In this life, Nathaniel Wesninski wakes up in a hospital, a handcuff around his wrist. It’s the same in another one, except the only difference is Special Agent Browning’s approach.
“I want to see my teammates,” Nathaniel insists, over and over again because these thick-headed feds are just not getting it.
“After you brought a riot down on their heads? A riot that put three of them in a hospital, mind you.” Browning quirks an eyebrow at him, and it’s horrible. “You said your mother didn’t make it past California. Were you biding time? Waiting for the same thing that happened to her to happen to them? They signed a sports contract, not a death wish.”
And it’s all wrong.
His resolve falters, slowing to a stop as his thought process freezes. Something in his chest twinges, and Nathaniel’s suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that he has nothing.
His bag, his phone. There’s no one by his side, no more promises.
And his bandaged fingers tremble, unable to bring themselves to trace the shape of a missing key into his palm.
Nathaniel Wesninski thinks, They’re okay. Let that be enough.
And it’s the first time he can taste how vile a lie is.
“I need to be alone.”
“Do I need to remind you-”
“Just give me fifteen minutes, okay? Fifteen minutes.” Nathaniel looks at them, hopes he comes off as desperate as he feels. “Please.”
Browning shifts, trying not to act uncomfortable. Nathaniel has no doubt he looks like hell, like he’s young and alone and tired. (So goddamn tired.)
“Ten,” he gives. “But we want answers when we come back.”
Ten minutes is enough, in this life.
Browning and Towns leave him to be alone. Nathaniel gets a glimpse of the guard outside his door, planted in a plastic chair with his arms crossed. Too big and too close for Nathaniel to risk slipping past.
In any case, as soon as the door shuts he’s reaching for the IV rooted in the soft flesh of his inner-elbow. Blood flows when he pulls it out, smearing across his bandages and skin, but he doesn’t have time to worry about it.
He slips the needle into the keyhole of his cuffs, wiggling it around until something clicks.
The room is so quiet, it sounds like gunfire.
He wonders, briefly, what it was like to be able to leave at the drop of a hat. Once upon a time, Nathaniel was able to do it. Chris, Stefan, Alex. All of those people could disappear without thinking of the things that were leaving behind their never-turning backs.
Neil Josten was able to do it at some point, too. But he wasn’t smart, that Josten kid. He let someone put a key into his hand and say, stay. He let Kevin Day teach him Exy. Allowed the others put him together, time and time again.
Neil Josten let himself believe he was real, even when he was a lie. The Foxes convinced him of one thing; I’m a person. Almost like a fairytale.
Nathaniel sits up in his hospital bed, wasting precious seconds to think about what could happen if he stayed. If he tried to be Neil Josten for one more minute.
“Nathaniel Wesninski,” he whispers, trying to ground himself, to remember that running is all he knows. “You’re Nathaniel Wesninski.”
Distantly, he thinks, What about Abram?
But that’s just another part of Neil Josten’s fairytale, a piece left behind for a blond boy to keep.
The drugs are still leaving his system, making his stride unsteady. He treads on either way, trying not to be loud as he stumbles across the room.
The window fights him as he tugs at it, until it finally slides to the side, and he can look out. He’s five floors up.
(It doesn’t feel like the rooftop of the Fox Tower - liberating, relieving, with wind whipping at his face like a thousand chilly hands. No, it feels more like being confined to a basement with no other way out besides the sharp edge of a cleaver. Like a trap.)
Nathaniel swallows past the fringes of hysteria, glancing over and seeing the next set of windows. There’s a somewhat worryingly, large gap, and it’ll hurt like hell if he grabs the ledge with his hands. But he has ten minutes. If he has any chance, it’s right now.
If it hurts, so be it.
(It does hurt, like hot needles threading through the muscle beneath his skin, and Nathaniel wonders what the fuck he was thinking.
And in the back of his mind, with a voice that sounds - suspiciously - a lot like Andrew, something whispers, You weren’t.)
He steals a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt to match. They’re big, loose around his hips and sliding along his shoulders. It’s better, without having cloth pressed tight against his arms.
Nathaniel slips out of the room down the hall from his guard, throws his hood up, and walks past the man’s hunched figure. He’s watching a cat video on his phone, eyes flicking towards Nathaniel as he hears the next door over open. Nathaniel’s almost vibrating with tension, feeling the itch of anxiety under his skin, and his heart crawls up his windpipe.
But the guard doesn’t even register who he’s looking at, going back to his cat video. Nathaniel walks past, a rigid tautness in his shoulders until he’s in the stairwell.
And then he runs.
“Your hands are taped,” the girl on the Metro says, sitting across from him.
It’s morning, between the hours where everyone rises from sleep or everyone settles down for lunch. The drugs have worn off a half-hour ago, and his body feels their absence like a hollow in his bones. His face’s throbbing, a sluggish fire burning in his veins.
“What?” Nathaniel says, once he realizes she’s addressing him. There’s not enough people in the subway car for it not to be him.
The girl’s at a blurry age, where a tilt of the head can make a person seventeen and a frown can make them twenty. Nathaniel’s banking on her being somewhere closer to twenty, if the McDonald’s uniform is anything to go by.
“Your hands,” she says. “They’re taped. You’re a boxer?”
Nathaniel watches her for a moment, but then he casts his gaze across the car, eyeing the woman sitting by the exit, the man reading a newspaper.
The girl notices, blinking as her gaze hunts for what he sees. Her mouth parts, realizing something that makes Nathaniel’s feet itch and heart pound.
“Oh,” the girl says. “That’s not tape on your hands, is it? I get it, rough night. Do you need to borrow my phone? Some change for the bus?”
The man with the newspaper is thumbing through the sports section, checking scores. His eyes meet Nathaniel’s, just for a moment, and then his brow furrows in confused recognition.
It makes Nathaniel realize how goddamn stupid he’s being, makes him think of gasoline and sand sliding between bloody fingers. Makes him remember how clumsy he is without his mom.
It makes him wish there was a hand on the back of his neck, fingers hooked in his shirt collar - rooting and the truest thing in the universe.
He turns back to the girl, tugging his hood closer to his face. “Yes,” he says, to any and all of it, and his voice cracks.
This McDonald’s girl, she smiles something tired and knowing, but reaches for her purse anyway. She’s a lot like Dan, he thinks numbly, but spent.
“Here.” She holds out a crumpled green bill and a phone that’s barely better than the one Nathaniel left in Binghamton. “I have an old phone I can use at home. Just be sure to use that one for calls only, yeah? It’ll be good for a few hours until I switch.”
He stares at her outstretched hand, uncomprehending. She rolls her eyes, sighing with all the air in her lungs.
“I could say this isn’t charity, but looking at you right now?” She snorts. “It’s definitely charity. Now get running before whoever did that to your face realizes you took the Metro from the John Hopkins Hospital. It’s a fourteen-stop transit, kid. Not an avenue of escape.”
Nathaniel blinks, moving in slow-motion as he takes the ripped twenty-dollar bill and phone. It feels heavy in his hands. They’re both careful not to touch. Outside, the Metro reaches its next station.
