shoes.”
“Jesus Christ, Fox Seven.”
“Oh, good, the code names are back.”
This time, one of the Foxes stitched up Neil’s stomach upon their return to their safehouse warehouse. His mask was similar to Andrew’s: same coloring, but where Andrew’s was a smile, this Fox’s was a frown.
When the Fox took off his mask, Neil was greeted with an identical face to Andrew’s.
“Ah,” Neil said. “Aaron.”
“You’re such a dumbass,” Aaron said.
Neil shrugged, laying his head back to close his eyes to Aaron’s work, but just as he put his head down, Andrew’s face appeared above him, considering him with a heavy frown.
“Oh,” Neil said, his voice soft. “Hey.”
Andrew said nothing. Neil decided he didn’t want to close his eyes after all, staring at Andrew until the stitches stopped.
“So we lay low for a while?”
“Yeah, I think Andrew’s pretty pissed at Neil and it might be best to give them some space—”
“No, jackass, I meant from the police and the FBI. Nathan is arrested, right?”
“Right. But we should probably stay here for a while, just in case.”
“Yeah. Just in case.”
Neil slept for a long time, in an actual bed in an actual room with his arms not tied behind his back and without the cripping weight of anxiety on his chest anymore. When he woke up, the Foxes were staring down at him again, all wearing their kitsune masks.
“Um,” Neil said, blinking up at them. “Is this some sort of weird initiation?”
“Yes,” Kevin said. He gestured to a woman wearing a mask with glitter around the eyes and thick red lips. “Fox One. Dan.” Dan took off her mask, and warm brown eyes greeted Neil, smiling already. Neil nodded back.
“Fox Two, me,” Kevin said, taking off his own mask. He had a queen chess piece tattooed under his eye.
“Fox Three, you know.” Andrew saluted him with two fingers. Neil saluted back.
“Fox Four, Matt,” Matt took off his mask and immediately winked at Neil. Neil winked back.
“Fox Five, the intern.”
“Hey,” Aaron protested, his mask hanging from his hand.
“Fox Seven,” Kevin said next, and a kitsune mask covered in feathers and glitter and bells hanging from the side came off to reveal a beautiful blond smirking at him. “Allison.”
“What about Fox Six?” Neil asked.
“We don’t talk about Fox Six,” Allison said.
“Fox Eight, Nicky.” Nicky removed a striped kitsune mask that had hearts surrounding the eyes.
“The one with the cuffs,” Neil said.
Nicky grinned. “The one and only.”
“Fox Nine, Renee.” Renee removed an all white kitsune mask, no accents or embellishments save for a giant red hand print over the entire front of the mask. She was smiling serenely at Neil, and he couldn’t understand why hers was the only mask that had a bloody handprint on the front.
Once the introductions were done, Kevin tossed a mask at Neil. It was all black with yellow accents. Neil traced the features of the mask with light, shaking fingers. His burns hardly hurt at all these days.
“Fox Ten,” Kevin said, his voice a lot softer than it was before. “Neil.”