“What’s your name?” His voice is quiet, heavy with exhaustion and stale familiarity. He knows how this goes, how to run from this point.
She shrugs. “Don’t got one. Do you?”
Newspaper Man is watching them while he fishes for his phone, eyes narrowed in intent disbelief. He’ll probably manage to snatch a photo before Nathaniel disappears out of the opening doors of the Metro.
No, Nathaniel doesn’t say, but that was her point.
(There were people, sometimes, Neil Josten says, swinging his feet over the edge of a building. A classmate or a neighbor who knew but didn’t ask. I could tell they never bought the lies, but they never said anything.
They recognized a runner when they saw one, Andrew guesses, because he would be one of those people, if he wasn’t such an instigator at heart.
Neil smiles, sliding his hands into his pockets. Andrew doesn’t miss the movement, taking a slow drag of his cigarette with an unimpressed blink.
Am I that obvious?
Andrew blows smoke into his face. No, you’re just that oblivious.
And then he pulls him in, and his lips are fire when they slide into place against Neil’s.)
Twenty dollars isn’t much. It’ll get him a bus north, and, if he’s lucky, a greasy lunch from some dollar menu.
The woman at the ticket station frowns at him, a dip in her mouth. He thinks she’s going to say something about the bandages on his face, but she holds herself in check.
“Which trip would you like, honey?” She tugs on an uncertain smile, round face dimpling in concern.
He looks at the digitized schedule on the board behind her, and he doesn’t know what trip he wants.
Nathaniel should reconnect with his mother’s contacts or reach out to Uncle Stuart. He should run, because Romero and Jackson weren’t there when Stuart’s men arrived.
They know about the Foxes, too, but with Nathaniel’s escape from the FBI it’s likely that all attempts of recovering Nathaniel will start with his teammates. His father’s men won’t be able to do anything to the Foxes with all of the FBI’s focus being shifted on them.
Which is why Nathaniel knows what he needs, which is a way to the nearest place where Mary Hatford left bits of money in hidey-holes. Nathaniel should pick his way through his ghost cities, like a scavenger picks at the bones of roadkill, and collect what little is left to help him survive.
(What he wants is to look out a bus window, watching familiar scenery pass by as Abby drives the Foxes back to Palmetto State. He wants to be the seat between Kevin and Andrew on the lounge couch. He wants Nicky’s wordless texts, the ones where he expects Nathaniel to recognize some message behind the emojis and exclamation points.
He wants to come back from late-night practices to see Matt’s desk light on, even though Matt would have already gone to sleep hours earlier. Allison’s long nails brushing against his face as she fixed his make-up. Dan’s unmoving determination before a game as she reassures him, we got this.
Nathaniel wants the soft support Renee offers behind her smiles. The quiet in the room as Wymack sits with him to look at potential players. Even Aaron’s cool disregard for Nathaniel, the one that’s a breath away from anger, is an ache of longing in his chest.
But he promised that his past wasn’t going to become a problem, and look where that put them.)
“To Philadelphia,” he says, focusing back on the woman, because it’s the cheapest ticket and he can hitchhike along the Interstate once he arrives.
To where, he hasn’t decided just yet. There’s a city called Newark, New Jersey, that his mother and him once stayed. They were there for a few days before boarding a plane to London, all those years ago. That’d be his first stop if he wanted any chance of retrieving his mother’s money, but he doesn’t know if his father’s men would figure that out, or if they’re even still looking for him after the chaos.
(The photo that Newspaper Man snapped of him would be uploaded to a forum, and no matter if it’s blurry or not means someone could guess where he is. It’ll circle the web in a matter of hours.)
Nathaniel could head West instead, because he’s never been to those landlocked areas before. Except the problem is that he’d be cutting himself off from familiar terrain, and the possible reach of one of his contact’s helping hand wouldn’t stretch that far.
He’ll have to figure it out, because it’s like Andrew said. This is his zombie apocalypse, and Nathaniel’s playing bait.
Maybe I’ll go to Colorado, Neil Josten said once.
Andrew Minyard replied, Not California.
(California’s a world too shaded for having the name Golden State, and they’ve both been spoon-fed that darkness. In a way, he’s speaking for himself and Neil, because Andrew can read people like that, but the thought doesn’t cross Neil Josten’s mind.)
Neil shook his head, I couldn’t live there again. I couldn’t retrace my steps to any of those places.
By 5:37 PM, Nathaniel’s bus is pulling into the 30th St. Station in Philadelphia.
A minute later, @theAllisonReynolds tweets #whereisNeilJosten after a rather irritable FBI agent tells the Palmetto State Foxes that they will return to South Carolina. No, it doesn’t matter that they are missing their other starting striker, and goddammit, they cannot try to threaten answers out of a federal agent, so put that knife away right now or else.
Where is he, Dan asks, her voice angry but fingers trembling in Matt’s grip.
Federal Agent Browning pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling too old and too tired, and says, We don’t know. We’ll give you an update if we find one, and we expect the same courtesy, so please, just go home.
David Wymack sweeps his gaze across his harried players’ faces and almost speaks up.
For kids like them, he doesn’t say, home isn’t a place.
@nxckyhem is the first to retweet Allison’s post, and by the time two hours go by it’s a trending tag.
Kevin Day is the only one of two people on the team who doesn’t retweet the message. Neil begged him for secrecy, because they both knew that open secrets put you in a shallow grave. He recalls that as he rubs at that purpling bruises that blot his neck.
(The second person sits at the back of the bus, eyes blazing despite the empty expression on his face, and this time, his habitual silence is awful.)
Andrew Minyard once thought, Neil Josten is an infection.
And he’s self-destructive, not stupid, so he let the sickness fester.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. A strained, You were amazing, and an abandoned racquet amongst a cesspool of chaos. It’s not supposed to be the blinding sense of falling as he finds a 0 in Neil’s phone.
It was supposed to be like the pressure of an oncoming cough, the flare of an itch that’ll fade. The shuttering exhaustion of a fever. A disease to add to the already existing damage.
Instead there’s a cancer eating away at Andrew, taking the strength away from him - and he can’t be weak, Andrew is not weak.
Neil Josten was supposed to come and go, like all illnesses do.
(He wasn’t supposed be be this.)
Stuart is not happy with what Nathaniel did, having ran when he’s trying so hard to settle a truce with the Moriyamas. Except he probably didn’t approve of his sister’s similar decision, nine years ago, so he doesn’t say anything besides, Bloody hell, Nathaniel.
It sounds a lot like it did the night before, but Nathaniel doesn’t care, and wants to remind Stuart that his only instructions on Friday night were to be a distraction for the FBI, nothing more.
Instead, he grips McDonald’s Girl’s phone tight and says, Philadelphia.
Stuart sighs into the mouthpiece, air turning into a cackle through the connection. Two hours.
Nathaniel hangs up, settling amongst the throngs of people waiting for late night buses at 30th St. Station, and stands shivering in his loose sweats.
Stuart wouldn’t be the one to deliver the money, Nathaniel knows that, but he definitely didn’t expect the woman from his father’s house during the shootout. He’s wiping at his running nose, waiting amongst the crowd and the suitcases when she slides up beside him against the fence, shoulder to shoulder like he was waiting for her.
“You’re looking better,” she says, quiet, and then, “Here, you forgot this at your uncle’s.”
It’s casual conversation, in case someone’s listening. It’s hard to tell, with a group this large and moving this much, who could be dangerous and who could be harmless.
She hands him a plain backpack, and when he takes it from her it feels too light to be filled with just cash. He frowns, reaching to unzip the main pocket.
There’s a change of clothes, and taped to the top layer of fabric is a plastic card.
“What is this?” Nathaniel says.
The woman steps away, shrugging. “Your uncle wants to know where you are this time. You owe him that.”
That’s the price for his help, she means. It’s cheap, considering there’s worse things Stuart could have wanted from Nathaniel.
Even though the card might be well-intended, a way for Stuart to keep an eye on his nephew, it could just as easily be a way to keep a loose-end in check, too.
Nathaniel glares. “He does know I’ll ditch it after the first ATM, doesn’t he?”
“The most you can withdraw in one day is a little over one grand, if you go to two separate machines. Are you sure you want to lose the card?”
He walks away from her, choosing not to explain that one grand could get him to one of his mother’s hidey-holes without a problem.
She probably already knows.
“Hey,” she calls to his back. “Get a haircut. You’re big news on the Internet.”
He ignores her, heading to the closest ATM before he adds another city to his list of twenty-two.
(She’s laughing at him, voice carrying over the noise of the crowd, and it sounds like Lola’s, just for a moment.)
It’s a week later, the Foxes should be on spring break, and Nathaniel is wondering how Stephanie Walker’s new house is. Allison was supposed to go visit with Renee, if he’s remembering correctly, and somehow, it’s the only thing he can think about.
Kevin and the Cousins would have stayed at Palmetto State, and Nathaniel has no doubt that Kevin’s in a frenzy, spending each night going harder than ever at the Foxhole Court because Neil Josten’s absence puts the season at risk.
(He’s not wrong, but the Kevin that Nathaniel imagines is as Exy-focused and analytical as ever.
In actuality, Kevin Day practices every night with an edge of desperation. He’s holding a racquet that feels as wrong as it did when he first started playing with his right hand, and it’s stupid stupid stupid.
You knew this was coming, Kevin tells himself as he misses a shot on goal, and he shouldn’t miss at all.
You knew this was coming, he insists, racquet trembling between his sweaty fingers.
You knew this was coming, Andrew’s blank gaze says, and it’s as accusing as it is empty.)
Nathaniel’s squatting in some small town two hours outside of Pittsburgh. He only made one phone call with McDonald’s Girl’s phone - when he called Stuart last Saturday.
He should have tossed the phone after that, especially since there was no doubt that McDonald’s Girl told him she planned on switching to an old phone in a few hours. It wouldn’t work for calls or texts after she did that.
But when he goes to toss it, it feels a lot like the ocean mist against his face, wet and salty and stinging. He tightens his hand around it and pictures the Pacific in front of him, where he threw his mom’s phone after he burned her. He thinks of straddling the bench in the locker room, Andrew across from him as a song about runaways rang into the silence.
So he keeps it, and, in a way, it’s making a jab at Stuart. His uncle wanted to track him with the credit card, but if he was smart enough he’d think about checking the phone Nathaniel used to call him. If his results revealed that Nathaniel still had it, then he’ll know that Nathaniel is purposefully revealing where he is.
It’s likely Stuart wouldn’t believe his nephew would make such a rookie mistake, though.
“Hey, did you hear me?”
Nathaniel blinks, a mirror coming into focus. He averts his eyes, avoiding his reflection and looking at the hairdresser standing behind him instead. “No, sorry.”
The man’s pale and thin, like a stick of chalk. His hair’s in a style that Matt would like, Nathaniel thinks. Maybe.
His hairdresser asks, “What hairstyle do you want?”
Nathaniel shuffles in his seat, the tarp rustles around his shoulders.
His burns aren’t healing well, with his knuckles swelling and darkening around the edges. He hasn’t been airing them out, and his bandages haven’t been changed as much as he would like. Nathaniel feels an ache in his limbs, like a warm buzz moving under his skin. The back of his neck is clammy.
“Just… shorter, I guess?” Nathaniel says, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. He has to stretch his toes to touch the floor.
His hairdresser rolls his eyes, tattooed arms crossing his chest. “Short how? Because I’m not giving you something as boring as that.”
Nathaniel stares blankly. The hairdresser huffs.
“Okay, y’know what? Just look forward and I’ll decide myself.”
Mary Hatford knew her son better than most mothers do, but only because there wasn’t much for her to know.
Nathaniel always slept on his side because she needed him tucked against her body to know where he was. He learned to drive at twelve, when he hit a growth spurt and could finally stretch his feet far enough to touch the pedals.
The first time he was drunk was in an abandoned apartment, propped against the wall and making keening noises as she threaded a needle through the open wound on his belly. She made him drink a bottle of scotch, told him that it was the only anesthesia he was getting so swallow quickly.
Whether it was his type of clothes (dull colors, nonspecific), music (a non-existent for a family on the run), and nervous tics (he plays with the safety on his gun when he’s nervous, it means he’s been out doing something he shouldn’t have been), she knew them all.
She knew he preferred fresh fruit, too, even though she molded his tastes around TV dinners, and occasionally she would pull over on a stretch of highway, stopping at a farmer’s stand set up along the road.
(What’s your favorite fruit, he asked, once, as he browsed the strawberries the farmer was selling.
She would be dead in two years, eight months, and nine days. But neither of them knew that yet.
Mary made a noncommittal noise, humming absently as she kept glacier eyes on the cars racing past. Mangos. Pick quickly now, Abram.
Three months later, he stopped at a grocery store on his way back to their current safehouse. He bought her two mangos, and he offered them as she was cleaning her gun.
You eat them, Nathaniel, she said. I don’t like mangos.)
She knew Nathaniel Abram Wesninski more than he would ever know her, but that was because Mary Hatford shaped him over and over again, until he resembled something she could understand but he couldn’t.
That’s the horrible bit of it all, maybe. Because there will always be people like her, who think human beings are art projects ready to be assembled and dismantled and remodeled. Wash, rinse, and repeat.
But you still love them, because on occasion - on a whim - they buy you strawberries, and it’s the one thing you are that they didn’t make of you.
(Nathaniel is beginning to realize that, now.)
“I’m done. What do you think? I didn’t take too much off, because you seem like a fussy fucker who doesn’t realize he’s fussy until it’s over, but it’s definitely an improvement,” a voice says, and then, “Hey, you sleeping?”
No, Nathaniel doesn’t say, and then struggles to open his eyelids. When he does there’s a new person looking at him.
He blinks, and then he tilts his head and the fuzzy, dark spots in the corners of his vision begin to disappear. He refocuses his eyes and sees his mom’s nose, his father’s electric eyes, the bandages taped over Lola’s burns, and his father’s auburn hair.
It takes him a second to realize that the hair is shorter now. It’s full on top, curling downwards slightly in the very front, but it gradually tapers off the further it gets. It reaches a buzz near his neck.
“What?” Nathaniel says, a little stupidly.
The hairdresser is frowning at him, gauging his reaction maybe. “It’s a fade haircut, ever see it? Or, I dunno, not lived under a rock? It’s fuckin’ beautiful, thank you very much. Now tip me good, yeah?”
Nathaniel’s stuck staring at his reflection, not looking at the dark smudges under his eyes and his paled lips, but at the new hairstyle he’s sporting.
“You hate it,” the hairdresser figures, working his jaw. “Fuckin’ knew it, you fussy fucker. I swear-”
“No,” Nathaniel cuts in, swallowing. “No, I like it. I…yeah, I like it. Thanks.”
The hairdresser frowns at him, and then he moves to the side, picking up a broom. He turns up a radio on the counter as he passes.
A crackling voice says, “-cent news, CEO of the international trading company, Kengo-”
“Well, you’re welcome,” the hairdresser says. “You good though, man? Your neck felt pretty warm when I was cutting back there.”
“-admitted late last night. By 3 AM this morning, Mr. Moriyama passed awa-”
“And I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but you’re looking like a piece of shit that threw up. A shitty throw up, man. A shitty throw up.”
Nathaniel flies out of his seat, shoving his hairdresser aside and turning the dial up on the radio. He ignores the angry, Hey, man!
“Ichirou Moriyama has made no statement as of yet, but from recent shifts in management it looks like he will be succeeding his father. In sports news, NCAA Exy star, Neil Josten, is still missing after-”
Nathaniel stops listening, staring at the radio, fingers shaking. Lola’s words are slithering around in his clouded head, running in circles. His kidneys are failing. I give it a week tops before Ichirou’s crowned new high king.
“Well, fuck,” Nathaniel says. “I always hated it when she was right.”
Neil, is that you?
And he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
He doesn’t know anything except for the overwhelming, crushing wave of loneliness. It’s like his lungs are in a clamp, like his ribs are being slowly pulled apart, opening a space for someone to reach in, grab his heart, and squeeze.
Betsy Dobson is the last person he’d ever call, which is probably why he did it - why he bothered with her number in this pathetic moment. He thought she would dull this shifting unease beneath his skin. Betsy Dobson is someone he’d never speak to, but she’d keep his secrets, and he just wanted to say, How are they? Please, tell me how they are.
And her answer would convince him to stay away, it would rekindle his intent resolve.
But she says four words and he’s missing Dan’s smothering hugs and Matt’s bright smiles. He wants Nicky to talk - about anything - because that’s what Nicky does best. He wants Allison to purse her lips at Renee in some secret told you so, and for Renee to smile back at her from across the room.
He wants to sit beside Kevin and talk about Exy as they watch a game on the television. He wants to see the Aaron that appeared during the months of Andrew’s rehabilitation, the one that sat close to Katelyn and spoke into her ear like they were the only two people in the world.
He wants a hand on the back of his neck, a key in his palm, and the taste of cigarette smoke on Andrew’s tongue. He wants to talk to him like they’re the only two people in the world, because they were, once. When you talk to someone like Neil Josten spoke to Andrew, the universe crumples in on itself, it pinches and crowds until the only space left is the distance between them.
Nathaniel shakes against the payphone and stares at the number he scrawled on his bandaged hand. It’s Betsy’s, one he looked up earlier with the local library’s computer system.
And for half a second, he’s tempted to talk about Exy statistics, like they’re having one of their mandatory sessions.
“Neil,” Betsy says, and he doesn’t even know how she figured it out, but she did. “We haven’t progressed past the not talking thing, I see. At least I know it’s not my office that makes you uncomfortable with sharing.”
It’s a bad attempt at a joke, and a not-so subtle one at coaxing words out of him.
But it half-works, and he’s laughing until he doesn’t have the breath for it, and then some.
“Oh, Neil,” she says, and he wants to say, I know.
I have something, she says. If you want to hear it.
He doesn’t, but his tongue is still between his teeth.
Andrew was rather uncharacteristically quiet at our last session. Technically, it’s spring break, and we were meeting unofficially.
Too quiet for Andrew is something few people understand, but Nathaniel does. It looks like Betsy does, too.
I would never share anything like this with you or anyone else, because this is against my oath. However, when Andrew said it, he wasn’t speaking to me.
Andrew Minyard is a brilliant person, in that special way that all of the most brilliant people are.
Someone once said, the world goes ‘round the sun, and no one could fathom the madness of such a statement. Another person suggests that blood moves through your body the same way water does a drainpipe, and it’s right, of course it is, because the translucent blue of a person’s veins is proof of that.
But these people, and their cleverness, are treated like a blazing fire. Which is why many of them are extinguished, scorched beneath the stomping of feet or the relentless cascading of water.
It’s why they’re given medicine that blurs their perception and leaves them too high to feel the pain below. It takes away their ability to remember pain.
Andrew Minyard is a quick-witted person, who fixes the chasms in another’s heart just by calculating the cost it’ll be to himself. He’s splitting fissures in his own chest, but he moves like there’s solid flesh there. And people like that?
They’re so goddamn brilliant, they keep going until there’s nothing but a destruction site inside them.
He made a bet that if I got a call, it would be from you, and that I should tell you one thing, Betsy’s saying, but Nathaniel’s only half-listening, thinking of wrecking balls and scars on wrists instead.
What is it, Nathaniel doesn’t prompt.
But like Betsy heard him anyway, she says, 100%
Nathaniel hangs up.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - which is another two hours from the Small Town that was two hours from Pittsburgh, which is almost three hours from Harrisburg, which is the most useless thing Nathaniel keeps thinking about - there’s this empty lot behind some train tracks.
He’s crossing the lot, thinking about hours and distances and how far D.C. would be from Harrisburg, when a sleek, black car pulls in.
Nathaniel has bad experiences with sleek, black cars, just like how he has bad experiences with knives and guns and cleavers, so he jerks to a stop. His hands clench his bookbag straps, fingernails scratching at nylon.
His burns throb, pulsing, and he swallows the way someone does when they might be sick.
The car slows to a stop, and the driver cuts the engine. Everything is motionless, and it’s possible that in any second a tumbleweed will drift in front of Nathaniel’s path.
And then a man is stepping out, Japanese and in a slim suit.
If someone were to feel Nathaniel’s pulse, if they were to tap his finger along the beating spot in his neck, they would say, Rabbit.
That someone would be Andrew.
“You will stop,” the man says, and his lip curls in distaste as he looks Nathaniel over.
Then he reaches for the door behind the driver’s seat, and he inclines his head towards the backseat.
Nathaniel’s feet feel like stone, caked in wet earth. But this is it, and he can’t do anything without risking the Foxes’ lives.
So he breathes around the cotton swabs of anxiety lodged in his chest cavity, and he steps into the car.
Ichirou Moriyama is young, and it’s a dangerous thing that he is. Young people with power don’t need years of experience to know how to destroy lives, to tear down empires. It’s the same way with lightning, how it strikes and within a second it’s obliterated what it touches. It’s an electricity that’s heavy in the air, and just as swift.
It’s nothing like Riko Moriyama. Riko and his calculated ire. The younger Moriyama angers the same way grains of sand move. Poke and prod the wrong spot, put your foot down on loose packing, and the sand slides out from beneath you.
Lightning, however, can turn sand to glass.
“May I come in?”
Ichirou Moriyama flicks two fingers, and it’s like Death beckoning him closer. Like his fingers are the fine edges of a knife instead of blood and bone.
There’s worse ways to go, Nathaniel thinks, and Lola’s ghost titters in his ear.
Oh, Junior, she laughs.
Nathaniel’s identity - all of his identities - are like shadows trying to outrun the setting sun. Always stretching further, inching away like there’s somewhere to go. And it must be crushing, because it’s the same result every day, and the shadows don’t stop failing failing failing.
Maybe that’s the beauty of it, though. Because something towers over the shadow, keeps it anchored, yet it still makes another attempt. And another. And another. Until the sun burns itself to nothing, the shadows are going to keep trying.
Which is why Neil Josten was the closest victory that Nathaniel’s ever had.
“You ran,” Ichirou Moriyama tells him, and it’s not an accusation. It’s a statement, a confirmation that Nathaniel’s a shadow and might possibly always will be.
“Yes, Lord Moriyama,” Nathaniel agrees, quietly. “Some of my father’s men are still alive.”
Ichirou takes this information calmly. “You forget, the Butcher’s men are my men. Your life is mine, yet you have still done what you’d like with it.”
Nathaniel dips his head, a submissive move. “I have been a loose-end for your family, Lord Moriyama, I know that. However, I promise you, I am not a risk.”
“That is blatant begging. Groveling does not get anything in this world.” Ichirou’s voice never raises above its serene tone, but it still sounds like a thousand cloaked threats. “Tell me, if you know that you are a loose-end, how can you claim that you’re not an inconvenience.”
Inconvenience. Not a risk. Nathaniel’s called out Riko on national television, and Seth ended up dead within twenty-four hours. He’s been running with millions of Moriyama money, people have died, yet he is nowhere near being a danger to Ichirou.
Nathaniel breathes in, trying not to shake, and hopes his smart mouth can save his life this time.
“People like Romero and Jackson,” Nathaniel starts, slowly, “are only able to be controlled when they know someone else has the upperhand, when they know that one wrong move and something important will be at risk,” Nathaniel says, choosing his words like picking arms to fight with. ”Once a man has that important thing taken away, he becomes a gamble.”
Ichirou smiles, and it’s terrifying. His eyes crinkle at the sides, lips barely upturned in some cold amusement. “A gamble which shouldn’t be taken, but rather cut off.”
Nathaniel swallows, nodding mutely.
They’re not talking about Romero or Jackson anymore. They’re talking about Nathaniel. It’s a silent offer, one as dangerous as it is unreal.
“Your life would have been that so-called ‘important thing,’” Ichirou says, quietly amused. “But according to what I’ve heard, you willingly returned to your father. Tell me, why would a liability such as yourself walk into death’s open arms?”
Ichirou would know about the Baltimore incident. The Foxes’ game was on television hours earlier, and then the riot broke out. It would have made the news. Add in Stuart’s negotiations with the Moriyamas, Nathaniel’s story was probably easy to piece together.
“Because, Lord Moriyama,” Nathaniel says, and his heart is pounding in terror, “I’m a part of the Foxhole Court.”
Ichirou watches him in silence, eyes lidded and eyebrows barely raised. It comes off as faint interest, like he just heard the weather forecast.
But Nathaniel’s not fooled. He provided the ammunition for a weapon, handed it to Ichirou, and let him point it at his chest.
Ichirou tilts his head, regarding him. “And what is that worth? Foxes are renowned for being tricksters. You’ve already shown yourself to be untrue and false. Why should I believe you?”
“I’m nothing now, but the Foxhole Court will make me worthwhile. The average Exy player makes seven-digit figures a year, and although your brother and I do not see eye to eye, we both believe I can make Court in five years. Let that money return to the Moriyamas, to your investments.”
Ichirou’s calm, his face expressionless. “If you’re trying to buy your safety through Exy, the opportunity would be better secured at my brother’s side, would it not?”
Riko’s never met his brother, and he was never allowed to meet Kengo, even after he died. Ichirou is not speaking for his brother’s side. He’s merely testing Nathaniel.
Nathaniel knows this, and he should say what would be safest to hear.
But Neil Josten is within his reach.
So against his better judgement, he says, “A fox may be seen as a trickster, Lord Moriyama, but a raven’s a harbinger of loss. Your brother is going to destroy everything of yours unless someone collars him.”
And in another life, a boy named Neil Josten says the same thing.
His arms are shaking, knees pressed into hard-dirt, and his stomach twists viciously.
Nathaniel doesn’t throw up, but only just barely.
Instead he sits on his legs, head pounding and throat thick. His burns are on the brink of infection after a lack of proper care, and he’s in the middle of nowhere, staring at the spot Ichirou’s car was just at not even ten minutes ago.
It feels like he could sit there forever and never get up again.
But his fingers twitch, tracing the outline of a key into his palm, and the fact that his life is Nathaniel’s now is enough to bring him to his feet.
Ichirou gave Nathaniel his life in return for his word, his loyalty, and 80%.
It’s the same for two other Exy players, but they don’t know it yet.
Nathaniel has work to do.
(“You fled the FBI’s custody. That grants you backlash.”
“What will you have me do, Lord Moriyama?”
“Do as you please, your issues are not worth my time or my opinion. However, remember who it is you belong to.”
The Foxes, Nathaniel doesn’t say.
“Yes, Lord Moriyama.”)
Nathaniel makes it from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Columbia, South Carolina in ten hours.
After Ichirou, he stumbled to a YMCA to sneak into a shower, and then he dressed and headed for the nearest highway exit. His face is still bandaged, but he’s more worried about the burns on his arms.
They’re slightly swollen, and the scabs open and bleed when he moves the wrong way. They don’t look infected, but he has no doubt that any longer under the gauze and they would be.
Thing is though, his body’s trembling and eyesight blurring. He’s too hot but freezing at the same time. When he walks along the stretch of highway, thumbing for the next person to pick him up, it’s like watching his body move through a television screen - the connection full of static.
Once he’s within the city limits he stops at a gas station, drinks two bottles of water and a coffee, he’s so thirsty. His burns ache.
The Cousins’ house is vacant when he arrives, lights off and windows dark. He picks the lock, makes it to the kitchen before he collapses against the cabinets, sliding all the way down to the floor.
It reminds him a lot of the house he stayed in at Millport, with it’s heavy darkness and the press of silence. There’s black spots edging his vision, and he closes his eyes.
If he checked the date, he would have realized it was a Friday. The Foxes won against the Binghamton Bearcats, but only barely.
In another life, Aaron Minyard would race across the court and embrace a beaming cheerleader. Kevin Day would let it slip that not only has he never been skiing, but he has absolutely no interest in it. He would reveal that David Wymack is his father, but it shouldn’t be a surprise, not really, because Wymack’s always been that.
In another life, Neil Josten climbs the stairs of Fox Tower in a daze, and he wonders about Andrew Minyard choosing him over his twin brother.
In this life, the upperclassmen return to their rooms for a somber night, because there’s a hole in the universe that’s shaped like Neil Josten. The Monsters pack into Andrew’s car for Eden’s Twilight, and the ride is silent.
Nicky’s eyes sting when he thinks too long, so he scrolls Twitter and wishes he could answer Erik’s worried texts. Kevin’s in the passenger seat, reading a message from Abby about Jean, pretending that the bruises on his neck don’t feel fresh.
Aaron stares out the window, because this is how it will always be, and he’s learned not to let it bother him anymore.
(But it does, it really does, and he hates that Neil Josten was right.)
Andrew Minyard drives. He breathes. He functions.
(Andrew doesn’t care, because caring means something hurts, and Andrew Minyard doesn’t hurt.
He thinks to himself, I’m fine, and for one millisecond, his hatred for Neil Josten rises and settles like a wave, leaving him airless beneath it.)
It’s 2 AM, the microwave says. It says it in red, in digital numbers, and Nathaniel stares and stares and stares. It’s 2 AM.
There’s the scraping of a key in the lock, and Nathaniel’s heart swells and contracts. He’s still on the kitchen floor, but he scrabbles up on matchstick limbs. The front door locks instead of opens, because Nathaniel didn’t bother covering his tracks when he broke in.
He goes to the living room and waits as the person behind the door evaluates why the door was unlocked. Voices, drunk and confused, muddle through the wood. The words are too muffled to make out.
Then the lock turns again, slow this time, and it pushes open. There’s four people clustered on the front porch, the smallest in front with a face as calm as Ichirou’s.
But hazel eyes make out Nathaniel’s figure standing in the the middle of the room, and even in the dark Nathaniel sees tension bleed into Andrew’s figure.
“Holy shit,” Nicky says. “Oh, my god.”
The world is tilting rather spectacularly, collapsing space and becoming too angular.
“Oh, my god,” Nicky says. Again.
Nathaniel thinks he’s going to be sick, but he can’t look away from Andrew’s still figure.
There’s a thousand things to say, but no existing words could explain any of it. Nathaniel wants to spill every secret and clear every lie. He wants to talk about McDonald’s Girl and his hairdresser and strawberries on the side of a highway. He wants Neil Josten and Andrew Minyard and every bruise and kiss that’s in between.
“I sold Kevin,” Nathaniel slurs instead, and then the floor promptly hurtles upwards to meet his face.
“Oh, my god,” Nicky says.
There’s a pillow under his head, lumpy and worn. His stomach twists with hunger pangs. A curl of hair is sticking to his damp forehead. He stretches his fingers out, feeling the clumping of a tangled blanket on top of his body.
His head has an Exy ball in it, pounding against his skull.
“Ow,” he says, voice raspy.
He struggles to open his eyes, and starts to push himself up into a sitting position when something pokes at the hollow of his throat. Nathaniel squints into the darkness, falling back against what he now identifies as the sofa. The pressure at his throat is a finger, jabbing at him to make sure he lies flat.
It’s attached to Andrew, who’s sitting at the edge of the couch, careful not to touch Nathaniel anywhere but where his finger is.
There’s green-yellow bruises lining the side of Andrew’s face, splattering like paint on a canvas. They were probably purple and swollen a week ago, but now the worst of it is rings the edge of his eye. Some of his eye is bloodshot and pink, where there’s blood still draining from the force of impact.
Despite the emotionless expression on Andrew’s face though, his shoulders are bunched too tight. The fingernail against Nathaniel’s throat lingers, even though Nathaniel’s already on his back, and Andrew’s stare is stony.
“Can I sit up?” Nathaniel asks. “Or are you going to try and claw my throat out?”
Andrew narrows his eyes, but he reaches a hand out to wrap around the back of Nathaniel’s neck. Nathaniel braces an aching arm against the cushions, and lets Andrew do most of the work in pulling him forward.
They’re the only two in the room, but Nathaniel hears someone on the phone down the hall. He can’t make out what they’re saying.
He wants to ask where Nicky, Kevin, and Aaron went, but Andrew’s curling a hand into the fabric of his hoodie. He reaches up for the bandages on Nathaniel’s face, peeling them away from his skin.
It makes sense, in a sickeningly horrible way, that he wouldn’t have done it when Nathaniel was unconscious. It really does.
“Listen, Andrew,” Nathaniel starts, and there’s an uncomfortable stillness in the air. “I’m sor-”
The fingers in Nathaniel’s sweatshirt tighten, shaking in fury or restraint, he can’t tell. Either way, it kills the rest of his words. There’s a war in Andrew’s eyes, some clashing between violence and self-control, and it’s enough to shut Nathaniel up.
“Don’t,” Andrew warns. “Don’t finish that sentence.”
Nathaniel averts his eyes, swallowing a few times. He feels raw, squeezed so thin that one wrong touch would shatter him.
But there’s no doubt Andrew would clean up his remains and piece them together again, only better. Andrew’s brilliant like that.
“I ran, though,” Nathaniel says, and his mouth is so dry. “I lied. You had to hear about who I really am from some suits.”
“Kevin, actually,” Andrew corrects, seemingly unsympathetic by how difficult this is for Nathaniel. “I choked the truth out of him.”
“What - !?”
“Of course you lied. You’re a pathological liar, you seem inclined to forget that.” His eyes have a hard glint to them, shining in the dim light of early morning. “We both talked about the running. I told you that you wouldn’t come back for us. You played bait.”
“If I wouldn’t come back for you, then what am I doing here?”
“Shut up. Stop talking.”
“Betsy told me I’m at one-hundred.”
“One-hundred and one.” Andrew rakes his fingers across Nathaniel’s chin before fisting it in his shirt again. “What happened to your face?”
There’s a noise in the hallway, and Nicky stumbles into the room - drunk, sloppy, and a mess. His face is smudged with tear tracks. Nathaniel looks to him, distracted by his entrance, and his chest twinges at the sight of him.
“Aaron’s digging the first-aid kit out of the bathroom. Kevin’s calling Coach, he says that -” Nicky stops, blinking several times as he tries to register Nathaniel’s open eyes. “Oh, my god, Neil. Neil, are you okay? Where were you? Jesus Christ, your face.”
Nathaniel slinks further back into the couch despite himself. He’s not ready for the fever-pitch of an emotional Nicky. It doesn’t matter, though, because Andrew realizes that Nicky’s coming forward to glomp Nathaniel.
His hands shoots forward and turn Nathaniel’s face back towards him, and then he gives Nicky a look like murder.
Nicky knows when Andrew’s silent promises of violence are real, and it really wouldn’t matter who he was hurting, family or not.
“Stay away, Nicky,” Andrew says, and it’s really not up for debate.
His voice slipped into something vicious, something murderous and unfamiliar. It makes Nathaniel look at him, long and hard and drowning in the muted rage conveyed in the furling of Andrew’s lips. His eyebrows are smoothed out, but the corner of one is furrowing inwards. It’s vivid, and so very human.
(Idly, Nathaniel recalls fires and wrecking balls and scars on wrists. He thinks of the team’s pet name for Andrew - monster - and can’t understand.)
Nathaniel reaches forward, lacing his bandaged fingers in Andrew’s hair. It’s a lot like anchoring a ship. Gentler, more tender, but just as catching.
“Hey,” Nathaniel says, tugging, tweaking. “Hey.”
Andrew slants his gaze back to Nathaniel, willing to play nice and dismiss his cousin. “Your face,” he prompts.
There’s more shuffling in Nicky’s direction, the sound of feet padding along carpet. Aaron or Kevin or both, Nathaniel doesn’t know.
“A dashboard lighter,” Nathaniel answers, quiet and nauseous and Lola’s laugh echoing in his ears. He chokes down a swallow, smiling weakly. “You should see the other guy.”
Nicky makes a strangled groan, and Aaron’s swear announces his presence. Nathaniel doesn’t bother looking at them, though.
“Kevin told us about the other guy, Little Orphan Annie. Where’s your father now?”
“My uncle handled him, execution style.” He reaches forward and does what happened in another life; pressing two fingers to Andrew’s beating heart. “I didn’t think he’d ever die. I still can’t figure out how it was so easy.”
“Was it, though?” Andrew asked. “Kevin says he worked for the Moriyamas.”
Nathaniel heart capers nervously. He focuses on the soft thump-thump of Andrew’s chest, trying to steel himself. “Lord -” He catches himself, clearing his throat. “Ichirou and I have come to an agreement.”
Andrew lids his gaze, knowing Nathaniel will explain without any prompting.
He looks away, turning his head back to the doorway. Nicky has collapsed into the recliner, hands cradling his head in emotion. Aaron’s standing behind him, a medical kit in his hands. His face uneasy as he takes in Nathaniel’s burns.
Kevin’s a ghost behind them, skin bloodless and mouth shuddering in horror. He covers his tattoo, stepping back as Nathaniel meets his eyes.
“Kevin,” Nathaniel says. “I sold you and Jean to Ichirou. Forget Riko. We’ve toppled the king, there’s nothing left for him to do to you, so tell Coach what you should have told him a long time ago.”
“What do you mean, you sold him?” Nicky asks, raising his head. His eyes are red and swollen. Nathaniel’s gut twists in guilt, but Nicky whips his head to Kevin. “What do you have to tell Coach?”
Kevin shakes his head, face pinched and disbelieving. His wide eyes never leave Nathaniel’s, though.
Nathaniel looks back to Andrew. “Ichirou will let me live, he’ll deal with Riko. Kevin, Jean, and I give him eighty percent of our earnings for the rest of our careers on Court and we’re free. That’s the deal.”
The noise Kevin makes is similar to the one Nathaniel made after watching his father die. Wild keening, heavy with need and relief. He’s never known a life outside of Riko’s cruelty. Andrew’s promise gave him a life of protection, but even then it wasn’t freedom. Riko would always be a presence in his life, a ghost he couldn’t exorcise.
But Ichirou is a demon, and ghosts have nothing on monsters.
“Is that where you’ve been?” Aaron says, and it’s the last person Nathaniel expected to speak up. “Dealing with the Moriyamas?”
And it hurts, the same way every other bit of him is hurting. He’s been pretending that he didn’t run, that he didn’t leave the Foxes behind, but truth is that Nathaniel disappeared and took Neil Josten with him.
It’s a fact unable to be argued. Sunrise, Abram, death, and running. These are truths.
Except, he argues weakly, Nathaniel Wesninski gets people killed. You left for their protection.
But that’s not right at all, because they have Andrew for that. Andrew and Renee, they’re the ones that keep the team safe. Nathaniel was just scared, because his world shrank when he stopped making himself the only one in it anymore.
He wanted to be theirs, and knew he couldn’t, so he ran.
“No,” Nathaniel says, because they deserve the truth. “No, I wasn’t. I lied and then I ran, because that’s who I am, who I’ve always been.” He turns back to Andrew, and his fingers are shaking against Andrew’s chest. “But this is the first time I’ve ever come back.”
And it’s because of you, he doesn’t say.
Andrew seems to understand anyway, and he inches forward, ever so slightly. The others probably don’t even see him move.
He’s leaning into Nathaniel, and the weight is another truth. Another unmoving, unquestioning fact of the universe.
Sunrise, Abram, death, and Andrew.
“You are a Fox,” Andrew says, and it’s like breaking the surface of a crushing sea - a mouthful of clear air. “That’s why you came back.”
It takes the rest of the Foxes forty-five minutes to arrive in Columbia.
Kevin called Wymack first, because it’s something he always wants to do when things seem to fall apart. Every time, he can’t ignore the unwavering support and devotion Wymack has, and every time, he can’t help but want to say, dad.
So it was 2 AM, and he called Wymack, telling them that Neil was at Nicky’s house in Columbia. He had come back and collapsed like a soldier returning from war. It was only minutes before word got to the rest of the Foxes.
The typical time it takes to get from Palmetto State to Columbia is close to an hour, but the two vehicles racing along the highway were going to make it in less, consequences be damned.
(And Special Agent Browning gave explicit instructions to inform him the minute Nathaniel Wesninski appeared, but Special Agent Browning could go fuck himself, because the only person that showed up in Columbia was Neil Josten.)
Nicky’s always been emotional, more so when he’s drunk. His face was wet and shiny when he first walked into the room, and now his breath hitches every once in awhile, the only noise in the quiet room.
Nathaniel understands Nicky’s grief because he understands Nicky, whose nature is as soft as powder.
So Nathaniel sees Nicky’s cracking expression, and he hears his sniffling, and he assumes that the tears are simply a statement of his character.
No one should be choked up about Nathaniel. The other Foxes have dealt with his lies and his trouble for months now, and he almost cost them their season. They have no reason to cry over him like Nicky is.
Nathaniel thinks about this, hands curled between his thighs as Andrew sits cross-legged across from him. He’s poking through the first aid kit, pulling out fresh gauze and antiseptic cream to dress Nathaniel’s face. His knee is pressed against Nathaniel’s shin. A small touch that speaks volumes.
Kevin’s sitting across the room, wringing his hands in between his knees. His head’s bowed, eyes fixated on the floor as he thinks about what Nathaniel told him. Aaron’s staring out the front window, arms crossed as he leans against the wall.
And that’s when Nathaniel hears the distant roar of car engines, wheels squealing as the breaks are put on too hard and too late. Nathaniel tenses, and Andrew’s gaze drifts up, studying Nathaniel’s profile.
A car door slams shut.
He meets Andrew’s eyes, pulse jack-rabbiting. He forgot that Kevin called Coach, and he doesn’t know how to talk about this. He hasn’t ever talked about this with anyone but Andrew, and even then he only gave veiled half-truths.
He still hasn’t talked about himself, about Nathaniel Wesninski and the blood on his hands. His mother’s blood. Neil Josten’s blood.
Which is why Andrew hasn’t pressed for answers yet, even despite the burning in his eyes, the trembling rage in his clenched fingers. Andrew’s just been waiting for the right audience to arrive - every person who’s owed the truth.
Nathaniel realizes this with a detached nervousness, one that hasn’t quite settled into his bones yet. There’s plans and possibilities and endless numbers of escape routes flashing through his mind, but none of them have the result he wants.
Which is to stay.
(Because he has keys, and each one leads him home.)
“I have to speak with the FBI,” Nathaniel says to Andrew in a hushed tone, and it’s almost a question. Like he’s asking for permission. “There’s nothing else I can do unless I tell them everything first.”
“Second,” Andrew corrects, disregarding the wild look in Nathaniel’s eyes. “The mob will not let you dance around this one.”
It sounds callous - indifferent and thoughtless. But this is Andrew, and Andrew makes mountains move. His words tug Nathaniel to solid ground, pulling him out of the sinking pool of dread in the pit of his stomach.
Nathaniel traces Andrew’s gaze a touch longer, and then he nods. “Do you want to be there for it?”
“I have to go,” Andrew says, and there are worlds blurring with his words.”I don’t trust them to give you back.”
That’s when the front door flies open.
Nathaniel still feels like a washed-out, faded version of himself. There’s chills seizing his aching muscles despite the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His palms are clammy with sweat. The Exy ball in his head has dulled to a light hammering. The uncomfortable itch in his throat won’t disappear no matter how many times he swallow.
Yet none of that sets him on edge as much as seeing Dan storm into the room, hair in a messy bun that suggests she put it up without much thought. There’s flyaways springing out of the hair tie, giving her an exhausted, almost manic look.
Her eyes. Her eyes, though.
She’s standing in the living room, gaze chasing each occupant until they finally find what she’s looking for. When she sees Nathaniel, her mouth parts and eyebrows pinch in alarm. When she registers the burns on his face she flinches back, right into Matt.
Matt’s reaction is just as violent, scabbed knuckles turning white as he clenches his fists. His arms quake, veins bulging as his muscles seize up.
It’s the boxer inside him, wishing for a fighting ring when all he has is the aftermath of the brawl.
“Jesus, Neil,” he starts, stepping forward the same moment Nicky says, “No, wait, Matt.”
Andrew presses closer into Nathaniel’s space, hand noticeably on the emergency scissors from the first aid kit. Nathaniel can’t see his turned face, but the look on it is enough to halt Matt’s warpath.
“Don’t,” Andrew says, and Matt obliges, gritting his teeth and shaking his head.
“Andrew, I swear to god -”
“No, it’s fine,” Nathaniel says, too late, and Allison’s popping around Matt’s shoulder to give him a cool look.
“Your face is a fucking barbecue,” she snaps, and when he opens his mouth to argue, “You’ve been missing for two weeks, that’s not fine.”
An angry Allison is a terror, a natural disaster ready to carve marks into the earth. An angry Allison with bare lips and unbrushed, blond hair is a cataclysm, a tragedy waiting to be sung about.
Renee stands beside Allison, seeing Nathaniel and then searching Andrew’s face, her expression eerily empty. It stays for several seconds before smoothing into concern, and then she laces a hand around Allison’s arm.
Wymack is still in the doorway, working his jaw like there’s glass between his teeth. His eyes are hard, furious in a way that would have scared Nathaniel months ago but now makes him feel something else entirely. Something fluttering and light in his chest.
Abby’s closing the door behind her, lips pursed and a furrow in her brow. She looks like she’s in pain, staring at Nathaniel.
The room is too loud, with Matt breathing heavily through his nose and the sound of Renee rubbing her hand along Allison’s arm. Wymack’s hushed, Christ almighty - Abby’s, David - fills the air until there’s nothing else to breathe.
But it’s still too quiet.
“I - you - this isn’t how things were supposed to turn out,” Nathaniel says with a small voice. “None of you were supposed to get hurt.”
“What does that mean?” Dan asks, standing slumped against Matt, his hands trembling on her shoulders. “What about you? Were you supposed to? Because if you haven’t realized it yet, seeing you like this? Having to hear from some nobody stick-up-his-ass that you’ve gone missing without any other answers? It hurts, Neil.”
Her voice is enough to almost make him wish that Kevin never called them.
Except, no. He doesn’t want to avoid this. It doesn’t matter how much it sucks, how much it hurts, how much it feels like he’s losing them like he lost his mother to fire and blood - they need to hear every quiver and stumble in his words. Some bones can’t heal without breaking a second time.
And each person in the room is aware of this.
Nathaniel swallows. “I know, I know that. There was just - it couldn’t - they were there. In the locker room with us, and I couldn’t say anything without the backlash being on you.” He shakes his head, focuses on Andrew’s knee against his. “It was supposed to keep you all safe, but I didn’t expect them to stage a riot.”
Andrew’s gaze is set on him, and his fingers are curling into the hem of his hoodie again - hooking into the fabric like he expects someone to come snatch Nathaniel away. There’s a dip in his mouth, and Nathaniel wants to brush it away.
Nathaniel whips his head back towards them, in their unflinching glory, and doesn’t understand.
“Neil, like, seriously?” Nicky asks, voice thick and snotty, but when Nathaniel turns to face him all he sees is the straight face of the Palmetto State Foxes’ backliner. “We don’t want you to die for us. Family doesn’t do that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Dan accuses, jabbing a finger in his direction, “who or what comes after you. You don’t face them alone. We told you to remember us, didn’t we? The Foxes stay together, and you’re ours now.”
“Yeah,” Matt pitches in, a pillar of controlled strength beside Dan. “Just tell us you want to be a Fox, that you want to stay, and we’ll never let anyone take you from us again.”
It’s a little unreal, this whole thing. And Nathaniel. Can’t. Handle this.
He ducks his head, pressing his bandaged hands to his face. “I’ve done nothing but lied to you. I never even told you my real name.”
Nathaniel raises his head, and Andrew meets his eyes and holds his gaze.
“You don’t look like anything but a Neil Josten,” he says, and Nathaniel feels the phantom touches of a memory tugging at his mind. He remembers the squeak of wet shoes along the tiled floor of an airport, and Andrew, tapping a finger along with his pulse.
Nathan, Neil Josten said. His name was Nathan.
You don’t look like a Nathan, Andrew Minyard replied, and Neil didn’t recognize the compliment when he first heard it.
“Neil,” Wymack says. “What do you want?”
Renee is smiling softly, offering silent support. Abby’s shifting with unease, hands clasped to keep from reaching for the first aid kit in Andrew’s lap. Allison’s dragging manicured nails through her hair, yanking at curls in an troubling display of agitation. Dan and Matt stand, molded together, at the center of the room. Nicky’s face is firm with some quiet decision, and Aaron comes to stand beside his cousin.
Kevin’s watching Nathaniel like he did at every late night practice - like he can see everything Neil will ever be worth. Like Kevin approves of what he sees.
Andrew is holding on to him, calling him Neil the same way he says, Yes or no?
It’s always yes.
“I’m going to tell you all everything, no more lies,” Neil Josten promises. “Just… let me stay. Give me this, if you’re willing to have me.”
And in every life, they always are.